Kyowne [kjɔw ne] was a tea grower and merchant of Uytai, who liked to style himself the King of Tea (Tsai nye pauram).
He was born around 3160 on a phret plantation owned by his uncle. He thus came to know all aspects of tea production, from the growth of the plants to the handling of the leaves (drying, crumbling, optional roasting), to packing and distribution, to say nothing of the myriad ways of preparing the beverage.
The boy was clever and industrious, and his uncle valued him highly, above hs own sons, and taught him many secrets— at least according to Kyowne’s later claims. However, when he was about 15, his father Naurom quarreled with his uncle and was sent away from the plantation.
Naurom had a small inheritance from his own father, and he set himself up in the main city of the tea growing region, Pranthal, as a merchant. He was only moderately successful, but Kyowne learned more about the varieties of tea and who bought them. Tea travelled in two directions: southward along the Hrat to Uytai (and thence to Verduria and Xurno), northward across the Tetyau mountains to Belesao (and thence to Kebri and Nan). Kyowne worked as a buyer, acquiring tea from plantations and small farmers across the highlands.
After a few years Naurom’s business failed. In Kyowne’s estimation, his father had been crowded out by larger vendors, generally run by large firms from southern Uytai or Čwam. Naurom swallowed his pride and appealed to his brother to take him back at the plantation, but Kyowne liked the city and stayed there.
He worked in various jobs for awhile, in and out of the tea industry, including a long stint for a large Čwamese operation. This convinced him that the southerners had money, but they didn’t know tea as he did.
Building the business
He married the niece of his Čwamese boss, a girl named Swisi. Though he came to complain much about her later— he called her “a Čwamese galleon dry-docked in the hills” and “my personal Fall of Krwŋ”— he found her exceedingly useful at first: she was trained in accounting, and best of all she had some money, which he used to found a tea distribution business, in 3191.
The merchants were used to dealing directly with the growers. This required a lot of legwork (especially for small firms like his father’s) as well as intimate knowledge of the region (a difficulty for the outsiders). Kyowne’s great innovation was to use horses for transport on a large scale; these had been available from the Ōkmisan for years, but were resisted; few knew how to care for the strange creatures brought to Arcél by the Tžuro, and there was a prejudice that their smell would infect the tea.
By using horses, Kyowne was able to carry much higher quantities with far fewer workers. He could also fill orders much quicker (which meant of course that his tea was fresher). Soon he was supplying most of the tea merchants and traders in town.
In an inspired marketing move, he color-coded his bags for quality: tan (natural) for ordinary quality, green for premium, and red for superior. To a large extent this classification created the market for high-end teas— previously, outside the Hrat valley, there wasn’t a consensus on what teas were best, or why one should pay ten times the normal price for the top leaves. Now sellers could point to the green and red bags. (It was more than that, of course; Kyowne and his agents would spend time with their customers explaining the difference, even brewing sample cups, so that they could upsell their customers in turn.) Weltsai ‘red tea’ became the standard Uyseʔ term for the superior varieties of tea.
Somewhat maliciously, Kyowne classified his own uncle’s plantation as tan. He listened with cool satisfaction to his uncle’s pleas to raise the grade, and only gave in when his uncle promised to make Naurom his overseer.
Having near-monopoly power, Kyowne could now press the merchants and traders he supplied, or the growers he bought from. Growers found him skimpier than before, and those who coveted a rise in grade had to suffer— and pay for—inspections and advice. Prices for the merchants rose as well, and if anyone was behind in their payments they might find Kyowne demanding a share in their business.
Eventually he started buying farms and plantations, sometimes hiring back the old owners as laborers. At the height of his fame he was said to personally control 20% of the phret cultivation in the highlands. Tea cultivation required much hand labor, but there were economies of scale to be realized in planting, drying, roasting, and packing. Kyowne concentrated on the low and high ends: creating vast plantations that produced wagon-loads of tea cheaper than anyone else could manage, as well as highly refined, highly expensive teas for the connoisseur. The green level he left to other growers.
At all times he claimed to be acting for the good of the region, the tea trade, and the country. He formed a Phret Growers’ Association to advance the interests of the industry; one of its proudest achievements was to ban the importation of coffee. He wrote manuals and organized tastings all around Uytai to refine consumers’ tastes. Others began to call him the King of Tea, and he happily accepted the title, even signing it to his books and to legal documents.
Uytai was largely governed by a close-knit group of old southern families, whose institutional expression was the Yonram, the country’s legislature. The King of Tea felt that he would like to join this august group.
There was no application process, of course; the honor had to be granted at the Yonram’s own initiative, but this had sometimes happened to southern businessmen— including a major tea distributor, one of Kyowne’s clients. Kyowne breathed words into appropriate ears. He felt he had an excellent claim: was he not the richest man in the north, a region shamefully unrepresented in the Yonram despite all it had done for Uytainese prosperity?
He expected the process to be slow, but what he didn’t expect was outright hostility. Other voices suggested another perspective. Had this rich man sufficiently contributed to state resources? It was pointed out that the peasants of the Ħomtso paid high taxes on the food they raised, while the taxes on tea were minimal. And what about the considerable effort required to keep the Ōkmisan out of the highlands? In fact, hadn’t this man acquired his horses from the nomads, that immense threat to Uytainese empire?
The Yonram was convinced; it doubled the tax on tea (3217), and appointed a commission to look into Kyowne’s affairs. As soon as word got out that the authorities were looking for infractions, these seemed to multiply.
Kyowne soon learned the limitations of being King of Tea. He was a rich man, but legally he was a commoner with no special standing. He attempted to raise public opinion against the tax, and indeed much of the tea country agreed with him— but again, the region had no official voice in government.
Eventually the storm passed. There was a war with the Ȟšanda, and no more attention for scandals in the tea country. Indeed, by agreeing to supply tea to the army, Kyowne was able to get the tea tax reduced (though not to its former level). The commission wound down; the costs of the investigation, of advocates to counter it, and various fines cost him a considerable amount.
In later years, unable to enter politics, he interested himself in military affairs instead. He had been one of the first Uytainese to make great use of the horse, and he had long bred his own. He wrote manuals of horse breeding, and impassioned pamphlets arguing for the widespread use of the horse in warfare. This attracted some notice from the army, especially during the Ȟšanda war.
However, he was now of failing health. He had already handed off day-to-day operations of his firm to his son; now he retired to one of his estates near Pranthal. He died in 3231.
He would have been annoyed to learn that the army, appreciative of his support for building up the cavalry as well as understanding the importance of the highlands for defense, was even then preparing a recommendation that Kyowne be given a noble title and named to the Yonram. When they learned of his death, the proposal was shelved.
And he would have been extremely distressed to see, just fifty years after his death, the Ōkmisan riding into the tea highlands and adding it to a huge nomadic empire, based on the power of horses and enriched by their control over tea.