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A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale (Part 2)

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale (Part 2)

(Part 1, Previously)

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10 and/or 18 Years Later, Depending on Your Perspective...

Kennard Oakstave sighed the long, indolent sigh of release and finality one emits at the closing of a busy day. His hands were stained with ink, his left wrist was giving that little twitching reminder of pain that tends to blossom into a grimace-worthy jolt if ignored, and the sunset filtered through the snow-laden clouds so well stunningly that, if one squinted, they could almost ignore Ankh-Morpork's filth and rank aroma that assaulted the remaining four senses.*

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His chair creaked backwards and Kennard stood to shrug on a shabby but serviceable coat, to better ward off the winter chill. Outside, the snow that looked so fresh this morning had been melted and trodden into a slush that appeared to make the streets even filthier despite being, in theory, just water. Several members of the Guild of Street Cleaners were making their way up Speedway Street, so he gave them wide berth, still remembering the run in all those years ago, and also to avoid getting slush brushed onto his shoes. The building Kennard had just exited was a snug little office with a faded sign labelled "Barrelmaker Mutual Bank," with a smaller cardboard sign tacked underneath to one side, and "and Bingo Hall" written in black pen and flowery script.

Kennard frowned slightly at that, as he was fairly sure that letting people who weren't bankers into a bank was probably against the rules, but jolly Mr. Birchhead gave one of his familiar deep laughs and reassured Kennard that while the old ladies who came every Tuesday for bingo were indeed not bankers, "...oo'ever interrupts their game would likely find out just how many 'alf-bricks a dozen purses can 'old," and Kennard didn't bring it up again.

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Remembering Mr. Birchhead brought a broad smile to Kennard's face as he trudged through the slush to cross the river towards the Barrelmaker's Guildhall and his awaiting warm bed and mug of mulled cider. Birchhead was one of the first to speak up in favor of accepting Kennard as a foundling that long decade ago, and he had not regretted a moment since.** Birchhead was also the one to give him his own job as journeyman and scribe at his bank office, a welcome relief as Kennard never seemed to get the hand of making a barrel that didn't spring leaks after a few days. Bank ledgers didn't spring leaks when hit at the wrong angle with a hammer, and his natural aptitude for sums didn't hurt measures either.

While the other members of the guild snubbed the idea of lending money to others on the grounds that "It might end up in the stained hands o' those Wineskin-Guild-bastards, and that be no good for anyone," Kennard thought they were quite polite for the most part. It didn't hurt that they had the other half of the guildhall timeshare and had elected to not go about causing trouble during the Thursday through Octeday that they got to put up their livery and tools in the main hall. Admittedly, walking past a member of your guild's sworn nemesis while you were both in worn fuzzy slippers, or banging on the door to the loo when a they were taking too long did tend to diffuse the supposedly bitter enmity.Kennard thought the whole idea ridiculous, and his exceeding politeness to everyone earned him odd looks from his coworkers, broad honest smiles from the Wineskin guild members, and occasionally a small palm-sized flask of some kind of smoky wine from Quirm that made Kennard's head hold completely still while the room spun around it. He kept the leather skins in a small box under his bed and found it a wonderful way to relieve the aches and pains of the shoulders, as well as temporarily liberating himself from the pesky verticality that sober people seemed to prefer.

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Gradually, Kennard returned from the island of memory he'd been visiting to realize that his feet had carried him farther and faster than he'd expected. The island of memory was abruptly torpedoed when his nose provided the location with a great helping of manure: the cattle market, filled to the brim with dull vacant stares and the grunts and rumbles of various digestive functions emitting from both ends of the animals. Kennard shook his head in a fruitless effort to clear it, and hit gaze caught the sight of the Klatchian Sow, the gentle light of tavern candles visible through the portholes of the side of the ship. The island of memory resurfaced, a bit marred from the distracting aroma of the cattle, and Kennard recalled familiar lines and curvatures of the ship, now propped upright with hefty pine beams and with a few grubby and scarred tables visible outside on the deck.

The swinging doors on the hull below clattered open and a figure in a grubby cloak stumbled out and began to stride haphazardly yet confidently down the street. Fat-Arm Steve would be behind the counter, cleaning a mug with his apron with his good arm while berating the bartenders Squint and Slobber. Those two had been the least independent of the entire crew when the Klatch had... moved... all those years ago, and Steve had taken them in like a pair of lost and ugly puppies when Captain Irod had announced his retirement in a series of four letter words, punctuated by a hat-eating and bruising his foot against the beached ship. The Klatch had done well for itself as a pub since then, as Kennard could see from the head-height pile of kindling that one could ascertain as the remnants of chairs and stools if you squinted right.***

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Before Kennard could begin to mosey over to the inviting glow of the ship to get a mug of warmed cider and an end of bread, there was an enormous BOOM that jolted his legs and, according to his long-suffering nose, startled the cattle. He turned to follow the series of BOOMs down Cockbill Street, and could see a crowd gathering around a cloud of grey dust. As he approached he could hear the buzz of conversation, punctuated by several angry housewives yelling about the dust's effect on the clothes on the nearby lines, and the seemingly-omnipresent "Sausages inna bun!" from C.M.O.T. Dibbler, who was rumored to be a closet wizard given how quickly he appeared at the edges of any crowd. Kennard felt a shock of recognition of the alley he had left all those years ago as he saw a troll with a sledgehammer bashing down the decrepit building on one side of the alley, and causing not an inconsiderable amount of damage to the other building on the backswing. The shock made everything feel a haze as he numbly sat to one side, even buying a sausage in a bun from Dibbler when pressed and immediately regretting his decision as the memories of that old monk came flooding back.

It was a normal day at sea (Kennard was quite proud, he had only regurgitated his breakfast once so far today), and the wind was giving them good time to Klatch when there was the abrupt sound of an odd bell tolling out across the water and the wind died in the sails. The crew scrambled onto the deck, but no other ship could be seen as the bell tolled a second time, before a booming yet rheumy voice echoed across the waves, clearing it's throat noisily before speaking.

"Attention, attention, clear the area please. Temporal relocation in your vicinity, please clear the-"

There was the sound of a scuffle, and someone muttering and swearing under their breath. Some faint mention could be heard of "Takin' too long" and a rebuttal of "Necessary procedure, necessary procedure. 'S a waste to ignore it" before another brief scuffle could be heard and a different voice boomed out from the all directions at once. "All right, anyone out there bugger off immediately or you'll feel my foot in your backside and make no mistake."

There was a "See? That was faster, innit?" and a muttered agreement before the original voice could be heard, muttering something about "...prayer-wheel coordinates, checking mandala for interference" and "Bit of a wood plank with a rat on it, but shouldn't be a problem" as the wind picked up in all directions at once and a great, soft rushing noise could be heard, like a feather mattress being sucked down a drain. As the noise increased and the sunlight grew eye-wateringly bright, the second voice could be heard again, swearing and saying "That's not a plank, that's a ship! You've got the bloody scale all wrong again, and if we stitch people in time again and make a mess then I shall give you such a smack-"

Then everything went white.

Kennard awoke on Humble Street, being licked by a shaggy pony hitched to an empty cart, and eyed by a smiling portly and bald man in an orange robe carrying a broom. For a second Kennard panicked and thought he might be a friend of the Street Cleaner he had evaded just a few days ago, until the warm smile reassured him. He got to his feet with a slosh, a puddle of briny seawater around his feet, and he could see hundreds more impromptu tidepools all along the street, along with the crew gingerly getting to their feet in a similar state of disarray and saturation. The Klatchian Sow was leaning against a building, and Kennard could see fish flopping from puddle to puddle, an unfortunate shark already being dragged away by an excited chef, and a sea turtle making it's way determinedly down Cockbill Street towards the silty River Ankh.****

"Listen lad, you all right? Got all your fingers, toes, all that in place still?"

When Kennard gave a slow nod of affirmation after inventorying his limbs, the other man smiled again. "Good. Worried for a sec you lot might have been in the cutoff perimeter of the time patch, and let me tell you what, you do not want to be caught in the cutoff perimeter if you like being symmetrical."

When Kennard gave a blank stare, the robed man sighed and gestured for another man in a similar robe to come over. The other man came over, sporting a freshly-forming bruise on his forehead, and introduced himself as "Qu." He waved several wood, stone, and metal objects over Kennard as the first man left to check on the other crew, including what he'd later swear was a regular wooden serving bowl, before tucking them all away into the voluminous robes he wore.

"There. That should do it. Now, as I've told the others, couple of rules you need to follow to make sure this all turns out yak-buttered-side-up. Firstly, you have to make sure you avoid spatial proximity with coexisting individuals and accoutrements that you had unique non-shared mental and physiological contact with, as well as avoiding a grandfather-wormhole paradox resulting from information-bias due to your non-convergent timeline. Oh, and be sure to run at least three laps around a standard city block every day to prevent cardiac-pulmonary collapse, as it may be an unintended side effect of the time stitch collapse. 'S long as you follow that, there shouldn't be any temporal fracture issues. Got it?"

The second blank stare left Qu to clear his throat awkwardly, and the old man ("Time Monks," that was what Qu had called themselves) came back over. He took one look at Kennard's confusion and sighed, and crouched down face-to-face.

"What he means is make sure you don't tell folks about this, 'specially about us, or you can snarl Time up something fierce down the road. Plus, if you had other people or somethin' you knew from before, avoid meeting with or touching them. And be sure to do a bit o' exercise, it's good for ya. Understand all that?"

Kennard's enthusiastic nod was cut short as the Time Monk hunched down again. There was a rushing noise, somewhat like what they heard earlier out on the sea but much quieter, as the two Monks began arguing over something about a deadline and meeting a man in Pseudopolis five minutes before now. The older Time Monk appeared to start to glow white, and turned to Kennard with a slight, sad smile on his face.

"One last thing: If you ever had somethin', somethin' special that nobody else but you touches or holds or thinks about, hide it. It's the last thing connecting the you of now and the you of yesterday, and holding quite a bit of time itself from flooding back into the proper place. If it's messed with it can unravel the time stitch, and that's ne'er a good sign, so leave it behind. Don't touch, not you or anybody. Especially you."

Then the monk vanished in a flash of light, and Kennard was left to empty the fish from his pockets and start anew in Ankh-Morpork, five days and/or eight years after he left it, depending on your perspective...

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All of this races through Kennard's mind as he glimpsed a familiar, worn brick fall out of the wall opposite of the demolished building. One of the various urchins at the edge of the crowd noticed, and to Kennard's horror, approached and fished his hand inside, a face of delight visible as his hand closed around the fabric keepsake inside. Kennard shot to his feet and began pushing through the crowd frantically, trying to get at the child who was now walking back towards the crowd wit the new toy in her grubby arms. The last two men between Kennard and the girl abruptly stepped aside, and Kennard tumbled forward as he stubbed his toe on a cobblestone, bowling into the girl and tumbling into a pile of smashed bricks from the demolition with a groan.

Kennard groggily raised his head, but could only see dusty darkness. As his hand went to brush debris off of his face, they touched corduroy and he could smell lavender pie. The child had sat upright by now, with a loud cry of "'Ey you, that be mine square by rights!" but Kennard's thoughts were entirely focused around the forbidden, forgotten object he held in his scuffed palm. There was a sound of ripping fabric, loud enough to echo off of the walls of the street and rattle the laundry on the lines.

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Then with the noise of a cork leaving a bottle, a stream of brackish water began gushing out of the rabbit, smelling strongly of salt and fish and very faintly of lavender.The urchin glared at Kennard, and kicked him in the shin, causing a splash from the rapidly-forming puddle at his feet, before stalking off in a huff. Kennard could only sit and stare, agape, at the keepsake in his hands that he thought he'd never hold again.

A thousand leagues away, in a secluded monastery on a secluded mountaintop, an old man in an orange robe jerked awake. He frowned in the darkness, then licked his thumb and held it aloft as if to check the room for a breeze. "Bugger all" can be heard, echoing in the quiet stone walls, and then the man struggles on an oddly-lumpy backpack, and after a brief moment, vanished in a flash of white light.

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(Part 3, Continued)

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*One could never completely hide from Ankh-Morpork's presence in all of the realms of perception. Blind men recounted that the city seemed to be a bit grubbier of a shade of complete blackness, those without limbs reported feeling their phantom hands become grubbier, and when asked about the octarine spectrum's image of the city, the Unseen University wizards coughed and excused themselves from the interviewer's room.

**This sentiment is never true, as Kennard could remember quite vividly hours spent with splintered hands planing staves, sawing lids, and hammering bands. Nevertheless, the thought was expected of those in Kennard's position, so Kennard dutifully thought it and brushed the less-than-pleasant memories of labor from his mind

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***Generally the larger the pile of broken furniture, the better the barfight that caused it, and every barkeep on the Disc knew that heroes and their coin were attracted to barfights like drunken moths to belligerent flames. The Mended Drum had a heap that reached the roof on most weekend evenings, and the Guild of Carpenters always sent a enormous fruit basket to them every Hogswatch Eve

****For a moment Kennard wondered giddily if there might one day be tiny elephants and a tiny Disc on that turtle as well, before the snapping of the old man's fingers brought him back from his delirium.

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