Mort, p.13
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       Mort, p.13

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 13

  He said he hadnt had an evening off in a thousand years, said Albert. He was humming. I dont like it. Ive never seen him like this.

  Oh. Mort took the plunge. Albert, have you been here long?

  Albert looked at him over the top of his spectacles.

  Maybe, he said. Its hard to keep track of outside time, boy. I bin here since just after the old king died.

  Which king, Albert?

  Artorollo, I think he was called. Little fat man. Squeaky voice. I only saw him the once, though.

  Where was this?

  In Ankh, of course.

  What? said Mort. They dont have kings in Ankh-Morpork, everyone knows that!

  This was back a bit, I said, said Albert. He poured himself a cup of tea from Deaths personal teapot and sat down, a dreamy look in his crusted eyes. Mort waited expectantly.

  And they was kings in those days, real kings, not like the sort you get now. They was monarchs, continued Albert, carefully pouring some tea into his saucer and fanning it primly with the end of his muffler. I mean, they was wise and fair, well, fairly wise. And they wouldnt think twice about cutting your head off soon as look at you, he added approvingly. And all the queens were tall and pale and wore them balaclava helmet things —

  Wimples? said Mort.

  Yeah, them, and the princesses were beautiful as the day is long and so noble they, they could pee through a dozen mattresses —

  What?

  Albert hesitated. Something like that, anyway, he conceded. And there was balls and tournaments and executions. Great days. He smiled dreamily at his memories.

  Not like the sort of days you get now, he said, emerging from his reverie with bad grace.

  Have you got any other names, Albert? said Mort. But the brief spell had been broken and the old man wasnt going to be drawn.

  Oh, I know, he snapped, get Alberts name and youll go and look him up in the library, wont you? Prying and poking. I know you, skulking in there at all hours reading the lives of young wimmen —

  The heralds of guilt must have flourished their tarnished trumpets in the depths of Morts eyes, because Albert cackled and prodded him with a bony finger.

  You might at least put them back where you find em, he said, not leave piles of em around for old Albert to put back. Anyway, its not right, ogling the poor dead things. It probably turns you blind.

  But I only — Mort began, and remembered the damp lace handkerchief in his pocket, and shut up.

  He left Albert grumbling to himself and doing the washing up, and slipped into the library. Pale sunlight lanced down from the high windows, gently fading the covers on the patient, ancient volumes. Occasionally a speck of dust would catch the light as it floated through the golden shafts, and flare like a miniature supernova.

  Mort knew that if he listened hard enough he could hear the insect-like scritching of the books as they wrote themselves.

  Once upon a time Mort would have found it eerie. Now it was – reassuring. It demonstrated that the universe was running smoothly. His conscience, which had been looking for the opening, gleefully reminded him that, all right, it might be running smoothly but it certainly wasnt heading in the right direction.

  He made his way through the maze of shelves to the mysterious pile of books, and found it was gone. Albert had been in the kitchen, and Mort had never seen Death himself enter the library. What was Ysabell looking for, then?

  He glanced up at the cliff of shelves above him, and his stomach went cold when he thought of what was starting to happen. . . .

  There was nothing for it. Hed have to tell someone.

  Keli, meanwhile, was also finding life difficult.

  This was because causality had an incredible amount of inertia. Morts misplaced thrust, driven by anger and desperation and nascent love, had sent it down a new track but it hadnt noticed yet. Hed kicked the tail of the dinosaur, but it would be some time before the other end realised it was time to say ouch.

  Bluntly, the universe knew Keli was dead and was therefore rather surprised to find that she hadnt stopped walking and breathing yet.

  It showed it in little ways. The courtiers who gave her furtive odd looks during the morning would not have been able to say why the sight of her made them feel strangely uncomfortable. To their acute embarrassment and her annoyance they found themselves ignoring her, or talking in hushed voices.

  The Chamberlain found hed instructed that the royal standard be flown at half mast and for the life of him couldnt explain why. He was gently led off to his bed with a mild nervous affliction after ordering a thousand yards of black bunting for no apparent reason.

  The eerie, unreal feeling soon spread throughout the castle. The head coachman ordered the state bier to be brought out again and polished, and then stood in the stable yard and wept into his chamois leather because he couldnt remember why. Servants walked softly along the corridors. The cook had to fight an overpowering urge to prepare simple banquets of cold meat. Dogs howled and then stopped, feeling rather stupid. The two black stallions who traditionally pulled the Sto Lat funeral cortege grew restive in their stalls and nearly kicked a groom to death.

  In his castle in Sto Helit, the duke waited in vain for a messenger who had in fact set out, but had stopped halfway down the street, unable to remember what it was he was supposed to be doing.

  Through all this Keli moved like a solid and increasingly more irritated ghost.

  Things came to a head at lunchtime. She swept into the great hall and found no place had been set in front of the royal chair. By speaking loudly and distinctly to the butler she managed to get that rectified, then saw dishes being passed in front of her before she could get a fork into them. She watched in sullen disbelief as the wine was brought in and poured first for the Lord of the Privy Closet.

  It was an unregal thing to do, but she stuck out a foot and tripped the wine waiter. He stumbled, muttered something under his breath, and stared down at the flagstones.

  She leaned the other way and shouted into the ear of the Yeoman of the Pantry: Can you see me, man? Why are we reduced to eating cold pork and ham?

  He turned aside from his hushed conversation with the Lady of the Small Hexagonal Room in the North Turret, gave her a long look in which shock made way for a sort of unfocused puzzlement, and said, Why, yes . . . I can . . . er. . . .

  Your Royal Highness, prompted Keli.

  But . . . yes . . . Highness, he muttered. There was a heavy pause.

  Then, as if switched back on, he turned his back on her and resumed his conversation.

  Keli sat for a while, white with shock and anger, then pushed the chair back and stormed away to her chambers. A couple of servants sharing a quick rollup in the passage outside were knocked sideways by something they couldnt quite see.

  Keli ran into her room and hauled on the rope that should have sent the duty maid running in from the sitting room at the end of the corridor. Nothing happened for some time, and then the door was pushed open slowly and a face peered in at her.

  She recognised the look this time, and was ready for it. She grabbed the maid by the shoulders and hauled her bodily into the room, slamming the door shut behind her. As the frightened woman stared everywhere but at Keli she hauled off and fetched her a stinging slap across the cheek.

  Did you feel that? Did you feel it? she shrieked.

  But . . . you . . . the maid whimpered, staggering backwards until she hit the bed and sitting down heavily on it.

  Look at me! Look at me when I talk to you! yelled Keli, advancing on her. You can see me, cant you? Tell me you can see me or Ill have you executed!

  The maid stared into her terrified eyes.

  I can see you, she said, but. . . .

  But what? But what?

  Surely youre . . . I heard . . . I thought. . . .

  What did you think? snapped Keli. She wasnt shouting any more. Her words came out like white-hot whips.

  Th
e maid collapsed into a sobbing heap. Keli stood tapping her foot for a moment, and then shook the woman gently.

  Is there a wizard in the city? she said. Look at me, at me. Theres a wizard, isnt there? You girls are always skulking off to talk to wizards! Where does he live?

  The woman turned a tear-stained face towards her, fighting against every instinct that told her the princess didnt exist.

  Uh . . . wizard, yes . . . Cutwell, in Wall Street.

  Kelis lips compressed into a thin smile. She wondered where her cloaks were kept, but cold reason told her it was going to be a damn sight easier to find them herself than try to make her presence felt to the maid. She waited, watching closely, as the woman stopped sobbing, looked around her in vague bewilderment, and hurried out of the room.

  Shes forgotten me already, she thought. She looked at her hands. She seemed solid enough.

  It had to be magic.

  She wandered into her robing room and experimentally opened a few cupboards until she found a black cloak and hood. She slipped them on and darted out into the corridor and down the servants stairs.

  She hadnt been this way since she was little. This was the world of linen cupboards, bare floors and dumb-waiters. It smelled of slightly stale crusts.

  Keli moved through it like an earthbound spook. She was aware of the servants quarters, of course, in the same way that people are aware at some level in their minds of the drains or the guttering, and she would be quite prepared to concede that although servants all looked pretty much alike they must have some distinguishing features by which their nearest and dearest could, presumably, identify them. But she was not prepared for sights like Moghedron the wine butler, whom she had hitherto seen only as a stately presence moving like a galleon under full sail, sitting in his pantry with his jacket undone and smoking a pipe.

  A couple of maids ran past her without a second glance, giggling. She hurried on, aware that in some strange way she was trespassing in her own castle.

  And that, she realised, was because it wasnt her castle at all. The noisy world around her, with its steaming laundries and chilly stillrooms, was its own world. She couldnt own it. Possibly it owned her.

  She took a chicken leg from the table in the biggest kitchen, a cavern lined with so many pots that by the light of its fires it looked like an armoury for tortoises, and felt the unfamiliar thrill of theft. Theft! In her own kingdom! And the cook looked straight through her, eyes as glazed as jugged ham.

  Keli ran across the stable yards and out of the back gate, past a couple of sentries whose stern gaze quite failed to notice her.

  Out in the streets it wasnt so creepy, but she still felt oddly naked. It was unnerving, being among people who were going about their own affairs and not bothering to look at one, when ones entire experience of the world hitherto was that it revolved around one. Pedestrians bumped into one and rebounded away, wondering briefly what it was they had hit, and one several times had to scurry away out of the path of wagons.

  The chicken leg hadnt gone far to fill the hole left by the absence of lunch, and she filched a couple of apples from a stall, making a mental note to have the chamberlain find out how much apples cost and send some money down to the stallholder.

  Dishevelled, rather grubby and smelling slightly of horse dung, she came at last to Cutwells door. The knocker gave her some trouble. In her experience doors opened for you; there were special people to arrange it.

  She was so distraught she didnt even notice that the knocker winked at her.

  She tried again, and thought she heard a distant crash. After some time the door opened a few inches and she caught a glimpse of a round flustered face topped with curly hair. Her right foot surprised her by intelligently inserting itself in the crack.

 
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