A gap opened up beneath them. Binky slowed again, wheeled around and descended towards a clearing that was white with drifted snow. It was circular, with a tiny cottage in the exact middle. If the ground around it hadn't been covered in snow, Mort would have noticed that there were no tree stumps to be seen; the trees hadn't been cut down in the circle, they'd simply been discouraged from growing there. Or had moved away.
   Candlelight spilled from one downstairs window, making a pale orange pool on the snow.
   Binky touched down smoothly and trotted across the freezing crust without sinking. He left no hoofprints, of course.
   Mort dismounted and walked towards the door, muttering to himself and making experimental sweeps with the scythe.
   The cottage roof had been built with wide eaves, to shed snow and cover the logpile. No dweller in the high Ramtops would dream of starting a winter without a logpile on three sides of the house. But there wasn't a logpile here, even though spring was still a long way off.
   There was, however, a bundle of hay in a net by the door. It had a note attached, written in big, slightly shaky capitals: FOR THEE HORS.
   It would have worried Mort if he'd let it. Someone was expecting him. He'd learned in recent days, though, that rather than drown in uncertainty it was best to surf right over the top of it. Anyway, Binky wasn't worried by moral scruples and bit straight in.
   It did leave the problem of whether to knock. Somehow, it didn't seem appropriate. Supposing no one answered, or told him to go away?
   So he lifted the thumb latch and pushed at the door. It swung inwards quite easily, without a creak.
   There was a low-ceilinged kitchen, its beams at trepanning height for Mort. The light from the solitary candle glinted off crockery on a long dresser and flagstones that had been scrubbed and polished into iridescence. The fire in the cave-like inglenook didn't add much light, because it was no more than a heap of white ash under the remains of a log. Mort knew, without being told, that it was the last log.
   An elderly lady was sitting at the kitchen table, writing furiously with her hooked nose only a few inches from the paper. A grey cat curled on the table beside her blinked calmly at Mort.
   The scythe bumped off a beam. The woman looked up.
   'Be with you in a minute,' she said. She frowned at the paper. 'I haven't put in the bit about being of sound mind and body yet, lot of foolishness anyway, no one sound in mind and body would be dead. Would you like a drink?'
   'Pardon?' said Mort. He recalled himself, and repeated 'PARDON?'
   'If you drink, that is. It's raspberry port. On the dresser. You might as well finish the bottle.'
   Mort eyed the dresser suspiciously. He felt he'd rather lost the initiative. He pulled out the hourglass and glared at it. There was a little heap of sand left.
   There's still a few minutes yet,' said the witch, without looking up.
   'How, I mean, HOW DO YOU KNOW?'
   She ignored him, and dried the ink in front of the candle, sealed the letter with a drip of wax, and tucked it under the candlestick. Then she picked up the cat.
   'Granny Beedle will be around directly tomorrow to tidy up and you're to go with her, understand? And see she lets Gammer Nutley have the pink marble washstand, she's had her eye on it for years.'
   The cat yawped knowingly.
   'I haven't, that is, I HAVEN'T GOT ALL NIGHT, YOU KNOW,' said Mort reproachfully.
   'You have, I haven't, and there's no need to shout,' said the witch. She slid off her stall and then Mort saw how bent she was, like a bow. With some difficulty she unhooked a tall pointed hat from its nail on the wall, skewered it into place on her white hair with a battery of hatpins, and grasped two walking sticks.
   She tottered across the floor towards Mort, and looked up at him with eyes as small and bright as blackcurrants.
   'Will I need my shawl? Shall I need a shawl, d'you think? No, I suppose not. I imagine it's quite warm where I'm going.' She peered closely at Mort, and frowned.
   'You're rather younger than I imagined,' she said. Mort said nothing. Then Goodie Hamstring said, quietly, 'You know, I don't think you're who I was expecting at all.'
   Mort cleared his throat.
   'Who were you expecting, precisely?' he said.
   'Death,' said the witch, simply. 'It's part of the arrangement, you see. One gets to know the time of one's death in advance, and one is guaranteed — personal attention.'
   'I'm it,'said Mort.
   'The personal attention. He sent me. I work for him. No one else would have me.' Mort paused. This was all wrong. He'd be sent home again in disgrace. His first bit of responsibility, and he'd ruined it. He could already hear people laughing at him.
   The wail started in the depths of his embarrassment and blared out like a foghorn. 'Only this is my first real job and it's all gone wrong!'
   The scythe fell to the floor with a clatter, slicing a piece off the table leg and cutting a flagstone in half.
   Goodie watched him for some time, with her head on one side. Then she said, 'I see. What is your name, young man?'
   'Mort,' sniffed Mort. 'Short for Mortimer.'
   'Well, Mort, I expect you've got an hourglass somewhere about your person,'
   Mort nodded vaguely. He reached down to his belt and produced the glass. The witch inspected it critically.
   'Still a minute or so,' she said. 'We don't have much time to lose. Just give me a moment to lock...'
   'But you don't understand!' Mort wailed. 'I'll mess it all up! I've never done this before!'
   She patted his hand. 'Neither have I,' she said. 'We can learn together. Now pick up the scythe and try to act your age, there's a good boy.'
   Against his protestations she shooed him out into the snow and followed behind him, pulling the door shut and locking it with a heavy iron key which she hung on a nail by the door.
   The frost had tightened its grip on the forest, squeezing it until the roots creaked. The moon was setting, but the sky was full of hard white stars that made the winter seem colder still. Goodie Hamstring shivered.
   'There's an old log over there,' she said conversationally. 'There's quite a good view across the valley. In the summertime, of course. I should like to sit down.'
   Mort helped her through the drifts and brushed as much snow as possible off the wood. They sat down with the hourglass between them. Whatever the view might have been in the summer, it now consisted of black rocks against a sky from which little flakes of snow were now tumbling.
   'I can't believe all this,' said Mort. 'I mean you sound as if you want to die.'
   'There's some things I shall miss,' she said. 'But it gets thin, you know. Life, I'm referring to. You can't trust your own body any more, and it's time to move on. I reckon it's about time I tried something else. Did he tell you magical folk can see him all the time?'
   'No,' said Mort, inaccurately.
   'Well, we can.'
   'He doesn't like wizards and witches much,' Mort volunteered.
   'Nobody likes a smartass,' she said with some satisfaction. 'We give him trouble, you see. Priests don't, so he likes priests.'
   'He's never said,' said Mort.
   'Ah. They're always telling folk how much better it's going to be when they're dead. We tell them it could be pretty good right here if only they'd put their minds to it.'
   Mort hesitated. He wanted to say: you're wrong, he's not like that at all, he doesn't care if people are good or bad so long as they're punctual. And kind to cats, he added.
   But he thought better of it. It occurred to him that people needed to believe things.
   The wolf howled again, so near that Mort looked around apprehensively. Another one across the valley answered it. The chorus was picked up by a couple of others in the depths of the forest. Mort had never heard anything so mournful.
   He glanced sideways at the still figure of Goodie Hamstring and then, with mounting panic, at the hourglass. He sprang to his feet, snatched up the scythe, and brought it around in a two-handed swing.
   The witch stood up, leaving her body behind.
   'Well done,' she said. 'I thought you'd missed it, for a minute, there.'
   Mort leaned against a tree, panting heavily, and watched Goodie walk around the log to look at herself.
   'Hmm,' she said critically. 'Time has got a lot to answer for.' She raised her hand and laughed to see the stars through it.
   Then she changed. Mort had seen this happen before, when the soul realized it was no longer bound by the body's morphic field, but never under such control. Her hair unwound itself from its tight bun, changing colour and lengthening. Her body straightened up. Wrinkles dwindled and vanished. Her grey woollen dress moved like the surface of the sea and ended up tracing entirely different and disturbing contours.
   She looked down, giggled, and changed the dress into something leaf-green and clingy.
   'What do you think, Mort?' she said. Her voice had sounded cracked and quavery before. Now it suggested musk and maple syrup and other things that set Mort's adam's apple bobbing like a rubber ball on an elastic band.
   '. . .' he managed, and gripped the scythe until his knuckles went white.
   She walked towards him like a snake in a four-wheel drift.
   'I didn't hear you,' she purred.
   'V-v-very nice,' he said. 'Is that who you were?'
   'It's who I've always been.'
   'Oh.' Mort stared at his feet. 'I'm supposed to take you away,' he said.
   'I know,' she said, 'but I'm going to stay.'
   'You can't do that! I mean —' he fumbled for words — 'you see, if you stay you sort of spread out and get thinner, until —'
   'I shall enjoy it,' she said firmly. She leaned forward and gave him a kiss as insubstantial as a mayfly's sigh, fading as she did so until only the kiss was left, just like a Cheshire cat only much more erotic.
   'Have a care, Mort,' said her voice in his head. 'You may want to hold on to your job, but will you ever be able to let go?'
   Mort stood idiotically holding his cheek. The trees around the clearing trembled for a moment, there was the sound of laughter on the breeze, and then the freezing silence closed in again.
   Duty called out to him through the pink mists in his head. He grabbed the second glass and stared at it. The sand was nearly all gone.
   The glass itself was patterned with lotus petals. When Mort flicked it with his finger it went 'Ommm'.
   He ran across the crackling snow to Binky and hurled himself into the saddle. The horse threw up his head, reared, and launched itself towards the stars.
   Great silent streamers of blue and green flame hung from the roof of the world. Curtains of octarine glow danced slowly and majestically over the Disc as the fire of the Aurora Coriolis, the vast discharge of magic from the Disc's standing field, earthed itself in the green ice mountains of the Hub.
   The central spire of Cori Celesti, home of the gods, was a ten mile high column of cold coruscating fire.
   It was a sight seen by few people, and Mort wasn't one of them, because he lay low over Binky's neck and clung on for his life as they pounded through the night sky ahead of a comet trail of steam.
   There were other mountains clustered around Cori. By comparison they were no more than termite mounds, although in reality each one was a majestic assortment of cols, ridges, faces, cliffs, screes and glaciers that any normal mountain range would be happy to associate with.
   Among the highest of them, at the end of a funnel-shaped valley, dwelt the Listeners.
   They were one of the oldest of the Disc's religious sects, although even the gods themselves were divided as to whether Listening was really a proper religion, and all that prevented their temple being wiped out by a few well-aimed avalanches was the fact that even the gods were curious as to what it was that the Listeners might Hear. If there's one thing that really annoys a god, it's not knowing something.
   It'll take Mort several minutes to arrive. A row of dots would fill in the time nicely, but the reader will already be noticing the strange shape of the temple — curled like a great white ammonite at the end of the valley — and will probably want an explanation.
   The fact is that the Listeners are trying to work out precisely what it was that the Creator said when He made the universe.
   The theory is quite straightforward.
   Clearly, nothing that the Creator makes could ever be destroyed, which means that the echoes of those first syllables must still be around somewhere, bouncing and rebounding off all the matter in the cosmos but still audible to a really good listener.
   Eons ago the Listeners had found that ice and chance had carved this one valley into the perfect acoustic opposite of an echo valley, and had built their multi-chambered temple in the exact position that the one comfy chair always occupies in the home of a rabid hi-fi fanatic. Complex baffles caught and amplified the sound that was funnelled up the chilly valley, steering it ever inwards to the central chamber where, at any hour of the day or night, three monks always sat.
   There were certain problems caused by the fact that they didn't hear only the subtle echoes of the first words, but every other sound made on the Disc. In order to recognize the sound of the Words, they had to learn to recognize all the other noises. This called for a certain talent, and a novice was only accepted for training if he could distinguish by sound alone, at a distance of a thousand yards, which side a dropped coin landed. He wasn't actually accepted into the order until he could tell what colour it was.
   And although the Holy Listeners were so remote, many people took the extremely long and dangerous path to their temple, traveling through frozen, troll-haunted lands, fording swift icy rivers, climbing forbidding mountains, trekking across inhospitable tundra, in order to climb the narrow stairway that led into the hidden valley and seek with an open heart the secrets of being.
   And the monks would cry unto them, 'Keep the bloody noise down!'
   Binky came through the mountain tops like a white blur, touching down in the snowy emptiness of a courtyard made spectral by the disco light from the sky. Mort leapt from his back and ran through the silent cloisters to the room where the 88th abbot lay dying, surrounded by his devout followers.
   Mort's footsteps boomed as he hurried across the intricate mosaic floor. The monks themselves wore woollen overshoes.
   He reached the bed and waited for a moment, leaning on the scythe, until he could get his breath back.
   The abbot, who was small and totally bald and had more wrinkles than a sackful of prunes, opened his eyes.
   'You're late,' he whispered, and died.
   Mort swallowed, fought for breath, and brought the scythe around in a slow arc. Nevertheless, it was accurate enough; the abbot sat up, leaving his corpse behind.
   'Not a moment too soon,' he said, in a voice only Mort could hear. 'You had me worried for a moment there.'
   'Okay?' said Mort. 'Only I've got to rush —'
   The abbot swung himself off the bed and walked towards Mort through the ranks of his bereaved followers.
   'Don't rush off,' he said. 'I always look forward to these talks. What's happened to the usual fellow?'
   'Usual fellow?' said Mort, bewildered.
   'Tall chap. Black cloak. Doesn't get enough to eat, by the look of him,' said the abbot.
   'Usual fellow? You mean Death?' said Mort.
   'That's him,' said the abbot, cheerfully. Mort's mouth hung open.
   'Die a lot, do you?' he managed.
   'A fair bit. A fair bit. Of course,' said the abbot, 'once you get the hang of it, it's only a matter of practice.'
   'It is?'
   'We must be off,' said the abbot. Mort's mouth snapped shut.
   'That's what I've been trying to say,' he said.
   'So if you could just drop me off down in the valley,' the little monk continued placidly. He swept past Mort and headed for the courtyard. Mort stared at the floor for a moment, and then ran after him in a way which he knew to be extremely unprofessional and undignified.
   'Now look —' he began.
   'The other one had a horse called Binky, I remember,' said the abbot pleasantly. 'Did you buy the round off him?'
   The round?' said Mort, now completely lost.
   'Or whatever. Forgive me,' said the abbot, 'I don't really know how these things are organized, lad.'
   'Mort,' said Mort, absently. 'And I think you're supposed to come back with me, sir. If you don't mind,' he added, in what he hoped was a firm and authoritative manner. The monk turned and smiled pleasantly at him.
   'I wish I could,' he said. 'Perhaps one day. Now, if you could give me a lift as far as the nearest village, I imagine I'm being conceived about now.'
   'Conceived? But you've just died!' said Mort.
   'Yes, but, you see, I have what you might call a season ticket,' the abbot explained.
   Light dawned on Mort, but very slowly.
   'Oh,' he said, 'I've read about this. Reincarnation, yes?'
   'That's the word. Fifty-three times so far. Or fifty-four.'
   Binky looked up as they approached and gave a short neigh of recognition when the abbot patted his nose. Mort mounted up and helped the abbot up behind him.
   'It must be very interesting,' he said, as Binky climbed away from the temple. On the absolute scale of small talk this comment must rate minus quite a lot, but Mort couldn't think of anything better.
   'No, it mustn't,' said the abbot. 'You think it must be because you believe I can remember all my lives, but of course I can't. Not while I'm alive, anyway.'
   'I hadn't thought of that,' Mort conceded.
   'Imagine toilet training fifty times.'
   'Nothing to look back on, I imagine,' said Mort.
   'You're right. If I had my time all over again I wouldn't reincarnate. And just when I'm getting the hang of things, the lads come down from the temple looking for a boy conceived at the hour the old abbot died. Talk about unimaginative. Stop here a moment, please.'
   Mort looked down.
   'We're in mid-air,' he said doubtfully.
   'I won't keep you a minute.' The abbot slid down from Binky's back, walked a few steps on thin air, and shouted.
   It seemed to go on for a long time. Then the abbot climbed back again.
   'You don't know how long I've been looking forward to that,' he said.
   There was a village in a lower valley a few miles from the temple, which acted as a sort of service industry. From the air it was a random scattering of small but extremely well-soundproofed huts.
   'Anywhere will do,' the abbot said. Mort left him standing a few feet above the snow at a point where the huts appeared to be thickest.
   'Hope the next lifetime improves,' he said. The abbot shrugged.
   'One can always hope,' he said. 'I get a nine-month break, anyway. The scenery isn't much, but at least it's in the warm.'
   'Goodbye, then,' said Mort. 'I've got to rush.'
   'Au revoir,' said the abbot, sadly, and turned away.
   The fires of the Hub Lights were still casting their flickering illumination across the landscape. Mort sighed, and reached for the third glass.
   The container was silver, decorated with small crowns. There was hardly any sand left.
   Mort, feeling that the night had thrown everything at him and couldn't get any worse, turned it around carefully to get a glimpse of the name. . . .
   Princess Keli awoke.
   There had been a sound like someone making no noise at all. Forget peas and mattresses — sheer natural selection had established over the years that the royal families that survived longest were those whose members could distinguish an assassin in the dark by the noise he was clever enough not to make, because, in court circles, there was always someone ready to cut the heir with a knife.
   She lay in bed, wondering what to do next. There was a dagger under her pillow. She started to slide one hand up the sheets, while peering around the room with half-closed eyes in search of unfamiliar shadows. She was well aware that if she indicated in any way that she was not asleep she would never wake up again.
   Some light came into the room from the big window at the far end, but the suits of armour, tapestries and assorted paraphernalia that littered the room could have provided cover for an army.
   The knife had dropped down behind the bed head. She probably wouldn't have used it properly anyway.
   Screaming for the guards, she decided, was not a good idea. If there was anyone in the room then the guards must have been overpowered, or at least stunned by a large sum of money.
   There was a warming pan on the flagstones by the fire. Would it make a weapon?
   There was a faint metallic sound.
   Perhaps screaming wouldn't be such a bad idea after all. . . .
   The window imploded. For an instant Keli saw, framed against a hell of blue and purple flames, a hooded figure crouched on the back of the largest horse she had ever seen.
   There was someone standing by the bed, with a knife half raised.
   In slow motion, she watched fascinated as the arm went up and the horse galloped at glacier speed across the floor. Now the knife was above her, starting its descent, and the horse was rearing and the rider was standing in the stirrups and swinging some sort of weapon and its blade tore through the slow air with a noise like a finger on the rim of a wet glass —
   The light vanished. There was a soft thump on the floor, followed by a metallic clatter.
   Keli took a deep breath.
   A hand was briefly laid across her mouth and a worried voice said, 'If you scream, I'll regret it. Please? I'm in enough trouble as it is.'
   Anyone who could get that amount of bewildered pleading into their voice was either genuine or such a good actor they wouldn't have to bother with assassination for a living. She said, 'Who are you?'
   'I don't know if I'm allowed to tell you,' said the voice. 'You are still alive, aren't you?'
   She bit down the sarcastic reply just in time. Something about the tone of the question worried her.
   'Can't you tell?' she said.
   'It's not easy. . . .' There was a pause. She strained to see in the darkness, to put a face around that voice. 'I may have done you some terrible harm,' it added.
   'Haven't you just saved my life?'
   'I don't know what I have saved, actually. Is there some light around here?'
   The maid sometimes leaves matches on the mantelpiece,' said Keli. She felt the presence beside her move away. There were a few hesitant footsteps, a couple of thumps, and finally a clang, although the word isn't sufficient to describe the real ripe cacophony of falling metal that filled the room. It was even followed by the traditional little tinkle a couple of seconds after you thought it was all over.
   The voice said, rather indistinctly, 'I'm under a suit of armour. Where should I be?'
   Keli slid quietly out of bed, felt her way towards the fireplace, located the bundle of matches by the faint light from the dying fire, struck one in a burst of sulphurous smoke, lit a candle, found the pile of dismembered armour, pulled its sword from its scabbard and then nearly swallowed her tongue.
   Someone had just blown hot and wetly in her ear.
   That's Binky,' said the heap. 'He's just trying to be friendly. I expect he'd like some hay, if you've got any.'
   With royal self-control, Keli said, This is the fourth floor. It's a lady's bedroom. You'd be amazed at how many horses we don't get up here.'
   'Oh. Could you help me up, please?'
   She put the sword down and pulled aside a breastplate. A thin white face stared back at her.
   'First, you'd better tell me why I shouldn't send for the guards anyway,' she said. 'Even being in my bedroom could get you tortured to death.'
   She glared at him.
   Finally he said, 'Well — could you let my hand free, please? Thank you — firstly, the guards probably wouldn't see me, secondly, you'll never find out why I'm here and you look as though you'd hate not to know, and thirdly. . . .'
   Thirdly what?' she said.
   His mouth opened and shut. Mort wanted to say: thirdly, you're so beautiful, or at least very attractive, or anyway far more attractive than any other girl I've ever met, although admittedly I haven't met very many. From this it will be seen that Mort's innate honesty will never make him a poet; if Mort ever compared a girl to a summer's day, it would be followed by a thoughtful explanation of what day he had in mind and whether it was raining at the time. In the circumstances, it was just as well that he couldn't find his voice.
   Keli held up the candle and looked at the window.
   It was whole. The stone frames were unbroken. Every pane, with its stained-glass representatives of the Sto Lat coat of arms, was complete. She looked back at Mort.
   'Never mind thirdly,' she said, 'let's get back to secondly.'
   An hour later dawn reached the city. Daylight on the Disc flows rather than rushes, because light is slowed right down by the world's standing magical field, and it rolled across the flat lands like a golden sea. The city on the mound stood out like a sandcastle in the tide for a moment, until the day swirled around it and crept onwards.
   Mort and Keli sat side by side on her bed. The hourglass lay between them. There was no sand left in the top bulb.
   From outside came the sounds of the castle waking up.
   'I still don't understand this,' she said. 'Does it mean I'm dead, or doesn't it?'
   'It means you ought to be dead,' he said, 'according to fate or whatever. I haven't really studied the theory,'
   'And you should have killed me?'
   'No! I mean, no, the assassin should have killed you. I did try to explain all that,' said Mort.
   'Why didn't you let him?'
   Mort looked at her in horror.
   'Did you want to die?'
   'Of course I didn't. But it looks as though what people want doesn't come into it, does it? I'm trying to be sensible about this.'
   Mort stared at his knees. Then he stood up.
   'I think I'd better be going,' he said coldly.
   He folded up the scythe and stuck it into its sheath behind the saddle. Then he looked at the window.
   'You came through that,' said Keli, helpfully. 'Look, when I said —'
   'Does it open?'
   'No. There's a balcony along the passage. But people will see you!'
   Mort ignored her, pulled open the door and led Binky out into the corridor. Keli ran after them. A maid stopped, curtsied, and frowned slightly as her brain wisely dismissed the sight of a very large horse walking along the carpet.
   The balcony overlooked one of the inner courtyards. Mort glanced over the parapet, and then mounted.
   'Watch out for the duke,' he said. 'He's behind all this.'
   'My father always warned me about him,' said the princess. 'I've got a food taster.'
   'You should get a bodyguard as well,' said Mort. 'I must go. I have important things to do. Farewell,' he added, in what he hoped was the right tone of injured pride.
   'Shall I see you again?' said Keli. 'There's lots I want to —'
   'That might not be a good idea, if you think about it,' said Mort haughtily. He clicked his tongue, and Binky leapt into the air, cleared the parapet and cantered up into the blue morning sky.
   'I wanted to say thank you!' Keli yelled after him.
   The maid, who couldn't get over the feeling that something was wrong and had followed her, said, 'Are you all right, ma'am?'
   Keli looked at her distractedly.
   'What?' she demanded.
   'I just wondered if — everything was all right?'
   Keli's shoulders sagged.
   'No,' she said. 'Everything's all wrong. There's a dead assassin in my bedroom. Could you please have something done about it?
   'And —' she held up a hand — 'I don't want you to say "Dead, ma'am?" or "Assassin, ma'am?" or scream or anything, I just want you to get something done about it. Quietly. I think I've got a headache. So just nod.'
   The maid nodded, bobbed uncertainly, and backed away.
   Mort wasn't sure how he got back. The sky simply changed from ice blue to sullen grey as Binky eased himself into the gap between dimensions. He didn't land on the dark soil of Death's estate, it was simply there, underfoot, as though an aircraft carrier had gently manoeuvred itself under a jump jet to save the pilot all the trouble of touching down.
   The great horse trotted into the stableyard and halted outside the double door, swishing his tail. Mort slid off and ran for the house.
   And stopped, and ran back, and filled the hayrack, and ran for the house, and stopped and muttered to himself and ran back and rubbed the horse down and checked the water bucket, and ran for the house, and ran back and fetched the horse blanket down from its hook on the wall and buckled it on. Binky gave him a dignified nuzzle.
   No one seemed to be about as Mort slipped in by the back door and made his way to the library, where even at this time of night the air seemed to be made of hot dry dust. It seemed to take years to locate Princess Keli's biography, but he found it eventually. It was a depressingly slim volume on a shelf only reachable by the library ladder, a wheeled rickety structure that strongly resembled an early siege engine.
   With trembling fingers he opened it at the last page, and groaned.
   'The princess's assassination at the age of fifteen,' he read, 'was followed by the union of Sto Lat with Sto Helit and, indirectly, the collapse of the city states of the central plain and the rise of—'
   He read on, unable to stop. Occasionally he groaned again.
   Finally he put the book back, hesitated, and then shoved it behind a few other volumes. He could still feel it there as he climbed down the ladder, shrieking its incriminating existence to the world.
   There were few ocean-going ships on the Disc. No captain liked to venture out of sight of a coastline. It was a sorry fact that ships which looked from a distance as though they were going over the edge of the world weren't in fact disappearing over the horizon, they were in fact dropping over the edge of the world.
   Every generation or so a few enthusiastic explorers doubted this and set out to prove it wrong. Strangely enough, none of them had ever come back to announce the result of their researches.
   The following analogy would, therefore, have been meaningless to Mort.
   He felt as if he'd been shipwrecked on the Titanic but in the nick of time had been rescued. By the Lusitonia.
   He felt as though he'd thrown a snowball on the spur of the moment and watched the ensuing avalanche engulf three ski resorts.
   He felt history unravelling all around him.
   He felt he needed someone to talk to, quickly.
   That had to mean either Albert or Ysabell, because the thought of explaining everything to those tiny blue pinpoints was not one he cared to contemplate after a long night. On the rare occasions Ysabell deigned to look in his direction she made it clear that the only difference between Mort and a dead toad was the colour. As for Albert. . . .
   All right, not the perfect confidant, but definitely the best in a field of one.
   Mort slid down the steps and threaded his way back through the bookshelves. A few hours' sleep would be a good idea, too.
   Then he heard a gasp, the brief patter of running feet, and the slam of a door. When he peered around the nearest bookcase there was nothing there except a stool with a couple of books on it. He picked one up and glanced at the name, then read a few pages. There was a damp lace handkerchief lying next to it.
   Mort rose late, and hurried towards the kitchen expecting at any moment the deep tones of disapproval. Nothing happened.
   Albert was at the stone sink, gazing thoughtfully at his chip pan, probably wondering whether it was time to change the fat or let it bide for another year. He turned as Mort slid into a chair.
   'You had a busy turn of it, then,' he said. 'Gallivanting all over the place until all hours, I heard. I could do you an egg. Or there's porridge.'
   'Egg, please,' said Mort. He'd never plucked up the courage to try Albert's porridge, which led a private life of its own in the depths of its saucepan and ate spoons.
   'The master wants to see you after,' Albert added, 'but he said you wasn't to rush.'
   'Oh.' Mort stared at the table. 'Did he say anything else?'
   'He said he hadn't had an evening off in a thousand years,' said Albert. 'He was humming. I don't like it. I've never seen him like this.'
   'Oh.' Mort took the plunge. 'Albert, have you been here long?'
   Albert looked at him over the top of his spectacles.
   'Maybe,' he said. 'It's hard to keep track of outside time, boy. I bin here since just after the old king died.'
   'Which king, Albert?'
   'Artorollo, I think he was called. Little fat man. Squeaky voice. I only saw him the once, though.'
   'Where was this?'
   'In Ankh, of course.'
   'What?' said Mort. They don't have kings in Ankh-Morpork, everyone knows that!'
   'This was back a bit, I said,' said Albert. He poured himself a cup of tea from Death's personal teapot and sat down, a dreamy look in his crusted eyes. Mort waited expectantly.
   'And they was kings in those days, real kings, not like the sort you get now. They was monarchs,' continued Albert, carefully pouring some tea into his saucer and fanning it primly with the end of his muffler. 'I mean, they was wise and fair, well, fairly wise. And they wouldn't think twice about cutting your head off soon as look at you,' he added approvingly. 'And all the queens were tall and pale and wore them balaclava helmet things —'
   'Wimples?' said Mort.
   'Yeah, them, and the princesses were beautiful as the day is long and so noble they, they could pee through a dozen mattresses —'
   Albert hesitated. 'Something like that, anyway,' he conceded. 'And there was balls and tournaments and executions. Great days.' He smiled dreamily at his memories.
   'Not like the sort of days you get now,' he said, emerging from his reverie with bad grace.
   'Have you got any other names, Albert?' said Mort. But the brief spell had been broken and the old man wasn't going to be drawn.
   'Oh, I know,' he snapped, 'get Albert's name and you'll go and look him up in the library, won't you? Prying and poking. I know you, skulking in there at all hours reading the lives of young wimmen —'
   The heralds of guilt must have flourished their tarnished trumpets in the depths of Mort's eyes, because Albert cackled and prodded him with a bony finger.
   'You might at least put them back where you find 'em,' he said, 'not leave piles of 'em around for old Albert to put back. Anyway, it's not right, ogling the poor dead things. It probably turns you blind.'
   'But I only —' Mort began, and remembered the damp lace handkerchief in his pocket, and shut up.
   He left Albert grumbling to himself and doing the washing up, and slipped into the library. Pale sunlight lanced down from the high windows, gently fading the covers on the patient, ancient volumes. Occasionally a speck of dust would catch the light as it floated through the golden shafts, and flare like a miniature supernova.
   Mort knew that if he listened hard enough he could hear the insect-like scritching of the books as they wrote themselves.
   Once upon a time Mort would have found it eerie. Now it was — reassuring. It demonstrated that the universe was running smoothly. His conscience, which had been looking for the opening, gleefully reminded him that, all right, it might be running smoothly but it certainly wasn't heading in the right direction.
   He made his way through the maze of shelves to the mysterious pile of books, and found it was gone. Albert had been in the kitchen, and Mort had never seen Death himself enter the library. What was Ysabell looking for, then?
   He glanced up at the cliff of shelves above him, and his stomach went cold when he thought of what was starting to happen. . . .
   There was nothing for it. He'd have to tell someone.
   Keli, meanwhile, was also finding life difficult.
   This was because causality had an incredible amount of inertia. Mort's misplaced thrust, driven by anger and desperation and nascent love, had sent it down a new track but it hadn't noticed yet. He'd kicked the tail of the dinosaur, but it would be some time before the other end realized it was time to say 'ouch'.
   Bluntly, the universe knew Keli was dead and was therefore rather surprised to find that she hadn't stopped walking and breathing yet.
   It showed it in little ways. The courtiers who gave her furtive odd looks during the morning would not have been able to say why the sight of her made them feel strangely uncomfortable. To their acute embarrassment and her annoyance they found themselves ignoring her, or talking in hushed voices.
   The Chamberlain found he'd instructed that the royal standard be flown at half mast and for the life of him couldn't explain why. He was gently led off to his bed with a mild nervous affliction after ordering a thousand yards of black bunting for no apparent reason.
   The eerie, unreal feeling soon spread throughout the castle. The head coachman ordered the state bier to be brought out again and polished, and then stood in the stable yard and wept into his chamois leather because he couldn't remember why. Servants walked softly along the corridors. The cook had to fight an overpowering urge to prepare simple banquets of cold meat. Dogs howled and then stopped, feeling rather stupid. The two black stallions who traditionally pulled the Sto Lat funeral cortege grew restive in their stalls and nearly kicked a groom to death.
   In his castle in Sto Helit, the duke waited in vain for a messenger who had in fact set out, but had stopped halfway down the street, unable to remember what it was he was supposed to be doing.
   Through all this Keli moved like a solid and increasingly more irritated ghost.
   Things came to a head at lunchtime. She swept into the great hall and found no place had been set in front of the royal chair. By speaking loudly and distinctly to the butler she managed to get that rectified, then saw dishes being passed in front of her before she could get a fork into them. She watched in sullen disbelief as the wine was brought in and poured first for the Lord of the Privy Closet.