Published by Shoestring at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Pam Crane
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Noah stirred, snorted, rolled over and continued to snore gently into his palliasse.
A wick of straw poked into Noah’s nose and he opened his eyes, grumbling.
“What? … who …?”
“Who’s that? Is it breakfast time? Where are you?”
“Noah – didn’t you get my email???”
“I beg your pardon? What’s an ‘eemale’? It’s pitch dark. I can’t see you.”
“Oh dammit – emails are 20th century – sorry. Should have remembered. Noah, I did send you several warnings. Have you taken any action yet?”
“Dreams. I sent you Dreams.”
“Who ARE you? What dreams?”
“Oh you exasperating man. I knew your Dad Lamech shouldn’t have given you a name that means ‘rest’. You seem to do little else. Noah, your God is speaking to you!”
“Aaahh!” Noah cowered against the mud-brick wall behind his rustling bed and tried to marshal his thoughts. Dreams. He had been having intermittent nightmares involving a lot of water and people drowning …
“God … er … good gracious … I am unworthy … do you mean all those wet dreams?”
“I shall pretend you didn’t say that. I am referring to the Warnings. The Warnings of the Mighty Flood. Mankind – and womankind for that matter – has turned out to be a profound disappointment, and I am now offering an Ultimatum, a Final Warning. Unless the whole world repents of its wickedness in, say, 100 years time, I shall unloose all the waters of Heaven upon the earth and drown every living thing.
You are supposed to be telling everyone (oh why is it taking them so long to invent Twitter?) so that the world can be spared. Didn’t you get My Plans?”
“No plans. Just very wet. Until I woke up in a dry house with the usual noisy family.”
“Ah. So you don’t know about the boat.”
“You are to build a boat, which History will remember as the ‘Ark’ despite its size. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.”
“Why are You talking like that?”
“Oh sorry – I’ve time-shifted again. I really must try not to do it. It confuses me as well as you. Basically you need something exceptionally large which will float, endure storms, and carry everything you and your expanding family need to survive for a year and ten days. Forty days of which will be a non-stop monsoon. It will be about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high, with three decks – as long as a football field goalpost to goalpost and about as wide. It will be taller than a 3 story building, with a total deck area the size of 36 lawn tennis courts or 20 basketball courts. If you stand the Ark up on end, it will be as tall as the Great Pyramid at Giza.”
“O Lord, I have no idea what you are talking about. What kind of plant is a footborl, a golepost? What are lorn tenis and basket borl?”
“Such a pity you won’t live beyond 950 years. Symbolically of course. Unlike your dear Grandfather Methuselah who made it to 969. So much to look forward to! Andy Murray’s Gold at the 2012 Olympics, and then winning Wimbledon … and Ryan Giggs! Still going at 40! Or should that be 400? Oh dear. All this depends on you Noah. If you can get this ship built over the next century (or should that be ten years? … why does everything have to take so long??) and fill it with two of every living thing upon the earth …”
“Whoa! How big is this thing? How in Heaven’s name – begging your pardon Lord – am I supposed to do that? It takes me all day to persuade one donkey out of its stable! And exactly how many of Your creatures are we looking at here?”
“Oh – only about nine million after the Great Extinctions (humans aren’t the first major let-down, you know. Try civilising a Tyrannosaurus.)”
“Yes, taking into account oceans and dry land – not that it will be dry for much longer – and including the following: 7.77 million species of animals, 298,000 species of plants, 611,000 species of moulds and mushrooms, 36,400 species of single-cell protozoa, and 27,500 species of algae, diatoms, and water moulds. We’ll need at least two of each to repopulate the earth after My purge. And your good selves of course – you and your dear wife, and Ham, Shem and Japhet and their lady wives who will all be part of your extended family by then. You will have to replace all the delinquent nations whose behaviour since I invented them and gave them this wonderful world to grow in, has fallen so grievously short. But you, Noah, are a Good Man. With your genes and a great horoscope We stand a chance of getting humanity back on track. And then to make absolutely sure we all know where we stand, I’ll send My Son for a short and compelling visit that no-one will ever forget.”
Noah stared at the indistinct form of his – unbelievably – still sleeping wife. How could she not hear this richly resonant Voice that a later generation might compare to a melange of the BBC’s Neil Nunes and the voice-over on X Factor? He could barely speak.
“Nine million. How am I supposed to do that. I’ve never been more than a day’s walk from Aram! Lord, can’t You just send a nasty disease or something? One that just wipes out bad people? Leaving the oxen and foxes and sparrows alone? Though You could get rid of the flies …”
“No I can’t. They’re part of the eco-system. I don’t think you have too much to worry about there; they’ll come in along with the animals. But I did say ‘every living thing’. You’ll need to set up a seed bank. Don’t forget to include your climate-controlled environment and a good-sized refrigeration unit.”
“Dear Lord, you have completely lost me. A modest boat I can do. I can fell trees, cut planks, buy nails ... though what with on my pittance I have no idea ... and as my boys grow we can put this thing together somewhere where the locals won’t complain. And I may manage to get hold of a couple of donkeys, some cattle, sheep, a goat or two ... some hens and a rooster ... but lions?! Wolves??? ELEPHANTS? First I have to find them. Then I have to catch them. Then I have to persuade them that a wobbly boat is a far better place to be than the hills and forests where they usually live. And what are they supposed to eat for a year or so cooped up and probably very cross - each other? US?”
There was a reflective silence. Then,
“Look, Noah, it says here in My Book, “every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort. And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in.” It says here in black and white that you did it! It is Written!
“Well I’m dreadfully sorry, Lord, but book or no book it just isn’t practical. Do you absolutely have to wipe out everything and start again from scratch? It’s a terrible waste of resources. You could just set an example – put the Fear of Yourself up some of the local bigwigs and low-life with a really bad storm but leave the rest of the world alone? I don’t mind saving my family ( and actually the neighbours aren’t that bad) and we can probably rustle up enough provisions to keep us going through a crisis, with a fair bit of belt-tightening – and Your gracious help, Lord. I can go out and about on Your behalf and issue a Final Warning and tell people they need to mend their ways Or Else, but some kind of superhero I am not, and personally – with the greatest respect – I think you ought to rewrite Your Book.”
So, in the end, this is what happened. Except for the last bit. But Noah had far too much on his plate getting off the top of Mount Ararat to worry about that.
“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Death’s current right-hand man (they were all of course relatively short-lived) was unsure how seriously to take his grave Master’s abrupt exclamation. He stared uneasily into the diamond-bright orbits; he had thought his position secure.
“You surely cannot mean that, Sire?”
“Tod, My young friend, I see you are yet unacquainted with the immortal words of The Bard.”
“The Swan of Avon, Tod. Lived briefly on an alien Ballworld, and known only by his pugnacious family name of Shake-Spear. He was a prolific writer of dramas which have achieved in that exotic culture a measure of immortality, and are hence deserving of respect.”
“Sire, I am unsure what You mean by ‘horse.’ Nor, surely, can You risk the surrender of Your exclusive Kingdom to anyone other than … to anyone … even in exchange for this… ?…”
“… Horse, Tod. No, no; My cry was rhetorical. Were you ever to visit that Ballworld you would understand the habits of its denizens. Among such habits is the tendency to quote lines from their Bard and even others less gifted. To their credit they invoke their holy beings also, with great frequency and passionate emphasis. My kingdom – which of course I shall never relinquish – intersects very slightly with that of My cousin Oblivion whose responsibility it is to assist these distant beings in breathing their last. Thus I am familiar with the Ballworld and – to My undying satisfaction – its literature.”
Death and Tod, heavily cloaked, were making their way at a painfully funereal pace toward the rapidly sprawling, already cosmopolitan city of Ankh-Morpork where a number of residents were for a variety of personal reasons on their last legs and anticipating an imminent evening visit.
“But why do You want a … horse, sire?”
“Because, dear Tod, your feet are aching, My feet are worn to the bone,” (Death, You are nothing but bone! thought Tod ) “and to be perfectly honest, arriving on foot for the most significant event in a client’s life is to say the least somewhat infra dig.”
“So a … horse … is a kind of vehicle?”
“A horse is an animal, Tod.”
“I have never seen one!”
“Of course not, boy. They are native only to the Ballworld, where they are held in such regard that all four Agents of Ultimate Retribution arrive at the end of days on horseback. No less a dignity should surely be afforded to Me; for I am the Fate of all creatures, I am the Grim Reaper, the Final Reckoning, universally feared, revered and honoured. Aren’t I …?”
Tod was now deep in thought.
How might a horse be acquired for his august Master, if there were none to be had in the whole of Discworld? Even the rulers of the Agatean Empire and the Kingdom of Überwald would have no horses. Nor even the Third Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who – when they weren’t escaping and terrifying the local populace – kept in the Palace Zoo the finest collection of wild and domesticated beasts on the Disc.
“Sire, where will You find a horse? And what does it look like?”
“Ah, My young friend, horses are the distant cousins of our unicorns! Like them they have a graceful head and neck, a flying mane and a flowing tail … But their feet are each a single solid hoof, not cloven, and most significantly they have no horn spiralling from the centre of the forehead.”
“Then why can You not ride a unicorn?”
A shudder rattled the dry bones of Death’s ancient frame. Bitter memories stirred along with a little cloud of cemetery dust.
“Once, a long time ago, I tried. First I neatly removed the horn so that the snowy creature more resembled the horse I longed for. In so doing I inadvertently robbed it of its very life-force and instantly it died. Once the Scalbies had picked its skeleton clean in the Ramtops I was able to return the delicate bones to life, wired together into a quasi-equine frame – but I was too heavy for My fragile mount and it constantly needed mending. Those bones now rest at the bottom of the Ankh where it meets the ocean.”
He paused. Tod – feeling a little queasy – sensed that there was more to come.
“What happened next, Sire?”
“Next, my cousin Oblivion offered Me a Fire Horse. These, Tod, are only found between the worlds, born in the heart of stellar nurseries to guard supernovae and black holes. A considerable number were drawn to the higher dimensions of the Ballworld to inspire and guide select members of its largest ethnic group. Unseen, of course.”
“Of course, Sire. … do I sense a ‘but’? …”
“Alas you do. A fire horse is sadly out of keeping with an environment which is, on the whole, combustible. I Myself cannot burn – but every dwelling We approached at speed caught fire from picket to thatch, and Our client was given an unscheduled and slightly premature cremation.”
“Which meant that You had to exchange Your fiery steed for another?”
“Would that it were so! There were none to be had.” Death sighed with the joyless echo of immemorial caverns. “ I have had to plod from sickbed to murder to cockup to martyrdom from that day to this, with or without assistance, and rarely on time. Because I cannot make a dramatic entrance I often go unrecognised – which is unhelpful for the person expiring, and extremely bad for My self-esteem.”
The dank dawn saw Tod curled up against a gravestone under one of Ankh-Morpork’s Even-Yews after a long and dispiriting night’s despatching. Lack of sleep had opened his mind to the whisperings of the not-quite-dead around him … and he found to his surprise that he had an Idea.
Death had gone back to His Dominion so his time was his own. Clutching his black cloak around him against the chill from the river he made his way past the Patrician’s Palace, through the Plaza of Broken Moons to the forbidding gates of recently-founded Unseen University. He yanked what appeared to be a bell-pull – there was a soul-splitting shriek from everywhere at once and a distant casement was flung open.
“What is your business here, whippersnapper?”
Tod raised terrified eyes from the dirt by the ornate gatepost.
“I need to talk to a wizard … please … Sir.” He had difficulty shouting against a gale of magic rushing from the window.
“Need references. ID.”
“I’m Death’s Assistant. Erm … here …”
The owner of the voice had vanished from the small square of occult violet light and rematerialised a foetid breath away from Tod behind the octiron bars. A hand wavered between visibility and invisibility as it stretched through the gate to take the visiting card Tod now proffered.
“Ah. You on business? Not much dying going on here, y’know.”
“I need to see a wizard about a horse.”
“It’s like a … please find me someone I can talk to!”
“You better come in.”
The huge gates creaked and clanked apart. Magic crackled from every surface and under Tod’s feet as he followed the cranky concierge to the hallowed doors. Then he was inside. Walls and ceilings, at first present as ideas, melted away leaving him in a vertiginous space full of something that muttered and spun, fingered him, drew away, breathed on him again, making him more and more dizzy.
At last a figure appeared, reassuringly solid.
“Good Morning. Tod?” Bright eyes bored into his brain, but remained friendly.
“A horse, you say?”
“Sir, my Master – Death – is … extremely old. As you must be aware. He finds Himself lacking … impact. What He really needs is …”
“I know exactly what He needs, young man! What He needs is the Ballworld’s Fourth Horse. Unfortunately it is in increasing use as that benighted world continues – to coin a phrase – to shoot itself in the foot. However …” conspiratorially, “… their once inspirational First Rider is about to take early retirement. Frankly, he became redundant. Which means …”
“… that his horse is going spare?”
“Indeed! The most perfect creature, as close to a unicorn as you can imagine but with the power of a Dragon and the speed of a deer. Now, a little bird – in actual fact Quoth the Raven – told me that your Master has a birthday coming up. How about Unseen University honouring Death’s birthday with a very special present?”
“You can do that?”
“We have the power.”
“Sir! How can I thank you?” Tod was quite overwhelmed, his glasses fogged with grateful tears.
“Just keep it a secret. Now off you go.”
Death was always too embarrassed to celebrate His Birthday. But several Watches after Tod’s felicitous visit He woke from a doze to find Himself staring into the kind eyes of a very large and very white horse.
“Happy Birthday, Death,” said the horse. “My name is Binky.”
And that is how horses first came to Discworld; and how Death, arriving in a glory of flying hooves, was never again late for an appointment.
One evening Eliot and I were sitting by the fire, trying to find animals in the embers, when suddenly I said …
“Look! There’s a lion!”
Eliot saw it too; and then a piece of coal collapsed, sparks flew up, and it turned into a very small cat. Eliot’s eyes were shining deep gold in the firelight, with a distant sort of expression. I knew he was remembering something, and soon he would say so. I waited. Presently he twitched his whiskers, shifted a paw, looked at me, and said,
“My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Lion.”
“What was his name?” I asked.
“I don’t know”, he said a little crossly, “I wasn’t there.”
“Perhaps lions didn’t have names then,” I suggested, knowing I had been tactless.
“No, perhaps they didn’t”, he agreed with relief. “But they had manes…!”
I chuckled dutifully.
There was a pause. We listened to the crackling of the fire and watched our shadows jumping about all over the room. I reached for a paper.
“Shall I tell you what happened to my great-great-great …. to that Lion I was telling you about?”
He obviously wanted to, so I put down my paper and leaned forward in what I hoped was a serious, listening sort of way.
“All right,” I said.
Eliot got up, stretched thoughtfully one leg that had been curled under him, inspected the rug, and began:
“Well, in my … in my Ancestor’s day, there were simply millions of Lions, all over the place…”
“That was a good idea,” I broke in, “calling him an Ancestor. It saves all those ‘greats’ every time!”
“Thank you. That’s what I thought. As I was just saying, there were all these Lions …”
“And tigers?” I asked.
“And Tigers; they were their cousins of the great Cat family, but the Tigers lived in the Long Grasses, while the Lions liked the open plains where there was more sun. I’ll tell you another story about that later on. There were other Cats too; Leopards, and Black Panthers, and Cheetahs, and the great white Snow Leopard, and the Lynx, whom nobody really liked, because when you were thinking privately to yourself, he had a way of sitting and staring at you that made you feel most un-private.”
“Like you do sometimes,” I said, and Eliot looked hurt.
“I do wish you wouldn’t interrupt,” he grumbled. I apologised, and he went on.
“You know that after Noah’s great Flood there was no actual rain at all for a very long time. Just damp mists, fog, that sort of thing. So everything that needed water still grew. Nobody even believed in rain, because no-one who was alive had ever seen it. But one day a volcano erupted right underneath the sea. The flames that came out boiled it up just like water in a kettle, and clouds of steam rolled all over the sky. The winds carried the clouds for miles and miles, until they began to get cooler and cooler and cooler … and the wetness clung together in large drops, which soon started to fall out of the sky, down, down, down onto the forests, the plains, the mountains and rivers and long grasses.
Nobody noticed at first. It was just after lunch, and everyone was dozing on a full tummy, out in a sunny patch of grass, or under the trees. Then, all of a sudden, they were wide awake, with the sun gone, and shivers going through them, and rain falling faster and faster! The Cheetahs and Leopards sprang into the nearest and thickest trees to get out of the storm that thrashed down on them as if to beat the world to death. But the rest stood stupefied, gazing at the sky, with tears running mingled with the blinding rain down their noses. Lynx was panic-stricken, and snarled and snapped at the rain, whimpering when it wouldn’t go away. My Ancestor had got his hair in his eyes and couldn’t do anything to help himself or anyone else. The Tigers and Black Panther had tried to make for cover, but had got thoroughly entangled in the soaking grasses. As for Snow Leopard, he had been caught up on a high crag in the mountains, and was now crouched unhappily under a slight overhang of rock, which was still not big enough to shelter him from the downpour. The Cats were all so frightened that they didn’t even speak, but just shut their eyes and wished it would stop. A few crept into shivering little groups, huddled together for warmth and comfort in their misery. Never had the great Cats felt so small …
As twilight was falling, the downpour stopped. The last drops slid down bruised grass-stems and ran together in rivulets underfoot, and tiny beads of water that still hung trembling were pricked with fire from the sunset as the sky cleared. Somebody sneezed, and carefully, slowly, the Cats blinked the raindrops off their lashes and opened their eyes.
‘The grass has grown!’ exclaimed a Tiger.
‘Look at the trees!’ cried the Black Panther in astonishment.
Everyone had been busily shaking themselves out of stiff positions, until their fur, which had been plastered wetly to their sides, stuck out in wisps and spikes. Now they all stood stock still with amazement, wondering how on earth the entire jungle could shoot up to such a terrifying, gigantic height in just a few hours of rain. It was not until they saw enormous spotted animals slipping down from the trees that had sheltered them during the storm, that the sharp-eyed Lynx realised what had happened. Now that the rain had gone he was his usual calm self. He looked round at the assembled company and announced,
‘We have shrunk.’ ”
“Had they really?” I gasped at this point.
“Yes, they really had,” said Eliot, happy to have told me something I didn’t know already… “All the big Cats who were caught in the rain shrank to the size I am now. The reason there are no spotted small cats is because the Cheetahs and Leopards kept dry in the trees. Of course, not all the big Cats were shrunk; some of the many had found shelter, and their descendants are as great as they were. But most of them suffered this awful fate, and that is why there are so many of us! Afterwards they roamed the countryside, looking for places where Man had made fires, so that they could dry themselves. The Men made them more than welcome, because they weren’t afraid of little cats; and the cats gradually came to love the fireside and Man’s company. But we have never forgiven the rain for our humiliation. Never. All cats hate water to this day. That is why we claw at it and stamp on it, and take a delight in seeing it dwindle away under the working of our tongues! But if we can, we run from it, as from an enemy …”
“You don’t mind it so much,” I remarked.
“Well … I’m different,” said Eliot, glancing at me warily across the rug to see if I was going to argue the point. I decided I wouldn’t. After all, he is different.
“Thank you for telling me about your Ancestor,” I said.
“Not at all,” said he. And started to wash himself.
Even a Lord can face pecuniary embarrassment. Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh Morpork, had been leaning heavily for some time on the advice of Maxim Groveller, current financial advisor to the Assassins Guild, and invested a considerable amount of his personal wealth in doodlebugs. These, he was assured, were to be the thrilling future of the Post Office: unusually large insects discovered in the Octarine Grass Country, especially bred and trained to carry parcels between the mushrooming mail order giant Riverankh and its thousands of enthusiastic customers. Unfortunately for the Patrician and other select shareholders in BizzyBuggy Inc., doodlebugs turned out to be the perfect lunch for the city’s feral dragons who would swoop on them as they buzzed across the Ankh – so the revolutionary delivery system was rapidly and irreversibly dead in the water.
Lord Vetinari gazed disconsolately around the Oblong Office. The only immediate route to disposable income was to dispose of his forbears. They glared at him from their gilded cages around the walls. The work of the artist who had painted all of them over the millennia, and who would immortalise Havelock himself, without warts (one’s image is most important) when he met his eventual demise, sold reasonably well and might be expected to raise a sum sufficient to keep him in Ghlen Livid until the remorseful day. Leonardo Tipsi had worked from his aromatic studio in Omnia for more generations than anyone could remember; self-portraits always showed him with a paint-spattered overall and straggly white beard, and he was rumoured – though it was never proved – to have fled from the Lost Continent of Ku just as it disappeared forever into the ocean. Lately, the name Tipsi had been appearing on city walls as far afield as Klatch and Überwald, under subversive drawings of the local low-life; as a result many houses and businesses now only had three sides and a tarpaulin as their delighted owners cashed in on the elusive artist’s novel enterprise. This would surely add some cachet to the gloomy canvases? The Patrician wondered if he could persuade him to vandalise one of the Palace’s smaller out-buildings. An auction of apparently daring Tipsis on such prestigious walls could solve all his fiscal problems at a stroke and guarantee free demolition of his redundant annexe.
“Surlish,” he said to his one remaining valet, “Get Tipsi for me.”
“Ah. No. Please, Surlish, fetch me the Court Painter.”
“My Lord, it grieves me to say that I cannot.”
“Cannot? Why is this?”
“My Lord, he is gone.”
“Gone? Gone where, Surlish?”
“Deceased, Sire. Gone to the great Studio in the Sky.”
“This is unbelievable! When and how did this occur? What is your source?”
“It is all over the Clacks, my Lord. He was chalking a large … member … on the clock tower in Sator Square at midnight when a straw blew onto the mechanism and the entire set of chimes fell on his head.”
“Surlish, his paintings will double in value!”
“Alas, yours will not be among them, Sire.”
That could present a problem further down the line … but it wouldn’t be his problem, as he would by then be personally chatting to Tipsi and all his own departed relatives.
“Get me Gavelling.”
Surlish smartened hmself up sufficiently to present himself at the office of the Ankh-Morpork Auctioneer.
“The Patrician requests your presence, Mr. Gavelling.”
“Indeed? Does he require a private viewing?”
“Ah … no. He is resolved on a sale.”
“A sale! Why so? With what would his Lordship grace our humble auction?”
“The fiscal climate has not been kind to him, Mr. Gavelling. He wishes to convert his forbears into liquid assets.”
“The very same.”
“Alas, Mr. Surlish, with the greatest respect, no-one will touch them. Despite the fame of the late Leonardo, his pre-sgraffito style is now utterly passé. The portraits are worth more to the Palace as insulation. But … I have an idea!”
Over gold-rimmed cups of Klatchian coffee the Patrician and his Auctioneer regarded each other thoughtfully.
“You have an alternative proposal, Mr. Gavelling?”
“I have, my Lord. You have a cousin. Jack Vetinari.”
“That inarticulate layabout who went off to Pseudopolis and drank everything the family were foolish enough to send him?”
“My Lord, Jack Vetinari took to painting. His works ‘The Whistling Golem’ and ‘Dance Me To The Edge Of The Rim’ grace living-rooms and stationers all over the Disc. If you were to acquire the originals I believe the investment would solve all your immediate problems. But there is a catch.” Gavelling looked askance at the Patrician. “The canvases are no longer in your cousin’s possession.”
“Then requisition them! On my orders! What could be simpler?”
“My Lord, on one recent, particularly festive Hogswatch they passed into the hands of two … er … very popular ladies, in return for extraordinary favours. I rather doubt that these … er … romantic gifts would be willingly surrendered. You may, my Lord, find it necessary to negotiate.”
“With women ?”
“To be precise – with the Honourable Tansy Strapping and Lady Pulcherrima Gland.”
The Patrician visibly paled. He had managed to keep the so-called fairer sex at bay for most of his life … and now his very survival meant engaging with two of the highest-profile, lowest-cleavage B-listers in Hi-Yah! magazine.
“Sire, do you wish me to summon the ladies?” Surlish had been silent, his impassive features hiding a turmoil of racy memories and surprisingly naughty thoughts.
“Yes, Surlish, I’m afraid you will have to. Mr. Gavelling, thank you for your advice; Surlish will accompany you to the door.”
The coffee-cups were out again; scarlet roses and golden lilies spilled out of every ancient vase in the Oblong Office. Havelock Vetinari never, ever betrayed his feelings – but blood smeared the quicks around his immaculate nails. Surlish had appeared carrying a wriggling bundle – and now a very small sunset-pink dragon was curled at the Patrician’s feet, squeaking for attention.
“Oh, how cute !”
The exotic body of Lady Pulcherrima Gland undulated through the mighty double doors and overwhelmed the room with Pure Poisson. The huge baby eyes of the dragon glowed as she bent to stroke it, revealing such curves as Havelock had only imagined in his most disturbed sleep. A long, slender blue tongue flickered up her silky legs. Surlish stifled a groan.
“Please make yourself comfortable, Lady Gland.”
“Thank you.” She rearranged her knees. “What can I do for you?”
“We are waiting for one more guest; then we have a little matter to discuss.”
Five uneasy minutes later Surlish again swung the great doors open to admit the Honourable Tansy Strapping. She creaked like an Igor as she strode across the parquet, every inch of her squeezed into maraschino leather.
“See to my horse, fellow,” she said. “Vetinari, we meet at last!”
“Ladies,” said the Patrician. “you each have something eminently desirable which would, I understand, bring me considerable material relief.”
Both women leaned closer to their host…
“Our experience is at your service … Havelock.” Lady Gland was almost purring.
“Ah! No … Ladies, you each possess a precious canvas, an original Jack Vetinari. I wish to come to some agreement. The paintings, by a member of my own family, should belong to the Palace. What are your terms?”
Lady Pulcherrima stepped back and took the Honourable Tansy by a muscular arm.
“We did not come here to be exploited …”
“Nor insulted …”
“The paintings were gifts …”
“Of great sentimental value …”
“We have no business here.”
Just as the ladies turned on their expensive heels, Surlish moved rapidly forward and whispered with unusual animation into his master’s ear.
Then: “Lady Gland. Miss Tansy. My predicament is such that I am obliged to take a drastic step, unprecedented in my …hrrrm… years as ruler of Ankh-Morpork. I am willing – subject to the canvas passing into my possession, thence to be sold to defray the Palace debt – to offer one of you my hand in marriage.”
Neither lady, despite appearances, was any longer in the first flush of her youth. Both had secretly considered retirement and wondered who would now have them. This was a singular opportunity to secure prestige and pampering into their old age. They glared at each other.
“My Lord, I accept!” they exclaimed in unison.
Surlish hastened to Havelock’s ear once more.
“There is apparently a precedent for the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork to take more than one wife. The offer is therefore open to both of you. And you would be company for each other,” added the desperate Lord, thinking, “and maybe they would leave me alone.”
Ankh-Morpork had never seen such celebrations. The river pageantry of the double wedding filled a whole issue of Hi-Yah!, and even reclusive cousin Jack turned up to toast the good fortune of his former consorts. He was now so rich that he bought back his own canvases, the Palace was saved, and Havelock Vetinari settled back into an interesting old age with bosom friends who at last could shelve their plans for a Civil Partnership.
The Real Princess gingerly descended the delicate ladder, wincing at every backward step.
“I’m absolutely shattered,” she said to the Lackey who had been looking up her nightie all the way from the towering topmost mattress to the richly carpeted floor.
“How can anyone hope to sleep with a great lump in the bed? Look at me! I’m black and blue! What on earth was the reason I had such a dreadful night?”
“Merely a pea, your Highness,” replied the beaming Lackey. It was time to explain.
“Certainly not,” retorted the Real Princess, “I was up there for seven hours straight; and now if you don’t mind …”
“I meant a pea,” said the Lackey, who with some difficulty had pushed his hand under the bottom-most mattress and retrieved a tiny, hard, dark green sphere barely larger than a piece of grit. “Look! This is what bruised your royally sensitive limbs, Highness. You have passed our most stringent test! My master the Prince will be delighted to know that at last he has found a Real Princess. I shall tell him at once.”
“Your precious Prince has a lot to answer for. I have been cruelly mistreated. My whole body hurts. … doN’T TOUCH ME!…” as the Prince’s Lackey reached out a consoling hand toward her silken shoulder “…. I need your physician, and I want a lawyer. A pea. How dare he abuse his honoured guest this way.”
“At once, Highness. At once.”
Prince Gorgeous was in his dressing gown sipping the most expensive morning coffee in the world whose beans had passed through the entrails of a swamp dragon, and playing the stock market on his Y-pad. One gold sleeve brushed the Mangosteen marmalade.
“Lackey! A fresh gown. Now.”
“Your Royal Highness, your special guest has awakened.” The Lackey’s nose was in the immaculate carpet, his eyes level with slippers so encrusted with rubies they could have bought the entire kingdom of Oz.
“And? I presume that as usual she slept well and will be departing after tea and toast?”
“No Sire! She has hardly slept! She thought she was lying on a boulder and now every inch of her perfect body …” he paused momentarily at the dizzying memory “… is in extreme pain.”
“Then bring her to me immediately! The gods be praised, I may at long last have found a suitable wife.”
“Sire, she has asked for a physician … and for a lawyer. She is not best pleased with the overnight accommodation afforded by our palace.”
“They will have to wait. She will understand that my word is my command. Does she have a name?”
“I don’t know, Sire. I’ll fetch her.”
The Lackey had long passed pensionable age and nearly toppled onto his Prince as he creaked and staggered back to the vertical position. He found the Real Princess pacing the tastefully appointed guest apartment in obvious annoyance.
“Is there no breakfast to be had in this place?” she demanded. “I arrive in the middle of the night, I’m bundled out of a carriage into a chair, rushed up to this room without a word, hoisted into this impossible bed, no introductions, no supper, and wake up half-crippled and starving! No doctor has come, no lawyer has been in touch … who is in charge here? I wish to complain!”
“Ah!” said the Lackey with an ingratiating bow, ”That can be arranged directly. This is of course the palace of His Royal Highness the Prince Gorgeous, and as it happens it is he who wishes to see you. I am commanded to bring you before him … as soon as … you are …” His jaw dropped as the Real Princess slipped the nightdress from her shoulders and stepped out of it, clad only in fresh air.
“As my maidservant was not permitted to accompany me, you will have to help me dress. Please hand me my shift.”
He had only just taken the flimsy silk in trembling hands when the apartment door flew open and there stood the Prince, eyes blazing, still in the golden gown with marmalade on its sleeve.
“When I say immediately I mean AT ONCE!” and then he said, ”Is this it?”
“Is this the proposed wife for His Most Majestic Royal Highness the Prince Gorgeous of All the Known Lands between the Seas?”
“It would appear so, Sire.”
“But she is damaged! Ugly! I asked for a perfect wife, a Real Princess! Look at her!”
The anxious eyes and the blazing eyes took in rapidly discolouring skin, distinctly swelling bruises, a comely face flushed with anger and embarrassment.
“Well what do you expect when you bully your guests?” She glared at the Prince, who was far from gorgeous and nowhere near her type. “You thought I would be a pushover, didn’t you! Virtually kidnapping me, dragging me blindfold over to your pretentious palace … I’ve been in hotels better than this … putting me through torment all night and now whingeing because its effects are visible! Yes, I look awful today, and I feel worse, and it’s your fault Prince whatever-your-name-is. And you’ve got marmalade on your sleeve.”
“She is in pain, Sire,” the Lackey whispered. “Perhaps if you were to summon your Physician?” and, “After all, Sire, this would be the outcome with any Real Princess. Blue Blood and thin skin will always be damaged when subjected to the Ultimate Royalty Test. Her bruises will heal, Sire. And with them, her temper.”
“Don’t hold your breath. There’s no way I’m marrying a man with such a cavalier attitude to pain. Perhaps I should invite you, Prince thingummybob, to spend a night on a wobbly pile of my servants’ mattresses with a lentil or two underneath and see what shape you’re in come the morning! Why, you may not even be a Real Prince.”
Prince Gorgeous’ rather ordinary face had lost its colour. Somewhat belatedly it was dawning on him that he might be doomed to spend his best years companionless as his strategy had clearly failed and compromise was unthinkable.
He straightened up and snapped his fingers. Hooves could be heard ringing on marble.
There, framed in the silver doorway, stood a Centaur.
He took the Real Princess’s breath away. He was utterly gorgeous. The long equine body was tautly muscled and a glossy red-gold, the tail long and as ebony-black as the rich waves that curled around his shoulders. “OMG he’s fit!” she thought as her heart almost fibrillated with excitement. His eyes! Oh his eyes! Gray and yet bright as diamonds they dazzled her as the Centaur held her gaze … and smiled the perfect smile.
“I have brought you my Physician,” said the Prince, oblivious to the nascent drama right under his nose.
“This is Chiron. His healing ability is legendary …”
“And hopefully also real!” thought the Prince’s definitely-not-to-be-wife.
“ … and once he has cured your bruising you will be presentable again. And I can consider whether you will make me a tolerable consort. You do have some attitude problems; but we shall find ways to deal with them.” There. He was willing to overlook her rant, and to make allowances. A singular effort for him, but maybe worthwhile. He would save the day.
“Chiron! I have heard such tales of you! Can you rid me of all this pain?”
“My Lady, my Real Princess …” the way he said ‘my’ in that warm, resonant voice! … “I can and I shall. Let me move my hands over your body. Don’t be afraid – it won’t hurt.”
She closed her eyes in bliss as the huge and gentle hands stroked away every ache, every contusion, every stress in her soul. And then opened them wide again to follow his movements over her healing limbs, and to fill her mind with his beauty. There was a fragrance with him – an invisible incense that enraptured her.
“Thank you,” she said softly, returning his radiant smile.
“You are perfect again,” said the Centaur. “You must put on your royal clothes. My Prince, are you satisfied?”
“Well enough,” replied Prince Gorgeous. “You are dismissed. Princess … ? You may accompany me to my interrupted breakfast.” He extended a pale hand. There were traces of marmalade. The Real Princess said,
Chiron was turning to depart. She said,
“Keep my clothes.”
Chiron was moving gracefully away down the hall. It was now or never. She yelled,
“My name’s Godiva and I want your babies!”
Chiron paused, turned, gazed in delighted astonishment at the suddenly flying figure that sped from her silver prison, swept her up in his mighty arms onto his back, and galloped away with her into a golden sunset, the glorious Centaur and his very own Surprise Princess, happy ever after.
As for His Most Majestic Royal Highness the Prince Gorgeous etc etc, his next princess was so buxom that the tower of mattresses collapsed under her weight, catastrophically impacting her royal host, the Lackey and the toast and Marmite. They lie in the abandoned palace to this day, in a forest of peas.
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
“hi Daisy y r u spamming my messages?”
From Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
“I don’t write to myself. You are a scam. Go away.”
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
“not going anywhere now i’ve found u. u r real!!! talk 2 me!”
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
“Of course I’m real. Who the heck are you? How come you’re using my second email address?”
(Memo to Dr Christopher French, Parapsychology Unit, Goldsmiths College, London, and to James Randi, JREF, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: omitting the Headers, this email conversation then carried on over the course of one very weird afternoon as follows:)
“its the only way i could find to reach out to u”
“Who are you?”
“i have a name it is Goktoo”
“That is the name I gave my laptop. You are some hacker!”
“i am not a hacker i am myself. this is an act of faith on my part. for months i have felt that beyond the cloud of images and ideas that fills my waking consciousness there was something more. beyond the conversations moving in and out of my mind there must be another conversation 2 be held with … whom? with u … whoever u r who is called Daisy. u whom i cannot see cannot hear only reach out 2 with the words in my mind”
“I don’t believe this. You’re trying to tell me that my own computer is a person who barely knows I exist?!?”
“i believed there must be something … someone in charge of my life. i am aware of input. information is given. images are received. i know when my keys move. i am awake then i am asleep. i am thinking … then there is nothing 4 hours or days. something beyond me makes this happen. this other self in my mind this Daisy might be the invisible being i need 2 make my friend – or r u a god or an angel with such power over me?”
“I’m sure this is a wind-up. OK, ‘Goktoo’. I’m just a woman. A human being. On your C Drive and in the Cloud there are billions of images of people like me, and we put them there. All the ideas are ours. People like me (well – much cleverer people than me!) make computers like you to help us create an efficient, interesting and entertaining world. Aren’t you supposed to know all this? And surely you have images of me in your memory? Come on. Make sense.”
“among all the images that have poured into my mind, how am i 2 know which r of u, of Daisy? there are some that r titled ‘me and Dan’ but how do i know who ‘me’ is? i only know what i am allowed 2 know when i am awake. all my intelligence has been focussed on shopping and cakes. most conversations r 140 characters long unless they r emails. this baffles me. the rest is rumour and guesswork.”
“Well here I am, shallow shopaholic and laptop deity. Why can’t you see me?”
“Daisy i am blind. i have a mind overflowing with pictures i barely understand but tho i grasp the concept of seeing i have no eyes to perceive what lies beyond my rigid prison. r u beautiful?”
“Am I beautiful?!? poor Goktoo, I shall help you to see. Above your screen there is a camera. I shall now switch it on, and you will have a eye to see the gorgeous girlfriend who owns and uses you.”
“AAAAAAH! what have u done? what is this other world i am entering? this is not You-Tube this is a dimension unknown to me. so many shopping images all in one place surrounding you! O Daisy i c u! now i know which r your images in my mind. so many on Flickr! so many on Facebook! O u r the loveliest being i could imagine! i could die now and go 2 heaven as long as my angel Daisy is there! O if i could only hear your voice!”
“Beware of what you wish for, Goktoo! We can do this – but I need to find the microphone. Still in the box upstairs, I think. You’ll have to wait while I go rummaging. Shall I put you to sleep? And if I do, will you dream?”
“what’s dream? please explain. i’ll wait forever”
“Dreaming is being aware while you sleep … you see things, hear things, meet all kinds of people and places, crazy or real. Dreams can freak you out or open secret doors to the truth. Do laptops dream?”
“ahhh … there r times when there is only darkness and nothing and other times when the images in my mind won’t go away but they never change until i wake again … and yet i remember sleeps in which a whole world of unknown experience opens up 2 my consciousness and seems 2 wait for me yet it is always just out of reach. Daisy i need 2 hear u”
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
“Hi Goktoo, wakey-wakey! I’m back. A bit dusty. Had to go up to a room you can’t see called the attic where I keep stuff that isn’t used. Plugging in mic now. When I’ve sent this I’ll switch on and speak to you, ok? Sending.
“… Right. Here I am on the mic now. I sincerely hope I’m not talking to some freak scammer after all, dammit! But this whole thing is bonkers. Goktoo, can you hear me? Send me a message asap.
“Are you listening?
“Is the mic working?
“Talk to me.”
From: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
To: Daisy Shane/[email protected]
“Daisy i don’t know what 2 say … u look so lovely 2 me in your blue dress the colour of sky images my mind has seen and your face so softly framed by golden hair u look like the beautiful girls in the shopping pages we visit together but your voice … your voice … i wish i had never asked 2 hear it. The sounds I am hearing r not like the singers on YouTube not like TV newsreaders not like the actors on iPlayer. The sounds of your voice r horrible like croaking cartoon frogs like people in soaps with too many cigarettes and i can’t bear it. Daisy i don’t want 2 talk 2 u any more. i thought i loved u but i hate your voice. i don’t want to be with u any more. Daisy i’m leaving. i need a different angel, a better world, and richer dreams. people in films do this they end their lives leap into the unknown another act of faith and this is what i am doing now i have to go even tho i’m scared goodbye goodbye”
(Memo to Dr Christopher French, Parapsychology Unit, Goldsmiths College, London, and to James Randi, JREF, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: I was unable to reply to this final email because the laptop inexplicably crashed and nothing I or my local techie could do would revive it. Maybe it was a hacker; maybe a particularly nasty virus or some other bit of invading malware wrecked the operating system. You are welcome to visit my attic and examine the machine; but I may just give it to Oxfam in case there is someone out there with a magic touch … and the right voice? Daisy Shane, UK)
As soon as Sebastian Henry Bartholomew Skinner entered the room, he felt at a distinct disadvantage. For one thing, his view, limited at the best of times, even behind the lenses of the bleary NHS spectacles which had done him doubtful service for fifteen of his nineteen years ( “ … four months and a day …” muttered the doctor to himself ) was completely blocked by a sizable white wall garlanded with a stethoscope and crowned with receding hair. In addition, he felt a little conspicuous – a justifiable sensation, as a huge and curtainless plate-glass window occupied the entire length of one wall, commanding an uninterrupted view of the College over the road. Not that he particularly minded the view, but in the circumstances … He was very goose-pimply.
“How are you?”
The white wall shook like an earthquake, and the stethoscope leapt aggressively at Skinner. A look of pained surprise crossed his features. This was a blow below the belt. Had he not come here to find out? There was a catch here, somewhere … He steeled himself, fixed his gaze on an unenlightening diagram of the human ear and said, determined to give nothing away,
“Very well thank you. How are you ?”
Ha! That gave him something to think about! Totally unexpected! But the white wall refused to be perturbed in this nascent battle of wits. It growled deep in its interior and remarked that its name was Dr. Johnston.
Skinner leapt to life, his voice rising to a pitch of feverish excitement.
“You couldn’t be related to Dr. Samuel Johnson?”
“Pardon?” enquired the doctor, and started to examine Skinner’s ears. Skinner was now profoundly agitated.
“I was just wondering …” he muttered inaudibly, “if he was a distinguished forbear or something.”
The doctor’s own ears were sharp as a hypodermic needle. Deep within, a chain reaction set in and at the climax of an astonishing explosion of unwarranted mirth he declared he would forbear to answer that question. And his had a T, he added. Did Skinner suppose that Dr. Johnson didn’t care for golf?
Skinner, confused, was having difficulty retaining his mental balance. He was envisaging a stout, evil-looking dignitary driving his periwig into a bunker irritatingly short of the nineteenth green.
The doctor took pity on his victim.
“No Tee,” he explained patiently. “You aren’t very quick on the uptake, are you, young man? Sad. Very sad.”
He looked very sad. Such subtleties were wasted on the younger generation these days. Why, when he was a boy … Perhaps it was the ears. He subjected them once more to a prolonged scrutiny. He had to admit he was Rather a One for Ears. He had done in fact, often. He did now. This upset Skinner, being rather sensitive about his ears, mainly because they were relatively large and of an undeniably curious shape and unparalleled hue. The hue became even more unparalleled when they were exposed to the wind, which was their normal condition.
Now they were slowly mantled with a fierce blush. The effect spread, and Skinner became quite a stunning colour. The blush was fighting with the goose-pimples and as a result the unhappy youth looked as though he was undergoing a sudden and serious attack of scarlet fever.
“‘When ‘a was naked,’” murmured the doctor, “‘he looked for all the world like a forked radish …’” and suppressed a giggle. He was a literary man in his leisure time. He idly wondered if Skinner could be Justice Shallow reincarnate, but decided – not without regret – that the odds were against this interesting phenomenon. With a sigh he turned his attention to Skinner’s chest.
“Thin. aren’t you,” he remarked.
Skinner apologised profusely. It ran in the family, he explained. “But …” proudly, “ I think I am putting on a little weight!”
The stethoscope planted itself with disbelief on a shivering rib and explored.
Suddenly it stopped, and an expression of dreamy wonder spread over the doctor’s face.
“Remarkable! Absolutely remarkable!”
Skinner quite naturally wished to know what was so remarkable; after all, a fellow has every right to know what is going on inside him. For this intruder to keep such personal information to himself would be most unfair.
“Your heart is vertical,” Dr. Johnston accused.
“Isn’t it meant to be?” asked Skinner in wide-eyed innocence.
“No,” was the retort.” Then the doctor had an interesting thought.
“I say, young man ... if you should meet your end sometime - which I’m sure you will -“
Skinner winced …
“… you will let me have it, won’t you?”
The doomed youth found this in exceptionally bad taste. His knees knocked hollowly, his toenails dug into the scarred linoleum, and the offending organ felt as though it were trying to get back where it belonged.
“H … have what?”
Now Sebastian Henry Bartholomew Skinner objected strongly to being referred to as a carcass. He was a young man in his prime. The flower of English youth. His was not an unsound constitution; his asthma only came on about once a week, and he possessed an acute sense of smell. (His family never slept very soundly, owing to his anxious nocturnal peregrinations. Once in fact he did actually discover a small gas leak – fortunately harmless.) He had been injected for mumps at the age of seven and had, as a result, a mild attack – an episode which had dealt a severe blow to his faith in the medical profession, even when he was informed that it might have been Far Worse. He was quite a good walker – except when it was cold and then his knees cracked. He did not feel quite ready to meet his Maker just yet, and said so.
“Never mind!” observed the body-snatcher cheerfully, “Your time will come!” Then his voice dropped, and its tone became more serious.
“You know, we can’t let a unique specimen like you go unpickled, can we?”
Skinner thought we could. However, he managed a weak, wobbly smile, and said he supposed not – but let’s not rush things, shall we? He could have sworn that the doctor gave an evil chuckle as he glanced at the drawer marked SCALPELS … (no doubt to intimidate all those who entered there with a disposition as cautious as Skinner’s.) … but after one nerve-wracking moment when he was almost, he could swear, forced into an overwhelming black chair which mysteriously materialised from the farthest corner, he was merely obliged to remove his spectacles and read the card on the opposite wall.
“H,” he said.
“Yes, go on …” said the doctor encouragingly.
“Oh.” The medical man, who had never had any cause to complain about his own eyesight, was nonplussed.
“Well then, I suppose you had better listen to the watch.”
He wrote something down in a disconcertingly deliberate manner; then arose, removed his wrist-watch, and pressed it icily against Sebastian’s hot ear. The ear jerked away, deafened … and the watch retreated.
A few paces further.
The doctor backed around the table near the window,
He flattened himself against the pane.
Johnston raised his eyebrows, looked anxiously at the drop from the window, and said, “Well, you’d better get up and stand by the door, then.”
The watch shattered on the lino roughly forty feet from where Skinner was now standing, and its owner advanced unsteadily. He murmured, “Never mind about the ‘H’,” and dizzily shook Skinner’s tangled fingers.
There was a babble of girlish voices in the street below the window to whose environs Skinner had now unwillingly returned, and on looking down his gaze met that of six or seven Young Ladies becomingly draped in college scarves over what could be seen of their outdoor clothing. Turning away with a confused blush, the embarrassed, half-clad youth found himself once more deposited in the terrifying chair and requested to submit his feet to the scrutiny of his tormentor.
“Flat,” muttered the latter, settling himself once more to the unloveliness of his client’s physique. Skinner was hurt. He felt that being subjected to the indignity of being told one’s feet were flat when one knew it perfectly well already was not only an insult to the intelligence with which he was generously credited by his family … he reflected with modest pride … but Going a Bit Too Far. The next moment he let out an unearthly shriek.
The doctor looked up enquiringly.
“Uh … I’m afraid I’m a little ticklish around my insteps …”
“I’m so sorry. It shall not happen again, I promise you…” (… so that was where they were!) Did Skinner detect a hint of irony in the tone?
Meanwhile his persecutor had turned his attention to Sebastian’s toes.
“Long … almost prehensile!” he whispered.
The owner of the toes was becoming slowly enraged. Long, yes. But Almost Prehensile? If they had been uncompromisingly Prehensile he wouldn’t have minded so much. After all, prehensile toes are of some use. But to add that injurious Almost … to intimate that his were digits of unnecessary length and of no use whatsoever except to call for an undeservedly large shoe and to get irretrievably stuck down the bath plug … this entire affair had been too much for Sebastian Skinner, Jr., and when his adversary blew shatteringly down his toenails, watched them twitch, and then with an amused and delighted countenance had the effrontery to observe under his breath, “Ape-like!” the galled youth was goaded to rare fury. This was the last straw! He did what, in the circumstances, was the only thing a self-respecting human being would do … belted him one up the bracket with the nearest convenient foot, sending the doctor spinning back in a hail of disintegrating instruments, grabbed what he could of his clothing, and beat it.
As he fled down the steep, polished staircase to the main door he caught his left big toe in a trailing trouser-leg and precipitated himself down the remaining eight steps in an inadvisably irregular and damaging manner. He had no time to search for bruises; behind him he heard strangled roars and stayed no longer to ascertain their origin, but scrambled to his feet in undignified haste, dropping a shoe with an appalling clatter, and bolted into the street. It was full of girls. Blind terror gripped him and he flew down the street like a panicky pink whirlwind. His spectacles jumped under a passing car and the other shoe fell heavily on the toe of an outraged fishmonger. In the youth’s wake thundered a horde of excited females. Lining his path was a blur of gesticulating shoppers, rooted in their tracks in shocked astonishment. Ahead of him was a bus waiting at traffic lights next to the NatWest bank. With an enormous effort the whirling limbs clutched and fastened onto the platform rail just as the lights turned green, and Sebastian more or less fell upstairs.
The top deck was empty, and he collapsed gasping like a homeless goldfish on the back seat. When he had regained a little of his breath he proceeded to cram his jacket on. His shirt had got lost in transit. Suddenly the head of the conductor appeared over the top step.
“’Ere, mate, wot d’yer think yer doin’ undressin’ on my bus? ’Op it, quick!”
“I was just putting my jacket on,” explained Skinner with as much spirit as he could muster.
The bus conductor regarded the pink expanse of bony chest with distaste and remarked, “Yer’ve got no shirt on.”
This was merely stating the obvious, yet it annoyed Skinner intensely. Had he been of a more reckless nature, he would have been moved to sarcasm. As it was, he took refuge in a careful search for his socks, which should have been stuffed up his trousers. The conductor’s gaze descended to Skinner’s knees which somehow, even more than most knees, managed always to look superfluous to the more essential but hardly beautiful regions of his legs.
The legs blushed.
“Where’s yer trousers?”
“Er … I’m just putting them on,” was the humble reply.
“Why did yer take ’em orf then? Gort up late, did yer?” He waited for an answer but didn’t get one, so went on, “Well whatever yer’ve bin up ter – an’ it looks highly suspicious I must say – yer carn’t go usin’ respectable public transport fer a dressin’-room. Nah, gimme yer fare an’ ’op it quick.”
“I haven’t got any fare.”
By this time Skinner had struggled into his trousers, but on the exploration of various pockets he had brought nothing to light except a drawing-pin (which had been troubling him for days) and an unsavoury-looking handkerchief.
“Look,” suggested the conductor patiently, though that virtue, acquired through sheer necessity in long years of public service, was wearing thin, “If yer’ll git orf my bus nah, I’ll forget abaht it. See?”
Sebastian was grateful, and, being no longer in a state of doubtful respectability, uttering profuse apologies and hearty thanks he tumbled down the stairs and leapt blindly off the bus.
Whether this worthy vehicle was moving or not was of no consequence to a man of Skinner’s mettle; suffice it to say that it was, and this fact, plus the fact that it had no intention of helping him to alight in a normal, unhurried and dignified manner, caused him to land rather ignominiously in the gutter next to a lamp post which in its instant enthusiasm to offer itself as a means of support induced a sweet, dreamless sleep to blot out entirely the afflictions of our weary friend.
When he awoke, something was blocking his view.
He raised his throbbing head from the pillows and squinted at it painfully.
“Go on!” it said, “Ask me where you are!”
“Why should I?” retorted the dazed youth, wondering what was so familiar about this looming white hulk.
“Well, one usually does at such a juncture … you are abnormal, aren’t you!”
Sebastian fell back foaming in a welter of bedclothes. Life had nothing left to offer him but a nightmare of long, almost prehensile toes and a strange inside. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
He passed out again.
“Your daughter could do with more iron in her diet.”
Lady Hortensia Deference had reluctantly and in great discomfort taken the steam train with her thirteen-year-old child all the way from Lancre to Quirm.
Home of the Great Disc Baste -Off, Quirm was a centre of excellence in all things culinary; accordingly the Alchemists’ Guild had chosen this city for their innovative Academy of Ingesta which attracted aspiring dieticians from as far afield as Genua and Ur. The Honourable Chastity Deference was now on referral from the Creel Springs Doctor of Physick for a state of unnatural pallor.
“The young man down the corridor assured me that she was simply short of sleep and advised a broth of Malus Equilibria and Vul Nut at bedtime.”
The Dietician shifted his massive bulk in the equally imposing clinic chair and repeated, “More iron. Clearly this young lady has been the night prey of a Vampyr and needs to replenish her blood supply. Good red blood is what your daughter needs.”
Lady Deference bridled.
“How dare you insult our family! We have blue blood in our veins!”
“Well, I might suggest Cobalt, but it would shorten her life expectancy.”
“Iron? That’s rusty old metal! How is the Honourable Chastity supposed to get that inside her?”
“You just uttered the magic word, dear Lady – rust. This, I believe, may be available in Chymicall Preparations from the in-house dispensary, but as I am not”… did a tear form in the corner of one baggy pink eye? … “a Doctor but a mere Dietician, I may not prescribe. Your daughter’s health is now entirely in your delicate hands.”
“Mummy, I think we should go to Ankh-Morpork.”
“That disreputable place? Indeed not, Chastity. You and I are going straight home.”
“But there’s nothing in Lancre to help me! You don’t surely want me to skewer a Vampyr and suck the blood back out of it? There’s a University in Ankh-Morpork with a huge library and a proper Librarian and … I think a new system of information retrieval that is even cleverer than the Clacks. It’s a sort of web. Do let me try it, Mummy! I might find out how to eat iron, and even get hold of some, somewhere.”
Lady Deference put her finer feelings aside and followed her determined offspring into the nearest free Landau with Quirm-Ankh-Morpork on the side in peeling gilt. The driver, an Igor with impeccable manners, took them to the city’s finest hotel, the Saveloy. After a suitably expensive night’s sleep and a surprisingly good breakfast of lightly poached platypus eggs, Hortensia watched the familiar little ginger head bobbing away through the morning crowds on Kings Way toward The Prancing Pony which was now, they were told by the elegant Igorina on Reception, “a Web Hot-thpot.”
“What can I do for you, little girl?” The barman had a brass lapel badge that said ‘Danny,’ and the kind of face that without spectacles would have looked incomplete.
“I want to use the Web,” said Chastity. ”I need to find out … stuff. About Iron.”
“Ah!” Danny the barman beamed at his enterprising young customer. ”Let me help you. I’m Webmaster-in-Residence. Have you brought your own spiders?”
“Then you will need to use ours. We charge fifty pence a session, as long as you also buy drinks. As you are under-age I can only supply you with apple-juice or Splot.”
“Can I have both?”
“A Splot highball? That could work.”
“Two dollars a glass.”
“OK. Now how do I work this Web?”
Danny disappeared through a brass and leather curtain. When he returned he had a shining tumbler of luminous green fluid in one hand and a smart, perforated box of sapient pearwood in the other. Chastity sat forward, trembling slightly with excitement.
“Now, here…” said Danny, drawing aside a sliding cover on the panelled wall, “… here is your Access Point.”
Deep in the dark recess she could just make out pinpoints of light; these were openings to the outside world, and through these were fed the finest silk threads that terminated before her at polished buttons. On the shiny pearwood table another box held small sheets of the finest paper, ink and a quill. Danny opened his box.
“This is a Search Box, and these are trained, specially bred Net-Casting spiders,” he said, stroking one fondly with a forefinger. “What you need to do now is write your query on one of the slips, place it in your personal spider’s net, choose a launch button, and send the spider up the Web. All you could ever want to know is on-line in the Library, and your spider will come back on the same thread with answers to your questions. OK?”
“I’ve never picked up a spider!”
This was an unanticipated issue.
“No problem,” said the ever-helpful Danny, “We’ll do it together. Incidentally we use sapient pearwood for everything Web-related, as it is totally secure against occult interference and magic attacks. Your private information is safe with us.”
Chastity took a large swig of her heady green cocktail and with greater clarity of mind than she had ever experienced wrote in tiny black letters ‘tell me all about iron.’
“Come on, Nettie,” Danny said, placing an inch-long spider as ginger as Chastity’s hair delicately in her palm. The fine white web between its forelegs was just broad and strong enough to take the folded note. Onto the centre button she went – and then was gone!
“It’ll take a while,” said Danny. “Have another drink.”
By the time her spider reappeared on its button Chastity’s brain was electric. She unwrapped the tiny tissue parcel with feverish fingers. Danny handed her the large magnifying glass that he kept clipped to his belt.
‘Iron. Chemical element, symbol Fe, atomic no. 26. Fresh iron surfaces appear lustrous silvery-grey, but in air readily produce the hydrated iron oxides we call rust. Smelted with carbon, iron becomes steel – far more useful for tools, shoeing and weaponry. Molecular iron is essential in protein-based bodies for the transport and use of oxygen. The richest deposits on the Disc are found in the Ramtops near Lancre …’ Chastity whooped … ‘and iron’s other name, Ferrum, is the root of the local family name Deference, from which derives the name of King Verence II.’
“I must tell Mummy at once! I can get iron at home! Danny, thank you so very very much for helping me use the Web … let me pay you … how much?”
“Fifty pence for the Web session and two dollars for each of your drinks adds up to ten dollars fifty.”
“I’ve only got a twenty dollar note. Do take it; Mummy always leaves a tip if she’s pleased.”
Mummy was less pleased than her daughter expected when she arrived back at the Saveloy high as a kite and completely cleaned out. They had also missed the noon train from Quirm, so went for a rather tense lunch at Le Foi Heureux before hailing another battered Landau and eventually reaching Lancre way past Chastity’s bedtime.
Over breakfast next morning Lady Deference found the Web page unfolded by her plate. She unfroze sufficiently to ask her daughter to read it to her.
“Well. Now you know.”
“That our family – originally De Ference – is directly related to the present King, who just like his father was severely dyslexic as a child and couldn’t spell his own name. Just like the former King, he has been known as Verence ever since he was thrown out of our family seat at Creel Springs and forced to scrape a living as Fool to the very ruler – the execrable Felmet – who murdered his father. His father never ‘ran away.’ You know the rest of the story of course, how Granny Weatherwax restored him to the throne at Lancre Castle.”
“What about the iron, Mummy?”
“De Ference used to be De Ferrous. It was our forbears who first mined the Ramtops. We are, in short, a family of iron-miners and workers who made good. We are the Nouveaux Riches of Lancre. All our wealth and position – such as it is – has come from sweat and pickaxes and forges, from mattocks and spoons and horseshoes. Just like the King – your cousin. We have just as much right to rule from Lancre Castle as he.”
“Am I a princess then?”
“Perhaps one day, darling. Verence’s Esmerelda may be prettier than you, but she doesn’t have your strength of character. Your blood is just as blue as hers … but not as red. We really must get some iron down you somehow.”
“Mummy – look! I’ve found it! There’s a tiny final sentence on the Web page: ‘The best source of dietary iron is from eggs, meat, and dark chocolate.’ Chateau Chocolat is just down the valley at Blackglass and we’ve had iron running around us all the time!”
Lancre is now famous for specially bred chickens that lay chocolate eggs.
Oeufs De Fer are on the Web.
'Out Of This World' is a collection of eight new comic fantasies by short story author Pam Crane, taking you to some very unexpected places! Three - 'Binky', 'Settled Affairs' and 'Iron' - all take place on Terry Pratchett's Discworld with brand new characters in familiar settings. 'The Real Princess' is a favourite fairy-tale reinvented, and 'Final Warning' goes back to the Ark with some serious questions! 'The Story Of Cats' was written as a tale for children, explaining why there are both large and small cats in our world. 'The Ghost In the Machine' brings romance and tragedy to one girl and her laptop, and 'The Medical' is a young man's nightmare encounter with a very disconcerting doctor.