The tenth part of this story can be found here.
Innocent Freo arrived at the Diamond Star Café to find his old table occupied.
“You came,” said Vivian Fey.
“I told you I would,” he replied, taking a seat across the table. “Besides, I couldn’t miss my last chance for coffee at the Diamond Star.”
“Your last chance?”
“If Jerem’s plan succeeds, today’s the last day of the world.”
“And if his plan doesn’t succeed?”
“I’ll be executed. Either way, I won’t ever visit the Diamond Star again.” Innocent took a long, loving look around the café. “It’s a pity. How I’ve missed this place! There’s no better coffee in the Emperor’s City, and I spent years looking.”
The Emperor’s City boasted many restaurants. The most exclusive establishments, insulated from the city by acres of gardens, catered only to nobility. Cafés and taverns were available for the middle class. For refugees, prostitutes and other desperate characters, dingy pubs were scattered throughout the slums on the city’s edge.
The Diamond Star Café was unique. Its proprietor, the son of a wealthy merchant, threw its doors open to everyone in the city. Refugees, soldiers, princes, prostitutes: all were welcome, provided they complied with the Diamond Star’s unusual rules.
All bills were paid upfront. Any customer who refused to pay or stirred up trouble was escorted out—that is, thrown into the street—by the doorman, an ex-prizefighter named Locke. He never forgot the face of anyone who had been expelled from the café. No troublemaker had ever dared to return.
The Diamond Star Café was a classy establishment for people of all classes, a place that managed to be both cozy and elegant. Everything was polished wood, sparkling glass, clean white cloth and smooth gray stone. The waiters were polite and friendly. Even Locke wore an amiable grin, except on the rare occasions he was obligated to expel a customer. Sunlight filled the café during the day; at night, candles lit every table.
Now it was morning, and the café was filled with the murmurs of customers and the smells of coffee, bread and bacon. Waiters padded silently to and fro. Locke stood at the door, grinning at passersby in the street and keeping a wary eye on the customers in the café.
Innocent caught the eye of a waiter and ordered coffee. “The whole pot, please, not just a cup,” he said, putting a handful of gold pieces on the table.
“This is too much money, sir,” exclaimed the waiter.
“Keep it,” said Innocent. “I won’t be needing it.”
“Just coffee, sir? May I offer you any breakfast?”
Innocent ruminated. “Why not? Toast, two fried eggs and twelve links of sausage, please. Would you like anything, Viv?”
Vivian shook her head and eyed Innocent critically as the waiter slipped away. “That’s quite a breakfast, Paladin Spike.”
“It is,” admitted Innocent. “Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about my health anymore. This is the first time I’ve ever been free to eat as many sausages as I want, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Vivian took a note from her pocket and spread it out on the table. Innocent examined it and recognized his own handwriting.
Viv, would you join me for coffee at the Diamond Star Café tomorrow morning? I’ll be waiting at our old table soon after the café opens. We have things to talk about. Innocent.
“Here I am, Paladin Spike,” said Vivian. “You’ve ordered your coffee and your cursed sausages. I’ll give you ten minutes to talk, and then you’re under arrest.”
Innocent sighed. “Ten minutes is enough, I suppose.”
“Where have you been since you abandoned us two months ago in the Amber Plains?”
“Jerem and I traveled to Green Isle as quickly as we could, which was rather slowly. There were a couple of earthquakes. Once our path was destroyed by a landslide, and twice it was blocked by cacti. The Blight turns cacti poisonous, you know, so we were forced to take detours. We also ran into a bear turned vicious by the Blight, but there’s no time to tell you the whole story.
“We finally reached Green Isle, destroyed a page of the Infinity Manuscript and then came here to the Emperor’s City.”
Vivian appeared stunned. “You ruined another page? You fool! Now there’s only one page left, Paladin Spike, one godforsaken page! The last page of the Manuscript is the only thing standing between us and the end of the world.”
“The end of this world, Viv.”
“But how in the name of all the gods did you find a page in Green Isle?”
“It’s too long a story to tell in ten minutes, I’m afraid.”
“What about the last page of the Infinity Manuscript? You don’t know where it is, do you?”
“The Emperor has it, of course. That’s why Jerem and I have an appointment with him this afternoon.”
Vivian stared. “How did you make an appointment with the Emperor? Why did he agree to see you?”
“Jerem sent him a letter, and I don’t know why he agreed. Any more questions, Viv?”
“Where is Jerem?”
“I don’t know. We decided yesterday to part ways until it was time for our appointment with the Emperor. Speaking of which, since Jerem and I are meeting His Excellency today, I’d appreciate it very much if you’d delay my arrest until tomorrow.”
“I can’t do that. All the same, I’ll send someone to consult with the Emperor. If he confirms your appointment, I’ll make sure you don’t miss it.”
“That’s kind of you. Tell me, Viv, how are the others?”
“Fuori, Puck and Loxley?” asked Vivian, and smiled bitterly. “I don’t know. The team fell apart the day you escaped with Jerem. Fuori took it hardest. He thought Jerem must have taken you hostage and forced you to write the note claiming you were going to destroy the world. Fuori really respected you, Paladin Spike. He couldn’t believe you’d betray him.”
“Where is he now?”
“He pursued you and Jerem but lost your trail after Green Isle—trails fade quickly in the desert, he said. After that, he requested a leave of absence and went home. I haven’t seen him since.”
“Fuori is a good fellow. I miss him, and I’m sorry I won’t be able to see him again before it all ends. What about the others?”
“Puck is here in the Emperor’s City. I sent him to press his informants for any news of Jerem. I don’t think he’ll find anything, but I couldn’t bear to have him following me around with his sick, stupid, sycophantic smile. As for Loxley, I have no idea. He disappeared a day or two after you did. I haven’t seen the fool since, and I hope never to see him again.”
The waiter arrived with Innocent’s breakfast and pot of coffee. Vivian said nothing more, but stared stonily out the window. Innocent drank some coffee and started on his sausages.
“Paladin Spike,” said Vivian at last. “What is it you want to talk about?”
Innocent put down a sausage. “That’s up to you, Viv. I’ve asked all my questions. What is it you want to talk about?”
For a moment, Vivian seemed to change before Innocent’s eyes. The ruthless Paladin was gone. Across the table sat the young recruit—hardly more than a girl—he had met in the Imperial Army many years before.
“Paladin Spike, why did you run away? You just left, and now you’re trying to destroy the world, and High Arbiter Sergio is trying to persuade the Emperor to execute me for failing to stop you. The search for Jerem was the greatest responsibility of my life, and I failed. I couldn’t even hold our team together.”
“You didn’t have much of a team,” said Innocent gently. “Puck is a bit of an idiot, bless him, and no force in all creation can restrain Loxley.”
“Why are you helping Jerem? People will die, Paladin Spike. People will die. You’ve decided we’re all illusions, but you’re not giving anyone else the chance to decide. Even if Jerem isn’t lying to you, destroying the Infinity Manuscript isn’t your decision to make.”
For the first time in many years, and much to his own surprise, Innocent cried. So did Vivian. The bustle of the café went on around them. No one, not even the ever-vigilant Locke, seemed to notice their tears.
“You’re right, Viv,” said Innocent at last. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, gulped his coffee and filled up his cup again. “Destroying the Infinity Manuscript isn’t my decision to make. It’s Jerem’s.
“If he’s telling the truth, he and the Emperor are the only people in the world. The rest of us are fantasies, illusions without any right to exist. As long as we persist in the delusion that this world is real, Jerem and the Emperor are trapped along with us. Until we give up our fake lives, they can’t resume their real ones.”
“What if Jerem’s lying?” said Vivian. “Will you be guilty of destroying a world full of innocent people?”
“I believe with all my heart he’s not lying. As I told you when I tried to explain why I deserted the Imperial Army—it was the night we were attacked by wolves, remember—I’ve always felt there was something wrong with the world. Everything felt false. My life was falsest of all. Jerem’s story fits. It makes sense of everything, all my feelings and superstitions and dreams.”
“Feelings don’t prove anything! What if you’re wrong? You’re risking the lives of everyone in the world.”
“I know. If I’m mistaken, I’ll accept the guilt. I suppose that makes me a psychopath, doesn’t it?”
“What if you’re not mistaken?”
“Well, I suppose that makes me a martyr.”
Vivian stared desolately at the coffee pot. “I don’t want to die.”
“That makes two of us,” said Innocent. “It’s not fair, is it? Jerem and the Emperor are alive, and we’re not. Never mind what sort of lives they’ll have in their own world. They’ll have the privilege of being alive, and we won’t. I don’t like it any more than you do, Viv, but we’ve got to face it. We don’t matter now. They do.”
He finished his coffee and set down his cup with a soft clink. “I’m not real,” he said. “Even so, I’ve found a purpose that is. My life may be a fantasy, but I’m going to make it count for something.”
Vivian took a deep breath. “Paladin Spike, I’m putting you under arrest. You will remain in my custody until your appointment with the Emperor, at which time he will decide your fate.”
“That’s perfect. Forgive me for sounding so sentimental, Viv, but I’m comforted to spend my last hours with you. Are you sure you don’t want some coffee, or at least a bite of breakfast?”
Vivian did not smile, but Innocent thought she looked less miserable. “Since you’ve paid so much, I guess it would be a shame not to have breakfast.”
“There’s a condition, though.”
“Stop calling me Paladin Spike, please. The name’s Innocent.”
The story concludes with the twelfth part, The Tale of the Servant.