The eleventh part of this story can be found here.
The servant boy called himself Gilbert Sleight, but no one in the Emperor’s Palace remembered his name. They were content to address him as boy and refer to him as the housekeeper’s urchin. The Emperor had many servants. Few people ever took the trouble to tell them apart, and no one bothered learning names.
For days, gossip had spread among the servants of a secret meeting to be held between the Emperor and Jerem the Plague. What a sensational idea! As though His Excellency Cecil the Immortal, who did not deign to speak with common citizens, would confer with the most infamous criminal ever to have lived!
Taking the rumors seriously, Sleight began haunting the corridors near the Emperor’s study. He had spent only two weeks in the palace, but he knew there was no other place His Excellency would choose to meet secretly with guests.
Sure enough, an hour before noon one sunny morning, Sleight heard the soft tinkle of a bell. This was a signal for all servants in the vicinity to disappear. Apart from his personal attendants, the Emperor hated the sight of servants.
An attendant appeared, ringing a silver bell and looking around. “Boy!” he hissed. “His Excellency is on the way to his study with guests. Clear the way of servants, and then get out of sight. Quickly, boy! The Emperor’s mood today is vicious.”
Sleight sprinted to the Emperor’s study, motioning to the servants along the way to withdraw from sight. Clutching rags, mops and buckets, maids and housekeepers ducked into spare rooms.
Upon reaching the door to the study, Sleight paused to look around. Everyone was gone. He slipped inside. A fire blazed in the hearth and a table was loaded with refreshments. Sleight had intended to hide under the Emperor’s desk, but the table seemed like a safer alternative.
He ducked beneath it and waited, hidden from view by the tablecloth.
The door opened.
“Here we are,” said the Emperor. “Attendant, go away. Anyone I see lurking in the hall when I open the door ends up on the executioner’s block.”
Listening intently, Sleight heard the attendant scuttle away and several people enter the room.
“Your Excellency,” said a woman’s voice he did not recognize. “I’ve brought the prisoner as you ordered. Do you have any further instructions?”
“You’re dismissed, Paladin Fey,” said the Emperor.
“May I be allowed to stay?”
“I said you’re dismissed.”
“Then permit me to send in your personal guard, Your Excellency. With due respect, Jerem the Plague—”
“Shut up and get out,” said the Emperor.
Sleight heard a click as the woman snapped her boots together in a salute, and then the sound of footsteps as she moved toward the door.
“Goodbye, Viv,” said a familiar voice. “I’m sorry for everything, and thank you.”
The footsteps paused at the door.
“Get out!” shouted the Emperor.
The door shut, and the woman’s footsteps faded.
“I wish I could say I was glad to see you, Cecil,” said a man’s voice. “To be honest, I’m mostly annoyed. Seven years, man. Seven years! You’ve spent seven years spreading lies about me.”
Sleight guessed the voice must belong to Jerem the Plague. He sounded younger than Sleight had expected.
“Quiet, Jerem,” snapped the Emperor, and added in a gentler voice, “Innocent, what stories has this wretch told you?”
“I’ll sum it up quickly, Your Excellency,” said the familiar voice. “Jerem told me this world is a fantasy, created when you wrote in the Infinity Manuscript. You’re both immortal because illusions can’t hurt you. He wants to destroy the Manuscript to dispel this fake world and send you both back to the real one. You want to stay, so you’ve hidden the only remaining page of the Manuscript.”
“Filthy lies,” exclaimed the Emperor. “You asked for an appointment, Innocent. I gave it to you so that I could explain everything. Jerem, you scum, don’t interrupt.”
“You got it, Cecil,” said Jerem. “I can’t wait to hear the explanation you’ve cooked up.”
The Emperor cleared his throat. “A long time ago, Innocent, the gods created the world by writing in the Infinity Manuscript. This much you’ve already heard. What you don’t know is that the gods appointed me as the Manuscript’s guardian. That’s why I’m immortal, see?
“As for Jerem, a god of discord chose him to wreck the world by burning the Manuscript. That’s why I split up the Manuscript’s pages and hid them all over the Orofino Empire, see? That malevolent god made Jerem immortal, and we’ve been enemies since the beginning of history.
“I’ve failed as a guardian. Jerem has managed to destroy all the pages but one. He’s here today to burn that last page. You can’t let him, Innocent! He’s lying to you. This world is real. He wants to ruin it. I guess it’s only a matter of time till he succeeds, but I want as many people as possible to live out their lives in peace before he does. Listen to me. Don’t believe him.”
There was a long silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire.
“Well, Innocent?” said Jerem. “You’ve heard both sides of the story. Which do you believe?”
“His Excellency’s explanation intrigues me,” said Innocent. “It makes sense of the facts. If it’s true, this world is real. If it’s true, I really exist. I want to believe it.”
“But do you believe it?” asked Jerem.
Innocent sighed. “What I want to believe and what I truly believe are different things, I’m afraid.”
“What if you’re wrong?” demanded the Emperor. “Millions of lives are at stake, Innocent! This isn’t your decision to make.”
“It’s Jerem’s decision, and he’s made it. The only decision I’ve made is to believe him.”
The Emperor laughed. “Fine. Believe whatever you want. This is all hypothetical, because you’re never going to find the last page.”
Innocent raised his voice and spoke a single word.
Like a stone from a sling, Sleight shot out from under the table and darted across the study. “Here you go,” he said, handing over a piece of paper to Innocent.
“I’m afraid it’s not hypothetical, Your Excellency,” said Innocent, holding up the paper. “This is the final page.”
For an instant, the Emperor stood perfectly still with his mouth open. Then he slumped into his chair and sat blinking and gulping. “How—how did you—how?” he stammered at last.
“I’m sorry for giving you such a shock, Your Excellency,” said Innocent, unable to repress a smile. “Years ago, when I was a Paladin, I had friends all over the Empire—people who owed me favors. While traveling with Jerem, I sent letters to some of those people.”
He gestured toward Sleight. “This is a friend of mine from Green Isle.”
“Gilbert,” said Sleight, grinning. “Most people back home called me Gil.”
“I persuaded one of my old friends to bring Gil to the Emperor’s City,” continued Innocent. “Gil became a servant in an official’s house. He was transferred to this palace within a week, thanks to the influence of another old friend of mine.”
“That’s when I met Mist the Plunderer,” said Sleight.
Innocent chuckled. “You might remember him better as Theobald Loxley, Your Excellency. Before Jerem and I left Paladin Fey and her team, I gave Loxley a letter. It instructed him to travel immediately to the Emperor’s City and stay until someone made contact with him.”
“One of Innocent’s old friends arranged for Mist and me to meet,” said Sleight. “I grew up hearing stories about Mist, so meeting him was a dream come true. One night we snuck into the palace together and went looking for the missing page.”
“How did you know I had it?” rasped the Emperor.
Jerem laughed. “We used to be friends, remember? I remembered you were a nervous guy and figured you’d keep at least one page in a place where you could check on it.”
“I’d never have found the page on my own,” said Sleight. “It was a good thing Mist is a pro. I told him everything I knew about you, Your Excellency. Right away he figured out you’d keep the page in the place where you feel safest, and everyone in the palace knows it’s this study.”
“But the hiding place,” said the Emperor, and faltered.
“Mist knew that too. He took one look around the study and said, ‘It’s in a book.’ When I asked why, he told me, ‘The best place to hide a pebble is on the beach, and the best place to hide a page is in a book.’ It took hours, but we found the page. I’ve kept it with me since, waiting for Innocent to show up. Here he is, and there’s the page.”
“Where is Loxley?” asked Innocent. “I’d like to say goodbye.”
“He’s probably kicking back at a tavern,” replied Sleight. “After we found the page, he told me he was retiring.”
“Listen to me, son,” said the Emperor, sweating. “You heard my explanation, right? I’m the guy the gods appointed to protect the Manuscript. Jerem wants to destroy it, and the world with it. If you let him take the page, you’ll be responsible for millions of deaths.”
“Not if you’re lying,” said Sleight.
“Even if I were lying—hypothetically speaking—you’ll stop existing the second that page is gone. Don’t you want to live?”
Sleight felt a lump in his throat, but swallowed it and took Innocent’s hand. “Your Excellency, I’ve been a thief all my life. Other children threw sand at me. Merchants yelled at me. Everyone else ignored me. Only one person ever helped me, and he’s right here.”
“You can’t believe him!” screeched the Emperor. “That man is working for Jerem the Plague. He’s a criminal—a monster—a murderer!”
“He’s Innocent,” said Sleight. “He’s the same man who helped me in Green Isle, and I trust him. If he says burning the page is best, it’s best.”
After giving Jerem the page, Innocent knelt next to Sleight and put an arm around his shoulders.
“You did great, Gil.”
The Emperor had gathered himself up in his chair and looked ready to spring.
Jerem held the paper over the fire in the hearth. “Hold it, Cecil. One move and the page is toast. Stay in your chair while I say goodbye, and then we go home.”
“Stop him!” squealed the Emperor. “Innocent, stop him!”
“I’ll burn the page the instant I hear another word out of you,” grumbled Jerem. “Seriously, Cecil, stop being a jerk and let me say goodbye. Listen, you guys,” he added to Sleight and Innocent. “There’s no way I can—I mean, you’re just—dang it, I’m not good at this kind of thing. Gil, you’re awesome. Thanks.”
Sleight wiped his eyes and said, “Just go already, will you?”
Jerem took a deep breath. “This is it, Innocent. If I were in your place, I’d be furious at the unfairness of it all. I’d hate the guy who said the world was fake, but you never blamed me.”
“It’s not too hard to give up what was never really mine,” said Innocent. Tears ran down his face, but he was smiling.
“I’ll never forget you, Innocent. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“All fantasies have to end sooner or later, I suppose. This world and its people can’t exist, but I’m happy to know they’ll remain as memories. You’re a good man, Jerem. Now go. Live your life. Think of me when you drink coffee, will you?”
Jerem nodded, sniffled once and dropped the last page of the Infinity Manuscript into the fire.
Sleight felt Innocent’s arm tighten around his shoulders as the world faded to white.