The Infinity Manuscript, Part 10: The Tale of the Old Woman

The ninth part of this story can be found here.

Apart from the priest and the undertaker, only three people attended the burial of the Weaver. Two were his friends, the Tailor and the Cobbler. The third was his landlady, an elderly spinster called Miss Rose.

“Well, lad, this ends the fellowship of the Three Old Men of Green Isle,” said the Cobbler to the Tailor. “Now we’re the Two Old Men, and I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before you’re the only Old Man left.”

The Tailor did not reply, but watched mournfully as the undertaker shoveled sand into the hole.

“Not even a proper casket,” said Miss Rose. “Just a palm-woven basket for the body. It’s a poor sight. If he hadn’t spent so freely on drink, he might have afforded a better vessel for his journey to the afterlife.”

The priest, overhearing Miss Rose, raised his hands heavenward and said piously, “The gods are gracious. If this man has lived a life of virtue, they will accept him into eternal rest whether he is conveyed by a beautiful coffin or a simple basket.”

“If it’s a matter of virtue, the dear lad hasn’t a chance,” said the Cobbler. “Poor Weaver. He was a dirty scoundrel, but he’d a heart of gold. I’ll miss him, I will.”

“First Gil, now Weaver,” said the Tailor. “People come and go like the clouds.”

Miss Rose started. “Gil is gone? Your apprentice, the lovely boy who worked in your shop? Tailor, you should have told me.”

The Tailor smiled. “Not dead, Miss Rose. Just gone. Gil went to the Emperor’s City. The lad came up to me a week ago with pockets a-jangling and said, all important-like, ‘Tailor, I’m going away. An Imperial scout came to me last night and gave me gold and told me I’m going to be a servant for an official in the Emperor’s City. Tomorrow I’ve leaving Green Isle for good. So long, Tailor, and thanks for everything.’

“Well, I was staggered. Imperial officials do send out scouts into the Empire to find servants, true enough, but it’s not every day those scouts come to places like Green Isle. And for Gil, that light-fingered little imp, to be chosen as a servant in an Imperial household! Such things only happen in fairy tales. Mark my words, Miss Rose, the gods have something special planned for that boy.”

Miss Rose was pleased. Gil had been a filthy urchin and an unapologetic thief, but an honest job had tempered him into a polite, friendly, hard-working young man. It was a relief to hear he was not dead.

It was enough that the Weaver had died. He had been Miss Rose’s only tenant, and therefore her only source of income. Now that he was gone, she would have to find another tenant or else succumb to poverty.

The Weaver had not been a good tenant. His room, littered with empty bottles, reeked of fire-nectar. The Weaver had also tried to be a shameless womanizer. He had failed, since no woman in Green Isle was foolish enough to go near him. When drunk, he had even directed his attentions toward Miss Rose.

Miss Rose, a woman of great shrewdness, locked him in his room whenever he drank, releasing him only when a hangover had blotted out his amorous inclinations.

Despite his faults as a tenant, the Weaver had one great virtue. He paid the rent, consistently and punctually.

Two weeks later, Miss Rose was still looking for a tenant. It was a hopeless search in so small and poor a village as Green Isle. Those not wealthy enough to own a room were too poor to rent one.

A knock on the door lifted her spirits. It made no difference whether it was a potential tenant or a friendly visitor. Either was welcome.

She opened the door and exclaimed, “Constable Freo!”

“Please call me Innocent,” said her visitor. “This is my friend Jerem. May we come in?”

Upon hearing the name of the Empire’s most dangerous enemy, Miss Rose stepped back and raised a hand to her mouth.

“Not the Red Demon,” said Innocent’s companion, a freckled youth with red hair and large ears. “Just a kid called Jerem. The name confuses a lot of people.”

“I’m sorry,” said Miss Rose. “I didn’t mean to offend. Of course you’re not Jerem the Plague. How silly of me! Please come in and make yourselves at home. Coffee, Innocent?”

“Please,” he replied, taking a seat at the iron-wrought table. “You’re very kind, Miss Rose.”

She served her guests coffee and took a seat at the table with them.

“You have a lovely home,” said Jerem, looking around.

Miss Rose blushed. “It’s worn and sandy, but I do my best with what little I have.”

“The wall hangings are beautiful,” said Innocent.

Miss Rose laughed. “They’re covering up the places where the plaster is flaking away from the walls and the mud bricks beneath are showing through. The first rule of housekeeping is to hide what can’t be fixed.”

She became serious. “What can I do for you gentlemen? It’s nice of you to visit an old lady, but I know better than to think that’s the only reason you’ve come. The last I heard, Innocent, was that a High Arbiter had taken you away. We all thought you’d been arrested.”

It was Innocent’s turn to laugh. “You could say that, though recruited is the word the High Arbiter used. I was recruited by the Empire for a mission, and I’m done with it. Jerem and I have come to see the Weaver.”

Miss Rose shook her head. “There are only two Old Men now. The Weaver died of drink two weeks ago.”

Her guests reacted as though she had slapped them. A moment passed, and then Innocent inquired, “Are his belongings still here?”

“Yes, they’re in the room upstairs. What’s this about, Innocent?”

He paused, apparently choosing his words with care. “It’s a long story, Miss Rose. I’ll tell you as much of it as I can. Years ago, you may remember, you sent a neighbor for the police because the Weaver had taken a violent turn.”

“I remember. He was smashing things in his room.”

“Well, I was the constable who came to the scene. The Weaver got a week in jail without a drop of fire-nectar. Seven days of strict sobriety were so harsh a punishment that he never acted violently again.”

“Yes, I was glad of it. For months I was afraid he would start smashing things again, or start smashing people, which would have been worse.”

“Indeed. When I arrested the Weaver, he said some interesting things. Most of it was just nonsense, with some cursing and vulgarity mixed in for good measure, but there were a few words here and there that surprised me. Tell me, Miss Rose. Have you heard of the Silver City Scandal?”

Miss Rose frowned. “Only rumors, and nasty ones. Not long after the Orofino Empire conquered the Old Kingdom, an insurgent killed the family of an Imperial official. The official blamed the Empire for his loss, so he stole some important Imperial treasure and disappeared.”

“Based on what the Weaver said that night, I believe he was the missing Imperial official and the treasure he stole was a page of the Infinity Manuscript.”

For a moment, Miss Rose stared at her guests with an expression of absolute shock. “You mean to say I’ve had a page of the Infinity Manuscript—the Infinity Manuscript—in my house all these years?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” said Jerem. “Mind if we take a look?”

“Well—I suppose—Innocent, what’s going on?” stammered Miss Rose. “If there’s really a page of the Manuscript in my house, shouldn’t the whole Imperial Army be standing on my doorstep? If Jerem the Plague found out it’s here, why, he’d raze Green Isle.”

“That’s why I’m here,” said Innocent softly. “To make sure Green Isle isn’t razed. Once the page is gone, the village will be in no danger of being destroyed by the Red Demon or the Imperial Army or anyone else.”

“Can you promise me that, Innocent?”

“Yes, Miss Rose, I can. Barring unforeseen circumstances, if you let me take the page, I promise you that Green Isle will endure until the end of the world.”

Miss Rose was, as mentioned previously, a shrewd woman.

“The end of the world, eh? When might that be?”

“Sooner than you think,” admitted Innocent. “I’ll admit this village is in a nasty position, and I’m sorry. If I were you, Miss Rose, I’d give up the page.”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’m asking nicely. When the Imperial Army shows up on your doorstep, they won’t be bothered to ask.”

No one spoke for two minutes. Innocent sipped his coffee and gazed at the wall hangings. Jerem tapped his fingers impatiently upon the table.

“You may look through the Weaver’s belongings,” said Miss Rose at last. “Tell me something, Innocent. If you suspected the Weaver was the official from the Silver City Scandal, why didn’t you tell the Imperial Consul all those years ago?”

Innocent set down his coffee. “I was trying very, very hard not to be noticed.”

As Innocent slipped upstairs, Jerem stayed behind to help Miss Rose clear the table and wash the dishes.

“Not so much water!” she exclaimed as he rinsed the cups. “This is Green Isle, Jerem. Water is precious.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ve been so kind. I’m sorry for everything.”

He sounded like he meant it.

Innocent came downstairs, the corner of a piece of paper sticking out of his pocket. “Found it,” he said to Jerem.

Her guests thanked Miss Rose and prepared to leave. On his way out, Innocent asked, “As long as I’m in town, I’d like to visit my favorite thief. Where’s Gil living?”

Miss Rose explained Gil’s unexpected departure from Green Isle.

“Excellent,” said Innocent, smiling. “He always wanted to leave this place. I’m glad he managed it. Thanks again, Miss Rose, and goodbye.”

She watched them walk down the street and disappear around a corner. A vague dread had taken hold of her heart, yet she felt an inexplicable sense of release. It was the sort of feeling a person feels after a near-death experience: strong relief and lingering fear.

“Well,” she said at last, talking to herself, “the world may end, but not for another few hours at the soonest. I’d better get the fire going for supper.”

The story continues with the eleventh part, The Tale of Innocent.

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