'Yeff,' it said. They feemed in a bit of a hurry, if you ask me.'
Mort was already up on Binky's back.
'I fay!' shouted the knocker at his retreating back. 'I fay! Could you unftick me, boy?'
Mort tugged on Binky's reins so hard that the horse reared and danced crazily backwards across the cobbles, then reached out and grabbed the ring of the knocker. The gargoyle looked up into his face and suddenly felt like a very frightened doorknocker indeed. Mort's eyes glowed like crucibles, his expression was a furnace, his voice held enough heat to melt iron. It didn't know what he could do, but felt that it would prefer not to find out.
'What did you call me?' Mort hissed.
The doorknocker thought quickly. 'Fir?' it said.
'What did you ask me to do?'
'I don't intend to.'
'Fine,' said the doorknocker, 'fine. That's okay by me. I'll just ftick around, then.'
It watched Mort canter off along the street and shuddered with relief, knocking itself gently in its nervousness.
'A naaaarrow sqeeeak,' said one of the hinges.
Mort passed night watchmen, whose job now appeared to consist of ringing bells and shouting the name of the Princess, but a little uncertainly, as if they had difficulty remembering it. He ignored them, because he was listening to voices inside his head which went:
She's only met you once, you fool. Why should she bother about you?
Yes, but I did save her life.
That means it belongs to her. Not to you. Besides, he's a wizard.
So what? Wizards aren't supposed to – to go out with girls, they're celebrate. . . .
They're not supposed to youknow. . . .
What, never any youknow at all? said the internal voice, and it sounded as if it was grinning.
It's supposed to be bad for the magic, thought Mort bitterly.
Funny place to keep magic.
Mort was shocked. Who are you? he demanded.
I'm you, Mort. Your inner self.
Well, I wish I'd get out of my head, it's quite crowded enough with me in here.
Fair enough, said the voice, I was only trying to help. But remember, if you ever need you, you're always around.
The voice faded away.
Well, thought Mort bitterly, that must have been me. I'm the only one that calls me Mort.
The shock of the realisation quite obscured the fact that, while Mort had been locked into the monologue, he had ridden right through the gates of the palace. Of course, people rode through the gates of the palace every day, but most of them needed the things to be opened first.
The guards on the other side were rigid with fear, because they thought they had seen a ghost. They would have been far more frightened if they had known that a ghost was almost exactly what they hadn't seen.
The guard outside the doors of the great hall had seen it happen too, but he had time to gather his wits, or such that remained, and raise his spear as Binky trotted across the courtyard.
'Halt,' he croaked. 'Halt. What goes where?'
Mort saw him for the first time.
'What?' he said, still lost in thought.
The guard ran his tongue over his dry lips, and backed away. Mort slid off Binky's back and walked forward.
'I meant, what goes there?' the guard tried again, with a mixture of doggedness and suicidal stupidity that marked him for early promotion.
Mort caught the spear gently and lifted it out of the way of the door. As he did so the torchlight illuminated his face.
'Mort,' he said softly.
It should have been enough for any normal soldier, but this guard was officer material.
'I mean, friend or foe?' he stuttered, trying to avoid Mort's gaze.
'Which would you prefer?' he grinned. It wasn't quite the grin of his master, but it was a pretty effective grin and didn't have a trace of humour in it.
The guard sagged with relief, and stood aside.
'Pass, friend,' he said.
Mort strode across the hall towards the staircase that led to the royal apartments. The hall had changed a lot since he last saw it. Portraits of Keli were everywhere; they'd even replaced the ancient and crumbling battle banners in the shadowy heights of the roof. Anyone walking through the palace would have found it impossible to go more than a few steps without seeing a portrait. Part of Mort's mind wondered why, just as another part worried about the flickering dome that was steadily closing on the city, but most of his mind was a hot and steamy glow of rage and bewilderment and jealousy. Ysabell had been right, he thought, this must be love.
'The walk-through-walls boy!'
He jerked his head up. Cutwell was standing at the top of the stairs.
The wizard had changed a lot too, Mort thought bitterly. Perhaps not that much, though. Although he was wearing a black and white robe embroidered with sequins, although his pointy hat was a yard high and decorated with more mystic symbols than a dental chart, and although his red velvet shoes had silver buckles and toes that curled like snails, there were still a few stains on his collar and he appeared to be chewing.
He watched Mort climb the stairs towards him.
'Are you angry about something?' he said. 'I started work, but I got rather tied up with other things. Very difficult, walking through – why are you looking at me like that?'
'What are you doing here?'
'I might ask you the same question. Would you like a strawberry?'
Mort glanced at the small wooden punnet in the wizard's hands.
'Actually, they're sprouts with a dash of enchantment.'
They taste like strawberries?'
Cutwell sighed. 'No, like sprouts. The spell isn't totally efficient. I thought they might cheer the princess up, but she threw them at me. Shame to waste them. Be my guest.'
Mort gaped at him.
'She threw them at you?'
'Very accurately, I'm afraid. Very strong-minded young lady.'
Hi, said a voice in the back of Mort's mind, it's you again, pointing out to yourself that the chances of the princess even contemplating you know with this fellow are on the far side of remote.
Go away, thought Mort. His subconscious was worrying him. It appeared to have a direct line to parts of his body that he wanted to ignore at the moment.
'Why are you here?' he said aloud. 'Is it something to do with all these pictures?'
'Good idea, wasn't it?' beamed Cutwell. 'I'm rather proud of it myself.'
'Excuse me,' said Mort weakly. 'I've had a busy day. I think I'd like to sit down somewhere.'
'There's the Throne Room,' said Cutwell. 'There's no-one in there at this time of night. Everyone's asleep.'
Mort nodded, and then looked suspiciously at the young wizard.
'What are you doing up, then?' he said.
'Um,' said Cutwell, 'um, I just thought I'd see if there was anything in the pantry.'
Now is the time to report that Cutwell too notices that Mort, even a Mort weary with riding and lack of sleep, is somehow glowing from within and in some strange way unconnected with size is nevertheless larger than life. The difference is that Cutwell is, by training, a better guesser than other people and knows that in occult matters the obvious answer is usually the wrong one.
Mort can move absentmindedly through walls and drink neat widowmaker soberly not because he is turning into a ghost, but because he is becoming dangerously real.
In fact, as the boy stumbles while they walk along the silent corridors and steps through a marble pillar without noticing, it's obvious that the world is becoming a pretty insubstantial place from his point of view.
'You just walked through a marble pillar,' observed Cutwell. 'How did you do it?'
'Did I?' Mort looked around. The pillar looked sound enough. He poked an arm towards it, and slightly bruised his elbow.
'I could have sworn you did,' said Cutwell. 'Wizards notice these things, you know.' He reached into the pocket of his robe.
Then have you noticed the mist dome around the country?' said Mort.
Cutwell squeaked. The jar in his hand dropped and smashed on the tiles; there was the smell of slightly rancid salad dressing.
'I don't know about already,' said Mort, 'but there's this sort of crackling wall sliding over the land and no-one else seems to worry about it and—'
'How fast was it moving?'
'— it changes things!'
'You saw it? How far away is it? How fast is it moving?'
'Of course I saw it. I rode through it twice. It was like —'
'But you're not a wizard, so why —'
'What are you doing here, anyway —'
Cutwell took a deep breath. 'Everyone shut up!' he screamed.
There was silence. Then the wizard grabbed Mort's arm. 'Come on,' he said, pulling him back along the corridor. 'I don't know who you are exactly and I hope I've got time to find out one day but something really horrible is going to happen soon and I think you're involved, somehow.'
'Something horrible? When?'
That depends on how far away the interface is and how fast it's moving,' said Cutwell, dragging Mort down a side passage. When they were outside a small oak door he let go of his arm and fumbled in his pocket again, removing a small hard piece of cheese and an unpleasantly squashy tomato.
'Hold these, will you? Thank you.' He delved again, produced a key and unlocked the door.
'It's going to kill the princess, isn't it?' said Mort.
'Yes,' said Cutwell, 'and then again, no.' He paused with his hand on the doorhandle. 'That was pretty perspicacious of you. How did you know?'
'I —' Mort hesitated.
'She told me a very strange story,' said Cutwell.
'I expect she did,' said Mort. 'If it was unbelievable, it was true.'
'You're him, are you? Death's assistant?'
'Yes. Off duty at the moment, though.'
'Pleased to hear it.'
Cutwell shut the door behind them and fumbled for a candlestick. There was a pop, a flash of blue light and a whimper.
'Sorry,' he said, sucking his fingers. 'Fire spell. Never really got the hang of it.'
'You were expecting the dome thing, weren't you?' said Mort urgently. 'What will happen when it closes in?'
The wizard sat down heavily on the remains of a bacon sandwich.
'I'm not exactly sure,' he said. 'It'll be interesting to watch. But not from inside, I'm afraid. What I think will happen is that the last week will never have existed.'
'She'll suddenly die?'
'You don't quite understand. She will have been dead for a week. All this —' he waved his hands vaguely in the air – 'will not have happened. The assassin will have done his job. You will have done yours. History will have healed itself. Everything will be all right. From History's point of view, that is. There really isn't any other.'
Mort stared out of the narrow window. He could see across the courtyard into the glowing streets outside, where a picture of the princess smiled at the sky.
'Tell me about the pictures,' he said. That looks like some sort of wizard thing.'
'I'm not sure if it's working. You see, people were beginning to get upset and they didn't know why, and that made it worse. Their minds were in one reality and their bodies were in another. Very unpleasant. They couldn't get used to the idea that she was still alive. I thought the pictures might be a good idea but, you know, people just don't see what their mind tells them isn't there.'
'I could have told you that,' said Mort bitterly.
'I had the town criers out during the daytime,' Cutwell continued. 'I thought that if people could come to believe in her, then this new reality could become the real one.'
'Mmmph?' said Mort. He turned away from the window. 'What do you mean?'
'Well, you see – I reckoned that if enough people believed in her, they could change reality. It works for gods. If people stop believing in a god, he dies. If a lot of them believe in him, he grows stronger.'READ MORE >>