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Page 22

“How old are you, little girl?”

“Nearly nine.”

“And you want to be a wizard when you grow up.”

“I want to be a wizard now,” said Esk firmly. “This is the right place, isn't it?”

Cutangle looked at Trestle and winked.

“I saw that,” said Esk.

“I don't think there's ever been a lady wizard before,” said Cutangle. “I rather think it might be against the lore. Wouldn't you rather be a witch? I understand it's a fine career for girls.”

A minor wizard behind him started to laugh. Esk gave him a look.

“Being a witch is quite good,” she conceded. “But I think wizards have more fun. What do you think?”

“I think you are a very singular little girl,” said Cutangle.

“What does that mean?”

“It means there's only one of you,” said Trestle.

“That's right,” said Esk, “and I still want to be a wizard.”

Words failed Cutangle. “Well, you can't,” he said. “The very idea!”

He drew himself up to his full width and turned away. Something tugged at his robe.

“Why not?” said a voice.

He turned.

“Because”, he said, slowly and deliberately, “because . . . the whole idea is completely laughable, that's why. And it's absolutely against the lore!”

“But I can do wizard magic!” said Esk, the faintest suggestion of a tremble in her voice.

Cutangle bent down until his face was level with hers.

“No you can't,” he hissed. “Because you are not a wizard. Women aren't wizards, do I make myself clear?”

“Watch,” said Esk.

She extended her right hand with the fingers spread and sighted along it until she spotted the statue of Malich the Wise, the founder of the University. Instinctively the wizards between her and it edged out of the way, and then felt rather silly.

“I mean it,” she said.

“Go away, little girl,” said Cutangle.

“Right,” said Esk. She squinted hard at the statue and concentrated ....

The great doors of Unseen University are made of octiron, a metal so unstable that it can only exist in a universe saturated with raw magic. They are impregnable to all force save magic: no fire, no battering ram, no army can breach them.

Which is why most ordinary visitors to the University use the back door, which is made of perfectly normal wood and doesn't go around terrorising people, or even stand still terrorising people. It had a proper knocker and everything.

Granny examined the doorposts carefully and gave a grunt of satisfaction when she spotted what she was looking for. She hadn't doubted that it would be there, cunningly concealed by the natural grain of the wood.

She grasped the knocker, which was shaped like a dragon's head, and rapped smartly, three times. After a while the door was opened by a young woman with her mouth full of clothespegs.

“Ot o0 00 ont?” she enquired.

Granny bowed, giving the girl a chance to take in the pointy black hat with the batwing hatpins. It had an impressive effect: she blushed and, peering out into the quiet alley-way, hurriedly motioned Granny inside. There was a big mossy courtyard on the other side of the wall, crisscrossed with washing lines. Granny had the chance to become one of the very few women to learn what it really is that wizards wear under their robes, but modestly averted her eyes and followed the girl across the flagstones and down a wide flight of steps.

They led into a long, high tunnel lined with archways and, currently, full of steam. Granny caught sight of long lines of washtubs in the big rooms off to the sides; the air had the warm fat smell of ironing. A gaggle of girls carrying washbaskets pushed past her and hurried up the steps - then stopped, halfway up, and turned slowly to look at her.

Granny set her shoulders back and tried to look as mysterious as possible.

Her guide, who still hadn't got rid of her clothes-pegs, led her down a side-passage into a room that was a maze of shelves piled with laundry. In the very centre of the maze, sitting at a table, was a very fat woman with a ginger wig. She had been writing in a very large laundry book-it was still open in front of her-but was currently inspecting a large stained vest.

“Have you tried bleaching?” she asked.

“Yes, m'm,” said the maid beside her.

“What about tincture of myrryt?”

“Yes, m'm. It just turned it blue, m'm.”

“Well, it's a new one on me,” said the laundry woman. “And Ay've seen brimstone and soot and dragon blood and demon blood and Aye don't know what else.” She turned the vest over and read the nametape carefully sewn inside. “Hmm. Granpone the White. He's going to be Granpone the Grey if he doesn't take better care of his laundry. Aye tell you, girl, a white magician is just a black magician with a good housekeeper. Take it -”

She caught sight of Granny, and stopped.

“Ee ocked hat hee oor,” said Granny's guide, dropping a hurried curtsey. “Oo ed hat -”

“Yes, yes, thank you, Ksandra, you may go,” said the fat woman. She stood up and beamed at Granny, and with an almost perceptible click wound her voice up several social classes.

“Pray hexcuse us,” she said. “You find us hall at sixes and sevens, it being washing day and heverything. His this a courtesy call or may I make so bold as to ask -”she lowered her voice -“ his there a message from the Hother Sade?”

Granny looked blank, but only a fraction of a second. The witchmarks on the doorpost had said that the housekeeper welcomed witches and was particularly anxious for news of her four husbands; she was also in random pursuit of a fifth, hence the ginger wig and, if Granny's ears weren't deceiving her, the creak of enough whalebone to infuriate an entire ecology movement. Gullible and foolish, the signs had said. Granny withheld judgment, because city witches didn't seem that bright themselves.

The housekeeper must have mistaken her expression.

“Don't be afraid,” she said. “May staff have distinct instructions to welcome witches, although of course they upstairs don't approve. No doubt you would like a cup of tea and something to eat?”

Granny bowed solemnly.

“And Aye will see if we can't find a nice bundle of old clothes for you, too,” the housekeeper beamed.

“Old clothes? Oh. Yes. Thank you, m'm.”

The housekeeper swept forward with a sound like an elderly tea clipper in a gale, and beckoned Granny to follow her.

“Aye'll have the tea brought to my flat. Tea with a lot of tealeaves.”

Granny stumped along after her. Old clothes? Did this fat woman really mean it? The nerve! Of course, if they were good quality ....

There seemed to be a whole world under the University. It was a maze of cellars, coldrooms, stillrooms, kitchens and sculleries, and every inhabitant was either carrying something, pumping something, pushing something or just standing around and shouting. Granny caught glimpses of rooms full of ice, and others glowing with the heat from red-hot cooking stoves, wall-sized. Bakeries smelled of new bread and taprooms smelled of old beer. Everything smelled of sweat and woodsmoke:

The housekeeper led her up an old spiral staircase and unlocked the door with one of the large number of keys that hung from her belt.

The room inside was pink and frilly. There were frills on things that no one in their right mind would frill. It was like being inside candyfloss.

“Very nice,” said Granny. And, because she felt it was expected of her, “Tasteful.” She looked around for something unfrilly to sit on, and gave up.

“Whatever am Aye thinking of?” the housekeeper trilled. “Aye'm Mrs Whitlow but I expect you know, of course. And Aye have the honour to be addressing - ?”

“Eh? Oh, Granny Weatherwax,” said Granny. The frills were getting to her. They gave pink a bad name.

“Ay'm psychic myself, of course,” said Mrs Whitlow.

Granny had nothing against fortune-telling provided it was done badly by people with no talent for it. It was a different matter if people who ought to know better did it, though. She considered that the future was a frail enough thing at best, and if people looked at it hard they changed it. Granny had some quite complex theories about space and time and why they shouldn't be tinkered with, but fortunately good fortune-tellers were rare and anyway people preferred bad fortune-tellers, who could be relied upon for the correct dose of uplift and optimism.

Granny knew all about bad fortune-telling. It was harder than the real thing. You needed a good imagination.

She couldn't help wondering if Mrs Whitlow was a born witch who somehow missed her training. She was certainly laying siege to the future. There was a crystal ball under a sort of pink frilly tea cosy, and several sets of divinatory cards, and a pink velvet bag of rune stones, and one of those little tables on wheels that no prudent witch would touch with a ten-foot broomstick, and -Granny wasn't sure on this point - either some special dried monkey turds from a llamassary or some dried llama turds from a monastery, which apparently could be thrown in such a way as to reveal the sum total of knowledge and wisdom in the universe. It was all rather sad. .

“Or there's the tea-leaves, of course,” said Mrs Whitlow, indicating the big brown pot on the table between them. “Aye know witches often prefer them, but they always seem so, well, common to me. No offence meant.”

There probably wasn't any offence meant, at that, thought Granny. Mrs Whitlow was giving her the sort of look generally used by puppies when they're not sure what to expect next, and are beginning to worry that it may be the rolled-up newspaper.

She picked up Mrs Whitlow's cup and had started to peer into it when she caught the disappointed expression that floated across the housekeeper's face like a shadow across a snowfield. Then she remembered what she was doing, and turned the cup widdershins three times, made a few vague passes over it and mumbled a charm which she normally used to cure mastitis in elderly goats, but never mind. This display of obvious magical talent seemed to cheer up Mrs. Whitlow no end.

Granny wasn't normally very good at tea-leaves, but she squinted at the sugar-encrusted mess at the bottom of the cup and let her mind wander. What she really needed now was a handy rat or even a cockroach that happened to be somewhere near Esk, so that she could Borrow its mind.

What Granny actually found was that the University had a mind of its own.

It is well known that stone can think, because the whole of electronics is based on that fact, but in some universes men spend ages looking for other intelligences in the sky without once looking under their feet. That is because they've got the time-span all wrong. From stone's point of view the universe is hardly created and mountain ranges are bouncing up and down like organ-stops while continents zip backwards and forwards in general high spirits, crashing into each other from the sheer joy of momentum and getting their rocks off. It is going to be quite some time before stone notices its disfiguring little skin disease and starts to scratch, which is just as well.

The rocks from which Unseen University was built, however, have been absorbing magic for several thousand years and all that random power has had to go somewhere.

The University has, in fact, developed a personality.

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