This story is set in the same world as “Beyond the Edge of the Map.” The narrator is Kord FitzHelen von Zesrin, the third son of Dug FitzHelen. Kord FitzHelen was named for Kord Grosz von Karststadt. At this point, the younger Kord does not hold any substantive titles, but due to his blood ties, is styled as a Graf. Kord is entitled to the form of address of ‘Illustrius Highness’, slightly lower than ‘Serene Highess’ which is reserved for the highest levels of Imperial nobility save those of the current Imperial family.
Prior to this story, Kord FitzHelen studied Natural Philosophy at the University of Karststadt before becoming a wandering adventurer, getting involved in war and dragonslaying. This story is not about any of that. It is about finance and politics. There are five parts.
And now: Banker of Stirnberg, Part 1 –
The post of Imperial Cofferer was one that should have been eliminated and the duties given to the treasurer. It was a court appointment whose sole duty was to make sure that the menial servants of the Imperial Palace got paid each month. It took at most one or two days, and the servants made sure to seek the Cofferer out to get their proper remuneration. The expurgation of the post would be greeted with great lament by the courtiers, who used such virtual sinecures to advance themselves and worm their way into the proper circles at court. I shouldn’t be surprised that many had paid another to perform the actual duties of the office. The ledger was riddled with errors, and payments to people who either didn’t exist, or didn’t work at the palace. Being a stickler for the official pay rates and accurate accounting made me unpopular among the servants. So, I avoided taking meals at the palace when I could.
Stirnberg was a city split in twain. Not for geographical reasons, but due to the arrogance of a previous emperor. Otto IV had been convinced he’d locked in the crown for his family indefinitely, and gave half of the city to the Imperial dominion so he could more freely build his palace. He had instead so alienated the electors that it was a century and a half before one of his descendants was on the throne – as a Hackenhof. His direct heirs never regained the post. Later Emperors walled off the Imperial District from the neighborhoods outside their direct control. Gunther Zweitzer von Stirnberg lived on the other side of the wall from the Imperial Palace, and down the road from me. If a mile and a half counted as down the road. The house was far enough away that I could pretend not to have to deal with the court, courtiers, and any servants annoyed that I’d quashed the payroll fraud. It was not far enough away that the Herzog Zweitzer’s agent didn’t keep stopping by to ask for loans.
I had planned to use the room as a library, but instead it had been overrun by ledgers, folios of bills of exchange, duplicate copies of contracts, and a bevy of other records. The two safes were there to keep the hard currency I occasionally had to deal with. Fed up with using the top of the metal boxes as a writing surface, I’d had a desk built around them. It looked much more professional as I filled out yet another set of papers indicating that we were willing to loan Gunther another thousand marks. Several would go into my records, one would go into von Stirnberg’s records, and one was the actual bill of exchange. This last sheet got a blob of ocher hued wax into which I pressed a seal, then signed my name beside it. I handed the pages for Gunther to the red-haired young man.
“Thank you, your Illustrious Highness,” he said, giving a slight bow. I kept my countenance as stony as I could muster. He didn’t mean it to mock me. He was simply steeped in court etiquette, and that was the proper form of address for me. Their employers might mock my family’s mercantile and moneylending activities, but the agents sent to borrow money never did. I got stuck actually handling the transactions, just because I was in Stirnberg, and so was everyone clustering around the court. I wouldn’t put it past my mother to have wrangled my appointment as Imperial Cofferer to engineer exactly this situation. So rather than focus on my studies, I spent my time chasing debts and recording payments. As Zweitzer’s agent left, I filed away my copies of the paperwork.
“Is this the Academy Bursar’s Annex?” The man in the doorway wore a green cassock with jade buttons and a chain of green-enameled roundels about his neck. A rectangular plaque hung on the chain, and would likely identify him as a journeyman wizard of the Jade Tower.
“We hold the Bursar’s Concession for the Zhalskrag Academy in Stirnberg,” I said. It was a line of business I would love to dump. It was profitable, but it meant we had wizards wandering in all the time looking to draw funds from their accounts. There were a lot of wizards in Stirnberg because there were a lot of nobles orbiting the Imperial Court, and noble houses were the prime employers of wizards. Since their pay was handled through the academy, it only made sense to have someone in the city to handle requests for funds. I didn’t care if we were paid three percent of the disbursement values for handling the transactions. It was another thing keeping me from what I actually wanted to be doing. The ledgers for the Academy work were the most meticulous, and never sat far from my desk. I sat down and looked at the dark-haired man. His plain features were entirely forgettable.
“I would like to withdraw some funds.”
“Walther Nussenbaum.” Out of habit, I glanced at the plaque, and it agreed with his claim. Pulling the appropriate ledger off the shelf, I flipped to the pages containing his information. It ended with an annotation in my own hand.
“It says here that you’ve already taken out more than you have. The reconciliation from the Academy has you at sixty groats in the red.” Nussenbaum began to shift nervously from foot to foot as I put the book down where he could see it. I tapped the last entry. “You have to pay either me or the Bursar’s back in Zhalskrag to get back to zero.” I left out the option of finding another annex or concession holder in a different city.
“But I need that money.”
“I’m being blackmailed.” His eyes went wide, and his face paled as he realized he’d spoken aloud. In his lost expression, I could see the churning of mental gears. “No, no, forget I said anything, I’ll find a way to repay the debt.”
“If that’s what you want, but I have to warn you that the concession contract requires that I report anyone I suspect of attempting to defraud the Academy.”
“This could be an honest mistake, or an effort to withdraw from as many annexes as possible before the records reconcile. How hard have you been pushing your horses?”
“No, no. I mean- Look, I can explain.”
I interlaced my fingers and looked up at Nussenbaum. He reddened quite a bit. I was reminded of many a fellow student at the University forced to admit having done something stupid the night before. With the amount of time spent cloistered at the Academies, I suspect Wizards might be substantially more sheltered.
“Um, If I do tell you, you won’t accuse me of fraud to the Academy, right? I mean, it’s not like I didn’t plan to work it off.”
“That depends on what you have to say. So, please, continue.”
“It’s for Gertrude.”
“Who is Gertrude?” I asked.
“Well, um, one of the maids to my employer’s daughter. I’m pretty sure I’m in love with her. She’s a real nice girl, and the prettiest – but she’s only part of the reason I need the money.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Well, the daughter realized what I felt about her maid. Now she wants me to make her a potion, or she’ll ship poor Gertrude off to Badenburg so I won’t see her again.”
“If this is the daughter of your employer, shouldn’t they be covering the cost of the components?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s in debt up to his eyeballs, so there’s a no component policy. I mean, he’s started borrowing from the Von Zesrins to make payments to the Freinmarkt Mercers Guild and the Aurifex Group.”
“Who was your employer again?”
“Oh, no, I shouldn’t have said that. Please, I just need to deal with my own problem.”
I thumbed back a few pages in the Academy ledger. ‘Walther Nussenbaum, Journeyman of the Jade Tower, Court Wizard to Herzog Gunther Zweitzer von Stirnberg.’ I frowned. I’d just loaned him another thousand marks. If his debt was really that bad, how was I going to get paid back?
“So, um,” Nussenbaum said, “Are you going to accuse me of fraud? I really just needed to borrow some money. I plan to pay them back.”
“The Academy Bursar doesn’t provide lines of credit.”
“I know, I know, but…”
“How were you planning to repay the money you plan to borrow?” I asked.
“My stipend will be paid as long as I’m working any contract. It would eventually get the balance back up to zero.”
I reached over to the bookcase and removed another book from the Bursar. I flipped through until I found the page in question. I ran a few figures on a slate.
“There is a flaw in your plan.”
“What?” Nussenbaum asked.
“With the amount you are currently under, the fees for carrying a negative balance will be greater than the stipend for a Journeyman Wizard. You will not only fail to pay back the Academy, but go further into debt.”
“I… um… well, crap.”
I sighed. “Did you even know there were fees for negative balances?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I need to find more income. But I’m supposed to be on-hand most of the day.”
“Well, outside of the Academy concession, I represent my family as a moneylender. We can structure a small loan to bring your balance out of the negative which your stipend would be able to repay.”
“You’d be willing to do that?”
“Not for free. But a small profit is still a profit.”
“You do have the option of declining my offer and finding another solution.”
“I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to manage that.”
I interlaced my fingers and waited. Nussenbaum fretted for a moment or two.
“If you could make the loan enough to cover the remaining materials, I’d like to go with that.”
“How much do you need?” I asked. He named a sum and I drew up the papers.
“You’re Von Zesrin?” he asked, reading the terms.
“One of them – Kord FitzHelen von Zesrin.”
Though he looked uncomfortable, Nussenbaum signed the papers and accepted that share of the loan not going to repaying the Academy Bursar.
* * *
My sister had not been happy to find out I’d rented the lower four floors of the house in Stirnberg. But Annika never was happy with frugality. Even if the whole family were in town and had a full complement of servants, the top two floors were enough. I suspect she might have disliked the climb to reach our portion of the building. Except for the two days a month I executed my duties as Cofferer, the only time I came to court was as Annika’s chaperone. She was there to browse the marriage market, and I was there to make sure none of her potential suitors got any ideas. This gobbled up even more of my time, rendering those moments in the conservatory all the more precious. The conservatory sat upon the southern end of the roof, gleaning sunlight throughout the day. It housed the plants I was trying to cultivate and study, none of which were suited to the climate of Stirnberg. The first I had successfully grown was a crop of flame lilies.
Annika had been quite aghast when I’d matter-of-factly stated my intent to crush the plants. Sure, the flowers were striking, but I was trying to isolate the toxic component to develop an antidote. The flame lilies were far less toxic than some of the other plants, and I eventually let her use the flowers in a corsage, surrounded by white lilies. As long as no one ate the corsage, there was no risk. The blossoms contrasted with her red-ochre gown and its gold embroidery. I hated to think how much money had been spent on the jewelry dripping from her slight frame. The figure doubled when including the various pins and clasps holding her golden locks into the elaborate coiffure. Her hair glimmered with rubies and spinels as though she had some sort of head wound.
My own court attire was not much simpler. The underlying clothing consisted of boots, black trousers, and a thigh-length white coat. If it stopped there, I’d have been happy. Instead, there were four rows of buttons running up the front of the jacket. Gold braid ran horizontally across each line of buttonholes, forming an almost continuous decorative knot at each line. The buttons themselves were sardonyx cameos depicting the skewered dragon of the Order of Dragonslayers. This emblem was repeated on the buckle of my sword belt, the mantle clasp, and on the sash. The sash was crimson, embroidered in gold for both the trim and the symbol of the order. Just below the emblem, I’d pinned my jubilee medal. Topping it all off was the red-orange mantle of Cinderdrake hide. That beast had been big enough to make several mantles. As ‘mere dragonhide’ was somehow insufficient for courtly dress, this one was as overwrought as the rest of the outfit. Aside from the gold edging, it had been very diligently stitched with the griffins, globe, and star of my coat of arms.
Amidst this absurd attire, the jeweled hilts of my starmetal blades didn’t stand out. Most people at court were not permitted to wear actual swords, and arrived with decorated scabbards fitted with false hilts. The privilege of the Dragonslayer meant I could wear real weapons anywhere Imperial rule applied. So I wore them to court, extracting what little satisfaction I could from the act. That was not much, as I helped Annika down from the carriage and began forging a path through the scrum of would-be courtiers. Gaining admittance to the court was an opportunity for advancement and financial gain that drew a great many intellectuals and artists. They dressed like they belonged there, and tried to attach themselves to the entourages of those actually invited within. Standing half a head taller than the aspiring hangers-on, I barged through the noisy crowd. Wendel brought up the rear, bracketing Annika between two far more imposing figures. The dogman knew not to let anyone slip past the gates in our wake. Even if my face was unremarkable, in conjunction with my attire, Annika, and Wendel, the guards recognized me and opened the gilt-iron gates.
Footmen with lanterns lined the path through the geometric gardens to the doors of the south wing. The palace had been expanded many times, and the south wing had accumulated the least symbolic or ceremonial importance. Thus, it was used for the more ‘casual’ events. Though courtly casual was still steeped in stultifying formality. Freed from the crowd, I escorted my sister along the aisle of lantern bearers. The herald at the door greeted us with an elaborate bow before addressing those within.
“Announcing His Illustrious Highness, Graf Kord FitzHelen von Zesrin, Dragonslayer of the Order of Dragonslayers, and Imperial Cofferer; Escorting Her Illustrious Highness, Grafin Annika FitzHelen von Zesrin.” No mention was made of Wendel, but no valet was ever announced. Once past the threshold, Annika took the lead, and I followed in her wake, Wendel a stride behind me. The Lesser Ballroom was lesser only in the context of the palace. It was a massive chamber with a vaulted ceiling and soaring windows. Overwrought plasterwork decorated the buttresses and vaults, with allegorical murals filling the space in between. The floor was made from a variety of different stones, but the pattern was obscured by the skirts and shoes of the courtiers. Gilded lanterns filled the massive space with a soft glow. The light gleamed off the jewels decorating the occupants.
I chafed at the vapid pleasantries Annika exchanged with the other ladies, even as they glared with venomous envy. My sister was recognized as one of the great beauties at court. Something that smoothed over her parentage in the eyes of the men, but doubtless spurred scurrilous chatter among the women. They undoubtedly took delight in reminding each other that our father was born a bastard, and that we behaved like mere merchants and moneylenders. I had still financed half the gowns in the ballroom, and would be collecting payments on this courtly season for the rest of the year. Of course, a good chunk of the chattering ladies would never bother to inquire into their family finances as long as the fashionable pretty baubles kept coming.
“Announcing His Imperial Highness, Erbprinz Gustaf Hackenhof von Altschaft,” the herald called. Gustaf was dressed in crimson, though the gold embroidery and cloth of gold cape almost obscured the fact. His dark hair was short and neat, capping an unimpressive visage. He made up for his mediocre looks with a broad, welcoming smile and an approachable attitude. Though the grandson of Otto IX, he was not automatically in line for the Imperial throne. He was still an Imperial Prince, and even if he ended up as merely Herzog von Altschaft, that would still make him a wealthy man. It didn’t take long for Gustaf’s eyes to fall on Annika, and he made a beeline for where we were standing.
“My lady, has anyone asked you to dance?” Gustaf asked.
Seeing the glitter in my sister’s gaze, I refrained from pointing out that the music hadn’t started yet. Rationally, I knew Prince Gustaf was an excellent suitor for Annika, and chasing him off would not be greeted with gratitude. So I held my tongue.
“Not yet,” Annika said coyly. Prince Gustaf took her hand and led her away. Catty murmurs spread through the ladies who had cheerfully greeted Annika moments before.
* * *
Continued in Part 2