Gwen informed Dai about Professor Ma’s agreement to sit on an independent supervisory board, then left the Fung heir to schedule a meeting with the other members of their foursome. She then returned home to rest, finally able to relax now that a significant buffer was in place to spurn the jaw-clenching reflex of the Clans to defraud the state. Furthermore, Professor Ma promised to send her his best student to be interviewed.
With her head resting against the soft pillow, she envisioned the web binding everything together.
The Venture Fund would have its three Divisions and subdivisions; each presided over by paranoid men wary of each other’s excess, with Professor Ma’s external Audit Committee acting as a check on all three. So long as Nash’s Equilibrium held, the men should arguably do what benefited themselves individually, as well as enact best practice to maximise collective gain. Should a single individual shift the balance, what awaited them was cannibalisation. Within the scope of her proposal, everyone from the highest executive officer to the lowest plebeian had an active interest in the successful operation of Tonglv Canal. It was trickle-down economics at its finest.
For how long could James Ma hold back the tide?
If under internal and external supervision, mutual interest and low-risk capital-borrowing, the venture still left the womb stillborn; then this country was ill-suited for economics. In Gwen's opinion, she may as well park her future Tower in the middle of a well-grown patch of the Wildland crystals and command her minions to start harvesting.
Dreaming of crystals, she closed her eyes and welcomed the well-earned bliss of restful sleep.
The end of November brought a sudden chill that wiped the presence of autumn from the campus. The inundation of a mana-miasma over Shanghai exacerbated the change of seasons, extending the monsoonal summer and inviting an early winter as a compromised troposphere trapped cold-fronts passing over the city.
On odd-numbered weekdays, Gwen’s self-imposed schedule began with breakfast at 6 AM, followed by a jog around campus. She had a second breakfast from 7.30 to 8 AM, followed by three hours in the training hall practising her magic. Provisionally, she would attend the office after lunch, get changed, then plough through paperwork from noon to 5. After that, it was back to training, returning home at 8 PM for her late supper with Richard, Petra, or alone.
On her even-numbered days, she began with meditation in the early morning, followed by breakfast and training. She then allocated herself some free time to do as she pleased, such as wandering the city and networking with her contacts. In the afternoon, she returned to training, alternating between Schools of Magic. Evenings involved another block of free time, which for now she spent ruminating on particular problems and burying her head in reports, proposals and accounting.
Saturdays and Sundays were free days, which Gwen split between other self-improvement activities such as research at Fudan’s campus library, getting her biometrics done with Magister Wen, training with Percy, or spending time on various activities with her companions.
Throughout the day, she exercised Almudj's Essence whenever she felt tired - inviting the primordial energy to refresh her Astral and physical body. With repetition and practice, the clarity of mind and body offered by her meditation quickly took on a subconscious quality. Aided by Ayxin's scale, she could freely exercise the routine even mid-conversation. As an unexpected boon, draconic-constitution was great for indigestion.
On Wednesday, Dai returned with Vice-Chairmen’s Tu’s protégé, a power-progeny like Dai with a round, friendly face and a plump body that reminded Gwen of a stout prosperity-buddha. Gwen arranged for the three of them to have dinner, where she asserted dominance by eating twice the amount of food as their new staffer, who went by the name of Ken Duan.
“We start with training and project overview,” Gwen informed their starry-eyed intern. “I am still waiting on my P.A, after which I'll teach all of you together. Meanwhile, it's your job to study up on our operations. Dai has a copy of our manual and charter. There is a protocol for filing, answering calls, dealing with enquiries that you must learn as soon as possible.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Ken inclined his head respectfully. His instruction had been to treat Gwen as though she was one of the three - that and report back anything and everything of interest.
Gwen likewise was under no illusion that this Ken character was anything but a pair of eyes for Vice-Chairman Tu, though she amused herself with the fact that just as Ken was watching her, he was far more interested in keeping tabs on the Fungs.
Either way, she received another body to throw at the paperwork.
Monday week, Gwen's P.A arrived. Professor Ma had personally called to give the young woman a commendation, which Gwen graciously accepted.
“So you’re Miss Li.” Gwen crossed her legs and swung her chair so that she could take a good gander at the NoM Professor Ma had sent her. “Ru-Yee-Li?”
“It's nice to meet you, Ma’am,” the girl replied with a tone of apprehension. “It’s Ruì, 'Rū' and 'Eè', Ma’am - my family originated from the Canton Frontier. I can speak English and Mandarin, Cantonese, of course, and I know a little bit of Japanese.”
“How lovely!” Gwen tapped her Ioun Stone. “I'll get you one of these as well. I suspect we'll be seeing plenty of visitors speaking various languages and dialects.”
“Yes, Ma'am.” The girl lowered her head demurely.
Ruì's resume betrayed her mundane exterior. She was a third-year graduate with a degree in Commerce, averaging High Distinction. Ruì had served as the Financial Officer for Fudan’s Non-Magical Socialist Union, a sort of Young Communist's club, receiving an accolade from Professor Ma and commendations from a dozen others for her outstanding work.
In second-year, she had exposed a third-year senior absconding funds from the Student Union. Though the young man threatened her, she nonetheless took the matter up with Professor Ma, resulting in the man's expulsion.
"But that wasn't the end of it," Gwen noted, recalling that Petra had once mentioned the incident.
"No, Ma'am," Ruì explained. The Evoker attempted to get back at Ruì. Of course, Professor Ma had anticipated such a clichèd reaction. After a fiasco on the lower campus and Ma's insistence on making an example, the Evoker and his accomplices enjoyed an expedited promotion to the Frontier.
On paper, therefore, Ruì was the perfect candidate. Skills can be practised, knowledge can be learned, but that stubborn regard for ethics was an ingrained character.
“Dai, Ken, come here for a second.” The two Mages joined her.
Immediately, Ruì tensed.
“Working together will be a test for yourselves and Ruì,” Gwen began. The Guan-er-dai duo gave each other strange looks. Having a seventeen year-old-girl giving them a spontaneous lecture was queer enough on its own, but more so when she was making her point using a NoM.
“Ruì, I am not sure if you know Mr Fung-”
“I do, Ma’am,” Ruì clarified, her complexion pale in the presence of three powerful progenies of Spellcraft.
“Well then - this is Mr Fung, and this is Mr Duan. They’re your co-workers. They do not have authority over you. Only I do. One critical aspect of your work, should you accept the position, is that you will be dealing with Mages - not just ones with arcane might, but political heavy-weights.”
“Let me clarify: Secretaries from the Districts. Owners of manufacturing facilities. Sons and daughters of influential people, Clanners…”
Ruì was either nodding or quivering violently, or both. When Professor Ma called, she had expected a position in a NoM production facility or a District cabinet's office as a clerk.
“Here’s the thing,” Gwen continued. “You need to remember that as long as you’re my secretary, you do not need to fear them. Be polite, follow protocol, and if a client bullies you, tell me - tell Ken, or tell Dai. They’ll back you up. Right, guys?”
“Sure." Dai shrugged.
“I’ll make sure she’s safe,” Ken agreed. Unlike Dai, Ken was a born yes-man.
To emphasise the gravity of her demand, Gwen took a stroll around her three employees, punctuating her point with her clicking heels.
“Let me make something very clear,” Gwen stated with absolute seriousness. "It is entirely in your interests to keep Ruì safe. She is your buffer against the endless tedium of paperwork. Only because Ruì is here you two will have the minimalist volume of accounts to sign off. If something should happen to her at work, then all responsibility falls on your shoulders. Dai, you have two siblings and a dozen cousins. Ken, I am sure Vice-Chair Tu has hundreds like you under his care. I have only one Ruì. Do you understand?"
Gwen had seasoned her last statement with a smidgen of Dragon-fear.
Dai flinched, his mind evoking visions of Caliban's gooey embrace. Ken meanwhile, froze to the spot, recalling an earlier moment when Gwen had shown off her divine Kirin. For the two young men, their boss's point had been made abundantly clear - her secretary was above them on the food chain.
"I have the utmost faith in the two of you." Gwen placed a hand on each of their shoulders. "You can go now."
The two men returned to their desks.
“Now.” She turned her eyes to the shaking Ruì. “Let's get to know each other a bit better.”
The duo’s ‘Boss’ first introduced herself, then related a humorous tale of her family upbringing in Frontier Australia. After a few moments of light humour, she migrated onto Ruì’s proficiency in business and accounting.
Dai and Ken took note of Gwen’s friendliness toward the NoM, each marvelling at the oppressive emotions gnawing at their chest. Jealousy over a NoM? It as a novel experience.
“I-I’ll be loyal! Ma’am!” Ruì declared when Gwen asked her if she was willing to be a part of her team, looking as though she was on the verge of leaping from her seat to perform a kowtow.
Guiltily, their boss dialled down Almudj's Essence.
“No need to pledge your allegiance,” Gwen assured the young secretary that she had the utmost respect for the girl’s autonomy. “As long as you’re happy with your pay and do your job well, you’re welcome to stay as long as you like. If you become indispensable, that would make me happier than you know.”
“Indispensable, Ma’am? What about you?”
“Ah~, Ruì my dear.” Gwen flashed her P.A a confident smile. “The first lesson of any successful Enterprise is the balance between supervision and delegation…”
Gwen met with Magus Maymaruya. After listening to the Magus' enquiry, Gwen offered her continued co-operation for a percentile of the proceeds, refusing payment unless the Centurion venture succeeds.
The Magus readily agreed, then presented his enquiries.
As Gwen presented common sense solutions to puzzling problems; the Enchanter increasingly entertained Mayuree's theory that the girl’s brain was constructed of a different matter, possibly currency.
“… vertical integration.” Gwen pointed to a chart she had visualised through an elementary employment of Minor Image. “In essence, by generating a massive client roster, your service will lower costs due to upscaling of operations; likewise, diversifying customers lowers overall risk.”
“But to reduce the top tier commission to 8%? Our losses would be considerable!”
“It won’t, not when an economy of scale is applied to the lower tiers.” Gwen dismissed the first graph, then brought up two more charts sitting side by side, one an alarming red and the other a vivid green. “Look here, on the left; you’ve got the numbers from the old model-”
Gwen ‘zoomed’ into the left-most chart.
“Let’s take this day trade sample as our example - 11,432 net transactions, averaging a commission of 30 HDMs at 12% per.”
She then switched to the vibrant green chart.
“Under a new, stratified membership system, the baseline commission for a silver-card holder is 15%, gold-card 12%, Mithril-card 10% and Orichalcum-Centurion-card 8%.”
She presented the numbers for Magus Maymaruya. Earlier, she had asked Ruì to crunch the figures, and her P.A had not disappointed.
“As you can see, the average, if we use the same number of transactions sorted into tiers based on the expenditure figures you provided, is… 33 HDMs. Unexpectedly higher, in fact.”
“But to charge the silver customers a higher commission? Wouldn’t that dissuade them from joining?”
“Not to worry. Silver-tier is open to all,” Gwen assured the Magus. “The purpose of a stratified system is to filter customers upwards. To upgrade from Silver to Gold, all they have to do is exchange 500 HDMs worth of inventory per month. From your interim report, the vast majority of the House of M’s clients are between the 500 and 2500 strata, meaning they will enjoy the usual commission plus perks.”
“But…” The Magus appeared unconvinced.
Gwen conjured another chart, reminding herself to thank Tao and to shout him a few more dinners to thank him for the tuition. In the future, when this specific use of Illusion became standard practice, they would probably award her with the title of the Progenitor of the PowerPoint School of Illusion.
Her second chart was a table dividing the clients into their assigned strata.
“Imagine, Magus, that you’re a Silver client. We’re charging you 15% commission, and you currently have 400 HDMs worth of goods to be auctioned, exchanged, or bartered. 15% commission on 400 HDMs is 60 HDMs, and you only receive a few basic service perks like short-term loans with a modest interest rate. Now, here's a clincher. 15% of 400 HDMs is 60 HDMs. However, at the Gold Tier, at 500 HDMs, the commission is 12%, meaning you pay a commission of... 60 HDMs. Same fees, higher trade volume! Therefore, a Silver-tier client will instinctively strive to reach Gold-tier."
"I see." Maymaruya scratched his beard. "An attractive opportunity."
"Good. Here’s where credit comes in. What if the client lacks the goods or funds to reach 500 HDMs? In that case, the House of M can act as a short-term lender to the silver-ranked client. What's more, you don’t even have to lend said client 100 HDMs. Through the integration of loan, trade, and client services, the House of M can take on the 60 HDM Commission owed by the client as debt, with an overdraft of 40 HDMs, all recorded on the client’s account. By borrowing, the client reaches Gold-ranked, giving them better commission and a reduced interest rate on overdrafts: this we call the Line-of-Credit.”
“Our short-term losses…”
“Will be offset by clients striving to reach the next tier as soon as possible to receive better perks. The debt we hold will be paid off by interest collected from short-term Lines-of-Credit. Don't forget, Magus, clients under this system can no longer leave our ecosystem without defaulting or paying off their debt. With ten, twenty, thirty-thousand clients bundled up, the cash flow can readily offset accounting and debt collection.”
“... correct me if I am wrong. We’re still losing money on the Centurion clients, aren't we?”
Gwen smirked, her eyes flashing amber and emerald. Beside her, the ever-observant Ruì trembled at her boss's voracious appetite for crystal.
“Magus, that’s a feature! The Centurion clients are an advertising cost, an ultimate goal for others to strive. As for reaching that goal? Sorry, invites only: the Centurion tier is exclusive. The minimum annual spending to maintain the Centurion card is only 10,000 HDMs - why’s that? It’s because the card is not necessarily given to those who spend the most, but rather influencers to inspire others to spend - to give Good Will to the House of M! It’s also the reason why we keep the card Invites-Only. Expecting Centurion clients to turn a profit is impossible. It's mathematically infeasible without making the card uncompetitive. But no matter- Ruì, give me the numbers."
Ruì passed over a sheet. Gwen visualised the data for the Magister as a pie-chart, the lion's share of which consisted of Silver and Gold members.
"As it stands: 100,000 clients whose transactions average 500 HDMs from the Silver and Gold ranked members will give us ten-times the trade volume of 50 plus high-roller transactions averaging 10,000 HDMs each. Though we currently have a dearth of low-ranked members, they are also the easiest to recruit. Remember, Magus, in the end; the low-tier members are the real currency makers! Never underestimate an economy of scale!”
Perusing the floating figures, Magus Maymaruya performed the calculations in his head.
While the House of M did not yet possess a hundred thousand 'members', that was because customers came and went irregularly. If Gwen was right and clients could be persuaded to borrow crystals to pay their debt, remaining 'in house' to take advantage of perks and rates, then it was entirely possible that in a few years, their baseline clients could exceed hundreds of thousands.
If so, even losing crystals to placate the Centurion-clients, the House of M stood to make a massive profit. Take the Draconic-Cores, for example, each auctioning for between 4,000 to 12,000 HDMs. How many could they sell a year? Twenty? How many Shield-Cores passed the hands of the House of M’s auctioneers? Less than ten per annum? Though each transaction reached new records for commission payments, they were far too few. The girl was right, the House of M's has been too focused on upper-tier clients.
“One more thing.” Magus Maymaruya raised a hand. “If we’re paying out membership discounts to restaurants and hotels, how can we -”
“Hold it right there.” Gwen stood from her table. Ruì held her breath, surprised that Gwen would interrupt a Magus as casually as one hawking beans at the market. “There's a fundamental misunderstanding here.”
“Sir.” Gwen walked around the table and leaned her buttocks against her desk. Ruì noticed that her boss liked to do that every time she wanted to make an impression. “Who told you that the House of M is paying for the discounts?”
Magus Maymaruya appeared bewildered by Gwen's rhetorical question.
“Ruì, come here for a minute.”
Ruì presented herself demurely before the Master Enchanter, placing her minutes of the meeting aside.
“Ruì, you’ve met Magus Maymaruya already. Magus, this is my Personal Assistant, Ruì. Magus, if there’s anything you need when I am not available, you can leave it with her.”
Ruì bowed deeply.
The Magus waved the girl away.
“Ruì,” Gwen proposed to her P.A. “You run a restaurant. A high-end on the Bund. I come in and tell you that I can potentially bring 100,000 customers who will frequent your restaurant if you’re willing to take a 5% cut from your overall profit margin. Do you agree?”
“Of course Ma’am!” Ruì nodded, recalling relevant statistics from memory. “A mundane fine-dining establishment operates with significant overhead, though a successful venture usually expects a gross profit between 60 - 90%. For magically-inclined restaurants serving Wildland ingredients and whose chefs may prepare magical creatures, the gross can be as high as 200%.”
Magus Maymaruya eyed the NoM girl with interest.
“Assuming 1% of my client-base: one thousand customers - will patronise your establishment every three months, will you accept a 5% discount exclusive to my customers?”
“Of course, Ma’am!”
“Well too bad.” Gwen folded her arms. “I am not including your restaurant unless…”
“Ma’am?” Ruì looked confused, as did Magus Maymaruya.
Gwen pinched her thumb and fingers together in the universal gesture for currency.
“… you pay me.”
“A commission, Ma’am?”
“Yes, for bringing you customers like Dai Fung, the Wangs, and others of similar fame and fortune, high-rollers, all of them.” Gwen grinned. “Savvy?”
“I don’t know what that means, Ma’am.” Ruì baulked. "But I can surmise that I would wish to join your venture."
Gwen chuckled to herself, then turned to an enlightened Magus Maymaruya, who looked as though he’d just been read the Diamond Sutra.
“I… I don’t know what to say.” The Magus had to wipe the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. "They're paying us to give our customers discounts? It's illogical and yet; it makes perfect sense."
“There isn’t much else to it.” Gwen returned to her seat, nipped at a crease in her pantyhose, then stretched out her fingers. "The devil is in the details, of course. It's a numbers game. So, are we in agreement?”
The Magus fell silent, thinking of Gwen's suspiciously modest proposal. Was the girl playing the humble ally? Or was she thinking that too much greed would only bring trouble?
“And all you want…” he spoke finally. “… is one per cent stake in the program? I am only saying this for Mayuree’s sake, not to mention the Centurion proposal was entirely your idea. Why not ask for more?”
Gwen felt an ironic pang of guilt.
The poor man was asking her if taking one per cent of Citibank's Client-Service stock-value was cheating herself. If she were in her old world, a two-hundred and fifty thousand-a-year salary without overtime and inclusive of superannuation would have had people salivating. A consultant asking for a one per cent stake? The Board of Directors would take to her office and attempt to murder her with coffee spoons, ala Caesar! Of course, for the first year, her portion would be negligible. But if the House of M could succeed in running their faux ‘credit’ system in South Asia, mayhap even export the system, that one per cent could grow to be an astronomical figure.
As for the likelihood of her client paying their due, the House of M was different from the CCP in that it would depend on Gwen’s growing prowess and influence. If and when she returned to Australia and stood beside Gunther and Alesia as a pillar of power within the Tower - would a mercantile conglomerate dare rescind their agreement? Had not Gwen promised to one day end Myăma’s dragon-infestation once and for all? To usurp her percentile stake would serve no one's interest, least of all the House of M's.
“Yes,” Gwen stated confidently, her eyes softening. “I am willing to take a loss for Mayuree’s sake. I hope the House will gift her a greater share of controlling interest in the future.”
The Magus bowed his head, blinking slowly to show his appreciation for Gwen's self-sacrifice.
“Then we are agreed.”
The two shook.
Besides her boss and her client, Ruì bit her tongue. She had extrapolated predictions for the proposal, and its five-year figure had her teeth clattering.
“I will deliver our contract to the House of M, and as per our agreement, I shall send a carbon copy to the Pudong Tower for officiation.”
“Thank you, Magus. It's a pleasure doing business. Now, shall we put you in touch with Professor Ma?"
"Please do," the Magus grunted, feeling his bones creak. "I will pass on your other proposal with our Matriarch. A team of unaffiliated NoM auditors? What a novel concept!"
Gwen helped the old Enchanter to stand.
“Are you going to see Mayuree now?”
“I am.” Magus Maymaruya wiped the sweat from his brow. “I would think she'd want to hear the good news! More than friends, the two of you are now joined in enterpise!”
Ruì escorted the Magus out the door.
"Tell Dai and Ken to come back to the office," Gwen informed her P.A. "Where the hell did they go? Have they even finished their paperwork?"
"I'll find out, Ma'am." Ruì returned to her table and began Messaging her peers. Unable to stomach the paperwork, her two co-workers had taken to truanting.
Gwen meanwhile, relaxed at the desk, ignoring her very own mountain of accounts and reports for the moment. It was finally coming together: the Tonglv Canal, Professor Ma's Audit Committee, The House of M's faux credit-card system.
There were only the Wangs left, but that could wait.
For now, it was time to refocus on preparations for the IIUC and to bring her Spellcraft up another tier.