Mort, p.28
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       Mort, p.28

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 28

  It was thicker than any normal staff, mainly because of the carvings that covered it from top to bottom. They were actually quite indistinct, but gave the impression that if you could see them better you would regret it.

  Albert brushed himself down again and examined himself critically in the washstand mirror.

  Then he said, Hat. No hat. Got to have a hat for the wizarding. Damn.

  He stamped out of the room and returned after a busy fifteen minutes which included a circular hole cut out of the carpet in Morts bedroom, the silver paper taken out from behind the mirror in Ysabells room, a needle and thread from the box under the sink in the kitchen and a few loose sequins scraped up from the bottom of the robe chest. The end result was not as good as he would have liked and tended to slip rakishly over one eye, but it was black and had stars and moons on it and proclaimed its owner to be, without any doubt, a wizard, although possibly a desperate one.

  He felt properly dressed for the first time in two thousand years. It was a disconcerting feeling and caused him a seconds reflection before he kicked aside the rag rug beside the bed and used the staff to draw a circle on the floor.

  When the tip of the staff passed it left a line of glowing octarine, the eighth colour of the spectrum, the colour of magic, the pigment of the imagination.

  He marked eight points on its circumference and joined them up to form an octogram. A low throbbing began to fill the room.

  Alberto Malich stepped into the centre and held the staff above his head. He felt it wake to his grip, felt the tingle of the sleeping power unfold itself slowly and deliberately, like a waking tiger. It triggered old memories of power and magic that buzzed through the cobwebbed attics of his mind. He felt alive for the first time in centuries.

  He licked his lips. The throbbing had died away, leaving a strange, waiting kind of silence.

  Malich raised his head and shouted one single syllable.

  Blue-green fire flashed from both ends of the staff. Streams of octarine flame spouted from the eight pouits of the octogram and enveloped the wizard. All this wasnt actually necessary to accomplish the spell, but wizards consider appearances are very important. . . .

  So are disappearances. He vanished.

  Stratohemispheric winds whipped at Morts cloak.

  Where are we going first? yelled Ysabell in his ear.

  Bes Pelargic! shouted Mort, the gale whirling his words away.

  Wheres that?

  Agatean Empire! Counterweight Continent!

  He pointed downward.

  He wasnt forcing Binky at the moment, knowing the miles that lay ahead, and the big white horse was currently running at an easy gallop out over the ocean. Ysabell looked down at roaring green waves topped with white foam, and clung tighter to Mort.

  Mort peered ahead at the cloudbank that marked the distant continent and resisted the urge to hurry Binky along with the flat of his sword. Hed never struck the horse and wasnt at all confident about what would happen if he did. All he could do was wait.

  A hand appeared under his arm, holding a sandwich.

  Theres ham or cheese and chutney, she said. You might as well eat, theres nothing else to do.

  Mort looked down at the soggy triangle and tried to remember when he last had a meal. Some time beyond the reach of a clock, anyway – hed need a calendar to calculate it. He took the sandwich.

  Thanks, he said, as graciously as he could manage.

  The tiny sun rolled down towards the horizon, towing its lazy daylight behind it. The clouds ahead grew, and became outlined in pink and orange. After a while he could make out the darker blur of land below them, with here and there the lights of a city.

  Half an hour later he was sure he could see individual buildings. Agatean architecture inclined towards squat pyramids.

  Binky lost height until his hooves were barely a few feet above the sea. Mort examined the hourglass again, and gently tugged on the reins to direct the horse towards a seaport a little Rimwards of their present course.

  There were a few ships at anchor, mostly single-sailed coastal traders. The Empire didnt encourage its subjects to go far away, in case they saw things that might disturb them. For the same reason it had built a wall around the entire country, patrolled by the Heavenly Guard whose main function was to tread heavily on the fingers of any inhabitants who felt they might like to step outside for five minutes for a breath of fresh air.

  This didnt happen often, because most of the subjects of the Sun Emperor were quite happy to live inside the Wall. Its a fact of life that everyone is on one side or other of a wall, so the only thing to do is forget about it or evolve stronger fingers.

  Who runs this place? said Ysabell, as they passed over the harbour.

  Theres some kind of boy emperor, said Mort. But the top man is really the Grand Vizier, I think.

  Never trust a Grand Vizier, said Ysabell wisely.

  In fact the Sun Emperor didnt. The Vizier, whose name was Nine Turning Mirrors, had some very clear views about who should run the country, e. g. , that it should be him, and now the boy was getting big enough to ask questions like Dont you think the wall would look better with a few gates in it? and Yes, but what is it like on the other side? he had decided that in the Emperors own best interests he should be painfully poisoned and buried in quicklime.

  Binky landed on the raked gravel outside the low, many-roomed palace, severely rearranging the harmony of the universe. [8] Mort slid off his back and helped Ysabell down.

  Just dont get in the way, will you? he said urgently. And dont ask questions either.

  He ran up some lacquered steps and hurried through the silent rooms, pausing occasionally to take his bearings from the hourglass. At last he sidled down a corridor and peered through an ornate lattice into a long low room where the Court was at its evening meal.

  The young Sun Emperor was sitting crosslegged at the head of the mat with his cloak of vermine and feathers spread out behind him. He looked as though he was outgrowing it. The rest of the Court was sitting around the mat in strict and complicated order of precedence, but there was no mistaking the Vizier, who was tucking into his bowl of squishi and boiled seaweed in a highly suspicious fashion. No-one seemed to be about to die.

  Mort padded along the passage, turned the corner and nearly walked into several large members of the Heavenly Guard, who were clustered around a spyhole in the paper wall and passing a cigarette from hand to hand in that palm-cupped way of soldiers on duty.

  He tiptoed back to the lattice and overheard the conversation thus:

  I am the most unfortunate of mortals, O Immanent Presence, to find such as this in my otherwise satisfactory squishi, said the Vizier, extending his chopsticks.

  The Court craned to see. So did Mort. Mort couldnt help agreeing with the statement, though – the thing was a sort of blue-green lump with rubbery tubes dangling from it.

  The preparer of food will be disciplined, Noble Personage of Scholarship, said the Emperor. Who got the spare ribs?

  No, O Perceptive Father of Your People, I was rather referring to the fact that this is, I believe, the bladder and spleen of the deepwater puff eel, allegedly the most tasty of morsels to the extent that it may be eaten only by those beloved of the gods themselves or so it is written, among such company of course I do not include my miserable self.

  With a deft flick he transported it to the bowl of the Emperor, where it wobbled to a standstill. The boy looked at it for some time, and then skewered it on a chopstick.

  Ah, he said, but is it not also written by none other than the great philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle that a scholar may be ranked above princes? I seem to remember you giving me the passage to read once, O Faithful and Assiduous Seeker of Knowledge.

  The thing followed another brief arc through the air and flopped apologetically into the Viziers bowl. He scooped it up in a quick movement and poised it for a second service. His eyes narrowed.


  Such may be generally the case, O Jade River of Wisdom, but specifically I cannot be ranked above the Emperor whom I love as my own son and have done ever since his late fathers unfortunate death, and thus I lay this small offering at your feet.

  The eyes of the court followed the wretched organ on its third flight across the mat, but the Emperor snatched up his fan and brought off a magnificent volley that ended back in the Viziers bowl with such force that it sent up a spray of seaweed.

  Somebody eat it, for heavens sake, shouted Mort, totally unheard. Im in a hurry!

  Thou art indeed the most thoughtful of servants, 0 Devoted and Indeed Only Companion of My Late Father and Grandfather When They Passed Over, and therefore I decree that your reward shall be this most rare and exquisite of morsels.

  The Vizier prodded the thing uncertainly, and looked into the Emperors smile. It was bright and terrible. He fumbled for an excuse.

  Alas, it would seem that I have already eaten far too much — he began, but the Emperor waved him into silence.

  Doubtless it requires a suitable seasoning, he said, and clapped his hands. The wall behind him ripped from top to bottom and four Heavenly Guards stepped through, three of them brandishing cando swords and the fourth trying hurriedly to swallow a lighted dog-end.

  The Viziers bowl dropped from his hands.

  My most faithful of servants believes he has no space left for this final mouthful, said the Emperor. Doubtless you can investigate his stomach to see if this is true. Why has that man got smoke coming out of his ears?

  Anxious for action, O Sky Eminence, said the sergeant quickly. No stopping him, Im afraid.

  Then let him take his knife and – oh, the Vizier seems to be hungry after all. Well done.

  There was absolute silence while the Viziers cheeks bulged rhythmically. Then he gulped.

  Delicious, he said. Superb. Truly the food of the gods, and now, if you will excuse me — He unfolded his legs and made as if to stand up. Little beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead.

  You wish to depart? said the Emperor, raising his eyebrows.

  Pressing matters of state, O Perspicacious Personage of —

  Be seated. Rising so soon after meals can be bad for the digestion, said the Emperor, and the guards nodded agreement. Besides, there are no urgent matters of state unless you refer to those in the small red bottle marked “Antidote” in the black lacquered cabinet on the bamboo rug in your quarters, O Lamp of Midnight Oil.

  There was a ringing in the Viziers ears. His face began to go blue.

  You see? said the Emperor. Untimely activity on a heavy stomach is conducive to ill humours. May this message go swiftly to all corners of my country, that all men may know of your unfortunate condition and derive instruction thereby.

  I . . . must . . . congratulate your . . . Personage on such . . . consideration, said the Vizier, and fell forward into a dish of boiled soft-shelled crabs.

  I had an excellent teacher, said the Emperor.

  ABOUT TIME, TOO, said Mort, and swung the sword.

  A moment later the soul of the Vizier got up from the mat and looked Mort up and down.

  Who are you, barbarian? he snapped.

  DEATH.

  Not my Death,said the Vizier firmly. Wheres the Black Celestial Dragon of Fire?

  HE COULDNT COME, said Mort. There were shadows forming in the air behind the Viziers soul. Several of them wore emperors robes, but there were plenty of others jostling them, and they all looked most anxious to welcome the newcomer to the lands of the dead.

 
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