The human mind can start a lot of things it doesn't intend to, especially when considered collectively. For example, the collective mind of humanity on the Discworld created a personification of what they thought Death should be: a seven-foot skeleton, dressed in a black cowl and carrying a scythe. And they left it at that. No thinking about what Death would do all day besides ushering souls into the next world, no thoughts for him, no hobbies. In other words, humankind unknowingly created something, then left it to think for itself. This does not often work out well.
In the case of Death, he found things to do, thoughts to think, and hobbies to attempt. The problem with this was, of course, that he couldn't really do much of anything, well, human. Every time he tried, things went wrong. Such was the case with his adopted daughter, Ysabell; his apprentice, Mort; and his eventual granddaughter, Susan. Each time Death decided to venture out into the world of humans, someone got sucked into his place. First it was Mort, then, after Mort's death, it was Susan.
Needless to say, this did not make things easy for Susan most of the time. She found herself different, an outcast. Her mind was structured with logic from an early age, and, as a result, it wasn't always easy for her to comprehend the things that, being the granddaughter of Death, she was occasionally required to comprehend. Still, she managed to do her grandfather's job when needed, although not without a certain amount of resentment. In fact, she quite hated her grandfather most of the time. She hated what he made her; she hated being his relation at all, despite the fact she usually made the most of the powers that came with the territory.
Then, one day, she met someone. A person, of sorts, who was like her. Another outcast who wasn't always comfortable with his lot in life. And she got to know him. And time went on as it always does in those situations.
"I'm worried about her, Lobsang."
"Oh Susan, you're always worried about her. You've been worrying since she was born. Don't you think you could lighten up on it just a little now that she's almost eighteen?"
"But she knows!"
"Of course she knows! Remember, you were the one who said you didn't want her to grow up thinking that the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy were 'magic sparklies in the night'."
"I mean she knows we're not telling her the whole story. Yes, she knows about our…family oddities, but she doesn't know what that means for her!"
"So tell her."
"I can't very well do that, Lobsang."
"And you know I can't, either. Face it, Susan: either we tell her, or she finds out on her own."
Quoth, the raven, sat on the windowsill and looked out at the dry field behind the house. It was more interesting than the black landscapes he'd spent time in as of late, but still lacked anything edible, at least by his standards. There were plenty of berries and dried seedpods, but, being a raven, Quoth had the occasional – or so he claimed – craving for an eyeball or two. He began to dream about the days when there were more wars, or at least more local skirmishes, and was just about asleep when he was jarred out of his reverie by a loud twanging sound. He jumped, ruffling his feathers and swiveling his eyes, trying to find the source of the sound. Something small and hard bumped against his leg. He looked down.
SQUEAK, said the Death of Rats.
"Oh, again, is she?" asked the raven, managing to focus one eye on the corner of the room, where there was a small, hard bed. Someone had contrived to make it at least look comfortable by covering every square inch of its surface with pillows.
In fact, the whole room was rather unusual, at least by Quoth's standards. He was used to occult objects or a sort of black, foreboding ambience. This room had neither. The walls had been papered with so many pictures it was impossible to tell what color they were. The only place that showed any hint of what color the room might be under the posters was a small square by the door where a multicolored symbol had been painted. Quoth always thought it looked like a chicken foot inside a circle.
Sitting amongst the pillows on the bed was a girl of about eighteen, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. She wore no makeup and generally dressed in black, although that could have been a family trait. She was rather plain except for the bone-white birthmark on her left shoulder, which she always displayed proudly by wearing sleeveless shirts no matter how much her mother objected.
It was shaped like an hourglass.
"Oh hell, she's playing the guitar again."
Lobsang laid a hand on Susan's arm to stop her from going upstairs.
"Susan, it's all right. Let her be."
Susan rounded on him, suddenly angry.
"Let her be? I've been letting her be for years! Have you seen where it's gotten her? Her hair is ridiculously long, she has seven piercings in one ear and fourteen in the other, she wears so much jewelry it's a wonder she doesn't fall over, and the only color in her entire wardrobe is black! This is not how it was supposed to be!"
Lobsang sighed. He and Susan had discussed what the repercussions of their having any children might be before making any decisions. They'd even talked to his mother and her grandfather about it. Insofar as Lobsang had been able to tell, his mother was happy with the idea. Susan's grandfather had seemed almost overjoyed, and probably would have jumped out of his skin if he'd had any. His many failed attempts with Susan seemed to make him all the more eager to have another chance at being a part of someone's life.
Which was part of the reason why Lobsang and Susan had decided to be honest with their daughter when she was born. Well, not entirely honest, of course, that could cause problems, but at least marginally honest. She knew about her great-grandfather, her grandmother, and her parents. She knew what had happened to her grandparents on her mother's side, and she knew why. The stories never seemed to strike her as odd, so, in a way, it had all worked out.
Then there was a business with the guitar. It had been an early birthday present from Susan's grandfather, and, much to her dismay, their daughter was almost a natural at playing it. There had been the argument about how "no daughter of mine is going to play Music With Rocks In", but in the end the girl had won out. Lobsang had secretly never minded the guitar to begin with. He tried his best to stay out of the arguing that usually ensued when their daughter played the instrument, and was always trying to convince Susan that there wasn't any danger in playing music, even Music With Rocks In.
Nevertheless, Susan was insistent that their daughter be brought up the right way, with a good education grounded in the kind of logic that would, being what she was, get her through the kind of life she would most likely lead. There were also the bits about a healthy diet and regular exercise, but it turned out that Kiara was the kind of girl who was always extremely thin no matter what she ate or how active she was.
This, too, was probably inherited.
Overall, the girl wasn't much like either of her parents. They say some things skip generations, and they would be right.
Lobsang ended up being the one to mount the stairs. Susan had insisted that one of them talk to Kiara about her "annoying habit of playing arbitrary tunes", and he had managed to convince her that he was the man for the job.
The thing was, though…the thing really was that neither he nor Susan were around much. Kiara had spent a lot of her childhood in the hands of relatives, causing no small amount of worry from Susan. It just wasn't easy raising a child when you were constantly being called upon to help with, as it were, the family trade.
He stuck his head into his daughter's room after a failed attempt at knocking. The girl was sitting on her bed, playing the guitar loudly and singing about alternate paths and percussive instruments. Lobsang hardly understood half of what she played, but the fact remained that she was good.
"Um, Kiara? Honey?" he said, trying to be heard over the music. The girl didn't respond.
SQUEAK, said the Death of Rats loudly from the windowsill. Kiara stopped playing and looked up.
"Oh, hi Dad! Sorry, didn't see you there." She laid the guitar aside and waved Lobsang into the room, "What's up?"
Lobsang shut the door behind him and carefully lowered himself into one of the many beanbag chairs that were scattered around the room. He'd never quite gotten the hang of them, even in the five years Kiara had them.
"It's your mother again," he said, deciding to get right to the point, "She's not happy about the…you know, the music."
Kiara blew out a breath, causing a few stray hairs to flutter. She hadn't inherited her mother's self-styling hair, but if she had it would have betrayed her frustration at that moment even more plainly than her facial expression.
"Susan is never happy about anything I do," she pointed out testily, using her mother's first name as she often did when she was angry. In her opinion, people who treated their children like projects instead of offspring deserved to be treated like strangers instead of parents.
"Now Kiara…" Lobsang began, but the girl cut him off.
"Don't 'now' me, Dad. You know what I'm saying is true. Ever since I can remember, Susan's been trying to make me like her. I'm supposed to be her double or something. It's not even like she acts like I'm her daughter; it's like I'm her protégé," Kiara spat the word angrily, "I'll be eighteen next month. Don't you think it's time that she stopped worrying about me?"
Lobsang flinched at the way his daughter made her opinion sound like it had fangs. He couldn't disagree with her, though. He had said almost the exact same thing to Susan earlier, although it didn't appear that she'd listened much.
"I'm leaving, Dad," Kiara said suddenly.
"What?" Lobsang asked, startled. The Death of Rats looked up from polishing his tiny scythe on the edge of his cowl.
"I'm leaving. As soon as I turn eighteen."
"But…" Lobsang sought for words, "Where will you go?"
Kiara shrugged. "Dunno. Ankh-Morpork, or Quirm…maybe Sto Lat."
"Why?" her father asked the question, although he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.
"Because of Susan. Because of this," Kiara held up the guitar gingerly, almost lovingly, by the neck, "I could live with it until she started hating me for this, Dad. She hates me because it's from him, and I can handle it better than she ever could. And it's the only thing he's ever made that actually works the way it's supposed to. Susan never got anything like that. She hates me because he did this for me and not for her. Because she could never get along with having him be what he was. And don't look at me like that, Dad, you know I'm right."
Lobsang sighed. There was no denying it; she was right. Susan hadn't said it, but it had been obvious when the guitar arrived – its black bulk gleaming and a conspicuous skull-and-crossbones at the top between the rows of tuning pegs – that she'd thought it was going to be another of her grandfathers follies, another thing to blame him for. Instead it had turned out to be beautiful, and there was no way Susan, with her structured mind, could hate her grandfather for making a thing of beauty. So she hated him for giving to her daughter. Somehow, logical Susan, Duchess of Sto Helit, was jealous of her own child.
"All right," Lobsang said finally, getting up, "But do me a favor please?"
"What's that?" Kiara asked, softening a bit.
"When you leave, call her 'mom', okay?"
Albert hadn't been expecting to see the skeletal rat that day. As a matter of fact, he didn't usually expect it; he took it for granted that the little rodent was almost always around. So it surprised him when, after spending a considerable amount of time with the Master's granddaughter, the Death of Rats showed up suddenly in the kitchen one morning, or at least as close to morning as it ever got in Death's domain.
SQUEAK! he began urgently, then continued for several minutes.
"That's how it's going to be, is it?" Albert said when he'd finished.
"That's exactly how it's going to be," said Quoth, who was still fulfilling his role as a mode of transport for the Death of Rats, "She says she's out of there as soon as she's eighteen."
"Bugger," swore Albert under his breath, pushing the last of his breakfast into his mouth and standing up, "Well don't just sit there, look after her! I'll have a talk with the Master."
The day came sooner than Lobsang expected. True, Kiara's announcement had come only a month before her birthday, but the time – which Lobsang was quite familiar with the nature of – seemed to fly by.
On her eighteenth birthday, at exactly the time she was born, Kiara came down the stairs with a suitcase in one hand and the guitar, in its bag, slung on her back. She approached Susan first.
"I'm leaving now, mom," she said. Lobsang noticed the obvious effort it took for the girl to use the word "mom", but also how deliberately she pronounced it so that it contained no trace of a capital letter.
Susan's expression was about as affectionate as a brick wall. Her features remained glued in place as she said, "Don't get hurt. And remember our talk about hygiene."
Kiara bit her lip to avoid spitting out a sarcastic reply. Instead, she turned to her father and gave him a hug.
"I love you, Dad," she said, meaning it but at the same time knowing how much it would bother Susan.
"I love you, too, honey," Lobsang returned, also knowing that Susan wouldn't be happy about the gesture once the girl was gone, "Write when you can, okay?"
"That or I'll send the rat," Kiara pulled out of the hug and grinned. The Death of Rats was already perched on top of her suitcase, and the raven was watching from the doorway. As Kiara turned to go, Lobsang stood up.
"Kiara?" he said.
The girl turned. "Yeah?"
Lobsang hesitated. He glanced at Susan, who knew what he was thinking and was shaking her head, a horrible frown on her face. He sighed.
"Just be careful."
Kiara rolled her eyes. "I will, Dad." And with that, she was gone.
Death sat in his study, spinning in the chair. It wasn't something that he ever recalled doing, but he did it now because he had a feeling. An unfamiliar feeling, but a good one.
WHAT IS IT CALLED WHEN YOU KNOW SOMETHING IS COMING AND YOU GET ALL JUMPY INSIDE? he asked Albert.
"Er, excitement, Master?" Albert hazarded.
THAT'S IT. EXCITEMENT. I AM EXCITEMENT, ALBERT.
"She's just on a trip, Master," Albert pointed out, "Girls her age don't think like that."
Death stopped spinning and gave Albert a critical look, causing the old man to shudder.
REALLY ALBERT, I'D THINK YOU'D GIVE ME A LITTLE MORE CREDIT, he said, YOU KNOW THAT MY MEMORY WORKS BOTH WAYS. I NEVER FORGET YESTERDAY AND CAN FORESEE AT LEAST A BIT OF TOMORROW.
As soon as the words were out, a thin young woman of about eighteen with light brown hair and hazel eyes appeared in the doorway to the study.
"Foresee that," she said with a grin.
It is not easy to take Death by surprise, especially since one normally has to die first before seeing him. And since Death's job is to be up on all recent deaths, whether they've already happened or are going to happen very soon, people who are already dead don't have a chance to really throw him off. (Of course, there was the case of Mad Morrie the Wizard, who stripped naked and painted himself orange just before he passed on, but the color was hard to see and Death wasn't particularly shocked by anatomy in any case.) But, being related to Time had its advantages.
SQUEAK, the Death of Rats grumbled. He scuttled over to Death's desk and climbed up. The trip had made him feel queasy, despite the fact that he didn't technically have anything to feel queasy with.
"Hey Albert," Kiara said, setting her suitcase down and using it as a chair, "Hey great-granddad."
ER, HELLO, Death replied, trying not to sound surprised. He was all too glad that his face couldn't give him away at the moment. He had been planning the sort of welcome found in storybooks and not at all expecting the girl to turn up at his house until several weeks later. I WAS HOPING I'D BE ABLE TO WELCOME YOU MORE…WARMLY?
The girl shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Time means nothing here. Couple that with the fact that I'm not exactly your typical slave to the clock and it can really cause confusion. I remember the time back in high school where I was early for class and getting a drink down the hall at the same time," she grinned, "That was a lot of fun."
"Not her mother, is she?" said Quoth, perching on the edge of the bookshelf in order to feel more occult.
I THOUGHT YOU WERE IN QUIRM?
Kiara nodded. "I was. Technically, though, I won't be there until Grune on account of the fact that I also spent a few weeks in Ankh-Morpork and a day on the Sto plains."
"Cabbage gets boring fast," the girl got up, hefting her suitcase, "So can I stay here for a while?"
Albert watched Death, trying to figure out what he was thinking.
ALL RIGHT, Death agreed, BUT WHAT ABOUT YOUR PARENTS?
Kiara raised an eyebrow, and with out a word she turned and left the room.
Death felt very confused. He had a hard enough time understanding the human mind as it was. The mind of a teenager was even more unfamiliar. It tended to snap at your ankles when you tried to cross it.
Lobsang watched Susan pace the length of the dining room. She hadn't been happy with their daughter's leaving, but on the other hand she knew that there was nothing she could do. She had been tearing herself up about it, saying little but always being confrontational when she did talk. Lobsang found it was better to just leave her alone most of the time, although he could feel her watching him. It seemed like she was always watching him, no matter whether he was in the house or out somewhere.
"Susan," Lobsang sat forward slowly, "You do know she went on her own?"
Susan continued pacing, her eyes fixed deliberately on the floor. "Did she?"
"She did," Lobsang nodded, ignoring the accusatory edge in Susan's voice, "She said she was going and that was it."
Susan didn't look up.
"She said maybe she'd go to Ankh-Morpork or Quirm," Lobsang continued, more to fill the silence than to explain, "Those are good cities, Susan, and besides we –"
STOP IT, LOBSANG.
Lobsang's next words died in his throat. It took him several minutes to find his voice and, when he did, he realized he was angry.
"Don't use the voice on me," he said softly, "We agreed when we got married…"
"We agreed not to meddle," Susan retorted through clenched teeth, "And then she came along and –"
"We discussed her enough before she 'came along'," Lobsang reminded her.
"But we tried to make it work!" Susan exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air, "We honestly thought it wouldn't cause problems. I let my grandfather see her, and your mother visited all the time when Kiara was younger…what were we doing? It would have been better for her not to know, to be brought up ignorant of it, like a normal child, like…"
"Like you," the words escaped before Lobsang could stop them.
Susan looked up at him, surprised. "Yes, yes like me," she replied, "Exactly."
"And you know what happened to you when you didn't know what was going on," Lobsang pointed out, knowing he was digging himself in deeper but feeling that this needed to be said, "I thought you always taught your students about the occult side of things because of that."
"I did," Susan snapped, "But they weren't my children. They were…normal. There was no way they'd be able to go out into the world and do something about it. I just wanted them to know what was out there."
"And you think Kiara shouldn't know because of her powers?" Lobsang asked, "Susan, she's going to find out sooner or later. We've discussed this. And what's going to happen when she does? She's not going to be happy with us for making it seem like we'd told her everything, is she?"
"How can we tell her when we're not even sure exactly what she can do?" Susan demanded, "You know as well as I do that there's no way to tell which powers she inherited until she starts showing signs, and now that she's gone, we're not going to know when the signs show up! She might even be able to do things that neither of us can even imagine. Think about it…Death and Time together. What might happen?"
Lobsang knew he'd heard this all eighteen years before. He couldn't believe that Susan was having the same doubts now that she'd had then. Why have the child in the first place if you were only going to worry about things like that for the rest of your life? It was obvious that certain, more prominent powers would be passed on. He was about to open his mouth to say something further when there was a knock on the door. Susan opened it.
"Susan Sto Helit Ludd?" asked the young, squat figure at the door. He was wearing a Watch uniform.
"I'm here about your daughter."
Kiara looked around. Death had given her an empty bedroom to stay in. It looked as though he had been preparing it for someone, probably her. He seemed unnaturally excited, which wasn't hard considering he usually didn't have much to be excited about. But why her? Why now? Was it because she was eighteen and finally freeing herself from her parents' grasp?
Susan's grasp, Kiara corrected herself. Susan had always been the one to keep things separate. It was clear to Kiara that her father had wanted to broaden her horizons a lot more than Susan had. Sure, Susan had dragged the bogeymen out of the closet and beat them over the head with the fireplace poker. Sure, she'd introduced Kiara to the Tooth Fairy. She'd even invited Death over for Hogswatch once, and Kiara had seen how hard that had been for her. But she hadn't been open. She hadn't ever talked about the implications of being a cross between Death and Time. And the difference between knowing and not knowing was the difference between life and lack thereof.
Kiara ran her hand over the smooth, black surface of the dressing table. She put her bag on the floor and pulled out a few personal items, including a rather dusty picture frame containing a photo of her and her father visiting her Grandmother Time, then arranged them on the table. She went about personalizing the rest of the room as best she could with what little she had and was nearly done when a voice came from the doorway.
WHY ISN'T YOUR MOTHER IN THIS PICTURE?
Kiara looked up to find Death standing with the photo held carefully in his bony hands.
"She stayed home," she shrugged, "I don't remember why."
SO IT DOESN'T RUN IN THE FAMILY, THEN? THE MEMORY?
"Nope," Kiara shook her head and sat down on the edge of the bed. She gestured for Death to sit down, as well. There was an awkward moment of incomprehension. Death wasn't used to being welcomed.
SQUEAK, said the Death of Rats pointedly from atop the wardrobe. Death started a bit and sat down gingerly next to his great-granddaughter on the bed.
"There are a lot of things from the Death side of the family that I didn't inherit," Kiara told him, "Like the memory, and the voice. I can do a pretty good imitation of it…nearly gave Susan a heart attack the first time I did it. She thought I'd got it, too. She probably thought I'd use it on her or something. I don't think I've got the habit of being pulled into the 'family business' when things go wrong, either. I guess after a couple of generations it starts to leave the gene pool."
AH, said Death. He thought for a moment. He didn't know much about genetics or families, but he knew that there was a certain way that things should be. PEOPLE USUALLY CALL THEIR MOTHER 'MOM' OR 'MUM' OR SOMETHING ALONG THAT LINE. YET YOU CALL YOURS 'SUSAN'. WHY IS THAT?
Kiara sighed. Of all the things Death understood about humanity, he had to understand family. Of course he did, he had one…in a manner of speaking anyway. If ever a family could be called dysfunctional, it was the one Death had made himself a part of.
"I'm not most people," was all she said. In the ensuing silence, Albert appeared in the doorway.
"Er, can I get you anything, Master?" he asked, "Or the young lady?" He wasn't used to having a girl in the house, and, despite his past experiences with both Ysabell and Susan, was unsure how to act around one.
A CUP OF TEA, ALBERT.
"I'll have a glass of red wine, if there is any," Kiara requested.
"Red wine?" Albert asked in surprise.
"If that's all right, yes," the girl nodded.
Albert's eyebrows went up, but he left without saying anything further.
Death looked at Kiara curiously for a moment.
YOU MOST CERTAINLY ARE NOT YOUR MOTHER, he said finally.
"Why does everyone compare me to Susan?" Kiara asked hotly, standing up and stalking to the other side of the room, her back to Death, "It's obvious from first glance that I'm not like her. I don't even get along with her! If I was like her, how would I stand myself?" She shook her head, taking a deep breath to steady herself, "I'm not Susan. I'm not my father, either, although I guess you could say I have some of him in me. But I'm…me. That's who I am, and that's all I am. And I can live with that, I really can. Susan…she can't. She can't accept what I've turned out to be, and she won't tell me what I was born with. I found out, oh yes, I found out, but I could have known years ago. And now she gets to learn…what it's like…to be lost…" Kiara's words were lost in a stream of tears as she collapsed on her knees, sobbing. Self-assurance was a front you could only keep up for so long, especially when what it hid was anger.
The Death of Rats hopped off the wardrobe, scuttled over to Kiara, and sat on her knee, attempting to squeak in a soothing manner.
Death sat in shock. He understood despair. He understood sadness. He even understood the feeling of being completely and utterly at a loss, but what he didn't understand was consolation or compassion. You never could give anybody any reassurance when they were dead. Most of them didn't deserve it or just wanted to know how much they could finish or take with them, and all Death could say was, NOTHING. THIS IS THE END. I AM THE FINAL JUDGEMENT.
After a moment, Death got up from the bed and quietly left the room.
Albert shuffled around the kitchen, making the tea and muttering to himself. None of this would turn out right, he knew. He'd known it since the day the rat had shown up and told him Kiara was striking out on her own. Something would happen. Death would get all sappy over people again, or the girl's parents would come looking for her, and that would be the end of it. Either way, it wouldn't be pretty.
"Why the girl even had to come here is beyond me," he shook his head, looking around for anything even resembling wine. He hadn't seen a good bottle of wine since…well, since the time he'd gone back to Unseen University. The wizards, apparently, had a use for it. But Death hardly ever drank anything, much less wine. And yet, there was a bottle, fresh by the look of it, over in the corner by the stove. Albert didn't have to ask himself where it had come from. He uncorked it and poured a glass carefully, then set the glass in a clear spot on the tea tray and headed out of the kitchen.
"That worked out well," said Quoth from the windowsill, scratching himself with a clawed foot, "I see you're not telling him yet."
Kiara glared at the raven over her shoulder. "Shut up," she whispered darkly. She stood up and wiped her red-rimmed eyes with the back of her hand. The Death of Rats squeaked in alarm and clung to the leg of the girl's pants. Once he had a firm enough grip, he scurried up to her shoulder.
SQUEAK, he pointed out, gesturing towards the bed with his tiny scythe.
"I noticed," Kiara nodded, "He doesn't know how to, does he?"
The Death of Rats shook his head. SQUEAK.
"I didn't think so."
The guitar was sitting in the corner where Kiara had left it. She walked over and ran her hand over the neck, realizing how hard her fingertips were becoming. She played so much that she'd lost the feeling in the tips of all the fingers on her left hand except her thumb. She had never loved anything more than that guitar and the music she made with it.
Kiara looked towards the doorway. It yawned into the blackness of the empty hallway beyond, and she felt a tug.
"I wonder…" she murmured, picking up the guitar and slinging it on her back. The Death of Rats jumped clear of the strap and landed on the bed. He could feel that something very human was about to happen, and he didn't want to be around when it did.