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A Barrel of Paradox - A Discworld Tale (Part 1)

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox - A Discworld Tale (Part 1)

Prologue

Somewhere, in the grand scheme of the universe, a prankster god saw fit to make a turtle fly through space, stacked with elephants balancing a disc-shaped surface upon which he created, amongst other things, left-handed scissors, that nagging sensation you feel when you enter a room but promptly forget why, and humanity. The general reception to this grand joke is still a mystery to historians and theologians, but many point to the existence and persistence of the city* of Ankh-Morpork as a sign that the joke was taken poorly. When asked then why the Fools Guild would be in Ankh-Morpork, the response is usually that the entire city and the legacy of the unnamed prankster god serves as a warning of caution to the Fools of what happens when one botches a joke.

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But when asked privately, perhaps with a few pence or a custard pie slid under a table, they will tell you that the universe just didn't get the punchline...

* * * * *

Kennard was elbow-deep in a bucket of what was euphemistically called "Night Soil" by Mr King, and "godsawful excretions" by most everyone else when he abruptly came to the realization that he had, in his eleven years of life thus far, done nothing of note or real importance. He was an orphan, true, but had not joined any guilds, and his slightly squished face, heavily fire-scarred hands, and dirty uneven curly hair meant he was unlikely to be taken pity upon and adopted by some fishwife or merchant's family. So Kennard had made by as best as he could, scrummaging around for coin as best he could, which today meant he was fishing about for something that glinted silver in the bucket when he saw it being placed out a few minutes ago across the street.

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Once he had hoped to be a great knight, or sail across the ocean, or visit Klatch, or even own a pair of boots that were in truth more like sandals with gaiters included. A few months back he had tried joining a guild, but the Merchants and Assassin guilds said they only had room for those with a coinpurse, the Fools guild simply laughed him away, and the Tanners guild asked him some questions about his own night soil that resolved him to avoid wearing leather on bare skin in the future. After that he lost his taste for guilds, and decided to try it on his own, and that led him to his hand currently being buried in muck.

His epiphany of purpose was momentarily forgotten as his fingers curled around a disc and what he fervently hoped and pretended was plain mud, and was rewarded for his efforts with what appeared to be a five-pence coin, stamped with the face of Lord Vetinari. The night soil had given his silver lordship a tanned appearance that he'd likely not appreciate in person, but before Kennard could find a puddle to clean off his prize and arm, he heard a series of footsteps behind him and a wide-headed broom abruptly hit him over the head, showering ashes, dust, and more than a few dead insects and rat bones.

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"Geroff ya little weasel. Ya want me to tell Mr King you been filching coins outta his buckets, eh?"

The broom belonged to one of the Guild of Street-Cleaners, and his beady eyes looked Kennard up and down from beneath mismatched bushy eyebrows and an expression of accidentally drinking the worm from a fancy drink. One grubby and dusty hand reached out, and he eyed the coin Kennard was trying fruitlessly to hide in his hand without appearing to do so.

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"Give it here lad or I'll use yer shin bone as me new handle after Mr King gets done with yer."

Defeated, Kennard sighed and placed both the coin and the considerable amount of muck from the bucket into the hand of the cleaner. Kennard turned and sprinted off as fast as his bandy legs could carry him as the cleaner cursed his parentage while frantically wiping his hands off on a filthy rag. Kennard heard the footsteps behind him in the distance, but he was well away, and after taking a turn down Clod Street and then Tanners Lane, he sprinted across the open square of Stickens Place, ducking underneath some bronze statue with the features long since worn into androgyny by the elements.

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Before he could catch his breath, Kennard felt his heart leap into his throat as the cleaner reappeared not thirty feet away. Kennard pulled himself against the cold metal statue, attempting to blend into the bronze, but before he could a shout came from the throat of the cleaner as he spotted one of the pockets of his pants bulging out beyond the outline of the statue. Kennard spun around and began running as fast as he could, hearing the sweeper coming up behind him quickly.

Right as the feet sounded like they were going to catch him, they slowed and stopped. Kennard didn't, continuing for a few more seconds to give himself some breathing space should the chase resume, and turned to see. The cleaner had stopped, but the enormous grin that spread across his boil-marked features gave Kennard a chill. The man then casually put his broom off to one side, leaned up against a scummy wall, and leaned against the same wall, still looking directly at Kennard and grinning before pointing lazily towards a street sign.

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He had been in too much of a hurry to pay much heed to the sign on the way in, but peering Kennard could make out a few scratched letters underneath the peeling paint, OX-E-S. The Oxpens, he thought suddenly, in the Shades.** His sweat from the run froze on his skin as he was suddenly aware of how narrow the street was, how poorly lit, and how he abruptly felt the gaze of more than just the sweeper on him. He turned, but the doors around were all locked, and all of the offshoot alleys were darker and even more quiet with the silence of those straining to hold very, very still. Kennard only had to look at the glare of the cleaner, who was now quite casually holding the soil-coated rag, to know that there was middling to no chance he would walk away from the sweeper without talking with Mr. King and his persuasive assortment of cronies and heavy blunt objects. Well, it's better the beating-to-death you 'might' not get than the one you will for sure, he thought, and he turned to walk deeper into the Shades.

Kennard had to imagine the gape of astonishment and shock on the sweeper's face, as turning to look would have spoiled the effect.

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However, as soon as he rounded a corner he set off on a dead sprint, heart pounding in his ears, and already he could hear the scrambling of someone abruptly trying to follow. Worse yet, multiple sets of footsteps could be heard, along with the occasional "Bugger off" panted from one unseen figure to another, and once or twice grasping hands closed around the lump in his pocket, almost stopping him until the hand was wrenched away by another or from a sharp turn. Kennard took corner after corner, trying in vain to outdistance his pursuers, but came upon open street abruptly. It took a moment before the laundry lines and whitewashing revealed he had escaped the Shades, but the footsteps behind were still coming up fast, so he took another turn into a familiar alley, one he had used before to shelter under a crate from the rain or snow.

Taking a moment to rinse his arm thoroughly in a rain barrel, he then gingerly removed the lump from one of his many baggy pockets from his threadbare pants. It was a small cat, stuffed poorly with straw with mismatched buttons for eyes and a nose, and made of a patchwork of different materials giving it the appearance of having been quilted by a blind fairy who favored corduroy. He held it close, smelling deeply and feeling his hear slow, and as he remembered Her he could swear he could smell a whiff of lavender pie again. There was a scrabbling noise of footsteps from one end of the alley that caused Kennard to brielfy crouch down to hide. Well, Mr Purrs would be safest away from me. Nobody comes down this alley much anymore anyways. He looked around, and then stepped up to a nondescript brick in the wall and gently worked it free, revealing a small cubbyhole with a few dirty copper pennies. He took the pennies out and dropped them into a cavernous pocket, and carefully fit the cat into the cubby before replacing the brick carefully. As he took a step backwards to admire his handywork, a man appeared at the opposite end of the alley, and he grinned at Kennard***.

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" 'ere boy, you look lost. Lemme help you back to Oxpen street."

He turned to flee again, towards the sails poking above the roofs like some kind of albino forest. Behind him he could hear further curses and whimpers of pains as clotheslines and laundry slowed the men following him as more continued the chase from where they had been meandering out on the street. Abruptly Kennard was in Pearl Docks proper, and he sprinted between burly men loading and unloading barrels of cod, pallets of lumber and coal, and several chests of silks and strings of semiprecious stones. He caught a glimpse of a man in a quite odd-colored shirt with-

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He gaped and slowed to a halt. The man had a chest behind him, but it had feet. The chest lumbered on dozens of tiny feet to follow behind the odd stranger like a loyal puppy, and even as he watched the odd man cheerfully opened the chest (Teeth, it had teeth as well Kennard thought with a squeak) and paid the a captain for one of the ships with a gold coin the size of his hand. That caused Kennard's mouth to drop open for the third time in as many minutes, but he abruptly noticed that several of the men who had abruptly determined that this stranger was well worth their attention were the ones following him from earlier. One of them temporarily glanced over at Kennard, made a throat slitting gesture, and then went back to offering his aid to the stranger with the chest. Kennard quickly spun around, looking for a place to hide, and then saw a small merchant ship a short ways away about to pull up his gangplank.

"WAIT!" shouted Kennard, sprinting towards the plank, and awkwardly jumping along it and onto the deck. He was surrounded by startled crew members, several of which were beginning to look more angry than surprised, but before they could say a word he dove into his pockets and grabbed the silver coin and all the coppers, dropping some and causing them to roll across the deck. One man with a bandanna and a splintered toothpick between his teeth eyed the coins as Kennard gasped out his request for passage. The man looked around to the other crew before nodding once with a brief smile. Kennard felt his legs go to jelly, but before he could relax the man's smile disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and he said "But ye ain't no passenger, not for that price. You're a crewman fer the trip, and will earn yer keep. Coil this rope to start, and I'll give yer more work once we're away."

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Kennard nodded gratefully, before sitting near the rail as the crew set off. He took a coil of rope and began making an erratic circle with it on the deck, smiling faintly as he saw the men from the Shades searching the empty docks for him. There was even a whiff of lavender from the windowsill of some brave greenthumb overlooking the Ankh, and for a moment Kennard felt at peace, before the captain shouted at him to scrub section of deck where a wine barrel**** had split and spilled. Well, at least I'm not back there, and I'm sure they won't be looking for me when we get back. After all, we'll only be gone a month according to the captain...

(Continued in Part 2)

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*Also referred to as "dank pit of grubbiness" and "wet cowflop of brick and mortar" when the wind is blowing the pungent aroma of the river Ankh away from the viewer, and a general deep-throated gurgle of despair when the wind shifts the other way.

**If the crime and grisly murder rate in the Shades were to be compared to the rest of Ankh-Morpork, it would be like comparing a mountain to a molehill, if the mountain snuck up behind you with a sock filled with nails before beating you until it got bored and took the wallet from your now-unidentifiable corpse.

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***The man had very few teeth, but just as in the magic-eye pictures where the space between a dozen playing dolphins forms the shape of a hungry shark, the lack of anything there was nevertheless more frightening than a full head of shiny straight teeth

****It was a white wine, but what was the point of having a perfectly good deck if no-one ever scrubbed it?

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