The Shades, in brief, were an abode of discredited gods and unlicensed thieves, ladies of the night and peddlers in exotic goods, alchemists of the mind and strolling mummers; in short, all the grease on civilization's axle.
And yet, despite the fact that these people tend to appreciate the soft magics, there was a remarkable shortage of witches. Within hours the news of Granny's arrival had seeped through the quarter and a stream of people crept, sidled or strutted towards her door, seeking potions and charms and news of the future and various personal and specialised services that witches traditionally provide for those whose lives are a little clouded or full of stormy weather.
She was at first annoyed, and then embarrassed, and then flattered; her clients had money, which was useful, but they also paid in respect, and that was a rock-hard currency.
In short, Granny was even wondering about the possibility of acquiring slightly larger premises with a bit of garden and sending for her goats. The smell might be a problem, but the goats would just have to put up with it.
They had visited the sights of Ankh-Morpork, its crowded docks, its many bridges, its souks, its casbahs, its streets lined with nothing but temples. Granny had counted the temples with a thoughtful look in her eyes; gods were always demanding that their followers acted other than according to their true natures, and the human fallout this caused made plenty of work for witches.
The terrors of civilisation had so far failed to materialise, although a cutpurse had tried to make off with Granny's handbag. To the amazement of passers-by Granny called him back, and back he came, fighting his feet which had totally ceased to obey him. No one quite saw what happened to her eyes when she stared into his face or heard the words she whispered in his cowering ear, but he gave her back all her money plus quite a lot of money belonging to other people, and before she let him go had promised to have a shave, stand up straight, and be a better person for the rest of his life. By nightfall Granny's description was circulated to all the chapter houses of the Guild of Thieves, Cutpurses, Housebreakers and Allied Trades, with strict instructions to avoid her at all costs.
Thieves, being largely creatures of the night themselves, know trouble when it stares them in the face.
Granny had also written two more letters to the University. There had been no reply.
“I liked the forest best,” said Esk.
“I dunno,” said Granny. “This is a bit like the forest, really. Anyway, people certainly appreciate a witch here.”
“They're very friendly,” Esk conceded. “You know the house down the street, where that fat lady lives with all those young ladies you said were her relatives?”
A very respectable body which in fact represented the major law enforcement agency in the city. The reason for this is as follows: the Guild was given an annual quota which represented a socially acceptable level of thefts, muggings and assassinations, and in return saw to it in very definite and final ways that unofficial crime was not only rapidly stamped out but knifed, garrotted, dismembered and left around the city in an assortment of paper bags as well. This was held to be a cheap and enlightened arrangement, except by those malcontents who were actually mugged or assassinated and refused to see it as their social duty, and it enabled the city's thieves to plan a decent career structure, entrance examinations and codes of conduct similar to those adopted by the city's other professions- which, the gap not being very wide in any case, they rapidly came to resemble.
“Mrs Palm,” said Granny cautiously. “Very respectable lady.”
“People come to visit them all night long. I watched. I'm surprised they get any sleep.”
“Um,” said Granny.
“It must be a trial for the poor woman with all those daughters to feed, too. I think people could be more considerate.”
“Well now,” said Granny, “I'm not sure that -”
She was rescued by the arrival at the gates of the University of a large, brightly painted wagon. Its driver reined in the oxen a few feet from Granny and said: “Excuse me, my good woman, but would you be so kind as to move, please?”
Granny stepped aside, affronted by this display of downright politeness and particularly upset at being thought of as anyone's good woman, and the driver saw Esk.
It was Treatle. He grinned like a worried snake.
“I say. It's the young lady who thinks women should be wizards, isn't it?”
“Yes,” said Esk, ignoring a sharp kick on the ankle from Granny.
“What fun. Come to join us, have you?”
“Yes,” said Esk, and then because something about Treatle's manner seemed to demand it, she added, “sir. Only we can't get in.”
“We?” said Treatle, and then glanced at Granny, “Oh, yes, of course. This would be your aunt?”
“My granny. Only not really my granny, just sort of everyone's granny.”
Granny gave a stiff nod.
“Well, we cannot have this,” said Treatle, in a voice as hearty as a plum pudding. “My word, no. Our first lady wizard left on the doorstep? That would be a disgrace. May I accompany you?”
Granny grasped Esk firmly by the shoulder.
“If it's all the same to you -”she began. But Esk twisted out of her grip and ran towards the cart.
“You can really take me in?” she said, her eyes shining.
“Of course. I am sure the heads of the Orders will be most gratified to meet you. Most astonished and astounded,” he said, and gave a little laugh.
“Eskarina Smith -” said Granny, and then stopped. She looked at Treatle.
“I don't know what is in your mind, Mr Wizard, but I don't like it,” she said. “Esk, you know where we live. Be a fool if you must, but you might at least be your own fool.”
She turned on her heel and strode off across the square.
“What a remarkable woman,” said Treatle, vaguely. “I see you still have your broomstick. Capital.”
He let go of the reins for a moment and made a complicated sign in the air with both hands.
The big doors swung back, revealing a wide courtyard surrounded by lawns. Behind them was a great rambling building, or buildings: it was hard to tell, because it didn't look so much as if it had been designed as that a lot of buttresses, arches, towers, bridges, domes, cupolas and so forth had huddled together for warmth.
“Is that it?” said Esk. “It looks sort of - melted.”
“Yes, that's it,” said Trestle. “Alma mater, gaudy armours eagle tour and so on. Of course, it's a lot bigger inside than out, like an iceberg or so I'm given to understand, I've never seen the things. Unseen University, only of course a lot of it is unseen. Just go in the back and fetch Simon, will you?”
Esk pushed aside the heavy curtains and peered into the back of the wagon. Simon was lying on a pile of rugs, reading a very large book and making notes on scraps of paper.
He looked up, and gave her a worried smile.
“Is that you?” he said.
“Yes,” said Esk, with conviction.
“We thought you'd left us. Everyone thought you were riding with everyone else and then wwwwhen we stopped -”
“I sort of caught up. I think Mr Trestle wants you to come and look at the University.”
“We're here?” he said, and gave her an odd look: “You're here?”
“Mr Treatle invited me in, he said everyone would be astounded to meet me.” Uncertainty flashed a fin in the depths of her eyes. “Was he right?”
Simon looked down at his book, and dabbed at his running eyes with a red handkerchief.
“He has t-these little f-fancies”, he muttered, “bbbut he's not a bad person.”
Bewildered, Esk looked down at the yellowed pages open in front of the boy. They were full of complicated red and black symbols which in some inexplicable way were as potent and unpleasant as a ticking parcel, but which nevertheless drew the eye in the same way that a really bad accident does. One felt that one would like to know their purpose, while at the same time suspecting that if you found out you would really prefer not to have done.
Simon saw her expression and hastily shut the book.
“Just some magic,” he mumbled. “Something I'm wwwww-”
“- working -”said Esk, automatically.
“Thank you. On.”
“It must be quite interesting, reading books,” said Esk.
“Sort of. Can't you read, Esk?”
The astonishment in his voice stung her.
“I expect so,” she said defiantly. “I've never tried.”
Esk wouldn't have known what a collective noun was if it had spat in her eye, but she knew there was a herd of goats and a coven of witches. She didn't know what you called a lot of wizards. An order of wizards? A conspiracy? A circle?
Whatever it was, it filled the University. Wizards strolled among the cloisters and sat on benches under the trees. Young wizards scuttled along pathways as bells rang, with their arms full of books or - in the case of senior students - with their books flapping through the air after them. The air had the greasy feel of magic and tasted of tin.
Esk walked along between Trestle and Simon and drank it all in. It wasn't just that there was magic in the air, but it was tamed and working, like a millrace. It was power, but it was harnessed.
Simon was as excited as she was, but it showed only because his eyes watered more and his stutter got worse. He kept stopping to point out the various colleges and research buildings.
One was quite low and brooding, with high narrow windows.
“T-that's the l-l-library,” said Simon, his voice bursting with wonder and respect. “Can I have a l-l-look?”
“Plenty of time for that later,” said Treatle. Simon gave the building a wistful look.
“All the b-books of magic ever written,” he whispered.
“Why are the windows barred?” said Esk.
Simon swallowed. “Um, b-because b-books of m-magic aren't like other b-books, they lead a -”
“That's enough,” snapped Treatle. He looked down at Esk as if he had just noticed her, and frowned.
“Why are you here?”
“You invited me in,” said Esk.
“Me? Oh, yes. Of course. Sorry, mind wandering. The young lady who wants to be a wizard. Let us see, shall we?”
He led the way up a broad flight of steps to an impressive pair of doors. At least, they were designed to be impressive. The designer had invested deeply in heavy locks, curly hinges, brass studs and an intricately-carved archway to make it absolutely clear to anyone entering that they were not very important people at all.
He was a wizard. He had forgotten the doorknocker.
Treatle rapped on the door with his staff. It hesitated for a while, and then slowly slid back its bolts and swung open.
The hall was full of wizards and boys. And boys' parents.
There are two ways of getting into Unseen University (in fact there are three, but at this time wizards hadn't realised it.
The first is to achieve some great work of magic, such as the recovery of an ancient and powerful relic or the invention of a totally new spell, but in these times it was seldom done. In the past there had been great wizards capable of forming whole new spells from the chaotic raw magic of the world, wizards from whom as it were all the spells of wizardry had flowed, but those days had gone; there were no more sourcerers.