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Only The Best

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Disclaimer: The characters belong to Terry Pratchett. This story is not written for money but for the sheer reckless fun of it, with no intention to infringe upon copyright.
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It was the hands that would prove the final undoing of him one day. Of course, he had been seeing them, day in and day out, by candlelight or by sunshine, always busy, always … poised, even when seemingly at rest – handling papers, writing notes, signing documents, sealing them with that practised, economical movement that pressed the deadly dull black signet-ring into the wax with the minimum effort; absently turning one of the stone pieces of an ongoing game of Thud, casually grasping the silver Death’s head that topped the shiny black cane – a useful accessory adopted as the logical opportunity presented itself, he knew, rather than a genuine walking aid – and, with the naturalised formality of deeply-ingrained habit, steepled in front of their owner’s thin lips, or on the modest area of clear space on the desk in front of him, their movement temporarily arrested, but their power of fascination a hundredfold increased for that very reason. And they were beautiful, it went without saying – pale, long-fingered, narrow but sinewy, and surprisingly hard and strong; effortlessly, suavely, supremely competent.

He had been seeing them, yes, for years now he had been very much … aware of them, certainly. It was only recently that he had caught himself actually watching them, had become guiltily conscious of the small periods during which his attention would grow so riveted by the sight of them that he could think of nothing else, until he would suddenly come to with a start, highly disconcerted by the experience of yet another lapse in his concentration that signalled the increasing failure of his self-control, and shocked by the … other evidence of his progressive dissolution. He was not sure which of these tokens was the one that distressed him more: the defection of his thoughts, or the treachery of his body.

The Patrician gave a delicate cough.

His secretary, jolted from a reverie into which he should never have entered, suddenly found himself acutely, horribly, aware of the silence that filled the office of his master. A silence which, now that it had pleased his wits to rally to the standard of training, self-discipline and reason once again, he feared had already lasted for a considerable time, and which, judging from a certain discreet quality of expectancy that was hanging over the stacks of paper that occupied the large desk in front of him, probably contained an unanswered question that had been addressed to him. To his utter dismay, his internal filing system, its capacities for parallel processing and the automatic filtering of vitally pertinent information already overtaxed beyond their limits, owing to recent … developments, was unable to provide him with even the smallest inkling of what it was that had formed the subject of the Patrician’s discourse during the past— it might well have been five minutes, he realised with a sinking feeling; let alone with any clue as to what his concluding question, if indeed he had asked one, might have been.

His master’s icy blue eyes were fixed upon him, their expression unreadable; Vetinari was clearly waiting for him to make a response of some kind to whatever it was that he had last said. There was nothing for it. Drumknott blinked, taking a deep breath, preparing to make the most difficult statement of his career up to that point.

“I’m terribly sorry, my Lord, I’m afraid I was not attending properly to what you were just saying.” How could he have let it come to this? The shamefulness of having to make this confession almost had him wishing that the floor would open beneath him and swallow him. Almost. He pressed his lips together and forced himself to continue meeting his master’s gaze. Vetinari smiled a thin smile that vanished again almost as soon as it had appeared.

“So it would seem, Drumknott.”

He leaned back slightly and steepled his long, pale fingers below his chin, elbows propped on the arm-rests of his hard chair; his inscrutable eyes remained fixed upon him. There was another pause, during which Drumknott was hard put to it to prevent his eyes from straying that short distance downwards to those hands again. Ye gods, he thought. What has become of me? The sound of his own breathing seemed unnaturally loud to him. Vetinari’s voice, when he spoke again, seemed no louder than usual by comparison.

“Drumknott, it is not the first time that I have observed a certain … preoccupied air about you over the past few weeks. I suppose you wouldn’t care to give me a reason for this unusual and uncharacteristic behaviour, would you?”

Drumknott felt the blood drain from his face, and could not prevent his eyes from flickering down to his master’s hands for the fraction of a second. Then the blood resumed its flow, and he felt his face go hot and knew himself to be blushing violently, painfully. There was no way, none whatsoever, in which Vetinari could force him to put into words the cause of what he was going through, of that at least he was one hundred percent sure. Death held no terror for him, nor did the thought of any pain that might come before it. It was the innumerable unspoken ways in which he might give himself away, at any time, in his master’s presence, that filled him with a fear which threatened to suffocate him. He pressed his lips together even harder and merely continued to meet Vetinari’s gaze with all the resolution he was still capable of mustering.

Vetinari’s eyes narrowed slightly. “No, I didn’t think you would. You seem to be displaying a strange lack of … co-operation recently, don’t you?”

Drumknott cleared his throat, desperately trying to pull himself together. “It will not happen again, my Lord, I assure you.”

“You are attempting to deceive yourself, Drumknott, with no hope of success I might add, and you know it.” There was an edge of impatience to the Patrician’s voice now. “Drumknott, you are my private secretary, as well as my most competent clerk. I’ve always had great hopes of you, and so far they have never been disappointed. If there’s something troubling you now – and evidently it’s troubling you enough to have a marked and deplorable effect on the wonted high standards of your performance –, I’m sure you’d agree with me that this is something that has to be sorted out as quickly as possible.” He leaned forward slightly, and his stare became even more intense. “For you know as well as I do, Drumknott, that it will not do for my private secretary to fail in his duties in this way. Not for very long, that is.”

Drumknott nodded, incapable of looking his master in the eye, feeling himself grow hollow with shame and despair; the strength seemed to be draining from his body, and his knees were turning to water. How in the world could he have let it come to this? He had been in control of himself for all these years, he had tended his passion the way a bonsai gardener would tend his prize tree, pruning it carefully but mercilessly, bending and corseting it, constraining it, shaping it to his will so that it might at last become an object of perfection, worthy of the appreciation of him whom he served, whom he wished only to please with all his heart and soul. His intellect, though a passably powerful one, was no match for that of his master. Above average, certainly, but that was no more than the basic requirement for employment in the Patrician’s administrative service, after all. It was the will that controlled it, he knew, and that alone, which could make an impression on the black-robed, austere-faced man sitting at the desk in front of him. There was very little you could conceal from Vetinari. How much, he wondered, did he know about his secretary’s secret struggles? And when had he realised that the small moments of private ecstasy he found in his daily routine of service had turned to agony?

It all went back to that time they had spent, in what was probably best described as protective custody, in the cells at Pseudopolis Yard – he with a damaged shoulder and his master in a state of deep unconsciousness, the result of a blow received to his head. Not that that had lasted for very long, or at least not for as long as they had allowed people to think. There was that about a state of unconsciousness: it was not difficult to fake for a man who possessed a reasonable amount of body control, particularly if people weren’t allowed close enough to him to actually verify his condition, and it did make it so much more simple to deal with unwelcome and over-inquisitive visitors like that young de Worde. There had been no need even to discuss a strategy with Vimes; it had been an instant unspoken agreement. It was true, nevertheless, that during those few days while the city was in uproar, his master had spent more time asleep than he ever allowed himself as a rule; and Drumknott, though he had fretted over it at the time, had secretly been grateful for the ceaseless vigilance of Vimes’s officers – for if their continuous presence had not restricted his movements, he would have spent every second of that time by his master’s side. He had never seen the pale, stern features look so peaceful before, and it had pierced his heart to see them every time he had gone to check on his master – which he had, however, only allowed himself to do at intervals judiciously spaced so as not to attract undue attention or provoke comment from the officers. As to Vetinari himself, well… He had been fairly certain his master had indeed been asleep most of the times he had looked in on him, but then again, with Vetinari, you could never be completely sure. But it had been those seemingly endless hours after they had first arrived at the watch house, few though they might actually have been, while they were all waiting for the Patrician to regain consciousness, that had woken a fear in Drumknott’s soul such as he had never experienced before. It had taken him completely by surprise, for it wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen his master in critical situations before – that arsenic poisoning, for example – but that had been different; his master had been cutting it fine, and it had been disturbing to watch him bear the effects of each of those self-administered doses, but he had never, not even for a moment, doubted that the man knew what he was doing. And yet the sight of his prone figure on the pallet down in those cells had brought on a sheer, gut-wrenching panic that had made him oblivious to his own physical discomfort and pain, as the realisation came home to him, seemingly for the first time, that his master was not as unassailable as he had come to take for granted over the years – that, when it came down to it, he, too, was only human, neither infallible nor invulnerable; subject, like almost everyone else in this world, to encroaching old age as well as, ultimately but inescapably, to death. Perhaps it had been due to his own recently-sustained injury and shock, but this realisation, or revelation, had shaken him to the core, and he had been powerless to defend himself against the emptiness that had loomed, hypnotically, as a threat inexorably approaching to a dreadful certainty, draining him of all his strength, of his assiduously cultivated self-control; so that, when, after what had begun to feel like an eternity, the prone figure had begun to stir, the drawn features had become animated once more, and the piercing blue gaze had flared up again as if it had never been extinguished, he had had to turn away, overwhelmed by his feelings and blinded by tears, and had finally suffered himself to be guided back to his own sick-bed in the neighbouring cell, where until that moment, they could not have made him stay unless they would have been prepared to tie him up and ignore the vocal fury of his protest. It had been that direct confrontation with the potential loss of everything he lived for, he thought, accompanied as it had been by that abysmal sense of dread, which had wrought an irreversible change in him, shattering his wonted self-possession beyond his powers of redress.

He became aware that he had unconsciously been flexing the muscles of his injured arm. That had recovered well enough, thanks to the amazing skills of the watch’s latest … acquisition from Uberwald; there was barely the occasional twinge from it these days, and he had long regained his full use of it. As for his mental equilibrium, though… He knew himself to be fast approaching a point of crisis there, and quailed at the sense of his own helplessness. It would take more strength than he had within himself to stem the tide and return it to its appointed course.

Still unable to meet his master’s gaze, Drumknott found his eyes irresistibly drawn once more to the elegant pale hands that were steepled now in front of the thin lips. How could he speak of this without exposing the ignominious failure of his will? There were no words that would not profane his feelings, and soil the purity of that long-cherished passion, the way his aching groin was already profaning the sight of his master’s hands before his very eyes. Drumknott shut his eyes tightly and bit his lips, desperately hoping that the pain would drive away the thoughts that rose unbidden in his mind. It was impossible. He opened his eyes again, staring straight ahead, trying to stop his voice from shaking.

“I’m sorry, my Lord. I cannot tell you.” His voice seemed a mere husk of its usual self. How appropriate, he thought in a flash of bleak amusement, since he had just pronounced his own death sentence, one way or another. Curiously enough, that thought seemed oddly comforting – whatever might happen now was at least going to end this insufferable state of torment. He suddenly found himself feeling strangely at peace, and the effortlessness with which his gaze now came back to focus on the man behind the desk once more surprised him. Vetinari’s eyes were still fixed on his face, watching him closely, giving away nothing. He met their cool blue stare without flinching, and for a while they remained studying one another, master and clerk, separated by the paper-laden expanse of the desk.

Presently the Patrician sighed, and with a slow and deliberate gesture brought his hands down gently, side by side, on the polished dark wood of the clear space in front of himself. He seemed to contemplate them for a short while, then he leaned back slightly on his chair to muster Drumknott once more. His voice when he spoke was carefully free of all emotion.

“I have always placed great value on your services, Drumknott. You are a man of many talents, some of them not immediately obvious to the undiscerning eye.” He paused.

Perfect tense, thought Drumknott. Here it comes. However.

The Patrician’s eyes narrowed slightly as he continued to speak, in the same neutral tone as before. “I am not sure, Drumknott, that I want to do without them quite yet. However—”


“Much depends on the outcome of our present conversation.”

Drumknott frowned, puzzled. “My Lord?”

Vetinari raised an eyebrow, and the look he shot him was one that his secretary had seen strong men petrified by. He had never dreamed that his master was going to subject him to it one day, but the effect was every bit as he had imagined it.

“Since you apparently choose to display such an unusual and deplorable lack of forthcomingness in this matter, I find myself obliged to move the issue along a little bit – all in your own interest, I might emphasise.” The look that accompanied this last phrase made Drumknott shiver, and the peacefulness of fatalistic acceptance that had so unexpectedly relieved his agony was completely shattered by it. He knows, he thought. Oh gods, he knows everything; and he could feel his heart plunging while he knew himself to be turning pale, only to blush furiously once more the next moment. The Patrician was watching him minutely, observing every detail of his reaction; then he lowered his eyes to his hands once more. Lifting them up, he thoughtfully contemplated first one, then the other, and Drumknott had to stifle a groan at the renewed onslaught of the debilitating desire which this sight provoked. Having apparently completed his scrutiny, the Patrician then steepled his fingers in their accustomed pose, and, fixing him with his cool blue stare again, resumed his speech.

“I have noticed you watch my hands, Drumknott. You have been watching them for years, covertly, with great interest, but also with great self-restraint. Oh yes,” he insisted, in response to his secretary’s sharply indrawn breath. “I saw that too – for how could one adept practitioner of that art in its most esoteric form fail to recognise another? And yet somehow, it appears your skills have lately begun to fail you. Over the past few weeks you have increasingly been thinking, have you not, about what these hands might do … with you – and perhaps a large portion of that ‘with you’ should be a ‘to you’, should it not?”

The walls of the office blurred; the entire room seemed to swirl around him. The Patrician’s voice was soft, and yet to the ears of his trembling clerk there seemed to be a curious note of tension in it. His response, a last and entirely useless attempt at protest, was no more than a toneless whisper.

“My Lord…”

Vetinari rose from his chair with one of his elegantly measured fluid movements, and, rounding the desk, came to a stand at less than an arm’s length from Drumknott. The clerk only had to raise his head a little way to meet his master’s gaze; they were almost as well matched in height as they were alike in girth, or rather lack of it. Vetinari crossed his arms in front of his chest; his beautiful pale hands disappeared among the folds of his dusty black robe. His voice, when he spoke again, remained low, but the tension was still in it, vibrating almost imperceptively in the depths, like the fundamental beneath a plucked flageolet note. “What sort of things, then, would you desire me to do … to you?”

Drumknott swallowed drily, feeling as if he were sinking, sinking; then he found himself flushing hotly once more. “Anything, my Lord…,” he brought out. “Anything you wish…”

Vetinari raised an eyebrow. “Anything?” he demanded in that same soft voice, and the harmonics it contained made the small hairs rise on the back of Drumknott’s neck. He forced himself to keep his eyes steadily meeting his master’s penetrating gaze.

“Of all my staff, of all those around me who know me, you are the one who sees most of me, and who comes closest to knowing me, if that is indeed possible. If there were anyone whom I would credit with sufficient understanding to divine whither my … proclivities might tend, and what I might be capable of, it would be you, Drumknott. I ask you again, therefore: Anything?”

Silence fell once more, opening like a black void; the only sound which Drumknott could hear was the beating of his own heart, but in all the emptiness there was one certainty that he knew could never be shaken.

“Anything, my Lord,” he repeated, and to his own amazement felt returning as he spoke the steadfast calm which he had always been wont to feel when he was alone and face to face with Vetinari, but which had vanished so disconcertingly beyond reach during the past weeks.

They stood looking at each other while the seconds lengthened until they lost all meaning. Drumknott met his master’s gaze steadily and openly; he could feel the cold blue stare passing through him as if it were probing his very soul, gathering and taking away who knew what tokens of his faithfulness it was searching for; but he was not concerned now about what it might find, for there was nothing there that was his any longer – what was there merely continued as entrusted to his curatorship, but it belonged, as it always had done, to him who both held and embodied the standard of his trial.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of perfect peace and serenity, the Patrician nodded, apparently satisfied with whatever it was he had found.

“Well, Drumknott… It takes all sorts to make a world, as I constantly keep trying to bring home to those around me who are a little more … limited in their outlook. And I suppose I should count myself fortunate to know that evidently, even for one of my sort, there seems to exist someone of your sort to match what I am.” Vetinari held his gaze for another moment, then he turned away somewhat abruptly and made his way across the room to the window, where he stood looking out across the night-time city in the way that was habitual to him when he was engaged in contemplation. Drumknott would have given everything to be by his side at this moment, but there existed in the territory of his master’s routines certain areas marked by warning signs so clear that even in his present benumbed state, he knew better than to take so much as one step away from where he was standing; and so he did nothing but watch, with bated breath, the equally motionless figure of Vetinari at the window, his hands clasped behind his back now, and his head turned away towards the darkness and the glow of the city lights outside. The silence that settled upon the room was so dense with the potential of unspoken words that when it was at last broken by the sound of the Patrician’s voice, Drumknott had a sensation of almost physical discharge.

“I have no doubt that you will be gratified to hear that I consider your offer ... a tempting one.”

Drumknott’s heart stood still for one long, breathless moment, then it began to race wildly as the Patrician turned away from the window and strode towards him once more. Again, he came to a stand well within reach of him, but his hands remained clasped behind his back this time. His eyes flickered downwards briefly, then returned to settle on his face; when he spoke again, his voice, toned down though it was in deference to the shortness of the distance that separated them, was as expressionless as his gaze.

“Moreover … I think it only fair to tell you, this once, because I know that it is something that has been preying on your thoughts, that I am, right at this moment, finding myself … in a predicament not dissimilar to your own.”

The room seemed to reel again as Drumknott felt the blood rush to his face, and not only to his face – the strain in his trousers grew even more painful, if that was possible, but that was as nothing compared to the anguish of his feelings; for in his heart of hearts he knew, as he had always known, that there would be no release for him, not now, not ever, from this man, the master to whom he belonged so indisputably, beyond any reservation or doubt, body, mind and soul. He found his vision suddenly blurred by tears, but even in his agony, he knew that he had just been handed a gift more precious than any boon ever bestowed on anyone within these walls, and he also knew that this was the only moment at which he might ever acknowledge it. Blinking away his tears almost impatiently, he gave the man before him the bravest smile he could muster, and said, quietly, disregarding the fact that his voice was no more than a whisper, “Thank you, my Lord.”

There was the faintest of twitches of an eyebrow; the blue eyes held his for another instant, their penetrating stare as inscrutable as ever; then his master took another step and passed behind him.

“However,” he continued, and Drumknott felt his spirits plummet again at this small but portentous word, more than half expected but nevertheless far from welcome – only to find himself suddenly taut and trembling, thrilled by the sound of Vetinari’s voice talking softly close by his ear now.

“However, let us just for the moment, and for the sake of argument, assume that we were both to … give in to the urgings of our respective desires.”

Shivers were passing up and down Drumknott’s back, and yet there was no sense of Vetinari’s physical closeness, only that voice by his ear – the man could efface himself so efficiently that his presence simply could not be felt, not even his breath as he spoke, even though he had to be standing a mere few inches behind him. And to think that the visitors to his Lordship’s palace considered him one of the most uncannily silent people they’d ever encountered – clearly, if the Patrician were to decide, for whatever reason, to enter a room and stand as close to them as he was standing to him now, they would not even become aware of his presence unless he wanted them to. Here and now, and as far as Drumknott was concerned, however, his master might as well have been standing at the other side of the room; the very idea of moving, of reaching out, or of leaning back into that disconcerting not-quite-emptiness, was so patently out of the question as to not even become an option. The voice went on, as softly as before.

“There is, I believe, sufficient evidence to suggest that our respective … interests would indeed be matched well enough for us to, as the popular euphemism has it, die the little death in each other’s arms – eventually.”

That last little word, flicking out at the tail-end of that inconceivable sentence, contained such a wealth of sinister possibility that Drumknott felt a convulsive shudder pass through his body, and he could not suppress a low moan. He did not recognise his own voice, so hoarse and tormented was the sound that came from his throat; but even as he strove to silence it he thought he caught, like an echo close by his side, the sound of Vetinari’s breath – and the tiny hitch and momentary raggedness that was almost a gasp. He strained after it, but there was only silence now; a silence that did not last long, however, for Vetinari suddenly turned away from him once more and began to pace the room.

“But afterwards, Drumknott. Afterwards. What then? It is control that we are attracted to, you and I, in our different and yet complementary ways. And the pleasure of control, as I am convinced you will agree, is by nature a very cerebral form of pleasure, something located almost exclusively in the realms of intellect. The ultimate canvas for the subtle art we practice, the ultimate lists where that peculiar contest of power we seek after is carried out, are to be found only in the mind. And it strikes me that to indulge the more … visceral aspects of desire would very likely result not only in … well, perhaps I should say adulterating the virtue of that which we are both striving after in our respective ways, but also in … dulling the edge of the zeal which each of us brings to this enterprise. You may have found for yourself that the act of solitary indulgence, while undeniably capable of providing a certain momentary relief, falls far short even from the possibility of ever approximating the physical equivalent of the sustained gratification which is afforded by the flights of the imagination. And I fear that mutual indulgence would have much the same effect, particularly in a case where the two imaginations involved are of such a … highly specialised nature. Not necessarily immediately, but nevertheless inevitably, and, I should have no need to add, irrevocably.” The Patrician interrupted his progress and turned to face him; the distance that separated them now was a little longer than it had been previously. His tone was level as he delivered his concluding sentence. “And, as I have already stated, I should be sorry to have to do without a man of your numerous talents, Drumknott.”

Drumknott was staring unseeingly into space, his hands clenched into fists, struggling blindly against the turmoil of his feelings. What Vetinari was telling him in that dispassionate voice of his had conjured up before his mind’s eye a veritable inferno of images which he dared not contemplate in any detail right now. The very notion of the Patrician— Of his hands—

He barely felt the pain of his nails digging into his palms, but he clung to the sensation, anything to drive these thoughts out of his mind, back beyond that line which he had never allowed himself to cross even in the privacy of his most secret dreams, few as he permitted himself of those. At the same time, every single word he heard seemed to slice through him like a scalpel, glittering, cold, merciless, delicately wielded with surgical precision; and yet in the depths of his soul he knew the man was right – any change in the modalities of their relationship, any attempt at crossing the line between the abstract and the carnal would represent a move away from the elusive ideal of pure control that each of them found so fascinatingly embodied in the other, and thereby put into jeopardy the very distance that linked them, linked them more closely than ever now. He suddenly found himself raised from his despondency by a wave of burning enthusiasm; at that moment, he felt ready to face his desires and to overcome them, and make them subservient to his will once more, if only his master would be present to witness his effort, so that he could be sure of his approval. That thought brought a tremendous surge of strength, such a strength as he had not known he possessed even during the days when his passion had been a fresh and constant torment to him. It might still remain a torment, after this, but at least it was no longer a secret – it never had been, he realised that now, not for him who was the calm and unassailable centre of it, but the difference was that now he knew it, too. To continue as master and clerk just as they had been before, but with this potentially fathomless new dimension of private meaning added to their everyday routines, would be both blissful and agonising beyond imagination; and Drumknott felt his spirits soar even as his heart quaked and his body was racked by a shudder of dreadful anticipation. He just had to hope, fervently hope, that he would never hear the word ‘visceral’ spoken again, especially not by the Patrician himself, if he was not utterly to disgrace himself in his own eyes as well as in those of his master – who would doubtlessly find the means to put his clerk’s newly-found resolve to the test in an endless number of small but interesting and, above all, unpredictable ways.

He took another deep breath, but this time, the smile came easily to his lips, buoyed up by the profound clearness of his newly-gained confidence.

“I shall endeavour to see to it that the necessity of your having to do without me will not arise, my Lord.”

It almost made his breath catch to see his smile reflected briefly on the Patrician’s face.

“I am pleased to hear it, Drumknott.” After another moment, he turned away and walked to his desk, where he settled down onto his hard chair once more and steepled his hands on the polished walnut wood in front of him. His eyes resumed their thoughtful study of him across the newly increased distance; it seemed to Drumknott that their blue stare had grown several shades darker than usual.

“You have committed yourself to an ambitious enterprise, Drumknott, but I have to admit I was expecting nothing less of you. You know me well enough to understand that I will have only the best.” He paused, and the quality of his stare became even more intense. Drumknott shivered, but nevertheless he drank it in thirstily, for this was what he lived for, and he was not afraid of it, not as such. He knew that it was this stare that made most of his Lordship’s visitors feel uncomfortable to the point of reducing them to sheer panic, but he very much doubted that it made any of them feel uncomfortable in quite the same way as it did him. He smiled faintly at this thought, and again felt a powerful thrill when he saw a brief reflection of his smile appear on his master’s face.

“Still, there are many stumbling-blocks on a road like that, even for a man who believes that he has himself well in hand, and who thinks he knows everything there is to know about himself.” The Patrician paused again, then continued. “Believe me, I have no intention of insulting your abilities, nor do I wish to question your integrity, for I have never had reason to doubt it. Nevertheless, there may conceivably arise certain circumstances in a man’s life which he has no way of foreseeing or of preparing against, and which may take him to the limit and indeed past the limit of what he can endure. I am convinced I do not have to spell out to you the ways in which such a man, if he were to find himself driven to extremes, could become a hazard not only to his employer, but also to the political stability of the City and all that depends on it. I merely wish to remind you that should such a regrettable situation ever necessitate it, I should not hesitate to take steps to remove such a threat.”

The Patrician let one of his hands describe a curt and casual gesture in the direction of a certain part of his desktop. Drumknott knew about the hidden drawer, and was familiar with what it contained. If ever the Patrician should find himself faced with a situation that demanded a quick and pointed solution – which indeed had been the case on at least one previous occasion – he would have no need to resort to impromptu weapons such as letter-openers; but his secretary knew that what he had just been shown was merely a courtesy gesture in any case. Once his master decided he wanted someone dead, they would never again find themselves in a position to argue with his decision. It was strangely comforting to know, though, that he had just as good as received the promise that should he ever – gods forbid – give his master occasion to doubt his absolute loyalty, his last moments would at least form the subject of his master’s intense personal attention; and it would then, indeed, be his hands that would have the final undoing of him. Smiling, he drew breath to acknowledge this information, but to his surprise, Vetinari spoke again at the same instant.

“The removal in this case would not perhaps be as swift and as … uncomplicated as all the parties concerned could wish for, but it would certainly be terminal.” His voice was very soft now. “As I have just told you, Drumknott, I will have only the best.”

Drumknott felt his knees grow weak, but he was satisfied to note that there was only the barest suggestion of a hitch in his breathing to assure the Patrician that his meaning had found its mark.

No. Make that a meaning.

He groaned inwardly. Drumknott prided himself on the knowledge that there was probably no other clerk in the palace better capable of construing the Patrician’s utterances, subtle as their inflections might often be, but he was only too well aware that this didn’t mean his master could not leave him guessing any time he chose to. ‘Anything you wish…’ Well, he might have seen that one coming.

He found himself wondering how much the man could actually see across the dimly-lit distance that separated them. Perhaps it was time to avail himself of the private secretary’s privilege, hitherto foregone for reasons of demonstrating a modesty that was genuine but also appealed to him in a private and highly idiosyncratic way, to assume a slightly more elaborate and less revealing form of dress. It might not be particularly effective as a measure of concealment in itself, and he knew better than to delude himself into believing that Vetinari would not be able to tell exactly how he was faring in his presence at any given point, but at least the tiny amount of uncertainty it would introduce into their daily … intercourse might serve to tip the scales just slightly towards a more even balance. He had to suppress a smile that was almost a grin. Only that morning this last thought would have seemed … well, unthinkable to him. Even now he half expected himself to be shocked by it, by the very notion of entering into an active contest of any kind with his master, let alone one of this particular nature; but to his own surprise it inspired him with an almost giddy sense of confidence. He knew his master to be far from averse to a little opposition in his complicated everyday strategic games, and this evening’s invitation to play could not have been more plainly put. ‘Only the best’, his master had said. Well, he would do all that lay in his power to prove himself as belonging in that category. If his master would have only the best, then he, Rufus Drumknott, would be the best. He permitted a carefully censored version of that new and peculiar smile to appear upon his lips.

“My Lord,” he said, and gave a slight bow.

The Patrician subjected him to the longest, hardest stare he had given him all evening; then he nodded, his expression so eminently blank that it came close to appearing suspicious to his private secretary’s suddenly heightened perception.

“Very well, Drumknott. Do not let me detain you.”

This time, Drumknott really had to grin, but not before he had turned his back upon his master and was making for the door, feeling perfectly in control of himself again at long last, but at the same time almost intoxicated by the prospect of a Hell more heavenly, a Heaven more hellish than he had ever dreamed could be devised by any living man.

When the door had closed behind his private secretary, the Patrician slowly rose from his seat and crossed the room to stand by the window once more. All in all, it had been a highly successful evening, he reflected as he gazed down upon the city’s night-time streets, glowing arteries throbbing with the power of life and money on the move, made visible in the darkness. He saw and controlled it all, the way he always had done from the day he assumed his office, and he was still doing it, he was still in control, even after tonight. He had told Drumknott that he’d always had great hopes of him, and he still did – greater than ever, in fact. He had to admit he was looking forward to watching his progress over the next few days, weeks, months – years even, perhaps. The man had considerable potential, there was no doubt about that, and his self-discipline was already highly accomplished, although the Patrician suspected that in Drumknott’s case, a disposition which naturally inclined towards diffidence about carnal issues had been supplemented by the constraints of a strictly old-fashioned moral education. The Patrician considered himself an open-minded man unencumbered by inhibition; while he did not indulge his body, he had studied it with the same scrupulousness with which he applied himself to the study of all his material and immaterial surroundings, his allies as well as his foes; and it held nothing shameful or disconcerting for him, although he would now and then be moved to wonder abstractly at the fact that the Creator, if indeed such a being had ever existed, should have been able to get away with something that contained so many blatant design flaws.

No, what really mattered was all in the mind – he had been frank with Drumknott there, franker than he had ever been with anyone about what it might be that could not only fascinate but captivate his thoughts, but also about the fact that there did exist certain conditions that would stir his body. And… The man had thanked him. It hadn’t come as a surprise, of course, but still—. Admittedly, what he had entrusted to him was a gift, if you wished to consider it in that light. But it was a dangerous gift, perhaps more dangerous than either of them could realise at this point. Well, he might have let himself get carried away just a little bit there, but then, he was convinced his secretary’s loyalty to him was absolute, precisely because of its rather singular nature. If, contrary to expectation, it should fail him one day, he would be the first to know. And to act accordingly.

There had, however, been that one point – when Drumknott’s self-control had momentarily come close to forsaking him at the idea, however sparingly suggested, of physical union – at which he himself had been taken unawares by the intensity of his own reaction. He had feared at that point that he might have revealed too much of himself, but had quickly come to the conclusion that it would help rather than hinder his purpose where Drumknott was concerned. The man was already very good. Let him rise to the challenge. As regarded himself, well… He had long grown used to fighting against himself. At least you could be sure of having a worthy opponent, and one whose weaknesses you knew just as well as you did your own. It had certainly come as a surprise to discover that his oldest and most tried adversary was apparently less predictable than he had hitherto assumed. The Patrician permitted himself the pleasure of a faint smile. ‘Only the best’, that was what he had told Drumknott, wasn’t it? The future was certainly beginning to look … interesting.