Continued from Part 1.
* * *
The Aurifex Group was an association of goldsmiths who acted as moneylenders and money changers. They had started in Quendaverus, but had merged with guilds and associations outside the dwarf-held lands. They were of the mercantile class, and not above lending across borders. They were also on my mind as Zweitzer’s debts nagged at me. Their place of business in Stirnberg was an annex of the Guildhouse of Goldsmiths. An imposing, half-timbered structure, the Guildhouse had an ample supply of armed guards. I doubted the Guild kept much gold on-premises, but criminals were not always the brightest of people. It had taken a few days to negotiate an audience with the moneylender, mostly because his calendar had been full.
Paavali Grigoris was a plump dwarf with a neat chestnut beard and pale green robes. His thick fingers interlaced as he rested his hands upon his gut. His high-backed walnut chair was carved in angular, dwarven fashion, and looked like a throne. The low-backed guest chair was simpler, and distinctly human in aesthetic. Slate walls and woven tapestries were all in a style that matched his chair. I wasn’t sure how to take the lack of a desk or ledgers. A magnanimous smile cracked his facial hair as Paavali gestured me to the other seat.
“So, you are the agent of Kord von Zesrin?”
There was enough of a pause for a quizzical look to enter his steel blue eyes.
“I am Kord von Zesrin,” I said.
“Apologies, I did not expect you to come in person.”
“No offense taken,” I said.
“Is it so dire that you dare not risk an intermediary?”
“No. It is a matter where I’d rather not start rumors if it turns out to be a misunderstanding.”
“While we are competitors, I do not recall anything unsavory happening between your house and the Aurifex Group.” He gestured lazily with one hand. “We prefer to do business without burning bridges. You never know when you might need to work with the competition.”
“I’m glad to hear that. The reason I came was because I heard rather distressing news about a debtor. Supposedly, he had started to borrow from me in order to pay you and the Freinmarkt Mercers. This is a very bad risk.”
“Are you expecting me to tell you about my debtors?” Grigoris asked.
“I was thinking about the matter. If what I’ve heard is true, he is a very bad risk for all of us. The chances of him defaulting are high.”
“And if I were to confirm such debts, you would stop lending to him, putting an end to payments to me.”
“I had thought of the consequences of that discussion, and how it would impact you.”
“Yet you came here anyway.”
“If he’s borrowing to pay you, odds are you’ve cut him off from new loans and are starting to wonder how much of a loss you’ll have to take on the whole bargain. So you might be amenable to say, selling the debt to another party.”
Paavali raised a bushy eyebrow. “You just said this hypothetical account is bad debt.”
“Well, I have recourse that other lenders don’t. My family has the right to sue this particular debtor in the Court of Electors. Which can force him to turn over assets to cover the debt, backed up by armies. So if he does owe you enough money that he has to take out loans to make payments, the question is, how much do you think you can get before his financial house of cards collapses?”
Grigoris mulled the matter over.
“Who is this hypothetical debtor?” the dwarf asked.
“Herzog Gunther Zweitzer von Stirnberg,” I said.
Paavali puffed out his cheeks and let out a long breath. “Von Stirnberg does owe us money – some five million Bezans worth. We refused to lend him more until he had made significant progress towards repayment. That progress has been… slow.”
Some quick mental arithmetic told me the debt Gunther owed the Aurifex Group was between two and a half and three million marks. A hefty sum, even for a Herzog. That wasn’t even counting his other creditors.
“So, are you willing to sell?” I asked.
* * *
My conversations with Gunther’s creditors went much the same way as they had with Grigoris. It was a risk, even buying the debt for mere pfennigs per mark. But he owed some four million, one hundred and thirty thousand marks. If I could get him to repay even a quarter of that, I’d have made a significant profit. If all else failed, I still had recourse to the Court of Electors. Bringing an Elector to court was not an appealing proposition. I spent the morning of my appointment to see him in the conservatory. There was a side room with a locked door in which I kept the most deadly plants in the collection. Before entering the chamber, I donned heavy gloves, a leather smock, and a breath mask. These were necessary when approaching the five Black Lotus sprouts along the southern window. Their pollen had a narcotic effect, and every piece of the plant was exceedingly toxic. But it preferred marshy soil rich in animal compost. So, to keep them alive, I had to don protective gear and bring new fertilizer into the isolation chamber. My bath after emerging was not for the sake of leisure.
My plants fed and watered, my skin washed free of potential contaminants, I returned to the conservatory. I was crushing lily leaves in a mortar when Annika wandered in. I refrained from sighing, and simply kept working.
“Why don’t you have more chairs in here?” she asked, casting her gaze around.
“Because I’m not growing these plants for leisure viewing.”
“Yeah, you’re ruining them,” she said, frowning.
“You didn’t come up here to complain about the chairs.”
“The flowers cheer me up, except when you’re crushing them.”
“Why do you need cheering up?” I asked.
“Because Prince Gustaf is boring!”
“He only talked foreign politics. What do I care about Valayan unrest or a war between Vartenthral and Atlor?”
“Because it makes a mess in the Servile Sea, and causes a lot of problems for the Volkmund? Gustaf is next in line to be Herzog von Altschaft, and his grandfather is over seventy. He might even be over eighty. He has to think about such things.”
“But what makes him think I care?” Annika asked.
“Maybe he thought you were smart?”
My sister glared at me, and I just grinned.
“You’re supposed to be on my side. Where’s the poetry? Where’s the music? Where’s the eloquence?”
“I can’t write poetry either,” I said.
“But you’re just my brother. Besides, you can grow flowers.” She gestured around us. Her face scrunched up. “But then you go and ruin them.”
“I need to extract the toxic compounds to test antidotes and preventatives.”
“Whatever,” Annika sighed.
“So, you don’t like Gustaf,” I said.
“No,” she said. The shake of her head sent golden locks tumbling. “And don’t go telling me how he’s a great match politically or economically.”
“I won’t,” I said, “Or you’ll be telling me how Fraulein so and so comes with large tracts of land and an influential family.”
“That reminds me, why aren’t you wooing any of the ladies at court? There are even a few who are taken with you. Though the gods only know why.”
“You see, if I pursued a court lady, I might end up with a wife who enjoys going to court events. This would be a distinctly negative outcome.”
“I’m serious. The expense, the bother, and the backstabbing isn’t worth what meager gains are to be had by going there.”
Annika waved dismissively. “You just need to get into the spirit of it.”
* * *
I rode to the Herzog’s house in the city. I would have walked, but the neighborhoods in between were lousy with footpads and pickpockets. So I stayed inside the carriage where it was harder for them to assail me. The house was an old building, predating the Imperial Palace, but it had been renovated in the last century. A rectangular building of gray stone set amongst a topiary garden, it was not that impressive as town houses went. A footman escorted me onto the grounds, but rather than into the house, he led me to the back garden. There, I found myself on a paved terrace overlooking a flower garden. The flowers were in bloom, providing fields of decorative color and scenting the breeze as it blew over the terrace. Several chairs had been set out, of which two were occupied.
Gunther Zweitzer was a plump, jowly man with gray hair plastered to his scalp. From his ruddy cheeks and nose, you might expect him to be of sanguine disposition. But his cold eyes carried none of the cheer his features implied. Relaxing casually on his terrace, he was in shirtsleeves and waistcoat, with none of the overwrought courtly dress he’d been stuffed in other times we’d met in person. It was probably a more prudent attire, as the sun was already making my tailcoat uncomfortably warm. Standing behind Gunther was the red-haired agent, Rudolf, who typically came to my office.
The occupant of the other chair was a girl substantially younger than von Stirnberg. She was just as plump, with a small, slightly upturned nose, and eyes that were just a little unfocused. Great care had been put into styling her dark hair, and jeweled pins held it in place. Her saffron dress was well-made, but did little for the fact that she was probably as heavy as the Herzog, despite being shorter. After a moment, my brain dredged up her name. She was Emilie Zweitzer, Gunther’s daughter. A pace or so behind and to the side of Emilie’s chair stood a mahogany-haired waif. While also in saffron, the cut of her dress was simpler to distinguish her position in the household. I could only conclude that this was the Gertrude that Walther was enamored of. Her features were ordinary, but she had a kindly aspect, and the air of being both approachable and attainable.
Gunther’s gaze fell on the leather folio tucked under my left arm. A sour expression crossed his lips. After a moment of rumination, he looked up at me.
“What is it?”
“I’m afraid it’s a venal matter of money,” I said. “I’m not sure how many people you want listening in.”
“Couldn’t it have waited until Rudolf came to you?” Gunther asked.
“I’m afraid this matter is of a nature that requires your personal attention.”
“Emilie, go inside.”
With a ‘hmph’, Emilie turned up her nose, but forced herself out of the chair. She dragged Gertrude into the house. A moment later, their faces appeared behind one of the windows, watching us. Gunther grumpily looked over his shoulder.
“Rudolf, close the door.”
Quietly, the red-haired young man complied.
“All right, what do you want?”
“I have to inform you that I have acquired your debts from the Aurifex Group, the Freinmarkt Mercer’s Guild, Lothar Smit, and Gervais Laurent.” I extracted the papers from the folio and presented them to Gunther. They were copies of the contracts by which the moneylenders in question had signed over the debts to me. I failed to notice that his face was beginning to flush as he reluctantly took the sheets from me.
“I wanted to discuss the issue of repayment. What I was-”
“Get. Out.” Gunther’s face had flushed a bright red.
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Was I not clear?” Zweitzer threw the papers at my face. “Get out, you gold-grubbing son of a bastard!” Profanity began spilling in amongst his insults and beratement as his shouts chased me from the terrace. My driver was confused by the shouting and my swift return to the carriage.
We left promptly.
* * *
The dining hall had not originally been intended as such. It did, however, have decent sunlight in the evening. With the green and silver wallpaper, and the dark cherrywood furniture, it needed the illumination. On deciding to rent out the lower floors, I hadn’t spent much time or money on decorating the upstairs, so the walls and fireplace had simple, clean lines. There was no ornate plasterwork, no gilding, and no murals. The only art was the pendulum clock sitting on the mantle, ticking away the seconds. Its frame was held up by two bronze statuettes. The table runner, porcelain, and silverware were all overdone, clashing with the simplicity of the rest of the space. I was displeased with the place settings, Annika was likely displeased with the architecture.
I angrily speared my food with my fork, my mind churning through the day’s events.
“What do you think of Kobus Spitz?” Annika asked.
“Never heard of it.”
“Him. Kobus is a man.”
“Never heard of him,” I said.
“He’s one of the Emperor’s Bodyguard.”
“Oh. They’re usually landless younger sons or knights-errant given the post because they’re politically safe and can look the part. So I’d wager he’s pretty, but doesn’t have a pfennig to his name.”
“Oh, so you have met him,” Annika laughed.
“So why do you bring this knight up?”
“Because he was really sweet and charming, and…”
“And I don’t think I can be poor.”
“I don’t think he’s actually poor.”
“You know what I mean,” Annika said. She held up her fork, silver gleaming in a sliver of sunlight. “I don’t know how much this costs, and I never have had to worry about it.”
“I’m sure you would have silverware.”
She scowled melodramatically for my benefit. “I know you know what I mean.”
“You like the fancy things you have been accustomed to. And you worry that you would have to cut back if you got too involved with Spitz. I get it.”
“I like Kobus, but… not that much.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
“That’s not very helpful!”
“Oh, now I’m supposed to help your romantic escapades? I thought I was here to make sure your reputation remained unsullied.”
Annika made an indignant noise.
“Well, what is it?”
“You’re supposed to advocate one so I know who not to pick!”
“Annika, I don’t think you should make a decision based upon whatever is contrary to my opinion. There are things you don’t like about Gustaf. There are things you don’t like about Kobus. Either decide where your priorities lay, or keep looking.”
“I wish I could find that singer.”
“Oh that’s right, you weren’t with me.”
“Well, who are you talking about?”
“We were at the palace, and I had gotten tired of dancing. Instead of looking for your miserable self, I went walking the halls. Then I got lost. That place is a labyrinth.”
“Good reason not to wander off.”
Annika made a dismissive gesture. “I heard music, so I figured I must have gotten close to the ballroom again. But when I went towards it, I ended up in the gardens. Someone was out among the hedges, playing a stringed instrument and singing the most beautiful melody.”
“A ‘stringed instrument’?” I asked, sarcastically.
“Like I can tell one from another! It’s not like I saw the thing. I couldn’t find him before he realized he wasn’t alone and ran off. Now I want to find him. I’m sure he’d be better than Gustaf or Kobus.”
“How do you know it wasn’t just some valet or boot boy?”
“I just know, all right.”
I shook my head and returned to my dinner.
* * *
Continued in Part 3