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    Eun Gil-sang cupped his hands and said, “In fact, what you received before through Manager Song was regrettably inadequate due to the urgency. This humble Eun Mo begs your forgiveness.”

    “Not at all! Thanks to that, I was able to save face in front of my wife, so how could I blame you?”

    “Thank you for your understanding.”

    Eun Gil-sang bowed deeply and spoke again.

    “These are top-grade mechanical dolls. The operating method is the same as what you know.”

    At those words, Official Pyo immediately turned the handle to wind up the spring.

    And when he released it, the doll began to move.

    “Oh! Ooh!”

    Perhaps because of the doll’s clothes, the sleeves fluttered, making it look even more beautiful.

    And the doll stopped moving shortly after.

    Eun Gil-sang spoke again with due courtesy.

    “And we have prepared ten dolls slightly lower in grade than this, but with no visible difference. I hope they will be of help to Your Excellency.”

    There was a reason for preparing one top-grade doll and ten that were one grade lower but looked no different.

    Humans are beings driven by desire.

    It’s only natural to want something better for oneself, so the best one was given to Official Pyo.

    But this would surely be used for greasing palms, and if it became known that he had a better one, it would be awkward.

    Eunhae Merchant Group could end up bearing that resentment for no reason.

    So this was prepared to prevent that.

    “I really like you! Hahahaha!”

    “You flatter me.”

    Eun Gil-sang bowed with cupped hands and spoke as he raised his head.

    “Forgive me for saying this, but our company has made exactly one thousand of these mechanical dolls. To be precise, one thousand and eleven. And each doll has a small number engraved on its back.”

    “Really only that many?”

    “Yes. Making the dolls is not easy, so we decided to do it that way.”

    “Indeed, that makes sense.”

    “And this is not the only mechanical doll we will make. There will be mechanical dolls made with their own stories, and we will visit you each time.”

    At Eun Gil-sang’s words, Official Pyo burst into laughter.

    “Then I can possess all the mechanical dolls with all those stories.”

    “Your Excellency’s joy is my joy as well.”

    “But how much do you plan to sell these for?”

    “Ten nyang of silver each.”

    Official Pyo nodded at that.

    It was on the expensive side for a doll, but not a significant amount for the upper class like himself.

    “A reasonable price.”

    Eun Gil-sang took out a sheet of paper from the box. It was a palm-sized paper made of quite thick paper.

    “What’s that?”

    “This is what we call a warranty. It means that this mechanical doll was properly made by our Eunhae Merchant Group and sold appropriately.”

    “So it proves that it’s genuine.”

    “That’s right. And by bringing this warranty to the store, you can get it repaired for free at any time.”

    “That’s a relief, as it would be quite upsetting if it broke by mistake.”

    A smile lingered on Official Pyo’s lips, and Eun Gil-sang and Yeon Dami exchanged various stories before taking their leave.

    Inside the carriage headed to Eunhae Merchant Group’s branch.

    Yeon Dami chuckled.

    “Did you see earlier? His Excellency’s expression was quite a sight.”

    “I was surprised at first too, but of course he would be.”

    “Still, it’s fortunate that he liked them. I have a very good feeling about this.”

    “I feel the same.”

    For a moment, Eun Gil-sang’s eyes sharpened.

    “What about the surveillance on the other merchant groups?”

    “It’s ongoing.”

    “Good.”

    The biggest obstacle when a company launched a new product was none other than rival companies.

    Nothing was more of a headache than their interference.

    “They seem to be observing for now.”

    “Of course. They probably can’t gauge it yet.”

    “But thanks to His Excellency saving face, we’ll have less to worry about in terms of pressure from the government.”

    “Still, tell them to stay alert and keep watch.”

    “Of course.”

    Eun Gil-sang looked at the streets where other companies were located, his eyes glinting ominously.

    Even if he was kind and gentle, he was still a merchant.

    Before that, he was also a father.

    Which meant Eun Gil-sang was not someone to be taken lightly.

    ‘If anyone tries to sabotage the business my youngest put his heart into, I won’t stand by either.’

    ***

    It was morning.

    I woke up earlier than usual.

    Because I had a nightmare last night too.

    It was lasting much longer than I thought, but there was something to be grateful for.

    It kept my resolve to become the top company under the heavens from fading.

    Spring had already approached before I knew it.

    More than a month had flown by since the Lunar New Year.

    Come to think of it, yesterday was the opening day of the store set up in the provincial capital of Hubei and the first day the mechanical dolls were unveiled.

    According to Father, the upper class’s interest in the mechanical dolls was very keen.

    Still, it would probably take about half a month for them to all sell out.

    I finished my training and headed to the dining room for a meal.

    Everyone’s expressions were bright today as well, and that somehow calmed my unsettled heart.

    .

    .

    .

    Afternoon came after lunch.

    Only the sound of turning pages and writing with a brush resounded in Chief of Internal Affairs Yoo’s office.

    Chief of Internal Affairs Yoo seemed to have figured out how to work me to the bone without rest until quitting time.

    Tap-tap-tap-tap!

    Just then, the sound of someone running was heard.

    “Assistant Manager! The merchant head is calling for you.”

    Soon the door opened, and Assistant Manager Jo Yeong-yeong shouted with a flushed face.

    “The mechanical dolls have all, all sold out, he says.”

    “…!”

    What?

    They only started selling yesterday, and they’re already sold out?

    It seemed to be an even bigger hit than I expected.

    ***

    Provincial capital of Hubei Province.

    The red cloth covering the front of a store located slightly off the main street was drawn back.

    The store’s sign had its name elegantly written in gold letters.

    [Hongha Luxury Shop]

    It was a bit different from a regular store.

    First, armed guards were keeping strict watch around the store.

    The store was lavishly decorated in red and gold.

    And there were no goods displayed on the counter.

    Only a sign that read [Mechanical Doll Sale Begins] was placed in front of the door.

    Yet people were lining up in front of the store, waiting for it to open.

    “Where are you from, sir?”

    “I came from Zhejiang Province. Where are you from?”

    “I’m from Anhui Province.”

    “By the looks of it, you came at the behest of someone you serve.”

    “That’s right. Then you as well?”

    “Indeed.”

    “Oh? Me too…”

    Just then, a man standing with a sword at his waist spoke.

    “Everyone lining up here has probably come under orders to purchase a mechanical doll.”

    “Well, of course. Those who can readily spend ten nyang of silver wouldn’t personally line up to save face.”

    “But still, ten nyang of silver for one doll! Why is it so expensive?”

    “Even if it dances for a set amount of time, that’s a bit much…”

    “No matter how expensive, there must be that much value to it, which is why they ordered us to obtain one.”

    From about a month ago, a strange atmosphere began to form, centered around Beijing and Kaifeng.

    It was that a true member of the upper class should possess a mechanical doll.

    That’s why so many people were lining up in front of a store that hadn’t even opened yet since morning.

    A guard glanced back and made a surprised expression.

    “The line has already gotten incredibly long.”

    “Well, of course. It’s limited to a thousand, after all.”

    “And they said they’ll only sell one per household…”

    He pointed to the notice posted in front of the store as he spoke.

    They had posted it on the front, probably due to the sheer number of inquiries.

    Just then, several men and women wearing red chang pao came out from inside the store.

    And a man with three silver wave patterns embroidered on his chang pao stepped forward and spoke.

    “I apologize for the long wait. I am Seo Ji-pyeong, the shop manager of Hongha Luxury Shop, a new store by Eunhae Merchant Group that deals only in top-grade goods!”

    He finished his greeting and bowed his head, and those standing behind him also bowed.

    “Then we will now open for business. However, to ensure a pleasant shopping experience for those entering first, we will admit five people at a time.”

    And so the sale of the mechanical dolls began, and the entire stock sold out in a day.

    It took longer because only five people were admitted at a time, but if there was no entry limit, it would have sold out within one shichen.[1]

    This news was immediately delivered to Eunhae Merchant Group’s headquarters, and Eun Gil-sang convened a meeting.

    ***

    I was currently at Silver Moon Pavilion.

    Father had called for Chief of Internal Affairs Yoo and me after receiving the news that the mechanical dolls had all sold out.

    Everyone gathered at Silver Moon Pavilion had excited expressions.

    Of course they would.

    It was a business they had only vaguely thought would do well without certainty.

    But the entire stock sold out on the first day of opening.

    “First, this achievement was possible thanks to everyone’s efforts. I express my gratitude to all of you.”

    At Father’s words, everyone lightly bowed their heads.

    Yoo So-ak spoke.

    “The profit earned through the sale of mechanical dolls this time is seven thousand nyang of silver. That’s the amount after deducting store purchase costs, material costs, labor costs, and so on.”

    “That’s considerable.”

    “And after deducting the forty percent to be paid to the doll maker’s employer as per the contract…”

    “It’s four thousand two hundred nyang.”

    “Whew…”

    At Director Yeon’s words, everyone blinked.

    Because the profit was larger than expected for only selling a thousand dolls.

    Chief of Internal Affairs Yoo looked at me in admiration.

    “Young Master, you earned two thousand eight hundred nyang of silver.”

    “It’s not all mine.”

    I said with a smile.

    “Forty percent of that is the doll maker’s share, after all.”

    “Then the rest is…?”

    “That’s a personal matter.”

    At my words, Chief of Internal Affairs Yoo cautiously said,

    “Have you considered investing in Eunhae Merchant Group?”

    Oh?

    That’s a good idea.

    But right now, I had to diligently save up to do what needed to be done.

    So I laughed it off appropriately.

    Just then, Chief of External Affairs Go spoke.

    “If we can make this much, we should have made and sold ten thousand.”

    “We could, but we won’t be selling the mechanical dolls just this once, right?”

    “That’s true.”

    “It might just cause fatigue unnecessarily.”

    Father asked me.

    “So, when do you plan to release the mechanical dolls with stories you mentioned? You said you’d have the rich collect the dolls, but the effect will probably diminish if interest wanes.”

    At Father’s question, everyone looked at me with curious expressions.

    I grinned and answered.

    “It’s as you say, Father. So I plan to release them this Dano Festival.[2] Interest probably won’t drop by then.”

    “About four months… That should be fine.”

    Father nodded.

    “Let’s adjourn the mechanical doll discussion for now, and Seo-ho…”

    Father looked at me for a moment and continued.

    “Well, it won’t matter much if you’re here. Hmm, as you all know, next month is my eldest son’s twentieth birthday.”

    Come to think of it, next month was the day Eldest Brother Jeong-ho would officially become the junior merchant head!

    Wait a minute…

    As a thought occurred to me, Father’s words continued.

    “I’m thinking of officially giving Jeong-ho the position of junior merchant head, so what do you think?”

    Director Yeon spoke.

    “Since Young Master Jeong-ho has completed all his practical training with excellent results, of course it should be done.”

    Chief of External Affairs Go laughed heartily and chimed in.

    “Our Young Master Jeong-ho is officially becoming the junior merchant head! You must be relieved, sir. Hahaha.”

    “I’m very relieved indeed.”

    Since Director Yeon had declared the end of Eldest Brother Jeong-ho’s practical training at the end of last year, he was qualified to be the junior merchant head.

    In other words, he would officially become the junior merchant head on this birthday.

    Father and the directors were engrossed in conversation about Eldest Brother Jeong-ho’s junior merchant head announcement ceremony, laughing in a friendly atmosphere.

    But I couldn’t laugh.

    Because I remembered that a major incident would occur at Eunhae Merchant Group that day, and at the same time, the event Eldest Brother Jeong-ho regretted most in his life would happen.

    He regretted it so much that whenever he got drunk, he would talk about “that incident.”

    Even though it would have been understandable for him to envy and be jealous of my outstanding abilities, Eldest Brother Jeong-ho didn’t.

    Rather, he had wanted to yield the merchant head position to me.

    I didn’t want to see such a brother regretting again.

    I clenched my fist under the table and vowed.

    I would make sure nothing happened that Eldest Brother Jeong-ho would regret.

    ***

    [1] Shichen (時辰): A unit of time in ancient China equal to two modern hours.

    [2] Dano Festival (端午節): A traditional holiday in Korea celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.

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