* * *
I had to credit Kobus with one thing. His remarks about what courtiers thought I was up to made me rethink some of the things people had done lately. I didn’t like the sinister aspect that line of thought gave the world, but it did lead me to some interesting conclusions. But, it was only speculation, and I had to be certain before I dragged anyone before the Court of Electors. I tracked down Walther Nussenbaum, finding him in a small beer garden a short walk from his employer’s residence. The journeyman wizard stared wide-eyed at my approach, and let out a nervous chuckle as I slid into the seat next to him.
“Look, beer is cheap, it’s not as if I lied to you. The Zweitzers won’t let me drink any of their wine.”
“I’m not here about your loan, Walther.”
“What type of potion did you make for Emilie?”
“It was a love potion. But I swear didn’t know who she planned to give it to until she complained you never drank anything.”
“Even if she had managed to use it, the effect is not really as strong as stories depict, and wears off in three or four hours.”
“I guessed as much,” I said, then dismissed it with a gesture. “On the day your employer fell ill, what happened after my visit?”
“Well, uhh, his highness ranted off and on about you. There were some unpleasant words in there. He had calmed down by the evening meal, then got sick afterward.”
“You’re glossing over things.”
“I’m not sure I should be talking to you.”
“Would you rather answer my questions before the Court of Electors?”
Nussenbaum squeaked in fright.
“Here, you don’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing in front of princes of the realm.”
“But if I lose my contract with the Zweitzers, I’ll have to leave Gertrude. And she actually likes me.”
“I understand. I’m not asking you to betray your employer. I just want more details about what happened that afternoon.”
“In between his rants, the Herzog argued with people. He insulted Rudolf for not blocking you from buying the debts. He threatened to bar Emilie from going to court so he wouldn’t have to buy her any more dresses or cosmetics. He said he would kick me back to Zhalskrag if I didn’t make myself scarce. That sort of thing. It had the whole household on edge. I made myself scarce, and missed dinner.”
“Who was at dinner?”
“Only his highness and Emilie ate. There were the usual servants for delivering the food, I suppose. I wasn’t there.”
“But, how does any of what I’ve said help you?”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s all right, you’ve helped verify a theory.”
I dropped a silver groat on the table. My grandfather’s profile gleamed on its face. “For your beer tab,” I said.
“I don’t drink that much.”
I stood up from the table. “So buy Gertrude a drink,” I said. Weaving through the patrons, I left the beer garden. I could see von Stirnberg’s house from the street, and debated whether to walk over there. No, that would be rude. I’d get an appointment. That was the proper way to handle this.
* * *
Gunther agreed to talk to me on a neutral spot. The location picked was one of the drawing rooms in the halls of the Imperial Diet. Plenty of guards and people who would interfere with attempts to cause trouble. A ring of clerestory windows provided plenty of illumination despite the cabinets along the walls. Green leather armchairs sat around an unlit fireplace, with small tables between them. Not trusting the food or drink here, I’d brought my own bottle of fig brandy and a small glass. I sipped halfway through the first glass when Gunther arrived. His people checked to see if I’d stationed anyone for an ambush, then withdrew. The Herzog took the seat past the table with my bottle on it.
“Let me guess, you want to plead with me to drop the charges.”
“No,” I said, taking a sip.
“I want to apologize for the initial misunderstanding.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither did I at the time. Let me explain. I’ve been steeped in the mundanities of moneylending. All my time has been absorbed in paying palace servants, paying wizards, underwriting loans, collecting on loans, and negotiating agreements of that sort.”
“Work beneath a proper nobleman.”
I ignored Gunther’s barb and went on.
“So when I bought your debt it was with the eye towards striking a deal which netted me more than I paid, but didn’t think of how it looked from your perspective. After all, the Diet is in session, the court social calendar is at its peak, and your duties keep you in the middle of all of this backstabbing.” I gestured at the walls around us. “So naturally you saw someone trying to acquire leverage over you. I should have realized that was how it would appear.”
“Hmph,” Gunther grunted. “Do you think I’m going to be pleasantly disposed to you now?”
“No. But I hope you are open to avoiding further escalation of this misunderstanding.”
“If you think you’re going to threaten me with your family-”
“No, that is what I want to avoid. Right now, no one has died. There is no need to turn this incident into a blood feud.”
“You’re the first one whose head would part from his shoulders,” Gunther said.
“I would have to take whatever steps I could to avoid that, including revealing to the court who really poisoned you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Did you have a headache that night?”
“You gave it to me.”
“Headache, vomiting, abdominal pain, and purging of the bowels are all symptoms of ingesting a large dose of lead.”
“Poisoners will use what they can get.”
“But you already know I can get much better poisons than lead.”
“What’s your point?” Gunther asked.
“Did you know the main component of common face powder is white lead?”
“Emilie knew. That’s what she mixed into your wine.”
“I have a taster who checks my wine.”
“She is novice poisoner. There wasn’t enough in the glass to kill you, so your taster will probably not have any ill effects. Besides, the part that didn’t dissolve likely sank to the bottom. Did you drink the dregs, your Serene Highness? Perhaps due to drinking angrily?”
“Why would Emilie do anything of the sort?”
I extracted a letter from my pocket and unfolded it. I laid it on the table between us, but kept hold of the paper. Gunther’s gaze drifted along the lines of flowery prose Emilie had written to my sister. A horrified expression came over him. I took the letter back and folded it into my pocket.
“Emilie’s your only child, isn’t she?”
“And it would be unfitting for a Prinzessin of the house of Zweitzer to be smitten with the likes of me.”
“What is it you want?”
“I want this whole mess to be peaceably put behind us with no one dying over it.”
“You still hold over four million marks of my debt,” Gunther said.
“And I had come to you originally to discuss how we could resolve that. I have no interest in hurting you, I just want a return on my investment.”
“If I had the cash to pay it back, I wouldn’t be that far in debt.”
“What do you propose?” I asked.
“First, you must move as far away from Emilie as you can get. That part is non-negotiable.”
“That would put me in Yothos. I’d rather not go any further than Valay or Atlor.”
“Well, that would be far enough.”
“And for your part?”
“You give me time to figure out how to cover the debt.”
“And the electors?”
“As long as you stay far away from Emilie, you won’t have to worry about them.”
“I can live with that.”
* * *
I spent my last week in Stirnberg instructing a new agent how to take over my duties for the family and to act as Assistant Cofferer. Faced with managing my collection of plants, I harvested seed pods, bulbs, and other storable means of growing them anew. The plants themselves suffered the fate they had always been destined for as I extracted their toxic or useful elements. I boxed up a collection of neatly labeled jars and bottles that could probably wipe out every noble in Stirnberg. On that chest I fitted the strongest locks I could get. So preoccupied with preparations for leaving, I hadn’t noticed Annika’s distant, dreamy expression at breakfast.
“Either Bas or Max will be showing up to escort you to court events for the sake of decorum,” I said. Annika didn’t seem to be paying attention.
“Gustaf plays the guitar beautifully,” she said.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“He has a beautiful singing voice.”
“Are we even having the same conversation?” I asked.
“He kept it secret because his late father didn’t approve of princes playing music.”
I sighed, realizing Annika hadn’t heard anything I’d been saying.
“I thought Gustaf was boring.”
“That was before I found out he was the singer in the garden,” Annika said, finally responding to me. “How am I supposed to see him again without scandalous rumors if you run off to Valay?”
“Either Bas or Max will be coming here to take over that part.”
“Oh, that’s okay then. Which one?”
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“Not really, no one else will be able to tell them apart.”
“Anyway, you can’t kick our our tenants downstairs, they have a lease until the end of the social season. After that, it’s none of my business.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?” Annika asked.
“I’m trying to wrap up affairs in the city before I go. Since you’ll still be here, and I know you don’t like the house being partitioned.”
“We own it. We should at least have the better quarters.”
“That’s why I needed to remind you that they have a right to stay were they are for now. That should be easier than what I have to do.”
“Sight-see through Valay?”
“No, explain to our mother that I’ve tied up nearly sixty thousand marks in buying debt of a man who is going to have trouble paying it back.”
“You don’t have to worry there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I wanted to know why you got so much money to play around with and I didn’t, so I wrote mom and asked. You want to know what she told me?”
“It was your money to begin with. It was the sum of all the honoraria from being named a Dragonslayer, and all the various valuable junk you dragged back to Sudtor from your trip. So you didn’t cost the family that much money – only yourself.”
“I suppose that’s an improvement.”
“Look on the bright side.”
“What bright side?”
“If Gunther ever pays up, you’ll get to keep it all.”
* * *