Interesting Times Page 2

'What's this?' said Ridcully, as the stairs groaned under him. The Patrician took a key out of his pocket. 'I have always understood that Mr Johnson originally planned this to be a beehive,' he said. 'However, in the absence of bees ten feet long we have found . . . other uses.' He unlocked a door to a wide, square room with a big unglazed window in each wall. Each rectangle was surrounded by a wooden arrangement to which was affixed a bell on a spring. It was apparent that anything large enough, entering by one of the windows, would cause the bell to ring. In the centre of the room, standing on a table, was the largest bird Ridcully had ever seen. It turned and fixed him with a beady yellow eye. The Patrician reached into a pocket and took out a jar of anchovies. 'This one caught us rather unexpectedly,' he said. 'It must be almost ten years since a message last arrived. We used to keep a few fresh mackerel on ice.'

'Isn't that a Pointless Albatross?' said Ridcully. 'Indeed,' said Lord Vetinari. 'And a highly trained one. It will return this evening. Six thousand miles on one jar of anchovies and a bottle of fish paste my clerk Drumknott found in the kitchens. Amazing.'

'I'm sorry?' said Ridcully. 'Return to where?' Lord Vetinari turned to face him. 'Not, let me make it clear, to the Counterweight Continent,' he said. 'This is not one of those birds the Agatean Empire uses for its message services. It is a well-known fact that we have no contact with that mysterious land. And this bird is not the first to arrive here for many years, and it did not bring a strange and puzzling message. Do I make myself clear?'



'This is not an albatross?' The Patrician smiled. 'Ah, I can see you're getting the hang of it.' Mustrum Ridcully, though possessed of a large and efficient brain, was not at home with duplicity. He looked at the long vicious beak. 'Looks like a bloody albatross to me,' he said. 'And you just said it was. I said, isn't that a—' The Patrician waved a hand irritably. 'Leaving aside our ornithological studies,' he said, 'the point is that this bird had, in its message pouch, the following piece of paper—'

'You mean did not have the following piece of paper?' said Ridcully, struggling for a grip.

'Ah, yes. Of course, that is what I mean. And this isn't it. Observe.' He handed a single small sheet to the Arch-chacellor. 'Looks like paintin',' said Ridcully. 'Those are Agatean pictograms,' said the Patrician. 'You mean they're not Agatean pictograms?'

'Yes, yes, certainly,' sighed the Patrician, 'I can see you are well alongside the essential business of diplomacy. Now . . . your views, please.'

'Looks like slosh, slosh, slosh, slosh, Wizzard,' said Ridcully. 'And from that you deduce . . . ?'

'He took Art because he wasn't any good at spelling I mean, who wrote it? Painted it, I mean?'

'I don't know. The Grand Viziers used to send the occasional message, but I gather there has been some turmoil in recent years. It is unsigned, you notice. However, I cannot ignore it.'

'Wizzard, wizzard,' said Ridcully, thoughtfully. 'The pictograms mean “Send Us Instantly The Great”,' said Lord Vetinari. '. . . wizzard . . .' said Ridcully to himself, tapping the paper. The Patrician tossed an anchovy to the albatross, which swallowed it greedily. 'The Empire has a million men under arms,' he said. 'Happily, it suits the rulers to pretend that everywhere outside the Empire is a valueless howling waste peopled only by vampires and ghosts. They usually have no interest whatsoever in our affairs. This is fortunate for us, because they are both cunning, rich and powerful. Frankly, I had hoped they had forgotten about us altogether. And now this. I was hoping to be able to dispatch the wretched person and forget about it.'

'. . . wizzard,' said Ridcully. 'Perhaps you would like a holiday?' said the Patrician, a hint of hope in his voice. 'Me? No. Can't abide foreign food,' said Ridculy quickly. He repeated, half to himself, 'Wizzard . . .'

'The word seems to fascinate you,' said Lord Vetinari. 'Seen it spelled like that before,' said Ridcully 'Can't remember where.'

'I'm sure you will remember. And will be in position to send the Great Wizard, however he spelled, to the Empire by teatime.'

Ridcully's jaw dropped. 'Six thousand miles? By magic? Do you know hov hard that is?'

'I cherish my ignorance on the subject,' said Lord Vetinari. 'Besides,' Ridcully went on, 'they're, well. . . foreign over there. I thought they had enough wizards of their own.'

'I really couldn't say.'

'We don't know why they want this wizard?'

'No. But I'm sure there is someone you could spare. There seems to be such a lot of you down there.'

'I mean, it could be for some terrible foreign purj pose,' said Ridcully. For some reason the face of the Dean waddled across his mind, and he brightened upj 'They might be happy with a great wizard, do you think?' he mused. 'I leave that entirely to you. But by tonight I would like to be able to send back a message saying that the Great Wizzard is duly on his way. And then we can forget about it.'

'Of course, it would be very hard to bring the chap back,' said Ridcully. He thought of the Dean again. 'Practically impossible,' he added, in an inappropriately happy way. 'I expect we'd try for months and months without succeeding. I expect we'd attempt everything with no fuck. Damn it.'

'I can see you are agog to rise to this challenge,' said the Patrician. 'Let me not detain you from rushing back to the University and putting measures in hand.'

'But. . . “wizzard” . . .' Ridcully murmured. 'Rings a faint bell, that. Think I've seen it before, somewhere.' The shark didn't think much. Sharks don't. Their thought processes can largely be represented by '='. You see it = you eat it. But, as it arrowed through the waters of the lagoon, its tiny brain began to receive little packages of selachian existential dread that could only be called doubts. It knew it was the biggest shark around. All the challengers had fled, or run up against good old '='. Yet its body told it that something was coming up fast behind it. It turned gracefully, and the first thing it saw was hundreds of legs and thousands of toes, a whole pork pie factory of piggy-wiggies.

Many things went on at Unseen University and, regrettably, teaching had to be one of them. The faculty had long ago confronted this fact and had perfected various devices for avoiding it. But this was perfectly all right because, to be fair, so had the students. The system worked quite well and, as happens in such cases, had taken on the status of a tradition, Lectures clearly took place, because they were down there on the timetable in black and white. The fact that no-one attended was an irrelevant detail. It was occasionally maintained that this meant that the lectures did not in fact happen at all, but no-one ever attended them to find out if this was true. Anyway, it was argued (by the Reader in Woolly Thinking[4]) that lectures had taken place in essence, so that was all right, too. And therefore education at the University mostly worked by the age-old method of putting a lot of young people in the vicinity of a lot of books and hoping that something would pass from one to the other, while the actual young people put themselves in the vicinity of inns and taverns for exactly the same reason. It was the middle of the afternoon. The Chair of Indefinite Studies was giving a lecture in room 3B and therefore his presence asleep in front of the fire in the Uncommon Room was a technicality upon which no diplomatic man would comment. Ridcully kicked him on the shins. 'Ow!'

'Sorry to interrupt, Chair,' said Ridcully, in a very perfunctory way. 'God help me, I need the Council of Wizards. Where is everybody?' The Chair of Indefinite Studies rubbed his leg. 'I know the Lecturer in Recent Runes is giving a lecture in 3B,'[5] he said. 'But I don't know where he is. You know, that really hurt—'

'Round everyone up. My study. Ten minutes,' said Ridcully. He was a great believer in this approach. A less direct Archchancellor would have wandered around looking for everyone. His policy was to find one person and make their life difficult until every-thing happened the way he wanted it to.[6] Nothing in nature had that many feet. True, some things had that many legs - damp, wriggling things that live under rocks - but those weren't legs with feet, they were just legs that ended without ceremony. Something brighter than the shark might have been wary But '=' swung treacherously into play and shot it forward. That was its first mistake. In these circumstances, one mistake = oblivion.

Ridcully was waiting impatiently when, one by one, the senior wizards filed in from serious lecturing in room 3B. Senior wizards needed a lot of lecturing in order to digest their food. 'Everyone here?' he said. 'Right. Sit down. Listen carefully. Now . . . Vetinari hasn't had an albatross. It hasn't come all the way from the Counterweight Continent, and there isn't a strange message that we've got to obey, apparently. Follow me so far?' The senior wizards exchanged glances. 'I think we may be a shade unclear on the detail,' said the Dean. 'I was using diplomatic language.'

'Could you, perhaps, try to be a little more indiscreet?'

'We've got to send a wizard to the Counterweight Continent,' said Ridcully. 'And we've got to do it by teatime. Someone's asked for a Great Wizard and it seems we've got to send one. Only they spell it Wizzard—'


'Yes, Librarian?' Unseen University's Librarian, who had been doz-ing with his head on the table, was suddenly sitting bolt upright. Then he pushed back his chair and, arms waving wildly for balance, left the room at a bow-legged run. 'Probably remembered an overdue book,' said the Dean. He lowered his voice. 'Am I alone in thinking, by the way, that it doesn't add to the status of this University to have an ape on the faculty?'

'Yes,' said Ridcully flatly. 'You are. We've got the only librarian who can rip off your arm with his leg. People respect that. Only the other day the head of the Thieves' Guild was asking me if we could turn their librarian into an ape and, besides, he's the only one of you buggers who stays awake more'n an hour a day. Anyway—'

'Well, I find it embarrassing,' said the Dean. 'Also, he's not a proper orang-utan. I've been reading a book. It says a dominant male should have huge cheek pads. Has he got huge cheek pads? I don't thrnk so. And—'

'Shut up, Dean,' said Ridcully, 'or I won't let you go to the Counterweight Continent.'

'I don't see what raising a perfectly valid - What?'

'They're asking for the Great Wizzard,' said Ridcully. 'And I immediately thought of you.' As the only man I know who can sit on two chairs at the same time, he added silently. 'The Empire?' squeaked the Dean. 'Me? But they hate foreigners!'

'So do you. You should get on famously.'

'It's six thousand miles!' said the Dean, trying a new tack. 'Everyone knows you can't get that far by magic.'

'Er. As a matter of fact you can, I think,' said a voice from the other end of the table. They all looked at Ponder Stibbons, the youngest and most depressingly keen member of the faculty He was holding a complicated mechanism of sliding wooden bars and peering at the other wizards over the top of it. 'Er. Shouldn't be too much of a problem,' he added. 'People used to think it was, but I'm pretty sure it's all a matter of energy absorption and attention to relative velocities.' The statement was followed with the kind of mystified and suspicious silence that generally succeeded one of his remarks. 'Relative velocities,' said Ridcully. 'Yes, Archchancellor.' Ponder looked down at his prototype slide rule and waited. He knew that Ridcully would feel it necessary to add a comment at this point in order to demonstrate that he'd grasped something. 'My mother could move like lightning when—'

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