Mort, p.31
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       Mort, p.31

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 31

  Death straightened up slowly.

  IS THIS HOW HE REPAYS MY KINDNESS? TO STEAL MY DAUGHTER, INSULT MY SERVANTS, AND RISK THE FABRIC OF REALITY ON A PERSONAL WHIM? OH, FOOLISH, FOOLISH, I HAVE BEEN FOOLISH TOO LONG!

  Master, if you would just be so good as to let go of my robe — began Albert, and the wizard noticed a pleading edge to his voice that hadnt been there before.

  Death ignored him. He snapped his fingers like a castanet and the apron around his waist exploded into brief flames. The kitten, however, he put down very carefully and gently pushed away with his foot.

  DID I NOT GIVE HIM THE GREATEST OPPORTUNITY?

  Exactly, master, and now if you could see your way clear —

  SKILLS? A CAREER STRUCTURE? PROSPECTS? A JOB OR LIFE?

  Indeed, and if you would but let go —

  The change in Alberts voice was complete. The trumpets of command had become the piccolos of supplication. He sounded terrified, in fact, but he Managed to catch Rincewinds eye and hiss:

  My staff! Throw me my staff! While he is in the circle he is not invincible! Let me have my staff and I can break free!

  Rincewind said: Pardon?

  OH, MINE IS THE FAULT FOR GIVING IN TO THESE WEAKNESSES OF WHAT FOR WANT OF A BETTER WORD I SHALL CALL THE FLESH!

  My staff, you idiot, my staff! gibbered Albert. Sorry?

  WELL DONE, MY SERVANT, FOR CALLING ME TO MY SENSES. said Death. LET us LOSE NO TIME.

  My sta-!

  There was an implosion and an inrush of air.

  The candle flames stretched out like lines of fire for a moment, and then went out.

  Some time passed.

  Then the bursars voice from somewhere near the floor said, That was very unkind, Rincewind, losing his staff like that. Remind me to discipline you severely one of these days. Anyone got a light?

  I dont know what happened to it! I just leaned it against the pillar here and now its —

  Oook.

  Oh, said Rincewind.

  Extra banana ration, that ape, said the bursar levelly. A match flared and someone managed to get a candle alight. Wizards started to pick themselves off the floor.

  Well, that was a lesson to all of us, the bursar continued, brushing dust and candlewax off his robe. He looked up, expecting to see the statue of Alberto Malich back on its pedestal.

  Clearly even statues have feelings, he said. I myself recall, when I was but a first-year student, writing my name on his well, never mind. The point is, I propose here and now we replace the statue.

  Dead silence greeted this suggestion.

  With, say, an exact likeness cast in gold. Suitably embellished with jewels, as befits our great founder, he went on brightly.

  And to make sure no students deface it in any way I suggest we then erect it in the deepest cellar, he continued.

  And then lock the door, he added. Several wizards began to cheer up.

  And throw away the key? said Rincewind.

  And weld the door, the bursar said. He had just remembered about The Mended Drum. He thought for a while and remembered about the physical fitness regime as well.

  And then brick up the doorway, he said. There was a round of applause.

  And throw away the bricklayer! chortled Rincewind, who felt he was getting the hang of this.

  The bursar scowled at him. No need to get carried away, he said.

  In the silence a larger than usual sand dune humped up awkwardly and then fell away to reveal Binky, blowing the sand out of his nostrils and shaking his mane.

  Mort opened his eyes.

  There should be a word for that brief period just after waking when the mind is full of warm pink nothing. You lie there entirely empty of thought, except for a growing suspicion that heading towards you, like a sockful of damp sand in a nocturnal alleyway, are all the recollections youd really rather do without, and which amount to the fact that the only mitigating factor in your horrible future is the certainty that it will be quite short.

  Mort sat up and put his hands on top of his head to stop it unscrewing.

  The sand beside him heaved and Ysabell pushed herself into a sitting position. Her hair was full of sand and her face was grimy with pyramid dust. Some of her hair had frizzled at the tips. She stared listlessly at him.

  Did you hit me? he said, gently testing his jaw.

  Yes.

  Oh.

  He looked at the sky, as though it could remind him about things. He had to be somewhere, soon, he recalled. Then he remembered something else.

  Thank you, he said.

  Any time, I assure you. Ysabell made it to her feet and tried to brush the dirt and cobwebs off her dress.

  Are we going to rescue this princess of yours? she said diffidently.

  Morts own personal, internal reality caught up with him. He shot to his feet with a strangled cry, watched blue fireworks explode in front of his eyes, and collapsed again. Ysabell caught him under the shoulders and hauled him back on his feet.

  Lets go down to the river, she said. I think we could all do with a drink.

  What happened to me?

  She shrugged as best she could while supporting his weight.

  Someone used the Rite of AshkEnte. Father hates it, he says they always summon him at inconvenient moments. The part of you that was Death went and you stayed behind. I think. At least youve got your own voice back.

  What time is it?

  What time did you say the priests close up the pyramid?

  Mort squinted through streaming eyes back towards the tomb of the king. Sure enough, torchlit fingers were working on the door. Soon, according to the legend, the guardians would come to life and begin their endless patrol.

  He knew they would. He remembered the knowledge. He remembered his mind feeling as cold as ice and limitless as the night sky. He remembered being summoned into reluctant existence at the moment the first creature lived, in the certain knowledge that he would outlive life until the last being in the universe passed to its reward, when it would then be his job, figuratively speaking, to put the chairs on the tables and turn aU the lights off.

  He remembered the loneliness.

  Dont leave me, he said urgently.

  Im here, she said. For as long as you need me.

  Its midnight, he said dully, sinking down by the Tsort and lowering his aching head to the water. Beside him there was a noise like a bath emptying as Binky also took a drink.

  Does that mean were too late?

  Yes.

  Im sorry. I wish there was something I could do.

  There isnt.

  At least you kept your promise to Albert.

  Yes, said Mort, bitterly. At least I did that.

  Nearly all the way from one side of the Disc to the other. . . .

  There should be a word for the microscopic spark of hope that you dare not entertain in case the mere act of acknowledging it will cause it to vanish, like trying to look at a photon. You can only sidle up to it, looking past it, walking past it, waiting for it to get big enough to face the world.

  He raised his dripping head and looked towards the sunset horizon, trying to remember the big model of the Disc in Deaths study without actually letting the universe know what he was entertaining.

  At times like this it can seem that eventuality is so finely balanced that merely thinking too loud can spoil everything.

  He orientated himself by the thin streamers of Hublight dancing against the stars, and made an inspired guess that Sto Lat was . . . over there. . . .

  Midnight, he said aloud.

  Gone midnight now, said Ysabell.

  Mort stood up, trying not to let the delight radiate out from him like a beacon, and grabbed Binkys harness.

  Come on, he said. We havent got much time.

  What are you talking about?

  Mort reached down to swing her up behind him. It was a nice idea, but merely meant that he nearly pulled himself
out of the saddle. She pushed him back gently and climbed up by herself. Binky skittered sideways, sensing Morts feverish excitement, and snorted and pawed at the sand.

  I said, what are you talking about?

  Mort turned the horse to face the distant glow of the sunset.

  The speed of night, he said.

  Gutwell poked his head over the palace battlements and groaned. The interface was only a street away, clearly visible in the octarine, and he didnt have to imagine the sizzling. He could hear it – a nasty, saw-toothed buzz as random particles of possibility hit the interface and gave up their energy as noise. As it ground its way up the street the pearly wall swallowed the bunting, the torches and the waiting crowds, leaving only dark streets. Somewhere out there, Cutwell thought, Im fast asleep in my bed and none of this has happened. Lucky me.

  He ducked down, skidded down the ladder to the cobbles and legged it back to the main hall with the skirts of his robe flapping around his ankles. He slipped in through the small postern in the great door and ordered the guards to lock it, then grabbed his skirts again and pounded along a side passage so that the guests wouldnt notice him.

  The hall was lit with thousands of candles and crowded with Sto Plain dignitaries, nearly all of them slightly unsure why they were there. And, of course, there was the elephant.

  It was the elephant that had convinced Cutwell that he had gone off the rails of sanity, but it seemed like a good idea a few hours ago, when his exasperation at the High Priests poor eyesight had run into the recollection that a lumber mill on the edge of town possessed said beast for the purposes of heavy haulage. It was elderly, arthritic and had an uncertain temper, but it had one important advantage as a sacrificial victim. The High Priest should be able to see it.

  Half a dozen guards were gingerly trying to restrain the creature, in whose slow brain the realisation had dawned that it should be in its familiar stable, with plenty of hay and water and time to dream of the hot days on the great khaki plains of Klatch. It was getting restless.

  It will shortly become apparent that another reason for its growing friskiness is the fact that, in the pre-ceremony confusion, its trunk found the ceremonial chalice containing a gallon of strong wine and drained the lot. Strange hot ideas are beginning to bubble in front of its crusted eyes, of uprooted baobabs, mating fights with other bulls, glorious stampedes through native villages and other half-remembered pleasures. Soon it will start to see pink people.

  Fortunately this was unknown to Cutwell, who caught the eye of the High Priests assistant – a forward-looking young man who had the foresight to provide himself with a long rubber apron and waders – and signalled that the ceremony should begin.

  He darted back into the priests robing room and struggled into the special ceremonial robe the palace seamstress had made up for him, digging deep into her workbasket for scraps of lace, equins and gold thread to produce a garment of uch dazzling tastelessness that even the ArchChancellor of Unseen University wouldnt have been ashamed to wear it. Cutwell allowed himself five seconds to admire himself in the mirror before ramming the pointy hat on his head and running back to the door, stopping just in time to emerge at a sedate pace as befitted a person of substance.

  He reached the High Priest as Keli started her advance up the central aisle, flanked by maidservants who fussed around her like tugs around a liner.

  Despite the drawbacks of the hereditary dress, Cutwell thought she looked beautiful. There was something about her that made him —

  He gritted his teeth and tried to concentrate on the security arrangements. He had put guards at various vantage points in the hall in case the Duke of Sto Helit tried any last-minute rearrangement of the royal succession, and reminded himself to keep a special eye on the duke himself, who was sitting in the front row of seats with a strange quiet smile on his face. The duke caught Cutwells eye, and the wizard hastily looked away.

 
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