“The Yellow Cabochon” is available alone, in hardcover, from PS Publishing; it’s now been collected in “The Meaning of Luff and Other Stories”.

The Yellow Cabochon: A Luff Imbry Novella

Sep Halpheroon was waiting for Luff Imbry in one of the private back rooms at Bolly’s Snug, where the fat man often conducted business that it would have been unwise to do in public. Imbry was not pleased to find the middler already in one of the two chairs that faced each other across a bare table; he preferred to arrive at his assignations well before the other party, so as to avoid any surprises. His was a profession that did not greet surprises gladly; the unexpected was usually unwelcome, sometimes fatal. Imbry was a thief, a forger and an adept at several of the varied arts of relieving the careless–or even those who were merely not quite careful enough–of the burden of owning precious goods. Sometimes those he had unburdened so deeply resented his entry into their lives that they would have gladly arranged for him to exit his own. Other denizens of the Olkney halfworld harbored no particular resentment, but would have killed him on the off chance that the contents of his purse and pockets would repay the effort.

From the doorway he made a careful inspection of the room, the furniture, and the occupant, all of which were almost exactly as he had last seen them, here in this same chamber. The sole difference was that this time the middler’s hands, resting on the table, framed a pouch of supple blue leather. The sight did much to mollify the fat man. Imbry entered, closed the door, and sat opposite Halpheroon, who lifted the pouch and stretched his arm across the table to deposit the bag before the thief. The middler’s arm trembled from the weight and the bag’s contents clinked musically as they settled.

Imbry undid the pouch’s fastening and put his hand within, scooping out a handful of polished metal ingots, each a little less than half the length of his plump fingers. An iridescent sheen reflected the light in a transient rainbow as Imbry examined one of the pieces.

“Satisfied?” said the middler.

“Satisfied,” said the thief. The precious metal was genuine. He replaced the ingots in the pouch. There was no need to weigh or count them. Halpheroon would be mad to short the fat man; for though the latter’s girth might lull the uninitiated into dismissing Imbry as one of the lesser dangers of the halfworld, those who survived the initiation never forgot it.

Imbry made a gesture that constituted an appropriate farewell between peers and rose from his chair. As he moved, the pouch disappeared into a secure wallet beneath his half-cloak. He turned to leave.

“Wait,” said Halpheroon, “there is another matter.”

Imbry turned back. “What?”

“Another operation,” said the middler, then paused as if to order his words. “It is much like the operation we have just concluded. But with a difference.”

“How like?” said Imbry, “and how different?”

“Like–in that it concerns the same end-market, who again wishes to acquire a certain piece of jewelry. Unlike–in that the present owner of the item is not yet dead.”

Imbry said, “Would it not be more appropriate to raise that issue with Green Circle?” It was the Green Circle gang that had ownership of the operation. Imbry was engaged only as a subcontractor, and Green Circle was a numerous and far-reaching criminal clan notorious for their resentment of freelancers who encroached.

“I did,” said Halpheroon. “They declined to be involved at that level.”

“But they do not mind if someone else takes up the slack?”

“They do not.”

Imbry paused to think about it. “Who is the current owner of the desired item?”

“Lord Frons, of the House of Elphrate.”

Imbry ran the name through his capacious memory. “Ah,” he said, after a moment, “so the object of desire is the Grand Cascade?” He referred to a glittering tabard of seven different species of priceless jewels–hundreds of individual gems, even including a pair of matched thunderstones–that Lord Frons was pleased to wear over his chest and back on formal occasions.

“No,” said Halpheroon, “not the cascade. The Yellow Cabochon.”

“Really?” said Imbry. “Those things usually do not spark a blaze of avarice hot enough to consume the life of a high-ranked aristocrat.”

“It is what the customer will pay for. Who are we to question his taste?”

The fat man let his face show that he had not yet come to a decision. “Frons Elphrate is a voyavod,”–the rank meant that the subject was of the first-tier aristocracy, though only of the outer circle–”but does he not also perform some function within the Archonate, close to the Archon himself?”

“I researched him,” said the middler. “He is the Minder of the Spoon when the Archon dines formally.”

Imbry made a confirmatory noise. “Is that why Green Circle declines to take part?” Halpheroon moved his shoulders and hands in a manner that said the question invoked a mystery. Imbry said, “You did not ask?”

The middler gave the forger a look that inquired whether the fat man was new to the business. Imbry accepted the mild rebuke. Putting an impertinent question to a Green Circle power was a reliable method of ending up in Nazur Filiarot’s cold locker, awaiting the next sealed coffin that could accommodate an extra occupant.

“But they definitely don’t mind,” the fat man said, “if you find someone who is less . . . shall we say, risk-averse?”

“We would have a free hand.”

“But if things went awry,” Imbry said, thinking it through, “Green Circle would want to be able to disavow any connection?”

Halpheroon signaled that this was so, and both men paused to consider the permanence of a Green Circle disavowal. The gang’s philosophy, handed down through the ages, was that anything that threatened its existence forfeited all rights to its own.

“If Green Circle is out, who then is the client?”

“I have not been told. The dealer, Holton Baudwer, was approached by an off-worlder.”

“This off-worlder realizes that there would be an additional fee?”

“He does.”

“A substantial one.”

“Baudwer says the man is prepared to pay what it costs.”

“He must,” said Imbry, “have found a customer who has as strong a yen for the Yellow Cabochon as Nazur Filiatrot has for his dreams.”

“So it would seem.”

That aspect of the matter puzzled Imbry. Yellow cabochons, even those as grand as the one that adorned Frons Elphrate’s brow on formal occasions, did not normally provoke a murderous passion. But an off-worlder’s standards could very likely to be different. The fat man put the issue aside and turned his supple mind to other aspects of the proposal. There were a number of considerations to be weighed. After a while, he said, “I believe we can fill the order.”

Imbry and Halpheroon had been doing occasional business for several years. To begin with, Imbry had sometimes used him as a go-between for the return of stolen goods when sentiment moved their erstwhile owner to pay more than a new possessor might offer–not an unusual circumstance, since even the most precious items shed a good deal of their practical value if they could not be publicly displayed lest they draw painfully pointed questions from the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny.

A year or so after their association began, Halpheroon had come to the fat man with a proposition. The middler was bringing him two parts of the plan, because Imbry had the qualifications that allowed him to supply the necessary third. The two elements Halpheroon brought were: first, the services of Nazur Filiatrot, purveyor of funerary obsequies to a broad swath of Olkney’s social elite; and, second, a client willing to pay for the goods the operation would yield.

Before Imbry agreed to take a hand in the proceedings, he first researched the mortician. He learned that the current proprietor of Filiatrot’s Entombment Emporium was the latest in a long line of undertakers of that same name. The family had operated the establishment for centuries, if not millennia; when it came to disposing of the noble dead, Filiatrot’s was the preferred choice for most of the second-tier aristocracy, and even some of the lower ranked families in the top echelon.

Nazur had inherited the solemn, unctuous personality that had served his ancestors well for generations. But to that inherited jewel he had added a new and clouded gem: a fondness for the lethetropic drug known as blue borrache. Fondness had not yet become outright dependency, but borrache was expensive even in moderate use. It also tended to diminish the earning capacity of its devotees, who spent long stretches of what should have been productive time enwrapped in colorful, comforting dreams.

So Nazur Filiatrot needed income and he devised a daring plan to secure it. Old Earth’s aristocracy had, in recent generations, adopted the fashion of entombing not only their departed members but also their most precious possessions. The tombs, holding jewels and other finery of surpassing value, naturally attracted the attention of people like Imbry. But their peculative ambitions met defeat at the hands of Nazur’s great-grandparent, Mireyam Filiatrot, who devised an unbreachable sepulcher.

The noble residue, treated and preserved, clad in appropriate garb and bedecked with its most precious ornaments, was positioned in a chamber of the family tomb. Sometimes it sat in a favorite chair, or it might recline on a divan, or it might be posed in an activity that recalled a favorite pastime. When all was as it should be, the surrounding space was swiftly filled by a clear, heavy liquid that was then bathed in a specific sequence of finely tuned energies. The process, a carefully guarded Filiatrot secret, caused the liquid to undergo a phase shift, solidifying into an adamantine mass that Mireyam Filiatrot trademarked as Clarity. The transparent stuff refracted light so that the relict at its center seemed to be bathed in a golden glow, as if caught in a perfect moment of an ideal afternoon.

Enterprising tomb-breakers made attempts to penetrate Clarity, but found it resistant to all of the cutting tools and energies commonly used in their trade. It was hypothesized that it might be possible to batter a path through it with modified tumblethrusts, or to burn through with heavy-grade phase weapons. But the busters would have made far too much noise, and the ison cannons–even if they could be manhandled into the tombfields and brought to bear–would also melt the corpse and its treasures into an undifferentiated slag.

After the advent of Clarity, even more of Old Earth’s highest and haughtiest consigned their dead to the clammy hands of the Filiatrots, secure in the knowledge that they and their possessions would rest inviolate for all time, or at least until the old orange sun finally reached its dotage and swelled to encompass the three innermost planets.

But then came Nazur and his affection for the comforts of blue borrache. In need of funds, the mortician got to thinking of the process by which his clients were entombed in Clarity. And he found an opportunity.

A corpse chamber was typically set with furnishings and accouterments brought from the aristocrat’s own apartments. After the ritual ceremony that irrevocably separated the dead from the living, the body would be prepared, dressed and positioned as specified in a document known as the “corporeal courtesy.” At the last moment, the subject’s senior servitor, a person genetically attuned through millennia of inbreeding to be incapable of defying even a dead master’s wishes, would uncover the precious goods. Filiatrot would take the jewels, robes of wondercloth, gowns of spun-pearl and such-like, and reverently adorn the body. A few final adjustments, and he would order the chamber cleared. Immediately, liquid Clarity would begin to flow and, under the eyes of the mourners, the deceased would be sealed forever in aureous light.

Nazur’s plan required boldness and daring, of which he had little. But he found, as many a blue borrache addict had found before him, that desperation could be enlisted as a workable substitute. He began by acquiring a primer on the art of sleight of hand. He practiced until he became proficient in all the workaday slips and palms. He then graduated to ever more subtle and difficult sleights, mastering each in turn. Within months, he knew himself to be as good as the best, and he reached out for the next step in his plan.

He made inquiries in the halfworld. Ordinarily, that process would have put him in peril. But the Filiatrots had for generations offered a not-often-used but lucrative sideline: when members of Green Circle found themselves encumbered with corpses whose discovery would have been inconvenient, the morticians would make the inconvenience vanish. Nazur approached the family’s contact within the Green Circle hierarchy and was soon put in touch with Sep Halpheroon.