Claude didn't know he was being tailed because of his clothes. He was clad in a grey-blue linen shirt, a pair of long, rough, black pants and black cow-leather boots. He carried a backpack made from black beastskin. One look and people could tell he was a foreign peasant, and a young one at that. His facial hair was still short so he looked like a kid who'd run away from home. He was the prime target for those kinds of people.
Noble offspring born to dignitariandom mostly wore silk in heat such as this rather than the proper noble garments. So, the lanky man put his sights on Claude and was intent on making some money. Too bad Claude didn't fall for his shtick and even told him to leave.
Mario Street was the most famous commercial area in Whitewood. Most of the mining companies had an office or factory shop on the street. Even the national bank had a major branch office there.
Oask told him Dunkro Mining Company was the local hegemon before he left. Half of the town's whiteroot powder was theirs. They also had the best quality powder in the region.
The shop was next to the bank. Claude popped in and stared at the multitude of varieties. He'd never heard of there being different kinds of whiteroot powder. He only cared about the quality and the price and right now he could buy a box for half as much as that bastard in Whitestag asked.
When he gave the nearest box a better look however, he nearly shouted curses at his hometown. The market sellers back home asked almost three times as much as this shop for the shit variety, while Hurian asked nearly four times as much as this shop for his, slightly better, variety.
He asked the assistant a couple questions, and learned that the quality of the powder affected the success rate of synthesis. As the core ingredient, not only did the powder's quality increase the success rate, it also improved the quality of the final product. So that was why Claude sometimes failed despite doing exactly the same thing as when he was successful! He'd torn his head apart trying to figure out what he'd done wrong. He cursed the damn apothecary quietly a dozen times and finally felt a little better. He turned to the silver box on the counter.
The highest quality, and most expensive, variety of whiteroot powder was inside. That one finally matched Hurian's ask of seven crowns a box. The assistant told him it was the best they had on offer, triple A quality. It was made from a special kind of plant fossil. Incredibly rare.
Triple A whiteroot powder didn't just eliminate random failures, it could even make the final product of a higher quality than its constituent ingredients. It was too expensive for normal apothecaries, however. Only the most famous, and richest, could afford to use it. A couple less famous and rich ones may own a box, but it was usually kept as a family heirloom instead of seeing actual use.
Claude would only have given it a glance if not for the assistant's mention of 'famous apothecaries'. That phrase reminded him of Maria. She was going to Whitestag for a while in the 9th month. If Claude hadn't been conscripted, he would've loved to see her again. She would likely have brought him that exception she'd promised.
She'd done everything she had to repay his debt, but he couldn't help but feel he now owed her. He'd made her inordinately wealthy with their new company, but that was a separate thing. He had been wanting to buy her a gift, and the triple A whiteroot powder would fit the bill nicely.
"I'll have ten boxes," Claude said.
The assistant's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. He'd never thought this boy would be such a moneybag. He half-suspected this was a prank, a joke.
Claude took out his account book.
"I can withdraw money from the bank next door, yes?"
"Of course! We have an arrangement with the bank. Our customers don't have to line up. You don't have to wait for your withdrawal," an old man with a goatee explained as he appeared in front of Claude.
"Manager..." the assistant bowed.
"Ivago, take our guest to the bank," the old man said with his deep voice, obviously unhappy with how he had acted.
Claude withdrew his money smoothly and returned to the shop. He was treated like a noble this time. The manager invited him to a cup of wine or tea in a special reception room upstairs. Claude settled for red tea. The assistant was replaced by a young female shopkeep, who brought warm water so Claude could wash his face, and two more assistants joined the pair in the room, their only job to keep Claude well-fanned.
The whiteroot powder had been transferred to copper containers, a catty each. The goateed man handed Claude one at a time to check, after which the lids were sealed with wax. Finally, the man asked whether he would be taking them with him or if they should be delivered somewhere.
Claude couldn't be happier to hear they did deliveries. He'd been fretting over how to get the powder back home in time for Maria's visit since he was not likely to be able to go back himself. He'd thought of sending them back with Oask with a letter for his sister telling her what to do with the containers, but he didn't feel comfortable with sending seventy crowns' worth of powder back the way they'd came in just a simple, unprotected carriage. Not to mention that Oask wasn't heading straight back. He had told Claude he would stop by a couple friends for a visit. Which meant the powder would be just sitting in the carriage somewhere for a while, ripe for theft.
When he told the manager to send it to Normanley Wood in Whitestag, the man swallowed, then told him such a long trip would necessitate a one crown fee. Claude didn't mind, though, so he took a crown out of his pouch and handed it to the man.
He asked for a pen and some paper for a letter for the one who'd be receiving the shipment. Finally, he signed the delivery contract and got the company's business card. They asked him to send them notice of his address once he'd settled down in the base so they could mail him the receipt and send notice when the shipment was successfully delivered.
Claude left only late that night. He planned to head straight to the inn for dinner and a good night's rest. He didn't see the manager whisper something to Ivago, who rushed out the door just ahead of him.
A carriage drew up just as he stepped out of the shop and two people jammed sharp objects against his waist. A rat-faced man stepped out of the carriage, flanked by two huge men, and smiled at him.
"So, kid, not so arrogant now, are you? You told me to buzz off, didn't you? Now look at you. If you want to keep your head, you'll kneel and beg for mercy."
Claude felt the cold steel against his bare skin as the blades cut through his shirt.
"Should we do him in right here, second brother? It's a little busy."
The lanky man snapped.
"When did I ask you to do him in? I told him to kneel and beg for mercy. You're right though, this is a little too exposed. I don't want the constables getting in the way. Take him to the alley by the bank."
Claude let them escort him to the alley, his expression a relaxed facade all the way. The lanky man took out a box happily.
"Didn't you say you couldn't afford whiteroot powder? Why did you just buy boxes of it, then? You say you don't have money, but I just saw you take a crown out of your pouch. How dare you lie to me! You didn't buy my whiteroot powder because you looked down on me!"
"I bought on behalf of someone else. I couldn't afford it if I worked my whole life. My benefactor was also the one that told me to buy at Dunkro," Claude answered.
"I don't care. Not buying my whiteroot powder is an insult. It comes with heavy consequences. I'm mad. I want to beat you up, strip you naked, and throw you in the mine, but I'm a businessman. I know getting along would bring more profit for all of us. I will give you a chance to apologise. Just use all your money to buy this box of premium powder. Sign this proof of purchase here and I'll forgive you."
The man took out a piece of paper. If he just took Claude's money, it was robbery. While this could still technically be called extortion, he had his ways around that, it didn't help his victim that he was a peasant.
If he'd known Claude had bought 70 crowns' worth of triple A grade powder from Dunkro, he might have had second thoughts. He couldn't afford to offend someone with that kind of wealth, and the connections and influence that inevitably came with it. He didn't, however, and so here he was. He'd assumed the boy was just there running errands for someone else, maybe his employer, and would thus be a prime target.