End of the Road
One feminine foot was already tapping impatiently on the floor of the coach by the time the tall, red-haired man skidded out of the drawing room, spun himself around using one of the easily-accessible columns that lined the hall and dashed out of the front doors, the butler waiting to close it with a long-suffering sigh.
"Found them!" the Duke exclaimed triumphantly, as he leapt up into the carriage as it started moving, beaming at his wife. "I told you I knew exactly where I had put them, didn't I?"
"You're sure you have the right tickets this time?"
Duke Mortimer of Sto Helit hesitated, quickly looking down at the tickets held in his gloved hands, then exhaled. "Yes," he said, sitting down beside his wife. "After last time, I only keep one set of tickets in one place at any one time."
With a small, indulgent smile, Ysabell shook her head. "One day, our anniversary will go exactly as planned," she said, reaching up to adjust the elaborate twist of fabric at her husband's throat. It was certainly still love, if he wore the hideously patterned cravat without complaint.
Nearly twenty years of marriage had certainly changed the gawky boy who had been Death's apprentice and the plump edition of a Pre-Raphaelite who had been that same employer's daughter. Adopted of course, but some things were deeper than blood. Bone for example.
Duke and Duchess of Sto Helit, they were popular and admired and - while not conventionally attractive - there was a closeness which many normal married couples envied.
It almost seemed a supernatural union, some had muttered, to which Mortimer and Ysabell had exchanged knowing looks and smiles and said nothing.
"Last year wasn't too..."
"Well, the year before..."
"There was that mess with the Holywood."
Frowning slightly, Mort scratched the pointed beard he had accumulated on his chin, supposedly to give him a more debonair look. Ysabell said she liked it, but usually between giggles. "What about the year before that?"
"We had that clumsy maid who knocked the candles over and almost set the house on fire."
"Oh yes, I recall..." Mort meandered off the pathway of thought and into the alleys of remembrance. "We spent the night toasting mallows on the remains of the meal I'd had brought from Klatch..."
"I think that was the best anniversary we've had on record," Ysabell laughed, patting him on the leg.
"True," Mort agreed. "At least there was no physical damage."
"Or death or destruction, except the meal."
Mort's smile was wry. "Which wasn't really a loss. Why your father likes curry, I'll never understand."
For a few seconds, heavy silence descended on them, thick as the curry in Ankh-Morpork wasn't, broken only by the steady clattering rattle of the coach's wheels on the rocky road towards Ankh Morpork.
While neither of them entirely disliked Ysabell's adoptive father, it really was a bit of a difficulty to be related to a seven-foot skeleton who, despite a liking for curry and cats, carried a scythe and whose job title was the Grim Reaper.
"I hope he's well," Ysabell said vaguely, studying her gloves intently and, once more, Mort wished things had been different. He didn't want to point out that he was hardly likely to be unwell, since he was... well... Death and it seemed a bit callous when not seeing him did seem to occasionally upset his wife.
Perhaps, if they had met as normal people, instead of in the House of Death where Ysabell had been sixteen for three decades and Mort had almost turned the world upside down and inside out, they might have been able to have a more... a less supernatural family.
It had been several years since they had last seen him, though. There had been... problems when their only child, Susan, had talked about her 'Granddad' at school and it had seemed better for everyone involved if Death's visits were kept to a minimum, until Susan could understand fully.
"He did send a card," Mort said carefully, in the tones of a husband who knows he's walking a very thin line, on one side of which there are tears and wailing and on the other side, things he really didn't want to think about.
"Like he does every year," said Ysabell, looking out of the window at the countryside flying by. The sun was just starting to go down, the light streaking the sky like a toddler with crayons. "He did write I WILL SEE YOU SOON, though."
"And since Susan is at school..."
They exchanged looks.
Susan had been enrolled in the Quirm College for Young Ladies. It had seemed proper for a Duke's daughter to attend. Mort and Ysabell were fervently hoping that - by surrounding her with normal girls of her own age - Susan might also grow out of some of the more supernatural habits that she had acquired.
It wasn't any fault of hers or their own; it was just part of who she was. Part of all of them, really. Even if Death was no longer around them all the time, he was still a shadowy figure that touched every aspect of their lives.
"Perhaps we should think about this another day," Mort offered. "After all, we are meant to be going for a night out and worrying about family visits would only put a damper on everything, wouldn't it?"
Ysabell sighed. "I suppose." Her gaze drifted to the window again and the distant ooze of the river Ankh slurping its way down the plains towards Ankh-Morpork. "I just worry sometimes."
"The Opera should distract you a little bit," Mort said lamely.
"And confuse me," Ysabell correct.
THEY ARE KNOWN TO DO THAT.
Mort and Ysabell both smiled. "Yes, they are..." Silver and brown eyes widened, slowly turning to look at one another, then at the seat on the opposite side of the rocking carriage, which should have been empty.
Death peered at them from the depths of his cowl, stooped down to prevent his hooded head from banging the ceiling.
Sinking down in his seat, Mort groaned quietly and pressed his hand to his forehead, muttering to himself, "Just one anniversary to go smoothly... just one. Is that too much to ask for?"
I AM AFRAID THIS IS NOT A SOCIAL CALL.
Mort felt Ysabell's hand suddenly grasp his and he could feel it was cold, through her glove and his own. "What?" she whispered.
Death fiddled with the handle of his folded scythe, the sound like dice being rattled on a tray. I HAVE A DUTY, he said in heavy, leaden tones, not quite looking at either of them. I WANTED YOU TO KNOW BEFOREHAND. IT ONLY SEEMED FAIR.
"You can't mean that we..." Mort looked at Ysabell's white face and frightened eyes, then at Death, who was looking about as sheepish as a skeleton can. "But it's our wedding anniversary! We're going to the Opera at Ankh-Morpork! I paid a fortune for the tickets!"
"But it's not fair!"
"Mort, you should remember..." Ysabell's voice was soft, her fingers firm around his. "You carried the sword and the scythe for a while and fair..."
"Doesn't come into it. I know." He nodded grimly, wrapping his other arm around his wife's shoulders. "It's just that today was going so well and now, we're going to end up dead. Not the best way to start an evening."
I AM SORRY, Death said wretchedly.
Death looked puzzled, his skull on one side. BY FEELING REGRETFUL AND SYMPATHETIC? he replied.
"No," Mort corrected calmly. "How are we... you know... and when?"
Two timers were extracted from the depths of Death's cloak, the familiarity of Mort's own one - as well as raising an unpleasant nauseous feeling in several parts of his body - verifying that this wasn't just some exceptionally bad attempt at humour on his father-in-law's part.
A MOMENT MORE, Death said, looking up at them. A CART IS ABOUT TO TUMBLE DOWN FROM FURTHER UP THE HILL.
"We could go..." The suggestion trailed off on Mort's tongue. He knew the problems that trying to avoid your fate could cause. "Well... at least we know... that's a comfort, I suppose." But the way he said it, suggested it really, really wasn't.
With a sound of sorrow, Ysabell pressed her forehead against Mort's shoulder, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. "What about Susan?" she asked with the concern of every mother placed in a fatalistic situation.
SHE IS WELL.
"But without us..." Ysabell's silvery eyes turned to her father. "And how do you know she's well?"
Death smiled as best he could. I WATCH OVER HER. AND YOU.
"She'll be all right," Mort said decisively, looking down at Ysabell. "She's our daughter, after all, and she's cleverer than both of us put together." He smiled sadly. "And if she's being watched over by her Grandfather..."
IF THAT IS WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE.
Ysabell nodded. "I-I would feel better," she said quietly. "Just don't... disrupt things for her."
OF COURSE. SHE WILL NEVER EVEN KNOW I AM THERE. He suddenly stood up, forced to stoop a bit, which ruined the overall effect a bit, his scythe clicking open, the pale blade shimmering reddish by the fading sun. IT IS ALMOST TIME.
Mort and Ysabell looked at one another. "At least we're going together," she said, taking his hand between hers and clutching at his fingers, as his arm tightened around her shoulder. "I would hate to get lost."
In the distance, something creaked. Something else snapped and then that first something started bouncing noisily over boulders, trees and grasses.
"You mean you would hate it if I went and married Keli," Mort quipped gently, pressing his forehead to hers. "Ysabell, I know this is probably not the best time to tell you this, but I..."
One velvet-gloved fingertip pressed to his lip. "I know, boy."
The scythe swung in an arc which cut through both of them even as the vast logger's cart ploughed into the coach and sent it rolling off the road, leaving the pale outlines of Mort and Ysabell standing, clutching at one another.
Near-transparent hands were examined, wonder on their faces as they touched one another, seeming solid to anyone but themselves. As one, they looked down at the coachman, who was stumbling up from the ruins of the coach, cursing and white-faced with shock.
Scrambling up from the low ditch, he fell through Mort and landed with his head in Ysabell's capacious skirts.
"This feels strange," she observed, stepping back. "Do we stay...?"
Already, though, the world was fading around them and Mort caught her hand, as their feet suddenly came to rest on fine, pale sand which spread in all directions, as pale as the face of the moon.
"The desert..." Mort murmured in wonder. "I never thought I'd see it."
"It's beautiful," Ysabell said, staring at the silvery spread. Her fingers laced through her husband's and she granted him a faint smile. "I suppose that, compared to some people, this isn't a bad way to spend an evening."
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, Death said, fading from their sight.