Maskerade (Discworld #18)

Chapter 13

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'You. . . you do know what kind of place this is, do you, Esme?' said Nanny Ogg. She felt curiously annoyed. She'd happily give way to Granny's expertise in the worlds of mind and magic, but she felt very strongly that there were some more specialized areas that were definitely Ogg territory, and Granny Weatherwax had no business even to know what they were. 'Oh, yes,' said Granny, calmly. Nanny's patience gave out. 'It's a house of ill repute, is what it is!'

'On the contrary,' said Granny. 'I believe people speak very highly of it.'

'You knew? And you never told me?' Granny raised an ironic eyebrow. 'The lady who invented the Strawberry Wobbler?'

'Well, yes, but-'

'We all live life the best way we can, Gytha. And there's a lot of people who think witches are bad.'

'Yes, but-'

'Before you criticize someone, Gytha, walk a mile in their shoes,' said Granny, with a faint smile. 'In those shoes she was wearin', I'd twist my ankle,' said Nanny, gritting her teeth. 'I'd need a ladder just to get in 'em.' It was infuriating, the way Granny tricked you into reading her half of the dialogue. And opened your mind to yourself in unexpected ways. 'And it's a welcoming place and the beds are soft,' said Granny. 'Warm too, I expect,' said Nanny Ogg, giving in. 'And there's always a friendly light in the window.'

'Dear me, Gytha Ogg. I always thought you were unshockable.'

'Shockable, no,' said Nanny. 'Easily surprised, yes. Dr Undershaft the chorus master peered at Agnes over the top of his half- moon spectacles. 'The, um, “Departure” aria, as it is known,' he said, 'is quite a little masterpiece. Not one of the great operatic highlights, but very memorable nevertheless.' His eyes misted over. ' “Questa maledetta” sings Iodine, as she tells Peccadillo how hard it is for her to leave him. . . “Questa maledetta porta si blocccccca, Si blocca comunque diavolo to faccccc-cio. . . !”' He stopped and made great play of cleaning his glasses with his handkerchief. 'When Gigh sang it, there wasn't a dry eye in the house,' he mumbled. 'I was there. It was then that I decided that I would. . . oh, great days, indeed.' He put his glasses on and blew his nose. 'I'll run through it once,' he said, 'just so that you can understand how it is supposed to go. Very well, André.' The young man who had been drafted in to play the piano in the rehearsal room nodded, and winked surreptitiously at Agnes. She pretended not to have seen him, and listened with an expression of acute studiousness as the old man worked his way through the score. 'And now,' he said, 'let us see how you manage.' He handed her the score and nodded at the pianist. Agnes sang the aria, or at least a few bars of it. André stopped playing and leaned his head against the piano, trying to stifle a laugh. 'Ahem,' said Undershaft. 'Was I doing something wrong?'

'You were singing tenor,' said Undershaft, looking sternly at André. 'She was singing in your voice, sir!'

'Perhaps you can sing it like, er, Christine would sing it?' They started again. 'Kwesta!? Maledetta!!. . .' Undershaft held up both hands. André's shoulders were shaking with the effort of not laughing. 'Yes, yes. Accurately observed. I daresay you're right. But could we start again and, er, perhaps you would sing it how you think it should be sung?' Agnes nodded. They started again. . .

. . .and finished. Undershaft had sat down, half-turned away. He wouldn't look round to face her. Agnes stood watching him uncertainly. 'Er. Was that all right?' she said. André the pianist got up slowly and took her hand. 'I think we'd better leave him,' he said softly, pulling her towards the door. 'Was it that bad?'

'Not. . . exactly.' Undershaft raised his head, but didn't turn it towards her. 'More practice on those Rs, madam, and strive for greater security above the stave,' he said hoarsely. 'Yes. Yes, I will.' André led her out into the corridor, shut the door, and then turned to her. 'That was astounding,' he said. 'Did you ever hear the great Gigh sing?'

'I don't even know who Gigh is. What was I singing?'

'You didn't know that either?'

'I don't know what it means, no.' André looked down at the score in his hand. 'Well, I'm not much good at the language, but I suppose the opening could be sung something like this: This damn' door sticks This damn' door sticks It sticks no matter what the hell I do It's marked “Pull” and indeed I am pulling Perhaps it should be marked “Push”?' Agnes blinked. 'That's it?'

'Yes.'

'But I thought it was supposed to be very moving and romantic!'

'It is,' said André. 'It was. This isn't real life, this is opera. It doesn't matter what the words mean. It's the feeling that matters. Hasn't anyone told-? Look, I'm in rehearsals for the rest of the afternoon, but perhaps we could meet tomorrow? Perhaps after breakfast?' Oh, no, thought Agnes. Here it comes. The blush was moving inexorably upwards. She wondered if one day it might reach her face and carry on going, so that it ended up as a big pink cloud over her head. 'Er, yes,' she said. 'Yes. That would be. . . very helpful.'

'Now I've got to go.' He gave her a weak little smile, and patted her hand. 'And. . . I'm really sorry it's happening this way. Because. . . that was astounding.' He went to walk away, and then stopped. 'Uh. . .sorry if I frightened you last night,' he said. 'What?'

'On the stairs.'

'Oh, that. I wasn't frightened.'

'You. . . er. . . didn't mention it to anyone, did you? I'd hate people to think I was worrying over nothing.'

'Hadn't given it another thought, to tell you the truth. I know you can't be the Ghost, if that's what you're worried about. Eh?'

'Me? The Ghost. Haha!'

'Haha,' said Agnes. 'So, er. . . see you tomorrow, then. . .'

'Fine.' Agnes headed back to her room, deep in thought. Christine was there, looking critically at herself in the mirror. She spun around as Agnes entered; she even moved with exclamation marks.

'Oh, Perdita!! Have you heard?! I'm to sing the part of Iodine tonight!! Isn't that wonderful?!' She dashed across the room and endeavoured to pick Agnes up and hug her, settling eventually for just hugging her. 'And I heard they're already letting you in the chorus!?'

'Yes, indeed.'

'Isn't that nice?! I've been practising all morning with Mr Salzella. Kesta!? Mallydetta!! Porter see bloker!!' She twirled happily. Invisible sequins filled the air with their shine. 'When I am very famous,' she said, 'you won't regret having a friend in me!! I shall do my very best to help you!! I am sure you bring me luck!!'

'Yes, indeed,' said Agnes, hopelessly. 'Because my dear father told me that one day a dear little pixie would arrive to help me achieve my great ambition, and, do you know, I think that little pixie is you!!' Agnes smiled unhappily. After you'd known Christine for any length of time, you found yourself fighting a desire to look into her ear to see if you could spot daylight coming the other way. 'Er. I thought we had swapped rooms?'

'Oh, that!!' said Christine, smiling. 'Wasn't I silly?! Anyway, I shall need the big mirror now that I am to be a prima donna! You don't mind, do you!?'

'What? Oh. No. No, of course not. Er. If you're sure. . .' Agnes looked at the mirror, and then at the bed. And then at Christine. 'No,' she said, shocked at the enormity of the idea that had just presented itself, delivered from the Perdita of her soul. 'I'm sure that will be fine.' Dr Undershaft blew his nose and tried to tidy himself up. Well, he didn't have to stand for it. Perhaps the child was somewhat on the heavy side, but Gigli, for example, had once crushed a tenor to death and no one had thought any worse of her for it. He'd protest to Mr Bucket. Dr Undershaft was a single-minded man. He believed in voices. It didn't matter what anyone looked like. He never watched opera with his eyes open. It was the music that mattered, not the acting and certainly not the shape of the singers. What did it matter what shape she was? Dame Tessitura had a beard you could strike a match on and a nose flattened half across her face, but she was still one of the best basses who ever opened beer bottles with her thumb. Of course, Salzella said that, while everyone accepted that large women of fifty could play thin girls of seventeen, people wouldn't accept that a fat girl of seventeen could do it. He said they'd cheerfully swallow a big lie and choke on a little fib. Salzella said that sort of thing. Something was going wrong these days. The whole place seemed. . . sick, if a building could be sick. The crowds were still coming, but the money just didn't seem to be there any more; everything seemed to be so expensive. . . And now they were owned by a cheesemonger, for heaven's sake, some grubby counter jumper who'd probably want to bring in fancy ideas. What they needed was a businessman, some clerk who could add up columns of figures properly and not interfere. That was the trouble with all the owners he had experienced-they started off thinking of themselves as businessmen, and then suddenly began to think they could make an artistic contribution. Still, possibly cheesemongers had to add up cheeses. just so long as this one stayed in his office with the books, and didn't go around acting as though he owned the place just because he happened to own the place. . .

Undershaft blinked. He'd gone the wrong way again. No matter how long you'd been here, this place was a maze. He was behind the stage, in the orchestra's room. Instruments and folding chairs had been stacked everywhere. His foot toppled a beer bottle. The twang of a string made him look around. Broken instruments littered the floor. There were half a dozen smashed violins. Several oboes had been broken. The from had been pulled right out of a trombone. He looked up into someone's face. 'But. . . why are you-' The half-moon spectacles tumbled over and over, and smashed on the boards. Then the attacker lowered his mask, as smooth and white as the skull of an angel, and stepped forward purposefully. . . Dr Undershaft blinked. There was darkness. A cloaked figure raised its head and looked at him through bony white sockets. Dr Undershaft's recent memories were a little confused, but one fact stood out. 'Aha,' he said. 'Got you! You're the Ghost!' YOU KNOW, YOU'RE RATHER AMUSINGLY WRONG. Dr Undershaft watched another masked figure pick up the body of. . . Dr Undershaft, and drag it into the shadows. 'Oh, I see. I'm dead.' Death nodded. SUCH WOULD APPEAR TO BE THE CASE. 'That was murder! Does anyone know?' THE MURDERER. AND YOU, OF COURSE. 'But him? How can-?' Undershaft began. WE MUST GO, said Death. 'But he just killed me! Strangled me with his bare hands!' YES. CHALK IT UP TO EXPERIENCE. 'You mean I can't do anything about it?' LEAVE IT TO THE LIVING. GENERALLY SPEAKING, THEY GET UNEASY WHEN THE DECEASED TAKES A CONSTRUCTIVE ROLE IN A MURDER INVESTIGATION. THEY TEND TO LOSE CONCENTRATION. 'You know, you do have a very good bass voice.' THANK YOU. 'Are there going to be. . . choirs and things?' WOULD YOU LIKE SOME? Agnes slipped out through the stage-door and into the streets of Ankh- Morpork. She blinked in the light. The air felt slightly prickly, and sharp, and too cold. What she was about to do was wrong. Very wrong. And all her life she'd done things that were right. Go on, said Perdita. In fact, she probably wouldn't even do it. But there was no harm in just asking where there was a herbal shop, so she asked. And there was no harm in going in, so she went in. And it certainly wasn't against any kind of law to buy the ingredients she bought. After all, she might get a headache later on, or be unable to sleep. And it would mean nothing at all to take them back to her room and tuck them under the mattress. That's right, said Perdita.

In fact, if you averaged out the moral difficulty of what she was proposing over all the little activities she had to undergo in order to do it, it probably wasn't that bad at all, really- These comforting thoughts were arranging themselves in her mind as she headed back. She turned a corner and nearly walked into Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax. She flung herself against the wall and stopped breathing. They hadn't seen her, although Nanny's foul cat leered at her over its owner's shoulder. They'd take her back! She just knew they would! The fact that she was a free agent and her own mistress and quite at liberty to go off to Ankh-Morpork had nothing to do with it. They'd interfere. They always did. She scurried back along the alley and ran as fast as she could to the rear of the Opera House. The stage-doorkeeper took no notice of her. Granny and Nanny strolled through the city towards the area known as the Isle of Gods. It wasn't exactly Ankh and it wasn't exactly Morpork, being situated where the river bent so much it almost formed an island. It was where the city kept all those things it occasionally needed but was uneasy about, like the Watch-house, the theatres, the prison and the publishers. It was the place for all those things which might go off bang in unexpected ways. Greebo ambled along behind them. The air was full of new smells, and he was looking forward to seeing if any of them belonged to anything he could eat, fight or ravish. Nanny Ogg found herself getting increasingly worried. 'This isn't really us, Esme,' she said. 'Who is it, then?'

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