when regiment is gone (kindkit) wrote,

fic: "Midwinter" (Drumknott/Vetinari), 1/2

Yes, it's the story I've been working on (and talking about) for two months. Hopefully people aren't so absorbed in the last days of NaNo that no one will have time to read it.

Title: Midwinter
Fandom: Discworld
Pairing: Drumknott/Vetinari
Rating: Adult
Warnings: None needed
Spoilers: For The Truth
Word count: 16,647
Summary: Stabbing, imprisonment, several awkward conversations, a diplomatic crisis, the art of rhetoric, and many cups of tea.
Thanks: I'm enormously grateful to halotolerant, who read through this monster twice and whose suggestions were invaluable. Her help made this a much better story.
Notes: Due to LJ's length restrictions, I've posted the story in two parts. There's a link to part two at the end.




On the floor of the Oblong Office, a man was unexpectedly not dying.

Rufus Drumknott, the man in question, wasn't aware of doing anything remarkable. He was aware of a pain in his head and another one high on his chest near the left shoulder, of a viscous red puddle he seemed to be lying in, and of a tiny blue flower woven into the carpet pattern. It was much bluer than anything he'd seen actually growing, apart from bread mould. He'd always lived in Ankh-Morpork, whose primary botanical renown was for its fungus.

Perhaps the flower was so blue because it was surrounded by red.

The last available sliver of Drumknott's awareness was taken up by the voice. It came from someone standing over him, and it also seemed to come from past the rim of the world, out in the empty space between the stars. The voice resounded with certainty--not an arrogant certainty, not anything to do with feelings, but the certainty of fact.

And yet what it was saying was: OH DEAR. I WAS SURE THAT THE HOURGLASSES . . . BUT NOW . . . AND THE DOG'S NOT EVEN HERE. I WISH TIME WOULD DECIDE WHAT UNIVERSE ITS TROUSERS ARE IN.

"Trousers?" Drumknott asked. Trousers weren't often discussed in the Oblong Office. His Lordship was a bit old-fashioned on the subject, although not as much as the wizards, who kept demanding a ban on trouser sales within 300 yards of the university.

NEVER MIND. BIT OF A SCHEDULING MIX-UP.

Nonsense. He didn't make mistakes like that. Well, once, but only because he'd confused the two Ridcullys. " . . . nother . . . appoint . . . ?"

NOT JUST YET. NOT FOR SOME TIME, I SEE.

" . . . book?"

YOU WON'T NEED TO WRITE IT DOWN.

Of course he did. Pencil, yes. He'd had one in his hand. He moved his fingers through wetness. Where . . . ? Get up. Get up and find the pencil. Get up now. What would His Lordship say?

Why wasn't His Lordship saying anything?

Shadows gathered around the red edges of Drumknott's vision, blowing in like clouds until there was only black.

***


Later he awoke to find himself being stitched back together by a man whose face inspired confidence. It did so by proving that a quite large amount of stitchery was survivable.

"You're very lucky," the man--the Igor--said brightly, and then explained what would've happened if he'd been stabbed a little to the right (death from a punctured lung or blood vessel) or left (irreparable damage to his shoulder joint). Unpleasant anatomical knowledge churned against Drumknott's various burning, throbbing, piercing pains like waves against a squall-tossed boat, and he retched. Igor gave him something minty to drink for the nausea.

"But what happened?" Drumknott asked, once he could. He was keeping his eyes closed. When he'd tried looking around the room so as not to look at the needle, he'd seen unnameable things bobbing in tanks.

Igor murmured soothingly and went on stitching.

The last thing Drumknott could remember was Lord Vetinari. His Lordship had opened the office door. But he never did that, just said come in. Had the door been locked? It oughtn't to have been, with His Lordship inside and at work.

He'd gone in, and there'd been a white flash like lightning in his head. He'd been hit.

Had . . . ? No. No, surely not. He wouldn't. Why would he? It must have been someone else.

Someone like an assassin, or even an Assassin. "Is His Lordship all right? Has anything happened to him?"

"Commander Vimeth will be thpeaking with you thoon. I'm sure he'll exthplain everything."

"Has someone hurt Lord Vetinari? You've got to -"

"Lie thtill." Igor pushed him back the half-inch he'd managed to rise off the hard, chilly slab. "You've torn out a thtitch, and -"

"Please."

"Mr. Drumknott," said Commander Vimes from the doorway. "I'm glad you're awake. I've got some -"

"What's happened to His Lordship?"

"I need you to tell me what happened." Vimes stood over him, looking stonier than ever.

"I don't know!" He tried again to sit up, but Igor held him down. "Where is he?"

"He's just down the corridor, relax." Vimes put a heavy hand on his uninjured shoulder, and Igor started in again with the needle on the other one.

"Let me see him."

"You can't just now. He's unconscious."

Drumknott closed his eyes once more and hung onto the slab. It was the only steady thing in the world. Someone put another blanket over him, and Vimes said, "Easy, now. He's probably going to live."

Probably pounded in Drumknott's ears. Prob-ab-ly, three sharp raps, like a hammer on a coffin nail.

"Commander," Igor said, "I think . . . "

"Yeah. Settle him down and I'll try again later."

Footsteps, and a few more sharp stings from the needle, and then Igor held a little vial to his lips. "Drink thith."

He was almost too tired to swallow. "Don't let him die," he said, as his tight-furled pains opened like roses, turning bright and warm. He leaned back into them and slept.

When he woke next, he was lying on a little narrow bed in a little narrow room. At first he thought it was his own room, that he'd overslept and His Lordship would be angry, but by the time he'd located his feet and dragged one out from under the blanket, he remembered. By the time he'd worked the foot under the blanket again, Commander Vimes was there.

"How are you feeling?" Vimes asked.

"Vile." His skull felt like someone had chiselled it open and sandpapered the inside. The culprit had used the same chisel on his shoulder, along with pincers and branding irons, and in fact still seemed to be at it. "How is His Lordship?"

"Still unconscious, but Igor believes he'll recover." Vimes perched on a bit of stone that jutted out from the wall to form a rough table. "It'll take more than a fall off a horse to kill him. A stake through the heart might do the trick, but I wouldn't bet a dollar on it."

What a charming sense of humour. "A horse? But he was in . . . "

"Yes? I need to know what you remember."

"I want to see him."

"Answer my questions first." Slouching, armour off, Vimes was still a human portcullis. There was no getting round him; the only route to His Lordship was compliance. No wonder people didn't like the Watch.

"He was in the office," Drumknott said. (Why had His Lordship got up and opened the door? He'd looked odd, too. Almost nervous.) "I went in at about seven o'clock. I had His Lordship's tea and the morning newspaper. Someone hit me, I suppose. Later I think I came to for a little while, because I remember seeing blood. And something . . . blue? Sorry, it's like trying to remember a dream. I didn't know I'd been stabbed until Igor told me." He almost laughed, saying it, because the words I and stabbed didn't belong together in any reasonable sentence. As an apprentice Drumknott had studied rhetoric manuals, the sort that teach you three hundred ways to say thank you for the book, all carefully modulated by rank and circumstance. Elegance for every occasion, they promised, but stabbing-related occasions had been curiously neglected. "I was stabbed," he repeated, and it sounded even stranger.

"Who by?"

By whom, Drumknott thought, clinging to the floating spar of grammar in a sea of doubt. Vimes was an educated man by Watch standards--his reports had most of the commas in the right places--and surely they'd beaten whom into him at dame school. He just enjoyed playing the common man, showing his independence. It was like punching the wall outside the Oblong Office, or joking about His Lordship dying. "I don't know," Drumknott said.

"Was anyone in the office apart from Vetinari?"

"I'm not sure." It was true. It was rhetorically true, just as saying "I am most grateful for your generous and edifying gift of a book" was true thanks even when it really meant "I dislike you intensely but I'm hoping to borrow some money." Drumknott wasn't sure, although he'd seen no one in the visitors' chairs, no one at the conference table. No one but Lord Vetinari, opening the door. Had His Lordship been holding his walking stick? Could he have . . . no. No. The impossibility of the image made Drumknott dizzy. There must have been someone else in the office, at the far end or behind the door; Drumknott had not, after all, looked. "There might have been. As I told you, it's all rather blurry."

Vimes asked the same question a few times in different words--a use of rhetoric Drumknott had never envisioned--and finally explained that His Lordship had been found unconscious in the stables with an agitated horse and a saddlebag crammed with dollars.

"That's absurd," Drumknott said.

Vimes looked at him silently, but questions bristled and clawed under the surface like cats in a sack. "I've arrested Vetinari for attempted murder and theft. The evidence against him is . . . well, there's a lot of it."

"Arrested? Where is he? You said he's unconscious, you can't -"

"He's in the next cell. Igor's looking after him."

"And what does your Igor know about proper medicine? Has he studied the astrological influences and the balance of the humours? Or does he just play with his needle?"

"He knows not to give purgatives to a man with a head injury, which is more than I can say for doctors!"

"If His Lordship . . . " Drumknott couldn't get the next word out. Not many things are really unspeakable, but this was. If something unspeakable happened to His Lordship . . . oh gods. The best man to rule Ankh-Morpork in a thousand years, he couldn't . . . not alone in a cell like a criminal. It wasn't right. And Commander Vimes was a good man. His Lordship said so. Couldn't he see that it wasn't right? "Please, Your Grace."

"I think I'd better have Igor bring you some more poppy syrup."

"I demand to see him! I'm not under arrest, am I?" For the first time, he noticed exactly what Vimes had said: the next cell. He looked carefully but still painfully around the room. It was a very bare room, and dark, with just the one small window set high in the stone wall. Drumknott couldn't see it properly lying down, but he felt sure there were bars on it. The door looked like solid oak and was reinforced with strips of iron. All in all, it could have been the "c is for cell" illustration in some unusually grim alphabet book.

"No, you're not," Vimes said slowly, "but I'm keeping you at the Watch House for your own safety. And you're not getting out of that bed yet because you look like you might die if you tried, and then I'd have to answer to Vetinari for it." A smile appeared on his face, lingered uncomfortably for a moment, and went away. "You needn't worry about us neglecting him. Igor's good at his job. And don't go spreading this around, but I want Vetinari to live."

***


Drumknott's body had become untrustworthy. Like the Ankh, anything might be going on under the surface.

After some hours' drugged sleep and some minutes' pleading with Igor, he'd finally been allowed up to see His Lordship. But the fifteen-foot walk from his bed to the cell next door dredged up a stinking, scummy headache, some rotted bits of wood that used to be his knees and ankles, and sharp-toothed pains that bit unexpectedly and hard. All that from a tap on the head and a knife wound that Igor assured him wasn't half as big as it felt. Surely his legs shouldn't be affected? Of course it was all connected inside. Perhaps injuries flowed downstream, just like the dregs from alchemists and dyers that made the Ankh tend to glow (and occasionally burn) even at the delta where it emptied into a presumably reluctant sea.

Leaning on Igor, Drumknott waited while the troll Watchman took four tries to find the right key.

"Dere he is," the Watchman announced.

His Lordship lay utterly still and white, wrapped in a cheap undyed blanket. Shrouded in it.

"Thteady," said Igor, catching Drumknott round the waist as his knees sagged. "I knew you thouldn't -"

"He's dead."

"He's not," Igor insisted, lisp vanishing. "He's breathing."

"He looks -"

"Come and see."

He's alive, Drumknott told his knees, and they took sufficient encouragement from it to cooperate as Igor half-carried him into the cell. He must be alive, or they'd have taken him away. Igor pulled back the edge of the blanket and guided Drumknott's fingers to Lord Vetinari's neck. Warm. Alive, with the quick surge and ebb of pulse.

Some of the cold, slimy mud packing Drumknott's chest oozed out through the soles of his feet.

Some remained. "Why doesn't he wake up?" Drumknott noticed he'd been counting His Lordship's pulse beats, and took his hand away.

Igor shrugged, bringing one shoulder momentarily level with the top of his head. "I don't know. But he'th not dying." With his free hand he pinched His Lordship's earlobe, producing a faint groan.

"Don't hurt him!"

"That'th how I know he'th not tho far gone that he'll never regain conthiouthnethth. Pain'th a thign of life."

It was the sort of thing priests said, usually while warming up the pokers, but Drumknott wasn't inclined to distrust it from Igor. He had a practical-seeming mind and no reason to lie. "Let me sit with him." If he could feel pain, he might hear if Drumknott spoke to him. He might be glad not to be alone.

"Sorry," said the troll, still standing in the doorway. Drumknott had heard more elaborate apologies, but seldom one so patently insincere. "No letting dem cook up dere stories together, Mr. Vimes said."

Of course he did. Of course he didn't trust Lord Vetinari. His Lordship had only raised Vimes out of the bottle and the gutter and asked for his help to guard the city, only had faith in something worthy that nobody else could see in the man back then. Only given him a dukedom and a statue of his vicious ancestor, the one who'd thought if you beheaded enough aristocrats and passed enough laws against gambling and dancing, you'd rid the world of injustice. (The statue was right up against the palace, too, so that when you looked out of the window in the Oblong Office the first thing you saw was that damned great sword.) Of course Vimes would return such astonishing faith with an assumption of guilt. That was human nature. If His Lordship were awake to hear it, he wouldn't even be surprised.

"Mr. Vimes can take his ungrateful suspicions and -"

"Thir, you need to retht." Igor took a step towards the door, and Drumknott's knees, with which he was thoroughly disgusted by now, refused to lock against the movement. There was no way not to follow. "I'm looking in on him every few minuteth, I promithe."

Back in his cell, Drumknott asked Igor to move the pillow to the other side of the bed. Vaguely, through the fuddled rebellion that had spread from his knees up to his brain, he suspected he was being foolish and ought to be ashamed. Lying with his head a few feet closer to Lord Vetinari's cell wouldn't help anything except his own irrelevant misery.

Once he was alone, waiting for the latest dose of poppy syrup to take hold, Drumknott brought his mouth close to the wall and whispered, "I know you didn't hurt me, sir."

The words, too quiet to echo, dissipated into nothing as unheard words always did. They made no difference at all.

***


A day and a half in the Watch House so far, and it felt like a holiday. Drumknott had only ever been on one holiday, a cheap tour of Ephebe that he'd paid a month's wages for as a junior clerk, and apart from the cost there was a striking resemblance. The bed was hard, the food had gristly lumps, he felt sick much of the time, and people shouted a lot, usually in the middle of the night. On the other hand, in Ephebe there'd been Sights of Historical Interest, which was Ephebian for lumps of masonry from former temples and palaces that some legendary king had legendarily built, or in some cases legendarily knocked down and set fire to. Here there were just walls, a monotony broken only when Mr. de Worde had come to ask him insinuating questions.

Igor appeared occasionally to say His Lordship still hadn't woken, but seemed closer to it. Drumknott wondered if Lord Vetinari was crawling to consciousness like the ant in the story, crossing half the distance, then half the remaining distance, on and on, always halfway there but never arriving. It was His Lordship who'd told him that story, and smiled wryly and made a joke about paperwork.

Drumknott dozed the hours away in poppy-induced lethargy, did the uncomfortable stretching exercises Igor had taught him, and worried. It was a special kind of worry, the diffuse foggy kind that came from not thinking the unthinkable, and like fog it got everywhere. He worried in his sleep and woke with a sore jaw from grinding his teeth.

In the grey evening of the second day, the creak of rusting hinges woke Drumknott from yet another foggy grey dream. He opened his eyes to see the face of Corporal Nobbs, which was grey only in patches, and was about to close them self-protectively when Nobbs said, "Lord Vetinari's awake, Mr. Drumknott, and he wants to see you."

The fog dissolved and hope glared through, as painful at first as the bad news some part of Drumknott's mind had quietly started to expect. He sat up abruptly, wrenching his wound and making his head throb in cadence with his speeding heart. At least the walk to the cell was easier this time, the prospect of Nobbs's supporting arm giving Drumknott's knees an incentive to get him there without help.

Lord Vetinari, sitting very upright on the edge of the bed, was being harangued by Commander Vimes. "- an epidemic of bad memories at the palace? You don't remember anything, Drumknott doesn't -"

"Drumknott, how glad I am to see you well. Apparently I'm suspected of trying to murder you."

In two days--less than two--he'd forgotten the sound of His Lordship's voice. He blinked hard and clasped his shaking hands together. "Not by me, my lord."

Lord Vetinari looked at him as though he were a half-deciphered message, obscure and possibly rather important. "Good." A nascent smile formed on his lips before he turned to Vimes and let it grow up and become ironic. "If only the Watch shared your faith."

"I don't need faith, sir," Vimes said irritably. "I've got evidence. And all the evidence says you didn't do it. Trouble is, we don't know who did, and without that there'll have to be a trial."

"A trial before the new Patrician, yes," His Lordship's voice was calm, his fingers contemplatively steepled. He wore the manner like a poor man's best coat, trying to disguise too much. His robe was wrinkled, his hair askew, his eyes sunk in bruised-looking skin, his face white and waxen as a death mask. "And then, I imagine, a quiet and extremely brief retirement."

Vimes nodded, then sighed. Without the momentary pleasure of scolding His Lordship to buoy him up, he looked rather tired. "I'll let you know if we find . . . anything, sir. You two can talk a while if you'd like. Corporal Nobbs will take you back to your cell afterwards, Mr. Drumknott."

Drumknott, mind snagged on the barbed realisation that Vimes wasn't going to release His Lordship, didn't even manage a thank you.

"Cell?" asked His Lordship when Vimes had gone. As if that were the important thing.

"For my own protection, sir."

"And a solid protection it is, no doubt. Come and sit down, Drumknott, you look ghastly."

Drumknott had been trying to convince himself and the laws of nature that he could lean all his weight on a vertical wall. He made his way cautiously to the bed and tried to think nothing of sitting beside His Lordship like an equal or a friend. There was nowhere else to sit. It was no different from riding in the coach with him. And His Lordship had told him to do it. "Are you really all right, my lord? I thought -"

"I'm sure Commander Vimes would say I was born to hang, and therefore need fear no other death." As he spoke, he draped a blanket over Drumknott's shoulders, managing not to jar the bad one. He was always a careful man, attentive however trivial the problem. "Corporal, a pot of tea, please. Don't forget the sugar. And biscuits."

"Er -" Nobbs looked at Lord Vetinari and somehow shuffled his feet without moving an inch. "Prisoners get tea at mealtimes."

Lord Vetinari said nothing.

"Right, tea. I'll go and get that, sir. Your Lordship." He scurried away, leaving the cell door open.

"Are we going to escape?" Drumknott wondered what use he could be. Perhaps he could distract the Watch by fainting.

"No, we're going to have tea."

"Sweet tea." His Lordship had asked for sugar. He never took sugar. "My mum's - my mother's cure for everything." Gods, he was so addled he was forgetting how to speak like a gentleman. What must His Lordship think?

"Mothers are often very sensible people, I believe," said His Lordship, as though he hadn't noticed a thing. That was a true gentleman.

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Whatever for?"

Bits of words assembled in Drumknott's mind like a half-solved crossword, but there were no clues and he couldn't guess what they ought to be. "This."

"Mr. Drumknott, are you apologising for being stabbed?" Lord Vetinari looked closely at him and frowned. "That's a sort of arrogance, you know. I insist on keeping the responsibility myself."

"Sorry."

"Do be quiet."

Gratefully, Drumknott was quiet. Doing something for His Lordship--and such a simple thing, tempered to his very limited capabilities at the moment--set the world partway to rights. He propped his muddled head on his hands, closed his eyes, and didn't open them again until the sound of footsteps and the smell of Nobbs approached.

Nobbs left the tray on a stone table like the one in Drumknott's cell. It was out of his reach, but when he started to lean forward His Lordship cleared his throat in a distinctly quelling manner. So he sat and let himself be served tea by his master. There was a topsy-turvy pleasure in seeing Lord Vetinari's elegant hands holding the same kind of cheap teapot that Drumknott's family had used.

Four spoonfuls of sugar went into a mug with Welcomm! to Ankh-Morpork written on the side, which Lord Vetinari handed to him. "Thank you, sir." Drumknott had stopped taking sugar in his tea when he'd read that cultured people didn't, but he'd never lost the taste for sweets. Anyway, it was like medicine, as everyone's mother (and His Lordship) knew.

"You seem better already." A smile briefly brightened his drawn face. "But do drink it. I know I'll feel better when you stop shivering."

He hadn't noticed he was shivering, but the warmth of the tea--nastily bitter even through the sugar, the Watch must have lead-lined stomachs--was nearly the best thing he'd felt in two days. Lord Vetinari nodded, brushed at the smudges on a biscuit, and gave him that as well. "It should be edible enough. I don't believe any of Corporal Nobbs's . . . personal misfortunes are contagious." He poured tea for himself--the other mug said Seamstresses Do It To Order--sipped at it, and winced.

"Sir," Drumknott asked after he'd drunk a mug and a half of the revolting tea and eaten two biscuits, "Do you know what actually happened?" Drumknott had long since understood that some of His Lordship's perfect foresight was really improvisation. But at the worst moments, His Lordship always did know. He'd been locked up before, over that business with Leshp, but only to wait for the solution he knew was coming.

"Let us say that I have a theory. It's a rather outlandish theory that I cannot yet prove." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, a gesture Drumknott had never seen before. "Wuffles is missing, did they tell you that?"

"No, sir. I'm sure he'll -" No, Drumknott wasn't at all sure he'd be all right, a pampered old dog unprotected on Ankh-Morpork streets. And His Lordship wouldn't take comfort from a polite lie. "I'm sorry."

"The Watch are looking for him, of course. They've even put his picture in the Times."

The tea, or maybe the proximity of His Lordship's analytical mind, had got Drumknott's almost functioning. It took him a few seconds, but he sorted this information out. "He's the proof. He's a witness. That werewolf, Sergeant von Uberwald - they're going to question Wuffles. But will that be enough?"

"We shall find out. I hope." Lord Vetinari sighed again and glanced at the cell door, which Corporal Nobbs had closed after bringing the tea. "Being in a prison that I don't have the key to is most educational. I've learnt that I don't like it at all."

***


What Drumknott was trying to think of neutrally as An Odour rose up from beside the Patrician's desk. In the days since they'd been back, Wuffles had been permitted a rich diet of dog biscuits and C. M. O. T. Dibbler's sausages, which he'd somehow got a taste for while homeless. Drumknott didn't begrudge him the treat but was more eager than usual for spring, when the window could be opened wide and the general stench of Ankh-Morpork might, with luck, drown out the particular stench of elderly and indulged dog.

His Lordship, long accustomed to Wuffles's more pungent traits, finished signing a stack of wage chitties. "Is that the last of the extra payments?"

"Yes, sir." Wages, like everything else, had got behind, and the backlog had doubled when His Lordship decided to award small bonuses to everyone who'd held off civil collapse by staying on the job. Astonishingly, that was almost three-quarters of the city's payroll and the entirety of the Watch.

"Good. It's a necessary expense, but at this rate I might have to start asking the guilds to pay their taxes."

"There's a report from the head of the Exchequer on that very subject, sir."

"I'm sure it will make most enlightening reading." Lord Vetinari pinched the bridge of his nose, facial muscles going tight in a repressed yawn. He was working even harder than usual, and he probably still got headaches; Drumknott certainly did. "But later. Drumknott, there is a matter that needs your special attention. I'm thinking of reorganising the apprentice clerks' training. Did you know they're still taught to write four different varieties of Uberwaldian Gothic minuscule, even though everyone in Uberwald has used Quirmian script for a hundred and fifty years?"

"Yes, sir." The memory made his hand cramp.

"Well, as I'm frequently informed by the likes of Mr. de Worde, this is nearly the Century of the Anchovy. Ankh-Morpork doesn't need calligraphers, excellent though the skill is in itself. The apprentices require proper training in modern languages, accounting, those squiggles of yours -"

"Shorthand, sir."

"Yes. Even things like how to code a clacks transmission when one needs to be sent discreetly. Your sort of knowledge, Drumknott."

Oh, gods. Drumknott had seen enough people being manoeuvred that he couldn't fail to recognise it now. "Sir -"

"It needs an expert to design the course of study and supervise the teachers. He wouldn't be required to do much actual teaching himself. Perhaps ciphers and such with a few of the older apprentices. What do you think?"

There had to be something behind this. Lord Vetinari set him little puzzles sometimes, leaving things unexplained to see what he could deduce. So: proceed as though the question isn't loaded. "I believe modernisation is an excellent idea, sir. Mr. Neblett would do a very good job of it."

His Lordship flashed one of those bright smiles Drumknott knew well, the ones he used on people who were, in one way or another, a problem. "Perhaps I've been unclear. The position is yours, Drumknott, and I'm sure you'll acquit yourself well."

Drumknott turned the sentence over in his mind, gave it a hearty shake, searched its pockets and the lining of its coat, and found not a trace of ambiguity. "I'd prefer to continue working directly for you, sir."

"Consider it a promotion." He had stopped smiling, thank all the gods, even the doubtfully relevant ones. "The salary's no higher, since given the nature of your work for me you're already rather well paid. But I can attach a very dignified title to the job. Master of Clerks, perhaps? And since I won't need you close at hand, you can move out of that ridiculous little room behind your office. There are some large and comfortable suites on the third floor, I believe."

Rooms and a title. Did His Lordship really think fripperies would sway him? "It's not a promotion, my lord. And I don't want it." It was exile, a comfortable exile of planning lessons and ordering boys about, while the real work continued without him. While someone else would stand here in his place, close at His Lordship's hand.

"Drumknott, you were nearly killed." Something in the evenness of His Lordship's tone hinted that he might, if he were anyone else, have raised his voice.

"I know, sir." Some nights the thought of it kept him awake, however tired he was. Some nights the knowledge taunted him through mazy dreams of too many unfinished things and not enough time.

"I should not like a recurrence."

A gust of relief--His Lordship was worried, not displeased--blew down all of Drumknott's proper deference. "You were rather more nearly killed than I, my lord. Do you plan to promote yourself out of being Patrician?"

Both narrow black eyebrows went up, and for an instant His Lordship's face was pure surprise. "While we were at the Watch House, did you happen to have many conversations with Commander Vimes?"

"No, sir."

"How odd. You seem to have acquired some of his habits. Perhaps it's something they put in the tea, which would explain the taste. Well, if you insist on presenting yourself as a target for conspirators--and may I remind you that whoever planned these recent difficulties remains undiscovered?--I shan't stop you."

"Thank you, sir." He was smiling too much, but his face refused his orders to stop. Perhaps it had been talking to Vimes in secret.

"What do you think of young Reavish's work?"

Reavish had filled in for three days while Drumknott was still feeling too weak. Perhaps it was he Lord Vetinari had had in mind as a new secretary. "Excellent," Drumknott said warily. "He writes a good plain hand and an even better formal one." The latter was possibly superior to Drumknott's own, more effortless in its graceful flourishes. A little showy, some might say. "Of course, he's inexperienced. He drafted a letter to the mayor of Pseudopolis that said exactly what you'd told him, sir. Word for word. Fortunately I spotted it before it was brought to you for signing."

"He can gain experience. And he will. I'm making him your assistant." His Lordship's smile this time had something toothily triumphant around the edges, a reminder that when one of his plans was thwarted, he always had another. "I'm sure he can manage fair copies and such tedium. As for you--since you're so fond of city business, I'll draw you into more of it. Get your cloak."

"Sir?"

"We're going to visit the offices of the Times," Lord Vetinari said, picking up his walking stick and leaning hard on it to push himself upright. This bitter weather had brought back the limp he'd otherwise almost lost. "I should like to say 'thank you' to Mr. de Worde."

"And a few other things as well, sir?"

His Lordship bent down abruptly to give Wuffles a farewell pat. "Perhaps."

***


By the time he got to Number 30, Little Henswell Street, Drumknott was slightly out of breath from walking fast in the cold. He stood exhaling clouds and looking at the old brass door handle in the shape of a sheep's head. It was brightly polished and the door freshly painted, as was the sign: Arthur Drumknott and Son, Clothiers. For some years it had really just been Son, but Tobias said it would be foolish to change a name customers knew, and no doubt he was right. His Lordship said the same thing, more or less: people want tomorrow to be the same as today.

Drumknott knocked, and Tobias's voice called "Who's there?" from behind a shuttered upstairs window.

"It's Rufus."

A minute later, after the clunk and rattle of several heavy locks, Tobias opened the door with a smile. "Come in, come in. Sorry about that. You wouldn't believe the times we've had foreigners knocking on Octeday, not knowing the shop would be closed."

Drumknott followed him back through the dim space crowded with fabric bolts and smelling of wool, dyes, cedar, and the beeswax that kept the floors and countertops gleaming. As a boy he'd sat here every day after school, fetching and carrying for his father and doing his lessons when there was a lag. At eleven he'd won his apprenticeship to the Clerks' Guild and been pleased to go, but breathing the shop air always felt like stepping back into childhood. Like pulling the bedclothes high and drowsing in comfortable darkness, knowing he could pop his head out again before he stifled.

As he climbed the stairs behind Tobias, the smell changed to roasting pork and turf smoke, which his sister-in-law Jane thought was more homely than coal. "It's good to see you, Rufus," she said, flushed pink from bending over the oven's open door to baste the joint. The kitchen was almost hot. Drumknott stretched his hands out over the stove and tried to rub away the chill of the palace and the streets. "It's been far too long." She kissed his cheek and gave him a cup of tea.

"It has, I know." In theory he had Octedays free, and a half-day Sunday, but it didn't feel right taking so much when His Lordship was always working. "Paperwork's like baling a boat, you daren't stop or you'll drown. And there's been a lot to catch up on after the . . . recent incident."

A look passed like a clacks message between Jane and Tobias, who was hanging Drumknott's cloak on a peg by the door. "How are you?" Tobias asked, eyeing up Drumknott's left side. "We got your note but I wasn't sure how much of 'not badly hurt' to believe."

"I'm perfectly fine, I promise. It turns out the Watch have an . . . a very good doctor. My arm's still a trifle stiff, that's all."

Another message flashed in the secret code of married people. Drumknott was used to deciphering His Lordship's moods and expressions, but he hadn't the skill for this. He ignored them and sat down at the table next to Hugh, who was so lost in a book that he'd barely looked up when Drumknott came in. "What are you reading?"

Eyes fixed to the page, Hugh tilted the book, showing a familiar faded green cover with a water stain at the bottom. It had been Drumknott's once, part of an auction lot that his father had bought cheap after Phinazee's Secondhand Books went bankrupt. When he'd begged his parents for more books, he hadn't expected a random trunkful, most of which turned out to be things like Your Horoscope For the Year of the Dyspeptic Ocelot and Tempting Turnips!: 800 Recipes to Suit the Modest Budget. But he'd loved The Mysterious Agatean World, even though the book had been written in the last century and was more than a touch fanciful. All that folderol about the Agateans inventing fireworks, for instance, when everyone knew Ankh-Morpork had always had fireworks. And it said the first Agatean Emperor had been a dragon . . . come to think of it, that was a lot more believable now than it had seemed in his boyhood.

"What's your favourite part?" he asked.

"The empress discovering that silk comes from caterpillars," Hugh answered without even stopping to think. "When I grow up I'm going to sneak into the empire and steal all the caterpillars I can find. Then I'll come home and get rich."

The true Ankh-Morpork spirit. Drumknott hoped that in ten years he wouldn't be explaining to His Lordship how Hugh had managed to start a war with the most powerful country on the Disc.

Lunch went as it always did: he ate rather too much, listened to the family news, and said, when asked, that he was healthy, sleeping well, not overworked, and that he'd heard absolutely nothing about whether His Lordship ever intended to lower the (extremely small) tariff on Lancre wool. After the figgy dowdy and a few more of those coded looks between Tobias and Jane, Hugh was chivvied off to finish his sums for school. Jane made another pot of tea, while Tobias rested his hands thoughtfully on his belly, which had been growing prosperously year by year and now made a convenient shelf.

"All right," Drumknott said. "What is it?"

Tobias grinned, looking suddenly twelve years old and eager to help his little brother find the sugar eggs on Soul Cake Tuesday. "The shop's doing well, so well that we want to open another one. A posh one. Everybody's doing well, and they want to look it. There's money in good fabrics. Fine wools, velvet, silk. Especially silk. We've been talking about it, that's why Hugh's got silkworms on the brain."

"I'm pleased for you."

"To expand, though," Tobias said, stirring sugar and milk into his tea, "I'd need help. A man I could trust."

Drumknott began to think he'd had this conversation before.

"Dad always wanted to bring you into the business," Tobias continued. "But there wasn't enough money in it, not then."

"But -"

"Day you went off to 'prentice, he cried. Only time I ever saw him crying, except when Mum died." He reached for Jane's hand and held it.

Drumknott looked at their faces, full of love and goodwill, and felt like a creature somewhat lower on the chain of being than a silkworm. "I don't know anything about cloth. Only what I learnt as a little boy, and I've forgotten half that."

"I know cloth, and I'll teach you. But what I need's what you know already. Figuring, of course--dunno where I'd be without you doing the tax form every year. And you've got those palace manners. Nothing pries open a fat wallet like a compliment or two, nice and poetic in a posh accent. And you know Klatchian. If I could send letters to Klatchian merchants, make my deals direct with them instead of those cheating bastards of ship owners, I'd get better silks and cheaper too."

Tobias had worked out his future even more thoroughly than Lord Vetinari had. And like His Lordship, Tobias had thought of almost everything. "I'm happy in my job," Drumknott said.

Tobias and Jane exchanged another covert look. This one Drumknott could read by its effects; Tobias shrugged and Jane undertook the next part of the deliberation. "You'd be your own man, not taking orders. Not somebody's clerk."

His own man. Flattering rich merchants' wives and daughters so they'd pay to be the gaudiest creatures at this year's guild dinner. Minding his own business, narrowing his world to shop walls and ledger entries, becoming a tiny, replaceable gear in Ankh-Morpork's clockwork. Knowing nothing of the city, nothing of His Lordship except what everyone knew.

Why would he ever want to be his own man when he could be Lord Vetinari's?

"- a real future," Jane was saying. "Something to build on. You'll be thinking of marriage before long, I expect, and you can't keep a wife in a room at the palace."

"I've no wish to marry."

"You will someday," Tobias said, smiling at Jane and obviously wishing his brother the same happiness. He was as generous and as blinkered as an opera enthusiast who's sure that what his friends really want for Hogswatch is season tickets.

Drumknott said, "I'm grateful to you both," and wished he'd phrased it differently when he saw their delighted faces. "I'm sorry I can't accept. It's a good plan, Tobias. Good enough to wait a few years until Hugh's of an age to help." Always end on cheerful news when possible, he thought, and added, "By the way, most Klatchian merchants can read Morporkian. You don't need me to write letters."

Tobias shook his head, and Jane said, "How can you serve that man after what he did to you?"

"What?"

"And your shoulder still pains you, anyone can -"

"Do you think -? It wasn't him! The Times worked it all out, didn't you see?"

"Oh, I saw what the Times worked out, all right." Tobias crossed his arms, frowning. "A pair of foreign killers, both dead before anybody could ask questions, and some fellow from Pseudopolis who just happens to look like his nibs's long-lost twin. All in the pay of the gods know who. And the whole business testified to by the only eyewitness, Vetinari's dog. I've heard likelier stories when Jane used to read fairy tales to our Hugh."

"You can't think that His Lordship -"

"I bloody well can. The Times indeed. Do you know who that William de Worde is? Him who runs it? He's Lord de Worde's son. He's a toff just like Vetinari, and they all stick together."

Even if Drumknott could tell him what His Lordship had surmised about Lord de Worde, he knew the truth didn't have a chance. Against gossip, things-everyone-knew, and the commonest of common sense, it stood like an Omnian missionary in the Mended Drum: not for very long. "You must see it's ridiculous. Seventy thousand dollars in the saddlebags, when His Lordship's a rich man in his own right? And if he wanted to steal from the city, he could do it without ever leaving the palace. Just like Lord Snapcase did, and Winder, and all the other ones who wanted to loot instead of build."

There was a pause. Thought seemed to pull hidden cords and levers behind Tobias's placid face. He sighed and stared down at the table. "I'm not a fool, Rufus. I saw that for myself. I know what he did wasn't on account of money."

"Why, then? Do you imagine he had a sudden whim to flee the city he's given his whole life to?"

"Well . . . " Tobias said, still not looking at him.

Jane, however, met his gaze determinedly. "There might have been a . . . a quarrel."

"A quarrel? Between His Lordship and me?" Faced with this tidal wave of absurdity, Drumknott tried to retreat up the hill of reason.

"He's used to having his own way, Vetinari is." Tobias's face was red, his voice reluctant. "Not a man to like hearing no."

"But . . . " Absurdity crested and broke over him. It was more than absurd, it was lurid, like those cheap Quirmian novels that pretended not to be pornography. What a scenario: the tyrant's ruthless lust, the innocent victim stabbed for refusing. "How can you think such a thing?"

"There are stories. How he made the Seamstresses' Guild start letting in the what-d'ye-call-ems -"

Tailor boys, Drumknott thought, and didn't say a word.

"- letting men in, anyway -" Jane shushed him and he lowered his voice. "They say he goes to that so-called club on his nights off -"

What nights off?

"- and it's always the young ones he picks, two or three at once sometimes, and he doesn't even pay because he says they owe him. And there you are under his nose all day, hardly more than a lad, and--well, I'll speak plain, Rufus--anybody can see that you think he hung the stars and taught the Turtle how to fly. So maybe I'm not so ridiculous to fear he might try and take advantage." He patted Drumknott's forearm and said gently, "No shame to you if he did."

"Tobias -"

"Maybe he was sorry afterwards. Those servants saw him crying over you, saying how sorry he was. But you can't trust a man like that. He doesn't deserve your loyalty."

There ought to be a word, Drumknott thought, for this moment when you're overwhelmed with love for someone whom, simultaneously and no less overwhelmingly, you want to hit on the head with a truncheon. "Tobias. Jane." He realised he was rubbing at his left shoulder and made himself stop. "I'm sorry you've feared for me. But you're wrong. His Lordship has never done anything to harm me. He wouldn't."

Tobias pushed his mug scrapingly across the tabletop and slumped back in his chair. His mouth had curled up around what Drumknott knew were a lot of unsaid words. It was Jane who eventually spoke. "Of course, Rufus." She gave him a long and oddly motherly look, the sort Hugh probably got when he prattled about sailing to the Agatean Empire to steal silkworms. "Well. Did you hear that the Huckinses are having another baby? She seems pleased enough, though they have got five already. And Eileen Roal's daughter wants to join the Watch, would you credit it?"

After that, the afternoon creaked along, inadequately oiled by gossip and mulled wine. Just before dark Drumknott walked back to Old Snead Avenue to get a cab. A heavy sleet was falling, slicking the cobblestones and forming pinheads of ice on his cloak, and all the cabmen seemed to have gone home. He should have left early himself, but Tobias and Jane might have thought he was offended, and that would've given the whole business too much weight.

If Lord Vetinari were like some previous Patricians, it wouldn't have been so risible. But His Lordship was as chaste as the heroine of a Quirmian novel, not as debauched as the villain. Perhaps that was why the rumours were so many and so scurrilous: like chameleons, they fed on air. In all these years, His Lordship had touched Drumknott once, and that was to shake his hand the day he was promoted to secretary. His Lordship seemed fond enough of him, true. There were little smiles, little jokes and confidences. But if His Lordship had ever wanted more than that, there had never been a hint. Even when they'd worked late, utterly alone in the sleeping palace, and Drumknott had wearily indulged a chameleon hope.

If His Lordship had ever wanted him . . . how could he have asked, being who he was, knowing it might be taken for an order? Perhaps Tobias's notion was so perfectly false that it reflected truth backwards, like a mirror.

How could Lord Vetinari ask anyone to his bed? No doubt there were people who hadn't waited to be asked, who'd asked His Lordship instead. But out of the throngs who might seduce him for favour, information, a plot, an assassination, whom could he ever dare to accept?

And so the greatest man on the Disc slept alone. He played Thud by clacks with someone in Uberwald and he walked in the palace gardens with his dog.

I never thought. I never thought of this. If it hadn't been so cold, Drumknott might have gone back to Tobias's house to thank him.

A few minutes later, a muffled guard let him through the palace gates. Hurrying across the courtyard, he saw, as he had expected, the lighted window of the Oblong Office. His Lordship was probably reading intelligence reports, which he liked to do on Octedays because he didn't have meetings to interrupt his thinking. That was as close as he got to resting: no meetings and the big, extra-difficult Octeday crossword. Sometimes he reminded Drumknott of those poor girls at the hemp manufactory who'd been kept chained to their stations until His Lordship found out and put a stop to it.

Drumknott slipped quietly past the closed door of the Oblong Office and into his own, hung up his cloak, and started brewing a pot of tea. The Oblong Office was terrible in weather like this. It was too big to heat even if His Lordship hadn't seemed to prefer keeping it and the other public rooms uncomfortable. From Ember to March, committee meetings became wonderfully brief and efficient.

When the tea was ready, he took the tray through the connecting door. His Lordship, a narrow line of darkness from his black skullcap to the black boots just visible under the edge of his black robe, stood looking out of the window. He was alone; he must have dismissed Reavish for the night. "Good evening, Drumknott," he said without turning around. He was, Drumknott saw, using his stick, which ordinarily he dispensed with unless he would be walking far.

"Good evening, sir. I've brought you some tea." He leaned over the snoring Wuffles to set the tray down.

"It is still your day off, you know."

"Yes, my lord."

"Well, thank you. Please have some yourself if you wish."

Drumknott fetched a second cup from his office and poured for them both, then, deciding His Lordship's words had been an invitation, joined him at the window. Snow had begun, fat flakes meandering lazily down. They were so pretty that it took an effort of mind to connect them with the several thousand poor people who'd died of cold this winter. Drumknott was, however, cheered to see an icicle forming on the bronze nose of Suffer-Not-Injustice Vimes.

"How are your brother and his family?" Lord Vetinari asked. "Or did you go elsewhere today?"

The last was mere politeness; Drumknott was sure that if he hadn't gone to Tobias's house, His Lordship would have noticed, if only from the missing scent of turf smoke on his clothes. "They're well, sir, thank you." Since His Lordship seemed in a talking mood, he added, "My brother offered me a job."

"Indeed? It seems you are much in demand."

Drumknott realised he had perhaps overlooked something. "Er . . . was that by any chance your idea, sir?"

"Not at all. I have accepted your decision to remain with me. May I assume it is unaltered?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." He smiled over the rim of the teacup. "I cannot see you as a shopkeeper." His long fingers cradled the cup, warming themselves, ignoring the handle and the rules of etiquette.

You feel the cold as much as anyone, Drumknott thought. But how you pretend otherwise. "Nor can I, my lord," he said, and smiled back.

***




Click here to read part two.
Tags: fic: 2009, fic: discworld
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