The Infinity Manuscript, Part 3: The Tale of the High Arbiter

The second part of this story can be found here.

Much to his own surprise, High Arbiter Sergio liked the Hourglass Tavern.

True, the floor was covered in sand and the liquor was abominable, yet the establishment had its appeal. The back room, which Sergio had reserved for the meeting, was dim, cool and relatively clear of sand. After the banquet halls and elegant saloons to which he was accustomed, this decrepit tavern felt relaxed and comfortable.

Wood was an expensive commodity in Green Isle. The tables in the Hourglass were wrought of iron, topped with glass and laden with liquor jugs. Sergio noted with amusement that the tavern tables represented the whole of Green Isle’s industry. Apart from the export of iron and fire-nectar, the manufacture of glass was the only thing holding the town back from ruin.

It was a wonder that Green Isle continued to survive. It was a dull, dry, dreary town: a god-forsaken place, assuming the gods had ever shown enough interest in Green Isle to pay it any attention at all. Sergio had been surprised when the Emperor ordered him to visit Green Isle, and nothing short of staggered when the purpose for his visit was explained.

The Runaway Paladin had settled in Green Isle. Why a legendary warrior would choose such a miserable place to live, Sergio could not begin to imagine. The town had the rustic charm of decrepitude, but it was not a place in which anyone in his right mind would choose to settle permanently.

The door opened. A middle-aged man entered, lifting a tattered hat in greeting and glancing around the room.

“Welcome,” said High Arbiter Sergio, rising from the table and bowing. “We are alone, I assure you. Have I the honor of addressing Malcolm Spike?”

“Please call me Innocent,” said the man, taking the chair across the table from Sergio. “I’ve never liked Malcolm.”

“As you wish, Innocent. I would not deign to refuse an Imperial Paladin so small a favor.”

“Retired Paladin.”

Sergio smiled pleasantly. “You call yourself retired, but the Empire considers you a fugitive. May I remind you that Paladins cannot renounce their position without leave of the Emperor? You simply fled, leaving Orofino to mourn the disappearance of its greatest hero.”

“You flatter me, Favored Son of the Empire.”

“Please, Innocent, there is no need for formal titles. You may call me Sergio.”

“How very kind of you. Sergio, be honest. The Orofino Empire doesn’t miss me a whit. The desertion of Malcolm Spike was news for a week, then a new Paladin was appointed and that was an end of it.”

“The Empire has never forgotten Paladin Spike,” declared Sergio. “Tales of your valor are told from the taverns of the Emerald Coast to the palaces of the Emperor’s City. People everywhere speak wistfully of the Runaway Paladin, wondering why he deserted Orofino when her need was so great.”

A frown darkened Innocent’s face. This surprised Sergio. His extravagant compliments had been calculated to put Innocent at his ease, but they seemed to have done quite the opposite. Perhaps a different approach was required.

“I beg your pardon, Innocent. Have I said something amiss?”

“Not to be rude, but you’ve slipped from polite flattery to sycophantic nonsense. As you were so thoughtful to remind me, the Empire considers me a fugitive. I came tonight expecting to be threatened, apprehended or possibly beheaded, not to be praised.”

Sergio smiled, this time not so pleasantly. “If you would like to be threatened, apprehended or beheaded, I am happy to make necessary arrangements. I was simply under the impression that you would prefer praise to the other outcomes you mentioned.”

Innocent struck the table with the palm of his hand. The glass cracked.

For just an instant, Sergio was afraid.

Innocent withdrew his hand slowly from the table. His momentary resemblance to a fierce Paladin had faded. He was just a tired old man again. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’ve spent four and a half years pretending the Empire doesn’t exist. It was a nasty shock to be confronted so suddenly with a High Arbiter. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

Sergio had regained his composure. “No, it is for me to apologize. It was never my intention to upset you.”

“Enough,” exclaimed Innocent. “We’ve had enough empty formalities. This may be difficult for you, but try to tell me the truth. Sergio, High Arbiter of Orofino, Favored Son of the Empire, et cetera, why in the name of all the gods have you come to Green Isle?”

Sergio had not achieved his position without a good deal of shrewdness. He knew it was useless to flatter Innocent further. Appealing to his sense of patriotism would anger him; giving vague hints would exasperate him; offering wealth or fame would irritate him. Perhaps the worst course was to threaten Innocent, for that would only make him laugh.

No, this was one of the rare cases in which the best course was to tell the truth.

“Very well, Innocent. You shall have the truth—all of it. First, shall we have a drink?” Sergio lifted a leather case onto the table and withdrew a bottle. “The liquor at this tavern is fit neither for man nor beast, so I took the liberty of bringing some wine. Ah, here are the wineglasses. The wine is a Delicia Red, three years old. Will you join me?”

“No thanks,” said Innocent. “I don’t drink liquor, except for the odd spoonful in a cup of coffee. The apothecaries say alcohol does unspeakable things to the liver.”

“It is not poisoned,” said Sergio. He filled both cups and took a long drink from one. “You are far too valuable to the Empire to be poisoned.”

Innocent laughed. His good humor seemed to be returning. “Well, I guess that sort of compliment is better than the ingratiating bunk you were spewing a few minutes ago. Even so, I prefer coffee to wine. Give me a minute to call the tavern-keeper, and then I’ll have the truth out of you.”

The tavern-keeper came and went. Innocent sipped his coffee, and Sergio began telling the truth.

“Five years ago, the Empire conquered this petty kingdom and put its royal family to death. A few of the locals rebelled and tried to drive us out. They were quickly neutralized. With the insurgents gone, the Emperor established Consuls throughout the land and declared it a province of the Orofino Empire.”

“History I have tried to forget,” said Innocent.

“Of course you have, Paladin Spike.”

“Innocent.”

“Are you? I seem to remember the locals bearing quite a lot of animosity toward you. After all, you led a division of the army that conquered their precious little kingdom.”

“You promised the truth, Sergio, not old history.”

“Very well. I will pass quickly over your desertion. Exactly six months after the execution of the royal family, you disappeared—something no one in the Imperial Army had ever done. Few had even tried. The penalty of failure was too steep. Deserters are put to death.”

“Yet here we are drinking at the same table. What a strange world the gods have made.”

“You are a special case, Innocent. I admit that under usual circumstances you would be tried and executed for the crime of desertion. However, the Orofino Empire is willing to grant you full pardon—”

“I assume this generous offer is conditional.”

“Not at all. You have already been pardoned.”

Innocent started.

“Yes, the Emperor signed your pardon himself. I have it here. He gives you your freedom as a gesture of goodwill, hoping you will be willing to render him a small service in return.”

“What service?”

Sergio leaned over the table. “Innocent, I am about to impart perhaps the most dangerous secret in existence. Whether or not you accept our request, you must never repeat anything I say here tonight. Do you agree?”

Innocent agreed.

“Excellent,” said Sergio. “You have doubtless heard rumors that the Orofino Empire is on the brink of collapse. The Blight is turning flora and fauna into monstrous hazards. There have been an unprecedented number of natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and still stranger catastrophes. Many citizens have become refugees. Many refugees have become criminals. The Empire cannot deal with so many crises, and one crisis looms above all others.”

“Jerem the Plague.”

“The other crises are symptoms. Jerem is the disease. Let me explain. The gods made the world long ago, as the priests tell us.”

“I’m a little skeptical on that point, but don’t let my theological views hinder you.”

“The gods created the world by writing in a book. Like builders constructing a house brick by brick, the gods constructed our world word by word. The skies, the mountains, the oceans, the celestial lights—”

“The rhododendrons, the platypuses, those funny flowers shaped like shoes—”

“Yes, these too were written in the book of the gods. All existence depends upon that book. It is called the Infinity Manuscript: the book that holds the world.”

“A fine theory. If any of this is true, what happened to the book?”

“The gods entrusted the Infinity Manuscript to a wise man, who separated its many pages and hid them throughout the world to prevent their destruction. The book itself did not need to remain intact. Only the pages needed to be saved.”

“Where are the pages now?”

“That,” said Sergio grimly, “is what Jerem wants to know.”

Innocent was silent for a long time. “He’s burning the pages, isn’t he?” he said at last. “The Blight is spreading, natural disasters are tearing apart the world—it’s because the Infinity Manuscript is being destroyed bit by bit. If he burns all the pages, everything falls apart.”

“Thus the Orofino Empire extends forgiveness and friendship to its greatest Paladin,” said Sergio. “We are responsible for the fate of the world. Jerem must be stopped, and only a hero can stop him. You see, Jerem, like our beloved Emperor, is immortal.”

“The Emperor isn’t immortal,” protested Innocent. “That’s propaganda. ‘The Emperor lives forever’ is just a patriotic slogan.”

“Doubt the Emperor’s immortality if you will, but take it as fact that Jerem cannot be killed. He can only be captured, which is why the Empire is sending an elite team of specialists instead of an army. We plead with you, Innocent. Lead the search for Jerem.”

Innocent shook his head. “It’s absurd,” he said. “There’s no pattern or reason in anything you’ve told me. The Emperor and Jerem are immortal, you say. How exactly did they manage to attain immortality? Jerem wants to destroy the Infinity Manuscript, you say. For what purpose? Your story is full of holes.”

“It is what it is,” said Sergio, allowing just a little anger to seep into his tone. “I concede its peculiarity, but I stand by its legitimacy. Will you help us save the world?”

Innocent seemed to be thinking. “You’ve cleared my criminal record. You could’ve intimidated me with the threat of execution, but you gave up your leverage when you pardoned me.”

Sergio laughed. “Did I give up my leverage? Think about it, Innocent. Think about the Empire you once served. What do you think will happen if you leave Green Isle, hide in some other small town and resume your game of pretending to be just an innocent citizen?”

Innocent bowed his head. He looked more tired than ever. “There’s an army waiting to raze Green Isle, isn’t there?”

“You may have been pardoned, but this whole town is guilty of harboring a fugitive. The Emperor is willing to spare this god-forsaken place and its filthy residents on the condition you cooperate. If you do refuse to cooperate, Jerem will destroy the Infinity Manuscript, thereby ending the world. This town perishes either way. There is only one way for you to save it.”

Innocent finished his coffee and put down the cup.

“Well, I guess I’m in.”

The story continues with the fourth part, The Tale of the Emperor.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 2: The Tale of the Three Old Men

The first part of this story can be found here.

The Hourglass Tavern had little in common with its namesake, except in one respect: it was full of sand.

When a visitor to the Hourglass complained about the sandy floor, the tavern-keeper only shook his head and replied, “We tried keeping the Hourglass clean when we first opened it up, sir, but it was like plowing the sea. Every grain of sand we swept out blew right back in, don’t you know. Plowing the sea, sir.”

The Hourglass was one of two taverns in Green Isle. As a gesture of goodwill toward the citizens of the town, the Imperial Consul had sponsored the opening of a tavern called the Sea of Gold. Due to its high prices, the Sea of Gold catered exclusively to the upper class of Green Isle: a tiny clique of merchants, municipal officials and Imperial visitors.

The Cobbler, a toothless old man who lived on the outskirts of town, was one of many to complain about the Consul’s tavern.

“He must suppose we’re all rich folk here in Green Isle,” he told his friends, the Tailor and the Weaver, as they drank together in the Hourglass. “If the Consul’s trying to flatter the good citizens of our town, he’s making a fair mess of it. It’s only making poor folk feel poorer. You know why it’s called the Sea of Gold? A thirsty man needs a sea of gold to buy a drink there, that’s why.”

“Right you are,” said the Weaver, peering mournfully into his tankard. “I’m out of fire-nectar. Hand me the jug, Tailor.”

Grain being scarce in Green Isle, only two kinds of alcohol were readily available. The rich drank wine from the vineyards on the edge of the oasis. The poor—most of the inhabitants of Green Isle—drank fire-nectar, a rough liquor distilled from the sap of the cacti that grew in the desert. The Sea of Gold specialized in fine wines and boasted the best varieties of fire-nectar as a kind of local delicacy. The Hourglass served only fire-nectar.

The Cobbler, the Tailor and the Weaver, known in Green Isle as the Three Old Men, were patrons of the Hourglass. Little was known of them, though much was guessed. The Three Old Men did not have families or homes anywhere in the Empire. They had simply drifted to Green Isle, like battered driftwood to the beaches of a barren island, and become local curiosities.

Wherever they had come from, they had left their names behind them. They were addressed by their trades. Each of the Three Old Men performed his trade competently and made a comfortable living. When the day’s work was done, they left their workshops and took their usual place in a corner of the Hourglass.

The tavern-keeper liked the Three Old Men and the air of mystique they brought to his establishment. It was an unwritten rule of the Hourglass that the table in the back corner, the Table of the Three Old Men, was not to be occupied by any other customer during any hour of the evening.

The Tailor took a sip from his tankard. “I hear tell there’s a High Arbiter in town,” he remarked.

“I’d have thought it a false rumor, but I actually saw the bloke up at the Imperial Palace,” said the Cobbler. “Wonder what he’s here for. Green Isle’s not of any use to the Empire, except for filling her sandbags and hourglasses.”

The Tailor set down his tankard and addressed his companions solemnly. “It’s the Blight, it is,” he said. “Has to be. There were rumors of blighted wolves and vultures and cacti down southwest a ways.”

“Cacti?” inquired the Cobbler, grinning toothlessly. “The Blight’s turning cacti fierce, is it? I haven’t seen any wild cacti running amok here in Green Isle. Have you, Tailor?”

“There was a dispatch from the Imperial Laboratories yesterday,” said the Tailor. “The Blight’s affecting certain flora—that means plants, Cobbler, in case you didn’t know. Plants that get blighted fill with poison and grow thorns. Cacti, being a spiny sort of plant to start with, get a dashed lot spinier. Whatever poor bloke is pricked by a blighted plant dies in agony.”

The Weaver took a draft from his tankard. “I pray the Blight leaves our fire-cacti alone,” he said. “The gods alone know what the Blight would do to fire-nectar.”

“It’s alarming,” continued the Tailor, ignoring the Weaver. “It used to be the Blight just turned animals fierce.”

Fierce ain’t nearly strong enough a word,” exclaimed the Cobbler. “I think brutal more apt. Animals that get blighted turn, well, unnatural. Their teeth and claws and spines grow. They kill anything that breathes. Not to put to fine a point on it,” he concluded cheerfully, “beasts that get struck by the Blight turn into monsters.”

“Wonder what started it,” said the Tailor. “It’s been near three years that we’ve suffered the Blight. It started two years after the Imperial Conquest, I think.”

The Cobbler stopped grinning. “Aye, just two years after the fall of the Old Kingdom. I miss those days, lads, back when a king ruled over us and Imperial Consuls didn’t infest every town. The Empire’s a hard mistress.”

“Please let’s not talk about hard mistresses,” said the Weaver. “I’ve had enough of them to last me whatever life I’ve left.”

“You’re a dirty, dissolute scoundrel, Weaver,” said the Cobbler, grinning again. “I don’t know why the Tailor and I even let you drink with us. It’s bad for our reputation to be seen with such a notorious philanderer.”

The Weaver, who was accustomed to such insults, merely took another draft of fire-nectar.

“So the Old Kingdom fell to the Empire five years ago, and two years later the Blight started turning animals bad, and now it’s spreading to the plants,” said the Tailor. “I hear rumors of floods and earthquakes and gods alone know what other disasters rending the Empire. It’s a nasty state of things, to be sure.”

“You forgot something,” said the Weaver. “Jerem the Plague.”

The Cobber and the Tailor nodded. “Aye, he’s the worst of all,” said the Cobbler.

There was a screech of rusty hinges as the door to the Hourglass opened, admitting Innocent Freo and a sprinkling of sand.

“Innocent!” cried the Tailor, waving a hand. “Over here! Come and have a drink with us.”

The Three Old Men were divided in their opinions about Innocent. The Tailor liked him, believing him to be a fair-minded constable and a virtuous human being. The Cobbler thought of Innocent as merely a decent man. The Weaver, who was slightly afraid of Innocent, disliked him.

“It’s kind of you,” said Innocent, drawing up a chair.

The tavern-keeper, who shared the Tailor’s good opinion of Innocent, was at his side in a moment. “How may I serve you, Constable?” he asked, bowing.

“A large cup of coffee: three spoonfuls of milk, two of sugar and one of liquor. I could do with something strong this evening.”

“You seem on edge, my friend,” said the Tailor as the tavern-keeper scuttled away. “Is there anything the Three Old Men can do for you?”

“Just keep me company while I drink my coffee. I have to meet someone soon, but I’d rather not face him until I’ve had something to brace my nerves. Now, friends, please don’t let me interrupt your conversation.”

The Weaver glared at Innocent and said, “We were just talking about Jerem the Plague.”

“The Red Demon,” said the Tailor pensively. “The Paragon of Hell. No one has seen Jerem and lived to tell the tale, yet we have hundreds of descriptions of him. His body is said to burn with a red flame.”

“He has a beard of fire,” said the Weaver.

“I heard it was just his eyes,” said the Cobbler.

“No, it’s his beard,” insisted the Weaver.

“It’s probably his beard and eyes both,” said Innocent soothingly. “Please go on, Tailor.”

“They call Jerem the Plague because he wreaks devastation wherever he goes. Towns burned. Villages destroyed. Mountains of corpses. A real plague couldn’t do more harm than he.”

“They say Jerem is immortal,” said the Weaver.

“Nonsense,” exclaimed the Tailor. “Only the gods are immortal. No, Jerem is just a sorcerer with some kind of hell-magic.” The Tailor lowered his voice. “I have a theory,” he said, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the tavern-keeper with Innocent’s coffee. “I have a theory,” he repeated, glowering as the tavern-keeper retreated. “Jerem’s first crime was committed a little more than three years ago. The Blight appeared almost exactly three years ago. Do you understand? I think Jerem is the devil behind the Blight. He’s the bloke turning animals into monsters and plants into menaces.”

Innocent nodded gravely. “Perhaps,” he said, and sipped his coffee.

The Three Old Men continued chatting, only dimly aware that Innocent did not seem to be listening. At last Innocent finished his drink and stood.

“Thank you for your company,” he said. “I have a question for you before I go. I have a young friend looking for an apprenticeship: eleven years old, extremely good with his hands, takes great pride in his work. Do any of you have need of an apprentice?”

The Cobbler and the Weaver shook their heads, but the Tailor looked thoughtful. “Perhaps,” he said. “My old hands are getting a little shaky. I could use some help, provided he doesn’t need much pay.”

The necessary arrangements were made and Innocent prepared to go. “Must be waiting for me in the back room,” he murmured.

“Who’s waiting?” demanded the Cobbler.

Innocent smiled, though he looked a little shaken. “Just someone with whom I have business,” he said. “Good evening, friends.”

Innocent departed.

“Probably a woman,” muttered the Weaver.

The story continues with the third part, The Tale of the High Arbiter.

The Infinity Manuscript, Part 1: The Tale of the Thief

A foreword to this project can be found here.

There was an art to thieving, and Gil was an artist.

It was held that thieves led easy, carefree lives: no deadlines, no obligations, no commitments. The truth was that thievery was a dangerous business. Tricks that looked easy, like picking pockets or snatching purses, were devilishly difficult. Even if a thief managed to steal something, he still faced the problem of getting away unnoticed.

Getting away unnoticed was where most thieves failed. Those caught by the police were turned over to the Empire, and the Empire was not kind to thieves.

Gil had eluded capture for all of his eleven years. He had mastered the art of thievery to a degree remarkable for one so young. On the rare occasions his robberies were noticed, they were noted for their ingenious simplicity—but then Gil’s philosophy was that the mark of an artist is to make complicated actions seem simple.

Like most artists in the world, Gil struggled to make a living. It was a pity, he mused, that so few people appreciated art.

Gil had spent most of his life prowling the streets of Green Isle, a town in a remote corner of the Orofino Empire. It was named for the oasis in which it was built, an island of grass and palm trees in a vast golden ocean of sand.

Stranded in Green Isle, Gil realized there were only a few careers open to him. If he were extremely fortunate, he could become a merchant or a municipal official; if he were moderately fortunate, he could become an artisan; if he were unfortunate, as most of Green Isle’s inhabitants were, he could work in the mines. None of these options appealed to him. He opted for thievery.

Despite his trade, Gil’s conscience was usually as clear as the blue desert sky. When it troubled him, he reminded himself that he did not have the advantage of living parents. Surely the gods would not be too severe toward an orphan. If any of them were one-half as merciful as the priests claimed, he would be all right.

Gil could not cross the desert by himself, but he hoped someday to earn enough money to book passage with a merchant caravan. Every coin he did not need to survive he carefully hid away. Someday he would escape Green Isle, that prison without walls or bars, and make his fortune nearer the heart of the Empire.

In the meantime Gil had to eat, and so continued to practice the delicate art of thievery.

A painter cannot paint until she had chosen a canvas, a brush and a palette of colors. In the same way, a discerning thief cannot thieve until he has chosen a location, a victim and a strategy for obtaining the desired object.

It was market day. The streets teemed with maids and housewives on their way to the shops, their pockets and purses loaded with silver. It was a scene to entice any thief, but Gil was cautious. Experience had taught him to be aware of the furtive watchfulness of shop owners and the vigilance of guards patrolling the streets.

First, Gil had to find a location for the theft. He chose a secluded avenue that led to the marketplace: not many guards, but enough of a crowd to cover his escape; there were also a few promising alleyways in case he had to flee. Huge sheets of fabric had been hung across the avenue from the buildings on either side to shade pedestrians from the sun.

Second, Gil had to pick a victim. He decided upon a corpulent woman with a purse dangling from her arm. Even if she noticed the theft, she was in no form to chase the thief.

Third, Gil had to determine what strategy would best enable him to separate the victim from her money. After some contemplation, he concluded that a diversion would distract the woman long enough for him to snatch her purse.

The location, victim and strategy were decided. It was time for action.

Gil strolled toward his victim, fingering a large pebble in his pocket. A little boy tottered alongside the woman. When Gil was just a few steps away, he flicked the pebble at the child and hit him squarely in the forehead.

The boy began to cry. The woman stooped to comfort him—Gil seized the purse—and off he went at a run.

He had planned to duck into an alley across the street, climb to the rooftop of the adjoining house and slip into the crowd on the street beyond. His plans were ruined. Out of nowhere, it seemed, loomed a tall man with a tattered hat.

“There was no need to hurt that poor child,” said the man, frowning. “Apologize to the boy and return the lady’s purse, Gil.”

Gil ran.

The man with the tattered hat pursued. For a man of his age—he could not have been younger than forty—he was awfully quick.

Gil emerged from the shady avenue and faltered for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the blinding sunlight. A crate had been left in front of a nearby shop. Gil clambered onto the crate, made a flying leap toward the shop and caught the bars of an upstairs window. Pulling himself up with an effort, he found a foothold on the windowsill and climbed onto the red-tiled roof of the shop.

The man with the tattered hat had stopped in front of the shop below and stood looking up at Gil. “I’m impressed,” he said. “That was quite a leap, Gil.”

Gil paused long enough to make a face at his pursuer and shout, “Catch me if you can, old man!” Without waiting to see the man’s reaction, he clambered over the roof tiles and dropped into the market plaza behind the shop.

The man, he expected, would run to the plaza’s nearest entrance and begin looking for Gil in the marketplace. Gil did not intend to remain in the plaza. He would hide near the entrance, wait for the man to enter and then slip away while his pursuer searched for him among the market stalls.

What he did not expect was for the man to enter the marketplace in the same manner he had done. Gil had begun to edge toward the entrance to the plaza when a scraping noise from behind him made him look back. The man had dropped into the marketplace from the roof of the shop, ruining Gil’s plans once again.

There was one course of action left to Gil: hide immediately and hope the man would not find him.

“You made two mistakes,” said the man a moment later, holding Gil firmly by the arm.

“You’re hurting me!” squealed Gil. “Help! This man’s trying to kill me!”

“I wish he would,” grumbled a merchant. “Hiding beneath my stall like that and upsetting my wares, you dirty, unkempt, trouble-making brat.”

“There’s no need for insults,” said the man with the tattered hat. “Gil is admittedly rather dirty and unkempt, but you don’t have to be rude about it. I’m unkempt and dirty too. It’s hard not to be when you live in a desert.”

The merchant chuckled. “Well, Innocent, I reckon you’re right. Just keep the whelp away from my stall, you hear?”

“I hate being called a whelp,” muttered Gil. The man called Innocent, still holding Gil by the arm, led him along the street in the direction of the police station.

“You shouldn’t bother the merchants,” said Innocent. “Now then, as I mentioned, you made two mistakes this time. Mistake One: you took the first hiding place that caught your eye. Didn’t it occur to you that it might also be the first to catch my eye? Mistake Two: you chose a hiding place with only one exit. You should’ve picked a place from which you could’ve escaped if I found you.”

“Are you going to turn me in to the Imperial Consul?” asked Gil.

Innocent hummed for a moment. “No, I don’t think I will. Do you want to go to the mines as a prisoner, Gil?”

Gil shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. You’d do better to work as a paid laborer in the mines until you save up enough to leave Green Isle.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“A week in prison should be enough, I think. Cheer up. That’s a week of rest, Gil, and three meals a day.”

“I hate prison.”

Innocent took hold of Gil’s other arm, kneeled on the sandy street and looked the boy in the eye. “Then stop thieving, you knucklehead! I’m going to keep catching you, you know, and I can’t keep you away from the Consul forever. And what do you think will happen if you get caught by another constable? You’ll be turned over to the Imperials.”

Gil shuddered.

“I’ve been asking around town about apprenticeships,” continued Innocent. “There aren’t any available at the moment, but something will come up sooner or later. I’ll get you work if you’ll just be patient and keep your hands to yourself.”

They kept walking.

“You’re worse than Theobald Loxley,” remarked Innocent.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a thief who calls himself Mist.”

“Mist the Plunderer? You’ve heard of him?”

“I’ve met him,” said Innocent, and began to laugh. “Gil, your expression is beyond description. You look like you just met a god.”

“You actually met Mist the Plunderer?”

“He’s not very impressive in person. I can’t fathom why his parents chose to inflict a name like Theobald on him. No wonder he turned to a life of crime. Ah, here we are at the station.”

As they entered the lobby, the secretary bowed to Innocent and gave Gil the sort of look usually reserved for things dredged out of sewer drains. Gil stuck out his tongue at her.

“Welcome back, Constable Freo,” said the secretary. “You have brought along our favorite guest, I see. I think it high time we entrust him to the Consul of Orofino.”

“Let’s give him one more chance and see what happens,” replied Innocent, hanging his dilapidated hat on a nail in the wall. “Anything happen while I was away?”

“A messenger came from the Consul,” said the secretary. “You will not believe it, Constable. A High Arbiter of the Empire is visiting Green Isle, and he wants to meet with you!”

Apparently unimpressed by the secretary’s revelation, Innocent sat Gil in a chair and told him to stay put while the secretary filled out the paperwork for his imprisonment.

“I’ll visit your cell this evening, Gil,” said Innocent. “For now I think I’ll have a nap. Chasing you all over town has worn me out.”

“Constable!” exclaimed the secretary. “The High Arbiter! Will you meet with him?”

Innocent yawned and asked, “What does he want?”

“The messenger said something about the High Arbiter wishing to have the honor of meeting a Paladin of the Empire. I am not sure what he meant. Constable, are you well?”

Innocent had paled.

Gil leaned forward and tugged gently on Innocent’s sleeve. “You all right? You’ve come over all pallid. You sick?”

“Fine,” said Innocent faintly. “Did the messenger say when and where I was supposed to meet the High Arbiter?”

“The first hour of evening at the Hourglass Tavern. That gives you about forty minutes. You should dress nicely.”

“No, no,” murmured Innocent, retrieving his hat. “I think the time would be better spent bracing my nerves with coffee, or possibly something stronger. I’m off to the Hourglass. Keep an eye on Gil, will you?”

As Gil watched Innocent walk out, he felt a vague fear for the future of his—friend? Now that Gil thought about it, the closest thing he had to a friend was this police constable.

It was a lonely life, being an artist.

The story continues with the second part, The Tale of the Three Old Men.

The Infinity Manuscript: Foreword

I am excited to make an announcement today about the future of TMTF. For at least a couple of months, TMTF will feature—in addition to the two usual weekly blog posts—a longish story, serialized in conveniently short parts every week.

This story, The Infinity Manuscript, is something I’ve wanted to write for some time. The problem has been that I haven’t been able to find the right narrative form for the story: it isn’t long enough for a full-fledged novel, but it’s a good deal too long for a short story. While I considered writing the story as a screenplay, I decided against it due to my inexperience in the complicated field of moviemaking.

Then it occurred to me that The Infinity Manuscript is exactly the sort of story that would work well in parts. To wit, it would work well as a serial—which led me to ask myself, “Why not serialize it?”

A fantasy, The Infinity Manuscript will recount the story of Innocent Freo, a good-natured police constable in remote desert outpost, who is recruited by the Orofino Empire to track down and capture an infamous criminal called Jerem the Plague. In addition to terrorizing towns throughout the Orofino Empire, Jerem is rumored to be searching out and destroying pages of the Infinity Manuscript, a book without which the world cannot exist.

Some readers of TMTF will have no interest in reading a story like The Infinity Manuscript, and that’s okay. TMTF will continue to feature two blog posts every week about faith, writing, video games, literature, life, the universe and everything. The story will be an addition to the blog, not a replacement for it.

Installments of The Infinity Manuscript will be posted each Wednesday. Since TMTF will be back on a schedule of three posts a week, the first post of each week will be moved from Tuesday back to Monday. To put it simply, TMTF will be updated on Mondays and Fridays; the story will be updated on Wednesdays; the Solidarity blog (which is linked to TMTF) will continue to be updated on Thursdays.

In regard to writing fiction, my primary focus is still The Eliot Papers, a trilogy of novels on which I’ve been working for a long time. The first novel in the trilogy, The Trials of Lance Eliot, is edging slowly but surely toward publication; it will be released (I hope) sometime this year. The Infinity Manuscript is just a side project. Even so, I’m excited to begin the story of Innocent Freo, and I invite you to share in his journey.

The journey has begun!