‘I thought so.’
Cutwell patted her ineptly on the hand, and Keli was too preoccupied even to notice such flagrant lesè majesté.
‘You see, everything’s fixed. History is all worked out, from start to finish. What the facts actually are is beside the point; history just rolls straight over the top of them. You can’t change anything because the changes are already part of it. You’re dead. It’s fated. You’ll just have to accept it.’
He gave an apologetic grin. ‘You’re a lot luckier than most dead people, if you look at it objectively,’ he said. ‘You’re alive to enjoy it.’
‘I don’t want to accept it. Why should I accept it? It’s not my fault!’
‘You don’t understand. History is moving on. You can’t get involved in it any more. There isn’t a part in it for you, don’t you see? Best to let things take their course.’ He patted her hand again. She looked at him. He withdrew his hand.
‘What am I supposed to do then?’ she said. ‘Not eat, because the food wasn’t destined to be eaten by me? Go and live in a crypt somewhere?’
‘Bit of a poser, isn’t it?’ agreed Cutwell. ‘That’s fate for you, I’m afraid. If the world can’t sense you, you don’t exist. I’m a wizard. We know —’
‘Don’t say it.’
Keli stood up.
Five generations ago one of her ancestor had halted his band of nomadic cutthroats a few miles from the mound of Sto Lat and had regarded the sleeping city with a peculiarly determined expression that said: This’ll do. Just because you’re born in the saddle doesn’t mean you have to die in the bloody thing.
Strangely enough, many of his distinctive features had, by a trick of heredity, been bequeathed to his descendant, accounting for her rather idiosyncratic attractiveness. They were never more apparent than now. Even Cutwell was impressed. When it came to determination, you could have cracked rocks on her jaw.
In exactly the same tone of voice that her ancestor had used when he addressed his weary, sweaty followers before the attack, she said:
‘No. No, I’m not going to accept it. I’m not going to dwindle into some sort of ghost. You’re going to help me, wizard.’
Cutwell’s subconscious recognised that tone. It had harmonics in it that made even the woodworm in the floorboards stop what they were doing and stand to attention. It wasn’t voicing an opinion, it was saying: things will be thus.
‘Me, madam?’ he quavered, ‘I don’t see what I can possibly—’
He was jerked off his chair and out into the street, his robes billowing around him. Keli marched towards the palace with her shoulders set determinedly, dragging the wizard behind her like a reluctant puppy. It was with such a walk that mothers used to bear down on the local school when their little boy came home with a black eye; it was unstoppable; it was like the March of Time.
‘What is it you intend?’ Cutwell stuttered, horribly aware that there was going to be nothing he could do to resist, whatever it was.
‘It’s your lucky day, wizard.’
‘Oh. Good,’ he said weakly.
‘You’ve just been appointed Royal Recogniser.’
‘Oh. What does that entail, exactly?’
‘You’re going to remind everyone I’m alive. It’s very simple. There’s three square meals a day and your laundry done. Step lively, man.’
‘You’re a wizard. I think there’s something you ought to know,’ said the princess.
THERE is? said Death.
(That was a cinematic trick adapted for print. Death wasn’t talking to the princess. He was actually in his study, talking to Mort. But it was quite effective, wasn’t it? It’s probably called a fast dissolve, or a crosscut/zoom. Or something. An industry where a senior technician is called a Best Boy might call it anything.)
AND WHAT IS THAT? he added, winding a bit of black silk around the wicked hook in a little vice he’d clamped to his desk.
Mort hesitated. Mostly this was because of fear and embarrassment, but it was also because the sight of a hooded spectre peacefully tying dry flies was enough to make anyone pause.
Besides, Ysabell was sitting on the other side of the room, ostensibly doing some needlework but also watching him through a cloud of sullen disapproval. He could feel her red-rimmed eyes boring into the back of his neck.
Death inserted a few crow hackles and whistled a busy little tune through his teeth, not having anything else to whistle through. He looked up.
They – didn’t go as smoothly as I thought,’ said Mort, standing nervously on the carpet in front of the desk.
You HAD TROUBLE? said Death, snipping off a few scraps of feather.
‘Well, you see, the witch wouldn’t come away, and the monk, well, he started out all over again.’
THERE’S NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT THERE, LAD —
‘— Mort —’
— YOU SHOULD HAVE WORKED OUT BY NOW THAT EVERYONE GETS WHAT THEY THINK IS COMING TO THEM. IT’S SO MUCH NEATER THAT WAY.
‘I know, sir. But that means bad people who think they’re going to some sort of paradise actually do get there. And good people who fear they’re going to some kind of horrible place really suffer. It doesn’t seem like justice.’
WHAT is IT I’VE SAID YOU MUST REMEMBER, WHEN YOU’RE OUT ON THE DUTY?
‘Well, you —’
Mort stuttered into silence.
THERE’S NO JUSTICE. THERE’S JUST YOU.
‘Well, I —’
YOU MUST REMEMBER THAT.
‘Yes, but —’
I EXPECT IT ALL WORKS OUT PROPERLY IN THE END. I HAVE NEVER MET THE CREATOR, BUT I’M TOLD HE’S QUITE KINDLY DISPOSED TO PEOPLE. Death snapped the thread and started to unwind the vice.
PUT SUCH THOUGHTS OUT OF YOUR MIND, he added. AT LEAST THE THIRD ONE SHOULDN’T HAVE GIVEN YOU ANY TROUBLE.
This was the moment. Mort had thought about it for a long tune. There was no sense in concealing it. He’d upset the whole future course of history. Such things tend to draw themselves to people’s attention. Best to get it off his chest. Own up like a man. Take his medicine. Cards on table. Beating about bush, none of. Mercy, throw himself on.
The piercing blue eyes glittered at him.
He looked back like a nocturnal rabbit trying to outstare the headlights of a sixteen-wheeled artic whose driver is a twelve-hour caffeine freak outrunning the tachometers of hell.
‘No, sir,’he said.
GOOD. WELL DONE. Now THEN, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS?
Anglers reckon that a good dry fly should cunningly mimic the real thing. There are the right flies for morning. There are different flies for the evening rise. And so on.
But the thing between Death’s triumphant digits was a fly from the dawn of time. It was the fly in the primordial soup. It had bred on mammoth turds. It wasn’t a fly that bangs on window panes, it was a fly that drills through walls. It was an insect that would crawl out from between the slats of the heaviest swat dripping venom and seeking revenge. Strange wings and dangling bits stuck out all over it. It seemed to have a lot of teeth.
‘What’s it called?’ said Mort.
I SHALL CALL IT – DEATH’S GLORY. Death gave the thing a final admiring glance and stuck it into the hood of his robe. I FEEL INCLINED TO SEE A LITTLE BIT OF LIFE THIS EVENING, he Said. YOU CAN TAKE THE DUTY, NOWTHATYOU’VEGOTTHEHANGOFIT.AS IT WERE.
‘Yes. Sir,’ said Mort, mournfully. He saw his life stretching out in front of him like a nasty black tunnel with no light at the end of it.
Death drummed his finger on the desk, muttered to himself.
AH YES, he said. ALBERT TELLS ME SOMEONE’S BEEN MEDDLING IN THE LIBRARY.
TAKING BOOKS our, LEAVING THEM LYING AROUND.
BOOKS ABOUT YOUNG WOMEN. HE SEEMS TO THINK IT IS AMUSING.
As has already been revealed, the Holy Listeners have such well developed hearing that they can be deafened by a good sunset. Just for a few seconds it seemed to Mort that the skin on the back of his neck was developing similar strange powers, because he could see Ysabell freeze in mid-stitch. He also heard the little intake of breath that he’d heard before, among the shelves. He remembered the lace handkerchief.
He said, ‘Yes, sir. It won’t happen again, sir.’
The skin on the back of his neck started to itch like fury.
SPLENDID. Now, YOU TWO CAN RUN ALONG. GET ALBERT TO DO YOU A PICNIC LUNCH OR SOMETHING. GET SOME FRESH AIR. I’VE NOTICED THE WAY YOU TWO ALWAYS AVOID EACH OTHER. He gave Mort a conspiratorial nudge – it was like being poked with a stick – and added, ALBERT’S TOLD ME WHAT THAT MEANS.
‘Has he?’ said Mort gloomily. He’d been wrong, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.
Death gave him another of his supernova winks.
Mort didn’t return it. Instead he turned and plodded towards the door, at a general speed and gait that made Great A’Tuin look like a spring lamb.
He was halfway along the corridor before he heard the soft rush of footsteps behind him and a hand caught his arm.
He turned and gazed at Ysabell through a fog of depression.
‘Why did you let him think it was you in the library?’
‘It was . . . very . . . kind of you,’ she said cautiously.
‘Was it? I can’t think what came over me.’ He felt in his pocket and produced the handkerchief. This belongs to you, I think.’
‘Thank you.’ She blew her nose noisily.
Mort was already well down the corridor, his shoulders hunched like vulture’s wings. She ran after him.
‘I say,’ she said.
‘I wanted to say thank you.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he muttered. ‘It’d just be best if you don’t take books away again. It upsets them, or something.’ He gave what he considered to be a mirthless laugh. ‘Ha!’
He’d reached the end of the corridor. There was the door into the kitchen, where Albert would be leering knowingly, and Mort decided he couldn’t face that. He stopped.
‘But I only took the books for a bit of company,’ she said behind him.
He gave in.
‘We could have a walk in the garden,’ he said in despair, and then managed to harden his heart a little and added, ‘Without obligation, that is.’
‘You mean you’re not going to marry me?’ she said. Mort was horrified. ‘Marry?’
‘Isn’t that what father brought you here for?’ she said. ‘He doesn’t need an apprentice, after all.’
‘You mean all those nudges and winks and little comments about some day my son all this will be yours?’ said Mort. ‘I tried to ignore them. I don’t want to get married to anyone yet,’ he added, suppressing a fleeting mental picture of the princess. ‘And certainly not to you, no offence meant.’
‘I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on the Disc,’ she said sweetly.
Mort was hurt by this. It was one thing not to want to marry someone, but quite another to be told they didn’t want to marry you.
‘At least I don’t look like I’ve been eating doughnuts in a wardrobe for years,’ he said, as they stepped out on to Death’s black lawn.
‘At least I walk as if my legs only had one knee each,’ she said.
‘My eyes aren’t two juugly poached eggs.’
Ysabell nodded. ‘On the other hand, my ears don’t look like something growing on a dead tree. What does juugly mean?’
‘You know, eggs like Albert does them.’
‘With the white all sticky and runny and full of slimy bits?’
‘A good word,’ she conceded thoughtfully. ‘But my hair, I put it to you, doesn’t look like something you clean a privy with.’
‘Certainly, but neither does mine look like a wet hedgehog.’
‘Pray note that my chest does not appear to be a toast rack in a wet paper bag.’
Mort glanced sideways at the top of Ysabell’s dress, which contained enough puppy fat for two litters of Rotweilers, and forbore to comment.
‘My eyebrows don’t look like a pair of mating caterpillars,’ he hazarded.