Concerning Truth..that which May be Spoken as Events Dictate, but should be Heard on Every Occasfion’ – from Vetinari’s journal (Feet of Clay).
Flames ran up the walls of the corridor all around them, smoke billowing like clouds to the high ceilings, sending the frescoes disappearing in curls of blackened paint, and large chunks of plaster and wood crashing down in a hellish rain.
A tall figure in a rippling, ragged black cloak stalked the hall, approaching in an unhurried fashion, but then, the fire didn’t seem able to touch him. Wicked steel glinted in the fire with an eerie glow.
“I had a feeling I might be seeing you,” Lord Vetinari commented as the figure came to a halt beside him. Death inclined his head – or skull, rather – in polite acknowledgement.
YOU HAVE SEEN ME MANY TIMES, he pointed out.
“Yes, but usually from a safe distance,” came the dry reply. The Patrician smiled faintly. Death had witnessed many more smiles upon human faces than might have been casually supposed, considering his line of work, but he had never seen one that held that particular combination of knowledge and pain.
“I have a proposal for you,” the Patrician said in the next moment. “A bargain, if you will.”
I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT. THE POWERFUL USUALLY DO. Were he human himself, Death might have sighed. The shade of the Patrician glanced down at the prone figure next to his own body, and brushed a hand across the bloodied face, briefly. It passed right through. A flicker passed across his face, and he looked straight back up at Death, smile gone.
“But not, I suspect, like this.”
The commotion outside the Palace had subsided a little by the time the evening set in again. Commander Vimes sat in a makeshift office in one of the stables, head in his hands.
“So that’s everybody,” he addressed the rough wooden table in front of him.
“Yes sir,” Sergeant Colon reported, his voice quavering slightly, “Everybody accounted for except his Lordship and Mr Drumknott. Captain Carrot and some of the golem volunteers are still searching through the remains, but it’s still too hot in places, and very unstable on the upper floors.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Vimes intoned dully, still staring at the floor.
“Sergeant Detritus has the crowds contained behind the barricade we set up,” he continued, sweating nervously, “But they’re beginning to leave now anyway sir. That de Worde fellow from The Times still wants a statement.” Vimes grunted noncommittally to that, and Sergeant Colon took the opportunity to escape.
Vimes didn’t notice him go. He wondered if he should go and help Carrot search again, but he was bone tired, and, in his heart, he knew it was pointless. If Vetinari had been able to escape, he would have done by now, wouldn’t he? But he had to have escaped. Didn’t he have lots of little secret tunnels and things? Where the hell was he? It had been nearly 24 hours….unless the bastard had some sneaky trick up his sleeve, was going to wait until all the backstabbing elite had crawled out the woodwork to steal his place, and then leap out and catch them at it. But that didn’t make any sense, because, so far as he knew, things were pretty stable. And everybody knew, in the sort of way that meant that nobody actually said, that Moist von Lipwig was probably going to be the next Patrician, except that it wasn’t supposed to be for years, and – and – The fact was, when it boiled down to it, when he finally glared at it in the beady eye, he’d never really believed that Vetinari would die. He’d just sort of imagined him carrying on forever.
“This had better be some sneaky trick of yours, you rotten bastard,” he told the table, sulkily. Except that a panicked Mr Lipwig had been one of the first to arrive at the conflagration that was the Palace. The little dog, Mr Fusspot, had run barking urgently to his door in the middle of the night, limping and wheezing; smelling of smoke and covered in duckweed, from where someone had evidently thrown him, probably from a high window, say the sixth floor, into the ornamental trout pond…an accurate throw, into a pond only a foot wide…
Vimes was aware that he was trying to stop parts of his brain going from where it didn’t want to go, and so, in an effort to give himself something else to focus on, he lifted his weary body from the seat. He would go and help Carrot search again, if only to stop the lad taking foolish risks. Detritus had had to hold him back from suicidally running into the burning building last night as it was. Perhaps Vetinari was hiding out in some safehole somewhere, or would appear from one of those secret tunnels in a warehouse halfway down the river, calm and infuriatingly unruffled. Raising an eyebrow at all the fuss. Yes, he was sure that was what was going to happen.
Constable Dorfl met him at the entrance to the Palace, and, against his own will, his stomach did a nasty about-turn around his heart.
“Report!” he snapped.
“Does Not Make Sense. Come And See,” was all Dorfl would say, so he followed him, carefully picking his way across the still smoking wreckage of the Palace, through the blackened corridors, in the direction, so far as he could tell, of living quarters, but not the Patrician’s rooms. The sixth floor had fallen in entirely. Presently, he heard a disturbing sniffling sound over the cracking and groaning of the building. With a dreadful sense of foreboding he rounded the corner to be confronted by the sight of a filthy Captain Carrot standing rigidly at attention, helmet clutched in his hands. Tears had tracked vividly through the soot on his face.
“Oh gods,” breathed Vimes, staring at the two charred, twisted bodies on the floor, one tall and thin, a black silk scarf virtually melted onto what was left of his face; the other slightly shorter, though still slender, with wisps of fair curly hair stickened with blood, lying half on top of him. It was them. It couldn’t be anyone else. The scene told its own tragic, damning story in vivid, gory detail, and, amongst all the other things, Vimes suddenly understood, and profoundly did not want to understand, what had so confused Dorfl. Pushing down against the roiling in his stomach, he reached out a hand that appeared to be shaking uncontrollably, and shifted Drumknott’s body, as gently as he could, a little to one side. His arms were locked around Vetinari’s neck, held in place by the thin iron grip of the long-fingered hand holding both his own. A cold hand, with a still-warm stygium signet ring on it, emblazoned with a simple V.
The feared tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, ruler of the greatest city on the Disc, had died trying to save the life of a humble clerk. Over the roaring noise in his ears that sounded suspiciously like the Disc spinning the wrong way round, Vimes dimly heard Carrot begin to cry again.
* * *
Rufus Drumknott opened his eyes slowly, blinking until the blurry black blob wavering in front of him uncertainly resolved itself into the familiar shape of a very tall thin man in a long black cloak. He was aware of piercing blue eyes boring into his own.
“Your lordship?” Drumknott managed, which wasn’t bad, considering that a scream of mortal terror was the usual response.
ER. NO? Death replied, slightly taken aback. He was aware, vaguely, that people often mistook Lord Vetinari for him1. This was the first time it had happened the other way around though. When he wanted to be Seen, he was seen. Drumknott fumbled frantically for his glasses.
“Oh,” he said, a bit embarrassed. Now that he could focus properly, the differences were rather glaringly obvious. For one thing, Vetinari was skinnier.2
HOW ARE YOU FEELING? Death asked, with the uncertain sound of someone who had just read something with a title like, How To Speak Reassuringly To Sick People, and not really understood it.
“Dead, I rather suspect,” he replied, carefully, trying to sit up. He appeared to be in a comfy bed in a rather…antiquarian, if not unpleasant room. He also appeared to still be in his body.
TECHNICALLY, YES, Death admitted. I IMAGINE THIS IS A BIT OVERWHELMING FOR YOU. He was quite proud of that sentence.
“Er, a little…puzzling,” Drumknott replied, looking around anxiously. “There was a fire…I think something fell on my head and – where’s Lord Vetinari?”
ALSO DEAD. TECHNICALLY, SOMEWHAT MORE DEAD THAN YOU. Drumknott looked so distressed at this that Death immediately revised his opinion of his own progress at comforting small talk, but in the next moment the former clerk looked up at him, mouth set in a grim line.
“He’s not….here then?”
“Then why am I here? And where is here, anyway?”
IT IS EASIER TO SHOW YOU, Death admitted, FOLLOW ME. Lacking any other option, Drumknott did so, down a long corridor that seemed to not quite obey the standard laws of space, and into a vast…library, he supposed, that most definitely had not got the appropriate planning permission to extend into that number of dimensions. Row upon row of shelves marched off into the visible (and invisible) distance, stacked high and haphazardly with books, manuscripts, and paper….paper everywhere. Drumknott’s horrified gaze was drawn inexorably to the imposing, dimension-defying desk, which was piled high and apparently randomly with paperwork. Beside him, Death shifted uncomfortably, producing a disconcerting rattle.
IT’S SORT OF…RATHER GOT ON TOP OF ME LATELY, he admitted, sounding as embarrassed as an anthropomorphic personification with a voice like falling paving slabs could sound. Drumknott hid his face in his hands. Death wasn’t sure he was handling this quite right.
HE SAID YOU ENJOYED FILING, he ventured. HE SAID YOU WERE THE BEST. Drumknott peeked over his fingers, not sure whether to be more stunned at the post-mortem compliment or at its implication.
“He – you’re offering me a job?”
1. Particularly in his former profession as an Assassin, when, in all fairness, the difference between death-by-Vetinari and Death was a matter largely of semantics and particularly fine timing.
2. Although Death was definitely bonier.