It was a good hat. It was a magnificent hat.
It was pointy, of course, with a wide floppy brim, but after disposing of these basic details the designer had really got down to business. There was gold lace on there, and pearls, and bands of purest vermine, and sparkling Ankhstones, and some incredibly tasteless sequins, and – a dead giveaway, of course – a circle of octarines.
Since they weren’t in a strong magical field at the moment they weren’t glowing, and looked like rather inferior diamonds.
Spring had come to Ankh-Morpork. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but there were signs that were obvious to the cognoscenti. For example, the scum on the river Ankh, that great wide slow waterway that served the double city as reservoir, sewer and frequent morgue, had turned a particularly iridescent green. The city’s drunken rooftops sprouted mattresses and bolsters as the winter bedding was put out to air in the weak sunshine, and in the depths of musty cellars the beams twisted and groaned when their dry sap responded to the ancient call of root and forest. Birds nested among the gutters and eaves of Unseen University, although it was noticeable that however great the pressure on the nesting sites they never, ever, made nests in the invitingly open mouths of the gargoyles that lined the rooftops, much to the gargoyles’ disappointment.
A kind of spring had even come to the ancient University itself. Tonight would be the Eve of Small Gods, and a new Archchancellor would be elected.
Well, not exactly elected, because wizards didn’t have any truck with all this undignified voting business, and it was well known that Archchancellors were selected by the will of the gods, and this year it was a pretty good bet that the gods would see their way clear to selecting old Virrid Wayzygoose, who was a decent old boy and had been patiently waiting his turn for years.
The Archchancellor of Unseen University was the official leader of all the wizards on the Disc. Once upon a time it had meant that he would be the most powerful in the handling of magic, but times were a lot quieter now and, to be honest, senior wizards tended to look upon actual magic as a bit beneath them. They tended to prefer administration, which was safer and nearly as much fun, and also big dinners.
And so the long afternoon wore on. The hat squatted on its faded cushion in Wayzygoose’s chambers, while he sat in his tub in front of the fire and soaped his beard. Other wizards dozed in their studies, or took a gentle stroll around the gardens in order to work up an appetite for the evening’s feast; about a dozen steps was usually considered quite sufficient.
In the Great Hall, under the carved or painted stares of two hundred earlier Archchancellors, the butler’s staff set out the long tables and benches. In the vaulted maze of the kitchens -well, the imagination should need no assistance. It should include lots of grease and heat and shouting, vats of caviar, whole roast oxen, strings of sausages like paperchains strung from wall to wall, the head chef himself at work in one of the cold rooms putting the finishing touches to a model of the University carved for some inexplicable reason out of butter. He kept doing this every time there was a feast – butter swans, butter buildings, whole rancid greasy yellow menageries – and he enjoyed it so much no-one had the heart to tell him to stop.
In his own labyrinth of cellars the butler prowled among his casks, decanting and tasting.
The air of expectation had even spread to the ravens who inhabited the Tower of Art, eight hundred feet high and reputedly the oldest building in the world. Its crumbling stones supported thriving miniature forests high above the city’s rooftops. Entire species of beetles and small mammals had evolved up there and, since people rarely climbed it these days owing to the tower’s distressing tendency to sway in the breeze, the ravens had it all to themselves. Now they were flying around it in a state of some agitation, like gnats before a thunderstorm. If anyone below is going to take any notice of them it might be a good idea.
Something horrible was about to happen.
You can tell, can’t you?
You’re not the only one.
‘What’s got into them?’ shouted Rincewind above the din.
The Librarian ducked as a leather-bound grimoire shot out from its shelf and jerked to a mid-air halt on the end of its chain. Then he dived, rolled and landed on a copy of Maleficio’s Discouverie of Demonologie that was industriously bashing at its lectern.
‘Oook!’ he said.
Rincewind put his shoulder against a trembling bookshelf and forced its rustling volumes back into place with his knees. The noise was terrible.
Books of magic have a sort of life of their own. Some have altogether too much; for example, the first edition of the Necrotelicomicon has to be kept between iron plates, the True Arte of Levitatione has spent the last one hundred and fifty years up in the rafters, and Ge Fordge’s Compenydyum of Sex Majick is kept in a vat of ice in a room all by itself and there’s a strict rule that it can only be read by wizards who are over eighty and, if possible, dead.
But even the everyday grimoires and incunabula on the main shelves were as restless and nervy as the inmates of a chickenhouse with something rank scrabbling under the door. From their shut covers came a muffled scratching, like claws.
‘What did you say?’ screamed Rincewind.
Rincewind, as honorary assistant librarian, hadn’t progressed much beyond basic indexing and bananafetching, and he had to admire the way the Librarian ambled among the quivering shelves, here running a black-leather hand over a trembling binding, here comforting a frightened thesaurus with a few soothing simian murmurings.
After a while the Library began to settle down, and Rincewind felt his shoulder muscles relax.
It was a fragile peace, though. Here and there a page rustled. From distant shelves came the ominous creak of a spine. After its initial panic the Library was now as alert and jittery as a long-tailed cat in a rocking-chair factory.
The Librarian ambled back down the aisles. He had a face that only a lorry tyre could love and it was permanently locked in a faint smile, but Rincewind could tell by the way the ape crept into his cubbyhole under the desk and hid his head under a blanket that he was deeply worried.
Examine Rincewind, as he peers around the sullen shelves. There are eight levels of wizardry on the Disc; after sixteen years Rincewind has failed to achieve even level one. In fact it is the considered opinion of some of his tutors that he is incapable even of achieving level zero, which most normal people are born at; to put it another way, it has been suggested that when Rincewind dies the average occult ability of the human race will actually go up by a fraction.
He is tall and thin and has the scrubby kind of beard that looks like the kind of beard worn by people who weren’t cut out by nature to be beard wearers. He is dressed in a dark red robe that has seen better days, possibly better decades. But you can tell he’s a wizard, because he’s got a pointy hat with a floppy brim. It’s got the word ‘Wizzard’ embroidered on it in big silver letters, by someone whose needlework is even worse than their spelling. There’s a star on top. It has lost most of its sequins.
Clamping his hat on his head, Rincewind pushed his way through the Library’s ancient doors and stepped out into the golden light of the afternoon. It was calm and quiet, broken only by the hysterical croaking of the ravens as they circled the Tower of Art.
Rincewind watched them for a while. The University’s ravens were a tough bunch of birds. It took a lot to unsettle them.
On the other hand-
-the sky was pale blue tinted with gold, with a few high wisps of fluffy cloud glowing pinkly in the lengthening light. The ancient chestnut trees in the quadrangle were in full bloom. From an open window came the sound of a student wizard practising the violin, rather badly. It was not what you would call ominous.
Rincewind leaned against the warm stonework. And screamed.
The building was shuddering. He could feel it come up through his hand and along his arms, a faint rhythmic sensation at just the right frequency to suggest uncontrollable terror. The stones themselves were frightened.
He looked down in horror at a faint clinking noise. An ornamental drain cover fell backwards and one of the University’s rats poked its whiskers out. It gave Rincewind a desperate look as it scrambled up and fled past him, followed by dozens of its tribe. Some of them were wearing clothes but that wasn’t unusual for the University, where the high level of background magic does strange things to genes.
As he stared around him Rincewind could see other streams of grey bodies leaving the University by every drainpipe and flowing towards the outside wall. The ivy by his ear rustled and a group of rats made a series of death-defying leaps on to his shoulders and slid down his robe. They otherwise ignored him totally but, again, this wasn’t particularly unusual. Most creatures ignored Rincewind.
He turned and fled into the University, skirts flapping around his knees, until he reached the bursar’s study. He hammered on the door, which creaked open.
‘Ah. It’s, um, Rincewind, isn’t it?’ said the bursar, without much enthusiasm. ‘What’s the matter?’
The bursar stared at him for a few moments. His name was Spelter. He was tall and wiry and looked as though he had been a horse in previous lives and had only just avoided it in this one. He always gave people the impression that he was looking at them with his teeth.
‘Yes. All the rats are leaving!’
The bursar gave him another stare.
‘Come inside, Rincewind,’ he said, kindly. Rincewind followed him into the low, dark room and across to the window. It looked out over the gardens to the river, oozing peacefully towards the sea.
‘You haven’t been, um, overdoing it?’ said the bursar.
‘Overdoing what?’ said Rincewind, guiltily.
‘This is a building, you see,’ said the bursar. Like most wizards when faced with a puzzle, he started to roll himself a cigarette. ‘It’s not a ship. There are ways of telling, you know. Absence of porpoises frolicking around the bows, a shortage of bilges, that sort of thing. The chances of foundering are remote. Otherwise, um, we’d have to man the sheds and row for shore. Um?’
‘But the rats-’
‘Grain ship in harbour, I expect. Some, um, springtime ritual.’
‘I’m sure I felt the building shaking, too,’ said Rincewind, a shade uncertainly. Here in this quiet room, with the fire crackling in the grate, it didn’t seem quite so real.
‘A passing tremor. Great A’Tuin hiccuping, um, possibly. A grip on youself, um, is what you should get. You haven’t been drinking, have you?’
‘Um. Would you like to?’
Spelter padded over to a dark oak cabinet and pulled out a couple of glasses, which he filled from the water jug.
‘I tend to be best at sherry this time of day,’ he said, and spread his hands over the glasses. ‘Say, um, the word – sweet or dry?’
‘Um, no,’ said Rincewind. ‘Perhaps you’re right. I think I’ll go and have a bit of rest.’
Rincewind wandered down the chilly stone passages. Occasionally he’d touch the wall and appear to be listening, and then he’d shake his head.