Black Brillion: A Novel of The Archonate
Chapter One

Luff Imbry came to Sherit on the shuttle from Olkney, traveling comfortably on a red-tab first-class travel voucher. The ticket had begun as a blue-ordinary, but soon encountered a small but useful device of Imbry’s own manufacture, which bedecked it in an electronic mirage that fooled the shuttle’s automatic scanners. At ease in the red-tab compartment’s sumptuous lounge, the fraudster helped himself to a smattering of delicacies from the circulating buffet and accepted a glass of quite decent golden Phalum.

At Sherit’s main terminus, Imbry’s appearance excited no comment. His only outstanding feature was a pronounced corpulence but even this he used to his advantage, contriving his features into an arrangement that conveyed benign geniality, the image of the jolly fat fellow. His garb was also commonplace in Sherit that year: a voluminous jacket of dark patent leather over flared pantaloons patterned in contrasting stripes of red and white, with shoes that matched the leather and a hat that echoed the cloth.

He recovered his carry-all bag from the here-you-are, then wove his way through the crowds of travelers to the ring-road outside. There he spied a passing omnibus which bore the name of the Trabboline Inn. The slow-moving conveyance was trolling for in-bound travelers who had not yet reserved lodgings, its illuminated sides displaying the Trabboline’s rates and attractions.

Luff Imbry assembled his face into a pleasing distribution of smiles and winks, then stepped aboard and spoke affably to the vehicle’s operator, a stubby person with pale hair and eyes whose gender remained indeterminate under the baggy one-piece work garb typical of lower class Sheritics. The response was brusque, somewhat more than a grunt although not quite an actual syllable, but Imbry was not so easily put off.

“I believe the Trabboline offers discrete classes of accommodation,” he said, “from Green Basic to Platinum Superior?”

The inquiry drew a confirmatory sound from deep in the Sheritic’s throat.

“And Platinum Superior is available only to persons of the renunciant class?”

This time the answer was more growl than grunt. Imbry had uncovered a raw patch on the driver’s psyche. He proceeded to abrade it. “I am impressed by the renunciant concept,” he said. “The wide world marvels at the wisdom of Sheritics in having created such a beneficial institution.”

At this, the Sheritic voiced a short word which expressed an uncomplimentary assessment of Imbry’s views, then reached up and pulled down a folding divider that insulated the operator’s compartment from passengers. The vehicle jerked as it picked up speed.

Luff Imbry settled back in his seat and regarded the passing scenery with happy anticipation. The driver’s smoldering anger had ignited at the mere mention of Sherit’s highest social class. Tensions were clearly rising. Conflict and dislocation were in the offing, a situation from which Imbry expected to profit substantially.

He alighted in the portico of the Trabboline, a sprawling seven-story complex of yellow stone and white stucco. The lobby was spacious and quiet, the staff alert and attentive to their guests’ needs. Imbry asked for the kind of room favored by commerciants traveling on moderate expense allowance, offering a credit authorization that he had abstracted from its rightful owner and adapted to his own ends. The clerk returned it to him with a discreet flourish, calling Imbry by the name which happened to be impressed on the chit — Florion Tobescu — and adding the general Sherit honorific, “Recipient.”

“I am curious as to your renunciants,” he told the clerk. “Where might I expect to see some of them?”

The Sheritic raised his nose to a considerable height. His eyes now seemed to regard Imbry from the far side of an unbridgeable gap. “I regret, Rp. Tobescu, that casual sightseeing is felt to be an imposition,” he said.

“Just so,” said Imbry. “Still, if one were inclined to cast an unobtrusive glance in the direction of a renunciant, which direction would you recommend?”

The clerk looked away, but one hand fluttered toward an archway on the far side of the lobby. The entrance was blocked by a braided rope of gold slung between two stanchions, and attended by a brisk looking man wearing a uniform that identified him as either a military officer of overwhelming rank or a menial employed to admit or deny passage beyond the barrier. Idly perambulating through the lobby, Imbry placed himself so as to glance through the archway. It led to a short corridor that soon curved out of sight. He noticed distinct differences in the quality of decor on either side of the braided rope. The carpet beyond was of a deeper pile, its color richer than that which covered the lobby floor. The walls were clad in a fabric that shimmered delicately through several muted shades of pink and gray. A warm scent hung in the air, unrecognizable yet tantalizing.

Imbry approached the corridor’s guardian. “May I enter?” he said.

The doorman looked him up and down in less time than it would take to describe the inspection. “No, recipient. This part of the hotel is for renunciants only.”

“Yet I am intrigued,” said Imbry. “I must know what lies beyond.”

“First acquire a fortune and shed it to the benefit of the Divestment,” said the guardian. “I shall then be glad to admit you.”

“I might do as you suggest,” said Imbry, “but how do I know if the reward is worth the effort? Let me sample the delights reserved for renunciants and I will surely be motivated to better myself.”

The man stiffened, and said, “You are an outlander and perhaps not aware that your proposition borders on the offensive. Please entertain yourself elsewhere.”

Imbry leaned closer and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “I don’t suppose a quiet contribution could persuade you to look in another direction while I accidentally wander into this hallway?”

The doorman’s eyes grew large and a deeper color welled from his neck into his face. “You are now across the border of offensiveness and flush with the gates of criminality. Leave immediately, recipient, or I will summon the provost. Confined to the Contemplarium, you will experience a standard of accommodation much at variance with what you see here.”

Imbry converted his face into an image of apology, made placatory gestures with his plump hands and eased away. Clearly, not every Sherit menial was ready to turn on the renunciants, but this loyal guardian’s quickness to take offense still echoed an underlying carrier wave of social tension.

Seated in an overstuffed chair on the other side of the Trabboline’s lobby, a slim young man named Baro Harkless watched Luff Imbry’s encounter with the doorman from the corner of one eye while feigning interest in a periodical. Had he wanted to, he could have surreptitiously eavesdropped on the conversation, could have recorded it in both image and sound, could even have measured the autonomic responses of both men. The equipment for such surveillance was secreted about his person, but Baro was operating on the assumption that Imbry was cunning enough to take habitual measures to determine if he was under observation. Consequently, the agent restricted himself to level-two passive observation, as specified in the surveillance handbook of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny, which he had memorized entirely, along with every other manual and standing order that governed Bureau operations.

When Imbry had recrossed the lobby and stepped into an ascender tube, Baro went to the desk. “I believe I just saw an acquaintance take the ascender,” he told the clerk, “though his name temporarily escapes me.”

The clerk gave him a look that indicated no wish to learn more about Baro Harkless’s acquaintances, past, present or future. “The recipient is a guest of the hotel. His privacy may not be trod upon.”

Baro looked about to ensure that no one was within hearing, then produced a card that identified him as a Bureau agent, though he covered the part of the card which defined his status as still probationary. “Perhaps we might tread just a little.”

Archonate authority could not be gainsaid. “He is Rp. Florion Tobescu, a traveling commerciant.”

“And what room?”

“West eighteen on the seventh floor.”

“What does the window of that room look out upon?” Baro asked, and learned that Imbry had a view of the hotel’s inner courtyard, which contained a formal garden and an outdoor refectory.

“Thank you,” he said. “Now I would like a room across the courtyard, with a window that looks in on his.”

The clerk worked the keys of an instrument set below the level of the counter, then indicated where the young man should press his palm to a sensor. “And the account?” he asked.

“To the attention of Directing Agent Ardmander Arboghast, Bureau headquarters in Olkney,” Baro said. “And of course you will say nothing to the person we have been discussing.”

The clerk sniffed. “Of course.”

Established in a room directly opposite Imbry’s, Baro resumed level-two surveillance: that is, he sat in a shadowed part of his room and stared through the two intervening thicknesses of glass and the expanse of air that separated them. The target of his steadfast gaze had reposed himself upon the bed, with his hands clasped behind his head. He appeared to have fallen asleep.

Baro watched the even rise and fall of Imbry’s rounded abdomen and thought, not for the first time, about contacting Directing Agent Arboghast. He knew that he was technically breaching procedure, and that by following the quarry from Olkney to Sherit he had overstepped the terms of his assignment.

His section chief had ordered him only to shadow the swindler about the city for the day then compose a written report. It had been a training exercise, the target chosen from a Bureau list of career felons who were not regarded as dangerous and who were not targets of active investigations. Baro Harkless had been sent on the training drill because, although he had graduated with high marks from the Academy, he had not completed his field training.

There were rumors about Arboghast, that he had been transferred to the training command from the investigations branch after a major case came apart in his hands. There were hints of other faults besides. Baro paid no heed to gossip, but he did know that Arboghast was a man of strong opinions. The weight of those opinions, when they were landing on probationary agents, was equivalent to that of moderate sized boulder.

Baro had begun the day loitering near Imbry’s lodgings in the fashionable Quabbs district of Olkney City. When his target came down to the street, he had followed the man, at the prescribed distance and using available opportunities for concealment, to a local bistro where Imbry breakfasted on cakes and punge. The fraudster had then gone home, but re-emerged almost immediately with carry-all in one hand, the other raised to hail a passing jitney. Fortunately, another vehicle for hire was passing, and Baro managed to get into it before Imbry was out of sight.