He turned his back on the brassica-ed landscape and made his way back down the winding steps to the main part of the palace.
   Still, he told himself, the campaign appeared to be working. The population didn't seem to be resisting the fact that there was going to be a coronation, although they weren't exactly clear about who was going to be crowned. There was going to be bunting in the streets and Cutwell had arranged for the town square's main fountain to run, if not with wine, then at least with an acceptable beer made from broccoli. There was going to be folk dancing, at sword point if necessary. There would be races for children. There would be an ox roast. The royal coach had been regilded and Cutwell was optimistic that people could be persuaded to notice it as it went by.
   The High Priest at the Temple of Blind Io was going to be a problem. Cutwell had marked him down as a dear old soul whose expertise with the knife was so unreliable that half of the sacrifices got tired of waiting and wandered away. The last time he'd tried to sacrifice a goat it had time to give birth to twins before he could focus, and then the courage of motherhood had resulted in it chasing the entire priesthood out of the temple.
   The chances of him succeeding in putting the crown on the right person even in normal circumstances were only average, Cutwell had calculated; he'd have to stand alongside the old boy and try tactfully to guide his shaking hands.
   Still, even that wasn't the big problem. The big problem was much bigger than that. The big problem had been sprung on him by the Chancellor after breakfast.
   'Fireworks?' Cutwell had said.
   'That's the sort of thing you wizard fellows are supposed to be good at, isn't it?' said the Chancellor, as crusty as a week-old loaf. 'Flashes and bangs and whatnot. I remember a wizard when I was a lad —'
   'I'm afraid I don't know anything about fireworks,' said Cutwell, in tones designed to convey that he cherished this ignorance.
   'Lots of rockets,' the Chancellor reminisced happily. 'Ankhian candles. Thunderflashes. And thingies that you can hold in your hand. It's not a proper coronation without fireworks.'
   'Yes, but, you see —'
   'Good man,' said the Chancellor briskly, 'knew we could rely on you. Plenty of rockets, you understand, and to finish with there must be a set-piece, mind you, something really breathtaking like a portrait of — of —' his eyes glazed over in a way that was becoming depressingly familiar to Cutwell.
   'The Princess Keli,' he said wearily.
   'Ah. Yes. Her,' said the Chancellor. 'A portrait of — who you said — in fireworks. Of course, it's probably all pretty simple stuff to you wizards, but the people like it. Nothing like a good blowout and a blowup and a bit of balcony waving to keep the loyalty muscles in tip-top shape, that's what I always say. See to it. Rockets. With runes on.'
   An hour ago Cutwell had thumbed through the index of The Monster Fun Grimoire and had cautiously assembled a number of common household ingredients and put a match to them.
   Funny thing about eyebrows, he mused. You never really noticed them until they'd gone.
   Red around the eyes, and smelling slightly of smoke, Cutwell ambled towards the royal apartments past bevies of maids engaged in whatever it was maids did, which always seemed to take at least three of them. Whenever they saw Cutwell they would usually go silent, hurry past with their heads down and then break into muffled giggles along the corridor. This annoyed Cutwell. Not — he told himself quickly — because of any personal considerations, but because wizards ought to be shown more respect. Besides, some of the maids had a way of looking at him which caused him to think distinctly unwizardly thoughts.
   Truly, he thought, the way of enlightenment is like unto half a mile of broken glass.
   He knocked on the door of Keli's suite. A maid opened it.
   'Is your mistress in?' he said, as haughtily as he could manage.
   The maid put her hand to her mouth. Her shoulders shook. Her eyes sparkled. A sound like escaping steam crept between her fingers.
   I can't help it, Cutwell thought, I just seem to have this amazing effect on women.
   'Is it a man?' came Keli's voice from within. The maid's eyes glazed over and she tilted her head, as if not sure of what she had heard.
   'It's me, Cutwell,' said Cutwell.
   'Oh, that's all right, then. You can come in.'
   Cutwell pushed past the girl and tried to ignore the muffled laughter as the maid fled the room. Of course, everyone knew a wizard didn't need a chaperon. It was just the tone of the princess's 'Oh, that's all right then' that made him writhe inside.
   Keli was sitting at her dressing table, brushing her hair. Very few men in the world ever find out what a princess wears under her dresses, and Cutwell joined them with extreme reluctance but with remarkable self-control. Only the frantic bobbing of his adam's apple betrayed him. There was no doubt about it, he'd be no good for magic for days.
   She turned and he caught a whiff of talcum powder. For weeks, dammit, for weeks.
   'You look a bit hot, Cutwell. Is something the matter?'
   'I'm sorry?'
   He shook himself. Concentrate on the hairbrush, man, the hairbrush. 'Just a bit of magical experimenting, ma'am. Only superficial burns.'
   'Is it still moving?'
   'I am afraid so.'
   Keli turned back to the mirror. Her face was set.
   'Have we got time?'
   This was the bit he'd been dreading. He'd done everything he could. The Royal Astrologer had been sobered up long enough to insist that tomorrow was the only possible day the ceremony could take place, so Cutwell had arranged for it to begin one second after midnight. He'd ruthlessly cut the score of the royal trumpet fanfare. He'd timed the High Priest's invocation to the gods and then subedited heavily; there was going to be a row when the gods found out. The ceremony of the anointing with sacred oils had been cut to a quick dab behind the ears. Skateboards were an unknown invention on the Disc; if they hadn't been, Keli's trip up the aisle would have been unconstitutionally fast. And it still wasn't enough. He nerved himself.
   'I think possibly not,' he said. 'It could be a very close thing.'
   He saw her glare at him in the mirror.
   'How close?'
   'Um. Very.'
   'Are you trying to say it might reach us at the same time as the ceremony?'
   'Um. More sort of, um, before it,' said Cutwell wretchedly. There was no sound but the drumming of Keli's fingers on the edge of the table. Cutwell wondered if she was going to break down, or smash the mirror. Instead she said:
   'How do you know?'
   He wondered if he could get away with saying something like, I'm a wizard, we know these things, but decided against it. The last time he'd said that she'd threatened him with the axe.
   'I asked one of the guards about that inn Mort talked about,' he said. Then I worked out the approximate distance it had to travel. Mort said it was moving at a slow walking pace, and I reckon his stride is about —'
   'As simple as that? You didn't use magic?'
   'Only common sense. It's a lot more reliable in the long run.'
   She reached out and patted his hand.
   'Poor old Cutwell,' she said.
   'I am only twenty, ma'am.'
   She stood up and walked over to her dressing room. One of the things you learn when you're a princess is always to be older than anyone of inferior rank.
   'Yes, I suppose there must be such things as young wizards,' she said over her shoulder. 'It's just that people always think of them as old. I wonder why this is?'
   'Rigours of the calling, ma'am,' said Cutwell, rolling his eyes. He could hear the rustle of silk.
   'What made you decide to become a wizard?' Her voice was muffled, as if she had something over her head.
   'It's indoor work with no heavy lifting,' said Cutwell. 'And I suppose I wanted to learn how the world worked.'
   'Have you succeeded, then?'
   'No.' Cutwell wasn't much good at small talk, otherwise he'd never have let his mind wander sufficiently to allow him to say: 'What made you decide to become a princess?'
   After a thoughtful silence she said, 'It was decided for me, you know.'
   'Sorry, I —'
   'Being royal is a sort of family tradition. I expect it's the same with magic; no doubt your father was a wizard?'
   Cutwell gritted his teeth. 'Um. No,' he said, 'not really. Absolutely not, in fact.'
   He knew what she would say next, and here it came, reliable as the sunset, in a voice tinged with amusement and fascination.
   'Oh? Is it really true that wizards aren't allowed to —'
   'Well, if that's all I really should be going,' said Cutwell loudly. 'If anyone wants me, just follow the explosions. I — gnnnh!'
   Keli had stepped out of the dressing room.
   Now, women's clothes were not a subject that preoccupied Cutwell much — in fact, usually when he thought about women his mental pictures seldom included any clothes at all — but the vision in front of him really did take his breath away. Whoever had designed the dress didn't know when to stop. They'd put lace over the silk, and trimmed it with black vermine, and strung pearls anywhere that looked bare, and puffed and starched the sleeves and then added silver filigree and then started again with the silk.
   In fact it really was amazing what could be done with several ounces of heavy metal, some irritated molluscs, a few dead rodents and a lot of thread wound out of insects' bottoms. The dress wasn't so much worn as occupied; if the outlying flounces weren't supported on wheels, then Keli was stronger than he'd given her credit for.
   'What do you think?' she said, turning slowly. 'This was worn by my mother, and my grandmother, and her mother.'
   'What, all together?' said Cutwell, quite prepared to believe it. How can she get into it? he wondered. There must be a door round the back. . . .
   'It's a family heirloom. It's got real diamonds on the bodice.'
   'Which bit's the bodice?'
   'This bit.'
   Cutwell shuddered. 'It's very impressive,' he said, when he could trust himself to speak. 'You don't think it's perhaps a bit mature, though?'
   'It's queenly.'
   'Yes, but perhaps it won't allow you to move very fast?'
   'I have no intention of running. There must be dignity.' Once again the set of her jaw traced the line of her descent all the way to her conquering ancestor, who preferred to move very fast at all times and knew as much about dignity as could be carried on the point of a sharp spear.
   Cutwell spread his hands.
   'All right,' he said. 'Fine. We all do what we can. I just hope Mort has come up with some ideas.'
   'It's hard to have confidence in a ghost,' said Keli. 'He walks through walls!'
   'I've been thinking about that,' said Cutwell. 'It's a puzzle, isn't it? He walks through things only if he doesn't know he's doing it. I think it's an industrial disease.'
   'I was nearly sure last night. He's becoming real.'
   'But we're all real! At least, you are, and I suppose I am.'
   'But he's becoming more real. Extremely real. Nearly as real as Death, and you don't get much realler. Not much realler at all.'
   'Are you sure?' said Albert, suspiciously.
   'Of course,' said Ysabell. 'Work it out yourself if you like.'
   Albert looked back at the big book, his face a portrait of uncertainty.
   'Well, they could be about right,' he conceded with bad grace, and copied out the two names on a scrap of paper. There's one way to find out, anyway.'
   He pulled open the top drawer of Death's desk and extracted a big iron keyring. There was only one key on it.
   WHAT HAPPENS NOW? said Mort.
   'We've got to fetch the lifetimers,' said Albert. 'You have to come with me.'
   'Mort!' hissed Ysabell.
   'What you just said —' She lapsed into silence, and then added, 'Oh, nothing. It just sounded . . . odd.'
   'I only asked what happens now,' said Mort.
   'Yes, but — oh, never mind:'
   Albert brushed past them and sidled out into the hallway like a two-legged spider until he reached the door that was always kept locked. The key fitted perfectly. The door swung open. There wasn't so much as a squeak from its hinges, just a swish of deeper silence.
   And the roar of sand.
   Mort and Ysabell stood in the doorway, transfixed, as Albert stamped off between the aisles of glass. The sound didn't just enter the body via the ears, it came up through the legs and down through the skull and filled up the brain until all that it could think of was the rushing, hissing grey noise, the sound of millions of lives being lived. And rushing towards their inevitable destination.
   They stared up and out at the endless ranks of lifetimers, every one different, every one named. The light from torches ranged along the walls picked highlights off them, so that a star gleamed on every glass. The far walls of the room were lost in the galaxy of light.
   Mort felt Ysabell's fingers tighten on his arm.
   When she spoke, her voice was strained. 'Mort, some of them are so small.'
   I KNOW.
   Her grip relaxed, very gently, like someone putting the top ace on a house of cards and taking their hand away gingerly so as not to bring the whole edifice down.
   'Say that again?' she said quietly.
   'I said I know. There's nothing I can do about it. Haven't you been in here before?'
   'No.' She had withdrawn slightly, and was staring at his eyes.
   'It's no worse than the library,' said Mort, and almost believed it. But in the library you only read about it; in here you could see it happening.
   'Why are you looking at me like that?' he added.
   'I was just trying to remember what colour your eyes were,' she said, 'because —'
   'If you two have quite had enough of each other!' bellowed Albert above the roar of the sand. 'This way!'
   'Brown,' said Mort to Ysabell. 'They're brown. Why?'
   'Hurry up!'
   'You'd better go and help him,' said Ysabell. 'He seems to be getting quite upset.'
   Mort left her, his mind a sudden swamp of uneasiness, and stalked across the tiled floor to where Albert stood impatiently tapping a foot.
   'What do I have to do?' he said.
   'Just follow me.'
   The room opened out into a series of passages, each one lined with the hourglasses. Here and there the shelves were divided by stone pillars inscribed with angular markings. Albert glanced at them occasionally; mainly he strode through the maze of sand as though he knew every turn by heart.
   'Is there one glass for everyone, Albert?'
   'This place doesn't look big enough.'
   'Do you know anything about m-dimensional topography?'
   'Um. No.'
   Then I shouldn't aspire to hold any opinions, if I was you,' said Albert.
   He paused in front of a shelf of glasses, glanced at the paper again, ran his hand along the row and suddenly snatched up a glass. The top bulb was almost empty.
   'Hold this,' he said. 'If this is right, then the other should be somewhere near. Ah. Here.'
   Mort turned the two glasses around in his hands. One had all the markings of an important life, while the other one was squat and quite unremarkable.
   Mort read the names. The first seemed to refer to a nobleman in the Agatean Empire regions. The second was a collection of pictograms that he recognized as originating in Turnwise Klatch.
   'Over to you,' Albert sneered. The sooner you get started, the sooner you'll be finished. I'll bring Binky round to the front door.'
   'Do my eyes look all right to you?' said Mort, anxiously.
   'Nothing wrong with them that I can see,' said Albert. 'Bit red round the edges, bit bluer than usual, nothing special.'
   Mort followed him back past the long shelves of glass, looking thoughtful. Ysabell watched him take the sword from the rack by the door and test its edge by swishing it through the air, just as Death did, and grinning mirthlessly at the satisfactory sound of the thunderclap.
   She recognized the walk. He was stalking.
   'Mort?' she whispered.
   'Something's happening to you.'
   I KNOW, said Mort. 'But I think I can control it.'
   They heard the sound of hooves outside, and Albert pushed the door open and came in rubbing his hands.
   'Right, lad, no time to —'
   Mort swung the sword at arm's length. It scythed through the air with a noise like ripping silk and buried itself in the doorpost by Albert's ear.
   Albert's mouth dropped open. His eyes rolled sideways to the shimmering blade a few inches from his head, and then narrowed to tight little lines.
   'You surely wouldn't dare, boy,' he said.
   MORT. The syllable snapped out as fast as a whiplash and twice as vicious.
   There was a pact,' said Albert, but there was the barest gnat-song of doubt in his voice. 'There was an agreement.'
   'Not with me.'
   'There was an agreement! Where would we be if we could not honour an agreement?'
   'I don't know where I would be,' said Mort softly. BUT I KNOW WHERE YOU WOULD GO.
   That's not fair!' Now it was a whine.
   'Stop it,' said Ysabell. 'Mort, you're being silly. You can't kill anyone here. Anyway, you don't really want to kill Albert.'
   'Not here. But I could send him back to the world.'
   Albert went pale.
   'You wouldn't!'
   'No? I can take you back and leave you there. I shouldn't think you've got much time left, have you?' HAVE YOU?
   'Don't talk like that,' said Albert, quite failing to meet his gaze. 'You sound like the master when you talk like that.'
   'I could be a lot worse than the master,' said Mort evenly. 'Ysabell, go and get Albert's book, will you?'
   'Mort, I really think you're —'
   She fled from the room, white-faced.
   Albert squinted at Mort along the length of the sword, and smiled a lop-sided, humourless smile.
   'You won't be able to control it forever,' he said.
   'I don't want to. I just want to control it for long enough.'
   'You're receptive now, see? The longer the master is away, the more you'll become just like him. Only it'll be worse, because you'll remember all about being human and —'
   'What about you, then?' snapped Mort. 'What can you remember about being human? If you went back, how much life have you got left?'
   'Ninety-one days, three hours and five minutes,' said Albert promptly. 'I knew he was on my trail, see? But I'm safe here and he's not such a bad master. Sometimes I don't know what he'd do without me.'
   'Yes, no one dies in Death's own kingdom. And you're pleased with that?' said Mort.
   'I'm more than two thousand years old, I am. I've lived longer than anyone in the world.'
   Mort shook his head.
   'You haven't, you know,' he said. 'You've just stretched things out more. No one really lives here. The time in this place is just a sham. It's not real. Nothing changes. I'd rather die and see what happens next than spend eternity here.'
   Albert pinched his nose reflectively. 'Yes, well, you might,' he conceded, 'but I was a wizard, you know. I was pretty good at it. They put up a statue to me, you know. But you don't live a long life as a wizard without making a few enemies, see, ones who'll . . . wait on the Other Side.'
   He sniffed. They ain't all got two legs, either. Some of them ain't got legs at all. Or faces. Death don't frighten me. It's what comes after.'
   'Help me, then.'
   'What good will that do me?'
   'One day you might need some friends on the Other Side,' said Mort. He thought for a few seconds and added, 'If I were you, it wouldn't do any harm to give my soul a bit of a last-minute polish. Some of those waiting for you might not like the taste of that.'
   Albert shuddered and shut his eyes.
   'You don't know about that what you talk about,' he added, with more feeling than grammar, 'else you wouldn't say that. What do you want from me?'
   Mort told him.
   Albert cackled.
   'Just that? Just change Reality? You can't. There isn't any magic strong enough any more. The Great Spells could of done it. Nothing else. And that's it, so you might as well do as you please and the best of luck to you.'
   Ysabell came back, a little out of breath, clutching the latest volume of Albert's life. Albert sniffed again. The tiny drip on the end of his nose fascinated Mort. It was always on the point of dropping off but never had the courage. Just like him, he thought.
   'You can't do anything to me with the book,' said the old wizard warily.
   'I don't intend to. But it strikes me that you don't get to be a powerful wizard by telling the truth all the time. Ysabell, read out what's being written.'
   ' "Albert looked at him uncertainly",' Ysabell read.
   'You can't believe everything writ down there —'
   '— "he burst out, knowing in the flinty pit of his heart that Mort certainly could",' Ysabell read.
   'Stop it!'
   ' "he shouted, trying to put at the back of his mind the knowledge that even if Reality could not be stopped it might be possible to slow it down a little".'
   ' "intoned Mort in the leaden tones of Death",' began Ysabell dutifully.
   'Yes, yes, all right, you needn't bother with my bit,' snapped Mort irritably.
   'Pardon me for living, I'm sure.'
   'And don't talk like that to me, thank you. It doesn't frighten me,' she said. She glanced down at the book, where the moving line of writing was calling her a liar.
   Tell me how, wizard,' said Mort.
   'My magic's all I've got left!' wailed Albert.
   'You don't need it, you old miser.'
   'You don't frighten me, boy —'
   Mort snapped his fingers imperiously. Ysabell bent her head over the book again.
   ' "Albert looked into the blue glow of those eyes and the last of his defiance drained away",' she read, ' "for he saw not just Death but Death with all the human seasonings of vengeance and cruelty and distaste, and with a terrible certainty he knew that this was the last chance and Mort would send him back into Time and hunt him down and take him and deliver him bodily into the dark Dungeon Dimensions where creatures of horror would dot dot dot dot dot",' she finished. 'It's just dots for half a page.'
   That's because the book daren't even mention them,' whispered Albert. He tried to shut his eyes but the pictures in the darkness behind his eyelids were so vivid that he opened them again. Even Mort was better than that.
   'All right,' he said. There is one spell. It slows down time over a little area. I'll write it down, but you'll have to find a wizard to say it.'
   'I can do that.'
   Albert ran a tongue like an old loafah over his dry lips.
   There is a price, though,' he added. 'You must complete the Duty first.'
   'Ysabell?' said Mort. She looked at the page in front of her.
   'He means it,' she said. 'If you don't then everything will go wrong and he'll drop back into Time anyway.'
   All three of them turned to look at the great clock that dominated the hallway. Its pendulum blade sawed slowly through the air, cutting time into little pieces.
   Mort groaned.
   'There isn't enough time!' he groaned. 'I can't do both of them in time!'
   'The master would have found time,' observed Albert.
   Mort wrenched the blade from the doorway and shook it furiously but ineffectually towards Albert, who flinched.
   'Write down the spell, then,' he shouted. 'And do it fast!'
   He turned on his heel and stalked back into Death's study. There was a large disc of the world in one corner, complete down to solid silver elephants standing on the back of a Great A'Tuin cast in bronze and more than a metre long. The great rivers were represented by veins of jade, the deserts by powdered diamond and the most notable cities were picked out in precious stones; Ankh-Morpork, for instance, was a carbuncle.
   He plonked the two glasses down at the approximate locations of their owners and flopped down in Death's chair, glaring at them, willing them to be closer together. The chair squeaked gently as he swivelled from side to side, glowering at the little disc.
   After a while Ysabell came in, treading softly.
   'Albert's written it down,' she said quietly, 'I've checked the book. It isn't a trick. He's gone and locked himself in his room now and —'
   'Look at these two! I mean, will you look at them!'
   'I think you should calm down a bit, Mort.'
   'How can I calm down with, look, this one over here almost in the Great Nef, and this one right in Bes Pelargic and then I've got to get back to Sto Lat. That's a ten thousand mile round trip however you look at it. It can't be done.'
   'I'm sure you'll find a way. And I'll help.'
   He looked at her for the first time and saw she was wearing her outdoor coat, the unsuitable one with the big fur collar.
   'You? What could you do?'
   'Binky can easily carry two,' said Ysabell meekly. She waved a paper package vaguely. 'I've packed us something to eat. I could — hold open doors and things.'
   Mort laughed mirthlessly. THAT WON'T BE NECESSARY.
   'I wish you'd stop talking like that.'
   'I can't take passengers. You'll slow me down.'
   Ysabell sighed. 'Look, how about this? Let's pretend we've had the row and I've won. See? It saves a lot of effort. I actually think you might find Binky rather reluctant to go if I'm not there. I've fed him an awful lot of sugar lumps over the years. Now — are we going?'
   Albert sat on his narrow bed, glowering at the wall. He heard the sound of hoofbeats, abruptly cut off as Binky got airborne, and muttered under his breath.
   Twenty minutes passed. Expressions flitted across the old wizard's face like cloud shadows across a hillside. Occasionally he'd whisper something to himself, like 'I told 'em' or 'Never would of stood for it' or 'The master ought to be tole'.
   Eventually he seemed to reach an agreement with himself, knelt down gingerly and pulled a battered trunk from under his bed. He opened it with difficulty and unfolded a dusty grey robe that scattered mothballs and tarnished sequins across the floor. He pulled it on, brushed off the worst of the dust, and crawled under the bed again. There was a lot of muffled cursing and the occasional clink of china and finally Albert emerged holding a staff taller than he was.
   It was thicker than any normal staff, mainly because of the carvings that covered it from top to bottom. They were actually quite indistinct, but gave the impression that if you could see them better you would regret it.
   Albert brushed himself down again and examined himself critically in the washstand mirror.
   Then he said, 'Hat. No hat. Got to have a hat for the wizarding. Damn.'
   He stamped out of the room and returned after a busy fifteen minutes which included a circular hole cut out of the carpet in Mort's bedroom, the silver paper taken out from behind the mirror in Ysabell's room, a needle and thread from the box under the sink in the kitchen and a few loose sequins scraped up from the bottom of the robe chest. The end result was not as good as he would have liked and tended to slip rakishly over one eye, but it was black and had stars and moons on it and proclaimed its owner to be, without any doubt, a wizard, although possibly a desperate one.
   He felt properly dressed for the first time in two thousand years. It was a disconcerting feeling and caused him a second's reflection before he kicked aside the rag rug beside the bed and used the staff to draw a circle on the floor.
   When the tip of the staff passed it left a line of glowing octarine, the eighth colour of the spectrum, the colour of magic, the pigment of the imagination.
   He marked eight points on its circumference and joined them up to form an octogram. A low throbbing began to fill the room.
   Alberto Malich stepped into the centre and held the staff above his head. He felt it wake to his grip, felt the tingle of the sleeping power unfold itself slowly and deliberately, like a waking tiger. It triggered old memories of power and magic that buzzed through the cobwebbed attics of his mind. He felt alive for the first time in centuries.
   He licked his lips. The throbbing had died away, leaving a strange, waiting kind of silence.
   Malich raised his head and shouted one single syllable.
   Blue-green fire flashed from both ends of the staff. Streams of octarine flame spouted from the eight pouits of the octogram and enveloped the wizard. All this wasn't actually necessary to accomplish the spell, but wizards consider appearances are very
   important. . . .
   So are disappearances. He vanished.
   Stratohemispheric winds whipped at Mort's cloak.
   'Where are we going first?' yelled Ysabell in his ear.
   'Bes Pelargic!' shouted Mort, the gale whirling his words away.
   'Where's that?'
   'Agatean Empire! Counterweight Continent!'
   He pointed downward.
   He wasn't forcing Binky at the moment, knowing the miles that lay ahead, and the big white horse was currently running at an easy gallop out over the ocean. Ysabell looked down at roaring green waves topped with white foam, and clung tighter to Mort.
   Mort peered ahead at the cloudbank that marked the distant continent and resisted the urge to hurry Binky along with the flat of his sword. He'd never struck the horse and wasn't at all confident about what would happen if he did. All he could do was wait.
   A hand appeared under his arm, holding a sandwich.
   'There's ham or cheese and chutney,' she said. 'You might as well eat, there's nothing else to do.'
   Mort looked down at the soggy triangle and tried to remember when he last had a meal. Some time beyond the reach of a clock, anyway — he'd need a calendar to calculate it. He took the sandwich.
   'Thanks,' he said, as graciously as he could manage.
   The tiny sun rolled down towards the horizon, towing its lazy daylight behind it. The clouds ahead grew, and became outlined in pink and orange. After a while he could make out the darker blur of land below them, with here and there the lights of a city.
   Half an hour later he was sure he could see individual buildings. Agatean architecture inclined towards squat pyramids.
   Binky lost height until his hooves were barely a few feet above the sea. Mort examined the hourglass again, and gently tugged on the reins to direct the horse towards a seaport a little Rimwards of their present course.
   There were a few ships at anchor, mostly single-sailed coastal traders. The Empire didn't encourage its subjects to go far away, in case they saw things that might disturb them. For the same reason it had built a wall around the entire country, patrolled by the Heavenly Guard whose main function was to tread heavily on the fingers of any inhabitants who felt they might like to step outside for five minutes for a breath of fresh air.
   This didn't happen often, because most of the subjects of the Sun Emperor were quite happy to live inside the Wall. It's a fact of life that everyone is on one side or other of a wall, so the only thing to do is forget about it or evolve stronger fingers.
   'Who runs this place?' said Ysabell, as they passed over the harbour.
   'There's some kind of boy emperor,' said Mort. 'But the top man is really the Grand Vizier, I think.'
   'Never trust a Grand Vizier,' said Ysabell wisely.
   In fact the Sun Emperor didn't. The Vizier, whose name was Nine Turning Mirrors, had some very clear views about who should run the country, e.g., that it should be him, and now the boy was getting big enough to ask questions like 'Don't you think the wall would look better with a few gates in it?' and 'Yes, but what is it like on the other side?' he had decided that in the Emperor's own best interests he should be painfully poisoned and buried in quicklime.
   Binky landed on the raked gravel outside the low, many-roomed palace, severely rearranging the harmony of the universe.[8] Mort slid off his back and helped Ysabell down.
   'Just don't get in the way, will you?' he said urgently. 'And don't ask questions either.'
   He ran up some lacquered steps and hurried through the silent rooms, pausing occasionally to take his bearings from the hourglass. At last he sidled down a corridor and peered through an ornate lattice into a long low room where the Court was at its evening meal.
   The young Sun Emperor was sitting crosslegged at the head of the mat with his cloak of vermine and feathers spread out behind him. He looked as though he was outgrowing it. The rest of the Court was sitting around the mat in strict and complicated order of precedence, but there was no mistaking the Vizier, who was tucking into his bowl of squishi and boiled seaweed in a highly suspicious fashion. No-one seemed to be about to die.
   Mort padded along the passage, turned the corner and nearly walked into several large members of the Heavenly Guard, who were clustered around a spyhole in the paper wall and passing a cigarette from hand to hand in that palm-cupped way of soldiers on duty.
   He tiptoed back to the lattice and overheard the conversation thus:
   'I am the most unfortunate of mortals, O Immanent Presence, to find such as this in my otherwise satisfactory squishi,' said the Vizier, extending his chopsticks.
   The Court craned to see. So did Mort. Mort couldn't help agreeing with the statement, though — the thing was a sort of blue-green lump with rubbery tubes dangling from it.
   The preparer of food will be disciplined, Noble Personage of Scholarship,' said the Emperor. 'Who got the spare ribs?'
   'No, O Perceptive Father of Your People, I was rather referring to the fact that this is, I believe, the bladder and spleen of the deepwater puff eel, allegedly the most tasty of morsels to the extent that it may be eaten only by those beloved of the gods themselves or so it is written, among such company of course I do not include my miserable self.'
   With a deft flick he transported it to the bowl of the Emperor, where it wobbled to a standstill. The boy looked at it for some time, and then skewered it on a chopstick.
   'Ah,' he said, 'but is it not also written by none other than the great philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle that a scholar may be ranked above princes? I seem to remember you giving me the passage to read once, O Faithful and Assiduous Seeker of Knowledge.'
   The thing followed another brief arc through the air and flopped apologetically into the Vizier's bowl. He scooped it up in a quick movement and poised it for a second service. His eyes narrowed.
   'Such may be generally the case, O Jade River of Wisdom, but specifically I cannot be ranked above the Emperor whom I love as my own son and have done ever since his late father's unfortunate death, and thus I lay this small offering at your feet.'
   The eyes of the court followed the wretched organ on its third flight across the mat, but the Emperor snatched up his fan and brought off a magnificent volley that ended back in the Vizier's bowl with such force that it sent up a spray of seaweed.
   'Somebody eat it, for heaven's sake,' shouted Mort, totally unheard. 'I'm in a hurry!'
   'Thou art indeed the most thoughtful of servants, 0 Devoted and Indeed Only Companion of My Late Father and Grandfather When They Passed Over, and therefore I decree that your reward shall be this most rare and exquisite of morsels.'
   The Vizier prodded the thing uncertainly, and looked into the Emperor's smile. It was bright and terrible. He fumbled for an excuse.
   'Alas, it would seem that I have already eaten far too much —' he began, but the Emperor waved him into silence.
   'Doubtless it requires a suitable seasoning,' he said, and clapped his hands. The wall behind him ripped from top to bottom and four Heavenly Guards stepped through, three of them brandishing cando swords and the fourth trying hurriedly to swallow a lighted dog-end.
   The Vizier's bowl dropped from his hands.
   'My most faithful of servants believes he has no space left for this final mouthful,' said the Emperor. 'Doubtless you can investigate his stomach to see if this is true. Why has that man got smoke coming out of his ears?'
   'Anxious for action, O Sky Eminence,' said the sergeant quickly. 'No stopping him, I'm afraid.'
   Then let him take his knife and — oh, the Vizier seems to be hungry after all. Well done.'
   There was absolute silence while the Vizier's cheeks bulged rhythmically. Then he gulped.
   'Delicious,' he said. 'Superb. Truly the food of the gods, and now, if you will excuse me —' He unfolded his legs and made as if to stand up. Little beads of sweat had appeared on his forehead.
   'You wish to depart?' said the Emperor, raising his eyebrows.
   'Pressing matters of state, O Perspicacious Personage of —'
   'Be seated. Rising so soon after meals can be bad for the digestion,' said the Emperor, and the guards nodded agreement. 'Besides, there are no urgent matters of state unless you refer to those in the small red bottle marked "Antidote" in the black lacquered cabinet on the bamboo rug in your quarters, O Lamp of Midnight Oil.'
   There was a ringing in the Vizier's ears. His face began to go blue.
   'You see?' said the Emperor. 'Untimely activity on a heavy stomach is conducive to ill humours. May this message go swiftly to all corners of my country, that all men may know of your unfortunate condition and derive instruction thereby.'