Turning too quickly, movements clumsy – he could not control his tongue and limbs together, and not speaking had been effort enough - Drumknott knocked over the stack of books he'd brought to the room.
With a spattering of dull thuds the volumes hit the floor, the uppermost falling open at the first page. The front cover, worn with use, was hanging by a thread and the paper brown-speckled as a thrush's egg. It was on this page that there was the engraving; eight women in an old-fashioned dress style wider than it was tall, smiling calmly at each other, subject to no more pressing matters than elegant parlour games.
I love my love with an A because he is Artless.
Drumknott read the familiar phrase and realised he was smiling. Prior to the acquisition of a more adequate vocabulary, it had been a childhood conviction of his that the 'h' had been dropped (as was often the case in the household he had been brought up in) - that the love needed love because he had none of his own.
I love my love with an A because he is Artless. I hate him with an A because he is Avaricious. He took me to the sign of the Anchor, and treated me to Apples and Almonds. His name is Abraham, and he comes from Anhk Morpork.
I love my love with a B because he is Brave. I hate him with a B because he is Boisterous. He took me to the sign of the Bell, and treated me to Biscuits and Buns. His name is Benjamin, and he comes from Borogravia.
When, nine years old, cold and lanky and determined in a stringy, desperate way, he'd arrived at the Academy, one of the first lessons he'd attended involved being given this book and starting that game; going round in a circle, each getting the next letter, penalised for hesitation or error. As the weeks passed it had become more complicated; alphabetically backwards, alternating, reciting all that had gone before, recalling the round from the previous week – anything to exercise their minds, to make them ready.
"Drumknott, whilst Miss Rosebud's views on the proper laying-out of an informal rockery are no doubt illuminating, and probably of great solace to many, the book I requested was Rosebread's work on Dwarf Ritual, and it may comfort you or not to learn that I have not even entertained the idea that you could not find the correct volume."
Standing and turning to face the four-poster bed, Drumknott composed his features to the best blank disinterest he could manage. "I apologise, sir. I will bring you the work in question. Would you also be wishing for some more lemon tea?"
"Your salary ticket describes you as a clerk, Drumknott. You do not have to extend those duties to those of a nursemaid."
Some might have heard censure or disdain in the comment; Drumknott's ear was well-trained, and he knew that there was neither. He gave a slight bow. "I would not know sir; I have never had a nursemaid. In any case, I would hazard that I can perform whatever you request or require of me."
"And things I do... not?" The sentence was interrupted by a fit of hacking, breath-breaking coughs, and Drumknott clasped his hands behind his back and did not wince.
I love my love with C because he is Candid.
"Sir, I have looked over the schedule for the forthcoming fortnight; it would quite possible to move this afternoon's tasks to next Tuesday."
The man in the bed, propped up on four pillows, wrapped in a thick, black woollen gown, red-eyed and struggling to breathe freely still looked nothing less than imposing as he raised an eyebrow. For a stark, almost terrifying moment, Drumknott thought he was about to be reprimanded.
Havelock Vetinari. None of the scholars at the Academy had for a moment speculated that this man might ultimately be their master. Oh, somewhere low in the service perhaps, somewhere filing nameless and unread documents, but the Patrician's Chief Clerk was traditionally an aristocrat, a favoured son or favourite, a political chess piece in a game where people such as they had little or no value. Drumknott had known no other Patrician; to him, Vetinari had been a face on a coin, an immovable, immutable inhuman figure, the hub of all the city's power.
Drumknott had applied to a minor role at the Palace as insurance; there was a far more prestigious and better paid position at the Thieves Guild. And then a letter had informed him that the Patrician would be happy to interview him under consideration for Chief Clerk, and it turned out that that was the last official letter Vetinari sent out that Drumknott himself had not written.
He'd spent his first two weeks tiptoeing, terrified to be noticed.
"In your position," Vetinari had observed, when Drumknott was doing what he had thought was a successful job of entering the room silently behind him, "seeking to be invisible is sometimes perceived favourably. I certainly shall always know where you are. But I hope you do not wish to do anything that you would not have me know about. Because I will know."
The last Chief Clerk had tried to kill the Patrician; Drumknott had been rather horribly aware of this.
"I owe nothing to anyone but you, sir."
"Some might consider that a reason to dislike someone."
"People do all manner of strange things, sir."
It was not that he was not afraid, it was that somehow Vetinari seemed to demand an answer, seemed to believe that he would give one. There was something deeply satisfying in meeting him, in speaking and not causing the rapidly smoothed wrinkle of disgust or disbelief occasioned by guild members and wizards.
But he is still afraid, somehow. Not of Vetinari, but of his opinion.
From the bed, like something ready and awesome in its lair, Vetinari looked at him. Drumknott stood a little taller under the gaze.
"I will have the tea, thank you," Vetinari said, precisely. "And Rosebread, and the work by Firemountain, and two reams of paper."
Unable not to smile, Drumknott bowed and obeyed.
I love my love with a D because he is Dangerous.
That wasn't how the rhyme went.
- - -