"Pardon me," said Vetinari. "I hate to interrupt you while you're working, but I'm a big fan, and I wondered if I could get your autograph."
I'M FLATTERED, said Death as he tucked away his scythe. He patted his robe in search of a pen.
"So, do you come here often?"
IT'S A DANGEROUS ALLEY. A gum wrapper, a used tissue, an aluminium ducat from the short-lived kingdom of Ghezywanatulu.1
"That it is. Commander Vimes complains it's too dark, the Assassins' Guild complains it's too bright... and I'm afraid the lantern-lighters cost the city more than a few dozen murders do, so the Assassins' Guild wins."
A used postage stamp, a button off a jacket he'd thrown out a century ago, an entire colony of lint. I'M SORRY, I DON'T HAVE A PEN.
"Not to worry." Vetinari produced a silver fountain pen from his black velvet coat.
THANK YOU. HOW SHALL I MAKE IT OUT?
"Havelock, if you please."
Death signed the gum wrapper.2TO HAVELOCK, LIGHTER OF LANTERNS. He considered this a moment, then scratched out the last part and wrote under it: PAYER OF LIGHTERS OF LANTERNS.
"Does anyone care that he killed me?" asked the dead man's shade.
"Not especially," said Vetinari, and Death had to agree.
1 Ghezywanatulu, which seceded from Ankh-Morpork for four days during the summer of 1524, Year of the Hazardous Prawn, is now known as Gleam Street. Its currency, of which a surprising amount was minted, bears the likeness of King Bill the Short-Headed and is valid at all establishments on Gleam Street between Five-Eighths Avenue and Locust Lane.
2 He tried the tissue first, but that didn't work so well.
"Why, hello again."
Vetinari smiled. "You remembered. I don't suppose you get much business here." He gestured around at Miss Mercy's Klatchian Dance School for Girls. Miss Mercy, known as Widow Bess in Lancre, Contessa Georgina von Snoukwherst in Überwald, and Crossbow Annie in Sto Helit, lay at his feet.
ON THE CONTRARY, Death said as he gave Miss Mercy's shade, which was cursing and kicking at Vetinari, a firm nudge into the mists. THIS USED TO BE AN ABATTOIR BEFORE THE FIRE OF 1602.3 I CAME FOR THE INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENTS, BUT SEVERAL OF MY COLLEAGUES WERE SEMI-PERMANENT RESIDENTS. WE HELD A RETIREMENT PARTY FOR THE DEATH OF PIGS HERE.
Vetinari cupped his elbow with his right hand and propped his chin up with the left. "How fascinating. If the Death of Pigs is retired, where does my morning bacon come from?"
I TOOK OVER HIS CASEWORK -- A FOOLISH DECISION AS IT TURNED OUT. I AM NOW RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL DEATHS. He paused. BUDGET CUTS. Death couldn't speak in quotes, so he made curly gestures with his finger bones at the last two words.
"You aren't planning on retiring any time soon, are you?"
Death squirmed. NO.
"Good. As I said, I'm a very big fan of your work. Here." Vetinari plucked a flower from amidst the shards of vase on the floor. It had a little blood on it, but it was hard to see against the red petals. "This is for you. A small token of my esteem."
Death took the flower gingerly. At once the petals shrivelled up and fell off, but Vetinari didn't seem to mind, so Death tucked the stem into his lapel.
3 The fire was caused by Leonard of Quirm, three hundred and nine years before his birth, during testing of his Making Events Go Backwards Thereby Changing the Past Machine, when he sent a lit pipe back in time to an archivists' convention.
"We really must stop meeting like this."
INDEED. I AM BEGINNING TO THINK YOU ARE KILLING PEOPLE ON PURPOSE.
"Well," Vetinari said as he pulled his dagger free, "that is the definition of 'murder'." He cleaned his blade with a white handkerchief, watching Death from under coyly lowered lashes. "I hope you don't mind."
Death shifted. I AM PAID TIME AND A HALF FOR OVERTIME.
"Wonderful, wonderful. I do wish I could say the same of my job, but my salary is the same be it Monday morning or Hogswatch Eve. Even the bribes are fixed by the Civil Corruption Regulatory Board." Vetinari smiled in a way that made Death want to shiver.4 "My overtime pay is that at the end of the day the city has not burned down,5 and I'm still alive."
UNLIKE HIM. Death shooed the befuddled shade along and toed the body with one long bony6 foot. IS THERE A REASON YOU HAVE BEEN KILLING PEOPLE?
"Oh, they're all criminals of the vilest sort. I'm saving the taxpayers the expense of a trial and execution." Vetinari paused. "Though I suppose the cost has merely shifted to the Watch. Commander Vimes is very conscientious that way. Do you know he actually tries to solve every murder?"
A TASK AKIN TO COUNTING ALL OF THE GRAINS OF SAND IN DJELIBEYBI.
"Vimes isn't quite that ambitious. I meant all of Ankh-Morpork's murders, not the world's."
SO DID I.
"Talented and witty. How exceptional. Since our meetings are costing the city, perhaps you could visit me next time."
I AM QUITE BUSY...
"But if I stop killing people, it will clear up your schedule. Dinner tomorrow? Shall we say seven?" Vetinari didn't wait for answer, but wiped his hands clean on the handkerchief. "You know where I live."
4 He could shiver, despite the lack of flesh, but it made a dreadful racket.
5 Except for a bakery in the Shades and a third of a neighbourhood in Dolly Sisters.
6 All bone, in fact.
Vetinari, it turned out, was Patrician of the city, which explained why he lived in the Patrician's Palace. Death rarely took interest in the professions of those he met,7 but in Vetinari's case he found it notable in that it came with lavish trappings.
Sitting awkwardly at the opposite end of a long table, Death took in the High Ankhian furnishings, the Agatean tapestries and fine Quirmish crystal, and made a note to use the royal sword when he came for Vetinari.
"I'm so pleased you could join me," Vetinari said from the far, far end of the table. A servant shook out his napkin for him and laid it across his lap, then made the trek to do the same for Death. "It's nice to have some civil company," he added as he began to eat. "I had the most vexing conversation with Vimes today."
Death looked at his plate. Lamb and curried potatoes. He took up his knife and fork, unfamiliar tools as they were, and managed to slice a bite of lamb. He used the fork to bring it to his mouth; it fell out through the bottom of his jaw and landed on his napkin.
Vetinari carried on as though all his dinner guests dropped their food into their laps. "The man is rather like a golem when he starts."
I HAVE HAD SEVERAL FALSE ALARMS CONCERNING SAMUEL VIMES. HE IS INDEED A FRUSTRATING MAN. Death tried the potatoes next; they squished between his teeth and plopped onto his robe.
"He's convinced I had something to do with a recent spate of murders."
"I'm the Patrician. I'm allowed a number of murders per annum -- and I must say I'm well within my quota this year. It's in bad taste to question the Patrician about his allotted murders."
Death nodded. IT IS IN BAD TASTE TO MAKE AN ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION SADDLE HIS HORSE, SHARPEN HIS SCYTHE, AND RIDE ALL THE WAY HERE IF YOU'RE NOT ACTUALLY PLANNING TO DIE.
"A toast then. To Sir Samuel -- may he continue to plague us so long as he remains useful."
Death raised his glass. The rim clinked against his teeth, and the wine joined the rest of his meal on his lap.
7Generally because once he met them, their careers came to an abrupt and permanent halt.
THIS IS FOR YOU.
"You shouldn't have," Vetinari said, but he took the basket Death held out to him anyway. He set it on his desk, right overtop of the paperwork he'd been working on when Death arrived. He seemed very pleased, and Death smiled.8
Vetinari had given Death a flower and invited him for dinner; a nagging feeling of inequity had prompted him to reciprocate. He had trouble making friends, and he suspected Vetinari suffered the same problem. Why else would the man lurk in alleys in order to chitchat with anthropomorphic personifications?
"How very thoughtful of you," Vetinari said, touching Death's sleeve. No one touched Death but Susan and sometimes Albert. "I'm certain--" Vetinari froze, lid half open. "It's a cat."
"Yes, I see that."
HER NAME IS MARY-ANNE.
Mary-Anne poked her pink nose out of the basket and blinked up at the blank-faced Patrician. "Mrouw?" she asked Death.
YES, I THINK SO.
Mary-Anne sniffed the air, and then arched her back and hissed.
OH, SURELY IT'S NOT AS BAD AS THAT.
Mary-Anne growled something terribly rude in Cat, and from under the Patrician's desk came an answering insult in Dog.
"Let's just put Mary-Anne in the bedroom, shall we?" Vetinari shut the basket lid with the air of a man handling live snakes9 and scooped it up.
8 It was more of a grin really, and it wasn't so much that he did it but that he kept on doing it, only with a little more purpose.
9 Another man handling live snakes. Vetinari handled live snakes like he handled a cup of tea.
Lines had been drawn in the Patrician's office, an invisible but clearly felt division. Anyone entering the room knew it at once.
This is dog territory. This is cat.
The line bisected the office at about waist-height on your average Ankh-Morporkian citizen.10 The upper half, naturally, belonged to the cat.
Mary-Anne perched on the back of the Patrician's chair, from which she had an excellent view of his desk. At each signature, the pen sped to a flourish and Marry-Anne flicked her tail.
Under the table, Wuffles grumbled until Vetinari rubbed his belly with his foot.
"Sir Samuel has invited us to dinner tomorrow."
Death fixed Vetinari with a steady look. He'd taken to joining Vetinari in his office in the evenings and despite the incident with Drumknott11 he found the Patrician's company and his parade of effortless machinations relaxing. OH?
"Well, Lady Sybil invited us." Vetinari paused, and Death could see the foolhardy sweat that was considering beading on his upper lip. It backed off at the last moment, and Vetinari continued, cool and victorious. "After I informed her we were coming, of course. I'm actually not sure if Sir Samuel is aware of our impending social call yet."
Death picked up a rather ugly carving of a crying baby from a shelf and turned it over in his hands. It seemed rude to arrive unannounced to one half of the host. If he could have frowned, he would have, but instead he put the carving back in its place.
"That's a cursed Mwani12 idol, you realize."
I KNOW. I HAVE COME FOR ALL ONE-THOUSAND EIGHT-HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN PEOPLE IT HAS KILLED SINCE IT WAS CARVED. SHOULD I BRING ANYTHING TO DINNER? Death tapped a finger bone against his teeth. POTATO SALAD?
"Only yourself." Vetinari paused again; Death had begun to interpret those small silences as gentle nudges towards something he hadn't yet deduced. "And your scythe."
I HAVE NO APPOINTMENTS FOR THAT TIME AND PLACE.
"It makes you look taller." Vetinari set down his pen, much to Mary-Anne's delight, and crossed his office to straighten the collar of Death's robe. "Not that you need it, but I do like to show you off."
Disconcertingly, the Patrician had reached up to cup Death's jaw. He ran a thumb over one prominent cheekbone. It rasped, warm flesh on bone.
10 The trolls and the dwarves cancelled each other out, but the population of imps was larger than that of golems, so the average Ankh-Morporkian waist height was two-point-eight feet, or about up to Nobby Nobbs' chin.
11 There was still tea on the ceiling but the concussion was quite mild considering the weight of the tray and how high it had flown.
12 Mwani, the Big Hunger, is doomed to remain a small god due to her unfortunate appetite for her own followers.
"Good evening, sirs," said Willikins. "May I take your coat and... accoutrements?"
Death handed him the scythe. TAKE CARE. IT'S SHARP.
"Very good, sir. If you'll follow me."
Judging by the combed wet hair and the strained smile when Willikins showed them to the drawing room, Death surmised that someone had informed Sir Samuel of the event. Possibly only as the Patrician's carriage was drawing up to the doors, but at least Death no longer had to worry about dropping in unannounced.
"Lord Vetinari," Willikins announced, bowing, "and Death."
"Havelock, my dear," said Lady Sybil. "So good to see you again." She kissed Vetinari's cheek and then pulled Death down to do the same. Vimes made a peculiar choking sound. "Delighted to meet you at last, Death. We've had a fair few close calls, eh?" She elbowed his rib bones.
NONE CLOSE ENOUGH TO FRET OVER, Death said.
Lady Sybil offered him a drink, but Death was happy to join Vimes in sobriety on the dainty little cream settee while Vetinari accepted a glass of sherry. Out of all of them, only Vetinari looked at home amid the delicate furniture.
YOU DO NOT DRINK, SIR SAMUEL.
"As a matter of fact I'm a champion at it. It's the stopping I don't do."
AH. I FIND THE SMELL IS DIFFUCULT TO REMOVE FROM THE ROBE.
"Try getting it out of your hair when you've slept in a puddle of the stuff," Vimes muttered. He tugged at the collar of his dress uniform. "So, are you... off-duty?"
I AM NEVER OFF-DUTY. Death noted that Vimes's eye had started to twitch and added, THOUGH MY DUTIES ARE OCCURING ELSEWHERE TONIGHT.
"People are dying in my city."
"Are there many nows?"
AS MANY AS NECESSARY TO DO THE JOB.
Vimes narrowed his eyes. "Do you work to a schedule?"
Death crossed his legs and smoothed his robe over his kneecaps. OF A SORT. EACH LIFE HAS A TIMER, BUT THERE IS LITTLE ADVANCE NOTICE WHEN IT RUNS OUT.
"I see," Vimes said, very calmly. "Do these timers show the time and place of death?"
Vimes leaned forward. "And the cause? As in 'Bargie Bargenson will be stabbed in the chest by Cobble Stokewright next Tuesday at the Mended Drum over an unpaid bar tab'?"13
"Gracious, Sir Samuel," said Vetinari. He crossed the room to perch on the arm of the settee beside Death. "That's what I pay you to discover."
I'M SORRY, THEY DO NOT SPECIFY THE REASON FOR ME TO OCCUR.
"But you're there, right?" Vimes asked, now sounding faint, and Lady Sybil came over to pat his shoulder. "Great Io, you must witness every murder in the city."
MOST OF THEM, YES. SOMETIMES THE KILLER IS GONE BEFORE I ARRIVE.
"So you would know--"
"Sam, don't pester our guest."
"But Sybil, he--"
Vimes subsided, still looking like he'd taken one too many blows to the helmet.
A polite cough drew their attention to the door, where Willikins bore an expression of sincere butlerish apology.14 "I beg your pardon, my lords, my lady, but dinner is served."
They moved to the dining room. Young Sam was already seated in a tall chair, a yellow napkin with a cartoon Soul Cake Duck on it tucked into his collar. Someone had thoughtfully placed a tarp under his chair.
EXCUSE ME, Death said to Willikins, pointing at the tarp, BUT MAY I HAVE ONE OF THOSE TOO? AND A NAPKIN WITH DUCKS, PLEASE.
At least this time he wouldn't be the only one wearing more food than he ate.
13 Bargie Bargenson was in fact stabbed in the chest by Kettle Bargenson over the Bargenson bun occupying Lucky Underspinner's oven.
14 Which is to say, thinly veiled impatience to get the gentry moving before the soufflé falls.
Sam Vimes stood with his wife on the steps of their house, watching the Patrician's carriage pull away. The scythe was poking out the window like a strangely apt standard.
"Tell me, Sybil, am I mad?"
"No, dear. They do appear to be courting. I think it quite sweet, and very clever of Havelock."
Sam considered this. "I believe I heard Vetinari speak more tonight than I have in all the years I've known him."
"Havelock knows he can't out-silence Death," Sybil said.
"He ought to be more careful. People might start to think love turned his wits soft."
"I do believe you're right, dear," Sybil said, tone suddenly sub-arctic. "It's a common affliction among males."
I HAD A LOVELY TIME.
"Won't you come in?"
Death followed Vetinari into the Patrician's Palace, silent as they walked through the halls side-by-side. By the time they reached Vetinari's office, he had decided to broach the matter directly as Vetinari seemed limited to the oblique.
I HAVE NO GENITALS OR SEX DRIVE.
"The same is written of me on many a public toilet wall," Vetinari said, tossing his gloves on his desk. "Come now, Death. Surely you understand there is more to a relationship than sex? There's companionship and trust." He paused. "Loyalty."
AH. The heavy pauses coalesced into understanding. YOU REALIZE I CANNOT GIVE YOU PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT. IT'S AGAINST THE RULES.
"Dearest, I would never expect you to break the rules on my behalf. However, let's just keep that little fact between us, hmm?"
Death ruminated. I SEE. YOU BELIEVE THAT BY MAKING OUR RELATIONSHIP PUBLIC, OTHERS WILL INFER THAT YOU ARE IMMUNE TO ME.
"If they choose that interpretation I shan't correct them." Vetinari brushed cat hair from his doublet15 until the silence reached critical mass and ballooned from polite to significant. He cleared his throat. "You do realize that I never act for less than a dozen reasons?" It was, for the Patrician, almost an apology.
WOULD YOUR ULTERIOR MOTIVES INCLUDE AFFECTION?
"If you choose that interpretation..."
Death was touched. YOU MUST TRUST ME A GREAT DEAL.
"You're the most honourable person, man or anthropomorphic personification, I know. With the possible exception of Sir Samuel, and I rather think the poor man would expire if I propositioned him."
Death stepped closer. IS THIS A PROPOSITION?
"You're the ideal companion for a man in my position," Vetinari said, "though I admit that at this stage certain unexpected factors may be influencing my decision."
Death cupped the Patrician's face, bone to flesh. I LOVE YOU, TOO, HAVELOCK.
15 Cat hair is a form of thaumatological particle that is not bound by normal rules of time and space, and therefore it had been on Vetinari's doublet since the week before Mary-Anne's arrival.
"What on the Disc are they doing in there?" asked Mary-Anne from her half of the room.
Down in dog territory, Wuffles hid his muzzle in his worn blanket. "I don't want to know."
"It sounds like they're playing dice." One large ear swiveled, flicked as though to clean its aural palette, honed in on the bedroom door once more. "Or clogging. It could be clogging."
"Whatever it is, they shouldn't be doing it without me. Us," he amended, with a glance up at the desk. He'd found a little flattery went a long way towards maintaining the ceasefire. "He locked us out."
"You're just jealous." Mary-Anne sniffed and turned her attention to her fur, which was more interesting than the two tall things and their noise.
Wuffles whimpered. "Master likes him better than me now. I don't see how he can't. All those lovely bones... Not much meat but I bet there's marrow." He buried his nose in his tail, still watching the door with mournful eyes. "At least he loves me more than you."
"I don't need his love." Mary-Anne shook herself and jumped down from the desk. "I need him to open the tuna. Now budge over." She climbed into the basket, heedless of where her paws stepped, and kneaded the blanket all out of shape.
Wuffles grumbled, but moved over.
"Look at it this way," said Mary-Anne as she curled up in the warmest spot, taking far more than her share of the basket. "You've lost a master and gained a cat. It sounds like an excellent bargain to me."