‘What had you in mind?’
‘You’re now a priest. Name your own god.’
Cutwell curtsied, and took the crown from Ysabell.
‘You’re all making fun of me!’ snapped Keli.
‘Sorry,’ said Mort, wearily. ‘It’s been rather a long day.’
‘I hope I can do this right,’ said Cutwell solemnly. ‘I’ve never crowned anyone before.’
‘I’ve never been crowned before!’
‘Good,’ said Cutwell soothingly. ‘We can learn together.’ He started to mutter some impressive words in a strange tongue. It was in fact a simple spell for ridding the clothing of fleas, but he thought, what the hell. And then he thought, gosh, in this reality I’m the most powerful wizard there ever was, that’d be something to tell my grandch . . . He gritted his teeth. There’d be some rules changed in this reality, that was for sure.
Ysabell sat down beside Mort and slipped her hand in his.
‘Well?’ she said quietly. This is the time. Has anything suggested itself?’
The interface was more than halfway down the hall, slowing slightly as it relentlessly ground down the pressure of the intruding reality.
Something wet and warm blew in Mort’s ear. He reached up and touched Binky’s muzzle.
‘Dear old horse,’ he said. ‘And I’m right out of sugar lumps. You’ll have to find your way home by yourself —’
His hand stopped in mid-pat.
‘We can all go home,’ he said.
‘I don’t think father would like that very much,’ said Ysabell, but Mort ignored her.
‘We’re leaving. Are you coming? You’ll still exist when the interface closes.’
‘Part of me will,’ said the wizard.
‘That’s what I meant,’ said Mort, swinging himself up on to Binky’s back.
‘But speaking as the part that won’t, I’d like to join you,’ said Cutwell quickly.
‘I intend to stay here to die in my own kingdom,’ said Keli.
‘What you intend doesn’t signify,’ said Mort. ‘I’ve come all the way across the Disc to rescue you, d’you see, and you’re going to be rescued.’
‘But I’m the queen!’ said Keli. Uncertainty welled up in her eyes, and she spun round to Cutwell, who lowered his candle-stick guiltily. ‘I heard you say the words! I am queen, aren’t I?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Cutwell instantly; and then, because a wizard’s word is supposed to be harder than cast iron, added virtuously, ‘And totally free from infestation, too.’
‘Cutwell!’ snapped Mort. The wizard nodded, caught Keli around the waist and bodily hoisted her on to Binky’s back. Hoisting his skirts around his waist he clambered up behind Mort and reached down and swung Ysabell up behind him. The horse jigged across the floor, complaining about the overloading, but Mort turned him towards the broken doorway and urged him forward.
The interface followed them as they clattered down the hall and into the courtyard, rising slowly. Its pearly fog was only yards away, tightening by inches.
‘Excuse me,’ said Cutwell to Ysabell, raising his hat. ‘Igneous Cutwell, Wizard Ist Grade (UU), former Royal Recogniser and soon to be beheaded probably. Would you happen to know where we are going?’
To my father’s country,’ shouted Ysabell, above the wind of their passage.
‘Have I ever met him?’
‘I don’t think so. You’d have remembered.’
The top of the palace wall scraped Binky’s hooves as, muscles straining, he sought for more height. Cutwell leaned backward again, holding on to his hat.
‘Who is this gentleman of which we speak?’ he yelled.
‘Death,’ said Ysabell.
‘Oh.’ Cutwell peered down at the distant rooftops, and gave her a lopsided smile. ‘Would it save time if I just jumped off now?’
‘He’s quite nice if you get to know him,’ said Ysabell defensively.
‘Is he? Do you think we’ll get the chance?’
‘Hold on!’ said Mort. ‘We should be going across just about —’
A hole full of blackness rushed out of the sky and caught them.
The interface bobbed uncertainly, empty as a pauper’s pocket, and carried on shrinking.
The front door opened. Ysabell poked her head out.
‘There’s no-one at home,’ she said. ‘You’d better come in.’
The other three filed into the hallway. Cutwell conscientiously wiped his feet.
‘It’s a bit small,’ said Keli, critically.
‘It’s a lot bigger inside,’ said Mort, and turned to Ysabell. ‘Have you looked everywhere?’
‘I can’t even find Albert,’ she said. ‘I can’t remember him ever not being here.’
She coughed, remembering her duties as hostess.
‘Would anyone like a drink?’ she said. Keli ignored her.
‘I was expecting a castle at least,’ she said. ‘Big and black, with great dark towers. Not an umbrella stand.’
‘It has got a scythe in it,’ Cutwell pointed out.
‘Let’s all go into the study and sit down and I’m sure we’ll all feel better,’ said Ysabell hurriedly, and pushed open the black baize door.
Cutwell and Keli stepped through, bickering. Ysabell took Mort’s arm.
‘What are we going to do now?’ she said. ‘Father will be very angry if he finds them here.’
‘I’ll think of something,’ said Mort. ‘I’ll rewrite the autobiographies or something.’ He smiled weakly. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll think of something.’
The door slammed behind him. Mort turned to look into Albert’s grinning face.
The big leather armchair behind the desk revolved slowly. Death looked at Mort over steepled fingers. When he was quite certain he had their full, horrified attention, he said:
YOU HAD BETTER START NOW.
He stood up, appearing to grow larger as the room darkened.
DON’T BOTHER TO APOLOGISE, he added. Keli buried her head in Cutwell’s ample chest.
I AM BACK. AND I AM ANGRY.
‘Master, I —’ Mort began.
SHUT UP, said Death. He beckoned Keli with a calcareous forefinger. She turned to look at him, her body not daring to disobey.
Death reached out and touched her chin. Mort’s hand went to his sword.
IS THIS THE FACE THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND SHIPS, AND BURNED THE TOPLESS TOWERS OF PSEUDO—
POLIS? wondered Death. Keli stared hypnotised at the red pinpoints miles deep in those dark sockets.
‘Er, excuse me,’ said Cutwell, holding his hat respectfully, Mexican fashion.
WELL? said Death, distracted.
‘It isn’t, sir. You must be thinking about another face.’
WHAT is YOUR NAME?
‘Cutwell, sir. I’m a wizard, sir.’
I’M A WIZARD, SIR, Death sneered. BE SILENT, WIZARD.
‘Sir.’ Cutwell stepped back.
Death turned to Ysabell.
DAUGHTER, EXPLAIN YOURSELF. WHY DID YOU AID THIS FOOL?
Ysabell curtsied nervously.
‘I – love him, father. I think.’
‘You do?’ said Mort, astonished. ‘You never said!’
There didn’t seem to be time,’ said Ysabell. ‘Father, he didn’t mean —’
Ysabell dropped her gaze. ‘Yes, father.’
Death stalked around the desk until he was standing directly in front of Mort. He stared at him for a long time.
Then in one blurred movement his hand struck Mort across the face, knocking him off his feet.
I INVITE YOU INTO MY HOME, he said, I TRAIN YOU, I FEED YOU, I CLOTHE YOU, I GIVE YOU OPPORTUNITIES YOU COULD NOT DREAM OF, AND THUS YOU REPAY ME. YOU SEDUCE MY DAUGHTER FROM ME, YOU NEGLECT THE DUTY, YOU MAKE RIPPLES IN REALITY THAT WILL TAKE A CENTURY TO HEAL. YOUR ILL-TIMED ACTIONS HAVE DOOMED YOUR COMRADES TO OBLIVION. THE GODS WILL DEMAND NOTHING LESS.
ALL IN ALL, BOY, NOT A GOOD START TO YOUR FIRST JOB.
Mort struggled into a sitting position, holding his cheek. It burned coldly, like comet ice.
‘Mort,’ he said.
IT SPEAKS! WHAT DOES IT SAY?
‘You could let them go,’ said Mort. They just got involved. It wasn’t their fault. You could rearrange this so —’
WHY SHOULD I DO THAT? THEY BELONG TO ME NOW.
‘I’ll fight you for them,’ said Mort.
VERY NOBLE. MORTALS FIGHT ME ALL THE TIME. YOU ARE DISMISSED.
Mort got to his feet. He remembered what being Death had been like. He caught hold of the feeling, let it surface. . . .
NO, he said.
AH. YOU CHALLENGE ME AS BETWEEN EQUALS, THEN?
Mort swallowed. But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.
‘If necessary,’ he said. ‘And if I win —’
IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE IN A POSITION TO DO WHATEVER YOU PLEASE, said Death. FOLLOW ME.
He stalked past Mort and out into the hall.
The other four looked at Mort.
‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ said Cutwell.
‘You can’t beat the master,’ said Albert. He sighed. Take it from me.’
‘What will happen if you lose?’ said Keli.
‘I won’t lose,’ said Mort. That’s the trouble.’
‘Father wants him to win,’ said Ysabell bitterly.
‘You mean he’ll let Mort win?’ said Cutwell.
‘Oh, no, he won’t let him win. He just wants him to win.’
Mort nodded. As they followed Death’s dark shape he reflected on an endless future, serving whatever mysterious purpose the Creator had in mind, living outside Time. He couldn’t blame Death for wanting to quit the job. Death had said the bones were not compulsory, but perhaps that wouldn’t matter. Would eternity feel like a long time, or were all lives – from a personal viewpoint – entirely the same length?
Hi, said a voice in his head. Remember me? I’m you. I got you into this.
‘Thanks,’ he said bitterly. The others glanced at him.
You could come through this, the voice said. You’ve got a big advantage. You’ve been him, and he’s never been you.
Death swept through the hall and into the Long Room, the candles obediently flicking into flame as he entered.
FETCH THE GLASSES.
Cutwell grabbed the old man’s arm.
‘You’re a wizard,’ he hissed. ‘You don’t have to do what he says!’
‘How old are you, lad?’ said Albert, kindly.
‘When you’re my age you’ll see your choices differently.’ He turned to Mort. ‘Sorry.’
Mort drew his sword, its blade almost invisible in the light from the candles. Death turned and stood facing him, a thin silhouette against a towering rack of hourglasses.
He held out his arms. The scythe appeared in them with a tiny thunderclap.
Albert came back down one of the glass-lined alleys with two hourglasses, and set them down wordlessly on a ledge on one of the pillars.
One was several times the size of the ordinary glasses – black, thin and decorated with a complicated skull-and-bones motif.
That wasn’t the most unpleasant thing about it.
Mort groaned inwardly. He couldn’t see any sand in there.
The smaller glass beside it was quite plain and unadorned. Mort reached for it.
‘May I?’ he said.
BE MY GUEST.
The name Mort was engraved on the top bulb. He held it up to the light, noting without any real surprise that there was hardly any sand left. When he held it to his ear he thought he could hear, even above the ever-present roar of the millions of lifetimers around him, the sound of his own life pouring away.
He put it down very carefully.
Death turned to Cutwell.
MR WIZARD, SIR, YOU WILL BE GOOD ENOUGH TO GIVE US A COUNT OF THREE.
Cutwell nodded glumly.
‘Are you sure this couldn’t all be sorted out by getting around a table —’ he began.
Mort and Death circled one another warily, their reflections flickering across the banks of hourglasses.
Death spun his scythe menacingly.
The blades met in mid-air with a noise like a cat sliding down a pane of glass.
‘They both cheated!’ said Keli. Ysabell nodded. ‘Of course,’ she said.
Mort jumped back, bringing the sword round in a too-slow arc that Death easily deflected, turning the parry into a wicked low sweep that Mort avoided only by a clumsy standing jump.