The first part of this story can be found here.
The Hourglass Tavern had little in common with its namesake, except in one respect: it was full of sand.
When a visitor to the Hourglass complained about the sandy floor, the tavern-keeper only shook his head and replied, “We tried keeping the Hourglass clean when we first opened it up, sir, but it was like plowing the sea. Every grain of sand we swept out blew right back in, don’t you know. Plowing the sea, sir.”
The Hourglass was one of two taverns in Green Isle. As a gesture of goodwill toward the citizens of the town, the Imperial Consul had sponsored the opening of a tavern called the Sea of Gold. Due to its high prices, the Sea of Gold catered exclusively to the upper class of Green Isle: a tiny clique of merchants, municipal officials and Imperial visitors.
The Cobbler, a toothless old man who lived on the outskirts of town, was one of many to complain about the Consul’s tavern.
“He must suppose we’re all rich folk here in Green Isle,” he told his friends, the Tailor and the Weaver, as they drank together in the Hourglass. “If the Consul’s trying to flatter the good citizens of our town, he’s making a fair mess of it. It’s only making poor folk feel poorer. You know why it’s called the Sea of Gold? A thirsty man needs a sea of gold to buy a drink there, that’s why.”
“Right you are,” said the Weaver, peering mournfully into his tankard. “I’m out of fire-nectar. Hand me the jug, Tailor.”
Grain being scarce in Green Isle, only two kinds of alcohol were readily available. The rich drank wine from the vineyards on the edge of the oasis. The poor—most of the inhabitants of Green Isle—drank fire-nectar, a rough liquor distilled from the sap of the cacti that grew in the desert. The Sea of Gold specialized in fine wines and boasted the best varieties of fire-nectar as a kind of local delicacy. The Hourglass served only fire-nectar.
The Cobbler, the Tailor and the Weaver, known in Green Isle as the Three Old Men, were patrons of the Hourglass. Little was known of them, though much was guessed. The Three Old Men did not have families or homes anywhere in the Empire. They had simply drifted to Green Isle, like battered driftwood to the beaches of a barren island, and become local curiosities.
Wherever they had come from, they had left their names behind them. They were addressed by their trades. Each of the Three Old Men performed his trade competently and made a comfortable living. When the day’s work was done, they left their workshops and took their usual place in a corner of the Hourglass.
The tavern-keeper liked the Three Old Men and the air of mystique they brought to his establishment. It was an unwritten rule of the Hourglass that the table in the back corner, the Table of the Three Old Men, was not to be occupied by any other customer during any hour of the evening.
The Tailor took a sip from his tankard. “I hear tell there’s a High Arbiter in town,” he remarked.
“I’d have thought it a false rumor, but I actually saw the bloke up at the Imperial Palace,” said the Cobbler. “Wonder what he’s here for. Green Isle’s not of any use to the Empire, except for filling her sandbags and hourglasses.”
The Tailor set down his tankard and addressed his companions solemnly. “It’s the Blight, it is,” he said. “Has to be. There were rumors of blighted wolves and vultures and cacti down southwest a ways.”
“Cacti?” inquired the Cobbler, grinning toothlessly. “The Blight’s turning cacti fierce, is it? I haven’t seen any wild cacti running amok here in Green Isle. Have you, Tailor?”
“There was a dispatch from the Imperial Laboratories yesterday,” said the Tailor. “The Blight’s affecting certain flora—that means plants, Cobbler, in case you didn’t know. Plants that get blighted fill with poison and grow thorns. Cacti, being a spiny sort of plant to start with, get a dashed lot spinier. Whatever poor bloke is pricked by a blighted plant dies in agony.”
The Weaver took a draft from his tankard. “I pray the Blight leaves our fire-cacti alone,” he said. “The gods alone know what the Blight would do to fire-nectar.”
“It’s alarming,” continued the Tailor, ignoring the Weaver. “It used to be the Blight just turned animals fierce.”
“Fierce ain’t nearly strong enough a word,” exclaimed the Cobbler. “I think brutal more apt. Animals that get blighted turn, well, unnatural. Their teeth and claws and spines grow. They kill anything that breathes. Not to put to fine a point on it,” he concluded cheerfully, “beasts that get struck by the Blight turn into monsters.”
“Wonder what started it,” said the Tailor. “It’s been near three years that we’ve suffered the Blight. It started two years after the Imperial Conquest, I think.”
The Cobbler stopped grinning. “Aye, just two years after the fall of the Old Kingdom. I miss those days, lads, back when a king ruled over us and Imperial Consuls didn’t infest every town. The Empire’s a hard mistress.”
“Please let’s not talk about hard mistresses,” said the Weaver. “I’ve had enough of them to last me whatever life I’ve left.”
“You’re a dirty, dissolute scoundrel, Weaver,” said the Cobbler, grinning again. “I don’t know why the Tailor and I even let you drink with us. It’s bad for our reputation to be seen with such a notorious philanderer.”
The Weaver, who was accustomed to such insults, merely took another draft of fire-nectar.
“So the Old Kingdom fell to the Empire five years ago, and two years later the Blight started turning animals bad, and now it’s spreading to the plants,” said the Tailor. “I hear rumors of floods and earthquakes and gods alone know what other disasters rending the Empire. It’s a nasty state of things, to be sure.”
“You forgot something,” said the Weaver. “Jerem the Plague.”
The Cobber and the Tailor nodded. “Aye, he’s the worst of all,” said the Cobbler.
There was a screech of rusty hinges as the door to the Hourglass opened, admitting Innocent Freo and a sprinkling of sand.
“Innocent!” cried the Tailor, waving a hand. “Over here! Come and have a drink with us.”
The Three Old Men were divided in their opinions about Innocent. The Tailor liked him, believing him to be a fair-minded constable and a virtuous human being. The Cobbler thought of Innocent as merely a decent man. The Weaver, who was slightly afraid of Innocent, disliked him.
“It’s kind of you,” said Innocent, drawing up a chair.
The tavern-keeper, who shared the Tailor’s good opinion of Innocent, was at his side in a moment. “How may I serve you, Constable?” he asked, bowing.
“A large cup of coffee: three spoonfuls of milk, two of sugar and one of liquor. I could do with something strong this evening.”
“You seem on edge, my friend,” said the Tailor as the tavern-keeper scuttled away. “Is there anything the Three Old Men can do for you?”
“Just keep me company while I drink my coffee. I have to meet someone soon, but I’d rather not face him until I’ve had something to brace my nerves. Now, friends, please don’t let me interrupt your conversation.”
The Weaver glared at Innocent and said, “We were just talking about Jerem the Plague.”
“The Red Demon,” said the Tailor pensively. “The Paragon of Hell. No one has seen Jerem and lived to tell the tale, yet we have hundreds of descriptions of him. His body is said to burn with a red flame.”
“He has a beard of fire,” said the Weaver.
“I heard it was just his eyes,” said the Cobbler.
“No, it’s his beard,” insisted the Weaver.
“It’s probably his beard and eyes both,” said Innocent soothingly. “Please go on, Tailor.”
“They call Jerem the Plague because he wreaks devastation wherever he goes. Towns burned. Villages destroyed. Mountains of corpses. A real plague couldn’t do more harm than he.”
“They say Jerem is immortal,” said the Weaver.
“Nonsense,” exclaimed the Tailor. “Only the gods are immortal. No, Jerem is just a sorcerer with some kind of hell-magic.” The Tailor lowered his voice. “I have a theory,” he said, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the tavern-keeper with Innocent’s coffee. “I have a theory,” he repeated, glowering as the tavern-keeper retreated. “Jerem’s first crime was committed a little more than three years ago. The Blight appeared almost exactly three years ago. Do you understand? I think Jerem is the devil behind the Blight. He’s the bloke turning animals into monsters and plants into menaces.”
Innocent nodded gravely. “Perhaps,” he said, and sipped his coffee.
The Three Old Men continued chatting, only dimly aware that Innocent did not seem to be listening. At last Innocent finished his drink and stood.
“Thank you for your company,” he said. “I have a question for you before I go. I have a young friend looking for an apprenticeship: eleven years old, extremely good with his hands, takes great pride in his work. Do any of you have need of an apprentice?”
The Cobbler and the Weaver shook their heads, but the Tailor looked thoughtful. “Perhaps,” he said. “My old hands are getting a little shaky. I could use some help, provided he doesn’t need much pay.”
The necessary arrangements were made and Innocent prepared to go. “Must be waiting for me in the back room,” he murmured.
“Who’s waiting?” demanded the Cobbler.
Innocent smiled, though he looked a little shaken. “Just someone with whom I have business,” he said. “Good evening, friends.”
“Probably a woman,” muttered the Weaver.
The story continues with the third part, The Tale of the High Arbiter.