Mort, p.7
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       Mort, p.7

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 7

  The girl was kneeling down, weeping.

  Thats my daughter, said the king. I ought to feel sad. Why dont I?

  EMOTIONS GET LEFT BEHIND. ITS ALL A MATTER OF GLANDS.

  Ah. That would be it, I suppose. She cant see us, can she?

  NO.

  I suppose theres no chance that I could —?

  NONE, said Death.

  Only shes going to be queen, and if I could only let her—

  SORRY.

  The girl looked up and through Mort. He watched the duke walk up behind her and lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. A fault smile hovered around the mans lips. It was the sort of smile that lies on sandbanks waiting for incautious swimmers.

  I cant make you hear me, Mort said. Dont trust him!

  She peered at Mort, screwing up her eyes. He reached out, and watched his hand pass straight through hers.

  COME ALONG, BOY. NO LALLYGAGGING.

  Mort felt Deaths hand tighten on his shoulder, not in an unfriendly fashion. He turned away reluctantly, following Death and the king.

  They walked out through the wall. He was halfway after them before he realised that walking through walls was impossible.

  The suicidal logic of this nearly killed him. He felt the chill of the stone around his limbs before a voice in his ear said:

  LOOK AT IT THIS WAY. THE WALL CANT BE THERE. OTHERWISE YOU WOULDNT BE WALKING THROUGH IT. WOULD YOU, BOY?

  Mort, said Mort.

  WHAT?

  My name is Mort. Or Mortimer, said Mort angrily, pushing forward. The chill fell behind him.

  THERE. THAT WASNT so HARD, WAS IT?

  Mort looked up and down the length of the corridor, and slapped the wall experimentally. He must have walked through it, but it felt solid enough now. Little specks of mica glittered at him.

  How do you do that stuff? he said. How do I do it? Is it magic?

  MAGIC IS THE ONE THING IT ISNT, BOY. WHEN YOU CAN DO IT BY YOURSELF, THERE WILL BE NOTHING MORE THAT I CAN TEACH YOU.

  The king, who was considerably more diffuse now, said, Its impressive, Ill grant you. By the way, I seem to be fading.

  ITS THE MORPHOGENETIC FIELD WEAKENING, said Death.

  The kings voice was no louder than a whisper. Is that what it is?

  IT HAPPENS TO EVERYONE. TRY TO ENJOY IT.

  How? Now the voice was no more than a shape in the air. JUST BE YOURSELF.

  At that moment the king collapsed, growing smaller and smaller in the air as the field finally collapsed into a tiny, brilliant pinpoint. It happened so quickly that Mort almost missed it. From ghost to mote in half a second, with a faint sigh.

  Death gently caught the glittering thing and stowed it away somewhere under his robe.

  Whats happened to him? said Mort.

  ONLY HE KNOWS, said Death. COME.

  My granny says that dying is like going to sleep, Mort added, a shade hopefully.

  I WOULDNT KNOW. I HAVE DONE NEITHER.

  Mort took a last look along the corridor. The big doors had been flung back and the court was spilling out. Two older women were endeavouring to comfort the princess, but she was striding ahead of them so that they bounced along behind her like a couple of fussy balloons. They disappeared up another corridor.

  ALREADY A QUEEN, said Death, approvingly. Death liked style.

  They were on the roof before he spoke again.

  You TRIED TO WARN HIM, he said, removing Binkys nosebag.

  Yes, sir. Sorry.

  YOU CANNOT INTERFERE WITH FATE. WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE WHO SHOULD LIVE AND WHO SHOULD DIE?

  Death watched Morts expression carefully.

  ONLY THE GODS ARE ALLOWED TO DO THAT, he added. To TINKER WITH THE FATE OF EVEN ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

  Mort nodded miserably. Are you going to send me home? he said. Death reached down and swung him up behind the saddle. BECAUSE YOU SHOWED COMPASSION? No. I MIGHT HAVE DONE IF YOU HAD SHOWN PLEASURE. BUT YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE.

  Whats that? A SHARP EDGE.

  Days passed, although Mort wasnt certain how many. The gloomy sun of Deaths world rolled regularly across the sky, but the visits to mortal space seemed to adhere to no particular system. Nor did Death visit only kings and important battles; most of the personal visits were to quite ordinary people.

  Meals were served up by Albert, who smiled to himself a lot and didnt say anything much. Ysabell kept to her room most of the time, or rode her own pony on the black moors above the cottage. The sight of her with her hair streaming in the wind would have been more impressive if she was a better horse-woman, or if the pony had been rather larger, or if her hair was the sort that streams naturally. Some hair has got it, and some hasnt. Hers hadnt.

  When he wasnt out on what Death referred to as THE DUTY Mort assisted Albert, or found jobs in the garden or stable, or browsed through Deaths extensive library, reading with the speed and omnivorousness common to those who discover the magic of the written word for the first time.

  Most of the books in the library were biographies, of course.

  They were unusual in one respect. They were writing themselves. People who had already died, obviously, filled their books from cover to cover, and those who hadnt been born yet had to put up with blank pages. Those in between . . . Mort took note, marking the place and counting the extra lines, and estimated that some books were adding paragraphs at the rate of four or five every day. He didnt recognise the handwriting.

  And finally he plucked up his courage.

  A WHAT? said Death in astonishment, sitting behind his ornate desk and turning his scythe-shaped paperknife over and over in his hands.

  An afternoon off, repeated Mort. The room suddenly seemed to be oppressively big, with himself very exposed in the middle of a carpet about the size of a field.

  BUT WHY? said Death. IT CANT BE TO ATTEND YOUR GRANDMOTHERS FUNERAL, he added. I WOULD KNOW.

  I just want to, you know, get out and meet people, said Mort, trying to outstare that unflinching blue gaze.

  BUT YOU MEET PEOPLE EVERY DAY, protested Death.

  Yes, I know, only, well, not for very long, said Mort. I mean, itd be nice to meet someone with a life expectancy of more than a few minutes. Sir, he added.

  Death drummed his fingers on the desk, making a sound not unlike a mouse tap-dancing, and gave Mort another few seconds of stare. He noticed that the boy seemed rather less elbows than he remembered, stood a little more upright and, bluntly, could use a word like expectancy. It was all that library.

  ALL RIGHT, he said grudgingly. BUT IT SEEMS TO ME YOU HAVE EVERYTHING YOU NEED RIGHT HERE. THE DUTY IS NOT ONEROUS, IS IT?

  No, sir.

  AND YOU HAVE GOOD FOOD AND A WARM BED AND RECREATION AND PEOPLE YOUR OWN AGE.

  Pardon, sir? said Mort.

  MY DAUGHTER, said Death. YOU HAVE MET HER, I BELIEVE.

  Oh. Yes, sir.

  SHE HAS A VERY WARM PERSONALITY WHEN YOU GET TO KNOW HER.

  I am sure she has, sir.

  NEVERTHELESS, YOU WISH – Death launched the words with a spin of distaste – AN AFTERNOON OFF? Yes, sir. If you please, sir.

  VERY WELL. So BE IT. You MAY HAVE UNTIL SUNSET.

  Death opened his great ledger, picked up a pen, and began to write. Occasionally hed reach out and flick the beads of an abacus.

  After a minute he looked up.

  YOURE STILL HERE, he said. AND IN YOUR OWN TIME, TOO, he added sourly.

  Um, said Mort, will people be able to see me, sir?

  I IMAGINE SO, IM SURE, said Death. Is THERE ANYTHING ELSE I MIGHT BE ABLE TO ASSIST YOU WITH BEFORE YOU LEAVE FOR THIS DEBAUCH?

  Well, sir, there is one thing, sir, I dont know how to get to the mortal world, sir, said Mort desperately.

  Death sighed loudly, and pulled open a desk drawer.

  JUST WALK THERE.

  Mort nodded miserably, and took the long wa
lk to the study door. As he pulled it open Death coughed.

  BOY! he called, and tossed something across the room.

  Mort caught it automatically as the door creaked open.

  The doorway vanished. The deep carpet underfoot became muddy cobbles. Broad daylight poured over him like quick-silver.

  Mort, said Mort, to the universe at large.

  What? said a stallholder beside him. Mort stared around. He was in a crowded market place, packed with people and animals. Every kind of thing was being sold from needles to (via a few itinerant prophets) visions of salvation. It was impossible to hold any conversation quieter than a shout.

  Mort tapped the stallholder in the small of the back.

  Can you see me? he demanded.

  The stallholder squinted critically at him.

  I reckon so, he said, or someone very much like you.

  Thank you, said Mort, immensely relieved.

  Dont mention it. I see lots of people every day, no charge. Want to buy any bootlaces?

  I dont think so, said Mort. What place is this?

  You dont know?

  A couple of people at the next stall were looking at Mort thoughtfully. His mind went into overdrive.

  My master travels a lot, he said, truthfully. We arrived last night, and I was asleep on the cart. Now Ive got the afternoon off.

  Ah, said the stallholder. He leaned forward conspiratorially. Looking for a good time, are you? I could fix you up.

  Id quite enjoy knowing where I am, Mort conceded.

  The man was taken aback.

  This is Ankh-Morpork, he said. Anyone ought to be able to see that. Smell it, too.

  Mort sniffed. There was a certain something about the air in the city. You got the feeling that it was air that had seen life. You couldnt help noting with every breath that thousands of other people were very close to you and nearly all of them had armpits.

  The stallholder regarded Mort critically, noting the pale face, well-cut clothes and strange presence, a sort of coiled spring effect.

  Look, Ill be frank, he said. I could point you in the direction of a great brothel.

  Ive already had lunch, said Mort, vaguely. But you can tell me if were anywhere near, I think its called Sto Lat?

  About twenty miles Hubwards, but theres nothing there for a young man of your kidney, said the trader hurriedly. I know, youre out by yourself, you want new experiences, you want excitement, romance —

  Mort, meanwhile, had opened the bag Death had given him. It was full of small gold coins, about the size of sequins.

  An image formed again in his mind, of a pale young face under a head of red hair who had somehow known he was there. The unfocused feelings that had haunted his mind for the last few days suddenly sharpened to a point.

  I want, he said firmly, a very fast horse.

  Five minutes later, Mort was lost.

  This part of Ankh-Morpork was known as The Shades, an inner-city area sorely in need either of governmental help or, for preference, a flamethrower. It couldnt be called squalid because that would be stretching the word to breaking point. It was beyond squalor and out the other side, where by a sort of Einsteinian reversal it achieved a magnificent horribleness that it wore like an architectural award. It was noisy and sultry and smelled like a cowshed floor.

  It didnt so much have a neighbourhood as an ecology, like a great land-based coral reef. There were the humans, all right, humanoid equivalents of lobsters, squid, shrimps and so on. And sharks.

  Mort wandered hopelessly along the winding streets. Anyone hovering at rooftop height would have noticed a certain pattern in the crowds behind him, suggesting a number of men converging nonchalantly on a target, and would rightly have concluded that Mort and his gold had about the same life expectancy as a three-legged hedgehog on a six-lane motorway.

  It is probably already apparent that The Shades was not the sort of place to have inhabitants. It had denizens. Periodically Mort would try to engage one in conversation, to find the way to a good horse dealer. The denizen would usually mutter something and hurry away, since anyone wishing to live in The Shades for longer than maybe three hours developed very specialised senses indeed and would no more hang around near Mort than a peasant would stand near a tall tree in thundery weather.

 
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