Claudia made her way from Calceria Stockade to Street Nine West. What should have been an hour’s walk took longer due to her aching leg and gut-twisting hunger.
She stepped onto the small stoop of her apartment and stood with one arm against the door, the sinking sun warming her back. She ran her hand through her hair. More than a few strands were left between her fingers. My food problem is causing me to lose my hair. It'd be nice to not look like a bald skeleton by the time I pay Reginald back.
“Claudia Nierra?” said a deep voice.
She turned around.
A man wearing a thick cloak stepped out from behind a chimney.
“What do you want? Who are you?” Claudia searched for her key.
“You’re to see Augustus,” said Juxxa. “He has an offer for you.”
“Oh good, tell me from the other side of this door.” Claudia stepped inside and tried to slam the door.
Juxxa thrust it open and the handle smashed into the wall, sending a small cloud of plaster dust into the air. “You will speak to him now.”
Claudia swung at him and he dropped to a knee. She was up on his shoulder in less than a second.
“Let go of me you fool! This is punishable by court order! Put me down right now!”
“Don’t make this difficult.” Juxxa pressed his bloody dagger hard against her neck.
It was a long enough walk to Augustus' square on Street Nine East. Juxxa’s shoulder pushed into Claudia’s midsection with every step, giving her little bursts of nausea, but she kept quiet. Both were relieved that they met no one in the alleyway.
They arrived at Augustus’ as the final rays of the sun were disappearing. Dirty canvas stalls lined the small stone enclosure. The men Augustus employed to work the stalls had gone home early for the night.
Juxxa put Claudia down. The tall, boxy-robed horror that was Augustus leered at her from the center of the courtyard.
He must’ve cleared the yard. Letting his workers see what a revolting parasite he is wouldn’t do wonders for their morale, she thought.
“Well, Claudia,” said Augustus, “it seems your endeavor has ended with another loss.”
She walked to the middle of the courtyard and looked him in the face. “I bought the hook and rope from you. If you’d told me I was but one of many people willing to try my luck with the King’s treasures, perhaps I would not have made those purchases or done something so risky. You deceived me. We have no further business.”
“I’m sorry to hear that the venture wasn’t a success. I know you spent your last coin on that rope. How did you escape the King’s wrath?”
“The King is that just, kind, and forgiving.” Claudia spat at Augustus’ feet.
His cheeks turned red and he couldn’t hide his scowl. “My point, young lady, is that you’re out of coin. You used your last gold kinnitar to get that rope and hook.”
“You require financial assistance, and I am willing to provide it.”
“Me, indebted to you?” Claudia laughed. “Your goon there...” she pointed at Juxxa who was standing behind Augustus, “hauled me over here and you owe me an apology at the very least. If it’s convincing, I won’t revive my career by suing you for assault and kidnapping and then emptying your coffers. Several witnesses saw this beast drag me out of my home. Make no mistake, I’ll ruin you.” Claudia looked at Juxxa. I wonder if he’ll tell him I’m lying about the witnesses.
“Claudia, stop being silly,” said Augustus. “I’ll give you very generous terms. Five hundred kinnitar to you right now, and one thousand repaid to me within four months.”
“You’re vile. And your offer is illegal.”
In the eyes of the King’s law, usury was more than prohibited. The greedy moneylenders were seen as criminally manipulative but the money-borrowers were seen as foolishly negligent. Both crimes were punishable with fines and/or prison. Augustus was trying to blackmail her, but he could very easily be caught in his own trap.
“But you’re starving, my lovely.” Augustus pulled a small mesh sack out of his inner robe. He jingled it in front of Claudia’s eyes. “You could ride into The Gallery on Street One and order every decadent thing your stomach desires... and you’d still have hundreds of kinnitar.”
Claudia’s stomach growled. She discreetly swallowed the drool on her tongue.
Augustus took ten large platinum coins, worth fifty kinnitar each, out of the sack and made a show of them. “Five hundred kinnitar. Don’t be a fool, girl.”
Damn! It’s enough to get me out of this mess, but a thousand in return is insane. “I want better terms.”
“You’ve been offered the only terms. I’m sorry you don’t see fit to accept them.” Augustus tossed the sack in the air and put it back in some compartment of his long robe.
“Fine. If your man’s going to slit my throat, let’s get it over with.” Claudia looked up at the rising moon. “I’ll die before I willingly jump into your web.”
“Quit being stubborn. Accept the funds and walk out of here.”
Augustus grabbed her face, funneling her lips together. “There’s no one else around. Do you understand me, whore?”
Claudia stared at him with contempt. Her normally bright green eyes turned fiery orange. Now he knows my secret. He’s the only other person besides my mother. She felt even more violated. Claudia heard what seemed like Juxxa’s heavy footfalls behind her. She tried to hold in a shiver which was about as easy as preventing a sneeze. I hope he’s planning to help me, otherwise I’ll have to try to bite off Augustus’ thumb and make a run for it.
A long-haired young man came barreling into the courtyard. Augustus let go of Claudia.
“Pardon me!” said the reasonably fit young man in a high voice. He was wearing a white chlamys over dark brown pantaloons. Pantaloons were uncommon in Mirek. His were attractively tight.
It was Claudia’s neighbor, the one who had checked on her when she woke up on her stoop yesterday.
“You have one chance to explain who you are and why I shouldn’t have you split open like a pig,” Augustus said.
“It wouldn’t be great for business.” The young man smirked. “I do a lot of business and people are fond of me. My murder would be frowned upon. It would be hard to recover your lost connections after that.”
“And you are?”
“My name is Rat. I’m a pioneer of sorts. I do a little of this and that, going from one project to another, learning different things. I’ll clear everything up, I promise. But I want to talk to Claudia first.” He looked at Claudia. “May we?”
“Sure, sure,” said Claudia.
He took her by the arm and they began walking. Juxxa and Augustus just watched.
Claudia nudged closer to Rat. “Why are you here?”
He leaned against her. “I’ve noticed over the past month that you’re not doing so well.”
Claudia glared at him. Normally she’d tell him that such things were hardly his business. Given the circumstances, she decided to listen.
“I know you’re a great jurist,” said Rat, “and I know what happened at the palace.”
“What? How? Are you stalking me?”
“I don’t have to. I’ll explain everything. But I think it’s better that we deal with this insect first. Don’t you?”
“Of course.” Claudia gave him a sarcastic grin. “If you have a plan, please, go right ahead.”
“I do have a plan. And for the record, I think I can save Reginald, too... or at least help you do it.”
“You know about him?”
“Yep. We can talk later. Just go along with what I say, all right?”
Claudia nodded. She wasn’t sure what she’d just agreed to, but she hoped she wouldn’t regret it. They walked back toward the other men.
Juxxa was getting impatient. He wanted this to be over so that Augustus could translate the scroll.
“Augustus,” Rat said, “let’s triple her loan, make it fifteen hundred kinnitar. And I’ll take one too. We’ll return six thousand.”
“You’re teasing me,” said Augustus.
“Not at all. Same time frame too, four months.”
Claudia groaned too quietly to be heard. She looked up at the moon. It was dissected by the clotheslines strung between the high rooftops. Don’t speak, just breathe.
“I’ll count it out now,” said Augustus, his tone cheerful with excitement. He looked like a delighted child.
Rat and Claudia each walked away with thirty large platinum coins totaling fifteen hundred kinnitar.