The sun crept over the horizon, decided to make a run for it, and began to rise.
But it would be some time before its slow light rolled across the sleeping Disc, herding the night ahead of it, and nocturnal shadows still ruled the city.
They clustered now around The Mended Drum in Filigree Street, foremost of the city’s taverns. It was famed not for its beer, which looked like maiden’s water and tasted like battery acid, but for its clientele. It was said that if you sat long enough in the Drum, then sooner or later every major hero on the Disc would steal your horse.
The atmosphere inside was still loud with talk and heavy with smoke although the landlord was doing all those things landlords do when they think it’s time to close, like turn some of the lights out, wind up the clock, put a cloth over the pumps and, just in case, check the whereabouts of their club with the nails hammered in it. Not that the customers were taking the slightest bit of notice, of course. To most of the Drum’s clientele even the nailed club would have been considered a mere hint.
However, they were sufficiently observant to be vaguely worried by the tall dark figure standing by the bar and drinking his way through its entire contents.
Lonely, dedicated drinkers always generate a mental field which ensures complete privacy, but this particular one was radiating a kind of fatalistic gloom that was slowly emptying the bar.
This didn’t worry the barman, because the lonely figure was engaged in a very expensive experiment.
Every drinking place throughout the multiverse has them – those shelves of weirdly-shaped, sticky bottles that not only contain exotically-named liquid, which is often blue or green, but also odds and ends that bottles of real drink would never stoop to contain, such as whole fruits, bits of twig and, in extreme cases, small drowned lizards. No-one knows why barmen stock so many, since they all taste like treacle dissolved in turpentine. It has been speculated that they dream of a day when someone will walk in off the street unbidden and ask for a glass of Peach Corniche with A Hint Of Mint and overnight the place will become somewhere To Be Seen At.
The stranger was working his way along the row.
WHAT is THAT GREEN ONE?
The landlord peered at the label.
‘It says it’s Melon Brandy,’ he said doubtfully. ‘It says it’s bottled by some monks to an ancient recipe,’he added.
I WILL TRY IT.
The man looked sideways at the empty glasses on the counter, some of them still containing bits of fruit salad, cherries on a stick and small paper umbrellas.
‘Are you sure you haven’t had enough?’ he said. It worried him vaguely that he couldn’t seem to make out the stranger’s face.
The glass, with its drink crystallising out on the sides, disappeared into the hood and came out again empty.
No. WHAT is THE YELLOW ONE WITH THE WASPS IN IT?
‘Spring Cordial, it says. Yes?’
YES. AND THEN THE BLUE ONE WITH THE GOLD FLECKS.
‘Er. Old Overcoat?’
YES. AND THEN THE SECOND ROW.
‘Which one did you have in mind?’
ALL OF THEM.
The stranger remained bolt upright, the glasses with their burdens of syrup and assorted vegetation disappearing into the hood on a production line basis.
This is it, the landlord thought, this is style, this is where I buy a red jacket and maybe put some monkey nuts and a few gherkins on the counter, get a few mirrors around the place, replace the sawdust. He picked up a beer-soaked cloth and gave the woodwork a few enthusiastic wipes, speading the drips from the cordial glasses into a rainbow smear that took the varnish off. The last of the usual customers put on his hat and staggered out, muttering to himself.
I DON’T SEE THE POINT, the stranger said.
WHAT is SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN?
‘How many drinks have you had?’
‘Just about anything, then,’ said the barman and, because he knew his job and knew what was expected of him when people drank alone in the small hours, he started to polish a glass with the slops cloth and said, ‘Your lady thrown you out, has she?’
‘Drowning your sorrows, are you?’
I HAVE NO SORROWS.
‘No, of course not. Forget I mentioned it.’ He gave the glass a few more wipes. ‘Just thought it helps to have someone to talk to,’ he said.
The stranger was silent for a moment, thinking. Then he said: You WANT TO TALK TO ME?
‘Yes. Sure. I’m a good listener.’
NO-ONE EVER WANTED TO TALK TO ME BEFORE.
‘That’s a shame.’
THEY NEVER INVITE ME TO PARTIES, YOU KNOW.
THEY ALL HATE ME. EVERYONE HATES ME. I DONT HAVE A SINGLE FRIEND.
‘Everyone ought to have a friend,’ said the barman sagely.
I THINK —
I THINK . . . I THINK I COULD BE FRIENDS WITH THE GREEN BOTTLE.
The landlord slid the octagon-bottle along the counter. Death took it and tilted it over the glass. The liquid tinkled on the rim.
YOU DRUNK I’M THINK, DON’T YOU?
‘I serve anyone who can stand upright best out of three,’ said the landlord.
YOURRRE ABSOROOTLY RIGHT. BUT I —
The stranger paused, one declamatory finger in the air.
WAS WHAT I SAYING?
‘You said I thought you were drunk.’
AH. YES, BUT I CAN BE SHOBER ANY TIME I LIKE. THIS ISH AN EXPERIMENT. AND NOW I WOULD LIKES TO EXPERIMENT WITH THE ORANGE BRANDY AGAIN.
The landlord sighed, and glanced at the clock. There was no doubt that he was making a lot of money, especially since the stranger didn’t seem inclined to worry about overcharging or short change. But it was getting late; in fact it was getting so late that it was getting early. There was also something about the solitary customer that unsettled him. People in The Mended Drum often drank as though there was no tomorrow, but this was the first time he’d actually felt they might be right.
I MEAN, WHAT HAVE I GOT TO LOOK FORWARD TO? WHERE’S THE SENSE IN IT ALL? WHAT IS IT REALLY ALL ABOUT?
‘Can’t say, my friend. I expect you’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.’
SLEEP? SLEEP? I NEVER SLEEP. I’M WOSSNAME, PROVERBIAL FOR IT.
‘Everyone needs their sleep. Even me,’ he hinted.
THEY ALL HATE ME, YOU KNOW.
‘Yes, you said. But it’s a quarter to three.’
The stranger turned unsteadily and looked around the silent room.
THERE’S NO-ONE IN THE PLACE BUT YOU AND I, he said.
The landlord lifted up the flap and came around the bar, helping the stranger down from his stool.
I HAVEN’T GOT A SINGLE FRIEND. EVEN CATS FIND ME AMUSING.
A hand shot out and grabbed a bottle of Amanita Liquor before the man managed to propel its owner to the door, wondering how someone so thin could be so heavy.
I DON’T HAVE TO BE DRUNK, I SAID. WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE TO BE DRUNK? IS IT FUN?
‘Helps them forget about life, old chap. Now just you lean there while I get the door open —’
FORGET ABOUT LIFE. HA. HA.
‘You come back any time you like, y’hear?’
YOU’D REALLY LIKE TO SEE ME AGAIN?
The landlord looked back at the small heap of coins on the bar. That was worth a little weirdness. At least this one was a quiet one, and seemed to be harmless.
‘Oh, yes,’ he said, propelling the stranger into the street and retrieving the bottle in one smooth movement. ‘Drop in anytime.’
THAT’S THE NICEHEST THING —
The door slammed on the rest of the sentence.
Ysabell sat up in bed.
The knocking came again, soft and urgent. She pulled the covers up to her chin.
‘Who is it?’ she whispered.
‘It’s me, Mort,’ came the hiss under the door. ‘Let me in, please!’
Ysabell scrambled frantically on the bedside table for the matches, knocking over a bottle of toilet water and dislodging a box of chocolates that was now mostly discarded wrappers. Once she’d got the candle alight she adjusted its position for maximum effect, tweaked the line of her nightdress into something more revealing, and said: ‘It’s not locked.’
Mort staggered into the room, smelling of horses and frost and scumble.
‘I hope,’ said Ysabell archly, ‘that you have not forced your way in here in order to take advantage of your position in this household.’
Mort looked around him. Ysabell was heavily into frills. Even the dressing table seemed to be wearing a petticoat. The whole room wasn’t so much furnished as lingeried.
‘Look, I haven’t got time to mess around,’ he said. ‘Bring that candle into the library. And for heaven’s sake put on something sensible, you’re overflowing.’
Ysabell looked down, and then her head snapped up.
Mort poked his head back round the door. ‘It’s a matter of life and death,’ he added, and disappeared.
Ysabell watched the door creak shut after him, revealing the blue dressing gown with the tassels that Death had thought up for her as a present last Hogswatch and which she hadn’t the heart to throw away, despite the fact that it was a size too small and had a rabbit on the pocket.
Finally she swung her legs out of bed, slipped into the shameful dressing gown, and padded out into the corridor. Mort was waiting for her.
‘Won’t father hear us?’ she said.
‘He’s not back. Come on.’
‘How can you tell?’
‘The place feels different when he’s here. It’s – it’s like the difference between a coat when it’s being worn and when it’s hanging on a hook. Haven’t you noticed?’
‘What are we doing that’s so important?’
Mort pushed open the library door. A gust of warm, dry air drifted out, and the door hinges issued a protesting creak.
‘We’re going to save someone’s life,’ he said. ‘A princess, actually.’
Ysabell was instantly fascinated.
‘A real princess? I mean can she feel a pea through a dozen mattresses?’
‘Can she —?’ Mort felt a minor worry disappear. ‘Oh. Yes. I thought Albert had got it wrong.’
‘Are you in love with her?’
Mort came to a standstill between the shelves, aware of the busy little scritchings inside the book covers.
‘It’s hard to be sure,’ he said. ‘Do I look it?’
‘You look a bit flustered. How does she feel about you?’
‘Ah,’ said Ysabell knowingly, in the tones of an expert. ‘Unrequited love is the worst kind. It’s probably not a good idea to go taking poison or killing yourself, though,’ she added thoughtfully. ‘What are we doing here? Do you want to find her book to see if she marries you?’
‘I’ve read it, and she’s dead,’ said Mort. ‘But only technically. I mean, not really dead.’
‘Good, otherwise that would be necromancy. What are we looking for?’
‘What for? I don’t think he’s got one.’
‘Everyone’s got one.’
‘Well, he doesn’t like people asking personal questions. I looked for it once and I couldn’t find it. Albert by itself isn’t much to go on. Why is he so interesting?’ Ysabell lit a couple of candles from the one in her hand and filled the library with dancing shadows.
‘I need a powerful wizard and I think he’s one.’
‘Yes. Only we’re looking for Alberto Malich. He’s more than two thousand years old, I think.’
‘He never wears a wizard’s hat,’ said Ysabell doubtfully.
‘He lost it. Anyway, the hat isn’t compulsory. Where do we start looking?’
‘Well, if you’re sure . . . the Stack, I suppose. That’s where father puts all the biographies that are more than five hundred years old. It’s this way.’
She led the way past the whispering shelves to a door set in a cul-de-sac. It opened with some effort and the groan of the hinges reverberated around the library; Mort fancied for a moment that all the books paused momentarily in their work just to listen.