Maskerade Page 3

'Good grief, no. We'd be a laughing-stock.'

'Quite so. She seems quite. . . amenable, though.'

'Wonderful personality, I thought. And good hair, of course.' She'd never expected it to be this easy. . . Agnes listened in a kind of trance while people talked at her about wages (very little), the need for training (a lot), and accommodation (members of the chorus lived in the Opera House itself, up near the roof). And then, more or less, she was forgotten about. She stood and watched at the side of the stage while a group of ballet hopefuls were put through their delicate paces. 'You do have an amazing voice,' said someone behind her. She turned. As Nanny Ogg had once remarked, it was an education seeing Agnes turn around. She was light enough on her feet but the inertia of outlying parts meant that bits of Agnes were still trying to work out which way to face for some time afterwards. The girl who had spoken to her was slightly built, even by ordinary standards, and had gone to some pains to make herself look even thinner. She had long blond hair and the happy smile of someone who is aware that she is thin and has long blond hair. 'My name's Christine!' she said. 'Isn't this exciting?!' And she had the type of voice that can exclaim a question. It seemed to have an excited little squeak permanently screwed to it. 'Er, yes,' said Agnes. 'I've been waiting for this day for years!' Agnes had been waiting for it for about twenty-four hours, ever since she'd seen the notice outside the Opera House. But she'd be danged if she'd say that. 'Where did you train?!' said Christine. 'I spent three years with Mme Venturi at the Quirm Conservatory!'

'Um. I was. . .' Agnes hesitated, trying out the upcoming sentence in her head. '. . . I trained with. . . Dame Ogg. But she hasn't got a conservatory, because it's hard to get the glass up the mountain.' Christine didn't appear to want to question this. Anything she found too difficult to understand, she ignored. 'The money in the chorus isn't very good, is it?!' she said. 'No.' It was less than you'd get for scrubbing floors. The reason was that, when you advertised a dirty floor, hundreds of hopefuls didn't turn up. 'But it's what I've always wanted to do! Besides, there's the status!'

'Yes, I expect there is.'

'I've been to look at the rooms we get! They're very poky! What room have you been given?!' Agnes looked down blankly at the key she had been handed, along with many sharp instructions about no men and an unpleasant not-that-you-need- telling expression on the chorus mistress's face. 'Oh . . . 17.'

Christine clapped her hands. 'Oh, goody!!'


'I'm so glad!! You're next to me!!' Agnes was taken aback. She'd always been resigned to being the last to be picked in the great team game of Life. 'Well. . . yes, I suppose so. . .' she said. 'You're so lucky!! You've got such a majestic figure for opera!! And such marvellous hair, the way you pile it up like that!! Black suits you, by the way!!' Majestic, thought Agnes. It was a word that would never, ever have occurred to her. And she'd always steered away from white because in white she looked like a washing-line on a windy day. She followed Christine. It occurred to Agnes, as she trudged after the girl en route to her new lodgings, that if you spent much time in the same room as Christine you'd need to open a window to stop from drowning in punctuation. From somewhere at the back of the stage, quite unheeded, someone watched them go. People were generally glad to see Nanny Ogg. She was good at making them feel at home in their own home. But she was a witch, and therefore also expert at arriving just after cakes were baked or sausages were made. Nanny Ogg generally travelled with a string bag stuffed up one knee-length knicker leg-in case, as she put it, someone wants to give me something. 'So, Mrs Nitt,' she observed, around about the third cake and fourth cup of tea, 'how's that daughter of yours? Agnes it is to whom I refer.'

'Oh, didn't you hear, Mrs Ogg? She's gone off to Ankh-Morpork to be a singer.' Nanny Ogg's heart sank. 'That's nice,' she said. 'She has a good singing voice, I remember. Of course, I gave her a few tips. I used to hear her singing in the woods.'

'It's the air here,' said Mrs Nitt. 'She's always had such a good chest.'

'Yes, indeed. Noted for it. So. . . er. . . she's not here, then?'

'You know our Agnes. She never says much. I think she thought it was a bit dull.'

'Dull? Lancre?' said Nanny Ogg. 'That's what I said,' said Mrs Nitt. 'I said we get some lovely sunsets up here. And there's the fair every Soul Cake Tuesday, regular.' Nanny Ogg thought about Agnes. You needed quite large thoughts to fit all of Agnes in. Lancre had always bred strong, capable women. A Lancre farmer needed a wife who'd think nothing of beating a wolf to death with her apron when she went out to get some firewood. And, while kissing initially seemed to have more charms than cookery, a stolid Lancre lad looking for a bride would bear in mind his father's advice that kisses eventually lost their fire but cookery tended to get even better over the years, and direct his courting to those families that clearly showed a tradition of enjoying their food. Agnes was, Nanny considered, quite good-looking in an expansive kind of way; she was a fine figure of typical young Lancre womanhood. This meant she was approximately two womanhoods from anywhere else. Nanny also recalled her as being rather thoughtful and shy, as if trying to reduce the amount of world she took up. But she had shown signs of craft ability. That was only to be expected. There was nothing like that not fitting in feeling to stimulate the old magical nerves; that was why Esme was so good at it. In Agnes's case this had manifested itself in a tendency to wear soppy black lace gloves and

pale makeup and call herself Perdita plus an initial from the arse of the alphabet, but Nanny had assumed that would soon burn off when she got some serious witchcraft under her rather strained belt. She should have paid more attention to the thing about music. Power found its way out by all sorts of routes. . . Music and magic had a lot in common. They were only two letters apart, for one thing. And you couldn't do both. Damn. Nanny had rather been counting on the girl. 'She used to send off to Ankh-Morpork for music,' said Mrs Nitt. 'See?' She handed Nanny several piles of papers. Nanny leafed through them. Song-sheets were common enough in the Ramtops, and a singsong in the parlour was considered the third best thing to do on long dark evenings. But Nanny could see this wasn't ordinary music. It was far too crowded for that. 'Cosi fan Hita,' she read. 'Die Meistersinger von Scrote.'

'That's foreign,' said Mrs Nitt proudly. 'It certainly is,' said Nanny. Mrs Nitt was looking expectantly at her. 'What?' said Nanny, and then, 'Oh.' Mrs Nitt's eyes flickered to her emptied teacup and back again. Nanny Ogg sighed and laid the music aside. Occasionally she saw Granny Weatherwax's point. Sometimes people expected too little of witches. 'Yes, indeedy,' she said, trying to smile. 'Let us see what destiny in the form of these dried-up bits of leaf has in store for us, eh?' She set her features in a suitable occult expression and looked down into the cup. Which, a second later, smashed into fragments when it hit the floor. It was a small room. In fact it was half a small room, since a thin wall had been built across it. Junior members of the chorus ranked rather lower than apprentice scene-shifters in the opera. There was room for a bed, a wardrobe, a dressing-table and, quite out of place, a huge mirror, as big as the door. 'Impressive, isn't it?!' said Christine. 'They tried to take it out but it's built into the wall, apparently!! I'm sure it will be very useful!!' Agnes said nothing. Her own half-room, the other half of this one, didn't have a mirror. She was glad of that. She did not regard mirrors as naturally friendly. It wasn't just the images they showed her. There was something. . . worrying. . . about mirrors. She'd always felt that. They seemed to be looking at her. Agnes hated being looked at. Christine stepped into the small space in the middle of the floor and twirled. There was something very enjoyable about watching her. It was the sparkle, Agnes thought. Something about Christine suggested sequins. 'Isn't this nice?!' she said. Not liking Christine would be like not liking small fluffy animals. And Christine was just like a small fluffy animal. A rabbit, perhaps. It was certainly impossible for her to get a whole idea into her head in one go. She had to nibble it into manageable bits. Agnes glanced at the mirror again. Her reflection stared at her. She could have done with some time to herself right now. Everything had happened so quickly. And this place made her uneasy. Everything would feel a lot better if she could just have some time to herself. Christine stopped twirling. 'Are you all right?!' Agnes nodded. 'Do tell me about yourself?!'

'Er. . . well. . .' Agnes was gratified, despite herself. 'I'm from somewhere up in the mountains you've probably never heard of. . .'

She stopped. A light had gone off in Christine's head, and Agnes realized that the question had been asked not because Christine in any way wanted to know the answer but for something to say. She went on: '. . .and my father is the Emperor of Klatch and my mother is a small tray of raspberry puddings.'

'That's interesting!' said Christine, who was looking at the mirror. 'Do you think my hair looks right?!' * * * What Agnes would have said, if Christine had been capable of listening to anything for more than a couple of seconds, was: She'd woken up one morning with the horrible realization that she'd been saddled with a lovely personality. It was as simple as that. Oh, and very good hair. It wasn't so much the personality, it was the 'but' that people always added when they talked about it. But she's got a lovely personality, they said. It was the lack of choice that rankled. No one had asked her, before she was born, whether she wanted a lovely personality or whether she'd prefer, say, a miserable personality but a body that could take size 9 in dresses. Instead, people would take pains to tell her that beauty was only skin-deep, as if a man ever fell for an attractive pair of kidneys. She could feel a future trying to land on her. She'd caught herself saying 'poot!' and 'dang!' when she wanted to swear, and using pink writing paper. She'd got a reputation for being calm and capable in a crisis. Next thing she knew she'd be making shortbread and apple pies as good as her mother's, and then there'd be no hope for her. So she'd introduced Perdita. She'd heard somewhere that inside every fat woman was a thin woman trying to get out[3] so she'd named her Perdita. She was a good repository for all those thoughts that Agnes couldn't think on account of her wonderful personality. Perdita would use black writing paper if she could get away with it, and would be beautifully pale instead of embarrassingly flushed. Perdita wanted to be an interestingly lost soul in plumcoloured lipstick. Just occasionally, though, Agnes thought Perdita was as dumb as she was. Was the only alternative the witches? She'd felt their interest in her, in a way she couldn't exactly identify. It was of a piece with knowing when someone was watching you, although she had, in fact, occasionally seen Nanny Ogg watching her in a critical kind of fashion, like someone inspecting a second-hand horse. She knew she did have some talent. Sometimes she knew things that were going to happen, although always in a sufficiently confused way that the knowledge was totally useless until afterwards. And there was her voice. She was aware it wasn't quite natural. She'd always enjoyed singing and, somehow, her voice had just done everything she'd wanted it to do. But she'd seen the ways the witches lived. Oh, Nanny Ogg was all right- quite a nice old baggage really. But the others were weird, lying crosswise on the world instead of nicely parallel to it like everyone else. . . old Mother Dismass who could see into the past and the future but was totally blind in the present, and Millie Hopwood over in Slice, who stuttered and had runny ears, and as for Granny Weatherwax. . . Oh, yes. Finest job in the world? Being a sour old woman with no friends? They were always looking for weird people like themselves. Well, they could look in vain for Agnes Nitt. Fed up with living in Lancre, and fed up with the witches, and above all fed up with being Agnes Nitt, she'd. . . escaped.

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