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26.12.2018

“You,” said Rincewind, dismounting, “do not know the half of it. Chicken, you say?”

“Devilled,” said Weasel. The wizard groaned.

“That reminds me,” added the Weasel, snapping his fingers, “there was a really big explosion about, oh, half an hour ago.”

“That was the oil bond store going up,” said Rincewind, wincing at the memory of the burning rain.

Weasel turned and grinned expectantly at his companion, who grunted and handed over a coin from his pouch. Then there was a scream from the roadway, cut off abruptly. Rincewind did not look up from his chicken.

“One of the things he can’t do, he can’t ride a horse,” he said. Then he stiffened as if sandbagged by a sudden recollection, gave a small yelp of terror and dashed into the gloom. When he returned, the being called Twoflower was hanging limply over his shoulder. It was small and skinny, and dressed very oddly in a pair of knee length britches and a shirt in such a violent and vivid conflict of colours that Weasel’s fastidious eye was offended even in the half-light.

“No bones broken, by the feel of things,” said Rincewind. He was breathing heavily. Bravd winked at the Weasel and went to investigate the shape that they assumed was a pack animal.

“You’d be wise to forget it,” said the wizard, without looking up from his examination of the unconscious Twoflower. “Believe me. A power protects it.”

“A spell?” said Weasel, squatting down.

“No-oo. But magic of a kind, I think. Not the usual sort. I mean, it can turn gold into copper while at the same time it is still gold, it makes men rich by destroying their possessions, it allows the weak to walk fearlessly among thieves, it passes through the strongest doors to leach the most protected treasuries. Even now it has me enslaved

-so that I must follow this madman willynilly and protect him from harm. It’s stronger than you, Bravd. It is, I think, more cunning even than you, Weasel.”

“What is it called then, this mighty magic?”

Rincewind shrugged. “in our tongue it is reflected-sound-as-ofunderground-spirits. Is there any wine?”

“You must know that I am not without artifice where magic is concerned,” said Weasel. “only last year did I- assisted by my friend there – part the notoriously powerful Archmage of Ymitury from his staff, his belt of moon jewels and his life, in that approximate order. I do not fear this reflected-sound-of-underground-spirits of which you speak. However,” he added, “you engage my interest. Perhaps you would care to tell me more?”

Bravd looked at the shape on the road. It was closer now, and clearer in the pre-dawn light. It looked for all the world like a

“A box on legs?” he said.

“I’ll tell you about it,” said Rincewind. “if there’s any wine, that is.”

Down in the valley there was a roar and a hiss. Someone more thoughtful than the rest had ordered to be shut the big river gates that were at the point where the Ankh flowed out of the twin city. Denied its usual egress, the river had burst its banks and was pouring down the fire-ravaged streets. Soon the continent of flame became a series of islands, each one growing smaller as the dark tide rose. And up from the city of fumes and smoke rose a broiling cloud of steam, covering the stars. Weasel thought that it looked like some dark fungus or mushroom.

The twin city of proud Ankh and pestilent Morpork, of which all the other cities of time and space are, as it were, mere reflections, has stood many assaults in its long and crowded history and has always risen to flourish again. So the fire and its subsequent flood, which destroyed everything left that was not flammable and added a particularly noisome flux to the survivors’ problems, did not mark its end. Rather it was a fiery punctuation mark, a coal-like comma, or salamander semicolon, in a continuing story.

Several days before these events a ship came up the Ankh on the dawn tide and fetched up, among many others, in the maze of wharves and docks on the Morpork shore. It carried a cargo of pink pearls, milk-nuts, pumice, some official letters for the Patrician of Ankh, and a man.

It was the man who engaged the attention of Blind Hugh, one of the beggars on early duty at Pearl Dock. He nudged Cripple Wa in the ribs, and pointed wordlessly.

Now the stranger was standing on the quayside watching several straining seamen carry a large brass-bound chest down the gangplank. Another man, obviously the captain, was standing beside him. There was about the seaman -every nerve in Blind Hugh’s body, which tended to vibrate in the presence of even a small amount of impure gold at fifty paces, screamed into his brain – the air of one anticipating imminent enrichment.

Sure enough, when the chest had been deposited on the cobbles, the stranger reached into a pouch and there was the flash of a coin. Several coins. Gold. Blind Hugh, his body twanging like a hazel rod in the presence of water, whistled to himself. Then he nudged Wa again, and sent him scurrying off down a nearby alley into the heart of the city. When the captain walked back onto his ship, leaving the newcomer looking faintly bewildered on the quayside, Blind Hugh snatched up his begging cup and made his way across the street with an ingratiating leer. At the sight of him the stranger started to fumble urgently with his money pouch.

“Good day to thee, sire,” Blind Hugh began, and found himself looking up into a face with four eyes in it. He turned to run…

“!” said the stranger, and grabbed his arm. Hugh was aware that the sailors lining the rail of the ship were laughing at him. At the same time his specialised senses detected an overpowering impression of money. He froze. The stranger let go and quickly thumbed through a small black book he had taken from his belt. Then he said “Hallo.”

“What?” said Hugh. The man looked blank.

“Hallo?” he repeated, rather louder than necessary and so carefully that Hugh could hear the vowels tinkling into place.

“Hallo yourself,” Hugh riposted. The stranger smiled widely, fumbled yet again in the pouch. This time his hand came out holding a large gold coin. It was in fact slightly larger than an 8,000-dollar Ankhian crown and the design on it was unfamiliar, but it spoke inside Hugh’s mind in a language he understood perfectly. My current owner, it said, is in need of succour and assistance; why not give it to him, so you and me can go off somewhere and enjoy ourselves?

Subtle changes in the beggar’s posture made the stranger feel more at ease. He consulted the small book again.

“I wish to be directed to an hotel, tavern, lodging house, inn, hospice, caravanserai,” he said.

“What, all of them?” said Hugh, taken aback.

“?” said the stranger.

Hugh was aware that a small crowd of fishwives, shellfish diggers and freelance gawpers were watching them with interest.

“Look,” he said, “I know a good tavern, is that enough?” He shuddered to think of the gold coin escaping from his life. He’d keep that one, even if Ymor confiscated all the rest. And the big chest that comprised most of the newcomer’s luggage looked to be full of gold, Hugh decided. The four-eyed man looked at his book.

“I would like to be directed to an hotel, place of repose, tavern, a-“

“Yes, all right. Come on then,” said Hugh hurriedly. He picked up one of the bundles and walked away quickly. The stranger, after a moment’s hesitation, strolled after him.

A train of thought shunted its way through Hugh’s mind. Getting the newcomer to the Broken Drum so easily was a stroke of luck, no doubt of it, and Ymor would probably reward him. But for all his new acquaintance’s mildness there was something about him that made Hugh uneasy, and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what it was. Not the two extra eyes, odd though they were. There was something else. He glanced back. The little man was ambling along in the middle of the street, looking around him with an expression of keen interest.

Something else Hugh saw nearly made him gibber.

The massive wooden chest, which he had last seen resting solidly on the quayside, was following on its master’s heels with a gentle rocking gait. Slowly, in case a sudden movement on his part might break his fragile control over his own legs, Hugh bent slightly so that he could see under the chest.

There were lots and lots of little legs. Very deliberately, Hugh turned around and walked very carefully towards the Broken Drum.

“Odd,” said Ymor.

“He had this big wooden chest,” added Cripple Wa.

“He’d have to be a merchant or a spy,” said Ymor.

He pulled a scrap of meat from the cutlet in his hand and tossed it into the air. It hadn’t reached the zenith of its arc, before a black shape detached itself from the shadows in the corner of the room and swooped down, taking the morsel in mid-air.

“A merchant or a spy,” repeated Ymor. “I’d prefer a spy. A spy pays for himself twice, because there’s always the reward when we turn him in. What do you think, Withel?”

Opposite Ymor the second greatest thief in Ankh-Morpork half-closed his one eye and shrugged. “I’ve checked on the ship,” he said. “it’s a freelance trader. Does the occasional run to the Brown islands. People there are just savages. They don’t understand about spies and I expect they eat merchants.”

“He looked a bit like a merchant,” volunteered Wa. “Except he wasn’t fat.”

There was a flutter of wings at the window. Ymor shifted his bulk out of the chair and crossed the room, coming back with a large raven. After he’d unfastened the message capsule from its leg it flew to join its fellows lurking among the rafters.

Withel regarded it without love. Ymor’s ravens were notoriously loyal to their master, to the extent that Withel’s one attempt to promote himself to the rank of greatest thief in Ankh-Morpork had cost their master’s right hand man his left eye. But not his life, however. Ymor never grudged a man his ambitions.

“B12,” said Ymor, tossing the little phial aside and unrolling the tiny scroll within.

“Gorrin the Cat,” said Withel automatically. “On station up in the gong tower at the Temple of Small Gods.”

“He says Hugh has taken our stranger to the Broken Drum. Well, that’s good enough. Broadman is a – friend of ours, isn’t he?”

“Aye,” said Withel, “if he knows what’s good for trade.”

“Among his customers has been your man Gorrin,” said Ymor pleasantly, “for he writes here about a box on legs, if I read this scrawl correctly.”

He looked at Withel over the top of the paper. Withel looked away. “He will be disciplined,” he said flatly. Wa looked at the man leaning back in his chair, his black-clad frame resting as nonchalantly as a Rimland puma on a jungle branch, and decided that Gorrin atop Small Gods temple would soon be joining those little deities in the multifold dimensions of Beyond. And he owed Wa three copper pieces.

Ymor crumpled the note and tossed it into a corner. “I think we’ll wander along to the Drum later on, Withel. Perhaps, too, we may try this beer that your men find so tempting.”

Withel said nothing. Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.