Maskerade (Discworld #18)

Chapter 8

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'Yes, Esme?'

'Mind if I ask you a question?'

'You don't normally ask if I mind,' said Nanny. 'Doesn't it ever get you down, the way people don't think properly?' Oh-oh, thought Nanny. I reckon I got her out just in time. Thank goodness for literature. 'How d'you mean?' she said. 'I means the way they distracts themselves.'

'Can't say I ever really thought about it, Esme.'

'Like. . .s'pose I was to say to you, Gytha Ogg, your house is on fire, what's the first thing you'd try to take out?' Nanny bit her lip. 'This is one of them personality questions, ain't it?' she said. 'That's right.'

'Like, you try to guess what I'm like by what I say. . .'

'Gytha Ogg, I've known you all my life, I knows what you're like. I don't need to guess. But answer me, all the same.'

'I reckon I'd take Greebo.' Granny nodded. '

'Cos that shows I've got a warm and considerate nature,' Nanny went on. 'No, it shows you're the kind of person who tries to work out what the right answer's supposed to be,' said Granny. 'Untrustworthy. That was a witch's answer if ever I heard one. Devious.'

Nanny looked proud. The snores changed to a blurt-blurt noise and the handkerchief quivered. '. . .treacle pudding, with lots of custard. . .'

'Hey, he just said something,' said Nanny. 'He talks in his sleep,' said Granny Weatherwax. 'He's been doing it on and off.'

'I never heard him!'

'You were out of the coach.'

'Oh.'

'At the last stop he was going on about pancakes with lemon,' said Granny. 'And mashed potatoes with butter.'

'Makes me feel hungry just listening to that,' said Nanny. 'I've got a pork pie in the bag somewhere-' The snoring stopped abruptly. A hand came up and moved the handkerchief aside. The face beyond was friendly, bearded and small. It gave the witches a shy smile which turned inexorably towards the pork pie. 'Want a slice, mister?' said Nanny. 'I've got some mustard here, too.'

'Oo, would you, dear lady?' said the man, in a squeaky voice. 'Don't know when I last had a pork pie-oh, dear. . .' He grimaced as if he'd just said something wrong, and then relaxed. 'Got a bottle of beer if you want a drop, too,' said Nanny. She was one of those women who enjoy seeing people eat almost as much as eating itself. 'Beer?' said the man. 'Beer? You know, they don't let me drink beer. Hah, it's supposed to be the wrong ambience. I'd give anything for a pint of beer-'

'Just a “thank you” would do,' said Nanny, passing it over. 'Who's this “they” to whom you refers?' said Granny. '

'S my fault really,' said the man, through a faint spray of pork crumbs. 'Got caught up, I suppose. . .' There was a change in the sounds from outside. The lights of a town were going past and the coach was slowing down. The man forced the last of the pie into his mouth and washed it down with the dregs of the beer. 'Oo, lovely,' he said. Then he leaned back and put the handkerchief over his face. He raised a corner. 'Don't tell anyone I spoke to you,' he said, 'but you've made a friend of Henry Slugg.'

'And what do you do, Henry Slugg?' said Granny, carefully. 'I'm. . . I'm on the stage.'

'Yes. We can see,' said Nanny Ogg. 'No, I meant-' The coach stopped. Gravel crunched as people climbed down. The door was pulled open. Granny saw a crowd of people peering excitedly through the doorway, and reached up automatically to straighten her hat. But several hands reached out for Henry Slugg, who sat up, smiled nervously, and let himself be helped out. Several people also shouted out a name, but it wasn't the name of Henry Slugg. 'Who's Enrico Basilica?' said Nanny Ogg. 'Don't know,' said Granny. 'Maybe he's the person Mr Slugg's afraid of.' The coaching inn was a run-down shack, with only two bedrooms for guests. As helpless old ladies travelling alone, the witches got one, simply because all hell would have been let loose if they hadn't. Mr Bucket looked pained. 'I may just be a big man in cheese to you,' he said, 'you may think I'm just some hard-headed businessman who wouldn't know culture if he found

it floating in his tea, but I have been a patron of the opera here and elsewhere for many years. I can hum nearly the whole of-'

'I am sure you've seen a lot of opera,' said Salzella. 'But. . . how much do you know about production?'

'I've been behind the scenes in lots of theatres-'

'Oh, theatre,' said Salzella. 'Theatre doesn't even approach it. Opera isn't theatre with singing and dancing. Opera's opera. You might think a production like Lohenshaak is full of passion, but it's a sandpit of toddlers compared to what goes on behind the scenes. The singers all loathe the sight of one another, the chorus despises the singers, they both hate the orchestra, and everyone fears the conductor; the staff on one prompt side won't talk to the staff on the opposite prompt side, the dancers are all crazed from hunger in any case, and that's only the start of it, because what is really-' There was a series of knocks at the door. They were painfully irregular, as if the knocker were having to concentrate quite hard. 'Come in, Walter,' said Salzella. Walter Plinge shuffled in, a pail dangling at the end of each arm. 'Come to fill your coalscuttle Mr Bucket!' Bucket waved a hand vaguely, and turned back to the director of music. 'You were saying?' Salzella stared at Walter as the man carefully piled lumps of coal in the scuttle, one at a time. 'Salzella?'

'What? Oh. I'm sorry. . . what was I saying?'

'Something about it being only the start?'

'What? Oh. Yes. Yes. . . you see, it's fine for actors. There's plenty of parts for old men. Acting's something you can do all your life. You get better at it. But when your talent is singing or dancing. . . Time creeps up behind you, all the. . .' He fumbled for a word, and settled lamely for 'Time. Time is the poison. You watch backstage one night and you'll see the dancers checking all the time in any mirror they can find for that first little imperfection. You watch the singers. Everyone's on edge, everyone knows that this might be their last perfect night, that tomorrow might be the beginning of the end. That's why everyone worries about luck, you see? All the stuff about live flowers being unlucky, you remember? Well, so's green. And real jewellery worn on stage. And real mirrors on stage. And whistling on stage. And peeking at the audience through the main curtains. And using new makeup on a first night. And knitting on stage, even at rehearsals. A yellow clarinet in the orchestra is very unlucky, don't ask me why. And as for stopping a performance before its proper ending, well, that's worst of all. You might as well sit under a ladder and break mirrors.' Behind Salzella, Walter carefully placed the last lump of coal on the pile in the scuttle and dusted it carefully. 'Good grief,' said Bucket; at last. 'I thought it was tough in cheese.' He waved a hand at the pile of papers and what passed for the accounts. 'I paid thirty thousand for this place,' he said. 'It's in the centre of the city! Prime site! I thought it was hard bargaining!'

'They'd have probably accepted twenty-five.'

'And tell me again about Box Eight. You let this Ghost have it?'

'The Ghost considers it is his for every first night, yes.'

'How does he get in?'

'No one knows. We've searched and searched for secret entrances. . .'

'He really doesn't pay?' No. 'It's worth fifty dollars a night!'

'There will be trouble if you sell it,' said Salzella.

'Good grief, Salzella, you're an educated man! How can you sit there so calmly and accept this sort of madness? Some creature in a mask has the run of the place, gets a prime Box all to himself, kills people, and you sit there saying there will be trouble?'

'I told you: the show must go on.'

'Why? We never said “the cheese must go on”! What's so special about the show going on?' Salzella smiled. 'As far as I understand it,' he said, 'the. . . power behind the show, the soul of the show, all the effort that's gone into it, call it what you will. . . it leaks out and spills everywhere. That's why they burble about “the show must go on”. It must go on. But most of the company wouldn't even understand why anyone should ask the question.' Bucket glared at the pile of what passed for the Opera House's financial records. 'They certainly don't understand book-keeping! Who does the accounts?'

'All of us, really,' said Salzella. 'All of you?'

'Money gets put in, money gets taken out. . .' said Salzella vaguely. 'Is it important?' Bucket's jaw dropped. 'Is it important?'

'Because,' Salzella went on, smoothly, 'opera doesn't make money. Opera never makes money.'

'Good grief, man! Important? What'd I ever have achieved in the cheese business, I'd like to know, if I'd said that money wasn't important?' Salzella smiled humourlessly. 'There are people out on the stage right now, sir,' he said, 'who'd say that you would probably have made better cheeses.' He sighed, and leaned over the desk. 'You see,' he said, 'cheese does make money. And opera doesn't. Opera's what you spend money on.'

'But. . . what do you get out of it?'

'You get opera. You put money in, you see, and opera comes out,' said Salzella wearily. 'There's no profit?'

'Profit. . . profit,' murmured the director of music, Scratching his forehead. 'No, I don't believe I've come across the word.'

'Then how do we manage?'

'We seem to rub along.' Bucket put his head in his hands. 'I mean,' he muttered, half to himself, 'I knew the place wasn't making much, but I thought that was just because it was run badly. We have big audiences! We charge a mint for tickets! Now I'm told that a Ghost runs around killing people and we don't even make any money!' Salzella beamed. 'Ah, opera,' he said. Greebo stalked over the inn's rooftops. Most cats are nervous and ill at ease when taken out of their territory, which is why cat books go on about putting butter on their paws and so on, presumably because constantly skidding into the walls will take the animal's mind off where the walls actually are. But Greebo travelled well, purely because he took it for granted that the whole world was his dirt box. He dropped heavily on to an outhouse roof and padded towards a small open window. Greebo also had a cat's approach to possessions, which was simply that nothing edible had a right to belong to other people. From the window came a variety of smells which included pork pies and cream. He squeezed through and dropped on to the pantry shelf.

Of course, sometimes he got caught. At least, sometimes he got discovered. . . There was cream. He settled down. He was halfway down the bowl when the door opened. Greebo's ears flattened. His one good eye sought desperately for an escape route. The window was too high, the person opening the door was wearing a long dress that militated against the old 'through the legs' routine and. . . and. . . and. . . there was no escape. . . His claws scrabbled on the floor. . . Oh no. . . here it came. . . Something flipped in his body's morphogenic field. Here was a problem a cat shape couldn't deal with. Oh, well, we know another one. . . Crockery crashed around him. Shelves erupted as his head rose. A bag of flour exploded outwards to make room for his broadening shoulders. The cook stared up at him. Then she looked down. And then up. And then, her gaze dragged as though it were on a winch, down again. She screamed. Greebo screamed. He grabbed desperately at a bowl to cover that part which, as a cat, he never had to worry about exposing. He screamed again, this time because he'd just poured lukewarm pork dripping all over himself. His groping fingers found a large copper jelly mould. Clasping it to his groinal areas, he barrelled forward and fled out of the pantry and out of the kitchen and out of the dining-room and out of the inn and into the night. The spy, who was dining with the travelling salesman, put down his knife. 'That's something you don't often see,' he said. 'What?' said the salesman, who'd had his back to the excitement. 'One of those old copper jelly-moulds. They're worth quite a lot now. My aunt had a very good one.' The hysterical cook was given a big drink and several members of staff went out into the darkness to investigate. All they found was a jelly-mould, lying forlornly in the yard. At home Granny Weatherwax slept with open windows and an unlocked door, secure in the knowledge that the Ramtops' various creatures of the night would rather eat their own ears than break in. In dangerously civilized lands, however, she took a different view. 'I really don't think we need to shove the bed in front of the door, Esme,' said Nanny Ogg, heaving on her end. 'You can't be too careful,' said Granny. 'Supposing some man started rattlin' the knob in the middle of the night?'

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