Melvos Hammerstars, Part Four

A Flourishing Career
By Ed Greenwood

There's Nothing so Useful to a Sembian as a Secret

Melvos Hammerstars is more level-headed than most Sembian city-dwellers (who soon grow paranoid that "everyone's out to get them" or they "missed top coin" on a hot new scheme or opportunity, and mustn't fall behind on the next one), but the cutthroat nature of Sembian life has made him wary enough to take out backers surety and post healing bonds.

Backers are folk sworn to conduct or wind up your affairs in accordance with your written instructions (or, failing that, best business practices) in the event of your death, sudden mysterious absence, or known kidnapping or illness. A surety is a written contract (we might say insurance) binding the backers to act. Sureties are filed (for a 4-sp fee) with Sembian authorities, who diligently watch the backers to ensure they perform.

Healing bonds (commonly known as "healshields") are prepayments with local temples for the casting of spells on the bond purchaser or designate for healing, poison- and disease-quelling, or raising from the dead. Most Sembians pay the entire sum for lesser spells, and post deed-claims with the temples for the more expensive magics.

A deed-claim is a written agreement to pay a set sum within so many days after a service is rendered, or the service renderer is entitled to take possession of a property (often a second city tallhouse, rented out to sitting tenants) in lieu of monetary payment. Sembian authorities take a very dim view of persons who try to refuse or become unavailable to receive payment, so as to instead seize a property they want.

Moneylenders in Sembia are colloquially known as grudgecoins (though this characterization could more fairly be applied to most Sembians asked to lend money, even by family and close friends), and much of the art of clawing one's way up the social ladder in Sembia, a land where wealth is social standing, is getting other persons to lend their coins to your profit through various subterfuges.

Most of these covert swindles are worked via subtle inequalities in contracts within coinrings, the small, secretive investment cabals whereby Sembian smallholders pool the coins they can spare to purchase cargoes or properties they can't afford individually . One of the most strictly enforced tenets of Sembian law is that the precise terms of all coinring-member investments in coinring activities be written out in a formal contract or scrip (Part Seven details more about scrips) which must be filed with a Sembian tax official (officially known as a scrutaar, commonly called a watcher, and less politely referred to as a pursespy). This filing must be done by means of two identical copies (the scrutaar must make certain they're identical), one of which is eventually sent to a central records office in Ordulin, the House of Ravens (referred to by most Sembians as Castle Parchment). Bribing scrutaars a few silver coins to delay sending on the second copy (to delay government scrutiny of the coinring's activities) is a practice so common as to be almost accepted by the government, but the official cost of filing coinring scrips is whatever it costs to prepare the two copies plus a copper piece. However, scrutaars are under standing orders to post on the outside walls of their office for a tenday a list of summaries of all scrips filed with the office, and the government officially offers scrip-filers the right to keep their scrips off this list (for a 2 gp fee) so neighbors and trade rivals won't get wind of their activities.

For some years Melvos Hammerstars was guilty of a quite common swindle: He worked in concert with a friendly local scrutaar to collect the 2 gp privacy fee from coinrings he was a part of, without officially filing for off-list status. The scrutaar kept the scrips off the list, and split the fee half and half with Melvos for doing so.

Penalties for removing, defacing, or altering a posted scrutaar list are 25 gp for the first offense, 50 for the second, 75 for the third, and so on, and in all cases of indebtedness to the Sembian government, authorities have the legal right to seize goods and property if payment in coin is not made by highsun of the day following the demand.

Down the years, this "until the morrow" delay has resulted in many Sembians fleeing, or "running from the Claws," the "Claws" being the affectionate name by which Sembians refer to government tax officials (we might call them bailiffs). In Sembian plays, the Claws are often portrayed by disembodied, oversized skeletal human hands (moved by actors wearing black veils, gloves, and robes) moving of their own accord, very like the widely-feared-in-folklore undead known as "crawling claws."

Next time read about how some landlords, such as Mervos, operate in Sembia.

© 2004 Wizards of the Coast, Inc. All rights reserved.