The eighth part of this story can be found here.
Theobald Loxley was a light sleeper. Experience had taught him to trust no one, least of all his fellow thieves. The stories about noble criminals who robbed the rich and supported the poor were romantic nonsense. When a man became a thief, it was only a matter of time before his conscience wore off.
Several of his colleagues had attempted to murder Loxley in order to claim his share of the loot. At least one had tried to kill him for no other reason than to silence his snoring. Loxley always awoke just in time to escape. It was enough to drive an honest thief to paranoia, but he accepted his fate philosophically.
“Every job’s got problems,” he once observed. “I don’t appreciate guys trying to stick knives into me, but at least I’m never bored.”
Years before, he had tried to rob the headquarters of the Imperial Army. No thief dared go near the place, but Loxley, while very drunk, wagered he could sneak into Paladin Spike’s office, steal his sword and make it out alive.
Loxley later regretted making such a foolish bet, but he never thought of taking it back. Although he had few principles, those he did have were sacred, and none more than the hallowed edict: “A bet’s a bet.”
Paladin Spike had opened a cupboard near his office to find Theobald Loxley crouching among the mops and buckets.
“Paladin Spike, I’m pleased to make your honorable acquaintance, sir,” said Loxley. “May I have your autograph, sir?”
Most Paladins would have executed Loxley on the spot, leaving the mess for the servants to clean. Paladin Spike, however, had laughed, dragged Loxley out of the closet by his collar and taken him to a younger officer.
“Here’s a rogue for you,” said Paladin Spike. “I found him lurking in a broom closet. Would you please take him to the Imperial Prison? Let the warden know I sent you, and tell him to lock up the prisoner for a week or two.”
“Pardon me, sir,” said the officer, confused. “If you caught this man trespassing, shouldn’t he be put to death? That’s the law.”
“I’m bending the law a little,” admitted Paladin Spike. “The Emperor told me, ‘Keep the law when it’s convenient. Use your discretion when it’s not. I trust my Paladins to keep the Empire’s interests at heart.’ In this case, I think it’s to the Empire’s advantage not to slaughter its citizens on charges like trespassing. Prison will be enough for our hairy little friend, I think.”
Paladin Spike took a piece of paper from the officer’s desk, scribbled something on it and gave it to Loxley. “Your autograph, prisoner. Stay out of trouble, or someday you’ll be caught by someone who takes a narrower view of the law.”
Upon his release from prison two weeks later, Loxley went straight to the man with whom he had made the wager and told him it was off.
“A bet’s a bet, but Paladin Spike’s too good a guy to steal from,” said Loxley.
When Paladin Spike deserted, exchanging his reputation as Savior of the Empire for the insulting epithet of Runaway Paladin, citizens everywhere responded with shock and indignation. It was unthinkable that any Paladin—let alone one whose accomplishments were legendary—should flee his duty.
Although his respect for Paladin Spike never waned, Loxley ignored the admonition to stay out of trouble. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to liberate valuables from the ownership of “guys who don’t appreciate the stuff they’ve got.”
Amid dark rumors of Jerem the Plague, the Red Demon who turned towns to ash, there came reports of a cunning thief who could vanish into the air like fog in the sunshine. This daring criminal was called Mist the Plunderer.
Loxley was delighted by his sensational reputation, which owed a little to his exploits and much more to the imaginations of the storytellers who described them.
Mist could rob a nest out from under a bird without its noticing, or so it was said. According to another claim, Mist could steal a lady’s corset from beneath her dress and escape unobserved.
(Put to the test, the second claim proved to be false, as Loxley later testified: “For such an uppity lady, she sure knew how to wield a parasol.”)
The Orofino Empire feared Jerem, and stories of Mist’s cleverness came as a welcome distraction. He became something of a hero to the unlucky refugees whom the Red Demon, the Blight or other catastrophes had driven from their homes.
Unable to contain himself any longer, Loxley revealed one evening—while very drunk, naturally—that he was Mist the Plunderer.
His listeners were so excited that nobody noticed the one who slipped out to inform the police. When officers arrived to take Loxley into custody, his listeners, who expected him to escape miraculously, were disappointed. Loxley rose majestically from his stool, stepped boldly forward and toppled right into the arms of the chief of police.
Loxley was sentenced to be executed, but Sergio, a High Arbiter of the Orofino Empire, intervened and recruited him into a team of specialists. Commissioned by the Emperor himself, their goal was to apprehend Jerem the Plague before he could destroy the Infinity Manuscript, and the world along with it. One of these specialists was Paladin Spike himself.
It was a shock for Loxley to be reunited with Paladin Spike, and a greater shock to discover that his hero had become just an ordinary, middle-aged man.
A few days later, Loxley took him aside and said, “Paladin Spike, sir, you’re not the same guy who yanked me out of a broom closet in the old days.”
“My name is Innocent, and please don’t call me sir anymore,” he replied, smiling. “It makes me feel like I’m back in the Army.”
“I hope you don’t mind the question, Innocent, and if you do, well, answer it anyhow. Why’d you go?”
“I was done being a Paladin,” said Innocent. “That’s all.”
Their travels took them across the Orofino Empire: from the Emperor’s City to the Jade Forest, and from there through the Amber Plains. By the time they reached a river, Loxley was tiring of their mission.
“Paladin Fey’s the worst leader ever,” he complained to Nick Puck, one of his companions.
“You’re just too thick to appreciate good leadership,” said Puck, who was enamored of Paladin Fey.
“Fey’s horrible, and you worry me by liking her so much, Puck. Then there’s Fuori, who’s about as friendly as an icicle. Even Innocent is rubbing me the wrong way. He’s—what’s the word?—cryptic. Innocent’s hiding something, and he’s doing it as cryptically as possible. It’s driving me crazy, Puck.”
“Loxley, I know invading folks’ privacy is what you do best, but give it a rest.”
At last, after many dangers and troubles, they captured Jerem by a river running through the Amber Plains.
Loxley was troubled by their success.
“It’s all wrong,” he told Puck that evening. “I don’t know why, but it’s all wrong.”
The sky was darkening, with scattered stars and a few clouds still stained by the red light of sunset. Paladin Fey had gone looking for more firewood. Innocent had gone for a walk. Fuori was guarding the prisoner, who was bound with ropes. Jerem, the man bent upon the destruction of the world, sat placidly drawing in the dirt with his toes.
“I mean, look at the guy,” continued Loxley. “I don’t think he’s evil.”
“He’s trying to destroy the world,” said Puck. “Seems pretty evil to me.”
“The guy’s deluded, that’s all. He really believes this world’s fake, and destroying the Infinity Manuscript will send him back to the real one. He’s misguided.”
“He’s trying to destroy the world,” repeated Puck. “Misguided or not, this kid has got to be locked up or executed. Think of the Blight, Loxley. Think of the earthquakes and tsunamis and floods. Think of the victims who died painful deaths, and the refugees who live painful lives. This kid has caused all kinds of problems, and it don’t matter whether or not he meant to cause them.”
Loxley spat into the fire. “You know who’s evil? Paladin Fey.”
“Shut your mouth, Loxley.”
“She was going to kill Innocent! How can you defend her, Puck?”
Puck frowned. “She did what she had to do. I like Innocent, but he’s just one person—a disgraced person, by the way. Paladin Fey was protecting every other person in the world.”
“It still wasn’t right,” said Loxley sulkily.
They sat awhile in silence. At length they were joined by Innocent. He was pale, and his hands shook.
“You all right, Innocent?” inquired Loxley.
“Fine,” said Innocent with a weak smile. “Just a little shaken. Near-death experiences do that to a fellow, you know. It was kind of Fuori to brew coffee. I wish there were fire-nectar to put in it, but that’s all right.”
“We’ve a little whiskey,” said Puck. “It’s strictly for medicinal purposes, don’t you know, but I think your case qualifies.”
Innocent nodded. “I’d be grateful.” The instant Puck had gone, he added, “Mist, I have a favor to ask.”
“Take this and don’t read it till tomorrow morning,” said Innocent, and pressed a folded paper into Loxley’s hands.
“What is it? Why can’t I read it now?”
“You’ll understand once you’ve read it. No peeking, and not a word to the others. Promise me, Mist.”
It took an effort, but Loxley cleared his throat and said, “I promise, Innocent. I haven’t got a lot of principles, you know, but I stick to those I’ve got, and none more than—”
“A promise is a promise.”
“Actually, ‘A bet’s a bet’ is number one, but ‘A promise is a promise’ comes in second.”
Loxley tucked the paper in his pocket as Puck rejoined them.
“About that whiskey,” began Loxley.
Puck cut him short. “Not a drop for you, and I mean it.”
They went to bed soon afterward. Fuori had been assigned to guard the prisoner; Innocent was to relieve him at midnight and keep watch until sunrise.
When Innocent took over from Fuori, Loxley awoke and stretched on the hard ground. Being a light sleeper may have saved his life on occasion, but it could certainly be a nuisance. He dozed for a while and finally fell asleep.
When he awoke again, he was not sure why. Everything was still, except for a faint rustling in the grass far away. Birds were calling. The sky had paled from black to dark blue, and the air was balmy and warm.
“There’s something amiss,” mumbled Loxley to himself, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t wake up for nothing. What could be—by all the gods, he’s done it. Oh, gods, what has he done?” He sat stupefied for a minute, blinking in the dim light, and then shouted, “Lady! Get up, lady!”
Paladin Fey pulled her pillow over her head.
“Where’s a sharp stick when you need one?” muttered Loxley, and then bellowed, “Come on, lady, wake up!”
“What is it now?” inquired Paladin Fey, sitting up.
“Jerem and Innocent are gone.”
Paladin Fey was on her feet in an instant. “There,” she said, pointing. A rock had been placed on the prisoner’s sleeping mat, and a piece of paper stuck out from beneath it.
“What does it say?” asked Fuori, getting up and peering over Paladin Fey’s shoulder as she examined the note.
She read aloud.
“My friends, traveling with you was the greatest privilege an old man could have. Thanks for the conversations, the coffee and the good company. Jerem and I are off to destroy the world. Goodbye, my friends. Innocent.”
Dazed, Loxley let out his breath and put his hands in his pockets. There was the note from Innocent.
As the others argued and cursed and raged, Loxley slipped the note from his pocket and began to read.
The story continues with the tenth part, The Tale of the Old Woman.