Mort (Discworld #4)

Chapter 14

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'I demand to see the wizard,' she announced. 'Pray admit me this instant.'

'He's rather busy at present,' said the face. 'Were you after a love potion?'

'A what?'

'I've – we've got a special on Cutwell's Shield of Passion ointment,' said the face, and winked in a startling fashion. 'Provides your wild oats while guaranteeing a crop failure, if you know what I mean.'

Keli bridled. 'No,' she lied coldly, 'I do not.'

'Ramrub? Maidens' Longstop? Belladonna eyedrops?'

'I demand —'

'Sorry, we're closed,' said the face, and shut the door. Keli withdrew her foot just in time.

She muttered some words that would have amazed and shocked her tutors, and thumped on the woodwork.

The tattoo of her hammering suddenly slowed as realisation dawned.

He'd seen her! He'd heard her!

She beat on the door with renewed vigour, yelling with all the power in her lungs.

A voice by her ear said, 'It won't work. He 'eef very fstubborn.'

She looked around slowly and met the impertinent gaze of the doorknocker. It waggled its metal eyebrows at her and spoke indistinctly through its wrought-iron ring.

'I am Princess Keli, heir to the throne of Sto Lat,' she said haughtily, holding down the lid on her terror. 'And I don't talk to door furniture.'

'Fwell, I'm just a doorknocker and I can talk to fwhoever I please,' said the gargoyle pleasantly. 'And I can ftell you the fmaster iff having a trying day and duff fnot fwant to be disturbed. But you could ftry to use the magic word,' it added. 'Coming from an attractiff fwoman it works nine times out of eight.'

'Magic word? What's the magic word?'

The knocker perceptibly sneered. 'Haff you been taught nothing, miss?'

She drew herself up to her full height, which wasn't really worth the effort. She felt she'd had a trying day too. Her father had personally executed a hundred enemies in battle. She should be able to manage a doorknocker.

'I have been educated,' she informed it with icy precision, 'by some of the finest scholars in the land.'

The doorknocker did not appear to be impressed.

'Iff they didn't teach you the magic word,' it said calmly, 'they couldn't haff fbeen all that fine.'

Keli reached out, grabbed the heavy ring, and pounded it on the door. The knocker leered at her.

'Ftreat me rough,' it lisped. 'That'f the way I like it!'

'You're disgusting!'

'Yeff. Ooo, that waff nife, do it again. . . .'

The door opened a crack. There was a shadowy glimpse of curly hair.

'Madam, I said we're cl —'

Keli sagged.

'Please help me,' she said. 'Please!'

'See?' said the doorknocker triumphantly. 'Sooner or later everyone remembers the magic word!'

Keli had been to official functions in Ankh-Morpork and had met senior wizards from Unseen University, the Disc's premier college of magic. Some of them had been tall, and most of them had been fat, and nearly all of them had been richly dressed, or at least thought they were richly dressed.

In fact there are fashions in wizardry as in more mundane arts, and this tendency to look like elderly aldermen was only temporary. Previous generations had gone in for looking pale and interesting, or druidical and grubby, or mysterious and saturnine. But Keli was used to wizards as a sort of fur-trimmed small mountain with a wheezy voice, and Igneous Cutwell didn't quite fit the mage image.

He was young. Well, that couldn't be helped; presumably even wizards had to start off young. He didn't have a beard, and the only thing his rather grubby robe was trimmed with was frayed edges.

'Would you like a drink or something?' he said, surreptitiously kicking a discarded vest under the table.

Keli looked around for somewhere to sit that wasn't occupied with laundry or used crockery, and shook her head. Cutwell noticed her expression.

'It's a bit alfresco, I'm afraid,' he added hurriedly, elbowing the remains of a garlic sausage on to the floor. 'Mrs Nugent usually comes in twice a week and does for me but she's gone to see her sister who's had one of her turns. Are you sure? It's no trouble. I saw a spare cup here only yesterday.'

'I have a problem, Mr Cutwell,' said Keli.

'Hang on a moment.' He reached up to a hook over the fireplace and took down a pointy hat that had seen better days, although from the look of it they hadn't been very much better, and then said, 'Right. Fire away.'

'What's so important about the hat?'

'Oh, it's very 'essential. You've got to have the proper hat for wizarding. We wizards know about this sort of thing.'

'If you say so. Look, can you see me?'

He peered at her. 'Yes. Yes, I would definitely say I can see you.'

'And hear me? You can hear me, can you?'

'Loud and clear. Yes. Every syllable tinkling into place. No problems.'

'Then would you be surprised if I told you that no-one else in this city can?'

'Except me?'

Keli snorted. 'And your doorknocker.'

Cutwell pulled out a chair and sat down. He squirmed a little. A thoughtful expression passed over his face. He stood up, reached behind him and produced a flat reddish mass which might have once been half a pizza[2]. He stared at it sorrowfully.

'I've been looking for that all morning, would you believe?' he said. 'It was an Ail-On with extra peppers, too.' He picked sadly at the squashed shape, and suddenly remembered Keli.

'Gosh, sorry,' he said, 'where's my manners? Whatever will you think of me? Here. Have an anchovy. Please.'

'Have you been listening to me?' snapped Keli.

'Do you feel invisible? In yourself, I mean?' said Gutwell, indistinctly.

'Of course not. I just feel angry. So I want you to tell my fortune.'

'Well, I don't know about that, it all sounds rather medical to me and —'

'I can pay.'

'It's illegal, you see,' said Cutwell wretchedly. 'The old king expressly forbade fortune telling in Sto Lat. He didn't like wizards much.'

'I can pay a lot.'

'Mrs Nugent was telling me this new girl is likely to be worse. A right haughty one, she said. Not the sort to look kindly on practitioners of the subtle arts, I fear.'

Keli smiled. Members of the court who had seen that smile before would have hastened to drag Gutwell out of the way and into a place of safety, like the next continent, but he just sat there trying to pick bits of mushroom out of his robe.

'I understand she's got a foul temper on her,' said Keli. 'I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't turn you out of the city anyway.'

'Oh dear,' said Cutwell, 'do you really think so?'

'Look,' said Keli, 'you don't have to tell my future, just my present. Even she couldn't object to that. I'll have a word with her if you like,' she added magnanimously.

Cutwell brightened. 'Oh, do you know her?' he said.

'Yes. But sometimes, I think, not very well.'

Cutwell sighed and burrowed around in the debris on the table, dislodging cascades of elderly plates and the long-mummified remains of several meals. Eventually he unearthed a fat leather wallet, stuck to a cheese slice.

'Well,' he said doubtfully, 'these are Caroc cards. Distilled wisdom of the Ancients and all that. Or there's the Ching Aling of the Hublandish. It's all the rage in the smart set. I don't do tealeaves.'

'I'll try the Ching thing.'

'You throw these yarrow stalks in the air, then.'

She did. They looked at the ensuing pattern.

'Hmm,' said Cutwell after a while. 'Well, that's one in the fireplace, one in the cocoa mug, one in the street, shame about the window, one on the table, and one, no, two behind the dresser. I expect Mrs Nugent will be able to find the rest.'

'You didn't say how hard. Shall I do it again?'

'No-ooo, I don't think so.' Cutwell thumbed through the pages of a yellowed book that had previously been supporting the table leg. 'The pattern seems to make sense. Yes, here we are, Octogram 8,887: Illegality, the Unatoning Goose. Which we cross reference here . . . hold on . . . hold on . . . yes. Got it.'

'Well?'

'Without vertically, wisely the cochineal emperor goes forth at teatime; at evening the mollusc is silent among the almond blossom.'

'Yes?' said Keli, respectfully. 'What does that mean?'

'Unless you're a mollusc, probably not a lot,' said Cutwell. 'I think perhaps it lost something in translation.'

'Are you sure you know how to do this?'

'Let's try the cards,' said Cutwell hurriedly, fanning them out. 'Pick a card. Any card.'

'It's Death,'said Keli.

'Ah. Well. Of course, the Death card doesn't actually mean death in all circumstances,' Cutwell said quickly.

'You mean, it doesn't mean death in those circumstances where the subject is getting over-excited and you're too embarrassed to tell the truth, hmm?'

'Look, take another card.'

'This one's Death as well,' said Keli.

'Did you put the other one back?'

'No. Shall I take another card?'

'May as well.'

'Well, there's a coincidence!'

'Death number three?'

'Right. Is this a special pack for conjuring tricks?' Keli tried to sound composed, but even she could detect the faint tinkle of hysteria in her voice.

Cutwell frowned at her and carefully put the cards back in the pack, shuffled it, and dealt them out on to the table. There was only one Death.

'Oh dear,' he said, 'I think this is going to be serious. May I see the palm of your hand, please?'

He examined it for a long time. Alter a while he went to the dresser, took a jeweller's eyeglass out of a drawer, wiped the porridge off it with the sleeve of his robe, and spent another few minutes examining her hand in minutest detail. Eventually he sat back, removed the glass, and stared at her.

'You're dead,' he said.

Keli waited. She couldn't think of any suitable reply. 'I'm not' lacked a certain style, while 'Is it serious?' seemed somehow too frivolous.

'Did I say I thought this was going to be serious?' said Cutwell.

'I think you did,' said Keli carefully, keeping her tone totally level.

'I was right.'

'Oh.'

'It could be fatal.'

'How much more fatal,' said Keli, 'than being dead?'

'I didn't mean for you.'

'Oh.'

'Something very fundamental seems to have gone wrong, you see. You're dead in every sense but the, er, actual. I mean, the cards think you're dead. Your lifeline thinks you're dead. Everything and everyone thinks you're dead.'

'I don't,' said Keli, but her voice was less than confident.

'I'm afraid your opinion doesn't count.'

'But people can see and hear me!'

The first thing you learn when you enroll at Unseen University, I'm afraid, is that people don't pay much attention to that sort of thing. It's what their minds tell them that's important.'

'You mean people don't see me because their minds tell them not to?'

' 'Fraid so. It's called predestination, or something.' Cutwell looked at her wretchedly. 'I'm a wizard. We know about these things.'

'Actually it's not the first thing you learn when you enroll,' he added, 'I mean, you learn where the lavatories are and all that sort of thing before that. But after all that, it's the first thing.'

'You can see me, though.'

'Ah. Well. Wizards are specially trained to see things that are there and not to see things that aren't. You get these special exercises —'

Keli drummed her fingers on the table, or tried to. It turned out to be difficult. She stared down in vague horror.

Cutwell hurried forward and wiped the table with his sleeve.

'Sorry,' he muttered, 'I had treacle sandwiches for supper last night.'

'What can I do?'

'Nothing.'

'Nothing?'

'Well, you could certainly become a very successful burglar . . . sorry. That was tasteless of me.'

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