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The Old Kings of Quirm Did It Too

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“He’d never act on it or say anything, but I think I can tell. His voice goes gentle at me sometimes. There’s things he lets me do and say that I don’t think he’d let anyone else– d’you know I’ve caught him smiling sometimes, because of me? When no one else is around to see. It’s not a nasty smile, it’s like he’s happy. It’s like his guard is down for a second. If I’m standing very close to him, his breathing changes for a moment, and then he catches himself. There’s a way he looks at me that I can’t exactly describe, because I’ve only just started to notice. It’s like he’s hearing music...”

⚭⚭⚭

Sam knows Sybil is better at emotions than he is. It is nighttime and they have already gone to bed, but Sam can’t sleep. He has a complicated tangle of thoughts he wants her to help him sort out.

“...and that’s why I think he has feelings for me and he finds me attractive,” Sam is saying. “Though it might be presumptuous to think I can tell.”

“No, dear,” she says calmly, “I think you’re right. I think he does.”

Sam makes a sound like he’s about to say something, but then he doesn’t. The silence lingers in the air for a moment.

“Go on,” she says gently.

He’s almost whispering when he answers, as if trying to take a middle road between speaking and not speaking. There’s bits of it she can’t catch.

“Well, if he does, I should– I wish I could– I’m fond of him, you know. I’d call him an acquired taste, but that would be cruel. I don’t try to think about it, but back when he was being poisoned, ages ago, I felt– I felt the same way I would have felt if it had been you, if that makes any sense. And he has a heart, but nobody– I don’t know how to say this, but I think, if he wasn’t encumbered by duty and office all the time, he’d be– well, nice to be around, and talk to, and I want to– I wish– I want to know–  And I also find him– Gods, this is stupid. I sound stupid talking about this.”

“It’s not stupid, Sam,” she says, “It’s more stupid not to talk about feelings.”

“Well, I shouldn’t talk about this with him,” he says sensibly.

“I’d say it depends,” she says delicately after a pause. “It depends on what you’re saying. Are you saying you feel bad for him, or that you actually reciprocate his feelings?”

Sybil knows Sam is good at reading people. It has to be a pattern recognition thing, at this point. Years of policing pay off. He can often, but not always, tell from people’s faces whether they’re saying what they mean, and whether there’s something they’re concealing. Not what it is they’re concealing, of course, but whether there is something.

It’s a good thing, then, that he’s not looking Sybil in face right now. The lights are off and they’re both looking at the ceiling.

“Um,” he says, “the latter.”

Sybil does her best to stay impartial.

“Then you should, shouldn’t you? Talk to Havelock, I mean.”

Her voice is easy and even but her eyes are wide open and though she’s sure she’s saying the right thing, something in her chest and stomach feels...a bit wrong.

“Is it that simple, do you think?” asks Sam, sounding shocked.

“Of course,” Sybil says. Her hands under the duvet are tightly clenched.

She doesn’t think he’ll do it.

“I’ll think about it,” he says. Sleep is beginning to crawl into his voice.

There are a lot of things that he says he’ll think about and never does.

“Good night, dear,” she says.

“G’night.”

⚭⚭⚭

He does do it.

Vetinari is surprised. Pleased, but hesitant. You’re sure? Sybil doesn’t mind? There are other things to think about, risks, logistics, but the first thing he thinks about is his old friend.

No. The first thing he thinks is gods, yes. The second thing he thinks about is his old friend. Well, if it was her idea. Ask again just in case.

There are many things he should think about but Vimes’ big, warm hand is resting on his shoulder, and when the last time he felt human contact was, he can’t remember, so he chooses not to think about any of those other things. He chooses to think about Sam Vimes and lean into the touch.

⚭⚭⚭

Sybil had no one to blame, and she didn’t even allow herself to think that there was something anyone should be blamed for.

⚭⚭⚭

The thing was, if there was a right way to go about it, then Sam had done it. For gods’ sakes, he’d asked permission first. He’d come home one night, some weeks after their initial conversation, looking self-conscious, like he’d practiced words beforehand and none of them had been good, and after clearing his throat a bit, he’d said “Sybil, dear, I was talking to Vetinari, and I was wondering–we, we were wondering…”

Of course she’d said yes. She’d been bred to, as a girl and as an aristocrat. She was kind, a good listener, everyone’s friend, and above all, selfless. Granting permission probably came under the heading of noblesse oblige.

Of course she’d said yes. The words had been out of her mouth before she’d realized she’d said them.

“You’d be okay with that?” Sam asked. “Not just hypothetically?”

Sybil had meant to stop and think about whether she was, but her voice kept going.

“It’s just poliamory, dear, surely you’ve heard of it, haven’t you? ‘Poli,’ that’s ancient Ephebian, same as in ‘politician,’ and ‘amory’ is from Latatian for love. It happens all the time, politicians having lovers. The old kings of Quirm did it too. You’ve probably heard of some of the more famous court mistresses, or at least their hairstyles. Their husbands all knew, and it was fine, I’m sure.”

“I didn’t expect you to take it so… aristocratically,” he’d mumbled. Or something like that. They hadn’t talked for the rest of the night.

It was nothing like the old kings of Quirm, actually, and she knew it. She was surprised Sam hadn’t commented. He didn’t like kings. He didn’t stand for monarchic decadence and expensive coiffures, or classes of people who thought they were better than the people who did actual work. And whatever his relationship with Vetinari was like, it certainly wasn’t like that either. The old kings of Quirm had been inbred idiots, and the court hangers-on had been vying for power. Sam wasn’t a court mistress.

She felt guilty about saying that. She felt guilty about making an association that was meant to make him uncomfortable. She supposed she had wanted him to react. But he hadn’t, not in the way she thought he would. He hadn’t said a thing. He’d just gone upstairs to tuck their six-year-old in and then gone to sleep himself.

So the moment passed.

⚭⚭⚭

Sybil was everyone’s friend, even Vetinari’s. They’d known each other growing up, which gave her the right to call him Havelock. She had tea with him sometimes. But she also had tea with Lady Rust (though not anymore) and wrote (well, used to write) letters to Serafine von Uberwald. Sybil was Havelock’s friend, and they’d known each other growing up, but they weren’t like the friends in storybooks, the small groups of best friends, or the pairs of confidantes who seemed to share a soul.

It wasn’t like that. Sybil didn’t have anybody like that. He came over for tea sometimes. They would talk. Sybil was a very good listener, and it was nice for him to chat to someone who wasn’t nervously trying to calculate where they stood with you. Havelock was a good listener too, and he could even remember the names of Sybil’s dragons, and ask about their health. Sometimes they read the same books.

No, their friendship wasn’t like that either, it was far richer than that. She kept catching thoughts in her head trying to undervalue it. She didn’t fully understand why those thoughts were there. Why should she try to think less of their friendship? He wasn't like the rest of her aristocratic friends. He cared about things, and people, and her. He’d been the one she asked to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, for gods’ sakes.

A part of herself tried to become more closed-off while a part of her tried to stay amiable and open. She could feel them struggling hard. But then again, a wound is also a thing that is open both when it is made and when, if things go wrong, it dehisces.  

Sybil and Havelock had many things in common, besides the big one, but the big one was off-limits as a subject of conversation now. Shortly after the arrangement, Havelock had tried to thank her. He’d called her “a woman generous beyond words.” She’d said, a little too quickly and loudly, “don’t mention it.”  So he hadn’t.

They kept having tea together for a bit after the arrangement, but gradually they’d stopped keeping up with it. People get busy. People have meetings with the Silicon Anti-Defamation League tomorrow evening, but if you’re free Friday next week… People aren’t free that Friday, they have to be at the opening ceremony for the new wing of the Lady Sybil Free Hospital, but if you’re open anytime next month… People say they’ll tell you if they’re free next month, and then they never do.

During the time that they were still keeping up with their teas, though, she’d noticed he’d started to look subtly different. Refreshed. Less drawn, more relaxed. Happy, even, which was good for him, and she was happy for him, and she knew he wasn’t trying to draw attention to it. She didn’t think he was even aware, so she did what felt like the proper thing and tried not to notice it and tried not to notice things like high-collared shirts in summer.

Sybil also tried not to notice that Sam had stopped smoking. Did he ask him to stop, or did he just make a little comment about the smell of his mouth? If he did ask, did he understand? She’d gotten him to start. One habit for another. She’d helped him stop drinking.

⚭⚭⚭

There were many things she’d never say to Sam. Sybil knew, on a conscious level, that she and Havelock both cared about Sam. The two of them, together had–not lifted Sam up, since Sam had worked hard himself and deserved credit, but they had helped him rise to his feet and become more himself. Nevertheless, Havelock worried her. She trusted him wholly, but he was a dutiful man. The city would always come first in his mind, before human hearts. He expected the same of others.

She might think, but would never say to Sam,

“Why him? The hours he makes you keep at work aren’t doing you any good.”

“Why him? It’s always wheels within wheels with him, possibly within other wheels. He may be honest, in his own way, but he’s seldom upfront. And you’ve been caught in the wheels’ teeth before, remember? He asked you give up your badge that one time, a little before our wedding, when that awful weapon was stolen. He told you not to look into the theft. You got drunk so bad afterwards you had to take that dreadful brew to get back into your wits. You thought I didn’t know, but Carrot told me. Carrot thought it was right I should know, and I thought it was right not to mention it.”

Sybil wouldn’t remind Sam of everything he’d been through with her and everything she’d done for him and she wouldn’t hum the ransom aria at him because none of this was about her. She and Havelock both cared about Sam. Even if, in a little part of her heart that she considered uncharitable, she felt she cared more, it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to compare herself with Havelock. They were very different people.

She would never, absolutely never, not in any universe allow herself to think, let alone say to Sam, “Am I lacking, that I need to be supplemented?” or, “So is he better than cigars, then?”

⚭⚭⚭

It’s not jealousy. Sybil isn’t jealous. Sybil isn’t selfish. Sybil isn’t unkind. She learned at school about selflessness and kindness. They were virtues, or so the girls were told. Be everyone’s friend, they were told, and you will be happy. Though we may have much, they were told, nothing in this life is truly ours. Be generous, for in the end, not even the dust under our nails shall we keep.

It’s not just jealousy. It’s the burden of having to be selfless, of not feeling like you deserve to feel jealous. Your feet get tired of stamping out less-than-kind thoughts.

She should be grateful, Sybil tells herself. She has so much already. She loves Sam and she loves being married to him and none of that has changed. She remembers how, for a long time, she had been used to the idea that it would only ever be her and the dragons, and then she was happily proven wrong. He loves her and he loves their son and he loves the food she makes with burnt crunchy bits and the gnarled socks she knits.

Sam still keeps the awful, bone-grinding schedule of a Watch commander, but he does live at home with her and with their son most days a week. He still works some night shifts. He stays at the palace sometimes, but never more than two out of eight days a week.

He’s home every single day at six, just like when Young Sam was small, and he used to read to him. Dad Sam comes home every day at six to help with his homework and talk to him about his day.

⚭⚭⚭

Young Sam’s twelve and he’s just got home from school. It isn’t six o’clock yet, so it’s just him and his mum. He’s having toast with jam and butter, and he’s telling Sybil about a classmate, Torvid Pinter, whose parents got divorced. It catches her off guard. Why is Young Sam telling her about that? But then she remembers Young Sam’s twelve and sometimes kids just talk about things for no reason.

“Kind of reminds me of dad,” Young Sam says.

“What does?”

“Torvid’s parents. The joint custody thing. That’s kind of like with dad, how he spends some days at the palace but most days at home, isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t,” she snaps. “I certainly hope not, for your friend’s sake.”

She’s shocked at her tone of voice.

“That would be disgusting,” she continues, unable to stop. “Do you know what your father does at the palace?”

Oh gods, she thinks, there was no need for that. Young Sam doesn’t need to be involved in all this. He’s just a kid. I can’t say these things.

Oh gods, she thinks, it’s not fair to imply what I implied either. It’s a six-year relationship. It’s not just about sex. Not every week. Not at their age.

Young Sam looks guilty and shocked. He’s old enough to catch that there’s a subtext, but he’s not exactly sure what it is. It’s a thing he’s been aware of, and known is supposed to remain unspoken. He’s old enough to realize he’s stepped somewhere he shouldn’t have.

“Um,” he says, “not really. Sorry. I ‘spect it’s not my business, probably. You can have the rest of my toast, mum. I’ve got to go to my room...study for geography.”

She waits twenty minutes and then knocks on his door to apologize.

“Darling, I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

“S’fine, mum.”

“You had a valid point of comparison. It is like that. It’s a good thing to spend time with people you lo–, who are important in your life, and sometimes you can’t spend time with different people at the same time. Uncle Havelock and dad are important to each other.”

Young Sam opens the door.

“‘Uncle?’ Are you kidding?”

“What do you mean, dear?”

“You said not to call him that. You said, ‘that man is not a member of our family’.”

Sybil furrows her brow.

“That doesn’t sound like something I’d say. He is your godfather.”

“You did, though. When I was around seven.”

“You can’t possibly remember that.”

“I have a very good memory, mum.”

“Well, what I mean is–”

“I don’t care, mum. I’d prefer not to talk about whatever the problem is. You always get so weird about it that I’d rather not know, ‘cause I feel like I’d get weird too if I knew.”

“There isn’t a problem.”

“Well that’s– that’s great!” he says. He’s not going to slam the door on his mother, but he is going close it. She sounds like she’s going to cry, and he doesn’t know how to deal with that.

⚭⚭⚭

Sybil thinks she should try to rebuild bridges. She writes to Vetinari, not to Havelock, because she’s not sure if she should call him his first name when she hasn’t spoken to him for ages. It’s not a letter, really, because you need to string together too many words for a letter, and right now, Sybil can just manage “come for tea again. Wednesday. Noon.” Young Sam will be at school. Willikins doesn’t work Wednesdays. It’ll just be them.

She gets a note back, very quickly.

“See you then,” it says.

There’s no discussion about rescheduling. She gets the impression that he’s willing to drop other things for this. It’s personal.

He arrives alone. There are bags under his eyes. He’s a bit gaunt, and the fact that he’s always in black doesn’t help, but he has some sort of slightly tired smile.

“I missed this,” he says, entering the foyer. He leaves his cane in the umbrella stand by the door. “Your house always had such a strong feeling of being a home. It still does.”

She wonders if he feels like he’s at home when he’s at the palace, or whether he still feels like a guest in a house that belongs to the city.

“Thanks,” she says.

“And I’ve missed you, Lady Ramkin,” he says.

So, it is surnames and titles now. They used to greet each other with an arm around the shoulder, but that was a while ago. He hasn’t extended his hand for a handshake, but that’s correct protocol, she reminds herself. A gentleman does not offer a handshake to a lady. The lady must initiate it.

“Yes,” she answers, “I suppose I have too.”

She gestures with her head for him to follow her.

“Come upstairs,” she says, “I’ve got the table set by the big stained window.”

Vetinari follows.

“I’m sorry, by the way,” he says while he’s behind her on the stairs and doesn’t have to look her in the face.

“For?” she asks airily.

“A number of things, including falling out of touch.”

“I pushed you away, dear,” Sybil says.

He doesn’t say anything. They sit down to tea. The coloured light from the window dances on the table setting and on their faces. The conversation doesn’t start flowing.

“I’ve missed your tiny sandwiches and your devilled eggs,” he says politely.

“They’re from a shop,” she says. “You knew that.”

He nods.

“How’s, er, how’s work?” Sybil asks lamely.

There is a tiny fraction of a grimace at the corner of Vetinari’s mouth.

“It’s...complex. Have you heard that my chief clerk resigned? We haven’t found a replacement yet. I don’t think we’ll find one as good.”

Sybil has a good memory for names.

“Not Mr. Drumknott?”

Vetinari nods, and Sybil raises her eyebrows. The man had been a permanent fixture of the palace for over a decade now.  

“He did?” she asks. “Why?”

“Ideological reasons.”

It occurs to her that this is a non-answer, and she considers that perhaps she shouldn’t press him for a real one, but she presses anyway.

“How so?” she demands politely.

“I am afraid,” Vetinari replies, adjusting one of his shirt-cuffs unnecessarily, “that an adequate explanation would touch upon a subject that you and I have a moratorium on discussing. We might both prefer to talk about other things.”

Vetinari is avoiding her gaze and he has never been an expressive man to begin with, but Sybil has known him since he was a youth. Even then, he had such poise, to a degree that would have come across as stiltedness on any other young man, but somehow never had on him. She knows a crack in his composure when she sees one, and behind the crack, she sees a bit of trepidation, a bit of abashment. He doesn’t want to offend her, she thinks.

“We can talk about Sam-related things,” she sighs, “It’s not like we can talk about them with anyone else.”

“Very well,” Vetinari says quietly, “Drumknott quit because he had thought I was better than I actually was, and he had respected me deeply. Perhaps I was better before and then slipped. I am compromised by emotion, and I have let myself become far less fit to serve the city than duty demands of me. I have a blind spot the size and shape of Sam Vimes. It’s natural to lose faith in anyone reckless enough to drive blind.”

“Offler’s teeth!” says Sybil, incensed on his behalf. “Did he say that? Awful little man!”

“He didn’t need to.”

“I agree, he didn’t need to say any of that!”

“No, he didn’t say that, but I’m quite sure it’s what he was thinking. It’s what I think.”

She should contradict him, she thinks. But then again, they haven’t spoken in years. There’s nothing she could argue from.

“The problem isn’t so much,” Vetinari continues, “that I have had the moral clumsiness to fall into what is a huge conflict of interest, but that I’ve been trying to correct for it, and it turns out that I have been over-correcting. I was worried I’d be driven by bias to be too favourable the Watch, and instead I have been too hard on the Watch by half. I ought to have realized this sooner. It has been to no one’s benefit. It has probably, in many small ways, been to the city’s overall detriment. Moreover, and it is perhaps too cynical to put it like this, where exactly is the line between correcting for a conflict of interest and dissimulating it? I have been asking myself this question and I haven’t been able to give myself a satisfactory answer.”

Sybil just stares at him. Vetinari draws a breath and folds his hands on the table in front of him.

“I haven’t told him yet,” he adds, “but I’m thinking of breaking things off with Sam.”

Sybil was not bred to be the kind of woman who drops teacups or sprays tea or shouts. So she puts her teacup down, swallows her sip of tea, and gently asks,

“Why?”

“I’ve just said. Shall I list more reasons? On the international stage, we rely on our reputations for incorruptibility, and the risk of losing those is…” he gestures vaguely with one hand.

“Sorry, but no one would even remotely suspect you two. The only rumour I hear is that you hate each other. It’s in the press, it’s in the political–”

“The cartoons, yes,” he sighs, rubbing both his temples with one long hand, “they’re so horrible. I’m always yelling at him in them. And there was that one last week with the–”

“With him out in the doghouse, yes. I made sure he didn’t read the paper that day.”

“That was thoughtful,” Vetinari observes.

There is a brief silence, and when Sybil speaks again her voice is a bit louder than she intends for it to be.

“You must have heard about Captain Angua,” Sybil says, “she also quit, sort of. There’s a lot of it about. She asked to get relocated halfway across town when she found out.”

“I know.”

“Poor Sam,” she says, “he doesn’t deserve that.”

Vetinari says nothing.

“He doesn’t,” she says again.

Sybil refills Vetinari’s teacup, then refills her own teacup and turns it around on her saucer with one finger. She keeps her eyes on her hands as she speaks.

“And now you’re thinking of breaking things off with him on top of all that.”

“I suppose that’s one way to put it,” he says uncomfortably, “but it would be for the better.”

“I don’t believe you for a second. I don’t think you believe it either.”

His face remains impassive.

“And even if,” she says, “even supposing–and I don’t suppose this–that ending your relationship would somehow benefit the city, what would it do to Sam?”

“I have thought about that,” he says immediately. “It would be distressing to him and to me. But I don’t think the personal should supersede what is–”

“Don’t say ‘important.’ Sam is important.”

We feel that way, Sybil. You and I.”

“But you think we might be wrong?” she asks.

Vetinari looks at the ceiling instead of at her face. He takes a small, shaky breath.

“I’m not a good partner,” he says, “I should have never become his. It was ill-considered.”

Sybil doesn’t mean to be cruel, but she has wanted to know this for a long time, so she asks,

“So why did you consider it?”

His gaze falls back to her, then further down to his teacup. He swishes some of his drink around.

“Sam...well...he…” and then he freezes in thought, looking into the middle distance.

There are a lot of things that Vetinari could say about Sam that she would agree with. She’s sure they both find the same qualities admirable. Strength of character, steadfast refusal to outsource his moral compass, humility without being cowed by authority– sure, they both love him. But she doesn’t expect to bond with him over this. It would ring hollow.

Sybil frowns. He’s not moving.

“Havelock?” she says.

Havelock snaps out of it and sighs.

“I’ll be more honest than I care to be. For a long time, I had been used to the idea that it would only ever be me and my work, and then I was happily proven wrong. Someone whom I trusted and respected and loved also trusted and respected and loved me. I was weak. I lacked the self-discipline to consider the consequences.”

Sybil thinks it’s not fair to put a banquet in front of a starving man and expect him to think about the bill, but she doesn’t know how to say that. One of Havelock’s hands is on the handle of his teacup, and the other hand lies on the tablecloth. Sybil covers his hand with her own big, warm hand.

“I understand,” she says. “I don’t think it’s weak.”

“Thank you,” Havelock says. “If I may, could I ask you a similar question?”

“Please do.”

“Why did you give us your blessing, Sybil, if it made you unhappy?”

Sybil opens her mouth to deny being anything less than pleased, and then decides she had better not lie to an old friend.

“I wanted to be nice,” she admits to herself, “A good wife. A good friend to the both of you.”

“I understand,” he says, and grasps her hand with both his own.

He does understand, Sybil thinks to herself. She realizes at that second that being everyone’s friend and being next to no one’s friend are equally lonely things.

“Can we put this all behind us?” he asks.

“Look, the answer is yes. We can get along again and stop avoiding each other, if that’s what you’re asking. I’d like to do that,” Sybil says. “But you can’t just dump my husband because you feel like you should. You don’t want to. It won’t make either of you happy. It won’t make me happy either. I know you’re not sacrificing your relationship on some sort of altar to me because you respect me more than that. I know you hope to accomplish something, restore some sort of balance, and listen, it’s not going to work. It’s not going to change anything. We’ve opened Polydora’s box and we can’t pack it back up again. Though it wasn’t a box, was it? Some kind of jug? Urn?”

Sybil pauses. Havelock says nothing. He could probably tell her the Ephebian word for the exact piece of the piece of pottery it was, but it’s not the right time for that.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Sybil says, “You know what I think? I think you’re just self-flagellating. Admit it to yourself. I think you’re just trying to deny yourself something because you didn’t deny it to yourself before.”

Havelock’s mouth is hanging slightly open. It doesn’t often do that.

“Sybil,” he begins, softly, “I–”

Just then, they hear the door downstairs open, and the tread of feet up the stairs.

“Sorry I kept my boots on, dear.” Sam Vimes calls from the entryway, “I’ve done something to my hand. Couldn’t get them off. Nothing major, don’t worry, but Carrot sent me home, wanted me to see a doctor. Thought I’d grab a bite to eat first, but–”

He catches sight of both of them, Sybil and Havelock, having tea and little sandwiches in front of the stained-glass window.

“Hi,” Sam says

“Hi, Sam.”

“Hi, Sam.”

It’s unusual for the two of them to be in the same place.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“Yes, dear.”

“Yes, dear.”