When he had heard all there was to hear, the agent asked to see the articles of incorporation that governed the Divestment’s operations. The document appeared on the screen and he read it quickly, making notes on his investigator’s pad. The articles were thick with formal legalisms and convoluted phraseology, but the young man was not fazed. Bost Hamel had judged him a fine ferret when it came to winkling the meat out of a text. But Baro had begged him to mute his praises, so as not to dim his dream of becoming a field agent. Still, he would admit to himself that his talent for finding just the right thorn in a thicket of legalistic prose could be useful. He made a few more notes, then examined his findings. A pattern had emerged.

He dismissed the hotel integrator’s screen and asked to be connected with the local office of the Bureau of Scrutiny. After a brief conversation, he settled back in his chair to watch Luff Imbry sleep.

Luff Imbry talked his way past both the College’s doorman and receptionist by claiming that the Trustees anxiously awaited sheaf of papers under his arm. In moments he was through the portal and across the elegant lobby and thrusting open a door on which a small placard announced that a meeting was in progress.

The boardroom was the most beautifully decorated space that had ever felt the presence of Luff Imbry. The balance of proportions and colors was masterful. Every detail, from the quality of the light filtering through the chambrasoie curtains to the exquisite mix of colors in the carpeting, bespoke an epitome of tasteful assurance that the fraudster, whose own standards were not unrefined, found quietly intimidating. Around a table of dark wood, its surface so polished as to seem a pool of rich liquid, five men and two women, all in their middle years, each coiffed and accoutered to perfection, sat in plushly superlative chairs. At the head of the table a frosted blonde in a suit of ivory and turquoise, looked in Imbry’s direction as he burst through the door but calmly completed the sentence she had begun before he entered.

“…those in favor?”

A chorus of “ayes” came from around the table as all watched the intruder advance toward them.

“Nay,” said Luff Imbry, reaching the table.

Seven flawless heads performed an identical motion, combining a brief shudder and a sharp elevation of the chin. “By what right do you say, ‘nay?'” said a completely bald man in maroon and silver who had had embedded in the skin on the left side of his face, from his temple to the corner of his epicurean lips, a crescent line of precious stones that captured all the colors of fire.

“By right of these proxies,” said Imbry, fanning out a ream of printed paper onto the lustrous table top.

The bald man glanced at one of them. “Forgeries,” he said.

“Goodness,” said Imbry. He reconstructed his features into an image of astonished innocence. “We must immediately summon the provost.”

Silence descended. The woman at the head of the table looked up at where the receptionist had poked his head tentatively around the door and waved the functionary away. Then she looked to each of the other trustees in turn, her delicately shaped eyebrows forming twin bows as far above her azure eyes as they would reach. She received six nods in reply.

“What do you seek, recipient?” she asked.

“A seat at this table, to begin with,” Imbry said.

The woman hesitated the briefest of moments before gesturing to a chair that stood against the wall. It silently made its way to the table, and the forger sat down. It was not just the most comfortable furniture he had ever known; it gave a new definition to the experience of sitting. He sighed, then said, “I hereby withdraw my nay and vote all my proxies in concurrence with the other trustees. However, when we get to that part of the agenda in which new business may be considered, I will move a few motions.”

The renunciants exchanged glances. “Within reason,” said a thin-faced man in a suit of softly iridescent gray stuff.

“To be sure,” said Imbry. “Like you, I have no wish to destroy the Divestment, only to dine upon it.”

The trustees made small noises of helpless distaste. Imbry allowed himself a smile and rubbed his plump palms together as if he rolled between them the warm, yeasty dough of great expectations.

“You will dine no better than any other felon,” said a voice from the doorway, “as you stare at the uncompromising walls of the Contemplarium.”

Imbry looked up and saw the doorway filled by the black and green uniforms of the Bureau of Scrutiny. Before them stood a slim young man who was plainly struggling to keep a stern expression on a face that longed to split into a delighted grin.

Imbry swore. “It’s the scroots,” he said.

“Indeed,” said the young man. “I am Agent Baro Harkless and you are taken.”

“Thank goodness for the Bureau,” said the chair of the College. “However, there is no call for extremes. This is only a civil matter, and our legalists can well manage it.”

“When I said, ‘you are taken,'” Baro told her, “I used the pronoun in its most inclusive sense. This man is apprehended for forgery and extortion, the rest of you for fiduciary malfeasance and breach of trust.” He motioned the agents forward. “Seize them.”

Baro could tell that Ardmander Arboghast was displeased but he felt that the section chief could not deny that results outweighed any technical defaults. Not only had Baro apprehended eight malefactors — including Imbry, whom the Bureau had vainly pursued for years — but he had prevented a potentially disastrous dislocation of Sherit County’s social cohesion, preserving an institution that had much to recommend it.

Arboghast must be a fair man, else how could he have risen to his present rank in the Bureau?┬áSo Baro told himself. The section chief would have to admit that there had been more than mere luck involved in the taking of Imbry and the others. True, Baro had ended up in Sherit by a fluke, but he had shown good investigative instincts when he began rooting about in the Divestment’s articles of incorporation and discovered the same wrinkle that Luff Imbry had detected.

These factors Baro turned over in his mind as he stood at rigid attention before Arboghast’s desk. It had already been a busy morning for the young man, including a summons to the Senior Training Provost’s office where he was informed that further probation had been waived. A full agent’s pips now adhered to his epaulets as he waited for his superior to hand him his first field assignment. But Arboghast was letting him wait while he once again perused the case summary.

The report detailed how the young commerciants had not given up, after their efforts to persuade the College to dispense more largess on behalf of renunciants living abroad had been rebuffed. They had instead got themselves named to the College of Trustees, a somnolent body which few craved to join. After centuries, the Divestment had become staff-run; the policy-making board did little more than meet annually to approve whatever the senior mandarins recommended.

Once they had achieved control, the new board members replaced key senior staff with lackeys who shared their frame of reference. With the aid of co-conspirators established outside the county, they quietly diverted vast funds — including their own recently donated fortunes — into newly formed pools of wealth outside Sherit, from which they could draw when they went abroad. No other Sheritic, recipient or renunciant, knew of their embezzlement; only the conspirators knew that they had broken the compact that kept Sherit a place of peace and good order.

But they had made one error. Of necessity, they had had to deal with persons of dubious reputation to create the out-of-county pools of capital. It was inevitable that someone like Luff Imbry, swimming the back channels of Olkney’s criminal underground, would become aware of one of these secret repositories. Once the swindler had traced the tainted money’s ownership back to the Divestment, he began to investigate the institution.

Every person who received a dividend from the trust — that is every adult citizen of Sherit — was entitled to vote at the annual general meeting. Recipients who chose not to attend could authorize someone else to cast their votes by signing a proxy. Those who did not attend and did not send a proxy were deemed to have automatically delegated their voting rights to the College. In the long ago, when the institution was first formed, many ordinary Sheritics would attend the yearly meetings, but no recipient had attended one of them in generations.

Luff Imbry had prepared a mass of forged proxies, which if accepted would entitle him to a seat on the board. He never expected the highly dubious documents to pass, but he counted on the trustees’ recognizing that exposure of his fraud would bring an official inquiry, revealing their own indecencies. To enhance the odds that the trustees would accede to his blandishments, the swindler visited Sherit on a number of occasions in the months before the meeting, spreading rumors among the lower echelons of society about renunciants who only feigned giving up their fortunes for the common good, and who lived abroad in riotous splendor on diverted funds. By the time the annual general meeting was held, an undercurrent of anger was rising among Sherit’s lowest layers. The trustees were aware that sudden exposure would almost certainly bring them a loss of status, wealth and, probably, liberty.

Arboghast put aside the report. The section chief looked up and inspected Baro with flinty eyes. Baro was again aware of a mutual antipathy between them, though he could not account for it. It was as if they were members of different species that should never be harnessed together. He wondered if the man had known his father.

“I knew your father,” Arboghast said and Baro had to exert maximum control not to display a startled reflex. He experienced a moment’s dread that Arboghast could read his mind, a terrifying prospect in light of some of the thoughts Baro had entertained regarding the section chief during his training. But telepathy was impossible in humans, Baro knew.

“We were classmates at the Academy. He was the most upright man I ever knew,” Arboghast said, in a voice devoid of sentiment. He cleared his throat and continued, “I am pleased to inform you that the Archon himself has sent a letter of commendation to be included in your personal file. Congratulations.”

Baro somehow contrived to inject even greater rigidity into a posture that had already transcended the last vestiges of flexibility. “Thank you, sir,” he said, through lips that barely opened.

“The Archon has also directed that you be assigned to field work. I have an immediate assignment for you, again at the Archon’s personal order.”

Baro knew that his eyes had grown larger and he struggled to keep his face immobile as befitted a Bureau agent receiving any news. Whether it was an announcement that he had been named First High Commissioner or that he was to be summarily executed, the true scroot would take it in with mouth set in a firm line and eyes boring straight ahead.

“This,” said Arboghast, tapping a file folder precisely centered on his otherwise empty desk, “contains all the information you will require, as well as your full agent’s plaque.”

The section chief picked up the file and Baro almost broke attention to reach for it, but realized just in time that his superior had not yet offered it. The Directing Agent was tapping the edge of the file against his open palm and looking off into the middle distance.

“For reasons I will not make clear, you will observe the strictest undercover protocols. You will not draw weapons or equipment from Bureau stores and you will maintain complete communications silence until you make an arrest. You will then contact me, and only me. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir!”

“As you are aware,” Arboghast said, “these assignments are often entrusted to pairs of operatives. I have already chosen your partner.” A small smile appeared in the corners of the section chief’s hard mouth as he handed over the file. “He is outside.”

Baro accepted the folder, crisply executed the gesture appropriate to the difference in their ranks and their presence indoors, then spun on his heel and departed the room. He was back almost immediately.

“Sir,” he said, “permission to speak.”

“By all means,” said Arboghast, giving Baro his stoniest glare, though the small smile stayed on his lips. “Blaze away.”

“I have a strong opinion on your choice of partner for me,” said Baro.

The Directing Agent compressed his smile and regarded the young man without comment for a moment that stretched into several others. Then he said, “Look out the window at that row of wissol trees beyond the garden wall.”

Baro did as he was bid. The trees’ foliage gleamed dark purple in the light of the old orange sun.

“Do you see, midway up the third tree from the left, a small animal closely inspecting its own hindquarters?”

“I do,” Baro said. The furry little thing was fully engrossed in its work.

“Would you believe that that creature and I are engaged in a contest?” said Arboghast.

Baro sensed that the conversation was heading to a conclusion he would not enjoy, but still he said, “I would find it hard to believe.”

“Nevertheless.”

The young man was reluctant to ask the next question, but knew he must surrender to the inevitable. “What is the contest?” he asked.

“We are competing to see which of us can take the least interest in your opinions on any matter whatsoever,” the Directing Agent said, then allowed his smile to reassert itself as he added, “and I am winning.”

Baro Harkless quietly closed the door to Ardmander Arboghast’s office behind him, and congratulated himself on not slamming it. He took a deep breath, let it out, then took another. He resisted a powerful urge to bend and twist the assignment file he held in his hands. He put down an equally strong desire to consign Ardmander Arboghast to an infernal destination or to kick the furniture in the anteroom. Most of all, he fought against turning his head to regard the man in the black and green of Archonate livery who occupied a chair on the other side of the small space.

Luff Imbry moved his mouth in a wry grimace and said, “If it’s any consolation, you were not my first choice either.”


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