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Page 35

'It's not that I mind being a duke,' said Mort. 'Its being married to a duchess that comes as a shock.'

'You'll get used to it.'

'I hope not.'

'Good. And now, Ysabell,' said Keli, setting her jaw, 'if you are to move in royal circles there are some people you simply must meet.

Ysabell gave Mort a despairing look as she was swept away into the crowd, and was soon lost to view.

Mort ran a finger around the inside of his collar, looked both ways, and then darted into a fern-shaded corner near the end of the buffet where he could have a quiet moment to himself.

Behind him the Master of Ceremonies cleared his throat. His eyes took on a distant, glazed look.

The Stealer of Souls,' he said in the faraway voice of one whose ears aren't hearing what his mouth is saying, 'Defeater of Empires, Swallower of Oceans, Thief of Years, The Ultimate Reality, Harvester of Mankind, the —'

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT. I CAN SEE MYSELF IN.

Mort paused with a cold turkey leg halfway to his mouth. He didn't turn around. He didn't need to. There was no mistaking that voice, felt rather than heard, or the way in which the air chilled and darkened. The chatter and music of the wedding reception slowed and faded.

'We didn't think you'd come,' he said to a potted fern.

TO MY OWN DAUGHTER'S WEDDING? ANYWAY, IT WAS THE FIRST TIME I'VE EVER HAD AN INVITATION TO ANYTHING. IT HAD GOLD EDGES AND RSVP AND EVERYTHING.

'Yes, but when you weren't at the service —'

I THOUGHT PERHAPS IT WOULD NOT BE ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE.

'Well, yes, I suppose so —'

TO BE FRANK, I THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO MARRY THE PRINCESS.

Mort blushed. 'We talked about it,' he said. 'Then we thought, just because you happen to rescue a princess, you shouldn't rush into things.'

VERY WISE. Too MANY YOUNG WOMEN LEAP INTO THE ARMS OF THE FIRST YOUNG MAN TO WAKE THEM AFTER A HUNDRED YEARS' SLEEP, FOR EXAMPLE.

'And, well, we thought that all in all, well, once I really got to know Ysabell, well.

YES, YES, I AM SURE. AN EXCELLENT DECISION.

HOWEVER, I HAVE DECIDED NOT TO INTEREST MYSELF IN HUMAN AFFAIRS ANY FURTHER.

Really?'

EXCEPT OFFICIALLY, OF COURSE. IT WAS CLOUDING MY JUDGEMENT.

A skeletal hand appeared on the edge of Mort's vision and skilfully speared a stuffed egg. Mort spun around.

'What happened?' he said. 'I've got to know! One minute we were in the Long Room and the next we were in a field outside the city, and we were really us! I mean, reality had been altered to fit us in! Who did it?'

I HAD A WORD WITH THE GODS. Death looked uncomfortable.

'Oh. You did, did you?' said Mort. Death avoided his gaze.

YES.

'I shouldn't think they were very pleased.'

THE GODS ARE JUST. THEY ARE ALSO SENTIMENTALISTS. I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO MASTER IT, MYSELF.

BUT YOU AREN'T FREE YET. YOU MUST SEE TO IT THAT HISTORY TAKES PLACE.

'I know,' said Mort. 'Uniting the kingdoms and everything.'

YOU MIGHT END UP WISHING YOU'D STAYED WITH ME.

'I certainly learned a lot,' Mort admitted. He put his hand up to his face and absent-mindedly stroked the four thin white scars across his cheek. 'But I don't think I was cut out for that sort of work. Look, I'm really sorry —'

I HAVE A PRESENT FOR YOU.

Death put down his plate of hors d'oeuvres and fumbled in the mysterious recesses of his robe. When his skeletal hand emerged it was holding a little globe between thumb and forefinger.

It was about three inches across. It could have been the largest pearl in the world, except that the surface was a moving swirl of complicated silver shapes, forever on the point of resolving themselves into something recognisable but always managing to avoid it.

When Death dropped it into Mort's outstretched palm it felt surprisingly heavy and slightly warm.

FOR YOU AND YOUR LADY. A WEDDING PRESENT. A DOWRY.

'It's beautiful! We thought the silver toast rack was from you.'

THAT WAS ALBERT. I'M AFRAID HE DOESN'T HAVE MUCH IMAGINATION.

Mort turned the globe over and over in his hands. The shapes boiling inside it seemed to respond to his touch, sending little streamers of light arching across the surface towards his fingers.

'Is it a pearl?' he said.

YES. WHEN SOMETHING IRRITATES AN OYSTER AND CAN'T BE REMOVED, THE POOR THING COATS IT WITH MUCUS AND TURNS IT INTO A PEARL. THIS IS A PEARL OF A DIFFERENT COLOUR. A PEARL OF REALITY. ALL THAT SHINY STUFF IS CONGEALED ACTUALITY. YOU OUGHT TO RECOGNISE IT – YOU CREATED IT, AFTER ALL.

Mort tossed it gently from hand to hand.

'We will put it with the castle jewels,' he said. 'We haven't got that many.'

ONE DAY IT WILL BE THE SEED OF A NEW UNIVERSE.

Mort fumbled the catch, but reached down with lightning reflexes and caught it before it hit the flagstones.

'What?'

THE PRESSURE OF THIS REALITY KEEPS IT COMPRESSED. THERE MAY COME A TIME WHEN THE UNIVERSE ENDS AND REALITY DIES, AND THEN THIS ONE WILL EXPLODE AND . . . WHO KNOWS? KEEP IT SAFE. IT'S A FUTURE AS WELL AS A PRESENT.

Death put his skull on one side. IT'S A SMALL THING, he added. You COULD HAVE HAD ETERNITY.

'I know,' said Mort. 'I've been very lucky.'

He put it very carefully on the buffet table, between the quails' eggs and the sausage rolls.

THERE WAS ANOTHER THING, said Death. He reached under his robe again and pulled out an oblong shape inexpertly wrapped and tied with string.

IT'S FOR YOU, he said, PERSONALLY. YOU NEVER SHOWED ANY INTEREST IN IT BEFORE. DID YOU THINK IT DIDN'T EXIST?

Mort unwrapped the packet and realised he was holding a small leather-bound book. On the spine was blocked, in shiny gold leaf, the one word: Mort.

He leafed backwards through the unfilled pages until he found the little trail of ink, winding patiently down the page, and read: Mort shut the book with a little snap that sounded, in the silence, like the crack of creation, and smiled uneasily.

There's a lot of pages still to fill,' he said. 'How much sand have I got left? Only Ysabell said that since you turned the glass over that means I shall die when I'm —'

YOU HAVE SUFFICIENT, said Death coldly. MATHEMATICS ISNT ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE.

'How do you feel about being invited to christenings?'

I THINK NOT. I WASN'T CUT OUT TO BE A FATHER, AND CERTAINLY NOT A GRANDAD. I HAVEN'T GOT THE RIGHT KIND OF KNEES.

He put down his wine giass and nodded at Mort.

MY REGARDS TO YOUB GOOD LADY, he said. AND NOW I REALLY MUST BE OFF.

'Are you sure? You're welcome to stay.'

IT'S NICE OF YOU TO SAY SO, BUT DUTY CALLS. He extended a bony hand. YOU KNOW HOW IT IS.

Mort gripped the hand and shook it, ignoring the chill.

'Look,' he said. 'If ever you want a few days off, you know, if you'd like a holiday —'

MANY THANKS FOR THE OFFER, said Death graciously. I SHALL THINK ABOUT IT MOST SERIOUSLY. AND NOW —

'Goodbye,' Mart said, and was surprised to find a lJump in his throat. 'It's such an unpleasant word, isn't it?'

QUITE SO. Death grinned because, as has so often been remarked, he didn't have much option. But possibly he meant it, this time.

I PREFER AU REVOIR, he said.

The End

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