* * *
The first sign something was wrong was Wendel informing me that men in yellow coats were at the door. Yellow coats in Stirnberg meant Imperial Bodyguard. I got dressed and descended four floors to street level. The staircase had been added to the side of the house when I’d decided to rent out the lower floors. It was not that fun to climb, and I could hardly blame the visitors for waiting by the door. I could have insisted that they come to me, as they were asking to speak to me. But I’d mistakenly figured it was Kobus trying to continue a pursuit of Annika’s favor. The expressions on the faces of the four well-born men on the stoop disabused me of that notion.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“We are here for Graf Kord FitzHelen von Zesrin.”
“You have me. What is this about?”
“We are ordered to bring you to appear before the Court of Electors to face charges levied by Herzog Gunther Zweitzer von Stirnberg.”
“What kind of charges?” I asked, brows narrowed, tone indignant.
“Attempt of murder.”
“All I know is the duty we have been charged. So, please, your Illustrious Highness, get your horse and accompany us to the Diet.” I looked past the four to the street. Another four were there, mounted and ready. Two held the reins of horses for the dismounted lot. The other two were clearly positioned to pursue if I attempted flight.
“The stable is in the back,” I said, closing the door and stepping past the lot on the stoop. They followed me down the alley and waited as I called the groom to saddle a horse. The groom was the same man who drove our carriage, and looked more than a little hung over as he readied a steed. I did not hurry the man, as I needed my wits to go over what I knew. How could the Herzog accuse me of trying to kill somebody? If the charge came from him it made sense he had to make it through the Court of Electors. We were both members of immediate houses, subject to no overlord but the Emperor. Technically, I answered to my father’s jurisdiction, but Zweitzer would never subject himself to the court of a lesser lord. So it was the Court of Electors or an appeal to the Emperor, and Otto IX was getting old.
I rode casually with the Imperial Bodyguard to the halls of the Diet. That legislative body had been called to debate a stack of banal issues of no great urgency. But the session spawned the social calendar at court, and the resultant need to buy the latest fashions. Even if that meant borrowing the funds from people like me. The halls were an imposing structure faced in black basalt, with ornate spires. Large windows and elaborate friezes filled the spaces between the buttresses and interiors of the arches. Each frieze depicted a different polity of the Volkmund. There were many, many friezes along the exterior of the massive building. Confident that I wasn’t going to flee, half of my escort took the horses to the stables, and I was left with the four yellow coats who’d met me at my door.
The entry gallery ran along the front of the three main halls of the building. The middle chamber was the grand assembly hall, where the entire Diet would meet when such occasion required it. This room was the largest and most richly decorated, as its name implied. It was also the least used. The greater and lesser circle met in the chambers flanking it. Here, the arguing and posturing took place. None of these rooms were our destination. I accompanied the yellow coats past the Greater Circle Chamber and up a polished marble staircase. A densely woven rug in yellow and black muted our footsteps on the risers. The back gallery was lined in portraits of Emperors past, each depicted and dressed in the styles and fashions of their day. The last was of a younger Otto IX, with some black still in his hair. His hand rested on a globe in a decorative stand. It was a small detail, but the globe was one made by my father to show where the trade delegation from Yothos had originated.
Opposite this portrait of Otto was a seating gallery, and a pair of doors. The blue velvet seats held a number of waiting people. The yellow coats gestured at the doors, and I approached them. The guards at that portal, however, blocked me.
“You can’t bring your swords into the Hall of Electors.”
I looked down at my belt where my left hand absent-mindedly rested on the pommel of my shorter sword, then back at the guards.
“Does Imperial law not hold sway within?”
“I am a Dragonslayer of the Order of Dragonslayers. I have the right to wear my arms wherever Imperial law holds.”
The guards exchanged uncomfortable glances. I knew what quandary they were in. Legally, I was in the right, but the room beyond them was where the most powerful nobles in the Volkmund met. It was possible they were all unarmed, and it was the responsibility of the guards to keep them unharmed. One eased the door open and poked his head in, passing the decision to those on the other side. My bluster deflated when the door opened the rest of the way and the man for whom I’d been named glared at me.
“Kord, don’t make a scene,” Prince Kord said.
Wordlessly, I unfastened my sword belt and let the blades be locked away. In scale, the Hall of Electors was nowhere near as grandiose as any of the other halls in the Diet. In any other building, it would have been regarded as a large space. It had to accommodate a horseshoe-shaped table with seating for the highest princes of the land. Each throne-like chair was in front of a buttressed pillar. The spaces in between were filled with stained glass to let light in, but make it difficult to strike at the occupants from the outside. An open rectangle of floor sat before the open end of the horseshoe table. Here, there were three low-backed chairs. One in the center, and one against either wall.
The Prince-Electors of the Volkmund were men of varying ages, though the youngest looked to be in his thirties, and my grandfather appeared to be the oldest. At the middle of the table sat Verner Stipe von Wachsenveld. He carried the title of Grossherzog, and was first among the Electors, but the Grand Duchy of Wachsenveld was a weak and fractured polity. He had a neatly waxed mustache, and a coif that looked designed to hide the fact that his hair was thinning. I stood there and met Verner’s gaze, waiting to be addressed.
“Graf Kord FitzHelen von Zesrin,” he said, his voice sounding weary and drawn. “You have been called here to answer for a charge levied by his Serene Highness, the Herzog Gunther Zweitzer von Stirnberg. He asserts that you attempted to kill him by means of poison.”
“I- That’s preposterous,” I said.
“It is a serious accusation, and this body must take it as such. We will examine the witnesses and evidence and find the truth. We recognize that this is a rather busy time, and will endeavor to conclude this as promptly as possible.”
I looked at Gunther over at the leftmost seat along the table. His gaze was cold, emotionless.
“I’m sure we can reach the truth,” I said.
“Good, we will begin.”
“Now?” I asked.
“We will not make a ruling without giving you the chance to summon witnesses in your defense. But the initial witnesses are here, and our schedules are rather full. Please take a seat.” Verner gestured to the seat at my right. I sat down.
“For my first witness,” Gunther said, “I call Grafin Annika von Zesrin.” I raised an eyebrow, but a figure I’d not paid much heed to stepped to the door and spoke with the guards. His head was shaved, and he was dressed in white robes with a purple silk stole draped over his shoulders. The scales of Azerion hung from a long chain about his neck. Annika entered with poise and dignity. She was not dressed for a courtly ball, but she was elegant enough that several of the electors visibly took second glances.
“What is going on?” Annika asked in a demure tone she rarely used.
“You have been summoned to testify before the Court of Electors,” Verner said. “Truthseeker Andris will administer the oath to you, then just answer honestly.”
The priest of Azerion, Andris, held out the emblem of the scales, and Annika rested her hand upon it. “Do you, Annika FitzHelen von Zesrin, swear, before the sight of Azerion and all the other gods, to answer truthfully any matter put to you in this court?”
“I so swear,” Annika said. Andris stepped away and took the seat opposite me. Annika daintily took the remaining seat in the room.
“Your Illustrious Highness,” Gunther said, “Last week, you were seen by many attending a ball at the Imperial Palace, were you not?”
“I assume people saw me,” she said.
“You wore a corsage containing ordinary white lilies and three flame lilies, did you not?”
“Do flame lilies normally grow around Stirnberg?” Zweitzer asked.
“Where did you get them?”
Annika hesitated, but answered. “From my brother.”
“Which one? You have three.”
“Where did he get them?”
“He grows them in our conservatory.”
Annika drew in a deep breath and shot me an apologetic look. “He is trying to develop antidotes for poisons within the plants.”
“So he knows flame lilies are poisonous?”
“And he knows how to extract the poison from the plant?”
“Yes,” Annika said, sounding defeated.
“Are those the only poisonous plants he grows?” Gunther asked.
“What else are you aware of?”
“He has specifically warned me not to approach the black lotus enclosure.”
This statement grew a gasp of surprise from one of the Electors who had only been partly paying attention to the actual testimony.
“Thank you, that is all of my questions.”
“Graf von Zesrin,” Verner said, “You may question the witness.”
“Annika, how deadly is black lotus?”
“Legendarily,” she said.
“So if I wanted to poison somebody, I have at my disposal one of the most potent toxins known, is that correct?”
“Thank you. That is all.”
“You are dismissed, your Illustrious Highness,” Von Wachsenveld said. Annika glanced at me again before rising and leaving.
“My second witness is my personal physician, Lars Dietmann,” Gunther said. Dietmann was a thin man, with long limbs and a pronounced, beak-like nose. His gray hair was neat, and his gray eyes were somewhat bloodshot. Andris administered the same oath as he had for Annika. Lars took his seat, folded his hands, and sat like a lump. “A few days ago, you were summoned to my house.”
“Yes,” Dietmann said. His voice honked as if echoing through his nasal cavity.
“What was my condition when you arrived?” Gunther asked.
“You were pale, vomiting, reporting abdominal pains, and purging of the bowels.”
“What did you do?”
“I administered several treatments against common causes, in particular antitoxins. After a while, your condition stabilized. We were able to get you rehydrated, and you began to improve.”
“Are you familiar with the toxic effects of the flame lily?”
“Yes,” Lars said.
“What are its symptoms?”
“In acute cases, fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, and purging of the bowels.”
“Thank you. I have no additional questions,” Gunther said.
I leaned forward, a thought occurring to me. “Herr Doktor, what are the symptoms of arsenic poisoning?”
“Acute arsenic poisoning.”
“Vomiting, abdominal pain, and purging of the bowels.”
“What are the symptoms of having eaten spoiled meat?”
“Fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, and purging of the bowels.”
“What are the symptoms of cholera?”
Dietmann sighed. “Vomiting and purging of the bowels. But his purges did not have the consistency indicative of cholera.”
“It seems to me that vomiting, abdominal pain, and purging of the bowels are symptoms common to a lot of ailments. Are they not?”
“What is the test to see if someone is the victim of poison?”
“We would have to open the body and check the entrails and organs for indicators, particularly the stomach.”
“Was this test performed on his Serene Highness?”
Lars looked at me aghast. “No, it is only done at autopsy.”
“So you can’t say for certain that Herzog von Stirnberg was poisoned?”
“We ruled out several common ailments.”
“Admirable, but can you say for certain that Gunther Zweitzer von Stirnberg was poisoned?”
“Not with certainty, no.”
“Thank you, Herr Doktor,” I said, sitting back.
Dietmann was dismissed, and left the room. Gunther looked annoyed, but I tried not to appear smug. There was a whole table full of political animals I needed to convince of the truth, and appearing to gloat over one of their peers wouldn’t help me.
“My next witness is Rudolf Bauer, my treasurer,” Von Stirnberg said. I raised an eyebrow at that one. Bringing money into this didn’t seem like a bright move. The red-haired young man was brought forth and Andris repeated the ritual of swearing him to truthfulness.
“Rudolf,” the Herzog began, “Did Graf Kord von Zesrin visit me the day I fell ill?”
“What was the visit about?”
“He said he had bought debts you purportedly owed to other moneylenders.”
“And then what happened?”
“You ejected him from the property. Quite vocally. You remarked on his profession, his parentage, and speculated on his bedroom proclivities.”
“It would be safe to say that my… lapse of decorum would not have endeared me to his Illustrious Highness, wouldn’t it?”
“I would not think he found it flattering.”
“Have you had cause to see Graf von Zesrin before?”
“Yes. I visited his office on several occasions, and secured small loans totaling some six thousand or so marks.”
“What did you see the last time you were there?”
“On my way out, I passed Walther Nussenbaum, your court wizard.”
“Walther has access to my kitchens and pantries, does he not?” Gunther asked.
“He has free run of the house,” Rudolf said.
I leaned forward. “Did you have opportunity to examine the papers I presented his Serene Highness on my visit?”
“What were they?”
“They appeared to be copies of contracts for sale of debt.”
“You are familiar with all of the Herzog’s finances, are you not?”
“Did he borrow large sums of money from the Aurifex Group?”
Rudolf glanced at his employer, then said, “Yes.”
“What about the Freinmarkt Mercer’s Guild?”
“Lothar Smit and Gervais Laurent?”
“Them as well.”
“Assuming the contracts I presented are valid; which I can summon representatives of these parties to attest to if need be; how much money does your employer owe me?”
“About four million, one hundred and thirty three thousand marks.”
There was a bit of a murmur and a few glances Gunther’s way at the figure. I waited for it to die down before my next question.
“Are you also responsible for ensuring that Walther Nussenbaum gets paid?”
“How do you pay for his services?”
“We pay the Academy at Zhalskrag, and they pay him.”
“How does he collect? Do you let him travel to Zhalskrag on a regular basis?”
“No. He would go to an Annex of the Bursar, or someone who holds their concession within a given city.”
“Who holds the Academy Bursar’s concession in Stirnberg?”
Rudolf bit his lower lip. As Verner was looking annoyed, he answered, “You do.”
“So every journeyman wizard in the city has cause to come to my office?”
“Thank you, Herr Bauer.”
“I have additional questions,” Gunther interrupted before his treasurer was dismissed.
“Go ahead,” Von Wachsenveld said.
“Rudolf, in the event that I had perished, how would a creditor collect a debt from me?”
“They would petition this court before your heir had been recognized and get them to order the transfer of sufficient assets to cover the debt.”
“So if I had died, Graf von Zesrin would be poised to plunder my holdings for over four million marks?”
* * *
Continued in Part 4