It wasn't a very funny joke, Agnes thought as the door to the shop slowly farted shut behind her. What joke Perdita groused at the back of her mind, the whoppie cushion over the door? Of course not; no one actually finds that sort of thing funny. You've lived here, you've met Clowns! Mind you, that's a perfect E Flat, I'll give it that. Agnes, as she found she was mostly able to these days, ignored her. It wasn't the cushion.
"Well, I'll be," said the witch - it was unthinkable that she could be anything else - behind the counter, stepping out to take a closer look. "No one's ever gotten it that quick before."
That's a very unconvincing costume, Perdita noted. No, Agnes told her, patiently, it isn't.
"Oh, but it is," said the witch - what had Nanny said her name was? "It's entirely unconvincing. That's the point. And I'm Mrs. Proust - pleased to meet you."
"Erm," Agnes said, bowing more out of instinct than by conscious effort. "Pleased to meet you," Perdita said out loud, much to Agnes's annoyance. It was just as well, she thought - or possibly Perdita thought; sometimes it was hard to tell - that witches did not traditionally greet one another by clasping hands. Mrs. Proust's hands were long, gnarly, and as pale as to be nearly green, with long, sharp, unkept nails, like, well, almost exactly like the gloves and fake prop hands that hung from the various shelves and stands around the shop. That, of course, was the joke.
"And you would be young Agnes." Mrs. Proust smiled. "Perhaps not so young anymore. Oh, don't look at me like that; witches are honest. If you didn't already know that, you wouldn't be one."
Agnes nodded. If she hadn't been a witch, she might have been offended, 1 but she was, and so she wasn't. By Ramptop standards, she was practically a spinster, all her other friends long married off or, as Nanny Ogg had put it 'buggered off'. Agnes always wondered if there was something she was missing there, but then there usually was, where Nanny was concerned. You're staring, Perdita prompted her, and Agnes blushed. She was usually the one who had to point that out to others. She turned her gaze somewhere to the left of Mrs. Proust's warty cheek, and saw her grin. Making people uncomfortable was part of Mrs. Prousts' power, Agnes realized, and there were myriad ways in which to do that. "I've brought a list," she tried not to mumble, fishing it out of her purse. 2
"I expect you have," Mrs. Proust cackled, not unkindly.
It was always a little disconcerting to be back in Ankh-Morkpork, so Agnes tended to avoid it as much as possible. She found she could barely remember what it had been like - she had to stop herself from thinking when I was younger - before. She didn't think about that time much. Perhaps Perdita did. At any rate, there was always some other young... some other witch more than willing to take the excuse of running errands to get into the Big City. 3 Whatever the reason, nowadays she found it hard to imagine that she had lived in ever Ankh-Morkpork. That said, not much seemed to have changed here, not in any meaningful sort of way.
The various errands half the witch population of Lancre had taken great care to insist she didn't have to do being done, Agnes found herself facing the prospect of a walk through the theater district. She didn't have to, she told herself; she could turn right around and find something decent to eat in what had inexplicably become, in the ways cities had of circulating these areas, the trendy neighborhood of Treacle Mine Road - you'd like that, wouldn't you, Perdita piped up - or just take a nice, long stroll along what could still, rather charitably, be called the 'river' Ankh. 4 She stood in the middle of Pon's Bridge, dithering. For once though, neither Agnes nor Perdita had any clear idea of how to proceed. Sighing, she started walking in the general direction of Butts Treat, thinking about the letter in her rather embarrassing purse, and if she should read it again, perhaps.
"Excuse me?" A girl - a young girl, yes - was staring at her from beneath a very modern haircut.
"Yes?" Agnes asked, irrationally clutching at her purse. Something in her would probably never trust good looking young people approaching her in a friendly manner.
"That's a very smart purse."
"Erm, thank you," Agnes demurred, wondering how one measured the intelligence of accessories. "I got it up in Cunning Artificers,"Perdita added, preening.
The girl made a noise rather like a surprisingly startled mouse. "I must get something like it. Are you here to see the play? Only I don't know if this is the right way to the opera house."
Before Agnes could ask 'what play', Perdita stifled her. "Yes, it's right over there. Are you going tonight?"
The girl looked back at Agnes, puzzled. "No, I'm going over right now.Why - do you think it's too late? Should I try for tomorrow's matinee queue instead?"
"Queue?" This time, Agnes managed to get it out. The girl, however,was looking mortified.
"Oh goodness - I must be off. I'll see you there, shall I?" And she was off before Agnes or Perdita could reply.
Agnes watched her retreating stylish boots, Perdita adding a whistful sigh, before heading up Butts Treat. She patted her purse again, feeling the letter inside. She could read it again. Of course, that meant she didn't have to.
She had not even reached Pseudopolis Yard when she saw the first poster. This was new; not posters advertising plays and operas, but the size of them; Agnes could not imagine how many imps must have been conjured up to make an iconograph the full size of a building. She found herself gaping, and hurriedly shut her mouth, stepping carefully forward.
The poster featured a girl - a young girl - with a very modern haircut indeed, staring sullenly at the iconographer. Agnes, who'd had to buy her own cosmetics while in the Opera Choir, marveled at the cost of that much eyeliner, which was also adorning the man standing directly behind the girl's right shoulder, also staring sullenly, with his white, frilly shirt open. There was another man above the girl's opposite shoulder not wearing eyeliner, but then again he also wasn't wearing a shirt. In front of the girl, in bright yellow, twisting letters that must have been painted on after the fact - imps had no imagination - stood the word Dusk. Below this, in somewhat smaller yet equally twisted letters, was written: A Love Story from Darkest Übervald - Vampire Against Werewolf! And, in even smaller letters, below, One Thousand Trained Bats!
Agnes felt she couldn't move. Even Perdita was speechless.Well, Perdita said, eventually, it takes all kinds. Agnes supposed it did. She hadn't thought of Vlad in ages, and quite frankly, this was the last time and place in which she wanted to do so. She quickly resumed walking, picking up the pace, and trying to ignore the various leaflet pushers that were seemingly everywhere. Dodging a man selling Omnian pendants like the one the girl was wearing in the poster, she grimaced. It had to be Omnian turtles,didn't it?
"No thank you," she said as Perdita rolled her eyes, and headed straight and briskly up towards the Temple of Small Gods.
"I see the potion worked well on your wart," Agnes said, gritting her teeth. She didn't need Perdita to tell her this was not the most useful thing to say to a... well... someone you hadn't met for a couple of Great Years. The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalted-Om Oats smiled at her, a little nonplussed. "Thank you. Um. And..."
Dear gods, Perdita moaned, he's casting about for a compliment. If he says something about your hair, I might vomit. Agnes waited politely.
"Your hair looks-"
"It's nice to see you again," Agnes burst out.
"I expect you got my letter."
"Yes." Don't tell him you've got it with you. As if I would! You were thinking about it. Was not. I'm YOU, lard-brain. I hear your thoughts like a klaxon.
Oats frowned. "You seem ill at ease. Have you eaten?"
"More than enough," Perdita managed to get in, leaving Agnes blushing furiously. Oh, well done. The only human male who'd shown any lasting interest, and part of her was actively pushing him away. "Sorry," she muttered, pulling out the letter. Well, why not, at this point? "I was surprised to see the return address."
"This is a very important place in Omnian history."
Agnes nodded. For most Omnians, setting foot in another religion's temple was unthinkable, but Oats wasn't exactly most Omnians. Besides, in a way, it was the temple of all religions. 5
"Besides, I'm not exactly welcome in the Church these days."
"What do you - oh." The Church was still always The One Church, no matter how many of them there demonstratively were in the vicinity. Such as the one they were standing in right now.
"I expect you got my letter," he repeated, and Agnes looked up from where she had been hiding in her own mind. There was something subtly different about Oats. He wasn't as insecure and bumbling as he had been, but that had happened before he left Lancre. This was new. Granny and Nanny didn't like to talk about auras, it being the sort of fanciful modern stuff they didn’t Hold With, but Oats had one - sort of a sparkly, shimmering glow.
"Yes, I did. You said you had something to tell me?" Now or never. Not the most romantic spot on the Disc, what with the cacophony of a thousand ramshackle acolytes in their ears and livestock and hopeful priests milling about, bumping into them, but Agnes would take it. Yes, no matter what Perdita said. Absolutely.
Oats brightened. "I do!" He took Agnes's hand, and she and Perdita gasped in unison. "Agnes," he said, "I can cure you."
Agnes sat on her little bed in Mrs. Proust's spare room, and looked at the pamphlet Oats had given her. She hadn't meant to stay the night, but Mrs. Proust had insisted, and when she thought about it, a night flight over the Ramtops could be quite chilly this time of year, and then, of course, there were the pamphlets. There were three of them, all quite plain, with one-color woodcuts rather than expensive iconography. The spelling was quite good, however, and the letters were all the same size, which was always more expensive. They all said pretty much the same thing, albeit with different names and addresses at the bottom.
Talk-To-A-Dwarf-Ololgy, the latest Cure from ancient master Alienists. See the world from a lower point of view!
There was a list of opening hours and charges, which were all quite reasonable. It worked, Oats had explained, something like this: most people who had problems with their thoughts or their feelings (which, when you thought about it, usually came as a result of thinking), found they couldn't see the world all too clearly. Dwarves, who by nature and necessity were absolutely literal, did not tend to have the same types of problems 6. It stood to reason, therefore, that a series of conversations with dwarves, over time, about your problems, would eventually help you see the world for what it really was, for a given value thereof. 7 Apparently there were others who had more than one person inside their head, and talking to dwarves had helped many of them. It had started in Ubervald, where quite a lot of people wanted to escape the world that was actually going on around them, and retreat into the privacy of their own head, and, as Oats had explained it, they needed someone to look after their body while they were busy doing that, so they created a subset of themselves.
All though this, Perdita had made a series of increasingly mocking noises (though they sounded to Agnes to be growing in desperation as well).
Now that they were alone with their shared thoughts, she whispered you know it's different with us; you're a witch. That makes me special; that makes me a person. You wouldn't just get rid of a person, would you? But you're not, Agnes reasoned; you're part of me. Just a different part of me. And you wouldn't disappear, we'd just... blend. Blend? Like that fancy Klatchian coffee they sell in Dolly Sisters? That's not what I mean- Do you think it would change anything? Do you think it would make you thin, like me?
This is ridiculous, Agnes thought; I'm having an argument with myself. What I need to do is ignore her; that always-
Because it won't work; it's YOUR body that's fat!
"I’M NOT FAT," Agnes yelled, as the door opened to admit Mrs. Proust's youngest son.
"Erm," he said, "will you be wanting supper, then?"
"Yes," said Agnes. No, said Perdita, but thankfully only inside Agnes's head. "Thank you... Derek, is it?"
"That's right, Miss."
"That's very kind of you, I'll come down directly." She said it, without thinking, in what she liked to think of as her 'witching tone', one which expected to be obeyed, because it always was. Nonetheless it startled her when Derek simply left, door gently falling shut. 'Not a bad looking boy,' Mrs. Proust had said of him, 'but no imagination. No sense of humor, which is why, I expect, he's so good at the Humorous Paraphernalia.' She had, Agnes reflected, been right.
Supper, as it turned out, was turnip soup with Named Meat, though Agnes always made it a point not to ask. It was generally better that way.
Mrs. Proust had made some very firm comments about 'city hours' and how the last witch she'd had visiting from 'the country' - Agnes imagined that to Mrs. Proust, this was one large, amorphous block of sheep, grass and farmers, of indeterminate size - had gotten up at ongodsly hours and given the customers Ideas. It was all well and good for visiting witches to help out by sweeping the floors - this with a sideways squint - but the shop didn't open until ten, and that was the end of it. This in mind, Agnes tried to be very quiet (fat chance - hah - of that, as Perdita was quick to point out) as she came down the stairs the next morning. She had no idea how godsly half eight in the morning was, but she suspected the answer was 'not terribly'. Great was her surprise, then, to see Mrs. Proust hard at work on the shop's Hogswatch display.
"There's no need for that sort of language," Mrs. Proust tittered.
"I didn't say anything," Agnes protested.
"Of course not; you're far too polite. But it's precisely because you didn't that I could hear you. It's a trick," she added, gluing a paper sausage with the head of a bat onto the window, "I've picked up."
Agnes nodded, slowly, in case more words would fall out without her noticing.
"Anyway, it's not too early; I know it's only Ember still, but it's like I always say; there are never enough shopping days in December."
"Erm," said Agnes, annoyed that she seemed to be saying that a lot. Oh, for Om's sake; say something more intelligent before she thinks you're a half-wit! Since when had she started paying tribute to Om? Quickly, Agnes burst out; "have you always looked like that?" Startled, she clasped her hands over her mouth while Perdita laughed, but Mrs. Proust merely turned a keen, bloodshot eye on her.
"Yes. Just like you've always looked like you, I imagine. There are some that have to, I expect. Balances out the pretty princesses and theater divas."
She couldn't know... but the thing was, she could. It was what witches did. And as a fellow witch, you shouldn't get offended. "I walked all the way from Quirm to Lancre Town, once. I felt like I'd lost a stone, but my dresses all fit the same."
"They do get in your shoes. Nasty things."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Stones. Hard to get rid of. As are bodies," she added, and as Agnes watched her, she swore she heard 'and neither are easy to change'. Mrs. Proust's expression shifted for a moment, then she nodded, appreciatively. "Quick learner. Well, go on then; I expect you're off to see your young man."
How come he gets to be young? Perdita hissed. He's three years older than me! Agnes tried to come up with an answer all the way to the Brass Bridge.
"...which is why it's called the Fast, not feast."
"I see," Agnes muttered, trying to look interested. They had been walking for nearly three hours, which was fine; Agnes was quite fond of walking, but they had yet to discuss anything related to either the dwarfish cure or... anything else, which wasn't.
"There's still fun and games; it's a little bit like Hogswatch, really. We don't miss out!"
Droves of young girls dressed in similar yet subtly different variations on the theme of the people on the 'Dusk' posters seemed to be gathering everywhere. They were getting closer to the theater district, and Agnes didn't really want to explain why she'd rather not be there. 8 "Yes," Oats said, excitedly, "we exchange religious pamphlets. Children make a game of collecting a full set, although," he frowned, "certain sects believe collecting is a sin."
Agnes frowned with him. "Is it?"
"Well, I don't think so. But then I don't agree with a lot of the Church's teachings. For example, I don't think salad forks are inherently evil, assuming they're used responsibly and by adults."
No, Agnes thought, you don't. But you still believe. "How do you do that?" She asked, suddenly, making Oats start. "How can you keep the different parts of yourself so perfectly balanced? How can you believe things that are contradictory and not have your head explode!"
He smiled, and Perdita thought this is it; this is the Moment - can't you see, he's going to say something Significant! She held her breath, and Agnes did too, and then Oats took their - her - hand. "Agnes..."
"Yes," she breathed.
"I know how you feel. It's terrible."
Agnes kept careful hold of her smile. That doesn't sound like a Moment, Perdita worried.
"I know what it's like, not to fit in. To not be normal. But you don't have to be like that. Not anymore. You can get better." He very carefully placed a hand on her shoulder. Then, for one reason or another, he leaned forward slightly, losing his footing when Agnes stepped back.
"Excuse me," she said, "I have some floors to sweep."
Her broomstick was polished and ready by the door when she'd finished scrubbing the floors - she'd had rather a lot on her mind, and sweeping just hadn't been enough to clear it. Agnes leaned down to look at it more closely, frowning. It had been tuned, rather expertly, but the usual dwarven broom-shop stamp was missing. Besides, the thought that Mrs. Proust would take Agnes's broom in for service, without asking (and more importantly, without asking for money), was well beyond the realms of the reasonable.
"I gave it a bit of a going over."
Agnes nearly yelled. She had, she realized, been aware of the fact that there was someone else in the room; she just hadn't given it any importance.
"Is that all right?"
"Yes..." Agnes smoothed down the front of her dress for no good reason she could think of. "Yes. Thank you, Derek."
Derek shrugged. "Have you gone to see the dwarves, then?"
For a moment, Agnes stared at the broom, baffled, before comprehension dawned. "Oh. That. No. Not really."
She had, in fact, gone to several of the listed offices, only to stand outside listlessly while clients filed in and out. There had been all sorts; men, women, trolls, even the odd zombie, which made a certain sort of twisted sense, when you thought about it. "Are you going to?" Derek asked. His eyes were earnest, but not dull. You couldn't have dull eyes to do that fiddly sort of work.
"Probably not," Agnes told him, because there seemed no reason not to.
"Right. Don't tell mum about the broomstick; she doesn't know I know how to do them. She'd start taking them in, if she knew, and I haven't got time for that. I haven't even field tested the new fake sick yet!"
"How... do you..."
"It's best not to ask."
"Right," said Agnes. "Look, I've got to go apologize to someone."
"Before you leave?" There was no particular note in his voice, and his hands were steady. Agnes narrowed her eyes at him. He seemed to be saying exactly what he was saying. Well, what could you reply to that?
"Yes," she said.
Derek didn't particularly nod, but his shoulders did move in an assent-like manner. "I expect I'll see you when you come back for your things."
"I... expect so."
There was something hovering between them; not words unsaid - that was particularly easy to pick up on when you knew how, Agnes had found - but sentiments unshared. An entirely different and slippery beast, that. Agnes was about to give up and leave when Derek carefully uttered, "there was something I meant to tell you earlier."
"When you said, about not being fat."
Hang on, Perdita panicked, is this a Moment? Here? In Boffo's? I don't want to have a Moment in ruddy Boffo's! "Yes," said Agnes, a little louder than she'd intended.
"I just wanted to say..."
"That you are fat."
Bloody bare-faced cheek, Perdita muttered, but Agnes was too busy being shocked. Her lips were shaking, which was a shame, because that usually made the rest of her body shake right along with them, and now was really not-
"But you're also beautiful."
"I have to go," Agnes and Perdita breathed in tandem, hurrying out the door.
All along Lower Broadway, the street was lined with velvet cloaks and frilly shirts, and their myriad tittering, squealing occupants. In the dirty twilight of the city, many of them had lit lanterns, making the entire spectacle look something like a gathering of drunk, teenage fireflies. Agnes walked alongside them, glancing, on occasion, up at the posters, which had been magically lit for the evening at what must have been great expense.
Some of us, Agnes thought, have to balance out the pretty princesses. On the whole, the princess in the poster didn't look all too happy.
The road ahead would take her over the water and towards Small Gods, but it would be just as easy to go back. It was dusk already, and she had a long flight home, if she were going tonight. Leaning against a lamppost, Agnes stood to listen to the chorus of chrips and giggles for a while.
Then, she and Perdita both decided, and smiled.
1People say you have to be thick-skinned to be a witch. Nasty people say it's to keep you nice and tender when they boil you.
2The purse had been Perdita's idea. It was purple and black lace, with far too many frills down the side for Agnes's taste, or at least the taste she liked to pretend to herself she had.
3The biggest city in Lancre was - well - Lancre, and didn't feature nearly as many quality chains of shops. The best you could hope for was to shop for a good quality chain. Nor did it have pubs where people took their clothes off, now that Nanny felt herself a little too old to risk catching cold like that, not that any self-respecting witch would want to admit to other witches that she would be interested in that sort of thing.
4Most rivers being more or less mobile.
5Which was the sensible way to think about it. Omnians are not generally known for their grasp of common sense.
6They did, of course, have a series of other problems unique to a race for which gender traditionally was largely optional, whose lives were spent almost entirely underground, and to whom gold was considered a socially acceptable life partner.
7The Discworld is adjacent to myriad interesting and varied realities, and the best the people on it can do to determine what is 'real' is establish a general sort of consensus.
8She'd made several false starts, but there are only so many ways you can tell a potential suitor 'I used to sing in the Opera Choir until there was a series of supernatural murders, and I'm uncomfortable with the idea of vampire romance because I used to have one' without sounding like the sort of person they didn't want to press their suit with anymore 9
9Of course, Oates had been there, but even so.