Title: The Prince of Ur
Characters(s): Hwel, Tomjon, Vitoller, many OCs & a very short cameo by Death
Word Count: 14,556
Possible warnings and/or enticements - highlight to view (may contain spoilers): *None*
Summary: Hwel writes a patriotic play - that is, it talks about killing foreigners (who deserve it) - but certain critics still aren't satisfied. And sometimes, late at night, Hwel wonders if he's writing the play or the play is writing him...
Author's Notes: Set during the events in Jingo, the lead-up to the war against Klatch. Written for prompt 137: We've seen a Midsummer Night's Dream and MacBeth in Discworld. How about another Shakespeare play in Discworld? The Tempest, maybe, or Hamlet...
Tragicall Hiftorie of
Al-Khamled, Prince of Ur.
A trew & faithfull account
expreffing the events leading up to
the tragic & fenfelefs death
prince of UR
& his court
Written by Hwel Himfelf.
Performed by The Patrician's Men
A stage, lined with candles.
GUARD 1. Who's, er, there?
GUARD 2. (mumbling in his sleep) ...no, I won't go back in that nutshell... You can't make me.
GUARD 1 elbows GUARD 2 hard and GUARD 2 wakes up.
GUARD 2. (groggily) How now, Al? You look like you're about to see a ghost.
GUARD 1. I feel chilled to the very bones.
GUARD 2. How can you be cold on this hot desert night?
GUARD 1. Something tells me that tonight reality will cease to be, and escape as a mere vapour into the insubstantial, shadowy realm of dreams. Haven't you noticed the portents? Disasters in the sun, the squeaking, gibbering dead strolling through the low and palmless streets of Ur...
GUARD 2. They always do that, though; Ur is a very popular tourist destination for zombies. Must like the dry weather.
GUARD 1. Can't you sense it, man? Something unnatural, uncanny and unholy is afoot this night.
GUARD 2. Are you saying my feet smell?
GUARD 1. (ignoring him) There's someone here. On this very tower.
GUARD 2. What are you on about, Al? We're all alone in one of the pointy bits of our stereotypical Klatchian palaces. Who could possibly—
Enter a very short GHOST, wrapped in a flowery sheet. It slowly glides towards them, its face as grave as it can be through two round holes made by blunt scissors.
GUARD 1. A ghost! A terrifying ghost!
The colour drains out of GUARD 2's face at the sight of the be-sheeted figure. He puts up his spear and takes out his flimsy curved sword.
GHOST. (raising his arms) Woooohhhooooooooohhh.... Er.
The GHOST glides over to GUARD 2 and GUARD 2 instinctively strikes at it with his sword, which, being made of tinfoil, folds in on itself.
The GHOST glides to the centre of the stage and faces the audience.
GUARD 1. We must inform Prince al-Khamled, our noble lord of Ur.
Exeunt GUARDS, fleeing in abject terror.
GHOST. I come from the Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveller has returned... er... except me, of course. (turns its head) What's that? Methinks I hear the crow's cock— I mean, the cock's crow... which strikes post-mortal terror into spirits like myself. Are those the rosy fingers of dawn fondling the mountains on the eastern horizon I see before me? Remember me, remember me... and so on...
GHOST turns around to leave. It trips over the edge of its sheet, which has become entangled in its wheeled shoes, flails wildly, grabs the curtain and careens around the stage at great speed.
AUDIENCE laughs helplessly.
Beneath the trapdoor.
Hwel fought his way out of the flowery sheet and glared at Tomjon. "Why did you let me roll around like that? You were supposed to open the trapdoor at 'Remember me'."
Tomjon grinned. "I'm sure the groundlings will. You know they love slapstick. What with that and all the naughty innuendo in this play, you've got the perfect Hwellian comedy."
"You're on in a second. Why aren't you in character?"
Tomjon adjusted his black turban. "Don't you worry about me." His eyes glazed over as he put on a dour expression and walked off.
In a moment, Hwel heard the raucous laughter start up again, and he set his lips into a grim line of satisfaction. Yet somehow he felt anxious, a feeling of foreboding filling him as he headed backstage.
Vitoller was so rapt in his son's performance of the witless Urrite prince that he hardly noticed his friend gliding dejectedly towards him. Hwel gazed out at the audience and noticed some familiar faces in the gallery above. Qet Lowmar and Tom Goat were sitting together, but they weren't laughing along with the rest of the audience. Rabid Teale, who occupied three seats, was sitting some way away and scribbling furiously, hardly paying attention to the performance. Hwel felt his stomach do a little flop of misery at the sight. Surely it was another review for the Ankh-Morpork Times.
The other playwrights, and Teale in particular, were chartreuse with envy at Hwel's skyrocketing popularity. But he couldn't help it; he just had this knack of being able to play the audience like a lute, or an hautboy, or even divers alarums – whatever the situation called for. Hwel's stomach upped the acrobatics as he watched Teale's quill fly across the parchment. There would be another reference to his height, for sure, Hwel thought as the smug, malign smile on Teale's dimly-lit face widened.
At least Teale couldn't call him a traitor again; this was the most patriotic play he'd written to date. The Klatchians all died in the end, leaving Ankh-Morpork victorious. No one could accuse him of not supporting the war effort.
The Dysk, main stage.
“The play contained neither wit, nor originality – its success could only be attributed to the groundlings' fondness for pratfalls, double entrendres and toilet humour. The ghost's performance was especially disastrous. But then, what else can one expect when the noble art of acting is all but unknown in the holes in the ground that gritsuckers call home?” Vitoller stopped reading and looked up at Hwel, whose expression was worryingly calm.
“Go on. I want to hear the rest.”
“An education focused on the pick-axe would make anyone ill-equipped to take up the quill – but this upstart lawn ornament thinks himself such a genius that he can bombast out any old thing and put himself on par with his illustrious colleagues. However, I am sure his background has helped in some way, since he has proven himself capable of spotting the glistering gold in other people's ideas. Maybe he thought no-one would notice that he stole the idea for his play from our esteemed colleague Thomas Goat. Maybe he supposes that All's Hwel that Ends Hwel...
“But I, Rabid Teale, will expose him for what he is - a dirt-dwelling, rat-eating pilferer who thinks he can beautify himself with nuggets of our golden verse. We learned men – and I emphasise, men – must band together to protest this perfidy in the strongest terms.”
A long silence followed in which everyone held their breaths, waiting for the explosion. The stars twinkled incongruously at them though the round wooden O that was the Dysk's ceiling.
“Is that it?”
Tomjon picked his jaw up off the floor and rallied courageously. “Listen, Hwel, even Teale had to admit the play was successful. It's bitterness, that's all. The Dysk is absolutely packed every night while the Tulip and the Arras have to pay people to fill their seats! Lord Wynkin's Men are right jealous, and hardly anyone even walks past the old Bear Pit any more. You always said yourself that you're not writing to please anyone but the bums on our seats. Er. I mean, the owners of the bums.”
“You've got to listen to your critics, Tomjon,” Hwel answered despondently.
“Are you saying he's right? What about all that bigoted stuff he said about dwarfs? I can't believe he dared to write... those words. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a riot in the streets tomorrow!”
“Don't hold your breath. I'd bet my quill that not a single dwarf has read the review. And even if they had, they'd quaff with the trolls before they'd come out and support me. They mostly pretend I don't exist. I'm a bit of an embarrassment to the dwarf community, you see.”
Tomjon looked like a fish stranded in a desert. He was utterly dumbfounded.
“Maybe it is time for me to write something... more original.”
“Original! You yourself said there was no such thing as originality. How can you steal ideas when they're floating around in the air!”
“I meant something different from the old violence and slapstick. I mean, how is the Prince of Ur that different from my last play? They're really the same thing. Blood, farts, sexual innuendo... sensationalist tripe,” Hwel spat out.
Tomjon looked wounded. “Tripe? One-Tittus Gynonicus was a masterpiece, Hwel. Your gift lies in creating vivid, unforgettable, human characters who are almost as real as you or I. The simple-minded Urrite prince and cannibalistic Amazon queen will be remembered long after Teale's plays have been erased from memory!”
Hwel just shook his head melancholically.
Vitoller rustled the papers. “We made the front page.”
“What?” Tomjon's voice was full of incredulity and hope.
“There's a brief mention of the play at the end of this article:
“A new comedy by the Patrician's Men has been raising morale among Ankh-Morpork citizens, troubled during this time of escalating tensions with Klatch. Lord Rust has recommended that the play be shown to our brave lads to show them what foolish, weak foes they will be up against and to impress upon them the ease with which victory will be gained. 'Those towel-headed Klatchoes will have probably done our job for us if the Prince of Ur is anything to go by!' he commented to our reporter earlier today. The critics of the war, among them the assassin-playwright Qet Lowmar, have been left speechless by the power of the new play. Let us all congratulate the Patrician's Men on a fine patriotic performance.”
Everybody looked at each other. None of them were sure how to react. “But that's not why...” started Tomjon and trailed off.
“I guess it's good publicity, isn't it, Dad? … Bums on seats?” he pleaded when Vitoller didn't answer. His father was staring at the paper in his hand as if he was trying to read some microscopic letters written between the lines.
“Make sure you put out all the candles,” instructed Hwel morosely as he walked off, looking even shorter than he usually did. Tomjon and Vitoller gazed after him in dismay.
Hwel couldn't write.
Vitoller used to joke that it meant the end of the world was near when Hwel found himself unable to write. Perhaps it was. Perhaps this war would finally finish off the Disc.
He'd read about the new daQuirmian thaumic cannons, powered by Uselessium, monstrous things capable of destroying an entire city in minutes and so loud that humans thought they were silent. They were supposed to be secret; it was Qet Lowmar who had blown the whistle on that one. The new weapons were things of nightmare. Astrochelonians warned that the noise they made could possibly startle Great A'tuin herself and then the Disc would wobble in its spin and be cast off into the cold dark of space like a Whizbee, a child's toy they sold in every cornershop...
His mind's eye flashed back to the confused, pained expressions on Tomjon's and Vitoller's faces as they watched his reaction to Teale's review. They were family, but they were adopted family... humans... d'harak, to be precise. They could never understand what it felt like to be rejected by both the worlds he straddled like a Colossus with rather short legs. He'd thought that maybe since the dwarfs rejected him, he could reject the dwarfs right back. But those words would follow him around forever – unless he found a way to gain a couple of feet in height, and quickly. Even then, he didn't hold out much hope. He'd never stop being a gritsucker.
Hwel sighed heavily, and looked out of the open window, as if he was waiting for something, or someone. But apparently they weren't coming tonight.
They always came at night, just when he was on the verge of dropping off into sleep. He'd get up, light another candle and follow their vague, mumbling instructions until he'd have enough and shout, “STOP! LET ME SLEEP!”
Not that they ever listened. It was hopeless. He could shut his blinds but not his mind. Hwel felt uneasy when people called him a genius. He wasn't. As far as he was concerned, he didn't even write the damn things. They were the true authors. It wasn't his fault his mind attracted them like a small child attracted mud. If it were up to him he wouldn't have been born like that in the first place. He'd don a helmet and sing about gold until he knocked himself out. He'd tried one day, but the other dwarfs had just looked embarrassed at the way he mangled the words to the traditional dwarfish song. Was it his fault he was born with a larger vocabulary?
It was late morning when Hwel awoke. The sun was shining viciously onto his receding hairline as if it had a personal vendetta against him. His head was aching as if he'd downed an Electrick Floorbanger the night before... but he hardly ever drank, particularly not corrosive troll drinks. This only happened when...
The truth hit him wearing brass knuckles when his eyes alighted on the sheaf of parchment he'd left on his table the night before. Its eight columns were covered with almost indecipherable scribbles, and the inkpot he was sure he had filled was now empty. That meant it was long. It was as long as a very, very long thing.
He looked balefully at the parchment for a minute. They'd been here again. Could have had the decency to wake him up first.
The sun – that busy old oaf – gave him a sharp poke in the eye with a well-placed ray, and when he recovered his vision, he glanced casually at the sundial. He gave a little yelp and fell out of bed. “Short shadow on the wrong side o' dial again! I'm late!” he muttered as he smoothed down his goatee and ran out with the papers under his arm.
Outside the Dysk.
The play went as well, if not better than the last two nights, and the audience departed in high spirits. They'd particularly enjoyed the bloodbath at the end, where al-Khamled's incompetence had led to the deaths of nearly every character in the play. Some of them were singing a rousing patriotic song dedicated to Klatchian stupidity.
Vitoller said he would treat the entire cast and crew to a round at the Stab in the Back, the pub just a minute's walk from the Dysk and well-hidden from the reach of audiences. Hwel wasn't a fan of carousing, but maybe he'd enjoy it this time. It might help him not write.
“Where's that quarto you've been carrying around?” asked Tomjon as they left the Dysk.
“It's an octavo, not a quarto.”
“Like... the Octavo?”
“No, just an octavo. You know, some bad-quality parchment folded into eight. I left it backstage. I'll read it later, when I have time.”
“Read it? Didn't you write it?”
“Er... yeah. I think so anyway,” Hwel muttered, that feeling of foreboding tickling the back of his mind again.
The smell of smoke sobered them up faster than any Klatchian coffee. Even the regulars at the tavern brawled a little less drunkenly for a while. By the time they reached the Dysk, they realised there was nothing they could do. It was utterly consumed. All the players stood outside the Dysk, looking awed and mournful. Vitoller had sunk to his knees and was on the verge of tears.
Watchmen had gathered round the burning O, gaping at it. Some simpleton or tourist made the unfortunate suggestion of putting out the fire with water from the Ankh, and the rest of the crowd started laughing.
“But I'm sure we put out all the candles. I'm sure of it,” whispered Tomjon, wide-eyed, to Hwel. He looked down next to him but the balding pate he expected to see there was missing. Visibility was so low that he almost missed the small figure running into the enveloping mantle of acrid smoke.
“Hwel!” he cried, and ran after him. “You can't make it! The Dysk is gone, Hwel – there's no hope!”
“The play!” shouted back Hwel. “I have to save the new play!”
Exeunt all players, pursued by fire.
The middle of a sandstorm.
It went from scorching hot to freezing in a matter of seconds. Just when Tomjon thought they were done for, the familiar wood under his feet wasn't there any more. Instead, he was standing on a shifting, unsteady surface that he didn't quite believe in.
The flames and smoke smothering his face turned into violent winds flinging grains of sand like tiny knives into his eyes. He shut them tightly and opened his mouth to call out. It immediately filled with sand. He opened his eyes a crack to look down at his feet, which were covered in sand. The storm seemed to be burying him bit by bit. It was hard to disbelieve in now.
Tomjon had heard that Death's domain was an endless grey desert. He was surprised that it had been so painless. It didn't seem as tranquil as he'd expected, though. As the sand rose to the level of his knees, he wondered idly if there was such a thing as an afterdeath. It didn't really seem fair.
“Tomjon?” The voice didn't seem too far away but he could barely see a foot in front of him.
Tomjon spat out the mouthful. “Hwel?” he yelled feebly.
“Are you OK?”
“I'm dead, aren't I?”
“Don't be stupid.”
“Then where are we?”
“I don't know. It all seems so familiar... but no, it can't be.”
“We have to get out of this storm or we'll be buried alive.”
“And how exactly are we supposed to— wuuuuaaaaahhh!” Tomjon felt himself being jerked up by his belt. He rose into the air and landed on something curiously soft and hard at the same time. It was too dark and sandy to see clearly what was happening. Something soft rustled past him.
“Away, Thou Whoreson Fiend! Huthut!” a loud voice said very close to his ear.
Tomjon flailed and tossed around but nothing happened but he made himself rather sore. The lumpy, foul-smelling seat he was on rose and fell awkwardly, making him feel rather queasy, as the storm enveloped him.
The court of Ur.
Thou Whoreson Fiend turned out to be a camel. Tomjon looked into its malignant eyes as he slid off its back. It gave him a look like it was counting the seconds until camelkind would break the chains of camel bondage and feast on human souls. It was still dark but there was no more sand, so Tomjon could vaguely make out a figure seated regally on Thou Whoreson Fiend's back.
“Who are you?” asked Tomjon, looking up at the figure, shivering despite himself.
“I am Al-Qa'rus, friend of Crown Prince Al-Khamled of the ancient and noble empires of Ur and Hippopotamia. Who are you and what are you doing here at the noble court of Ur?”
“I don't really know. I mean, I know who I am, but...”
“Just as I thought! The Prince will know what to do with you, Morporkian spy!”
“As inarticulate as all Morporkians, I see. Come with me.” Al-Qa'rus slid off Thou Whoreson Fiend, who drooled threateningly as its eyes rolled around in their sockets. Tomjon's eyes widened in surprise as he saw that the dark figure that looked so imposing from atop the camel only came up to his (Tomjon's) waist.
Al-Qa'rus led the way as the morn in russet mantle clad strutted o'er a big, dewy hill somewhere to the east. They reached the castle, a mouldering sandy hulk carved into a cliff, almost invisible against the colourless desert. Tomjon pulled his cloak tighter around him. It was still freezing. Wasn't Ur supposed to be really hot? Their castles didn't look right, either. Too claustrophobic, not pointy enough.
Al-Qa'rus avoided the main doors and slipped in through a half-hidden entrance that was almost too big to fit Tomjon, and then started climbing the narrow stairs set right into the mountain like the castle itself. They seemed to go on forever.
Tomjon worried about Hwel, imagining all the horrors that awaited a balding dwarf genius in a desert. If he hadn't been buried by the sandstorm, he could have wandered in the wrong direction with no water or supplies... he could have met a dangerous beast... Tomjon tried to remember what dangerous beasts there were in the desert. Basilisks, chimeras... scorpions, vultures... cacti... syphilitic camels... sand...
Tomjon caught a flash of white in the corner of his eye, and he instinctively reached out and grabbed the flying thing. As he held it in his hand, he realised it was more of an off-white, or cream, or even closer to brown, piece of parchment filled with tiny lettering that looked very familiar. He brought it closer to read the first line:
AL-QA'RUS: I am Al-Qa'rus, friend of Crown Prince Al-Khamled of the ancient and noble empires of Ur and Hippopotamia. Who are you and what are you doing here at the noble court of Ur?
His eyes nearly popped out of his head as he read on:
TOMJON: I don't really know. I mean, I know who I am, but...
AL-QA'RUS: Just as I thought! The Prince will know what to do with you, Morporkian spy!
TOMJON: What? Er...
AL-QA'RUS: As inarticulate as all Morporkians, I see. Come with me.
He glanced at the bottom of the page and his eyes briefly alighted on the word “dungeon” before the parchment was whipped out of his hand by the howling wind.
Tomjon woke up a couple of hours later when light suddenly flooded the dark cell he had been occupying. Silhouetted against the the door were three very short people. Tomjon sighed theatrically. He'd been expecting them - the Klatchian Quisition. He remembered the popular stories circulating in Ankh-Morpork in which several famed Klatchian technological devices played prominent roles.
One of the figures stepped through the door and walked towards Tomjon, whose eyes still hadn't adjusted to the light. He'd made up his mind not to say anything, at least not until they threatened him with the slightly less comfy chair.
“You'll never make me talk! Do your worst!” he yelled defiantly at the approaching exquisitor. It came out rather more high-pitched than he would have liked.
“Tomjon? It's me.”
Tomjon squinted at the figure and noticed the light bouncing off his balding head. “Hwel? You're– you're one of them?”
Hwel sighed in exasperation. “Of course I'm—”
“Well met, my dear players!” a voice boomed close by, and Tomjon realised that one of the other figures had entered the cell too. He only came up to Tomjon's shoulders, notwithstanding the fact that Tomjon was sat on the floor. “Or should I say, ill met? I do beg my inhospitable friend's pardon, if you would be so kind as to give it, for he does not deserve it... nor do I... nor do I. We did not know that you were an associate of this illustrious dwarf here.” He clapped Hwel on the back.
“Who are you?”
“Khamled, prince of this rotten state.”
“The very same! Come here, Qa'rus, and apologise to this young man at once! Did you not know he was the finest actor in all of Ankhius-et-Morporkia?”
Qa'rus trudged in, holding a lamp. In the flickering light, Tomjon noticed his face was puce. “Please forgive me. I knew not who you were. I hope you will find it within your heart to pardon my ignorance, inexcusable though it is.”
“There's more things on the disc and the multiverse than you can bloody well imagine, Qa'rus. Now please allow me to escort you to the banquet hall, where you shall be wined and dined as befits two great artists such as yourself. Be careful of what you say, though. The very rocks are my uncle's spies.” Khamled indicated the roughly-hewn walls of the castle.
Tomjon raised an eyebrow at Hwel. They walked through innumerable labyrinthine corridors – Tomjon had to stoop to fit through most of the doorways – and emerged into a vast banquet hall. It was lined with long, low tables, all richly laid with strange spiced Klatchian delicacies. They looked suspicious because Tomjon had never seen anything like them in the Klatchian restaurants back home, but once he started, he realised he was ravenous.
As Tomjon shovelled the first course into his mouth, Khamled said, “Please tell me how things are going in your city, my friends. Do not consider me a foe, for I am a Morporkian at heart, even though we may soon be at war. Nothing would please me more than to continue my studies with my fellow Assassins; it is only the will of my loathsome uncle and his wife” – his face darkened for a second – “that keeps me from that magnificent city.”
Tomjon and Hwel exchanged a look. 'Magnificent' wouldn't have been the word they chose...
Khamled continued reminiscing of his days as a student in Ankh-Morpork throughout dinner, finally ending with, “... the liveliness of its taverns, the craftiness of its people, the genius of its theatre. You are fortunate, indeed, to call yourselves citizens of such a place. Oh, to see the sights and smell the smells of that citadel of learning once more!”
Tomjon nearly choked on his pudding, and Hwel had to thump him on the back to get him to stop laughing.
Khamled didn't seem to notice. He went on, “But to be quite honest with you, I am sick at heart wherever I go. There is no freedom for me, either in Ankh or else in Ur.”
“My lord! My good lord!” A very old, rotund man was running up to them, wheezing and out of breath. He had on thick glasses and a curiously pointed turban that looked very much like a wizard's hat. “Your friends from school, the ones you speak of so often, have fortuitously arrived at Ur just to see you, with no ulterior motive whatsoever. Shall I send them in?”
“When the last sands of the endless desert fall through the glass, old men may utter honest words. Words, words, swords...” Khamled said wearily. “Yes, old fishmonger, let my friends in, but tell them to leave their shadows at the door.”
“There is some madness in his method,” Tomjon caught the old man muttering under his breath as he bowed deeply.
“Cluck, cluck. Wibble,” Khamled called after him as the old man ran out again, holding on to his hat.
Khamled turned to the players, his eyes flashing with fire. He took out a scroll from his robes and handed it to Hwel. “I wrote this play recently, and I wish it to be performed to the court on the morrow. Make sure that tedious old vizier does not catch you with it. If I can give just one word of advice,” he turned to Tomjon, “it would be to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue.”
At that moment, two giant moss-covered boulders lumbered into the room, led by the vizier. Khamled stood up. “Ah! Rosencrag! Guildenstone! My excellent friends! How do you both?”
“As the indifferent children of the disc, my lord,” rumbled Guildenstone, or perhaps Rosencrag.
“Er... What he said, my lord,” said Rosencrag, or was it Guildenstone? It was hard to tell them apart.
“We will take our leave of you and rehearse for tomorrow's performance,” said Hwel, patting the pocket where he had stowed the scroll.
Khamled winked at Hwel. “Take your leave, take my life... I shall expect such a performance as will ensnare the audience in a spell of enchantment from which they will never find their way out, dear players. Never. Qa'rus, lead them to their quarters, would you, dear boy?”
As soon as they were alone, Tomjon said scathingly, “Trippingly on the tongue! That's the worst advice I've ever heard. What does that mean, anyway?”
“He's an aristocrat, not an actor,” said Hwel, who was perusing the scroll. “They all think they know better than us how to do our job. Put them on a stage, and they piss themselves out of fright.”
“What's the play like?”
“Pretty mediocre. Snappy title, though: The Murder of Gonzo.”
“Who's that, then? A clown or a journalist?”
“A king, most foully murdered by his villainous brother and whore of a wife...” Hwel read. “I like murder, and seamstresses are always a good draw for comic relief. But it seems a bit flat, otherwise. Bit predictable. I think I'll just rewrite it a bit. Chuck in a duel or two... An unexpected twist... Some dramatic irony...”
“Remember what you were starting to tell me in the desert? That this seems familiar to you?”
“What did you mean by that?”
“I don't know. It was just a feeling. It's almost as if I've dreamed this before.”
“Or wrote it,” muttered Tomjon.
“Nothing. Don't you find it at all odd that we ran into the burning Dysk and came out into the Klatchian desert? That we were performing The Prince of Ur and then we met the real Prince of Ur?!”
“Hmm...” Hwel had his quill out and was making little notes in the margins of the scroll. He clearly wasn't listening. Tomjon gave up and went to bed. You couldn't compete with the inspiration particles for Hwel's attention.
The throne room.
Hwel peeked out from behind the curtain to see that the room was packed. The king and queen, both heavily-armoured and heavily-bearded, sat on their respective thrones at the back, and Khamled was sitting with the vizier's daughter in the front row.
The old vizier rushed in, his pointed turban askew. “The ambassadors from Ankh-Morpork have arrived, Your Lowliness.”
“Send them in,” said the dwarf on the lower throne, a jovial-looking fellow who was cunning enough not to look cunning.
Two men walked in and bowed deeply. “Prince Stronginthearm of Ankh-Morpork sends his most sincere regards to Your Royal Lowliness, Al-Ghlod of Ur,” began one of them.
There was a commotion in the court at that. Ghlod stood up from the throne. “Just Ur?”
“He says that Hippopotamia rightly belongs to Ankh-Morpork,” said the other one, who was dressed in fur and wore a lot of jewellery with skull-motifs on. He bore some resemblance to the warmonger, Lord Rust.
“Hotblooded young fool! He's just spoiling for a fight, isn't he? Our late king rightfully won those lands from his father in battle – nobody can argue otherwise – and what would Ankh-Morpork do with Hippopotamia anyway? It's a strip of land a mile long and half a mile wide, nothing but desert and the occasional cactus, and too far away from Ankh-Morpork to be of any use to them.”
“It is a matter of national pride, he says, Your Lowliness,” said the first ambassador.
“Yes, it certainly is. If war is what he wants, then so be it! We shall have war!”
The vizier's daughter, a wispy-looking woman with eyes too big for her face, started shaking violently. Khamled whispered something to her, and she looked as though she was going to cry.
“But tonight is for feasting and entertainment! Let the play commence!”
Commence, thought Hwel. Only a cold-blooded murderer could throw that word around so lightly. The music started up and Hwel stepped on stage.
Hwel stomped around the stage with his sword drawn, swinging his artificial belly around, bellowing orders left and right. The audience watched, hypnotised, as he fought a one-man battle against invisible foes. Tomjon made the sound effects from backstage, and the audience gasped and winced as they heard Hwel's sword cutting though human flesh and decapitating enemies, actually Tomjon hacking through a variety of poor defenceless vegetables.
Having finally won the battle, Hwel retired to his garden to rest. Tomjon entered, dressed as the queen, and sat next to the sleeping figure. He gazed lovingly at the fat, snoring king.
“Gonzo, love, I bid you wake,
For I have brought you tea and cake.
Eat and drink, dear, for my sake.”
Hwel sat up, as if waking from a violent nightmare, and drew his sword as if by instinct. He relaxed visibly when he saw Tomjon and the tray he carried in his lap.
“Ah, my queen, how good you are,
My doting wife, my shining star.
I am so weary from the war.
After I have drunk and ate,
I'll go and soon decapitate
my enemies that live in state.”
He sipped at the empty cup and keeled over theatrically. Tomjon as the queen looked wide-eyed at the audience and then to the cup that lay shattered on the floor. It was hard to tell what expression was on his face, something like an admixture of joy and grief. He reached down, picked up the crown and placed it on his own head in triumph.
There came a sudden sob from the audience. It was Ghlod, who rose from the throne and ran out of the room.
“Mother!” Khamled cried and ran after her.
The throne room, near the stage.
“That was an excellent play,” a voice breathed the words so softly that Tomjon almost didn't hear them.
“We live to please,” said Hwel, bowing. Tomjon bowed instinctively and, on straightening up, found himself looking into a pair of big brown eyes, which were attached to a small, nearly insubstantial young woman wearing a gauzy robe.
“I've always wanted to act,” the woman went on in a tremulous whisper, “but my father thought it improper for a high-born lady.”
“Do shut up, Offleria. I'm sure these players won't want to hear of your silly ideas,” said a loud, blustering voice from behind her. Tomjon recognised the man in the pointed turban, who then turned and spoke directly to him. “Yours was an extremely decent performance indeed, young lady. That usurping, regicidal queen gave me shivers; it was almost as if you were portraying real events.”
“Thank you,” said Tomjon through gritted teeth. The way the man spoke to his daughter annoyed him even more his calling Tomjon “young lady”. That he took as a compliment.
“No, I confess I haven't enjoyed a play this much in a very, very long time indeed, and I consider myself a connoisseur of the fine art of theatre, whether comicall-tragedye, tragicall-dramedye, dramaticall-historye, farcical-nonsesical-romantical-mysterie.
Tomjon's eyes narrowed until they were nearly shut. The vizier's daughter made a small noise from his side.
“Come here, Offleria, don't stand around looking lost and forlorn like that. This is my daughter, and I am, as you undoubtedly know, the Grand Vizier and Chief Counsel to the Low Queen Ghlod... Lord Poloneckius, at your service.”
Tomjon had a sudden uncontrollable coughing fit, which he tried and failed to suppress.
“Why don't you two talk about frivolous lady-matters while I have a word with this master player... in private?”
Tomjon watched as Poloneckius led Hwel away, leaving Tomjon alone with the young woman. He looked away, to avoid looking at her interestingly translucent robes.
“Er...” For some reason, Tomjon's tongue refused to work properly in front of Offleria. “Where's your pet tiger?” he finally blurted out.
She gave him a dirty look. “What?”
“I mean, in the play, you have a... er... that is...”
But Offleria wasn't listening any more. She scanned the room quickly and when she seemed satisfied, pulled Tomjon behind the curtain. When she spoke next, her voice was completely different – sharper, more urgent, more competent. “Meet me at the Djel bridge tonight. We can speak freely there.”
“Um... all right. Wait, though—”
“Where's the Djel bridge? Where's the Djel for that matter? I've only seen the desert.”
“It's on the other side of the cliff. Go to the stables and take Qa'rus's camel. He'll know the way.”
Tomjon groaned. “Not... Thou Whoreson Fiend?”
Offleria ran off, her robes floating ghost-like behind her. Everybody seemed to be in a real hurry to get somewhere, but Tomjon had no idea where they seemed to want to get to.
Hwel gazed around him in distrust. Poloneckius' office was a real labyrinth; there were strange instruments on every surface and piles of books thrown around haphazardly. Heavy velvet drapes blocked out the starlight from the windows and made the room even mustier and darker than it would be otherwise.
Poloneckius offered Hwel a seat but remained standing himself.
“Tell me, sir, as a Morporkian, what are your thoughts about Prince Stronginthearm's greeting to Her Lowliness the Queen of Ur? Do you also believe Hippopotamia to be an integral part of Ankh-Morpork?”
Hwel hesitated. Did it make him a traitor if he supplied information to the enemy? “Er... To be honest, I'd never even heard of the place.”
“No? I'm surprised. Prince Stronginthearm claims that your very coat of arms is meant to represent how integral Hippopotamia is to your people. The Ankh and the Morpork supported by a bloat of hippopotami...”
“There's only a pair of hippopotami; a bloat would indicate a much larger group,” Hwel corrected instinctively. “But I'm a mere player, my lord. I do not really understand politics.”
“Ah, but that's what interests me about you! How did you arrive at Ur when our borders are so strictly guarded?”
“No, pray do not answer. I've been asking myself this question for a while now. It's right up my narrow street, as you Morporkians say. You see, my title at UU was Lecturer in Dimension-specific Morphic Narrativium Studies.”
“You're a member of the Unseen University faculty?”
Poloneckius frowned. “I meant the University of Ur, of course. It is much grander than Ankh-Morpork's university, as you must surely know. It is the pride of Ur, and people come from all over the world to be able to study there.”
“Ah. Yes, of course.” Hwel coughed. That wasn't what Ur was known for in Ankh-Morpork, at least.
“My glasses showed me a very curious sight, Mr Himself. For one of these lenses detects narrativium, a normally invisible and otherwise undetectable element present in minute quantities in most of the multiverse, and in slightly greater quantities around the Disc. But never have I seen such a concentration of narrativium particles as... well...”
“... as around your head, Mr Himself. I mean, they're positively teeming, young man. And during the play, well... They were definitely trying to interact with the physical world, if not to to influence it. They poured from the stage and struck the Queen in the chest, causing her to rise and run out of the room, and then acted as a force pulling Prince Khamled too, after her.”
“I'm not sure I understand, Lord Poloneckius.”
“Nor am I. But please, if you will, enlighten me – how did you get to Ur? You needn't worry about betraying your country; I am only interested in this from an academic perspective.”
“I can't explain it. I wrote a play...”
“Ah – this one?” Poloneckius held up a battered octavo. Most of the pages were missing or had rubbed or torn off.
“Yes, that's it! Where did you— But— Is it— it's not possible— could the play be coming true?”
“If so, then we are in grave danger, Mr Himself. Forgive the pune, but it is very grave.” He handed Hwel one of the pages – the last.
Hwel read it with increasing panic, which reached a vertiginous peak as he reached the end:
GRAVEDIGGER whistles as he carts off the corpses of Prince al-Khamled, Queen al-Ghlod, The King, Grand Vizier Poloneckius, Offleria, Rosencrag, Guildenstone, al-Qa'rus, Tomjon and Hwel.
STRONGINTHEARM. I guess the rest is silence.
Tomjon held on for dear life as Thou Whoreson Friend sped across the sand. He'd tried out the word Qa'rus had used and now was frantically trying to search his memory for a word he might have heard for “For god's sake, stop!”
It was a bitingly cold night, but at least there was no storm. The speed at which the camel was going made everything appear blurred, or maybe his eyeballs themselves were stretched out; Tomjon had no time to appreciate the stark beauty of the desert. When he reached the bridge, the camel came to an abrupt stop. As Thou Whoreson Fiend sank his feet into the sand, lowering his neck to graze at the wild grass growing on the river-bank, Tomjon was thrown headfirst into the river. Gasping and fighting the pull of the current, he made his way out, keeping an eye out for floats of crocodiles.
Thou Whoreson Fiend looked too pleased with himself for it not to have been a deliberate act.
“I'll get you for this,” Tomjon warned through gritted teeth, and narrowly avoided a gob of potent biological weapon in his eye. Thou Whoreson Fiend turned back and padded away into the desert, presumably back to his stable.
He looked around for Offleria but she was nowhere to be found. There was no noise except for the rushing of the river, which made him feel even more alone. Supposing it was a trick? The thought slid into his mind like a hot knife, and twisted in his stomach. He supposed he'd better look everywhere before turning back. Squelching over to the bridge, he cupped his hand around his mouth and was about to call out when someone grabbed his collar and jerked him behind the bridge.
“Don't say a word,” a voice hissed. It was Offleria, dressed in black, blending in perfectly with the darkness under the bridge. It took Tomjon a moment before he realised they weren't alone. There were at least ten of them, maybe more.
“What's going on?”
“Trust no one. There are spies everywhere.”
Offleria just gave him a disgusted look by way of reply. Tomjon felt his heart plummet to his stomach. He glanced behind him and saw that he was surrounded by the crowd, all in black, all suspicious. The person who had jerked him behind the bridge was Qa'rus.
“Who are you? Were you sent for?” he asked harshly, still holding on to Tomjon's collar.
“That's what I want to know.”
“Look, I'm not here on the queen's orders, if that's what you're wondering. Or anyone's. Who are you people?”
“We are watchmen,” said one, and several others nodded.
“Students—” supplied another.
“Everyone who's fed up with the state of things. Everyone who is sick of war. Everyone who was press-ganged by the Urrite army but wants no part of this dirty business,” explained Qa'rus, who finally let go of Tomjon's collar. Tomjon noticed that his expression had changed - it was no longer angry and suspicious, but a curious hybrid of hope and fear. “We're trying to figure out how to save a kingdom in which the whole court's gone mad. It's not that we want to be invaded by Ankh-Morpork, but the war needs to stop, and if that means giving up Hippopotamia, so be it. We will not fight and die to satisfy their whims any more.”
“All the court cares about are its intrigues, assassinations, revenge dramas... Our last king won us all these lands, but lost us everything worth living for. And now they're going to cling on to an eggshell's-worth of land to the bitter end, until everyone in the land is propping up the dunes,” said Offleria.
“So why did you tell me to come here? What do you want me for?”
“I brought you here because you are a Morporkian, and a player,” – her eyes lit up – “who interacts with the common people of his land on a regular basis. Information doesn't flow very easily here. As you can see, even these meetings have to be clandestine. We've moved from meeting place to meeting place. We have no wish to be caught... again.”
“We have no quarrel with the people of Ankh-Morpork. We can, both of our people, decide to lay down arms and end this idiocy. So what is it like there? Is there any resistance on your side?” Qa'rus asked eagerly.
“Resistance?” Tomjon tried to think. All he could remember was how he had played to the warmongering crowd by portraying Klatchians as gullible morons who deserved to be defeated in battle. He felt shame colour his face a deep red, and he hoped it wouldn't be visible in the darkness.
“No matter. What I want to ask now is, will you join us?”
“But what about Khamled? Wouldn't he do anything to help?”
Offleria let out a decidedly unladylike sound. “Khamled! Khamled was our great hope for a long time. We all assumed that when the old king died, he would take over and put an end to this nonsense. I thought because he was a thinker, a rational man, he would understand how absurd this endless war was.
“When his father died two months ago, and we were betrothed, I tried to talk to him about it, gauge his response, but he wouldn't have any of it. He would always go off on this mad tirade about how frail and inconstant women are, and blame me for everything that's wrong with the world. He spent too much time in his head and lost touch with reality. He was always a little mad, really – and now he's gone completely over the edge, what with the queen's ascension to the throne and her marrying the old king's brother. Qa'rus keeps a watchful eye on him; he's the only one Khamled trusts.”
Tomjon looked around to see the other watchmen nodding. “But— he's only pretending to be mad, isn't he? I mean, around the others?”
“I trusted him too, once,” began Qa'rus heavily. “Then he started saying his father's ghost was wandering the castle at night. I tried to argue with him once but he wouldn't listen. Then reports of the ghost came to us from the watchmen too, and I waited for it to show up... Nights, I waited. I was scared out of my wits the first time, but slowly put zero and zero together. For I never saw the Ghost and Khamled at the same time.”
“You're saying Khamled is pretending to be his father's ghost? For what conceivable purpose would he do that?”
“Not pretending. I believe he believes he is the Ghost. As for purpose, he has some sort of plan,” said Qa'rus. “But it's not something you or I would understand. The logic of it is alien to anyone who's not mad. It's his seeming sanity that's feigned, all to fulfil that plan. The problem is, at the same time as being completely dotty, he's also extremely intelligent.”
“The Queen's bad enough, with her war rhetoric,” said Offleria, “but if Khamled gets into power, we are done for. We must stop that at any cost.”
Shivers coruscated up and down Tomjon's back as he listened to lapping of the Djel against the shore. He didn't know whether it was the temperature plummeting as it always did on desert nights, or whether it was this chilling twist in the story that affected him so. “And what about your father?”
“My father? He and I are both very good actors, Tomjon. He knows the truth but he won't dare drop the act. He doesn't care about the people— he has a nose for changing circumstances and he aligns himself like a pendulum with whoever looks to be in favour at the moment. He's been trying to figure out the cause of Khamled's seeming sanity for a while now, to see whether he should switch his loyalties from the Queen to him.”
“So what do we—” started Tomjon, and he was interrupted by a wet hand clamped over his mouth. The watchmen and other rebels in black drew their swords, which weren't curvy at all, he noted.
“Silence, Klatchoes!” he heard someone yell maniacally. “Prepare to bow at the feet of Ankh-Morpork's might.”
The wet figure came slowly into view, grinning as widely as the skulls that bedecked it. Tomjon recognised the erstwhile ambassador from Ankh-Morpork, the one who looked an awful lot like Lord Rust. A small army rose up from the river around him, and it was immediately clear that the Urrite rebels were woefully outnumbered.
“His Majesty Prince Stronginthearm of Ankh-Morpork will arrive soon, and then Ur will be ours!!!!!” He laughed a comic-book-villain laugh.
It's not just Ur; the whole world is mad, thought Tomjon.
“Why are you so surprised? It says here you wrote it.”
“I know, but I don't remember writing it.”
“Tell me, young man, who was the King of Ankh-Morpork when you left it?”
“King! We haven't had one of those since Lorenzo the Kind... We have a Patrician, Lord Vetinari...”
Poloneckius ignored him, and started to pace around his book-piles in a haphazard way. “Tell me what you know about the war.”
“Well, I've never heard of Hippopotamia, but there's a disputed island... The name escapes me for the moment, fishy sort of name... Anyway, lots of people have been making noises about that. And the Seriph of Klatch—”
“Seriph? Klatch hasn't had a Seriph in nearly two centuries!”
They both fell silent for a while. Hwel sat there with his brow furrowed in confusion.
“Let me give you a brief history lesson, because I believe that you might be rather ignorant about certain... realities. It started, you might say, with the resounding victory won by the dwarfs at the Battle of Koom Valley.”
Hwel's mouth dropped open. He remembered how embellished the stories were that he learnt in school, but even the most patriotic of dwarf-teachers had never called it “resounding”, or indeed, a victory.
“The success at Koom Valley inflated the hopes of the dwarf kings beyond all recognition, and they marched on Ankh-Morpork, conquering it in no time and installing their own Low King on the throne. I don't believe they really knew when to stop, and thus Ankh-Morpork's empire grew to encompass most of the known world. There was a saying – Ankh-Morpork's empire is borne by all four elephants, something of the like. Ankh-Morpork, the empire where the sun shines not is what we used to say...
“At around the same time, the Glods of al-Ybi installed themselves on the throne of Ur. The Urrite Empire has steadily expanded since then, but it was our last king, Khamled, who won the most spectacular victories, conquering Djelibeybi, Omnia and Ephebe, and bringing them all under the dominion of Ur. The nation called Klatch is a graveyard, the once proud land utterly wrecked by constantly changing hands and its resources relentlessly pillaged by both empires.
“Generations upon generations of Urrites have known nothing but war. They live in a constant state of paranoia, panic and terror. It looked like things were settling down, after Khamled the Elder recaptured Hippopotamia about two years ago – it seemed the old king's bloodthirstiness had finally been quenched – and Old Stronginthearm fell ill.
“His hotheaded son, young Stronginthearm, vowed to recapture the lands lost by his father – Hippopotamia in particular – and preparations for war quietly began again in Ur. Not that it went unnoticed.”
“But that's ridiculous!” burst out Hwel. “Dwarfs have no political power in Ankh-Morpork, and Ur... well, Ur is frankly a joke in most parts of the world.”
Poloneckius stopped pacing and looked seriously at Hwel. “You're not from here, and yet you wrote a play that prophesies the future of this very court. How did you get to this land, player?”
“You'll think I'm crazy.”
“Unless you go around with a morpork on your head whilst denying there's a morpork on your head, I'm going to assume you’re not. Compared to the madness in this land, nothing you could say could possibly surprise me.”
“Well, the short version is, the Dysk caught fire, I ran inside to save my play... and somehow I ended up in Ur.” Hwel shrugged.
“The theatre that my friend and I built when we—” Hwel stopped when he caught sight of Poloneckius' expression. His eyes were wide but not in fear. It was more like giddy excitement at the fulfilment of a long-held dream. He had clutched the edge of his chair to steady himself.
“Ah— do you see? My theories, vindicated at last! Let's see those blasted academics try to refute proof! And you, sir— you are my proof!”
“Proof of what? I don't understand.”
“Have you heard of L-space?”
“The extra dimensions branching off from a place warped by too great a concentration of knowledge? Yes, I recall reading something about it when I was researching for The Comedy of Arras; or, Scream 4. Interesting theory.”
“Theory? It's a fact, young man, backed up by experimental evidence. No wizard worth his hat would deny the actuality of L-space. And yet they still laugh at my proposed addition to the theory, which is predicted by all the mathemagical laws of the multiverse...”
Hwel raised an eyebrow so high it nearly touched his receding hairline.
“It's very similar to L-space, and one might argue it is largely the same – with an extension added on. In face, if you enter L-space and take a right, you end up in T-space.”
“Wouldn't that be ┴-space?” Hwel asked, figuring out the directions in his mind.
“Yes, yes,” said Poloneckius impatiently. “But it's harder to pronounce. My theory predicts that T-space is most easily accessible from a place where reality has been stirred up a little— that is, where a large group of people has willingly suspended disbelief all at once, all choosing to believe in something that is clearly false, all at the same moment. If this happens over and over, every night, for example, then that extreme stirring up of truth and lies could create a whirlpool and tear a hole in the fabric of reality, a gateway through which one could theoretically enter a space in which their delusion would indeed be real.”
“So you're saying that your world was just... created by my imagination when I wrote that play? But how can you accept that? Don't you find it difficult to believe that you are just a character in a story?”
“It's more complicated than that. T-space is no less real than the so-called real world, and your real world is more fictional than you would like to believe. It might surprise you to know, Mr Hwel Himself, that you could be just a character in a story too.”
“Preposterous!” But he surreptitiously pinched himself to be sure. It hurt. Not that that proved anything.
Poloneckius looked at Hwel with something like pity in his eyes. “The facts are the facts, however ridiculous and illogical they might seem. When something is written, and moreover, believed, even for a moment, narrativium will cause it to become real in one dimension or the other.”
Hwel stood up and bowed. “I must find Tomjon and warn him about what's coming. I'm much obliged to you, Lord Poloneckius, for your invaluable help.”
“It was my pleasure. By the way, what is the Comedy of Arras; or, Scream 4 about? I recall seeing an Tsortian production with a similar name...”
“It's a horror-comedy based on the Tsortian play by Platypus. Identical twins with the same name, lots of people mistaking one for the other, the whole social order being overturned, that kind of thing. I added my own twist to the original to make it a little more interesting: a serial killer in a mask periodically murders the least interesting characters. The lesson being: Always look behind the arras.”
That's when both of them heard the slashing sound, the laboured rip-and-tear of the heavy drapes on the wall of Poloneckius' office. The manic laughter started quiet and rose in pitch and volume until it seemed to fill the room. The drapes fell away to reveal Khamled, holding a bloody sword, his face streaked with blood.
Khamled was holding something like a giant brass spatula in the other hand, and he reached out and thumped Hwel on the head with it. Hwel fell to the ground, woozy. Everything became fainter and fainter, and as the light dimmed, he heard Khamled shout, “A rat! A rat!”, and Poloneckius' cry of “Murder!” – and then, silence.
The last thing Hwel heard before blacking out was the sound of a heavy thing being dragged away.
The Djel bridge.
The Klatchian rebels resisted as long as they could, but there were too many invaders. The Ankh-Morpork troops bound everyone and started to march them across the bridge towards the meeting point arranged by Stronginthearm.
“Sneaky bastards! Have you no honour?” shouted Tomjon.
“Nothing's unfair in war and politics, young man,” said Lord Rust's double superciliously. “You sound like a Morporkian, and you're not a gritsucker, I see. Traitor, are you?”
Tomjon's eyes narrowed. “Traitor! I'm sure your prince would like to know what you think of his people!”
“There's a difference between a savage gritsucking Klatchian and a decent Morporkian, boy, whatever their species. At least our dwarfs have adopted civilised ways, unlike the unwashed scum in Klatch.”
“Say that to Stronginthearm's face, or I will!”
Not-Rust's mouth turned up at the corners, and he drew his sword. “Oh, you won't be able to tell him anything.”
He advanced upon Tomjon, when all of a sudden, a series of terrified whinnies rang out from among the Morporkian troops' horses. A large, lumpy body was moving silently but at great speed through the army's ranks, scattering horses and men everywhere.
“Not... Thou—” started Tomjon, and ducked, upon which a putrid ball of phlegm narrowly missed his shoulder and struck Not-Rust right in the eyes.
“Arrrgggghhhhhh!!!” he screamed in agony, and stumbled around in search of some water to wash it out, finally toppling over the bridge into the dark, rapidly flowing waters of the Djel.
“Yes!” cried Offleria triumphantly.
Their rescuer scooped up Tomjon, Offleria and Qa'rus in one graceful motion and sped off back to the castle.
The banquet hall.
Hwel came to, groggily, with a throbbing pain on his head. He patted it to make sure the blow from the spatula-thing hadn't ruined his hair. When he looked around him, he recognised the cavernous banquet hall. He was sat at one end of the long, low table, and he realised there was someone else at the table by the scratching of a quill from the other end. He couldn't see the mysterious scribbler because they seemed to be sitting on the ground, and moreover, Hwel's view was blocked by the huge pile of bodies stacked up on the table.
He had written of massacres so many times, but now that he saw the macabre pyramid of corpses with his own eyes, he nearly lost his lunch. The scribbling got louder and faster, until it abruptly stopped.
“At last my great work is complete! Ahahaha!” he heard a voice say.
Hwel tried to sneak away without being noticed.
“Now don't be so modest, Mr Maggot. Well, of course I had to invite the worms to my coronation feast,” the voice continued. It stoppped giggling when it heard Hwel moving about, and its owner stood up to his full height, which wasn't very high.
“And you, of course,” Khamled said coldly, looking Hwel right in the eyes. “How could I leave you out? Are you hungry, like my other guests?”
Hwel forced himself to look closely at the other guests — or were they the first few courses? — counting the prone, sprawling bodies of Rosencrag, Guildenstone, the King and the Queen.
“Where's Poloneckius?” he ventured, remembering what had happened in the vizier's office.
“At dinner, dear player.” Khamled giggled mirthlessly, and took a shot of something in a tiny white cup. “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten! Ahahahahaha!”
Hwel didn't laugh. “Why didn't you kill me, too?”
“Kill you? Hmm... Capital idea, but I think I'll let you live... for now. I need an audience for my coronation, you see. And who better than you? To see or not to see. Isn't that the question? Or is it, to be seen or not to be seen? I must be seen, you see. There must be a witness. What was the question again?”
“To be or not to be?”
“That's a bit stupid but it might work in context. That's why I brought you here, in fact... because I heard you had some skill with words.” He took another shot.
“Wait— you brought me here? How? Why?”
Khamled held up a sheaf of parchment. Hwel recognised it instantly. He must have got it from Poloneckius after he'd presumably murdered the poor man.
“You— you wrote it. You wrote me, and my story. You made me an indecisive brat who can't decide if he's one thing or the other, the thinking man or the man of action. You made me see a Ghost that wasn't even there; you made me kill my closest friends, made me drive my betrothed to suicide by killing her father, made me jump into graves inappropriately and spout witty gallows humour, made me destroy my own kingdom and let the invaders in, made me mad – you made me mad, author. What made you think you could play with my life like that?”
“It was... good theatre.”
“Yes, there's always some excuse for you, isn't there? You only come up with the things; it's other people who live them.”
“I didn't know... but you always had a choice, Khamled. I didn't force you to do anything. The story just came out that way. I don't write the damn things; they write themselves!”
“When will you admit your guilt, old man? When will you stop with the excuses? Yes, yes... Stories write themselves, or audiences demand stories they want to see, but you made the decision to pick up that quill. Nothing compelled you. You could have stayed in the mine where you were born, but you had to pick up that quill, didn't you.”
“But I had no choice, I...” Hwel found himself running out of words. His thoughts briefly flashed to the end of the world scenario again: the spinning Disc in the void of space, and the slow encroachment of ice over its oceans, away from warmth and care of A'tuin and the elephants. He'd also noticed Khamled was getting worryingly sane. There was no more giggling and talking to maggots, just cold, sober, truth-telling.
“Yes, I am knurd, if you want to know.” Khamled said, as if reading his thoughts, and gestured to the cups in front of him. There were at least a dozen tiny cups, all drunk to the d'regs.
Hwel sucked in his breath. “And the orakh?”
Khamled's eye twitched, and he smiled with only one side of his face. “Don't need it.”
Hwel trembled. “You're going to kill me, aren't you?”
“What ending did you write for yourself, Hwel? I have no choice in the matter, do I?” Khamled tossed the unbound octavo at him. The papers flew about the room.
Hwel didn't need to look; he'd already read the ghastly end in Poloneckius' office. And things were coming back to him, the ideas that had come to him... the horrible things he'd written that night before the Dysk burnt down. Khamled was right. It was his fault. What kind of a sadistic monster would write the kind of things he did?
Khamled rose from his low seat. He limped to the Hwel's end of the table, dragging two heavy things behind him. One of the things was his seat – the Naan of Stone, Ur's most hallowed throne – and the other was Poloneckius, his narrativium-detecting glasses broken, and the turban unravelled to reveal a shiny bald head.
Khamled prodded him with his foot. “Wake up, fishmonger. It's time for my coronation.”
He grabbed a shot of coffee from the table and poured it down the old wizard's throat, upon which he woke up, his eyes like saucers, his mouth open in a silent scream.
Hwel winced, though he was relieved that Poloneckius was alive. “There was no call for that.”
“No call for making an honest man out of this cringing, cowardly liar?” Khamled sat down on the throne. “It's your job. Coronate me,” he commanded the Grand Vizier.
“Why do you want to be king?” Hwel asked, as Poloneckius continued screaming with no sound coming out.
Khamled narrowed his eyes at him. “It is written.”
“I don't remember writing it.”
“That's right. I did.”
Hwel grabbed one of the pages of the octavo that had got stuck under Rosencrag's giant foot, and he noticed that the play was riddled with corrections. Things had been crossed out and written in tiny letters in the margins.
Khamled had rewritten his own play.
The banquet hall.
Hwel heard something padding towards the banquet hall at great speed, and then skidding to a stop. “Stop the coronation!” a voice cried urgently.
“Thou Whoreson Fiend?”
“Father? What's wrong with you?” asked Offleria breathlessly, at seeing the rictus of horror on Poloneckius' face.
“He's just had a shot of undiluted Klatchian coffee,” explained Hwel.
“Wait a minute, I think I have some orakh here.” Qa'rus lifted a hip-flask out of his robes and administered the toxic drink to Poloneckius, whose mouth slackened and eyes rolled up in his head in an expression of tortured pleasure.
“Stronginthearm's troops will be here any minute,” explained Offleria once she got her breath back. “We have to defend the kingdom!”
“But all the rebels were captured by Rust's forces. There's no one left but us. We can't take on the Ankh-Morporkian army all by ourselves.”
“What should we do? Negotiate with them? Offer them Hippopotamia in exchange for leaving Ur alone?”
“They wouldn't take it, now that we are at their mercy. No soldiers, no queen, only a mad prince who wants to take over the empire... Wait, where is Khamled?”
In all the ruckus, nobody had noticed that Khamled had disappeared. Everyone fell silent and looked towards the door, where a trail of blood showed Khamled's trajectory.
They jumped as one when a deep gravelly groan rose from the table behind them. Guildenstone sat up, clutching his bouldery head. Queen Ghlod, who had been stacked on top of him, fell off, directly impacting the floor with the point of her helmet. She slowly got to her feet, smoothed out her long beard and looked around.
Hwel gaped. “You're— you're not dead?” He realised as the others slowly started coming back to consciousness that none of them bore any visible signs of injury.
“What happened to you, your Lowliness?” asked Offleria. “You ran out of the room during the play, and Khamled went after you. We assumed the worst.”
“That my son would try to kill me? Well, I can't say that I wasn't a little worried myself. He hasn't been himself since his father's death.”
Tomjon pointed a dramatic finger at her. “You killed your husband! Don't make it seem like he died of natural causes.”
“Well, he was murdered, I know that now. When I watched the play, it seemed to reflect like a glass the events that transpired in the court of Ur not two months ago. I was shocked when I realised the truth: the tea that I gave my husband that day was poisoned... but please believe me when I say that I was not the one who prepared the tea that day. I did not want to believe it, but the play forced me to look Truth in its ugly eye. It was not I who murdered my late husband...”
The banquet hall was silent as everyone held their breaths.
“It was my son.”
The balcony off the banquet hall, overlooking the desert.
The desert was thick with Morporkian troops, all clad in blood-coloured uniforms: the infantry at the front and cavalry at the back. Uselessium-powered thaumic cannons stood ready to blow the castle (and the surrounding town) to bits. Everyone watched from the window as the dwarf prince limped slowly to the front line, his sword drawn.
The army hesitated at seeing Khamled's mad courage, then burst out laughing.
The laughs turned to screams as Khamled started whirling through the front lines, mowing the army down as if it was a lawn and he were a particularly lethal lawn ornament.
Khamled made his way through the army to stand in front of Stronginthearm on his horse. That's when they fired the arrows. Khamled looked like a pincushion by the end of it, but he was still, amazingly, standing. The sand around him darkened, and even the watchers from the castle could see that he was bleeding profusely.
“We're done for,” Rosencrag moaned with a voice like an avalanche.
Suddenly, Stronginthearm's horse whinnied in fright and tried to throw him off. There was evidently some fracas at the back. All the horses were rearing up, terrified, and their riders were struggling to stay on.
“Look!” said Tomjon excitedly.
As the cavalry dispersed and the entire army turned around, they could see that a caravan of camels was attacking the invading army from the back. The Urrite rebels had defeated the Rust brigade, escaped captivity and come to Khamled's aid.
Everything erupted into chaos when Khamled fell. All the audience could see was a human-and-dwarf-powered sandstorm blowing across the desert.
“They're going to win, aren't they?” asked Tomjon in an awe-filled voice. “The Urrites know the terrain better— the Morporkians aren't used to fighting in desert conditions— we have the camels— maybe if we just get Stronginthearm—”
Offleria was shaking her head sadly.
“I mean, it's the perfect twist! The underdogs achieving an epic, inspiring vic—” he tried to argue with her, but his tongue failed him in mid-word.
When the storm cleared, they could see that the rebels and Khamled together had only made a small dent in the the massive army's strength, and that they had all been defeated – most of them dead, the few survivors captured. Even the camels had been killed. Tomjon suddenly felt very sorry for the last remaining member of his species in Ur. Thou Whoreson Fiend, on the other hand, was busy scarfing down the remaining food on the table and didn't seem to realise what had happened to his fellow camels.
Rosencrag was right: the Empire of Ankh-Morpork had won. Ur was lost.
But something wasn't right. Everything was too silent, too still.
The army had stopped advancing, despite their victory. They were all murmuring in confusion, as if they didn't know their orders... or perhaps the orders had changed. Stronginthearm had got down from his horse and was gesticulating wildly at his generals. He shouted at them for a while and then marched over to where the dead prince lay.
He picked up Khamled, who didn't even look like a dwarf any more, more like a extra-spiny urchin, and carried him through the gates. The rest of his army stood silent where they were, watching the spectacle along with the audience in the castle.
A couple of minutes later, Stronginthearm entered, bearing Khamled's arrow-filled, bleeding body into the banquet hall. He was weeping. He put the body down reverently, then reached up to his head, tore off his crown and threw it down on the ground.
“Never have I seen such bravery, not from any human or dwarf or troll I have fought. I am not worthy to rule a land that has produced such men. Conquering Ur would be a cowardly act on my part. Your Lowliness, Al-Ghlod XXVIII, you are the rightful queen of both Ur and Hippopotamia.”
Everyone was speechless at this turn of events, except for the gravedigger who had skulked in behind Stronginthearm, who looked rather disappointed. “NOW WHAT?”
“The rest is applause,” said Hwel, as everyone started clapping, solemnly at first and then – when the Morporkian army joined in, upon Stronginthearm's example – reaching such a pitch as to resemble nothing less than thunder in the parched desert.
A guest chamber at the castle.
Hwel stayed up till late at night reading the corrected play, whose pages he had scoured the banquet hall to gather together. When he arrived at the end, he found that... it wasn't the end. Khamled had written in an ending for them, too.
He stayed up the rest of the night, thinking about it. His mind couldn't quite wrap itself around the idea – and the implications – of T-space, and it left him feeling exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.
The banquet hall.
The next morning, Hwel ate a subdued breakfast with Tomjon, Offleria and Qa'rus in the banquet hall. Queen Ghlod hadn't left her chambers since the events of the previous night, and Poloneckius was still recovering from that shot of Klatchian coffee.
“Why did he do it? Kill his father, I mean?” asked Offleria finally.
Tomjon shrugged. “Does a man without reason have to have reasons?”
“I think he had his own reasons, but I don't think it was something we could understand unless we thought like him. Too bad it died with him,” said Qa'rus.
Hwel looked at the octavo, which was sat in the chair next to him. It seemed to be looking back at him, not letting a little thing like not having eyes get in the way.
“He did it for the good of the kingdom,” he said after a pregnant pause. His voice sounded like it was coming from far away. “He thought the old king's death could end the war and finally bring peace to Ur. But that released his grip on reality so that only his madness was keeping him going. He tried to kill himself because of his grief – despite everything, he loved his father, and there was a Ghost inside him calling for revenge – but it didn't work.”
“What do you mean, it didn't work?”
“I... hadn't written it yet. My play was his destiny, and nothing I hadn't written could happen in this world. It was all determined by me.”
“What, you're like the God of this world? The creator?”
Hwel shook his head. “The scribe. I performed the mechanical action of putting quill to parchment, but I can't take credit for its creation. Ideas float around in the air around us, as you know, Tomjon. Particles of narrativium, if you want to get thaumaturgical.
“Khamled knew this— he obviously knew of Poloneckius' work in the Dimension-specific Morphic Narrativium Studies Department. He stole an instrument from Poloneckius' office and with it, created a hole in the fabric of space-time, into T-space beyond it, and somehow brought me here, along with the play which was his destiny. He changed it—” Hwel indicated the octavo. “He changed it completely. I tried to make it dramatic, cathartic, comedic, tragic, absurd... whatever my bloodthirsty audiences demanded. I'm ashamed to say I enjoyed killing off these... characters.”
After mulling it over, Tomjon asked, “So all that happened in the past few days was what Khamled wrote for himself?”
“Everything. The interrupted coronation, the one-man battle against the imperial army of Ankh-Morpork, his own death, Stronginthearm's change of mind... the kid had talent, I'll grant you that. And despite his illness, he cared deeply about his people. He sacrificed himself to save the kingdom and everyone in it. He wouldn't accept what fate had in store for him, or for anyone.”
They finished their breakfast in silence, deep in thought.
“Now it's time to go home,” Hwel announced when their plates were empty.
“What?!” Tomjon and Offleria burst out at the same time. They both turned infrared. “Um, why do we have to go?” added Tomjon.
“Because it is written.”
“He wrote that, too?” asked Tomjon, impressed against his will.
Hwel nodded emphatically.
“Can I come with you?” asked Offleria in a slightly quavering voice.
“No. You wouldn't be able to exist outside of your world, because you're, well...”
Hwel hesitated. “Fictional.”
Tomjon opened and shut his mouth, and opened it again, but he had no words.
Offleria sighed. “So it's the nunnery for me, is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“My father always said if I didn't marry Khamled, that would be my only option.”
“Speak of the necromancer,” said Qa'rus under his breath, when Poloneckius chose that moment to enter the room.
It was the most bizarre sight Hwel had ever seen. Poloneckius was clutching his head, which, like his body, was blurry around the edges and making a strange buzzing noise. It took Hwel a while to realise that the cause: the old vizier was vibrating very quickly.
Poloneckius was walking rather quickly as well. He raced up to the table, sat down and stood up again. He circled the table a couple of times, went back to his seat and sat down again. This time, he seemed to be willing himself not to run around again, but he kept fidgeting, parts of his body twitching and jerking strangely. His eyes were bloodshot and kept darting around the room.
“Coffee?” asked Qa'rus cheerfully, and suppressed a snort as the vizier jumped nearly a foot in the air. It seemed to take a while for the word to make sense for him, and then his face contorted into an expression of horror.
“No! Never again!” Poloneckius moaned fervently. “This is... very unpleasant. I feel bloated– overhydrated, like I'm drowning in my own skin. I still feel buzzed, multiple shocks of electricity going up and down my body... I'm restless, can't stop moving, stop talking. Time is slowing down; seconds are splitting in two and then into four... into a thousand kaleidoscopic fractals before my eyes... my mind is racing... why are you all speaking so slowly?”
“That's a revognah you have there, my lord. Some say an additional shot of coffee will clear that up for you.”
“Certainly not!” Poloneckius made a disgusted face, which twitched.
“Can't you do something about Offleria?” Tomjon hissed at Hwel, looking furious.
“Ask the T-space expert if you will.”
“Ask me what? Ask me what? Ask me what?”
“Whether a person from T-space can survive in the dimension where the narrative was originally written. To put it bluntly, can you make a fictional person real?”
“Well, theoretically, theoretically... all you'd have to do would be to write that into the narrative. But I don't believe that such a thing has ever been attempted. You'd need the instrument, of course, and as far as I know, only one such specimen exists in the multiverse. I designed it, of course; it should be in my office.”
“Does it look like a huge brass spatula by any chance?” guessed Hwel.
“It does, indeed. Does indeed. Indeed it does.”
Hwel took out his spare quill and inkpot. There was very little space left on the parchment, which was more black than creamy-brown at this point. Khamled's minute, tidy writing filled up all the margins and even encroached into the spaces between the lines. “Are you sure?” he asked Offleria.
“Surer than I've ever been about anything in my entire life. Let me just inform Father. Father?”
“What is it, gel?”
“I'm going to be an actor, not a queen or a nun. And I don't care what you think about it.”
Poloneckius seemed to deflate. He had finally stopped running on demonic clockwork. He looked at his daughter as if for the first time. “Offleria?”
“Are you sure I can't change your mind? You know, acting is no profession for a respectable young lady...”
“Neither is living in a nunnery! For Anoia's sake!”
“Well, then, I suppose I can't stop you.”
“Damn right you can't.”
Tomjon tried to suppress his overjoyed grin, and failed. Offleria blushed again, then smiled.
“As you like it,” muttered Hwel and started scribbling in the last available space left on the parchment.
The edge of the desert.
Tomjon, Hwel and Offleria bade farewell to Qa'rus, Poloneckius, and Thou Whoreson Fiend, who spat on Tomjon's head by way of goodbye. Tomjon smiled. “Happy counting,” he said to his ungulate friend.
The camel turned and plodded off with Qa'rus and Poloneckius on his hump.
Hwel held out the spatula and stirred the air in front of him. The sandstorm arrived almost instantaneously, pummelling them with clumps of sand like fists. They waded through the rising dunes until they couldn't move any more.
Tomjon opened his mouth to ask “Are you sure it worked?” but as soon as he did, it filled up with sand. There was sand in his clothes, sand in his eyelashes, sand in his ears... sand in areas of him he couldn't even mention... The worst thing was that it was getting harder and harder to extricate his legs from the trap laid for him by the evil dry tempest.
He couldn't see the others any more.
No reason to panic, he thought, just before he started panicking. The sand had already buried him up to his armpits, and he hadn't gone more than a hundred feet.
“Help!” he tried to say when the sand reached his neck.
Surely the laws of narrative wouldn't let him die a stupid death like this, he thought desperately, just before he was fully buried in the desert, his arms and legs pinned to his sides. It seemed the sandstorm hadn't heard of the laws of narrative.
The remains of the Dysk.
Tomjon gasped for breath, getting a lungful of ashes instead. Someone had just lifted a large blackened beam of wood off his face. His nose was squashed but, miraculously, not broken.
“Tomjon!” he heard his father cry joyously, checking him over for injuries and looking incredulous when he saw that Tomjon was completely unharmed.
“The storm... is it over?” he asked weakly.
“He must have got knocked in the head.”
Tomjon climbed out of the charred corpse of the Dysk to the sound of applause. A large group of people was gathered ouside. The ridiculousness of two players running back into a burning theatre and seeing whether they would survive made for very good street theatre. Some of them looked disappointed, which was only to be expected of Ankh-Morpork.
“What about Hwel?”
“He's here,” said Vitoller.
Hwel beamed at him, waving the octavo of the twice-revised Prince of Ur at him.
Tomjon was still anxious. “What about—”
“Well, who's this? A young woman?”
A watchman was helping Offleria up. Her clothes were torn and she was covered in ash, like Tomjon.
“I just came to watch the play,” she said, and winked. “I must have stayed too long.”
Tomjon grinned. He looked around him and noticed that Qet Lowmar and Tom Goat were covered in soot and sweat too. They'd obviously been helping the others dig through the burnt remains of the Dysk to look for survivors. Now that it seemed everybody had been rescued, the two playwrights went up to Hwel and held out their hands for him to shake. Hwel looked very pleased.
Tomjon nearly choked when he saw Rabid Teale, head hanging in shame, inch his way unwillingly towards the group and say something to Hwel. He sounded apologetic.
“Dad? Do you know how the fire started?” Tomjon asked, his eyes narrowed and following Teale's every move.
“Hah! You won't believe it when I tell you.”
“We suspected Teale at first, you know... he was definitely repulsive enough to try something like that.”
“That's what I was thinking.”
“But then he threw himself into the relief effort so whole-heartedly that I think he probably does have a conscience in there somewhere.”
“Hwel doesn't seem too impressed.”
“It'll take a while for someone who wrote a review like that to get into Hwel's good graces.”
“So if it wasn't him, who was it?”
“Well, Lord Rust was taking it upon himself to publicise his opinion on who the culprits were—”
Tomjon rolled his eyes. “I'm dying to hear it.”
“It was the whole Klatchian community, apparently. He said they were incensed at the portrayal of the Urrite prince and that he'd eat his shoes if it wasn't 'a conspiracy of those... Klatchoes against our far superior culture', and I quote him reluctantly.”
“And what do the Watch think?”
“Commander Vimes found it all very suspicious, so he had one of his officers follow the trail... wouldn't you know it, it led back to Rust himself.”
“Oh. That is surprising,” muttered Tomjon, his voice deadpan.
“I never believed his slander for a second. Some of our most dedicated volunteers were Klatchians, you know.” Vitoller waved at the Goriffs, who were distributing free food to the rescuers.
Mrs Goriff waved back, smiling hugely.
“Anyway, Rust is in prison. The war has been postponed indefinitely. I think we'd better make it up to the Klatchian community somehow... ”
“I think we have just the play to do it,” said Tomjon, looking at the octavo, which looked rather pleased with itself... in a papery way. “So what now, Dad? What do we do now, without a theatre?”
“Who says we have no theatre?”
“The damage looks bad, but most of the wood is actually salvageable. Lowmar, Goat and Teale have promised to lend us some wood left over from the construction of the Tulip and the Arras, and we're going to build the Dysk anew. But we're going to move it across the New Bridge; there's an unused spot opposite the Lawyers' Guild that Lord Vetinari has kindly granted us a construction permit to build on. Are you feeling up to it, son?”
Tomjon gaped at his father. “What are we waiting for?!” he shouted when he got his voice back, and everybody looked at him.
He grabbed one end of the beam that had pinned him down, and a few people from the crowd hurried over to help him. The players and the audience cheered. Ankh-Morpork was throwing its weight behind the Patrician's Men. It looked like everything was going to end Hwel after all.
 Though the last only applied to the plays Hwel had set underwater. He wasn't entirely sure why divers needed alarums – in case they ran out of air, maybe, though perhaps sirens might be more appropriate in such a setting – but he had to obey convention.
 Like pigeons attracted gargoyles. Like the smell of the Ankh attracted no one. Like sparkly vampires attracted impressionable young girls who should really be working on forming a personality. There was no analogy powerful enough to fully describe the connection Hwel had with the inspiration particles. He suspected it was because of their slow erosion on his head that he was starting to lose his once plentiful hair.
 Musicians from the Opera House. Fights between the strings and brass sections of the orchestra could get pretty nasty— an ancient enmity that preceded by millennia the one between dwarfs and trolls.
 It bore a striking resemblance to the playwright Rabid Teale. It was lumpy in places where there shouldn't be lumps, and also, it was foaming at the mouth.
 Dwarfs believe, of course, that the lower you sit, the er... lower you are in status. (This is a good thing amongst dwarfs. Try to understand, d'harak.) This particular throne was very special, having been used at every Urrite king's coronation since time immemorial. It is known among Klatchian dwarfs as the Naan of Stone.
It might be supposed that T-space gets its name from the Theatre, but in truth, nobody knows why it's called that. When the theory gained prominence, some speculated that it might also refer to Trouser-space, the alternative universes that exist all around us and are separated only by the distance of Lobsang Ludd's trouserlegs.