His Grace, His Excellency, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes ate a canapé and wished one of the guests would suddenly hold an elegant fish knife to another guest’s throat. That way he could stop being a duke and get back to being a Watchman. Sadly, however, the dinner proceeded sedately and with mind-numbing tedium. Catching his eye, Sybil gave him a sympathetic look but then ruined the effect by following it with a complicated sequence of expressions which clearly meant “sit up straight and smile, dear, there’s only three more hours to go.”
Vimes had no intention of staying any longer than twenty more minutes, but that still seemed an age.
The “soiree” (as it had been called on the invitation) was being held by an Earl, with whom Vimes was little acquainted and had no wish to be acquainted further. There were roast quails. There were meringues five tiers high. Even the bread had been drizzled with truffle oil (which was considered to be festive seeing as truffles had to be sniffed out by pigs). It was, in short, a banquet entirely unappetizing to Vimes’ palate.
He munched on a small mushroom pastry, because that meant he didn’t have to remember which fork to use.
At 7:45 he rose from his chair, escaping an interminable anecdote about a Klatchian diplomatic mission from a man with white sideburns, and strode out trying not to look furtive.
He was just picking up his coat from the butler when Sybil suddenly loomed out in front of him, an alarming vision in bejewelled chestnut curls and massive red velvet skirts. “Where do you think you’re going?” she boomed.
“I am going,” said Vimes with the greatest amount of dignity he could muster, “to read a story.”
Sybil’s face softened a little. “Didn’t we agree Purity could do that tonight?”
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Vimes grimly. “That is more important than this.” And he stepped quickly into a waiting coach before Sybil could object any further.
Vimes arrived in his son’s bedroom only to find the small bed empty. He immediately began to look around for signs of a struggle, but the general mess of toys was spread in its customary haphazard pattern across the floor and the bed was neatly made. Vimes paused to consider the possibility that tonight, like every other night, Young Sam had not been stolen or injured by miscreants unknown, but in fact was safe and sound somewhere else in the house.
His eyes fell on the ivy decorating the head of Sam’s bed (holly was too pointy to be allowed at heights below six feet). Hogswatch Eve, he thought – and went to the ballroom.
The Ramkin ballroom, though crumbling slightly at the edges, had the largest fireplace in the house and hence had been chosen as the best place to hang the forest of stockings that the household apparently required. (Young Sam had insisted that if he needed one, then so did Mummy and Daddy and Purity and Willikins and Lucy the kitchen maid and every last dragon they had.)
Sure enough, there was Purity and Young Sam, hanging out the last few.
“This one’s for Lord Valory Staveling Chancey of Quirm,” said Purity, reading the embroidery on the stocking.
“An’ this one?” asked the very small boy.
“Hmm, let’s see… Lady Angelica Bracegeld Sneltington the Third of Ankh,” she said. “That’s Angie’s, she’s a good girl isn’t she.”
“Angie burnted me,” said Young Sam darkly.
“That’s because you put your hand in her mouth,” said Vimes.
Sam whirled around. “Daddy!” he cried, ran full pelt towards his father and collided happily with his leg.
“Daddy’s going to read you a story,” said Vimes. After long practice, he had become perfectly comfortable talking about himself in the third person.
“A story! A Hogswatch story?” asked Young Sam eagerly.
Vimes sighed. “Alright, a Hogswatch story.” He picked his son up and set off back to the bedroom, sending Purity off for a break.
Vimes didn’t know quite how Hogswatch had gotten to be such a momentous occasion in the past few years. He and Sybil had never done much more than have a nice roast pork dinner and put up a few sprigs of holly, although she did spend all December writing Hogswatch cards. But then Young Sam had been given some Hogswatch picture books, which introduced the idea of the Hogfather, and Gouger and Rooter and Tusker and Snouter and all the rest. And before he knew it, there was an eight foot Hogswatch tree in the hallway and two dozen dragon stockings hanging from the mantelpiece.
Sam’s bedtime was a little later than it used to be, and his narrative tastes had broadened a little. However, he was still very keen on repetition. Vimes was pretty sure this was the thirtieth time he had read this particular Hogswatch story to his son, give or take a few days when Sybil or Purity did it for him. He took a deep breath, attempted to clear all cynicism from his voice, and began. “The Lonely Little Hogswatch Elf…”
* * *
“And the vicar said, ‘that’s the kind of pork I’m talkin’ about!’”
The room roared with laughter as Vimes entered. Deciding it would be best not to ask the beginning of Nobby’s “festive” joke, Vimes headed straight for the lemonade before anyone could offer him something stronger.
The Watch’s Hogswatch piss-up had grown along with the Watch itself. What had originally been Vimes, Colon and Nobby sitting in the Broken Drum drinking with tinsel on their beer mugs had gradually become a teeming mass of revellers streaming to the pub around the corner from the Watchhouse and back again. It didn’t fit into one venue, and didn’t even fit into one night – it had to be held on both Hogswatch Eve and Hogswatchnight so that half the Watch could be out partying while the other half patrolled the streets. Along with whole barrels of beer, huge amounts of sausages, pork pies, bacon, ham and black pudding were consumed, most of it fried with burnt crunchy bits. Vimes loaded up his plate with a smile on his face. This was his kind of food, and his kind of people.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at the Earl’s soiree, Sir?” asked Carrot politely.
“Yes,” said Vimes with a grin, “I most certainly am.”
* * *
Vimes stumbled into the house around two in the morning, exhausted by a full day’s worth of Watchman work, tedious socialising with socialites, child care, pork products, and resisting alcohol. He traipsed through the ballroom on his way to fetch the presents to stuff in all the stockings, and was gratified to see that they were still empty, the pork pie and sherry untouched. Thank goodness; the last thing he needed was for Sam to start believing enough for the real Hogfather to come, causing a severe surfeit of presents. There were already too many as it was; he and Sybil had argued about it. “We don’t want to spoil him,” he had said.
“You mean giving him too many nice things will spoil his personality somehow?” Sybil had asked.
“And did that happen to me?”
That ruined that argument; Sybil was one of the most down-to-earth people he had ever met.
Vimes stuffed all he could into Young Sam’s stocking and laid the rest out around the Hogswatch Tree. It really was ridiculous this year; having been inspired by Young Sam’s enthusiasm for Hogswatch, various members of the household had gotten him presents too, only to then feel obliged to get presents for each other. It all turned into a big helpless chain of guilt-induced gift-giving, Vimes thought.
Tomorrow, though, Sam’s small face would be wide-eyed and open-mouthed with unadulterated wonder, and somehow the whole damn rigmarole would become worthwhile.