Donatella waited in the darkness, her ear pressed to the rough wood of the store room door.
From her observations of previous nights, she knew that a night watchman patrolled the upper stories of the building at fifteen minute intervals. Sure enough, after a wait of no more than a few minutes she could hear the heavy tread of his boots on the wooden boards outside the door. She hoped that he would not bother checking the store room, and indeed he did not. He continued on his route, whistling tunelessly under his breath in a desultory manner. She waited for him to turn the corner and make his way back toward his guard post before carefully opening the door.
She emerged into a hallway, decorated in a plain fashion with two candle lanterns at either end, providing a meagre and guttering illumination. She had memorized the route that she needed to take, so she moved cautiously down the hall, in the opposite direction to the guard, and turned a corner to find the grand stair way down into the main part of the building. The stair way was a grand marble affair, although it had been carpeted which served to muffle her tread as she descended into the central atrium - the large space at the centre of the building with the other rooms branching off it.
Now she had to find the library.
Donatella stopped at the base of the stairs for a moment to orientate herself, and in that moment of stillness she heard footsteps and voices coming from behind the stairs. With no time to think, she crossed the marble floor of the lobby to hide behind a tapestry hanging against one of the walls. She held her breath and waited for the voices to approach. There were two ... no, three people but only two were speaking. A young man, his tones angry, and then an older voice with the obsequious and oily tones of a lawyer or politician.
"The situation is simple, my lord. Your father signed a contract with us, and the terms are very clear. Your fleet of trade vessels and their contents, as well as your bonded warehouses, are fully mortgaged to our company. If your family does not make the scheduled payments, as agreed, then they are surrendered to us by default. It pains me to have to remind you of this, and believe me, it is the last action that I, as a representative of our company, wish to take. If you do not deliver the gold by midnight on the last day of this month, then the terms will apply. I am sorry, but you have three days left."
"This is outrageous. I can't believe that my father would have agreed to a gamble of this magnitude. You must know that he has been absent from the city for the past three months dealing with clients in the Peloponnese islands and no one has been able to trace him or contact him."
"Again, all I can do is offer my most sincere wishes that your father will be safely returned to you. I understand that the region is prone to violent storms and heavy seas at this time of year. Perhaps he is detained in a safe harbour waiting for calm weather before attempting a sea crossing?"
"Perhaps. I hope so, I don't know. But I still don't understand ..."
The older voice smoothly cut across the younger one again.
"Regardless, in your father's absence you are the legal representative of your company and therefore responsible for all matters listed in the articles of association, including discharging any and all debts incurred, and meeting the terms of binding contracts"
"You are telling me I have no choice, then?"
"Again, I can only refer you to the contract. Your legal representatives will meet with ours to finalise arrangements by the end of the week."
The final figure spoke, in a voice that was low and polite, but with a hint of dark menace concealed within, as with a stiletto dagger hidden behind a velvet cloak.
"One further matter. If you should choose to default on the contract and are declared bankrupt, then you will lose your status as a noble and hence your voting privileges on the council will revert to the chair until a new family is raised to the nobility. We think that you should be aware of this, to save any embarrassing misunderstandings at any future council meeting. Thank you for your time. We will see ourselves to the door"
The young man waited until the two bearers of bad tidings had excused themselves from his presence and then gave a cry of frustration, and dashed a vase to the floor with a mighty crash.
Donatella was frozen, unsure of what to do next.