“Ah, Mr. Lipwig, do sit down.”
He doesn’t look well, Moist noted as he slipped into the chair opposite the Patrician’s desk. Vetinari had always been pale and gaunt this was true, but in that oh so effortless way only vampires could achieve, through centuries of moonlit balconies and liquid dieting. But there was something off about Vetinari just now. Tired was the best way to describe it. The worst were less forgiving.
“You wanted to see me, my Lord?”
“Evidently, Mr. Lipwig,” Vetinari replied, entreating to him to a small smile, devoid of its usual sharpness, “Or I dare say you’d be elsewhere. How is the family?”
Moist blinked. When the black carriage had turned up outside the gates just before dawn he’d been expecting several things. Familial niceties was not one of them.
“Oh, uhm, yes fine, thank you.”
“John doing well in school? I heard Charlotte won a prize for the best scale model of the palace.”
Moist nodded. “Yes my Lord, I believe it was the accuracy of the miniature scorpion pits that swayed the decision…thank you for that by the way, John’s nightmares have almost stopped.”
If Vetinari noticed the cynical edge of reproach to his words, he didn’t show it, simply giving a quiet little half laugh and turning his eyes upwards.
“How long have you been in the city now, Mr. Lipwig? Thirteen years?”
“I dare say you’d know better than me, my Lord.”
“And in that time you’ve become not only a respected citizen but an admired one, cherished even, if one is to believe Mr. De Worde.” He gestured to the morning edition of the Times on his desk, the ink still shining and wet from the press. “Fifth term in a row as Chairman to the Guild of Merchants, my congratulations to you.”
Moist inclined his head. It was going to be one of those meetings it would seem, the kind where reading between the lines wasn’t so much a fun exercise but an olympic event.
“Thank you, my Lord,” then added, “The very nearly gold chain is heavier than it looks.”
“Yes, I imagine it is. Frankly I’m surprised you have the time to tend to the needs of the merchant guilds, what with the post office, the royal mint, the railway, your contributions to the clacks service, your duties to the tax office, and that is to say little of your personal time as a husband and doting father…tell me, where do you find time for the baker the butcher and the candlestick maker?”
Doting father, Moist thought, eyes that had begun to glaze over during the listing of his many civic occupations, fixated on the newspaper on the desk again, where the front page bore the image of himself, poised to submit his tax form into one of the many collection boxes that had been put up around the city. Adora and John stood beside him, looking on with polite interest, while Charlotte had stolen the scene by jumping up to relieve Moist of his top hat and was midway to putting it on her pigtailed head when the flash went off. “Fun for all the family” the caption read, “the Lipwig family are the first in line to pay their taxes through the new system, devised by Mr. Lipwig himself.” He knew without reading it that it went on to detail the exact specifications of the new taxation system, peppered here and there with quotes from himself and other members of the General Public. He'd been rather precise with Miss Cripslock on the need for clarity.
Adora, who normally hated his getting the children involved in publicity stunts but begrudgingly accepted it, had been so taken with the picture, she’d gone to Otto Chriek and asked to have the negatives developed. In color no less. When it was done it would be sitting over their mantle, the image of Moist with his hand on John’s shoulder, and his own grin mirrored back at him in the face of their daughter, for all the world a tiny miniature of Adora, save for her smile, which was entirely his. And it had worked too, swayed by the image of the wholesome, respectable and above all else, lovable family everyone knew as part of the civic foundation of the city. Everyone knew the Lipwig twins, they'd all bought the special editions stamps when they'd been born and nudged him good naturedly in the ribs about special deliveries and first class performances. The house had been flooded out by gifts of flowers and jars of home made jam and well wishes for the little darlings who everyone knew Moist took to the Royal Mint the day they were born and had them weighed against the weight of gold and the scales had tipped in their favor. He hadn't of course, Adora wouldn't let him, but he hadn't bothered to dissuade the story either. They were, he realized, his biggest and best publicity stunt to date, and that thought both filled him with pride and shame every time he looked at their beautiful little faces and pulled them out of school regardless so they could spend some valuable family time with dad...even if that time was spent posing for photos and waving to crowds.
And as a result the people of Ankh-Morpork had come out in droves to inspect the new tax form collection boxes, and with Moist using the post office to distribute the forms and the bank to create the safe deposit transfers, against the odds, people had started to pay their taxes, much to the outrage of noble ranks, who as far as Moist could tell, had never paid a single dollar. Lady Sybil had of course, though she seemed to be the exception. When he closed his eyes at night he could still see the light in Sam Vimes’ eyes when he’d told him about the detainment of Lord Selachii for fraud and embezzlement against the city. It had been like Hogswatch, lit by the fires of hell...
Realizing he was still staring at the picture, Moist roused himself and darted his gaze back to Vetinari, pulling a congenial smile out of his metaphorical hat for the sake of it.
“Oh I don’t know Sir, I suppose I just make the time, it’s only an illusion after all. Or so the monks say.”
“Is it indeed?” Vetinari raised an eyebrow at him, his own gaze dropping momentarily to the picture, and smiling again. In a forgiving light it might even have seemed fond. “Well then, what better man to have in charge than the chief illusionist.”
“In charge, Sir? Is there something you’d like me to take a look at?” Moist inquired politely, already beginning to feel the thrum of excitement in his bones at the prospect of a new challenge. Oh the taxes had been a struggle true enough, and his hat would never quite look the same after that crossbow bolt had gone through the top, but Moist told himself it added character. What was left? As near as he could tell Commander Ironfoundersson kept the Watch ticking over in such regulated order it went “ding” on the hour, and Harry King kept the city so clean these days you could eat your dinner off the cobblestones if the desire took you. So what was left? The public education system? Was that why Vetinari had brought up the children? It was true enough the public schools were nigh on nonexistent, and the private ones offered such a skewed education many of the students came out with a permanent crick in the neck. He’d already went around the schools too as part of the bank’s promotions about opening children’s savings accounts, and they’d had numerous visits to the post office so the kiddies could see how things worked. He’d enjoyed those visits, children were so much harder to dazzle than adults who thought they knew everything…he could already see it now, free education for everybody, funded by taxes...
“In a manner of speaking,” Vetinari replied, pausing momentarily to take a box from the top drawer of his desk and sliding it over the flat surface to Moist, the key still in the tiny lock.
Moist looked at it, lifting a puzzled gaze to Vetinari. When the other man did nothing more than blink at him, Moist reached out, and opened the top. And immediately slid the box back.
“Not me, no.” Moist continued, standing up and reaching up to adjust his hat which wasn’t there. “Thank you for the consideration but no.”
“Mr. Lipwig, do sit down.” Vetinari sighed, pushing the box back into the middle of the table, and pointedly not an inch further. “I will not force you to do anything you do not wish to.”
Moist eyed him, warily.
“At least not regarding this,” Vetinari amended, “though I hope you will come to see why I am offering this to you, and the importance of it.”
Despite his better judgement, the part of his brain currently screaming for him to start running and never look back, Moist sat down. And reached for the box again. It was a simple thing, carved from plain wood, and a lock so simple a child could pick it with a spoon. It didn’t need to be elaborate, because no one in their right mind would ever want to steal it.
Moist looked up at Vetinari, and found it suddenly vital for the shadows beneath the other man’s eyes to be a trick of the morning light filtering in the windows. “Why?”
“There was an idea in your head, when you thought I had another task for you, I could see the way your eyes unfocused on it. Tell me, what were you thinking?”
Moist swallowed. The last time he’d felt this stifled someone had tried to hang him. He looked up at that someone now.
“I was thinking, the city could use a board of education. Something to set up and regulate public schooling for the underprivileged…which let’s face it is everyone not able to afford a guild school, so about eighty percent of the city. We could offer a free basic education up to the age of fifteen, funded by taxes, after which they can either go into jobs or apprenticeships, or stay on at school if they like, go into one of the guilds or something…”
“And do you think such a plan would be feasible? That the citizens of Ankh-Morpork would be happy to pay for the education of others?”
Moist thought about it, turning his gaze inward. “I think if you sell it right, my Lord, the people of Ankh-Morpork will buy anything. Better education means better workers, which means better profits which means more wealth in the city. I know plenty of men that are embarrassed to mark an X on a contract of employment, so they won’t. They’d rather shovel shit or bruise their knuckles than be embarrassed. And I know plenty of girls in my accounting room who are currently serving tea but are smarter than the guild boys tallying up the totals. I think if you offered them a different world for their children they’d jump at it. Especially once they got used to it. Taxes is just taxes after all, it’s not money they’ve ever held in their hands and been able to see it vanish…it’ll just be there, like knowing they help pay for the Watch or the free hospitals.”
Vetinari narrowed his eyes, “The free hospitals are funded by generous donations…”
“But they don’t have to be!” Moist interjected, “We could have a fully functioning city that isn’t reliant on the hope for charity, or having to make the decision that your kids go without shoes so you can afford a doctor visit. Not when we have the potential to do so much.” He sighed, hearing his own inner, and much older thoughts sniggering at the ones currently escaping his mouth. “When you sent me out to take taxes, I thought it would be a bit of a laugh. Swindle some more rich people out of their money, and use it to repair the roads around the city. I never thought it would be taking money from the poor and using it to fund Lord Rust’s wall repairs because his house is old enough to qualify as a state monument. It’s not right.” He sighed again, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, that turned into a soap box pulpit.”
He looked up when Vetinari laughed.
“My dear Moist,” Vetinari said, the use of his first name almost as jarring as the laughter, “we both know if you were standing on a soap box you’d be turning a profit by selling the soap. Which brings me back to your question of why…well you have fortuitously already answered your own question. Given a millisecond to contemplate a new problem, you had already turned your mind to what needed to be changed in the city, more than that, you had an idea on how to change it and how to make said change palatable. I dare say you could sugarcoat death.”
The word hung in the air and splintered between them, groaning under the weight of the words going unsaid. He doesn’t look well, Moist thought again, surprised to find just how heavy the thought weighed on his chest, creating an ache deep within. He doesn’t look well, and he’s offering me this…
“But surely there’s more to it than this,” he objected, but he could already feel the world changing around him, all possible futures realigning to accommodate the new present hurtling toward him at rapid speed, “Surely there has to be a vote.”
Vetinari inclined his head, “Oh yes, if you recall Ankh-Morpork has dallied with several forms of democracy over the decades. At the moment we hold true to the fine tradition, One Man, One Vote. Fortuitously I am that one man, and my vote, is for you to take my place as Patrician of Ankh-Morpork upon my retirement.”
Moist said nothing. Instead he tipped the contents of the box out onto his hand. A small signet ring with the emblem of the city fell into his palm. From the weight of it, he recognized it to be iron, gilded to look like gold. It was even slightly flaked in places.
“I’ve often found,” Vetinari said into the deafening silence, “that very nearly gold, is so much heavier than the real thing. Probably because so much more effort is required to make it shine.”
Moist put the ring back in its box, and gently pushed it back toward the center of the table.
“I shall have to think about this, and speak with Adora,” he said. “It’s not just my life I’m responsible for now…”
Vetinari favored him with a look, which had Moist ever known his father, might have recognized as paternal fondness. “I’m so very glad to hear you say that.”
Abashed, Moist stood up, only just managing to abort the gesture of reaching for his hat which wasn’t there. He really needed to get the other one fixed, or invest in a new one while Charlotte insisted on keeping his top hat on the end of her bed…what kind of hat would a Patrician wear…
“Only, Mr. Lipwig,” Vetinari called him back, and Moist turned just as Drunknott opened the door, carrying a tray laden down with paperwork and what looked to be a pot of coffee, “don’t take too long. The thing about angels, if you’ll recall, is that you only ever get the one. And even angels have their limits.”
Moist nodded, about turned, and made his way out into the city which gleamed in the morning light. Just for a moment of course. But sometimes a moment is just long enough.