Maskerade (Discworld #18)

Chapter 9

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'Not at our time of life,' said Nanny sadly. 'Gytha Ogg, you are the most-' Granny was interrupted by a watery sound. It came from behind the wall and went on for some time. It stopped, and then started again-a steady splashing that gradually became a trickle. Nanny started to grin. 'Someone fillin' a bath?' said Granny. '. . .or I suppose it could be someone fillin' a bath,' Nanny conceded. There was the sound of a third jug being emptied. Footsteps left the room. A few seconds later a door opened and there was a rather heavier tread, followed after a brief interval by a few splashes and a grunt. 'Yes, a man gettin' into a bath,' said Granny. 'What're you doin', Gytha?'

'Seem' if there's a knothole in this wood somewhere,' said Nanny. 'Ah, here's one-'

'Come back here!'

'Sorry, Esme.' And then the singing started. It was a very pleasant tenor voice, given added timbre by the bath itself. 'Show me the way to go home, I'm tired and I want to go to bed-'

'Someone's enjoyin' themselves, anyway,' said Nanny. '-wherever I may roam-' There was a knock at the distant bathroom door, upon which the singer slipped smoothly into another language: '- per via di terra, mare o schiuma-' The witches looked at one another. A muffled voice said, 'I've brought you your hot water bottle, sir.'

'Thank you verr' mucha,' said the bather, his voice dripping with accent. Footsteps went away in the distance. '-Indicame la strada. . . to go home.' Splash, Splash. 'Good eeeeevening, frieeeends. . .'

'Well, well, well,' said Granny, more or less to herself. 'It seems once again that our Mr Slugg is a secret polyglot.'

'Fancy! And you haven't even looked through the knothole,' said Nanny. 'Gytha, is there anything in the whole world you can't make sound grubby?'

'Not found it yet, Esme,' said Nanny brightly. 'I meant that when he mutters in his sleep and sings in his bath he talks just like us, but when he thinks people are listening he comes over all foreign.'

'That's probably to throw that Basilica person off the scent,' Nanny said. 'Oh, I reckon Mr Basilica is very close to Henry Slugg,' said Granny. 'In fact, I reckon that they're one and-' There was a gentle knock at the door. 'Who's there?' Granny demanded. 'It's me, ma'am. Mr Slot. This is my tavern.' The witches pushed the bed aside and Granny opened the door a fraction. 'Yes?' she said suspiciously. 'Er. . . the coachman said you were. . . witches?'

'Yes?'

'Maybe you could. . . help us?'

'What's wrong?'

'It's my boy. . .' Granny opened the door further and saw the woman standing behind Mr Slot. One look at her face was enough. There was a bundle in her arms. Granny stepped back. 'Bring him in and let me have a look at him.' She took the baby from the woman, sat down on the room's one chair, and pulled back the blanket. Nanny Ogg peered over her shoulder. 'Hmm,' said Granny, after awhile. She glanced at Nanny, who gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. 'There's a curse on this house, that's what it is,' said Slot. 'My best cow's been taken mortally sick, too.'

'Oh? You have a cowshed?' said Granny. 'Very good place for a sickroom, a cowshed. It's the warmth. You better show me where it is.'

'You want to take the boy down there?'

'Right now.' The man looked at his wife, and shrugged. 'Well, I'm sure you know your business best,' he said. 'It's this way.' He led the witches down some back stairs and across a yard and into the foetid sweet air of the byre. A cow was stretched out on the straw. It rolled an eye madly as-they entered, and tried to moo. Granny took in the scene and stood looking thoughtful for a moment.

Then she said, 'This will do.'

'What do you need?' said Slot. 'Just peace and quiet.' The man scratched his head. 'I thought you did a chant or made up some potion or something,' he said. 'Sometimes.'

'I mean, I know where there's a toad. . .'

'All I shall require is a candle,' said Granny. 'A new one, for preference.'

'That's all?'

'Yes.' Mr Slot looked a little put out. Despite his distraction, something about his manner suggested that Granny Weatherwax was possibly not that much of a witch if she didn't want a toad. 'And some matches,' said Granny, noting this. 'A pack of cards might be useful, too.'

'And I'll need three cold lamb chops and exactly two pints of beer,' said Nanny Ogg. The man nodded. This didn't sound too toad-like, but it was better than nothing. 'What'd you ask for that for?' hissed Granny, as the man bustled off. 'Can't imagine what good those'd do! Anyway, you already had a big dinner.'

'Well, I'm always prepared to go that extra meal. You won't want me around and I'll get bored,' said Nanny. 'Did I say I didn't want you around?'

'Well. . . even I can see that boy is in a coma, and the cow has the Red Bugge if I'm any judge. That's bad, too. So I reckon you're planning some. . . direct action.' Granny shrugged. 'Time like that, a witch needs to be alone,' said Nanny. 'But you just mind what you're doing, Esme Weatherwax.' The child was brought down in a blanket and made as comfortable as possible. The man followed behind his wife with a tray. 'Mrs Ogg will do her necessary procedures with the tray in her room,' said Granny haughtily. 'You just leave me in here tonight. And no one is to come in, right? No matter what.' The mother gave a worried curtsey. 'But I thought I might look in about midn-'

'No one. Now, off you go.' When they'd been gently but firmly ushered out, Nanny Ogg stuck her head around the door. 'What exactly are you planning, Esme?'

'You've sat up with the dyin' often enough, Gytha.'

'Oh, yes, it's. . .' Nanny's face fell. 'Oh, Esme. . . you're not going to. . .'

'Enjoy your supper, Gytha.' Granny closed the door. She spent some time arranging boxes and barrels so that she had a crude table and something to sit on. The air was warm and smelled of bovine flatulence. Periodically she checked the health of both patients, although there was little enough to check. In the distance the sounds of the inn gradually subsided. The last one was the clink of the innkeeper's keys as he locked the doors. Granny heard him walk across to the cowshed door and hesitate. Then he went away, and began to climb the stairs. She waited a little longer and then lit the candle. Its cheery flame gave the place a warm and comforting glow.

On the plank table she laid out the cards and attempted to play Patience, a game she'd never been able to master. The candle burned down. She pushed the cards away, and sat watching the flame. After some immeasurable piece of time the flame flickered. It would have passed unnoticed by anyone who hadn't been concentrating on it for some while. She took a deep breath and- 'Good morning,' said Granny Weatherwax. GOOD MORNING, said a voice by her ear. Nanny Ogg had long ago polished off the chops and the beer, but she hadn't got into bed. She lay on it, fully clothed, with her arms behind her head, staring at the dark ceiling. After a while there was a scratching on the shutters. She got up and opened them. A huge figure leapt into the room. For a moment the moonlight lit a glistening torso and a mane of black hair. Then the creature dived under the bed. 'Oh, deary deary me,' said Nanny. She waited for a while, and then fished a chop bone off her tray. There was still a bit of meat on it. She lowered it towards the floor. A hand shot out and grabbed it. Nanny sat back. 'Poor little man,' she said. It was only on the subject of Greebo that Nanny's otherwise keen sense of reality found itself all twisted. To Nanny Ogg he was merely a larger version of the little fluffy kitten he had once been. To everyone else he was a scarred ball of inventive malignancy. But now he had to deal with a problem seldom encountered by cats. The witches had, a year ago, turned him into a human, for reasons that had seemed quite necessary at the time. It had taken a lot of effort, and his morphogenic field had reasserted itself after a few hours, much to everyone's relief. But magic is never as simple as people think. It has to obey certain universal laws. And one is that, no matter how hard a thing is to do, once it has been done it'll become a whole lot easier and will therefore be done a lot. A huge mountain might be scaled by strong men only after many centuries of failed attempts, but a few decades later grandmothers will be strolling up it for tea 'and then wandering back afterwards to see where they left their glasses. In accordance with this law, Greebo's soul had noted that there was one extra option for use in a tight corner (in addition to the usual cat assortment of run, fight, crap or all three together) and that was: Become Human. It tended to wear off after a short time, most of which he spent searching desperately for a pair of pants. There were snores from under the bed. Gradually, to Nanny's relief, they turned into a purr. Then she sat bolt upright. She was some way from the cowshed but. . . 'He's here,' she said. Granny breathed out, slowly. 'Come and sit where I can see you. That's good manners. And let me tell you right now that I ain't at all afraid of you.' The tall, black-robed figure walked across the floor and sat down on a handy barrel, leaning its scythe against the wall. Then it pushed back

its hood. Granny folded her arms and stared calmly at the visitor, meeting his gaze eye-to-socket. I AM IMPRESSED. 'I have faith.' REALLY? IN WHAT PARTICULAR DEITY? 'Oh, none of them.' THEN FAITH IN WHAT? 'Just faith, you know. In general.' Death leaned forward. The candlelight raised new shadows on his skull. COURAGE IS EASY BY CANDLELIGHT. YOUR FAITH, I SUSPECT, IS IN THE FLAME. Death grinned. Granny leaned forward, and blew out the candle. Then she folded her arms again and stared fiercely ahead of her. After some length of time a voice said, ALL RIGHT, YOU'VE MADE YOUR POINT. Granny lit a match. Its flare illuminated the skull opposite, which hadn't moved. 'Fair enough,' she said, as she relit the candle. 'We don't want to be sitting here all night, do we? How many have you come for?' ONE. 'The cow?' Death shook his head. 'It could be the cow.' NO. THAT WOULD BE CHANGING HISTORY. 'History is about things changing.' NO. Granny sat back. 'Then I challenge you to a game. That's traditional. That's allowed.' Death was silent for a moment. THIS IS TRUE. 'Good.' CHALLENGING ME BY MEANS OF A GAME IS ALLOWABLE. 'Yes.' HOWEVER. . . YOU UNDERSTAND THAT TO WIN ALL YOU MUST GAMBLE ALL? 'Double or quits? Yes, I know.' BUT NOT CHESS. 'Can't abide chess.' OR CRIPPLE MR ONION. I'VE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO UNDERSTAND THE RULES. 'Very well. How about one hand of poker? Five cards each, no draws? Sudden death, as they say.' Death thought about this, too. YOU KNOW THIS FAMILY? No. THEN WHY? 'Are we talking or are we playing?' OH, VERY WELL. Granny picked up the pack of cards and shuffled it, not looking at her hands, and smiling at Death all the time. She dealt five cards each, and reached down. . . A bony hand grasped hers. BUT FIRST MISTRESS WEATHERWAX – WE WILL EXCHANGE CARDS. He picked up the two piles and transposed them, and then nodded at Granny. MADAM? 14.0pt;mso-ansi-language:EN-GB'>Granny looked at her cards, and threw them down. FOUR QUEENS. HMM. THAT IS VERY HIGH.

Death looked down at his cards, and then up into Granny's steady, blue- eyed gaze. Neither moved for some time. Then Death laid the hand on the table. I LOSE, he said. ALL I HAVE IS FOUR ONES. He looked back into Granny's eyes for a moment. There was a blue glow in the depth of his eye sockets. Maybe, for the merest fraction of a second, barely noticeable even to the closest observation, one winked off. Granny nodded, and extended a hand. She prided herself on the ability to judge people by their gaze and their handshake, which in this case was a rather chilly one. 'Take the cow,' she said. IT IS A VALUABLE CREATURE. 'Who knows what the child will become?' Death stood up, and reached for his scythe. He said, OW. 'Ah, yes. I couldn't help noticing,' said Granny Weatherwax, as the tension drained out of the atmosphere, 'that you seem to be sparing that arm.' OH, YOU KNOW HOW IT IS. REPETITIVE ACTIONS AND SO ON. . . 'It could get serious if you left it.' HOW SERIOUS? 'Want me to have a look?' WOULD YOU MIND? IT CERTAINLY ACHES ON COLD NIGHTS. Granny stood up and reached out, but her hands went straight through. 'Look, you're going to have to make yourself a bit more solid if I'm to do anything-' POSSIBLY A BOTTLE OF SUCKROSE AND AKWA? 'Sugar and water? I expect you know that's only for the hard of thinking. Come on, roll up that sleeve. Don't be a big baby. What's the worst I can do to you? Granny's hands touched smooth bone. She'd felt worse. At least these had never had flesh on them. She felt, thought, gripped, twisted. . . There was a click. OW. 'Now try it above the shoulder.' ER. HMM. YES. IT DOES SEEM CONSIDERABLY MORE FREE. YES, INDEED. MY WORD, YES. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. 'If it gives you trouble again, you know where I live.' THANK YOU. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. 'You know where everyone lives. Tuesday mornings is a good time. I'm generally in.' I SHALL REMEMBER. THANK YOU. 'By appointment, in your case. No offence meant. .' THANK YOU. Death walked away. A moment later there was a faint gasp from the cow. That and a slight sagging of the skin were all that apparently marked the transition from living animal to cooling meat. Granny picked up the baby and laid a hand on its forehead. 'Fever's gone,' she said. MISTRESS WEATHERWAX? said Death from the doorway. 'Yes, Sir?' I HAVE TO KNOW. WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF I HAD NOT. . . LOST? 'At the cards, you mean?' YES. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE? Granny laid the baby down carefully on the straw, and smiled. 'Well,' she said, 'for a start. . . I'd have broken your bloody arm.'

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