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26.12.2018

‘That means Fat Lunchtime,’ said Nanny Ogg, international linguist. ‘Garkon! Etcetra gross Mint Tulip avec petit bowl de peanuts, pour favour!’

Granny Weatherwax shut the book.

She would not of course admit it to a third party, least of all another witch, but as Genua drew nearer Granny was becoming less and less confident.

She was waiting in Genua. After all this time! Staring at her out of the mirror! Smiling!

The sun beat down. She tried defying it. Sooner or later she was going to have to give in, though. It was going to be time to remove another vest.

Nanny Ogg sat and drew cards for her relatives for a while, and then yawned. She was a witch who liked noise and people around her. Nanny Ogg was getting bored. It was a big boat, more like a floating inn, and she felt certain there was some excitement somewhere.

She laid her bag on her seat and wandered away to look for it.

The trolls plodded on.

The sun was red, fat and low when Granny Weatherwax awoke. She looked around guiltily from the shelter of her hatbrim in case anyone had noticed her asleep. Falling asleep during the day was something only old women did, and Granny Weatherwax was an old woman only when it suited her purposes.

The only spectator was Greebo, curled up on Nanny’s chair. His one good eye was fixed on her, but it wasn’t so terrifying as the milky white stare of his blind one.

‘Just considerin’ our strategy,’ she muttered, just in case.

She closed the book and strode off to their cabin. It wasn’t a big one. Some of the staterooms looked huge, but what with the herbal wine and everything Granny hadn’t felt up to using any Influence to get one.

Magrat and Nanny Ogg were sitting on a bunk, in gloomy silence.

‘I feels a bit peckish,’ said Granny. ‘I smelled stew on the way here, so let’s go and have a look, eh? What about that?’

The other two continued to stare at the floor.

‘I suppose there’s always pumpkin,’ said Magrat. ‘And there’s always the dwarf bread.’

‘There’s always dwarf bread,’ said Nanny automatically. She looked up, her face a mask of shame.

‘Er, Esme … er … you know the money . . .’

‘The money what we all gave you to keep in your knickers for safety?’ said Granny. Something about the way the conversation was going suggested the first few pebbles slipping before a major landslide.

‘That’s the money I’m referrin’ to … er …"

‘The money in the big leather bag that we were goin’ to be very careful about spendin’?’ said Granny.

‘You see . . . the money . . .’

‘Oh, that money,’ said Granny.

‘. . . is gone . . .’ said Nanny.

‘Stolen?’

‘She’s been gambling,’ said Magrat, in tones of smug horror. ‘With men.’

‘It wasn’t gambling!’ snapped Nanny. ‘I never gamble! They were no good at cards! I won no end of games!’

‘But you lost money,’ said Granny.

Nanny Ogg looked down again, and muttered something.

‘What?’ said Granny.

‘I said I won nearly all of them," said Nanny. ‘And then I thought, here, we could really have a bit of money to, you know, spend in the city, and I’ve always been very good at Cripple Mr Onion . . .’

‘So you decided to bet heavily,’ said Granny.

‘How did you know that?’

‘Got a feelin’ about it,’ said Granny wearily. ‘And suddenly everyone else was lucky, am I right ?’

‘It was weird,’ said Nanny.

‘Hmm.’

‘Well, it’s not gambling,’ said Nanny. ‘I didn’t see it was gambling. They were no good when I started playing. It’s not gambling to play against someone who’s no good. It’s common sense.’

‘There was nearly fourteen dollars in that bag,’ said Magrat, ‘not counting the foreign money.’

‘Hmm.’

Granny Weatherwax sat down on the bunk and drummed her fingers on the woodwork. There was a faraway look in her eyes. The phrase ‘card sharp’ had never reached her side of the Ramtops, where people were friendly and direct and, should they encounter a professional cheat, tended to nail his hand to the table in an easy and outgoing manner without asking him what he called himself. But human nature was the same everywhere.

‘You’re not upset, are you, Esme?’ said Nanny anxiously.

‘Hmm.’

‘I expect I can soon pick up a new broom when we get home.’

‘Hm . . . what?’

‘After she lost all her money she bet her broom,’ said Magrat triumphantly.

‘Have we got any money at all?’ said Granny.

A trawl of various pockets and knicker legs produced forty-seven pence.

‘Right,’ said Granny. She scooped it up. ‘That ought to be enough. To start with, anyway. Where are these men?’

‘What are you going to do?’ said Magrat.

‘I’m going to play cards,’ said Granny.

‘You can’t do that!’ said Magrat, who had recognized the gleam in Granny’s eye. ‘You’re going to use magic to win! You mustn’t use magic to win! Not to affect the laws of chance! That’s wicked^

The boat was practically a floating town, and in the balmy night air no-one bothered much about going indoors. The riverboat’s flat deck was dotted with groups of dwarfs, trolls and humans, lounging among the cargo. Granny threaded her way between them and headed for the long saloon that ran almost the entire length of the boat. There was the sound of revelry within.

The riverboats were the quickest and easiest transport for hundreds of miles. On them you got, as Granny would put it, all sorts, and the riverboats going downstream were always crowded with a certain type of opportunist as Fat Lunchtime approached.

She walked into the saloon. An onlooker might have thought it had a magic doorway. Granny Weatherwax, as she walked towards it, strode as she usually strode. As soon as she passed through, though, she was suddenly a bent old woman, hobbling along, and a sight to touch all but the wickedest heart.

She approached the bar, and then stopped. Behind it was the biggest mirror Granny had ever seen. She stared fixedly at it, but it seemed safe enough. Well, she’d have to risk it.

She hunched her back a little more and addressed the barman.

‘Excuzee moir, young homme,’ she began.*

The barman gave her a disinterested look and went on polishing a glass. v

‘What can I do for you, old crone?’ he said.

There was only the faintest suggestion of a flicker in Granny’s expression of elderly imbecility.

‘Oh . . . you can understand me?’ she said.

‘We get all sorts on the river,’ said the barman.

‘Then I was wondering if you could be so kind as to loan me a deck, I thinks it’s called, of cards,’ quavered Granny.

‘Going to play a game of Old Maid, are you?’ said the barman.

There was a chilly flicker across Granny’s eyes again as she said, ‘No. Just Patience. I’d like to try and get the hang of it.’

He reached under the counter and tossed a greasy pack towards her.

She thanked him effusively and tottered off to a small table in the shadows, where she dealt a few cards randomly on the drink-ringed surface and stared at them.

It was only a few minutes later that a gentle hand was laid on her shoulder. She looked up into a friendly, open face that anyone would lend money to. A gold tooth glittered as the man spoke.

‘Excuse me, good mother,’ he said, ‘but my friends

* Something about Nanny Ogg rubbed off on people.

roi

and I’ – he gestured to some more welcoming faces at a nearby table – ‘would feel much more comfortable in ourselves if you were to join us. It can be very dangerous for a woman travelling by herself.’

Granny Weatherwax smiled nicely at him, and then waved vaguely at her cards.

‘ I can never remember whether the ones are worth more or less than the pictures,’ she said. ‘Forget my own head next, I expect!’

They all laughed. Granny hobbled to the other table. She took the vacant seat, which put the mirror right behind her shoulder.

She smiled to herself and then leaned forward, all eagerness.

‘So tell me,’ she said, ‘how do you play this game, then?’

All witches are very conscious of stories. They can feel stories, in the same way that a bather in a little pool can feel the unexpected trout.

Knowing how stories work is almost all the battle.

For example, when an obvious innocent sits down with three experienced card sharpers and says ‘How do you play this game, then?’, someone is about to be shaken down until their teeth fall out.

Magrat and Nanny Ogg sat side by side on the narrow bunk. Nanny was distractedly tickling Greebo’s stomach, while he purred.

‘She’ll get into terrible trouble if she uses magic to win,’ said Magrat. ‘And you know how she hates losing,’ she added.

Granny Weatherwax was not a good loser. From her point of view, losing was something that happened to other people.

‘It’s her eggo,’ said Nanny Ogg. ‘Everyone’s got one o’ them. A eggo. And she’s got a great big one. Of course, that’s all part of bein’ a witch, having a big eggo.’

‘She’s bound to use magic,’ said Magrat.

‘It’s tempting Fate, using magic in a game of chance,’ said Nanny Ogg. ‘Cheatin’s all right. That’s practic’ly fair. I mean, anyone can cheat. But using magic – well, it’s tempting Fate.’

‘No. Not Fate,’ said Magrat darkly.

Nanny Ogg shivered.

‘Come on,’ said Magrat. ‘We can’t let her do it.’

‘It’s her eggo,’ said Nanny Ogg weakly. ‘Terrible thing, a big eggo.’

‘I got,’ said Granny, ‘three little pictures of kings and suchlike and three of them funny number one cards.’

The three men beamed and winked at one another.

‘That’s Triple Onion!’ said the one who had introduced Granny to the table, and who had turned out to be called Mister Frank.

‘And that’s good, is it?’ said Granny.

‘It means you win yet again, dear lady!’ He pushed a pile of pennies towards her.

‘Gosh,’ said Granny. ‘That means I’ve got . . . what would it be … almost five dollars now?’

‘Can’t understand it,’ said Mister Frank. ‘It must be the famous beginner’s luck, eh?’

‘Soon be poor men if it goes on like this,’ said one of his companions.

‘She’ll have the coats off our backs, right enough,’ said the third man. ‘Haha.’

‘Think we should give up right now,’ said Mister Frank. ‘Haha.’

‘Haha.’

‘Haha.’

‘Oh, I want to go on,’ said Granny, grinning anxiously. ‘I’m just getting the hang of it.’

‘Well, you’d better give us a sporting chance to win a little bit back, haha,’ said Mister Frank. ‘Haha.’

‘Haha.’

‘Haha.’

‘Haha. What about half a dollar a stake? Haha?’

‘Oh, I reckon she’ll want a dollar a stake, a sporting lady like her,’ said the third man.

‘Haha!’

Granny looked down at her pile of pennies. For a moment she looked uncertain and then, they could see, she realized: how much could she lose, the way the cards were going?

‘Yes!’ she said. ‘A dollar a stake!’ She blushed. ‘This is exciting, isn’t it!’

‘Yeah,’ said Mister Frank. He drew the pack towards him.

There was a horrible noise. All three men stared at the bar, where shards of mirror were cascading to the floor.

‘What happened?’

Granny gave him a sweet old smile. She hadn’t appeared to look around.

‘I reckon the glass he was polishing must of slipped out of his hand and smashed right into the mirror,’ she said. ‘I do hope he don’t have to pay for it out of his wages, the poor boy.’

The men exchanged glances.

‘Come on,’ said Granny, ‘I’ve got my dollar all ready.’

Mister Frank looked nervously at the ravaged frame. Then he shrugged.

The movement dislodged something somewhere. There was a muffled snapping noise, like a mousetrap carrying out the last rites. Mister Frank went white and gripped his sleeve. A small metal contraption, all springs and twisted metal, fell out. A crumpled-up Ace of Cups was tangled up in it.