The Infinity Manuscript, Part 1: The Tale of the Thief

A foreword to this project can be found here.

There was an art to thieving, and Gil was an artist.

It was held that thieves led easy, carefree lives: no deadlines, no obligations, no commitments. The truth was that thievery was a dangerous business. Tricks that looked easy, like picking pockets or snatching purses, were devilishly difficult. Even if a thief managed to steal something, he still faced the problem of getting away unnoticed.

Getting away unnoticed was where most thieves failed. Those caught by the police were turned over to the Empire, and the Empire was not kind to thieves.

Gil had eluded capture for all of his eleven years. He had mastered the art of thievery to a degree remarkable for one so young. On the rare occasions his robberies were noticed, they were noted for their ingenious simplicity—but then Gil’s philosophy was that the mark of an artist is to make complicated actions seem simple.

Like most artists in the world, Gil struggled to make a living. It was a pity, he mused, that so few people appreciated art.

Gil had spent most of his life prowling the streets of Green Isle, a town in a remote corner of the Orofino Empire. It was named for the oasis in which it was built, an island of grass and palm trees in a vast golden ocean of sand.

Stranded in Green Isle, Gil realized there were only a few careers open to him. If he were extremely fortunate, he could become a merchant or a municipal official; if he were moderately fortunate, he could become an artisan; if he were unfortunate, as most of Green Isle’s inhabitants were, he could work in the mines. None of these options appealed to him. He opted for thievery.

Despite his trade, Gil’s conscience was usually as clear as the blue desert sky. When it troubled him, he reminded himself that he did not have the advantage of living parents. Surely the gods would not be too severe toward an orphan. If any of them were one-half as merciful as the priests claimed, he would be all right.

Gil could not cross the desert by himself, but he hoped someday to earn enough money to book passage with a merchant caravan. Every coin he did not need to survive he carefully hid away. Someday he would escape Green Isle, that prison without walls or bars, and make his fortune nearer the heart of the Empire.

In the meantime Gil had to eat, and so continued to practice the delicate art of thievery.

A painter cannot paint until she had chosen a canvas, a brush and a palette of colors. In the same way, a discerning thief cannot thieve until he has chosen a location, a victim and a strategy for obtaining the desired object.

It was market day. The streets teemed with maids and housewives on their way to the shops, their pockets and purses loaded with silver. It was a scene to entice any thief, but Gil was cautious. Experience had taught him to be aware of the furtive watchfulness of shop owners and the vigilance of guards patrolling the streets.

First, Gil had to find a location for the theft. He chose a secluded avenue that led to the marketplace: not many guards, but enough of a crowd to cover his escape; there were also a few promising alleyways in case he had to flee. Huge sheets of fabric had been hung across the avenue from the buildings on either side to shade pedestrians from the sun.

Second, Gil had to pick a victim. He decided upon a corpulent woman with a purse dangling from her arm. Even if she noticed the theft, she was in no form to chase the thief.

Third, Gil had to determine what strategy would best enable him to separate the victim from her money. After some contemplation, he concluded that a diversion would distract the woman long enough for him to snatch her purse.

The location, victim and strategy were decided. It was time for action.

Gil strolled toward his victim, fingering a large pebble in his pocket. A little boy tottered alongside the woman. When Gil was just a few steps away, he flicked the pebble at the child and hit him squarely in the forehead.

The boy began to cry. The woman stooped to comfort him—Gil seized the purse—and off he went at a run.

He had planned to duck into an alley across the street, climb to the rooftop of the adjoining house and slip into the crowd on the street beyond. His plans were ruined. Out of nowhere, it seemed, loomed a tall man with a tattered hat.

“There was no need to hurt that poor child,” said the man, frowning. “Apologize to the boy and return the lady’s purse, Gil.”

Gil ran.

The man with the tattered hat pursued. For a man of his age—he could not have been younger than forty—he was awfully quick.

Gil emerged from the shady avenue and faltered for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the blinding sunlight. A crate had been left in front of a nearby shop. Gil clambered onto the crate, made a flying leap toward the shop and caught the bars of an upstairs window. Pulling himself up with an effort, he found a foothold on the windowsill and climbed onto the red-tiled roof of the shop.

The man with the tattered hat had stopped in front of the shop below and stood looking up at Gil. “I’m impressed,” he said. “That was quite a leap, Gil.”

Gil paused long enough to make a face at his pursuer and shout, “Catch me if you can, old man!” Without waiting to see the man’s reaction, he clambered over the roof tiles and dropped into the market plaza behind the shop.

The man, he expected, would run to the plaza’s nearest entrance and begin looking for Gil in the marketplace. Gil did not intend to remain in the plaza. He would hide near the entrance, wait for the man to enter and then slip away while his pursuer searched for him among the market stalls.

What he did not expect was for the man to enter the marketplace in the same manner he had done. Gil had begun to edge toward the entrance to the plaza when a scraping noise from behind him made him look back. The man had dropped into the marketplace from the roof of the shop, ruining Gil’s plans once again.

There was one course of action left to Gil: hide immediately and hope the man would not find him.

“You made two mistakes,” said the man a moment later, holding Gil firmly by the arm.

“You’re hurting me!” squealed Gil. “Help! This man’s trying to kill me!”

“I wish he would,” grumbled a merchant. “Hiding beneath my stall like that and upsetting my wares, you dirty, unkempt, trouble-making brat.”

“There’s no need for insults,” said the man with the tattered hat. “Gil is admittedly rather dirty and unkempt, but you don’t have to be rude about it. I’m unkempt and dirty too. It’s hard not to be when you live in a desert.”

The merchant chuckled. “Well, Innocent, I reckon you’re right. Just keep the whelp away from my stall, you hear?”

“I hate being called a whelp,” muttered Gil. The man called Innocent, still holding Gil by the arm, led him along the street in the direction of the police station.

“You shouldn’t bother the merchants,” said Innocent. “Now then, as I mentioned, you made two mistakes this time. Mistake One: you took the first hiding place that caught your eye. Didn’t it occur to you that it might also be the first to catch my eye? Mistake Two: you chose a hiding place with only one exit. You should’ve picked a place from which you could’ve escaped if I found you.”

“Are you going to turn me in to the Imperial Consul?” asked Gil.

Innocent hummed for a moment. “No, I don’t think I will. Do you want to go to the mines as a prisoner, Gil?”

Gil shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. You’d do better to work as a paid laborer in the mines until you save up enough to leave Green Isle.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“A week in prison should be enough, I think. Cheer up. That’s a week of rest, Gil, and three meals a day.”

“I hate prison.”

Innocent took hold of Gil’s other arm, kneeled on the sandy street and looked the boy in the eye. “Then stop thieving, you knucklehead! I’m going to keep catching you, you know, and I can’t keep you away from the Consul forever. And what do you think will happen if you get caught by another constable? You’ll be turned over to the Imperials.”

Gil shuddered.

“I’ve been asking around town about apprenticeships,” continued Innocent. “There aren’t any available at the moment, but something will come up sooner or later. I’ll get you work if you’ll just be patient and keep your hands to yourself.”

They kept walking.

“You’re worse than Theobald Loxley,” remarked Innocent.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a thief who calls himself Mist.”

“Mist the Plunderer? You’ve heard of him?”

“I’ve met him,” said Innocent, and began to laugh. “Gil, your expression is beyond description. You look like you just met a god.”

“You actually met Mist the Plunderer?”

“He’s not very impressive in person. I can’t fathom why his parents chose to inflict a name like Theobald on him. No wonder he turned to a life of crime. Ah, here we are at the station.”

As they entered the lobby, the secretary bowed to Innocent and gave Gil the sort of look usually reserved for things dredged out of sewer drains. Gil stuck out his tongue at her.

“Welcome back, Constable Freo,” said the secretary. “You have brought along our favorite guest, I see. I think it high time we entrust him to the Consul of Orofino.”

“Let’s give him one more chance and see what happens,” replied Innocent, hanging his dilapidated hat on a nail in the wall. “Anything happen while I was away?”

“A messenger came from the Consul,” said the secretary. “You will not believe it, Constable. A High Arbiter of the Empire is visiting Green Isle, and he wants to meet with you!”

Apparently unimpressed by the secretary’s revelation, Innocent sat Gil in a chair and told him to stay put while the secretary filled out the paperwork for his imprisonment.

“I’ll visit your cell this evening, Gil,” said Innocent. “For now I think I’ll have a nap. Chasing you all over town has worn me out.”

“Constable!” exclaimed the secretary. “The High Arbiter! Will you meet with him?”

Innocent yawned and asked, “What does he want?”

“The messenger said something about the High Arbiter wishing to have the honor of meeting a Paladin of the Empire. I am not sure what he meant. Constable, are you well?”

Innocent had paled.

Gil leaned forward and tugged gently on Innocent’s sleeve. “You all right? You’ve come over all pallid. You sick?”

“Fine,” said Innocent faintly. “Did the messenger say when and where I was supposed to meet the High Arbiter?”

“The first hour of evening at the Hourglass Tavern. That gives you about forty minutes. You should dress nicely.”

“No, no,” murmured Innocent, retrieving his hat. “I think the time would be better spent bracing my nerves with coffee, or possibly something stronger. I’m off to the Hourglass. Keep an eye on Gil, will you?”

As Gil watched Innocent walk out, he felt a vague fear for the future of his—friend? Now that Gil thought about it, the closest thing he had to a friend was this police constable.

It was a lonely life, being an artist.

The story continues with the second part, The Tale of the Three Old Men.

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