‘I know,’ said Carding. ‘You know who the boy is.’
Spelter’s lips moved soundlessly as he tried to foresee the next bit of the exchange. ‘You can’t be certain of that,’ he said, after a while.
‘My dear Spelter, you blush when you inadvertently tell the truth.’
‘I didn’t blush!’
‘Precisely,’ said Carding, ‘my point.’
‘All right,’ Spelter conceded. ‘But you think you know something else.’
The fat wizard shrugged. ‘A mere suspicion of a hunch,’ he said. ‘But why should I ally,’ he rolled the unfamiliar word around his tongue, ‘with you, a mere fifth level? I could more certainly obtain the information by rendering down your living brain. I mean no offence, you understand, I ask only for knowledge.’
The events of the next few seconds happened far too fast to be understood by non-wizards, but went approximately like this:
Spelter had been drawing the signs of Megrim’s Accelerator in the air under cover of the table. Now he muttered a syllable under his breath and fired the spell along the tabletop, where it left a smoking path in the varnish and met, about halfway, the silver snakes of Brother Hushmaster’s Potent Asp-Spray as they spewed from Carding’s fingertips.
The two spells cannoned into one another, turned into a ball of green fire and exploded, filling the room with fine yellow crystals.
The wizards exchanged the kind of long, slow glare you could roast chestnuts on.
Bluntly, Carding was surprised. He shouldn’t have been. Eighth-level wizards are seldom faced with challenging tests of magical skill. In theory there are only seven other wizards of equal power and every lesser wizard is, by definition – well, lesser. This makes them complacent. But Spelter, on the other hand, was at the fifth level.
It may be quite tough at the top, and it is probably even tougher at the bottom, but halfway up it’s so tough you could use it for horseshoes. By then all the no-hopers, the lazy, the silly and the downright unlucky have been weeded out, the field’s cleared, and every wizard stands alone and surrounded by mortal enemies on every side. There’s the pushy fours below, waiting to trip him up. There’s the arrogant sixes above, anxious to stamp out all ambition. And, of course, all around are his fellow fives, ready for any opportunity to reduce the competition a little. And there’s no standing still. Wizards of the fifth level are mean and tough and have reflexes of steel and their eyes are thin and narrow from staring down the length of that metaphorical last furlong at the end of which rests the prize of prizes, the Archchancellor’s hat.
The novelty of co-operation began to appeal to Carding. There was worthwhile power here, which could be bribed into usefulness for as long as it was necessary. Of course, afterwards it might have to be – discouraged …
Spelter thought: patronage. He’d heard the term used, though never within the University, and he knew it meant getting those above you to give you a leg up. Of course, no wizard would normally dream of giving a colleague a leg up unless it was in order to catch them on the hop. The mere thought of actually encouraging a competitor … But on the other hand, this old fool might be of assistance for a while, and afterwards, well …
They looked at one another with mutual, grudging admiration and unlimited mistrust, but at least it was a mistrust each one felt he could rely on. Until afterwards.
‘His name is Coin,’ said Spelter. ‘He says his father’s name is Ipslore.’
‘I wonder how many brothers has he got?’ said Spelter.
‘There hasn’t been magic like that in this university in centuries,’ said Carding, ‘maybe for thousands of years. I’ve only ever read about it.’
‘We banished an Ipslore thirty years ago,’ said Spelter. ‘According to the records, he’d got married. I can see that if he had sons, um, they’d be wizards, but I don’t understand how-’
‘That wasn’t wizardry. That was sourcery,’ said Carding, leaning back in his chair.
Spelter stared at him across the bubbling varnish.
‘The eighth son of a wizard would be a sourcerer.’
‘I didn’t know that!’
‘It is not widely advertised.’
‘Yes, but – sourcerers were a long time ago, I mean, the magic was a lot stronger then, um, men were different … it didn’t have anything to do with, well, breeding.’ Spelter was thinking, eight sons, that means he did it eight times. At least. Gosh.
‘Sourcerers could do everything,’ he went on. ‘They were nearly as powerful as the gods. Um. There was no end of trouble. The gods simply wouldn’t allow that sort of thing any more, depend upon it.’
‘Well, there was trouble because the sourcerers fought among themselves,’ said Carding, ‘But one sourcerer wouldn’t be any trouble. One sourcerer correctly advised, that is. By older and wiser minds.’
‘But he wants the Archchancellor’s hat!’
‘Why can’t he have it?’
Spelter’s mouth dropped open. This was too much, even for him.
Carding smiled at him amiably.
‘But the hat-’
‘It’s just a symbol,’ said Carding. ‘It’s nothing special. If he wants it, he can have it. It’s a small enough thing. Just a symbol, nothing more. A figurehat.’
‘Worn by a figurehead.’
‘But the gods choose the Archchancellor!’
Carding raised an eyebrow. ‘Do they?’ he said, and coughed.
‘Well, yes, I suppose they do. In a manner of speaking.’
‘In a manner of speaking?’
Carding got up and gathered his skirts around him. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that you have a great deal to learn. By the way, where is that hat?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Spelter, who was still quite shaken.
‘Somewhere in, um, Virrid’s apartments, I suppose.’
‘We’d better fetch it,’ said Carding.
He paused in the doorway and stroked his beard reflectively. ‘I remember Ipslore,’ he said. ‘We were students together. Wild fellow. Odd habits. Superb wizard, of course, before he went to the bad. Had a funny way of twitching his eyebrow, I remember, when he was excited.’ Carding looked blankly across forty years of memory, and shivered.
‘The hat,’ he reminded himself. ‘Let’s find it. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.’
In fact the hat had no intention of letting anything happen to it, and was currently hurrying towards the Mended Drum under the arm of a rather puzzled, black-clad thief.
The thief, as will become apparent, was a special type of thief. This thief was an artist of theft. Other thieves merely stole everything that was not nailed down, but this thief stole the nails as well. This thief had scandalised Ankh by taking a particular interest in stealing, with astonishing success, things that were in fact not only nailed down but also guarded by keen-eyed guards in inaccessible strongrooms. There are artists that will paint an entire chapel ceiling; this was the kind of thief that could steal it.
This particular thief was credited with stealing the jewelled disembowelling knife from the Temple of Offler the Crocodile God during the middle of Evensong, and the silver shoes from the Patrician’s finest racehorse while it was in the process of winning a race. When Gritoller Mimpsey, vice-president of the Thieves’ Guild, was jostled in the marketplace and then found on returning home that a freshly-stolen handful of diamonds had vanished from their place of concealment, he knew who to blame. This was the type of thief that could steal the initiative, the moment and the words right out of your mouth.
However, it was the first time it had stolen something that not only asked it to, in a low but authoritative voice, but gave precise and somehow unarguable instructions about how it was to be disposed of.
It was that cusp of the night that marks the turning point of Ankh-Morpork’s busy day, when those who make their living under the sun are resting after their labours and those who turn an honest dollar by the cold light of the moon are just getting up the energy to go to work. The day had, in fact, reached that gentle point when it was too late for housebreaking and too early for burglary.
Rincewind sat alone in the crowded, smoky room, and didn’t take much notice when a shadow passed over the table and a sinister figure sat down opposite him. There was nothing very remarkable about sinister figures in this place. The Drum jealousy guarded its reputation as the most stylishly disreputable tavern in Ankh-Morpork and the big troll that now guarded the door carefully vetted customers for suitability in the way of black cloaks, glowing eyes, magic swords and so forth. Rincewind never found out what he did to the failures. Perhaps he ate them.
When the figure spoke, its husky voice came from the depths of a black velvet hood, lined with fur.
‘Psst,’ it said.
‘Not very,’ said Rincewind, who was in a state of mind where he couldn’t resist it, ‘but I’m working on it.’
‘I’m looking for a wizard,’ said the voice. It sounded hoarse with the effort of disguising itself but, again, this was nothing unusual in the Drum.
‘Any wizard in particular?’ Rincewind said guardedly. People could get into trouble this way.
‘One with a keen sense of tradition who would not mind taking risks for high reward,’ said another voice. It appeared to be coming from a round black leather box under the stranger’s arm.
‘Ah,’ said Rincewind, ‘that narrows it down a bit, then. Does this involve a perilous journey into unknown and probably dangerous lands?’
‘It does, as a matter of fact.’
‘Encounters with exotic creatures?’ Rincewind smiled.
‘Almost certain death?’
Rincewind nodded, and picked up his hat.
‘Well, I wish you every success in your search,’ he said, ‘Id help you myself, only I’m not going to.’
‘Sorry. I don’t know why, but the prospect of certain death in unknown lands at the claws of exotic monsters isn’t for me. I’ve tried it, and I couldn’t get the hang of it. Each to their own, that’s what I say, and I was cut out for boredom.’ He rammed his hat on his head and stood up a little unsteadily.
He’d reached the foot of the steps leading up into the street when a voice behind him said: ‘A real wizard would have accepted.’
He could have kept going. He could have walked up the stairs, out into the street, got a pizza at the Klatchian takeaway in Sniggs Alley, and gone to bed. History would have been totally changed, and in fact would also have been considerably shorter, but he would have got a good night’s sleep although, of course, it would have been on the floor.
The future held its breath, waiting for Rincewind to walk away.
He didn’t do this for three reasons. One was alcohol. One was the tiny flame of pride that flickers in the heart of even the most careful coward. But the third was the voice.