Interesting Times Page 1

Author: Terry Pratchett

Series: Discworld #17

Genres: Fantasy , Humorous

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.'

And he won. He beamed at them. 'No-one likesh a poor winner,' grumbled Offler the I 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. 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 Jor 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.'

'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. 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 incon-venienced 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 tone, 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 preprogrammed 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?'


'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 . . .'


'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 histor-ians: 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. On the other hand Mustrum Ridcully, as head of the college of wizards, had made it clear in polite but firm ways that he could turn him into a small amphibian and, indeed, start jumping around the room on a pogo stick. Alcohol bridged the diplomatic gap nicely. Sometimes Lord Vetinari invited the Archchancellor to the palace for a convivial drink. And of course the Archchancellor went, because it would be bad manners not to. And everyone understood the position, and everyone was on their best behaviour, and thus civil unrest and slime on the carpet were averted. It was a beautiful afternoon. Lord Vetinari was sitting in the palace gardens, watching the butterflies with an expression of mild annoyance. He found something very slightly offensive about the way they just fluttered around enjoying themselves in an unprofitable way. He looked up. 'Ah, Archchancellor,' he said. 'So good to see you. Do sit down. I trust you are well?'

'Yes indeed,' said Mustrum Ridcully. 'And yourself? You are in good health?'

'Never better. The weather, I see, has turned out nice again.'

'I thought yesterday was particularly fine, certainly.'

'Tomorrow, I am told, could well be even better.'

'We could certainly do with a fine spell.'

'Yes, indeed.'


'Ah . . .'

'Certainly.' They watched the butterflies. A butler brought long, cool drinks. 'What is it they actually do with the flowers?' said Lord Vetinari. 'What?' The Patrician shrugged. 'Never mind. It was not at all important. But - since you are here, Archchancellor, having dropped by on your way to something infinitely more important, I am sure, most kind - I wonder if you could tell me: who is the Great Wizard?' Ridcully considered this. 'The Dean, possibly,' he said. 'He must be all of twenty stone.'

'Somehow I feel that is not perhaps the right answer,' said Lord Vetinari. 'I suspect from context that “great” means superior.'

'Not the Dean, then,' said Ridcully. Lord Vetinari tried to recollect the faculty of Unseen University. The mental picture that emerged was of a small range of foothills in pointy hats. 'The context does not, I feel, suggest the Dean,' he said. 'Er . . . what context would this be?' said Ridcully. The Patrician picked up his walking stick. 'Come this way,' he said. 'I suppose you had better see for yourself. It is very vexing.' Ridcully looked around with interest as he followed Lord Vetinari. He did not often have a chance to see the gardens, which had been written up in the 'How Not To Do It' section of gardening manuals everywhere. They had been laid out, and a truer phrase was never used, by the renowned or at least notorious landscape gardener and all round inventor 'Bloody Stupid' Johnson, whose absent- mindedness and blindness to elementary mathematics made every step a walk with danger. His genius . . . well, as far as Ridcully understood it, his genius was exactly the opposite of whatever kind of genius it was that built earthworks that tapped the secret yet beneficent forces of the leylines. No-one was quite certain what forces Bloody Stupid's designs tapped, but the chiming sundial frequently exploded, the crazy paving had committed suicide and the cast iron garden furniture was known so have melted on three occasions. The Patrician led the way through a gate and into something like a dovecot. A creaking wooden stairway led around the inside. A few of Ankh-Morpork's indestructible feral pigeons muttered and sniggered in the shadows.