Mort (Discworld #4)

15,757
07.03.2019

‘I think there’s some people here to see you,’ said Mort, and hurried away. As he reached the passageway the Vizier’s soul started to scream. . . .

Ysabell was standing patiently by Binky, who was making a late lunch of a five-hundred-year-old bonsai tree.

‘One down,’ said Mort, climbing into the saddle. ‘Come on. I’ve got a bad feeling about the next one, and we haven’t much time.’

Albert materialised in the centre of Unseen University, in the same place, in fact, from which he had departed the world some two thousand years before.

He grunted with satisfaction and brushed a few specks of dust off his robe.

He became aware that he was being watched; on looking up, he discovered that he had flashed into existence under the stern marble gaze of himself.

He adjusted his spectacles and peered disapprovingly at the bronze plaque screwed to his pedestal. It said:

‘Alberto Malich, Founder of This University. AM 1,222-1,289. “We Will Not See His Like Again”.’

So much for prediction, he thought. And if they thought so much of him they could at least have hired a decent sculptor. It was disgraceful. The nose was all wrong. Call that a leg? People had been carving their names on it, too. He wouldn’t be seen dead in a hat like that, either. Of course, if he could help it, he wouldn’t be seen dead at all.

Albert aimed an octarine thunderbolt at the ghastly thing and grinned evilly as it exploded into dust.

‘Right,’ he said to the Disc at large, ‘I’m back.’ The tingle from the magic coursed all the way up his arm and started a warm glow in his mind. How he’d missed it, all these years.

Wizards came hurrying through the big double doors at the sound of the explosion and cleared the wrong conclusion from a standing start.

There was the pedestal, empty. There was a cloud of marble dust over everything. And striding out of it, muttering to himself, was Albert.

The wizards at the back of the crowd started to have it away as quickly and quietly as possible. There wasn’t one of them that hadn’t, at some time in his jolly youth, put a common bedroom utensil on old Albert’s head or carved his name somewhere on the statue’s chilly anatomy, or spilled beer on the pedestal. Worse than that, too, during Rag Week when the drink flowed quickly and the privy seemed too far to stagger. These had all seemed hilarious ideas at the time. They suddenly didn’t, now.

Only two figures remained to face the statue’s wrath, one because he had got his robe caught in the door and the other because he was, in fact, an ape and could therefore take a relaxed attitude to human affairs.

Albert grabbed the wizard, who was trying desperately to walk into the wall. The man squealed.

‘All right, all right, I admit it! I was drunk at the time, believe me, didn’t mean it, gosh, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry —’

‘What are you bleating about, man?’ said Albert, genuinely puzzled.

‘— so sorry, if I tried to tell you how sorry I am we’d —’

‘Stop this bloody nonsense!’ Albert glanced down at the little ape, who gave him a warm friendly smile. ‘What’s your name, man?’

‘Yes, sir, I’ll stop, sir, right away, no more nonsense, sir . . . Rincewind, sir. Assistant librarian, if it’s all right by you.’

Albert looked him up and down. The man had a desperate scuffed look, like something left out for the laundry. He decided that if this was what wizarding had come to, someone ought to do something about it.

‘What sort of librarian would have you for assistant?’ he demanded irritably.

‘Oook.’

Something like awarm soft leather glove tried to hold his hand.

‘A monkey! In my university!’

‘Orang-outang, sir. He used to be a wizard but got caught in some magic, sir, now he won’t let us turn him back, and he’s the only one who knows where all the books are,’ said Rincewind urgently. ‘I look after his bananas,’ he added, feeling some additional explanation was called for.

Albert glared at him. ‘Shut up.’

‘Shutting up right away, sir.’

‘And tell me where Death is.’

‘Death, sir?’ said Rincewind, backing against the wall.

Tall, skeletal, blue eyes, stalks, TALKS LIKE THIS . . . Death. Seen him lately?’

Rincewind swallowed. ‘Not lately, sir.’

‘Well, I want him. This nonsense has got to stop. I’m going to stop it now, see? I want the eight most senior wizards assembled here, right, in half an hour with all the necessary equipment to perform the Rite of AshkEnte, is that understood? Not that the sight of you lot gives me any confidence. Bunch of pantywaisters the lot of you, and stop trying to hold my hand!’

‘Oook.’

‘And now I’m going to the pub,’ snapped Albert. ‘Do they sell any halfway decent cat’s piss anywhere these days?’

There’s the Drum, sir,’ said Rincewind.

‘The Broken Drum? In Filigree Street? Still there?’

‘Well, they change the name sometimes and rebuild it completely but the site has been, er, on the site for years. I expect you’re pretty dry, eh, sir?’ Rincewind said, with an air of ghastly camaraderie.

‘What would you know about it?’ said Albert sharply.

‘Absolutely nothing, sir,’ said Rincewind promptly.

‘I’m going to the Drum, then. Half an hour, mind. And if they’re not waiting for me when I come back, then well, they’d just better be!’

He stormed out of the hall in a cloud of marble dust.

Rincewind watched him go. The librarian held his hand.

‘You know the worst of it?’ said Rincewind.

‘Oook?’

‘I don’t even remember walking under a mirror.’

At about the time Albert was in The Mended Drum arguing with the landlord over a yellowing bar tab that had been handed down carefully from father to son through one regicide, three civil wars, sixty-one major fires, four hundred and ninety robberies and more than fifteen thousand barroom brawls to record the fact that Alberto Malich still owed the management three copper pieces plus interest currently standing at the contents of most of the Disc’s larger strongrooms, which proved once again that an Ankhian merchant with an unpaid bill has the kind of memory that would make an elephant blink . . . at about this time, Binky was leaving a vapour trail in skies above the great mysterious continent of Klatch.

Far below drums sounded in the scented, shadowy jungles and columns of curling mist rose from hidden rivers where nameless beasts lurked under the surface and waited for supper to walk past.

‘There’s no more cheese, you’ll have to have the ham,’ said Ysabell. ‘What’s that light over there?’

The Light Dams,’ said Mort. ‘We’re getting closer.’ He pulled the hourglass out of his pocket and checked the level of the sand.

‘But not close enough, dammit!’

The Light Dams lay like pools of light hubwards of their course, which is exactly what they were; some of the tribes constructed mirror walls in the desert mountains to collect the Disc sunlight, which is slow and slightly heavy. It was used as currency.

Binky glided over the campfires of the nomads and the silent marshes of the Tsort river. Ahead of them dark, familiar shapes began to reveal themselves in the moonlight.

The Pyramids of Tsort by moonlight!’ breathed Ysabell, ‘How romantic!’

MORTARED WITH THE BLOOD OF THOUSANDS OF SLAVES, observed Mort.

‘Please don’t.’

‘I’m sorry, but the practical fact of the matter is that these —’

‘All right, all right, you’ve made your point,’ said Ysabell irritably.

‘It’s a lot of effort to go to to bury a dead king,’ said Mort, as they circled above one of the smaller pyramids. They fill them full of preservative, you know, so they’ll survive into the next world.’

‘Does it work?’

‘Not noticeably.’ Mort leaned over Binky’s neck. ‘Torches down there,’ he said. ‘Hang On.’

A procession was winding away from the avenue of pyramids, led by a giant statue of Offler the Crocodile God borne by a hundred sweating slaves. Binky cantered above it, entirely unnoticed, and performed a perfect four-point landing on the hard-packed sand outside the pyramid’s entrance.

‘They’ve pickled another king,’ said Mort. He examined the glass again in the moonlight. It was quite plain, not the sort normally associated with royalty.

That can’t be him,’ said Ysabell. They don’t pickle them when they’re still alive, do they?’

‘I hope not, because I read where, before they do the preserving, they, um, cut them open and remove —’

‘I don’t want to hear it —’

‘— all the soft bits,’ Mort concluded lamely. ‘It’s just as well the pickling doesn’t work, really, just imagine having to walk around with no —’

‘So it isn’t the king you’ve come to take,’ said Ysabell loudly. ‘Who is it, then?’

Mort turned towards the dark entrance. It wouldn’t be sealed until dawn, to give time for the dead king’s soul to leave. It looked deep and foreboding, hinting at purposes considerably more dire than, say, keeping a razor blade nice and sharp.

‘Let’s find out,’ he said.

‘Look out! He’s coming back!’

The University’s eight most senior wizards shuffled into line, tried to smooth out their beards and in general made an unsuccessful effort to look presentable. It wasn’t easy. They had been snatched from their workrooms, or a postprandial brandy in front of a roaring fire, or quiet contemplation under a handkerchief in a comfy chair somewhere, and all of them were feeling extremely apprehensive and rather bewildered. They kept glancing at the empty pedestal.

Only one creature could have duplicated the expressions on their faces, and that would be a pigeon who has heard not only that Lord Nelson has got down off his column but has also been seen buying a 12-bore repeater and a box of cartridges.

‘He’s coming up the corridor!’ shouted Rincewind, and dived behind a pillar.

The assembled mages watched the big double doors as if they were about to explode, which shows how prescient they were, because they exploded. Matchstick-sized bits of oak rained down among them and a small thin figure stood outlined against the light. It held a smoking staff in one hand. The other held a small yellow toad.

‘Rincewind!’ bawled Albert.

‘Sir!’

‘Take this thing away and dispose of it.’

The toad crawled into Rincewind’s hand and gave him an apologetic look.

That’s the last time that bloody landlord gives any lip to a wizard,’ said Albert with smug satisfaction. ‘It seems I turn my back for a few hundred years and suddenly people in this town are encouraged to think they can talk back to wizards, eh?’

One of the senior wizards mumbled something.

‘What was that? Speak up, that man!’

‘As the bursar of this university I must say that we’ve always encouraged a good neighbour policy with respect to the community,’ mumbled the wizard, trying to avoid Albert’s gimlet stare. He had an upturned chamber pot on his conscience, with three cases of obscene graffiti to be taken into consideration.

Albert let his mouth drop open. ‘Why?’ he said.

‘Well, er, a sense of civic duty, we feel it’s vitally important that we show an examp— arrgh!’

The wizard tried desperately to beat out the flames in his beard. Albert lowered his staff and looked slowly along the row of mages. They swayed away from his stare like grass in a gale.

‘Anyone else want to show a sense of civic duty?’ he said. ‘Good neighbours, anybody?’ He drew himself up to his full height. ‘You spineless maggots! I didn’t found this University so you could lend people the bloody lawnmower! What’s the use of having the power if you don’t wield it? Man doesn’t show you respect, you don’t leave enough of his damn inn to roast chestnuts on, understand?’

Something like a soft sigh went up from the assembled wizards. They stared sadly at the toad in Rincewind’s hand. Most of them, in the days of their youth, had mastered the art of getting rascally drunk at the Drum. Of course, all that was behind them now, but the Guild of Merchants’ annual knife-and-fork supper would have been held in the Drum’s upstairs room the following evening, and all the Eighth Level wizards had been sent complimentary tickets; there would have been roast swan and two kinds of trifle and lots of fraternal toasts to ‘Our esteemed, nay, distinguished guests’ until it was time for the college porters to turn up with the wheelbarrows.

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