The Last Continent Page 36

And it seemed to the Bursar that there were other people here. He couldn't see them or hear them, but something in his bones sensed them. However, the Bursar was also quite accustomed to the presence of people who couldn't be seen or heard by anyone else, and had spent many a pleasant hour in conversation with historical figures and, sometimes, the wall. All in all the Bursar was, depending on your outlook, the most or least suitable person to encounter deity on a first-hand basis. An old man walked around a rock and was halfway to the fire before he noticed the wizard. Like Rincewind, the Bursar had no room in his head for racism. As a skin colour black came as quite a relief compared to some of the colours he'd seen, although he'd never seen anyone quite so black as the man now staring at him. At least, the Bursar assumed he was staring. The eyes were so deep set that he couldn't be sure. The Bursar, who had been properly brought up. said, 'Hooray, there's a rosebush?' The old man gave him a rather puzzled nod. He walked over to the dead tree and pulled off a branch, which he pushed into the fire. Then he sat down and watched it as though watching wood char was the most engrossing thing in the world. The Bursar sat down on a rock and waited. If the game was patience, then two could play at it. The old man kept glancing up at him. The Bursar kept smiling. Once or twice he gave the man a little wave. Finally the burning branch was pulled out of the fire. The old man picked up the leather sack in his other hand and walked off among the rocks. The Bursar followed him. There was an overhang here under a small cliff, shielding a stretch of vertical rock from the rain. It was the kind of tempting surface that would, in Ankh-Morpork, have already been covered so thickly with so many posters, signs and graffiti that if you'd removed the wall the general accretion would still have stood up. Someone had drawn a tree. It was the simplest drawing of a tree the Bursar had ever seen since he'd been old enough to read books that weren't mainly pictures, but it was also in some strange way the most accurate. It was simple because something complex had been rolled up small; as if someone had drawn trees, and started with the normal green cloud on a stick, and refined it, and refined it some more, and looked for the little twists in a line that said tree and refined those until there was just one line that said TREE. And now when you looked at it you could hear the wind in the branches. The old man reached down beside him and took up a flat stone with some white paste on it. He drew another line on the rock, slightly like a flattened V, and smeared it with mud. The Bursar burst out laughing as the wings emerged from the painting and whirred past him.

And again he was aware of a strange effect in the air. It reminded him of . . . yes . . . old 'Rubber' Houser, that was his name, dead now, of course, but remembered by many of his contemporaries as the inventor of the Graphical Device. The Bursar had joined the University when likely wizards started their training early, somewhere after the point where they learned to walk but before they started to push over girls in the playground. The writing of lines in detention class was a familiar punishment and the Bursar, like everyone else, toyed with the usual practice of tying several pens to a ruler in a group attempt to write lines in threes. But Houser, a reflective sort of boy, had scrounged some bits of wood and stripped a mattress of its springs and devised the four-, sixteen- and eventually the thirty-two-line writing machine. It had got so popular that boys were actually breaking rules in order to have a go on it, at threepence a time to use it and a penny to help wind it up. Of course, more time was spent setting it up than was ever saved by using it, but this is the case in many similar fields and is a sign of Progress. The experiments tragically came to an end when someone opened a door at the wrong moment and the entire pent-up force of Houser's experimental prototype 256-line machine propelled him backwards out of a fourth-floor window. Except for the absence of screams, the hand tracing its infinitely simple lines on the rock brought back memories of Houser. There was a sense of something small being done that was making something happen that was huge. He sat and watched. It was, he remembered later whenever he was in a state to remember anything, one of the happiest times of his life. When Rincewind lifted his head a watchman's helmet was spinning gently on the ground. To his amazement the men themselves were still there, although they were lying around in various attitudes of unconsciousness or at least, if they had sense, feigned unconsciousness. The Luggage had a cat's tendency to lose interest in things that didn't fight back even after you'd kicked them a few times. Shoes littered the ground, too. The Luggage was limping around in a circle. Rincewind sighed, and stood up. Take the shoes off. They don't suit you,' he said. The Luggage stood still for a moment, and then the rest of the shoes clattered against the wall. 'And the dress. What would those nice ladies think if they saw you dressing up like this?' The Luggage shrugged off the few sequinned tatters that remained. 'Turn around, I want to see your handles. No, I said turn around. Turn around properly, please. Ah, I thought so . . . I said turn around. Those earrings . . . they don't do anything for you at all, you know.' He leaned closer. Is that a stud? Have you had your lid pierced?'

The Luggage backed away. Its manner indicated very clearly that while it might give in on the shoes, the dress and even the earrings, the battle over the stud would go to the finish. 'Well . . . all right. Now give me my clean underwear, you could make shelves out of the stuff I'm wearing.' The Luggage opened its lid. 'Good, now I— Is that my underwear? Would I be seen dead in something like that? Yes, as a matter of fact I suspect I would. My underwear, please. It's got my name inside, although I must admit I can't quite remember why I thought that was necessary.' The lid shut. The lid opened. 'Thank you.' It was no use wondering how it was done, or for that matter why the laundry returned freshly ironed. The watchmen were still very wisely remaining unconscious, but out of habit Rincewind went behind a stack of old boxes to change. He was the sort of person who'd go behind a tree to change if he was on a desert island all alone. 'You noticed something odd about this alley?' he said, over the top of the boxes. 'There're no drainpipes. There're no gutters. They've never heard of rain here. I suppose you are the Luggage, aren't you, and not some kangaroo in disguise? Why am I asking? Ye gods, these feel good. Right, let's go—' The Luggage opened its lid again, and a young woman looked up at Rincewind. 'Who are—? Oh, you're the blind man,' she said. 'I beg your pardon?'

'Sorry . . . Darleen said you must be blind. Well, actually she said you must be bloody blind. Can you give me a hand out?' It dawned on Rincewind that the girl clambering out of the Luggage was Neilette, the third member of Letitia's crew and the one who'd seemed quite plain compared to the others and certainly a lot less . . . well, noisy wasn't quite the word. Probably the word was 'expansive'. They filled the space around them to capacity. Take Darleen, a lady he'd last seen holding a man daintily by the collar so that she could punch him in the face. When she walked into a room, there'd be no one in it unaware that she had done so. Neilette was just . . . ordinary. She brushed some dirt off her dress, and sighed. 'I could see there was going to be another fight so I hid in Trunkie,' she said. 'Trunkie, eh?' said Rincewind. The Luggage had the decency to look embarrassed.

'Sooner or later there's always a fight where Darleen goes,' said Neilette. 'You'd be amazed the things she can do with a stiletto heel.'

'I think I've seen one of them,' said Rincewind. 'Don't tell me the others. Um, can I help you? Only me and Trunkie here' – he gave the Luggage a kick – 'were heading off, weren't we, Trunkie?'

'Oh, don't kick her, she's been so useful,' said Neilette. 'Really?' said Rincewind. The Luggage turned around slowly so that he couldn't see the expression on its lock. 'Oh, yes. I reckon the miners in Cangoolie would've . . . been very unpleasant to Letitia if Trunkie hadn't stepped in.'

'Stepped on, I expect.'

'How did you know that?'

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'Oh, the L—Trunkie is mine. We got separated.' Neilette tried to arrange her hair. 'It's all right for the others,' she said. 'They just have to change wigs. Beer might be a good shampoo, but not when it's still in the tinnie.' She sighed. 'Oh, well. I suppose I'll have to find a way home, now.'

'Where do you live?'

'Worralorrasurfa. It's Rimwards.' She sighed again. 'Back to life in the banana-bending factory. So much for showbusiness!' Then she burst into tears and sat down heavily on the Luggage. Rincewind didn't know whether he should go into the 'pat, pat, there, there' routine. If she was like Darleen, he might lose an arm. He made what he hoped was a soothing yet non- aggressive mumble. 'I mean, I know I can't sing very well and I can't dance but, frankly, neither can Letitia and Darleen. When Darleen sings “Prancing Queen” you could slice bread with it. Not that they've been unkind,' she added quickly, polite even in the throes of woe, 'but really there's got to be more to life than getting beer thrown at you every night and being chased out of town.' Rincewind felt confident enough to venture a 'there, there'. He didn't risk a 'pat, pat'. 'Really I only did it because of Noelene dropping out,' Neilette sobbed. 'And I'm about the same height and Letitia couldn't find anyone else in time and I needed the money and she said it would be okay provided people didn't notice my hands were so small . . .'

'Noelene being—?'

'My brother. I told him, trying for the surf championship is fine, and ballgowns are fine, but both together? I don't think so. Did you know what a nasty rash you can get from being rolled across coral? And next morning Letitia had this tour organized and, well, it seemed a good idea at the time.'

'Noelene . . .' Rincewind mused. That's an unusual name for a . . .'

'Darleen said you wouldn't understand.' Neilette stared into the middle distance. 'I think my brother worked in the factory too long,' she mused. 'He always was very impressionable. Anyway, I—'

'Oh, I get it, he's a female impersonator,' said Rincewind. 'Oh, I know about those. Old pantomime tradition. A couple of balloons, a straw wig and a few grubby jokes. Why, when I was a student, at Hogswatch parties old Farter Carter and Really Pants would put on a turn where—' He was aware that she was giving him one of those long, slow looks. Tell me,' she said. 'Do you get about much?'

'You'd be amazed,' said Rincewind. 'And you meet all kinds of people?'

'Generally the nastier kind, I have to admit.'

'Well, some men . . .' Neilette stopped. 'Really Pants? That was someone's name?'

'Not exactly. He was called Ronald Pants, so of course when anyone heard that they said—'

'Oh, is that all?' said Neilette. She stood up and blew her nose. 'I told the others I'd leave when we got to the Galah, so they'll understand. Being a . . . female impersonator is no job for a woman, which is what I am, incidentally. I'd hoped it was obvious, but in your case I thought I'd better mention it. Can you get us out of here, Trunkie?' The Luggage wandered over to the wall at the end of the alley and kicked it until there was a decent-sized hole. On the way back it clogged a watchman who was unwise enough to stir. 'Er, I call him the Luggage,' said Rincewind helplessly. 'Really? We call her Trunkie.' The wall opened up into a dark room. Crates were packed against the walls, covered with cobwebs. 'Oh, we're in the old brewery,' said Neilette. 'Well, the new one, really. Let's find a door.'

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