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Dark City

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The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are:

1) Silence;
2) Books must be returned no later than the date last shown;
and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality

It’s the third one that no one ever remembers.

*

It is said, at least on the Roundworld, that we all have a novel inside us. On the Disc this has been taken to the usual predictable extremes, as in the case of Perpetua Sandalwood and the Girls’ First Interactive Anatomy Compendium (with real fluids!).

But the written word (as distinct from the writing human) has its own dangers for the unwary traveller and they can be quite unforgiving. The sprawling and differently cultured city of Ankh-Morpork learned this in a winter in the early part of the Century of the Anchovy when, as usual, most people weren’t looking.

*

And so it had come to pass that one day Young Sam, scion of the ancient and venerable house of Ramkin and the decrepit, dirty lean-to of the house Vimes asked his mama: “Mum, does everyone have a big room full of books like we do?” That, as far as Vimes was concerned, was the start of it.

*

In the great and intensely inhabited city of Ankh-Morpork, a new and to many eyes extremely uncharacteristic new craze was sweeping the streets. It had started out in the more salubrious parts of the city (such as they were) were people didn’t actually need to cast around for alternative methods of central heating once the peat and firewood ran out, but had spread inexorably to city districts in which the unwary did not walk (because natural selection had seen to it that such recklessly stupid behaviour was punishable with extreme harshness).

There had always been books, of course. People, even Ankh-Morpork people, need to write things down occasionally – lawyers, merchants, the more diligent of the alchemists. But books as a form of entertainment had not, until very recently, been considered as a serious alternative to the more usual pastimes of fighting, watching other people fighting and running in from other streets to where you’d been told there was a really good fight going on. The Mended Drum made about two thirds of its annual income from being very conscious of this fact and the possibilities for the correct marketing thereof.

There were dissenters from this view. The city held many diverse and interesting options for the cultural traveller, from the opera house (or the theatre, if the singing upset you) to the Museum of Quite Unusual Things (provided you could find it). Nobody really liked to talk about the folk dancers or the clowns, because it was thought better to just leave them to it and never ever give them any attention whatsoever, in case it lead to Consequences. Twurp’s Peerage had, until recently, kept both the Guild of Engravers and the various nobs of Ankh nicely occupied and which, though it was technically a piece of interactive fiction, did not encourage just anyone to play along.

But just lately, following the success of the Goodmountain Word Smithy, the more creative pages of the Ankh-Morpork Inquirer and an innovation which had come to be called the ha’penny crippler, the written word had enjoyed something of a vogue. The citizens of Ankh-Morpork, in their appreciation for a good fight, a decent smattering of blood and a rich palette of melodrama had discovered a new passion.

Not all of them could read, of course. But, remarkably, a lot of more were trying than usually bothered. You could, if you had a mind, seek out Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and purchase from him (“At bargain, knock-down rates! If you can find it cheaper, you can knock-me-down!!”) a Primer in Ten Lessons Towards Better Morporkian. The title of which ought to have prompted some caveats in the emptors, but you can’t have everything. Dibbler was selling ten or twenty a day, even in the Shades. It was a triumph of practical education and entrepreneurial spirit both, and was being watched very carefully in case it ruined the carefully laid economic plans of all the people (and they were not few) whose vested interests lay in maintaining the population, of Morpork at least, a people of modest literary ambition. I mean, good gods, one day they might be able to read the contracts! We might have to write contracts!

And so, it went on, and grew.

*

Meanwhile, in Scoone Avenue, having been unable to resist the relentless reminders of her only son regarding the future of literacy and library provision in Ankh-Morpork, Sybil Ramkin was laying plans.

“You mean to tell me,” Vimes said, laying down spoon and napkin beside the bowl of distressingly fibrous muesli, “That there’s another bloody great warehouse on the other side of the city that I didn’t know I owned?” He said it less with rancour than the air of a man resigned to this kind of thing now, but Lady Sybil just smiled at him, pride and the amused tolerance of the committed wife suffusing the lift of her eyebrow.

“Sam, I did show you all the deeds, if you recall. It’s not really my fault that you didn’t read them.”

“Yes, I know, dear, it’s just –”

She patted his shoulder in the usual way she did when she knew he was worrying about becoming a class traitor, then kissed his cheek.

“Would it help if I told you all the insulting things Lord Rust and Lady Selachii said about you at the Annual Ball for the Advancement of the Lower Orders the other night?”

Vimes narrowed his eyes. “I thought you said –”

“Ah, so you do listen occasionally. No, it was the fundraiser for the hospital, but they were both there and were very insulting just within my earshot. So don’t worry, Sam. You’re still a grubby little upstart to the people who matter.”

“Thank you, dear.”

She kissed his cheek again. “My pleasure. Now, about this Library.”

“What about it?”

“Well, we’d talked about that building being used by the Watch one day.”

“Had we?”

“You were slightly distracted by that business with Ginger Vitus and the spircles.”

“Ah. No I definitely wasn’t listening then, Sybil. Sorry.”

“It does,” she said, looking at him with a glint in her eye, “Occasionally make things rather more straightforward. So I take it you don’t mind my appropriating it in a good cause, then?”

“No, no, dear, of course not.”

“Good,” she said, briskly. “I have someone in mind for the position of Head Librarian already.”

“Hairy chap, fond of bananas?”

She grinned at him. “No, Sam. I don’t think I could persuade him out of UU for, as Willikins would say, a big clock.”

“A big clock made of bananas,” Vimes said, more or less under his breath.

“Quite. And Mustrum would have my head. No, I have someone else lined up. You won’t like him, so there’s no need to ask, but he will do an excellent job, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“Go on, off with you,” she said with, he felt, rather more relish than was actually warranted, “You said that Cheery had been up all night with Igor and the new alchemy set, you mentioned that Igor had some new ideas about the –”

“Oh Gods,” said Vimes, and ran out of the door.

*

Gunilla Goodmountain, inventor and patent holder thank-you-very-much of moveable type and the Goodmountain Word Smithy, wasn’t exactly sure what he thought about the new craze. Boddony, who headed up the New Press in Empirical Crescent was very much a convert, and even brought the things home with him, but Gunilla, when he saw one of the yellow jacketed items sitting on the kitchen table, had a definite instinct to stare at it menacingly in case it tried something. Some nights Boddony would get lost in one and not say anything to him all evening. He went in for the ha’penny cripplers, the more gruesome and utterly unlike real life (or at least pretty unlike the life they’d come from in Copperhead, where blood and guts were regarded just as evidence of undwarfly clumsiness in the pursuit of precious metals) the better. The one time Gunilla had picked one up and actually tried to read it he had nearly bitten through his beard in frustration with the sheer stupidity of the thing. It was so … illogical! Being a dwarf, he appreciated a certain regard for the way things actually worked, the progression of a series of steps, the assembling of pieces into a coherent whole. None of this was to be found in the cripplers, which seemed to rely heavily on coincidence, orphans and tiresome moral lessons delivered through the most unlikely of people, plus a truly improbable amount of fog. Fog which sometimes killed the characters. Boddony had argued that this, if anything, made it more realistic, but Goodmountain wasn’t convinced. Boddony had also showed him the bags of gold piled up in the little cupboard behind the main Press room, but somehow, even to a dwarf, it didn’t seem … right.

*

“Now, Mister Strunkunwite,” Sybil said, mustering her most welcoming smile, “Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

He’d been a recommendation of A E Pessimal’s and as such Sybil was really only interviewing him for form’s sake and because she wanted to know what she was getting, even if she would only have cause to interact with him every few months. It was important to do these things properly.

He was a small man, like Pessimal, though with slightly less clean shoes. He had a pair of spectacles which, during the half an hour she had known him, he had already taken off and rubbed with a handkerchief three times. His suit was a nondescript shade of what was probably brown (it was honestly difficult to tell, and not just because of the library’s poor lighting – she would have to get that fixed as well) and made of tweed. Yet his hair was, well, frankly it was a bit of a mess and his eyes had small creases at their corners.

Sybil was mildly troubled to realise that she found him rather attractive.

“Well, my lady, I have mostly been in smaller establishments, nothing as grand as what you have here. Or what you no doubt hope to build in the fullness of time. I was attached, for a time, to Quirm Ladies College library –”

“Oh, how lovely! My own alma mater.”

“Indeed?

“And what caused you to leave, Mister Strunkunwite?”

“Er, a small incident … in which, erm, well, there was a portal to the Dungeon Dimensions rather unfortunately located in the middle of the library building. It lead to, ah, some … consequences.”

“Really? I never heard about that …”

“It was kept very quiet, my lady.”

“Well,” Sybil said, once again giving Strunkunwite her best smile and wondering as she said it how truthful she was being, “I’m sure we won’t have anything of that nature to trouble you here, Mister Strunkunwite. When would you be available to start?”

*

If there was one sensation which out sensated all the others among the ha’penny cripplers and elim dippers and, just to break the trend, the Scumbler (a very large book with a very soft cover, used to lay the head against when about to pass out from overdoses of ‘apples’), it was Stefan Rex.

His first book had been about a young lady unfortunate enough to discover a hidden talent for spoon bending which only emerged at times of great stress; his second drew heavily on vampire lore and history, its denouement involving the heroic use of a watermelon. His latest was, so rumour had it, about a house that ate people. There was a general consensus that he was improving from book to book. Boddony, Dwarf in Charge of the New (New) Press, had locked himself away with the proofs of the latest offering the previous night and still couldn’t speak, when asked his opinion whether it was any good, in complete sentences. His eyes glowed with magic of a good story and, not incidentally, the promise of a great deal of gold.

At six o’clock that morning he had burst through from the little room next to the little room where the gold cupboard was and woken every dwarf in the place up with the, by then customary, battle cry of the Press Dwarfs:

“Ink-on, lads! We’ve got a Rex coming out!”

Bleary-eyed but with their minds on gold, all his dwarfs had bestirred themselves to their tasks – some to the inkers and some to the rollers and some to the type setters and some to the binders and some to the page counters, all unconsciously whistling quietly to themselves, with the occasional ‘heigh ho’ thrown in as a counterpoint.

But one dwarf, Drekhand by name, a young dwarf with a rather wispy beard and a secondhand helmet that had belonged to his sister, had had a long night. It was his first week in Ankh-Morpork and he was here because his old dad had heard that there was good money to be made in the word smithing. Drekhand would rather have been somewhere else, if he was honest, somewhere a bit more romantic, like the Fools Guild, maybe. He’d always wanted to learn to juggle … But the Smithy had been hiring and it wasn’t difficult work, plus you got a bed behind the Press. Only he couldn’t sleep. He was thinking about the old rock back home and the dwarf he’d left behind him.

So when Boddony woke them all up it took a little longer for Drekhand to come round than everyone else, his eyes weren’t really open, his hands weren’t really paying the due attention and before he had realised what he was doing, he had twisted a dial when he should have pulled a lever and set off a roller than should have remained dormant and suddenly there was a great pulling sensation in his left arm and possibly one or two fewer fingers on his left hand. He screamed.

The Press was splattered with ink, and with blood. The type, set with care by the dwarfs lower down the line glistened unpleasantly then, while everyone was otherwise occupied, seemed almost to absorb the blood of the dwarf into its ink, into the very iron of the letters. They shimmered slightly, in the cold air of the workshop, then lay quiet.

*

Hamlet Buggins was not among the beggaring in-crowd. He had tried, gods knew, to cultivate an appropriate profile – he wore a hat around whose brim there was a flourishing ecosystem, had last suffered soap and water to touch his skin in the Year of the Ingratiating Parsnip, and was pretty sure that his boots had names and personalities. But it had all been for naught. The Canting Crew, the object of his ambition, failed to do anything other than cough superciliously in the other direction when he walked hopefully by. He had even, just the once, attempted to pay homage to the symbiotic entity known to the uninitiated as ‘Foul Ole Ron and that ‘orrible little dog’ but to those in the know as Gaspode and his Portable Human, by tying a length of string to what he could only assume used to be a doggy and walking it around in what he felt was a genuinely nonchalant manner by Misbegot Bridge. That time they’d set Lady Hermione on him, and she could be quite sharp.

So now Hamlet was wandering the streets again, trying to find a hospitable doorway in an unfriendly multiverse. And, a little way along Whopping Street, he found one.

It was an odd house, he thought. Looking, possibly, a little bigger than the houses immediately surrounding it? But that could certainly be the fault of his own eyes – scumble has a number of terrible effects on the body and at least three of them are optical in nature. That Hamlet was seeing this particular house bulge out of its proper place in the terrace and seem to lean down into the street with an almost hungry aspect was, he was sure, just the apples doing their natural work.

“Gerron out’n it, ya bugger!” he said, probably to the house but not necessarily, with his fist in the air. The ‘Doggy’ waved off the end of his wrist, somewhat forlornly. Hamlet looked around him – dark street, cold night, none of the crew about and no chance of anywhere better – and then looked back at the house.

It had leant back into the terrace now. Hamlet thought it still looked as if it was almost breathing, just pulsing a little, around the windows, like one of the Crew after Foul Ole Ron had made the tea. But the brick, dark red in the low light of the street and the distant glow of the High Energy Magic building over at the University, looked friendlier now. Somehow welcoming. Like embers glowing in the depths of a fire.

Hamlet didn’t realise he was swaying slightly from side to side, as though he was being blown by the growing wind around the dark end of the street in which the house stood.

Quite suddenly, something white appeared at the crimsoned edges of Hamlet’s conscious landscape.

It hopped amiably across his field of vision. Its ears twitched, and then its nose. It was a rabbit. Its eyes glowed, with a strange greeny-purple light.

It lolloped across Hamlet’s path, up the steps of the house and approached the door. It turned its head back to Hamlet for a moment, twitched its nose. The door of the house swung open.

Hamlet, as though drawn by a string tied around his wrist by a thoughtful mother, followed the bunny.

*

Meanwhile, in the Oblong Office, as the high pink light of a wintry morning begins to show outside the thin, glassless window.

“ … But in the end Cheery managed to clean up the mess in under half a day. So a quiet week, all in all, sir.”

“Ah, how dull for you, Commander. I know you’ve been anxious for some amusement.”

“I keep myself busy, sir, you know that.”

“Do you read, Vimes?”

A couple of answers went through Sam Vimes’ mind at this point: yes, sir, that’s how come they pay me the big bucks; I has to stare very carefully at all the little words, sir, in case they tries to run away but I get there in the end; and, only when I really can’t avoid it, sir.

This last answer being more or less the true one, what he actually said was, “Sir?”

“The newest invention of the city, Vimes, the latest outpouring of the creative mind. I believe we have started to call them ‘novels’, from the Latatian word for a new little thing. I understand they are rather a sensation.”

“Not really my area of expertise, sir,” Vimes said.

Nor his area of interest. What was the point of making up stories? The real world got round to imposing its own stories on you very painfully and distinctly whether you liked it or not; why give it more ideas? Why write the damn things down? And why sit around reading them? To Vimes it seemed … indulgent, and almost wilfully stupid; the sort of thing that people did when they didn’t have anything better to do, like playing Cripple Mister Onion, or invading Klatch.

He understood, at least theoretically, the need for the newspapers, oh yes, even though he could have happily strangled de Worde most days of the week. But they were sometimes a useful little tool in the endless game of Hunt the Miscreant: Vimes; own favourite game, strictly not for dilettantes. They were not so useful when they started to play the game themselves, in the way that had become popular recently in the pages of the Times. Vimes had looked through the names of the various characters who had applied to join the Watch but were too weird even for them to accept, but none of the names on the by-lines of the stories of Watch incompetence and brilliant deductive reasoning (roughly akin to the sort of logic you could get any day of the week from a concussed albatross) rang a bell for Vimes.

But newspapers died quickly; books stuck around, lodged in people’s dusty attics and mildewed cellars, and occasionally providing the mechanism for a useful secret door …

Books were … permanent, serious. Books brought consequences and history, or a decent bludgeoning weapon of last resort. Vimes didn’t trust them, or trust people who read them. Not too much anyway. That Young Sam was, according to Sybil (repeating the opinion of leading educational expert, Miss Eucrasia Butts) reading at an age double his chronological one was obviously a matter of vast parental pride. Obviously. That was different. That was education. Education was important and essential … and wasn’t supposed to be enjoyed. It wasn’t the same as reading.

“The genre evolved in old Ephebe,” Vetinari said, talking mostly to himself at this point, “Of course, didn’t they always get there first? But it is a somewhat … bastardised form.”

“Sir?”

“In contrast to what are called the higher forms of literature, Vimes,” Vetinari began, managing as he did so to inject a distinct subtext along the lines of ‘yes, I know this is hardly what you would called pertinent information, Commander, however your education is, in this moment, important to me, so please listen carefully, “In Ephebe and, to a lesser extent, in Tsort, the novel and certain forms of what we might call satirical poetry exist almost to counterpoint the genres from which myths are made and through which myths are chronicled, leading, naturally and in the fullness of time, to the chronicling of nations and their people.”

Vimes considered that the slightly discoloured spot in the otherwise spotless wall of the Oblong Office just over Vetinari’s left shoulder, at which he was accustomed to stare at times like this, might just possibly be pulsing slightly in the heat, or turning into what he was quite sure was an elephant of a pinkish persuasion doing a little jig …

“The stories tell people who they are, Vimes. Or at least who they would like to be thought to be. It’s a slightly more involved process than many poets are happy – or free – to admit.”

“Yes, sir,” Vimes said, managing to scrape most of the irony off the words, so as to leave only the faintest impression of a question something along the lines of ‘and you would know; I’ve heard the stories – it wasn’t just the mimes’.

Vetinari gave him The Look.

“Poets and writers in general do, as I believe you would say, Commander, bear watching.”

Vimes raised The Eyebrow in return. Vetinari parried.

“However, art is a vital expression of the life of the City and, as such, can occasionally give expression to the, shall we say, less heroic aspects of the life of that City, exposing, as it were, its underbelly.”

“I wasn’t really aware that it had an upperbelly, sir.

Vetinari looked up at him, and, just for a second, perhaps, the faintest twist appeared in the straight line of his lips.

“Yes, of course, Commander. This really is your area of expertise.”

“Not really, sir. Don’t think I’ve ever met a bona fide poet.”

Vetinari managed another go at that micro-smirk and rearranged his fingers into the customary Steeple of Judgment.

“Well, you’re not missing much. The literary life has never quite taken off in the city, I couldn’t imagine why.”

“We’re a people of simple tastes, sir.”

“Yes, indeed, Vimes. Though I see that your lady wife has already set about changing that.”

Vimes took a minute, then felt his heart slink down to somewhere behind his liver, clearly not wanting any part of this.

“The Library.”

“Indeed. I understand it is already extremely successful.”

Vimes sighed, and then felt very guilty. “Yes, it’s very popular, sir. Sybil’s in negotiating with the new Press. Getting more copies of those … those novel things.”

“Ah, wonderful! A new art form, a new centre of industry takes the city in its hands and moulds it into a new shape. A fine day, Vimes.”

Vimes narrowed his eyes; he couldn’t help it – he suspected Vetinari of being only moments away from clapping his hands together with joy.

“Absolutely, sir.”

“Your enthusiasm, as ever, overwhelms me, Commander. And I’m probably keeping you from a lot of important and, dare I say it, thrilling paperwork. Do not let me detain you.”

Considering this at least a draw, Vimes exited.

When he had gone, Lord Vetinari drew from one of the many secret pockets of his dour black robes a small key. With this key he journeyed across the floor of the Oblong Office to a small cabinet. It was not made of sapient pearwood, but it did share many properties with that material. Within the cabinet was a set of small drawers and the lock of one of these drawers opened to Lord Vetinari’s key. Inside, a small sheaf of loose papers with tiny, extremely neat handwriting covering them. With these papers in hand, Lord Vetinari went back to his desk, sat down, took a deep breath, and began to write.

*

There are always, in any group of sentient lifeforms, people who want to share their passions. For the most part this does no harm and is only mildly annoying to the uninitiated, but just occasionally the evangelism reaches suicidal proportions. So it was in the Mended Drum when Harald Floret instituted the Ankh-Morpork Book Appreciation and Discussion Society. Fortunately, all the faithful came to him, and only a few bananas were thrown. Hibiscus Dunelm, who had seen this sort of thing before and didn’t care for reading, thought it best to just let the thing run its course. It gave him a little break from having the replace the furniture all the time.

He didn’t notice, and neither did any of his patrons, the low that was building up around the Drum and around its customers as they went in and out, leaned on the bar and pushed in closer to the crowd around the table by the window, where Harald was holding court and explaining exactly why it was vitally important to keep a list of the very best books which everyone should read.

The glow caught on their shoes like mud and in their hair like snow. And, if you’d been looking and were standing quite close, you’d have seen that it was made up of little words ...

*

Meanwhile, in the divers streets of the Great Wahoonie, something peculiar was happening. Well, several somethings. Several large and mysterious somethings and several smaller, insinuating somethings which would have seemed oddly familiar to the inhabitants had they not been afflicted with that strange blindness which falls upon people who appear not to know what story they’re currently part of.

The somethings went unnoticed in Ankh, in the Shades and in Dimwell. A man atop the Tower of Art might have noticed the spreading darkness and the strange glow growing around the Free Library, the Press and places where the faithful clustered like the Mended Drum – but no one would have been able to hear any warning he might have given. And no one would have been listening to a madman on top of a tower anyway. They were busy; they had the new Stefan Rex to finish.

The first outward sign of a greater malaise was also communicated through the written word. Commerce did not halt in the face of literary discovery (and clacks operators were generally more on the World of Pins hobby spectrum in any case) and so when the first message came through on the Trunk everyone was quite puzzled.

KNOCK KNOCK. KNOCK KNOCK. IS ANYBODY THERE?

It hadn’t been addressed to any one recipient, but just travelled round on the towers on the stroke of midnight on the 13th of December. Eventually they’d just let it hang around on the down line, not quite knowing what else to do.

And another:

WHO IS THIS WHO IS COMING? YOU’LL FIND OUT SOON. BECAUSE HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

Or,

AIBCCDEFAGNHISJKLEMENOYPQROSUTURVWXHYOZAUBCDSEEFGFHIJRKOLMMOPQHRESTRUVWEX

which took the clacks operator who received it less time to work out that it might have done another person less skilled in the art of ciphers, though didn’t stop him looking over his shoulder, squinting into the distance and saying, in a puzzled voice, “No you can’t”.

And once just,

FOLLOW THE BUNNY FOLLOW THE BUNNY FOLLOW THE BUNNY

which no one understood.

Miss Dearheart had been called in and when she was told the details the tip of her cigarette glowed white-hot.

“This,” she said as she strode off, “Is a job for local government.”

*

Lord Vetinari was, as befitted his education and station in life, a cultured man. He had a highly developed appreciation for music (so long as no one tried to play it anywhere near him); enjoyed art and saw many interesting conundrums in the latest developments of the scene even when they involved making one-tenth scale models of the Opera House out of custard. Before it had descended into the usual chaos, the clicks had also offered some intriguing possibilities for cultural advancement, even if they were quite cleverly concealed. He was also, like all successful tyrants, an exceptional chess player.

The written word also had its challenges, and its enticements. Vetinari had, by this time, written several books but they existed nowhere but inside his own head. It was a strict policy of the Oblong Office never to write anything down which you could memorise or otherwise store without committing to paper, for once something is written it has form and presence and life; it takes up space in the world and affects other things in that world. Vetinari liked to keep his number of variables to as manageable a number as he could.

There were, and always had been, poets in Ankh-Morpork, though these days most of them worked in the clacks offices or the offices of the Times (or, when they were rather more experimental poets, the Inquirer). There were novelists – the kind who wrote six-hundred page accounts of the lives and times of hapless orphans and unlucky maids, enlivened only by judicious application of naughty bits. But now there were also popular novelists. It had been at this point that the Patrician had begun to pay serious attention.

He didn’t know what had drawn him to begin on the little collection of pages that now lived in the locked cabinet. Perhaps just the spirit of fun, perhaps the desire to understand. Perhaps something else.

But it was a new game! A new passion for the city. And as the city’s patrician it behooved him to take part.

It was, he considered, a little like the many maps of the city. The trade routes, the familiar paths of the Thieves Guild, the clacks network, the migration patterns, the Watch beats, the ripples of the experiments done in the High Energy Magic Building – all these and more were the maps the Patrician used every day, carefully coded and managed, updated when necessary and discarded when obsolete. It was part of the job.

He kept the maps in his head, of course. It was cheating to have them on the wall. He allowed Drumknott to have one and keep his little pins and scraps of colour-coded silk to keep moving around it. It was one of the only genuine hobbies the man had after all.

He didn’t know why he wrote these maps down. The formula for understanding was less straightforward when writing fiction; there were a lot of subroutines, a lot of dead ends and what ifs. People in his little stories (one of two per page, every day now) did have a distressing habit of dying in the most unpleasant ways. Maybe he kept writing to figure out how to stop that from happening. The great experiment. The great city – the greatest stories ever told.

Barring the door to the Oblong Office and not even hearing Drumknott’s increasingly anxious knocks, nor his call that Miss Adora Belle Dearheart wanted to speak with him on a matter of urgency, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork got out his parchment and his pen and started on a new story.

*

In a small room that couldn’t really be called a garrett (“This here’s a nice room, Mister Shrike, best in t’house, really, letting you have it for half of what I could ask for,” as his landlady was fond of saying once or twice an hour) Otto Chriek sat and shivered.

He’d blown out all the lights, or else forgotten to light the tapers. The room was perfectly warm, despite the dark and the lateness of the season, because the window was currently bolted shut, covered with two of Otto’s black velvet capes which had been nailed to the window jamb and, just for surety, the small (but heavy) table that Otto usually ate his dinner at. But he hadn’t eaten dinner for three days. He hadn’t been out of the room for three days. He hadn’t moved from his position in the centre of the floor for the last few hours, with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees and his face down on his thighs and his third-best cloak flung over his head just to block out the voices, the voice of …

It was often difficult, being a Black Ribboner. It was a complicated trick to play on mind and body: hey, remember that … substance ve can’t drink or talk about or even really acknowledge the existence of any more? Ja, don’t think about it! A trick that had to be played again and again, every day, every night, every time a young woman walked past. But it could be done! It must be done. Remember, and resist! Don’t be a stupid sucker! Every day in every vay, ve are getting better and better!

Oh gods oh gods oh gods.

There was a young woman. One of his neighbours. In the house across the street. Sometimes she left her curtains undrawn. Sometimes she left the window open. Sometimes she wore …

Otto moaned under his cloak and started to sing a little song that sometimes helped him in times of trouble. It wasn’t helping very much anymore.

*

There was a series of loud knocks on the door of the watch house. Cheery Littlebottom, who was on front desk duty woke up and said “Wstfgl?”

People didn’t usually knock on the Watchhouse door, just barged right in – and why shouldn’t they, it was always open after all. But when Cheery managed to open her eyes to let in enough light to work out what was going on, she saw a tall blonde woman who might, if you were that way inclined, be described as ‘buxom’, wearing a dressing gown that did absolutely nothing to emphasise that attribute, standing in the doorway, tapping her foot.

“Can I help?” Cheery called, sitting up in her seat a little. People seemed to respond to the additional inch.

“I just want to say,” the woman said, “That I’m not complaining, he’s not a bad gentleman, I can see that, and a compliment’s always nice to get, but I just think that someone should probably see to him.”

The woman drew the hand which had been behind her back out into Cheery’s view and Otto Chriek came with it.

Later.

“It started, vell, I don’t really remember when it started,” Otto said, between sobs. They were easing off now that he was on his third cup of cocoa. “It vas all … it all became too much.”

Cheery patted him on the shoulder. “Just take your time, sir, and tell me everything you can remember.”

Otto’s story was a relatively simple one: the voice of the b-vord had just become too strong. It was everywhere, Otto said: coming off the street in waves (he lived, impressively in better times, in the Shades, near the meat-processing warehouses), from the walls of his room, he could smell it gurgling through the veins and arteries of his landlady and even with his cape over his head and his fingers in his ears, he could still hear it.

It wanted him. It wanted him to go out there and …

Well. You know.

There was a very particular person it seemed to want and conveniently, that night she had left her window open. After that he didn’t remember anything until he woke up with a headache and a slipper-shaped bruise on his cheek. He’d asked her, well, begged her, through the profuse apologies, for a cup of cocoa. And then she’s brought him to the watch house.

A little later still.

“And he said he just couldn’t bear it anymore, sir, it was like the blood was actually calling to him, through the walls of the house, even. The young lady’s all right, apparently she’s used to this kind of thing, but –”

“It’s worrying,” Sam Vimes said. “Yes, I know, Cheery. And I wouldn’t have put Otto down as one of the more, well, more vulnerable Black Ribboners. The iconography seems to keep him nice and busy. But I suppose,” he said, thinking about the bottle in the bottom drawer of his desk, “That people do slip up.”

“It didn’t sound exactly like that, though, sir. More like something was … working on him, somehow.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s not the first thing like this I’ve had reported either, sir.

“Really? What sort of –”

At this point there was another loud knock. This time is was Captain Carrot, flushed and slightly breathless.

“Yes, Captain, what is it?”

“Sorry to interrupt, sir, but apparently there’s a large forest just appeared outside the Widdershins Gate.”

“What?”

“A large forest, sir. The trees are obscuring the road out to Chirm.”

“Sorry, Carrot, you might have to run that one past me again.”

“I think they’re oak trees, sir. In a large clump about, oh, a mile wide, I’d say. They’ve grown right down to the Gate and have started to obscure the entrance. I sent Nobby and Fred down there to keep an eye on it all but I think you ought to come and look, sir. There are reports of strange noises, and wolves howling.”

“Things like that, really, sir,” Cheery said.

Vimes frowned. Carrot shrugged as if to say: honest, guv.

“Right,” Vimes said. “Cheery, load Otto up with another big mug of cocoa and then help him into his cloak, would you? I think we might need a native for this expedition.”

When no discernible movement occurred, Vimes looked round. Cheery was staring out of the window. She said, “What time is it?” in a voice that suggested she didn’t actually want to know the answer.

“Half-past nine in the morning, why?”

“It’s very dark outside, Commander.”

Vimes sighed. It was going to be one of Those Days, Nights, whatever.

“Well, at least Otto won’t be tempted by young ladies walking past in low-cut dresses. He won’t be able to see them. Come on.”

*

In the Mended Drum, the A-M Book Appreciation and Discussion Society had progressed to Stage 2: regression to the mean.

“Look, you can’t say that something like The Great Lindo’s Flight of the Penguin is on the same level with Rex’s Zarrie, you just can’t! It’s tantamount to a refutation of all that I hold most sacred!”

“The so-called ‘lower’ forms of literature actually have a great deal to offer the, well, the more discerning reader.”

“Hah! Discerning readers. You’re all –”

“I think you’ll find that you’re talking absolute –”

The sound of beer mugs crashing into wooden tables which weren’t as sturdy as the last lot, because after the first few meetings Hibiscus Dunelm had gone out and bought them at a knock-down price down in New Ankh. They were currently running to his predicted timetable very nicely.

In a corner, away from the argument and any errant projectiles, Strunkunwite sat nursing a small beer. Beside him sat a orangutan. They were sharing a packet of peanuts.

Strunkunwite had paid a visit to the UU library on an inter-library mission – there was no way the Free Library could fill all its shelves with the, admittedly plentiful, offerings from the New Press. The Librarian had been open to negotiation and actually they’d got on quite well – Strunkunwite wasn’t fluent in Pongo Pongo but he got the general idea most of the time and hand gestures were really rather elegant when you were a three-hundred pound ape with hands bigger than Strunkunwite’s head.

“I just don’t understand it. One minute I was in Incunabula and then I turned round and nearly walked into a pile of Sylvia Bergschrunds. I mean, of course I have experienced the vagaries of L-space before, but never on such a scale. The library’s only been open for a few weeks!”

“Ook ook.”

Strunkunwite sighed. “Yes. It just worries me. There are so many people there, day and night. They never stop reading. All those cripplers and the new Rex – the Press sent through five hundred new copies yesterday – I’ve just put them in the biggest available corner but they don’t care, they just sit on the floor and go on and on. I don’t think some of them have gone home for days.”

“Ook. Oook ook ook.”

“And you say that’s happening at the University too?”

“Aeei, ook. Oooo-ook.”

“Really? All the grimoires in a pile under his bed. That is strange.”

“Ah-ah-ah, ook, aiiii.”

“Yes, well, he was always the most impressionable one, wasn’t he? I heard about that business with the music with rocks in, with the leather robes and ‘hut-hut-hut’. Oh yes, it was in the papers. Makes you wonder what he was like as a child.”

“Oook. Oook.”

“Yes, well. That doesn’t surprise me.”

“Eii, ook. Ook-oook.”

“Wants to be known as what?!”

“Ook,” the Librarian said, with the sort of tone that expressed a certain world-weariness with this kind of behaviour.

“Oh dear. Achmed I Don’t Even Get the Headaches Anymore. Oh dear.”

“Eek.”

“I think perhaps,” Strunkunwite said, “I might talk to Lady Sybil about this. Would you care to come along, sir?”

The Librarian took a long look at his packet of peanuts, sighed quietly, tipped the remaining contents into his mouth and after a few seconds of energetic chewing, swallowed.

“Oook,” he said.

*

It was quite a long run back to the Watch House from the Widdershins Gate in the end, particularly pursued, as they were, by wolves. Cheery suffered the indignity of being carried by Captain Carrot (it was less of an indignity and more something that she had occasionally dreamed about when she wasn’t paying sufficient attention to her job) since the indignity of being ripped to pieces by ravening supernatural wolves was the less good of the two options on offer.

On the way back from one mysterious manifestation of literary evil, they had passed – well, run through – another one.

None of them, except Carrot, had known about the house on Whopping Street. But now it appeared that all the streets on that side of the river lead to it. The pavements were littered with the impressions of footprints, and they were made up of golden letters, little sentences, little stories.

“It was … “ Vimes gasped, holding onto the side of the duty desk, “That house. It was there.”

“I think that was the epicentre, sir, yes.”

“Tiny … little … letters. There were … tiny … letters.”

“And all those people,” Cheery said, “Crowded around the door to that house.”

None of them (except Carrot) actually realised that Lady Sybil Vimes, nee Ramkin, Duchess of Ankh was also standing by the desk until she said,

“Good afternoon, dear. Or should I say evening?”

“Sybil!”

“Have you been getting yourself into trouble, Sam? No need to answer that.”

“Sybil?”

She patted his arm. “Get your breath back while I introduce Mister Strunkunwite, the Librarian at the Free. You do of course know the Librarian. The other one.”

“Oook.”

“Very pleased to meet you, Sir Samuel.”

Vimes let that one go just out of sheer oxygen deprivation.

“The Librarians here have been making their own investigations, Sam. We’ve learned quite a lot.”

“There have been at least seven people swallowed up by it. By the house you were speaking of, Commander,” Strunkunwite said.

“How do you know that, sir?”

“It, er, appears to spit out the shoes of its victims when it’s, erm, finished with them.”

“Right,” Vimes said.

“Lady Sybil suggested that we explore the, er, intelligence offered by the street crews, the beggars, you know. Apparently they’ve lost a few of their own.”

“But think of what they’ve gained in shoes,” Vimes said.

“Sam!”

“Sorry, dear.”

“Thank you. Anyway, it seems clear that this house is a locus of some kind. And that the recent explosion of interest in books and reading, and particularly in certain genres of writing, seems to be at the heart of it.”

“O-kay. Vetinari asked me if I was a reader, I’m glad I said no, now. What do we actually know about this house? About its effect on the libraries?”

“Well, actually, sir, I’ve been reading up about it.”

“And you didn’t think you might mention that before we ran over to the Widdershins Gate?”

“Sorry, sir. I wasn’t sure what was going on or how these things were connected, if they even were. The wolves seemed a more pressing concern at the time and I didn’t know about the, well, the eating of citizens. It appears I was wrong, sir.”

“Yes, well. That doesn’t matter now. What are the facts, Captain?”

“I’ve been concerned, sir. And I made my own visits to the Library, to both of the Libraries.”

“And what have you discovered, Captain Carrot?” Lady Ramkin asked.

“Well milady, apparently – and this is only what I’ve heard and read, of course, and no firm indictment against the person in question – apparently the house used to belong to a lady of the witch persuasion.”

“The witch persuasion.”

“Yes, sir. The lady’s name was Hepzibah Nodwink. She wasn’t actually a witch, or not officially. She was a librarian, actually.”

“Ook.”

“Yes, sir, that volume you lent me me was indeed most helpful. And I have, as I say, no reason to believe –”

“Could you just get on with it, Carrot?”

“Sorry, sir. Well, sir, she was living in the house on Whopping Street –”

“Not a stone’s throw from your place, Otto.”

The little vampire was still panting, his face white and sweaty. Cheery had run and got him a very big mug of cocoa and a straw.

“Yes, indeed, Commander. That must have been vat it vas, vorking on me, on all of us. It … takes our nightmares and makes them real.”

“Quite, sir,” Carrot said. “I think you have in fact shown a remarkable ability to resist its power. In the circumstances.”

Otto took a big draw of cocoa and, just possibly, suppressed a sob. “I appreciate you saying zat, Captain. Very much indeed.”

“And what happened to this witch, Captain?” Vimes asked.

“It seems that Miss Nodwink was doing research on interdimensional portals, L-space and things of that nature.”

Strunkunwite said, “Oh dear,” at the same time that the Librarian said, “Ooook.”

“Yes, exactly, gentlemen,” Carrot said. “Legend has it that she was swallowed up by a portal that she had opened by whatever methods it was she was investigating.”

“So why does that mean that everything in my city has started behaving like something out of a ha’penny crippler?”

“Well, sir, the book that the Librarian kindly lent to me – I have it here, sir – tells another story. Hepzibah was really just someone really wrapped up in her books. I think you’ll agree, sir, that a lot of wizards have come a cropper that way –”

“Ook.”

“And apparently she left a diary.”

“How convenient,” Vimes said, under his breath. Sybil nudged him hard in the ribs.

“Please continue, Captain.”

“Yes, milady. She left a diary. This book of the Librarian’s reproduces it. It’s pretty hard to understand in most places – I’m not really as up on my metaphysics as I should be – but the general idea is pretty clear. A lot of her research was about how realities become defined by the people who live them, sir. She had started to understand that a large enough concentration of belief can have a serious effect on the fabric of the multiverse,and of course this all fed into theories about L-space and the interconnectedness of all things, sir.”

“Of course.”

“Then she started having these dreams in which these dimensional portals opened up to her. In the last one, it’s just a hole in the middle of her bedroom. The last entry in the diary is her following the rabbit down into it. The last thing she says is that the rabbits eyes were glowing. Glowing octarine, sir.”

Vimes sighed.

“Various people report having seen the rabbit in question over the years, sir.”

“Oh really? And why didn’t they get sucked into the portal?”

“Perhaps they’d been more careful in their reading, sir.”

“Or didn’t let bunnies make their commuting decisions for them. I still don’t get it, Carrot.”

Carrot opened his mouth, but Sybil got there first.

“I think what the Captain is trying to elucidate for you, Sam, is that the interdimensional forces that once lived in this house, which only slumbered, perhaps, have now been woken and are acting on the city. Changing its reality as it once did the reality of this poor woman. Presumably – would you agree, Captain? – as a result of the huge surge of interest in literature, and particularly the kind of literature where this kind of thing happens.”

“I think Lady Sybil has it exactly right, sir. The libraries – and the printing of the books, perhaps, gives the .. the ideas access to hundreds of minds. Thousands, really.”

“And the imagination of those thousands is changing reality,” Sybil said, almost to herself. “It’s … it’s amazing.”

“It’s killing people,” Vimes said.

“I think – I think perhaps the Library started it – you know how popular it’s been –”

Vimes shook his head. “I don’t care how it started, I care about stopping it.”

“I do,” Carrot said, “Have a few ideas, sir.”

*

And then the clacks messages started a rather more direct plan of attack. On every corner, every tower, every set, the same message:

COME HOME COME HOME FOLLOW THE BUNNY 13 WHOPPING STREET THE FREE LIBRARY COME HOME COME HOME COME HOME.

And, as good devotees of the written word by this point, everybody did.

*

In Lord Vetinari's head, ideas surged like the seas.

There were, he had realised — how blind he had been! — challenges in the inexactitude of the written word, in semantics, the spirals of meaning that lead you further and further from the point you had originally been trying to make but sometimes, just sometimes, took your hand and led you back your starting place and made you look at it with different eyes. Or laying your meaning for someone to stumble over, like a well-placed knight on a chessboard, leaving your axe haft-deep in their heart.

Yes, it was quite the marvel.

He was being shown horrors and escapes from horrors, labyrinthine mysteries. A thousand thousand little deaths in fire and ice and water. And he saw the fall of every bird.

It was the greatest story ever told.

It was the City, speaking to him. He was merely its scribe.

And yet in his dreams — when he still dreamed, when the pen fell from his hand after hours of frantic writing, his sleeve worn through with the friction of his wrist against the desk — he was filled with fears of his own.

In his dream the streets of Ankh-Morpork were filled with darkness; the skies had grown dark. There were dragons, their fire bright against the blackened bricks of the palace. There were ringing shots of gonne fire in his ears. There was war dividing the city and barricades were burning; men were screaming, dwarves were screaming, trolls were cracking and shattering. He wept when the Opera House was set alight and the fire swam down into the city and the clacks towers stood like skeleton trees. He watched a man slit Sam Vimes’ throat and could do nothing to stop it.

His hand was raised to no one and no one marked his voice. He had no voice. He had no city. He had … nothing.

The Patrician woke with tears on his cheeks. But he kept writing. He had to keep on writing.

In the distance, the sounds of shouting and protest, calls of “Look out there!” and “Librarians, coming through!” Lord Vetinari did not hear them. He was lost in a good book.

*

Sam Vimes turned to his wife and said, “I think you should probably go back to Scoone Avenue now, dear.”

There was an awkward silence as Strunkunwite, the Librarian, Cheery, Carrot and Otto all looked at their shoes, or in the Librarian’s case, his hairy toes. There was nary an “ook” to break the tension.

“Which one of us is the proprietoress of the Free Library, Sam Vimes?”

“Er, you are, dear, but –”

“And which one of us has been reading gothic fiction since they were a little girl and well before the ha’penny cripplers came along as part of a rich education in the arts and humanities?”

“Er –”

“Don’t er me, man. I know these books inside and out. We’re a team, Sam. Whether you like it or not.”

“Sybil …”

“Yes. Well. Come on. Library or House first?”

“Er, the Library. If you –”

“Yes, I agree. That seems the place to start. I wonder, Sergeant Littlebottom, could you take Mr Chriek back to the Watch House – I don’t think he’s quite safe at the moment. And Captain Carrot, if you could investigate at the House, please.”

“Yes m’lady,” Carrot said. He saluted.

“Right, well. Let’s get on with it.”

Later.

Lady Sybil Vimes nee Ramkin wiped her brow. The back of her gloved hand (dragon breeding confers many unexpected advantages in life, and one of them is remembering to always keep a pair of dragonhide gloves about your person) came away sooty and sweaty.

“Well Sam, that about wraps that up. But we’re no further forward!”

“Any ideas?” Vimes said, with genuine, not to say desperate curiosity. “Carrot’s dismantled the Press – poured a couple of hundred buckets of cold water over the type and got one of the priests up at Small Gods to do an exorcism. Everything’s steaming, but safe.”

An imp had arrived with this message whilst Sybil was persuading the Dean to relinquish the last of the grimoire stash he had purloined from the deeper archives of the UU library. The poor man had been trying to make a sort of cloak out of the pages. Every word he managed in protest at Sybil’s gentle but extremely firm coaxing came out golden – the words actually floated out of his mouth and down onto the ground. Then they walked away out into the street, presumably to join the throng. She had no idea about how to close the vortex of space-time that had opened up in the University Library’s deepest recesses, but then they were both rather hoping that Ridcully had some ideas on that one.

Still the words came.

“There’s nothing here to … to stop!” Vimes shouted, over the din.

“Yes,” his wife said, “The Library may be a nexus for this force, but I don’t think it’s causing any of it – it’s just drinking it in and then pumping it back out into the city. We’ve only shut off one source in the press – there’s something else, somewhere. Feeding –” She threw her hands up into the air, “ – all this!”

‘All this’ was the state of the two Libraries, the pubs and meeting places, all the places where the citizens of Ankh-Morpork had come together to read books. The city was a fog of words, or ideas and formulas, foregone fairytale conclusions – not the nice kind we tell the children. The Library was throbbing with it, actually pulsing with lines from the stories. Vimes had to try very, very hard not to listen to them.

“If the epicentre isn’t here,” Sybil said, “And it isn’t the House on Whopping Street, and it isn’t the Press or any of the places where the books have been made or kept or read, then there must be something else behind it.”

“Something larger,” Vimes said.

“Something that is driving the imagination of the whole city.”

“Something that imagines the whole city.”

“Or someone,” they both said, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Has anyone seen Vetinari lately?” Vimes said, to no one in particular.

*

They could see the Palace from where they stood on the steps of the Library – everyone could have done, had they been looking. It was one of the larger buildings in the city, beside the Tower of Art, the tallest. But that wasn’t it. It was that, just at the moment, it was lit up like a Hogswatch tree.

Vimes turned to his wife and said, because he couldn’t help this kind of behaviour, “Yes, I think we might have missed a piece of the puzzle.”

She looked at him, not even bothering to raise the eyebrow. Then she took his hand and grinned.

“Come on!” she said, and set off.

The Palace was buried under a heavy snowfall of glowing literature. The little lights, the little stories of pain and horror and death were rising into the Ankh-Morpork night like smoke from a kitchen fire. Something, as Vimes managed to stop himself saying, was really cooking.

And yet, it was as though the Palace wanted them to get in. Every door opened to them – though admittedly with more than a couple of ominous groans. The rats scuttled away from them. The creepy laughter was always behind them. The little twin girls who were at the top of the great staircase when they arrived there, dressed in pretty blue dresses with white sashes, staring straight ahead on the red carpet that lined that part of the palace, just looked at each other and then disappeared.

Vimes looked at Sybil. Sybil looked at Vimes. She shrugged. He nodded.

They battled through.

Drumknott, the Patrician’s most loyal clerk, was curled into a miserable ball by the door to the Oblong Office. He had, Vimes was certain, a dozen or more papercuts on his face and hands. He was sobbing, but quietly – he was a clerk after all.

“Mister Drumknott,” Sybil said, crouching beside the man. “Are you quite well, man?”

“Oh help him, milady, please help him – he’s in there, all alone!”

Vimes raised his eyebrows; nothing ever changed.

“Barricaded in?” he asked the clerk.

“I’ve tried and tried, sir, even got one of them golems to … but they can’t … the words! Oh please, sir. Please.”

Sybil patted Drumknott kindly on the shoulder. “Just stay there, Mister Drumknott, we shall probably need you in a few minutes.”

“Milady?”

But Sybil wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was looking at the door to the Oblong Office.

“Sam,” she said, “Hold my cloak.”

That his wife was built like a feature of the natural landscape – a large, possibly rather rocky feature that looked spectacular rising out of the morning mist – had never bothered Vimes. He had considered her beautiful because to him, she was. And he had smelled the delicate, transient smell of her hair in the night, when he was awake and she was sleeping. He knew these things, and kept them to himself.

But he had to admit, for breaking down doors, it was a build with very … specific advantages.

One …

Two …

Three!

Inside, the room breathed with paper. And here they had reached the root of the problem, because neither of them had any idea what they should do, only that they probably needed to be here to do it. Vimes reached out for his wife’s hand and held it tight.

“What do we do now?!” he asked well, yelled – it was difficult to hear anything over the sound of stories coming to life, but he asked anyway, because it was the only question.

“No magic, no weapons. It has to be simpler than that, Sam!”

“What do you do when you want to stop people reading?!”

“Set up a proprietary educational system that privileges those who never needed help anyway and fill up the masses with a diet of cheap entertainment and a knowledge that aspiration is not for them?!”

Vimes raised his eyebrows.

“Sorry – you probably didn’t mean that!”

“Not right at this moment, dear, but I take your point!”

“Set fire to the books?!”

“It can’t be as easy as that, can it?!”Vimes shouted.

“Sometimes the simplest solution is the right one, Sam!” Sybil shouted back. “You’ve got your lighter on you, I trust?!”

“Always!” Vimes shouted back.

He reached into his pocket, retrieved the small golden object, lifted it to his face, shrugged, and threw the switch.

He only set fire to the first piece of paper that came to his hand when he reached out into the maelstrom and made a fist, but he had an idea that that would be enough – if any of this was going to work, that part had to. The paper, covered on both sides in words that Vimes couldn’t read, didn’t want to read, screamed … and then went black.

Then the rest of the manuscript, littered around the Oblong Office in scraps and patches, burst into flame. The flames, though neither Vimes nor Lady Sybil could see it, glowed octarine. But just for a few seconds, then they went out. In the space that was left behind, suddenly empty, was the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork.

He was sitting at his desk, straight-backed as usual, his right hand holding a pen. The pen was dripping ink on the plain surface of the desk. He looked up and saw ...

Vimes and Sybil both rushed to the desk, one to each side.

“Sir, are you –”

“Havelock, you’re all right now. It’s all over.”

The Patrician continued to look at them. It was a heavy look, but it got lighter with the seconds, as though the possible futures it had seen were slowly being forgotten.

“Havelock?”

Vetinari did not look at Sybil, but at Vimes.

“Vimes? Vimes … I saw … I saw you … In every story, in every one.”

To Vimes’ extreme horror, Vetinari’s eyes filled up with tears. The incipient flood rose, lingered for a second balanced on the edge of impossibility, and then – disappeared as Vetinari blinked hard and held his eyes shut for a few seconds. Vimes thought he could hear the man counting under his breath.

When he opened his eyes again they were filled with hope instead of tears, but it faded when he saw that Vimes was still there.

“Commander,” he said, in a voice that was at least superficially similar to the one Vimes had been trying not to listen to all these years, “I have no objection to the undead in the citizenry, but –”

“I’m not dead, sir.”

“You’re … but I saw –”

The fingers of Vetinari’s right hand – black with ink, but raw underneath from, Vimes could only suppose, writing a nightmare for the City – reached up and brushed against the two inches of skin exposed between Vimes’ unshaven jaw and the top ridge of his armour. Vetinari’s fingers were cold. They drew a line all the way across Vimes’ throat, and then he was shivering too.

Sybil, kneeling on the floor beside the Patrician’s chair, took the hand that was lingering at the corner of Vimes’ jaw, and held it tightly within both of her own.

“It was just a bad dream, Havelock,” she said, in the same voice she used when Young Sam woke up with terrors in his eyes, “Just a terrible dream.”

Vetinari looked at her, then back at Vimes.

“Lady Ramkin, your …”

Vimes was having a good day for wonders. As he watched, his wife leaned in and kissed the Patrician, Lord Havelock Vetinari, very gently, on the cheek.

“He still lives, my lord.” She whispered in his ear, still holding his hurt right hand, “You know it’s harder to kill Sam Vimes than it is a trunk full of cockroaches.”

Vetinari’s mouth might have been trying for a smile. Vimes didn’t know whether to be offended or mortified or something else.

“Sorry, Sam,” she said, quietly.

“No, no,” he said.

She was stroking his shoulder, trying to neaten his hair. The Patrician struggled, then buried his face in Vimes’ wife’s bosom.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “I know, I know. I’ve had the same dream.”

Later.

Ankh-Morpork, Vimes always thought at times like these, had a remarkable facility both for self-healing and for amnesia. The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, as befitted the figurehead of the city, was also practising these talents. The man sitting in front of Vimes was the usual dour, controlled figure – beard immaculate and robes freshly taken out of the wardrobe that contained a dozen more identical examples. Only the white bandages around the fingers of his right hand gave a clue that anything had ever been amiss.

Well, almost all.

“Well, Vimes,” Vetinari said, clearing his throat.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well.”

“Yes.”

“Your lady wife is …?”

“Oh fine, sir. She is currently occupied rebuilding the Library and, erm, overseeing a few exorcisms.”

“Ah, yes. Excellent.”

“Yessir.”

“She is a very fine woman, Vimes. A very … kind woman.”

Vimes stared hard at the usual spot. His skin currently felt like it was a size too small.

“Yessir. Light of my life, sir.”

“Yes, indeed,” Vetinari said. “Please convey my appreciation to her and let her know that if she requires any assistance from this Office, she has only to ask.”

“Yessir, thank you, sir.”

A pause.

“Vimes …”

Sam Vimes felt his eyes start to water. Half of him wanted very, very much to keep on staring at the wall just behind Vetinari’s shoulder. And part of him knew he couldn’t.

“Sir?”

“Sometimes dreams are wonderful, Commander. And sometimes … they are false messengers.”

“Yessir.”

“I do hope,” said Havelock Vetinari, granted a few seconds to look, a few seconds to record the face that was never far from his own dreams, even the ones that weren’t horror stories, “That yours are pleasant, Commander.”

Vimes looked at him. Looked and wondered exactly how stupid he had been. The Patrician’s eyes were soft, for a second, and then Samuel Vimes understood that he had only dreamt that second. He was turning for the door as the Patrician turned back to his work and said,

“Do not let me detain you.”