Maskerade

Page 37


Dust rose, insects fell. In the stones of the Opera House tiny particles of quartz danced briefly. . . Then there was silence, broken by the occasional thud and tinkle. Nanny grinned. 'Ah,' she said, 'now the opera's over.' Salzella opened his eyes. The stage was empty, and dark, and nevertheless brilliantly lit. That is, a huge shadowless light was streaming from some unseen source and yet, apart from Salzella himself, there was nothing for it to illuminate. Footsteps sounded in the distance. Their owner took some time to arrive, but when he stepped into the liquid air around Salzella he seemed to burst into flame. He wore red: a red suit with red lace, a red cloak, red shoes with ruby buckles, and a broad-brimmed red hat with a huge red feather. He even walked with a long red stick, bedecked with red ribbons. But for someone who had taken such meticulous trouble with his costume, he'd been remiss in the matter of his mask. It was a crude one of a skull, such as might be bought in any theatrical shop-Salzella. could even see the string. 'Where did everyone go?' Salzella demanded. Unpleasant recent memories were beginning to bubble up in his mind. He couldn't quite recall them clearly at the moment, but the taste of them was bad. The figure said nothing. 'Where's the orchestra? What happened to the audience?' There was a barely perceptible shrug from the tall red figure. Salzella began to notice other details. What he had thought was the stage seemed slightly gritty underfoot. The ceiling above him was a long way away, perhaps as far away as anything could be, and was filled with cold, hard points of light. 'I asked you a question!' THREE QUESTIONS, IN FACT. The words turned up on the inside of Salzella's ears with no suggestion that they had had to travel like normal sound. 'You didn't answer me!' SOME THINGS YOU HAVE TO WORK OUT FOR YOURSELF, AND THIS IS ONE OF THEM, BELIEVE ME. 'Who are you? You're not a member of the cast, I know that! Take off that mask!' AS YOU WISH. I DO LIKE TO GET INTO THE SPIRIT OF THE THING. The figure removed its mask. 'And now take off that other mask!' said Salzella, as the frozen fingers of dread rose through him. Death touched a secret spring on the stick. A blade shot out, so thin that it was transparent, its edge glittering blue as air molecules were sliced into their component atoms. AH, he said, raising the scythe. THERE I THINK YOU HAVE ME. It was dark in the cellars, but Nanny Ogg had walked alone in the strange caverns under Lancre and through the night-time forests with Granny Weatherwax. Darkness held no fears for an Ogg. She struck a match. 'Greebo?' People had been tramping to and fro for hours. The darkness wasn't private any more. It had taken quite a lot of people to carry all the money, for a start. Up until the end of the opera, there had been something mysterious about these cellars. Now they were just. . . well. . . damp underground rooms. Something that had lived here had moved on. Her foot rattled a piece of pottery.

She grunted as she went down on one knee. Spilt mud and shards of broken pot littered the floor. Here and there, unrooted and snapped, were some unheeded pieces of dead twig. Only some kind of fool would have stuck bits of wood in pots of mud far underground and expected anything to happen. Nanny picked one up and sniffed it tentatively. It smelled of mud. And nothing else. She'd have liked to have-known how it had been done. Just professional interest, of course. And she knew she never would, now. Walter was a busy man now, up in the light. And, for something to begin, other things had to end. 'We all wears a mask of one sort or another,' she said to the damp air. 'No sense in upsetting things now, eh. . .' The coach didn't leave until seven o'clock in the morning. By Lancre standards that was practically midday. The witches got there early. 'I was hoping to shop for a few souvenirs,' said Nanny, stamping her feet on the cobbles to keep warm. 'For the kiddies.'

'No time,' said Granny Weatherwax. 'Not that it would have made any difference on account of me not having any money to buy 'em with,' Nanny went on. 'Not my fault if you fritter your money away,' said Granny. 'I don't recall having a single chance to frit.'

'Money's only useful for the things it can do.'

'Well, yes. I could've done with having some new boots, for a start.' Nanny jiggled up and down a bit, and whistled around her tooth. 'Nice of Mrs Palm to let us stay there gratis,' she said. 'Yes.'

'O' course, I helped out playin' the piano and tellin' jokes.'

'An added bonus,' said Granny, nodding. 'An' of course there was all those little nibbles I prepared. With the Special Party Dip.'

'Yes indeed,' said Granny, poker-faced. 'Mrs Palm was saying only this morning that she's thinking of retiring next year.' Nanny looked up and down the street again. 'I 'spect young Agnes'll be turning up any minute now,' she said. 'I really couldn't say,' said Granny haughtily. 'Not as though there's much for her here, after all.' Granny sniffed. 'That's up to her, I'm sure.'

'Everyone was very impressed, I reckon, when you caught that sword in your hand. . .' Granny sighed. 'Hah! Yes, I expect they were. They didn't think clearly, did they? People're just lazy. They never think: maybe she had something in her hand, a bit of metal or something. They don't think for a minute it was just a trick. They don't think there's always a perfectly good explanation if you look for it. They probably think it was some kind of magic.'

'Yeah, but. . . you didn't have anything in your hand, did you?'

'That's not the point. I might have done.' Granny looked up and down the square. 'Besides, you can't magic iron. 'That's very true. Not iron. Now, someone like ole Black Aliss, they could make their skin tougher than steel. . . but that's just an ole legend, I expect. . .'

'She could do it all right,' said Granny. 'But you can't go round messin' with cause and effect. That's what sent her mad, come the finish. She thought she could put herself outside of things like cause and effect. Well, you can't. You grab a sharp sword by the blade, you get hurt. World'd be a terrible place if people forgot that.'

'You weren't hurt.'

'Not my fault. I didn't have time.' Nanny blew on her hands. 'One good thing, though,' she said. 'It's a blessing the chandelier never came down. I was worried about that soon as I saw it. Looks too dramatic for its own good, I thought. First thing I'd smash, if I was a loony.'

'Yes.'

'Haven't been able to find Greebo since last night.'

'Good.'

'He always turns up, though.'

'Unfortunately.' There was a clatter as the coach swung around the corner. It stopped. Then the coachman tugged on the reins and it did a Uturn and disappeared again. 'Esme?' said Nanny, after a while. 'Yes?'

'There's a man and two horses peering at us around the corner.' She raised her voice. 'Come on, I know you're there! Seven o'clock, this coach is supposed to leave! Did you get the tickets, Esme?'

'Me?'

'Ah,' said Nanny uncertainly. 'So. . . we haven't got eighty dollars for the tickets, then?'

'What've you got stuffed up your elastic?' said Granny as the coach advanced cautiously. 'Nothin' that is legal tender for travellin' purposes, I fear.'

'Then. . . no, we can't afford tickets.' Nanny sighed. 'Oh, well, I'll just have to use charm.'

'It's going to be a long walk,' said Granny. The coach pulled up. Nanny looked up at the driver, and smiled innocently. 'Good morning, my good sir!' He gave her a slightly frightened but mainly suspicious look. 'Is it?'

'We are desirous of travelling to Lancre but unfortunately we find ourselves a bit embarrassed in the knicker department.'

'You are?? 'But we are witches and could prob'ly pay for our travel by, e.g., curing any embarrassing little ailments you may have.' The coachman frowned. 'I ain't carrying you for nothing, old crone. And I haven't got any embarrassing little ailments!' Granny stepped forward. 'How many would you like?' she said. Rain rolled over the plains. It wasn't an impressive Ramtops thunderstorm but a lazy, persistent, low-cloud rain, like a fat fog. It had been following them all day. The witches had the coach to themselves. Several people had opened the door while it had been waiting to leave, but for some reason had suddenly decided that today's travel plans didn't include a coach ride. 'Making good time,' said Nanny, opening the curtains and peering out of the window. 'I expect the driver's in a hurry.'

'Yes, I 'spect he is.'

'Shut the window, though. It's getting wet in here.'

'Righty-ho.' Nanny grabbed the strap and then suddenly poked her head out into the rain. 'Stop! Stop! Tell the man to stop!' The coach dewed to a halt in a sheet of mud.

Nanny threw open the door. 'I don't know, trying to walk home, and in this weather too! You'll catch your death!' Rain and fog rolled in through the open doorway. Then a bedraggled shape pulled itself over the sill and slunk under the seats, leaving small puddles behind it. 'Tryin' to be independent,' said Nanny. 'Bless 'im.' The coach got under way again. Granny stared out at the endless darkening fields and the relentless drizzle, and saw another figure toiling along in the mud by the road that would, eventually, reach Lancre. As the coach swept past, it drenched the walker in thin slurry. 'Yes, indeed. Being independent's a fine ambition,' she said, drawing the curtains. The trees were bare when Granny Weatherwax got back to her cottage. Twigs and seeds had blown in under the door. Soot had fallen down the chimney. Her home, always somewhat organic, had grown a little closer to its roots in the clay. There were things to do, so she did them. There were leaves to be swept, and the woodpile to be built up under the eaves. The windsock behind the beehives, tattered by autumn storms, needed to be darned. Hay had to be got in for the goats. Apples had to be stored in the loft. The walls could do with another coat of whitewash. But there was something that had to be done first. It'd make the other jobs a bit more difficult, but there was no help for that. You couldn't magic iron. And you couldn't grab a sword without being hurt. If that wasn't true, the world'd be all over the place. Granny made herself some tea, and then boiled up the kettle again. She took a handful of herbs out of a box on the dresser, and dropped them in a bowl with the steaming water. She took a length of clean bandage out of a drawer and set it carefully on the table beside the bowl. She threaded an extremely sharp needle and laid needle and thread beside the bandage. She scooped a fingerful of greenish ointment out of a small tin, and smeared it on a square of lint. That seemed to be it. She sat down, and rested her arm on the table, palm-up. 'Well,' she said, to no one in particular, 'I reckon I've got time now.' The privy had to be moved. It was a job Granny preferred to do for herself. There was something incredibly satisfying in digging a very deep hole. It was uncomplicated. You knew where you were with a hole in the ground. Dirt didn't get strange ideas, or believe that people were honest because they had a steady gaze and a firm handshake. It just lay there, waiting for you to move it. And, after you'd done it, you could sit there in the lovely warm knowledge that it'd be months before you had to do it again. It was while she was at the bottom of the hole that a shadow fell across it. 'Afternoon, Perdita,' she said without looking up. She lifted another shovelful to head-height and flung it over the edge. 'Come home for a visit, have you?' she said. She rammed the shovel into the clay at the bottom of the hole again, winced, and forced it down with her foot. 'Thought you were doing very well in the opera,' she went on. "Course, I'm not an expert in these things. Good to see young people seeking their fortune in the big city, though.' She looked up with a bright, friendly smile. 'I see you've lost a bit of weight, too.' Innocence hung from her words like loops of toffee.

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