The third part of this story can be found here.
The Emperor’s City was one of the world’s great wonders. As all rivers flowed into the sea, so all the beauty, wealth and power of the Orofino Empire found its way to the capital, making it the most lovely, prosperous and powerful city in the world.
Visitors to the Emperor’s City marveled at its walls and towers, parks and gardens, halls and palaces, avenues and byways, banners and statues. Of these statues, the greatest was the monument to the Emperor, His Excellency Cecil the Immortal. His image towered over the city: a silent promise of protection, prosperity and order.
The city was packed with refugees. Some had escaped the destruction of their homes by Jerem the Plague. Most had fled the creatures turned vicious by the Blight. The capital was the only place left in the Empire where the Blight had not reached. The Emperor had issued a strict edict: no animals were allowed into the city until they had been quarantined, inspected and approved.
The refugees were disdained by the city’s residents, who saw them as a burden on its economy and a blot on its society. With nowhere else to go, the refugees set up tents and shacks within the city walls. The strong and able worked whatever jobs they could find. The sick and weak begged. The dishonest and desperate turned to smuggling, prostitution and theft.
A few refugees claimed to have glimpsed Jerem the Plague, though their descriptions of him varied considerably. He was huge or small, ugly or handsome, pale or dark-skinned, bearded or clean-shaven, depending upon who told the story. The only detail on which all witnesses could agree was the color of his hair—a fierce, fiery red.
The Emperor had done his utmost to provide for the refugees. It was, as he told his advisers, like trying to divide a loaf of bread among a hundred guests. There was simply not enough to go around. Even so, most refugees held the Emperor’s name in honor and regarded his monument with pride. The statue of His Excellency Cecil the Immortal was the very image of majesty, strength and compassion. It stood like a colossal guardian, shielding the city and its people.
His Excellency Cecil the Immortal, Emperor of Orofino, was a pale, nervous, overweight man with shadows under his eyes. On the rare occasions he ventured outside, he confined himself to his garden. “Our Emperor is wise,” said his advisors. “He concerns himself wholly with his duties and expends no time or effort upon trifles like travel, leisure or social affairs.”
The truth was that His Excellency was afraid.
The Emperor ruled his Empire with the calm detachment of an expert card player. From the security of the Imperial Citadel he analyzed problems, considered solutions and took risks. Some risks paid off. Some did not. When he made mistakes, he never paused to contemplate their cost. His Excellency could not afford to be paralyzed by emotional attachments.
Thus the Emperor never ventured beyond the gates of his residence. He feared becoming too attached to any of his subjects. He feared confronting the cost of his mistakes.
Most of all, he feared Jerem the Plague.
The attendant entered the study to find His Excellency seated in an armchair before the fire. The Emperor’s study was his inmost sanctum, the most private place in the privacy of the Imperial Citadel. It had no windows, but a fireplace and a desk and shelves of books. Although His Excellency had reluctantly allowed flues to be installed for ventilation, even those tiny openings troubled him. There were times when he wanted to be completely cut off from the rest of the world, alone with his books and his memories.
“My sincerest apologies for disturbing you, Your Excellency,” said the attendant. “High Arbiters Sergio and Felix have arrived with your guests. We have seated them and served refreshments, per your instructions. They await your presence in the garden.”
His Excellency felt a stirring of hope for the first time in weeks. Although it was beneath his dignity, he grinned and pumped both fists in the air. Then, having regained his composure, he heaved himself out of his chair and followed the attendant out of the study.
The Emperor’s garden was a treasure kept in a locked chest: few apart from His Excellency were permitted to see it, and those who did never forgot its beauty. The garden was circular. Pavements ran like spokes in a wheel toward its center, where an exquisite fountain rose out of a pool. The water sparkled in the sun. Flowers nodded in the breeze. A few bees hummed to and fro.
The Emperor’s guests were lined up along one side of a long table on a shaded terrace overlooking the garden. His Excellency had provided formal attire for his guests: a satin dress for the lady and tunics for the gentlemen.
Upon reflection, His Excellency decided gentleman was too generous a term for two of his guests. One, a stout, hairy man in his thirties, was devouring pastries with considerable enthusiasm. The other, a lanky man with ginger hair, was lounging back in his chair with a glass of wine. They were the sort of people one expected to find in the shadier corners of disreputable pubs, and their formal tunics did not suit them.
The other two men at the table seemed much more refined. One was a young man who sat with perfect posture and ate with measured dignity. The other, a middle-aged man with gray hair, sipped a cup of coffee and gazed meditatively at the fountain in the garden.
The lady sat aloof from the men, eating grapes and giving a strong impression of rigid professionalism.
As His Excellency seated himself across the table from his guests, the High Arbiters took seats on either side of him.
“It is my honor to welcome you, friends of the Empire,” said High Arbiter Sergio. “I need not add that it is your honor to sit in the presence of His Excellency Cecil the Immortal. Few are so fortunate.”
“We are honored to serve His Excellency,” said the lady.
“Honored,” echoed the stout man through a mouthful of pastry.
“High Arbiter Felix and I have already explained the circumstances,” continued Sergio. “The Emperor tasked us with recruiting specialists for the mission at hand. Two he chose personally. The other three we selected after much careful consideration. I do not believe you are all acquainted with one another, and only two of you have previously had the honor of meeting His Excellency. This is an excellent opportunity for introductions.”
Motioning toward the stout man, Sergio added, “We begin with Theobald Loxley, known more widely as Mist the Plunderer.”
Theobald Loxley put down a pastry and leered amiably across the table at the Emperor.
“Forgive Master Loxley’s irreverence, Your Excellency,” said Felix quickly. “He cares little for authority. Indeed, he is perhaps the most notorious thief ever to disgrace the Empire. We concede, however, that his unique talents may be useful.”
“We obtained a pardon for him,” said Sergio. “Should he try to abandon the mission, his pardon will be revoked instantly and his sentence—execution by impalement, if I remember aright—carried out immediately.”
Loxley’s leer lost some of its jollity.
“The man beside Master Loxley is Nicholas Puck,” said Sergio.
The ginger-haired man put down his glass and inclined his head. “Just Nick, Your Excellency,” he said. “A peddler of information.”
“Silence,” snapped Felix. “Do not presume upon His Excellency’s patience.”
“Despite Master Puck’s inelegance, no one in the Orofino Empire—barring Your Excellency himself, of course—is better informed,” explained Sergio. “Master Puck is part of a vast network of informants spanning every city, town, village and outpost under Your Excellency’s command. When there is news, he is the first to know it.
“Next is Hector Fuori, a scout of remarkable experience and skill. He is young, but his superiors in the Imperial Army assure me there is no abler tracker to be found.
“This brings us to the two specialists whom you requested specifically, Your Excellency: Vivian Fey, the most distinguished Paladin in your service, and Malcolm Spike, whose exploits are legend.”
His Excellency Cecil the Immortal crossed his arms, grinned and spoke.
“It’s nice to see you, Spike.”
“I prefer the name Innocent, Your Excellency.”
Felix began to protest, but fell silent as the Emperor went on.
“You got it, Innocent. Shoot, I’ve missed you. It’s a relief to have you back.”
Innocent took a deep breath. “Forgive me, Your Excellency, but did you know High Arbiter Sergio threatened to massacre the residents of my town if I didn’t cooperate?”
“Why you—” thundered Felix, but the Emperor cut him short.
“Sergio was following my orders,” said His Excellency Cecil the Immortal. “I don’t think you get it, Innocent. We need you. There’s no way we’ll stop Jerem without you. He’s destroying this world. You know about the Infinity Manuscript, right? I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t want to execute anyone, but I would’ve if you hadn’t come quietly. You help us, you save this world. You don’t, the Infinity Manuscript burns and this world with it. What’s a town compared to that?”
Innocent was silent for a long time. “I don’t have any choice either,” he said at last. “I’ll help you. Then, perhaps, the Empire and the gods and the rest of the world will leave an old man alone.”
“Excellent,” exclaimed Sergio. “Now that the introductions are out of the way, there are but few things left for us to discuss. Your mission is to find and capture Jerem the Plague before he can destroy the final pages of the Infinity Manuscript.
“Jerem, like His Excellency, is immortal. You cannot kill him. When we chose you for this mission, our plan was for Master Puck to gather news of Jerem’s whereabouts, Master Fuori to track him down and Master Loxley to apprehend him.”
“What about these Paladins?” inquired Loxley.
“Paladins Fey and Spike will accompany you in order to overcome any difficulties that may arise. The Empire is no longer as safe a place as it used to be. The Blight has made travel a dangerous business. We send along the Paladins as a safeguard against untoward circumstances.”
“Paladin Fey has been appointed to lead the group as His Excellency’s personal representative,” said Felix. “She will deliver the final verdict in all decisions. All other members must follow her orders; to do otherwise will be considered treason. Paladin Fey will also be responsible for handling the group’s money and maintaining communications with His Excellency.”
“This concludes our meeting,” said Sergio. “The attendants will show you to your rooms. You will depart tomorrow after making whatever preparations you need. If you have any concerns, report them to Paladin Fey and she will relay them to His Excellency. The gods be with you. Goodbye, friends of the Empire.”
As the guests were led out of the garden, His Excellency heard Loxley’s voice raised in strident commentary: “Did you hear how the Emperor talked? He didn’t sound at all dignified. Not a bit! How’d he get to be immortal if he’s so ruddy informal all the time?”
The Emperor smiled. Then, with a return of his usual anxiety, he hurried back indoors. It was high time he returned to his study.
The story continues with the fifth part, The Tale of the Survivor.