There were many things one could tell about a man just by considering what he saw in his shaving mirror, Lord Vetinari reflected.
For example, Vetinari's mirror was of the slightly convex shape that had been known, at the height of their popularity, as bullseye mirrors. In these relatively stable times they had fallen somewhat out of fashion, and were generally only used by men who felt more comfortable with the rather wider field of view they offered, a defense against anyone who might be attempting to approach one undetected in a moment of vulnerability.
Such men could also, often, be identified by a certain bagginess around their eyes, the mark of a man who seldom slept well at night.
Vetinari, of course, slept the sleep of an innocent babe, and if he seemed slightly more strained than usual this dawn, it was because he'd had barely two hours abed after last night's-- excitement.
Then, of course, there was the razor. Vetinari's was a fine old blade, honed and well-sharpened; at first glance, one was unlikely to notice that, unlike most razors of its kind, the end of the blade was ground to a point, and it was subtly balanced for throwing.
One might be more likely to notice the way it was shaking in Vetinari's hand. The tremors in his hand were, in fact, impossible to miss, as the blade's uncontrollable wavering caught the pre-dawn candlelight and flashed it across the mirror in coruscating streaks.
The tremors were no more than a temporary inconvenience - he had been assured that they were an expected side-effect, and would be gone within a day. "And if they aren't, jutht thtop by and I'll thew on a more thtable thet of handth, I've got a very nithe pair on ithe," the Watch's Igor had told him reaththuringly. In the interim, however, Vetinari was presented with something of a dilemma, as he found himself reasonably disinclined to bring a sharp edge anywhere near his throat when there was a high probability he would be unable to control its motion.
The simplest solution would be to go unshaven for a day; but an unshaven Patrician would be noticed. And while a temporary tremble in the hands was a suitable aftereffect for someone who had survived what he had yesterday - would likely only become a further aspect of his well-cultivated reputation as people speculated on whether he was faking it or not - to go unshaven would be an unacceptable sign of weakness.
Drumknott would be the obvious answer to render assistance. On a normal morning, he would not ask for such help - trust on the little things too easily became a habit, and Vetinari was too much an assassin still to be comfortable with anyone else holding a knife to his throat, even one whose loyalty was beyond question - but this morning a shave from his secretary would have been a permissible indulgence. Unfortunately, Drumknott was still under a doctor's care after the previous night's excitement, and his hands were likely to be if anything less stable than Vetinari's.
One of the problems with Vetinari's carefully-cultivated reputation for making everything he did part of a subtle and multi-pronged plan with three different and possibly contradictory motives was that it then became impossible to move in a straight line, even if he wanted to. Anyone Vetinari asked such assistance from, even among the carefully-chosen palace staff, would immediately become a target - of suspicion, of bribes, of elaborate conspiracies that might well end in destabilizing the entire ruling class of Ankh-Morpork.
(Some people would call such considerations paranoia. Vetinari called them practicality.)
Vetinari considered his reflection a moment more, folded the razor (it took him several tries, against the tremor in his hands) and dropped it into one of the less well-hidden pockets of his robes of office, as he went to summon whichever of his elite clerks had been tapped to fill in for Drumknott and spend the day actually clerking.
"I'll have my breakfast in my office," he informed the poor man. "And please send a message to Commander Vimes that I would like to see him at his earliest convenience and discuss recent events." Vetinari considered the timing; it had been almost four hours since he'd left Vimes to handle the immediate clean-up of the affair, and returned to the palace to give the impression that he was utterly unrattled. "He'll most likely still be at the Pseudopolis Yard watch house."
For the message to reach Vimes, Vimes to read it, delay as long as he considered necessary, and then travel to the Palace gave him approximately half an hour.
The mirror and basin in the Oblong Office were more ornate than the severely plain ones in Vetinari's private rooms, but this mirror was still notably convex. They were placed in a corner along the same wall as the main entry door, and the mirror - quite coincidentally - granted Vetinari, seated at his desk and looking straight ahead, a view of everything that happened in the office, and a fair amount of the panorama through the windows as well.
The washstand was there primarily to keep anyone from wondering why the mirror was there, but it had occasionally come in handy when Vetinari needed to freshen up between meetings, so the staff kept it stocked with soap and towels and filled the basin every night.
The washstand's location also made it largely outside of line-of-sight for someone entering the office, which had never been strategically relevant before, but was sufficiently useful staging that most people would readily believe it had been planned. Vetinari was standing at the basin when Vimes came into his office. He was already off-balance because he had been sent right into the office rather than being made to wait, and before he'd quite moved on from noticing that Vetinari wasn't behind his desk, Vetinari turned and said, "Ah, Vimes. Long night?"
He had already lathered up and held the razor in one hand. Vimes stared at him with a somewhat fixed expression; he was well aware that any sharp object in Vetinari's hand could, at the slightest notice, become a threat of death.
Then again, Vetinari reevaluated, it could be because his hand-tremor was still very apparent and the blade was weaving around like one held by a particularly unregenerate patron at ten minutes past last call at the Mended Drum. "Sir," Vimes said, still not taking his gaze from the razor.
Vetinari smiled mildly at him. "Yes, your Igor warned me that the tremors might persist for some time. As you can see," he gestured expansively at the basin, the mirror, and the lather, "It's left me at a bit of a loose end this morning. I don't suppose...?" He offered the razor, very emphatically handle first, to Vimes, and let the question trail off.
Vimes took several steps forward, almost mechanically, as if he were trying to stop himself but couldn't. The blade glinted between them in the morning sunlight.
This was not the first time Vetinari had found himself in this situation - standing before someone, offering them a knife with the invitation to use it on Vetinari's neck and the subtext that they didn't dare try. (The previous situations hadn't even all been metaphorical. No one had ever dared. The strategy had, in aggregate, stopped two attempted coups, prevented three wars, and earned him one of his best intelligence agents.)
This was the first time he'd ever stood there hoping the other man would take the knife.
Vimes reached a hand forward, and then stopped. Neither of them voiced any metaphors about offering whiskey to a recovering alcoholic, nor did they say anything about Vimes's history of pouring such gifts out on the carpet.
Vimes, thought Vetinari, was not a stupid man, nor unadept at politics, despite the effort he put forward in appearing so. If he truly wished to refuse, he had multiple pathways to metaphorically pour the whiskey out on the rug - the simplest being that acting as a personal servant to the Patrician was in no part of the job description of the Commander of the Watch.
And he could, of course, take the razor, and then slit Vetinari's throat with it, pouring it out on the rug in a rather less metaphorical fashion. Vetinari considered this an unlikely outcome, given the effort he'd repeatedly put forward in saving the Patrician's life, but one could never be quite sure with tests like these, no matter how familiar one was with the psychology of the individual, and Vetinari was well aware that a stifled but well-rooted part of Vimes still wanted to be the one to kill him.
Vimes took another step forward and clasped the razor's handle. If his hand was shaking nearly as much as Vetinari's, neither of them acknowledged it.
He tossed the blade a few times in one hand, getting a feel for it, and then adjusted the angle of the blade and gripped it by thumb and forefinger, the way one would for shaving. He glanced from the blade to Vetinari's face and back, and then said, "I think I'm going to have to stand behind you. I've never done this for someone else before, I'll-- move wrong."
Vetinari agreed to this, but he had not quite realized how intimate it would feel, Vimes reaching forward over his shoulder, both of them staring intently into the same mirror.
He started with a long swipe down one cheek, the blade making a soft shirring noise as it scraped over his skin. Vetinari did not react, because he was Vetinari, and could not afford to react to anything unless it was a calculated move in the game.
It did not feel as if Vimes was shaving off a day's stubble. It felt as if he was peeling off the accumulated armor of years. The skin, newly revealed from beneath its cover of lather, felt sensitive to the merest breath of air, as if he was feeling twice as much as usual, and the touch of Vimes' fingers as he pulled the skin taut for another stroke felt too warm, too alive to be real, as if too much of Leonard's vital fluid was flowing through the connection of the touch.
Vetinari did not suffer from a simple hunger for the touch of another living creature; that what why he kept a dog. The dogs earned their keep by providing something warm and living enough to satisfy his animal need for contact without requiring anything more complicated in return than a wicker basket and the occasional steak. It was a satisfactory arrangement all around.
Vimes pressed lightly against a cheekbone to signal him to turn his head, and Vetinari did so without a second thought. Vetinari never did things without a second thought.
He closed his eyes and thought about Mr. Wuffles very hard for a few moments - flatulence, drool, thinning hair, unexplained skin blemishes and all.
That careful, gentle touch of fingers and blade to his skin was really quite astonishingly distracting. Mr. Wuffles' beloved bug-eyed, snub-nosed faced was staying at the forefront of his mind only with serious effort. Something would have to be done.
He waited for a moment when Vimes lifted the blade away to wipe it clean of accumulated lather and said, mildly, "How fares the new dartboard at the Dolly Sisters watch-house, Sir Samuel?"
Vimes dropped the blade on the edge of the wash-stand, very suddenly, and took a long step back.
Vetinari noted, dispassionately, that he was breathing rather hard for a man who had been doing no physical labor. The harsh sound of his breath was strangely loud in the room, against the quiet crackle of the lather.
"Patrician," he said finally, "Don't push your luck."
Ah, yes. Well. That was the thing with Vimes. He met the man's eyes firmly in the mirror, and said, "Understood, Commander."
When Vimes made no move to return to his task, Vetinari tilted his head far back, exposing the long pale line of his neck. It was a posture he was unaccustomed to of late; the increased sense of vulnerability he had expected; he had not expected his... other reactions to he feeling.
It was astonishing, he thought, that he'd never noticed before that Mr. Asbjornson's bullseye mirrors, while they were very good at extending your peripheral vision, made it unusually difficult to get an undistorted view of a man who stood at your shoulder.
There was probably another metaphor there, but he was somewhat disinclined to chase it, at this moment. Vimes was watching in the mirror, too, intently and carefully stroking along the edge of Vetinari's goatee while staring at his chin in the mirror. Vetinari wondered, mostly academically, whether he really did think he would be more efficient if he was following the same routine he used at home, or whether he had just thought he'd need the extra distance of seeing him through a reflection.
At that moment their eyes met in the mirror, quite accidentally, as Vimes lifted the razor away to move to the other side. Vimes looked away hastily; he would have been unable to observe whether Vetinari did as well; therefore that question was irrelevant.
Vimes wiped the razor with a bit more care than he had been using, and returned to the task. He must have taken the time to clean up somewhat before he came to the palace, because despite the close proximity that Vimes' chosen set-up required, he'd only smelled of soap and old leather and tobacco-smoke when he started; but now Vetinari was starting to detect a masculine scent of light sweat, flavored what he was going to assume, for his own peace of mind, was muffled terror.
"It's a good thing you have this goatee," Vimes said suddenly, forced cheer in his voice. "I don't have to do any of the really tricky bits."
Vimes did have an interesting tendency to not realize when he'd noticed something important. Vetinari had, in fact, been well aware of the style's somewhat... unsubtle connotations when he'd started wearing it, but it wasn't until he'd been Patrician for some time that he'd realized why it was so popular among men of his ilk: a style that meant you didn't have to do the tricky bits managed to look neat and fastidious while just about halving the time one was required to stand daily with a blade near one's important arteries.
Very few people not in his position seemed to realize just what sense of vulnerability a small, careful goatee revealed to the world. He would rather this remained the case.
"Commander," he said carefully as soon as Vimes had lifted the razor to wipe it again, "Don't push your luck."
Vimes flashed some teeth at the mirror and said "Right." He finished the last few strokes in silence while Vetinari began to mentally prioritize the paperwork that would be appearing on his desk within the hour. When Vimes finally put the razor down for good, and ran the back of his hand along Vetinari's cheek to test the closeness of the shave, Vetinari did not shiver, or in fact react visibly in any way at all, except to raise one eyebrow into the mirror.
Vimes snatched his hand back as if he had suddenly thought about scorpions.
"I believe that will be good enough to be going on with, Sir Samuel," Vetinari said.
"Yes," Vimes said. He was suddenly halfway across the room, already standing in his accustomed 'attention' position of aggressive neutrality. The man really would have made an impressive assassin, if he'd only had the temperament for it. "Did you have anything else you wished to speak about, sir?"
Vetinari wiped his face with the damp towel, checking in the mirror to make sure there was no lather left, and let the moment stretch out. Vimes was still visible and stiffly waiting at the edge of the mirror's image.
As he strode back to his desk, Vetinari ran his own hand, somewhat softer than Vimes's -- though not as soft as many would expect -- along his newly-shaven cheek. It still felt oversensitized, as if he was feeling the echoes of the other man's touch.
He considered bringing up any of the several ongoing issues that were at least mildly relevant to the Watch, turning this into one of their usual meetings. It would break the tension that was still thick in the air, help put Vimes back onto his usual cardboard footing.
But breaking that tension would be like smashing a priceless vase underfoot, just because one could. Vetinari was no lover of art, but there were some things that were simply too carefully crafted, to perfect an example of their art, to be so wantonly destroyed.
He looked at Vimes, staring carefully two inches over his head, as usual, and yet absolutely not as usual in any way. "No, nothing urgent," he said. "I shan't keep you, Sir Samuel. Do go home and get some sleep. Have a bath. Shave. You're looking a bit rough."
Sir Samuel was visibly resisting the temptation to say something in response, but instead, he stomped out the door. Vetinari listened carefully until he heard the *thump* of a fist hitting the wall, just to be sure, and then his shoulders relaxed infinitesimally as he sat down at his desk and picked up the next bit of the day's paperwork.
The substitute clerk stepped carefully in and asked if he was ready for his next appointment, and Vetinari nodded at him to show the man in.
The appointment was Lord Downey of the Assassin's Guild, here to poke around for details about the previous night's excitement, and make it unsubtly clear that his guild hadn't had any hand in the matter, just in case there had been any confusion. Downey was a simple man to deal with. Incredibly simple, compared to Vimes.
"I'm glad to see you're the same as ever, my lord," Downey said with forced jocularity. "That was a damn near miss, yesterday."
"Yes," said Vetinari, giving him the eyebrow as he stroked his goatee. "You might even say I had a... close shave."