The cacophony of seven o'clock was in full swing: the bells of the city rang and tolled and chimed and screamed. In this darkened corridor, the loudest came from the hollow intonations of the Inhumation Bell, just a few beats behind the others. The air positively* vibrated with the weight of the hour.
There was no room to pick out any other noise, let alone anyone's breathing. And when Old Tom rang out his deafening silences, any observer might be too busy trying not to go mad listening to nothing to notice a shadow flying desperately between the tasteful statues that graced the corridor.
No, nothing to see here. Nothing to hear, either, least of all a teenage girl in the middle of the stupidest, most dangerous thing that she had ever done – and quite possibly that anyone had ever done in the history of the Disc.
Burgling in the Assassin's Guild.
Without a Thieves' Licence.
Iodine crouched by the last statue of the corridor, in the place where there would be a shadow if there was any light to cast it, and waited for the final silence. When it didn't sound, she darted forward to the door ahead of her, not even daring to breathe any more. It might have been a stupid idea, but Count Artaud had been right: no one had even bothered to guard this corridor. Maybe they didn't know the importance of what lay in the study behind the door. Iodine had remembered her instructions and avoided every trap, and now, it looked like her prize was finally in her grip. She would finally be able to fulfil her promise. She'd finally be free. She didn't quite want to believe it.
And as her finger brushed the door handle, with the final chime of the Inhumation Bell dying away in the air, Iodine stopped believing it completely.
Not now, not here, not HIM .
She recognized that voice, and the surprise of hearing it in the middle of the Assassin's Guild could only just eclipse the rage that boiled in her stomach at its sound.
The boy from The Soak, three weeks ago.
Iodine had been on her second errand for the Count, fetching a long and complicated list of herbs from a shop on Chittling Street that Iodine, who had spent her entire life in the Shades, had never heard of. Artaud had stiffly informed her that it had always been there, but somehow that did little to reassure Iodine. He had also informed her that at least half of the things she was to fetch – most of which came in small paper envelopes that had oily stains on them and gave her a headache when she tried to smell them – were illegal, and she absolutely must not be seen under any circumstances.
So Iodine had been as stealthy as she knew how to be: she had shoved her goods in the pockets of her trousers and coat and was strolling right down the middle of the road, hands entrenched up to the wrist in the pockets of her coat, eyes fixed on a position two feet ahead of her, pretending to be lost in a world of her own, anywhere but here.
“I say, you! Boy!”
Iodine had been so lost in marvelling at the sheer size and number of pockets in the boys' clothes she was wearing that she didn't look up until there was a loud cough, and the voice rose to an indignant falsetto: “Ex cuse me, I was talking to you!”
Iodine looked up then, scowling and annoyed. “ What? ”
He'd been standing there, dressed in the same fashions she'd seen some of the Count's visitors wearing in the time she'd been working for him. At the moment the fashion for the well to-do gentleman in Ankh was leaning towards top hats, multiple waistcoats and outer garments that couldn't seem to make up their mind over whether they wanted to be coats or cloaks, so had split the difference and combined a number of capes at various points from shoulder to hem. The result was a silhouette that looked like a Hogswatch Tree, and given the heatwave Ankh-Morpork was currently experiencing, a constant smell of damp wool and male sweat.
His lady companion, on the other hand, was wearing a white linen dress just thick enough to cover the complex machinery of corsetry beneath, while thin enough to coquettishly imply that her figure was completely natural. These were, Iodine reflected, details that she wouldn't have known before meeting the Count, and she'd be quite happy never to have use of that knowledge again.
The girl was also wearing an expression of complete shock, and Iodine hesitated before she worried she was blushing too girlishly. She sniffed and wiped her nose with her thumb to make up for it.
“Sorry, gov. Miss,” she mumbled, her head dropping in awkward humility. “I mean, howcanIhelpya?”
“Peccadillo,” the girl said, not even acknowledging the apology, “this is quite ridiculous.”
“No, Quizella,” the boy said, “you said . You, boy,” he continued, finally addressing Iodine directly. “Can you settle a bet? There's sixpence in it for you?”
Iodine found herself fighting the urge to kick him in the shins, only the weight of the illegal goods keeping her still. “Don't need sixpence,” she said. “And I'm on my way somewhere...”
“Oh, pish posh,” the boy had said. “It can't be that important if you're going this way. No, let's make it a dollar. Or I could call the watch, if you're in such a hurry. I'm sure they could give you a lift.”
The urge to kick him got even stronger, but as crass as his assumption was, Iodine had no desire to be caught by anyone who might sniff out the goods in her trousers, or possibly worse, the goods that weren't in her trousers. She was trapped.
The bet turned out to be regarding the physical skills and improvisational skills of the upper and lower classes. Iodine's new worst enemies had some sort of disagreement about how rich living spoils the prowess of the upper classes, and that any urchin (Quizella's word, and she said it like it was some sort of debilitating mental condition) on the streets could outperform Peccadillo in any of a series of tests, apparently thought up on the spot.
These involved climbing a wall (easy); walking the top of that wall (even easier); throwing stones at gargoyles until they went away, and a boxing match that seemed to have some incomprehensible rules that Iodine broke by actually trying to win the fight.
With the boy temporarily incapacitated, the girl said, with real admiration in her voice:“You should really join the Assassin's Guild.”
“Don't be silly, Quizella,” Peccadillo had scoffed. “They don't let just anyone in to the Assassin's Guild.”
“They let you in, didn't they?” she countered. “And there are scholarships. Of course, you'd have to have more natural ability to get one of those.” She gave Iodine what she probably thought was a charming smile, but which made her look rather like a cat who isn't sure if the cream has turned yet. “But that just means the quality is rather higher among the scholarship boys.”
“I say, look here,” the boy objected. “Are you saying you think the scholarship boys are better than the rest?”
But Iodine hadn't heard the rest. She'd slipped away while they were arguing.
And now, back in the Assassin's Guild itself, she spun on her feet, just in time to see a match being struck on the nameplate of the statue. As the match travelled to a candle, she had seconds to stand there and try and figure out if she was more afraid at being caught or angry that it would be him who caught her. When the flame reached its destination and sprung up with life, however, she saw the boy standing there.
But it wasn't him after all. This boy seemed at least a foot shorter than the other, and he had a lopsided grin that seemed to split his face in two, and, now she was beginning to breathe again, Iodine noticed a rather strong smell of pigs. The look in his eye, though: that way he seemed to be mocking her just for standing there, that was familiar, and she still wanted to hit him again.
“Hello,” she said cautiously, her hand still on the door handle behind her. “I was just on my way to the little boy's room.” She tried the handle and breathed a sigh of relief when it turned, but as she shifted her weight towards it, she found the door just didn't want to open.
It was stuck. The Lady had apparently stopped favouring her for today.
“Well, that ain't it,” the strange pig-smelling boy said idly. “That's Dr. Bufola's office. Look, there's a plaque on the door an' everyfing.”
His accent was thick and placed him firmly in the poorer areas of Morpork. Too firmly, in fact. Iodine knew she sometimes rushed past her 't's in order to get to the end of the sentences, but he leapt over the letter like an expert hurdler: tha' ain' i' in staccato. Her grandfather, she remembered, used to mix and match 'th,' 'ff' and 'v' like they were interchangeable, but no one her age spoke like that anymore. At least, not outside The Dysk, where it was usually found in the mouths of characters called “Errand Boy,” or “Street Echinoderm,” or one time, “Jack-the-Lad, A Loveable Ragamuffin With a Heart of Gold.”
Iodine looked at him again, and realized that if he just stood up straight, and maybe wore a top hat, he would be the same height as the boy from The Soak.
She reset back to wanting to inflict physical harm just as they were interrupted.
“Indeed it is Dr. Bufola's office!” A deep booming voice came from the far end of the corridor and announced the arrival of a man as large as his voice, bearing down on them with his black robes trailing behind him, like a rhinoceros in mourning.“And what, pray, are two wayward boys doing at my office door this evening?” He looked from Iodine to the boy over thick wire rimmed glasses, an eyebrow raised in question.
“Nuffin, sir,” the newcomer said quickly. “We're just lost. We're here for the scholarhip exam, y'see, and when I saw this lad 'ere slipping out I figured he was off to take a whizz, but he's found your office by accident. I reckon we should be heading back to the exam hall, shouldn't we, sir?”
Bufola stared long and hard at the boy. And then he turned and stared long and hard at Iodine. She did her best not to squirm, even though she was sure the old assassin could see through her clothes to her bindings underneath, to say nothing of seeing through the boy's lie about having followed her from the scholarship exam.
Wait , she thought suddenly, why is he lying for me?
Wait, she thought further, scholarship exam? Oh no...
“Yes,” Bufola said after a while. “I think you better had. There're only two scholarship places available this year, boys, so you'd better give it everything you've got. Good luck.”
“Com'on,” the pigboy said, beckoning roughly towards Iodine. “We can whizz after, can't we? What's your name?”
“Ludi,” Iodine said, trailing after him. Her disappointment at her failed effort was quickly being replaced by an idea: if she did get into the Guild, then she would be spending much more time here, wouldn't she? She could still get the elixir for Artaud, if she played her cards right...
...and something made her very determined to do better than this boy at the entrance exam.