Mort, p.6
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       Mort, p.6

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
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Page 6

  What are we going to do now? he said.

  THERES A PROMISING WAR IN KLATCHISTAN, said Death. SEVERAL PLAGUE OUTBREAKS. ONE RATHER IMPORTANT ASSASSINATION, IF YOUD PREFER.

  What, a murder?

  AYE, A KING.

  Oh, kings, said Mort dismissively. He knew about kings. Once a year a band of strolling players, or at any rate ambling ones, came to Sheepridge and the plays they performed were invariably about kings. Kings were always killing one another, or being killed. The plots were quite complicated, involving mistaken identity, poisons, battles, long-lost sons, ghosts, witches and, usually, lots of daggers. Since it was clear that being a king was no picnic it was amazing that half the cast were apparently trying to become one. Morts idea of palace life was a little hazy, but he imagined that no-one got much sleep.

  Id quite like to see a real king, he said. They wear crowns all the time, my granny said. Even when they go to the lavatory.

  Death considered this carefully.

  THERES NO TECHNICAL REASON WHY NOT, he conceded. IN MY EXPERIENCE, HOWEVER, IT IS GENERALLY NOT THE CASE.

  The horse wheeled, and the vast flat checkerboard of the Sto plain sped underneath them at lightning speed. This was rich country, full of silt and rolling cabbage fields and neat little kingdoms whose boundaries wriggled like snakes as small, formal wars, marriage pacts, complex alliances and the occasional bit of sloppy cartography changed the political shape of the land.

  This king, said Mort, as a forest zipped beneath them, is he good or bad?

  I NEVER CONCERN MYSELF WITH SUCH THINGS, said Death. HES NO WORSE THAN ANY OTHER KING, I IMAGINE.

  Does he have people put to death? said Mort, and remembering who he was talking to added, Saving yhonours presence, of course.

  SOMETIMES. THERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU HAVE TO DO, WHEN YOURE A KING.

  A city slid below them, clustered around a castle built on a rock outcrop that poked up out of the plain like a geological pimple. It was one huge rock from the distant Ramtops, Death said, left there by the retreating ice in the legendary days when the Ice Giants waged war on the gods and rode their glaciers across the land in an attempt to freeze the whole world. Theyd given up in the end, however, and driven their great glittering flocks back to their hidden lands among the razor-backed mountains near the Hub. No-one on the plains knew why they had done this; it was generally considered by the younger generation in the city of Sto Lat, the city around the rock, that it was because the place was dead boring.

  Binky trotted down over nothingness and touched down on the flagstones of the castles topmost tower. Death dismounted and told Mort to sort out the nosebag.

  Wont people notice theres a horse up here? he said, as they strolled to a stairwell.

  Death shook his head.

  WOULD YOU BELIEVE THERE COULD BE A HORSE AT THE TOP OF THIS TOWER? he Said.

  No. You couldnt get one up these stairs, said Mort.

  WELL, THEN?

  Oh. I see. People dont want to see what cant possibly exist.

  WELL DONE.

  Now they were walking along a wide corridor hung with tapestries. Death reached into his robe and pulled out an hourglass, peering closely at it in the dim light.

  It was a particularly fine one, its glass cut into intricate facets and imprisoned in an ornate framework of wood and brass. The words King Olerve the Bastard were engraved deeply into it.

  The sand inside sparkled oddly. There wasnt a lot left.

  Death hummed to himself and stowed the glass away in whatever mysterious recess it had occupied.

  They turned a corner and hit a wall of sound. There was a hall full of people there, under a cloud of smoke and chatter that rose all the way up into the banner-haunted shadows in the roof. Up in a gallery a trio of minstrels were doing their best to be heard and not succeeding.

  The appearance of Death didnt cause much of a stir. A footman by the door turned to him, opened his mouth and then frowned in a distracted way and thought of something else. A few courtiers glanced in their direction, their eyes instantly unfocusing as common sense overruled the other five.

  WEVE GOT A FEW MINUTES, said Death, taking a drink from a passing tray, LETS MINGLE.

  They cant see me either! said Mort. But Im real!

  REALITY is NOT ALWAYS WHAT IT SEEMS, said Death. ANYWAY, IF THEY DONT WANT TO SEE ME, THEY CERTAINLY DONT WANT TO SEE YOU. THESE ARE ARISTOCRATS, BOY. THEYRE GOOD AT NOT SEEING THINGS. WHY IS THERE A CHERRY ON A STICK IN THIS DRINK?

  Mort, said Mort automatically.

  ITS NOT AS IF IT DOES ANYTHING FOR THE FLAVOUR. WHY DOES ANYONE TAKE A PERFECTLY GOOD DRINK AND THEN PUT IN A CHERRY ON A POLE?

  Whats going to happen next? said Mort. An elderly earl bumped into his elbow, looked everywhere but directly at him, shrugged and walked away.

  TAKE THESE THINGS, NOW, said Death, fingering a passing canape. I MEAN, MUSHROOMS YES, CHICKEN YES, CREAM YES, IVE NOTHING AGAINST ANY OF THEM, BUT WHY IN THE NAME OF SANITY MINCE THEM ALL UP AND PUT THEM IN LITTLE PASTRY CASES?

  Pardon? said Mort.

  THATS MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEYVE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES. FASCINATING. HAVE A GHERKIN.

  Wheres the king? said Mort, craning to look over the heads of the court.

  CHAP WITH THE GOLDEN BEARD, said Death. He tapped a flunky on the shoulder, and as the man turned and looked around in puzzlement deftly piloted another drink from his tray.

  Mort cast around until he saw the figure standing in a little group in the centre of the crowd, leaning over slightly the better to hear what a rather short courtier was saying to him. He was a tall, heavily-built man with the kind of stolid, patient face that one would confidently buy a used horse from.

  He doesnt look a bad king, said Mort. Why would anyone want to kill him?

  SEE THE MAN NEXT TO HIM? WITH THE LITTLE MOUSTACHE AND THE GRIN LIKE A LIZARD? Death ointed with his scythe. Yes? HIS COUSIN, THE DUKE OF STO HELIT. NOT THE NICEST OF PEOPLE, said Death. A HANDY MAN WITH A BOTTLE OF POISON. FIFTH IN LINE TO THE THRONE LAST YEAR, NOW SECOND IN LINE. BIT OF A SOCIAL CLIMBER, YOU MIGHT SAY. He fumbled inside his robe and produced an hourglass in which black sand coursed between a spiked iron latticework. He gave it an experimental shake. AND DUE TO LIVE ANOTHER THIRTY, THIRTY-FIVE YEARS, he said, with a sigh.

  And he goes around killing people? said Mort. He shook his head. Theres no justice.

  Death sighed. No, he said, handing his drink to a page who was surprised to find he was suddenly holding an empty glass, THERES JUST ME.

  He drew his sword, which had the same ice blue, shadow-thin blade as the scythe of office, and stepped forward.

  I thought you used the scythe, whispered Mort.

  KINGS GET THE SWORD, said Death. ITS A ROYAL WHATSNAME, PREROGATIVE.

  His free hand thrust its bony digits beneath his robe again and brought out King Olerves glass. In the top half the last few grains of sand were huddling together.

  PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION, said Death, YOU MAY BE ASKED QUESTIONS AFTERWARDS.

  Wait, said Mort, wretchedly. Its not fair. Cant you stop it?

  FAIR? said Death. WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT FAIR?

  Well, if the other man is such a —

  LISTEN, said Death, FAIR DOESNT COME INTO IT.

  YOU CANT TAKE SIDES. GOOD GRIEF. WHEN ITS TIME, ITS TIME. THATS ALL THERE IS TO IT, BOY.

  Mort, moaned Mort, staring at the crowd.

  And then he saw her. A random movement in the people opened up a channel between Mort and a slim, red-haired girl seated among a group of older women behind the king. She wasnt exactly beautiful, being over-endowed in the freckle department and, frankly, rather on the skinny side. But the sight of her caused a shock that hot-wired Morts hindbrain and drove it all the way to the pit of his stomach, laughing nastily.

  ITS TIME, said Death, giving Mort a nudge with a sharp elbow. FOLLOW ME. <
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  Death walked toward the king, weighing his sword in his hand. Mort blinked, and started to follow. The girls eyes met his for a second and immediately looked away – then swivelled back, dragging her head around, her mouth starting to open in an o of horror.

  Morts backbone melted. He started to run towards the king.

  Look out! he screamed. Youre in great danger!

  And the world turned into treacle. It began to fill up with blue and purple shadows, like a heatstroke dream, and sound faded away until the roar of the court became distant and scritchy, like the music in someone elses headphones. Mort saw Death standing companionably by the king, his eyes turned up towards —

  — the minstrel gallery.

  Mort saw the bowman, saw the bow, saw the bolt now winging through the air at the speed of a sick snail. Slow as it was, he couldnt outrun it. It seemed like hours before he could bring his leaden legs under control, but finally he managed to get both feet to touch the floor at the same time and kicked away with all the apparent acceleration of continental drift.

  As he twisted slowly through the air Death said, without rancour, IT WONT WORK, YOU KNOW. ITS ONLY NATURAL THAT YOU SHOULD WANT TO TRY, BUT IT WONT WORK.

  Dream-like, Mort drifted through a silent world. . . .

  The bolt struck. Death brought his sword around in a double-handed swing that passed gently through the kings neck without leaving a mark. To Mort, spiralling gently through the twilight world, it looked as though a ghostly shape had dropped away.

  It couldnt be the king, because he was manifestly still standing there, looking directly at Death with an expression of extreme surprise. There was a shadowy something around his feet, and a long way away people were reacting with shouts and screams.

  A GOOD CLEAN JOB, said Death. ROYALTY ARE ALWAYS A PROBLEM. THEY TEND TO WANT TO HANG ON. YOUR AVERAGE PEASANT, NOW, HE CANT WAIT.

  Who the hell are you? said the king. What are you doing here? Eh? Guards! I deman — The insistent message from his eyes finally battered through to his brain. Mort was impressed. King Olerve had held on to his throne for many years and, even when dead, knew how to behave. Oh, he said, I see. I didnt expect to see you so oon.

  YOUR MAJESTY, said Death, bowing, FEW DO.

  The king looked around. It was quiet and dim in this shadow world, but outside there seemed to be a lot of excitement.

  Thats me down there, is it?

  I AM AFRAID SO, SIRE.

  Clean job. Crossbow, was it?

  YES. AND NOW, SIRE, IF YOU WOULD —

  Who did it? said the king. Death hesitated.

  A HIRED ASSASSIN FROM ANKH-MORPORK, he said.

  Hmm. Clever. I congratulate Sto Helit. And heres me filling myself with antidotes. No antidote to cold steel, eh? Eh?

  INDEED NOT, SIRE.

  The old rope ladder and fast horse by the drawbridge trick, eh?

  SO IT WOULD APPEAR, SIRE, said Death, taking the kings shade gently by the arm. IF ITS ANY CONSOLATION, THOUGH, THE HORSE NEEDS TO BE FAST.

  Eh?

  Death allowed his fixed grin to widen a little.

  I HAVE AN APPOINTMENT WITH ITS RIDER TOMORROW IN ANKH, said Death. YOU SEE, HE ALLOWED THE DUKE TO PROVIDE HIM WITH A PACKED LUNCH.

  The king, whose eminent suitability for his job meant that he was not automatically quick on the uptake, considered this for a moment and then gave a short laugh. He noticed Mort for the first time.

  Whos this? he said, He dead too?

  MY APPRENTICE, said Death. WHO WILL BE GETTING A GOOD TALKING-TO BEFORE HES MUCH OLDER, THE SCALLYWAG.

  Mort, said Mort automatically. The sound of their talking washed around him, but he couldnt take his eyes off the scene around them. He felt real. Death looked solid. The king looked surprisingly fit and well for someone who was dead. But the rest of the world was a mass of sliding shadows. Figures were bent over the slumped body, moving through Mort as if they were no more substantial than a mist.

 
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