The parlour was really too small for all of them, crowded as it was with nicknacks and respectability. Still, they all stayed, waiting in the stifling silence for news. Even Adora Belle’s father had roused from the torpor he’d lived in since John’s death to leave his room and join them.
The family had already been gathered there when she’d returned from Sator Square with news that the race had begun. There had been blessedly few questions as to what had been said and done. She was grateful for that since it meant she didn’t have to lie too much. They didn’t need to know about the confrontation, about Gilt’s murderous rage. They didn’t need to know that more than the future of the Royal Post Office lay in the balance of tonight’s challenge. One hope, one worry was enough for tonight.
So it was in silence that they had settled in to wait through the long hours ahead. It may well be morning before they knew for certain what the outcome of the race was. Adora Bell was sure that if that was the case, dawn would find them still here, quiet and still. There may well be questions then, when it was all over, for good or for ill. That, however, was a worry for tomorrow.
They all knew that Adora Belle had met the new Postmaster General. After all, it was common knowledge that he now employed most of the golems from the Golem Trust. And her mother and aunt both knew he’d called here the day before. They’d accepted, however, that he’d come about the golems and that he’d only come there because the Trust had been closed for repairs, yet again. They hadn’t thought to ask why it was that he’d known enough about her to know where she lived. Or rather, how to figure out where she lived.
In fact, for all their intense interest, her family had asked her remarkably little about the man himself.
The newspaper articles, the small things that Adora Belle had carefully chosen to say, the rumours and stories brought by the neighbours... These had been enough to bring some colour to her mother’s cheeks and some life back to her father’s eyes. It wasn’t hope exactly, their hearts were too battered and bruised for that. They would have to meet him themselves for the force of his personality to kindle real hope in them again, as it had in her. Still, it was some kind of life; more than they’d had before.
For now, it was enough.
Her family, like so many others, needed their Postmaster to be the avatar in the golden suit. They needed the legend that was growing around him, the miracles and the shine. They needed to believe in the myth. What they didn’t need was to know Moist himself. They didn’t need to know that he was as imperfect and human as the rest of them; that the miracles had all been tricks and that all of this was nothing but a con that had got seriously out of hand.
They didn’t need to know the man Adora Belle knew, flawed and impossible, with a mind like a well balanced corkscrew. They didn’t need to know that the city’s hero was a was a crook, little better than the man who’d destroyed their lives. That tonight’s desperate gamble was all about him trying to prove to himself that for all his crimes he wasn’t as bad as Reacher Gilt. That, like the golems, he was more than a hammer.
And they certainly did not need to know that he’d asked Adora Belle to marry him in front of several hundred people, damn the man.
The Messenger of the Gods had brought some life back to her family and Adora Belle wasn’t going to undermine that with reality. They didn’t need the complications that came with the kind of desperate hope he’d awakened in her. If they knew that the outcome of this contest mattered to her in more than a professional capacity it would only bring fear back into their lives as it had come back into hers. The stories and the shine were enough for them. The man himself... they wouldn’t understand him.
Besides, it wasn’t as though she’d said yes.
She could still see the gleam in his eyes, though, the twitch of his lips, the promise of a challenge accepted. A challenge he could only take up if he lived through the night and there were less than even odds on that, no matter what the bookies thought.
Anhk-Morpork had embraced the new Postmaster General as some kind of divinely sent saviour and in spite of the fact that they knew better, her parents needed to pretend that it might be true. So, they didn’t ask too many questions. In return, Adora Belle kept to herself the fear she’d seen in him the night of the fire, how overwhelmed and pained he’d been by the letters begging for help and the secrets he’d laid out like a sacrifice on the table between them in a little café.
* * *
News, when there was any, travelled through the city like the wildfire that had consumed it more than once in it Anhk-Morpork’s checkered past. But it travelled in some areas and along some routes faster than others.
Adora Belle’s aunt had a friend who’s daughter was a maid at the University. The girl had managed both to be on duty for the large to-do the wizards were holding in honour of the race and to slip away as soon as there was any news to be shared.
She didn’t even bother to knock, just came barging into the silent parlour, her face white as a sheet and her hands shaking.
For one horrible moment Adora Belle was certain that Gilt had won and Moist was dead. A far deeper stab of pain than she would have expected stool her breath and nearly kept her from registering that the girl was babbling about ghosts.
Then, she’d sat in horrified silence as the maid finally managed to pour out a more or less coherent account of what had transpired.
The dead of the Grand Trunk, those who had died on the towers, speaking from the grave. The accusations from the papers she’s let Moist look through, wrapped up in fancy words and delivered by the dead.
John. John was one of those dead. Her brother’s voice calling out with the others to demand justice from the living.
Words of denial, of logic died on Adora Belle’s lips as she saw the looks on her parents’ faces. With this one parting shot in his battle with Reacher Gilt, Moist had finally brought hope into her aunt’s little house, into her parents decimated hearts. It was a desperate, agonising hope, but it was hope nonetheless.
They needed this story to be true, needed this one last miracle. They had to accept it as face value because it made the world a better place, made their losses just a bit more bearable because it proved that John wasn’t gone. That he still lived on in the towers, in the rigging and in the code. That he was still looking out for them and still fighting against those who had perverted their father’s dream.
It made Adora Belle sick even while she was relieved beyond words that Moist was alive. She saw the spark of life in her father’s eyes, the tears on her mother’s cheeks that for the first time in far too long weren’t from despair.
It was all she could stand.
Never mind Gilt, she was going to kill Moist von Lipwig herself.
She left without a word, leaving them to their mixture of grief and joy.
She didn’t even get to the end of the block when Al and Adrian came running around the corner, skidding to a halt when they saw her.
“Alright,” she said, folding her arms. “Tell me.”
The explanation they gave was far more coherent than the first one but the expressions of those telling it were no less fearful. Of course, there were no ghosts in this version. Just Moist von Lipwig spinning out words that became part of the sky under Alex’s hands. She was trembling by the time they’d told her everything. She had no doubt that they were word perfect on what the damn message had been, it wasn’t the kind of thing you forgot.
It wasn’t raining exactly but, nonetheless, it was more than fog that hung in the night air. For a few heartbeats silence stretched in the wet street until someone rushed by, calling out to someone leaning from of a window that the board of the Grand Trunk had been thrown in jail because of something to do with dead people, except for Reacher Gilt who had disappeared. Typical.
“Did...” Adrian paused then pressed onward. “Did we do the right thing in helping him? I know you told us to but we didn’t know it was going to be anything like this.”
Adora Belle closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was going to kill him. This hadn’t been the plan, damnit. How the hell had he talked Al, Adrian, and Alex into this? It was evil. Only someone depraved could have dreamed it up and only someone entirely without principles could have gone through with it.
So, alright, in that it suited Moist von Lipwig down to the ground. After all, he’d been given the job because he was one of the most successful conmen the Disc had ever had the misfortune the to produce. Still, this had be a new low, even for him.
And... it had be pure genius.
Like the “miracle” with the money, there was no one who was going to stand up and say this couldn’t happen even though everyone knew in their hearts that it couldn’t. Nonetheless, producing something and saying it was a gift from the Gods was one thing, using the voices of the dead, claiming to speak for the dead... Her heart clenched again at the thought of anyone, especially someone like Moist who was the opposite of everything John had been, pretending to use her brother’s voice for his own purposes.
Except they hadn’t really been his purposes, had they? Yes, he’d been on his little quest to prove he was more than a hammer, but taking down Gilt had come to be more than that to Moist. She knew that.
“I don’t know,” she said finally, opening her eyes. “It’s over anyway. He’s done what he said he’d do. He never said it was going to be nice.”
“No,” Al muttered. “But I never thought it was going to be evil.”
She’d thought as much herself but Adora Belle bristled at hearing the word from someone else. “You still sent it, though,” she snapped. “You didn’t have to.”
Al and Adrian glanced at each other. Adrian seemed to lose whatever contest of wills had been held.
“What else was there to do?” he asked helplessly. “He was right, if we let the towers burn what would happen to them, those in the Overhead?”
His eyes flicked away from Adora Belle’s piercing stare.
“No,” he said. “I don’t really believe they’re there, except...” He seemed to force himself to meet her gaze again. “They died to keep the towers alive. If we stop that, if we killed the towers what happens to them? To their memory? You heard, those bastards that used lives to make money are going to jail but the towers are still alive.”
“Local messages where already starting up again before we left the tower,” Al added. “The tower boys know the old management are out and what do they do? Start shifting code, just like he said they would.”
Adora Belle nodded. “He’s usually right about what people will do. Get back to the tower and help Alex get everything packed up. You shouldn’t have left him there alone anyway.”
“Where are you going?” Adrian asked hesitantly as she turned away.
“The Post Office. I have a message I want delivered.”
“Killer, wait.” Adora Belle froze at the sound of John’s old nickname for her. No one ever called her that other than her brother, ever. She turned slowly to glare at Al but he looked back at her squarely. “You’re right. He did what he said he’d do and you’re right that he never said it would be nice. We all knew that nothing honest would work anyway. He played us straight, even if it wasn’t how we were expecting. Gilt is out, running for his life, I bet. He’s finished. But the Trunk is alive, we’ve got it back. So, I think... I think he’s done right by the dead. He’s done right by John.”
“So, don’t actually kill him, okay?” Adrian added with a slight smile.
Adora Belle took a moment to pull herself together. She was angry, yes, but for the first time she wasn’t sure who exactly she was angry at.
“Get back to the tower,” she told them. “The last thing we need is for anyone moving around up there come morning.”
* * *
Tarps created a make-sift roof over the shell that was all the fire had left of the Post Office. It was nothing but a hollowed out shell, but the Post Office people were there, moving about with industry by the light of torches and a haphazard collection of whatever lamps they’d been able to come up with.
Adora Belle knew them all now and the Gods alone knew what that said about her. Stanley was sorting in his eerily focused way, aided by several of the golems, including Gladys in her over-sized blue dress. Groat was crabbing around, making sure the ink wells were full and no one was stealing the pens, while George Aggie and several of the old timers accepted mail from the line that was there, even at this time of night. Miss Maccalariat was, for once, not at her post haranguing the customers for not using blotting paper. She had commandeered the help of another of the golems and was hoisting up a crudely made banner proclaiming ‘THANK YOU MR. LIPWIC!’
She found Moist himself up in his office. The fire had taken out one walls and he stood at the gaping hole, looking down into the hall below. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his shining suit and there was a slump to his shoulders Adora Belle had never seen before. More as if he’d lost rather than won.
If he’d been jumping around, still manic with the energy of earlier she would have understood. She could have shouted at him then before forgiving him. This un-Moist-like stillness, however, was unnerving and she didn’t know quite how to react. She paused in the doorway for a long moment before speaking.
“Mad Al and the boys told me what you did,” she finally said, far more quietly that she would have expected to speak to him after the events of the night.
“Oh,” was his only reply. He didn’t turn around and something in the increased hunch of his shoulders told her he was expecting her to shout, to berate him for the message.
“It wasn’t a nice thing to do,” she continued, trying to feel out this odd mood.
“There wasn’t a nice thing that would work.” His voice was flat, without inflection or any of the sparkling vitality she was used to.
She’d been expecting him to defend his actions, explain why it had been the right thing to do. This dull acceptance that it had been wrong was undermining her reasonable anger at an annoying rate.
“Are you going to tell me that the ghost of my brother put the idea in your head?’ she asked, finally realising that she was going to have to do all the work in this conversation.
“No,” he said. “I dreamed it up myself.”
“Good,” she said with feeling. “If you’d tried that, you’d be limping for the rest of your life, believe me.”
“Thank you,” said Moist, sounding more dispirited than she’d ever heard him. “It was just a lie I knew people would want to believe,” he explained. “Just a lie. It was a way to keep the Post Office going and get the Grand Trunk out of Gilt’s hands. You’ll probably get it back, if you want it. You and all the other people Gilt swindled. I’ll help, if I can. But I don’t want thanking.’
Adora Belle couldn’t understand why his victory had left him shrouded in gloom like this. He should be downstairs basking in the praise he’d earned. Instead of up here alone, wallowing in… what? He almost sounded guilty.
Coming to stand beside him, she studied his profile. He almost looked pained as he stared at the banner hung below and she thought again of him shining in the middle of the crowd earlier that night. He’d conned them, all of them. The problem was that he’d conned himself as well. All the lies he’d spun had become their new reality and he was caught that as surely as the rest of them. He had to be used to being cursed. To finishing a con and having to run to evade just retribution. This time, though, there was no running required, nothing to fight against or escape. Nothing to challenge that restless mind of his. He’d been hight, flying on the impossibility of it all for days. Now… he’d conned himself into a new reality where there was nothing left to do.
“It’s not a lie,” she told him, surprised by the well of sympathy she felt. “It’s what ought to have been true. It pleased my mother.”
“Does she think it’s true?” he asked.
“She doesn’t want to think it isn’t,” Adora Belle clarified.
Moist’s faces twisted with pain as though she’d struck him.
“Look, I know what I’m like,” he snapped, still refusing to look at her. “I’m not the person everyone thinks I am. I just wanted to prove to myself I’m not like Gilt. More than a hammer, you understand?” he demanded viciously. “But I’m still a fraud by trade. I thought you knew that. I can fake sincerity so well that even I can’t tell. I mess with people’s heads —”
Dear Gods, did he really believe that was all he was? Had he been conning himself for so long that he could no longer see that he really was more than a hammer? He’d been so desperate to prove it. It hadn’t occurred to her to think it was because he didn’t think it was actually true.
“You’re fooling no one but yourself,” she interrupted, reaching for his hand.
For a moment, the world seemed to tilt. At one in the same time she could feel her hand slipping into his even while she also felt him shaking her off. She blinked and found her fingers gripping his just a little harder than the situation warranted.
“What just happened?” she asked.
“Only a passing thought,” Moist answered.
He was looking at her and she saw the light come slowly back into his eyes as he focused on her.
The words seemed to hang in the air between them, the memory of a challenge made and accepted. Whatever thought or vision or whatever it was that had passed through him, it had apparently reminded him that there were still impossible things to be done. The con wasn’t over, she thought as he leaned toward her. And maybe this con was one they could live in for the rest of their lives, making it up as they went along.
She was just debating whether she was actually going to let him kiss her or not when they were interrupted by a cough that distinctly said that it could see very well that they were busy but needed to interrupt just the same. It was a cough with a great deal to say for itself.
Groat stood in the doorway behind them. He held a package in his hands and seemed caught between embarrassment over having walked in on what was clearly a private moment and the need to do his duty.
“Sorry to interrupt, sir, but this just arrived for you. Messenger, not one of ours,” he added, as though that fact was a special affront. “I thought I’d better bring it straight up ‘cos there’s something moving about inside it...”
Airholes poked in the top gave farther evidence that whatever was scrabbling around in there was still alive and kicking.
Groat set the box down on the desk and the three crowded around it as Moist carefully removed the lid. Luckily, he was fast in pulling his hands out of the way or the cockatoo that sprang out would have had a finger off at the very least.
“Twelve and a half per cent! Twelve and a half per cent!” it screamed as it took flight only to land with a thump on Groat’s hat.
“Why’d someone send you a parrot?” Groat sounded utterly baffled. Adora Belle poked around in the box but found nothing. No note, no explanation. But she remembered her father mentioning that Gilt had had a bird, just like a proper pirate. He’d laughed about that back in the days when he’d still been able to smile.
“It’s Gilt’s, isn’t it?” she asked Moist. “He’s given you the bird?”
The grin spread over Moist’s face, clearly delighted by the gift. A parting shot in hopes that Moist might lose a finger to it or a salute to a worthy opponent? Probably both, she decided.
“It looks like it, yes,” he responded. “Pieces of eight!” he said to the bird.
“Twelve and a half per cent!” it yelled back.
“Take it away, will you, Mr Groat?” Moist said, in his most lofty voice. “Teach it to say... to say...”
All the things Moist had said, every time he’d launched into something utterly impossible. How many times had he pleaded for them to trust him while he lied through his teeth, then turned around and made the world conform to the lie rather than admit to an untruth.
“Trust me?” she suggested.
Moist’s grin grew impossibly wider. The glow was back, his eyes alight again with boundless confidence and the promise of mischief. “Good one!” he cheered. “Yes, do that, Mr Groat.”
After managing to get the bird off Groat’s hat and onto his shoulder, Moist shooed him away before turning to Adora Belle.
“And tomorrow,” he told her, eyes dancing, “I’ll definitely get the chandeliers back!”
The laughter that bubbled unexpectedly up inside her wouldn’t be repressed. The glow that filled him seemed to be spilling out to fill her as well.
“What?” she demanded. “Most of this place doesn’t have a ceiling.”
“First things first,” he told her. “Trust me! And then, who knows? I might even find the fine polished counter! There’s no end to what’s possible!”
As if to prove it, he swept her up and kissed her. And most shocking of all, she let him.
Anything really was possible.