* * *
Due to a scheduled vote on more conventional legislative matters, the Court of Electors adjourned and I was instructed to remain at the ready to be summoned back. My first stop was retrieving my sword belt. Looking over the waiting area, I noted that it consisted mainly of the retinues of the electors. The various hangers-on and aides the princes chose to keep around flocked to their patrons as each emerged from the hall. My observations were cut short by Annika’s approach.
“What’s going on? Why are they asking about poison flowers?”
“Gunther Zweitzer fell ill and blames me. His case is laughable,” I said.
A hand fell on my shoulder. Turning slightly, I saw the familiar, bespectacled visage of my grandfather.
“That may be but there is something you need to be wary of,” he said.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Those men are not unbiased arbiters. They are princes and politicians first and foremost.”
“What does that mean?” Annika asked.
“Some will vote to convict just to hurt us. Some will vote to acquit because they find Gunther annoying. Some will wait and see if they can sell or trade their vote. The result does not hinge primarily on the facts of the case.”
My face turned ashen as dread welled up within me.
“What do we do?”
“Gunther is likely to offer to drop the charges in exchange for forgiveness of his debts. If we’re unable to secure the votes in our favor, that may be your best bet to save your neck. But don’t come to him asking for that deal. He’d just use it as a means to squeeze more out of you.”
“How many acquittal votes do you think we have?” Annika asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Prince Kord said. “That’s a delicate thing to ascertain. The more interested you appear, the more mercenary they get.”
“So, for right now?” I asked, my voice still unsteady.
“For right now, do your best to remain composed, and wait. Either Gunther will send someone to approach you, or questioning of witnesses will resume.”
“I… see. I was doing better before you told me this really could get me killed.”
“It won’t come to that.”
However confidently he said it, part of me was not reassured.
“Now they’re holding a vote on who has to pay for a punitive expedition against unlicensed river tolls. I have to be there.” My grandfather stepped away, the assortment of retainers he had forming up behind him. Directionless, I followed Annika downstairs. There was a great clot of people in the entry gallery, clogging the passage. Most were jostling for entry into the grand assembly hall, and we ended up drifting to an isolated corner to wait out the scrum.
“Annika!” a joyful voice called. Both my sister and I looked up. Gustaf von Altschaft emerged from the crowd, grinning. He suppressed the expression and donned a more formal tone. “Apologies, I am just pleased to see you again.”
“Erbprinz,” Annika said, her voice level but amicable. Seeing the look in Gustaf’s eyes, I felt sorry for the man. He was clearly smitten, but my sister had already dismissed him as boring.
“What brings you to these noisy halls?” Gustaf asked.
“I was called to bear witness before the Court of Electors.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Herzog von Stirnberg is trying to pressure me into releasing him from his debts,” I said, anger seeping into my voice.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Not unless you have much sway over the Electors or your Grandfather,” I said.
“I’m afraid the Emperor does not put much stock in my opinion,” Gustaf said.
“It was a sweet offer anyway,” Annika said.
“Are you two going to stay for the vote?”
“No, we were just waiting for the crowd to ease so we could get out of here.”
* * *
With the Diet in session and the courtly social calendar in full swing, it felt like every journeyman wizard in the Volkmund was in Stirnberg. There was a line of them waiting to get paid when I arrived home, and the line didn’t diminish until well past the appropriate time for supper. At least they were orderly, and only lightly complained. It was quite the contrast to the menial servants at the palace, who were unruly and cross. Another reminder not to eat or drink anything at the palace. Once the last wizard stomped his way down the stairs, silver in hand, I gratefully slumped in my chair. I sat numbly for a minute before dragging myself to the dining hall. A plate was waiting for me, as was Annika. I sat down and focused on my cold food.
“There’s a lot of gossip going around about you,” she said.
“Anything interesting or scandalous?”
“Wild speculation about the goings-on at the Court of Electors. If it’s any consolation, the court ladies are on your side. But that’s probably because Gunther is a sour old goat.”
“Any of them hold sway over Electors?”
“No,” Annika said, a regretful wistfulness in her tone.
“At least I’m not the villain.”
“How much are you out if you have to forgive the debts?”
“Do you mean how much won’t I collect, or how much have I spent buying debts?”
“How much have you already spent?” Annika asked.
“I’ve sunk fifty-eight thousand marks into buying debt.”
Annika’s eyes widened. “How much debt did you buy?”
“Over four million marks.”
“No wonder he’s willing to go to extremes to weasel out of paying.”
“The funny thing is, if Gunther had been willing to talk, I’d have accepted merely doubling my investment. He’d have gotten away with paying only a hundred and twenty thousand.”
“Only? I seem to recall we pay the cook two pfennigs a day. That’s what, five marks per year? She’d never be able to pay something like that.”
“Good thing she doesn’t owe that kind of money. Gunther is a Prince-Elector of the Volkmund. Even if it took a couple of years, he should be able to pay that amount. Now I’m pissed and I want the whole four million and change.”
“How are you going to collect if he gets your neck stretched?”
“I wouldn’t be hanged, I’d be decapitated by sword.”
“Same effect, you’d still be dead.”
“If our mother found out I lost fifty-eight thousand marks, she’d kill me.”
“Why is she even letting you commit that kind of money? That’s obscene.”
“Look, when she told me to take over in Stirnberg, she gave me a limit. I was allowed to spend or lend upto that amount, plus however much I grew the funds. I had been growing it quite well before this.”
“Then you got greedy.”
“I expected Gunther to be rational.”
“He is. Why pay a hundred and twenty thousand marks, when you can get the debt erased in its entirety?”
My answer was forestalled by Wendel’s entry into the room. He handed a folded paper to Annika and withdrew. She broke the wax seal and opened it.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A letter from Emilie Zweitzer.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“She writes rather flowery prose,” Annika said.
“And why is she writing to you?”
Annika giggled as she read. “Apparently Prinzessin Emilie has been quite taken with you since you first presented yourself to the court. She wishes you’d spend more time there. And would be even more happy if you cut out the middle man and spent that time with her instead.”
“But why is she writing my sister this love letter about me?” I asked.
“Don’t blame me she’s not more direct.”
“Ah, here it is. She says she knows who really tried to poison her father. But, if you want her to testify, you’re going to have to marry her.”
“Does extortion run in that family?” I asked, throwing my napkin on my plate.
“She’s delusional anyway,” Annika said. “Gunther would never give his blessing for that union, especially if he found out she planned to turn around and testify against him.” She neatly folded the letter and tucked it away. Annika chuckled.
“What are you laughing at now?”
“If she’s offering to give witness against her father, she’s probably thought of that.”
“And she’s probably thinking you’ll elope. She’s not got much of a personality, and is not all that attractive. And without a dowry, well…”
“So how’s that in any way funny?”
“I was just reflecting how my admirers are either charming but poor, or dull but rich.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have admirers who are dull and poor too,” I said.
“But I can ignore them. You’re the one with a neck on a chopping block.”
* * *
Despite my mental exhaustion, I continued to stay awake, fretting over my fate. If I were facing an enemy, sword in hand, I could at least do something. The fear would be tempered by activity, and not given the opportunity to gnaw away at me. Even facing dragons I knew, if I lost, I could go down fighting. But here it was up to the whim of a table full of men I hardly knew. Whatever would be to their own personal benefit. Staring into the darkness, I was acutely aware of the noises the house made in the night. Every building made noises, even if it was just the breeze against the window panes. There were also subtle creaks and pops and cracks, all perfectly normal, but fodder for an agitated imagination. The sound of a door, however, stood out.
It was an ungodly hour, and I doubted the servants would still be up and about. We only had a handful here. I rose and dressed, pulling my dagger from its sheath. The enchanted starmetal glimmered dimly, but it was still light. It was enough for me to move through the familiar spaces of the apartment. There was definitely someone else moving about. They were upstairs, in the conservatory. As quietly as I could, I ascended, and eased open the door at the top. Compared to the dim glow of my blade, their dim lantern was dazzling. It sat upon the corner of my workbench, aimed towards the dividing wall. The glass panes isolated the planters containing the black lotus plants to protect the rest of the conservatory. I’d gotten five to grow. In the trough of moist soil, they stood as upright bundles of stalks. The outer stalks were shorter, ending in broad leaves bigger than two hands put together. The inner stalks held the blossoms. Most were mere buds, as only one flower bloomed on each plant at a time. Those blossoms were huge, each almost as broad as a leaf. The midnight purple petals splayed from the smooth stalk in the classic lotus pattern, each layer of slightly curved petals a little less open than the one below.
A figure stood just outside the door to the lotus enclosure.
Whoever it was had donned my protective smock and breath mask. In one gloved hand, he held a clay pot. In the other, a pair of shears. He was shorter than me, that much was obvious from the way the smock dragged on the floor. I tried to cross the room before he unbolted the door to the lotus enclosure. I almost had my hand on him before I had to twist aside to avoid being stabbed with the shears. I grabbed his wrist with my free hand, and he returned the gesture. The clay pot shattered against the floor. We each struggled to force each other’s weapon away from our bodies. He was strong, but I wasn’t exactly a weakling either. We ended up trampling pot shards as we stumbled about, trying to contort the situation to opposing ends.
The ill-fitting smock decided the fight.
By happenstance, my foot pinned the hem to the floor, and the next few steps unbalanced the other man. Losing his footing, he stumbled, then toppled. Neither of us let go, and he dragged me down with him. We crashed to the floor, but I had the superior position. A moment after we hit, he had my knee on his sternum. The snout-like filter mask was designed to keep black lotus pollen out, but made it difficult to breathe. My knee on his chest made it even harder, and I could hear him struggling to pull in air. In a gesture of surrender, he let go with both hands. The shears tumbled from his fingers, and his other hand ripped the mask off. He sucked in as much of a lungful as my weight allowed.
He was a young man with strong, handsome features and dark hair mussed by the mask he’d just removed. Keeping my dagger pointed at his neck, I shifted my weight off his ribcage.
“Who are you?” I demanded. He was still wheezing, but I got my answer from another source.
“Kobus!” Annika gasped. She’d likely not heard the door that roused me, but the falling pot and subsequent struggle had been much louder. She’d had enough sense to don a robe over her shift, but hadn’t brought anything to defend herself with. Kobus looked at her, and I saw his heart sink.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I heard the testimony today, including the part about you growing black lotus. If you were growing them, losing one blossom wouldn’t hurt that much.”
“Why were you going to steal the flower?”
Kobus looked mournfully up at Annika, then sighed. “Because even one is worth a fortune. Alchemists will pay handsomely for a single bloom.”
“There’s enough poison in just one of those flowers to kill dozens of people,” I said.
“And it works fast, which is why people will pay so much for it.”
“Kobus, I’m disappointed,” Annika said. For his part, he was unable to raise his gaze to meet hers. All of the fight was gone from the Imperial Bodyguard, and he lay there dejectedly.
“So, what are we going to do with him?” I asked.
“I don’t care,” Annika said.
“You got me before I reached the plants. You haven’t lost anything. How about we reach a deal where I don’t lose my post?”
“You should have thought about that before breaking into someone’s house,” I said.
“You were supposed to be safely asleep. No one is up at this hour.”
“Except a man who could be facing execution on nonsense charges if it proves politically favorable.”
“I see,” Kobus said. “I’d wager that situation feels a lot like having a knife at your throat.”
My eyes flicked to the tip of my dagger, still aimed for his jugular.
“I’d have been less put off had I caught you stealing the silver. At least then, I’d know it wasn’t going to be used to kill people.”
“A poisoner who’d pay for black lotus isn’t going to be deterred by the absence of their chosen implement.”
“There’s a difference between being unable to stop a murderer, and actively aiding them.”
Doubt entered Kobus’ eyes as my words sank in.
“You mean, you’re not selling them yourself?”
“No! I’m looking for antidotes and preventatives.”
“I- I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“I misjudged you. I thought anyone who kept a conservatory full of poison plants had to be involved in the black trade.”
“So you figured that flower would end up in someone’s drink either way?”
“Yes. And if it passed through my hands first, I’d at least get something out of the mess.”
“You’ve been around courtiers too long,” I said, climbing off him.
“Now what?” Kobus asked.
“Leave my smock and get out.”
* * *
Concluded in Part 5