Nadibha’s known as many things: A businessman’s haven, the proving ground where rich men rise or fall, a country built on broken dreams. As the Trade Prince of Fisheries, I’d love to claim it’s a utopia, but the truth is, it’s all those things, the good and the bad. Greed is the gristmill that keeps the affluent afloat and the poor in their place, and I can hardly say it’s a good thing.
Yet one thing’s for certain; it’s never boring. New entrepreneurs come to the capital, Uraldad, every day, some with an idea the people will buy, others with a dream waiting to be squashed by reality. Truth is, those same people who succeed could fail the very next day. People spark up, people are snuffed out, but the money keeps changing hands.
It’s the way of the world; innovation, change, it can only happen with some good old-fashioned greed. But while this may benefit Nadibha as a whole, it doesn’t necessarily benefit the one that felt all that greed. Let me tell you all about an old friend of mine, a person I invested in, but had no choice but to withdraw support from.
His name was Amir, and he was a man that needed help. He had high hopes of doing what I did; monopolising a basic need. For I monopolise the fisheries of Nadibha, and the places that aren’t desert are usually along the Bay of Riches. People of the coast can’t live without seafood, so if you own the seas themselves, you’re never wanting.
Amir’s grand idea was to monopolise something even the desert folks required: Shoes. Yes, he’d draw up ideas of sandals and boots and semi-aquatic shoes for lounging about the beach. Ballet slippers, greaves; you name the shoe and Amir’d cobble it for you. That was his sales pitch, bless his greedy soul.
Now here’s the problem with starting a business like this; without the capital behind you, how’s a man supposed to provide the variety you claim to offer? Yes, you could underpay your skilled workers, or work extra hard at the cost of making the customer wait.
Amir was a talented cobbler, but a poor businessman. In one town, he’d buy too much material for slippers when the town only wanted sandals, another he’d make hundreds of sandals in advance that weren’t about to sell in a town that needed mud boots. He was so devoted to being the perfect generalist, so consumed by his dream of monopolising the cobbling industry, that he failed to recognise that he was starting from nothing.
You’ve got to walk before you run; this adage is true in all things. Establish a stable shop that sells sandals in a town with a demand for it and work up. But no; Amir didn’t want to start slow, he couldn’t do things by halves. He wanted a quick and easy resolution, and one day, he found a man who could give him that.
After failing in the desert town of Azmalah, south of Uraldad, he came across a fork in the road. He could hardly head north; in his financial ruination, he wasn’t worthy of the capital city he so desperately sought to live in. He’d have to head west to Kashallas. Perhaps by some miracle, they would buy his surplus goods.
That’s when he spotted a man sitting with folded legs, taking shelter from the scorching desert sun beneath the very sign he was perusing. It was a sitar player who wore nought but black, ragged clothing, and a hat that stretched wide, obscuring the man’s eyes. His melody was enticing, it practically begged to be paid attention to. Amir, curious and wide-eyed, approached the man.
“A thousand apologies if I’m distracting you,” the sitar player said. “But it was my purpose to get your attention.”
“Why is that?” Amir asked.
“Well, it’s a rather simple thing,” the ragged man said. “All I have is this sitar and these rags. A hat and good luck is all that keeps me from shrivelling up in the sun. You’re carrying a lot of things in that wagon of yours, so I reckon you have some to spare.”
“Actually, I’ve had to move on,” Amir said. “My business is failing. Sorry, my friend.”
“Ah, so you don’t even have a shekel? That’s all I ask for. Men like you to be generous and give one measly shekel. It soon adds up with every man that passes.”
Now Amir, as poor as he was, had the coin to spare. One shekel, it was nothing, a single piece of silver, yet somehow, he couldn’t part with it. After all, who knows when he would need it later? He could grow even more desperate than before, and if that happened, he could very well regret his generosity.
“I’m sorry, my friend. I need every coin I have. I’m in dire straits, and these shekels, these shoes, this wagon, they’re the only things I have. Please forgive me.”
“I figured you’d say something like that. Believe me, you are already forgiven,” the sitar player said, then stood up, putting his instrument down. “My name is Vazaad, and I have an offer for you.”
The sitar player smiled, and somehow, like his music, it charmed Amir further. “It’s a small token, really. I shall make your business succeed, for a simple gesture. All I require is that when you’re successful and have the money to spare, that you shall offer me hospitality and give me the shekel you refused to give me here.”
Now Amir, he didn’t fancy himself a bad person. He was simply a man of big ideas that was down on his luck; of course, if he had the money to spare, he’d give this poor man his shekel. He’d even feed him, the finest dates would not be enough. He did not know how this sitar player could make him rich, but on the off chance he could, he wasn’t about the throw the offer away. It was such a small price, after all.
“That’s a deal I’d be willing to take.”
The sitar player’s eyes glimmered blue beneath his hat, and he extended an olive hand. Upon his palm was a shifting tattoo, black as the desert night, depicting a stag’s skull. He gave Amir a sideways glance, then spoke in a voice smooth as silk.
“Do we have a deal, then? You ought to shake a man’s hand on any deal made in Nadibha.”
“But of course. We have a deal,” Amir said, and without thinking, the excitement got the better of him. He shook his hand with vigour and lust; his quick road to success was finally secured.
The town of Kashallas was arid as the last, and so Amir was out of luck. His sandals had sold in Azmalah, and his surplus was every other kind of shoe imaginable. The town was practically a suburb of the capital; it wasn’t that the folks had no money to spare, simply no need for his wares. High quality as they were, they were not what the customer demanded, and those with the coin were always right.
Yet just as Amir was about to take apart his stall and move on, a miracle happened. The sound of sitar music could be heard, and the folks of Kashallas, they hearkened to that luring melody. They were curious about its sound, and once they saw Amir’s boot stall, they were overcome with the desire for more, no matter the possession.
“How much for those boots, my friend?” a man with colourful robes and colourless hair asked.
“Eighty shekels for a pair. Would you like to try them on?” Amir asked, scepticism tinging his voice.
“Eighty shekels is too much. I’d say sixty.”
“Seventy, and it’s a done deal.”
“Seventy it is.”
Amir fitted the boots whose only purpose was filling with sand to the old man’s feet, and the customer, he left satisfied. As the sitar player continued his song, others drifted towards Amir’s stall. His surplus, it was going, one by one, and as his wares became limited, the demand rose high enough that he was making a profit ten times the cost of production.
His productiveness couldn’t match his demand, and in the end, he had to hire cobblers from Uraldad just to keep up. He had the money to employ even more, and with time, he hired managers to run the branch in Kashallas so that he could move on to towns even closer to the capital. His stalls became buildings, his buildings became bazaars. Eventually, even my fellow trade prince, Ezrael, became threatened by his hold over the cobbling industry.
There was no question; he deserved to be in Uraldad now. His crown branch was set up opposite Trade Prince Ezrael’s textiles mill, and soon enough, both he and I, Trade Prince of Fisheries, invested in him. No longer did Amir have to slave away and cobble; he had underlings for that. In the abundance of spare time he had, he would instead work ceaselessly to secure investments.
He was a gracious host to Ezrael’s and my own brokers; he would throw lavish parties with only the finest rice-wines there was. Freshly-slaughtered lamb would be made into koobidehs, and he’d even import Qarasi jungle fowl just to give the poultry-based curries an exotic feel. I didn’t attend these feasts myself, of course; I had bigger issues to deal with, but my underlings assured me that Amir was kind and generous, providing there was a profit in it.
Strangely, however, the sitar player who’d once played his song to lure in customers, he was nowhere to be found. Somewhere along the way, Amir had forgotten about him, but it was just as well. While the dark-dressed man had given Amir’s business the start it deserved, the rest of it, his carefulness, his kindness to investors, the people he hired, that was his doing. Now that he was at the top, he deserved to be unburdened by such trifling debts.
One day, Amir received a letter. I know the contents of this letter; after all, I was the one to pen it. I wanted to see the Cobbler Prince himself, the one who intended to fight his way into Nadibhan royalty with the very best. Amir, he couldn’t contain his excitement. There would be no expenses spared; not only would he scour the Madaki nations of Qaras and Ali-Madak for wonders that could only be paid for with obscene amounts of money, he would look beyond, to nations like Arkhera and Jaranar.
He would bring in courtesans from the Arkheran princess’s brothels, buy trained elephants and monkeys from my spiritual brother, Ma of Manabhuk, and the food would be nought but the richest. Pistachios, rose jelly, nothing could be spared. If he could impress a trade prince to his face, Amir thought, then his position would be secured. He would finally reach the top, and then all his initial struggles would be worth it.
My brokers and spies, they arrived at his feast first, enjoying his pleasures as they always did. Surrounding him were other investors, considering his fine wares with excitement. Not only would the trade prince be interested, but every other businessman that invited themselves over. He would overtake the poorest of the trade princes, Al-Assad, Trade Prince of Oil, with ease. This was his moment, and he could not afford the slightest humiliation.
Then he arrived; Vazaad, the sitar player himself. He was as ragged as ever, with his strange air about him. Though Amir came to receive his new guest, when he saw who it was, he panicked. His investors were already curious; what business would such a poor-looking, classless creature like this have with the great Cobbler Prince Amir? If he entertained him here, then surely the investors would think poorly of him. They could talk with those that already invested in him, and he stood to lose far more than a shekel if that happened.
“My friend, I’m sorry, I cannot-”
“I’m here to take my due,” the sitar player said. “You remember your promise, don’t you?”
There were investors listening in, and their judgement hurt him more than any knife could. It was out of the question, he couldn’t accept him, not here, not now. Later, when they were alone, that’s when he’d entertain him.
“What promise is this?” Amir said. “I don’t know who you are, beggar, but you cannot partake in this feast unless you’re a businessman.”
The sitar player’s mouth, it curled up in a familiar way. “That so? You don’t know who I am? That’s strange, because these people around me, they do.”
“What do you mean by that?” Amir asked, and soon, my brokers took to his side.
“These two can explain,” the sitar player said, and with that, he threw his hat to the floor, and the two brokers knelt.
“An honour to serve you, my prince,” one broker said.
“We’ve watched over him, just as you promised,” the other said.
The sitar player, or if you’d prefer, me, I laughed, just once. “A pleasure to meet you, Cobbler Prince Amir. I am Bin-Garem, Trade Prince of Fisheries, though you may know me as Vazaad.”
“No, impossible!” Amir cried, but following this outburst, he noticed the investors. “I mean, a pleasure to receive you, Trade Prince! A marvellous test you laid out for me, truly wise, I assure you I’ve learnt my lesson. The pleasures of this feast are free for you to indulge in.”
But I didn’t have a need for these luxuries. My purpose was to meet the investors in Amir; after all, they were mostly employed by me. One word, and they would abandon Amir. I moved to the first in sight, a spice merchant that worked under Trade Prince Al-Shassur.
“My friend, I’m sure you witnessed this man’s avarice. He’s willing to give to those who have something to give him back, but for the poor, he hasn’t a single shekel. Could you trust your employees’ fate to a man like this?”
My voice, it called to him, as it did with everyone. The investor knew at once that parting with his money for such a man’s sake wasn’t worth it, and he left the festivities dissatisfied. Amir realised what had transpired and rushed after me.
“Please, Trade Prince! I did not realise that you were the one to help me all this time! I would have offered you the hospitality you desired, no expense is too great for you!”
“That’s good,” I said, laughter on my lips. “Then you wouldn’t mind if I took everything, would you?”
Amir’s composure broke. As I passed from businessman to businessman, talking each of them out of their investments, he pleaded with me. I may have been dressed in rags, but he was the beggar. He offered me golden ornaments, several courtesans, but there was nothing he could sell me. Hospitality and a single shekel was the price I required, and he’d voided the deal with his greed.
Soon enough, Amir’s manor was emptied of men and food alike, and even the courtesans left him behind. All that was left were his possessions, gaudy and pointless. What was he to do with this elephant he’d paid half a shop’s worth for? How could he stop his bored monkeys going on a rampage? And how, exactly, could his gold help when there was no-one to give him more?
I took my hat up and put it back on. “You’re quite welcome for the hospitality, but without good company, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. A thousand apologies, my friend.”
“No! Please! The thousand apologies should be for you! I failed the test, I’ll admit it! I’m greedy and selfish, that’s what you wanted me to admit, isn’t it? I’m selfish, there, I’ve said it, but please, don’t leave me like this! Think of my employees!”
“You couldn’t think of a single poor sitar player. What makes you think you’re fit to hold the lives of your employees in your hand? How about this? You’re going to have a hard time surviving, let alone employing others by the time I’m done with you. How about I acquire your cobbling company? Take it off your hands so you can rise up as an independent businessman?”
Naturally, more gold, anything to keep him going, anything to take his responsibilities and myriad debts away, that was a deal Amir was willing to take. So he gibbered, he bowed, he shook my hand.
“Thank you, thank you, Prince Bin-Garem! Your kindness and wisdom, it knows no bounds!”
“You went to the school of business that taught you flattery would get you everywhere, I see. I hope that with your remaining money, you get anywhere at all.”
In the end, Amir couldn’t transport all his trinkets. So useless were his golden idols, so heavy and hard to sell, that in the end, he had to leave them behind. He travelled through Uraldad, unwilling to leave the capital he’d grown accustomed to, but the people there knew who he was.
Already, news of his disgrace had spread, and due to his years away from cobbling himself, his wares were hardly of the quality that his former company, freshly-acquired by me, put out. His monopoly on cobbling had been given away, and his attempts to eke out his own variant on it? They were even more ineffectual than his previous attempts. Without a sitar player to lure customers in and exploit their greed, he was worthless.
Soon enough, he’d sold everything he had to stay afloat. His house, his stalls, all he had left was a sack of shoes that nobody wanted to buy. His clothes were sold off one by one, until eventually, he only had the one set. The heat and salt in Uraldad’s air wore them down, and soon, they became rags.
Even the beggars looked down upon him as, half-mad, he screamed about his latest wares. He’d lurk about beyond the bazaar walls, latching onto the latest bargain-hunter, and with any luck, he got enough money to eat for the next week. Amir had risen to the top and broken himself by falling from such lofty heights.
I consider myself a merciful man to those with greed in their hearts. After all, it’s my duty to make others consumed by it. So one day, while he was gibbering away as usual, I offered him one last deal.
“Luxury slippers! Buy luxury slippers here, for the small price of ten shekels! Please, ten shekels, that’s all I ask!”
I approached the man in my sitar player’s getup and knelt by him. “Do you need a way out of this bind? That’s all I have left to give you.”
“Great Trade Prince Bin-Garem! You’re there, you’re truly there! You’re not in my head, are you? You truly stand before me?”
“But of course,” I said, a smile coming to my face.
“I’ll be generous this time! Whatever it takes to get me out of this situation, whatever can make me dignified! I’ll pay you everything, whatever you want once the time comes, I’ll pay you! I’m sorry, Trade Prince! I’m sorry!”
“Well, the price this time will be dear, but indeed, I can get you out of this situation. You’ll be free, and you’ll suffer no more.”
“What do I need to pay?”
“You’ll find out when the time comes. For now, you need to be free of this,” I said, offering my hand once more. “Shake, and we have a deal. You’ll be free of this madness, and free of this pain.”
“I’ll take it! Whatever it takes, I’ll pay it!”
That foolish businessman, he shook my hand with more vigour than he’d ever done before. And with that, he’d given his permission. I walked away from him, not another word spoken, for I knew what came next. My father, the Sovereign, would come for him in due time. The next day, crowds were gathered at the entrance of the bazaar; lying dead was Amir, having given everything for a ticket away from his suffering.