Vetinari is in his office as usual when Vimes arrives. Unusually, however, the Patrician is standing in the far corner, looking out of the large windows at the city below.
“Ah, Vimes,” he says without looking, as Drumknott closes the door on the two of them. “Your presence is appreciated.”
“Yes, sir,” says Vimes flatly, rather than voicing any number of the more acerbic thoughts that come to mind in response to the hasty summons he received this morning. There’s a bad cold going around the Watch Houses playing hob with the scheduling, Dr. Downey of the Assassin’s Guild is waiting to speak to him about a statement he made claiming most murders are committed by acquaintances*, and a series of messy encounters between rival gangs in Nap Hill are already being blown up in the paper as the Watch’s failure to keep order on the streets. Vimes doesn’t have a lot of free time for running up and down the Palace stairs at Vetinari’s beck and call. But then again, the Patrician is a man with even less time than him to waste.
*A fact that can be extremely bad for business, considering the average assassin in Ankh-Morpork receives several hundred dollars in compensation, while all acquaintances receive is a last meal paid for by the city.
“I have a rather unusual favour to ask of you, Sir Samuel. I must begin by emphasizing that it is indeed a favour.”
Vimes, not liking the sound of this, remains silent. Vetinari has always been an advocate of choice: the choice to fall in with his decisions, or fall into the Scorpion Pit.
The Patrician turns now and takes his seat while indicating the chair opposite to Vimes, who remains standing. Vetinari, presumably used to it by now, pays no attention.
“I received a letter yesterday from His Majesty Four Soft Sighes,” says Vetinari, unrolling a scroll bordered with so much gold latticework it unfolds with a series of clunks. At Vimes’ blank look, he expands, “The head of the Agatean Empire.”
“They’re not sending another one of those bloody ‘tourists’, are they?” demands Vimes, feeling the alarm rise in his stomach like a bad egg. Vetinari gives him a bright smile.
“I see you remember their last visitor to our fair city, Commander.”
“I remember smelling like a bonfire for a month. They’re still finding bits of the old Drum down at the dockyards.”
“An unfortunate convergence of circumstances, I am given to believe.”
“It was the worst fire in a decade, sir.” It certainly is one of the worst he can remember; most of the drink went up in a series of bubbling explosions, leaving the then-Captain in a crystal-clear frame of mind for several weeks. Not a state in which a man wants to have to deal with the destruction of his entire jurisdiction.
“That’s as may be, Vimes. However, we must turn our eyes to the present. As I was saying, I have received notice from the Emperor that one of his ambassadors is already on route to Ankh-Morpork, and will be arriving next week.”
“Rather short notice, sir.”
Vetinari puts down the scroll with quiet thump. “Indeed. As you are no doubt aware, although we do maintain an embassy in Hunghung, the residents of the Counterweight Continent have rarely sought to reciprocate contact with us, save for the occasional passing formality by albatross post. I am given to understand the Empire styles the lands outside its borders as bare tundra populated by wailing ghosts.”
“Good way to keep anyone from deciding the grass is greener somewhere else. Although if gold’s as thick on the ground there as the legends make it out to be, they’re nearly right.”
“Alas, as with all things, I believe here too familiarity breeds contempt. Gold is of no more interest to the citizens of the Agatean Empire than muck is to us. Less, if anything, as a field of gold would make for an exceptionally tough hoe. Its only power is in the fact that the rulers of the Empire are well aware of its strength abroad. By keeping this a strict secret from the populous, they maintain their population and we maintain our fiscal safety.”
Vimes opens his mouth to question this, and then closes it again. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what would happen if waves of foreigners with bags of cash were to flood into Ankh-Morpork. The sudden tidal shift in power would threaten law and order, to say the least.
“If they’re so bent on overlooking us, why’re they sending this ambassador?”
“That, Sir Samuel, is the pertinent question. We can of course only guess.” Vetinari leans forward, resting his wrists on his desk and pressing the tips of his fingers together slowly as he studies them. “Four Soft Sighs is a young Emperor, installed after waves of political uncertainty and a barbarian invasion. It may be he is less trusting of the court documents than his predecessors have been. In other words, that he seeks to obtain the truth of things for himself.” Vetinari smiles, a thin, humourless crook of his lips. “Do you have any insights on truth, Commander?”
“Never seen it, sir. Young de Worde speaks about it like a ... a scale that exists. Seems to me, people mostly believe whoever tells them what they want to hear.”
“Sadly, that is often the case. We can therefore only surmise in this case that the Emperor has chosen an ambassador who is of his own mindset. It will be an interesting meeting, to say the least.”
“Yes, sir,” says Vimes, a hint of impatience bleeding through into his tone. He has time for urgent matters of state, barely, but not for philosophising on the nature of truth. Vetinari straightens, setting aside the scroll from the Empire with new energy.
“But I expect you are wondering why I have asked you here. As I said, Commander, I have a favour to ask. The Agatean ambassador, when he arrives, will naturally be introduced to the heads of our civic institutions. The Guilds, the University, the Bank, the Post Office, myself, and naturally the Commander of the Watch.”
“As an aside, he will also be introduced to the heads of our noblest families – the Selachiis, the Venturis, and of course the Duke and Duchess of Ankh, who will I am sure be present when invited.”
“So long as nothing pressing comes up, sir.” Vimes stares stonily ahead.
“Indeed.” Vetinari gives him a hard look. “The ambassador will also be made acquainted with the nature of our governance structure. The Patricianship and its role as a placeholder until such time as Ankh-Morpork’s king may again choose to ascend the throne will, I fear, have to be stressed.” Seeing Vimes’ face darkening, the Patrician holds up a thin hand. “I have told you, Vimes, that the Agatean Empire has the power to crush us beneath their soles in one simple step. It is essential that they believe we are no threat to them. And the only threat we could possibly pose would be of a chaotic, uncontrolled rabble spreading the one thing they fear – knowledge of life outside the Empire. They must believe we have complete control over our citizenry. An empire which has gone unchanged for millennia can recognize only one form of successful governance: Monarchy.”
Outrage washes over Vimes like oil, and absolute intractability sparks the fury that roars after it. “You’re saying –”
“I am saying,” interrupts Vetinari very firmly, in a voice that slices clean through the flame of Vimes’ sudden rage, “that we will simply be very clear as to the nature of my position. I am absolute ruler of this city until such time as the king returns. That is no more than the truth.”
“The truth,” begins Vimes, and then pauses. His rage falters, and dies back sudden as consumed No. 1 powder leaving only a sour taste in his mouth. Vetinari, watching him with a carefully flat look, finishes the thought for him.
“Is, as you yourself said only a moment ago, what people wish to believe. I have no difficulty in thinking that the ambassador to a country which has been ruled by Emperors for thousands of years will firmly believe we are loyally awaiting the return of our own august monarch.”
Vimes nearly shakes his head. These games are Vetinari all over. Using words to twist the world into the shape he requires it to be. But Vimes lives by actions.
“If you’re asking me not to put my foot in my mouth, sir, I think I can manage that,” he says stiffly, preparing to go.
Vetinari blinks, feigning surprise. “I would never doubt it. No, Commander. As Protector of the King’s Peace, you would be expected to give a proper obeisance to the throne.*”
*The throne, alone on a raised dais in a huge and dusty throne room, is hardly seen these days. Although the plain wooden chair at the feet of the stairs is technically the seat of Vetinari’s power, the Patrician hardly ever makes use of the room, and Vimes has only been in it a few times.
Vimes is no scholar, and his grasp of etiquette extends just so far as being able to get through a three course meal without confusing his cutlery. The confusion must show on his face, because Vetinari sighs.
“Kneel, Vimes. You would be expected to kneel upon approaching the throne. The empty throne,” he clarifies further.
The throne, he understands. But kneeling to it…
“It is not a favour I ask lightly, Commander. Or for myself,” says Vetinari, quietly.
“If I refuse?” Vimes keeps his face stony, staring just over the Patrician’s shoulder. Vetinari weaves his long fingers together, and does not remove his steel-edged gaze.
“Then I shall have to manufacture an excuse for your absence, and my hand will be weakened by my perceived inability to ensure the attendance of my senior officials when needed.”
“So to suit one monarch, I should bow to a different one?” asks Vimes, sourly.
“To protect the interests of this city, you should consider a momentary show of humility,” says Vetinari, sharply. “I do not ask you to swear unending fealty – although for a man who has taken the King’s shilling twice, that would surely be redundant. I do not even ask you to pay formal respects to this office. It is not such an unreasonably large request, Commander.”
Vimes clenches and unclenches his fist. He can almost feel the weight of the shilling there in his palm. A vow to serve the king. Or, as he has always chosen to see it, to serve the people of this city.
“Don’t expect me to pretend to like it,” he says, finally.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” replies Vetinari. Vimes is sure the bastard is smiling inside.
“Sam, it’s the chance of a lifetime. The Agatean throne carries more weight than even that of the Low King.” Sybil, pinning a broach on her blue silk dress, glances at him in the mirror. He stares back glumly, already dressed in the hated tights and feathers.*
*To make things even worse than usual, at some point in the last year velvet was snuck into the wardrobe, and now apart from feeling a complete pillock he’s also in danger of developing highly undignified cowlicks if he sits down against the grain.
“Only because they couldn’t bake a loaf big enough,” he mutters. And then, louder, “In any case, the Emperor isn’t coming, dear. He’s just sent some shoe-licker to take stock; the little toady probably gives short weight, too. Though I suppose that might not be a bad thing, if they’re trying to decide whether to buy us off the map.”
Sybil frowns. “I’m sure Havelock wouldn’t allow that. He always gets very acidic about threats to Ankh Morpork’s sovereignty. And while we’re on the topics of acidic comments, Sam, I do hope you are going to behave yourself tonight?” She turns, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, dear,” he says, after a moment. There really isn’t any other answer. Sybil gives him a look that says, very plainly, that she doesn’t believe it for a minute. She smiles in a long-suffering kind of way all the same, and picks up her wrap.
“Just try not to offend too many people?”
“I’ll aim for a reasonable limit,” he concedes, kissing her on the cheek.
On their way out the door, he picks up his sword from its hook in the hall.
Vimes has attended more receptions than he wants to remember – which is to say, any. Generally, these functions all follow the same format: he and Sybil show up at the Palace’s grand ballroom entrance, are announced by some snotty-nosed page, mingle around and meet whoever the event’s been thrown for while trying to refrain from punching any of the simpering women and braying men in the nose*, and then escape.
*That is to say, Vimes refrains from punching them in the nose. Sybil just smiles politely and makes all the right answers, while inwardly contemplating expansions to the dragon kennels.
This one is different, however. Held in the throne room, it’s to be a mix of a reception and a formal meeting of the city guilds and peers. Less alcohol, more politics, thinks Vimes sourly as the carriage pulls up.
Vimes is never fashionably late for events. He is often legitimately late, or if he can’t manage that, late for reasons that could be legitimate. But tonight they arrive 10 minutes early. Because if he’s the first one in, the only ones there to see him make a fool of himself will be Sybil, Vetinari and the ambassador.
But when their page drops them off at the entrance to the throne room, Vimes can see that he wasn’t the only one with that thought – either that, or the rest of the nobs are genuinely excited about tonight’s boot-licking.
A harassed looking herald is sorting them into some sort of order, peers on one side and guild leaders and other city officials on the other. Through the open doorway, he can see a small group already standing on the open floor to one side of the red carpet, conversing among themselves. Vetinari is sitting in his own unornamented chair at the foot of the royal dais, on the right side of the carpet that runs from the throne to the door. A tall plump man, presumably the ambassador, is sitting in a chair in front of the Patrician, facing towards the carpet to get a better look at Ankh Morpork’s upper crust as they approach the throne.
At the sight of Vimes, the herald at the door blanches and glances hurriedly from one side of the door to the other. Vimes solves his etiquette problem for him by stepping firmly to stand beside the rest of the city’s officials; whatever the heralds may think, he is the Commander of the Watch before the Duke of Ankh. Sybil ignores the man’s frantic glances, and stands beside him. The order of the present officials is rearranged to place them beside Ridcully, while the presidents of the guilds of laundresses, leather goods and toy makers all shuffle down.
“Evenin’ Commander, Lady Sybil,” says the Archchancellor good-naturedly, around his pipe. “What kind of chap is this foreign wallah, d’you know?”
Vimes shrugs. “New appointment.”
“That type’s always trouble. Got their eyes on the big office with the stuffed crocodile, what?”
“Munstrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University. D.Thau., D.M., D.S., D.Mn., D.G., D.D., D.C.L., D.M. Phil., D.M.S., D.C.M., D.W., B.El.L.” The man on the other side of the door, dressed in a very stupid hat, stops to wheeze for several seconds as Ridcully straightens his shoulders.
“Well, that’s me. I’ll look you up later.” He lumbers inside, a faint swishing sound coming from his hat, the lucky bastard. Vimes watches as he comes up to the throne and even removes his hat to give a deep, sweeping bow.*
*Wizards, like witches, Do Not Kneel. Some have hypothesised this may be due to the fact that the extreme weight of the average wizard would not allow them to rise again.
“He just bowed,” hisses Vimes to Sybil, as the Venturis are announced. “Why does he get away with that?”
“He took off his hat, Sam.”
“It’s just a hat,” replies Vimes sullenly. But he takes her point. There’s no more important symbol to a wizard than his hat, not even his sequins. “Vetinari must’ve spent all week making deals,” he adds, glaring at the man.
“I imagine so.” Sybil squeezes his elbow. “You’ll be fine, Sam. It’s the right thing to do.”
“How do you know?” he means it hypothetically, but she answers him straightforwardly, as always.
“Because it’s not the easy thing to do.”
Vimes smiles as the man in the stupid hat on the other side of the door announces, “Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh, Protector of the King’s Peace; Lady Sybil Vimes, Duchess of Ankh.”
Vimes marches in with Sybil beside him, sweeping in full force. They come to a stop at the foot of the throne and turn slightly to the patrician, whom Vimes salutes and Sybil drops a straight-backed curtsey. Turning to the empty, golden throne, she drops into a deeper obeisance. And beside her, Vimes draws his newly-sharpened sword with ceremonial precision, and drops to one knee to bring it down soundly into the ancient crumbling stone beneath the carpet. It slides in several inches before stopping.
It’s harder to pull out again as he stands, but the floor was cracked years ago by the weight of a giant dragon, and he’s able to free it without looking like a total pratt. He glances towards Vetinari as he re-sheathes it; the man’s face is entirely blank. Not so the ambassador, who is watching curiously.
“What for, the sword?” he asks, in heavily accented tones.
“Just so’s he knows, sir,” replies Vimes, in a stiff sergeant’s voice, gesturing at the throne. “Whenever he comes back I’ll always be right here, waiting with it.”
“Very loyal,” says the ambassador, impressed.
“Just as you say, sir.” He salutes Vetinari once more, just to annoy the man, and escorts Sybil over to the assembly of suddenly rather nervous-looking nobs.
He’s starting to feel better about the evening.