Melvos Hammerstars, Part Seven
A Flourishing Career
By Ed Greenwood
The Tireless Trader
With his personal wealth quietly established in Saerloonian trading circles through his discreet performances in the larger sort of cointossing, Melvos Hammerstars has enough "street credit" (Sembians say "metal enough," from a line in an old, largely forgotten play, Morlos the Mad Merchant: "There's metal enough in his bottom for him to hold down that throne") to engage in scrip trading.
Scrip trading is where real money can be made in Sembian society. It's the daily grease that keeps Sembian commerce running. Unlike market-stall buying and selling of real goods, scrip trading is buying and selling paper documents (a very limited form of what we might call futures trading), and it works like this:
If a "smallmerchant" by the name of Tharvos has invested, say, a 50-gp share in a cargo of lanterns coming by ship from Tsurlagol, but can no longer comfortably get along without that money (or no longer wants to buy those lanterns for his shop), he can go to certain dockside clubs (this practice began in taverns, but the Sembian love of privacy and safety soon caused traders' clubs to be established, with doorguards and entry rules) and offer to sell his share.
Someone like Melvos Hammerstars, if interested, will offer 45 gp or so. Tharvos loses 5 gp, but gets paid the balance on the spot. Melvos now owns the share and can resell it for a higher amount (the scrip provided to Tharvos by the ship's captain, fleet owner, or trading coster says "50 gp" nowhere on it, but instead gives an amount of lanterns, some specifics as to their origin, construction, and quality, and a season or even a month for their arrival), or gather it with other scrips in hopes of cornering that year's market in such lanterns and perhaps driving up the price of each lantern by arranging temporary shortages of supply.
Most scrips are for small amounts of goods and aren't hoarded for price-rigging, but merely bought and resold. Desperate sellers may end up with two-thirds or even less of what they originally paid, and some Sembian traders make a living just on the difference between what they pay for a scrip and what they sell it for, without ever actually handling any goods. As more than one ruler or senior courtier has commented (again employing an old quotation): "This is a leap into madness, but we see no lack of leapers!"
Some wealthy Sembians have begun to buy and sell property deeds in this manner, and forgers have set to work -- forcing the Sembian government to establish both detailed neighborhood deed registries and license-triads of license-carrying local officials to oversee such sales.
License-triads are trios of government officials chosen to represent different professions and levels of wealth, and for their personal dislike of each other. Their existence is intended to make bribing or blackmailing an official too difficult and expensive for most Sembians to contemplate.
Sembian licenses are metal (usually tin, but sometimes zinc or even electrum) plates, pierced to be hung on wrist- or more often neck-chains, and stamped with the "Raven and Silver" device of Sembia and the official's name, title, and personal registry number. (Lawkeepers are given registry lists with "secret" questions entered for each name, so they can challenge anyone carrying a license for the correct answer, to have some means of exposing impostors).
Melvos Hammerstars trades mainly in scrip for wines, spirits, and small sundries cargoes. Sundries are relatively nonperishable everyday items and supplies, such as lanterns, blank ledger books, inks, decorative locks and latches, windowpanes (small rectangles of glass mounted in metal frames that have fluted edges with rings attached, so panels can be slid-fastened together, and rods passed through the rings like window-bars to give an assembly of panes some stability, the ends of the rods being attached to larger frames), and weatherpouches (leather satchels made with toggle-thong-fastening overflaps to keep carried items -- usually documents -- as dry as possible).
Melvos always tries to buy and then sell, making a modest profit on the difference, so as never to end up actually owning any goods when ships dock. He has a fear of getting caught with worthless, or hardtar, items, which are difficult to sell or, by their nature, to store. So he avoids more risky and high-profit cargoes such as ale, foodstuffs, fashion garments, and herbs (herb cargoes are notorious in Sembia for often providing a hiding-home for drugs and poisons, and the authorities keep watch over those dealing in them).
More examples of trading, along with some special secrets of our example merchant Mervos, await you in next week's article.
© 2004 Wizards of the Coast, Inc. All rights reserved.