13,795
26.12.2018

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?’

‘Naarg.’

‘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.’

‘What?’

‘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?’

‘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?’

‘Yes.’