Work Header

A Civil Conflagration

Work Text:

Lady Jenny Deveril followed her new husband Adam up the steps to the Vorlynton House in Vorbarr Sultana. Her father, Mr. Chawleigh was boasting to an immodest degree the changes he'd had made to the House while she and Adam were on their honeymoon. Mr. Chawleigh would have planned and paid for the whole trip if Adam had let him, so he'd had to be content to give them tickets for the infamous Orb on Beta. She and her husband (husband! How sweet the word!) were so embarrassed they sold them and went to Earth instead. She hadn't told him yet. She had believed that Adam would be pleased to have her father buy the House anonymously and give it back to him, but he was dangerously silent.

“My lord, this is the famous architect Mr. B.S. Johnson. He was recommended to me by my friend Mustrum Ridcully, when we were fishing on Sergyar. Said he'd never seen anything like him. He designed the gardens at the Patrician's palace on Jackson's Whole, which must commend him to you. And his houses on Empirical Crescent, so droll! What was it you showed me, B.S., the cunning miniature in the little box?”

The small nervous man, barely taller than Jenny, bobbed his head. “It's the Memorial Arch of Ankh Morpork.”

She said, “Memorial Arch? Aren't they usually a bit bigger?”

Johnson said sullenly, “the plans were that way round when I drew them, they were.”

Obliviously, Mr. Chawleigh marched onward. “I had to hire a team of workmen, which cost plenty, to get it ready for you in time. You won't believe what it cost me, first and last, but I don't grudge a penny of it, as long as you're satisfied.” He smiled benevolently at them, inviting them into the front garden.

Mr. Johnson nodded again to Adam and babbled on.

“I found some blueprints from the architect, Dono Vorrutyer, and mighty helpful they were. I think the first requirement of a Count's house is to be able to defend itself in uncertain political times. When I think of the way the Pretender Vordarian was able to confiscate several houses for his use, I”—

Adam cut him off. “You used plans from Dono Vorrutyer for MY house? Did you know he's called the Mad Architect Vorrutyer? He put up five buildings before he was stopped.”

Mr. Johnson continued to bob his head. It must be making him dizzy, she thought.

“Yes, five public buildings, but he was commissioned for a few private houses. Quite showplaces they were too. He had a unique vision.” Johnson finished admiringly.

Adam's foot stumbled, but he recovered himself and looked at the ground.
“Did you know these steps are quite awkward, too tall on one, and too short on the next?”

Her husband's voice was low and quiet, but in an intense tone which was angrier than if he'd yelled.

“Yes, your lordship, these were from the pattern at the ImpSec building—you collect Vorrutyer designed it—perfectly safe with no windows to be shot at— defensively built so an invader can't march up them easily.”

“No, but I want my guests to come in the house without broken ankles!”

Johnson continued, not listening, “and look what we've got here.”
Pleasing fruit trees lined the short, winding walk, (winding “so the invaders can't get a charge at you, my lord”) and the odors of peach and apricot scented the air. Jenny thought they were quite beautiful, and hoped that in some way they would make up for the uncomfortable steps.

“Oh, these are lovely!” she exclaimed, looking at the golden fruits.
Adam stopped dead, scanning the branches.

“This is not the season for fruit. However did you”—

—and Mr. Johnson was off again.
“Yes, we've forced some growth, with extensible greenhouses, you can put them over again in winter, but see here—he pressed a lever hidden in a branch and the fruit splattered down furiously, smashing some of the new steps.

Adam sprang back and pulled Jenny against him.

“Those are painted stones, not fruit!”

“Yes, as I said, the first object of a house must be able to defend itself. These would put a crimp in any assault. Plus I have put in successive waves of these, so that they repeat several times.”

He moved toward a second lever but Adam took his arm in an iron grip.

“DON'T let these fly again!”

Now she knew for sure he hated this. It had seemed such a good plan, too.

Her father was scolding. “B.S., you said that you wouldn't let these down until we reached the house. This is not the done thing!”

“Not at all,” her lord said, lips pressed whitely together.

“Well, my lord,” said Mr. Chawleigh, speaking as cheerfully as though they had never been attacked by their own trees, “happen you will be glad to know that I did not allow all of Mr. Johnson's changes. I collected that pine trees which could drop real needles might be too much.”

“I must thank you for this consideration. My guests will not have to be in danger of their lives, then. Further danger.”

An iceberg of fear was starting to build in her chest. They reached the door in silence.
When Mr. Johnson threw it open, a dazzle of lights met them. Mr. Chawleigh, with his love of light, had lined the salon in brilliant wall sconces. She continued to tread behind the men, not knowing which fittings of the room were original, and which were new. In the drawing room there was such opulence as a new carpet of Escobaran origin, and curtains of rich red brocades, draped and looped, and embellished with bright gold and red tassels.

She recognized her father's hand in the hall and on the half landing in lights set in alcoves in the shape of oil lamps concealed in alabaster bowls, mounted on tall pedestals. At the foot of the staircase another lamp was set on a shaft in the form of triform Egyptian figures supported by bare-chested sphinxes.

These were new, she realized, because the fashionable rage was for old Earth Egyptian, and she had no doubt her father had supervised these fittings. It surely wasn't the original decorous design a respectable Count's house must have been.

In the drawing room she stared at the large but faded Aubusson carpet of delicate hues. The genteel-looking carpet had been surmounted by couches with crocodile-legs, occasional tables inlaid with marble and wreathed with foliated scrolls, lyre-backed chairs, footstools on—were those LION legs? Was this a Vorbarr Sultana style she hadn't heard of?

Her father commented, self-satisfied in his brash tones. “Good deal I got on the crocodile feet from the Temple of Offler, because they don't use anything but the heads, you know. Saved me enough of my blunt to get those lion feet from the hunting preserves on Jackson's Whole. I'm always one for a hard bargain.”

These were real animal feet, then, not just carved images. Jenny dared to glance at Adam, but his face had resumed an even expression, although he was very pale. The drawing room chairs were upholstered with green and gold stripes, Vorlynton house colors. THAT was her father's doing, because he was always partial to stripes. She didn't think real nobility was supposed to sit on the house colors, though, and Adam didn't seem pleased.

“Well, these stripes won't do in this room, but I'll soon attend to that—I'll start at once to work a set of chair covers.” She was nervous, but of this part she was sure. Her needlework was perfect and she could make all better. Surely this would content him.

Mr. Chawleigh said, “Ah, but you should see what's upstairs, my lord. It's a bathroom fit for a queen. Nothing's too good for my Jenny.”

She blushed furiously. It wasn't seemly to talk of these offices, and her father should know it. Up the stairs they went, past more bowls of light. Perhaps they could keep some of these, while removing the sphinxes? She began planning.

When they reached Jenny's bedroom she exclaimed, “good gracious, does Papa think I'm Cleopatra? I never saw such a bed in my life!”

It was certainly a startling piece of furniture, of mahogany inlaid with silver, the head decorated with carved Isis. Adam chuckled, but Jenny's maid was disapproving, sniffing that this gaudiness wasn't fit.

“You should see the unsanitary way he's finished a water closet. It's in your dressing room, my lady!”

Mr. Chawleigh stung, said, “It was the old way was unsanitary. Now lookee here.”

He went on in a torrent of unwanted detail about valves, sliders, overhead cisterns, and stink traps—Jenny wanted to sink into the ground and prayed he would stop soon. But at least this part had engaged Adam's curiosity.

“You have studied this completely, sir. You knew a great deal about these things.”

“Ay, you may lay your life I do. You won't catch Jonathan Chawleigh investing in something he don't understand.”

Jenny's maid tried to bar the company's entrance to the next room.

“I don't know what's come over Mr. Chawleigh—it's worse to come.”

Jenny bit her lips together. She couldn't imagine what was worse, but exclaimed as soon as she entered her bathroom, “oh my lord, only look! Oh, I shall die!”

The bathroom had been lined with mirrors and draped with white silk curtains, with more of Mr. Chawleigh's lights across the top of the vanity. But what drew the eye was the bathtub, built in the shape of a shell and tinted delicately in blue, white, and green.

“Oh, no! It's...what is that painting?”

Adam cleared his throat. “Clearly, from Botticelli—the Birth of Venus.”

Jenny knew that she'd blushed to the roots of her mousy brown hair, and all she could think of was her plump unlovely figure reflected a hundred times in the lights. There was more to come. Mr. Johnson was talking a mile a minute to her father, explaining that he'd created a bathroom for Unseen University, and that Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully said he'd never seen anything like it in the Nexus, and hoped never to again.

Adam was again fascinated. "See, Jenny, the water comes into the bath through this pipe.” He turned the taps on and off.

Mr. Johnson's voice carried on nervously.

“My lord, Master Chawleigh, here I've installed a shower—all the works, from mildest mist to tropical downpour. There are separate feeds for salt water, hard water, and soft water. See these large wheels? They will give her completely accurate control of temperature. Here's a handle cord she may pull down to shower—well, for closer cleanliness, you can see”—

Jenny's blushes went even more fierce—and Adam said, “what's this bit here? It seems to be crumbling?”

“Shouldn't do that, it's all new.” The architect frowned, and picked at the edge of the tub which had come away from the wall. The three men looked at the crumbled edge of tile, and Adam reached down to it.

“Seems to be something here—against the joist—which has got wet, see”—and he started to pull away the cracked tile further. He drew out a small cylinder about five inches long, with unusual markings of harsh red and white lines. The top of it was gently steaming. He raised it to study it further.

She gasped and in a flash tore it from him and threw it into the towel closet across the room, darting to slam it closed. Then she quickly turned back to shove at him and the other men without wasting a second.

“Go! Into the bedroom, and pray let us get behind the bed!”

Adam stumbled as she pushed him over the threshold of the bathroom, and he glared at her, but she didn't waste a glance at him. She slammed the bathroom door behind her, and continued to herd them like a pudgy but suddenly aroused border collie.

He turned on her. “Madam, what is this! What was that”—she interrupted him almost wildly.

“No time! Please come here with me!” she pleaded, reaching her ridiculous bed and hurling herself down on the far side, heedless of any lost propriety.

Surprisingly, Adam began to shove forward his father-in-law and the architect.

“I collect what she must be about, and we must get down now! Come!”

He thrust them ruthlessly onto the carpeted floor beside her. The architect was opening and closing his mouth like a fish, gawping.

“What is this? What's going on?” Mr. Chawleigh started to rise, exclaiming loudly.

Adam shoved the man down again and yanked the mattress and its rich bedclothes on top of them in the small space. The instant he did, there was a loud “WHOOMPH!” from the direction of the bathroom, and a detonation shook them.

She heard the mirrors all shattering and knew they were spraying dangerous shards. Further debris, tiles, brass knobs, and broken wood, showered over the mattress. One wheel rolled out from the explosion and fell over on its side. There was a loud crack! that had to be from the bedposts, mahogany or no. In seconds all was quiet, but now it was Adam shoving them along towards the stairs, grabbing Jenny up when she slipped on a fragment of slippery tile. Only the architect seemed inclined to stay, frozen in place, absorbing the scene of his smashed triumph. Adam pulled him along, the man's face ghastly.

The stairs began to blaze from the explosion and all the broken lights, and an ominous rush of water began spilling over them, as well.

It took only five minutes for the Vorbarr Sultana fire brigade to reach them, but by then the house was blazing. They played the water over the house, but more over the houses on the sides, so they wouldn't catch fire. Jenny heard the firefighters cursing as they slipped on the uneven steps and all the dropped stones.

In an hour it was over. The Vorlynton House was a charred frame. Adam and Jenny stood together on the sidewalk, his arm protective around her as his head bent down over hers.

“Well, my lord, we lost nearly all, and I'm sorry about that. I'll have them rebuild”—

“No!” Jenny raised her voice to her father. “No, we—Adam and I—don't wish for it to be rebuilt.”

“I'll build you another!” her father retorted.

“No, thank you, sir.” Adam spoke firmly. “We will hire a house. Now let us repair to a hotel.”

That evening after the party had all made themselves as clean as possible—Jenny's heart did mourn for her clothes, if not for her house—Adam ordered from room service and he, Jenny, and her father munched sandwiches quietly.

“What was it, Jenny?” her father asked. “What was that hell-thing?”

“It was a quite wicked device—a Cetagandan grenade. Doubtless some guest at the house”—she wasn't going to slander Adam's relatives—“left it there.”

“What, shoved inside a wall? No, depend upon it, 'twas all my family's doing. I don't know how long it was there—but obviously someone with more hair than wit brought back a souvenir he thought was disarmed.”

He turned to her. “I didn't recognize what it was until you had shoved us—me, your lord, shoved me quite rudely”—

She began, “I'm sorry, my lord,” but he surprised her by kissing her. In front of her father, and now she saw he was beaming.

“Jenny, my love, (and how glorious it was to hear him call her that!) how did you recognize a Cetagandan grenade?”

“I saw the markings, you see”—

“Yes, but how came you to learn them? Whenever did you see it before?”

She blushed again. “It was Miss Satterleigh's doing. She encouraged us to study and to go to museums.”

Her father interrupted. “The Bluestocking? Miss Satterleigh's Seminary for the Daughters of Gentlemen? She taught you armaments? I knew you waren't learning any culture!”

“She did teach culture, Papa, music and painting and all four languages, but she taught us history, as well, and, and... it seemed to me, our heritage is more important. The Cetagandan War lasted for twenty years, and it seemed important to me to study it. I went to the museums myself, not only at Vorhartung Castle, but there are many smaller museums in the city as well. The weapon fragments—how they're marked changes from time to time, but they're all painted in that queer style, all harsh lines.”

Adam was shaking his head. “I learned that at the academy, but I didn't recognize it until you had us out of there. Fast-thinking, my wife!”

Mr. Chawleigh was beaming. “That she is, my Jenny, that she is.”

The door opened and B.S. Johnson came in, soot smeared on his face. “Look, Master Chawleigh! The firefighters pulled it out whole! It's barely smudged.”

It was the lamp supported by bare-chested sphinxes.