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Ladies Who Organise

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I.

The dog was small. The dog was ugly. The dog was very very angry. And the dog was lost.

In fact, had it not been for curious chance, the dog would have remained lost for some time; or rather, as it was a small, stupid, edible creature in Uberwald, prime werewolf country, it would have remained physically lost for a short time before its lost-ness became a more spiritual concern. But curious chance intervened, as it so often does—and the dog, nosing through the undergrowth with its teeth bared and a growl rumbling thickly in its throat, suddenly caught a whiff of human, and something sour which it did not recognise as Morporkian.

Tongue lapping at its teeth—which were, for a small dog, disproportionate—and a rope of drool slowly descending from its mouth, it eyed the oncoming pair from the grassy shelter at the side of the path. Chiefly it eyed their four ankles. Two of them were not prepossessing: skinny and pointy, concealed by the human’s drapings save when it lifted its foot to take a step, and even then coated in some black second skin which the dog did not know was called a stocking. The other two, however, seemed promising: plump and fresh, and with the human in ownership of them holding its drapings out of the way…

The growl rose to a snarl in the dog’s mouth and it propelled itself forwards in a flurry of scrabbling, stubby legs, spittle flying.

Then a curious thing happened.

The dog saw a pair of grey eyes, and stopped moving.

A low whimper began to sound. Eventually, the dog realised that it was coming from its own throat, and that in sheer desperation, it had begun to hopefully wag its tail.

 

“How strange,” Sybil said, having stopped in her tracks, staring forwards at the cringing dog. It was small and vicious-looking, the colour of a smoker’s moustache, with a collection of teeth which seemed to match neither each other nor the dog itself. It also bore an odd resemblance to a rat.

“Not entirely,” said Haveline, taking a few calm steps over to it and dropping to a crouch to examine it. Sybil, not to be outdone, walked over with her.

“No?” she asked. “Dogs like that are usually tenacious little devils about getting their teeth into people’s shins. Mind your fingers, dear.”

“I’ve often noted that dogs have a natural affinity for me,” Haveline remarked, scritching the dog behind the ears.

“Have you,” said Sybil, slowly and carefully, watching the dog tremble and then wag its tail like a man pleading for his life. “Yes. I can certainly see why you might think that.”

Haveline’s fingers had found a little silver disc on the dog’s collar, which nestled in its sparse and grimy fur. “My name is Vlad. If you find me,” she read, “please return me to Zer Castle, Bonk, Ubervald.”

She looked thoughtfully up at Sybil, still petting the dog, her grey eyes quite clear, and said nothing.

Sybil said, “That’s at least two days’ drive away, Haveline, and we’re meant to be staying with Lady von Thweck.”

Haveline raised her eyebrows.

“She’s very nice,” Sybil said, her voice hardening.

Haveline inclined her head very slightly.

“Her dinner parties are held in very high esteem.”

“I’m aware,” Haveline replied, demurely and understandingly.

“Must you be so argumentative?”

“Evidently not,” Haveline said, very humbly.

Drawing herself up, and with her nostrils flaring, Sybil tightened her mouth into a stern line, and said, “If you must be so stubborn—for the sake of the poor dog, then, very well.”

* * *

When Snapcase had begun inviting up-and-coming Assassins to friendly, compulsory meetings at the Palace, Haveline Vetinari had immediately disappeared from her house on Scoone Street, which was perfectly easy as she in fact resided quietly in small flat above a pawn shop in the Dolly Sisters. But when the Palace Guards came trooping up the stairs, frightening old Mr Tarkettle and knocking down Haveline’s door, they found nothing and no one. And so they took away Mr Tarkettle—but then, that couldn’t be right, because everyone knew he was still around, and no one could break in and out of the Palace dungeons. You’d have to be invisible. So they must have let him off…

Haveline, for her part, vanished.

But one morning just after Lord Snapcase had invited Lady Haveline Vetinari to the palace, Miss Rosie Palm opened her front door, and said, “You!” to a shabby, grey-clothed young ma—young person on her doorstep.

There, for a few days, in Rosie’s attic, Haveline stayed—making arrangements, making plans, writing letters which Rosie helped deliver, and keeping a mental scoreboard of the goings-on below to stave off boredom.

It would be easy, Haveline thought, to get out of the city without being noticed. She could do it without even disguising herself. There was absolutely no need to walk through any of the clean, prosperous, upper-class neighbourhoods where she would be particularly expected.

And yet nonetheless, at the end of her brief stay in the Shades, Haveline found herself leaning against the wall in the shadow of Sybil Ramkin’s bookcase, in the large, pleasantly musty-smelling room in Psuedopolis Yard which had once been Sybil’s father’s study and was now her private sitting room. Pinned to the walls with goodnatured haphazardness were diagrams of dragons, noting hereditary characteristics, potential problems, ideal crosses. Sybil had added her own annotations. On the table was a pile of correspondence; urgent, earnest letters to fellow dragon-y sorts, with far-ranging plans for a shelter.

Sybil’s footsteps sounded outside, and she threw open the door with a great boom—holding a piece of toast in one hand, and a book on dragon disease in the other. The latter she slowly looked up from. The former she continued to munch, albeit with an air of increasing suspicion.

Gradually, she narrowed her eyes, finished her toast and reached for the poker beside the fire. “Is someone here?” she asked.

Haveline stepped out of the shadows, and said, “One day I hope to evade your notice.”

Sybil didn’t shriek; she was not the shrieking kind. She did, however, throw down the poker with an angry crash and cry, “Have—” before sharply lowering her voice and striding over. Haveline braced herself for the question where on earth have you been? but instead, Sybil whispered, “What on earth are you doing here?”

Haveline said, “Ah. So you’ve heard.”

“Of course I’ve heard,” Sybil said, straightening her back and setting her jaw. “You going missing wasn’t exactly news, but it was a slow afternoon at one of Lady Catterby’s Tuesdays, and...I thought I knew why.”

“I’ve had an invite from the Palace,” Haveline said. “Rather a forceful one.”

“Why are you still in the city?”

“A few things to sort out. Loose ends to tie up.”

“Haveline...”

Haveline sighed and bent down, picking up the poker Sybil had dropped and testing it in her hand. “What were you planning on doing with this?” she asked, with some absent interest.

Skewering,” Sybil snapped, and marched off across the room to the drinks cabinet. Haveline kept her back towards her, and listened to the angry clink-clink-splash of Sybil decanting brandy.

“Will you pour me a glass even if I tell you I’d rather not?” Haveline inquired, and the clinking stopped.

“Haveline,” Sybil said, “I don’t know if that’s a request or if you’re sneering at me.”

Haveline quietly replied, “I think you should trust your social instincts.”

When Sybil crossed the room and handed her a glass, Haveline took it. Then, wordlessly, they sat in front of the fire together, each taking an armchair. Haveline replaced the poker by the fire.

“You went through my letters, too, didn’t you,” Sybil said.

“Yes. Did you know Lord Snapcase is peculiarly fond of dragons?”

“Yes,” Sybil said, and silence fell.

Sybil didn’t sip her brandy. She swallowed half the glass in a calm, unwincing gulp, and swirled the remainder thoughtfully in the firelight, staring deep into it. Eventually, she said, “I know you don’t need me to tell you this, Haveline, but I’m jolly well going to say it anyway. If you don’t leave the city now, you will never be able to come back. Am I making myself quite clear?”

“Crystal,” Haveline said. Then, “Sybil?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know if it’s ever occured to you—” she leant back, ankle at her knee, the brandy in her glass catching the firelight “—but we’re just the right age for a Grand Sneer.”

Slowly, Sybil had detached her gaze from the firelight, and looked to Haveline, and opened her mouth in surprise…

* * *

The castle loomed. The castle creaked. The castle groaned. High up on a hill—quite naturally—it raised a craggy profile to the lightning-scarred sky.

Sybil had remembered an umbrella. It was green, battered, and over-large, and she held it patiently over both their heads. If Sybil had not remembered such an umbrella, she would hardly be Sybil.

Slowly, the door whined open like a segment of wall moving out of place. Inside, the castle glowed with a reddish orange light.

There was no one at the door.

Sybil put down the umbrella, stepped inside, and conscientiously shook it free of water. Haveline—who had barely unclasped the dog from her arms all through the journey to Bonk—gazed thoughtfully into the rafters.

The door banged shut, and shook the castle.

“Velcome,” said a bodiless voice, “to Zer Ca—”

Haveline’s ears snapped up like a hound’s on the scent, her mouth opening, and she turned: the dog leapt from her arms and vanished to some dark corner.

A woman didn’t melt from the shadows. Rather, the shadows melted into a woman—a woman who had no colour in her save for a slash of red across her mouth, a woman whose ankles were buttoned into tight little leather boots, a woman whose black lace dress kept one in a constant state of suspense it was so strained across each curve.

Sybil, who had met, amongst other curious ladies, Haveline’s Aunt Roberta, was still unprepared. Her jaw dropped.

Vlad,” said the woman, a little stooped with how tightly she was clutching the dog, gaping at Haveline and drawing closer.

Who said nothing.

After a moment:

“Hello,” tried Sybil, crossing the room boldly to stand beside Haveline, and holding out her hand. The woman blinked, apparently noticing Sybil for the first time—and her eyes snapped to Sybil’s wrist.

In the same instant, Haveline—without looking away from the woman in the black dress—snatched Sybil’s wrist in a grip like iron, fingers locking over the jump of her pulse, and forced her arm down.

The woman closed her mouth and leant back, seeming resigned, and Sybil breathed out slowly.

“Velcome,” the woman said again, her voice lower and more serious now. Her eyes were hard and questioning. “Vhere on earth did you find him?”

“The Dark Forest, madam,” said Haveline. After a pause, she added, “The one nearest Wurstwald.”

“And your name?”

“Haveline Vetinari. And this is Sybil Ramkin.”

The woman looked down to where Haveline was still holding Sybil’s wrist, and back. Haveline slowly unwound her fingers, and a smile bloomed on the woman’s face. “Haveline,” she said. “I am—”

Haveline was still very young. And so if she showed her hand a little by saying—in the humble tone Sybil knew she reserved for boasting, “Lady Margolotta von Uberwald, I’m aware,” she was perhaps to be excused.

* * *

“A woman,” Roberta Meserole had said once, lighting a long black cigarette with a silver lighter, “hides in plain sight. Visibility, Haveline, is our most important asset—”

She looked up. Around. “Haveline,” she said, “that is not funny.”

* * *

The evenings came long and thick in Uberwald, burning bloody red for hours. Sybil wrote letters. Haveline and Margolotta talked.

At first, Vlad would nestle in Margolotta’s black lace lap, her fingers flexing and unflexing at the scruff of his neck. Then, as the days drew on, he got into the habit of stretching over Haveline’s knees.

On the sixth evening they had been staying at Zer Castle, Sybil glanced up from her letter writing to see that Vlad was in Haveline’s lap, but that Margolotta was stroking him, and that her thumb kept skimming Haveline’s knee.

Very sensibly and very quietly, Sybil gathered her parchment and quill and left the room as unobtrusively as possible.

Later, there came a knock on her door. She opened it and found Haveline standing in the doorway, and stepped back to let her in.

“You’re staying, aren’t you,” Sybil said.

“And you’re going,” said Haveline.

Sybil sighed and sat down heavily on the end of the four-postered bed in her chamber. “I don’t play politics,” she said. “I’m out of place here.”

“Where do you intend to go?”

“I might carry on to Lady von Thweck’s—she’s very forgiving—and then, well. Probably back to Ankh-Morpork. It’s been five months already.” She raised her face to Haveline’s gaze. “My mother’s quite ill.”

“I’m aware.”

“Of course she’s perfectly happy to get along without me, but I…” It would be stupid, Sybil told herself fiercely, to say I don’t have the luxury of just vanishing. Instead she said, “I’ve really got to be out and about and being seen in society just now.”

“Indeed,” said Haveline. “You do. Sybil?”

“Yes?”

“It would be helpful if no one knew exactly where I was until such a time as I come home.”

“Oh, honestly, Haveline, I know that!”

* * *

“A strapper of a woman,” Downey crooned, hunkered over tea in the common room with two eager disciples, whose eyes were fixed on him and whose mouths were opened, “and damned good value, see what I mean?”

The two other young men, who didn’t quite, nodded and grinned and nudged each other.

“Ever heard,” Downey added, “of a Quirmian Double-Take? Well, ask for Rosie, and ha, well, she’ll—”

His teacup cracked in his hand, and he cried out, hot tea splashing over his trousers and china smashing on the floor. “Blind Io!”

“Apologies,” murmured Haveline Vetinari from the corner of the room, crossing to reclaim her throwing dagger. “Revision.”

“Learn to aim!” one of the disciples said, looking with amazement between Downey and Vetinari.

“I constantly try,” Vetinari said humbly, stowing the dagger back up her sleeve.

“Where were you hiding, Dog-botherer?” Downey spat, gritting his teeth and trying not to squirm while also attempting to limit the amount of skin in contact with his trousers.

“Hiding, Downey?” Vetinari asked with polite bemusement. “I was only sitting down.”

“Shows just how eye-catching you are, doesn’t it,” Downey hissed, still wriggling and white-lipped with pain. It was true; Vetinari had a face full of odd angles, long, lank black hair scraped back too severely and a habit of dressing in odd, ugly shades of green, brown and grey. Having undergone puberty in the company of several hundred schoolboys and only seven or eight* fellow schoolgirls, there had been some delight—at the time—surrounding the fact that Vetinari could, if she chose, possess a faint gleam of a moustache long before any of the boys.

But Vetinari smiled. “You’re too kind,” she said, and turned, to melt into other scenery.

*Not a matter of imperfect recollection; it was simply the case that Julian(ne) Meadowes-Horthy was sometimes one and sometimes the other.

* * *

“Vhat vas in Sybil’s letter?” Margolotta asked, one evening, when Haveline had become less of a guest at Zer Castle and more of a co-habitant.

“You didn’t like her,” Haveline said, moving a dwarf on the Thud board. “Why do you want to know?”

“Oh, Haveline, really? That’s a very naive qvestion.”

“Or a very blunt one.”

“I vunder, sometimes, if you believe half the things you say,” Margolotta mused, moving a troll.

“Half the time I don’t say anything at all.”

“Exactly.”

Haveline smiled thinly. “If you think, madam, that because I am—as I am, I don’t believe in anything, then not only are you sorely mistaken—” she moved a dwarf, and Margolotta sat up straighter, and let out a quiet, Uberwaldian curse “—but you’ve rather shown your own prejudices.”

“Vell, really—”

“Margolotta,” Haveline said. “I have a question.”

Margolotta stared at the board for a few more seconds, then met Haveline’s eyes. “Is it the same vun you always ask?”

“Yes.”

“Then my answer is the vun I alvays give.”

* * *

“You could learn something from her, you know,” Margolotta said one night.

“Who?”

“The Honourable Sybil.”

“What?”

Margolotta paused, and leaned back. “My,” she said. “My oh my. Vhat a flaw.”

Haveline raised an eyebrow, rather bad-temperedly. “I don’t deny her efficacy, madam. Only the suitability of her methods for my own use.”

“And is that what you think of me, too, by any chance?”

“Why this cross-examination?”

“Because you have vun and only vun excuse vhich you present to yourself every time you could, perhaps, be influenced by somevun.”

“And you, Margolotta, lecture me on being under influence?”

“I lecture you, Haveline, on your own stubbornness—vhich is not even consistent.”

“No?”

“Vould you say, my dear, vithout embarrassment or discomfort, that you vere influenced by John Keel—who vas so very very different from everything you are and hope to be?”

Haveline’s mouth set into a very thin line. Margolotta smiled.

“You know very vell,” she said, “that you are not the only lady in the vorld trying to get by. Let us, perhaps, have our say. You might find that really, truly, that by listening to us, you are in no danger of...becoming us.”

* * *

Haveline asked Margolotta the question. Then she asked her again. And again. And again.

Margolotta said, “No,” and sometimes, “Come here,” and sometimes, “I vish I had never seen your face. It vas simpler before.”

“Si non confectus, non reficiat,” Haveline said, on one such occasion.

“I’m sorry?”

“The Vetinari family motto, madam. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“But you are trying to ‘fix it’, or so I think you think.”

“Precisely.”

* * *

One of Haveline’s possible plans—as she lay on a pallet in Rosie’s attic, looking at the ceiling and listening to the creaking, squeaking and gasping below—was to simply take over the city then and there.

It wouldn’t be her as Patrician, of course, but there were certain Lords of her acquaintance who could look impressive at a city function and listen closely to instructions. There was even one Lady whom Haveline could imagine filling the position. It could pave her way…

From below, a man’s voice briefly raised in a gasping chant which, if it really exposed his darkest desires, also exposed him as extraordinarily boring. Haveline mentally held up a three.

It could pave her way, but that wasn’t the point. The city deserved more than a figurehead and a shadow.

* * *

“Bloody inconvenient system,” Haveline muttered, taking the long-delayed and somewhat dilapidated letters from the messenger bat and thinking that there should really be some standardisation—a thought which she stuck a pin in, to revisit later. She closed the window, and turned, walking through the hall and opening the door to the breakfast room while shuffling thoughtfully through the correspondence.

Margolotta was seated at the table. In front of her was a mug of black, pungent coffee and a steak so rare that there were men in Ankh-Morpork who would have said, “We’ll have it perked up in a moment,” reaching for the ginger. Haveline glanced up from the letters, to Margolotta’s breakfast, and then to Margolotta herself.

“Cravings,” Margolotta said, snarling on the R. Her cheek was on her hand and she looked like she hadn’t slept, which of course she hadn’t. It was the looking-like which was strange.

Haveline dropped all but one of the letters beside Margolotta’s plate, and said, “Have you considered cigars?”

“They bother my nose. Vhat is all this?”

“Most of it’s from your spies,” Haveline said, pouring herself a cup of black tea and reaching for the toast rack. “Your man in Borogravia continues to be substandard, and the situation continues to be senselessly bloody. Not, I might add, without help from my own home city.”

Margolotta’s lips curled downwards, and she sliced into the steak. “Of course. Do you know this from your own sources, or from the envelopes?”

“A source is a source is a source. I had a question, incidentally…”

“If it is the same qvestion vhich you have asked me daily for months now…”

All in all, Margolotta’s vampirism was of little note to Haveline except insofar as it influenced her politics. She showed increasingly little interest in the trappings of vampirism—preferring now, even when what she called her cutting down for health reasons was still in the early stages, a smart twinset to black lace and a nice jumper to a cape. Indeed, even in the earlier days of their acquaintance, all that had been more automatic than voluntary—and Haveline was almost sure that the one time she had said, “You don’t happen to have any vhite nighties, do you, dear?” she had been joking. And yet there was one inescapable issue relating to Margolotta’s un-life: vampires had cold feet, and Margolotta’s foot was now pressing on the inside of Haveline’s ankle.

Haveline sipped her tea, then put it carefully down. “Pass the marmalade?”

Margolotta started, laughed, and frowned—and passed the marmalade. Her foot vanished from Haveline’s leg. “Vell,” said Margolotta. “I’m glad you’ve given up.”

Haveline smiled politely at her and set about preparing her breakfast. “And your letter?” Margolotta asked, a few moments later.

Haveline scraped butter and marmalade onto her toast with surgical precision. “From Sybil Ramkin,” she said, without inflection.

Margolotta made a soft, unsurprised noise, and picked up her coffee; Haveline set down her butter knife, cleaned her spotless fingers on the napkin, and gave a complex, quick flick of the wrist, so that a blade so bright and so sharp it barely seemed to have an edge suddenly twinkled between her fingers where it hadn’t been a moment ago.

She sliced open the envelope. She read. She lowered it, folded it, and looked thoughtfully at the table cloth.

“Madam,” she said, after a long moment, raising her eyes. “It seems—”

“I am avare,” Margolotta said, stabbing and slicing at her breakfast steak with delicate, vicious movements.

“Well,” Haveline said. “How fortunate.”

Margolotta looked up. “You vill need a carriage, of course.”

“I’ll procure one at Bonk,” Haveline replied.

“And you vill valk until then?”

“Yes.”

“Is that vise?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Vell,” said Margolotta. “Go.”

Haveline stayed seated.

Go.”

She got up with a quiet sigh, and stowed the folded letter up her sleeve. The blade which had appeared from the other had since vanished again. She picked up her cup of tea, swallowed it in one go, and set it down with a quiet clink. Then she strode to the door.

The only reason she was able to glance back was that she knew that there was no possibility of her own resolve weakening. She ran no risk in looking over her shoulder, just as she ran no risk in asking, quietly and calmly, and for the very last time, the question which she had asked before: “Margolotta—when are you going to stop watching and start acting?”

Margolotta ran a finger along the rim of her coffee cup. “Soon,” she said, at length. Then she looked up, and cast Haveline a vaguely surprised look as if she hadn’t thought she was still there.

“Don’t let me detain you, Haveline,” she said.

Haveline inclined her head just slightly, just once, and left.

II.

“Dear Haveline, [Sybil’s letter had read]

Thank you for your condolences upon Mamma’s death; it was a shame you couldn’t make it to the funeral, but I doubt we would have seen you if you had. I do hope Uberwald is treating you well—and Lady Margolotta, also.

My own life has been full of the usual running-about that the season entails, especially since I am Lady Ramkin now. Entertaining, I must say, is exhausting—and yet fulfilling, in its way. To think of all the gossip you’ve missed! One knows of course that Uberwald society is fascinating, and yet so rural; I confess that I hope my letters to you provide some kind of entertainment, as you must miss moving in Palace circles so much.

Consider: if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t know that Ronnie Rust has absolutely been behaving shamefully in the Shades, and if it weren’t for you, I would have no one to whom I could remark it…”

* * *

Rosie Palm came downstairs in the early afternoon, having pulled a heavy night shift. Her own private apartment in the large house she shared with a number of friends (most of them slightly junior friends—she liked to make this clear, hence the private apartment) was neatly-furnished, clean, spacious.

Her sitting room contained Lady Haveline Vetinari, studying the art on the walls.

Rosie clutched her chest. “Offler’s teeth!”

Haveline turned, her face a picture of apologetic surprise—as if she hadn’t heard Rosie’s footsteps. “Miss Palm,” she said. “I’m so sorry; I was distracted by your collection.”

“You’ve been missing! Have you heard the stories about what you—” But she shut herself up; of course she would have heard the stories.

Haveline inclined her head graciously. Rosie was suddenly struck by the fact that she looked—grown up. Before, she had always been too shifting, too intentionally hard to see, too serious and too childish all at once. Rosie remembered her turning up on her doorstep over two years ago, in greyish, threadbare breeches and with her hair hidden in a hat which shaded her face. Now, Haveline was wearing black; not impressive black, and not widowed black, but a calm and dusty black which covered her loosely from neck to ankle. Her hair was coiled at the nape of her neck. She looked, in fact, like a Lady Vetinari, and not an orphan titled too soon.

“It’s true,” she said, “that I didn’t come up solely to see your etchings. Sit down?”

“Why?”

“Because I think it’s time you were the head of a legal Guild, Miss Palm,” Lady Vetinari replied.

Rosie drew herself up slowly, eyes narrowing, mouth turning up at the corners. “Lady Vetinari,” she said, crossing the room, “please take a seat.”

“That would be for the best,” Haveline agreed, and they sat, and Haveline said, “Before we discuss anything, though…”

“Yes?”

“I gather Ronnie Rust is a frequent caller of yours. Is there any chance that you could...keep him occupied on Octeday?”

“All of Octeday?”

“As much as you can manage.”

Rosie sighed. “He’s hardly demanding,” she said. “But I’ll be wanting compensation, Haveline.”

“Rosie, I assure you, I would never dream of contracting your services otherwise.”

* * *

“On the other hand, [Sybil’s letter continued] there is Lord Swithery, whose vice is much simpler and much stranger; he has a passion for mice, and the other day while we were lunching together, they overran the table. My feeling is that he really does love them more than anything on this earth; I would hate to think what would happen if something happened to them.”

* * *

How the woman got into the shop without the door jingling, Jonnathan Thudds would never know—but there she was, standing in front of the counter with her eyebrows raised.

Thudds’ first instinct was: vampire.

“No,” said the woman, “but they’re delightful company, I assure you.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You said—something.”

“I’m afraid not, Mr Thudds.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Mr Thudds, you’re a major player in this city. If anyone hasn’t heard your name, I suspect they aren’t paying enough attention.”

Slowly, Thudds raised his chin, and narrowed his eyes, ego now perking up.

“I know you’re with the Pet Shoppe Boys,” the woman said. “And I know the Budgie-Smugglers are closing in on your patch.”

Thudds narrowed his eyes almost being seeing. “Who are you?” he said.

“You’ll find out very soon,” said the woman.

“And what does that mean?”

The woman smiled. Thudds heard a soft, feathery thump from behind his head and thought a canary might have fallen off its perch. “I refer you to my previous answer. Mr Thudd—would you like to ensure, at a very low price, the supremacy of your organisation over all domestic animal trade within the city? We could even go so far as to regulate it. The Pet Suppliers’ Guild...with you at its head.”

“Only the Patrician could do that.”

“That’s true,” the woman agreed, and though Mr Thudd waited for more, none came. The woman just smiled her thin, scythe-like smile, and the silence started to close in.

“A very low price,” Mr Thudd finally gasped out, unable to bear any more of the terrible quiet.

“Yes,” said the woman. “Firstly, I gather you supply Lord Swithery with the food for his mice.” She flicked her wrist, and held up a small, clear bottle, then set it gently on the counter. Thudds looked at it, and then to her. “Add it to the Octeday delivery,” she said.

Slowly, Thudds nodded, wrapping one big hand around the bottle and stowing it in his coat pocket. “What else...ma’am?”

“Ah,” she said. “Yes. A personal matter. How many scorpions, exactly, could you acquire for me by next Monday?”

Mr Thudd stared at her. “How many do you want?” he asked finally.

The woman’s terrible smile only widened. “I refer you,” she said, “to my previous answer.”

* * *

“Even in Ankh-Morpork, however, there is some good news; Lord Holliwacks has finally been relieved of that nagging toothache he claims to have had for thirty years by having them all replaced with a nice gold set, which I am told is all the fashion in Quirm, though I can’t help but think he looks rather like he has attempted to eat his own military decorations.”

* * *

“All of ’em?” Blod asked, taking a swallow of beer and staring hard at the person opposite. They—Blod, who was thinking in Dwarfish, couldn’t be that bothered about gender, particularly not in a human stranger—were dressed in grey and green, with a frayed, shapeless hat shadowing their features. Something about them made Blod’s beard prickle, but that could mean many, many things...

“All of them,” the person replied.

“On Octeday morning?”

“Yes.”

“And in reward…”

The person pushed a bag of coins across the table. Blod waited. Another bag of coins appeared. And the stranger said, “And of course—the teeth in question are gold, and the traditional Ankh-Morpork view would be—finders keepers.”

Blod grinned slowly. “The only difficulty’ll be making sure no one gets there before Octeday.”

The shadow over the person’s face left their eyes and nose invisible, but their thin mouth and sharp chin were just about discernible in the gloom of the Drum—and so was the slow creeping emergence of their cold, cold smile. Blod’s beard wilted. “That,” the person said, “will, I trust, not happen.”

* * *

“However, I have saved the really good fun to last. Of course you remember that the Patrician and I share a passion for dragons—well, of late, this has become a bond of friendship between us. My evenings have often been spent in private conversation with Lord Snapcase on the subjects of scale rot, conservation and proper breeding—indeed, without our private little ‘Thursday-six-PMs’ my week would be terrifically diminished.

Ever your devoted friend,

Sybil.”

* * *

Lord Snapcase’s Thursday-six-PMs with Lady Sybil Ramkin were the single fixture in his schedule. Those who moved in Palace circles commented upon the matter with some interest but—shedding some light on how very contagiously sensible Sybil was seen to be—no real surprise. Of course, if anyone could keep Snapcase calm and lucid for an hour at a stretch, it would be Lady Sybil.

Snapcase let himself into the drawing room of his residential quarters, and saw instantly the familiar brown curls over the back of the armchair—Sybil facing the fire, her back to him. He locked the door.

Perhaps, he thought, tonight—tonight, she would say yes...

Sybil stood up, the wig dangling from her fingers; it wasn’t Sybil at all.

* * *

“Haveline,” Rosie said with some surprise, “don’t you have anywhere else to go?”

“Regrettably,” Haveline said, “not until Octeday.”

“But your house in Scoone Street! No one dared take it, you know.”

“In truth, Rosie—I rather miss your attic.”

* * *

On Thursday evening, Mad Lord Snapcase was inhumed by an unknown assassin. At ten in the morning the next Octeday, the Council of Guild Leaders met, as was traditional, to elect a Patrician. As was traditional, the decision had to be made within two hours, in order to leave ample time for the Gambler’s Guild to take bets and the Assassin’s Guild to take bids. As was traditional, the entire nobility was eligible to attend and offer themselves as candidates. As was traditional, only a few select members were actually told when and where the meeting was.

The Guild leaders sat around the table. For a few minutes, no one spoke. There were only a few coughs. Finally, Mr Frostrip, head of the Guild of Accountants, ventured, “Perhaps the traffic—…?”

Every one ignored him. The three empty seats at the end of the table remained empty of either Rust, Swithery or Holliwacks.

Finally there came the sound of footsteps, and all the Guild leaders straightened, hopefully.

At the door appeared Lady Vetinari. She crossed the room, and took the seat at the head of her table. She was wearing black. By rights she should have looked like a widow. Instead she looked as if she had recently created several, and could repeat the act.

The minutes ticked on. There was the sound of held breaths. The clock chimed eleven. “But this is—” exploded the head of the Assassin’s Guild, until Vetinari’s eyes snapped to his, and she politely raised her eyebrows.

In silence, the meeting dragged on.

And then the clock in the hall struck twelve great chimes. Vetinari leant back in her chair. “Well,” she said. “I think that settles that, gentlemen. I look forward to working with you.”

* * *

The Oblong Office was washed in morning light. It was the next day, and a new day. Vetinari stood at the window, her arms linked behind her back, and watched the city as it stumbled, staggered and elbowed its way into the future.

From outside the door, there came footsteps—and then a knock.

“Come in,” Vetinari called, turning from the window, and meeting Sybil’s gaze.

Upholstered into a smart walking dress and yet with an overlarge man’s jacket and her grandfather’s boots supporting the outfit, and holding a very small, ugly puppy to her bosom, Sybil looked every inch Lady Ramkin, and as such when she boomed, “Haveline Vetinari, you scoundrel,” it fit her image marvellously, and hit the perfect mixed tone of delight and reprimand.

Vetinari gave a self-deprecating smile and stepped forwards, hands still linked behind her back and her black robes moving soundlessly across the floor. “I assure you,” she said, “that it was not all my own work.”

Sybil sighed, smiled, flushed. “Oh, that silly letter,” she said. “The code was—”

“Helpful.”

“Abysmally simple, Haveline, don’t lie.”

“I am a politician.”

“First letter of every sentence, though? Truly dreadful. I was despairing of myself as I wrote it, thinking about you and your thoughts on disguise—you know I’m not—you know I’m prone to ridiculous honesty.”

“Nonetheless: here we are. ‘Time to come home’ indeed.”

“Yes,” said Sybil. “Indeed.”

The puppy in her arms wriggled and yapped, and Vetinari transferred her gaze from Sybil’s eyes to the dog. “And who is this?” she inquired.

“Well,” said Sybil, “that really depends on what you call him.”

Vetinari paused. Looked to Sybil. And looked back to the dog. Slowly, she reached out to prise the wriggling ball of fur from Sybil’s hands, and looked at him thoughtfully. “I see,” she said. “I—Sybil, why?”

“Because otherwise,” Sybil said brusquely, “you’ll get lonely up here.”

Vetinari looked at her.

“And because he’s not housetrained, and I think it’ll jolly well do you good to know something silly enough to misbehave around you.”

Vetinari looked at her.

“And because your aunt sent me a letter saying that that terrible cat of hers has just had kittens, and asking do I think Haveline might like one as a Congratulations On Your New Dictatorship present,” Sybil concluded. “He’s your excuse.”

Ah,” Vetinari said. “Yes. I see. Thank you, Sybil.”

Sybil smiled, leaned up, and kissed her cheek. Then she leaned back. “Switherly’s mice,” she said, “are recovering very well.”

“A truly bloodless revolution. How sanitary.”

“Well, there was poor Holliwacks.”

“A man fool enough to flash a mouth full of gold teeth around Ankh-Morpork surely deserves anything he might encounter. At any rate, I gather his dentist is delighted to have him back on the books.”

“Yes, thrilled. Incidentally, Haveline, when I was on my way here I met a man…”

“Yes?”

“Carrying a box of scorpions.”

“Did you really? How curious. Snapcase’s dragons are doing well in the Sanctuary, I hope?”

“Flourishing. In fact, I’m heading down there just now.”

“Splendid. Ah, and…”

Putting the puppy down on the desk—it made a little snivelling ruff-ruff sound, a sort of, of wuffling sound—Vetinari circled to open a drawer, and produced a thick, curly, chestnut wig. “Marvellous,” Sybil said, reaching out to take it and neatly depositing it into her enormous bag. “Well,” she said. “You haven’t seen the last of me, I can tell you.”

“Thursday-six-PMs?”

“That’s rather tasteless, Haveline. But I do have a gap in my schedule. And speaking of which, now that I’ve seen you’re still both alive and sane, I’ve got to rush off. One of the poor Nothingfjord Blues Snapcase used to care for—and I use that term very loosely—is gravid, would you believe it…”

“Your authority on the subject is uncontested, so I shall have to.”

“Haveline, must you sweet-talk?”

Vetinari smiled, and nothing in the vicinity even whimpered. Sybil, in fact, smiled back. “Well, Sybil…”

“Yes?”

“Don’t let me detain you.”

Slowly, Sybil’s shoulders moved back, and her chin rose—and rose—and rose. “Haveline,” she said, still smiling, “you’ve had a jolly good few days, I know. And I’m really very pleased for you, and think you’ll do a marvellous job. But if you ever say that to me again, I will demonstrate to you how difficult it is to get on in this world with a Ramkin as your enemy.”

Vetinari took a breath and said, with remarkable control, “Merely trying it out for effect.”

Sybil exhaled and deflated, and her smile became less violent. “Jolly good, dear,” she said, and left the room.

Vetinari looked thoughtfully after her until a ragged pattering at the window made her frown and turn.

There, fluttering outside and hurling itself pitifully at the glass, was a messenger bat.

Vetinari walked over, opened the window, and let it in, taking its message from its leg. Behind her, Wuffles—for there could be no other name for him—started to wuffle and yap and chase the bat about the room.

There were two sheets of parchment enclosed in the message. One was a cheery, excitable leaflet. NOT VUN DROP, it proclaimed, with an illustration of a black ribbon in the middle of the page. The other had only one word written on it, in Margolotta’s handwriting: “Now.”