‘How do you get all those coins?’ asked Mort.
An all-night barber sheared Mort’s hair into the latest fashion among the city’s young bloods while Death relaxed in the next chair, humming to himself. Much to his surprise, he felt in a good humour.
In fact after a while he pushed his hood back and glanced up at the barber’s apprentice, who tied a towel around his neck in that unseeing, hypnotised way that Mort was coming to recognise, and said, A SPLASH OF TOILET WATER AND A POLISH, MY GOOD MAN.
An elderly wizard having a beard-trim on the other side stiffened when he heard those sombre, leaden tones and swung around. He blanched and muttered a few protective incantations after Death turned, very slowly for maximum effect, and treated him to a grin.
A few minutes later, feeling rather self-conscious and chilly around the ears, Mort was heading back towards the stables where Death had lodged his horse. He tried an experimental swagger; he felt his new suit and haircut rather demanded it. It didn’t quite work.
He lay looking at the ceiling while his memory did a fast-rewind and the events of the previous day crystallised in his mind like little ice cubes.
He couldn’t have met Death. He couldn’t have eaten a meal with a skeleton with glowing blue eyes. It had to be a weird dream. He couldn’t have ridden pillion on a great white horse that had cantered up into the sky and then went . . .
. . . where?
The answer flowed into his mind with all the inevitability of a tax demand.
His searching hands reached up to his cropped hair, and down to sheets of some smooth slippery material. It was much finer than the wool he was used to at home, which was coarse and always smelled of sheep; it felt like warm, dry ice.
He swung out of the bed hastily and stared around the room.
First of all it was large, larger than the entire house back home, and dry, dry as old tombs under ancient deserts. The air tasted as though it had been cooked for hours and then allowed to cool. The carpet under his feet was deep enough to hide a tribe of pygmies and crackled electrically as he padded through it. And everything had been designed in shades of purple and black.
He looked down at his own body, which was wearing a long white nightshirt. His clothes had been neatly folded on a chair by the bed; the chair, he couldn’t help noticing, was delicately carved with a skull-and-bones motif.
Mort sat down on the edge of the bed and began to dress, his mind racing.
He eased open the heavy oak door, and felt oddly disappointed when it failed to creak ominously.
There was a bare wooden corridor outside, with big yellow candles set in holders on the far wall. Mort crept out and sidled along the boards until he reached a staircase. He negotiated that successfully without anything ghastly happening, arriving in what looked like an entrance hall full of doors. There were a lot of funereal drapes here, and a grandfather clock with a tick like the heartbeat of a mountain. There was an umbrella stand beside it.
It had a scythe in it.
Mort looked around at the doors. They looked important. Their arches were carved in the now-familiar bones motif. He went to try the nearest one, and a voice behind him said:
‘You mustn’t go in there, boy.’
It took him a moment to realise that this wasn’t a voice in his head, but real human words that had been formed by a mouth and transferred to his ears by a convenient system of air compression, as nature intended. Nature had gone to a lot of trouble for six words with a slightly petulant tone to them.
He turned around. There was a girl there, about his own height and perhaps a few years older than him. She had silver hair, and eyes with a pearly sheen to them, and the kind of interesting but impractical long dress that tends to be worn by tragic heroines who clasp single roses to their bosom while gazing soulfully at the moon. Mort had never heard the phrase ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, which was a pity because it would have been almost the right description. However, such girls tend to be on the translucent, consumptive side, whereas this one had a slight suggestion of too many chocolates.
She stared at him with her head on one side, and one foot tapping irritably on the floor. Then she reached out quickly and pinched him sharply on the arm.
‘Hmm. So you’re really real,’ she said. ‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘Mortimer. They call me Mort,’ he said, rubbing his elbow. ‘What did you do that for?’
‘I shall call you Boy,’ she said. ‘And I don’t really have to explain myself, you understand, but if you must know I thought you were dead. You look dead.’
Mort said nothing.
‘Lost your tongue?’
Mort was, in fact, counting to ten.
‘I’m not dead,’ he said eventually. ‘At least, I don’t think so. It’s a little hard to tell. Who are you?’
‘You may call me Miss Ysabell,’ she said haughtily. ‘Father told me you must have something to eat. Follow me.’
She swept away towards one of the other doors. Mort trailed behind her at just the right distance to have it swing back and hit his other elbow.
There was a kitchen on the other side of the door – long, low and warm, with copper pans hanging from the ceiling and a vast black iron stove occupying the whole of one long wall. An old man was standing in front of it, frying eggs and bacon and whistling between his teeth.
The smell attracted Mort’s taste buds from across the room, hinting that if they got together they could really enjoy themselves. He found himself moving forward without even consulting his legs.
‘Albert,’ snapped Ysabell, ‘another one for breakfast.’
The man turned his head slowly, and nodded at her without saying a word. She turned back to Mort.
‘I must say,’ she said, ‘that with the whole Disc to choose from, I should think Father could have done rather better than you. I suppose you’ll just have to do.’
She swept out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
‘Have to do what?’ said Mort, to no-one in particular.
The room was silent, except for the sizzle of the frying pan and the crumbling of coals in the molten heart of the stove. Mort saw that it had the words ‘The Little Moloch (Ptntd)’ embossed on its oven door.
The cook didn’t seem to notice him, so Mort pulled up a chair and sat down at the white scrubbed table.
‘Mushrooms?’ said the old man, without looking around.
‘I said, do you want mushrooms?’
‘Oh. Sorry. No, thank you,’ said Mort.
‘Right you are, young sir.’
He turned around and set out for the table.
Even after he got used to it, Mort always held his breath when he watched Albert walking. Death’s manservant was one of those stick-thin, raw-nosed old men who always look as though they are wearing gloves with the fingers cut out – even when they’re not – and his walking involved a complicated sequence of movements. Albert leaned forward and his left arm started to swing, slowly at first but soon evolving into a wild jerking movement that finally and suddenly, at about the time when a watcher would have expected the arm to fly off at the elbow, transferred itself down the length of his body to his legs and propelled him forward like a high-speed stilt walker. The frying pan followed a series of intricate curves in the air and was brought to a halt just over Mort’s plate.
Albert did indeed have exactly the right type of half-moon spectacles to peer over the top of.
‘There could be some porridge to follow,’ he said, and winked, apparently to include Mort in the world porridge conspiracy.
‘Excuse me’, said Mort, ‘but where am I, exactly?’
‘Don’t you know? This is the house of Death, lad. He brought you here last night.’
‘I – sort of remember. Only. . . .
‘Well. The bacon and eggs,’ said Mort, vaguely. ‘It doesn’t seem, well, appropriate.’
‘I’ve got some black pudding somewhere,’ said Albert.
‘No, I mean . . .’ Mort hesitated. ‘It’s just that I can’t see him sitting down to a couple of rashers and a fried slice.’
Albert grinned. ‘Oh, he doesn’t, lad. Not as a regular thing, no. Very easy to cater for, the master. I just cook for me and —’ he paused – ‘the young lady, of course.’
Mort nodded. ‘Your daughter,’ he said.
‘Mine? Ha,’ said Albert. ‘You’re wrong there. She’s his.’
Mort stared down at his fried eggs. They stared back from their lake of fat. Albert had heard of nutritional values, and didn’t hold with them.
‘Are we talking about the same person?’ he said at last. Tall, wears black, he’s a bit . . . skinny.
‘Adopted,’ said Albert, kindly. ‘It’s rather a long story —’
A bell jangled by his head.
‘— which will have to wait. He wants to see you in his study. I should run along if I were you. He doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Understandable, really. Up the steps and first on the left. You can’t miss it —’
‘It’s got skulls and bones around the door?’ said Mort, pushing back his chair.
They all have, most of them,’ sighed Albert. ‘It’s only his fancy. He doesn’t mean anything by it.’
Leaving his breakfast to congeal, Mort hurried up the steps, along the corridor and paused in front of the first door. He raised his hand to knock.
The handle turned of its own accord. The door swung inward.
Death was seated behind a desk, peering intently into a vast leather book almost bigger than the desk itself. He looked up as Mort came in, keeping one calcareous finger marking his place, and grinned. There wasn’t much of an alternative.
AH, he said, and then paused. Then he scratched his chin, with a noise like a fingernail being pulled across a comb.
WHO ARE YOU, BOY?
‘Mort, sir,’ said Mort. ‘Your apprentice. You remember?’
Death stared at him for some time. Then the pinpoint blue eyes turned back at the book.
OH YES, he said, MORT. WELL, BOY, DO YOU SINCERELY WISH TO LEARN THE UTTERMOST SECRETS OF TIME AND SPACE?
‘Yes, sir. I think so, sir.’
GOOD. THE STABLES ARE AROUND THE BACK. THE SHOVEL HANGS JUST INSIDE THE DOOR.
He looked down. He looked up. Mort hadn’t moved.
IS IT BY ANY CHANCE POSSIBLE THAT YOU FAIL TO UNDERSTAND ME?
‘Not fully, sir,’ said Mort.
DUNG, BOY. DUNG. ALBERT HAS A COMPOST HEAP IN THE GARDEN. I IMAGINE THERE’S A WHEELBARROW SOMEWHERE ON THE PREMISES. GET ON WITH IT.
Mort nodded mournfully. ‘Yes, sir. I see, sir. Sir?’
‘Sir, I don’t see what this has to do with the secrets of time and space.’
Death did not look up from his book.
THAT, he said, is BECAUSE YOU ARE HERE TO LEARN.
It is a fact that although the Death of the Discworld is, in his own words, an ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION, he long ago gave up using the traditional skeletal horses, because of the bother of having to stop all the time to wire bits back on. Now his horses were always flesh-and-blood beasts, from the finest stock.
And, Mort learned, very well fed.
Some jobs offer increments. This one offered – well, quite the reverse, but at least it was in the warm and fairly easy to get the hang of. After a while he got into the rhythm of it, and started playing the private little quantity-surveying game that everyone plays in these circumstances. Let’s see, he thought, I’ve done nearly a quarter, let’s call it a third, so when I’ve done that corner by the hayrack it’ll be more than half, call it five-eighths, which means three more wheelbarrow loads. . . . It doesn’t prove anything very much except that the awesome splendour of the universe is much easier to deal with if you think of it as a series of small chunks.
The horse watched him from its stall, occasionally trying to eat his hair in a friendly sort of way.