A pair of large dark eyes set in a small face regarded Leonard of Quirm over the edge of his work table, and he contemplated the life cycles of certain insects.
Not that Leonard disliked children. They were people, often interesting people, and while their theories of how Leonard’s ideas ought to be used for their own personal gain didn’t necessarily include less mindless slaughter than adults’, at least they generally included more candy. Also, if Leonard happened to be wearing his shirt wrong-side-out, children would either point this out or not care, rather than giving him odd sideways looks that he only managed to interpret hours later, if ever. No, on the whole Leonard approved of children.
But--barely managing to pull a unique and fragile ancient manuscript out of the reach of a grubby hand1--he considered the advantages of a pupal phase, where pre-adult humans might be swathed in a protective cocoon, only to emerge years later, having in the meantime acquired such valuable skills as keeping their hands to themselves.2
A polite cough came from somewhere above the child's head, and Leonard was reminded that there was another person who'd suddenly appeared in his workshop. He looked up, and up; the man was extraordinarily tall, and wearing an extraordinarily tall hat.
"Is there something I can help you with?" said the man.
"Oh! Thank you," said Leonard. "Your arrival seems to have knocked my magnifying array out of alignment. If you could just adjust that lever--no, the other one--and a little further to the right--perfect."
"My pleasure, I'm sure," said the man. "But I was referring to the ongoing magical crisis that's threatening to destroy your entire world, and possibly several adjacent worlds as well. There is one, isn't there?"
"I hope not!" An annoyed look flickered briefly across the man’s vague expression, and Leonard added apologetically, “You might inquire at the University? I’m afraid that I don’t get much news here.”
“But surely,” said the man, deftly scooping up the child just before he got Leonard’s jar of Klatchian Death Beetles open. The child began to howl and kick and beat his fists against the man’s chest, but both the man and his suit were fantastically unruffled by this behavior. He did, however, raise his voice slightly before continuing, “Surely you had some reason for summoning me.”
“Well, yes,” said Leonard. “I wanted to see what would happen.”
"Ah," said the man. His face had gone very stiff. "I believe that all the mouldy grimoires and aged codeces that contain the summoning also mention that it is only to be used for dire emergencies? Although I can understand how your idle curiosity might constitute one. It's clearly more important than the first Sunday afternoon I've managed to spend with my family in months."
"Yes." Leonard beamed. It was so rare that someone understood that sort of thing.
"Well. If your curiosity has been satisfied, I hope you won't mind jotting a quick note in the margin that it really does work and there's absolutely no need for whoever reads it next to give it a try himself. And now we really must be--" The stiff look on the man's face broke up abruptly into sheer panic. It was fascinating to watch; Leonard quickly pulled out a pencil and started sketching before he lost it. "Roger?"
The child was nowhere to be seen.
Millie twisted the wedding band around on her finger. Her hands were always chilly in Series Twelve except in high summer, but the ring was warm; a reassuring warmth, even if it didn't tell her anything beyond the fact that Christopher didn't need his spare life just yet.
He'd disappeared half an hour back, and Julia had spent most of that time rolling in the dirt in an ecstasy of outrage, howling that Roger went with Daddy and it was not fair and Mummy was a horrid beast and Julia hated her. It had taken her nearly twenty minuted to wear herself out, but she finally did, apologized sweetly and climbed into Millie's lap, where Millie taught her to make daisy chains. They were used to thinking of Roger as the one with clever hands, while Julia was the chatty one, but Julia tied the daisy stems deftly, and Millie felt a burst of magic as she pulled each one tight. It wasn't clear what the magic was doing, if anything, but it was the first sign of anything like that from either of the children, and Millie wished Christopher had been there to see it.
She was used to Christopher's unexpected comings and goings by now—it was nearly five years since Gabriel had retired and passed the title of Chrestomanci on to Christopher—nor was it the first time one of the children had been carried away with him. But usually he managed to find a way to send them home again if it wasn't the sort of business that was over in a matter of minutes. There was no real reason to worry, but—
"Julia, love," said Millie, running her fingers through Julia's soft black curls, "would you like to go back up to the Castle now? We might be able to steal some cream cakes from the kitchen."
"Cream cakes," Julia agreed, nodding happily. Millie stood, brushed off her own dress and magicked some of the worst grass and mud stains from Julia's, making her giggle. Sensing that something was up, or maybe just drawn by the magic, cats began following them as they walked up the lawn, from Proudfoot, stepping daintily, not as young as she used to be, to the youngest kitten, Mopsa. The cook quickly shooed them all out of the kitchen when they got there, but by that time Julia already had a cream cake in each hand, her daisy chain floating behind her like a banner. Then the entire procession followed Millie to the front hall, where she checked the tracking spells on the pentagram.
She'd hoped that Christopher had gone somewhere she knew, that maybe he was keeping Roger with him to show off to old friends in Seven, or newer rivals in One. And it might have been Series One—there were some odd worlds in that Series—but it felt more as if it were outside the familiar Series of the Related Worlds altogether. Not a Related World, but merely a Friendly one, that drew things to itself through unexpected affinities and sheer force of personality. Things, ideas, people . . .
The cats were clustered around Millie, lending her their magic, though she hadn't remembered asking for it. Her feet had started moving on their own accord. Well, why not? Christopher probably needed her help. Holding firmly onto Julia's sticky hand, the daisy chain floating out behind them like a banner, Millie started to walk.
Rufus Drumknott arranged some items on a silver tray. The morning Times, masthead and headlines showing prominently. Two items of correspondence painstakingly sifted from the palace's groaning mailbags. Some days, these would be letters that needed to be dealt with immediately, but today it was only a violet-scented note from Lady Roberta which no doubt contained a few tidbits of amusing and potentially useful gossip, and a letter from Captain Carrot of the Watch, probably complaints about the Patrician's undue (in the Watch's view) interference in the Spurnie affair, couched in unimpeachable politeness and atrocious spelling. Both letters were likely to make Lord Vetinari smile.
A few files relating to the business of the day—the Seamstresses' and Leatherworkers' Guilds were squabbling again; the Dukes of the Sto Plains had adopted a new method of flood control that was likely to either increase agricultural yields or awaken eldritch horrors; low-level hostilities had resumed along the Klatchian-Hersheban border. Underneath these, as a sort of dessert or palate-cleanser before the morning's meetings began, Drumknott tucked a freshly printed score of the Badger's Den Aria from The Free-Delver, the dwarf opera that had just opened last week.3
Arranging this tray was one of Drumknott's daily tasks, and he could have done it without thinking, but he didn't. No one could accuse him of lingering over it—that would indicate a blameworthy and frankly appalling lack of efficiency—but he gave each item due attention as he placed it just where it ought to go.
Then he took the tray to the Oblong Office and put it on Lord Vetinari's desk.
"Thank you, Drumknott," said Lord Vetinari.
"Of course, sir," said Drumknott.
Lord Vetinari smiled.
It happened the same way every morning, but Drumknott was not a man whose fancy was caught by the spontaneous, the startling, or the new. He loved routine, and he loved what was familiar and well-known enough that the knowledge had seeped into his bones. It was not surprising that he'd been employed by Lord Vetinari for years before he could say to himself with confidence that he loved the man.
Lord Vetinari had doubtless known it first. He had a way of knowing things. Of knowing things, and using them to his advantage, but he had never tried that with Drumknott's feelings. He was, on the whole, kinder than people gave him credit for.
Drumknott was on his way to his own desk when a sight from the window overlooking the gardens struck him. A shape, roughly familiar in its outlines, was plummeting towards the hoho. “Er, sir,” he said. “Do you recall those old documents from the Lancre National Archives I bought up last month? I believe King Verrence intended to move to what he referred to as an, er, bonnet repository.”
“Very forward-looking man, King Verrence of Lancre,” said Lord Vetinari with slight distaste. “Always looking for ways to improve his people’s lot.”
“Yes, sir,” Drumknott agreed. “And I’m afraid that they haven’t held our distinguished guest’s attention as long as I expected. He’s been building--”
There was a knock on the door. Drumknott froze in place for a moment, then turned towards the door cautiously, and Lord Vetinari’s hand casually dropped to the catch that opened the hidden drawer in his desk, because there shouldn’t have been a knock on the door.
The door opened and a head poked through. The person it belonged to followed shortly afterwards: a young woman, plump and rather ordinary-looking, towing a grubby child by the hand and smiling as if she didn’t know how many deadly security measures she'd bypassed in order to be in the Oblong Office before the morning meetings.4
"I'm so sorry to bother you—you look so frightfully busy—" she said. "But I wonder if either of you gentlemen has seen my husband or my son?"
There was a crash from the garden, and Drumknott peered out the window. The traditional plume of dust and shrubbery fragments was rising from the hoho. The child pulled free of her mother's hand and scrambled up to the windowsill. With a sudden' unexpected lurch of the heart, Drumknott made a grab for her before she could topple out headfirst, but her mother got there first, without actually seeming to cover the ground between them.
With the girl safely in her mother's arms, Drumknott took a few deep breaths and looked over at Lord Vetinari, who was studying—not the woman or the child, but Drumknott himself, with a peculiarly thoughtful expression.
The girl broke the silence first, pointing out the window and exclaiming, "It's Roger!"
The bird was the prettiest thing Roger had ever seen. It had soaring, swooping wings, with fine wooden bones and skin so pale and thin that the light shone through them. Its tail flapped like a fan, and the wood of its framework was dark and smooth. It wasn't alive the way that he was alive or the cats were alive, or even the way trees or the Castle were alive, but it had a coiled secret life of its own. It wanted to fly; it wanted Roger to fly it.
But there was something wrong with it. It hadn't flown. It had fallen instead, which had made Roger laugh and feel like he was going to throw up. Sky and trees and castle and dirt had gone by almost too fast for Roger to realize that this wasn't his Castle, or his world, but a whole new place he'd never been; so fast that it seemed part of Roger had been left behind, high above.
And then it had stopped. That hurt, and Roger started howling. There was blood on his knees and legs, and the heels of his hands, and it hurt, and it had all gone wrong, and he wanted Daddy to come fix it--but Daddy would be angry, and take Roger's bird away, the way he'd taken the shiny chittering bugs. That was no good. Those bugs had looked fun, and if only Roger had got the lid open he was sure they would have played with him. He'd just have to fix his own bird. How hard could it be? He could see how it was meant to go. He shut up and got to work.
One of the wings had been torn in the fall. Roger tried to poke it back together, but it wouldn't go, so he broke off the whole torn piece. It probably wasn't important. He straightened the tail out, and pushed it back again and again until it stayed straight. The wings should probably match--it wouldn't balance right if they didn't--so he broke off a piece of the left wing too. But it was too much, and now they didn't match again. Roger almost started howling again, but then he heard footsteps, and he knew he'd have to hurry if he wanted to fly his bird before they took it away. No time to fix anything else. Maybe if he got a running start. The bird liked fast, just like him. He looked around--he was on a long track, and there were earthen walls on both sides. It wasn't the best sort of place. But it was time to go.
He started running, and pushing, and Daddy was shouting from up on top of the walls, but Roger had left him behind. The bird moved so light on its wheels, bumping along over the rough ground. The was a drop off ahead--now!--Roger jumped onto the bird, and spread open its wings. There wasn't quite enough room between the walls, and something else caught and tore, but then the ground dropped away, and Roger and the bird lifted up. It was working! He was flying!
And then he was falling. It wasn't fair, it wasn't--he was plummeting past the castle, and Julia's face was in the window, and she called, "Roger!" and threw something at him.
He caught it. It was a rope made out of flowers, fizzing with life. The ordinary kind of life that flowers had, but made different, somehow. It was what the bird needed. It straightened out into a glide. Daddy was below, but he couldn't catch Roger, and neither could the other little, neat man who was chasing him, panting rather.
Treetops and wrought-iron fence posts skimmed the bird’s wings, which were almost in tatters by the time the magic in the flower rope ran out. The bird dropped like a stone and deposited Roger in a heap in the garden. All his hurts started smarting even worse, and Daddy was there with an angry face like a thundercloud. Roger didn’t care. He wriggled out from under the wreckage of the bird’s left wing, laughing, but even that wasn’t enough to express all the joy he felt. He took a deep breath. “Fly!” he said.
Roger was all right. That was the main thing. Christopher checked him all over, frantically, and found nothing worse than scrapes and cuts. At that point, relief chasing out panic, he might have become very sarcastic, but luckily for Roger, Millie chose that moment to appear. She swept out a side door, Julia clinging to her skirts, and an elegant-looking man walking behind her--no doubt Leonard's captor and friend, and Drumknott's employer. For a moment, Christopher wondered whether he could get away with wearing a skullcap. Monsignor was, after all, one of the titles that came with the position. But no, probably not.
"Darling, you mustn't let Roger get away from you like that," Millie said reproachfully. And, proving that the years had not dulled her ability to slide the knife in, she added, "You know what children can get up to in strange worlds. And you missed Julia's first magic."
"Well, you missed Roger's first word," Christopher countered. "He said 'fly,' clear as day."
"Did he, the clever boy!" Millie dashed across the garden, grinning broadly, and Christopher knew that both he and Roger were forgiven. She scooped up Roger and kissed his neck, and put an arm around Christopher's waist while Julia clung to his leg and chattered excitedly about daisy chains and cream cakes and Lord Vetinari's castle. The hug was complicated by the fact that Millie had a newspaper tucked under her arm.
"What have you got there?" said Christopher.
"Oh!" said Millie, letting him go and spreading it out. "Ankh-Morpork has the most fiendish crossword puzzle."
"Does it," said Christopher, grabbing the paper and scanning the clues. "Let me take it to Bernard? I still haven't got him back for that silver tie clip."
"No, I'll give it to him, he won't expect it from me," said Millie. "Have you sorted out the emergency that you got called her for, by the way?"
Christopher shrugged. "No emergency, unless idle curiosity counts as an emergency. Which in Leonard of Quirm's case I suppose it might." He poked at the remains of the flying machine with his toe. "It's an awful nuisance, but I suppose I can see how he might be a useful sort of person to have around."
"Christopher! I can't believe you'd consider poaching that nice Lord Vetinari's eccentric genius in such a shocking fashion." She nudged him with an elbow. "What did he say, then?"
"He's quite happy where he is." Christopher sighed. "For the best, I'm sure."
"Probably," said Millie. "But if there's no pressing business, do you want to go and explore the city? It's been so long since we had a family holiday. And I saw the most interesting-looking sausage cart on my way in."
Christopher gave a delicate shudder. "I do apologize for not keeping a closer eye on Roger. But are you really angry enough to subject me to street food?"
"I want a sausage," said Julia.
"You don't get that from my side of the family, my girl," said Christopher, lifting her up onto his shoulders.
"In a bun," said Julia. Millie settled Roger on her hip, and they all went out to explore Ankh-Morpork.
Vetinari and Drumknott watched them go. Millie had her arm through the Chrestomanci’s; he tilted his head towards her and she laughed at something he said. Drumknott looked almost wistful.
“Do you regret not ever having a family, Drumknott?” said Vetinari.
“No, sir,” said Drumknott fervently. “It seems like it might be . . . alarming.”
“Ah, yes. And you do like things orderly, don’t you? A place for everything, and everything in its place.” There was a slight flush on Drumknott’s cheeks, and a slight widening of his eyes, but for someone who didn’t know him as well as Vetinari did, he would have appeared entirely indifferent. It was a dignity that Vetinari was loath to offend. “I have often observed of Ankh-Morpork that, as haphazard as its customs are, as chaotic as they may seem to outsiders, the city works. And, in general, I prefer not to disturb something that is working. You and I have a good working relationship, do we not?”
Drumknott swallowed. “I like to think so.”
“And yet, cities change, and part of not disturbing them is knowing when not to stand in the way of that change. It didn’t seem as if I had any particularly pressing business this morning.”
“Er,” said Drumknott. “It would probably do the Klatchian and Hersheban ambassadors good to cool their heels a little longer. And if you postponed the meeting with her, Mrs. Palm would be understanding.”
Vetinari rarely did anything so crass as laughing, but on this occasion he did exhale with unusual force. “I believe she would. Have I ever told you that you have a delightful way with words?”
“Er, no, sir.” Drumknott was blushing in earnest now, and Vetinari couldn’t restrain himself from touching his face to feel the heat there. After a startled second, Drumknott leaned into the touch with a satisfied sigh and said, “I don’t believe you have.”
Vetinari trailed his fingers over Drumknott’s jaw and down his throat. “Clearly we have much to discuss.”
“Shall I cancel your meetings?” said Drumknott.
“Do,” said Vetinari.
3. Of course, if Lord Vetinari had wanted to hear The Free-Delver he could have simply gone. But if he had gone to the Opera House to hear The Free-Delver it would have been for business, not pleasure. It must be acknowledged that Lord Vetinari took a certain amount of pleasure in that sort of business—in feeling out the pulse of the city; in seeing, and being seen, and observing the effects of being seen; in exchanging polite banalities with hidden edges; in learning what could be learned from the volume of a sleeve or the crease in a collar or the tenor of applause after a song. A man at the height of his powers always takes pleasure in the exercise of those powers, in excelling and knowing himself to be the best, and any man watching would have to be an unfeeling clod not to thrill to it in some small way himself—
But the point was that Lord Vetinari would not have enjoyed the music much, as such. Not the way he would enjoy it in the calm of his office, and the quiet of his own head.↩