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26.12.2018

The lens was approaching now along the very lip of the rimfall. The island not only got higher as it neared the Edge. It got narrower too, so that the lens was able to remain over water until it was very near the city. The parapet along the edgewise cliff was dotted with gantries projecting into nothingness. The lens glided smoothly towards one of them and docked with it as smoothly as a boat might glide up to a quay. Four guards, with the same moonlight hair and nightblack faces as Marchesa, were waiting. They did not appear to be armed, but as Twoflower and Rincewind stumbled on to the parapet they were each grabbed by the arms and held quite firmly enough for any thought of escape to be instantly dismissed.

Then Marchesa and the watching hydrophobic wizards were quickly left behind and the guards and their prisoners set off briskly along a lane that wound between the ship-houses. Soon it lead downwards, into what turned out to be a palace of some sort, halfhewn out of the rock of the cliff itself. Rincewind was vaguely aware of brightly-lit tunnels, and courtyards open to the distant sky. A few elderly men, their robes covered in mysterious occult symbols, stood aside and watched with interest as the sextet passed. Several times Rincewind noticed hydrophobes – their ingrained expressions of self-revulsion at their own body-fluids was distinctive- and here and there trudging men who could only be slaves. He didn’t have much time to reflect on all this before a door was opened ahead of them and they were pushed, gently but firmly, into a room. Then the door slammed behind them.

Rincewind and Twoflower regained their balance and stared around the room in which they now found themselves.

“Gosh,” said Twoflower ineffectually, after a pause during which he had tried unsuccessfully to find a better word.

“This is a prison cell?” wondered Rincewind aloud.

“All that gold and silk and stuff,” Twoflower added. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

In the centre of the richly decorated room, on a carpet that was so deep and furry that Rincewind trod on it gingerly lest it be some kind of shaggy, floor-loving beast, was a long gleaming table laden with food. Most were fish dishes, including the biggest and most ornately-prepared lobster Rincewind had ever seen, but there were also plenty of bowls and platters piled with strange creations that he had never seen before. He reached out cautiously and picked up some sort of purple fruit crusted with green crystals.

“Candied sea urchin,” said a cracked, cheerful voice behind him. “A great delicacy.”

He dropped it quickly and turned around. An old man had stepped out from behind the heavy curtains. He was tall, thin and looked almost benign compared to some of the faces Rincewind had seen recently.

“The puree of sea cucumbers is very good too,” said the face, conversationally. “Those little green bits are baby starfish.”

“Thank you for telling me,” said Rincewind weakly.

“Actually, they’re rather good,” said Twoflower, his mouth full. “I thought you liked seafood?”

“Yes, I thought I did,” said Rincewind. “What’s this wine – crushed octopus eyeballs?”

“Sea grape,” said the old man.

“Great,” said Rincewind, and swallowed a glassful. “Not bad. A bit salty, maybe.”

“Sea grape is a kind of small jellyfish,” explained the stranger. “And now I really think I should introduce myself. Why has your friend gone that strange colour?”

“Culture shock, I imagine,” said Twoflower. “What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t. It’s Garhartra. I’m the Guestmaster, you see. It is my pleasant task to make sure that your stay here is as delightful as possible.” He bowed. “If there is anything you want you have only to say.”

Twoflower sat down on an ornate mother-of-pearl chair with a glass of oily wine in one hand and a crystallised squid in the other. He frowned.

“I think I’ve missed something along the way,” he said. “First we were told we were going to be slaves-“

“A base canard!” interrupted Garhartra.

“What’s a canard?” said Twoflower.

“I think it’s a kind of duck,” said Rincewind from the far end of the long table. “Are these biscuits made of something really nauseating, do you suppose?”

“-and then we were rescued at great magical expense-“

“They’re made of pressed seaweed,” snapped the Guestmaster.

“-but then we’re threatened, also at a vast expenditure of magic-“

“Yes, I thought it would be something like seaweed,” agreed Rincewind. “They certainly taste like seaweed would taste if anyone was masochistic enough to eat seaweed.”

“-and then we’re manhandled by guards and thrown in here-“

“Pushed gently,” corrected Garhartra.

“-which turned out to be this amazingly rich room and there’s all this food and a man saying he’s devoting his life to making us happy,” Twoflower concluded. “What I’m getting at is this sort of lack of consistency.”

“Yar,” said Rincewind. “What he means is, are you about to start being generally unpleasant again? Is this just a break for lunch?”

Garhartra held up his hands reassuringly.

“Please, please,” he protested. “It was just necessary to get you here as soon as possible. We certainly do not want to enslave you.

Please be reassured on that score.”

“Well, fine,” said Rincewind.

“Yes, you will in fact be sacrificed,” Garhartra continued placidly.

“Sacrificed? You’re going to kill us?” shouted the wizard.

“Kill? Yes, of course. Certainly! It would hardly be a sacrifice if we didn’t, would it? But don’t worry – it’ll be comparatively painless.”

“Comparatively? Compared to what?” said Rincewind. He picked up a tall green bottle that was full of sea grape jellyfish wine and hurled it hard at the Guestmaster, who flung up a hand as if to protect himself.

There was a crackle of octarine flame from his fingers and the air suddenly took on the thick, greasy feel that indicated a powerful magical discharge. The flung bottle slowed and then stopped in midair, rotating gently.

At the same time an invisible force picked Rincewind up and hurled him down the length of the room, pinning him awkwardly halfway up the far wall with no breath left in his body. He hung there with his mouth open in rage and astonishment.

Garhartra lowered his hand and brushed it slowly on his robe.

“I didn’t enjoy doing that, you know,” he said.

“I could tell,” muttered Rincewind.

“But what do you want to sacrifice us for?” asked Twoflower. “You hardly know us!”

“That’s rather the point, isn’t it? It’s not very good manners to sacrifice a friend. Besides, you were, um, specified. I don’t know a lot about the god in question, but He was quite clear on that point. Look, I must be running along now. So much to organise, you know how it is,” the Guestmaster opened the door, and then peered back around it. “Please make yourselves comfortable, and don’t worry.”

“But you haven’t actually told us anything!” wailed Twoflower.

“It’s not really worth it, is it? What with you being sacrificed in the morning,” said Garhartra. “It’s hardly worth the bother of knowing, really. Sleep well. Comparatively well, anyway.”

He shut the door. A brief octarine flicker of balefire around it suggested that it had now been sealed beyond the skills of any earthly locksmith.

Gling, clang, tang went the bells along the Circumfence in the moonlit, rimfall-roaring night.

Terton, lengthman of the 45th Length, hadn’t heard such a clashing since the night a giant kraken had been swept into the Fence five years ago. He leaned out of his hut, which for the lack of any convenient eyot on this Length had been built on wooden piles driven into the sea bed, and stared into the darkness. Once or twice he thought he could see movement, far off. Strictly speaking, he should row out to see what was causing the din. But here in the clammy darkness it didn’t seem like an astoundingly good idea, so he slammed the door, wrapped some sacking around the madly jangling bells, and tried to get back to sleep.

That didn’t work, because even the top strand of the Fence was thrumming now, as if something big and heavy was bouncing on it. After staring at the ceiling for a few minutes, and trying hard not to think of great long tentacles and pond-sized eyes, Terton blew out the lantern and opened the door a crack.

Something was coming along the Fence, in giant loping bounds that covered metres at a time. It loomed up at him and for a moment Terton saw something rectangular, multi-legged, shaggy with seaweed and – although it had absolutely no features from which he could have deduced this – it was also very angry indeed.

The hut was smashed to fragments as the monster charged through it, although Terton survived by clinging to the Circumfence; some weeks later he was picked up by a returning salvage fleet, subsequently escaped from Krull on a hijacked lens (having developed hydrophobia to an astonishing degree) and after a number of adventures eventually found his way to the Great Nef, an area of the Disc so dry that it actually has negative rainfall, which he nevertheless considered uncomfortably damp.

“Have you tried the door?”

“Yes,” said Twoflower. “And it isn’t any less locked than it was last time you asked. There’s the window, though.”

“A great way of escape,” muttered Rincewind, from his perch halfway up the wall. “You said it looks out over the Edge. Just step out, eh, and plunge through space and maybe freeze solid or hit some other world at incredible speeds or plunge wildly into the burning heart of a sun?”

“Worth a try,” said Twoflower. “Want a seaweed biscuit?”

“No!”

“When are you coming down?”

Rincewind snarled. This was partly in embarrassment. Garhartra’s spell had been the little-used and hard-to-master Atavarr’s Personal Gravitational Upset, the practical result of which was that until it wore off Rincewind’s body was convinced that “down” lay at ninety degrees to that direction normally accepted as of a downward persuasion by the majority of the Disc’s inhabitants. He was in fact standing on the wall.

Meanwhile the flung bottle hung supportless in the air a few yards away. In its case time had well, not actually been stopped, but had been slowed by several orders of magnitude, and its trajectory had so far occupied several hours and a couple of inches as far as Twoflower and Rincewind were concerned. The glass gleamed in the moonlight. Rincewind sighed and tried to make himself comfortable on the wall.

“Why don’t you ever worry?” he demanded petulantly. “Here we are, going to be sacrificed to some god or other in the morning, and you just sit there eating barnacle canapes.”

“I expect something will turn up,” said Twoflower.

“I mean, it’s not as if we know why we’re going to be killed,” the wizard went on.

You’d like to, would you?