True. But my legs, I suggest, could at least stop a pig in a passageway.'
'They're not bandy,' she explained.
They strolled through the lily beds, temporarily lost for words. Eventually Ysabell confronted Mort and stuck out her hand. He shook it in thankful silence.
'Enough?' she said.
'Good. Obviously we shouldn't get married, if only for the sake of the children.'
They sat down on a stone seat between some neatly clipped box hedges. Death had made a pond in this corner of the garden, fed by an icy spring that appeared to be vomited into the pool by a stone lion. Fat white carp lurked in the depths, or nosed on the surface among the velvety black water lilies.
'We should have brought some breadcrumbs,' said Mort gallantly, opting for a totally non-controversial subject.
'He never comes out here, you know,' said Ysabell, watching the fish. 'He made it to keep me amused.'
'It didn't work?'
'It's not real,' she said. 'Nothing's real here. Not really real. He just likes to act like a human being. He's trying really hard at the moment, have you noticed. I think you're having an effect on him. Did you know he tried to learn the banjo once?'
'I see him as more the organ type.'
'He couldn't get the hang of it,' said Ysabell, ignoring him. 'He can't create, you see.'
'You said he created this pool.'
'It's a copy of one he saw somewhere. Everything's a copy.'
Mort shifted uneasily. Some small insect had crawled up his leg.
'It's rather sad,' he said, hoping that this was approximately the right tone to adopt.
She scooped a handful of gravel from the path and began to flick it absent-mindedly into the pool.
'Are my eyebrows that bad?' she said.
'Um,' said Mort, 'afraid so.'
'Oh.' Flick, flick. The carp were watching her disdainfully.
'And my legs?' he said.
Mort shuffled anxiously through his limited repertoire of small talk, and gave up.
'Never mind,' he said gallantly. 'At least you can use tweezers.'
'He's very kind,' said Ysabell, ignoring him, 'in a sort of absent-minded way.'
'He's not exactly your real father, is he?'
'My parents were killed crossing the Great Nef years ago. There was a storm, I think. He found me and brought me here. I don't know why he did it.'
'Perhaps he felt sorry for you?'
'He never feels anything. I don't mean that nastily, you understand. It's just that he's got nothing to feel with, no whatd'youcallits, no glands. He probably thought sorry for me.'
She turned her pale round face towards Mort.
'I won't hear a word against him. He tries to do his best. It's just that he's always got so much to think about.'
'My father was a bit like that. Is, I mean.'
'I expect he's got glands, though.'
'I imagine he has,' said Mort, shifting uneasily. 'Its not something I've ever really thought about, glands.'
They stared side by side at the trout. The trout stared back.
'I've just upset the entire history of the future,' said Mort.
'You see, when he tried to kill her I killed him, but the thing is, according to the history she should have died and the duke would be king, but the worst bit, the worst bit is that although he's absolutely rotten to the core he'd unite the cities and eventually they'll be a federation and the books say there'll be a hundred years of peace and plenty. I mean, you'd think there'd be a reign of terror or something, but apparently history needs this kind of person sometimes and the princess would just be another monarch. I mean, not bad, quite good really, but just not right and now it's not going to happen and history is flapping around loose and it's all my fault.'
He subsided, anxiously awaiting her reply.
'You were right, you know.'
'We ought to have brought some breadcrumbs,' she said. 'I suppose they find things to eat in the water. Beetles and so on.'
'Did you hear what I said?'
'Oh. Nothing. Nothing much, really. Sorry.'
Ysabell sighed and stood up.
'I expect you'll be wanting to get off,' she said. 'I'm glad we got this marriage business sorted out. It was quite nice talking to you.'
'We could have a sort of hate-hate relationship,' said Mort.
'I don't normally get to talk with the people father works with.' She appeared to be unable to draw herself away, as though she was waiting for Mort to say something else.
'Well, you wouldn't,' was all he could think of.
'I expect you've got to go off to work now.'
'More or less.' Mort hesitated, aware that in some indefinable way the conversation had drifted out of the shallows and was now floating over some deep bits he didn't quite understand.
There was a noise like —
It made Mort recall the old yard at home, with a pang of homesickness. During the harsh Ramtop winters the family kept hardy mountain tharga beasts in the yard, chucking in straw as necessary. After the spring thaw the yard was several feet deep and had quite a solid crust on it. You could walk across it if you were careful. If you weren't, and sank knee deep in the concentrated gyppo, then the sound your boot made as it came out, green and steaming, was as much the sound of the turning year as birdsong and beebuzz.
It was that noise. Mort instinctively examined his shoes.
Ysabell was crying, not in little ladylike sobs, but in great yawning gulps, like bubbles from an underwater volcano, fighting one another to be the first to the surface. They were sobs escaping under pressure, matured in humdrum misery.
Her body was shaking like a waterbed in an earthquake zone. She fumbled urgently in her sleeves for the handkerchief, but it was no more use in the circumstances than a paper hat in a thunderstorm. She tried to say something, which became a stream of consonants punctuated by sobs.
Mort said, 'Um?'
'I said, how old do you think I am?'
'Fifteen?' he hazarded.
'I'm sixteen,' she wailed. 'And do you know how long I've been sixteen for?'
'I'm sorry, I don't under —'
'No, you wouldn't. No-one would.' She blew her nose again, and despite her shaking hands nevertheless carefully tucked the rather damp hanky back up her sleeve.
'You're allowed out,' she said. 'You haven't been here long enough to notice. Time stands still here, haven't you noticed? Oh, something passes, but it's not real time. He can't create real time.'
When she spoke again it was in the thin, careful and above all brave voice of someone who has pulled themselves together despite overwhelming odds but might let go again at any moment.
'I've been sixteen for thirty-five years.'
'It was bad enough the first year.'
Mort looked back at his last few weeks, and nodded in sympathy.
'Is that why you've been reading all those books?' he said.
Ysabell looked down, and twiddled a sandalled toe in the gravel in an embarrassed fashion.
'They're very romantic,' she said. 'There's some really lovely stories. There was this girl who drank poison when her young man had died, and there was one who jumped off a cliff because her father insisted she should marry this old man, and another one drowned herself rather than submit to—'
Mort listened in astonishment. To judge by Ysabell's careful choice of reading matter, it was a matter of note for any Disc female to survive adolescence long enough to wear out a pair of stockings.
'— and then she thought he was dead, and she killed herself and then he woke up and so he did kill himself, and then there was this girl —'
Common sense suggested that at least a few women reached their third decade without killing themselves for love, but common sense didn't seem to get even a walk-on part in these dramas. Mort was already aware that love made you feel hot and cold and cruel and weak, but he hadn't realised that it could make you stupid.
' – swam the river every night, but one night there was this storm, and when he didn't arrive she —'
Mort felt instinctively that some young couples met, say, at a village dance, and hit it off, and went out together for a year or two, had a few rows, made up, got married and didn't kill themselves at all.
He became aware that the litany of star-crossed love had wound down.
'Oh,' he said, weakly. 'Doesn't anyone just, you know, just get along any more?'
To love is to suffer,' said Ysabell. There's got to be lots of dark passion.'
'Absolutely. And anguish.'
Ysabell appeared to recall something.
'Did you say something about something flapping around loose?' she said, in the tight voice of someone pulling themselves together.
Mort considered. 'No,' he said.
'I'm afraid I wasn't paying much attention.'
'It doesn't matter at all.'
They strolled back to the house in silence.
When Mort went back to the study he found that Death had gone, leaving four hourglasses on the desk. The big leather book was lying on a lectern, securely locked shut.
There was a note tucked under the glasses.
Mort had imagined that Death's handwriting would either be gothic or else tombstone angular, but Death had in fact studied a classic work on graphology before selecting a style and had adopted a hand that indicated a balanced, well-adjusted personality.
Gone fyshing. Theyre ys ane execution in Pseudopoiis, a naturral in Krull, a faytal fall in the Carrick Mtns, ane ague in Ell-Kinte. Thee rest of thee day's your own.
Mort thought that history was thrashing around like a steel hawser with the tension off, twanging backwards and forwards across reality in great destructive sweeps.
History isn't like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It's been around a long time.
This is what was happening:
The misplaced stroke of Mort's scythe had cut history into two separate realities. In the city of Sto Lat Princess Keli still ruled, with a certain amount of difficulty and with the full time aid of the Royal Recogniser, who was put on the court payroll and charged with the duty of remembering that she existed. In the lands outside, though – beyond the plain, in the Ramtops, around the Circle Sea and all the way to the Rim – the traditional reality still held sway and she was quite definitely dead, the duke was king and the world was proceeding sedately according to plan, whatever that was.
The point is that both realities were true.
The sort of historical event horizon was currently about twenty miles away from the city, and wasn't yet very noticeable. That's because the – well, call it the difference in historical pressures – wasn't yet very great. But it was growing. Out in the damp cabbage fields there was a shimmer in the air and a faint sizzle, like frying grasshoppers.
People don't alter history any more than birds alter the sky, they just make brief patterns in it. Inch by inch, implacable as a glacier and far colder, the real reality was grinding back towards Sto Lat.
Mort was the first person to notice.
It had been a long afternoon. The mountaineer had held on to his icy handhold until the last moment and the executee had called Mort a lackey of the monarchist state. Only the old lady of 103, who had gone to her reward surrounded by her sorrowing relatives, had smiled at him and said he was looking a little pale.READ MORE >>