Epfin bah Muerin - twelfth of his house, respected moneylender, and proud Seat of the Mercantile Court - had a blister on his arse. The dead centre of his ample right cheek, to be precise. All day he’d been forced to lean forward and just a bit to the left, as if he were some solicitous tavernkeep that cared more than a bucket of elephant spit about the beggars sat across from him.
Misunderstandings had a way of complicating matters in Epfin’s line of work. Some scrub-nosed farmer, late on his crop and in deep at the village dog pit, might mistake Epfin for someone willing to wait a week for repayment. He was not. Or a puffed up lords’ lady could conceive that an invitation to her nieces debutante ball was as tangible as solid gold gilt. It was not.
When it came time to close an account, he didn’t consider it paid unless he could take a bite and walk away with a twenty-two karat grin.
He glanced sideways at Peplin, who stood still as a statue in the shadows of the wall. The man could crack an egg in the morning and a skull in the afternoon, and if all you had to go by was his dour face you’d need a pocketwatch to tell the time. Epfin might loathe misunderstandings, but Peplin had a way with them that was almost divine. He was the most expensive piece of furniture in the otherwise austere room, and it pained Epfin greatly to admit he was worth every mark.
He also made a mean omelette.
Still, better to avoid such complications. Shattered legs made it difficult to return to his lending house, and if there was one thing Epfin expected from the whinging bed of eels that composed his clientele it was to see them again. He made a conscious effort to plant his wounded buttock firmly on the flat wooden chair right as the bell by the door tinkled, announcing the arrival of a fresh new client.
One glance at the newcomer told the story of an upright store clerk. The pale skin, the well maintained clothes, the focals hanging from his vest pocket. A quality pair, not rivetted together by some apish brute but rimmed in one continuous beaten band of copper by a true craftsman. The lenses thickened to the width of his knuckle at the rim, yet were as delicate as a sneeze in a mortuary towards the centre. Focals such as those were priced in gold, not silver, so Epfin upgraded him from store clerk to owner. He sure walked with the confidence of someone used to being in charge.
But something was off.
Precisely what, Epfin couldn’t tell, but if he’d learned anything from two decades of lending it was that if you smelled shit you watched where you put your foot.
With schooled indifference, Epfin sat in silence as the man tentatively filled the only chair in the room without an arse already in it. A plain wooden thing - it was one of two, a matched pair with Epfin’s own. Serviceable, sturdy, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. And bolted to the floor, as the man realised when he tried to edge closer to the broad desk that divided them.
With the desk out of reach, the man could do little else but rest his fidgeting hands on his lap. Like a petitioner before the duke. The only lamp with much enthusiasm for its job creaked quietly as it swung a small arc above him, like a thief dangling in the noose, casting thin shadows into the surrounding dimness. If the man wondered what caused it to swing in a room as devoid of a breeze as was a coffin, he didn’t ask. They never did. That bit of theatricality had set Epfin back more than the cost of the man’s fancy focals; the clockwork throughout the ceiling was extensive and the only person in the city that knew how it all worked demanded outrageous fees for even the simplest of mechinations.
With his quarry suitably off balance, Epfin laid his own hands atop the desk and offered up his warmest greeting. “What do you want?”
The man started to talk, stopped, cleared his throat, and started again. “My name is Sansipo, you may have heard of my chandlery?” Silence was his answer. “By the eastern docks? No, well unless you’re a sailor you probably wouldn’t have.” The man laughed nervously, spluttering to a stop when he realised he was alone in the mirth. Then he rushed through to the end like someone paid a hundred marks to muck out a stable with his teeth. “I need thirty marks to buy out my neighbour so I can expand my shop.”
Thirty silver marks - a tidy sum. Nearly a whole gilt. More than the man could expect to pay back in short order, which meant a long term loan with long term interest. An enticing proposal indeed, though doubt still danced in the back of Epfin’s mind. His instincts were telling him that this man wasn’t what he seemed.
But should he heed the warning?
He’d learned not to rush these decisions, and so the man waited. He was intimately familiar with the concept of risk - you couldn’t operate a successful lending house in a city the size of Varra without bedding the wily wench on every other night. The issue, however, lay in not waking up with your clothes gone missing and a resilient rash on your dueling sword.
Before he gave this Sansipo even a whiff of silver, Epfin would get to the bottom of this.
He leaned over his considerable girth to reach for a drawer in the desk. There he spun the combination lock until all six digits snapped into place and then, because one could never be too careful when it came to money, he drew a key from his breast pocket and opened the latch. Inside he fished around and draw out two nearly identical coins.
Both solid gold.
Epfin held both coins up for Sansipo’s consideration, one in each hand. “Let’s call it a round gilt. The duke, or the duchess?” Rumour had it that the duchess had once stumbled upon a half-naked young lady lodged in a dodgy windowsill at the duke’s apartments, and that the very next day the red faced Duke Aspin bah Terrios had ordered his wife’s likeness stamped into half of all new gilt to flow out of the city mint.
Golden guilt is what the common folk called these new coins, despite probably never having seen one in their quaint little lives.
Sansipo, unsure if he was being offered the loan or being made the butt of some eccentric noble joke, parted his fidgeting hands and motioned uncertainly to the left coin. “The duchess, of course.”
So the man was a romantic, Epfin noted. And a fraud.
Only someone with the shortsightedness of a cross-eyed rhinoceros would own focals as strong as he did, knuckle-thick around the rim and narrow as a peasant’s mind towards the centre. Without them it should be impossible for him to tell the coins apart at even half the distance, which meant they were for show - likely stolen, given their value.
Handing this man a golden gilt would be the fastest way to never see it again. It was a good thing then that they were as fake as Sansipo’s story.
So, someone thought to steal from the Muerinos House of Lending. That was a shortsightedness all of its own, but one for which Epfin knew the prescription. He glanced at Peplin who, after years of employment under one of the tightest - lips and otherwise - men in the city, acknowledged the cue with barely a nod.
With a comforting click Epfin slid the coin across the desk, followed shortly by an intimidating sheaf of paperwork. It took only a few more minutes to have the fraudster out the door with his painted lead in hand, and a violent shadow on his tail. This ‘Sansipo’ and any of his colleagues in crime could put the that little gift towards their medical expenses.
Alone now, Epfin once again relaxed his protesting buttock. He rifled through another draw, this one protected by only a broken handle, to find a small jar of Elmer’s Miracle Rub. It was made with bits of whale blowhole or something of the sort, and always did the trick when it came to Epfin’s plaintive arse.
He flipped a switch on the underside of the desk and, after a series of loud clicks and whirrs rippled through the ceiling, a wooden bar fell into place to brace the door.
It was mere minutes later that Epfin found his peace interrupted by a knock at the door. With his trousers down around his knees and a thick glob of foul smelling brown paste smeared across his backside, not to mention his first line of security out roughing up unsuspecting ruffians, he ignored it. That was until the knock came again, twice in quick succession followed by a rap on the window.
Peplin had returned.
That was quick even for Peplin, yet again proving that he was worth every thin mark. A moment of doubt did little to stop Epfin from flipping the switch to raise the bar on the door. He left his trousers where they were, however - Peplin had seen worse, and the pap had still to dry.
Through the door came not Peplin, but two mangy men with the combined presentability of one recently deceased homeless person. The only thing about them that looked used to steady employment was a long blunt knife, held by the bigger and meaner mongrel to first come through the door.
With Peplin gone and himself presenting a bare arse that smelled of fish casserole Epfin had, quite literally, been caught with his pants down. And he was not at all happy about that. “Damn you, can you not see that I’m busy?” He reached beneath the desk and flipped the switch for a third time, once again barring the door. “Get out!” he yelled, perhaps confusingly. “Get down!” he revised.
Maybe the robber-in-command wasn’t in the mood to talk, or maybe he just hadn’t understood the question. Assumedly he wasn’t much for words, or else he’d have little need of the knife. Regardless of the reason, he advanced around the side of the room - where Peplin would usually be perched - without taking his eyes off of the clothed half of Epfin.
“To the vault with you, then!” And he slapped a button set into the underside of the desk, not far from the array of switches. These damned louts had forced his hand, and it would be Peplin to pay.
They froze in their advance, on opposite sides of the room and creeping towards him with the cautious hunger of a vagrant stalking a particularly plump pigeon. No, that would be a delicacy for scoundrels such as these.
A plump bowl of piss. That was more like it.
At the press of the button, the ceiling had begun to shake and squeal. Loose plaster rained over the desk and the thieves and most importantly over Epfin’s still-bare arse. To them it must have looked like the roof was about to cave in. He sincerely hoped that they were wrong.
From a narrow groove above the chair that Sansipo had so recently occupied, a tight lattice of interlocking wooden rings descended at a speed that likely soiled at least one set of fully drawn trousers in the room. When it hit the floor a series of hooks spun into place, clipping it to the floor. In seconds an impassable wooden net had separated Epfin from his would-be assailants.
If before Epfin had been angry, now he was furious. This was the first time he’d used this particular piece of clockwork, and for very good reason - he’d have to close the lending house for the day in order to get it wound back into the roof.
A same-day callout from her was not going to be cheap. Not at all. And who was going to pay for it? Not him, surely. And not these rats either.
So it was that, fuming and a little bit sweaty, he leaned below the desk and drew out a heavy iron crossbow, the bolt already loaded. He rested the butt on his ample paunch and aimed it at the lesser thief, who was barely old enough to shave his grubby face and could only stare hollowly back at Epfin as if he were some kind of wizard.
But no, he was no wizard. He was just filthy rich. And he intended to keep it that way.
They would answer some questions; starting with how they knew the secret knock.
“Now tell me why Peplin sent you.”
With the desk out of reach, the man could do little else but rest his fidgeting hands on his lap. Like a petitioner before the duke. The only lamp with much enthusiasm for its job creaked quietly as it swung a small arc above him, like a thief dangling in the noose, casting thin shadows into the surrounding dimness. If the man wondered what caused it to swing in a room as devoid of a breeze as was a coffin, he didn't ask. They never did. That bit of theatricality had set Epfin back more than the cost of the mans fancy focals; the clockwork throughout the ceiling was extensive and the only person in the city that knew how it all worked demanded outrageous fees for even the simplest of mechinations. He leaned over his considerable girth to reach for a drawer in the desk. There he spun the combination lock until all six digits snapped into place and then, because one could never be too careful when it came to money, he draw a key from his breast pocket and opened the latch. Inside he fished around and draw out two nearly identical coins. More like a plump bowl of piss. That was more like it. They would answer his questions; starting with how they knew the secret knock.