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Page 21

There was a click, the thwack of sinew against metal, a zip of air, and a groan. The groan came from Cutwell. Mort spun round to him.

'Are you all right?' he said. 'Did it hit you?'

'No,' said the wizard, weakly. 'No, it didn't. How do you feel?'

'A bit tired. Why?'

'Oh, nothing. Nothing. No draughts anywhere? No slight leaking feelings?'

'No. Why?'

'Oh, nothing, nothing.' Cutwell turned and looked closely at the wall behind Mort.

'Aren't the dead allowed any peace?' said Keli bitterly. 'I thought one thing you could be sure of when you were dead was a good night's sleep.' She looked as though she had been crying. With an insight that surprised him, Mort realised that she knew this and that it was making her even angrier than before.

That's not really fair,' he said. 'I've come to help. Isn't that right, Cutwell?'

'Hmm?' said Cutwell, who had found the crossbow bolt buried in the plaster and was looking at it with deep suspicion. 'Oh, yes. He has. It won't work, though. Excuse me, has anyone got any string?'

'Help?' snapped Keli. 'Help? If it wasn't for you —'

'You'd still be dead,' said Mort. She looked at him with her mouth open.

'I wouldn't know about it, though,' she said. That's the worst part.'

'I think you two had better go,' said Cutwell to the guards, who were trying to appear inconspicuous. 'But I'll have that spear, please. Thank you.'

'Look,' said Mort, 'I've got a horse outside. You'd be amazed. I can take you anywhere. You don't have to wait around here.'

'You don't know much about monarchy, do you,' said Keli.

'Um. No?'

' She means better to be a dead queen in your own castle than a live commoner somewhere else,' said Cutwell, who had stuck the spear into the wall by the bolt and was trying to sight along it. 'Wouldn't work, anyway. The dome isn't centred on the palace, it's centred on her.'

'On who?' said Keli. Her voice could have kept milk fresh for a month.

'On her Highness,' said Cutwell automatically, squinting along the shaft.

'Don't you forget it.'

'I won't forget it, but that's not the point,' said he wizard. He pulled the bolt out of the plaster and tested the point with his finger.

'But if you stay here you'll die!' said Mort.

Then I shall have to show the Disc how a queen can die,' said Keli, looking as proud as was possible in a pink knitted bed jacket.

Mort sat down on the end of the bed with his head in his hands.

'I know how a queen can die,' he muttered. They die just like other people. And some of us would rather not see it happen.'

'Excuse me, I just want to look at this crossbow,' said Cutwell conversationally, reaching across them. 'Don't mind me.'

'I shall go proudly to meet my destiny,' said Keli, but there was the barest flicker of uncertainty in her voice.

'No you won't. I mean, I know what I'm talking about. Take it from me. There's nothing proud about it. You just die.'

'Yes, but it's how you do it. I shall die nobly, like Queen Ezeriel.'

Mort's forehead wrinkled. History was a closed book to him.

'Who's she?'

'She lived in Klatch and she had a lot of lovers and she sat on a snake,' said Cutwell, who was winding up the crossbow.

'She meant to! She was crossed in love!'

'All I can remember was that she used to take baths in asses' milk. Funny thing, history,' said Cutwell reflectively. 'You become a queen, reign for thirty years, make laws, declare war on people and then the only thing you get remembered for is that you smelled like yoghurt and were bitten in the—'

'She's a distant ancestor of mine,' snapped Keli. 'I won't listen to this sort of thing.'

'Will you both be quiet and listen to me!' shouted Mort.

Silence descended like a shroud.

Then Cutwell sighted carefully and shot Mort in the back.

The night shed its early casualties and journeyed onwards. Even the wildest parties had ended, their guests lurching home to their beds, or someone's bed at any rate. Shorn of these fellow travellers, mere daytime people who had strayed out of their temporal turf, the true survivors of the night got down to the serious commerce of the dark.

This wasn't so very different from Ankh-Morpork's daytime business, except that the knives were more obvious and people didn't smile so much.

The Shades were silent, save only for the whistled signals of thieves and the velvety hush of dozens of people going about their private business in careful silence.

And, in Ham Alley, Cripple Wa's famous floating crap game was just getting under way. Several dozen cowled figures knelt or squatted around the little circle of packed earth where Wa's three eight-sided dice bounced and spun their misleading lesson in statistical probability.

'Three!'

'Tuphal's Eyes, by lo!'

'He's got you there, Hummok! This guy knows how to roll his bones!'

IT'S A KNACK.

Hummok M'guk, a small flat-faced man from one of the Hublandish tribes whose skill at dice was famed wherever two men gathered together to fleece a third, picked up the dice and glared at them. He silently cursed Wa, whose own skill at switching dice was equally notorious among the cognoscenti but had, apparently, failed him, wished a painful and untimely death on the shadowy player seated opposite and hurled the dice into the mud.

'Twenty-one the hard way!'

Wa scooped up the dice and handed them to the stranger. As he turned to Hummok one eye flickered ever so slightly. Hummok was impressed – he'd barely noticed the blur in Wa's deceptively gnarled fingers, and he'd been watching for it.

It was disconcerting the way the things rattled in the stranger's hand and then flew out of it in a slow arc that ended with twenty-four little spots pointing at the stars.

Some of the more streetwise in the crowd shuffled away from the stranger, because luck like that can be very unlucky in Cripple Wa's floating crap game.

Wa's hand closed over the dice with a noise like the click of a trigger.

'All the eights,' he breathed. 'Such luck is uncanny, mister.'

The rest of the crowd evaporated like dew, leaving only those heavy-set, unsympathetic-looking men who, if Wa had ever paid tax, would have gone down on his return as Essential Plant and Business Equipment.

'Maybe it's not luck,' he added. 'Maybe it's wizarding?'

I MOST STRONGLY RESENT THAT.

'We had a wizard once who tried to get rich,' said Wa. 'Can't seem to remember what happened to him. Boys?'

'We give him a good talking-to —'

'— and left him in Pork Passage —'

'— and in Honey Lane —'

'— and a couple other places I can't remember.'

The stranger stood up. The boys closed in around him.

THIS IS UNCALLED FOR. I SEEK ONLY TO LEARN. WHAT PLEASURE CAN HUMANS FIND IN A MERE REITERATION OF THE LAWS OF CHANCE?

'Chance doesn't come into it. Let's have a look at him, boys.'

The events that followed were recalled by no living soul except the one belonging to a feral cat, one of the city's thousands, that was crossing the alley en route to a tryst. It stopped and watched with interest.

The boys froze in mid-stab. Painful purple light flickered around them. The stranger pushed his hood back and picked up the dice, and then pushed them into Wa's unresisting hand. The man was opening and shutting his mouth, his eyes unsuccessfully trying not to see what was in front of them. Grinning.

THROW.

Wa managed to look down at his hand.

'What are the stakes?' he whispered.

IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL REFRAIN FROM THESE RIDICULOUS ATTEMPTS TO SUGGEST THAT CHANCE GOVERNS THE AFFAIRS OF MEN.

'Yes. Yes. And . . . if I lose?'

YOU WILL WISH YOU HAD WON.

Wa tried to swallow, but his throat had gone dry. 'I know I've had lots of people murdered —'

TWENTY-THREE, TO BE PRECISE.

'Is it too late to say I'm sorry?'

SUCH THINGS DO NOT CONCERN ME. NOW THROW THE DICE.

Wa shut his eyes and dropped the dice on to the ground, too nervous even to try the special flick-and-twist throw. He kept his eyes shut.

ALL THE EIGHTS. THERE, THAT WASN'T TOO DIFFICULT, WAS IT?

Wa fainted.

Death shrugged, and walked away, pausing only to tickle the ears of an alley cat that happened to be passing. He hummed to himself. He didn't quite know what had come over him, but he was enjoying it.

'You couldn't be sure it would work!'

Cutwell spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture.

'Well, no,' he conceded, 'but I thought, what have I got to lose?' He backed away.

'What have you got to lose?' shouted Mort.

He stamped forward and tugged the bolt out of one of the posts in the princess's bed.

'You're not going to tell me this went through me?' he snapped.

'I was particularly watching it,' said Cutwell.

'I saw it too,' said Keli. 'It was horrible. It came right out of where your heart is.'

'And I saw you walk through a stone pillar,' said Cutwell.

'And I saw you ride straight through a window.'

'Yes, but that was on business,' declared Mort, waving his hands in the air. That wasn't everyday, that's different. And —'

He paused. The way you're looking at me,' he said. They looked at me the same way in the inn this evening. What's wrong?'

'It was the way you waved your arm straight through the bedpost,' said Keli faintly.

Mort stared at his hand, and then rapped it on the wood.

'See?' he said. 'Solid. Solid arm, solid wood.'

'You said people looked at you in an inn?' said Cutwell. 'What did you do, then? Walk through the wall?'

'No! I mean, no, I just drank this drink, I think it was called scrumble —'

'Scumble?'

'Yes. Tastes like rotten apples. You'd have thought it was some sort of poison the way they kept staring.'

'How much did you drink, then?' said Cutwell.

'A pint, perhaps, I wasn't really paying much attention —'

'Did you know scumble is the strongest alcoholic drink between here and the Ramtops?' the wizard demanded.

'No. No-one said,' said Mort. 'What's it got to do with—'

'No,' said Cutwell, slowly, 'you didn't know. Hmm. That's a clue, isn't it?'

'Has it got anything to do with saving the princess?'

'Probably not. I'd like to have a look at my books, though.'

'In that case it's not important,' said Mort firmly.

He turned to Keli, who was looking at him with the faint beginnings of admiration.

'I think I can help,' he said. 'I think I can lay my hands on some powerful magic. Magic will hold back the dome, won't it, Cutwell?'

'My magic won't. It'd have to be pretty strong stuff, and I'm not sure about it even then. Reality is tougher than —'

'I shall go,' said Mort. 'Until tomorrow, farewell!'

'It is tomorrow,' Keli pointed out.

Mort deflated slightly.

'All right, tonight then,' he said, slightly put out, and added, 'I will begone!'

'Begone what?'

'It's hero talk,' said Cutwell, kindly. 'He can't help it.' Mort scowled at him, smiled bravely at Keli and walked out of the room.

'He might have opened the door,' said Keli, after he had gone.

'I think he was a bit embarrassed,' said Cutwell. 'We all go through that stage.'

'What, of walking through things?'

'In a manner of speaking. Walking into them, anyway.'

'I'm going to get some sleep,' Keli said. 'Even the dead need some rest. Cutwell, stop fiddling with that crossbow, please. I'm sure it's not wizardly to be alone in a lady's boudoir.'

'Hmm? But I'm not alone, am I? You're here.'

'That,' she said, 'is the point, isn't it?'

'Oh. Yes. Sorry. Um. I'll see you in the morning, then.'

'Goodnight, Cutwell. Shut the door behind you.'

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