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in her own defence

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The riverbank was overhung with flowers, stems drooping low to skim the surface. The grass was thick and lush, except where the sunlight would be blocked by the willow tree that hung its leaves directly into the reflecting stream. The wildflowers at the bank were far outmatched by those in the meadow nearby, however, where a young woman in her underwear was weeping. The underwear of this place was rather more concealing than most places’ winter coats, so this should not be taken as a particularly titillating scene, even had there been anyone around who was interested in that kind of thing.

Susan sniffed. She was generally irritated by supernatural interference in her life, and this was an extreme example of it.* So far, the only upside to her situation was the absence of a magic circle and a group of elderly wizards, which had been one of the more irritating parts the last time she’d been unexpectedly involved in the paranormal. That did, however, mean that an explanation was unlikely to be forthcoming.

The woman in the field was drifting closer, with occasional pauses to dance happily in circles or wail in pain and throw herself onto the ground. She was also gathering flowers, twisting them into a wreath. She wasn’t particularly good at it, and the ends kept coming undone. By the time she got to the river’s edge, however, a few metres downstream from Susan and right next to the tree, she had managed to more or less bind it together. Petals fell off and drifted into the water.

The maiden leaned forward, set one foot on a branch, and reached out to hang her wreath on an overhanging twig. The act was carefully done to avoid any display of excess skin, but with much less care for balance.

No scythe. No Binky. She wasn’t here officially. Good.

Susan stalked over, grabbed the young woman’s shoulder, and shook her, hard. She jumped back, lost her balance, and fell against the tree’s trunk, staring at her rescuer. She was blonde, and pretty in a wet sort of way.** Her eyes had formerly held a sort of hazy unfocused dreaminess, but now they were focused directly on Susan.

“Oh, mistress, stray from Avalon, what father hast thou?”

“None of that,” said Susan. “You’re trying to act like you’re off your rocker, but you’re actually just grieving. What’s happened?”

A tear slid down the woman’s cheek. Susan sighed.

“Yes, it must have been terrible,” she said, modulating her voice.

“The prince killed my father,” said her captive. “Now he’s in exile, and my brother attacked the king, and Hamlet used to be so nice...”

“There there,” said Susan as the other woman burst into tears and buried her face against Susan’s shoulder. “What’s your name?”

“Ophelia,” the woman choked out.

“You poor thing.”

“He went mad,” Ophelia sobbed. “And my father said it was for love of me, and then Hamlet killed him, and it’s all my fault...”

“No it isn’t. That’s ridiculous. Where do you live?”

Ophelia pointed vaguely, still sobbing. Susan glanced over at the enormous, forebodingly blocky castle.

“Really?”

She nodded.

“Right. Well, let’s see how your family are.”

“They aren’t my family. There’s just my brother, and the royalty.”

“Good point. Do you want to see your brother?”

“Where else would I go?”

“Anywhere you want, of course. Lots of young women support themselves. Work in a shop. Put on trousers and join a theatre troupe and have extremely clichéd adventures.”

“I haven’t any money of my own to start with, I don’t have anyone I know who would hire someone with no training or references, and the actors left two weeks ago.”

Well, that was a more practical reaction than Susan had expected. “Well, then, you can come back with me.” Hopefully the woman would live up to that practicality.

“In that case,” said Ophelia, “I think I must inform Laertes.”

It wasn’t a very long walk, and the guards at the castle gates were just as susceptible to Susan’s glare as her teachers. It would have been disappointing, if she’d been worried about their security.

The throne room, as usual, was unwisely close to the entrance and guarded by a pair of enormously impressive but not very defensive doors. Susan tried the small door to the left instead, and they wound up slightly behind a statue as a tall sobbing woman rushed in at the other side of the room.

“The queen,” Ophelia whispered. The identities of the two men already in the room were clear enough.

“One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, so fast they follow; your sister’s drown’d, Laertes,” cried the queen.

“Drown’d! Oh, where?”

Ophelia ran out from behind the statue. “Well, that’s a stupid question,” said Susan, following and drawing the others’ attention as the queen began to draw in a breath.

“I’m not,” Ophelia said, “I’m not, Laertes, I have found a calling, and in this so troubled time I think ’tis best for me to leave Denmark.”

“But I saw it!” the queen said. “Upon the brook’s cold bank, where flowers -”

“Sorry,” said Susan. “That can happen when I’m around. But if you saw something, why didn’t you come running?”

“I saw it from my window.” The queen looked around at the others. Laertes was staring at Ophelia. The king was frowning at Susan.

“What are you going to do with Hamlet, anyway?” she asked.***

The King and Laertes looked decidedly shifty.

“Hamlet is in England,” said the queen. “He has been exiled.”

The King and Laertes looked even shiftier.

“Look, do you people have an actual plan for anything in the next two days? A plan that doesn’t involve killing people?”

“Madam, you slur the royalty of Denmark,” said the king. “Leave this house, and cease your corrupting influence on the daughter of our late councillor.”

“Susan, they can’t mean that,” said Ophelia. “Not Laertes, not my brother.”

“Of course,” said Susan, glaring at the young man. He quailed. She’d been practising.

“I still wish to go, though. Laertes?” She held a hand out to him. He looked confused, and then kissed it, and she drew him into a hug.

“Godspeed,” he said. “But you are not leaving, at least not now?”

“Actually, I think we’re done here,” said Susan. She paused. She still wasn’t quite certain of how some of her abilities worked. She’d tried not to think about it too much. There had been classes to attend, and that was easier when you weren’t stuck in a worldview that saw all knowledge as relative and time as an illusion.

She reached out and took Ophelia’s hand. It felt silly, but it would look less stupid than leaving her here. Then she concentrated.

The court of Denmark stared at the empty space in the middle of the room and contemplated trying to explain it to anyone else.

“Alas then,” said Laertes, “she is drown’d?”

“Drown’d, drown’d!” the queen agreed.

*

They arrived in Ankh-Morpork. Susan recognized it at once. Anyone who’d smelled it before would. She’d aimed for Quirm, but it wasn’t bad for a first interdimensional attempt, she decided.****

“What is this place?” asked Ophelia.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Susan said. “What do you want to do? I mean when people aren’t telling you what to do. What do you want to do for a living?”

“I ... don’t know,” said Ophelia. “They’ve always been telling me what to do.”

“Well, what do you like?”

“Flowers,” said Ophelia at once. “Don’t look at me like that. I like flowers. I ... could be a florist.”

“Excellent idea. I can get you a place as a tooth fairy to start building savings.”

***

*Susan was not nearly so irritated as the riverbank, which, suddenly disturbed by the presence of a pale, dramatic, white-haired woman dressed in sensible black, was furious. She didn’t go with the scenery.

**Not nearly as wet as she would have been in fifteen seconds, however.

***Someone else might have prefaced this by admitting that this was none of her business, but Susan didn’t make such petty distinctions.

****The people walking past them didn’t pay much attention to them. It takes a lot to startle Ankh-Morpork.