There is a curse. They say: may you live in interesting times.
’May you live in interesting times’ is the worst thing one can wish on a citizen of Discworld, especially on the distinctly unmagical Rincewind, who has had far too much perilous excitement in his life and can’t even spell wizard.
So when a request for a ‘Great Wizzard’ arrives in Ankh-Morpork via carrier albatross from the faraway Counterweight Continent, it’s the endlessly unlucky Rincewind who’s sent as emissary. The oldest (and most heavily fortified) empire on the Disc is in turmoil, and Chaos is building. And, for some incomprehensible reason, someone believes Rincewind will have a mythic role in the ensuing war and wholesale bloodletting.
There are too many heroes already in the world, but there is only one Rincewind. And he owes it to the world to keep that one alive for as long as possible.
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 win.
Fate always wins. Most of the gods throw dice but Fates play 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.*
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-headed axe.’
And he won.
He beamed at them.
‘Non-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 riles 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 say 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 the 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 has 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.
‘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.
* People are always a little confused about this, as they are in the case of miracles. When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that’s a miracle. But of course if someone is killed by a freak chain of events – the oil spilled just there, the safety fence broken just there – that must also be a miracle. Just because it’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.
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