Chapter 9: The Ties of Blood
“Lord Austin dropped by earlier this week with an officially sealed letter of approval for trade negotiations with Strugna,” Bryson informed her as he pulled the file from the stack and untied the ribbon that bound it together. “The terms as far as Strugna’s tax were favorable at 8%, though we still have to pay another 14% in taxes to the Royal Merchants Guild.”
Maura scoffed. ‘Even when Frost sold his products in another country, Lafeara’s crown still got a cut of his profits.’ She motioned for him to continue.
“If you wanted to get around the double taxes, Strugna’s Merchant Guild is willing to offer Frost citizenship provided you signed a contract of genius electum partia.”
Maura frowned. “What sort of contract?”
“It grants you citizenship of Strugna, at the exclusion of all other nations, for the remainder of your life. It comes with a noble title, land, and a minor position at court—but nothing short of death would free you from the contract.”
“So basically, Frost would belong to Strugna’s royal family?” Maura smirked and shook her head.
“Strugna does keep itself isolated from the politics and power struggles of other nations,” Bryson said thoughtfully. “The monarchy is still recovering from the plague that wiped out the last royal family. The newly chosen king is very paranoid, but fortunately, your reputation—or Frost’s reputation—has allowed you to get a foot in the door.”
“Accept the 8% and offer a contract with the guild for one year—no citizenship or exclusivity attached. Inform the guild that Frost will reconsider their generous offer after the first year, but he is in no position to relocate his businesses at present.”
Bryson nodded. “I would have recommended the same course of action.” He scribbled down another barely legible note. “Now, I should inform you that your merchants secured the full amount of dryad root, marsh-nest berries, speckled toadstools, and the other five herbs you asked for.”
He didn’t add that most of these herbs, although exclusive to Strugna, were relatively commonplace and possessed little market value. If Frost wanted them, the reason would inevitably reveal itself in the future.
“Excellent,” Maura replied with a flicker of excitement. “Please see to it they are safely delivered to our alchemist store. I’ll have my associate double check that they are properly dried and preserved.”
“Very well,” Bryson added another note and saved his questions for more important matters.
“How is progress with the remodeling of the hospital in the slums?” Maura asked.
“Another week or two is the contractor’s guess. A week until the building is operational enough to start seeing patients, two before it’s possible to provide overnight and prolonged care, and three to four weeks before the work is completely done. The underground storage unit is finished, but there are some concerns about the storage of medicine for longevity—”
“I have a solution for that,” Maura interjected with a secretive smile.
“Right, then the only other issue which has caused a few delays would be the locals. There have been several attempts to grab pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down.”
Maura sighed and rubbed her temple. “I suppose that makes sense. The slums have probably become more lawless since the Fox Den lost its leader.”
Bryson’s mouth went dry as his stomach flipped unpleasantly. Maura’s gaze snapped up to his face with an expression of startled regret.
“My apologies, Sir Bryson, I—meant to avoid that topic.”
“You—mean to say—the bastard that did this—” Bryson held up one of his bandaged hands “—is dead?”
“Yes,” she murmured hesitantly. “At least, that’s what I’ve been told—by a trusted associate.”
‘Does that mean—my family and I are safe now?’ Bryson flipped over the file’s binder and attempted to calm his nerves and trembling fingers. “Then—ah—” He fumbled with the next file as his mind went blank. “We should—” He grimaced as the papers in his hand slid free and sprawled across the desk and into his lap.
‘Damn it, get it together!’ He sucked in a sharp breath. ‘There was something else—something important I meant to discuss today while she was here.’
Bryson scrambled to organize the mess in an attempt to jog his memory, but the information swam and blurred beneath his throbbing fingers as the spasms in his hands became more noticeable. “What should we—ah—talk about next?”
“Well,” Maura spoke up quickly. “I recently learned that Sophya sold Turnbell Manor.”
‘That was it!’ Bryson exhaled with relief and straightened in his chair. “Yes-yes. Technically, as Josiah’s only legal living heir, the house and all property not repossessed by his creditors went to Lady Sophya.” He clasped his hands together as he leaned across the desk towards her. “Which brings me to another matter of some urgency. Are you aware that Lord Josiah signed a bill of debt the same day he died?”
Maura shook her head, though judging from the wry twist of her lips, she was not at all surprised by this.
“The creditors obtained a blood promise from him in return for the loan,” Bryson explained carefully.
“A blood promise?” Maura’s gaze narrowed as she crossed her arms.
“It’s not something a respectable noble would ever consider,” Bryson said solemnly. “Legally, it binds the borrower’s blood relatives to his debt—with the possibility of enslavement if the debt is not paid in full.”
Her ice-blue eyes flashed dangerously as they fixed upon him. “Enslavement?”
“That’s why it’s almost unheard of for nobles to involve themselves with these sort of unscrupulous vultures. Unfortunately, you and Sophya were listed as collateral for the debt.”
“I—am collateral—for Josiah’s debt?!” The chill that fell over the room only sharpened the anger in Maura’s voice.
A familiar shiver slithered down Bryson’s spine, but he ignored it as he rose from his seat and leaned against the desk beside her. “There is absolutely no need for you to worry, Lady Maura. A blood promise only legally binds the borrower’s blood relatives. The agreement has no legal hold over you or your fortune, and Helena’s divorce freed you from any possibility of familial debt or responsibility.
“As soon as I informed the creditors of this, I submitted the necessary paperwork to the local courts to bar them from taking any further action against you. If they should attempt to approach or harass you in any way, then do let me know immediately. I can have a judge throw those jackals in prison.”
Maura nodded slowly as her gaze turned towards the nearest bared window. “How will they enforce this—blood promise?”
“In the case of Lady Sophya?”
“The first step would be to take the loan documents to a local magistrate, who will verify their authenticity. The judge would then summon Sophya before the court, where she must either pay the debt in full or within a specified time period, usually determined by the loan agreement.
“Due to extenuating circumstances such as a death in the family, a judge can lean on the creditor to give the lady more time to collect the loan. Given Lady Sophya’s status as a noble and her connection to the Winslet family, this is likely to happen. However, ultimately if the debt is not paid, Lady Sophya would legally become the creditor’s property—and branded as a slave.”
“Sophya could become a slave?” Maura echoed softly as she covered her lips with a gloved hand.
Bryson observed her carefully neutral expression with a sigh. “This is why it is all but unheard of for nobles to attach themselves to such a debt. A slave can’t become a noble or regain their family name.” He finished reorganizing the paper on his desk while Maura sat in silent contemplation. “It is possible, since Lady Sophya is all but officially engaged, that the Winslet’s will help her cover the debts.”
“Would they?” Maura lifted a brow inquisitively. “What is the amount of the debt?”
“20,000 crescents,” Bryson replied. “That’s if the debt is paid in full today. Josiah had up to a year to pay off the loan, at which point the interest rate would have raised the entire amount to somewhere around 45,000 crescents.”
Maura’s jaw dropped for a moment, then snapped closed as she leaned back against the chair and tapped her forefinger against its wooden arm with apparent irritation. “What possible reason did Josiah have to withdraw such a sum?”
“According to the creditor, it was to buy back his company from the Earl of Hawthorne and other finances related to getting the business back on its feet and turning a profit.”
Maura scoffed and shook her head.
“If you like, I could recommend an experienced investigator to look into the matter on behalf of Lady Sophya. It is not uncommon for these matters to be linked to con-artists and swindlers.”
“You mean—it could be a scam?” Maura’s interest sharpened.
“That—” Bryson hesitated, unsure as to the meaning of the word, not an uncommon occurrence when conversing with his client. “It’s a possibility worth looking into.”
“And you’re sure there is no way they can push this debt onto me?”
“No possibility,” Bryson answered confidently. “The law is quite clear when it comes to this sort of collection method. Lord Josiah never legally adopted you or registered you as a family member with the church. As you are not his child by birth—as far as financial responsibility, you are in the clear.”
He was tempted to add that for once, Maura’s half-blood status worked in her favor. Judging by the ironic smile that slide across his client’s face, Bryson assumed she had already thought of this.
“I see,” Maura tapped her chin thoughtfully and leaned forward. “Hire the investigator, but on my behalf. Tell him to be discrete, find out if the loan is valid, and if Sophya has been approached yet for repayment.”
“You don’t wish to warn Lady Sophya?”
Maura shrugged. “If these creditors managed to find you to approach me, then I’m sure they’ll approach her soon enough.” She rose and smoothed out her dress and cloak. “In either case, they likely know she doesn’t have a penny to her name—so unless they hope to recoup their losses by making her a slave—I suspect their true objective is to lure the Winslet’s into paying the debt.”
“But—surely, the young Baron will cover his fiancé’s debts?” Bryson suggested hesitantly as he rose to follow her through the open barred doorway.
“I very much doubt the Winslet’s will take on a debt of this size without a fight,” Maura replied as she made her way to the door. “Baron Winslet’s finances have been on the decline thanks to several unwise investments and loans that have not all been recouped or collected. While the Baron isn’t destitute, a loan of this size may be beyond him.”
“Then—Lady Sophya could be in serious trouble.”
“It’s possible, which is why I will look into the matter,” Maura answered as she turned to face him. “One more thing, do we know who it was that bought Turnbell Manor from Sophya?”
“I believe the buyer was anonymous,” Bryson answered as he studied her expression curiously. “To be honest, Lady Maura, I thought you might have bought it yourself. Whoever the seller was, they barely paid what the property is worth.”
“I see,” Maura murmured with a frown.
“Should I look into it further?”
“No. I have someone else better suited to the task,” she replied and curtsied. “Thank you for your time, Sir Bryson.”