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The Last Sentence

Chapter Text

One Evening. Ankh-Morpork.

Vetinari said, Vimes, I have a question for you.
And he asked it.
And Vimes said, No. I couldn’t. I can’t. Why’re you asking me? I don’t – I’ve never – with you – I couldn’t. I can’t. 
Vetinari said, I only asked you to think about it. I didn’t expect an immediate answer.
Vimes said, I’m not going to bloody think about it. I already have, You’ve got your answer, it’s no.
Vetinari said, Very well, Sir Samuel. Don’t let me detain you.


Outside it was raining. One Evening. A week later. Ankh-Morpork.

It was a clear night. Vetinari moved a pawn forward and said, Check.
Vimes said, Bloody hell, how’d that happen?
Vetinari said, I thought about my options.
Vimes moved his king. He growled, Answer’s still no.


One Evening. A week later. Ankh-Morpork.

Vetinari was looking at a clacks message. He steepled his fingers, looked over them at the commander who stared at the wall.
Vimes said, What news from Klatch, sir?
Vetinari said, It’s not good, Sir Samuel.
Vimes said, Will we be affected?
Vetinari didn’t answer.
Vimes said, How bad d’you think it’ll be?
Vetinari repeated himself.
Vimes said, Should I be a betting man and put my shirt down against us, then?
Vetinari delicately unfolded his fingers. He laid his hands on the desk, flat, palms on soft, worn wood. Vetinari said, Have you thought about it? His voice was quiet. The office was quiet, soft. Outside it was raining. Outside it was cold. Vimes thought, Blind Io we might get sleet tonight.
Vimes said, No. The answer that is. Still that. Sir.
And Vetinari said, I think we had best prepare for the worst. Good evening, commander. Don’t let me detain you.
Vimes had seen men with walls. He, himself had plenty. But he had never seen fortresses and armaments and guard towers quite like Vetinari’s.


One evening. A week and a week and a week and a week. Ankh-Morpork.

Vimes asked, Will you ever stop asking?
Vetinari said, If you were a betting man, what would you put your shirt on?
Vimes thought, I’d put my shirt on that you’re a stubborn bastard and like to a drive a point home like a nail through wood. Then Vimes realised he had said it aloud. Vetinari was looking at the ceiling. He was distinctly Not Smiling. Then he looked down at a sheet of paper.
Vetinari said, My, my Vimes. And it’s worse in Klatch. Get home safe, commander. Don’t let me detain you.
But it was said softer than Vimes had ever heard it said but he decided he wasn’t going to think about it. So he didn’t. Except for on the way home. And maybe for a little while after that.

Chapter Text

Mid-morning. A week. autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

     He was smoking by the Temple of Offler and watching the population as they slowly trudged through the streets. Autumn felt colder than it had in the past. A bitter chill ate its way through clothes and flesh and bone. He reminded himself to buy young Sam a new winter coat. The old one was too small. Sybil had always been the one to take care of such things. Before. Before she had. But that was four years ago and time moved on. Though, sometimes it felt like it was stabbing you in the back while it did it.
    He took a drag of his cigar. He watched two dwarfs manoeuvre a hand cart down an alleyway. He had said to Captain Carrot, that morning in the office, My arse is frozen, next it’ll be the bloody marrow of my bones.
    Carrot had smiled, ‘you could take the day off, sir. You’ve been working hard, lately. Very hard.’ The look had been reproachful, cautious.
    Vimes had replied that was fine. Everyone had to work hard.
    ‘Very well, sir. Oh, the Patrician says you have an appointment at the palace.’
    ‘Does he?’
    ‘He says that there is no need for you to hurry.’
    So he wasn’t. Vimes sighed, blew out smoke and watched it drift off into cloudy skies. A bell tolled in the distance. His fingers were numb so he snubbed out the cigar and jammed them in his pockets. He stalked towards the looming figure of the palace with the grim determination of a man going to his doom. A rat squeaked as he walked by. It moved slowly, as if drunk, and lumbered down an alley. The commander watched it before shrugging and moving on.

 

    The wall of the Oblong Office was stared at. It tried to shrink away from the policeman’s gaze. It failed.
    Vetinari said, over a collection of papers, We have news from Klatch.  The number grows, 30,000 as of the last clack.
    Vimes said, That’s a lot, sir.
    Vetinari stared. He steepled his fingers. He stared some more.
    Vimes sighed, What do you want me to do, sir?
    And inside his head he kicked himself and punched the patrician in the face. There was a slight movement of Vetinari’s mouth. A smile. Vimes scowled.
    Vetinari said, over still steepled fingers, I wouldn’t have you do anything. At the moment. We’re not even sure how it’s spreading.
    Vimes said, Yes, sir.
    Vetinari sighed, then said, Very well. And Vimes, have you thought about it?
    Vimes said, Answer’s still no, sir.
    But it was said softer than before.

 

In the watch house Vimes found Angua sitting with a bitter cup of coffee and the morning Times. She managed a somewhat polite, Good morning before pouring herself another cup.
    ‘Captain, have you heard anything new on Klatch?’
    Sometimes news travelled faster through the family dogs than people. Angua shrugged and passed the sugar.
    ‘Not really, sir. That is, I heard something but I’m not sure it’s useful.’
    Vimes motioned for her to continue. He rummaged for a notebook.
    ‘There was a new family that arrived from Klatch. A few weeks ago, now. Carrot and I went over to say hello and see if any news had come with them.’
    ‘What did their dog say?’
    ‘She said nothing. Just,’ here she paused. Stirred cream into coffee. ‘Just that it was bad and so they left.’
    Vimes pulled a face. ‘Bad how?’
    ‘She wouldn’t say. Just over and over – it was bad. Sir, I’ve smelled fear, but not fear like that.’
    They sipped their coffee in silence. It began to rain and the wind picked up. One of them said something about the poor lads on shift. Bad weather, eh?
    ‘Did she say it was 30,000 bad?” Vimes finally asked when the silence couldn’t hold any more. Angua let out a low whistle. She fiddled with her mug.
    ‘That bad, sir?’
    ‘That’s the last his lordship heard.’
    ‘Rumour says that the clacks from the boarders are becoming fewer and fewer.’
    They contemplated their mugs. They poured more coffee. They listened to the rain and sat in a silence only coppers could manage.
    ‘Maybe it won’t cross the desert,’ Angua said for something to say. ‘Maybe it’ll stay in Klatch.’
    ‘Maybe.’ But, Vimes thought. That’s not how these things work, is it? They spread and spread and consume till there’s nothing left to consume.

 

    Vimes trooped up to his office after Angua and Carrot left for their shift. Cheery stopped him by the front desk with his mail. She watched him for a guarded moment then asked, Sir, is what Captain Angua said true? 30,000?
    ‘So far as we know, Inspector. But don’t go spreading the number.’
    ‘Yes, sir. Oh, a Miss Cripslock wants to see you.’
    He sighed, pulled a cigar and matches out. Interviews. Interviews he hated. Ones with Vetinari, fine. He knew (usually) where he stood with the Patrician. That is, firmly on the other side of the desk at parade rest being just on This Side of polite. He understood (sort of) this strange game they were playing. He knew (only in the honest hours of the early morning) that he would eventually say yes. But only after the bastard earned it and only on his own terms.
    But with The Times he always felt on the slippery slope of saying too much or the wrong thing. He didn’t much like the “free press” and felt that truth (whatever that was) did, indeed, make ye fret.
    Sacharissa Cripslock greeted Vimes with a fleeting smile and a ready notebook.
    ‘I’m covering a story on the problems in Klatch.’ She opened without preamble. Vimes eased himself into his chair and gave her a carefully blank stare. She smiled at him and made a note.
    ‘We’ve heard that the number is as high as 100,000.’
    ‘I couldn’t say.’
    She made a note.
    'Could you give me a rough estimate? Higher? Lower?’
    ‘Why are you asking me, Miss Cripslock? Surely this is a matter for his lordship or one of the concerned guilds.’
    Here Sacharissa’s smile changed. It became more brittle. Something else was jotted down. She closed the notebook.
    'The patrician has been less than forthcoming. But, you spoke with him this morning…’
    Vimes leaned back, ‘and you think he told me a solid number?’
    'I think he told you the latest numbers, yes.’        
    He was quiet, face still, shoulders tense. She waited, poised. It put him in mind of a viper ready to attack. Fangs out, body taught, waiting for the right moment to strike.
    He suddenly gave her a smile which usually worked to unnerve people, though it appeared to have no affect on the woman in front of him. ‘I’m honoured you think so highly of me as to assume that his lordship confides such information in me.’
    Her notebook was back out and she was scribbling with gusto. This worried Vimes, he reviewed his answer looking for things that could have been of interest.
   'Thank you commander,’ she said as she finished. ‘I’ll not take up anymore of your time. Oh, no, don’t get up. I know my way out. Good day, commander.’
   ‘Good day Miss Cripslock.’ But the door was already closed.

 

    In an alley way not far from the watch house the Death of Rats waited.
    SQUEAK.
    YES. Its companion said. THE STORM WILL BREAK SOON.
    SQUEAK. SQUEAK.
    Silence. Death considered his answer.
    I THINK THEY AVOID IT BECAUSE, FOR HUMANS, WORDS HAVE POWER. IF THEY SAY IT, IT WILL SUDDENLY BECOME REAL.
    SQUEAK. SQUEAKY, SQUEAK.
    IN ANKH-MORKPORKIAN? I BELIEVE THE WORD THEY USE IS PLAGUE.

 

 

Evening. The Same Day. Ankh-Morpork.

    No one in the city could see the sunset for the rain clouds and fog. It was heavy rain, large drops, black clouds so midday had been as dark as the night.
    But if they had it would have been a vibrant, violent blood-on-the-battlefield red. Stretches across would be cat-claw marks of sharp pink, soft yellow, cutting orange. The sea would have reflected rubies on a dark blue surface. Sailors would have hummed the old adage, Red sky at night a sailor’s delight, red sky in morn sailors be warned.
    If they had seen the sunset they would have seen a drifting Klatchian vessel and would have remembered old stories they had heard from grandparents and great-grandparents. Stories of their younger days. Of something that had happened in the Agatean Empire. Of something that had happened in far off Genua. Of the citizens of that strange city seeing a foundering ship before it all happened.
    They also might have remembered the old Ankh-Morpork tradition of, All else fails, kill it with fire.
    But, as it was, rain and sleet and fog beat down and covered the city. The watch hung close to overhands and building walls, trying to find a dry place out of the wind for a smoke. Citizens huddled close to fires and crept under blankets. Dogs and cats slunk under carts and into thatched roofs. Vimes sang songs to young Sam who was scared of the thunder but too much a proud Vimes to admit it. Angua resisted the urge to howl at the lightening. Carrot made tea for them both. He added extra honey to Angua’s because she liked it best that way. The patrician lit a few extra candles to read by. He thought about dying by the light and gave the empty room a wan smile. And up the coast, just a little ways, a ship foundered on the rocks. 

Chapter Text

Morning. The day after the storm. A month and three weeks since the Question. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

Apart from sea-birds and crows, it was a dog that first found the ship. As is often the case. It sniffed broken boards, dead bodies of crew and animals. It tried to nibble on a loaf of dwarf bread but gave up after it broke two teeth. Having found nothing of interest it wandered off towards the city. It stopped by Traitor’s Gate and took a piss. The message was clear, ‘Thorpe the Great Rat Catching Hound was here, good in health. Woof. Hey Gaspode, hope you’re all right. Heard any news about Johnny Left Paw? Angua, hot werewolf lady, there’s a ship on the coast you might want to take a look at. Smells funky, no mistake. To those concerned, the bakery on Market St leaves its backdoor open’. Thorpe the Great Rat Catching Hound was an unusually elegant pisser.

    The second person to find the ship was a fisherman. As is often the case. Dobbins didn’t linger, the stench was enough to bring tears to his eyes. But, before he left he yelled out a ‘halloa’ and waited. No response. The sea lapped at the shore. Above him a seagull screeched.

 

    Vimes arrived to the Watch House and managed to stumble into a mug of coffee and a new pack of slim cigars. Ten minutes later Captain Carrot informed him that one of the new constables had accidentally flooded the changing rooms. Again.
    Ah, he thought. Never forget there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or smoke, for that matter.
    ‘He couldn’t’ have thrown in a box of matches as well?’
    Carrot looked confused before soldiering on, ‘couldn’t say, sir. Incidentally, an old fisherman came in today, sir. Dobbins, old Mrs. Talbot’s nephew from Quirm.’
    ‘Oh yes?’
    ‘He said he found a wrecked ship on the coast, Kaltchian by the look of it. I think we should take some men and investigate, sir. See if there are any survivors.’
Vimes frowned, took a sip of coffee and winced. Strong enough to rip the enamel of teeth. There was something nagging in the back of his mind, a gut instinct that was saying – Don’t send your men out there. Don’t send your men. He prodded the instinct, My men? Or my human men?
    ‘All right, Captain. Take some men and have a look.’ He paused. Sighed, though to himself, You’re just being a suspicious bastard Sam Vimes. ‘No. Send Sergeant Sally with Detritus and Reg to take the initial look. We’ll send more if it’s necessary.’
    The younger man stared hard at Vimes before nodding.
    ‘Yes, sir. Also, you have an appointment with the patrician.’
    ‘Oh bloody hell, it’s not even half nine!’
    Carrot shrugged, ‘palace called, sir.’
    'Fine, fine. See to Sergeant Sally and the others. Tell them that they’re not to do anything until they report back in full.’
    ‘Yes, sir.’
    Vimes could feel it, the unspoken word hiding in the shadows of the room. The unspoken weight of – what if we’re next? What if it comes here next? We’re so close to Klatch. So, so very close. What if we’re next? What if?

 

    The streets were mud as the commander made his way to the palace. Crossing the Brass Bridge he found himself stuck behind a cart loaded with dead farm animals. He lit a cigar and edged around the rank load.
    ‘Taking the long way to the butcher’s,’ he said. The man leading the cart shook his head and grinned. It was a yellowed dog-toothed leer.
    ‘Naw, suh. Dese’re deaders what o’ disease and such. Cant’a what ets dem, yeah know what ah mean. Lime pits fer de lota dem.’
    Vimes nodded, took a drag. ‘A lot this year?’
    ‘Ooh yeah, suh. Lota mores den whats normal, yeah suh.’
    ‘Oh? The weather maybe? Been a bit wetter than normal.’
    The old man shrugged. ‘Coulds be, coulds be. One dings fer sure, dey’re ain’t a dyin’ o’ whats dem natural causes. Oh no, suh. It’s a witchin’ craft.’
    Vimes raised an eyebrow. He remembered an old woman down the street when he was a boy. Nanny Pendell they had called her. Some of the women would go to her, usually at night, usually when no one was looking. And nothing was said about Nanny Pendell but everyone sort of knew. No rocks were thrown at her windows and fresh meals always turned up on her doorstep on Hogswatch.
    ‘Thought witches made potions and the like. For bad backs, headaches, erm, womanly complaints. That sort o’ thing.’
    The man coughed, spit on the cobbles and gave another leering grin. ‘O’ maybes, maybes dey does sometimes. But dey does curses and de likes, mark me boy. Witches. Dere causin’ all dese what ‘ere troubles.’
    'I’ll keep that in mind,’ he snubbed his cigar and flicked it into the Ankh. ‘Good day.’
    ‘G’day, laddie. G’day.’
    As Vimes left the man gave a laughing hack and mumbled something about needing to burn ‘em all if the city knew what was good fer it. Burn ‘em all, mark me boy.

 

     For ten minutes Vimes listened to the arhythmic clock. For ten minutes he tried to do maths in his head, if only to keep some semblance of sanity. He could hear voices in the Oblong Office. One sounded like Downey, another…more muffled, perhaps Dr Myles of the Doctor’s guild?
    The door opened and Drumknott ushered the men out. Yes, Downey was there, and Dr Myles and Dr Friebottom. Vimes was shown in and found Vetinari standing by the window looking over the city. The doors closed with an audible click.
    Vetinari said, I hear we have a foundered Klatchian vessel on our shores, commander.
    Vimes said, Yes, sir. I’ve sent Sergeant Von Humbeding and a few others to take a look.
    Vetinari returned to his desk and gave Vimes an appraising look. He said, All non-humans I hope.
    Vimes stared at the wall. Vetinari stared at Vimes. The wall wished Vimes would stare somewhere else. At last the commander said, As it happens, sir, they are all undead or silicon based life forms, yes.
    Neither spoke for a moment. The patrician finally sighed.
    Let’s get this done with, Sir Samuel. There is a… problem…in Klatch. It has moved steadily north from Urt and Loatan. Elharib is suffering, so is Smale, Syrrit, Hersheba, and, mostly importantly, Al Khali, Eritor, and Gebra. It’s more deadly than what we’ve seen before and it doesn’t behave like one would expect.
    Vimes said, Sir?
    Vetinari looked somewhere in the middle distance. Vimes decided he didn’t like it when the patrician looked somewhere in the middle distance. It looked something like fear, like he wasn’t in control. It was terrifying.
    Vetinari said, Why is it so virulent in the winter months? Summer is more usual. How is it spreading so fast? Two months, Vimes. It took only two months. And now we have a wrecked, possibly contaminated, ship on our shores. What are going to do about it, Vimes?
    Vimes said, after a pause, See if there are survivors, sir.
    Vetinari shook his head, No, Vimes. We’re going to burn it.
    Vimes scowled, What about survivors, sir?
    Vetinari was patient. We burn it, Sir Samuel. Those are your orders. Have the golems do it, we can clean them afterwards.
    Vimes continued to scowl. Sir –
    Vetinari was less patient. I will not have anyone or anything from that ship coming into my city. Do I makes myself clear commander?
    Silence. They stared at each other. In the hall the clock ticked…ticked ticked…ticked.
    Vimes stiffly said, Yes, sir.
    Vetinari shuffled papers. Something relaxed, there was an exhale of breath, the air felt softer. The patrician said, while reading a paper, Are you free this evening?
    Vimes said, Erm, yes, maybe, why?
    And then he wanted to kick himself. Hard. Then punch the patrician in the face. Hard.
    Vetinari said, Ah, good. Chess?
    My terms, though Vimes. He smirked and said, No, no chess. It’s Thud or I’ll be busy chasing the criminal element.
    The patrician’s face was inscrutable. His fingers were still against the papers. Vimes thought them elegant, in a dangerous, deadly sort of way.
    Vetinari said, Very well. I’ve been meaning to improve my game. Shall we say nine?
    Vimes said, Ten.
    Vetinari said, Capital. Ten it is. And Vimes –
    Vimes grumbled, Answer’s still no.
    Vetinari looked at the ceiling then to the commander and said, just as you say, Sir Samuel. Good day. Don’t let me detain you.

 

     The ship was in pieces apart from the hull which had washed up whole on the shore. The gulls were hanging back, eyeing carrion and squawking.
    Sally motioned for the others to hold back and approached the remnants of the ship. It was still, the only movement was from the ocean lapping the shore. She watched the darkness of the shattered hull.
    ‘I think everyone’s dead,’ she said over her shoulder. Closing her eyes she listened. There was the quick heart beats of the birds, frantic ones of mice and rats. The churning of Detritus, the empty alive presence of Reg. But of the hull, the shattered maw of darkness should feel in front of her, nothing. Empty, empty, empty.
    ‘I don’t like this,’ Reg said as they approached. ‘Why aren’t the gulls eating anything? Why are the rats and mice so lethargic?’
    ‘I’m thinking we’ll find out soon – oh Gods it reeks in here.’
    A minute passed. Their eyes adjusted. And then there were the bodies. Reeking, putrid, pussing, blackened bodies.
    Sally coughed, stumbled back, a rat squeaked and moved slowly out of her way.
    ‘Gods, gods above. This is it.’
    'Dis is what?’ Detritus asked. He prodded a body. Something burbled. ‘Dems all dead.’
    ‘This is what’s happening in Klatch.’ The boil on the prodded body sloshed a little more. ‘This is the plague.’ 

Chapter Text

Late Morning. Same Day. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

            The watch house was in uproar when Vimes returned. Officers were gossiping worse than washer women. Already they were saying that Ankh-Morporkians were dropping like flies. That there was going to be an invasion. That the water had been poisoned by foreign sorts. That this was punishment from the Gods. Sergeant Visit was handing out pamphlets with gusto.

            ‘It’s the end of days. We’ve gone contrary to the will of the God.’

            ‘Gods,’ another officer corrected. ‘It’s people like you who’ve caused this, brought their wrath down. Sayin’ there’s only one. It doesn’t hold. One does one get everything done? Godin’ is a multi person job.’

            Vimes stared for a minute, had a pamphlet thrust into his hands, before heading up to his office. He grabbed Cheery before he left the room, ‘get me Captains Carrot and Angua, and Igor, too. Oh you best come as well. My office, inspector.’

            She saluted, Yessir.

            Right, he thought, sinking into his chair. He opened his notebook. The blank page stared up at him. Right. What do we do?

            He wrote down, keep the peace.

            The words stared up at him harder than the blank page had. He turned it over.

            Burn the ship, Vetinari had said. Burn it.

            He hadn’t said, burn it with people potentially still alive inside of it. He hadn’t said it but the ellipsis had hung in the air and Vimes had understood why but it still stuck. Hard. Because he knew – if we let the survivors in then we damn ourselves. But there has to be another way.

            A knock and he called them in.

            ‘Close the door, inspector.’ He waited till the chaos of downstairs was dulled. ‘Right, we have a problem on our hands. A Klatchian vessel washed up on our shores last night. I’ve sent Sergeant von Humperding to investigate, we’ll have a better grasp of the situation once she reports. In the meanwhile we have to do our best to keep some semblance of calm on the streets.’

            There was a chorus of yessir’s.

            ‘Did his lordship say anything?’ Asked Angua, her face a careful blank.

            ‘Nothing new, nothing you all don’t know already.’ He sighed. The tension, the unasked questions, could be cut with a knife. A tangible fear was in the room and Vimes knew it was also in the streets, speeding through the city, infecting everyone in its way. The noise downstairs had quieted down. Outside the autumn air was still.

            ‘Igor, when it begins,’ he held up his hand. ‘When it begins, because it will, we will need doctors organised and plenty of space for the sick.’ Places for the dead, he didn’t think. ‘I want you and the inspector to go to the doctor’s guild and figure out some sort of system. Some organised way of processing the ill.’

            Do we have enough food, he wondered. Can we make the winter if we shut ourselves in? Vetinari didn’t say it, but it will spread north. Through the Sto plains. He pulled himself back down. City level, Sam Vimes, keep it city level.

            ‘Captains, I want you to double the beat shifts, make our presence on the streets stronger. Even if we can’t do anything in terms of the spread, seeing law enforcement will hopefully help keep the people something like calm.’

            ‘Will there be a curfew?’ Carrot asked.

            Vimes frowned. There hadn’t been a curfew since Snapcase. Since the war and the civil unrest and the figgen incident. Then there was Vetinari and a version of stability that seemed to work for Ankh-Morpork. No curfew in how many years? Decades? Two, two and half. Gods, time does go fast.

            ‘No,’ he said at last. ‘Besides, it’s the patrician’s prerogative to call it.’

            ‘Yessir.’

            No one asked – will he? And if he does, what will happen? And Vimes didn’t think, I suppose it would depend how many people had died.

 --

            The pigeon came from Sergeant von Humperding an hour later and he was relieved to read that there were no survivors. He wrote back with instructions to burn it. Igor will meet you outside the city gates for disinfection. He sent a second pigeon to the palace with an update on the ship‘s status. He added a post script – 10.30.

            A pigeon was returned, he managed to retrieve the message before Downspout ate it. It read, Glad to hear it. 10.45.

            He sighed, was tempted to write back for 11 but changed his mind. He still had to be awake enough to play Thud when he arrived.

            He replied, Sir.

            A response came, Was that a yes, sir or a no, sir?

            Vimes was sure he could see the Patrician staring at the ceiling and distinctly Not Smiling.

            He scrawled back, It was just a sir, sir.

            He then went on a search for coffee.

--

            In an alley off Ankh Street something in the shadows moved. Something shifted, changed. A rat wheezed, dragged itself a few feet and died.

            SQUEAK. The Death of Rats said. The dead rat replied and drifted off to a cheese filled heaven. The Death of Rats stared into the darkness. It could feel the darkness staring back. Something in the darkness staring back.

            SQUEAK.

            The darkness shifted and moved on.

--      

            A city council meeting was called in the late afternoon. Vimes arrived to find guild leaders and assorted others who deemed themselves important enough to be present gathered in the Rats Chamber. Vetinari sat at the head of the thable, hands laced together neat over the afternoon edition of the Times (the truth shall make yed fred). He was staring at the axe. Around him there was chatter, it sort of swirled, before centering on Dr Friebottom of the Doctor’s Guild.

            ‘I maintain, gentlemen,’ he coughed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, that for long term betterment of any person stricken with this Klatchian illness, we apply the dung method.’

            There was a murmur of consensus amongst the other physicians. Vimes caught sight of Donought Jimmy leaning against the wall looking ill at ease. Ah, Vimes thought. The second opinion, then.

            ‘The…dung method?’ Vetinari asked.

            ‘Yes, your lordship. The description we have received from Klatch and Pseudopolis speak of a, well, it’s rather graphic and there are ladies present.’

            Down the table Rosie Palm scoffed, ‘I’ve heard the description, love. And we’ve seen worse on you, doctor.’

            There were a few discreet coughs. Dr Friebottom managed to compose himself and turned back to the patrician who was continuing to stare down the table at the axe.

            ‘Well, you had better come out with it. I have a feeling we will all be seeing it first hand before long. The more informed we are, the better. So, do continue…’

            The doctor shuffled a few notes, muttered something about mercury to a colleague, and coughed. The room was silent. Vimes thought, deathly silent. Aha.

            ‘Well, the Klatchian doctors described the disease as manifesting itself in the presence of pustules. They develop around the nape of the neck, under the arms, and about the groin. Although they have appeared elsewhere. They are similar in look to boils, red and puffy, protruding from the skin. When lacerated they secrete a pus and blood mixture. The pus is usually a greyish white, although it sometimes can be yellow.’

            Vimes stared at the cup of tepid tea in front of him. It was milky and suddenly a lot less appealing. He looked up and across the table at Lord Downey who wore a similar expression on his face. The assassin discreetly pushed his biscuit away. Meanwhile the doctor was beginning to warm to the subject.

            ‘The pustules themselves make noise, a sort of burbling or sloshing from the liquid inside. Other parts of the body are known to turn black and purple from internal bleeding. It can resemble either hives or gangrenous bruising depending on location and depth of the hemoruging. Apparently the most common area for this to occur is around fingers, toes, and the edges of the pustules.

            Now, the concensus at the guild is that the only reasonable cure for this disease is to lance the pustule-‘

            Here the commander noticed that Friebottom stressed his annunciation so it came out as pus-tù-le.

            ‘And after the liquid has been drained we recommend a press comprised of horse dung, preferably from a mare in heat, be applied to the opening. The press should be kept on until the swelling has gone down. If the patient has a fever, which is apparently usual in these cases, a small sack of chopped onions tied to the bottom of their feet whilst sleeping should take care of that.’ Friebottom finished with a satisfied smile at the Patrician who was, for once, not succeeding at keeping disbelief off his face. At last he managed to contain his expression and worked it back to the careful neutral and leaned back in his chair.

            ‘Well, that was…informative.’

            ‘There’s always the frog method.’ Another doctor chimed. ‘Tie a frog to the pustule to help balance the humours.’

            ‘Right. Thank you, gentlemen. You can submit your report to me in full later. Mr. Jimmy, do you have anything to add?’

            The council and onlookers slowly turned their heads to the man in question. Donought Jimmy glanced around and shoved his hands in his pockets. He licked his lips and gave a wary horsey grin.

            ‘I just think, well,  you wouldn’t give cold water to a horse whose just run a race, right? You’d rub ‘er down, eh, put a blanket on ‘er. And you wouldn’t give a horse heavy grains who has colic. That’s um, that’s what I think.’

            Dr Friebottom smiled, ‘well, if that’s settled.’

            Vetinari stared until he trailed off.

            ‘I think,’ the patrician’s voice was soft. The room shifted closer to the table. ‘What Mr Jimmy was saying was that he does not approve of the guild’s proposed methods of dealing with the disease.’

            There were a few chuckles and one or two open guffaws. Vimes kept a careful eye on Vetinari’s blank face as he watched the room’s reaction.

            ‘Commander, what does your medical officer say? I understand he consulted with the guild this morning.’

            ‘He did, sir. With Inspector Littlebottom. They informed me that they felt that we don’t know enough at the moment to proceed with any set formula for treating the disease. Though, Inspector Littlebottom suggested that for most illnesses rest, healthy diet, and fresh air usually did more than any medicine.’

            ‘Fresh air?’ Old Dr Rosette woke from his slumber. ‘Fresh air? New age clap trap nonsense. Better to bleed them. Nothing as good as a bleeding for the humours.’

            Vimes carried on, ignoring Dr Rosette and feeling not a little like Lord Rust for doing so. ‘They also recommended that we impose some form of health regulations on the streets. Flush out Butcher’s row, the Tanners’ quarters, that sort of thing.’

            ‘And what would that serve to do, commander? Other than to alarm and over excite the people?’ Lord Rust spoke from further down the table.

            ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Vimes growled. ‘Maybe just trying to see if the correlation between filth and disease is a real thing.’

            ‘Would make the city smell a little better,’ Downey murmured.

‘That is just superstition,’ said the man who very proudly only bathed annually. ‘And really, Havelock, isn’t this just scaremongering?’

            ‘Preparing the city in case of plague is scaremongering?’ The patrician steepled his fingers and peered down the table, past the axe, to the older man. The room shifted from foot to foot.

            ‘It’s a foreign disease.’

            ‘Which means?’

            ‘Well, we won’t get it. Being Ankh-Morkporkians we are made of sterner stuff than those weak Klatchians.’

            ‘Right,’ Vetinari looked down to his papers then back up. ‘Which explains why over one hundred and fifty people have died in Psuedopolis already. And that also explains why it is steadily infecting the Sto Plains.’ 

            Rust huffed, his eye lids fluttered a fraction in agitation. Finally, ‘and where did you get this information?’

            ‘From a reliable source. The source also mentioned that this is a conservative estimate.’

            The room broke into a murmur then a buzz before subsiding. In the corner of his eye Vimes could see Sacharissa scribbling furiously. He wondered if there was to be a second evening edition. After a few minutes the patrician stood and the room went still again.

            ‘Well, thank you ladies and gentlemen, this has been a most useful council. Good evening and don’t let me detain you.’

Chapter Text

Evening. Same day. Ankh-Morpork. Autumn.

The commander arrived that evening to find Vetinari bent over papers, lips moving as he read. Without looking up he said, ‘A poem from Klatch’.

‘What about, sir?’ He sat opposite the patrician, eyes over left shoulder.

‘What do you think, Sir Samuel?’

‘It’s Vimes,’ he growled. A tea appeared in front of him and Vetinari motioned the servant away. ‘If we’re – if we’re playing Thud it’s Vimes.’

‘Hm.’ The papers were tucked away and Vetinari finally looked up. Blue, blue. Not ice-blue of the Ramtops, of glaciers and steel. Just blue, blue. Vimes decided he wasn’t thinking about it. ‘Vimes, then. It’s not a particularly good poem, though it gets the meaning across.’

‘And what meaning is that?’

‘I think the last lines were, ‘the coming of the devil plague / suddenly makes the lamp dim. / Then, it is blown out, / leaving man, ghost and corpse in the dark’.’

The Thud board was brought out and pieces arranged. Vetinari asked, Trolls or Dwarfs? Vimes sighed, Dwarfs he decided then said that perhaps the patrician should try more uplifting reading. Considering. Dark times potentially ahead and such. He moved his first dwarf forward. Vetinari nodded and stared at the board.

 ‘What we need to do is get rid of the rats,’ he said, selecting a troll pawn and shoving the line over.  

‘Bloody good luck doing that.’

It began to rain. Vetinari smiled to himself and Vimes wasn’t sure if it was because nature was obeying the city’s narrative or if was because he had a particularly good chance of winning. Thud, why, why did I choose Thud?

‘How has young Sam been?’

‘Do you always talk when playing Thud?’

The smile widened then faded.

‘Only when it annoys you, Vimes. How is young Sam?’

Vimes stared at the bored, pretending to be considering his next move. He made sure to take his sweet time doing it. Vetinari sat still, waiting, patiently. Gods, Vimes thought. Patience of a rock. He tried to remember who he had heard that from but couldn’t recall.

‘Sam’s doing well. Learning his multiplication tables at the moment and not doing too well with it.’

‘Always a difficult one. Especially the nines.’ The patrician moved a troll towards Vimes’ two dwarf cluster. ‘I was terrible at them when I was a lad. My aunt despaired and eventually taught me a game to help remember them.’

‘A game?’

‘Hm,’ he held up both hands, ‘it works from left to right. If it’s nine times three you lower the third finger from the left, which leaves two on one side and seven on the other, twenty-seven. Fifth finger leaves four on the left and five on the right, forty-five. And so on.’

Vimes frowned, mimicking the trick. After a minute he muttered, ‘Bloody hell, I could’ve used this when I was a boy. ‘Course, it’s sort of cheating isn’t it?’ He peered at the game again. ‘Cause you’re supposed to be memorizing the tables, not finding tricks around it.’

No answer, Vetinari’s eyes were still blue, blue. It was still raining. There was a fire but it was doing little to warm the room. Vimes sipped his tea.

‘Your turn.’ He growled. Vetinari smiled – the small, twitching lip genuine smile. Not the manic one he sometimes gave, the one that made Downey wince and Lord Rust uncomfortable.

‘Sometimes, Vimes, the only way through a situation is to trick your way through it. And it’s creative thinking, why should it be punished? The world would be so dull if we all thought the same way and learned the same way. Society doesn’t flourish if it’s filled with people cut from the same fabric.’

‘Well, not like it’s going to matter much.’

‘Tch, I didn’t know you were one to give in so easily.’

The commander glared, grabbed a dwarf and hurled it forward taking a troll. ‘I don’t. Like hell am I letting that bloody foreign disease take my city.’ He added lamely, ‘sir’.  

There was the manic smile. Brittle and fleeting.

‘Glad to hear it.’ Vetinari carefully maneuvered a troll row and took a dwarf. ‘And Vimes, if we’re playing Thud, it’s Vetinari.’

 

Vimes lost two games of Thud and decided he was giving up for the evening. Vetinari said that they should play again. Soon.

‘Sir,’ a smirk at the look. ‘The ship.’

Vetinari was standing by the fireplace. Near his chair Mr Fusspot slumbered, feet up, in a basket. There was a squeaky toy by his foot. The patrician looked over, his face was lit by flames, his back was in shadows.

‘It’s been burnt?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good.’

‘If there had been –‘ he stopped. The room had been quiet but was suddenly very quiet. Even the rain on window pains was quiet. He took a step forward, if only to see the patrician more clearly. The sharp features were softer in fire light. He might even be considered handsome. By some. By someone, maybe. He might be.

‘Yes?’

‘If someone had been alive on that ship.’ He stopped again. Mr Fusspot whined in his sleep. ‘If someone had been alive.’

‘What would you have done?’

‘Tried to do something for them.’

‘Even if it meant risking the lives of many within our city?’

It was warmer over here, Vimes thought. So much warmer than at the table by the window and the rain.

‘I don’t know.’

Vetinari nodded and looked back at the fire. The silence seemed to say, There’s your answer.

Vetinari said, Have you thought about it?

Vimes said, I thought you only asked questions you already knew the answer to.

Vetinari said, Wherever did you get that idea, Vimes?

Vimes said, And we’re not playing Thud, anymore. Vetinari.

The patrician smiled, Have you thought about it?

Vimes said, Why are you asking now? Why are you asking when things are about to get bloody harry and grim?

Vetinari tilted his head slightly, there was that small genuine smile, feint and soft. Ah, Vimes, isn’t that the best time?

Vimes saluted, Goodnight. I won’t detain you.

It was said with a smirk, and it was said softly.

 

When he glanced back over his shoulder he swore he could see a figure in one of the many windows of the palace. Tall and dark and standing over the city, watching and waiting.

 ----

Morning.  The next day. Ankh-Morpork. Autumn.

 

Mr. Penrose woke with a kink in his neck and a severe headache. The room was a little blurry and very warm.

‘Dear, I think we can cut down on the warming bricks in the bed.’ His wife made a noise and rolled over.

‘S’cold, luv.’ She mumbled. ‘Gods you’re warm enough.’ Her eyes opened and grew concerned. ‘Luv, you look a bit yellow about the edges.’

‘M’fine.’ He smiled, reached over and cupped her face. ‘Prob’ly just a cold. You know how it gets this time of year.’

His wife nodded and kissed his forehead.

‘Well, you stay tucked in bed. I’m going to make you a hearty breakfast and a hot toddy. Nothing’ll cure you faster than that.’

Once she left he pulled himself up, wincing at muscle soreness. He coughed, hacking and deep, and when he managed to stop there was blood on his hand.

 

‘There appears to be a distinction of how it shows up.’ Inspector Littlebottom said as she leafed through letters, clacks messages, and newspaper clippings. ‘In Klatch there’s one boil about the size of small ball. In Pseudopolis there are two, usually next to each other, and they’re the size of a head of a soup-spoon. Also, in Klatch there’s no cough but Pseudopolis reports a hacking that often produces blood, then death follows roughly three days later.’ She looked up from her papers, tired and a bit hung-over if Vimes was any judge.

‘Very good. Any progress on a reliable treatment?’

‘No, sir. The doctors in Pseudopolis have either all fled or are dead or have no idea or all of the above. We have nothing from Klatchian doctors. If they have an answer they’re keeping it to themselves.’

Vimes sighed and rubbed his forehead. At the moment Ankh-Morpork was quiet. There was a wary tension on the streets, suspicion in every look. Are you carrying it? Are you ill? Will you be the one who starts it all?

During his morning meeting with the patrician Vetinari had said that two hundred people had died in one day. One day. He had seemed tired and hung-over as well. Though Vimes reasoned it was more from lack of sleep and over work than alcohol.

Vetinari had then stared at Vimes. ‘I don’t know how Ankh-Morpork could handle loosing one thousand people in five days. Let alone more.’

And Vimes had said, ‘It couldn’t, sir.’

And Vetinari had said, ‘It will have to.’

Vimes knew the patrician well enough to know that Vetinari would try and hold the city together for as long as possible, if only by force of sheer will power.

'What do the other cities recommend?’

Littlebottom shifted some paper recovering her notebook. She flipped through a few pages. ‘Ah, Sto Helit recommends those closest to the plague wear protective linen masks. Apparently disease is caused by bad smells.’ She frowned. ‘Doesn’t sound likely, sir. But it can’t hurt. Urt suggests burning incense around plague victims and in infected houses. Some say to keep the patients warm, others say cool. Neither seem to work.’

‘I’ll recommend to the patrician that clean streets are imperative. Not sure how we’re going to do it in the Shades, but we’ll come up with something.’ He made a note. ‘Personal hygiene should be encouraged. Actual bathing, not just throwing dirty water on your face. We’ll have to organize a way to collect bodies once it starts.’

Littlebottom looked a little nauseous but nodded, ‘you think it’ll be that bad, sir?’

Vimes sighed. He told her what Vetinari had said. She looked at him then said she was going to find Colon. For his flask. Because it was always full and she wanted a good swig.

 

In his office Vimes let out a slow breath he hadn’t been aware he had been holding. The room was cool, his window left open to damp city air. The autumn sky was dark, murky with clouds. He looked at his notebook.

He wrote, keep the peace. He numbered a one underneath it. He wrote, body collectors. Paid. He numbered a two, Burial places. If too many, pits with lime. He thought about dead bodies after a war. He thought about Sybil. Three days, Littlebottom had said. Three days then dead. It was a blessing, he reasoned. That it didn’t linger. Linger and linger and waist a person away till they’re a shadow of the person you remember.

She had been barely able to move towards the end.

He rubbed his eyes, forced himself to focus on the present. What was it Sybil had said? When she thought she was going to get better, in the early days. Before the doctor had stood in the foyer and shrugged and said he was sorry. She had said that she was going to make a diary about it, a book maybe. With a happy ending. But it would be written in present tense. Because pain is present tense. Being ill takes a lot of work. She had laughed and said, Don’t worry, love. It will be all right.

Sybil had said things like that. And she had almost always meant them.

Vimes numbered a three, linen masks for people. He thought about linen prices. Already very high. It had been a tough year. Too much summer rain. Too much fall rain. Too much rain. He added, Instructions for making fabric masks. Any fabric would do, right? The principle held.

He numbered a four, Send Sam to the countryside.

He numbered a five, Prepare will. 

Chapter Text

Night. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

            That evening Vetinari summoned him to the palace. He said the numbers in Pseudopolis have gotten worse.

            ‘They used to toll bells for funerals,’ he explained. ‘But the city has put a stop to it. As well as the laying out of bodies. The traditional three day and night vigil has been ended. The city has also forbade the wearing of mourning clothes. Not even arm bands.’

            ‘How may have they lost?’

            ‘Three hundred today. A few thousand in total. It’s been there for a month.’ The patrician stared at the clack message. ‘It’s autumn,’ he finally said. He looked up with a question, ‘Don’t diseases abate in autumnal and winter months? They do in Genua. Usually.’ He picked up another paper and waved it. ‘First twenty went down today.’

            ‘Is anywhere safe, sir?’

            ‘The mountains hubward, the Ramptops, places like Lancre.’

            ‘Magic, sir?’

            ‘Freezing temperatures and sparse population, commander.’ Fingers were laced, he peered over them. ‘Every days thousands of chamber pots are emptied onto our streets and into the Ankh. Every day thousands of animals are butchered, their fat turned into candles and their hides tanned. Every day a million people go about their daily lives. This city is running on an ancient infrastructure that is barely holding together. We haven’t had time or money to complete a much needed overhaul of the sewage system. We have no health codes or regulations. No one follows the law about keeping the street outside their doorways clean. We need a government service for street cleaning in general but don’t have one. I can only foot so many of the bills. Mr Lipwig has done a marvelous job with rebuilding the tax system, but so far we’re still paying off old debts with the revenue.’ He sighed, shook his head. ‘We’re sitting ducks as far as a plague is concerned.’

            ‘But we’ve always weathered summer diseases before, sir.’

            ‘Yes,’ said slowly. ‘But so has Genua, Pseudopolis, so has Klatch, Sto Helit.’

            ‘Sir.’

            ‘It’s late, Vimes. Go home. We’ll speak in the morning.’

            ‘Yes, sir. Good night, sir.’

            ‘Good night, commander.’

            When Vimes stepped out into crisp air he realized Vetinari hadn’t asked the question (or The Question, as Vimes’ mind had categorized it). He looked up at the windows, most of which were dark. The Oblong Office glowed softly, dimly, lit only by a few candles. I wonder, Vimes thought as he walked home. If he remembers what it’s like to die.

---

            When he got home he looked over young Sam’s homework. Said, hey, I have a trick to teach you for your multiplication tables. Afterwards they read a few chapters from Sam’s latest book (it involved tree-houses, wizards, witches, and mythical lizard monsters). When he was tucking his son into bed the boy asked, Dad, what’s a plague?

            ‘It’s a disease, Sam. A very bad one. Usually there’s a high mortality rate.’

            Young Sam frowned, hugged a stuff dog close. The stuff dog that to any of his friends he never hugs. No, because he isn’t afraid of the dark. Or the monster under the bed. Haha. Only babies are scared of those things. ‘High mortality rate?’

            ‘A lot of people die.’ He ruffled Sam’s hair.

            ‘But you’re gonna stop it, right dad?’ The boy looked at him with shining eyes. ‘Because killing is bad. And the plague is killing people so it’s bad!’ Young Sam was clearly very pleased with this sound logic.

            ‘I’m going to do my best. Now, to bed with you.’

            When Vimes went to sleep that night he didn’t think about death, he didn’t think about the soft glowing light of the Oblong Office, he didn’t think about the future. At all. Not once.

---           

            When Mr Penrose died he found himself looking up at a tall dark figure. It held a scythe. It wore a mask. Naked bone white, hollowed eyed.

            ‘Well, I say, you’re not what I expected.’

            The figure stared at him then nodded and faded into the shadows.

            HELLO, MR PENROSE.

            The old shopkeeper coughed and frowned. ‘Oy, see here, I just saw you. Can’t be having two of you about, stands to reason.’

            TWO OF ME? I ASSURE YOU, MR PENROSE, THERE IS ONLY ONE.

            ‘No, I saw you. Well, you had a different mask on. Bigger nose. Smelled like one of those spices from parts foreign.’

            Death nodded and looked into the shadows. HM, he said. WELL, WELL. COME ALONG, MR PENROSE.

            ‘Bit of a rough way to go, innit? I mean, it’s pretty gross.’

            I COULDN’T SAY.

            ‘Do you think there’ll be hot toddy’s where I’m going?’

            ‘POSSIBLY. IF YOU WANT THEM ENOUGH.

            Mr Penrose thought about this. He looked down at his former body, his former wife shrinking back against the wall, his former son saying, ‘mother, mother, we can’t stay in the house. It’s contaminated’. Mr Penrose sighed, ‘will there be justice in the end?’

            Death looked thoughtful. NO, NO MR PENROSE. THERE IS NO JUSTICE. ONLY ME.

-- 

            Death of Rats trailed after Death. It said, SQUEAK.

            Death shrugged.

            I DON’T KNOW, YET. BUT I CAN FEEL IT, WHATEVER IT IS.

            Death of Rats nodded, SQUEAK. SQUEAK.

            WHAT DOES DEATH OF FLEAS SAY?

            Death of Rats paused then looked back to Death. SQUEAK.

            NOTHING? WELL, WELL. WE HAVE WORK TO DO.

Chapter Text

Morning. Day after the night of Mr Penrose’s Death. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.  

All Vimes thought when the word was brought around to the Watch House the next morning was, Well Fuck.

All Vetinari said when Vimes entered the Oblong Office was, Ah, Vimes.

All Angua said when she heard from Littlebottom was, Well, I guess it’s time.

All Sally did was shrug.

All Young Sam said was, My dad’ll stop it.

All Ponder Stibbons said was, Hmm, odd. All Ponder Stibbons did was a few calculations. All Ponder Stibbons thought was, There’s something wrong.

 


----
 

Mr. Penrose’s body was buried in Small Gods. His house and shop were boarded up. Vetinari said to not worry about the widow, she’d be taken care of for now.

‘For now?’

‘The city can only support so many, Vimes.’

They hadn’t continued the subject. Vimes asked, instead, what Vetinari was doing that evening. The patrician had looked at the ceiling and distinctly Didn’t Smile. Besides trying to keep the city’s head above the water line? He murmured it. Other than that, Sir Samuel, my evening is free.

'Oh,’ Vimes stalled. He hadn’t thought this far. Frankly, he hadn’t thought much at all – the question had sort of come out. ‘Er.’

Vetinari stared at him patiently.

‘Thud?’ He finally said lamely.

There was the faintest of smile. There was a temptation to fill the silence, the say, Unless you want to do something else? But he ignored it. He waited, staring above Vetinari’s left shoulder.

He caved, ‘maybe ten?’

‘Ten thirty,’ the patrician said. Vimes was sure he smirked. Vimes was positive he smirked.

‘Fine.’

‘Oh, and commander, have you thought about it?’

‘Are you going to stop asking me at some point?’

‘Only when you’ve thought about it. Don’t let me detain you.’ 

--- 

 

Night. The evening after the Funeral. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

Sally von Humperding worked under the assumption, Once a Spy, Always a Spy. Though, she reasoned, since the Commander knew and the Patrician knew, she wasn’t so much a spy as a tolerated foreign diplomat in incognito. She still sent letters back to the High King, though she knew he had others in the city at the moment. Others he assumed no one knew about, or maybe he knew that the patrician knew? And of course the patrician would know if the High King knew that he knew that he knew. It all got a bit circular at that point.

She dipped her pen into ink and thought about what to write.

She noted the date in the corner. She wrote out his title and began a sentence of Here in Ankh-Morpork. There she stopped.

She thought about the hull of the Klatchian ship. The unpleasant decontamination process afterwards. The way other watchmen stood distinctly away from her and the others who had been at the ship. She wondered about the body of Mr Penrose, she wondered what would happen to Mrs Penrose.

Here in Ankh-Morpork the plague has struck.

Looking up she stared at the shadows of the streets. Familiar, damp, muddy, and dark. They were empty, for once. News like Mr. Penrose’s death got around. Even the Times had been tactful about it. Which the commander had said was a minor miracle in and of itself. The shadows danced, shifted, seemed to move.

The first victim died last night and was buried this afternoon. His house has been quarantined. A body of men has been gathered to keep the streets clean. They call themselves Beadles, though no-one knows why. His lordship is paying them to sweep and flush out the worst quarters of the city. Rat catcher’s are also being paid double their usual fair. Dogs from the countryside are to be brought in at the end of the week to help clear out the worst of the nests.

This is a big dirty city. The commander says it’s a disaster waiting to happen. I am inclined to agree. The plague has come to Ankh-Morpork and we are now in the calm before the storm.

She stopped, sighed. In the streets the darkness within the darkness shifted, moved, and grew a little larger. 

 --- 

Vimes arrived ten minutes early with a board game tucked under one arm, his helmit under the other. He knocked, stepped back, waited. He heard a soft, ‘come in’.

‘Ah, Vimes,’ the patrician greeted, looking up from papers.

‘Sir,’ he said and gave a cursory glance around the office. It was as it always was, neat, Spartan, and at the moment shadowy and cold. The city lights glittered amongst the fog and winked in through the windows. Vimes remembered when Snapecase had been patrician and when the ‘Catch Yer Dog and Scream Pox’ hit*. Snapcase had holed himself up in the palace; Vimes recalled something about large fires and the keeping of herbs about the previous patrician’s neck. He had lived, though Vimes personally put it down to the refusal to be in the same room as another creature than any of the other supposed cures.

Vetinari, he knew, was taking no such precautions.

‘I’ll be with you in a minute, commander.’ Papers were shuffled, a few notes made. The patrician’s hands were still, even as they moved they were still, in control. Vimes thought it too much. Too still. A practiced sort of stillness that helped maintain calm. The way coppers went full poker face when things went tits up in a hand-basket.

‘Any news, sir?’ Asked to fill the silence. Vimes knew he shouldn’t, because that was a beginning mistake with Vetinari, but this wasn’t a damn meeting was it? It was – something else.

 ‘From Klatch? Nothing. Pseudopolis, the gonfalonier has quarantined the city and imposed martial law,’ he waved at the papers. ‘Much as it was before.’

‘Wasn’t there a plague in Pseudopolis recently?’

Vetinari shrugged, ‘there was a serious epidemic. Some called it a plague, certainly. But its symptoms were different. My informant rather, aha, derisively refers to it as a piddling illness compared to what we have at the moment.’

‘The number?’

‘Steady, it seems. Three hundred a day. Though my informant thinks that it may drop by the end of the month. If the cold weather doesn’t take care of it the lack of people will. A city’s population can only stand so much for so long.’        

Vimes wanted to ask, How is Lady Friends-Call-Me-Bobby-You-May-Call-Me-Madam Meserole? Or do you call her aunt? Or auntie? Instead he motioned to the board under his arm.

‘I brought Exclusive Possession. Thought a break from Thud and chess might be nice. Sir.’       

Vetinari put his pen down and closed the ink well. He stood, leaning on the desk and peered at the commander over flickering candle light. ‘If we’re to play Exclusive Possession it’s Vetinari.’

Vimes grinned, ‘fine. Vetinari. But only if I get to be the boot.’

*A short version of the disease’s full name. 

--

It was one when Vetinari managed to get all the utilities (appropriation for government uses, he said. Vimes had replied that he didn’t stand for useless theft by government). Vimes had several blocks and the public coach system.  Which was no longer public. It was now very, very private. And, consequently, very, very expensive.

‘We used to play at Hogswatch,’ Vimes said as Vetinari moved his piece (the Scottie dog) along the board narrowly missing Vimes’ block.

‘A grand tradition, I am told. Who won?’

‘Usually mam, but sometimes I’d manage to wrangle one game. Though looking back she might have let me have it.’

Vetinari nodded and picked up a chance card. ‘I hear that’s another tradition.’ He looked over the board and nodded. ‘Ah, a get out jail free card. How fitting.’ The smile was bland and Vimes glared at him.

‘As commander of the city watch-‘

‘We're playing a game, Vimes.

'Yes?'

'And in this game you’re a millionaire, slum owning, monopoly creating, extortionist. But do go on.’

Vimes grumbled and built a hotel before moving his boot along the streets. ‘Much easier when mam was playing.’

'Would she charge you four hundred for sewage? Because I’m about to.’

‘Four hundred!’

‘I believe I’m supposed to tell you to pay up. However, as a merchant banker I am willing to let you take out a loan.’ Vetinari picked up a pencil and did a calculation. ‘I hope 30% interest is acceptable.’

‘Bloody well is not.’

‘I’m a blessing. My aunt would have charged fifty.’

Vimes snorted as he counted up four hundred and passed them over. His money pile was looking decidedly less full than it had three turns ago. He picked up the dice and let them roll.

‘You played with your aunt?’

‘Oh yes. Madam was keen on the game. Still is, actually. She believed that the whole family should play. Familial bonding, I think, was the point.’

‘Who ended up with the first bloody nose?’

‘A distant cousin named Jacquery.’ Vetinari said with a too blank face. Vimes grinned and asked, You socked him first? ‘Well, he called the Scottie Dog before the board was even opened. Naturally I had to remind him who was allowed to play that piece and who wasn’t.’

The commander hummed and looked amused. ‘I didn’t take you for a fist throwing sort of man.’

‘I’m not. I was seven, Vimes, not an age renown for self control.’

‘Of course.’

‘Are you smiling?’

Vimes looked down at the board, the patrician’s piece landed on one of his hotels. He looked back up and said, ‘must be a trick of the light, Vetinari’. Vetinari asked how much he owed. ‘Five hundred and seventy five. But I could give you a loan if you’d like.’ There was a moment of stillness, of silence, there were lights from the city trickling in, light from the few candles on the table, from the fire place. Vetinari carefully leaned forward, one thin hand in the middle of the board, and pressed his lips against Vimes’. Neither moved. Vimes was thinking that this can’t be happening because – because it couldn’t. Then he was wondering – is that his hand on my face because that can’t be happening either. Because I’m the commander and he’s the patrician and he’s a man I’ve never – not with him – haven’t thought about except when – and no. Then, then it was, Oh, aw hell, Vimes and kissed the patrician back.  

The board had ended up on the floor and Vimes had said, Hell now we can’t finish the game and I was definitely winning. And Vetinari had said that it was all right, they could start a new game. And Vimes had thought that this was easily the most awkward thing he had done, the who of the matter aside. Wooden chairs were uncomfortable and touching Vetinari as he leaned over him, kissing him (I’m kissing the – I’m – it’s Vetinari, was all Vimes was thinking), was strange and somehow revealing and he felt like they should be in a corner somewhere, or under covers, or in the dark.

‘Er, should we – maybe somewhere else?’ He managed to suggest and Vetinari nodded and pulled him up to a standing position sending his head reeling. Vimes steadied himself against his chair and ignored the crunching sound as a house was most certainly crushed under foot. He thought, I feel like I’m a stupid boy again, only less overwhelmed by it all. Vetinari looked something like smirking and pulled Vimes towards a door at the far end of the room. My terms, Vimes thought and stopped before the door was open. He managed to turn the patrician around and push him up against the wall. A brief pause and he was kissing him again, leaning up against the taller man. Vetinari rested his hands on Vimes’ waist, pulling the commander closer.

A sharp knock from the main doors to the oblong office and both froze. Vimes closed his eyes and breathed out slowly as Vetinari slipped out and walked over to his desk. Vimes followed a moment later, carefully looking at everything but Vetinari.

‘Come.’

That bastard, Vimes thought. He watched Vetinari pick up a file. That cool, collected bastard.  

The door opened a servant came in with a message. The patrician read it then handed it to Vimes.

‘You’re needed, commander. It seems a family has died and Captain Carrot thought you’d want to know. Something about jurisdiction of the bodies.’

Vimes groaned and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘The doctors guild is after them, then.’ He caught Vetinari’s look. ‘Autopsies, I think. Littlebottom and Igor want a few to look at, but so does the guild.’

‘Well it sounds like there’s enough to go around.’

The commander made a face and returned his gaze to the wall.

‘I should go, sir. To sort it out before Dr Freibottom ends up with a few arms he didn’t think he had.’

‘As you say, commander.’ He waved a hand. ‘Don’t let me detain you.’

After the door closed Vetinari heard a very decided punch of the wall outside the office. He shuffled a few papers, looked out at the city, the blinking lights, the distant sea, and very distinctly Did Not Smile. 

Chapter Text

Morning. The next day. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

The headlines of the Times were prophetic and full of ill omens and certain Doom. Vimes snorted in disgust and used the front page to mop up his spilled coffee. There was a knock at the door and he called, Come in.

Carrot stood in the doorway holding a clacks message looking bemused.

‘Haven’t had my coffee,’ Vimes growled, moving stacks of papers around.

‘No, sir. And a clacks message for you, sir.’

‘If it’s from the palace I’m bloody busy so it’ll have to wait.’

The bemused look became more apparent. ‘No, sir. It’s from the Lady Sybil’s cousin, the one who live near the Carrack mountains.' He handed the message over. Vimes read it and nodded to himself.

‘Thank you, captain. That’ll be all for the moment.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I want to know when the next person falls ill. Have all reports from the hospital be copied and brought here.’

‘Sir?’

‘Proper records, captain. We need proper records.’ He sighed and sat down, dabbing at the remains of his coffee. ‘And we need proper coffee.’ He grumbled as he pulled out a sheet of paper.  ‘How did the fight with the doctors’ guild go? I left early.’

‘Wise decision, sir. It lasted until five this morning and we had to detain Dr Marcy for loitering with intent and wasting Watch time. He’s in the cells now, sir.’

Vimes sighed, fished around for a pile of week old reports. ‘Let him out, captain. He’s had a few hours to cool off.’

Carrot saluted and left the office, saying that, as a friendly note, to not go to the morgue any time soon.

‘They came to a compromise in the end,’ he said at the door. ‘Igor and Cheery got two, the guild got two.’

‘And the fifth member?’

‘Buried.’

A sigh and Vimes waved the captain away before turning his attention to the constantly growing pile of reports.

 

           

At the Unseen University Ponder Stibbons was knocking enthusiastically on the headmaster’s door. Very enthusiastically, considering the hour.

‘Ridcully!’ Knock. Knock. Knock. ‘Sir!’ Bang. Bang. Bang. ‘Sir! I know it’s not yet nine but you need to see something!’ Bang. Thump. Bang. ‘Sir!’ Bang – the door opened.

‘What?’ Ridcully stood in a purple bathrobe and his hat lopsided on his head. He was mid shave and freshly showered. ‘Just got back from my run, it better be important.’

Ponder pulled open a book and jabbed a finger at the page, ‘here, look here. I did some computations and the flux around the morphic field of Death has been altered.’

‘Makes sense,’ Ridcully said as he turned back into his room. ‘With the plague and all that. Makes sense, more death going around. Probably called in Pestilence to help.’

‘That’s the thing, sir. It isn’t Pestilence, I checked. He’s busy in Pseudopolis. This is someone else.’

‘And?’ The headmaster had finished his shave and was busying himself by the armoire, shuffling through robes. ‘He has another person.’

Ponder dropped his book and began riffling through papers, sputtering that it was more than that. Yes, yes, there was someone else but it was different. The morphic field was wrong. Not an anthropomorphic field. Not like Death or the Hogfather. Different.

‘What are you proposing?’

‘That we, uh, ask him. See if he knows.’

Ridcully’s brows were scrunching together, ‘is that necessary?’

‘I think so. HEX doesn’t know, either. And sir, the readings,’ he gestured to a graph. The headmaster’s brow furrowed further. ‘The readings look grim.’

‘Squiggly lines made by a five year old with a quill?’

‘Headmaster,’ a glowering look. ‘They represent the new quantum thaumatic flux. This one here,’ he pointed to one line amongst many. ‘Represents the change and the presence of something new and not originally part of this world.’

Ushering Stibbons out of his rooms and down towards the dining hall Ridcully let out a sigh. He had had a nice morning. Crisp autumn air for a lovely run. He managed to get the Bursar to join him for half a mile, he was convinced it would do the man good. Help him with his nerves. He had then taken a warm bath and was now looking forward to brunch*. But now, now there were quantum thingamummies popping up in the morning and new anthropomorphic beings and squiggly lines on graph paper and morhpic flux. Whatever that was. He was not pleased.

‘Should we tell Havelock? I’m sure the patrician will want to know if this has any baring on that plague that’s happening in the city.’

Ponder shrugged, politics was of no concern to him. Petty human squabbles held no relevance to the world of pure thuamatic study.

‘Well, I will decide after brunch,’ the headmaster decided. ‘And tell the Librarian, he might know of an explanation.’

‘Yes, headmaster.’

 

*Academics being naturally allergic to breakfast and anything else associated with early morning hours. With the famous exception, to the great concern of the university, of the Headmaster.

 

----

 

Evening. Same Day as the Squiggly Lined Graph. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

Fliers were going around discussing the ill effects of miasma on the health of carbon based life forms. Someone began saying it was a sure sign of the evil Ankh-Morpork has committed. Someone else was asking – What can we do to appease the gods? Inquiries were made and the gods replied that they frankly weren’t concerned and by the way, did you know Io had a bit of a cold last week? Were any of you concerned then? No. No, didn’t think so.

           

Vimes found a pamphlet put on his desk by and irate Littlebotton and Igor.

‘It’s disgusting, what they’re recommending,’ Littlebottom declared. ‘Probably do you more harm than the disease itself.’

The commander picked up the offending article and leafed through it. It was titled A Preliminary Inquiry into the Nature and Cures of this Disastrous, Deadly Disease. It opened with grave predictions for the fate of mankind and the disc. It recommended closing southern facing windows and opening north facing ones (so as to get the healthy Hubward air and to reduce to ailments caused by the evil stench of the river). It informed that one of the causes was an imbalance of humors (everything is made it fours, after all. Everything is made out of four of something – for the world we have the four elements, for the body the four humors, for matter the four qualities). In order to balance the humors you must “feed the cold and starve the fever”.

A few pages later there was speculation of the supposed immunity of Pseuopolis latrine and hospital workers – so perhaps some malodorous air is beneficial and some is not. “Breath in deeply when walking by latrines so the dense, earthy air of the matter may help keep the other humors better in balance”.

Vimes coughed, ‘he wants us to inhale latrine fumes?’

Littlebottom made a face and nodded. ‘It was written by Dr Freibottom, who seems to have a bit of an obsession with, ah, fecal matter.’

‘Bloody understatement.’ He turned another page. There was a recommendation to burn incense and odorous woods – ash, pine, rosemary, pine, amber – to help keep air pure. Street corner bonfires were recommended. At the bottom of the last page was a hearty recommendation to abstain from bathing as it only opened the pores and invited in disease. Besides, sitting in a tub of water filled with your own filth was bound to be unhealthy.

‘Surprised they haven’t recommended bleedings and sealing yourself up in a windowless room,’ he muttered as he tossed the pamphlet on top of a pile of papers. ‘Has the palace said anything?’

She shook her head. ‘No, nothing yet. The Times is just recommending that everyone keep healthy and do the opposite of the doctors’ guild.’

‘Good advice.’

‘The price for sacrifices to the gods has tripled. So has the price for linen to make masks. So has the price for coffins.’

‘Only one family’s died and they’re already jumping the crossbow,’ he thumbed through some papers. Playing with the paperwork, he thought glumly. I’m picking up bad habits from the patrician. ‘Thank you, Inspector. Send up the autopsy report when you and Igor have finished.’

‘Yes, sir.’ She saluted and left.

 

 

Carrot found him a few hours later staring numbly at a report. He said, Sir I think you had best take a break. Vimes replied sourly that he was fine. Thank you, captain.

‘Sir, you were almost drooling on Corporal Nobby’s report.’

‘It was my personal response to the level of disbelief I was experiencing while reading it. A break in on Easy St? Only a pocket watch and small change stolen? I suspect our culprit is by the front desk having a smoke.’

Carrot’s face was impeccable. He said, Couldn’t say, sir. Vimes stared back, equally blank. He thought, Carrot’s learned well. And it feels like he just joined but at the same time it feels like a lifetime. One of life’s natural coppers.

With a grunt Vimes shoved himself into a standing position. ‘Perhaps you’re right. I need to find food, anyway. Curry?’

‘I’m about to go on beat, sir. But thank you.’

‘Is that all, captain?’

‘No, sir. Palace sent for you, sir. The patrician said that you need not hurry yourself. He said there was no rush.’

‘I really hate that man, sometimes.’ He fished around for a box of matches, finding one in the desk top drawer he lit a cigar. ‘I’ll be off when I please, then. Good luck on the beat, report in if you hear of anyone sick or dead.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Carrot ripped off a salute and strode off down the stairs. The only copper Vimes knew who could stride and not look like a pompous fool whilst doing so.

 

 

When Vimes finally arrived at the palace he was ushered into the Rat’s Chamber and into a seat opposite Lord Rust who, for once, actually looked at him.

‘My wife is ill.’ He said looking and not looking. Vimes replied that he was sorry. He didn’t ask with what. He thought, She needs to be quarantined. So does the family, the staff, the house. This is too big.

Vetinari called order and the room quieted down. There was a stack of papers in front of him, neat, orderly. There was a wild thought in the commander’s mind that maybe Vetinari felt that if he organised things enough it would all stop. This was followed by the realisation that he had yet to eat that day.

‘Gentlemen, ladies, as you all know the plague has arrived in the city. We have lost six, I believe. Commander?’

Vimes nodded, ‘yes, sir. There was a report of two more families falling ill before I arrived. So seven total.’

‘That we know of,’ Vetinari amended. ‘It’s not something one announces to the entire street. There appears to be a slower rate of spread here than in other cities but that does not mean we should be less vigilant. I have received requests for a specialised quarantine area, more graveyards to be sanctioned, and more street cleaners.’ He picked up a piece of paper and looked it over. ‘Trade has dwindled, but not yet stopped, thankfully. How much that has to do with cities avoiding us or closing their own gates is unknown and frankly, not important.’

‘What will happen if trade is cut off?’ A merchant asked. Mr Tourgit, Vimes thought. Recently elected head of the Merchant’s Guild.

‘If it’s for reasons of plague then we will weather it as best we can until the disease moves on,’ Vetinari said evenly. ‘But it hasn’t yet so there’s not point in getting unduly upset. Now, for the new burying grounds, where should they be placed?’

The meeting droned on and outside the weather worsened. The commander wondered when the last time it was that he had seen snow flurries this early in the autumn. Though it was cold enough, he felt. Cold and damp. Miserable.

The meeting wrapped up with an unusually quiet air. Downey was looking glum, he paused by Vimes and said that he needs to up his count on the ill. Four of the guild boys are sick.

‘Are you sure it’s plague.’

Downey waved his hand in a vague motion, ‘disgusting blue black things on the neck? Waxy skin? Jaundiced eyes? Fever?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Oh, then yes, certainly that.’

‘We’re trying to keep tabs on the numbers, I would appreciate it if the Watch is updated on the matter.’

The assassin shrugged, languid and fluid. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ And before Vimes could snarl something in reply Downey had slipped from the room.

Rust followed with a morose look, with Venturi and Selachii trailing.

 

‘We can’t quarantine everyone who gets sick.’ He finally said when the room was empty. He was facing the doors, one was still open. Vetinari was behind him, somewhere, in the growing shadows. Low clouds, snow clouds, hovered over the city. The sky was a milky grey-blue-white-pink. It made Vimes feel restless, frustrated, caged.

‘No,’ came the soft answer. ‘We can’t. We can only do our best.’

‘If we get the numbers like they have in Pseudopolis we’re going to run out of burying ground fairly quick.’

‘We’ll burn them, then. Dig deeper, maybe. There are ways and means, as always.’

Vimes kept his face to the door, away from the other man who was watching him. He could feel intent blue eyes. He could feel a question building.

‘Vimes,’ soft, soft, soft. ‘We never did finish the game.’

He could hear papers being shuffled, stacked. He knew those thin, pale, deadly, deadly quiet fingers were moving. He sort of envied the paper then decided he shouldn’t because that is ridiculous and in no way did he want anything of the patrician near him except when he did.

He sighed.

‘No, we didn’t.’ He finally turned with face careful watch-man blank. ‘Tomorrow evening? Barring the end of the world?’

The patrician smile-smirked. ‘Barring the end of the world. Ten?’

‘Ten thirty.’

‘Very good,’ he stood with careful movement. ‘Don’t let me detain you.’

‘We can’t, you know.’

‘I’m sorry?’

Outside a few snow flakes hit the window.

Gods take the weather, Vimes thought. Take it and shove it somewhere impolite.

‘We can’t, because. That is, what if –‘

‘Can’t play a game?’

‘Is that all it is, then?’ Firmer ground, Vimes thought. It’s easier here, being aggressive and on the offensive.

‘It’s safer, Sam, when it’s a game. Because then, if someone asks, it was just, aha, Exclusive Possession. It was just Thud.’

‘Even if the pieces are on the floor?’

‘Even then. Especially then. We were just playing a game. Good evening, commander.’

 

When Vimes finally arrived home, shed his coat and armour and sat down with a hot tea and the evening Times he realised that Vetinari had called him Sam. And all he could think was, That damn cheeky bastard. That damn cheeky, sly, handsome, smirking bastard. Gods take him, too. 

Chapter Text

Early Morning. Ankh-Morpork. Autumn. 

When Vimes woke it was to a soft morning light. Somewhere bells were tolling. The clock on the bedside stand read half six. He thought about ducking back under the covers for another five minutes before changing his mind. Young Sam was tucked under a pile of blankets in the Very Brown Office with a large book open. There was a map of the disc and he was busy very carefully writing a list.

‘For school, Ms Brewster says we’re to write a list of the places we want to visit.’ He explained.

‘And what are you writing down?’

‘All the places.’

Vimes chuckled and ruffled Sam’s hair. ‘Ambitious.’

‘I would take a magic carpet or something. Then I betcha I could.’

‘Hm, I’m sure.’

The boy stopped writing for a moment and looked up with a cautious look, ‘daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Willikins says that I might be going to the countryside.’

Vimes sat down next to his son and nodded. ‘You are, you’re going to your Aunt Felicity for a while, until this business calms down.’

Young Sam looked over his list. He found a small city, nestled in the foot hills of the Ramtops, and made a careful check. He explained to his father’s questioning look, ‘On account that I’m going to Auntie’s. I’ll have visited it by the time I present this in school. Ms Brewster said that we were to mark all the places we’ve visited that were parts foreign. And she said that she wanted to hear all our stories.’

Vimes nodded and looked at the map, the warm yellow-gold expanse of Klatch spread out under Ankh-Morpork, under the lush green of the Sto Plains, the ice cold white-blue of the Ramptops. He traced a finger from Urt along to Pseudopolis to Ankh-Morpork. He wondered why the innocent map looked so snatching, so sinister.

‘Put it away,’ he said. ‘Let’s go eat breakfast.’

 

 

When he went for a shave and Willikins said that the Times was late he had an inkling. A little nudge in the back of his mind that made him pause. He picked up his razor, ‘Well, let me know if it arrives.’

‘Yes, sir.’

  

When he said goodbye to Sam and told him to not be late to school, or no desert for a week, and his son said, ‘Oh no, daddy, school’s out on account of my teacher being sick. She sent a note round proper early’, he had the niggling.

‘Very early,’ he corrected before hugging young Sam who squirmed. ‘Look, best you stay in today. Do your homework, maybe build that castle you got for your birthday. I’ll be home for lunch, all right?’ Sam nodded dutifully and rubbed his father’s helmet for good luck. ‘You’re leaving for your aunt’s tonight.’ He held up a hand as Sam’s face began to screw up. ‘No protesting. As soon as this is over you’re coming back to the city, don’t worry. It’s not forever. You’re a Vimes, eh? We face every challenge with our chins up and feet firmly on the ground.’

Young Sam pondered this as he played with Vimes’ badge. ‘What does that mean? Feet firmly on the ground?’

‘Means we don’t get carried away with ourselves. Means we’re sensible and practical.’

‘Willikins says Mum was very practical.’

‘She was. Most sensible person I’ve ever known.’

Sam nodded, he looked up, ‘so going to Auntie’s is sensible?’

‘Very.’

‘Then why are you staying here? And Willikins? And Mr Carrot? And Ms Angua? And Mr Lord Patrician Vetinari Sir?”

A sigh. The problem with intelligent children, thought Vimes. You can’t give them short explanations.

‘I’m staying because it’s my duty to protect the city and to maintain the law, regardless of what is happening. Whether there is plague or war or revolution, the Watch will be there. That’s the same reason Carrot and Angua are staying. And it’s the same reasons for Vetinari, or for similar enough reasons. The ruler of the city can’t abandon it. Even if people are dying, the city has to run.’

His son rubbed his helmet again, there was a shiny spot there, probably the cleanest part of the uniform, Vimes mused. He ruffled Sam’s hair.

‘I have to go, but I’ll be back for lunch.’

 

 

When the streets were quiet except for the Beadles, who on the whole didn’t say much, he was near frantic.

  

When he arrived at the watch house and found Carrot standing at the front desk looking grim he nearly shook the man.

‘Captain?’ He said instead.

‘We have new reports coming in by the minute, sir. It happened in one night, sir.’

Vimes found an empty coffee mug, rubbed out the old stains with the hem of his tunic. ‘What happened?’

‘Everyone’s sick, sir. Inspector Littlebottom said the count was two hundred and thirty last she heard. And those are only the reported ones.’

He sat down. He stood back up. He sat back down.

‘In one night?’ He whispered. He made a mental note, Send Sam out at lunch. His mind erased it, rewrote, Send Sam out right now.

‘Yes, sir.’ Carrot looked exhausted, he saw. He had never known the captain to wear anything so clearly as he wore this exhaustion. ‘And from what we know of Pseudopolis, it’s just starting.’

‘Any word from the palace?’

‘Yes, sir. The patrician wants to see you.’

‘Course he does.’ He stood again and made for the coffee pot. It was enamel stripping tar but it was hot and caffeinated so he didn’t much care.

‘He said the wizards are the palace, that they’re concerned.’

‘The entire bloody city’s concerned!’ He snarled before reigning himself in. ‘Sorry, captain. I’ll be over to the palace presently. Could you do me a favour? Go to my house and tell Willikins to get Sam out. He’ll know what to do.’

Carrot saluted, ‘yes, sir! Right away, sir!’

 

 It had occurred to the commander, on his way to the palace, that Vetianri was summoning him more than usual regardless of the crises situation. He had pondered that for a minute or two before deciding that he did not like the road those thoughts were going down and derailed them in favour of methodically planning the Watch’s response to the latest virulence of the plague.

He passed allies and dark corners, over bridges and the dank river. The day seemed darker than he recalled. He stopped for a moment and stared up. The clouds were thick and heavy, the city was quiet, he didn’t like it. He muttered, Gods take the plague. And in a dark, sheltered corner of the city something moved.

 

Mustrum Ridcully was pacing the oblong office when Vimes arrived. Ponder Stibbons was standing morosely near the headmaster and Vetinari was seated at the desk watching the two wizards. Vimes thought that it looked likea  tableaux, like he just walked in on some paly, found it interesting, and decided to stay and see it out.

‘Your lordship,’ he gave a salute. Vetinari waved him in and seemed to collect himself from whatever revere he had been in.

‘Excellent, now, headmaster, please do continue.’

Ridcully nodded and turned his attention to the now seated commander.

The first act.

‘This plague, we feel, is being caused by external magical effects.’ He paused, looked back at Stibbons and the Librarian who, Vimes suddenly noticed, was lurking behind the younger wizard. He was eating a bag of nuts and looking wholly unconcerned.

‘That is,’ Ridcully continued. ‘Stibbons feels that the excess of death has caused an upset, or perhaps it’s the other way around? You know, Stibbons, this upset could be causing the excess of death.’

‘Doesn’t matter, I should think, Headmaster.’ Stibbons said quietly while looking all the time like a man about to explode.

‘Quite right, well, we’ve looked into it and the Librarian can’t find anything on it and HEX is at a loss so Stibbons has suggested we, uh, ask him.’

‘Ask who?’ Vetinari was making notes as he asked. He looked up when there was silence.

 ‘Him. Sir.’ No one likes to discuss death. Or Death. Even Wizards, regardless of the fact that they generally know when theirs is going to occur. It was unsettling, and on the whole, an unpleasant topic of conversation. People tended to get weepy. Though Ridcully was aware that he was in the company of not particularly weepy people. He had heard a rumour that the patrician hadn’t cried when his father had died. He had been a lad, the headmaster had heard. Wasn’t natural, a lad not being upset about his father. Maybe he hadn’t known him, Ridcully had suggested. I didn’t weep when my dad died and I was young. Some people just don’t mourn that way. Some people just don’t go for the theatrics. Or at least know when not to.

‘Who, headmaster? You are going to have to be more explicit than that.’

The Librarian edged himself forward, ‘Oook. Oook!’

‘Death,’ Ridcully finally said. ‘We want to summon him, to see if he knows. We thought you’d want to know that it might not be wholly natural.’

The patrician nodded, ‘this is indeed interesting news, headmaster. When were you planning on performing it?’

‘Tonight, sir. Best not waste time.’

Vimes thought, The number before I left the Watch house was over two hundred. Time. What time?

‘Quite. I want to hear the results as soon as you have them.’

‘Yes.’

‘And Mustrum,’ Vetinari looked down at a paper then back up. ‘I’m sorry about your brother.’

Ridcully sighed. ‘He’s not dead yet. Unfortunately. I still have to write to the family.’

‘A difficult situation, I understand.’

‘Yes, well, chin up, eh? Come along, Stibbons, we have work to do.’

When the door closed Vetinari sat back, wrists resting on the desk. ‘Well, that was enlightening.’

‘Do you think they’re on to something?’ Vimes asked. He thought, And now we’re onto act two.

‘They could be. It’s too early to tell, of course. How is Sam?’ His eyes were closed. The commander knew he did that when thinking. When thinking and when he was cornered and couldn’t see to quite the end. Though, Vimes reasoned, Vetinari could generally see a lot farther than most.

‘He’s well. I’m sending him to one of Sybil’s cousins. She lives in the middle of no where, by the mountains.’

‘Perhaps a wise decision. Lord Rust is taking his wife away tomorrow morning. Downey has sent most of the guild students home. The ones who can go home, that is. Selachii has decided that it’s been too long since he’s seen his country estate.’

‘Convenient timing.’

Vetinari shrugged, eyes open again and they were very blue. ‘Those who can, run. They’re perhaps the smart ones.’ He leaned forward, fingers picking up papers. ‘What was the latest number you’ve heard?’

‘Over two hundred and thirty, sir. And yourself?’

‘Three hundred forty. Not bad.’

Vimes stood, there was an early afternoon sun peaking through the clouds. It was the first bit of blue in weeks. He asked, Any news from Pseudopolis?

His lordship shook his head, Not for three days. But there have been delays. Not enough people to run mail, to run the clacks either.

Vimes said, I’m sorry.

Vetinari said, Happens to us all.

Vimes said, I’m still sorry.

‘Well, enough of that, then. Delays, Sir Samual. I’m sure that’s all it is. No use getting unduly upset other something unknown. We need to find more space for the ill. Does the Ramkin estate have any houses or buildings we can convert?’

With an effort Vimes followed the twist in the conversation. He said he was sure there were some, but off hand he didn’t know where, but he would look into it. Vetinari nodded. The hall clock was ticking. Sort of. Outside there was the first bit of sun and Vimes was convinced that it wasn’t real.

Vetinari was sitting still, back straight, papers in hand. We’re a proper portrait, the commander thought. We could be painted like this.

‘Well, if that is all, commander. Don’t let me detain you.’

He wasn’t thinking very much when he stopped by the edge of the desk, turned back around, and kissed the patrician. He wasn’t thinking very much when he definitely  did-not-run from the palace. When he sat back down, still not thinking about it, he sighed. He put his helmet aside. And then he said, ‘Oh bloody hell’.

 

A new pamphlet was on his desk, Carrot had brought it in, he found out when he later inquired. The captain looked annoyed which was as close to pissed off as he ever got. Or as close as he ever let people see.

‘Found them this afternoon, sir.’ He explained. ‘There are a few, but they’re all sort of the same. They say the plague is a conspiracy by the differently alive to clean out the city of humans.’

‘Oh gods, really?’

'Yes, sir. They say that the water supply has been poisoned.’

‘Bull-‘*

Yes, sir.’

Reading through the pamphlets Vimes found them aimed at almost everyone – Klatchians, Trolls, Dwarves (never mind they were also dying), Werewolves (who seemed, at the moment, curiously immune), Vampires, Genuans, Gollums, the nobility, the non-nobility, the Omnians, the worshipers of Io, the worshipers of Offle, Ms Mcguinty’s cat, Igors, witches, wizards, so on.

He dumped them in the rubbish bin, ‘get some men on this. Find the printers and try and keep people from tearing each other’s throats out or burning things. We know how calm Ankh-Morpork remains with species’ tensions.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Make sure it’s a diverse group.’

‘Of course, sir. I’ll head it up myself.’

‘Good man. Now, where’s Sam?’

‘In your office, sir. The carriage should be here within the hour.’

A nod, Vimes stood and sighed. ‘Well, best get on with it.’

‘Yes, sir.’

--
*Since we all know that poisoning the Ankh-Morpork water supply tends to only lead to miraculous cures. 
 

 

Sam ate lunch with his father in his office. They ordered in the boy’s favourite pizza and Vimes found some ice cream in the watch kitchen. It wasn’t very good but it would do, under the circumstances. When the coach pulled up Sam cried and said he didn’t want to go. He said he hated his Aunt, even if he had never met her he hated her. He said he didn’t want to see parts foreign. That he wanted to stay. Please daddy, let me stay. And Vimes hugged his son, said he loved him, and that he would see him soon. He said that we all have parts to play in this thing and yours is to go to your aunt. To make sure she’s all right. To keep everyone over there safe. Only a watchman’s son could do that, eh? Chin up, there’s a good boy.

He followed the carriage to the gate of the city and waved until he was sure Sam couldn’t see him any more. When he returned to the watch house he said he would be kipping there, mostly. Best to be accessible during a crises. He sent for papers and found an old house. A dowager house, not in use, that belonged to the Ramkins and said to Carrot, ‘Send word to the patrician that I found what he wanted.’ He looked at the clock. ‘Never mind, I’ll go up and see him myself.’

‘It’s seven, sir. Do you think he’ll mind?’

Vimes shrugged, ‘when has he minded about my schedule?’

Carrot didn’t immediately reply but his face was a circus show of reactions before settling for a careful, ‘As you say, sir.’ 

Chapter Text

Same day as Sam’s departure. Evening. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

           

Death felt a tug. The gentle, insistent pull on his form. He sighed, watched another soul wonder dutifully off to the next world.

THIS REALLY ISN’T A GOOD TIME. He said to no one in particular. Death of Rats had business in the sewers and took Death of Fleas with him. Death waited. He felt the tugging again. He ignored it.

HUMANS ARE REALLY VERY INCONCSIDERATE OF THE WORKLOAD.

The third tug was more of a yank, he grumbled, pulled back, and moved on into the streets.

 

The evening edition of the Times said that its top reporter had died that morning. It said that the death toll for the past week was five hundred twenty three. It said that if you were ill to confine yourself to your room. It said that if you were ill to make a will, to leave it out, someplace obvious and close to the door. It said that a black cloth should be tied to the front post or window of all infected houses.

The evening edition of the Times said it would no longer be running an obituary page. The evening edition of the Times ended its article on Ms Cripslock, written by de Worde himself, with, ‘and with that, I will say good night and good luck’.

 

A house had been on fire that morning. Someone had set light to it after finding out it was infected. Everyone had died. A boarding house. There had been fifty seven residents. Now there were fifty seven more people in the graves and a large mass of smouldering wood and bricks. Vimes had issued an order that arson was strictly forbidden. And if he caught the bloody bastard who was doing it…

 

           

Vimes passed by three filled carts. He could smell the dead and the rotting flesh and he wondered why it was starting so soon. Didn’t it take a few days? He asked a Beadle. The man shrugged and said, ‘We don’t always get them on the first day. These ones have been dead maybe three days.’

Vimes stared at the them until he thought all he could see were the bodies. He moved on. He walked quietly, sticking to shadows and out of the lamp light. The people who were out on the street were quiet. A waiting quiet. As if they were expecting a trick to turn, a curtain to pull up and someone to jump out and say, ‘aha, gotcha!’

He knocked on the Oblong office and received the usual calm reply of ‘come in’.

‘Ah, commander.’ Vetinari looked at him expectantly. The evening edition was carefully opened to the centre fold where the latest plague information was printed. ‘Good of you to come, a bit early though.’

'I found a house that can be used.’ He didn’t think his voice was usually this hollow. ‘Five hundred, sir?’

Vetinari nodded and closed the paper. ‘As always, that’s the reported figure.’

‘They say they sometimes don’t take bodies away for a few days.’

‘They’re over worked and understaffed. Trying to find people to remove the bodies is difficult. And expensive.’

A pause before Vimes sat down and placed the papers on the desk. He asked, What about gollums?

‘The ones who are free have been employed with graves and in the hospitals. Trolls are helping to decontaminate the emptied houses. Vampires aren’t trusted to work in the hospitals and wont deign to do any physical labour. Same for werewolves.’ The patrician picked up a piece of paper then set it down. ‘I had thought we might take a visit to the University. The headmaster had said that he intended to summon Death this evening.’

‘Of course, sir.’

‘It seems a bit…cold, to –‘ he waved his hand towards the game box. ‘If you’re up for a walk.’

‘Of course, sir. Though I can’t say it’s pleasant out.’

‘I never expected it to be.’

 

           

Ponder Stibbons stepped back and said to the headmaster, ‘Maybe it’s the fourth time that’s the charm?’

‘Never much liked even numbers,’ Ridcully grumbled but waved for the younger man to continue none the less. ‘From the beginning again, then?’

‘Er, yes, I think that’d be best.’ He shuffled the bowls and skulls back to their proper places. ‘Could you wake the Dean?’

Ridcully gave the Dean a shake and said, ‘look sharp, man!’

‘Yo.’ The Dean responded groggily. ‘Where should I stand?’

‘Where you were before.’

The wizards shuffled into place and Ridcully stared glumly at the dribbly candles in front of him.

‘Really, Stibbons. I don’t feel this is necessary. Four CCs of mouse blood and three small sticks, I always say. I even brought a fresh egg, just in case.’

The younger wizard shrugged, ‘apparently it’s best if you do it with all the proper trappings.’

‘It’s not like he cares.’

The dean shook his head, ‘no, no. Got to do it properly.’

They stood still as Ponder began the ceremony again. The room darkened and the air pressure changed. The candle flames grew large then small then large again. A few flickered green.

A flash and whooshing sound and Ridcully knew it had worked. Well, damnit, he thought. Damnit all.

The black cloaked entity stood in the centre of the circle with its head bowed. Its gown was heavy, academic in design, with a hood drooping low and obscuring the entity’s face.

Ridcully glanced to Ponder who shrugged. The headmaster licked his lips and began, ‘Um, terribly sorry to disrupt. I know you must be awfully busy with all this – but uh, we have a few questions.’

Yess?

The wizard’s frown deepened. There was something wrong but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

'Well, it seems, uh, it seems that there is Death and there is something… someone else. We were wondering if you had information on this.’

The entity lifted its head, revealing a mask of pale white bone with a long nose, empty eyes and a gaping maw for the mouth. It dropped its head a fraction, obscuring all but the long, beakish, nose.

‘Fancy get up, that is.’ The dean said before Ridcully elbowed him and shook his head.

Thhank you. Ssspeacial ocasssion. It laughed. The temperature dropped a fraction.

Around the wizards the lights flickered, a few candles blowing out. The entity flickered, its robes waving before it disappeared. There was nothing for a second. Then something else was in the centre of the circle.

YES?

Stibbons was furiously scribbling in a notebook and the dean looked ill. The headmaster scowled at his colleagues before turning back to Death.

‘We seem to have a problem.’ He said. ‘Or maybe not. We spoke to your compatriot, I think. Long nosed chap, big hood, sort of smelled funny, now that I think about it.’

MY COMPATRIOT?

‘Yees, though we didn’t get his name. Wearing a mask sort of thing. Long nose, like a beak. No mouth, no eyes.’

Death stared at Ridcully until the headmaster looked away. He taped his chin with one thin boney digit.

WELL, IT’S NOT PESTILANCE. HE’S IN PSEUDOPOLIS. UNTIMELY DEATH IS IN KLATCH. TRAGIC DEMISE AT THE HANDS OF A WRETCHED DISEASE WE COULDN’T CURE IS HEADING FOR GENUA. He thought about this. I THINK WE NEED A SHORTER NAME FOR HIM.

‘Yes, quite. Look, one of my colleagues has reason to believe that the excessive death has sort of created him. In the way of what happened before. When you, ah, took that farming break.’

NO.

‘No?’

NO. IT’S NOT LIKE THAT. THIS IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT. I THINK THIS IS PLAGUE.

‘Pestilence?”

PLAGUE. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. There seemed a sudden urgency around Death. He fidgeted. Turned a full circle and looked at each of the wizards before nodding to himself. PLAGUE IS CREATED OUT OF THE PLAGUE AND AT THE SAME TIME CREATES IT.

‘Is he, uh, well, like you? That is, just “natural” for lack of a better word?’ The headmaster was ready to smack Stibbons if he didn’t stop scribbling. Being the sole person to carry on a conversation with Death was not pleasant. And it had been the youngster’s idea, anyway.

HMM. NO. NO, I DON’T THINK SO. A pause. NO, NO, DEFINITELY NOT.

‘Can he be stopped?’

WHEN THE PLAGUE IS STOPPED.

Ridcully was eager, ‘And how do we do that?’

I DON’T KNOW.

‘Well, bugger.’

 

When the headmaster informed the patrician what Death had said Vetinari merely nodded and murmured, Fascinating. The commander, who had inexplicably come along much to the confusion of Ridcully, had grumbled that this wasn’t useful and people were still dying weren’t they? He had then muttered something else under his breath that ended with ‘wizards’.

The patrician had looked amused and said, ‘Well, if you learn anything further, send a message to the palace.’ He had then turned the commander and said, ‘I think it was a pleasant walk.’ The commander had replied that he bloody well didn’t agree. That it was raining again. That they had only seen the sun for ten minutes the other day and now it was pissing down and the plague had its own bloody anthropomorphic being and what’s next? A temple dedicated to it?

‘Oh, I wouldn’t put it past us,’ Vetinari had replied evenly. ‘We did crown a dragon king. Until it was arrested, that is.’ He hummed under his breath. ‘New precedence in Ankh-Morpork, now that I think about it. Arresting kings instead of beheading them.’

The commander had stalked outside at that point for a smoke. Ridcully had been confused and continued to remain so for the rest of the evening.

 

Vetinari found Vimes under one of the ornate overhangs jutting out from the university library. He was on his second cigar and looking steadily more annoyed.

‘Well that would explain the behaviour of it here in the city.’ The patrician began. He was standing slightly behind the commander and Vimes could feel him staring. He ignored him. Stared into the murky night. ‘The headmaster explained that the being is relatively new, it only…materialised in the last few days.’

‘When things got worse.’

‘Hm.’

They stood in silence, watching the rain. Vimes snubbed out the cigar and tucked the rest of it away. He took a few steps back so he was level with Vetinari and resting against the wall of the building. Their shoulders were touching and Vimes thought it was possibly the most intense thing he had felt recently. He ignored it. He stared into the rain some more.

‘Where are you off to now?’ Vetinari asked after a minute. Vimes could feel a shift as the patrician put more weight on his cane.

His instinct was to say, Home. I need to check in on Sam. But then he remembered that Sam wasn’t home. That the house was empty. So he said, ‘the watch house, probably. Try and catch a few hours of sleep.’ He waited for a reply. Nothing. He fished for the remains of his cigar and relit it. ‘And yourself?’

‘Oh, the palace. Home, I suppose. As much as it can be one.’

Vimes could still feel the other man’s shoulder, his arm, touching his. Skin on fabric on fabric on chainmail on fabric on skin. So many sodding layers, he thought. So many sodding layers. He blew out a smoke ring and watched it fall apart in the rain.

‘Does it get lonely?’ A wince. He hadn’t meant to ask it because he didn’t want to know because to know would be sort of too much, really.

‘Sometimes. But, no, not usually.’ A soft sigh. ‘Shall we?’

‘If you’d like. I can find a carriage. It’s a bit wet out, if you haven’t noticed. Sir.’

‘Don’t use the sir, Vimes. And I’d like to walk. It’s been a while since I’ve walked in the rain.’

           

When they arrived at the palace and were safely dripping on the foyer floors Vetinari asked while looking and not looking, ‘night cap? Tea, perhaps?’

And Vimes replied while looking and not looking, ‘sure.’

They climbed stairs and dripped down halls while looking and not looking. Vetinari mentioned the weather. Vimes said something in return. They looked at each other without looking.

When they got to the Oblong Office Vetinari was trying not to shiver and stood in front of the fire steaming. Vimes watched from a safe difference before thinking, Aw bloody hell, and saying aloud, ‘You should probably get out of those clothes. Catch a cold.’

And Vetinari stared at the fire before shooting a look back to the commander, ‘was that an invitation?’

And Vimes said, ‘uh…Sure?’ He paused then asked, ‘may I say one thing?’

‘Certainly.’

‘You’re a bloody bastard.’

And Vetinari smiled. ‘Thank you, Sam. I return the sentiments.’

 

It started slow. Sort of a kiss here, a kiss there. Their clothes were cold and wet and uncomfortable and heavy. When Vimes held Vetinari’s arms, pushed him up against a wall, kissed him hard, he could feel heat seeping through the damp to his fingers. His kissed the other man some more and thought to himself, I don’t know how to get him undressed. I don’t know what I’m doing in general.

He settled for kissing and occasionally exploring the other man’s body through cold cloth. Vetinari pulled him close and wrapped one arm around his waist. The other slid up and cupped the back of his head, thin fingers raking through his hair. Vimes moved, managed to free a few buttons at the base of the patrician’s neck exposing some skin. He kissed down so he could feel the pulse under lips (pounding, he thought, his heart is pounding), and back up. A moment with noses bumping and Vetinari began pulling at the straps of Vimes’ armour.

‘I’m afraid you’ll have to help,’ he murmured. ‘I’m not sure how these work.’ Vimes stepped back and undid the clasps of the armour and pulled chain mail over his head. Vetinari watched for a minute before following suite and undoing whatever it was (Vimes considered most things about the patrician a mystery) that held his robe closed. A second later Vimes was pushing him back against the wall, hands pulling undershirt up so he could splay fingers on pale abdomen. One of Vetinari’s hands was at the back of Vimes’ head again and he was burying his face against the inset of the commander’s neck. Vimes could feel occasional nips, kisses, the brush of beard against skin, a free hand tugging his hips closer. There was a gasp, a quick intake of breath between teeth, as Vimes leaned in and brought a leg to rest between Vetinari’s.

‘I think,’ Vimes managed as his fumbled with shirt buttons. At least these ones are bloody visible, he thought. ‘I think this might be easier -‘

‘Quite.’ And if he wasn’t mistaken Vetinari looked positively amused. He didn’t like the slight smirk so he leaned up for a kiss. He found himself being spun so he was against the wall, back on warm wood then suddenly pulled forward as Vetinari stepped back towards the bed.

Outside it was raining. Vimes noticed this because apart from their breathing the only sounds were raindrops on window pains and he liked that noise. He wondered when the last time he ate was. He wondered what he was doing, suddenly on his back, in the patrician’s bed. Vetinari was straddling his hips and looking self-satisfied. Vimes decided that needed to be changed so he reached up, pulled the patrician down and managed to flip him onto his back and kissed him before he could say anything. During the roll Vetinari managed to haul half of Vimes’ tunic up, cool fingers suddenly tracing over shoulders, clavicles, then up again and over to his back.

Outside it was raining. Vimes thought that it was fitting as he pulled Vetinari’s shirt off and thought, Finally. The patrician was pale. This wasn’t surprising. The patrician was cool to the touch. This, Vimes put down to the rain and the damp and the cold autumnal air. He found his own tunic going over his head and leaned down so their chests were touching and Vetinari had one leg awkwardly hooked over Vimes’ thigh. Vimes could feel him sort of rubbing up, eyes unfocused and the commander couldn’t remember when their boots had come off or when socks had ended up in a wet lump on the floor. He decided he needed to stop thinking so much. A hand was at his waist working off breeches and he found Vetinari’s eyes a careful blue. He smirked. Like hell was he going to let Vetinari know that he had no idea what he was doing.

With some careful manoeuvring Vimes managed to get his breeches off and Vetinari’s trousers. The patrician was thin and sort of knobbly and looking very hungry. Vimes traced over the patrician’s thin chest, careful breaths rising and falling, he could feel the diaphragm filing and emptying. His hand slid lower, over stomach and hips and thigh, still scarred from the gunn. He thought – I almost saw him die. I’ve seen him almost die more times than should be healthy.

He began kissing down Vetinari’s neck to the base, and of them was breathing heavier than before or maybe they both were. Suddenly he became aware of thin fingers on his skin, mirroring his mapping of the body (down over chest and stomach, along hip, dipping in against his prick making him gasp and move forward a bit before fingers ran away and he looked up to an expression that was either a smile or a smirk) before sliding to his back and down to hips, buttocks, backs of thighs, pulling him closer and looking so-so-so-something dark and vaguely animalistic.

Weight was shifted and Vetinari’s legs spread then half wrapping around Vimes’ waist. Vimes was thinking about everyone who had died, only three hundred, four hundred, he was thinking about tomorrow and maybe another four hundred dying in the night. He thought about that one time, during the war that wasn’t a war, listening to the names of everyone he knew – A hand was on his face and pulling him back down and there were blue eyes, that careful, cautious, waiting blue and Vimes wanted it all just to go away and couldn’t it all go back to the way it was before. No plague. No endless, endless rain. No being forced to send his son away. No carts of bodies. No petty wars over bodies for autopsies.

Vetinari was kissing him, fierce, hard, forcing him back to the present and he was rubbing their bodies together, feeling that inevitable pressure build up. The patrician was holding onto him, moaning something over and over into his neck, hips jerking up, there was a hand between them stroking and Vimes felt like he was drowning and noticing that Vetinari smelled liked something he couldn’t place his finger on but it was nice. He though, I need to stop being a copper for five minute.

He was aware only of fingernails in his hips when he came, aware only of seeing black hair, a pillow, feeling someone biting into neck and then they were still and outside, outside it was raining.

 

Later that night, when the rain had turned into sleet, and Vimes was smoking and Vetinari was drinking something that smelled suspiciously like a single malt, the commander asked the patrician, How do you do it?

And Vetinari asked, Do what?

And Vimes said, Deal with all of this – (a vague wave of his hand) all the time.

And Vetinari asked, How do you?

Vimes said, I smoke a lot.

Indeed, and Vetinari stopped for a minute. Watched Vimes smoking before saying, I do the crossword.

Vimes took a drag, blew smoke out, was silent. Vetinari took a sip of his drink. He said to the commander, It’s the little things.

And Vimes said, Isn’t it always?

Outside there was sleet.

Vetinari asked, softly, in fading candlelight, Have you thought about it?

And Vimes said, softly, in fading candlelight, Yes. 

Chapter Text

Morning. Cold. Early. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

When Vimes woke the rain had passed and there was a thin sheen of frost on window pains. The sky was still grey, but an early morning late-autumn grey. The soft, gentle grey. The sort of watery-milk grey.

He rolled over and found Vetinari sleeping, back to him, covers pulled up high. With a sigh he fumbled around on the bedside table until he found a watch and checked the time. Half six. Right, he thought. Best go see what the nightly damage has been. He moved to the edge of the bed gently and dressed as quietly as he could manage. As Vimes stood by the door he looked back to the room, the silence, the dead fireplace, the soft light just beginning to come in, the curled up sleeping figure and he thought, What a picture.

As he arrived at the Watch the commander found Carrot waiting for him looking worried. The captain said they had looked everywhere for him. Where had he been? And Vimes said that he had been around. Thinking. Carrot said that was all right, just maybe let someone know next time?

‘People don’t show up to work and it’s because they’ve died on the way,’ Angua explained. She wasn’t looking at him. She was studiously reading a report. Vimes decided that he bloody hated werewolves. No, he amended, he bloody hated werewolf senses. ‘They get found during tea-break by a colleague.’

‘Do they? Tea break?’ He grabbed a cup of coffee for something to do.

‘We’ve lost a few men, sir, during the night.’

Vimes stirred the sugar vigorously.

‘Visit didn’t come in for his shift.’

Vimes poured in the milk. The table has four knots, he noticed. And I’ve heard bad news before.

‘We went looking for him a few hours ago. Angua found him.’

And we’ve lost coppers before, he thought. Loosing a man in the line of duty isn’t rare. Isn’t unheard of. But this isn’t the line of duty is it? This is something else and I can’t protect them.

‘Where is he?’

‘There’s a morgue opened up on Short street. We took him there.’

He didn’t know which of them was speaking.

He said, ‘all right. He was a good copper.’

‘That’s why we were looking for you,’ Carrot looked reproachful. He nodded.

‘I think,’ he stopped. He set his coffee down and looked at them with that careful copper-blank face. ‘I think we had best hold off mourning traditions until this is over. We will hold a joint funeral for all our men when it’s finally done.’

‘And when will that be?’ Angua asked, finally meeting his eye. He hoped to gods his face was as blank as hers.

‘I don’t know.’

 

 

Throughout the Day. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

In the city people began circulating pamphlets with lists of names. They had different titles but people just called them The Lists. Vimes found one with Visit’s name and stuck it in the sergeant’s personal folder. He found an address to the man’s family in Omnia then he remembered what Vetinari had said, about not enough people to take the mail. So he set the address aside. Until later, he thought.

 

Around eleven in the morning, maybe half eleven, four people were brought in for “public indecency”. Cheery asked what they had done and Colon said, with a face, ‘they were proper fucking on the graves in Small Gods. Can’t have that.’ He took a swig of whiskey and handed it to Littlebottom. ‘Oh, and don’t tell the commander. You know how he gets about Small Gods.’

 

At one a small mob (relatively speaking) of citizens brought a woman to the Watch. They said she was a witch and that they should burn her.

‘Why?’ Carrot did not look impressed.

‘On account o’ her bein’ a witch!’ One of the mob leaders said.

‘But why should we burn her?’

‘Make the plague stop. Stands to reason.’

‘Burning this lone woman will make the plague, that is affecting the entire continent, stop?’

‘Stands to reason.’

At a quarter past one a small mob was politely, but firmly, told to Sod Off.

 

At half two the patrician sent for the commander, the head of the assassin’s guild, various doctors, head of the guild of Beadles and other various and sundry.

At a quarter to three a few select wizards made their way to the palace.

They all discussed the Plague and in a shadowed area of the city, something moved.

           

Somewhere in an alley, in a dark corner. Death said, I THINK IT’S ABOUT TIME WE SPOKE.

And something answered, If you thhink ssoo.

Death stared into a corner before turning around to find a figure behind him. A pearl white mask, a doctor’s black robe surrounding a presumable body.

Do you like it? I thhink it’ss ssoo touching, how thhey sstruggle to cure me.

THIS HAS GONE ON LONGER THAN IS HEALTHY FOR THE BALANCE. He stared at the masked figure. The hunch around the shoulders, the way it lurched when it walked. WHAT IS YOUR INTENT IN MAKING IT SO MUCH WORSE IN ANKH-MORPORK?

Now, why would I tell you? It lowered its head to an angle so Death could only see a white line of the tip of the mask to the point of the snout. Thhiss ccity hass many featuress thhat are usseful for me.

TO DO WHAT?

To become a king.

Around them Death became aware of a buzzing, a soft hum. He listened for a moment before deciphering words, plague, pestilence, la peste, great mortality, le grande mort, pestă, murtajë – He watched Plague, the way the being absorbed the whispers, the fear, the names.

KING OF WHAT? I BELIEVE DEATH IS ALREADY TAKEN.

Plague looked back up, tilted its mask to the side, Nothhing ssoo lofty. Merely king of thhiss ccity and thhrough her, the disc.

Death considered this. He looked at his syth, at the being in front of him, the whispered names wrapping themselves around them. He could feel them slithering through him, over bones and fabric. Finally he said, YOU ARE NOT PART OF THE AGREEMENT.

Agreement?

THEREFORE YOU ARE ABLE TO BE…TAKEN CARE OF.

The being laughed, a slow hiss of indrawn breath, a chortled exhale. By whhome?

THEM. Death smiled. GOOD DAY.

 

At tea time the patrician ordered an earl grey. He stood, made his way to the window, and looked over the city. A few stray flakes hit the window and melted as they settled on stone. He watched people move slowly about, dark shapes against dark buildings.

At least there’s some sun, he thought. A knock and the tea was brought in and placed on his desk.

As he turned to move back to the desk he coughed. He sighed. Damn fine time to catch a cold.

 

At five Cheery brought the daily count at the commander. She said, six hundred ninety three. Vimes said, Blind Io. Pseudopolis numbers.

‘I’m afraid so, sir.’ She frowned. ‘It just seems so sudden. A few people one day then suddenly, then suddenly this many.’

‘Do we have room to bury everyone?’

‘No, sir. There’s been an order from the palace to open up some of the land at the base of the Tump, the back part near the city wall.’ She sighed. ‘There’s also been an order to section off part of Hide Park if we need to. Apothecary gardens as well.’

‘They put up a sodding fight for that one,’ Vimes muttered. ‘Oh well. How are the hospitals running?’

‘Under staffed and over flowing.’

‘Right. Bloody disaster this is. A bloody disaster.’

 

At five, across the city, in a pub, Sally Von Humpeding wrote a letter to the Dwarf Low King and another to Margolata.

She wrote, There is no new news here. Nothing you wouldn’t have already heard. There’s a dismal sort of solitude on the streets. Shops have closed and people keep to themselves. The commander and the patrician did not end up having to impose martial law for it has been self-imposed.

There is silence in almost every place, haunting for this city. If you hear anything after dark it is only the sounds of the dying and the funeral knell for those already dead.

Lately, for some, when the plague reaches a certain point it becomes so painful that people cannot contain themselves. Some die by poison, some by throwing themselves out windows. Others just scream.

On the whole there is no news here, only death and death and death.

She stared at the few people in the pub. They sat in sullen silence, nursed their beers, their liquor, and stared dismally ahead. A sigh and she pulled her helmet back on. The letters were signed, Salacia. Because she couldn’t be bothered with secrecy since no one was very much interested in Politics at the moment.

           

At six, beginning near Leat Gate and working around the city on Endless street a group of about one hundred men and women walked barefoot. They carried pamphlets about the end of times, the apocalypse and how one must cure oneself of all evil and ills.

Some whipped themselves. Some whipped each other. Some wore thorn bracelets, thorn necklaces, crowns. Others put on hair shirts and nothing else. When the commander heard about it he told Carrot to get some men to follow them, if anything got out of hand… When the patrician heard about it he just sighed and shrugged and said the people do what they think they have to do. At least they aren’t burning anyone. Yet.

 

Eight in the evening, as Vimes searched out something to eat for a late tea, ten more people were brought in for public indecency.

‘Good gods, what now?’ He asked as he pulled his coat on.

‘More grave fucking,’ Colon grumbled. ‘Any chance I could change my beat path with someone else?’

‘If they agree to it, sure.’ He grinned and patted Colon on the back. ‘But good luck to you.’ He stopped by the door and turned to Littlebottom, ‘curry, Inspector?’

At dinner they didn’t talk about the plague. Cheery said she saw a shwarma take out near Hide park that she wanted to try. Vimes said that he found a new book on policing techniques in Quirm that he wanted to read. Something about fingerprinting was mentioned in it. He said he’d lend it to Cheery when he was done, that it sounded like it was in her field.

They were given extra pieces of naan for free.

‘No one to eat it all,’ Ali said with a shrug. ‘Might as well feed someone with it.’

 

By ten Vimes managed to get five minutes to himself in his office. He shoved the several days of accumulated reports to the side and sat down with a week old Times open to the crossword section. He tried the first one, one across “a group of lines”. He noted down queues and lists. He counted the number of letters required, six. He pencilled in queues. Right, he thought, not too bad. Two down, four letters, “pump part”.

Outside it began to rain again. He sighed and sat back before reaching for a cigar and match. Pushing the paper away he pulled out his notebook and opened it up. He flipped back and found a list from, oh gods, five, six days ago. It felt like a lifetime.

The last line, prepare will, stared out at him. Stark pencil on paper. He sighed again and rubbed his eyes.

Sleep. He needed sleep. He wondered if Vetinari was sleeping. Probably not. Probably needed to. Standing he lit a few more candles and went down to the canteen for coffee. There was a stack of paperwork on his desk and plague or no plague, it was not going to do itself.

 

At midnight the city was silent. At midnight the sky cleared and it was cold and crisp and everyone was reminded that winter was coming soon. A few thought, maybe the cold weather will clear it out. Can we make it another two, three weeks?

At midnight Vimes dosed off over a pile of reports. At midnight Angua pulled Carrot into bed and said, Just stay near me. At midnight Vetinari lit another candle. He opened a letter post-marked from Pseudopolis. At midnight the city was silent and it all felt wrong. 

Chapter Text

Morning. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

You know whatss the fffun part?

FUN PART?

Giving thhhem hope only to take it away.

Death stared. FUN? He repeated.

Oh yessss. Do you not have fffun?

NO. IT IS NOT PART OF THE JOB.

Isssn’t it?  

 

Vimes went out to find something to eat after he woke up with a constable’s report stuck to his cheek. He stepped out to find frost on the ground, a crisp crunch under foot and the sharp nip of cold air in his lungs. He coughed and pulled out a cigar. Behind him the door opened and closed again and he found himself joined by Angua.

‘Have you or Carrot gone home, yet?’ He asked, taking a drag from the cigar.

'Yes, sir. Last night.’

He nodded, ‘good. ‘M finding breakfast.’

‘Care for company, sir?’

He shrugged, pulled his coat around him and started off. They said nothing to each other as they crunched down an alley to a small all day breakfast joint calledMar’s Good Bites. Vimes ordered eggs and bacon and a side of toast. Angua ordered the same but asked for a fried tomato in place of bacon. She didn’t ask what sort of oil the eggs were fried in. She figured, at least I’m trying to be vegetarian. In Ankh-Morpork frying up eggs in anything other than bacon fat was considered heretical.

‘Went out for a walk last night, this morning, really.’ She said as she sipped her coffee. ‘Saw two dogs fighting over a bone.’

‘Tough times.’

‘It was an arm bone.’

Vimes coughed and set his coffee down. ‘What?’

‘They aren’t burying people properly. Or, well, we don’t have enough space.’

‘It’s only been a week!’

She shrugged. Put a spoonful of sugar into her cup, stirred. ‘We don’t have that many graveyards to begin with. Let alone now.’ A shift and she pulled out a scrap of paper. ‘Cheery gave me the new numbers this morning, we’ve reached over a thousand, sir. One thousand five hundred thirty two, at the moment.’

‘Bloody Io.’ He remembered what Vetinari had said, that the numbers were always the ones reported. We’re missing some. We’re always missing some. Suddenly the food before him didn’t look appetising. He pushed the dish away and set to work on another cigar. He thought about Visit. He had found a few of the man’s old pamphlets under the reports when he had woken up. ‘How’s Dorfl?’

‘Taking it well, I think.’ Angua nibbled on some toast. ‘The men want to wear some black, if that’s all right, sir.’

Vimes nodded. Sure, sure, he said. Might as well. Everyone else is, after all. He set the cigar aside and buttered a piece of toast. He took a bite and managed to swallow.

‘Who hasn’t shown up to work yet?’ He asked. He looked out the window. It was white and crisp outside. Too cold, he thought. It shouldn’t have jumped up like this.

‘Biggy Swires hasn’t reported for duty in two days, nor has Andre, Ping, Haddock, and,’ here she paused. Cut up her tomato and pushed it around on the plate. ‘We haven’t been able to locate Nobby, sir. We’ve looked in all the pubs and Colon hasn’t seen him in a few days.’

Again, he thought. I’ve heard bad news before. Men have died before. But it’s Nobby, isn’t it? Nobby Nobs, a natural part of the Watch. He picked up his cigar then put it back down.

‘Right,’ he said at last. ‘Well, keep looking. I’m sure – if anyone can survive the plague it would be him.’

‘Yes, sir. That’s what Carrot says.’ But, she didn’t add. I can see he doesn’t believe it when he says it. He had said that we would all make it somehow and we haven’t. We haven’t all made it.

‘Any word from the palace?’ Vimes hoped his voice was disinterested. Angua shook her head, None, sir. Been quiet that way, sir.

 

When they returned to the watch house Vimes found a note waiting for him from the palace. Curt handwriting asking for the latest number. Then a mention that maybe the watch could oversee the burial process? Because, really, commander, dogs eating body parts of plague victims on the streets Will Not Be Tolerated.

Vimes scowled at the paper before throwing it down on the desk in front of him and grabbing another scrap. He scrawled the number Angua had given him and added ‘plus or minus a few’. He then wrote, carefully, and not at all smugly. ‘Sir’ in very definite script.

He received a reply half an hour later, ‘Commander, was that a ‘yes, sir’ or a ‘no, sir’?’ And he wrote back, ‘Just a ‘sir’, sir.’

He wondered maybe if they shouldn’t do this. Because people might think something of it. Because people might wonder about it. Because people might see it was so very clearly a joke and really, the commander and the patrician shouldn’t have jokes between themselves. He decided to fuck it all and sent it anyway. It felt brazen and he hadn’t felt brazen in a long, long time.

Pulling out the report he had fallen asleep over the previous evening he set to reading. Carrot’s commas distracted him for a few minutes before he managed to mentally block them out and focus on the content. Theft has gone up. No surprise, he thought. There aren’t enough lawyers to make wills, Carrot wrote. There aren’t enough priests for burials so we should have mass funerals. Vimes made a note, ‘mass funerals?’ He read on. They caught the first arsonist but another one has started. More wood was needed to board up the infected houses. And should we board them up while people are sick inside or wait till they die?

Vimes squeezed his eyes shut then opened them. I should have to make these decisions, he thought. He picked up his pencil and wrote, Mass funerals.

 

           

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS?

Achieve? I told you. I want to rule thhhem. It’ss sso fun.

YOU CAN’T RULE THEM. YOU’RE AN ANTHROPORMORPHIC BEING.

Tell thhat to thhe godss.

THE GODS DON’T RULE THEM. RATHER THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

Thhey believe in me. I am sso very real to them sso I’m not too worried about thhat.

 

 

Around tea Cheery reported that one person survived the plague. She said that they were in the Ramkin infirmary. The one made from the old dowager house.

‘That got up quickly,’ he said, leaning against the front desk. The inspector nodded, Oh yes. Well, it was needed. ‘Who is it?’

‘A woman named Louisa Dobson. Young, twenty four, and a seamstress by trade.’ She checked the file. ‘Euphemistic seamstress, not an actual one.’

‘How is she recovering?’

‘Well, for the moment. Ms Palmer has taken her back the one of their houses. There has been severe scaring, however. From the pustules. There was one on her neck but the scars go as far as her cheeks.’ Something seems to catch her attention at this. She stared at the file then looked up to the commander who was waiting. ‘Sir.’

‘Yes?’

‘Sir, do you think Igor and I could dissect a pustule?’

He wrinkled his brow, ‘erm. Sure? If you want to.’ He picked up the day’s reports. ‘But only one from a dead body.’

‘Of course, sir.’

‘Not that you have a shortage,’ he muttered. Cheery picked up another file and handed it to him.

‘It shows a correlation between rats, fleas, and the spread of the plague. I thought you’d be interested. And his lordship.’

Vimes took the report and nodded. He thought about the wizards. About the plague being more than something discbound. Something more and stronger as they thought about it, said its name. He shoved it under his arm and nodded to the dwarf.

'Right, I’ll take it up to the palace.’

‘Yes, sir.’

A salute and he ducked out to the streets.

 

There was proper snow as he made his way to the palace. A few children were out throwing soggy snow balls at each other and there was something like a spark of hope in the back of his mind. In the end, he knew, in the very, very end, nothing kept Ankh-Morpork down for very long.

As he crossed the bridge he could see smoke rising from the shades. The remnants of the second arsonist. He wondered why someone thought boarding up people in their houses while still alive was a good idea. Probably the doctor’s guild, he mused. They had gone quiet, he suddenly thought. Just like the city.

He found the patrician bent over a large tome when he entered the Oblong Office. There was a pot of tea next to Vetinari’s elbow and a half nibbled piece of toast. Vetinari glanced up and frowned.

‘Commander?’ He asked as Vimes crossed the room. His voice was a little rough. Vimes frowned.

‘Brought a report from Inspector Cheery, sir. About the plague. Something about rats and fleas.’ He thought, He looks tired. He looks a bit yellow around the gills. ‘Thought you’d want to have a read.’

Vetinari nodded and motioned to a pile of papers. ‘Thank you commander. Is that all?’

No, he thought. No you bloody bastard that’s not all. ‘Any new numbers?’ He asked instead.

There was a grim smile, ‘one hundred more than this morning.’ He pushed back and rest elbows on the arms of his chair. Vimes thought that the room seemed darker than before, colder. There was a shift in the atmosphere and he couldn’t place what had changed.

He stared at the wall. He wondered what he was doing here. He had had some vague formation of a plan when he had left the office. And now. Now nothing. He asked, ‘want to have a game tonight?’ He considered making an offering of Thud, if only as a temptation.

Here Vetinari went still. Then he suddenly leaned forward and turned a page of the book. He looked to the commander and made a face Vimes couldn’t read.

Vetinari said, I think it’d be best if you didn’t – if we didn’t… He sort of trailed off. Vimes felt his stomach clench.

He growled, Why? You’re not bloody getting out of it that easy. And he looked at him and found blue blue eyes staring back.

The patrician sort of smile and said, You see commander, I rather enjoy your company and I want you around to antagonise the leaders of the city for many years to come. He paused. Turned another page. He continued, But I woke up with a bit of a cough. He swallowed. He was still staring. Vimes felt like his ears were burning. Vetinari said, And it wasn’t – that is, there was blood. Vetinari continued staring. He continued speaking, They say that the pneumonic one is the fastest. Two days, three. And really, if one is going to go, I would prefer it to be quick. I’ve made provisions and Lipwig, assuming he is still alive, should be an easy shoe in. There is enough staff to keep things running smoothly for a few days, enough time for Mr Lipwig to get settled and for all the proper burial procedures to be completed. Are we burning people now?

Vimes stood very still. He couldn’t feel the helmet in his hand. He couldn’t really see the man in front of him although he was very, very much there. His body felt hot and cold at once. He could sort of feel the way his lungs moved his chest plate, his collar bones, he wondered why he was noticing these things.

Vimes, very stiffly, said, Sir.

Vetinari sighed and sat back. The sudden movement changed everything.

‘Essentially, I’d rather not get you sick. I’d rather not get anyone sick. It’s inconvenient for all involved. So, I will kindly ask you to limit face contact with me until it’s over.’

‘No.’

The patrician blinked. It was sort of owlish. Vimes wanted to laugh. Oh gods did he want to laugh.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Very well, I order you –‘

‘No.’ Vimes steadied himself. ‘You’re sick, sir. You need to go to bed. I’ll send Cheery over to look at you.’

‘Vimes-‘

‘No, sir. I’m sorry, sir, but no. You have no say in this. When I return with the inspector I want to find you in bed with tea. That’s an order.’

Vetinari’s expression flickered from annoyed to amused.

‘An order?’

‘I’m pulling rank, sir. You may be the patrician but you’re still a lord. I’m a duke.’ He paused. ‘You’re fault, really, that I’m pulling rank.’

 Before Vetinari could respond Vimes gave a terse salute and stalked out of the office.

 

When Vimes stalked into the inspector’s office cum study cum laboratory he found Cheery and Igor peering at a something in a jar of alcohol.

‘We got our pustule, sir.’ Cheery said without looking up. ‘We’re dissecting it tonight. I think we might be on to something.’

Vimes stood by the door. He said, curtly, ‘the patrician’s ill.’

Both officers looked up and Cheery’s face was unreadable. She said, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’ Vimes briefly wondered if Angua had said anything. But he knew her, she was closer with information than any other officer he knew.

‘Not unduly surprising.’ He could hear himself speaking and he so despretly wanted to be grounded again. ‘I want you and Igor to go up to the palace to have a look this evening. Discreetly, mind you. Can’t have everyone knowing he’s sick. You know how the city gets and that’s without half the population dying.’

Igor’s attention was back to the postule, prodding it the tip of a scalpel.

‘We’ll go up in an hour,’ she said, elbowing Igor in the side. ‘Will you be coming with us?’

‘I think it’d be best,’ he said. ‘Make it look like official business and nothing more.’ In the background he could hear liquid bubbling. He could smell sulphur, acrid and thick. He could smell various herbs mixing in the air. Coffee, too. And day old take away.

‘Sir,’ Cheery said before he could leave the office. ‘There’s still hope here, sir.’

‘Of course there is.’ He was pulling out a cigar. He wondered how many he had smoked on the way back. How many he had smoked since it had started.

‘In Urt society has completely broken down, they’ve had it for three, four months. The last thing we heard was that three quarters were dead. But then,’ she stopped him before he could reply. ‘But then in Pseudopolis the same has happened. Half gone, they said. Half, sir. And yet they’re hanging on. They are making their city work and if any of other city is stubborn enough to not fall in on itself during a crises it’s Ankh-Morpork.’

Vimes could feel himself smiling, cold and distant. ‘Oh, but we’ve pulled ourselves down for less, inspector. We done unthinkable things without nearly as much provocation. We haven’t lost that many yet.’ He lit the cigar. ‘Wait till we hit the half way mark, when things stop working because there’s no one there to work it. No one to bake bread, no one to deliver food and we get famine on top of plague. No one to bury the bodies, to clean the streets, to run the government.’ He stopped. There was silence but for the distant bubbling. Vimes chewed on the end of his cigar. ‘We’ll leave in an hour.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Cheery said.

 

IT STILL REMAINS. YOU CAN’T RULE THEM. BESIDES, THEY WOULD BE…DISPLEASED.

I can if I rule thheir ruler.

…YOU HAVEN’T MET HIM HAVE YOU?

 

On their way over to the palace Vimes said, roughly, About earlier, inspector. And Cheery said, It’s all right, sir. We’re all under a lot of stress. Vimes blew out smoke, Still. Cheery shook her head, It’s fine, sir. And Vimes said, All right, then.

 

They passed by a group of drunken revellers getting into a fight with a group of flagellants. Someone was getting their head buried into the snow and another was hitched up to a lamp post by his breeches.

‘Glad to see some things haven’t changed,’ Cheery muttered. ‘Went to a dwarf bar last night. Still singing about gold.’

Vimes snorted, ‘Well, someone has to. I heard there’s been a week long binge at the Mended Drum.’ He paused. ‘Well, more of a binge than usual.’

‘They’ve been pub crawling,’ Cheery said. ‘I ran into some yesterday. They said that since we’re all to die anyway we might as well go as drunk and happy as possible. He then proceeded to vomit over his boots.’

‘Excellent. Ankh-Morpork’s finest.’

 

By the river someone had made a designated “body dumping” ground and was charging a thrupence for access to the disposal ground. There was a line winding around and up onto the bridge. Vimes made a face before shrugging. Ankh-Morporkers could make a business out of anything.

‘I haven’t seen Dibbler lately,’ Cheery said quietly.

‘Probably busy selling fake cures for the plague.’ He wondered what the city would be like if he died. Quieter. Fewer bad beef patties.

They entered the palace and were ushered into the patrician’s bedroom. Vimes noticed that it was a different room from before. It was less used, less lived in. He poked the fire while Cheery and Igor set up their kits.

Vetinari was asleep but was clearly having difficulties breathing. Cheery took his pulse. He continued to sleep.

‘Fever,’ she said making a note. Igor was busy mixing something in a glass. ‘Cold sweats,’ she sighed. ‘The usual signs.’ She unbuttoned a few buttons on the top of his robes. Vimes wondered how she had figured them out so quickly. But then, he reasoned. There’s better light now. He shoved the poker back into its stand and took to pacing.

‘Haemorrhaging on the neck,’ she said and Igor pulled something else out of his bag.

‘What? Haemorrhaging?’

‘That’s what the black spots are, sir. Minor haemorrhaging under the skin.’

‘Is that what kills them in the end?’

Cheery shook her head and inspected the other side of the patrician’s neck. ‘No, usually they drown first.’

‘Drown?’

‘Fluid in the lungs, sir. His neck is clear other than that. We’ll have to check the rest of the body, sir, if that’s all right.’

Vimes lingered by the window. He watched a fog roll in off the sea coating the city in a sickly yellow layer of cloud.

‘Sir?’

‘Oh, yes, of course.’ He said it over his shoulder. He wondered if she had noticed the way she spoke, the body. Not ‘his body’ not ‘check the rest of him’ just ‘the body’. But how many has she and Igor tried to help? He tried to do the math and gave up. The room felt cold and he shivered before turning and wandering back to the fireplace. He put another log on. He could hear fabric moving, Cheery’s emotionless analysis. The scribbles of pencil on paper. The clinks of things being mixed in jars.

‘No pustules at the moment, though I think there might be some forming in the next few days which is good.’

He stared at the inspector. ‘Good?’ He said dumbly.

Her smile was grim. She pulled sheets up and absently folded Vetinari’s clothes ‘It means he doesn’t have the pneumonic plague which means he has up to a week to live. If it was the pneumonic one he’d have a day at the most.’

It was cold. Vimes felt the fire could be bigger. Why was it so cold in this room? Why was it always so damn cold? He nodded. He said, All right. Well, do what you can. He paused, he wanted to ask, Has anyone survived? But what good would that do? What good would it be to have confirmed what he already knew? Cheery said someone should stay with him, to regulate the fever, to make sure he drank water when he woke. Vimes said he’d get someone on it. There was silence before Cheery said, Well, sir. He’d be the first patrician to not die from assassination or “suicide”. Vimes gave a short laugh.

‘Well, he was always one to do things differently.’ 

Chapter Text

Night. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork. 

Vimes stayed with the patrician on the first night. He brought the book he had told Cheery about and a few old copies of the Times. He did the math games and gave up on the crosswords after a few minutes. He read about finger printing and a new form of light that will show blood even when the naked eye cannot detect it.

  

At six Vetinari woke and stared at him with bleary eyes.

‘Thought I told you to bugger off,’ he managed to whisper as Vimes hauled him into a half sitting position and told him to drink a glass of water.

‘I’ve never been very good at listening to orders, sir.’

The patrician sort of smiled and sort of laughed before coughing. He curled up on his side and fell back asleep. The room was cold and Vimes pulled his coat around him tighter. He added a log to the fire.

 

At half seven Vimes dozed off for fifteen minutes. He had a dream about a house under construction and finding a small stuffed rabbit in the middle of the foundations. The rabbit said to him, Oh Gloria.

When he woke he decided he needed to lay off the spicy curry before sleep.

  

At eight he woke the patrician and said he had to drink something foul smelling that Cheery had left.

‘It’s going to be disgusting,’ he warned. He had an arm around Vetinari’s shoulders, holding him up and he could feel the fever burning through the fabric. The patrician’s face was pale, pasty, sickly. He didn’t say anything in response but did drink when Vimes brought the cup to his lips.

 

At half nine Vetinari was mumbling in his sleep. He said, ‘When I see him he slurs his interdental fricatives. He hisses his alveolar fricatives. Fricatives. Are they the voiced are the voiceless.’ He went silent. Vimes stared, he wondered how far into a fever a person has to be for this. ‘Hmm, the voiceless.’ Vetinari answered himself. He shifted, a sort of whine at the back of the throat came up, then he was silent again.

Vimes made a note in the margin of his book, fricatives. Voiceless. He yawned and pulled another blanket up onto Vetinari; he lit another candle. The shadows of the room were long and the night was cold. 

 

At ten Vimes thought that this was one of the more disturbing things he had seen. Even before, even after he had been shot, when he had been poisoned, whacked on the back of the head – he had still seemed able, capable, deadly, even if asleep or unconscious or dying of blood loss behind a carriage. But now. Now he was shivering and wasting away and dying in front of him and there was nothing he could do. There was no criminal to catch. No poison to stop. He was grasping at straws and outside with was still bloody raining. Vimes thought that Vetinari looked small, frail, delicate. He didn’t like it. He wanted it to stop and he hated the man for making him watch this. 

 

At a quarter past ten he woke the patrician and made him drink another of Cheery’s draughts. Vetinari said, sleepily, in a small voice, ‘madam, I don’t want to go to lessons.’ Vimes sat down and determinedly picked up his book. He swallowed. He read a line. Breathed deeply. He stood, wiped a few locks of hair out of Vetinari’s face and went to have a smoke by the window.

At eleven he fell asleep, slumped over the edge of the bed.

            

He woke when bells in the city tolled for two. Vetinari was awake and watching him in a listless fashion. Vimes didn’t like it, the feverish eyes, lack lustre expression, the absence of anything that resembled the patrician.

‘Sir?’ He asked, sitting up stiffly. Vetinari blinked, slowly, seemed to see him for the first time.

‘Thought-‘ he coughed. Hacking and wet. Vimes thought, Right, because he’s drowning. ‘Told you to-‘

‘I’m not sodding off, sir.’ He was gruff. He didn’t look at the other man. ‘I’m staying here tonight.’ He reached forward then pulled his hand back. It dropped on the bed.

‘No,’ a painful swallow. ‘It’s the sir’s.’ He fell silent and was soon asleep. Vimes reached forward and took a hand in his own, the slender pale fingers against his own larger, rougher ones. He found callouses from quills against the first joint of Vetinari’s middle finger, he felt the dry skin from too many pages of paper and too hot baths. He noted very old, almost faded, callouses on his palms. A moment passed and he set the hand back down on the bed and covered it with a sheet, he absently patted it before leaning back and lighting another candle. Picking up his book and he sat and waited out the morning.

 

Morning. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.  

When Cheery came for the morning inspection Vimes ran off to the Watch house. He didn’t want to see the patrician naked. He didn’t want to see the black marks, the pale sweating skin. He didn’t want to hear the irregular breathing, the mumbled nonsense.

‘Fricatives,’ he says when he sees Angua. ‘What are fricatives?’

‘Uh,’ she blinked. ‘I have no idea. Why, sir?’

‘The patrician was saying something about them in his sleep. Something about slurring fricatives and how they’re voiceless.’

Angua made a face without making a face, ‘probably the fever, sir. When he was poisoned he talked about crumpets or something.’

‘Croutons.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Croutons, captain. In the soup of the afternoon.’ He scowled and pulled out a half finished cigar. No, no, no, he thought. I can’t run off after the mutterings of a man in a fever. Facts. I need facts.

He gave a nod to the captain and went up to his office, he called down, ‘send me Littlebottom when she gets back.’

 

Cheery said, when she stood in front of the commander at parade rest, that the patrician was looking marginally better. She couldn’t keep the confusion from her voice. She continued, His fever has lessened and there are fewer haemorrhages. She flipped through her notes, And no pustules as yet. And we need a better word than pustule. Or growth.

‘I’ve a letter from the doctor’s guild,’ Vimes said and fought to keep from yawning. ‘There’s a new doctor who wants to work with you and Igor. Apparently he’s young and full of “fanciful, insane” ideas. I told him you’d be delighted.’

The dwarf grinned then gave a sigh, ‘I have the numbers in from last night.’ She pulled a separate notebook out. ‘It’s doubled in one night. Roughly two thousand was what I had at the late afternoon yesterday. This morning Igor tells me twenty five hundred passed in a night.’

It felt like wind had been knocked out of his lungs. He sat back. Blinked. Pulled a piece of paper forward before shoving it back. After a few seconds Vimes muttered, ‘I need a drink.’

‘I wouldn’t recommend it.’

A cracking laugh. ‘No, I wouldn’t either.’ He drummed his fingers on the desk. Soon, he knew, soon things would start breaking down. The Watch was hanging on, but if only through the dint of having undead and non carbon based life forms as part of its forces. Reg had been dismissed from duty as he was one of the few willing to transport bodies to the graveyards. He was also one of the few willing to dig the graves. Sprinkle the lime. Burry them deep enough so dogs wouldn’t dig them up.

He stood up and paced over to the window and looked out. The snow of the other day was gone; slush and muddy run off replacing it. He was trying to remember how many bakers the city had, how many lawyers, priests, fish mongers, carpenters, blacksmiths; the basic people you needed to keep a city afloat. He didn’t know. He wondered why Vetinari had never had a census done. He reasoned that Vetinari probably hadn’t needed to have one done. Or did have one done but no one knew about it. He thought about the Patrician. He thought, You bastard. You can’t die on me. You can’t leave me here to run everything. I can’t, can’t make these decisions.

‘You say he’s doing better?’

‘It’s hard to tell at this stage, sir. But I would give a tentative yes.’

‘But the death toll doubled over night.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Vimes returned to his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper he looked up and nodded at the inspector. ‘Thank you, Littlebottom. I’ll let you know if I need anything else. The new doctor said he’d arrive around three.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll check on his lordship this evening, if you would like.’

‘Oh yes, of course. Oh, inspector do you know what a fricative is?’

Cheery frowned, 'it's something to do with speaking isn't it? It's something about how you say something...' she stalled. Shrugged. 'Captain Carrot might know.' 

'Yes, probably.' He waved her off. Once she had left Vimes pulled out ink and pen and scrawled a letter to the University. He said he’d be there at eight. He had some questions. He wanted answers. Eight.

 

Walking over Vimes smoked and fumed. He fumed at the muddy, filthy streets. He fumed at the dreary sky, the rain, the grey melting slush. He fumed at the Gods, and humans, various species. All species, really. He fumed at wizards and magic mainly because he didn’t hold with involving magic and wizards with the matters of the disc. They could fiddle with the fabric of reality, alternate dimensions, and parasite dimensions all they want. Fine. But leave matters, earthly matters, alone. Life and death, no.

A part of him was trying to tell him that this wasn’t the way. That he ought to trust in Cheery and Igor. That he ought to remain rational and within the realm of non-magical happenings. That the alternate version of Death or Pestilence or what have you probably had nothing to do with any of this.

But then another part of him, another part reminding him of past events, of a darkness crawling through the streets of his mind, said that anything was possible. And besides, Sam Vimes didn’t go down without a fight. And if Vetinari could hang on out of sheer stubbornness then he, Vimes, could try and deal with the impossible 

Chapter Text

Evening. Before The Commander’s Arrival. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork. 


Ridcully was disturbed from his evening bath by a frantic knocking. Half a tub of water on the floor later and he opened the door to Ponder Stibbons who was looking a little more distracted than usual. He held up a graph and said, It’s changed, headmaster!

Dressed and fed an hour later Mustrum Ridcully found himself cramped into Stibbons’ office next to the Dean and the Bursar who had collapsed into a corner. Occasionally the Dean trued to prop him up. Silently Ridcully handed him a broomstick; shoving it down the back of the Bursar’s robes they managed to manouver him into a vaguely standing position.

‘I’ve been monitoring the new…being and there’s been a change.’ Here Ponder pointed to his graph. ‘I noticed it today when HEX was malfunctioning-‘

‘How is that new?’ The headmaster asked, he glanced to his collgeaues. ‘BURSAR!’

‘Eeesph!’ The man started awake and staggered back into a cabinate.

‘Steady on, lad! Chin up!’

‘Hehem, headmaster.’ Ponder hissed, thrusting the graph into the older wizard’s face. ‘If you will look you’ll see that there’s been a shift in the thaumatic field.’

‘Yes, you said that last time.’

'It’s shifted since the last shift, sir. It appears that the being, the new one, is drawing magic in. Absorbing it. Then last night,’ he pointed to a jagged line climbing up. ‘Last night there was a spike and today we find 2500 people dead in one night.’

‘And Havelock’s ill,’ the Dean added.

‘Peaches and cocoanuts!’

‘Quite,’ said Ridcully dryly.

‘So the being is controlling the plague, or there’s strong correlation to show that it is. I did a thaumatic trace over Klatch and our neighbouring cities on the Sto Plains and due to their lack of magic concentration –‘

‘It wasn’t able to manifest itself until now, yes.’ Ridcully sighed. ‘So the Ramptops are going to get it especially bad.’

‘Most likely, sir.’

‘Well, we can’t let that happen. Have to protect people up there, eh. And here, of course. So, what are we going to do?’

Ponder stalled. The Bursar hiccupped happily. The Dean shrugged.

There was a knock at the door and three wizards answered, Yes? A fourth called, Bugger me!

‘Not appropriate, Bursar.’ The Dean muttered.

A student poked his head in and gulped, ‘There’s a Commander Vimes to see you, headmaster. He said, that, uh, that “you bloody wizards better have bloody proper answers or there’ll be trouble”.’

Mustrum rubbed his nose, ‘not who we need right now. But all right, I’ll see him in my office.’ He jabbed a finger at Stibbons. ‘You’re coming too. I’m not suffering Sam Vimes on my own.’

 

Vimes was onto his second cigar when Ridcully entered the office followed by a walking stack of papers known as Ponder Stibbons.

‘Evening your grace,’ Ridcully greeted as he sat down.

‘Don’t ‘your grace’ me.’ His grace growled. ‘Something’s up. Something magical and it’s more than what you told his lordship the other night. There’ll be more answers this time around.’

The stack of papers was lowered and Stibbons’ face appeared over the top. Ridcully motioned to him, ‘Stibbons can update you on the latest. Layman’s terms mind you, Ponder. No quantum thingamummies.’

The younger wizard made a face but complied. Half an hour and many graphs later Stibbons finally stopped talking.

Vimes blew out smoke. He thought about his son, ensconced in supposed safety in the foothills of the Ramptops. He thought about the dogs digging up graves. He thought about the slow halt of trade, the inevitable starvation that would follow. He thought about Havelock looking so, so achingly fragile. He thought about when he had become Havelock. He thought about the Post Master-Tax General-Bank Manager and had no doubt that he would make an acceptable patrician (in his own way) but this wasn’t the time. He knew that as he knew his own name. This wasn’t the time. This wasn’t the way.

A slow motion as he lowered his hand and smudged out the cigar. Ridcully was watching him carefully and, for once, Vimes didn’t think of him as a pompous, overbearing, silly wizard.

The headmaster could feel the commander’s scrutiny, the careful analysis. The process and cataloguing of thoughts. And, for once, Ridcully didn’t think of him as a badly behaved, undereducated, silly copper.

‘Well,’ Vimes said at last. ‘Bugger that.’

‘Er, uh, erm, ’Ponder stuttered. He took a breath and gathered his thoughts. ‘There might be something we can do.’ All eyes were on him. ‘Headmaster, do you remember the time when He went missing? And there was a surplus of death but then He came back and it was over?’

‘Yes,’ Ridcully drawled. He tapped a rhythm on his desk.

‘Well, I looked back at my readings during the time and they showed that during the later half of the upheaval there were signs that another Him, er, another Death, had replaced the old one. Then, out of no where, the new Death sort of …died. For lack of a better word.’ He trailed off and looked from one face to another. The commander was confused, Ridcully oddly unreadable.

‘So,’ the commander began, cautiously moving thoughts forward. ‘What you’re trying to say is that Death can…kill this Plague-Death?’

‘Well, something like that. Maybe.’ Ponder began flipping through papers. ‘It’s hypothetical or course. And this is a very different situation, naturally. Of course there are rules He is bound by and I’m not sure if…uh…killing Plague would break them or not.’

‘So you don’t know.’

The wizard stopped, looked at the blank face of the copper.

‘No.’ A pause. ‘But I will find out.’

Vimes nodded as he stood. ‘When you do let me know.’

Ridcully stood and offered Vimes his hand, ‘We’ll solve this, commander. One way or another.’

Vimes nodded and shook the wizard’s hand and gave a sharp nod to Ponder.

‘Good night, gentlemen. A good luck.’

 

When Vimes returned to the Watch House Angua wordlessly handed him the new numbers. He bit back a curse and managed a curt, Thank you, captain.

‘Unlicensed thefts have tripled, dir.’ She said as he stood by the door to his office. ‘The Thieves Guild can’t control it. They’ve lost too many.’

‘We have men on it?’

‘Yes, sir. The one’s we can spare from other duties. Graveyard shift has to be doubled. We’ve also started guard shifts on empty houses to keep looting down until wills and land deeds can be sorted. The Lawyers Guild has also lost a fair number.’

‘Fine. And the arson problem?’

She gave a shrug, So, so, sir. We caught another but new ones always spring up.

‘Well, keep on it. And the graveyard…er…copulation problem?’

A short laugh, ‘Colon posted a sign that threatened to expose anyone caught copulating on graves to the sight of Nobby belly dancing. Cleared up the problem remarkably fast.’

Vimes cracked a smile, ‘creative thinking. Wasn’t aware Sergaent Colon had it in him.’ He turned to his office but then turned back. ‘Corporal Nobby?’

‘We found him, sir. Helping Dibbler set up a petty cash heist. Foul Old Ron was somehow involved as well.’

‘Good.’ The relief was a shock and indescribably. Nobby, Vimes thought, was too much a part of the foundation of the Watch for him to go that way. He was there back when it was three of us trying to find a quiet place for a smoke. And he is, despite all his foibles and follies and petty thefts, a good copper. ‘I’m glad to hear the spirit of Ankh-Morpork lives on. Where were they?’

‘The Sea Horse*.’

‘Gods, no wonder we couldn’t find him. Just as well, I suppose.’

Angua shifted, her face on the berge of a question. Downstairs Detritus was yelling at a terrified thief, ‘It was you wot done it! We gots loads of peoples saying it was you wot done it! Admit you wot done it!’

She said, Some things never change do they, Mister Vimes?

He relied, No, captain.

She asked, Any word from the palace?

He shook his head, No, just as it was before. Has Littlebottom gone up?

A nod, Yes, sir. Half an hour ago with that new doctor from the guild. Boebus, I think was his name. Seemed bright enough.

Good, good. Send her up when she returns.


*The dirtier, seedier, darker, danker, wetter, louder, more violent, more humid, cousin of the Mended Drum. Its ceiling has its own atmosphere. The floor has bred its own life forms hitherto unknown to the Disc. It can be found in a basement off Treacle Mine Rd underneath a Curry House and a bookstore of select books for select clientele.


Same Evening. Autumn. Sreets of Ankh-Morpork.



Sally Von Humperding walked through the streets on her patrol. The rain had turned back to snow and she made fresh tracks on the clean white blanket. A fresh snow was one of the only things to make Ankh-Morpork feel clean. Feel somehow born anew. Few candles were lit and the new gas lamps that lined the streets were dark. The Undertaking had stopped working the day before as there weren’t enough people to run it. The construction on the underground shops and housing had slowly gone silent. She pulled open her notebook and made a note on the time and next to it wrote, All is quiet.

She remembered being a girl and the songs her mother had sang to her on Hogswatch about cities sitting low in the cold nights. About fresh snow in the forest. She walked by a row of black marked houses and shops. An entire street empty, the black paint across their doors still wet in parts. Her beat took her past Small Gods and she peered in through the gates. She could make out Reg Shoe digging in the far corner, there were two carts of bodies near him. Another zombie was helping, a bag of lime in hand.

Captain Carrot had issued a pamphlet on how to properly pick up the bodies from the streets (not by hoisting them up via armpits, as one person found). There had been problems of a few falling apart as they were hauled into carts after having been left to decay for over a week. The shades were just beginning to be cleared out. The captain had asked Mister Vimes about what to do with the ones that ended up in the river and the commander had shrugged, ‘Fish out what you can. For the others, just sort of…push them out to open sea.’ He had been so distant as he said it. Carrot had wanted to object, she had seen. But then the commander had held up his hand, ‘we don’t have enough burial space, captain.’ And that had been that.

The commander had asked her this evening, You can get letters in and out of the city?

She had said, Yes, sir.

He had handed her two envelopes, one to his son, another to someone in Pseudopolis. He had sort of smiled and had said, I’d be obliged, if you need any remuneration…

‘Of course not, sir. It’d be my pleasure.’

She felt for the letters tucked in her breast plate and pulled them out. She put them in a small leather pouch next to her usual missives and headed for Traitors gate, taking the long way around the city.

She passed a group of flagellants  and skirted around the edges as they wept for it all to end. Their blood was blooming so, so bright on the snow. So, so red on the snow. So, so, warm on the snow so there were melted holes of red. Petals of red. Red and red on white. She ducked down an alley with her stomach churning and fists clenched.

When she arrived her contact slipped a hand through the gate’s bars, ‘where to?’ He asked.

‘The usual, and one over to Pseudopolis and another up to the Ramtops.’ She watched as the shadowed figure slipped off into the blur of the snowy countryside. She sighed and said to the night air and the snow and the silent city around her, Do you remember when we thought two hundred in one night was a lot? Do you remember when this was just beginning? It seems like a lifetime ago.

 

Across the city, across space and time in a world much like the Disc but separate. Separate in the most important of ways. Death stood with the Grim Squeaker and watched the cloaked Plague approach. The world around them was grey. The streets were busy but people were moving-not-moving. Death leaned on his scythe.

YOU’RE LATE. He said.

I am never late. I arrive when I mean to.

Death shook his head, DOESN’T WORK. ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE IS AN AGREED TO TIME.

How are you dealing withh thhe ssurpluss?

WELL ENOUGH.

They stared at each other. Plague tilted his head as a half nod.

I SPOKE TO THEM. THEY AGREE THAT YOU ARE…PROBLEMATIC. THEY HAVE GIVEN ME LEAVE TO TAKE CARE OF YOU.

Plague shrugged, his hunched back giving a slight shudder.

You sstill haven’t told me who Thhey are.

Death sighed as he raised his scythe, THINK OF THEM AS AUDITORS. AND THEY FEEL THAT YOUR DEBTS ARE LONG OVERDUE. The weapon came down with a blinding light and a bang. Death of Rats squeaked and winced, covering its face with a boney claw. When the light subsided Plague stood where he had before, slightly bigger, slightly more misshapen, and seemed to smile through the mask.

Well, thhat wass eassier thhan I thhought. He looked to the Death of Rats and with one knarled, pustule covered, deathly white hand, reached down to the small death. Now iss thhe time to gathher and reap all to me.

SQEU-

 


Cheery sank down into the chair opposite the commander with a sigh. Her bag hit the floor with a firm thunk. Vimes handed her a cup of coffee and sat back, tense, waiting.

‘He’s still alive,’ she said. She could have sworn the commander’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. ‘I took his blood, Igor and I are going to run tests on it and compare it to the woman who survived. See if there are similarities.’

‘How is the new doctor working out?’

‘Dr. Boebus? Oh,’ she took another sip. ‘Very well. He and Igor get along. He’s bright and up to date on the latest medicinal techniques from Klatch and Quirm.’

‘Glad to hear it.’

The inspector leaned forward and placed the mug on Vimes’ desk. ‘He’s still alive but-‘ ah, ah, she thought. There goes his shoulders again. ‘He’s regressed again.’

‘Any, uh,’ a cough and a vague hand motion. ‘Er, you know.’

Cheery cracked a smile. ‘Buboes, sir?’

‘What?’

‘We came up with a new name for them. Buboes. Easier to say than pustule.’

‘Oh, quite. Right. Fine.’

She sighed and nodded, ‘one under his right arm. He hasn’t woken up, either, which isn’t good. But I did hear him mumbling about the fricatives, as you mentioned. The fever must be bringing back memories of some sort.’ She reached for the coffee again. ‘Didn’t he study languages?’

Vimes nodded, Oh, yes. He did. Among other things. Colon mentioned that he understands Klatchian.

‘Speaks it, actually.’ Cheery said absently. Vimes raised his eyebrows. ‘He was muttering in it when we came in this evening. An old couplet from the sixteenth century Urt according to Dr Boebus.’

‘Ah.’ Vimes opened his notebook then closed it then opened it again. ‘Angua brought in new numbers, another sixteen hundred since this morning.’

Cheery gave a low whistle then a heavy sigh. ‘I’ve got night shift at the hospital tonight with Igor. I should be off, sir. Got to try and keep the number from getting any bigger, eh?’

He nodded, Of course, inspector. If anything, we have to keep trying.

When the door was closed Vimes waited a full twenty seconds before slamming his fists on his desk in frustration.

 

It was half ten when he managed to get up to the palace. There was a maid sitting by the window in the patrician’s room with a small basket of sewing. He dismissed her and moved the chair over to the bed. Vetinari was shivering under the covers and looking worse than when Vimes had left in the morning. The commander found a cloth and a bowl of water. He remembered when he had been sick as a boy his mother would keep a cold cloth on his forehead and blankets piled up around him. If he had been especially ill (usually from getting in a fight and being dumped into the Ankh) she would let him sleep near the fire place bundled up in one of his father’s old coats and under a comforter.

Wringing the cloth out he folded it and placed it on Vetinari’s forehead, arranged the blankets around him and sat back down. He stayed still for a moment then stood and stoked the fire before walking to the window. The city was glistening in the snow.

‘It’s snowing again,’ he said to the quiet room. ‘Makes the city look quite pretty. Not as muddy. Though it seems early this year.’ He paced the room before sitting back down. ‘Things are still holding together,’ he said. He added grudgingly, ‘seems your safety measures work, after all. And I refuse to tell Lipwig he’s – that is, I refuse any of what you said until the end.’

Vetinari said nothing, just shivered. Vimes got up and ransacked the cupboard for extra linen and found a another comforter hiding towards the back and quickly put that on the bed as well. He refreshed the towel and sat back down. On the bedside table were more bottles of Cheery’s with carefully penned instructions. He lit another candle and read over them and checked the time. Half an hour before he would have to try and make the patrician drink some water. Vetinari made a whimpering sound and shifted in his sleep. Vimes fidgeted in his seat before getting up and raiding the small library of books by the desk, studiously ignoring the one about accountants.

 

At eleven he watched as the desk chair toppled itself over then skid across the floor to the other side of the room. He thought, This is not the time for a haunting. He got up and fixed the chair before returning the to the bed and nudging Vetinari’s shoulder.

‘Sir,’ he said more nervously than he’d admit. ‘Vetinari,’ he tried. He took the cloth off and carefully slipped an arm under the other man’s back and gently hoisted him up. ‘Havelock,’ he tried. He decided it sounded weird and went back to the surname. ‘Vetinari, you have to drink something.’ The patrician coughed weakly, head lolling onto Vimes’ chest.

A soft, ‘ah, Vimes,’ was sighed.

‘You have to drink.’ Vimes said as he pressed a glass of water against Vetinari’s lips. The patrician drank a little before he started coughing. Well, the commander mused, better than nothing, I suppose.

‘How did you know it was me?’ He asked, arm still around Vetinari’s shoulders as the other man shifted and made himself comfortable.

‘Cigars…you smell like…and you sounded angry.’ There was a sleepy half smile. ‘Always sound…’ and he drifted back off to sleep. Vimes sighed and looked around the room. It was dark but for the bedside candles and the fireplace. Snow was gathering on the windowsill and the shadows seemed longer. He kicked his boots off and adjusted himself so he was more comfortable.

The desk chair fell over again, followed by books falling off the shelves. Vimes watched with detached interest. He could feel Vetinari’s fever through bed clothes and tucked the patrician’s head under his chin. The candle flames grew larger then smaller before going out.

He sighed and let himself be lulled to sleep by the sounds of a rather mischievous ghost.

 

 

Midnight. Same Night. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

In the Unseen University the Dean was running* down the hall after his hat. It skidded to a stop over an opening between the stair case railings and dropped several flights before taking off in an unseen direction.

‘Bugger!’ The Dean growled as he stalked down the stairs. He passed by a few students running up the stairs in their knickers chasing after their animated robes. Down two more flights and he peered down each hall way before choosing one that looked likely and ambling down it at a pace that was slightly faster than walking.

In the library the Librarian was doing his best to keep the books in order as they flew around the room at an increasingly dangerous speed.

Ook! He grumbled as he grabbed a few and managed to contain them at floor level. Once finished he looked up and ducked quickly as a large volume on misplaced magic went hurtling through the air to thump against the opposite wall.

‘Oook. Oook!’

‘No use. Too many people dying…again.’ Ridcully said as he stood in the doorway wearing his bathrobes. ‘And any chance you’ve seen my robes? They appear to have walked off somewhere.’

‘Oook. Oook ook!’

‘Quite right, you are busy.’ As Ridcully strode down the hall he thought, Well, at least there aren’t any little carts. And no un-dead staff members. He amended the last thought with a decisive, Yet.


*Well…running is subjective wording here.


 

 

A suddenly green haired Captain Carrot looked with growing concern at the mess hall in the Watch house. Detritus’ crossbow was loaded and shaking violently on the tables. The men were carefully edging out of the room, trying to not disturb anything in the process.

‘Er, it sort of did it itself,’ one of the constables said. ‘We were having a cuppa then suddenly, bam, loaded troll sized crossbow. Oh, and nice hair, sir. It’s new isn’t it? Very modern.’

Carrot ignored the last comment and said, ‘We need to disarm it. I want four men on either side of it. And at the count of three we jump in it to try and hold it down. Pearson and Willis you hold the trigger, myself and Liltovich will disarm it. The rest of you just try and hold it still. Understood?’

There was a general chorus of yessirs as the men arranged themselves. Ten minutes later a wall in the mess hall was missing and the arrow had lodged itself halfway out of the exterior wall of the watch house.

‘Mr Vimes isn’t going to be happy about this.’ Liltovich said as he dusted himself off and adjusted his helmet.

Carrot stared at the remnants of the wall and sighed, ‘well…we were talking about renovating the mess hall for a few years now. Nothing like the present, I suppose.’

‘Right you are, sir.’

When Angua walked in she looked from the plaster and dust covered officers to the remains of the wall to Carrot and his hair.

‘I’m not going to ask.’ She said and turned and walked out. 

Chapter Text

Early Morning. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

Vimes woke and found he had drooled a little into Vetinari’s hair. Using a hem of his sleeve he tried to dab it away. It didn’t work. He sighed and checked the bedside clock, it read five thirty. He shifted and reached for the closest of Cheery’s potions and gently nudged the man sleeping against him.

Vetinari made a noise at the back of his throat and tried to burrow deeper into Vimes’ clothes.

‘Sir, you have to wake up and drink something foul smelling.’

The patrician made another noise. It took Vimes a moment to realise that it was a ‘no’.

‘Come on, don’t be missish about it.’ He managed to uncork it with one hand. A distinct smell of liquorish filled the room. He tilted Vetinari’s head up with his left. Blue eyes were half open and glazed over. He pressed the bottle to his lips which quickly closed. ‘Look, you’re aware enough to know I’m trying to get you to drink this. You’re the bloody worst invalid on the bloody Disc. You’ve won the award. Now drink your godsdamn medicine.’

A soft sigh and Vimes could have sworn there was a fraction of a smile. He pressed the bottle to the other man’s mouth and managed to drain half the bottle. Eyes closed in a slight wince as the medicine went down. He could feel thin fingers balling the loose fabric of his tunic.

‘Right,’ he murmured, more into Vetinari’s hair than to his face. ‘Now for the other half then you’re done for a few hours.’ A slight grunt and the bottle was finished. The fingers relaxed and absently patted his leg before going still. Vimes ignored the warm feeling of something akin to familiarity, to affection and instead shifted his weight so Vetinari was leaning back into pillows. He piled the comforter up around him and patted back sweaty hair from his face. The patrician was pallid and listless and Vimes didn’t like it. He felt restless, fidgity. He read a book on lace making. Out of sheer desperation he picked up the book on accountants but was surprised to find it full of images. Mostly foliage. Occasionally tigers. There was a note scrawled on the back cover ‘fuck you dog-botherer’. He put it back. He picked up a puzzle book and opened to the easy number games and completed the one left undone.

 

At seven Cheery peaked her head in and Vimes motioned her to enter. She was followed by a swallow faced young man. Hunched, hair constantly in his face.

‘Sir, this is Dr. Boebus,’ she introduced the young man. Vimes nodded and shook a clammy hand. Worst than Igors’, he thought.

'Pleasure, sir.’ The man said to his boots.

‘He’s been quiet,’ Vimes said, turning to Cheery who was already unpacking her bag. ‘I managed to get him to drink the green-blue medicine at half five. He’s been sleeping since.’

Cheery nodded and pulled out a thermometer. Dr Boebus quickly joined her and began taking measurements.

‘Lower than yesterday by four point five degrees.’ He said. ‘But heart rate is up. His blood pressure is fluctuating.’ He watched his pocket watch for another minute. ‘Oh, no, the heart rate is stabilising.’

Vimes watched them fuss over the prone body for a minute before turning back to the window. The sky was clear and cold and blue. He didn’t think about the blue. He looked down to the streets where the snow was already grey and churning into slush as the city slowly woke. There were a few body-shaped lumps near the brass hippos. He followed a grey clad man with a cart stop by them, brush the snow off, riffle through the pockets for spare change, before dumping the bodies on the carts. Vimes thought, He hasn’t read Carrot’s pamphlet. He’s picking them up wrong. If it was summer they would be decomposing so much faster.

‘Any news on the night’s numbers?’ He asked, not turning from the window.

Cheery replied that she hadn’t heard yet. But she had and Boebus had come direct from the hospital. Angua would have them. Being chief of liaisons with the doctors and gravediggers and family dogs. The sound of sheets being shifted followed.

‘Gone down,’ he heard Boebus murmur. There was a scratching of pencil on paper. ‘Good to see. Do you have the blood results yet?’

‘Igor’s doing them now.’

Their voices dropped to a muddle. Vimes continued to mark the progress of the cart man. The grey silhouette against greying snow. When they were done Vimes said, Thank you Doctor, Inspector. I’ll see you in the Watch house this evening. Take today off. You need sleep.

‘Can’t, sir. We’re running tests today and I need to watch some of my patients at the hospital. I’m trying some new medicines as is Dr Boebus. They need constant monitoring.’

He sighed, nodded, understanding. ‘Of course. Well, carry on. Take a room at the Watch house when you need to sleep. You as well, doctor.’

The ‘Thank you, sir, your grace,’ was said quietly and to the ground so Vimes didn’t mind.

‘Shall I send in a maid?’ Cheery asked by the door. ‘There’s one whose sharp witted and gets him to take his medicine.’

‘Hm? Oh, yes, yes, tell her to come up in an hour.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll see you this evening, sir.’ She saluted as the door closed.

Vimes stood by the window for a minute longer before going back to the chair. He heard the thump of books hitting the floor followed by the flutter of papers colliding with each other.

He reached under the covers and found Vetinari’s hand and pulled it out, laying it neatly on top of the sheets next to his body. He stared at it. He stared at the immobile face. The sweaty forehead. The row of different coloured bottles with illegible doctor’s handwriting. The fire in the grate. The snow covered city to his right. The pale, thin, deadly hands lying so soft, so still on pale, thin, soft, still sheets. He swallowed. Hard. He said, I’m ordering you not to die. Do you hear? You stubborn, stupid, talkative bastard. You always talk when you shouldn’t. You always have the witty remark ready. You always work when you shouldn’t. You’re always ahead of everyone. You’re always in control. You always have a plan even if you say you don’t because you say plans get in the way. You have one. You always are so sure, so steady, so – gods. You’re not dying. As duke of Ankh I order you to not die. I’ll sign a warrant for your arrest if you do. I’ll bloody – I’ll bloody arrest you if you do. Then what’ll you do?

The room was silent. The fire was crackling quietly. Vimes whispered, Then what’ll you do?

And Vetinari, very, very softly said, I’d come back, Vimes. As I always do.

 

Evening. Same Day. Watch House. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

That night Cheery said he was worse. She was standing at parade rest in the commander’s office. He was reading death reports and traffic reports and grave digging reports and merchant reports. His desk was over flowing. He had to stand slightly to see her over the top of the papers.

‘He was doing a little better this morning.’ Vimes growled. ‘He was speaking when I left.’

Cheery sighed. ‘He’s been going up and down, we don’t know why. It is only the second day, but still. If it continues for much longer that rapid changes in condition alone will be enough.’ She stopped. She shook her head. ‘We’re doing what we can.’

‘I know you are.’

‘Boebus thinks he’s isolated the pathogen causing the disease. He dissected another buboes today.’

‘Ah.’ Vimes blinked. ‘Pathogen?’

‘Oh yes, sir. A new discovery from Quirm in the past six months. Largely to do with this plague. There are small, um, creatures, I guess you could call them, that are invisible to the naked eye. They can multiply fast under certain conditions, the internal temperature of most carbon based species is ideal, and when they do so they overwhelm the immune system of the person and make them ill. Only recently discovered, we’re still learning more about them. And we don’t know how to use this knowledge to cure people yet. But I’m positive something will come of it.’

Vimes nodded, Of course, of course. Well, keep me updated.

After she left he realised he was tired of saying that phrase.

 

That night was much the same as the others. Vimes ignored the rearranging furniture. Only getting angry when the cupboards started banging open and closed and the sheets kept being yanked off the patrician’s bed.

In the early morning hours Vetinari woke and asked, Have you left?

Vimes said, Yes, sir. During the day I have to.

Vetinari sort of smiled. It looked difficult. ‘Do you remember when I was being poisoned?’

Vimes nodded. He wanted to add, Did you expect me to forget?

‘Slow poisoning by arsenic is painful.’ There was a contemplative silence. ‘This is worse.’

In the morning he was better again. By noon he was near death. By supper he was better.

Cheery took Vimes aside and said, I don’t know how much longer this can go.

Vimes said, Keep trying, inspector.

She said, If he doesn’t-?

Vimes said, He will. He must.

 

Early Evening. A day later. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

His helmet had gone missing at some point during the day and had reappeared as a badger. He decided to take it with him and it didn't object to being tucked under his arm. His socks were changing colours with alarming regularity but, he reasoned, at least his hair colour was still street-mud brown with some grey. Colon had gone pink and Carrot was still green.

Taking a brief walk around the city to check in with various watch houses, guilds, and hospitals he found flower pots lining streets, some from clearly the other side of the city. Houses had new paint jobs and pigs were floating lazily down Easy Street. He snorted to himself and pulled his cloak around him tighter.

The guild of Assassins was in chaos with knives flying through the air at speeds that were decidedly unhealthy. He stared for a second before opting out of visiting Downey.

The hospital was slightly calmer, but only just. Sheets were being moved, beds began rolling down aisles arbitrarily.

A sigh. Vimes turned his heel and headed for the Unseen University.

 

A flash of black stopped him. Vimes stilled near a corner before entering Sator square, eerily silent for once. There was the distinctive crunch of boots on snow behind. The crunch of someone being purposefully heard.

‘I was informed you paid a brief visit to my humble guild today, commander.’ A silken voice said behind him.

Vimes turned around and Downey found the copper’s face frozen, inscrutable.

‘Humble?’ Vimes asked.

Downey gave a slight shrug. ‘We do what we can with what we are given.’

It began to snow again. Vimes stared at the assassin who stood out so starkly against the falling snow. Something caught his attention and his gaze drifted up to the lord’s hat out of which a small stiletto was sticking.

‘You have a knife in your hat.’ He said dully.

‘A stiletto. And I know.’

‘Uh-‘

‘I can’t take it out. I’ve tried. Nice badger.’

‘It’s my helmet. Was my helmet.’

‘I see. Reminds me of the time Havelock and I were trapped in a tree with only our knickers on.’ He thought about the memory for a moment. ‘It was the only time I’ve ever had to eat my shoe.’

Vimes stared. He might have blinked. The assassin smiled.

‘Shall we walk?’ Downey moved forward and took Vimes’ arm, steering him towards the university at an appallingly slow speed. ‘I’m not going to inhume you, you can relax.’

Vimes thought, Like hell.

‘I need four passes to leave the city. Preferably delivered by the end of the day. You can toss them in my office window if you’d prefer to not enter the building. Which I would recommend. Crossbows were arming themselves when I left. So were the poisoned darts. We’ve lost three staff members already.’ He hummed to himself and shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘Though I suppose it’s saving cost in the long run.’

‘What?’

‘They were getting past their prime and wouldn’t take my rather generous hints that retirement was all the rage.’ A small candy appeared and Downey unwrapped it. He offered one to Vimes who declined. The assassin grinned. ‘You always struck me as intelligent. If in a copper sort of way. Havelock always had a nose for intelligent people.’

‘Why do you need four passes to leave the city?’

‘Students, my dear commander. There are four who want to go home. They live up near the Ramtops. It’s safer up there, isn’t it?’

Vimes stopped in the centre of the square and stared up at the looming bulk of the university. He said, It’s not. Not according to the wizards, anyway. Downey sucked on his sweet and waited for more. He wore a dead fish expression. Vimes quelled the growing urge to punch Downey in the face. He was the sort of man born with a punch-able face. ‘It has to do with magic enhancing the plague,’ he said in an exhale. He fished for a cigar and matches. ‘Gets stronger and more virulent towards magic hubs.’

The assassin nodded. ‘Makes sense. Comparing what’s happening here to what happened in Klatch. So it would be better to keep them here.’

‘Yes. Probably. Or send them to Klatch.’

A wry smile. ‘I’ll say you’ve been obstinate, shall I? That we got into a tiff about something and you withheld them. Yes, that’ll do nicely.’ He began chewing for a few seconds before his face went still. ‘Havelock’s ill.’

‘Yes. When did word get around?’

‘Three-ish days ago.’ He ate another sweet. ‘Dr Boebus told me.’ He caught Vimes’ look. ‘We have sick students as well, commander. Don’t assume you’ve got full control of one of the best doctors in the city.’  

‘He’s been doing better.’

Downey smirked and gave a short bark of laughter. ‘If anyone can make it out of sheer stubbornness, it’s Havelock.’ He paused and followed Vimes’ gaze upward. The university was a shadow in the dying autumn sun. ‘I don’t want him to die, you know. Contrary to what you probably think.’

Vimes considered this. He accepted the second offered sweet and pocketed it. He’d have Cheery analyse it later. ‘If he goes you might too?’

‘It’s more than that. If he dies I’ll never have had the chance to call him dog-botherer to his face one last time.’ Downey gave a wan smile. ‘Too bad you can’t inhume the plague.’

'It’s an anthropomorphic being, now.’ Vimes said, unsure as to what made him say it. Downey blinked, absorbed the information, hummed to himself for a moment. He drew a pattern in the snow with his cane.

‘Is it now?’

‘Yes. So say the wizards.’

‘Well, sentiment still remains.’

‘It’s anthropomorphic.’ Vimes repeated in case the assassin had misheard him.

‘So’s the Hogfather.’

‘And?’

Downey tutted and shook his head. ‘Nothing. Just a thought, commander. Good night.’

‘Downey.’

The assassin stopped, back still to the officer.

‘Why did you come to me for the passes? Why not the office of travel authority? Why not the merchant’s guild?’

A slight shrug, Downey looked back at him, ‘well, you’re the man in charge, aren’t you? Now that Havelock's ill. You're the one keeping it together. And cheers, commander. You’ve been a brick.’

 

Mid-to-Late-Evening. Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

When a student found Ridcully fighting with his underclothes in the BS Johnson bathroom the headmaster snapped, ‘what?’ before a jet of water shot sideways from the shower missing his head by inches.

‘Sorry, headmaster, but there is a cop here to see you. He seems rather…pissed, sir. If you’ll pardon my language.’

‘That’ll be the commander, then.’

‘Yes, headmaster.’

‘And that’ll also be his natural state, lad. Tell him I’ll be along shortly. Soon as I get my vest to cooperate.’

Yes, headmaster.’

 

‘I thought we answered all your questions, commander.’ Ridcully said as he strode into the front hall.

The commander stood and gently set down a badger.

‘Nice weasel,’ the wizard said amiably as it wandered down a hall.

‘It’s my helmet. I’m waiting for it to turn back.’

Ridcully nodded and turned, ambling down a hallway to his office. Down a darkened corner there was a scream followed by a ‘bugger off ye mangy tenticled creature’. Vimes decided he wasn’t going to ask. He found his helmet lolling gently against the foot of a suit of armour a few minutes later and scooped it back up.

‘Now,’ the wizard settled into his chair and motioned for Vimes to do the same. ‘What can I help you with commander?’

‘The other wizard, the twitchy nervous one-‘

‘Young Stibbons.’

Vimes lit a cigar, ‘sure. Now, he said something about last time Death killing a King of Death.’ Smoke was blown out softly. ‘I want to know everything you know about that.’

Ridcully nodded, stood, and moved to the drinks cabinet. ‘Scotch, commander? Or are you still on the wagon?’

‘Wagon.’

‘Very good. You don’t mind if I? Good, good.’ He poured himself a finger. Down the hall a student yelled, ‘I’m done with seven headed demons!’ and poured himself another finger. He moved slowly, Vimes noticed. Sort of lumbered more than walked. His belly and beard were leading and the rest of the body following; in true wizard tradition.

‘Now,’ he said, settling back down. ‘This was a few years back. Maybe six, seven, eight. I’m not sure. Stibbons could give you the exact date. We don’t know much of what was happening on the other end, His end but what I do know is that He er, killed, his replacement. There was a hiccup with the Auditors and they banished Death and in doing so,’ he waved a hand around the office. At the spontaneously changing objects, the moving chairs and books, the animated clothes. ‘Created a backlog of death which is sort of like a backlog of magic. Similar things, life forces and magic. I don’t know the quantum thaumatic explanations for all this, but I think you’re a man to appreciate the more to the point explanations.’

‘Usually.’

‘Good. You’re not like Havelock. Have to give him every bloody detail, even though I’m not sure he follows half the time.’ He took a sip. ‘Though you never can tell with him.’

‘Usually.’ Vimes took a drag from his cigar. Blew the smoke out in a ring. Ridcully grinned.

‘I like you,’ he stated. ‘So there was a backlog of life force and that began wreaking havoc in a very similar fashion as to what’s been happening in the past day or so. Then, according to Him another Death was created. We’ll call the second Death Mortimer to distinguish them. Mortimer called himself the King of Deaths but I don’t care much for kings, do you?’

‘I don’t really know any.’

‘And I think we should keep it that way. Now, Death was running out of time and there was something about a fire and an old woman whose father was a bootlegger…or was he a horse thief? I can’t recall, regardless, things came to a head and Death called on Mortimer in the presence of one of the new death’s…victims, such as one can be a victim of the inevitable. And it was there that He faced down Mortimer.’

‘And how did he do it?’

‘With his scythe, naturally.’ Ridcully took another sip then held the glass up to flickering candle light. ‘Magnificent legs in this scotch.’ He set the glass down. ‘Do you know that the colour doesn’t indicate quality? A common misconception, apparently.’

‘I hadn’t heard.’ The commander moved suddenly, leaning forward and tamping out the cigar in a small ash tray that had appeared at the edge of the headmaster’s desk. ‘So he used a scythe?’

‘Yes, but I was given to understand that any weapon would do. He sometimes enjoys narrative drama, even if He denies it.’ Ridcully peered at the commander as the other man seemed to ponder something in the remnants of his cigar. He had known that Vimes could be close, there were few with a better poker face in Ankh-Morpork, with the Patrician possibly being the only one with a more inscrutable face. At last the copper sat back with determination clear.

‘Any weapon, you say?’

‘So long as it’s sharp enough.’

‘And in the bedroom of a, er, victim?’

‘So He says.’

‘You seem to know Death pretty well.’

‘Wizard. These things happen. And He says He’s had plenty of encounters with you.’

The commander grinned. It was disconcerting. Ridcully decided he didn’t like it and took another sip of his scotch.

‘Thank you for your help, headmaster. Now, I need to ask you a favour.’

 

It was one in the morning when Vimes trooped back into the Watch House and dropped his coat on a chair near the stove and kettle behind the front desk. Sally was on desk duty and trying to make the visitor’s ledger more legible.

‘Sergeant, do you know where I keep my ceremonial sword?’ He asked it as he warmed his hands and stared dismally out into the slush clogged streets.

‘The ducal one or the commander-of-the-watch one?’

‘Commander’s.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Take it to the smiths and see that it’s sharpened. As sharp as he can get it. Sharper than sharp would be preferable. And I want it done by tomorrow evening.’

Sally nodded and slid off her stool, feet silent as they hit the floor. She shuffled a few more papers before suddenly darting for her bag.

‘I have two letters for you, sir. They came back rather quickly.’ She handed them over. Vimes found the first one from Young Sam and tore it open, grinning at the lopsided hand writing and his son’s attempts at cursive that ended after two sentences. Sam wrote to say that he was doing well and learning to ride a horse because Auntie says all gentlemen’s sons learn how to ride horses and Mum knew how so her son should know how. He wrote that Auntie let him have hot cocoa before bed and made it extra chocolately with little marshmallows in it. The country was very dark and very quiet and he didn’t much like it but during the day it was all right. Oh, and daddy, there’s a tree house! Can I have a tree house when I get home? Auntie says she’ll draw up the plans for it and we can build it together. Also, also, Auntie says it’s dashing that you wear a uniform and that Mum always had a thing for men in uniforms, whatever that means. Daddy what is dashing?

The second half of the letter was from Sybil’s cousin and written in as gentlewomanly handwriting as Vimes had ever seen. She wrote that his son was delightful and well-mannered and polite and growing fast. She purchased him one or two outfits, she hoped that he wouldn’t mind but the boy had no proper country clothes suitable for his station. Being a son of a Duke and all. She continued, hoping that things were clearing up in Ankh-Morpork. She had heard that Klatch was beginning to see the end of it all and maybe, maybe, the late November cold was killing the killer, so to speak. There is, she wrote at the end, rumour of it spreading north. We are secluded, she said, but that won’t always save you. Write and let me know what you wish to do with Sam.

He set the letters aside and fingered the edges of the envelope. The Watch House was quiet, for once, and it was snowing again outside and he was thinking, Gods, is it November already? When did the time pass? He thought, The first chess game was in what, September? There were still leaves on the trees.

He thought about Sybil. He poured himself some tea and doodled little abstract designs in his notebook as he leaned against the front desk. He wondered what she would have done during this. Probably set up some sort of support group where knitting scarves was used as grief therapy. And, inspite of himself, he smiled a fraction.

Soft footfalls made him look up as Sally entered the room with a sword and scabbard in hand.

‘Shall I take it over now?’

‘Yes, yes thank you Sergeant.’

The door opened and a few flurries escaped inside, melting on dented, stained wooden floors. Vimes looked at the second letter for a moment before opening it. He scanned it quickly before sighing and tucking it into his breastplate. He reached for his helmet but found it had re-badgered. He pet the animal before dropping it onto the floor and watching it scuttle off under one of the desks.

The night softened as day break came low, low upon the horizon. Clouds were stacked high and majestic in the sky, dark stormy grey, the pale barely-there pink of the sun beneath them. Vimes climbed up to his office and opened the window to feel the cold, winter air. He lit a cigar and watched a second winter storm roll in over oily black ocean with the weak sun as an illuminating backdrop. 

Chapter Text

Morning. Late Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

Vimes hadn’t slept and went out with Angua and Carrot for a quick breakfast down the street. He ate only one egg and pushed the bacon around before sitting back and nursing a coffee. The two captains exchanged worried looks but didn’t say anything. Carrot reminisced about snowball fights when he was a lad. Angua shared recent station gossip, such as it was. Vimes was silent. He watched. He listened. He drank his coffee. He smoked a cigarette since he had run out of cigars and the shop was closed. There had been a black cloth on the door handle. Vimes had said to Carrot, Damn shame. He made the best cigars in the city.

Back on the streets and the commander ask, vaguely, ‘Who is on shift tonight?’

Carrot replied that he hadn’t made the list yet. Vimes murmured, Oh right. Playing things day to day.

They passed a neat stack of bodies. No one said anything.

 

At lunch a wizard came bustling into the Watch house demanding to see the commander. He was shown up to the office and Constable Liltovitch most certainly did not try and listen in at the key hole until Captain Angua showed up and stared at him. The words he reported to the other lads in the still “under construction” canteen were sparse.

‘The wizard said something about mouse blood and sticks. Then Mister Vimes said something. A long sentence and all I got was ‘bloody’ then a bit then ‘hell’ then another bit then ‘the bastard’. Then the wizard said ‘bugger it all for a lark’ and Mister Vimes said, and I heard this distinctly, ‘I don’t think Havelock’s ever had a lark in his life, no lie’. He sighed. The men urged for more. ‘That’s all I got. Captain Angua showed up and proper glared me off, as she does.’

‘What is this about Angua?’ Carrot asked with a large grin as he entered the room. The men gave a chorus of ‘nothing’ and ‘she’s lovely’ and ‘highest praise’ and ‘nofink’. Carrot’s smile got brighter, if possible. ‘That’s what I thought. Now, who wants beat duty in the Dolly Sister’s tonight?’

 

At tea time Cheery shoved a shy Dr Boebus up the stairs to the commander’s office.  Willis was at the desk and later reported that he heard the young doctor say that he didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news to the commander when he hasn’t had a proper smoke in over twelve hours. He then heard the inspector say that he should toughen up and grow a backbone and that it’d be good for him. By the way, would he like to be made a honourary copper? No one in the mess hall knew quite how to take that information.

 

At half six news, along with a pizza delivery, arrived at the Watch. Willis called in a few of the lads.

‘Just had it from the pizza boy who heard it from his brother who heard it from his gel who mends the socks of one of the cooks up at the University. There’s to be a big black magic ritual tonight. Like, bally big proper black magic. Skulls and candles and blood pentagrams on the floor and everything.’

There was a muffled plea for someone to pass the garlic dipping sauce.

‘Are you sure?’ A young lad named Smithson asked as he tore open a packet of chilli flakes. ‘I mean they’re always up to no good at the university. Me dad says that you can never trust a wizard.’

‘I heard at the pub that they sacrifice babies.’

‘No, that’s witches Samson, you damn fool.’

‘No, no, no. It’s wizards. They’re just like witches anyway. Magic. Speaking in tongues. Writing in black books. Consorting with evil spirits. Stands to reason that they sacrifice babies, too. Where do you think they get the blood for the blood pentagram?’

This was mulled over along with the last remains of unwanted crusts and fallen off bits of cheese and sausage.

‘But what about animals? Don’t wizards sacrifice animals?’

‘Right, wizards sacrifice animals and witches sacrifice babies. It’s common knowledge.’

The first officer shook his head, ‘no, it’s both do both. Both sacrifice babies and both sacrifice animals. Double the blood, double the sorcery. Stands the reason.’

A chorus of ‘ahhs’ and ‘I knew that’s followed for a moment before Smithson spoke up again.

‘So, what are the wizards doing tonight?’

‘Going to do black magic, lad.’

Yes, well, I got that bit. Babies. Blood. Demons. But what are they doing? What’s the outcome supposed to be?’

‘Um. Well. I hadn’t thought to ask.’

 

Ten minutes after the officers had decided that 'double the blood means double the sourcery' Mr Slant of the lawyers' guild appeared and, in a thin voice, declared that he had an appointment with his grace, the duke of ankh.

Angua, rather pointedly said, ‘I’ll show you the way to the commander’s office.’

Mr Slant stared then sort-of-smiled and replied, ‘Thank you, my dear. I’ll tell his grace that his officers have been most helpful.’ He didn’t emphasise a single word. He didn’t need to. Angua had a tense jaw line until the dapper-dressed zombie lawyer left half an hour later.

 

At eight Sally came back to the Watch house carrying a sword wrapped carefully in leather. Angua blinked and asked what she was doing with Mister Vimes’ sword.

‘He wanted it sharpened.’ The vampire replied evenly.

The werewolf shuffled a few papers behind the desk. ‘Whatever for?’

‘I couldn’t say.’ Sally huffed. ‘But I’ll be sure to inform the gossiping gaggle of officers in the mess hall as soon as I know.’

Behind the desk Liltovich turned excitedly to Angua, ‘Do you think she will?’

‘Only after she bleeds you dry.’

The officer paled and the captain sighed.

‘Of information, constable. Gossip is a tit for tat system here, you know.’

 

Vimes was sorting his filing (all papers in a heap shoved into a cabinet) when Sally knocked on the door and was told to enter. There was an envelope in the centre of the commander’s desk with Sam Vimes (the younger) written on it. Vimes followed her line of sight and put it in the pen drawer.

‘The blacksmith is finished, sir.’ She set the blade carefully down on the desk. ‘He said he’d forward you the bill.’

‘Fine,’ he flipped back one side of the leather. The air around the blade seemed heavier. A dense concentration of energy humming, begging to escape. He covered it again. This is why I don’t like swords, he thought. This is why I don’t like ceremonial swords.

He sat down and half-heartedly tried to kick his file cabinet closed. It resolutely refused. Sally stood at attention with her gaze fixed to the lower edge of the window sill behind his right shoulder. Vimes allowed himself a crack of a smile.

‘At ease, sergeant.’ A moment was spent fishing for a cigarette and a match box. ‘Do you know that it’s the original.’

‘Sir?’

‘The sword,’ he nodded to the covered weapon. ‘It’s the original that belonged to old Stone Face during the civil war.’ He could see her mastering her face. He could see the question in the front of her mind, the same he had when he had found out. Had the blood of the last king of Ankh-Morpork touched this blade? Had the stories been wrong? Had the previous commander of the city watch followed the ancient prescriptive of beheading nobility with a sword and not an axe. ‘I’m not sure wear the patrician dug it up from. But it appeared after I was made commander.’

‘Fitting, I suppose, sir.’ She was very, very careful. He smiled around the fag and blew out grey-blue smoke.

‘Poetic, I think. At least that’s how his lordship would phrase it.’

There was an uncomfortable silence. The storm that had rolled in the night before hung low and ready to burst over the city. There was wind through the narrow streets. Snow and slush moving this way and that.

At last Vimes sighed and sat back. Sally relaxed a fraction.

‘Thank you for sending the letters,’ he said.

‘You’re welcome.’

‘I will need you to report to me at midnight, sergeant. Along with Captain Angua and, if he can be spared, Corporal Shoe.’

‘Yes, sir.’ She looked from the sword to the commander. ‘I heard what the wizards are going to do tonight. And not what the boys in the mess are saying.’ She was looking at the unseen sword again. It seemed to hold both their gazes. ‘About the summoning and everything.’

‘How’d you hear?’

She had expected some anger. It would be very much like the commander to be angry that she knew. That anyone knew at all. But he wasn’t, she noticed. He was resigned, a little, relieved, a little, apprehensive, a little. But not angry. Or, rather, the commander was very angry, but not at her.

‘Word gets around with the differently alive community, sir. We hear things.’

‘I’ll bet.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘Will this be going into one of your little dispatches?’

‘Oh no, sir.’ And Sally was surprised to find that she meant it. Or meant part of it. Something would have to go in but she was sure she’d find something else to say or another way to say what had happened without saying actually what had happened.

‘Thank you, sergeant. I’ll se you in a few hours.’

‘Yes, sir.’ She turned for the door but was stopped by a, ‘oh.’ The ‘oh’ lingered for a moment before Vimes asked, do you think it’s the – but he didn’t finish the question and Sally was glad. He said another Thank you and she shut the door quietly.

Downstairs she found Angua and told her that they were to report to the commander at midnight. She fiddled with the visitor’s pen. It had a damaged nib, the body almost cracked in half. She then asked, Are the others out?

‘On their beats, yes.’

‘Good. Let me tell you what’s up for tonight.’

When she was done Angua was sitting very still. Her face was inscrutiple and not even Sally could read a semblance of the other woman’s thoughts. At last she muttered that the commander was easily the dumbest man she’s ever met and she’s met a good damn few dumb men.

‘Brave, though.’ Sally added.

Angua shrugged. ‘In my experience it’s often the same thing.’ She sighed. ‘He could die. The patrician could die. Blind Io, both could die.’

‘What would be the worst case?’

‘The patrician dies and the commander is found at the, aha, “scene of the crime” so to speak.’ Angua gave another shrug. ‘But then again, none of them are great. If they both die the city goes to hell in a high-speed hand basket. If the commander dies and the patrician lives… I’m not sure. I’m not sure at all, really.’

 

Vimes fished the envelope with Young Sam’s name on it back out of the drawer. He placed it in front of him, a little lower than the sword. There was a shuffling noise in the corner of the room as his helmet did its best to burrow under a pile of old armour. Slant had said that everything was in order. That everything was secure and it would all go to Young Sam should anything happen. That there would be no hitch.

He stared at the sword, which took up most of his desk space. It seemed so ominous, so there, so powerful, so obvious. He fingered an edge of the leather cloth. A half a minute later he stood and went to the window. The storm clouds still hovered. Lingering long and patiently over the city.

I haven’t thought about it. He realised. I haven’t let myself think about it. He pulled another cigarette out and lit it. The smoke ghosted up against the glass as he breathed out. They aren’t the same, I miss my cigars. He wondered how the patrician was doing. He wondered what would happen if they both -. He stopped. Breathed out. He let a fleeting, just barely there thought of how the other man had tasted enter his mind. It was followed by another thought, just as fleeting, just as barely there, about how it had felt, feeling Vetinari under him. He chased them away ferociously and angrily smoked the rest of the cigarette. Sentiments, he knew, never got anyone anywhere. Sentiments got in the way. Sentiments made you distracted. And he knew he couldn’t be distracted. He had to be anything but that.

He hefted the sword from the desk to a spare chair in the corner and covered it with his coat. By the door his helmet spun on the floor, eventually resting bottom’s up. He left it alone and retreated back to the safety of his desk. The envelope containing his entire estate. His wife’s entire estate stared up at him. He thought, Sybil, what would you if you were here? Not fuck the patrician, probably. A scowl and Vimes scooted around that issue. He remembered her running after a man called Keel and knew she’d meet the plague head on. Probably wielding a cast iron skillet.

 

Vimes left the Watch house at half eleven followed by Sally von Humperding, Angua, and Cheery. They arrived in the Oblong Office and found Ridcully and Stibbons waiting in the darkened room.

‘I don’t like the long shadows,’ Ridcully greeted as Vimes opened a discreet door by the drinks cabinet.

‘It’s midnight,’ Angua deadpanned.

‘Yes,’ the wizard replied. If a bit testily. ‘But there’s a difference between long shadows and long shadows.

‘You don’t say.’

Vimes gave them both a look and stalked down the hallway, sword in hand and still wrapped in the leather. ‘Forgive my officers,’ he said as they came to the door to the patrician’s bedroom. One of the patrician’s bedrooms. ‘They’ve been overworked lately.’

‘Nothing to forgive.’

By the window sat the same maid from before and she quickly rose to give a curtsey. Cheery bustled ahead of the group and conferred quietly with the young woman. Vimes didn’t look at the bed. He looked at the fire. He thought, What’s that old saying of ours? All else fails, kill it with fire? He added another log and prodded the fire with a fire poker. It smoldered for a moment before catching light on the new wood. He added smaller kindling underneath for good measure.

Behind him there were the too familiar sounds of Cheery checking over Vetinari. The shifting of fabric, weight lifted up then back down onto pillows. Occasional coughs, moans, something like a whimper but Vimes refused to believe that Havelock Vetinari could whimper. He thought, That should be a law. Havelock Vetinari is not allowed to whimper. He followed that with, When was the last time I slept? Gods.

There were new sounds too. Jars being placed on the floor, the sounds of chalk on floorboards, wood being fiddled with, the muttering of two wizards as they argued about the importance of dribbly candles.

‘When will you be ready?’ Vimes asked as he turned and looked very fixidly at the two professors.

‘Soon, commander.’ Ridcully replied. ‘These things can’t be rushed. And they also do not need skulls.’ A firm look was given to the younger wizard. ‘Three cc’s of mouse blood and four sticks, Stibbons. I’ve brought both. And the circle, naturally.’

‘What’s the circle for?’ Angua asked as she loitered awkwardly by the door.

‘To contain Him. Of course He can step out of it if He wanted too but He generally doesn’t. Very polite. Though it wouldn’t do for you to step in it. People who do that tend to expire.’

‘Good to know. And what about this new one we’re dealing with? Will he stay within bounds?’

Ridcully shrugged. ‘Maybe he’ll play by the rules. Maybe he won’t. Better to be safe, regardless.’ He watched Stibbons draw (unnecessarily) complicated ruins around the circle before turning to the commander and plucking him into a corner by the fire.

‘You know that this might not work,’ he murmured. Vimes was smoking. The wizard wondered if he had ever seen the commander not smoking. ‘Last time, with Death and, aha, Mortimer, it was two anthropomorphic beings against each other. You’re human and Plague isn’t.’ Ridcully mused on this a moment then added, ‘But, then, he’s new. So maybe he won’t know that a human can’t kill him.’

‘I thought it was our beliefs that mattered with anthropomorphic beings. The more concrete they are in our lives, the more we believe in them, and so the more power they have.’

Ridcully nodded, Sure. That is true. But once they’re created, what they believe about themselves also matters. And that’s what you’re banking on. You have one hit, commander. Make it matter.

 

At midnight they summoned the Plague. Vimes had his officers stations just outside the door along with the maid leaving him alone in the long shadowed room with two wizards and one dying man.

A minute passed. Candles flickered, fluttered, a few went out. The fire danced. Vimes moved a hand to the hilt of his sword, resting awkwardly in scabbard and against his side. It felt heavy about his waist. Pulling him down to the earth, centring him. He stood at parade rest and watched as fog spilled up and around the circle.

Outside the storm broke. It began to hail. There was also sleet. It hit the windows, a strong wind shook the pains and howled down alley ways. Vimes sighed. Fucking poetic weather, he thought.

 

The Plague was different from what he had expected. Fully cloaked, masked, and hunched over. Though he heard a whisper from Stibbons to Ridcully, He looks bigger than before. The older wizard hissed, He’s getting double the death to feed on.

Vimes stepped forward half a foot and stopped when the masked figure looked up at him.

Yess?

He cleared his throat. He hadn’t thought this far ahead and could tell that everyone in the room knew this. Ignoring it he blundered on.

‘I’m commander Vimes of the City Watch.’

The figure inclined its head. Yess. I know. How’ss your sson?

I’m not letting this derail me. He glared and pulled a cigarette out, still cursing the lack of cigars. They didn’t feel right. They tasted horrible. And were damn too fiddly to roll.

‘He’s well.’

Plague nodded again. Its movements were slow, almost calculated. Though Vimes wasn’t sure how much anthropomorphic beings could calculate. Probably quite a bit, now that he thought about it.

Iss thhere anythhing I can do for you?

You can piss off, Vimes didn’t say. Plague reached up with long, spider web fingers and carefully removed its hat. Underneath it was a hood and that was scooped back, falling against dirty robes. The hat was replaced. Although Vimes had seen what was under the hat he found he couldn’t directly recall exactly what it had looked like.

‘Leave,’ he managed to growl around his smoke. ‘And go plague another world.’

The head nodded slowly.

It’ss not thhat ssimple.

A thought occurred in the back of his mind, fricatives. Cheery had said it had to do with how things are pronounced. Or something to that effect. What had Vetinari muttered in his sleep? ‘When I see him he slurs his interdental fricatives. He hisses his alveolar fricatives. Fricatives. Are they the voiced or the voiceless?’

‘Oh? Do go on.’

I have planss. And thhey are already under way. I am thhe only one here. Thhere is no Death. Only me.

‘No Justice.’

Ssorry?

‘The line is, There is no justice. Only me.’

If a mask could smile Plague would have been smiling.

Thhere iss none of thhat eithher.

It was then that Vimes could see the lumps at the Plague’s neck. Buboes large, red and black, quivering. They made noise, he noticed. A very quiet, almost unheard, sort of sloshing.

Vimes looked down at the chalk circle as it slowly pulsed a greenish light. He took a step back and looked up to the white-bone mask.

‘What are your plans?’

A cough on the bed and both man and being looked over. Vetinari was staring at them with little interest. Eyes exhausted as they looked at Plague. When they found Vimes they were unreadable. Vimes stared before forcing his gaze back to the creature in front of him. He stepped back again.

‘What do you hope to accomplish? Kill everyone on the disc? It seems like a rather long and involved suicide.’ He took another half a step back. Out of the corner of his eye he could have sworn Vetinari cracked a small smile. ‘If we all die then you die. Without life there’s no death.’ Plague watched him before taking a step outside the circle. A gush of whispers came from the wizards and Vimes remembere that they were in the room too. He could hear pen on paper as one of them took notes. A distant part of his brain thought, It’s probably the Stibbons boy. He seems the type to take notes at a time like this.

‘Or are you after something grander?’

The plague stepped forward again, both feet outside of the circle. Vimes stepped back. He absently crushed his cigarette under foot.

I plan to be king of Ankh-Morpork. Plague said. I will control your lord for ass long as I need him alive. Thhen I will kill him and you will crown me king. A buboes by its neck quivered. Vimes winced and took another half step back. There was a groan from the bed and Vetinari managed to mutter, Wrong choice of title for this city. He settled back down with a sigh.

Plague stared at the bed for a moment, his hand reached out with open fingers and closed into a fist. The patrician coughed and Vimes could see a trail of blood from lip to chin. A wild thought ran itself across his head, We’d do it, too. We’d crown him king because that’s what we do when we’re scared and there’s someone in power and they say, ‘Do this, it’ll make it all better’. Or growl it, in the case of dragons.

There was a bleak moment of thought about the city with the patrician. And by the patrician he meant Vetinari. And he didn’t like it very much. But he knew that, already, didn’t he? He had known that thought for a long time, hadn’t he?

He moved on. Thought of his son and the plague racing north, all the dead, dead, dead, and dying. What was it that Sally had said to him? That the city had become one of the dead filled with funeral knells and the sounds of the dying and death and death and death. Vetinari was coughing again, struggling for each breath. Vimes took a stride forward and raised his sword.

If you kill me, anothher will take my place. Anothher who might be worsse. Plague was standing very still. Very still and watching. Staring. An irrational part of Vimes’ mind screamed, You’re not allowed to do that! Only the patrician’s allowed to do that. Only Vetinari’s allowed to make me want to stare at a wall for ten minutes before punching him in the face for being a bloody bastard.

Thhere are disseasess from placess you’ve never heard of thhat would make your hair curl. And thhey might be coming. But, if I am King, thhey never will.

‘But we’d have you.’ The sword felt heavy. He wondered, madly, how long Stone Face had held his sword up before doing the deed.

Spindly, spider web thin fingers were spread out and the plague gave a small shrug.

Better a King Deathh you know than one you don’t.

Vimes took another step forward. He could hear a clock ticking somewhere. It was even, calculated; not out of time. He could hear Vetinari breathing. Rasping. Each breath different. Each breath out of beat.

He will die if you kill me. If you do not, well, I am not unreassonable. Plague continued. Jusst know, if he diess now. It will be all your fault. And all whho die after you. I sshall not suffer a traitor to live, after all. All thosse deathss. Thhey will be on you. Thhey will be all your fault. Thhink of your sson. Thhink of your men. Thhink of thheir loved oness. You are condemning thhem out of sselfissh pride. 

Vimes forced himself to decidedly not think of his son. To decidedly not think about anyone. To think of the big picture, the long term picture, the picture without this creature in his city. 

As he stepped forward, swored raised up and back, Vimes snarled, ‘Well, I’m going to have to take that chance.’

And he swung.

And there was a blinding light. There was darkness. There were bodies falling apart from each other. One growing smaller another gaining height. Vimes looked up at skeletal fingers, a scythe, blue glow in empty sockets, he sighed.

‘You’re back.’

INDEED. AND IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO GO.

And it was dark.

And then there was a desert. 

Chapter Text

Morning. Late Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

The morning light broke gently over the unusually quiet city. There were a few souls trudging through the snow with scarves high and coats bundled tight over woollen pull overs. A few blew on their fingers to keep them warm. By one of the many bridges a troll was pulling up the frozen bodies of beggars and placing them by the body cart. They were curled up in a foetal position, eyes open, fingers clenched and pressed to their lips as if breathing on them would have saved them.

Over by the Nap there was the steady thump of shovels on frozen ground. Outside city walls there were more shovels on old earth. Resilient and difficult.

In the Watch house Carrot made up the new schedule for the men. He reassigned lockers and drafted up new beat partners. Liltovitch had come in that morning with the captain’s breakfast in a take away box and said that Willis wouldn’t be coming in on account of his being dead. And a few other lads as well.

‘I made the rounds this morning, sir.’ He had said, pushing bangs out of his eyes. Carrot had wordlessly handed him one of the hash browns. They ate them in silence.

Carrot wondered how they were going to replace all the lost men. He wondered how they were going to replace all the lost bakers, blacksmiths, washerwomen, tailors, stone masons, brick layers, doctors…

On the streets Dibbler was selling the last of his “Fix Yerself Up Proper Quick” potion. It was one of his few successful enterprises. Nobby asked, Do you feel bad about it? And Dibbler shook his head, Sorta like selling hope, right? Gotta have someone dishing it out somewhere. And sides, no one in Ankh-Morpork’ll believe it works unless they’ve paid at least two bob for it. Hope included.

           

Vimes woke up to a crenelated ceiling, blue walls, and the diluted glare of the morning sun half-hidden behind the remnants of storm clouds.

‘Glad to see you’re awake, Sir Samuel.’

Vimes groaned and closed his eyes. The pillows were hurting his head. Everything was hurting everything.

‘That was a little lack lustre.’ A pause. Vimes heard a movement to his right. ‘I think you can leave us, inspector.’ There was a quiet, ‘Yes, my lord’ and a door opened then closed. Vimes opened his eyes again and glared to the side of the bed. Vetinari was sitting on a chair, hands resting on the top of his cane. He looked a little worn, a little thin, a little pale, but very much alive.

‘Glad to have you back in the land of the living, Vimes.’

‘Nnkg.’

‘Quite. The myriad of doctors who have insisted on treating you all agree that you need at least one week of rest if not two.’

‘No!’ He coughed as he tried to sit up.

‘I’m not sure you have a choice in this matter.’ The patrician reached forward and smoothed the bed cover absently. He smiled. It was small and private and Vimes glared at him some more. ‘I’m going to pull rank, Vimes. You may be the duke of Ankh but I am still your boss.’

‘You’ve been waiting to say that.’ He managed to growl. He glared accusingly , ‘all this time. You’ve been bloody waiting.’

The smile came back. ‘Perhaps.’ The covers over his chest were smoothed again. ‘You will remain here for a few days until you are ready to be moved. Then you will be taken home where you will rest for a week.’

‘I don’t need to rest for a bloody week!’ Vimes raised his hand to make the point but it fell limply at his side.

‘Of course, Vimes. Now, there’s some medicine here that you need to take on very firm orders from your inspector. I must be off but will check in later.’ He stood and leaned on his cane, his eyes searching Vimes’ face. He reached forward and patted the commander’s hand, cool fingers on his warm ones. Vimes remembered the callouses, faint and softening.

‘It’s good to have you back.’

The patrician turned to leave, a thin black figure against pale blue walls.

‘Vetinari,’ Vimes started. The other man stopped, turned halfway around and waited. ‘I’m glad to see you’re better.’

A slight smile and a nod.

‘We’ll speak more later. Get some rest.’

 

When Vimes woke a second time he found Carrot, Angua, Colon, and Nobby standing awkwardly in the room. Awkward in a way that only coppers can be awkward in a posh room. He tried to say something but ended up coughing instead.

‘Oh, no, sir. You have to stay still. We’ve been ordered to make sure you don’t overtax yourself.’ Carrot said quickly. Colon and Nobby nodded vigorously.

‘How high did he raise his eyebrows?’ Vimes managed to ask as he caught sight of slightly wilting flowers and a large get well card on his bedside table.

‘Very,’ Nobby answered. He scuffed his shoe on the floor. ‘It was unarguably high.’

The commander nodded and sat back into the pillows.

‘How do you feel?’ Colon asked cautiously.

‘Like I’ve been on a two week long bender and someone’s finally pulled me out of the gutter.’

Both Nobby and Colon nodded in understanding. Vimes stared at the them then up at Angua and Carrot. A part of him was thinking, How are they alive? Another part was thinking, Gods I could use a drink.

‘Cheery says you’ll be fine once you’ve rested up.’ Angua said as she shifted awkwardly. ‘We’ll hold the fort until you’re back, sir.’

‘No fear,’ Colon added helpfully.

‘Glad to hear it.’ He said softly.

Carrot motioned to the card, ‘We all signed it, sir. All the men are very proud of you. And, uh, we’ve put the mess hall back together. Sort of.’

Nobby held up a helmet and grinned, ‘And we got your helmet to turn back into a helmet.’

'Glad to see it, though I was growing fond of the badger.’

There were a few rounds of chuckles before the men fell into an easy silence. After a moment Carrot gave a wide smile.

‘We best get back to the station, sir. But we hope you make a speedy recovery.’

‘I want to see reports, Captain. And I want a general daily update.’

The officers looked uncertain. Angua shrugged, ‘We’re not sure you’re supposed to be doing work, sir. Cheery was very clear on this.’

‘As was-‘ But Nobby was nudged in the ribs by Colon and gave Vimes a winning smile. Or what he thought was a winning smile.

‘Well, you best be off then.’ Vimes grinned. It hurt his face so he stopped. The officers seemed relieved. ‘Wouldn’t want to anger those as in power. And those who do officer check ups.’

A small chorus of agreements followed by a few salutes and he was alone. He drifted to sleep and dreamt of cold cobbles and greasy pizza with extra chilli flakes.

 

 

Evening. Late Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.

 

Vetinari returned in the early evening hours just as the sun sank below the horizon. He gave Vimes a small stack of letters and eyed the half eaten soup and bread on the bedside table.

‘You should eat more,’ he said evenly as he seated himself in the chair by the bed. Vimes raised an eyebrow at him and opened his mail. There was another letter from young Sam. He set it aside to read and reread it later. There was a collection of daily reports from the officers. A myriad of small bills and updates from the house staff.

‘How is the city?’ Vimes asked once he finished filing through the papers.

‘Still together. Still continuing on as it has been this past age.’ Vetinari stared at Vimes who stared back until he moved his gaze to the window behind the Patrician. The clouds were parting and there were stars and a sliver of a moon. ‘Do you want last night’s numbers?’

‘I don’t know.’ Vimes frowned. Vetinari’s eyes were very blue.

‘Three thousand one hundred fourteen.’ He paused as the commander digested the number and gave a numb nod. ‘Do you want todays?’

‘Why not.’

‘One hundred two.’

The room was so still and Vimes let out a breath. It was a hiss between his teeth. Down the hall a clock chimed seven. He reached over and nibbled on a piece of bread. Vetinari nodded and tapped his fingers on his cane.

‘It seems your plan, fool hardy and, may I say it, frankly insane, worked.’

The commander gave the patrician a wide grin. It didn’t appear to affect the man. He decided he would have to work on that. Smiling usually did the trick with most people.

'One in a million chances. I’m good at odds.’ He was feeling light headed. Light chested. As if a million weights had been lifted and everything was beautiful and brilliant and wanted to do something rash. To do something insane. He reached forward and grabbed Vetinari’s hand before releasing it and rummaging back into his papers.

‘I’ll be back in a few hours,’ Vetinari murmured. ‘I have a few last minute things to catch up on.’

‘Of course.’ Vimes looked up and found Vetinari still watching him. ‘I have a question.’

‘By all means.’

‘Downey said he wanted to call you ‘dog botherer’ to your face one last time before you died.’ Vimes swore Vetinari’s face went more still than he had ever seen it. The commander made sure to keep his face blank. ‘What’s the about?’

‘Old guild jokes. From when we were quite young.’ The man’s face changed again and suddenly there was a slight smile and the patrician added, ‘call him a scag next time you see him. Then tell him I said ‘hello’.’ He stood and leaned over and Vimes felt a brush of dry lips on his forehead before the patrician left as quietly as he had entered.

 

Vimes woke up as city bells tolled two and found a warm body curled up next to him. He shifted and slipped an arm around Vetinari and pulled him closer. He thought, He’s a side sleeper. A foetal position side sleeper. And he didn’t know what he felt about that but it was all right, in the end. He thought, I suppose it doesn’t signify anything. Other than the fact the he sleeps curled on his side.

He fell asleep as a second snow started to fall over the city.

 

It was over lunch when Vimes asked, Sir, could you see him when you were ill?

‘See who, commander?’

Vimes gave a vague motion with his fork, ‘the anthropomorphic being. Plague.’

Vetinari sipped his coffee and stared at a spot between them. Vimes ate a spoonful of soup. It had too many vegetables for his taste but Vetinari had stared at him until he had grudgingly tucked in. Nobs and their vegetables.

'I believe so. Or, I might have dreamt it. I wasn’t very clear headed at the time, if you recall.’

‘What did he look like?’

Another moment of pondering before the patrician set his cup down and poured more coffee. He put another piece of bread in front of Vimes and looked at him pointedly.

‘I’m not sure, exactly. I suppose he was very black. Misshappen, I believe. Hunched, sort of. He smelled something awful. Much like the city during a particularly hot summer. I remember thinking that he looked like spilled ink. And he lisped when he spoke.’

‘You rambled something about that, I think.’

‘Did I? I don’t like it when I ramble when ill.’ A soft sigh of resignation. ‘Little to do about it now. Why?’

Vimes shrugged, Just curious. He looked like a doctor when I met him. How the wizards described him, actually. A lot like that. He nibbled on the second piece of bread. Why does Downey call you dog botherer?

The grin he gave Vetinari was wicked at the patrician glared.

‘He did, commander.’ The other man replied testily, ‘but doesn’t anymore. At least, not to my face. And eat your soup or I’ll have the kitchen send up a salad for your dinner.’

 

 

Vimes was moved back into his house three days after what he had labelled The Event. He flipped through a pocket calendar and noted that it had been roughly nine weeks since The Question. He decided he wasn’t going to think about it and pulled up a copy of the morning Times. Ignoring the daily number he turned to the centre fold hoping there might be something non-plague related written. He ended up reading about large, strange shaped vegetables. It was relaxing.

He heard news that the clacks system had been wrangled back into working condition. After the clacks the infrastructure of the city was to be slowly put to right. Though, the reporter noted, worse had gone on in other cities. Psuedopolis could have been printed in large, bold letters after the statement. Vimes sighed and turned the page.

 

The commander soon took to monitoring Watch affairs through clacks and pigeon messages. Two days later Carrot decided to visit his superior officer in,  what Vimes called, Invalid Hell. The captain asked with an air only Carrot could manage, Would you like some book recommendations, sir?

‘Why?’ He reached for his cigar case only to put it down again as Carrot gave him a look better than any doctor could manage.

‘You have been very attentive to watch affairs, sir.’

‘Bloody well I have been. We have a city to fix.’

Carrot coughed. ‘Yes, sir. But, um, you’re ill, sir.’

‘And your hair is still green. What does that have to do with anything?’

‘It’s just, we think you ought to be resting rather than working.’

‘We?’ This time he did open the cigar case and take one out. He sighed, he could tell already that they wouldn’t be the same.

‘Angua, the inspector, other interested parties, and I.’

The commander glowered, ‘if the patrician is the “other interested party” then he can bugger off.’

Carrot coughed again. ‘We just think you ought to rest. That was the doctor’s orders.’

When the captain left Vimes crumpled up the instruction list the doctor had left and threw it at the door. It landed on the ground with an impotent thump.

 

On the third night back home Vimes woke to find someone sitting near the bed and watching him with a particularly intense expression. The person was also reading papers by candlelight. Well, Vimes reasoned, you don’t remain patrician without being able to multi task.

‘How’d you get in?’ He asked gruffly as he sat up.

‘Through the window.’

Vimes peered at each window carefully. Everything looked in order.

‘How?’

‘Guild secrets, I’m afraid, my dear commander. And you should be asleep.’

‘What are you doing here?’

A hum and Vetinari picked up another sheet of paper.

‘That wasn’t an answer.’

Vimes could have sworn Vetinari gave a slight, amused smile. And Vimes could have hit the man for being such an obnoxious, busy body, nosy bastard. But he didn’t. Because he sort of liked the sound of paper work being done and the presence of someone just being there without requiring much from him since, frankly, though he would never admit it to anyone, he wasn’t up for doing much to begin with.

A few hours later he woke again and found Vetinari curled next to him.

‘You’re a close sleeper.’ He grumbled and adjusted his weight so he wasn’t sleeping half on top of the patrician. ‘It’s going to be obnoxious in the summer.’

Vetinari seemed pleased with this and nodded.

‘Quite probably.’ A sigh. ‘Stop moving, Vimes.’

They both went still for a few minutes. Vimes watched Vetinari breath. He thought about the letter from Pseudopolis.

‘Vetinari,’ he said to the pillow rather than the man.

‘Hm?’

‘Your aunt,’ he could feel the patrician playing with a button on his night shirt. He was twisting it, winding it up all the way to the right then letting it unwind. Occasionally he switched directions. ‘I received a letter from Pseudopolis –‘

‘Yes.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘So you have said before, Vimes.’

They both were still in the dark in silence.

‘I’d offer you a smoke but seeing as you don’t…’

Vetinari was now eye level and staring at him with a bit of a wan smile. If Vimes could he’d have traced the patrician’s lips with his fingers and memorize this expression. He thought, This man has never been so real to me as he is now. And if he’s as he usually is tomorrow I want to be able to remember how he is tonight. At least as some proof that he is human.

‘Madam swore by menthols and chocolate milk.’ Vetinari turned and murmured it into Vimes’ shoulder. The sheets felt heavy and too warm. ‘It was most often in Genua. After a long night out I’d hear her come in at three or four. She’d check on me and I’d pretend to be asleep until I did eventually fall back asleep. When I would come down for breakfast I’d find her on the patio wearing a large brimmed hat, smoking menthols and drinking a tall glass of chocolate milk. When I had my first hangover I tried it as a cure. I sat on top of the Assassins’ guild with a half litre of it. It was a trial to balance the carton on the old tiles.’

‘How’d it work?’

Vimes could feel a twitch of a smile.

‘It didn’t. But I did feel a tinge more human afterwards. And had the pleasure of dumping a quarter litre of chocolate milk on Downey by accident.’

They fell asleep shortly after. And, in the early morning hours, around three or four, Vetinari slipped from the bed and exited the room via the window.

 

The next evening after Vetinari appeared and startled the commander near half to death Vimes said, We should play something. I think we have an unfinished board game in the wings.

Vetinari frowned, I left it at the palace. How about backgammon?

The board had belonged to Sybil’s grandfather who had brought it back from the Agatean empire. It was made from rich walnut with inlay of pearl, oak, alder, and rare Agatean paduak. Vetinari set the board and turned it so Vimes was starting.

The commander rolled the dice and moved his pieces.

‘An interesting opening,’ Vetinari murmured. Vimes thought it more to himself than for conversation. ‘The Agateans value the paduak tree more for its flowers than its wood.’ He said it as he traced a design along the edge of the board. ‘Though I believe the trees are dying out.’

‘What’s so important about the flowers?’

‘They’re beautiful, apparently. I’ve never seen one, only the occasional picture. They offer them to the gods during one of their holy festivals.’ A pause as the patrician moved

A few minutes passed as they played in silence. Vimes asked, as he placed a piece on the centre divider, What about her cat?

He had a vague memory of something orange and furry when he had met Madam. The full impact of who she was and who she had raised hadn’t dawned till much later. When it had all he had said was, Well that explains so much. Carrot had asked, What explains so much? And he had laughed. It had been a sort of ironic, cracked one, but it had worked.

‘Or does she not have one anymore?’

Vetinari blinked and stared then nodded. ‘John Keel, I forget sometimes. And yes, she had a cat. A tortoise shell coloured one. Named Tiggy, I believe. She has quite the personality Madam informed me. She’ll probably go to a cat friendly acquaintance. I shouldn’t think it’ll be a problem.’ The patrician returned his attention to the game. A few moves passed. Vimes liked the silence. It was one of the few comfortable ones he’d ever experienced with someone who wasn’t Sybil. Vetinari rolled a double six and the cop let out a soft curse.

The patrician hummed, ‘It’s something I’ve always marvelled at.’

'What is?’

'How much work is involved in cleaning up after the dead.’

Vimes nodded and picked up the die. He rolled. He moved his pieces. He didn’t say anything. Because, what else was there to say?

 

 

Later. When the game had been put away. When the tea had been finished up. When the streets were quiet and some bell somewhere was tolling for midnight. When they were upstairs and Vimes had managed to convince Vetinari that what they were doing was not “strenuous physical exertion” (beds are involved. Can’t be strenuous if it’s on a bed), he reflected that this was probably all one could say in response to all that. To the mess that the dead leave behind for the living.

Vetinari was naked and looking gently amused and it was strange, to Vimes, to see the patrician naked. Naked and clearly not caring that his clothes left a trail from the bedroom door to the bed. Or that Vimes was half dressed and feeling confused about what exactly he should be doing. It was a confident sort of nakedness. One that Vimes had never had and had always marvelled at it. He remembered Sybil, briefly, she had been similar. It must come with the breeding, he reasoned as he knelt over the other man. It must come from knowing who your great great great great great great grandparents were and what they did. It must come from knowing what you could do if you wanted to.

‘Stop analysing the situation.’ Though Vetinari was amused more than anything and Vimes gave a half hearted glare.

‘Old habits die hard.’ He grumbled. He reached out and traced Vetinari’s collar bone out to his shoulder then back. ‘Though you’re hardly one to speak.’

There was a hum of consent as Vetinari reached up and pulled Vimes down, a hand working between their bodies to loosen his breeches.

‘As an invalid, there is no reason you should be this well dressed,’ was the complaint muffled out against his shoulder. Vimes bit back a reply and lifted his hips a fraction and felt the fabric move over his skin and down his legs.

Vimes bent down for a kiss, tongue tentatively pushing forward into Vetinari’s mouth. A hand was at the back of his neck, pulling him closer. He felt more than heard the patrician’s moan as the kiss deepened. Vimes skirted a hand down the other man’s body feeling flesh and muscle and bones. Slipping a hand under Vetinari’s body he ran it down his thighs, pulling the legs a little wider apart, then back up to his buttocks and tugged him up. Vetinari’s hips jerked forward, grinding upward against Vimes’ body.

There was a moan stopped short then a hiss of, Vimes. With most of the name being lost somewhere along the way.

Vimes moved his mouth to Vetinari’s neck and shoulders. A trail of bite marks followed as he moved his hips down to meet Vetinari’s. The patrician’s hands were on his hips, fingers digging in and bringing him in and closer, closer, closer with hips moving up and closer, closer, closer.

‘Oh gods,’ it was breathed out and Vimes wasn’t sure who had said it.

Suddenly firm movement and Vetinari was kissing him, deeply, while untangling his legs and pushing him back. With some manoeuvring he managed to push Vimes off of him and into a sitting position with his back against the headboard.  Their mouths were meeting in quick biting kisses as Vimes found his chest being explored with thin fingers moving down over skin and hair and with thumbs brushing over nipples before dipping lower.

Reaching forward Vimes tugged Vetinari into his lap. The commander’s eyes were dark and face flushed. A shift as he rolled his hips up and wrapped his hand around them both. Vetinari’s mouth was on his neck and then back up and he could taste the other man as they kissed and Vetinari’s tongue was in his mouth and he was moaning as he pressed deeper into Vimes. Vetinari moved his hips forward and up into Vimes’ palm so things felt a little warmer in the room. A little damper. It was beginning to be all a bit too much with Vetinari moaning softly into Vimes’ neck, his mouth, with thin eager fingers in his hair, on his chest, his waist, his prick and that pain-pleasure of a bitten lip, the rutting hips, the hazy room, old sheets, strained muscles. It was all too, too much. And his hand was moving faster between them and Vetinari was gasping something that might have been his name or might have been something that was nothing. Then, then – Gods. Gods.

And it was over with the candles half burnt down and all that was left were the lingering tendrils of pleasure. Thin and long, like legs in a fine scotch.

 

Early Morning. Late Autumn. Ankh-Morpork.           

 

When Vimes woke it was early morning. The horizon was turning a barely-there grey and as he rolled over he found Vetinari watching him, his eyes a soft blue. An evening sky blue.

‘Don’t you ever sleep?’ He growled, pulling the covers up a fraction.

‘Good morning to you too, Vimes.’

Vimes pulled a face as Vetinari scooted closer. There were a few inches between them. A yawning expanse of bed and meaning and Vimes found himself loath to cross it.

‘Have you heard from young Sam?’ It was asked quietly. The commander nodded. Their breathes were even and gentle. The sky was still a barely-there grey and for once there were no clouds. Just the remains of stars and window filtered moonlight. ‘Is he returning home soon?’

Another nod. ‘In a week. Probably with more clothes than he needs.’

There might have been amusement on the patrician’s face, Vimes wasn’t sure and thought, I’d like to know.

‘I hear that being a bit spoiled is part of being the son of a duke.’

They were still a few inches apart but it felt like it was growing by miles and they were lying on a thin sheet of glass and one wrong move would shatter it all. He could see Vetinari thinking, he could see the wheels turning, calculating, planning every action so carefully, estimating what would happen ten moves later. Vimes scowled, thought, Bugger that, and reached forward and pulled the Vetinari towards him so their noses were touching and the bed suddenly felt a little warmer than before. The patrician, Vimes mused, is a very boney man.

A quick breath in and Vetinari said, Vimes, I have a question for you.

It was a whisper. A quiet, careful whisper.

And Vetinari asked it.

And Vimes said, Yes, I think that would be –

And oh that sheet of glass was still there and Vetinari was watching him with patient eyes and Vimes could hear the slow sounds of the city waking up and thought, Gods, we do continue despite it all.

And Vimes said, I think I’d like that. Though, I’m not sure how I’d tell Sam.

There was a movement on Vetinari’s face and Vimes realised that it was a smile. A kind, sort-of-sly smile. A very real smile.

Vetinari said, or murmured, One thing at a time, commander.

Vimes said, We’ll give it a try, then, sir.

Outside it was cold and crisp and clear.