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A Night on the Tiles

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"That's sergeant-at-arms, thank you. For now." Vimes grabbed Carcer's shirt collar, and dragged him to justice.

The Patrician watched them until they were lost to view. Then he raised his head slightly.

"You may come out now, Miss Easy."

Vetinari turned to see a young woman emerging from behind a large memorial. One of the many maids who worked in the Palace; Mildred Easy was a small, slight girl with auburn hair and wide brown eyes; and had upon her face what Vetinari had once heard Vimes describe as the "Cockbill Street Look". Worry and fierce pride had scored a few premature lines on the forehead of a woman who couldn't be much past twenty. Mildred wore an old coat, carefully patched and mended, over her plain dress. It was far too big for her; possibly it had been her father's, or one of her brothers. Families in Cockbill tended to be in double figures, while the rooms they occupied were of a number below two.

Mildred managed to execute a small curtsey, wobbling slightly. She didn't seem to be in the natural state of those in the presence of the Patrician, mild terror, but in a kind of daze. She looked up at him with slightly glazed eyes.

"Evenin', Milord," she finally said. Vetinari inclined his head.

"Good evening, Miss Easy. Was there something you had to attend to here?"

A little light blinked on behind her eyes. "Yessir. Our Gran's grave, sir. Got to tidy it up, I promised her I would. Only there was that Carcer fellow hanging about, didn't like the look of him so I hid and then Mr Vimes turned up and—"

The Patrician held up his hand, "Of course. Shall we get on with it, then?"

Mildred blinked. "We?"

Vetinari treated her to one of his little smiles; "I feel I must make up for delaying you. Your task would have been completed some time ago if it had not been for Commander Vimes and I. So I shall assist you. It's the least I can do."

These words knocked Mildred out of her trance. She stared at him, her eyes huge.

"B-but— you can't!" she gasped.

"Dear me. Whyever not?"

"You can't go on your knees and scrub our Gran's grave! It's covered in moss and bird sh— doings and, and— you're the Patrician!"

"You have remarkable powers of observation," he said mildly, "Shall we proceed?"

"But—" The young woman looked completely thunderstruck.

"I insist."

She opened her mouth to protest once more, but then remembered that when the supreme ruler of the city insisted upon something, it was not a good idea to argue with him. Unless you wanted him to introduce you to his friends, the scorpions. She wisely gave up her attempt to dissuade him from this small act of social upheaval.

"It's over here, Milord."

Vetinari watched her as she lead the way over to a crowded patch near the rear of the graveyard. She was lurching rather like a zombie who had not encountered the passionate worldview of Reg Shoe. The Patrician recognised the symptoms. Shock. Mildred had seen and heard the events of the past hour; Vimes' fight with Carcer, and more troublesome, his own little confession. And to cap it all, she was about to witness his Lordship get down on his hands and knees and clean the small cheap grave marker of a lower class woman. It really wasn't the sort of thing that happened every day.

They reached the grave, and Mildred stood staring at it for a while. He leaned on his cane and bent slightly to read the names in the gloom.

Flora and William Easy.

"We buried them together," Mildred said, very quietly, "Mam didn't want our William to be on his own." She shook herself, hitched her skirts up a little and knelt by the wooden marker, then looked nervously up at the Patrician.

"You really don't have to do this, Milord—"

Vetinari did not answer her, but joined her down on the grass. He began to pick moss from around the inscription, without his usual fastidiousness. Mildred hesitated, then she began to help him.

They worked together in silence. The moss was removed, dirt was scrubbed off, dead flowers were taken away. Vetinari found his gaze drawn back to the very short space of time between William's date of birth and death. The boy had been fourteen months old. Mildred had a look of intense concentration on her face, as if she were puzzling out some complex problem. He sincerely hoped the answer was the correct one.

After half an hour, the grave shone in the night. They both sat back and studied their handiwork.

"Clean as a whistle," Mildred glanced shyly over at him, "You a grand job, there, Milord. And I'm not just saying that."

"Thank you," Vetinari grasped his cane and began to ease himself stiffly to his feet. His game leg did not trouble him as much as he liked people to think, but kneeling, not a normal position for him, had somewhat cut the circulation off. A look of genuine concern appeared on Mildred's face, and she reached out to help him. He gently waved her away.

Mildred sat back again and stared at the grave once more. Then she turned slightly to look across the cemetery. He did not have to follow her gaze; she was looking at the grave of John Keel. He could see her mind working. He waited.

"The Patrician helped me clean my Gran's grave," she said, finally, "And Mr Vimes was John Keel. No one would believe me if I told 'em."

She looked up suddenly, straight into his eyes; "So I won't tell anyone. I'm not daft, your Lordship. I heard something I shouldn't have," she shrugged, still unflinching before the Patrician's formidable blue gaze, "So something happened and Mr Vimes went back in time, and he became Keel. There's a body lying in John Keel's grave, and the twenty fifth of May still happened, and everyone remembers Keel, not Mr Vimes. So what happened tonight— didn't happen. I can't go about telling people things that didn't happen, can I? They'd think I was off my head. It's like you said yourself, sir. What can I prove? To what end would I prove it?"

Vetinari studied her for a long moment, as if seeing her for the first time. Mildred sat very still, with the air of a genuinely repentant criminal awaiting judgement. They watched each other. Bats chittered overhead.

"Do you know, Miss Easy, that the Archchancellor of Unseen University required the concept of things not happening explained to him, in detail, several times?" the Patrician told her with a small smile, "The chap was quite insistent that something had happened which quite clearly had not. And yet you have grasped it with admirable speed. Well done."

The tension leaked away. He was delighted the girl understood the situation. It hadn't actually been her fault; Mildred had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although it was somewhat depressing that an uneducated maid understood him better than most of the Guild leaders in the city.

She blushed and looked down with a bashful smile, "Well, he probably had lots of things on his mind, Milord," she said diplomatically, "Y'know, wizarding things. Now me, all I got to worry about is dust."

Mildred had been promoted from scullery maid some time ago, and was now responsible for the corridors in the hubwards wing of the palace. He had to concede that no one worried more about dust than Mildred. The floors were so clean that, if one so desired, one could eat off them. Vetinari held out his hand as Mildred started to get up. She paused and stared at it for a moment, then realised what he intended. She bit her lip.

"Um, my hands are dirty, sir."

"My, what a remarkable coincidence. My hands are dirty too." She blushed once more, gingerly put her hand into his, and let him help her up. Her hand was small, callused from work.

"Thank you, Milord," she whispered. She obviously wasn't sure what to do now. After a few moments, she said; "I hope I never go back in time. Not back to where Mr Vimes went, anyway. Gran told me about it, it was horrible back then. She used to bring me up here every May and tell me what happened."

Vetinari saw the look on her face. "You were very close to her?" he asked softly.

"Mam and Dad were always out working. She brought us all up." Mildred took a deep shuddering breath, as if fighting tears.

"I am sincerely sorry, Mildred." He knew how Flora and William had died. He had never mentioned it to anyone, but he had been rather angry about it.

She looked up, obviously surprised, "Why? It wasn't your fault, Milord," she looked back down again, "It was mine."

He raised his eyebrows, "Your fault? Dragon King of—"

She shook her head. "I know who put the arsenic in the candles, sir. But I took them home. I remember telling Mr Vimes it was perks, not like stealing. But it was stealing, sir. I took something that didn't belong to me, and I gave it to our Gran, and it killed her and William. I killed them."

The last sentence was a whisper. Vetinari had always been aware of the servants discreetly taking home small items that would not be missed. He saw to need to put a stop to it; there was quite a difference between things he no longer had a use for and the palace silver.

"I know why you didn't want us to take anything you used now, sir. I used to get puzzled about it. I mean, you hardy eat anything, and you don't seem to care about fine things, so why would you be bothered about us using the things you'd finished with? But you must have known someone might try something—"

That was true. He had been an assassin, once; their rules were still remembered. The victim alone was inhumed; servants were not to be harmed. The unprotected were not to be harmed. Dragon had been callously irresponsible. Vetinari had been disgusted by the vampire's lack of concern when he had been told of the deaths he'd caused. The possibility that someone other than the Patrician might use the candles had been disregarded. It was sloppy, arrogant and contemptible.

Vetinari sighed. He gently reached out and raised the girl's chin, tears were dripping down her face, "Mildred, I know my words alone will not help. But the deaths of your grandmother and brother were caused by the arrogance of one man. And bad luck, I am afraid. Any one of you could have taken those candles home. Do you understand? Do not blame yourself, certainly not for your consideration for your family. I was aware of the practice. Good grief, candles that were almost finished? They'd simply be thrown away, and it isn't as if the city doesn't have enough rubbish lying in its streets, despite the enthusiasm of Harry King's gnolls."

Mildred took out a hankie and blew her nose; she gave him a fragile smile.

"You may be interested to know that Dragon King of Arms is no longer with us," Vetinari rubbed the silver pommel of his cane with his thumb, studying it with an innocent look on his long face; "After I was forced to release him he decided to travel to Uberwald. I'm afraid a rather enthusiastic gentleman took it upon himself to drive a stake through his heart."

Mildred stared at him, with a vicious gleam in her eye. Then she said, slowly; "That— is very interesting, sir. But he'll be back. That sort always do."

The Patrician raised his eyes and studied the night sky, attempting to keep the blank look on his face; "Oh, possibly. I daresay he will return, eventually. But not for a great many number of years, I'm afraid. His— executioner— also decided to place his remains in a jar, took a ship to the Rim and—" Vetinari lowered his gaze, his right eyebrow raised.

"Oh dear," Mildred said, "That was, um, very enthusiastic of him." They looked at each other. They were both trying not to grin. Sometimes, the Patrician thought, there can be justice. Perhaps he would tell Vimes about Dragon tomorrow, as a little extra treat after Carcer's execution. It would be rather hard for the vampire to regenerate, floating around in outer space. There weren't any people out there to accidentally bleed on his ashes.

"Quite," the Patrician said mildly, "But look at the time. I'm sure you have infinitely more important things to do than listen to silly gossip. I believe you have two days off, starting tomorrow?"

Mildred grinned. "Yeah. Two whole days! Never got as many holidays in my other jobs—" she seemed to realise something, and her hand flew to her mouth, "Oh! It must be gone midnight— me Mam'll kill me!"

"The streets of the city can be quite perilous at night. Especially for an unaccompanied young lady," Vetinari stroked his beard, considering, "Would you do me the honour of allowing me to escort you home, Miss Easy?"

Mildred stared at him again. This request seemed to shock her as much as his offer to help clean the grave had. "You want to escort me home? I live in—"

"Cockbill Street. Yes, I know. It's on the other side of the city. Rather a long way for a young woman to travel alone."

"You can't be seen with me, sir— I mean, if you're seen with a maid—" Mildred watched him, frowning a little, obviously wondering why he was offering. Her expression became slightly reproachful; "I really won't tell anyone, Milord."

He patted her shoulder; "I know you won't, Miss Easy. I have great faith in your discretion. However, I cannot allow you negotiate the streets at this time of night. I must see you safely to your door."

"It's really kind of you sir, but if people see you with me—"

"Oh dear. Of course, I wouldn't dream of compromising your reputation. I shall be discreet." He watched her face, to see if she'd got it.

Mildred went bright red, then burst out laughing. Unlike most of the other maids, she was not a giggler. Vetinari found giggling rather irritating. Mildred's laugh was more a rounded chuckle.

"No! Not my reputation!" her hand clamped over her mouth, her eyes full of mixed mortification and amusement, "I wasn't thinking about— not about that! I meant people might wonder what you were doing down the Shades, and if any of the Guilds heard—" her eyes widened, and she blushed even deeper, "Oh gods, they would think that, wouldn't they?"

Vetinari watched her as she tried to calm down. Sometimes a good laugh did the same as a good cry. It seemed Mildred had needed to get a few things out of her system. He tsk'd mildly, raising an eyebrow at her; "Yes, some people do seem to have rather grubby imaginations, do they not?" Mildred erupted into laughter again.

"I appreciate your concern, Miss Easy. I believe I have a solution." His eyes focused on something above them. Mildred, still chuckling, followed his gaze. She stopped laughing as soon as she realised what he might mean.


The tiles upon the rooftops sparkled in the moonlight.