Ponder Stibbons sat down at the bar, his elbows pressed against the sticky surface of the bar’s surface, his mouth set into a very hard line. He was very tired, and in a very poor mood, and he was looking glumly into the bottom of his beer tankard, which was woefully close to being empty. He did not want to buy another drink – he did not especially want to be drunk. But, once he finished it, he would feel a vague push to leave and go elsewhere, and he didn’t want to back to the university yet, either.
Drinking something non-alcoholic, and drinking that, would be met with horror and perplexity, and that wasn’t an option, either. He just wanted to be away from the University for a while, where none of the other wizards could find him.
He had already hiked his leg over the top of the University’s gate, having climbed all the way up it, before he had remembered he was a staff member, and could, in fact, just open the gate himself.
He was here for now, at least, in a little pub off Sator Square, with no other wizards in sight. There was a party going on – some of the journalists from the Ankh-Morpork Times, for someone’s birthday – and in general, the room was full to the brim with cheer.
Ponder didn’t especially feel like being cheerful.
His eyes were aching with fatigue, and his voice felt hoarse from never shouting, and always being talked over. His head was aching, but he’d gone to bed early twice today before the sun had even set, and been dragged out of bed with such stupid questions he’d actually lost his temper.
That had been ignored, too.
It was alright, with the Archchancellor – he could be very frustrating, but Ponder always got the impression that he really was paying more attention than he seemed, and he did care. The Dean, the Senior Wrangler, and the Lecturer in Recent Runes all cared, but when the Archchancellor was in the Ramtops for three days, visiting his mother, they mostly cared about trying to show one another who was top dog, and part of the way they did this was by shouting at Ponder.
“You seem down. A shame, for a young vizard to be down,” said a voice to his left, and Ponder looked at the person in question. He was pale, with glossy black hair and a slightly odd face. It was the sort of face that had ambitions of being handsome, but seemed to have gained other priorities along the way: the chin was just a little too pointy, the eyes a little too bright and red in colour, the skin the sort of chalky pale that made one look twice. “Vhat say you I buy you a drink and inspire some cheer, hm?”
Ponder still gulped.
Ambitions of handsome was still far and away beyond the considerations of most of the wizards at UU, although Victor Tugelbend had been an exception, when he’d been a student there.
“Are you from Überwald?” Ponder squeaked out, aware that he felt rather hot and sweaty all of a sudden, and doing his best not to fidget in his robes.
“Yes,” the man said, and he smiled.
Ponder stared at his teeth. They were rather pointy, he thought. Pointier than one might expect. His gaze flitted down to the man’s – the vampire’s – vest, which had a great many pockets, and reminded Ponder of the Archchancellor’s hat, in that they seemed to contain a little of almost everything, except for his dark sunglasses, which were hung from the vest’s neck. There was a black ribbon pinned to the lapel.
“Oh,” Ponder said. “You— Do you work… for the Times?”
“Yes,” the vampire said, sliding gracefully into the seat beside Ponder, and Ponder looked at him with his lips parted as he leaned his pointy chin upon a not-pointy and distinctly-soft (albeit chemical-stained) hand. “I am their Chief Iconographer: Otto von Chriek.”
He put out his other hand to shake, and Ponder took it, feeling the cool dryness of his palm, and knowing that his own palm was especially warm, and especially clammy, all of a sudden. “And you,” said Otto, his hand moving swiftly to turn Ponder’s over, palm up, his fingers playing over the back of Ponder’s own, “you are Ponder Stibbons, yes?”
“How do you know that?” Ponder asked, hypnotised at the way Otto’s thumb traced some of the lines on Ponder’s palm.
“Ah, vell,” Otto said, “I said to Sacharissa – you have met Sacharissa Cripslock, I think, yes? – who is that pretty vizard at the bar, with the round cheeks, the button nose? And she told me. And I said, ah, good. I vill buy him a drink.” Otto’s thumb tapped against Ponder’s fingertips, one by one. He painted his nails, and his thumbnail was a glossy blue-black, like the night sky before the stars came out.
“I don’t want another drink,” Ponder said.
“Oh,” Otto said, his gaze flitting away.
“It isn’t because you’re a vampire,” Ponder blurted out, chasing after Otto’s hand when it pulled away from his own. Otto peered down at their clumsily tangled fingers with curiosity.
“Oh?” he asked.
“I just… I didn’t want to drink too much,” Ponder said.
“Oh,” Otto said, with a lopsided, toothy grin that made Ponder’s knees knock together. “Vell… vhy don’t we both get a ginger beer?”
“Oh, they don’t like it when you buy non-alcoholic drinks,” Ponder said anxiously.
“And vhat will they do, hm? Kick us out?” Otto asked, and he leaned in, bringing Ponder’s hand, which was somewhat plumper than Otto’s own, up toward his mouth. “If they do that, Mr Stibbons, ve shall simply have to walk together under the stars!”
“You can’t see the stars through the smog,” Ponder said.
“I vill have to look at you then,” Otto said, and winked.
Ponder giggled. It was a very undignified sound, and he felt like wriggling in his chair. He hadn’t felt like this since a few years ago, when Victor Tugelbend had idly complimented his profile, and not thought anything of it. It hadn’t been nearly so targeted as this. “You’re very— You really don’t have to be so… I’m not used to— Not that I don’t like it, it’s very, it’s very, but you don’t have to be so… charming.”
“Ah, but if I am not usink my charms on you, Mr Stibbons, they shall go to vaste!”
Otto kissed his knuckles. His lips were cold.
“Wizards aren’t meant to— To—”
“Be vooed by handsome vampires?”
“That rather covers it,” Ponder said.
“Ah, vell,” Otto said. “Are vizards meant to climb over the University gate?”
“Ve saw you,” Otto murmured, and produced an iconograph from his pocket. Ponder looked at it. He saw the image of himself, taken from the square itself, awkwardly straddling the very top of the gate, his hat askew on his head, looking very defeated indeed, illuminated by the lights either side of the gate. “I took a picture. You’re very photogenic, hm?”
“Keep it,” Otto said.
“No, no,” Ponder said. “You have a— You have a funny photo column, in your paper, don’t you? You could put it in there. I don’t mind. I’m not a student – I can’t get into trouble, er, for climbing out that way. It’s just unorthodox.”
“You strike me as unorthodox,” Otto said.
“No,” Ponder said. “No, no, not really, not esp— Perhaps a little.” Otto laughed, squeezing his hand.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Otto said. “Come sit with me and my friends, hm?”
“Your accent is very inconsistent,” Ponder said.
“Ah, vell,” Otto said, shrugging his shoulders and batting his eyelashes. “I make up for it in other areas, hm? In other areas, I am very consistent indeed.” He kept his gaze on Ponder’s. The gaze in question was quite smouldering, and Ponder was nodding before he even realized it, trying to ignore the dryness of his mouth: Otto beamed, and summoned the barman to order them two ginger beers.
He led Ponder, by the hand, to sit with the reporters of the Ankh-Morpork Times.
(Later, he led him elsewhere, and Ponder went gladly.)