Steps led down into the velvet gloom. There were cobwebs and dust, and air that smelled as though it had been locked in a pyramid for a thousand years.
‘People don’t come down here very often,’ said Ysabell. ‘I’ll lead the way.’
Mort felt something was owed.
‘I must say,’ he said, ‘you’re a real brick.’
‘You mean pink, square and dumpy? You really know how to talk to a girl, my boy.’
‘Mort,’ said Mort automatically.
The Stack was as dark and silent as a cave deep underground. The shelves were barely far enough apart for one person to walk between them, and towered up well beyond the dome of candlelight. They were particularly eerie because they were silent. There were no more lives to write; the books slept. But Mort felt that they slept like cats, with one eye open. They were aware.
‘I came down here once,’ said Ysabell, whispering. ‘If you go far enough along the shelves the books run out and there’s clay tablets and lumps of stone and animal skins and everyone’s called Ug and Zog.’
The silence was almost tangible. Mort could feel the books watching them as they tramped through the hot, silent passages. Everyone who had ever lived was here somewhere, right back to the first people that the gods had baked out of mud or whatever. They didn’t exactly resent him, they were just wondering about why he was here.
‘Did you get past Ug and Zog?’ he hissed. There’s a lot of people would be very interested to know what’s there.’
‘I got frightened. It’s a long way and I didn’t have enough candles.’
Ysabell stopped so sharply that Mort cannoned into the back of her.
This would be about the right area,’ she said. ‘What now?’
Mort peered at the faded names on the spines.
‘They don’t seem to be in any order!’ he moaned.
They looked up. They wandered down a couple of side alleys. They pulled a few books off the lowest shelves at random, raising pillows of dust.
‘This is silly,’ said Mort at last. There’s millions of lives here. The chances of finding his are worse than —’
Ysabell laid her hand against his mouth.
Mort mumbled a bit through her fingers and then got the message. He strained his ears, striving to hear anything above the heavy hiss of absolute silence.
And then he found it. A faint, irritable scratching. High, high overhead, somewhere in the impenetrable darkness on the cliff of shelves, a life was still being written.
They looked at each other, their eyes widening. Then Ysabell said, ‘We passed a ladder back there. On wheels.’
The little castors on the bottom squeaked as Mort rolled it back. The top end moved too, as if it was fixed to another set of wheels somewhere up in the darkness.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Give me the candle, and —’
‘If the candle’s going up, then so am I,’ said Ysabell firmly. ‘You stop down here and move the ladder when I say. And don’t argue.’
‘It might be dangerous up there,’ said Mort gallantly.
‘It might be dangerous down here,’ Ysabell pointed out. ‘So I’ll be up the ladder with the candle, thank you.’
She set her foot on the bottom rung and was soon no more than a frilly shadow outlined in a halo of candlelight that soon began to shrink.
Mort steadied the ladder and tried not to think of all the lives pressing in on him. Occasionally a meteor of hot wax would thump into the floor beside him, raising a crater in the dust. Ysabell was now a faint glow far above, and he could feel every footstep as it vibrated down the ladder.
She stopped. It seemed to be for quite a long time.
Then her voice floated down, deadened by the weight of silence around them.
‘Mort, I’ve found it.’
‘Good. Bring it down.’
‘Mort, you were right.’
‘Okay, thanks. Now bring it down,’
‘Yes, Mort, but which one?’
‘Don’t mess about, that candle won’t last much longer.’
‘Mort, there’s a whole shelf!’
Now it really was dawn, that cusp of the day that belonged to no-one except the seagulls in Morpork docks, the tide that rolled in up the river, and a warm turnwise wind that added a smell of spring to the complex odour of the city.
Death sat on a bollard, looking out to sea. He had decided to stop being drunk. It made his head ache.
He’d tried fishing, dancing, gambling and drink, allegedly four of life’s greatest pleasures, and wasn’t sure that he saw the point. Food he was happy with – Death liked a good meal as much as anyone else. He couldn’t think of any other pleasures of the flesh or, rather, he could, but they were, well, fleshy, and he couldn’t see how it would be possible to go about them without some major bodily restructuring, which he wasn’t going to contemplate. Besides, humans seemed to leave off doing them as they grew older, so presumably they couldn’t be that attractive.
Death began to feel that he wouldn’t understand people as long as he lived.
The sun made the cobbles steam and Death felt the faintest tingling of that little springtime urge that can send a thousand tons of sap pumping through fifty feet of timber in a forest.
The seagulls swooped and dived around him. A one-eyed cat, down to its eighth life and its last ear, emerged from its lair in a heap of abandoned fish boxes, stretched, yawned, and rubbed itself against his legs. The breeze, cutting through Ankh’s famous smell, brought a hint of spices and fresh bread.
Death was bewildered. He couldn’t fight it. He was actually feeling glad to be alive, and very reluctant to be Death.
I MUST BE SICKENING FOR SOMETHING, he thought.
Mort eased himself up the ladder alongside Ysabell. It was shaky, but seemed to be safe. At least the height didn’t bother him; everything below was just blackness.
Some of Albert’s earlier volumes were very nearly falling apart. He reached out for one at random, feeling the ladder tremble underneath them as he did so, brought it back and opened it somewhere in the middle.
‘Move the candle this way,’ he said.
‘Can you read it?’
‘Sort of —’
— “turnered hys hand, butt was sorelie vexed that alle menne at laste comme to nort, viz. Deathe, and vowed hymme to seke Imortalitie yn his pride. ‘Thus,’ he tolde the younge wizzerds, ‘we may take unto ourselfes the mantel of Goddes.’ Thee next day, yt being raining, Alberto” —
‘It’s written in Old,’ he said. ‘Before they invented spelling. Let’s have a look at the latest one.’
It was Albert all right. Mort caught several references to fried bread.
‘Let’s have a look at what he’s doing now,’ said Ysabell.
‘Do you think we should? It’s a bit like spying.’
‘So what? Scared?’
He flicked through until he came to the unfilled pages, and then turned back until he found the story of Albert’s life, crawling across the page at surprising speed considering it was the middle of the night; most biographies didn’t have much to say about sleep, unless the dreams were particularly vivid.
‘Hold the candle properly, will you? I don’t want to get grease on his life.’
‘Why not? He likes grease.’
‘Stop giggling, you’ll have us both off. Now look at this bit. . . .
— ‘He crept through the dusty darkness of the Stack —’ Ysabell read – ‘his eyes fixed on the tiny glow of candlelight high above. Prying, he thought, poking away at things that shouldn’t concern them, the little devils’ —
‘Mort! He’s —’
‘Shut up! I’m reading!’
— ‘soon put a stop to this. Albert crept silently to the foot of the ladder, spat on his hands, and got ready to push. The master’d never know; he was acting strange these days and it was all that lad’s fault, and’ —
Mort looked up into Ysabell’s horrified eyes.
Then the girl took the book out of Mort’s hand, held it at arm’s length while her gaze remained fixed woodenly on his, and let it go.
Mort watched her lips move and then realised that he, too, was counting under his breath.
Three, four —
There was a dull thump, a muffled cry, and silence.
‘Do you think you’ve killed him?’ said Mort, after a while.
‘What, here? Anyway, I didn’t notice any better ideas coming from you.’
‘No, but – he is an old man, after all.’
‘No, he’s not,’ said Ysabell sharply, starting down the ladder.
‘Two thousand years?’
‘Not a day over sixty-seven.’
‘The books said —’
‘I told you, time doesn’t apply here. Not real time. Don’t you listen, boy?’
‘Mort,’ said Mort.
‘And stop treading on my fingers, I’m going as fast as I can.’
‘And don’t act so wet. Have you any idea how boring it is living here?’
‘Probably not,’ said Mort, adding with genuine longing, ‘I’ve heard about boredom but I’ve never had a chance to try it.’
‘If it comes to that, excitement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’
‘Anything’s got to be better than this.’
There was a groan from below, and then a stream of swearwords.
Ysabell peered into the gloom.
‘Obviously I didn’t damage his cursing muscles,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I ought to listen to words like that. It could be bad for my moral fibre.’
They found Albert slumped against the foot of the bookshelf, muttering and holding his arm.
‘There’s no need to make that kind of fuss,’ said Ysabell briskly. ‘You’re not hurt; father simply doesn’t allow that kind of thing to happen.’
‘What did you have to go and do that for?’ he moaned. ‘I didn’t mean any harm.’
‘You were going to push us off,’ said Mort, trying to help him up. ‘I read it. I’m surprised you didn’t use magic.’
Albert glared at him.
‘Oh, so you’ve found out, have you?’ he said quietly. Then much good may it do you. You’ve no right to go prying.’
He struggled to his feet, shook off Mort’s hand, and stumbled back along the hushed shelves.
‘No, wait,’ said Mort, ‘I need your help!’
‘Well, of course,’ said Albert over his shoulder. ‘It stands to reason, doesn’t it? You thought, I’ll just go and pry into someone’s private life and then I’ll drop it on him and then I’ll ask him to help me.’
‘I only wanted to find out if you were really you,’ said Mort, running after him.
‘I am. Everyone is.’
‘But if you don’t help me something terrible will happen! There’s this princess, and she —’
Terrible things happen all the time, boy —’
‘— Mort —’
‘— and no-one expects me to do anything about it.’
‘But you were the greatest!’
Albert stopped for a moment, but did not look around.
‘Was the greatest, was the greatest. And don’t you try to butter me up. I ain’t butterable.’
‘They’ve got statues to you and everything,’ said Mort, trying not to yawn.
‘More fool them, then.’ Albert reached the foot of the steps into the library proper, stamped up them and stood outlined against the candlelight from the library.
‘You mean you won’t help?’ said Mort. ‘Not even if you can?’
‘Give the boy a prize,’ growled Albert. ‘And it’s no good thinking you can appeal to my better nature under this here crusty exterior,’ he added, ‘cos my interior’s pretty damn crusty too.’
They heard him cross the library floor as though he had a grudge against it, and slam the door behind him.
‘Well,’ said Mort, uncertainly.
‘What did you expect?’ snapped Ysabell. ‘He doesn’t care for anyone much except father.’
‘It’s just that I thought someone like him would help if I explained it properly,’ said Mort. He sagged. The rush of energy that had propelled him through the long night had evaporated, filling his mind with lead. ‘You know he was a famous wizard?’
That doesn’t mean anything, wizards aren’t necessarily nice. Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards because a refusal often offends, I read somewhere.’ Ysabell stepped closer to Mort and peered at him with some concern. ‘You look like something left on a plate,’ she said.