Melvos Hammerstars, Part Three
A Flourishing Career
By Ed Greenwood
Taxes, Fees, and Avoiding Them
In addition to business license fees, per-animal-stall stabling license fees, and "gate passage" or "docking" goods taxes, most Sembian cities collect an annual "head tax" from residents regardless of whether or not they provide any desired services in return for it.
Such taxes typically range from 1 sp for the rent of a single tallhouse room or ownership of the tiniest of hovels, up through 1 gp for the tenant of a tallhouse floor, to 3 to 5 gp levied against the owner of a tallhouse. Taxes for mansions of any sort start at more than triple these amounts (18 gp annually is about the cheapest such tax levied; most are 25 gp and up for a grand house, and 45 gp or more for anything with extensive grounds and outbuildings).
So although Melvos Hammerstars could certainly afford a large mansion, he neither wants to advertise his success so boldly (to thieves and trade cabals who might want to "squeeze" or "pluck" him, by acting in concert against his mercantile activities until losses force him to sell things to them) nor to pay such "ruinous" taxes. So he keeps to his tallhouse, and lives quietly -- but very actively -- therein, visiting his down in the countryside every tenday or so, for up to six nights at a time, in the warmest four months only (unless diseases, unrest in the city, or the hostility of personal trade rivals makes longer absences advisable).
Hammerstars House stands on the east side of Sundultarm Street, in one of the better darths in northwestern Saerloon -- a neighborhood known as Windhowl. This neighborhood gets its name due to the noises created when anything stronger than a breeze blows through the many spires, rooftop statues, and ornamentations of its tallest and grandest structures.
Sembia charges fees for land deed transfers, registering ships, and for nigh on a hundred other little things, but there's no general income tax, or anything levied on private business transactions. Like most Sembians, Melvos Hammerstars is aware of all applicable taxes and details of the regulations regarding their enforcement, and he adroitly arranges his affairs to escape most of them. A good way to instantly enrage a Sembian is to try to expand interpretations of when a particular tax applies or becomes payable.
Profits are highest, of course, on goods imported or exported without paying gate passage or docking fees (particularly for the sorts of goods, such as weaponry or magic, for which the highest fees are levied). Almost every Sembian old enough to walk and talk has been guilty of avoiding handing over some coins by under-reporting amounts of goods (paying the rightful fee for two hundred and forty-two pots but actually shipping two hundred and forty-eight), but fewer risk false claims (covering weapons with a deep layer of pots and claiming the entire wagon or ship hold is full of pots) or omit reporting entire vessels. This probably isn't due to any lack of boldness or surfeit of honesty, but merely to the fact that fewer Sembians own or can afford to rent more than one merchant ship, or move enough pots (or weapons) to make the boldest deceptions worthwhile.
Most Sembians, Melvos Hammerstars very much among them, have no interest at all in paying the government more than the unavoidable minimum of fees and taxes, and they operate in a mercantile environment where privacy about one's own affairs (except when boasting about triumphs and chortling over pratfalls seasons after they become mere history) is both good practice and everyday habit.
Most "good traders" (the Sembian term for anyone with a head for business, which is at least nine out of every ten Sembians) have quite a few secrets they're anxious to keep hidden from the authorities, trade rivals, neighbors looking to make a few silver by selling information about what they've seen and heard, and family members.
In this respect, Melvos Hammerstars is very much a good trader. He doesn't bother to conceal his wine-blending business (of rough Dales vintages, into kegs for export around many Inner Sea ports as cheap but refreshing "throatslake") or his sideline tile-roof-fixing business in Saerloon, his investment in the cobbler's shop run by the son of a friend (Olanthiir's Fine Feet, on Scorneel Street), or his part ownership, via a coinring of nine investors (we might say syndicate or holding company) called the Sundul Full Palm, of two rental tallhouses on Pranthar's Street.
However, he keeps very quiet about his other interests -- the "few little forgotten things" that bring in five-sixths of his income.
Next time take a look at some common practices in Sembia -- including some sly ones -- in which a typical merchant such as Mervos engages.
© 2004 Wizards of the Coast, Inc. All rights reserved.