'Who?' said Nobby. 'Oh? Why not seven knives, then?'
'Kind sirs, that would be too simple,' said Lord Vetinari. 13 'I am but a humble tumbler. Please let me practice my art.'
'Beti?' said Nobby, glowering under his veils. Three fruits arced gently out of the green whirl and thumped on to Al– jibla's tray. The guards looked carefully, and to Colon's mind nervously, at the cross– dressed figure of the cross corporal. 'She's not going to do any kind of dance, is she?' one of them ventured. 'No!' snapped Beti. 'Promise?' 14 Nobby grabbed three of the knives and tugged them out of the man's belt. 'I'll give them to his lor – to him, shall I, Beti?' said Colon, suddenly quite sure that keeping the Patrician alive was almost certainly the only way to avoid a brief cigarette in the sunshine. He was also aware that other people were drifting over to watch the show. 'To me, please... Al,' said the Patrician, nodding. Colon tossed him the knives, slowly and gingerly. He's going to try to stab the guards, he thought. It's a ruse. And then everyone's going to tear us apart. Now the circling blur glinted in the sunlight. There was a murmur of approval from the crowd. 'Yet somehow dull,' said the Patrician. And his hands moved in a complex pattern that suggested that his wrists must have moved through one another at least twice. 13 Jugglers will tell you that juggling with items that are identical is always easier than a mixture of all shapes and sizes. This is even the case with chainsaws, although of course when the juggler misses the first chainsaw it is only the start of his problems. Some more will be along very shortly. 14 Corporal Nobbs's appearance could best be summarized this way. One of the minor laws of the narrative universe is that any homely featured man who has, for some reason, to disguise himself as a woman will apparently become attractive to some otherwise perfectly sane men with, as the ardent scrolls say, hilarious results. In this case the laws were fighting against the fact of Corporal Nobby Nobbs, and gave up.
The tangled ball of hurtling fruit and cutlery leapt into the air. Three melons dropped to the ground, cut cleanly in two. Three knives thudded into the dust a few inches from their owner's sandals. And Sergeant Colon looked up and into a growing, greenish, expanding The melon exploded, and so did the audience, but both their laughter and the humour was slightly lost on Colon as he scraped over–ripe pith out of his cars. The survival instinct cut in again. Stagger around backwards, it said. So he staggered around back~ wards, waving his legs in the air. Fall down heavily, it said. So he sat down, and almost squashed a chicken. Lose your dignity, it said; of all the things you've got, it's the one you can most afford to lose. Lord Vetinari helped him up. 'Our very lives depend on your appearing to be a stupid fat idiot,' he hissed, putting Colon's fez back on his head. 'I ain't very good at acting, sir–'
'Yessir.' The Patrician scooped up three melon halves and positively skipped over to a stall that a woman had just set up, snatching an egg from a basket as he went past. Sergeant Colon blinked again. This was not... real. The Patrician didn't do this sort of thing... 'Ladies and gentlemen! You see – an egg! And here we have a – melon rind! Egg, melon! Melon, egg! We put the melon over the egg!' His hands darted across the three halves, switching them at bewildering speed. 'Round and round they go, just like that! Now… where's the egg? What about you, shah?' Al–jibla smirked. '
's the one on the left,' he said. 'It always is.' Lord Vetinari lifted the melon. The board below was eggless. 'And you, noble guardsman?'
' 's got to be the one in the middle,' said the guard. 'Yes, of course... oh dear, it isn't...' The crowd looked at the last melon. They were street people. They knew the score. When the object can be under one of three things, and it's already turned out not to be under two of them, then the one place it was certainly not going to be was under the third. Only some kind of gullible fool would believe something like that. Of course there was going to be a trick. There always was a trick. But you watched it, in order to see a trick done well. Lord Vetinari raised the melon nevertheless, and the crowd nodded in satisfaction. Of course it wasn't there. It'd be a pretty poor day for street entertainment if things were where they were supposed to be. Sergeant Colon knew what was going to happen next, and he knew this because for the last minute or so something had been pecking at his head.
Aware that this was probably his moment, he raised his fez and revealed a very small fluffy chick. 'Have you got a towel? I am afraid it has just gone to the toilet on my head, sir.' There was laughter, some applause and, to his amazement, a tinkling of coins around his feet. 'And finally,' said the Patrician, 'the beautiful Beti will do an exotic dance.' The crowd fell silent. Then someone at the back said, 'How much do we have to pay for her not to?'
'Right! I've just about had enough of this!' Veils flying out behind her, bangles jingling, elbows waving viciously and boots kicking up sparks, the lovely Beti strode into the crowd. 'Which of you said that?' People shrank away from her. Armies would have retreated. And there, revealed like a jellyfish deserted by a suddenly ebbing tide, was a small man about to fry in the wrath of the ascendant Nobbs. 'I meant no offence, oh doe-eyed one–'
'Oh? Pastry–faced, am W Nobby flung out an arm in a crash of bracelets and knocked the man over. 'You've got a lot to learn about women, young man!' And then, because a Nobbs could never resist a prone target, the petite Beti drew back a steel-capped boot 'Beti!' snapped the Patrician. 'Oh, right, yeah, right,' said Nobby, with veiled contempt. 'Everyone can tell me what to do, right? Just because I happen to be the woman around here I'm just supposed to accept it all, eh?'
'No, you just ain't supposed to kick him inna fork,' hissed Colon, pulling him away. 'It don't look good.' Although he noted, the women in the crowd seemed to be disappointed by the sudden curtailment of the performance. 'And there are many strange stories we can tell you!' shouted the Patrician. 'Beti certainly could,' murmured Colon, and was kicked sharply on his ankle. 'And many strange sights we can show you!'
'Beti cert– Aargh!'
'But for now we will seek the shade of yonder caravanserai...'
'What're we doing?'
'We're going to the pub.' The crowd began to disperse, but with occasional amused glances back at the trio. One of the guards nodded at Colon. 'Nice show,' he said. 'Especially the bit where your lady didn't remove any veils– He darted behind his colleague as Nobby spun round like an avenging angel. 'Sergeant,' the Patrician whispered. 'It is very important that we learn the current whereabouts of Prince Cadram, do you understand? In taverns, people talk. Let us keep our ears open.'
The tavern wasn't Colon's idea of a pub. For one thing, most of it had no roof. Arched walls surrounded a courtyard. A grapevine grew out of a huge cracked urn and had been teased overhead on trellises. There was the gentle sound of tinkling water, and unlike the Mended Drum this was not because the bar backed on to the privies but because of a small fountain in the middle of the cobbles. And it was cool, much cooler than in the street, even though the vine leaves scarcely hid the sky. 'Didn't know you could juggle, sir,' Colon whispered to Lord Vetinari. 'You mean you can't, sergeant?'
'How strange. It's hardly a skill, is it? One knows what the objects are and where they want to go. After that it's just a case of letting them occupy the correct positions in time and space.'
'You're dead good at it, sir. Practise often, do you?'
'Until today, I've never tried.' Lord Vetinari looked at Colon's astonished expression. 'After Ankh–Morpork, sergeant, a handful of flying melons present a very minor problem indeed.'
'I'm amazed, sir.'