A long time ago, there was a boy. By strict definition he was an adolescent, but the boy had a serious demeanour that gave people the impression that he was older than his years. The boy was standing in a grand private library, hidden between two tall and densely packed shelves. A thin layer of dust covered the vellum and parchment; it wasn't a very well-used library. The boy was watching, and waiting.
The person he was watching was Sir Evander Morris, the eldest son of Lord Albert Morris, and heir to one of the fatter family fortunes of Ankh-Morpork. By all accounts, Evander Morris was of a genial disposition, naive, inclined to give to charities, and generally scrupulous in his affairs. It made him a nice man, but a terrible lord.
The boy watched Morris, oblivious to any intrusion, putter about at his desk. He stood very still, and his eyes didn't wander. Still, the boy broke his silence to murmur very quietly to the equally, if not more, stealthy figure next to him, 'Would you like me to take out one of these books for you to read?'
There was a pause. NO, THANK YOU, the figure replied.
The boy removed a book from one of the shelves anyway. He did it was small, precise movements, barely shifting the dust. Morris never heard a thing. The boy handed it wordlessly to his companion.
THE GREAT LORDS OF ANKH AND MORPORK, the figure read. SCINTILLATING READING, I AM SURE.
The boy shrugged one shoulder.
A long, bony finger stroked the book's spine. AREN'T YOU AFRAID?
'You're not here for me,' the boy said, eyes still fixed on Morris.
MOST HUMANS DON'T CARE WHO I'M HERE FOR.
Finally, the boy turned to look at Death. 'I find it professionally reassuring,' he said. 'Seeing you around during one of my assignments.'
HM, Death said.
'I see other things, too,' the boy said, turning back to his mark. Death mirrored his gaze.
WELL THEN, YOUNG MASTER. TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE HERE.
'Lord Evander Morris is a kind but stupid man, irredeemably ugly and very pure of heart,' the boy said, reaching for something in one of the hip pouches he wore. 'He is far more useful manipulated than assassinated, but his younger brother doesn't see that, and nor do any of the men who run the Morris family's various enterprises. They're afraid he'll donate the family's wealth away, and want to get rid of him.' The boy withdrew a small blow pipe, and began to load it. 'This is a mistake; the remaining family will squabble over the fortune, since there's no clear will, and their hired businessmen will ravage whatever's left over after the long legal battle.' The boy raised the pipe to his lips and took aim. He took a deep breath, then paused. 'It's a pity,' he murmured, almost to himself, and then he blew out the dart.
Evander Morris slapped a hand to his neck, where he felt something like a mosquito give him a bite. Twenty seconds later, he crumpled quietly to the ground, and the boy was moving over to the body.
Death followed at a more sedate pace, and came to stand at Morris' feet, scythe in hand. WAKE UP, Death said, swinging.
The ghost of Evander Morris stood, scratching its head in confusion. 'Oh,' he said, looking down at himself and then at the boy and then at Death. 'Assassination, was it?'
The boy nodded mutely.
'What's your name?' Evander asked him.
'Havelock Vetinari,' the boy said with a small bow.
'Vetinari,' Evander said dreamily, his image already beginning to fade. 'I've never heard that name... To think I'd be offed by a scholarship boy; these are interesting times...'
Vetinari made quick work of laying out his calling card next to Evander's body. Printed on Guild letterhead, it clearly detailed the bounty on Morris' head and time and method of inhumement. Then he made to leave through the unlatched window that he'd entered the library from.
Death followed him to the window.
'Yes?' Vetinari asked, already poised to climb out and back down. 'I haven't much time before the estate is up in arms.'
Death looked at Vetinari, straight at him. Vetinari returned the look unflinchingly, though he felt disoriented for a moment when he gazed too deeply into the eternal pinpoints of light in the skull's eye sockets. Vetinari blinked first, and tightened his grip on the window's ledge.
I SHALL BE FOLLOWING YOUR CAREER, Death said, WITH GREAT INTEREST.
On the boy's eighteenth birthday, he graduated to the Black as one of the youngest in Guild history to do so. He did not find this very momentous. There was almost a sense that he'd cheated somehow; as though seeing Death around the corner during some of his assignments was some kind of unfair advantage that the gods had extended a scholarship boy. Nevertheless, he took the colours.
By the boy's twenty-first birthday, he'd crept into the upper ranks of top grossing assassins. Lord Downey Sr. had his name engraved onto several plaques.
On the boy's thirtieth birthday - by which point he was really no longer a boy - he sat alone in his sparsely furnished room and considered his finances. Having come to a decision, he wrote a few letters, and posted them.
The next day, he found a small package on his desk, wrapped inexpertly in paper of the darkest black he'd ever seen. The package seemed to suck in surrounding light. It was all very suspicious. But the boy-- the man knew it was pointless to search it for traps. When he got close enough, he could hear just the barest sound of sand running down against glass, a wondrous tinkling noise.
Many years later...
He'd been summoned to the Palace, so there Moist was, waiting in the antechamber of Lord Vetinari's office.
He was currently fantasizing about taking a hatchet to the infernal clock in the room. It kept irregular time; the ticks came at odd intervals even as the second hand itself moved with unerring precision. Moist knew it was a trick, something the Patrician did to get under people's skins. The problem was that knowing so didn't stop it from working; Moist had been waiting there for ten minutes, and was starting to sweat under his collar.
He got up to stop his legs from jittering, and paced to the front of the office door. The sound of voices just barely filtered through. He couldn't help himself; he listened in.
'Well, I do have a position for you to consider,' Moist heard Vetinari say to the stranger, the Patrician sounding almost genuinely polite. Vetinari had all the manners in the world and was scrupulous in using them, but there was rarely any feeling behind his courtesies. Vetinari expressed his fondness for people much better when he was simply abusing and manipulating them.
There was an absence of sound, but a very significant one, as if someone in there had just gone, wordlessly, ??.
Vetinari again. 'There are certain inevitabilities -'
NO, HAVELOCK. THERE IS ONLY ONE INEVITABILITY, the stranger cut Vetinari off. ME. Moist shuddered a little bit.
'Yes. However, we would like it if there were more.'
'YOU'VE ALWAYS BEEN AMBITIOUS.'
'I have had excellent role models. But we should speak another time; Mr. Lipwig is standing behind the door breathing very shallowly through his nose.' Damn it, how did Vetinari do that every time? Moist heard himself being summoned. 'Come in, Mr. Lipwig.'
Moist entered, whipping off his hat as he stepped in. He really was a well-trained dog at this point; there wasn't any use in denying it. Vetinari had a very small appetite for insolence, and Moist knew most of it was wasted on Commander Vimes. 'Good morning, my lord. I hope I'm not interrupting you and your guest.'
Except that there was no guest. Vetinari was seated at his desk, an eyebrow raised. 'No,' the Patrician said, 'you're not interrupting.' He said nothing else.
How? Moist knew for a fact (or, he thought he did) that there was only one way in or out, and he had just entered that way. The rest of Vetinari's office was empty save for Drumknott, who was at a side table tidying up what looked like the aftermath of… a board game? Moist squinted at him. He could never figure the clerk out.
'Stop gawping at Drumknott, it's undignified,' Vetinari said.
'Er,' Moist said, pulling his attention back. 'You called for me?'
'Yes,' Vetinari said, shuffling some papers. 'This is about Mint business, Mr. Lipwig. You're doing very well these days.'
'The economy's been on the up and up and we're happy as can be about it,' Moist said warily. He hadn't done anything particularly heinous recently that he could remember. There were a few sets of the latest issue hidden away in one or two places, but those were really just collectors items accruing value. Moist had a few other emergency assets littered about the city, but he was under no illusions that Vetinari didn't know about them. Vetinari probably expected it of him.
'You've performed your duties admirably, but that's not why you are here. Sit down,' Vetinari gestured to the chair in front of him, and Moist sat. It was eminently well upholstered, but it had been designed to be just a spare few inches shorter than was entirely comfortable. You had to look up at Vetinari a little bit when he spoke, which made you feel like a schoolchild in the office of the world's worst headmaster.
'There are certain aspects of Anhk-Morpork's monetary system that you have hitherto not been responsible for,' Vetinari began, motioning with one hand to Drumknott.
'Oh no,' Moist shook his head, fingers tightening on his hat. Commander Vimes had warned him about this. 'You can't promote me or anything - I've done good work!'
'Very good work,' Vetinari agreed. 'Which is why I intend for you to do additional good work for the city in a field not so different from the one in which you are already engaged. Drumknott, if you please.'
Drumknott, who was wearing what could almost qualify as a smile on his face, wheeled a cart stacked high with leather-bound ledgers up to Moist. He patted them. 'Here are the city's tax records for the last two decades, Mr. Lipwig. They are my pride and joy, and I do hope you enjoy perusing them.'
Moist had never heard Drumknott say so many words at one go before. If he hadn't been scared before, now he was well and truly on guard. Moist reached out for one of the ledgers, then hesitated. 'I don't understand. What's wrong with the tax system that it needs fixing?'
'Do you remember ever paying your dues, Mr. Lipwig?' Vetinari asked.
'No,' Moist said. 'But then again, someone like me wouldn't, would they?'
'You've been a government officer for many years now.'
'Precisely!' Moist cried. 'What would be the point in me paying myself?'
Vetinari touched the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. Moist read that as a great shout of frustration. 'I believe you've a thing or two to learn about taxation.'
Drumknott brought them tea about half an hour into their yelling contest. Well, Moist was yelling - Vetinari mostly just sat there, silently judgemental. At some point, the Patrician had convinced Moist to open the ledgers, which is where everything had started to go wrong.
At first the books had made little sense at all: there was gross under-reporting from certain people, and bizarre deductions from others. Lord Russ was, by means of very acrobatic accounting indeed, eligible for welfare while the leading three members of the Beggars Guild came out to be almost millionaires. But Moist started reading between the lines, because that was what he was good at, and what he began to see were patterns in the chaos. Certain uncannily similar sums showed up in both the debit and credit columns. If he closed his eyes, Moist imagined that he could see the flow of money from institution to institution, bank account to bank account. He had to admit to himself that it was a little bit beautiful; a wonderfully thought-out white collar crime.
'Based on last year's figures alone, you do know you could arrest half the city's guild leaders tax evasion,' Moist said, twenty minutes or so of reading in. He was trying to keep his voice even.
'I'm well aware, and it's very useful to know,' Vetinari replied.
'I can see some use in having that leverage,' Moist agreed, 'but it's leverage that's costing the city rather a lot of money.' Roughly the yearly output of Uberwald worth of money, really, if you wanted to look at it in context. 'One might even suspect criminal elements at play?' Moist suggested, waggling his fingers in the air.
Vetinari shrugged one shoulder. 'The difficulty is that not many clerks are willing to exercise creative interpretation of accounts. We are the chief employer of lawyers in this city, and they're not well known for their imaginations. As many taxes as are filed as are received and impeccable records are kept, but nothing more. Clerks are hardly law enforcement.'
'Then hire law enforcement, problem solved,' Moist said, slamming the ledger in front of him firmly shut. 'That's what the Watch is for, isn't it?' Moist could feel himself being worked into some sort of corner; he'd been too clever about reading the records. It's just that he could see the angles; he loved seeing the angles.
Vetinari huffed a small laugh. 'I prefer my tax collectors able to read and do basic arithmetic.'
'You could teach them!'
'Not how to stay still and read books; even I can't work miracles. No, Mr. Lipwig, it takes a criminal to know a criminal.'
Moist bristled. 'I have been an upstanding member of Ankh-Morpork's upper classes for half a decade now!' He really had. Sybil Ramkin had even had him over a time or three, though Moist had noticed how she'd locked all the silverware up in display cases first.
'Anhk-Morpork's elite?' Vetinari said. 'They are exactly why I'm sure you're not far removed from your old ways. If I'd wanted you truly rehabilitated, I'd have let you hang. This is a position I find you eminently suited to filling.'
'Glorified tax collector?' Moist asked with a sneer.
'Oh, there are titles we could give you, Mr. Lipwig,' Vetinari said. 'Think of it as a promotion.'
Drumknott, who'd silently left the office at some point, chose that moment to re-enter with a polite cough. 'We're expecting another delivery from Mr. Throat, my lord,' he said to Vetinari.
'Ah,' Moist said, standing as well. Mr. Throat only made one kind of delivery to the Palace, and that was to the angels. 'You're... interviewing then, are you?'
Vetinari gave Moist a dry smile. 'You know how much I enjoy the process, though I doubt that this one'll be sufficiently qualified for what I have in mind.'
Moist swallowed. 'Pity.'
'Not really.' Vetinari walked past him, nodding at the cart and its ledgers as he went by. 'Give them a look over. I daresay you'll find them interesting, if nothing else, and a crucial piece of the puzzle that is the administration of Ankh-Morpork. You know the way out.'
It occurred to Moist two hours later, as he sat in a deep leather chair in the comfort of his own study going over the accounts, that Vetinari had never really given him a chance to say no.
Regardless, an incredibly stupid baton with an elaborate engraving of the words MAGISTER OF CUSTOMMES & EXCISIONS appeared on his desk the next day. Moist resigned himself to the realities of his very elaborate imprisonment with a sign, and sent in an note to Drumknott with a list further inquiries.
Moist went in to see the Patrician a week later with bags under his eyes and a good few ledgers to return. He'd stopped sending advanced notice of his arrivals a long time ago; mostly he found that just showing up usually worked just fine. Vetinari somehow found the time.
The door to the office was ajar when he got to the anteroom, meaning someone had seen him coming in. Moist had long ago given up trying to keep track of Drumknott's army of clerks, maids, and runners.
Vetinari was seated by the fireplace in the room reading from a slim folio. He didn't bother to look up when Moist entered. Moist had stopped being insulted by this; he'd heard things about Vetinari's time in the Assassins Guild.
'You know,' Moist said conversationally to the Patrician, opting to fall into a chair at the desk in the centre of the room rather than joining Vetinari at the fireplace. 'These are white collar crimes, the ones I think you want me to look at. But they're cold cases now; you couldn't use these taxes to catch anybody doing anything. Unless you want to issue a warrant for every time Vimes thinks that there's reasonable suspicion a lord or some tycoon is up to something fishy. Which would be often. Every day, probably.'
'I can see that,' Vetinari called back. There was a sound of a page being turned.
'And Vimes'd be right, you know,' Moist went on, staring up at the ceiling. 'There usually is something that stinks wherever there's big money. Issuing that many warrents would be a hellish process.'
'Not to mention riotous,' Vetinari said. 'No one would stand for it, least of all some of the most powerful men and women in this city.'
'Right,' Moist said. He shut his eyes. 'You'd have to have your nose in everyone's business all of the time.' Moist sighed. 'I also took a look at the Palace accounts.'
'Did you, now?'
'There's an awfully large sum under,' and here Moist raised his fingers in the air, quoting, '"Research and Development."'
OW, came a muffled cry, soft as though the sound had had to carry through a few walls.
Moist sat up quickly. 'What was that?'
'Probably Leonardo, attempting to listen in,' Vetinari said peaceably. 'Leonardo da Quirm. He constitutes Anhk-Morpork's R-and-D.'
Moist turned in his seat to stare incredulously at him. 'Just one man?'
Vetinari finally looked up from his book. 'He's only the inventor of the flushing latrine.'
'What an excellent investment,' Moist hastily agreed, slumping back in his seat. This was just demoralising. If anyone was going to steal that much money from the government, Moist wanted it to be him. 'Well,' he said to Vetinari. 'I'm stuck. I don't know how to be everywhere and check in on everything.'
The office door opened. 'My lord?' Drumknott entered. 'There was a draft by the door of the room a few minutes ago, so I expect he's here and waiting for you. I've put out the Thud board, but even my inexperienced eye can tell that he's laying out the checkers pieces again.'
Vetinari snapped his folio shut. 'Very good, Drumknott, you may go. Come, Mr. Lipwig, there's someone I want you to meet.'
The Patrician stood and left the room, not waiting for Moist to follow. Moist had never had reason or desire to stay long in the compound, but even with his limited knowledge he could tell that Vetinari was taking a particularly circuitous route through the Palace's many rooms and corridors. The place was essentially a maze. Rumour had it that some of the stairwells had been designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson for the express purpose of misleading foreign dignitaries. Moist scrambled to keep up with Vetinari's clip, and almost ran right into the Patrician's back when he came to a smooth but sudden stop in front of a door that Moist didn't recognise. Vetinari opened it.
It scared Moist half to death when Vetinari put a hand on the small of his back and, voice a low susurration in his ear, said, 'After you, Mr. Lipwig.'
Instinct and terror made Moist take a step forward. His foot pressed down on empty air, and he toppled forward and downwards. Moist didn't have time to scream.
He felt Vetinari grab him by the back of the belt just as he began to truly fall, his grip surprisingly strong for a man of his stature. Moist stared blindly down the drop that he was precariously hovering over. It was a yawning gap barely a metre across - Moist could've hopped over if he'd known it was there - but which stretched down as far as the eye could see. Vetinari had grabbed him just in time; Moist managed to plant his scrabbling forward foot on the other side of the hole and took what felt like the deepest breath of his life when he felt his balance return.
'What in the blazes,' Moist roared, stepping across and falling on blessedly hard ground. Then he looked up.
HELLO, Death said.
'I'm dead, aren't I,' Moist said.
'No, just scared more than halfway there.' Vetinari had hopped neatly over the gap, robes and all, and was pulling at a lever. Moist heard the sound of hydraulics and moving stone. Something rose up and the hole was no more, seamlessly reintegrated into the flooring. Vetinari extended Moist a hand. 'This is the person whom I wanted you to meet.'
Moist ignored the hand and heaved himself shakily upright on his own power. Vetinari withdrew the hand without comment. 'I'd ask you to forgive the shock, but it was a necessary inducement. People don't normally see -'
'- talking skeletons? Death?' Moist snapped, nerves frayed beyond politeness. He couldn't stop staring. 'You don't say!'
EVERYONE SEES ME EVENTUALLY, MR. LIPWIG, Death said, and something about his voice made parts of Moist's soul twist. It was a voice made to be believed. Moist drew his lips into a thin line and stayed silent. AND I BELIEVE THAT'S WHY I AM HERE. THE PATRICIAN ADVISED ME THAT YOU HAVE A PROBLEM I MIGHT HELP YOU SOLVE.
'A problem?' Moist asked, boggled. He turned to Vetinari, who merely raised an eyebrow at him and made a shooing motion with his hand, like a parent ushering on a particularly recalcitrant child. 'A problem - you,' he swore, finally getting it. 'You,' he pointed a furious finger at Vetinari, 'want me to ask Him about taxes?' Moist realised a moment later that he was now pointing at Death and rapidly put his finger down.
'In the fine words of the playwright Christopher Bollocks,' Vetinari said, lifting up the small folio from before, '"'Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes."'
IF IT'S CREDENTIALS YOU WANT, MR. LIPWIG, I ASSURE YOU THAT I AM THE FOREMOST EXPERT IN... COLLECTION.
The consultation wasn't the most edifying in the world. For one, after the initial shock had worn off, Death kept slipping in and out of Moist's vision, sometimes a solid figure and at other times not there at all. Vetinari mostly kept to himself, which wasn't helpful at all when conversations went along the lines of Moist asking something like 'What's your modus operandi, your method?' to the tune of replies from Death that boiled down to I SHOW UP.
It was less than entirely enlightening, and Moist finally left the Palace feeling spooked, drained, and determined.
Drumknott received another note later that night requesting a staff of twenty clerks and an entire annotated legal history of the customs and excises of Ankh-Morpork and her neighbours.
Vetinari stayed in the room after Moist had gone. He hadn't had any problems seeing Death. Vetinari had been used to seeing things that were really there from a very young age. At the moment, Death was playing a spectacularly bad game of checkers against himself on an entirely wrong kind of board. Vetinari chose not to correct him. 'What did you think?' he asked instead.
THINKING ISN'T MY JOB, Death replied. I BELIEVE THAT IS MORE THAN APPARENT IN MY INABILITY TO COMPREHEND YOUR MORTAL PAST TIMES. WHAT DOES THIS PIECE DO?
'They all do the same thing,' Vetinari said. 'Those aren't Thud pieces.'
Death picked up one of the round checkers he had been using. OH.
'Thud pieces are differentiated by shape.'
CURIOUS, Death said, putting the piece down.
'We humans don't quite see things as equally as you do, I'm afraid,' Vetinari said, moving over to a side shelf and removing an ivory playing set. He carefully cleared Death's game board, then began to lay out the right pieces. 'Here are the beggars, and here the assassins.'
AND THIS PIECE? Death asked, stroking a skeletal finger over the most elaborate one that Vetinari had set out.
'The king, naturally,' Vetinari said.
Death chuckled. OF COURSE. He pushed the piece over, and it fell onto the board with a quiet clack.
Vetinari was silent for a long while before he said, 'Is he unable to see you?'
NOT ENTIRELY. IT WILL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE HE CAN. IT IS NOT IN HIS CHARACTER.
YOU MUST BE PATIENT WITH HIM, HAVELOCK.
VERY WELL. THEN I WILL BE SEEING YOU.
There was no fluttering of curtains or whispering of wind. Death rarely bothered with such niceties. Vetinari saw him simply vanish; there one moment and gone the next. The room was quiet, save for a soothing and very gentle noise of rhythmic brushing.
'You can stop pretending to sweep the floor now,' Vetinari called out to the small, bald man who had been busy the entire time tidying up one of the corners. Moist hadn't noticed him, because that was just what tiny men with brooms did.
Lu Tze turned around, slightly put out. 'I wish you would stop noticing everything,' he to Vetinari said with a sigh, tucking his broom against his side. 'I wish it almost as much as I wish you would stop tempting fate. What if your grip had faltered, hmm? Lipwig isn't some featherweight; you might have slipped too, and then we'd have the biggest mess in the world to sort out.'
A different man may have rolled his eyes. 'I'm sure you would have caught me.'
Lu Tze pointed his broom sternly at Vetinari. 'That's your problem. You're always sure.'
'Am I wrong? Isn't that the entire reason you're here, monk, to make sure that I go only when I'm meant to?'
'Just because it's true doesn't mean I have to like it,' Lu Tze said. 'I know what you're trying to do, Vetinari, and I'll tell you this: no man gets to know how he dies until his time.'
'Until then, I suppose I shall find out a good many ways that I won't die, then,' Vetinari replied, picking up the Thud's king piece and replacing it on the board.
Lu Tze crossed his arms and frowned for a moment. 'Remember,' he said eventually. 'Friend or not, Death comes for every last one of us.'
The monk turned, and put the last few books he'd been arranging back in their proper places on the shelf. 'My compliments to Drumknott,' Lu Tze said as he picked up his cleaning supplies and headed for the door.
'Impeccable floors, as always. Wonderfully dusted shelves. That one's a keeper, Vetinari, but I suppose you already knew that. Good night.'
Time passed by as Moist worked. The Mint passed hands from Moist's stewardship to that of an ambitious young dwarf, Ankh-Morpork born and raised, though of Uberwaldian heritage. The clacks, under Adora's leadership, blinked messages all through the city's increasingly late nights. Vetinari made remarks at the opening of the Unseen University's new wing, dedicated to the study of thinking machines, which was finally unveiled after many years of healthy procrastination.
The tax code was rewritten, and zombie lawyers with specialisations in customs and excises were hired in-house by the Watch. Commander Vimes frothed at the mouth for a fortnight, then arrested half of the nobility for tax fraud a week later with a marvellous and unholy smile upon his face. He had to release them on bail two days later, but the message had been sent and posteriors had been prodded.
There was a lot of work to be done.
Lu Tze ran across the fields of time at an easy jaunt. He ran a long while, past the familiar pestilence of modern Morpork to the enlightenment of middle Ankh, then farther back into old time, then back again until he came to its very edges. There was little else there beyond the horizon; just the infinite stars of past and future times, infinite stars and a large, white horse. Binky neighed loudly at Lu Tze, but accepted the peanuts that were offered to him with easy-going equanimity.
WHAT DO YOU WANT, MONK, Death asked wearily. He had been grooming his horse, and white horse hair was everywhere.
'Think of this as a professional visit,' Lu Tze said, patting Binky on the flank. 'One type of gardener to another.'
YES, YES, GET ON WITH IT.
Lu Tze squinted at what amounted to Death's expressionless face. 'Are you interfering with Vetinari?'
Death's smile stayed stretched from cheekbone to cheekbone. DO YOU THINK I AM?
'You don't have a very good track record of not interfering,' Lu Tze said, accusing.
NEITHER DO YOU.
'The difference being that it's my job to interfere.'
Lu Tze crossed his arms and settled in for a match of wills. It was all right. He had Time on his side, after all, and knew in excruciating detail the ins-and-outs of Death family politics.
Death brushed Binky's coat half-heartedly.
OH, VERY WELL, YOU IRRITATING LITTLE MAN, he said at last. IF NOTHING ELSE WILL CONVINCE YOU. Death reached into his robe. Lu Tze had been expecting a life timer, but Death withdrew something quite different: a perfectly spherical crystal ball about the size of a man's head.
'Wozzat?' Lu Tze asked, tapping the ball with one finger.
SOME CALL IT A "PALANTIR," BUT I PREFER THE TERM "SEEING STONE" MYSELF.
Lu Tze raised an eyebrow. 'On-demand entertainment in the palm of your hand?'
QUITE. Death tapped the ball, and its insides swirled and muddied before clearing again. I BELIEVE THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED TO SEE. A fuzzy picture materialised in the depths of the stone, sharpening gradually. A horrifically messy room came into view. What looked like a thousand wildly executed school projects were scattered on drafting tables of all heights and sizes.
THIS IS THE WORKSHOP OF LEONARDO DA QUIRM, Death said.
'I know him. Great guy, but hopeless bachelor,' Lu Tze agreed. 'Get to the point.'
The seeing stone refocused on an hourglass laid out on one of the room's upper shelves. It zoomed in. Lu Tze watched as the sands in the upper bulb of the hourglass ran down. 'Righto,' he said, pursing his lips. 'You've made your point, put it away.'
Death did so.
'I suppose that's one way of resisting the temptation to meddle, giving it away' Lu Tze sighed. 'I'm guessing he had da Quirm muck around with it a lot?'
THE INVENTOR WAS QUITE UPSET TO SEE THE LAWS OF GRAVITY OF BLATANTLY BROKEN WHEN HE FIRST TURNED IT OVER. YES, IT KEPT HIM PREOCCUPIED FOR QUITE A WHILE.
'Huh.' Lu Tze was quiet for a while. Then he said, 'Not a lot left, eh?' Death said nothing in response. Lu Tze offered Binky a few more peanuts. 'It's lousy. I know he's been a... friend. Or student.'
'But I guess it's inevitable.'
'Just like you.'
'That's how all proteges end up, you know. You give them all the advice in the world and treat them as well as you can, but ultimately,' Lu Tze shrugged expansively, 'they're on their own and have to find their own way.'
There was a rattling sound of flesh hitting bone, like someone slapping a skeleton on its back. 'Good talk. Let's not do this again for a little while.'
Moist went in to see Vetinari again a week or so before the thirtieth year of the Century of the Fruitbat. He had a few ideas that he wanted to get off his chest.
It was a bitterly cold winter day. There were few people on the streets; snow was falling hard and the wind bit at Moist's face. But he'd chosen to walk over to the Palace anyway; something was nagging at him, an unscratchable itch that had propelled him out of his warm sitting room and into the cold.
On this day of all days, however, Drumknott had planted himself firmly in front of Vetinari's office door and wouldn't be moved.
'You can't see him today,' Drumknott said to Moist.
'It's freezing outside and I came all this way on foot,' Moist waved a few papers in Drumknott's face. 'He was the one that gave me this infernal job, so I think it's more than fair that he gets to hear me complain about it. Or, at least, listen to what I've got planned.'
'No,' Drumknott said again. 'It's Sunday. Go home.'
'Since when has Vetinari ever cared for appropriate working hours?' Moist looked over Drumknott's shoulder and at the door. 'Is it him again?' he asked.
'I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about,' Drumknott said primly.
Moist groaned. 'What are they doing in there this time? Playing another game with the wrong pieces on the board? It's creepy, is what it is.'
Drumknott looked like he was a few short moments away from strangling Moist. That was impressive; it was hard to get Drumknott to show too many emotions. 'The Patrician is indisposed,' Drumknott repeated.
'He's never indisposed!' Moist yelled back, patience running low.
'He is sick,' Drumknott finally hissed. 'Lord Vetinari is, after all, only human.'
'Sick?' Moist asked, actually taken aback. 'And he's spending his time recuperating by talking to his regular visitor, Death?'
Drumknott gave Moist a flat, pitying look and shook his head. 'You really are a stupid man, aren't you, Mr. Lipwig,' he said.
'Thank you,' Moist replied, curtsying ironically.
'Go home,' Drumknott said wearily, shaking his head at Moist. Moist thought he almost looked sad.
It finally hit Moist as he huffed along on his walk back from the Palace.
In truth, he'd been mulling over it for a while now - the oddity of Vetinari just making time for him, the long conversations they'd been having together about the city's realpolitik. Over the last decade - god, had it really been ten years? - Vetinari'd put him through the wringer with of the postal service and the clacks, the railways, the mint, the godforsaken special interests committee, and even - very memorably - that one stint with the public education system that had, thankfully, ended up in the hands of a terrifyingly straightforward ex-governess named Susan Sto-Helit. Moist knew most of the guild masters by name, hung out at the Ramkin estate just to make Vimes writhe in his boots, and was so well-entrenched with Ankh-Morpork high society that running away from the city wasn't even an option anymore.
More importantly, running away from the city now sounded to Moist like something of a betrayal. Like leaving Ankh-Morpork would be leaving home behind.
The thought seemed to scare some sense into him, and Moist froze mid-step in the middle of walking over the Brass Bridge.
The angles were finally adding up.
He didn't like what they told him.
Moist sprinted back to the Palace.
When he reached Vetinari's door this time, Moist brushed Drumknott brusquely aside and snarled, 'You've got to let me in, don't you get it? You've got to let me in!'
'To do what?' Drumknott yelled back, and that was the first that Moist had ever heard the man raise his voice. 'Tell Death to back off?'
Moist couldn't bear to keep looking at Drumknott's face, so he just banged on Vetinari's locked door and yelled, as loud as he could, 'YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO ME, VETINARI! YOU CAN'T LEAVE ME WITH THIS KIND OF RESPONSIBILITY! I'M A CRIMINAL!'
Inside the room, Death said, WHAT ON EARTH IS THAT NOISE.
Vetinari was in a bed that had been laid out in the corner of the office nearest to the window. It was where he usually rested when ill; a bedroom felt too singular in purpose and he rarely slept enough to warrant moving back and forth between rooms. He looked small and frail against the white sheets. 'It's almost Hogswatch,' Vetinari said, completely ignoring Death's question as he gazed out of the window. Snow was falling on the thick, soupy crust of the river.
YES, BUT WHY ARE THEY MAKING SUCH A RACKET?
The door was shaking now; Moist was throwing his entire weight against it.
'I'm old, Death,' Vetinari went on. 'I've done my best. But I can't be around to entertain you forever, so I thought it'd be remiss if I didn't leave you without some form of entertainment. I have it on good word that eternity is very boring.'
'YOU BLOODY TYRANT,' they heard Moist yell.
YOU REALLY SHOULD PERHAPS ANSWER THE DOOR.
'That's your present knocking,' Vetinari said. 'As for doors,' he sighed, leaning back into the pillows and making himself comfortable. 'You're the expert in doors, aren't you?'
Death curled his fingers around his scythe.
'Open my last one for me,' Vetinari asked, and closed his eyes.
'I can see you now,' Moist said, dull. He was the last one left at the cemetery; even Drumknott had gone. 'You've been here all morning and it was bloody difficult to ignore you when...' Moist blinked hard. 'I thought you only came for, you know,' he made a swishing motion with his hands, 'the reaping part.'
Death wordlessly handed Moist something.
'What's this?' Moist asked, taking it.
IT IS CALLED A LIFE TIMER. WHEN THE SAND IN THE UPPER BULB RUNS DOWN, YOUR TIME IS UP.
Moist noticed a small engraving at the bottom of the timer in his hand. It read HAVELOCK VETINARI. The top bulb was empty. Except -
Moist shook the timer. He squinted, and shook it again. 'There's one grain,' he said. 'It won't come down.' He shook it harder. 'It won't come down!' he roared, throwing it back at Death and seizing him by the robes. He could think about how stupid this was later. 'If you're playing some kind if sick joke--'
I HAVE NOT BEEN IN POSSESSION OF THIS TIMER FOR OVER SIXTY OF YOUR HUMAN YEARS, Death said, unmoved. Moist felt his fingers seize up as his grip on Death's robes tightened to the point of painfulness.
THIS WAS IN THE WORKSHOP OF LEONARD DA QUIRM. I FOUND IT, AFTER.
'After what?' Moist hissed. 'By the time we could find a locksmith who could get that lock open, he'd been dead for--' Moist couldn't go on.
Death looked at the life timer. I COULDN'T FIND HIM.
Moist stared at him. 'What?'
HE WOULDN'T COME WHEN I CALLED, Death said. I SUPPOSE I SHOULDN'T BE SURPRISED; HAVELOCK NEVER DID DO WHAT PEOPLE EXPECTED OF HIM.
Moist and Death both looked at the timer, at the one grain of sand.
They left it at the headstone. They didn't know what else to do.
Lu Tze heaved the final layer of soil off of the coffin's lid with more huffing and grunting than was strictly necessary. He banged on it with his shovel, just to be obnoxious, dug around for the lid's catches, undid them, then wrenched the entire thing open.
'Hallo,' he said, looking down at Vetinari and getting dirt all over the man's funereal clothes. 'Did you know? Sometimes, you get visited by an angel...'