It had been an otherwise nondescript day; the occasional meeting interspersed with the usual mountain of paperwork, which Drumknott was still happily chewing through at 6pm, like an enthusiastic slug in a bed of lettuce. The grey cloud outside had finally matured into rain, which was now drumming down insistently on the windows in the autumn darkness, providing a pleasant accompaniment to the shuffling of paper and scratching of pens. There was no indication that it was going to continue as anything other than ordinary and routine.
Drumknott was currently at what he thought of as his secondary desk; his primary one was in his own office next door, but a smaller one sat alongside the window in the Oblong Office itself, for when he was working more closely with the Patrician, or, he sometimes suspected, because it was a little more companionable that way – at least for him – and the Patrician, whilst inclined to spells of solitary contemplation, was otherwise generally accepting of his presence. He spent more time at his secondary desk than his primary one, these days. (He was considering re-numbering them, but didn’t want to rush into the decision). Holding that thought, he glanced up briefly; Lord Vetinari was studying reports detailing the trade relations with Quirm, making notes every so often in an elegant hand. Probably Drumknott would be collating those notes, later. He returned his attention to his own work, feeling a familiar sense of contentment settle somewhere in his chest, almost like the warm comfort of home, almost as if it could become…He firmly curtailed that thought before it could have offspring thoughts that would turn hormonal and rebellious if allowed to grow up a bit, and cause all sorts of trouble. Settle for the contentment, he told himself, and temper the longing. It’s more than enough. It’s more than you’ve ever had. He signed off on the finished report, then stood and walked round to the Patrician’s side for him to sign it, thinking, as he did so, that he used to stand in front of the desk and pass it across, and was unable to remember when he’d stopped doing that. Vetinari gave the completed report a cursory glance then signed with a flourish and handed it back without a word. He almost certainly remembered, but he’d never said anything. Drumknott turned to walk back to his desk.
Had he taken but a few seconds longer to finish his report, or even been a minute or two faster and already returned to his chair, then the nondescript day would have become exciting in a slightly different way and he may never have made the mistakes that he was about to make. In another trouserleg of time, he didn’t make any mistakes at all whilst somebody else made a large, fatal mistake instead – and in yet another, no mistakes were made by anybody, but everything somehow turned out badly. At any rate, it was probably just as well he hadn’t been sitting at his desk when the Klatchian assassin smashed melodramatically through the window, swinging in on a length of rope and landing broad-stanced on the polished wood surface, his face masked and curved daggers brandished in both hands.
My desk! Drumknott had time to think, indignantly, seeing papers scatter to the floor and raindrops spatter all over the surface, but in the next instant certain more pressing issues were at the forefront of his mind as the assassin leapt forward, with deadly inevitability, straight for Lord Vetinari. His heart lurched and he bodily threw himself up to intercept the assassin without even thinking what a terribly stupid thing to do that was, and for a multitude of reasons – many of which concerned his lack of Assassin (or even plain assassin) training, armour, weaponry or resistance to sharp objects – but mostly because Vetinari had moved faster than either of them. A vice-like grip on his right upper arm yanked him sideways and he only partially collided with the Klatchian. There was a confusing crunch of bodies, a yell from somewhere and a sharp punch to his side and then somehow he was lying on the floor with the ceiling wobbling disturbingly about him. He tried to sit up and such a stab of pain went through him that his vision blacked out for a moment.
“Sir!” he cried out, distraught, struggling to hold onto consciousness.
“Do not move,” Vetinari’s voice floated in from somewhere, in a very severe tone that had Disobey Me And Prepare to Make Friends with Scorpions written all over it. There was a pressure on his left side and the sharp pain escalated so suddenly and severely that he passed out completely.
* * *
As the stunning pain abated down to mere throbbing agony, he became dimly aware of being aware again, and then of voices speaking urgently around him, and an odd gurgling sound in the background.
“…leapt straight between us…”
“…Did what? I’ll be damned…”
“…unable to remove him from harm’s way in time…”
“Sir?” he tried again; his own voice sounded to him as though it were coming through cotton wool.
“Do lie still, Mr Drumknott,” Vetinari replied, sounding far more clear than he himself did, somehow. He was so relieved to hear the Patrician’s voice, his normal, not-sounding-stabbed voice, that he almost passed out again. With an effort, he opened his eyes and focussed as best he could. His glasses must have been knocked off, he realised, muzzily, because everything was remaining stubbornly blurry. Vetinari’s face suddenly loomed into focus above his own, rather alarmingly close. He was kneeling beside him, he realised, vaguely, squinting downwards to see both long-fingered hands pressing an unrecognisable wad of blood-soaked cloth to his left side. This time, the ceiling stayed still and it was his brain that went wobbly.
“Stay with me,” Vetinari said, firmly, and it certainly sounded like an order, so he struggled to obey, although a large part of him was in uncharacteristic disagreement with that idea. “Drumknott!” His eyes, at least, snapped back open. “Drumknott, look at me.” He did so, rather desperately. The Patrician looked…annoyed. Oh dear. “Corporal did you find it?” A blob appeared and held something out. He was pretty sure it must be a person. He was reasonably confident that he would have noticed if there were blobs employed at the Palace now. There would have been a memo, surely. “Take over,” Vetinari continued, and there was a shift in the pressure on his side that nearly sent him under again, then a needle-prick in his arm, and in a few moments more everything was muted, as though a thick door had been shut between him and the pain, and almost everything else. Voices floated in and out like breezes, and the only other things he was aware of were that strange gurgling, bubbling noise (which he had a horrible feeling might be coming from himself), the frantic laboring of his heart, and Lord Vetinari still crouched beside him, his hands now supporting his head. They felt blissfully warm against the strange, deep chill of his body.
“…Through the window?! That’s some climb. How the hell…?” That was Commander Vimes, he realised, with a bit of a shock. Maybe he had passed out longer than he thought.
“…This way please, Dr Lawn…”
“…Igor’s on his way too…”
“…Thought that particular terrorist group had all been caught, sir…”
I’m cold, he thought, rather piteously, and, in the next moment, as though he’d spoken aloud, a heavy cloak had been draped over him. It smelt reassuringly familiar.
“Are you hurt sir?” he managed to ask, but there was no answer, and he was distracted by someone else prodding at him. He couldn’t tell where Vetinari was.
“…Going into shock…”
“…nothing I can do…a few minutes left to live…” That jolted him back to more alertness with a terrible fear.
“Sir!” he cried out, struggling.
“Hush, you must be still,” Vetinari was back again, by his side; Drumknott realised his head was somehow in his lap, and wondered if it always had been or if the Patrician had handed him over to someone else as he’d thought. It was all too late anyway. A few minutes, and he’d never…
“Sir,” he croaked, beyond caring if it made him sound utterly pathetic, “Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m right here, Drumknott,” came the comforting reply, “Just try and stay calm and still. You’ll be all right.” He must have thought I didn’t hear, Drumknott realised, he’s trying…he’s actually trying to be kind. Oh god, I really am going to die. He flailed around vaguely with his right hand and was rewarded (or indulged, perhaps more accurately) when it was caught and held, quite gently. He tried attaining sight again. His eyes were wet with tears, and he blinked rapidly, straining his neck round to see. A skeletal foot stepped down right next to his head. Vision had been a mistake.
EXCUSE ME. TERRIBLY CROWDED IN HERE.
He snapped his head back, and refocussed on the Patrician.
“Sir,” he whispered, at the end of his strength. Vetinari leaned close over him, close enough that he could feel his breath when he spoke.
“You probably shouldn’t talk, Rufus,” he murmured. Oh, his first name, that was nice (He was definitely going to die). Was it him, or was his brain getting fuzzier? Shouldn’t have blocked the assassin’s path, what had he been thinking? The Patrician could easily have handled him and he’d just got in the way.
“Stupid mistake,” he muttered, hopelessly, and, like a lot of stupid mistakes, it was going to be fatal one.
“Rufus?” Vetinari asked, sounding faintly perplexed. The persistent gurgling finally stopped, and he shuddered as an icy chill went through him. He was pretty sure that was a bad sign. He tried to speak. Vetinari leaned closer, one hand on his cheek, and said his name again. At least, he thought so, he couldn’t hear it. Vetinari had a sort of lopsided half-smile on his face, probably trying to be reassuring, but there was the faintest concerned frown beginning to appear. No more time, and his last chance, it wasn’t fair but he couldn’t…he had no breath to tell him, so he reached up his free hand and somehow managed to plant it on the Patrician’s face, a piece of temerity, but one he could probably get away with, just this one time. The crooked smile flickered again, and Vetinari opened his mouth to say something. With a supreme effort of will, Drumknott raised his head and kissed him, upside down, admittedly, but square on the lips, then sagged back, exhausted, but at least at peace.
“Bloody hell!” said someone. He seemed to drift away from his body, until the last thing he was aware of were Vetinari’s hands still cradling his head, and the last thing he heard, as the blackness surged over him, was Vetinari calmly saying,
“Commander, would you please recover your cigar from the carpet before it sets fire to the place?”