Deep in its heartwood the Luggage was troubled. It had been spurned. It had been told to go away. It had been rejected. It had also drunk enough orakh to poison a small country.
If there is one thing a travel accessory needs more than anything else, it is someone to belong to. The Luggage set off unsteadily across the scorching sand, full of hope.
‘I don’t think we’ve got time for introductions,’ said Rincewind, as a distant part of the palace collapsed with a thump that vibrated the floor. ‘It’s time we were-’
He realised he was talking to himself.
Nijel let go of the sword.
Conina stepped forward.
‘Oh, no,’ said Rincewind, but it was far too late. The world had suddenly separated into two parts – the bit which contained Nijel and Conina, and the bit which contained everything else. The air between them crackled. Probably, in their half, a distant orchestra was playing, bluebirds were tweeting, little pink clouds were barrelling through the sky, and all the other things that happen at times like this. When that sort of thing is going on, mere collapsing palaces in the next world don’t stand a chance.
‘Look, perhaps we can just get the introductions over with,’ said Rincewind desperately. ‘Nijel-’
‘- the Destroyer-’ said Nijel dreamily.
‘All right, Nijel the Destroyer,’ said Rincewind, and added, ‘Son of Harebut the-’
‘Mighty,’ said Nijel. Rincewind gaped a bit, and then shrugged.
‘Well, whoever,’ he conceded. ‘Anyway, this is Conina. Which is rather a coincidence, because you’ll be interested to know that her father was mmph.’
Conina, without turning her gaze, had extended a hand and held Rincewind’s face in a gentle grip which, with only a slight increase in finger pressure, could have turned his head into a bowling ball.
‘Although I could be mistaken,’ he added, when she took her hand away. ‘Who knows? Who cares? What does it matter?’
They didn’t take any notice.
‘I’ll just go and see if I can find the hat, shall I?’ he said.
‘Good idea,’ murmured Conina.
‘I expect I shall get murdered, but I don’t mind,’ said Rincewind.
‘Jolly good,’ said Nijel.
‘I don’t expect anyone will even notice I’m gone,’ said Rincewind.
‘Fine, fine,’ said Conina.
‘I shall be chopped into small pieces, I expect,’ said Rincewind, walking toward the door at the speed of a dying snail.
‘What hat?’ she said, and then, ‘Oh, that hat.’
‘I suppose there’s no possible chance that you two might be of some assistance?’ Rincewind ventured.
Somewhere inside Conina and Nijel’s private world the bluebirds went to roost, the little pink clouds drifted away and the orchestra packed up and sneaked off to do a private gig at a nightclub somewhere. A bit of reality reasserted itself.
Conina dragged her admiring gaze away from Nijel’s rapt face and turned it on to Rincewind, where it grew slightly cooler.
She sidled across the floor and grabbed the wizard by the arm.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘you won’t tell him who I really am, will you? Only boys get funny ideas and – well, anyway, if you do I will personally break all your-’
‘I’ll be far too busy,’ said Rincewind, ‘what with you helping me get the hat and everything. Not that I can imagine what you see in him,’ he added, haughtily.
‘He’s nice. I don’t seem to meet many nice people.’
‘He’s looking at us!’
‘So what? You’re not frightened of him, are you?’
‘Suppose he talks to me!’
Rincewind looked blank. Not for the first time in his life, he felt that there were whole areas of human experience that had passed him by, if areas could pass by people. Maybe he had passed them by. He shrugged.
‘Why did you let them take you off to the harem without a fight?’ he said.
‘I’ve always wanted to know what went on in one.’
There was a pause. ‘Well?’ said Rincewind.
‘Well, we all sat round, and then after a bit the Seriph came in, and then he asked me over and said that since I was new it would be my turn, and then, you’ll never guess what he wanted me to do. The girls said it’s the only thing he’s interested in.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘Fine, fine,’ Rincewind muttered.
‘Your face has gone all shiny.’
‘No, I’m fine, fine.’
‘He asked me to tell him a story.’
‘What about?’ said Rincewind suspiciously.
‘The other girls said he prefers something with rabbits in it.’
‘Small fluffy white ones. But the only stories I know are the ones father taught me when I was little, and I don’t think they’re really suitable.’
‘Not many rabbits?’
‘Lots of arms and legs being chopped off,’ said Conina, and sighed. ‘That’s why you mustn’t tell him about me you see? I’m just not cut out for a normal life.’
‘Telling stories in a harem isn’t bloody normal,’ said Rincewind. ‘It’ll never catch on.’
‘He’s looking at us again!’ Conina grabbed Rincewind’s arm.
He shook her off. ‘Oh, good grief,’ he said, and hurried across the room to Nijel, who grabbed his other arm.
‘You haven’t been telling her about me, have you?’ he demanded. ‘I’ll never live it down if you’ve told her that I’m only just learning how-’
‘Nonono. She just wants you to help us. It’s a sort of quest.’
Nijel’s eyes gleamed.
‘You mean a geas?’ he said.
‘It’s in the book. To be a proper hero it says you’ve got to labour under a geas.’
Rincewind’s forehead wrinkled. ‘Is it a sort of bird?’
‘I think it’s more a sort of obligation, or something,’ said Nijel, but without much certainty.
‘Sounds more like a kind of bird to me,’ said Rincewind, ‘I’m sure I read it in a bestiary once. Large. Couldn’t fly. Big pink legs, it had.’ His face went blank as his ears digested what they had just heard his lips say.
Five seconds later they were out of the room, leaving behind four prone guards and the harem ladies themselves, who settled down for a bit of story-telling.
The desert rimwards of Al Khali is bisected by the river Tsort, famed in myth and lies, which insinuates its way through the brown landscapes like a long damp descriptive passage punctuated with sandbanks. And every sandbank is covered with sunbaked logs, and most of the logs are the kind of logs that have teeth, and most of the logs opened one lazy eye at the distant sounds of splashing from upstream, and suddenly most of the logs had legs. A dozen scaly bodies slipped into the turbid waters, which rolled over them again. The dark waters were unruffled, except for a few inconsequential V -shaped ripples.
The Luggage paddled gently down the stream. The water was making it feel a little better. It spun gently in the weak current, the focus of several mysterious little swirls that sped across the surface of the water.
The ripples converged.
The Luggage jerked. Its lid flew open. It shot under the surface with a brief, despairing creak.
The chocolate-coloured waters of the Tsort rolled back again. They were getting good at it.
And the tower of sourcery loomed over Al Khali like a vast and beautiful fungus, the kind that appear in books with little skull-and-crossbones symbols beside them.
The Seriph’s guard had fought back, but there were now quite a lot of bewildered frogs and newts around the base of the tower, and they were the fortunate ones. They still had arms and legs, of a sort, and most of their essential organs were still on the inside. The city was under the rule of sourcery … martial lore.
Some of the buildings nearest the base of the tower were already turning into the bright white marble that the wizards obviously preferred.
The trio stared out through a hole in the palace walls.
‘Very impressive,’ said Conina critically. ‘Your wizards are more powerful than I thought.’
‘Not my wizards,’ said Rincewind. ‘I don’t know whose wizards they are. I don’t like it. All the wizards I knew couldn’t stick one brick on another.’
‘I don’t like the idea of wizards ruling everybody,’ said Nijel. ‘Of course, as a hero I am philosophically against the whole idea of wizardry in any case. The time will come when,’ his eyes glazed slightly, as if he was trying to remember something he’d seen somewhere, ‘the time will come when all wizardry has gone from the face of the world and the sons of, of – anyway, we can all be a bit more practical about things,’ he added lamely.
‘Read it in a book, did you?’ said Rincewind sourly. Any geas in it?’
‘He’s got a point,’ said Conina. ‘I’ve nothing against wizards, but it’s not as if they do much good. There just a bit of decoration, really. Up to now.’
Rincewind pulled off his hat. It was battered, stained and covered with rock dust, bits of it had been sheared off, the point was dented and the star was shedding sequins like pollen, but the word “blizzard” was still just readable under the grime.
‘See this?’ he demanded, red in the face. ‘Do you see it? Do you? What does it tell you?’
‘That you can’t spell?’ said Nijel.
‘What? No! It says I’m a wizard, that’s what! Twenty years behind the staff, and proud of it! I’ve done my time, I have! I’ve pas – I’ve sat dozens of exams! If all the spells I’ve read were piled on top of one another, they’d … it’d … you’d have a lot of spells!’
‘Yes, but-’ Conina began.
‘You’re not actually very good at them, are you?’
Rincewind glared at her. He tried to think of what to say next, and a small receptor area opened in his mind at the same time as an inspiration particle, its path bent and skewed by a trillion random events, screamed down through the atmosphere and burst silently just at the right spot.
‘Talent just defines what you do,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t define what you are. Deep down, I mean. When you know what you are, you can do anything.’
He thought a bit more and added, ‘That’s what makes sourcerers so powerful. The important thing is to know what you really are.’
There was a pause full of philosophy.
‘Rincewind?’ said Conina, kindly.
‘Hmm?’ said Rincewind, who was still wondering how the words got into his head.
‘You really are an idiot. Do you know that?’
‘You will all stand very still.’
Abrim the vizier stepped out of a ruined archway. He was wearing the Archchancellor’s hat.
The desert fried under the flame of the sun. Nothing moved except the shimmering air, hot as a stolen volcano, dry as a skull.