‘What is this place?’ said Conina.
Rincewind looked around him, and made a guess.
They were still in the heart of Al Khali. He could hear the hum of it beyond the walls. But in the middle of the teeming city someone had cleared a vast space, walled it off, and planted a garden so romantically natural that it looked as real as a sugar pig.
‘It looks like someone has taken twice five miles of inner city and girdled them round with walls and towers,’ he hazarded.
‘What a strange idea,’ said Conina.
‘Well, some of the religions here-well, when you die, you see, they think you go to this sort of garden, where there’s all this sort of music and, and,’ he continued, wretchedly, ’sherbet and, and – young women.’
Conina took in the green splendour of the walled garden, with its peacocks, intricate arches and slightly wheezy fountains. A dozen reclining women stared back at her, impassively. A hidden string orchestra was playing the complicated Klatchian bhong music.
‘I’m not dead,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I would have remembered. Besides, this isn’t my idea of paradise.’ She looked critically at the reclining figures, and added, ‘I wonder who does their hair?’
A sword point prodded her in the small of the back, and the two of them set out along the ornate path towards a small domed pavilion surrounded by olive trees. She scowled.
‘Anyway, I don’t like sherbet.’
Rincewind didn’t comment. He was busily examining the state of his own mind, and wasn’t happy at the sight of it. He had a horrible feeling that he was falling in love.
He was sure he had all the symptoms. There were the sweaty palms, the hot sensation in the stomach, the general feeling that the skin of his chest was made of tight elastic. There was the feeling every time Conina spoke, that someone was running hot steel into his spine.
He glanced down at the Luggage, tramping stoically alongside him, and recognised the symptoms.
‘Not you, too?’ he said.
Possibly it was only the play of sunlight on the Luggage’s battered lid, but it was just possible that for an instant it looked redder than usual.
Of course, sapient pearwood has this sort of weird mental link with its owner … Rincewind shook his head. Still, it’d explain why the thing wasn’t its normal malignant self.
‘It’d never work,’ he said. ‘I mean, she’s a female and you’re a, well, you’re a-’ He paused. ‘Well, whatever you are, you’re of the wooden persuasion. It’d never work. People would talk.’
He turned and glared at the black-robed guards behind him.
‘I don’t know what you’re looking at,’ he said severely.
The Luggage sidled over to Conina, following her so closely that she banged an ankle on it.
‘Push off,’ she snapped, and kicked it again, this time on purpose.
Insofar as the Luggage ever had an expression, it looked at her in shocked betrayal.
The pavilion ahead of them was an ornate onion-shaped dome, studded with precious stones and supported on four pillars. Its interior was a mass of cushions on which lay a rather fat, middle-aged man surrounded by three young women. He wore a purple robe interwoven with gold thread; they, as far as Rincewind could see, demonstrated that you could make six small saucepan lids and a few yards of curtain netting go a long way although – he shivered – not really far enough.
The man appeared to be writing. He glanced up at them.
‘I suppose you don’t know a good rhyme for “thou”?’ he said peevishly.
Rincewind and Conina exchanged glances.
‘Plough?’ said Rincewind. ‘Bough?’
‘Cow?’ suggested Conina, with forced brightness.
The man hesitated. ‘Cow I quite like,’ he said, ‘Cow has got possibilities. Cow might, in fact, do. Do pull up a cushion, by the way. Have some sherbet. Why are you standing there like that?’
‘It’s these ropes,’ said Conina.
‘I have this allergy to cold steel,’ Rincewind added.
‘Really, how tiresome,’ said the fat man, and clapped a pair of hands so heavy with rings that the sound was more of a clang. Two guards stepped forward smartly and cut the bonds, and then the whole battalion melted away, although Rincewind was acutely conscious of dozens of dark eyes watching them from the surrounding foliage. Animal instinct told him that, while he now appeared to be alone with the man and Conina, any aggressive moves on his part would suddenly make the world a sharp and painful place. He tried to radiate tranquillity and total friendliness. He tried to think of something to say.
‘Well,’ he ventured, looking around at the brocaded hangings, the ruby-studded pillars and the gold filigree cushions, ‘you’ve done this place up nicely. It’s-’ he sought for something suitably descriptive – ‘well, pretty much of a miracle of rare device.’
‘One aims for simplicity,’ sighed the man, still scribbling busily. ‘Why are you here? Not that it isn’t always a pleasure to meet fellow students of the poetic muse.’
‘We were brought here,’ said Conina.
‘Men with swords,’ added Rincewind.
‘Dear fellows, they do so like to keep in practice. Would you like one of these?’
He snapped his fingers at one of the girls.
‘Not, er, right now,’ Rincewind began, but she’d picked up a plate of golden-brown sticks and demurely passed it towards him. He tried one. It was delicious, a sort of sweet crunchy flavour with a hint of honey. He took two more.
‘Excuse me,’ said Conina, ‘but who are you? And where is this?’
‘My name is Creosote, Seriph of Al Khali,’ said the fat man, ‘and this is my Wilderness. One does one’s best.’
Rincewind coughed on his honey stick.
‘Not Creosote as in “As rich as Creosote”?’ he said.
‘That was my dear father. I am, in fact, rather richer. When one has a great deal of money, I am afraid, it is hard to achieve simplicity. One does one’s best.’ He sighed.
‘You could try giving it away,’ said Conina.
He sighed again. ‘That isn’t easy, you know. No, one just has to try to do a little with a lot.’
‘No, no, but look’, said Rincewind, spluttering bits of stick, ‘they say, I mean, everything you touch turns into gold, for goodness sake.’
‘That could make going to the lavatory a bit tricky,’ said Conina brightly. ‘Sorry.’
‘One hears such stories about oneself,’ said Creosote, affecting not to have heard. ‘So tiresome. As if wealth mattered. True riches lie in the treasure houses of literature.’
‘The Creosote I heard of,’ said Conina slowly, ‘was head of this band of, well, mad killers. The original Assassins, feared throughout hubward Klatch. No offence meant.’
‘Ah yes, dear father,’ said Creosote junior. ‘The hashishim. Such a novel idea. But not really very efficient. So we hired Thugs instead.’
‘Ah. Named after a religious sect,’ said Conina knowingly.
Creosote gave her a long look. ‘No,’ he said slowly, ‘I don’t think so. I think we named them after the way they push people’s faces through the back of their heads. Dreadful, really.’
He picked up the parchment he had been writing on, and continued, ‘I seek a more cerebral life, which is why I had the city centre converted into a Wilderness. So much better for the mental flow. One does one’s best. May I read you my latest oeuvre?’
‘Egg?’ said Rincewind, who wasn’t following this.
Creosote thrust out one pudgy hand and declaimed as follows:
‘A summer palace underneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a loaf of bread, some lamb couscous
with courgettes, roast peacock tongues, kebabs, iced
sherbet, selection of sweets from the trolley and
choice of Thou,
Singing beside me in the Wilderness,
And Wilderness is-’
He paused, and picked up his pen thoughtfully.
‘Maybe cow isn’t such a good idea,’ he said. ‘Now that I come to look at it-’
Rincewind glanced at the manicured greenery, carefully arranged rocks and high surrounding walls. One of the Thous winked at him.
‘This is a Wilderness?’ he said.
‘My landscape gardeners incorporated all the essential features, I believe. They spent simply ages getting the rills sufficiently sinuous. I am reliably informed that they contain prospects of rugged grandeur and astonishing natural beauty.’
‘And scorpions,’ said Rincewind, helping himself to another honey stick.
‘I don’t know about that,’ said the poet. ‘Scorpions sound unpoetic to me. Wild honey and locusts seem more appropriate, according to the standard poetic instructions, although I’ve never really developed the taste for insects.’
‘I always understood that the kind of locust people ate in wildernesses was the fruit of a kind of tree,’ said Conina. ‘Father always said it was quite tasty.’
‘Not insects?’ said Creosote.
‘I don’t think so.’
The Seriph nodded at Rincewind. ‘You might as well finish them up, then,’ he said. ‘Nasty crunchy things, I couldn’t see the point.’
‘I don’t wish to sound ungrateful,’ said Conina, over the sound of Rincewind’s frantic coughing. ‘But why did you have us brought here?’
‘Good question.’ Creosote looked at her blankly for a few seconds, as if trying to remember why they were there.
‘You really are a most attractive young woman,’ he said. ‘You can’t play a dulcimer, by any chance?’
‘How many blades has it got?’ said Conina.
‘Pity,’ said the Seriph, ‘I had one specially imported.’
‘My father taught me to play the harmonica,’ she volunteered.
Creosote’s lips moved soundlessly as he tried out the idea.
‘No good,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t scan. Thanks all the same, though.’ He gave her another thoughtful look. ‘You know, you really are most becoming. Has anyone ever told you your neck is as a tower of ivory?’
‘Never,’ said Conina.
‘Pity,’ said Creosote again. He rummaged among his cushions and produced a small bell, which he rang.
After a while a tall, saturnine figure appeared from behind the pavilion. He had the look of someone who could think his way through a corkscrew without bending, and a certain something about the eyes which would have made the average rabid rodent tiptoe away, discouraged.
That man, you would have said, has got Grand Vizier written all over him. No-one can tell him anything about defrauding widows and imprisoning impressionable young men in alleged jewel caves. When it comes to dirty work he probably wrote the book or, more probably, stole it from someone else.
He wore a turban with a pointy hat sticking out of it. He had a long thin moustache, of course.
‘Ah, Abrim,’ said Creosote.
‘My Grand Vizier,’ said the Seriph.