Interesting Times

Terry Pratchett

Interesting Times{1}

A DISCWORLD® NOVEL

Interesting Times

There is a curse.

They say:

May You Live in Interesting Times

This is where the gods play games with the lives of men, on a board which is at one and the same time a simple playing area and the whole world.

And Fate always wins.

Fate always wins. Most of the gods throw dice but Fate plays chess, and you don’t find out until too late that he’s been using two queens all along.

Fate wins. At least, so it is claimed. Whatever happens, they say afterwards, it must have been Fate.[1]

Gods can take any form, but the one aspect of themselves they cannot change is their eyes, which show their nature. The eyes of Fate are hardly eyes at all — just dark holes into an infinity speckled with what may be stars or, there again, may be other things.

He blinked them, smiled at his fellow players in the smug way winners do just before they become winners, and said: ‘I accuse the High Priest of the Green Robe in the library with the double-handed axe.’{2}

And he won.

He beamed at them.

‘No one likesh a poor winner,’ grumbled Offler the Crocodile God, through his fangs.

‘It seems that I am favouring myself today,’ said Fate. ‘Anyone fancy something else?’

The gods shrugged.

‘Mad Kings?’ said Fate pleasantly. ‘Star-Crossed Lovers?’

‘I think we’ve lost the rules for that one,’ said Blind Io, chief of the gods.

‘Or Tempest-Wrecked Mariners?’

‘You always win,’ said Io.

‘Floods and Droughts?’ said Fate. ‘That’s an easy one.’

A shadow fell across the gaming table. The gods looked up.

‘Ah,’ said Fate.

‘Let a game begin,’ said the Lady.{3}

There was always an argument about whether the newcomer was a goddess at all. Certainly no one ever got anywhere by worshipping her, and she tended to turn up only where she was least expected, such as now. And people who trusted in her seldom survived. Any temples built to her would surely be struck by lightning. Better to juggle axes on a tightrope than say her name. Just call her the waitress in the Last Chance saloon.

She was generally referred to as the Lady, and her eyes were green; not as the eyes of humans are green, but emerald green from edge to edge. It was said to be her favourite colour.

‘Ah,’ said Fate again. ‘And what game will it be?’

She sat down opposite him. The watching gods looked sidelong at one another. This looked interesting. These two were ancient enemies.

‘How about …’ she paused, ‘… Mighty Empires?’

‘Oh, I hate that one,’ said Offler, breaking the sudden silence. ‘Everyone dief at the end.’

‘Yes,’ said Fate, ‘I believe they do.’ He nodded at the Lady, and in much the same voice as professional gamblers say ‘Aces high?’ said, ‘The Fall of Great Houses? Destinies of Nations Hanging by a Thread?’

‘Certainly,’ she said.

‘Oh, good.’ Fate waved a hand across the board. The Discworld appeared.

‘And where shall we play?’ he said.

‘The Counterweight Continent,’ said the Lady. ‘Where five noble families have fought one another for centuries.’

‘Really? Which families are these?’ said Io. He had little involvement with individual humans. He generally looked after thunder and lightning, so from his point of view the only purpose of humanity was to get wet or, in occasional cases, charred.

‘The Hongs, the Sungs, the Tangs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs.’{4}

‘Them? I didn’t know they were noble,’ said Io.

‘They’re all very rich and have had millions of people butchered or tortured to death merely for reasons of expediency and pride,’ said the Lady.

The watching gods nodded solemnly. That was certainly noble behaviour. That was exactly what they would have done.

‘McFweeneyf?’ said Offler.

‘Very old established family,’ said Fate.

‘Oh.’

‘And they wrestle one another for the Empire,’ said Fate. ‘Very good. Which will you be?’

The Lady looked at the history stretched out in front of them.

‘The Hongs are the most powerful. Even as we speak, they have taken yet more cities,’ she said. ‘I see they are fated to win.’

‘So, no doubt, you’ll pick a weaker family.’

Fate waved his hand again. The playing pieces appeared, and started to move around the board as if they had a life of their own, which was of course the case.

‘But,’ he said, ‘we shall play without dice. I don’t trust you with dice. You throw them where I can’t see them. We will play with steel, and tactics, and politics, and war.’

The Lady nodded.

Fate looked across at his opponent.

‘And your move?’ he said.

She smiled. ‘I’ve already made it.’

He looked down. ‘But I don’t see your pieces on the board.’

‘They’re not on the board yet,’ she said.

She opened her hand.

There was something black and yellow on her palm. She blew on it, and it unfolded its wings.

It was a butterfly.

Fate always wins …

At least, when people stick to the rules.

According to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle, chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organized.

This is the butterfly of the storms.

See the wings, slightly more ragged than those of the common fritillary. In reality, thanks to the fractal nature of the universe, this means that those ragged edges are infinite — in the same way that the edge of any rugged coastline, when measured to the ultimate microscopic level, is infinitely long — or, if not infinite, then at least so close to it that Infinity can be seen on a clear day.

And therefore, if their edges are infinitely long, the wings must logically be infinitely big.

They may look about the right size for a butterfly’s wings, but that’s only because human beings have always preferred common sense to logic.

The Quantum Weather Butterfly (Papilio tempestae) is an undistinguished yellow colour, although the mandelbrot patterns on the wings are of considerable interest.{5} Its outstanding feature is its ability to create weather.

This presumably began as a survival trait, since even an extremely hungry bird would find itself inconvenienced by a nasty localized tornado.[2] From there it possibly became a secondary sexual characteristic, like the plumage of birds or the throat sacs of certain frogs. Look at me, the male says, flapping his wings lazily in the canopy of the rain forest. I may be an undistinguished yellow colour but in a fortnight’s time, a thousand miles away, Freak Gales Cause Road Chaos.

This is the butterly of the storms.

It flaps its wings …

This is the Discworld, which goes through space on the back of a giant turtle.

Most worlds do, at some time in their perception. It’s a cosmological view the human brain seems pre-programmed to take.

On veldt and plain, in cloud jungle and silent red desert, in swamp and reed marsh, in fact in any place where something goes ‘plop’ off a floating log as you approach, variations on the following take place at a crucial early point in the development of the tribal mythology …

‘You see dat?’

‘What?’

‘It just went plop off dat log.’

‘Yeah? Well?’

‘I reckon … I reckon … like, I reckon der world is carried on der back of one of dem.’

A moment of silence while this astrophysical hypothesis is considered, and then …

‘The whole world?’

‘Of course, when I say one of dem, I mean a big one of dem.’

‘It’d have to be, yeah.’

‘Like … really big.’

‘’S funny, but … I see what you mean.’

‘Makes sense, right?’

‘Makes sense, yeah. Thing is …’

‘What?’

‘I just hope it never goes plop.’

But this is the Discworld, which has not only the turtle but also the four giant elephants on which the wide, slowly turning wheel of the world revolves.[3]

There is the Circle Sea, approximately halfway between the Hub and the Rim. Around it are those countries which, according to History, constitute the civilized world, i.e., a world that can support historians: Ephebe, Tsort, Omnia, Klatch and the sprawling city state of Ankh-Morpork.

This is a story that starts somewhere else, where a man is lying on a raft in a blue lagoon under a sunny sky. His head is resting on his arms. He is happy — in his case, a mental state so rare as to be almost unprecedented. He is whistling an amiable little tune, and dangling his feet in the crystal clear water.

They’re pink feet with ten toes that look like little piggy-wiggies.

From the point of view of a shark, skimming over the reef, they look like lunch, dinner and tea.

It was, as always, a matter of protocol. Of discretion. Of careful etiquette. Of, ultimately, alcohol. Or at least the illusion of alcohol.

Lord Vetinari, as supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork, could in theory summon the Archchancellor of Unseen University to his presence and, indeed, have him executed if he failed to obey.

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