“This is unacceptable,” said The Honourable Charles Rust and died. “I was going to pay that horrible troll this week, what?”
The gentleman in black did not hear the dying words of the baron’s youngest son, nor would he have considered the financial affairs of Charles Rust; his fee was already paid. He tucked the little black envelope containing the Assassins’ Guild receipt into the breast pocket of the dead man’s dressing robe, picked up the little black dart that had done the lad in, and vacated the premises the same way he had entered—through the window. No one saw him coming or going but the resident gargoyles, and as the Assassin did not resemble a pigeon very much, they didn’t care.
The shade looked down on his body, lying in his king-size bed with the book he had been reading still clasped in one hand. He looked like he was sleeping. You’d have to look closely to spot the tiny pin-prick wound of a poisoned dart on one side of the neck. “Well,” said Charlie Rust. “At least I died young and leave a beautiful corpse. Isn’t that what they say, aha?”
LIVE FAST, said the dark, hooded figure standing next to him. AND YOU’RE MORE GOOD-LOOKING THAN BEAUTIFUL. I THINK. Death was no expert on the ideal appearance of humans, but he considered ‘beautiful’ to be largely a feminine word. Charlie shared the robust physique of his father, Lord Ronald Rust.
“Good times, good times,” Charlie agreed. “At least now I don’t need to pay Chrysoprase. Doubt he’ll have the stones to turn up at my funeral to present the old man with a bill. That was a pun, if you please. A play on words, aha.”
VERY AMUSING, Death consented.
The shade tightened the shade of the chord on the shade of his dressing robe and regretted not making a habit of wearing a sensible pair of boots to bed. “What happens now, then?”
WHAT DO YOU EXPECT WILL HAPPEN?
Charlie felt cornered by the piercing blue glare from within the skeletal eye sockets. He felt a little judged. He did not like it. “I daresay, there’s supposed to be something after death—you, that is? Reward for a life well lived, eternal bliss of the faithful, what?”
I MUST PAY A FEW MORE VISITS, said Death. IT IS THE CENTURY OF THE ANCHOVY. EVERY PROCESS MUST BE BROUGHT UP TO SPEED AND MADE EFFICIENT. I CALL IT ‘MULTI-TASKING’.
“Oh yes,” said Charlie whose attention was currently occupied by the fact that he could see the texture of his bedroom’s rich carpet through his shade’s feet. “Very effective, the Century of the Anchovy. All streamlined.”
THANK YOU FOR UNDERSTANDING.
Everything went black. Not the comforting black of sleep creeping up on a weary mind, nor the sleek and elegant black of an assassin’s velvet coat. This was a dusty, foul-smelling black that left itchy grains in the eyes and nose. Charlie’s shade coughed several times before he realized that he did not technically have to breathe any more. “What’s this? I dare say, I cannot see a thing,” he protested.
SHAFT #23, said Death. IT IS A COAL MINE.
“But we’re on loam.” The Sto Plains were good for growing cabbages, tobacco, and root vegetables such as radishes—Charlie had always rather enjoyed cream cheese and fresh radishes on white bread. The ground was hard to make out in the near-solid darkness, but it felt gravelly and wet to his not quite material toes. And cold.
“Is that all?” a little voice squeaked.
THAT IS ALL, Death confirmed, and for a moment Charlie thought he sounded almost kindly—no small feat for a seven feet skeleton with no vocal chords.
A little shade rose up from a small patch of darkness more solid than the rest. It glowed slightly in the dark (Charlie wondered if he did as well). It was a child some eleven or twelve years old, so covered in filth and grime that even in death, its shade looked severely in need of a bath. And a radish and cream cheese sandwich—it was undoubtedly one of the thinnest children he had ever seen.
The little shade noticed him standing next to Death and looked at him curiously. “Who’s you?”
“I am The Honourable Charles Rust,” Charlie replied, raising one eyebrow. Dirt-faced orphans didn’t usually talk. To him, they were just backdrop in some parts of town. Like gargoyles and garden fences(1).
(1) The Honourable Charles Rust considered houses that had neither gargoyles nor proper fences—the kind with bits of broken glass and barbed wire on top to keep the rabble out—to be symptomatic of the parts of Ankh-Morpork that he was dimly aware that his family collected rent from but certainly did not wish to live in.
The boy’s face showed no recognition. “Oh. My name’s Gabe. Will there be something to eat?”
EVENTUALLY, said Death.
“I say, what would a child possibly be doing in a coal mine?” Charlie’s mind had finally caught up. Rust brains were not known to be sprinters; they tended to take the scenic route.
“I’m a trapper.” Gabe held up a grimy fist in which still remained the ghost of a string of rope. “I sit in this hole, see, and I hold the string. When there’s a coal wagon coming, I pull the string so the door opens. It’s an okay job, mister, bit cold and clammy but better’n those boys as carry coal baskets. My brother worked at the cotton mill but then he got himself crushed in the cogs, see, and our mam wouldn’t let me work there though the pay’s better. Reckon it were the coughin’ as got me in the end.”
“How dreadful,” said Charlie who wasn’t entirely certain what work a child would be doing at a cotton mill. Tie ends on strings?(2)
(2) That was actually the case. Also clean fluff from the looms. Usually while they were operating, which is how come kids occasionally ended up as stripes of red in the end product.
SORRY TO INTERRUPT. WE MUST BE ON OUR WAY. CENTURY OF THE ANCHOVY. VERY EFFICIENT.
The grimy, damp black shifted and became a drizzling grey darkness the kind that drenched Morporkian streets in April (Ankhian avenues booked the more attractive light spring showers instead). It was the sort of weather that might challenge a drunk to tell where the cobblestones ended and the River Ankh began. Not that it made much difference, you could walk on either (though the Ankh would eventually eat through the soles of your boots).
“Sweetheart Lane,” said Gabe knowingly and put his dirty little hand into Charlie’s. The baron’s son wondered if a shade could leave stains. He rather liked this dressing robe. It was very comfortable, and quite fashionable. A small hippo adorned the breast pocket.
A heap of mismatched clothes occupied a flight of steps in front of a run-down looking tenement building. As his skeletal companion strode towards it, Charlie took several glances to realise that the rain-drenched pile was in fact a person. Human, anyway. Probably.
He recalled an incident a few years back where he had attended a banquet somewhere – probably at Lady Selachii’s town house – and somebody had paraded a strange little man around, claiming that he was the newly discovered Earl of Ankh. Charlie had not been convinced back then that the apparition had been quite human; surely there had to be at least a few pints of goblin blood, and maybe a few other things in that mix. The individual on the stairs looked almost as bad.
He spotted a face amidst the rags. Its nose looked like a purple sponge beneath watery blue eyes fixed on the muddy cobblestones with firm intent of seeing nothing. It was impossible to tell where the figure’s hair ended and the rotting fur trim of an old coat began.
LORETTA SEDGWICK, said Death. MRS. SEDGWICK CLEANS, WHEN SHE IS NOT INDISPOSED.
“Oh. And we’re picking her up, are we?” Charlie looked at the figure. It looked dead enough. She certainly smelled dead.
The heap of old clothing moved slightly. An empty bottle fell out from somewhere within its folds and hit the cobbles with a clink. Judging from the label it had contained one or other of those awful spirits from the Bearhugger Brewery(3).
(3) The Honourable Charles Rust had never actually sampled any of Mr. Bearhugger’s wares. He liked having taste buds, and for that matter, a pulse. You know what they say about that stuff.
“Oh. I sees it.” Gabe let go of Charlie’s hand and stepped up to the drunk woman. He reached out with immaterial fingers and rummaged inside her rags. Then he turned around, carrying an infant in his hands. It was horribly thin and its skin had an unhealthy blue tint. “It’s when they drink, they forget to feed the wee ones and keep them warm,” Gabe noted. “It’s the gin as does it.”
“Goodness,” Charlie said weakly.
HER NAME IS BONNY, Death said. THE OCEAN NEVER BROUGHT MRS. SEDGWICK'S BONNIE BACK. THAT IS A PUN, A PLAY ON WORDS.
Charlie watched Gabe start to take off the ghostly rags that he used for a shirt. Little Bonny Sedgwick squirmed a little, in a way that caused Charlie to suspect that her condition had actually improved by dying. He pulled at the chord of his dressing robe. “Here, wrap her up in this. We can keep the baby warm at least, aha?”
ONE MORE STOP, said Death. DON’T WORRY, YOU’LL BE ON YOUR RESPECTIVE WAYS SHORTLY.
Being dead apparently meant that you did not have to walk to get to places any more. This was probably for the better; Charlie had died without even a pair of slippers on and walking up and down the streets—and coal mines – of greater Ankh-Morpork would have made him quite miserable. He felt bad enough already, watching the consumptive coal mine boy with the baby girl that died from drunken neglect.
The grey drizzle of Sweetheart Lane gave way to a bedroom—at least he thought it was one. A bed occupied the centre of the small, dark room, and a ratty looking dresser stood by the door. There was no carpet, no curtains, not even a window to hang the curtains on. The air smelled like gin and musk and piss. Charlie found that he recognised the combination of odours but could not place it.
The bed was occupied. As Death approached, the figure in it sat up and revealed itself to be a young, very naked woman. She made no attempt to cover herself. “Well, bugger that game of soldiers,” she said, upon realising that a seven-foot skeleton in a black robe was standing next to the bed.
I BELIEVE YOU JUST DID, said Death.
The woman smirked. She was actually quite pretty, Charlie noted—once he managed to pull his gaze up to her face. And quite young. Oh. That was the smell. Cat house. He’d visited places like this on occasion, with the boys. Boys will be boys, he thought and felt a vague, quite strange urge to apologise, though he was not certain what for. He’d always been well and solidly in his cups at this point, but then, judging from the smell, that was apparently normal. Young men practising for marriage like this, it was normal. Right.
“Always thought I’d die from the drink,” she said.
I’M AFRAID NOT, MISS GARIBALDI.
The seamstress(4) stood, revealing that no, she wasn’t wearing anything below the belt either. “My name isn’t Garibaldi. It’s Watts. Mary Watts. Ain’t actually got a drop of Brindisi blood in me for real. What bastard got me, do ya know?”
(4) She probably owned a needle. Or had at some point owned one.
THE ONE WHO CALLED YOU MUM AND ASKED YOU TO PUNISH HIM.
She glanced at the door, then back at the body on the bed. A blackish pool was spreading on the sheets, under it. “What a rip-off,” said Mary Watts. “Now what? Aren’t you supposed to only turn up for witches and wizards and suchlike? All them fancy folks, not riff-raff like us.”
CENTURY OF THE ANCHOVY, said Death. I AM TRYING TO MULTI-TASK. IT’S A MORE PERSONAL TOUCH IN A HIGHLY EFFICIENT ERA.
“Who’s the bloke in the nightshirt? Are those his kids?”
“They are certainly not,” said Charlie, shocked at the very idea.
“I’m Gabe,” the boy said. “I were in a coal mine. This here’s wee Bonny, she didn’t amount to nothing yet. The toff’s not so bad, gave Bonny his coat.”
Mary Watts glanced at him. “You got a name, Yer Lordship?”
“Charles,” said Charlie helplessly.
She looked him up and down in a way that made Charlie feel like she might be going over past injuries and insults in her head and looking up her mental list to see if he was involved with any of them. “Don’t reckon I know you,” she said at length. “Know your type though.”
Charlie straightened and felt a little more like The Honourable Charles Rust and not like a half-naked man in a nightshirt floundering in a cheap seamstress’ bedroom. He didn’t have to take that. “I’m sorry for the unfortunate circumstances of our meeting but they are not of my making, I dare say.”
Mary Watts snorted.
Gabe looked away.
Even little Bonny Sedgwick closed her eyes in a moment of infant clarity.
I BELIEVE THAT WE ARE DONE HERE. Charlie felt the sympathetic touch of a very bony hand on his shoulder. IT’S THE CENTURY OF THE ANCHOVY. THINGS WILL BE GETTING BETTER.
“Really?” asked Gabe.
THERE WILL BE LAWS AGAINST CHILD LABOUR.
COME THIS WAY. DO YOU HEAR THE SCHOOL BELLS RINGING? YOU’LL BE AN EDUCATED MAN, GABRIEL EALHAM.
Charlie watched the boy straighten and listen for something that only he could hear. Then Gabe solemnly handed him the baby—whom Charlie accepted with the ginger terror of a man who has never held an infant before—and took off at a run. It looked as if he was going to run right into the wall but when he got there, he just disappeared.
Death turned to look at the young woman whose corpse was still warm on the bed. ARE YOU READY, MISS WATTS?
“As long as that soldier who knifed me gets his face kicked in by the Agony Aunts I don’t care where I’m going,” said Mary Watts. “Life’s shit. And then it’s over. Shoulda been born rich like Charlie here.”
She too faded from view, though her expression was one of surprise.
“Er, I say, is she going to be me?” Charlie tried to work out the mechanics.
ONLY YOU CAN BE YOU. Death reached over and took the baby out of his arms. He let go with a small sigh of relief. Bonny was so light in his hands he was afraid that her little bones might break at his touch. The infant relaxed into the skeletal hands.
WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU ARE GOING, THE HONOURABLE CHARLES RUST?
Charlie thought briefly about the high priest of Blind Io talking about eternal, all-seeing bliss. Spending eternity with buxom wenches at Cori Celesti sounded like another good option. Several gods had their followers hand out brochures and vouchers for afterlives that included a number of virgins dishing out peeled grapes, never-ending celebrations, and learning to play the harp. That was the beauty of it, wasn’t it? A man got born, enjoyed his life, and chose the god who provided the most attractive afterlife.
He thought about a dark and damp coal mine where the air was so full of soot that if consumption didn’t get you, the black lung surely would. The Rust family owned coal mines, he was pretty sure of that. Or at least had stock in the coal industry.
He thought about Sweetheart Lane and other grimy roads like it. No one lived there who could afford a cardboard box under a bridge anywhere else. The Rusts owned a sizeable number of properties in those parts. You could say a lot about poor people, but they paid their rent. When they didn’t, there were others eager to take over the lease.
He thought about dark, foul-smelling rooms where tired women worked to please men for coin. There was a guild for that now, wasn’t there? Poor Mary Garibaldi-actually-Watts had probably just been unlucky. He tried to picture his sister, the Lady Regina Rust, naked and skinny, waiting for a group of soldiers or men-at-arms to inflict their tendernesses upon her flesh.
“I don’t know,” he said at length. “I’m not a bad man. I dare say, I’m really not.”
NO ONE SAID ANY DIFFERENT, CHARLES.
Charles straightened. “Century of the Anchovy, is it? And Mary Watts gets to be reincarnated wealthy for a change of pace. Well, I’d like to come back as a steam engineer.”
A STEAM ENGINEER?
The Honourable Charles Rust nodded. Like a true Rust, once an idea had spawned in his mind, he held on to it like a bulldog with a bone. “There’s one thing I do understand, you see. Money makes the Disc go round. Lack of money’s what got me murdered in my bed, I should know! Those laws against child labour that you promised Gabe would happen? They’re not going to be written until machines become cheaper than children. I want to help make that streamlined, effective future happen. Pull those children into the Century of the Anchovy all right.”
VERY WELL, said Death. VERY PRO-ACTIVE OF YOU, CHARLES.
He felt himself floating in warmth. A distant drum sounded its ba-dum ba-dum beat and all was well. He’d showed them. The Honourable Charles Rust wasn’t a bad man. Can’t help how you’re born, or how high up in society. Awful troll’d never get his money now, aha. Make a better future for the little ones, I say. But first, a little rest.
* * * *