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Veni Vici Vetinari

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Havelock Vetinari spent his first day at the Patrician’s Palace carefully and patiently tending to the Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery’s every need. It was not a difficult job. Mostly, it involved the prompt delivery of the finest oats, the regular mucking out of His Honor’s impressively sized and gilded stable, and a deft hand with a pitchfork. And, of course, the occasional removal of a troublesome rat or other pest. Vetinari performed these tasks with admirable speed and efficiency, and an air so generally pleasant that, within the space of only ten hours, the Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery, Consul of Ankh-Morpork and Chief Advisor to Lord Snapcase, was enthusiastically recommending him for a promotion.

Admittedly, this recommendation sounded like only so much whinnying to those without the mystical bent of the horse whisperer, but the message was clear enough to Lord Snapcase, who trusted his Chief Advisor above all men and, indeed, above all horses.

So it was that, by the second day of his temporarily engaged employment, Havelock Vetinari found himself in the position of busboy and sometime food taster for the Patrician himself. It was fascinating work. He was learning quite a lot.

He wrote as much in a letter to his aunt. It was just the sort of embarrassingly earnest letter typical of any young man who considered that he was on the fast track to going up in the world, when he was, in fact, merely going up in his own estimation.

It was also the sort of letter that gave Lord Snapcase’s men quite a chuckle as they read over it, and caused them to shake their heads in gleeful dismay as they sent it on to the couriers for delivery.

In the grey shadows just outside the guard room, Havelock allowed himself a brief smile. Lord Snapcase’s guard so rarely had the opportunity for entertainment. It was good to see the men enjoying themselves.

*

“It’s a thankless job you have there, lad,” said Mrs. Gumble, regarding him with vicious pity over the shockingly pink cake she was continuing to frost, long past the point that the cake itself had given up and admitted defeat.

“But someone has to do it,” Havelock said, his smile startlingly earnest.

“I don’t see why,” Mrs. Gumble said, attacking with renewed vigor the quivering pile of frosting which, presumably, contained somewhere within its depths the barest hint of a cake. The cake, rather desperately, chose this moment to roll over and play dead.[1]

“Perhaps a touch of powdered sugar,” Vetinari murmured solicitously. Mrs. Gumble beamed, and a half pound of the stuff was dumped unceremoniously over the cake in short order. It writhed in agony, until Mrs. Gumble, who had no patience for such nonsense, whacked it smartly with her spoon.

“Thank you, dear,” she said breezily. “You’ve a good head on your shoulders, at least.”

Havelock allowed himself a bashful smile as he scooped up the trembling pastry and departed for the Patrician’s private office. “Always glad to be of help,” he called back over the lopsided bulk of the cake. Mrs. Gumble smiled after him with the absent-minded affection of a woman who expects obedience, both from cakes and underlings.

“Poor boy,” she muttered fondly, already turning to a rather listless roast that had not yet entirely had the spirit beaten out of it. “It’s really a shame.”

*

The remarkable thing about Mrs. Gumble’s cooking, Vetinari had discovered, was the really quite incredible number of things that could be added to food which were not, in fact, poisons at all. It was astonishing. The cake, for example, tasted like old boots that had been thoroughly chewed by a rather flatulent unicorn, then regurgitated in a haze of glitter and pink frosting. But it was, in the most technical sense, edible, and not poisonous at all.

Lord Snapcase ate it all with gusto, except for the slice he saved for the Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery. This piece was consumed with enthusiasm straight from Havelock’s outstretched hand. He waited a full five minutes, until Lord Snapcase’s attention had been distracted by a passing flock of pigeons outside the window, to wipe the horse’s slobber fastidiously against the flowered settee.

“Ha!” Lord Snapcase snapped, turning back to Vetinari with all the speed and suddenness of a hyperactive terrier surprised by the sudden appearance of something round and shiny. “I suppose you expected a slice for yourself! That will teach you.”

“It certainly did, my lord,” Vetinari murmured with practiced deference.

Lord Snapcase peered up at him with shining, pinpoint eyes. Vetinari’s face remained sincere and ever-so-slightly subservient (although not so much so as to be suspicious).

“Humph,” said Lord Snapcase at last. “Well. I expect you did. Very good then.”

Vetinari received these words as anyone else might receive a compliment.

Lord Snapcase watched him. There was something familiar about the young man. Something distinctly…unnoticeable. Perhaps it was the way he dressed. Bright reds and blues usually, quite proper, just as Snapcase expected from his staff. But there was something about Vetinari that could make even the brightest of colors look like a drab, faded black.

There was an impatient stamp of hooves, and then the Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery, esquire, let out a long and pitiful whinny beside him. Snapcase abandoned his study of the young food taster in favor of considering his advisor’s argument.

“Yes,” he said at last, staring at the ceiling with an air of deep concentration. “Yes, I think you’re right. That cake could certainly have used more frosting.”

*

By the fourth day of Havelock Vetinari’s employment at the palace, the rat problem in the city had become unavoidable, even for Lord Snapcase. The Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery had registered several complaints.

Lords Venturi and Rust suggested a reward of 20 pence for every rat tail presented to the palace guard. This was met with universal acclaim from the Lords. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It seemed like less of a good idea on the morning of Vetinari’s fifth day of employ, when the palace treasuries had been significantly depleted.

“I want to know who thought this was a good idea!” Lord Snapcase demanded, glaring around his council table with blazing eyes. His councilors glanced at one another apprehensively, except for the flowerpot and the pile of sand, which remained admirably blank-faced.[2]

“Er,” Lord Selachii ventured at last.

He was interrupted, to his relief, by the Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery, who let out a disdainful nicker.

Lord Snapcase sighed. “Oh, all right,” he said to the horse. “But still something has to be done about these rats.” He turned his sudden glare on the rest of the lords. “Or perhaps I’ll offer a reward for your tails, eh? 10 pence should do.”

“Might I offer a humble suggestion, my lord?” Havelock Vetinari murmured from his position just slightly behind and to the left of Lord Snapcase’s chair. His arms were laden with a full tea tray and, inexplicably, a potted cactus.

“What is it?” Lord Snapcase snapped. “And be quick with the tea.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Vetinari said, moving soundlessly to the table and depositing the tea tray. The cactus he offered with some ceremony to the pile of sand, which snatched at it greedily.

“Perhaps,” said Vetinari, with just the right amount of hesitation for an inferior, “you might consider placing a tax on the rat farms.”

He observed the lords around the table. Lords Selachii and Venturi, pointedly avoiding one another’s gazes, wore strikingly similar expressions of careful non-expression. Lord Rust, always more direct in his approach, looked caught between impressed and disgusted. The Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery was caught up in staring enviously at the cactus, which the pile of sand was guarding zealously and, it had to be said, rather smugly.

The flowerpot was watching everyone at the table with evident disdain.

“Hmph,” Lord Snapcase grunted. “Rat farms. Suppose the peasants think they’re clever, or some rot. Think they’ve got one over on Lord Snapcase. Ha!” He glared viciously around the table, snickering now and then to himself. After a while, the other lords joined in, with the kind of nervous bubbling laughter of men who are all too aware of what will happen if they don’t.

“Shut up,” Snapcase barked. They shut up.

He turned his beady, snapping gaze on Vetinari, studying him as though he were a new and startlingly interesting species of snail. “Very well,” he said at last. “You’ve got the pulse of it, boy. See to it, will you?”

Havelock allowed himself a sharp indrawn breath and several slow blinks of surprise. Snapcase’s suspicious little eyes widened in vicious laughter at the thought of the ridiculous young man saddled with a responsibility so obviously beyond his station.

“Of – of course, my lord,” Vetinari murmured. For a moment, he though the stutter might have been overdoing it, but Snapcase’s answering cackle reassured him.

“The lot of you can do something about it,” Lord Snapcase added, glowering and waving a hand vaguely at the members of his council, who were busy scrupulously avoiding eye contact with each other. With a last gleeful chortle, Lord Snapcase rose and swept impressively out of the room, followed by the Right Venerable Ignatius P. Thickery and the disdainful flowerpot.

The remaining lords turned as one to Vetinari.

“See to it, will you?” Lord Rust said, trying for haughty but only managing a vague, uncertain superiority.

“Of course, sir,” Vetinari said.

Very bright lad, Lord Selachii thought absently as he followed the others in a quick exit. Useful. Yes indeed. Such a shame.

*

The trick, he knew, was to make yourself so useful that people actually forgot they could accomplish things without you. To become so integral to the daily running of small cogs of the machinery that you became nearly invisible, until the larger machine broke down and the people at the top realized, only after it was far too late, that they did not, in fact, have any idea how to fix it, or even how it was meant to run in the first place. They needed you to tell them.

By his seventh day in the palace, Havelock Vetinari had made himself quite indispensable.

The tax on the rat farms had proved successful, and the treasury was nearly back to satisfactory levels. The kitchens continued to turn out shockingly lumpy and nearly unidentifiable, but astonishingly not poisonous, food. Lord Snapcase had found Vetinari a capable and useful sort for several minor, rather tedious tasks which had been neglected over the years, in the absence of anyone Snapcase could trust to look after them—things such as overlooking the guild legislation for the city and managing the collection of tax revenue from the rat farms. Such minor, tedious things. Snapcase himself certainly had more important things to focus on.

“Yes, yes,” he said, waving an impatient hand at Vetinari, who waited attentively just to the left of the Patrician’s not-quite throne. “I can’t possibly deal with troubles of city traffic today. I’m much too busy.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Vetinari said deferentially. Snapcase hummed to himself. How fortunate he was, to have found a young man who understood the importance of training lizards to dance the ballet.

“See to it, would you?” Lord Snapcase murmured, his attention already returning to Leonard the lizard, who showed an impressive native talent, but had not quite mastered the en pointe.

“As you wish, my lord,” Vetinari murmured, departing with appropriate haste.

Lord Snapcase nodded vaguely to himself. Yes indeed. Very useful young man. Quite lucky I found him.

And then he forgot all about it. Leonard had just performed a flawless pirouette.

*

On the morning of Havelock Vetinari’s eighth day of palace employ, at precisely the quarter hour past nine of the clock,[3] a terrible scream was heard from the Palace Menagerie. It continued for some time, although it was rather quickly drowned out by the sounds of smashing masonry, the shouts of the mob, and the high whine of arrows over the palace wall. The shouts were of the sort heard in mobs everywhere—there was quite a lot of talk about freedom, and justice, and safe streets, and the right of decent people not to be tortured or murdered horribly in their beds.[4]

Once, just at the edge of hearing, Vetinari thought he caught someone yelling about a hard-boiled egg.

Well, he had always thought that revolution was the sign of a healthily invested populace. And the time was right. Cycle of the seasons, and all that. Still, he allowed himself a moment’s surprise that anyone had remembered the egg.

He turned his attention back to the Rats Chamber and the representatives of the major guilds and businesses of Ankh-Morpork gathered there, along with select members of Lord Snapcase’s council. Business went on, even in a time of revolution. The City had to work. The Patrician had asked him to deal with the tedious matters of traffic and commerce in the city, and that hadn’t changed. Havelock was making his best effort.

“Gentlemen,” he said, glancing around the table at their frightened faces. “I think it may be best if we continue this conversation in a more secure location.” He rose from the table, straightening his stack of files and tucking them neatly under his arm.

An arrow embedded itself in the table just where they had been.

“You can’t possibly be thinking of taxes, man!” Lord Rust snapped over the general sounds of fear and dismay. “It’s a revolution out there!”

“So it seems,” Havelock said mildly. “But the city must function, revolution or no. I believe we have all learned that, after the last little unpleasantness.”

He looked around at each of them, one eyebrow raised just so. Lord Rust appeared outraged, and was no doubt on the verge of storming out to raise the regiments. Lords Venturi and Selachii were less obvious, but certainly did not appear happy. Several of the guild leaders were glancing slyly about, looking for escape routes, cover, or, failing that, another body in the right size and shape for a shield. Outside, someone let out a long, gurgling scream.

“I suggest the cellars,” said Vetinari, moving easily toward the door. In a shuffling, embarrassed, grumbling huddle, the lords and guild leaders followed, with the exception of Lord Rust, who stormed out in a quest for military glory or, at least for military folly.

“Now gentlemen,” said Vetinari as they settled rather awkwardly around a makeshift table of barrels in the wine cellar, “about this problem of congestion on Short Street…”

*

The lords had gone through two hours and a good twenty-seven bottles of fine vintage wine when a messenger, gasping and wheezing like a man who has only narrowly escaped a surprisingly speedy herd of charging rhinos, burst into the cellar and announced, “Lord Snapcase is dead!”

Then with a choking gurgle he collapsed, mumbling, “I just thought you ought to know,” before surrendering to sweet unconsciousness.

There was a moment of silence. Someone coughed. This was followed by several more moments of silence.

No one knew quite what to do. There had been revolutions before, of course. There had been the most recent unpleasantness, as Vetinari had referred to it.[5] Most of the men gathered in the cellar had, in fact, been somewhat involved in that, though they would never admit it in company.

But there had never, to their knowledge, been a popular uprising that was, well…popular. No one had actually planned this. It was just happening.

“Well,” said Mr. Mephistopheles Smith, chief butcher of the Butchers’ Guild, “what do we do now?”

Again there was silence. And then everyone looked at Vetinari.

 

*

 

 

[1] It was a futile effort. Mrs. Gumble was not a woman for whom surrender had any meaning. She was a great believer in total victory, both in war and in the kitchen. The mere death of the enemy was hardly enough to qualify.

[2] In fairness, the three decapitated heads wore perpetual expressions that were, it had to be said, considerably more than apprehensive. Two might even have been called expressions of soul-shattering, bowel-rending terror. The third must once have been the same, but time will have an effect on even the strongest embalming fluids, and the final head’s look of mortal terror was fast giving way to the rather more immortal smile that underlies all expressions. This is, perhaps, a comforting thought. Perhaps.

[3] Or, at least, the quarter hour according to the palace clock tower, which was rather behind the deep silences of the clock of Unseen University, and rather ahead of the doleful tolling of the Assassins’ Guild. None of these clocks kept time with the sundial at the Patrician’s Palace, which had been designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson and had an unfortunate tendency to explode as soon as tell time. The explosions were, however, mostly regular, and so it was still a far more functional device than the majority of Bloody Stupid’s designs.

[4] This right, of course, did not apply to indecent people.

[5] Although nearly everything that followed Lord Winder’s death and Lord Snapcase’s ascension as Patrician had also been unpleasant, so it was sometimes difficult to recall specific details.