The second part of this story can be found here.
Much to his own surprise, High Arbiter Sergio liked the Hourglass Tavern.
True, the floor was covered in sand and the liquor was abominable, yet the establishment had its appeal. The back room, which Sergio had reserved for the meeting, was dim, cool and relatively clear of sand. After the banquet halls and elegant saloons to which he was accustomed, this decrepit tavern felt relaxed and comfortable.
Wood was an expensive commodity in Green Isle. The tables in the Hourglass were wrought of iron, topped with glass and laden with liquor jugs. Sergio noted with amusement that the tavern tables represented the whole of Green Isle’s industry. Apart from the export of iron and fire-nectar, the manufacture of glass was the only thing holding the town back from ruin.
It was a wonder that Green Isle continued to survive. It was a dull, dry, dreary town: a god-forsaken place, assuming the gods had ever shown enough interest in Green Isle to pay it any attention at all. Sergio had been surprised when the Emperor ordered him to visit Green Isle, and nothing short of staggered when the purpose for his visit was explained.
The Runaway Paladin had settled in Green Isle. Why a legendary warrior would choose such a miserable place to live, Sergio could not begin to imagine. The town had the rustic charm of decrepitude, but it was not a place in which anyone in his right mind would choose to settle permanently.
The door opened. A middle-aged man entered, lifting a tattered hat in greeting and glancing around the room.
“Welcome,” said High Arbiter Sergio, rising from the table and bowing. “We are alone, I assure you. Have I the honor of addressing Malcolm Spike?”
“Please call me Innocent,” said the man, taking the chair across the table from Sergio. “I’ve never liked Malcolm.”
“As you wish, Innocent. I would not deign to refuse an Imperial Paladin so small a favor.”
Sergio smiled pleasantly. “You call yourself retired, but the Empire considers you a fugitive. May I remind you that Paladins cannot renounce their position without leave of the Emperor? You simply fled, leaving Orofino to mourn the disappearance of its greatest hero.”
“You flatter me, Favored Son of the Empire.”
“Please, Innocent, there is no need for formal titles. You may call me Sergio.”
“How very kind of you. Sergio, be honest. The Orofino Empire doesn’t miss me a whit. The desertion of Malcolm Spike was news for a week, then a new Paladin was appointed and that was an end of it.”
“The Empire has never forgotten Paladin Spike,” declared Sergio. “Tales of your valor are told from the taverns of the Emerald Coast to the palaces of the Emperor’s City. People everywhere speak wistfully of the Runaway Paladin, wondering why he deserted Orofino when her need was so great.”
A frown darkened Innocent’s face. This surprised Sergio. His extravagant compliments had been calculated to put Innocent at his ease, but they seemed to have done quite the opposite. Perhaps a different approach was required.
“I beg your pardon, Innocent. Have I said something amiss?”
“Not to be rude, but you’ve slipped from polite flattery to sycophantic nonsense. As you were so thoughtful to remind me, the Empire considers me a fugitive. I came tonight expecting to be threatened, apprehended or possibly beheaded, not to be praised.”
Sergio smiled, this time not so pleasantly. “If you would like to be threatened, apprehended or beheaded, I am happy to make necessary arrangements. I was simply under the impression that you would prefer praise to the other outcomes you mentioned.”
Innocent struck the table with the palm of his hand. The glass cracked.
For just an instant, Sergio was afraid.
Innocent withdrew his hand slowly from the table. His momentary resemblance to a fierce Paladin had faded. He was just a tired old man again. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’ve spent four and a half years pretending the Empire doesn’t exist. It was a nasty shock to be confronted so suddenly with a High Arbiter. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”
Sergio had regained his composure. “No, it is for me to apologize. It was never my intention to upset you.”
“Enough,” exclaimed Innocent. “We’ve had enough empty formalities. This may be difficult for you, but try to tell me the truth. Sergio, High Arbiter of Orofino, Favored Son of the Empire, et cetera, why in the name of all the gods have you come to Green Isle?”
Sergio had not achieved his position without a good deal of shrewdness. He knew it was useless to flatter Innocent further. Appealing to his sense of patriotism would anger him; giving vague hints would exasperate him; offering wealth or fame would irritate him. Perhaps the worst course was to threaten Innocent, for that would only make him laugh.
No, this was one of the rare cases in which the best course was to tell the truth.
“Very well, Innocent. You shall have the truth—all of it. First, shall we have a drink?” Sergio lifted a leather case onto the table and withdrew a bottle. “The liquor at this tavern is fit neither for man nor beast, so I took the liberty of bringing some wine. Ah, here are the wineglasses. The wine is a Delicia Red, three years old. Will you join me?”
“No thanks,” said Innocent. “I don’t drink liquor, except for the odd spoonful in a cup of coffee. The apothecaries say alcohol does unspeakable things to the liver.”
“It is not poisoned,” said Sergio. He filled both cups and took a long drink from one. “You are far too valuable to the Empire to be poisoned.”
Innocent laughed. His good humor seemed to be returning. “Well, I guess that sort of compliment is better than the ingratiating bunk you were spewing a few minutes ago. Even so, I prefer coffee to wine. Give me a minute to call the tavern-keeper, and then I’ll have the truth out of you.”
The tavern-keeper came and went. Innocent sipped his coffee, and Sergio began telling the truth.
“Five years ago, the Empire conquered this petty kingdom and put its royal family to death. A few of the locals rebelled and tried to drive us out. They were quickly neutralized. With the insurgents gone, the Emperor established Consuls throughout the land and declared it a province of the Orofino Empire.”
“History I have tried to forget,” said Innocent.
“Of course you have, Paladin Spike.”
“Are you? I seem to remember the locals bearing quite a lot of animosity toward you. After all, you led a division of the army that conquered their precious little kingdom.”
“You promised the truth, Sergio, not old history.”
“Very well. I will pass quickly over your desertion. Exactly six months after the execution of the royal family, you disappeared—something no one in the Imperial Army had ever done. Few had even tried. The penalty of failure was too steep. Deserters are put to death.”
“Yet here we are drinking at the same table. What a strange world the gods have made.”
“You are a special case, Innocent. I admit that under usual circumstances you would be tried and executed for the crime of desertion. However, the Orofino Empire is willing to grant you full pardon—”
“I assume this generous offer is conditional.”
“Not at all. You have already been pardoned.”
“Yes, the Emperor signed your pardon himself. I have it here. He gives you your freedom as a gesture of goodwill, hoping you will be willing to render him a small service in return.”
Sergio leaned over the table. “Innocent, I am about to impart perhaps the most dangerous secret in existence. Whether or not you accept our request, you must never repeat anything I say here tonight. Do you agree?”
“Excellent,” said Sergio. “You have doubtless heard rumors that the Orofino Empire is on the brink of collapse. The Blight is turning flora and fauna into monstrous hazards. There have been an unprecedented number of natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and still stranger catastrophes. Many citizens have become refugees. Many refugees have become criminals. The Empire cannot deal with so many crises, and one crisis looms above all others.”
“Jerem the Plague.”
“The other crises are symptoms. Jerem is the disease. Let me explain. The gods made the world long ago, as the priests tell us.”
“I’m a little skeptical on that point, but don’t let my theological views hinder you.”
“The gods created the world by writing in a book. Like builders constructing a house brick by brick, the gods constructed our world word by word. The skies, the mountains, the oceans, the celestial lights—”
“The rhododendrons, the platypuses, those funny flowers shaped like shoes—”
“Yes, these too were written in the book of the gods. All existence depends upon that book. It is called the Infinity Manuscript: the book that holds the world.”
“A fine theory. If any of this is true, what happened to the book?”
“The gods entrusted the Infinity Manuscript to a wise man, who separated its many pages and hid them throughout the world to prevent their destruction. The book itself did not need to remain intact. Only the pages needed to be saved.”
“Where are the pages now?”
“That,” said Sergio grimly, “is what Jerem wants to know.”
Innocent was silent for a long time. “He’s burning the pages, isn’t he?” he said at last. “The Blight is spreading, natural disasters are tearing apart the world—it’s because the Infinity Manuscript is being destroyed bit by bit. If he burns all the pages, everything falls apart.”
“Thus the Orofino Empire extends forgiveness and friendship to its greatest Paladin,” said Sergio. “We are responsible for the fate of the world. Jerem must be stopped, and only a hero can stop him. You see, Jerem, like our beloved Emperor, is immortal.”
“The Emperor isn’t immortal,” protested Innocent. “That’s propaganda. ‘The Emperor lives forever’ is just a patriotic slogan.”
“Doubt the Emperor’s immortality if you will, but take it as fact that Jerem cannot be killed. He can only be captured, which is why the Empire is sending an elite team of specialists instead of an army. We plead with you, Innocent. Lead the search for Jerem.”
Innocent shook his head. “It’s absurd,” he said. “There’s no pattern or reason in anything you’ve told me. The Emperor and Jerem are immortal, you say. How exactly did they manage to attain immortality? Jerem wants to destroy the Infinity Manuscript, you say. For what purpose? Your story is full of holes.”
“It is what it is,” said Sergio, allowing just a little anger to seep into his tone. “I concede its peculiarity, but I stand by its legitimacy. Will you help us save the world?”
Innocent seemed to be thinking. “You’ve cleared my criminal record. You could’ve intimidated me with the threat of execution, but you gave up your leverage when you pardoned me.”
Sergio laughed. “Did I give up my leverage? Think about it, Innocent. Think about the Empire you once served. What do you think will happen if you leave Green Isle, hide in some other small town and resume your game of pretending to be just an innocent citizen?”
Innocent bowed his head. He looked more tired than ever. “There’s an army waiting to raze Green Isle, isn’t there?”
“You may have been pardoned, but this whole town is guilty of harboring a fugitive. The Emperor is willing to spare this god-forsaken place and its filthy residents on the condition you cooperate. If you do refuse to cooperate, Jerem will destroy the Infinity Manuscript, thereby ending the world. This town perishes either way. There is only one way for you to save it.”
Innocent finished his coffee and put down the cup.
“Well, I guess I’m in.”
The story continues with the fourth part, The Tale of the Emperor.