Mort, p.11
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       Mort, p.11

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 11

  She looked down, giggled, and changed the dress into something leaf-green and clingy.

  What do you think, Mort? she said. Her voice had sounded cracked and quavery before. Now it suggested musk and maple syrup and other things that set Morts adams apple bobbing like a rubber ball on an elastic band.

  . . . he managed, and gripped the scythe until his knuckles went white.

  She walked towards him like a snake in a four-wheel drift.

  I didnt hear you, she purred.

  V-v-very nice, he said. Is that who you were?

  Its who Ive always been.

  Oh. Mort stared at his feet. Im supposed to take you away, he said.

  I know, she said, but Im going to stay.

  You cant do that! I mean — he fumbled for words – you see, if you stay you sort of spread out and get thinner, until —

  I shall enjoy it, she said firmly. She leaned forward and gave him a kiss as insubstantial as a mayflys sigh, fading as she did so until only the kiss was left, just like a Cheshire cat only much more erotic.

  Have a care, Mort, said her voice in his head. You may want to hold on to your job, but will you ever be able to let go?

  Mort stood idiotically holding his cheek. The trees around the clearing trembled for a moment, there was the sound of laughter on the breeze, and then the freezing silence closed in again.

  Duty called out to him through the pink mists in his head. He grabbed the second glass and stared at it. The sand was nearly all gone.

  The glass itself was patterned with lotus petals. When Mort flicked it with his finger it went Ommm.

  He ran across the crackling snow to Binky and hurled himself into the saddle. The horse threw up his head, reared, and launched itself towards the stars.

  Great silent streamers of blue and green flame hung from the roof of the world. Curtains of octarine glow danced slowly and majestically over the Disc as the fire of the Aurora Coriolis, the vast discharge of magic from the Discs standing field, earthed itself in the green ice mountains of the Hub.

  The central spire of Cori Celesti, home of the gods, was a ten mile high column of cold coruscating fire.

  It was a sight seen by few people, and Mort wasnt one of them, because he lay low over Binkys neck and clung on for his life as they pounded through the night sky ahead of a comet trail of steam.

  There were other mountains clustered around Cori. By comparison they were no more than termite mounds, although in reality each one was a majestic assortment of cols, ridges, faces, cliffs, screes and glaciers that any normal mountain range would be happy to associate with.

  Among the highest of them, at the end of a funnel-shaped valley, dwelt the Listeners.

  They were one of the oldest of the Discs religious sects, although even the gods themselves were divided as to whether Listening was really a proper religion, and all that prevented their temple being wiped out by a few well-aimed avalanches was the fact that even the gods were curious as to what it was that the Listeners might Hear. If theres one thing that really annoys a god, its not knowing something.

  Itll take Mort several minutes to arrive. A row of dots would fill in the time nicely, but the reader will already be noticing the strange shape of the temple – curled like a great white ammonite at the end of the valley – and will probably want an explanation.

  The fact is that the Listeners are trying to work out precisely what it was that the Creator said when He made the universe.

  The theory is quite straightforward.

  Clearly, nothing that the Creator makes could ever be destroyed, which means that the echoes of those first syllables must still be around somewhere, bouncing and rebounding off all the matter in the cosmos but still audible to a really good listener.

  Eons ago the Listeners had found that ice and chance had carved this one valley into the perfect acoustic opposite of an echo valley, and had built their multi-chambered temple in the exact position that the one comfy chair always occupies in the home of a rabid hi-fi fanatic. Complex baffles caught and amplified the sound that was funnelled up the chilly valley, steering it ever inwards to the central chamber where, at any hour of the day or night, three monks always sat.

  Listening.

  There were certain problems caused by the fact that they didnt hear only the subtle echoes of the first words, but every other sound made on the Disc. In order to recognise the sound of the Words, they had to learn to recognise all the other noises. This called for a certain talent, and a novice was only accepted for training if he could distinguish by sound alone, at a distance of a thousand yards, which side a dropped coin landed. He wasnt actually accepted into the order until he could tell what colour it was.

  And although the Holy Listeners were so remote, many people took the extremely long and dangerous path to their temple, travelling through frozen, troll-haunted lands, fording swift icy rivers, climbing forbidding mountains, trekking across inhospitable tundra, in order to climb the narrow stairway that led into the hidden valley and seek with an open heart the secrets of being.

  And the monks would cry unto them, Keep the bloody noise down!

  Binky came through the mountain tops like a white blur, touching down in the snowy emptiness of a courtyard made spectral by the disco light from the sky. Mort leapt from his back and ran through the silent cloisters to the room where the 88th abbot lay dying, surrounded by his devout followers.

  Morts footsteps boomed as he hurried across the intricate mosaic floor. The monks themselves wore woollen overshoes.

  He reached the bed and waited for a moment, leaning on the scythe, until he could get his breath back.

  The abbot, who was small and totally bald and had more wrinkles than a sackful of prunes, opened his eyes.

  Youre late, he whispered, and died.

  Mort swallowed, fought for breath, and brought the scythe around in a slow arc. Nevertheless, it was accurate enough; the abbot sat up, leaving his corpse behind.

  Not a moment too soon, he said, in a voice only Mort could hear. You had me worried for a moment there.

  Okay? said Mort. Only Ive got to rush —

  The abbot swung himself off the bed and walked towards Mort through the ranks of his bereaved followers.

  Dont rush off, he said. I always look forward to these talks. Whats happened to the usual fellow?

  Usual fellow? said Mort, bewildered.

  Tall chap. Black cloak. Doesnt get enough to eat, by the look of him, said the abbot.

  Usual fellow? You mean Death? said Mort.

  Thats him, said the abbot, cheerfully. Morts mouth hung open.

  Die a lot, do you? he managed.

  A fair bit. A fair bit. Of course, said the abbot, once you get the hang of it, its only a matter of practice.

  It is?

  We must be off, said the abbot. Morts mouth snapped shut.

  Thats what Ive been trying to say, he said.

  So if you could just drop me off down in the valley, the little monk continued placidly. He swept past Mort and headed for the courtyard. Mort stared at the floor for a moment, and then ran after him in a way which he knew to be extremely unprofessional and undignified.

  Now look — he began.

  The other one had a horse called Binky, I remember, said the abbot pleasantly. Did you buy the round off him?

  The round? said Mort, now completely lost.

  Or whatever. Forgive me, said the abbot, I dont really know how these things are organised, lad.

  Mort, said Mort, absently. And I think youre supposed to come back with me, sir. If you dont mind, he added, in what he hoped was a firm and authoritative manner. The monk turned and smiled pleasantly at him.

  I wish I could, he said. Perhaps one day. Now, if you could give me a lift as far as the nearest village, I imagine Im being conceived about now.

  Conceived? But youve just died! said Mort.

  Yes, but, you see, I have what you might call a s
eason ticket, the abbot explained.

  Light dawned on Mort, but very slowly.

  Oh, he said, Ive read about this. Reincarnation, yes?

  Thats the word. Fifty-three times so far. Or fifty-four.

  Binky looked up as they approached and gave a short neigh of recognition when the abbot patted his nose. Mort mounted up and helped the abbot up behind him.

  It must be very interesting, he said, as Binky climbed away from the temple. On the absolute scale of small talk this comment must rate minus quite a lot, but Mort couldnt think of anything better.

  No, it mustnt, said the abbot. You think it must be because you believe I can remember all my lives, but of course I cant. Not while Im alive, anyway.

  I hadnt thought of that, Mort conceded.

  Imagine toilet training fifty times.

  Nothing to look back on, I imagine, said Mort.

  Youre right. If I had my time all over again I wouldnt reincarnate. And just when Im getting the hang of things, the lads come down from the temple looking for a boy conceived at the hour the old abbot died. Talk about unimaginative. Stop here a moment, please.

  Mort looked down.

  Were in mid-air,he said doubtfully.

  I wont keep you a minute. The abbot slid down from Binkys back, walked a few steps on thin air, and shouted.

  It seemed to go on for a long time. Then the abbot climbed back again.

  You dont know how long Ive been looking forward to that, he said.

  There was a village in a lower valley a few miles from the temple, which acted as a sort of service industry. From the air it was a random scattering of small but extremely well-soundproofed huts.

  Anywhere will do, the abbot said. Mort left him standing a few feet above the snow at a point where the huts appeared to be thickest.

  Hope the next lifetime improves, he said. The abbot shrugged.

  One can always hope, he said. I get a nine-month break, anyway. The scenery isnt much, but at least its in the warm.

  Goodbye, then, said Mort. Ive got to rush.

  Au revoir, said the abbot, sadly, and turned away.

  The fires of the Hub Lights were still casting their flickering illumination across the landscape. Mort sighed, and reached for the third glass.

  The container was silver, decorated with small crowns. There was hardly any sand left.

  Mort, feeling that the night had thrown everything at him and couldnt get any worse, turned it around carefully to get a glimpse of the name. . . .

  Princess Keli awoke.

  There had been a sound like someone making no noise at all. Forget peas and mattresses – sheer natural selection had established over the years that the royal families that survived longest were those whose members could distinguish an assassin in the dark by the noise he was clever enough not to make, because, in court circles, there was always someone ready to cut the heir with a knife.

  She lay in bed, wondering what to do next. There was a dagger under her pillow. She started to slide one hand up the sheets, while peering around the room with half-closed eyes in search of unfamiliar shadows. She was well aware that if she indicated in any way that she was not asleep she would never wake up again.

  Some light came into the room from the big window at the far end, but the suits of armour, tapestries and assorted paraphernalia that littered the room could have provided cover for an army.

  The knife had dropped down behind the bedhead. She probably wouldnt have used it properly anyway.

  Screaming for the guards, she decided, was not a good idea. If there was anyone in the room then the guards must have been overpowered, or at least stunned by a large sum of money.

 
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