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Dame Rumour

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Prologue

"My motives, as ever, are entirely transparent."
Hughnon reflected that 'entirely transparent' meant either that you could see right through them or that you couldn't see them at all. -- The Truth

On great high Cor Celesti, the home of the gods of a funny little world that, against all probability, flies through space on the backs of four elephants and one giant turtle, things were peaceful.

Or had been, five minutes before.

Now, there was a thumping of celestial feet, a rustling of godlike robes, as several of the Disc's most heavenly denizens converged on the distinct sound of a flaming row. Gods like good street theatre as much as anyone, and this sounded like it was set to provide hours of holy entertainment.

Blind Io was a thunder god, but he was also quite an old god, and didn't get out much anymore, preferring to subcontract the thundering to the Quantum Weather Department, which seemed to be taking jolly good care of it. This was an exception. As the other gods gathered around at a respectful distance, they could see enormous storm-clouds forming over the gaming board across which Io and Bast, a Djelibeybi cat-god also popular with young girls who liked black lipstick, were shouting.

The gaming board itself was a model of the Discworld, complete with Great A'Tuin and the four elephants who rode on his back, and the sun and moon that orbited around them, and the vast expanse of the Disc itself, and even Cor Celesti, because, in a very real way, the gaming board was the Discworld.

And ominous thunderstorms were ripping across Ankh-Morpork, the greatest of the Disc's cities.

***

"Look at them stormclouds," Mustrum Ridcully said, staring out the window of the great ballroom at the Eorle estate, where dripping nobility were gathered for warm drinks and hors d'ourves and, if they were particularly masochistic, dancing. The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, a tall, thin man with the air of someone who is perpetually just about to announce your deepest secret, turned to look.

"Unusual, for October. Normally we only get them in late summer," he said, disinterestedly. He took the view that many things were controllable if you found the correct pressure point, and anything that couldn't be controlled should be eliminated or, in the case of the weather, ignored.

"Freak storm." Ridcully shrugged. "Suppose it's all them non-existent butterflies again."

"Non-existent butterflies, Archchancellor?"

"Yers. The boys in the High Energy Magic Buildin' keep goin' on about 'em. They've got a new theory every week," Ridcully added morosely. It depressed him to think about students at his University. He much preferred it when they kept to themselves and didn't bother the faculty. "Their newest one is that them quantum butterflies that're givin' us all this blasted weather don't exist either. When I was a lad, something either existed or it didn't. Now they're sayin' the butterflies are gods, or some nonsense like that."

"Giant butterfly gods?" the Patrician asked, a faint wrinkle in his brow.

"Well, it's like, we used to believe that gods made the weather, right? Old Io up there tap-dancing or whatever. And then they decided it was all down to butterflies."

"Ah yes. The Quantum Weather Butterfly? Mr. Stibbons attempted to explain it to me."

"Right. But now they're sayin' that the Quantum thingummys're also only around coz we believe in them. And I say, well, there was that mess last Hogswatch with all them gnomes and fairies hangin' about. The verruca gnome and all."

"I see," the Patrician said, which on his part indicated a vital interest. "Because there was...extra belief?"

"Well, there's always extra belief floatin' around on Hogswatch," Ridcully said. "There was just lots more last year."

"Where does it go, do you suppose?"

"Dunno. Suppose the gods normally snap it up. Huh. Gods," Ridcully sniffed. "Anyhow, now the Quantum folk have got some on it, so score one for magic. And anyway, it's not like you need much help to believe in the weather."

"Yes, it is so obviously there," the Patrician murmured, as a particularly violent bolt of lightning split the sky. "Ah, I believe that's Lord Rust being drenched in the courtyard, I have some words for him. If you will excuse me, Archchancellor..."

***

"YOU GAMBLED IT ALL AWAY?" Io thundered. Several of his eyes, which led an independent life of their own, zipped around Bast's head. She looked relatively nonchalant.

"He carrrrme up to say hello," she said. "He had his paperrrrs for us. How warrs I to knowwwl?"

"What gave you the right to bet it in the first place!" Io shouted. "It belongs to all of us!"

"Then I had a rrright to some of it," Bast shot back, scratching her whiskers with one claw. "He's the Hogfatherrrr, he's not supposed to cheat."

"You cheated, didn't you?" Io asked, in a dangerously soft voice.

"Yerrrs," she said, looking indignant. "But he cheated betterrrr."

The other gods, now that it appeared Io's wrath was confined solely to Bast, nodded approvingly. Cheating was part of the game, when gods played it.

"So let me get this right," Io said, and now the other gods knew he was speaking for their benefit, and that shortly Bast would be in a heap more trouble than was already the case. "The Hogfather came up here with his papers to deliver the extra belief and you signed for it -- "

"I'm allowed," Bast said sulkily.

"And then he said, well, long as I'm up here, how about a game or two?"

Bast nodded. "I'm a god! He's just an anthropomorrrrphic perrrsonification! How could I lose?"

"Yes, but you did lose."

"Cats aren't good at Cripple Mr. Onion. Well known fact," someone called.

"I hearrrrd that, Antipodesss," Bast growled.

"And now he's got all that belief back, hasn't he?" Io continued inexorably.

The gods stared hard at Bast, who looked miserable.

"And now there's no extra belief for Hogswatch," Io said severely.

"It's all gone too commerrrrcial anyhow," Bast mumbled. "What about the Hogswatch Spirrrrit?"

"Oh, you mean believing in the Hogfather and the retht?" Offler asked, from the front of the crowd. Bast glared at him. "What'th he going to do with all that exthra belief, anyhow?"

As one, the gods looked down at the game-board.

***

The rain had finally ceased to fall, and the thunder had stopped, although ominous clouds still hung low over the city. Vetinari, who was a light sleeper to begin with -- one had to be, in his line of work -- opened his eyes as the clock chimed two am.

"Oh my," he said, to no-one in particular. "Is it that easy?"

And he reached for the notebook on his bedside table.

***

"A mortal? He gave it all to one bloody damned mortal?"

Chapter Text

There was a time, a small golden time between his marriage and his promotion to Dukedom, when the Commander of the Watch had exactly as many officers as he wanted, had exactly as much rank and privilege as he could handle without occasionally being disgusted with himself, and would never have dreamed of using spies.

Of couse he had street folk and informants who once in a while had an interesting bit of information to share, and Watchmen always heard things other people didn't hear, but that wasn't spying. It was Information Recieved.

There was a time when the only reason Sam Vimes kept his ear to the street was because he was too drunk to get up out of the gutter.

And now, while he still would not admit to it, his grace the Duke of Ankh had quite an extensive network of...of 'not-spies'. Call them the Men in Armour. The Commander's Information Agency. They were coppers, trained in Ankh-Morpork, who'd left the city for pay raises and promotions in other cities that were in need of a few good men (or women, dwarves, trolls, and various undead -- but not vampires. Never vampires.)

Informally they were called Sammies.

Most of the time, they were just Watchmen, who kept their heads down and did their job and drew a paycheck. But they paid attention out of habit, because if you didn't pay attention in Ankh-Morpork you could get in serious trouble.

They kept in touch with each other. And some of them kept in very good touch with Vimes.

The messenger pigeon had come from Lance-Corporal Ben Carpet, on the Sto Plains, who got the news from Sergeant Rex Von Werren*, up near the borders of Uberwald, who got it from a witch passing through from Genua to Bad Ass. Even though it came by pigeon, it was in code, and once you got it decoded it was in copper slang. It took Vimes a few minutes to understand the basic gist of the message.

* The sergeant was a werewolf with quite unimaginative parents, but when your littermates are Princess, Fido, and Spot, you tend to look kindly on Rex.

When he finally did, he lit a cigar contemplatively and did some mental calculations. News traveled much faster than people, but had more way-stations en route. If there were no incidents on the road from Genua to Ankh-Morpork -- and with a passenger like he expected, there wouldn't be -- then she ought to arrive in about a week.

He wasn't sure who he ought to discuss it with first. The Patrician seemed the logical choice, but he almost certainly already knew, and if he didn't -- well, Vimes would have taken a perverse delight in telling him, but didn't think it would be a wise career move.

If the Patrician did know...then he probably wasn't going to tell Vimes anything new.

He could tell Carrot, but Carrot would gravely express his hopes for a happy event, and go on his way until further information was provided.

William de Worde would kill for the knowledge. And if he printed it, he'd get Vimes killed too. But the lad had even more contacts in the great wide Disc than Vimes did, and could probably swap information with him. Vimes considered what the effect would be if he tried subtly pumping William for that information, and decided against it.

So he did what he always did when he didn't know what to do. He walked.

Hogswatch was only ten days away, and the streets were piled high with greyish slurry. It was a time of year -- possibly the only time -- when Vimes was grateful for his thick boots and heavy coat. The street vendors which sold Ankh-Morpork some of its most organic animal by-products were few and far between, but there was sad, dusty holly in many of the shop windows, and -- despite the Patrician's best efforts to prevent it -- there were people singing on streetcorners.

He turned the message over and over in his mind. He'd learned from Cheery and Angua that hill-witches in the Ramtops were relatively trustworthy when it came to information of this kind. Not likely to make things up. Von Werren was as unimaginative as his parents, the poor sod, and wouldn't embroider too much. Carpet had done nothing more than dress it up in code.

Vimes was aware that human beings could take a simple story, like a dragon exploding in his wife's breeding pens, and pass it along from mouth to mouth until the entire Ramkin mansion had vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a small kipper and three slices of toast.

This didn't have the feel of something like that. This had the real, solid sensation of fear and confusion behind it.

Side-stepping a haycart, he turned onto Broad Way and winced.

Some daft bugger had gotten a wizard to enchant a dozen coils of wire, so that little bright colours danced along them merrily. He'd taken these coils and sold them to merchants, without even stopping to ask if the merchants had any sense of decency in the least. Several store windows were so brightly and garishly lit that people inside were wearing tinted glasses.

Bah, Hogswatch!

He kicked some snow onto one of the most horrible displays, causing the wire to smoke and sizzle, and the lights to go out. Several people applauded, including the clerks inside the store. Scowling, he continued on.

It wasn't that he didn't enjoy the season, but this town never took a break from crime, even for joyous gift-giving and eating the traditional winter pork products. People went a bit mad, too. All he wanted for Hogswatchnight was a few days of lawfulness around the place.

He knew one of his holiday gifts from Sybil was a polite request to Carrot not to disturb them with Watch business until at least after dinner on Hogswatchday. He hadn't managed to get her anything half so good*.

* He had worked quite hard to arrange the arrival of a new stud dragon, a genuine Retiring Smut, without her finding out about it.

His thoughts came round again to the message from Ben Carpet. When the carriage passed through his town, Ben promised, he'd clacks Vimes with confirmation. Vimes wanted to know now.

So who had information on the doings of the rich and powerful in Ankh-Morpork and abroad?

The thought hit him like thick stick.

I do.

***

On the brown dirt road that wound from Genua past the great Ramtop mountains, snaking towards the Sto Plains and eventually to the great coastal town of Ankh-Morpork, something glittered.

The air was still and, this being the road which followed the Vieux river, rather swampy. There was a sprinkling of oddly-coloured sunlight for a moment, and the muffled sound of carriage wheels. A whip-crack echoed. The dust lay as still as ever.

A small lizard, sunning itself in the dirt, suddenly found that it was not, as it were, attached to its body anymore. In fact, bits of its body were not attached to other bits. The truth of roadkill is not pretty, especially when lizard-meets-carriage-wheel.

OH. HELLO.

Death looked down on the little spirit-lizard, who flicked his forked tongue out lazily.

YES, WELL, LET'S BE ON WITH IT, Death said, a touch testily.

The post-lizard flicked his tongue again, scrabbled in the dirt, and scuttled away, until it faded slowly into nothingness. Death watched it go, then turned to look down the road.

HMMM, he said, thoughtfully. The spectral outline of a carriage could be seen. There was a vivid green stain on one wheel.

Then he shrugged.

***

The Scoone Avenue grounds, considerably less well-stomped-on than the rest of the city, were blanketed in a thin, melting layer of white. Around the dragon house, there was a smell that is possibly one of the rarest on the Disc: scorched snow. When snow didn't even have time to melt before it burned, you knew you were in dragon country*.

* The only other place in the multiverse where the scent of burning water can be found is around aquaeous parts cleaners in painters' shops, where the water is recycled and heated and mixed with paint so many times that it takes on a viscous quality, like motor oil, or possibly the Ankh.

Sybil was training the latest batch of hatchlings, now just about the right size for pets, to sit on shoulders. She expected a half-dozen emergency purchases by forgetful spouses and parents, around nine pm on Hogswatchnight, and wanted to be prepared. Young Sam, well to the rear of proceedings, gurgled happily as he threw his rattle into a pen, where a couple of hen dragons ate it. They lost more toys that way...

"You're home early," she said, as a dragon shot a lick of flame past her ear. She'd already swathed her face in protective layers of flame-retardant cloth. "Here, hold this one, he's sitting a treat but he needs to get used to different people."

Vimes found a small, smelly creature planted firmly on one shoulder. He suspected that Sybil often did this sort of thing deliberately, because it is hard for a man's wife to take him seriously when he's wearing a toxic chemical factory on one arm. It dribbled a little, and he knew he'd have to have Detritus darn his chain mail again.

"I think I'm still on duty," he said thoughtfully. Sybil looked at him just in time to avoid having her eyebrow burned off. She smacked the little dragon's nose with a roll of paper, which caught fire. Vimes went to pick up his son, glanced at the creature on his shoulder, and thought better of it.

"Sam, dear, are you ever truly off duty?" Sybil asked.

"Well, no," he said uncomfortably, "Not as such, but I had to ask you about some things. Er. Which may or may not be Watch-related."

She smiled. "All right. What do you need to know?"

"Who do we know in Genua? Many people?"

Sybil pursed her lips. "Know in a general, went-to-school-with-them sort of way, or the more specific invited-them-to-our-wedding sort of way?"

"Either. Did we have anyone from Genua at the wedding?"

"I don't think so. There's Alicia LaBoue, we were school chums, and her husband's family, the Barons..."

"The Barons of?"

"Just the Barons." Sybil stroked the dragon on her shoulder, who had stopped flaming but was now swaying gently. "The Eorles have a sort of cadet branch of the family out that way, and there's the Duc Broad, nice old fellow, used to hunt with father. One of the few to survive it, in the end. Some of the gods in Genua are particularly friendly, do they count?"

"Shouldn't think so, unless they've got marriageable daughters."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"I got a message from Benny Carpet this morning. Apparently the Patrician is getting married."

Sybil blinked. "Havelock? I mean, of course he's quite a good catch, if you look at it one way, but he doesn't seem the marrying type."

"Well, Ben got it from Von Werren, who got it from a witch who'd been in Genua a few days before. And I grant you, that's not good enough proof for the Times, but it's good enough for me."

"Gosh. Do you think he's gone mad?"

"This recently?"

"Now, Sam -- "

"All right, I know. Do we know the..." Vimes consulted the slip of paper. "The Gumbonis?"

Sybil looked at him sharply, and when she spoke, it was in the voice of the Duchess of Ankh. "They are not," she said firmly, "Our Kind of People."

"Oh yes?"

"They're some sort of -- well, they call themselves businessmen..."

"Ah. Brecchia-style? Making people offers they can't refuse? Mainly because of the crossbow aimed at their head?"

"Yes, I think that broadly covers it. Which means it must be a made-up story, Sam. Havelock would never marry a Gumboni. He doesn't need any hired muscle, and the Vetinaris certainly don't need blood money from a..."

"...business family. Right." Vimes tweaked the tail of the creature sitting on his shoulder, and lit a cigar with the flame.

"Sam!"

"Sorry, dear. So, according to Watch gossip, the Patrician is marrying into a known crime family from Genua."

"You don't think they're blackmailing him, do you?"

"I doubt he'd leave any evidence strong enough for blackmail." Vimes' mind was already leaping a step ahead, which shows that if you hang about the Patrician long enough, he does rub off on you. "But I'll make inquiries." He dislodged the little dragon from his shoulder, handing it back to Sybil. In the corner, young Sam laughed as flames shot up from the pen he'd thrown his rattle into.

***
William de Worde was not a man to whom manual labor came easily. He had carefully arranged his life so that the heaviest thing he ever had to lift was a thesaurus -- and he didn't need it often. William was a walking thesaurus, dictionary, and Style manual, rolled into one. To complicate his life, he also had a very strict Guide to Ethics worked in somewhere. He rather liked the Commander of the Watch, who had a very similar Guide in his own personal makeup, even if his allowed for Shouting At People, Threatening Journalists, and the use of Cruel and Unusual Sarcasm.

William was running through the office of the Times, carrying a last-minute iconograph addition to the next day's front page, when he saw Vimes waiting, rather more patiently than usual, in the tiny cubicle of an office that William and Sacharissa shared. He tossed the plate to Gunilla, who passed it to Boddony, who took out a wrench and dove into the monstrous press that produced the front page. It had been the finest money could buy, but that was before the dwarves had gotten their hands on it. Now money couldn't buy the sort of quality this press had.

"Sorry about that," he said, wiping his hands with a rag and throwing himself into his seat. The Commander raised an eyebrow. "The press never sleeps," he added.

"Shouldn't think so. Most interesting news happens at night," Vimes answered. "Plus it's harder to see the mischief the Press gets up to."

Still not over the cartoon, William thought. He'd considered his editorial manager O'Biscuit's talent with a pencil to be quite unique. So had Vimes' wife. Vimes himself didn't care for the fine art of caricature.

"Certainly we work through the night, much like your officers," William said politely. "I assume this is a business visit?"

"I know you get information from all over." Vimes leaned forward. "I need news and I haven't got time to bugger about with clacks. What can you tell me about the Gumboni family?"

William leaned forward too. "What's in it for the Times if I do?"

Vimes gave him a grin. It was a grin that William, along with many people who'd seen the inside of Vimes' cells, was familiar with. "Most men would ask what was in it for them," he said. "You ask what's in it for a bit of paper that people toss out at the end of the day."

"But they pay twenty pence for it first. And then they read it, because in this city a man wants his pence worth." said William. "I'm sure you know, Commander, that Ankh-Morpork citizens expect quite a lot, for their investments."

Vimes nodded. "Fair enough. You want a Times reporter in at Timbry's sentencing. Guards say who goes and who stays -- "

"Come on, Commander, you've got something better than that," William said, although his mouth watered at the thought. Carl Timbry was a monster of a man who was up for hanging, but he had some good lawyers and might still get off. Whether or not he swung was the question on everyone's mind*. But he knew Vimes wouldn't ask about the Gumbonis unless there was a story there.

* Well, everyone who thought about that kind of thing. Which wasn't nearly everyone, really, but a damn good percentage of the people who bought the Times every day.

"I've had...news," Vimes said noncommittally. "But I can't let you print it. Not until it's safe. This is political."

William risked a glance at the press. It was always hungry. Withholding news could make it angry. Then again, a nice big front-page feature when Vimes finally did let him feed it...

"I've kept Watch secrets before," William remarked. "Silly rumors about werewolves and so on."

There was another nod. "And if you keep this one, then I can continue to refrain from locking you up and throwing out the key."

"So let's see the colour of your coin."

He was subject to the most...the most measuring stare he'd ever felt. It was as if Vimes was weighing his words against some inner scale of decency. Then the Commander leaned back, pulled out a cigar, bit the end off, and lit it.

"I've had report from trusted sources outside of the city that a daughter of the Gumboni family is on her way to Ankh-Morpork," he said quietly. "You know who the Gumbonis are?"

"They're a crime syndicate. Leon Gumboni's the head man, or was a week ago when I got news from the city. They call him the Crawfather."

"He got any daughters?"

"A couple, I think. Maybe even one with his wife."

Vimes' eyes widened a fraction. "That sort of family," he murmured.

"They do things differently in Genua," William replied. "Why's she coming? Going to set up a branch here?"

"Don't know about that. My sources say she's coming to the city to get married."

"Could strengthen business ties, but from what I hear, the Crawfather doesn't much like Ankh-Morpork. He says we're not modern enough for the Gumbonis."

"Then he's got a shock coming, I think," Vimes continued. "A Gumboni's going to marry the Patrician."

William's eyes bulged. "That's the news you want me to keep secret? That's huge!"

"That's life," Vimes said philosophically. "You make a move to print it, de Worde, and I'll throttle you."

William looked longingly towards the press. Sacharissa would go spare when she heard this. She might have fits when she heard they couldn't publish it.

"Who're your sources? Do you have a name? When's she arriving?" he asked. He began to reach for a pencil, then thought better of it. Vimes didn't like that sort of thing. 'Writing things down at people', he called it.

"That's all I know. A witch passing through from Genua to the Ramtops told a Watchman, who passed it along till it got to me. I'm inclined to believe it." Vimes jerked his head at the filing cabinets along one wall. "I know you keep files on important players in Disc politics. Wouldn't mind seeing mine sometime."

"It's quite thick."

"I'm sure. Now. Your circulation is all over the Disc. I'm willing to bet you've got a file on the Gumbonis. I want it."

"Are you daft? I need it! Especially now!"

"Then I want to read it. I won't steal anything," Vimes said, when he saw the look on William's face. "I am a Watchman, you know."

"Yes, I know. That's what worries me." William rose, reluctantly, and located a slim file, pasted with notes. He gave it to Vimes, who put his feet up on William's desk and was soon lost to the world.

"What's he doing here?" Sacharissa hissed, when she arrived back from an interview twenty minutes later.

"Possibly providing me with the scoop of the year," William whispered, pulling her into a shadowy corner behind the press. It smelled of ink and oil. On the other side of the press, Boddony held his breath and listened intently. "Also insulting the paper, threatening to lock me up, and promising to beat me. And smoking odious cigars in the office."

"What'd you do to deserve all that?"

"I think it falls under the heading of 'being a know-it-all newspaper man'," William sighed. "But wait till you hear what he's got for me..."

***

At a coaching inn, one of many along the road from Genua to Ankh- Morpork, a faintly transparent carriage glimmered momentarily in the dying light of the evening. The innkeeper, a relatively harmless man who overcharged for the rooms but left little mints on the pilows, watched it arrive with interest.

The carriage glimmered again, and finally solidified, though the driver was still a little blurry and the footmen nonexistent. Inside, a very firmly real woman sighed and leaned back on the not-quite-there cushions.

"What a relief," she breathed, as the driver opened the door and pulled down the steps. The dying sun hit her face --

***

"This one," said Vimes. "I think it's her."

"Why?" William asked. He'd already sent Sacharissa out to talk to some people she knew at the Palace, and now stood staring at the name in his file. Marisia Gumboni-Blanc.

"She's the only single woman with any real power in the family," Vimes said, reading from the file. "Vetinari wouldn't marry a hanger-on. Says here, dark hair, dark eyes, dresses in white. Widow, well-preserved for middle age. Sounds like a regular romantic heroine."

"She won't stand a chance against the Patrician, then," William said cynically. "Man hasn't got a romantic bone in his body."

A muscle jumped in Vimes jaw, and William recalled a remark someone had made about the Watch's unique brand of humor. Hur, hur, hur...

Both men, without thinking, had conjured an image of Marisia, from the brief description Vimes read aloud. They were remarkably similar.

***

-- and fell on a pale woman with curly dark hair, and clever dark eyes. She adjusted the ruff of white lace at her throat.

"Merci," she said, to the driver. "See to the horses. I shall get our lodgings."

The man saluted, his lines becoming sharper by the moment, and she walked around to the front door of the inn.

The innkeeper looked up, saw the woman, and thought -- she's trouble.

"No rooms open," he said automatically. "Sorry. Try a few miles down, there's -- "

A coin clicked on the table. It was a Genuan coin, and it was about five times what the innkeeper was currently charging for room, meal, livery service, and pillow mint. He pursed his lips.

"Might be able to find you something," he muttered. "Er..."

"One room will suffice," the woman said. "My driver will sleep with the coach. I require hot tea and buttered bread, if you have it."

"Of course, of course. Here we are. Lucie, you show her Ladyship up to the room," he snapped at his wife, who scurried around the counter.

"This way, ma'am," Lucie squeaked, leading the Lady up a flight of shabby stairs to a surprisingly large and airy room. The Lady looked around, smiled faintly, and nodded.

"It will do, thank you. You may go," she added. She could hear the driver puffing up the stairs, carrying her trunk. Below, in a kitchen somewhere, crockery crashed as the innkeeper nervously tried to assemble a tea tray. Marisia sighed.

"Check the clacks tower, please," she said, as the driver set the trunk down gently. "I am expecting a message from his Lordship."

There was a sudden shower of golden light, to Marisia's left, and a lady's maid stepped forward, still slightly transparent. Marisia and the driver paid her no mind. She began to unpack the trunk, laying out several white dresses of various styles, trimmed in blue or green.

***

The news was all over the dwarf bars by evening. Boddony had mentioned it in strict confidence to a fellow press-mechanic, who had told one or two of his mates at the pub. Ankh-Morpork society being what it was, it wasn't long before a few humans had picked up the news, and of course the first two men the rumour flew to, after that, were the only two who already knew.

Vimes winced as Carrot reported the rumour to him. It couldn't have been de Worde, or the man would simply have printed it. Sybil had been up with the dragons all day, and anyhow she knew better. Sometimes he wondered if news like this didn't just float out a person's ears for anyone to grab.

***

The Patrician laid down his pen, looked measuredly at Drumknott, and nodded.

"Show him in," he said slowly.

Murray the Stool was one of Vimes' agents, but the Patrician frightened him more, so he usually went to him first. This time, the broad-shouldered weasel of a man was holding his hat in his hands, nervously. He bowed. The Patrician didn't move.

"News for y'honour," Murray mumbled. "Bits of rumour floating round. Bout yourself, sir."

"Is that so, Murray?"

"Yassir. Dwarves sayin', sir."

The Patrician looked impassive. "I do not generally confide in dwarves," he pointed out. "Do I, Drumknott?"

"Don't confide in much of anyone, sir," Drumknott answered loyally.

"Very true."

"Only it's about yer lordship's getting married," Murray said, miserably.

"Married, you say? To whom?"

"Dunno, sir. Some dame from Genua, sir."

"Is the woman in question a dame, Drumknott?"

Drumknott made a show of consulting his notes. "No, sir. I believe Lady or Madam is traditional, in Miss Gumboni's case."

Murray's eyes widened. "S'true then, sir?" he squeaked.

"Lady Gumboni?" Vetinari asked his clerk, apparently oblivious to Murray's discomfort. "That seems to lack a certain elegance. Circulate a memo, if you would, notifying the staff to call her Madam Gumboni. Until we are aware of what she prefers."

"Certainly, sir."

"Thank you." The Patrician turned back to Murray. "Now, where were we?"

"I was just...er...congratulations, y'lordship," Murray mumbled.

A humorless smile broke over the Patrician's face. "Thank you, Murray. You may go."

The spy couldn't get out of the door fast enough. Drumknott coughed.

"He'll carry it straight to Vimes," he said. "You know how it is, sir."

"Oh yes. I imagine Sir Samuel does need a little warning. Crowd control and such. He won't come and ask me, of course, but he'll be prepared. There is a certain dependable contrariness to the man."

"So you've said, milord. Shall I begin seeing to the...er... arrangements?"

The Patrician nodded. "I think it is safe, now. I suppose I shall have to locate a best man."

"It is traditional, sir."

"And the Great Hall at the University? I believe Lady Ramkin was married there. Inform the wizards."

"Invitations, sir?"

"Oh, yes. Gold edging and all that. Try to have them sent by tomorrow? The usual people. And the Times."

Drumknott made a note. "I'll see to the rest."

"Thank you, Drumknott. You are dismissed."

***

Vimes was waiting for William when he arrived the next morning.

"Print it," he said shortly. "Nothing to lose now."

"Word's all over town," William answered. They shared a slightly despairing look. "We'll run something tastefully insinuating in the society page. Your name won't be attached."

"I might even start to like you, if you keep up like that," Vimes grunted.

"I'll be careful." William took off his coat and pulled out a desk drawer, removing what looked, to Vimes, like a tapered box with paper stuck to it.

"What is it?" he asked, curiously. William pressed a button marked 'N' and Vimes flinched as a mechanism clicked inside it. William pointed to a faintly printed 'n' on the piece of paper.

"It's a Mechanism For Printing Things Speedily," he said, "Though we just call it the Hype-Writer. The Patrician sent it to us. It's a one-of-a-kind Da Quirm. Apparently it started out as a way of squeezing orange juice, but you just glue the letters on here..." he pointed inside the box, where several rows of letters were attached to long metal fingers. Gears gleamed menacingly. "Then you push the buttons on the front, and it prints them for you. Damned if I know how it works."

"Why aren't the letters in order?"

"I'm not sure." William squinted at the paper, and advanced it a few inches before beginning.

"Wouldn't it be easier to write it out the normal way?" Vimes asked, as William began picking letters out with agonizing, two-fingered slowness.

"Oh, I'll get faster," William said confidently. Vimes began to see why the Patrician had chosen to give the machine to de Worde. It was the same kind of thinking that had made him give Vimes, one of Nature's pedestrians, a sedan chair for his wedding. He left William to the Hype-Writer, and walked thoughtfully back to Pseudopolis Yard.

"Clacks for you, sir," Cheery said, as he passed. He accepted the folded letter, and began mentally decoding it on his way up the stairs, which is why he almost didn't notice the Patrician, seated in his office.

"Morning, Lordship," Vimes said, tossing the message on his desk. The Patrician was alone, his hands resting on his cane casually.

"Good morning, Vimes," Vetinari answered. "I hope I'm not intruding."

Even if you were, Vimes thought. "Not particularly," he said, the first half of Carpet's clacks dangling tantalizingly in his mind. "I didn't see your coach."

"Ah yes. We were forced to park around the corner. Your new traffic-controlling officers are remarkably zealous."

Vimes put a hand over his eyes. "They try," he said sadly.

"Commendable. And how is the Duchess?"

"She's well. Sam too."

"Excellent. Before I forget..." Vetinari reached into his robes and pulled out a small, delicate envelope. Vimes accepted it, with a sinking feeling, and went through the motions of reading the card inside. He glanced up, over the edge of the invitation, at the impassive face of the Patrician.

"So it's true," he said. "And on Hogswatchday. Very...romantic."

"Practical. This way the traditional Palace Hogswatch feast serves two functions." Vetinari smiled, thinly. "Do you know the Gumbonis?"

"I've heard of them."

"Madam Gumboni will arrive, so I'm told, in a week. I would appreciate it if you would attend a formal reception on her arrival. With Lady Sybil, of course."

Vimes narrowed his eyes. The Patrician was talking around something, which he never did. It was one of his few appealing qualities.

"I'll polish up the dress armour," he sighed.

"Splendid. Also..." Vetinari paused. "If I am to be married, I am told, traditionally I must have a best man. I would like you to fulfill that role. It is, aha, entirely up to you, of course."

The commander's jaw dropped. Yesterday he'd been investigating horrifying rumours that the Patrician was marrying a mobster's daughter. Today he was being asked to be best man at their wedding. It's a terrible shock, a thing like that, to a man like Sam Vimes.

"I...erm..." he set the invitation on his desk, carefully, as if it might explode. "Are you sure?" he asked.

"Entirely. I can't think of anyone I should rather have as the official witness at my wedding," the Patrician said. "But if you are otherwise engaged on Hogswatchday..."

"Well, I...that is...well, no..." Vimes felt a guilty twinge. You're not supposed to investigate a woman if you're going to be best man at her wedding.

"Excellent. I'll have a man run the rings up to your house this evening." Vetinari stood, leaving a cloud of confusion behind him. "Good day, your Grace."

"Yes...erm..." Vimes said absently. Vetinari smiled as the door closed behind him.

He was all the way out on the street before he heard the Commander roaring for Captain Carrot. The Patrician took his entertainment where he could, and as entertainments went, the look on Vimes' face just now had been quite good.

He looked forward to meeting Marisia. The marriage should be very interesting indeed.

***

Footmen had been acquired. Another trunk of clothing had appeared, and a special bag which, when opened, proved to contain a wedding dress of some consequence. Marisia's maid, Emme, had been joined by an elderly woman who was apparently a sort of servant-cum-chaperone. Marisia herself seemed to have gained a few inches. She imagined it was probably to make up for the Patrician's height. He was, by all accounts, quite a tall man.

The walls of the city were fast approaching, and Marisia smoothed her dress, checking her hair to make sure it was perfect. We must make a good impression on the citizenry, she thought. His Lordship's last clacks had been full of formal welcome-to-the-city language and hopes for her good health, but she had read between the lines. She was expected, and Ankh-Morpork had high expectations of Foreigners when they're going to marry a local.

There were small children up on the walls, she noticed, watching for her approach. Guards on the gates, though they looked more like the kind to stand at attention while tourists took pictures of them than the sort who decided what kind of person entered the city. Her driver saluted them, and they saluted back as the coach passed under the great high arch of the gate and into the city.

Her servants stared around them, peering through the windows at the grand city of Ankh-Morpork, greatest and least-washed of the cities on the Disc. It was even larger than Genua, and richer; the goods of the entire world poured into Ankh-Morpork, and out again. The brightest minds were educated in their Guilds. The city was ruled with sense and an approximate sort of justice by the man she was coming here to marry. Marisia allowed herself a satisfied smile.

***

Sacharissa stood before the mirror, holding a dress up. "William, what do you think?" she asked, turning. "Does it say 'I'd like to ask you a couple of questions, but I'm too tasteful to come right out and say it at a reception'?"

William, fixing the collar of his suit, eyed the dress. "I don't think there's enough fabric for it to say all that," he said. "Not that I mind, Sacharissa, but -- "

"Oh, all right." She picked up another one. "Too reporter-y?"

"A little. What about the green one?"

"Oh, of course. Here we are." Sacharissa picked up a mass of sea-green cloth and lace. "Perfect, you're right."

"Thank you. And you say it's legal to list these as business deductions?" William asked anxiously. The paper was doing well, but dresses weren't cheap.

"With the number of society parties the Times has to attend these days?" She smiled. "It's very romantic, don't you think?"

"What?" William asked, confused.

"The wedding. A lonely city leader, a mysterious woman from Foreign Parts, an arranged marriage..."

"Wish I could have got an iconograph of her," William sighed. "Apparently Vetinari's very taken with her. The wedding's sprung up rather quickly. The Palace must be in uproar."

"Perhaps we ought to do a special feature." Sacharissa's voice was muffled as she pulled the dress over her head and adjusted what William tactfully referred to in the privacy of his own head as 'various bits'. "There. And I have the handbag for my notebook, and you've got yours in your pocket?"

"Yes, darling," William answered dutifully. "There's the coach, we'd best hurry. Otto's going on his own, he wanted to check the lighting at the reception beforehand."

"He's not going to dissolve at any point, is he?" she asked, as William held the coach door for her. "It's frowned upon in good circles, you know."

***

The coach rolled on, through curious crowds, until it slowed to a halt in a small square, in front of the Patrician's Palace. The flag of Ankh-Morpork snapped and waved somewhere in the background. The footmen opened the doors.

Marisia let herself be helped out of the carriage. She walked forward, calmly, while her servants hung back. A tall, slim man with a cane moved to meet her -- of course, that was Havelock Vetinari. She was quite pleased; he'd dressed entirely in black, which contrasted her white dress very nicely. Behind him, a number of people waited expectantly.

"Welcome to Ankh-Morpork, Madam Gumboni," Vetinari said. "I hope your travel was uneventful."

"Indeed. It is a beautiful city," she answered. "My staff are quite in awe."

This met with general approval from those watching. Everyone likes to think they could impress a foreigner. She took his offered hand, and allowed him to lead her to the center of the square.

"May I present Marisia Gumboni-Blanc, my wife-to-be," he said, to the assembled company. "Madam Gumboni, I would like to introduce Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of our University, and his brother Hughnon, chief priest of Blind Io."

Marisia curseyed deeply, and the brothers, after exchanging a glance with each other, bowed.

"Lord Downey, head of the Assassins' Guild, and Mr. Boggis, head of the Thieves' Guild, and his wife," Vetinari continued. Marisia noticed that Lord Downey looked considerably put out about something. Wasn't his Lordship a graduate of that Guild?

"Mr. de Worde and Ms. Cripslock, editors of our esteemed paper," Vetinari drawled. A young and frightened-looking couple bowed in unison. Marisia took Sacharissa's hands, smiling.

"Your paper brings me no end of entertainment," she said. "So good to meet a woman interested in affairs of state."

"Thank you, Madam," Sacharissa squeaked. William, to his horror, saw the urge to ask for an interview rising in her eyes, but Vetinari was already moving on, naming various guild heads and Community Representatives. Marisia shook hands with a dwarf and a troll for the first time. Finally, Vetinari brought her to a large, friendly- looking woman and a tough, weatherbeaten man.

"And this is the Duke and Duchess of Ankh, Sir Samuel Vimes and his wife, Lady Sybil. His Grace is to be my best man."

"What a pleasure to meet you," Marisia said softly. This was Vimes? She had pictured someone...well, someone who looked less like a street miscreant in stolen armour. "I have heard much about you in my letters from his Lordship. I understand you breed dragons, Lady Sybil."

"Yes, Madam Gumboni," said the woman, graciously, though there was a slightly frosty look in the Duke's eye.

"How exciting. You must know quite a lot about explosives," said Marisia. "I look forward to speaking with you again, at a more convenient time."

They had reached the entrance to the Palace, and Vetinari turned to lead her up the steps. The others, from Duke and Duchess down to the brothers Ridcully, turned and followed them into the great receiving hall, where there was champagne and music. Marisia looked around in pleased propriety.

"How do I do?" she asked, under her breath.

"Excellently," the Patrician answered. "You may refer to me as Havelock, by the way."

"And I am Marisia, of course. How exciting it all is, no?"

"Terribly," Havelock said, calmly. "Do you require anything? Perhaps a few moments to gather yourself? Rooms have been prepared."

"Not at all."

"You have charmed the city leaders."

"Sir Samuel seems a bit...prohibitive."

"He dislikes the nobility."

"He's a duke!"

"Yes."

Marisia considered this. "I believe, after I discuss art with Lord Downey and ask for a tour of the Unseen University from the Archchancellor, I must speak with the duke and duchess again."

"That would be wise." Vetinari turned so that they could watch the others file in. "I think we ought to mingle. Dearest," he added, after a moment's thought.

"You detest mingling," Marisia said, with a bright smile on her face. "So do I."

"A necessary evil. You'll find many of the little lords quite amusing. Do ask Lord Selachii to introduce you to Lady Venturi."

Marisia nodded, and accepted a glass of champagne from a servant, setting it down almost immediately when the music began, and people started to dance.

It was going to be a splendid party.

***

It hadn't been too bad for Angua. Standing well back in the crowd and keeping an eye out for any malcontents, she had merely been surprised when Marisia Gumboni arrived. It was a tug at the nasal receptors, nothing more. She noted it, though, and tucked it away until she had time to consider it. She smelled Wrong.

It was much worse for Mustrum Ridcully, and a few other, younger wizards who'd snuck out of the University to stand in the crowd. Wizards, in addition to normal vision, can see certain supernatural phenomena -- Death, for example, and the Soul Cake Duck. They can tell the alive from the undead. And they can see the indefinable eighth colour, Octarine, which only appears around high-level magical areas.

Marisia Gumboni might as well have had fireworks in her ears. Mustrum Ridcully had to stop himself clapping his hands over his eyes as she emerged from the coach. For a moment, the entire crowd was awash in octarine, waves of it flowing from Marisia's lithe figure.

Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. Before he'd known it, he was being introduced to the woman, who seemed perfectly normal -- at least, for a woman who was marrying the Patrician. There was just a hint of octarine around her eyes, though...

Almost in unison, William de Worde and Sam Vimes thought: She's just like I pictured her.

***

"What's wrong with her?"

Mustrum Ridcully turned, looking for the source of the question. Duke Vimes was standing a little back from the crowd in the reception hall, holding a cup of fruit juice. He appeared to be examining the flags hanging from the ceiling.

"I beg your pardon?" Ridcully asked. Vimes gave him a friendly smile.

"What's wrong with Madam Gumboni? I saw you wince," he added. He indicated the woman with his eyes.

Ridcully followed his gaze. Madam Gumboni was speaking with Lady Sybil, Vetinari hovering at her elbow. All three looked quite normal, except...there was that faint flicker of octarine, licking at the edges of the woman's figure.

Any other man might have admitted he didn't know, but one did not become Archchancellor of Unseen University by showing ignorance.

He settled for "She's a bit magical," which didn't satisfy Vimes in the slightest.

"How so?"

"I'd have to do further study," Ridcully said firmly.

"Take a guess, Archchancellor."

Madam Gumboni laughed at a remark of Vetinari's. Sybil was smiling, but both men saw her eyes dart towards her husband.

"I'd say she's a ghost, but everyone can see her. There's somethin' strange about her," Ridcully said. "Nice enough, though. Probably just ethnic, or some such."

Vimes steely gaze swept him up and down, and he felt as though he'd failed some sort of test. "Thank you, Archchancellor," he said. "Enjoy your drink."

Vimes crossed the floor, nodding to a couple of people who greeted him on his way to his wife's side.

" -- plays hob with our schedule, but of course the city must be kept safe," Sybil was saying. "Here you are, Sam, speak of the demon."

"Sybil suffers the usual troubles of a copper's wife, I'm afraid," Vimes said. "Late nights and street fights, as the saying goes."

"I find it fascinating," Marisia said, and Vimes got the distinct feeling that, while she was capable of being insincere about things like this, she was telling the truth. "In Genua, the guards are more...decorative. Standing attention outside important buildings and such."

"We do our share of standing. But I find running's more helpful," Vimes said. "I understand your family is in...business, in Genua?"

Madam Gumboni opened her mouth to reply, when the music began again. "Oh, I must dance," she said, with a smile. "Havelock...?"

"My leg, I'm afraid," Vetinari said. "Dancing is rather beyond me."

Vimes didn't buy that, not by a long shot. But Marisia Gumboni was already turning a pleading look on him.

"Surely you wouldn't mind, Lady Sybil, if I stole your gallant husband for a dance?" she asked. Sybil gave her a gracious smile.

"I don't dance -- " Vimes began, but Marisia had taken his hand, and pulled him into the crowd of other dancers.

"Of course you dance, your Grace," she said, while Vimes tried to concentrate on remembering how to waltz. "Who heard of a Duke who didn't? It is not done. But you were asking me about business in Genua, were you not?"

Vimes paused. "I was asking about your family," he said, carefully.

"Ah yes. The Gumboni family business. They have many interests in Genua. I shouldn't worry, though. They're not likely to expand anytime soon."

"They, Madam?"

"Please, for a close friend of Havelock's -- I am Marisia."

He was barely aware that just about every eye in the room was on them, and forced a smile. "The question stands, Madam."

"You are a persistent man, your Grace. I can see why they call you the terrier. But I am a woman of Ankh-Morpork now!" she said gaily.

"I suppose you're going to tell me you're marrying away from Genua to escape bad influences? Repudiating the family...business?"

"Ah, you have been investigating. Yes, terrible people, the Gumbonis. No, I don't repudiate the business. It has fed and educated me, for which I am very grateful. I merely wish a...change of scenery."

"You certainly got it."

"Havelock and I have been corresponding for some time. He likes to hear news of the comings and goings on the Vieux river. Politics are quite beyond me."

"I have trouble believing that."

She gave him a contemplative look. "You're very blunt, your Grace."

"I'm afraid it's just that I'm not a very good liar."

"Ah, now I find something hard to believe. You cannot have survived so long in Society by being honest, surely."

"A sharp sword is a pretty good substitute."

She laughed. "Why are you afraid of me, your Grace? I have not come here to displace you or your lady."

"Or the Patrician?"

"No, nor dear Havelock. I am a middle-aged woman. My beauty may begin to fade. He finds me not entirely intolerable, and I find him charming. It is a good arrangement for all concerned. But I see where your fear lies. I pose no threat to your beloved city. I promise no disorder. I have no intention of indulging in anything illegal, your Grace. My word, no."

"Everyone's guilty of something," Vimes said.

"Very true, and spoken like a man of conviction. I make you a promise, then. Give me your trust...and I won't commit crimes that anyone ever finds out about."

It was a good thing the music had stopped, because so had Vimes. That was a copper's answer. Only coppers thought like that. And this demure woman from a known crime family had thrown it off as innocently as a comment about the appetizers.

"There is a fine line between the career criminal and the true policeman, your Grace," she said softly, as she curtseyed. "Thank you for the dance."

And she swept away, towards Vetinari, who was now speaking with a small clump of guild leaders. Vimes made his way back to Sybil, mind reeling. "I hope I haven't got competition," she said gently. "You looked quite Ducal out there, Sam. Up until she told you something that made your jaw drop."

"There's something very wrong here," said Vimes. "The Archchancellor's nervous and so's his brother, and I've had to waltz, and someone's going to pay for that."

"I'm surprised you remembered how."

"So am I." He looked out over the crowd. If you watched people enough, and Vimes did little else at this kind of gathering, you began to see patterns. He was certain that this was how Vetinari learned to judge popular sentiment, but Vetinari could do it with an entire city.

Vetinari didn't always listen to popular sentiment, either.

And he never did anything without a reason.

"Don't you think it's possible, Sam," Sybil said gently, "That he might be lonely?"

"Vetinari? Shouldn't think he was capable of feeling that much. And there's no shortage of women in Ankh-Morpork, I understand."

"Havelock was always a solitary boy," Sybil continued, musingly. "He had offers, when he was a young man. Mainly from the fathers of eligible girls, who wouldn't mind a connection to the Vetinaris. But he always managed to find a flaw in them. And he was such a busy man."

"Still is," said Vimes.

"Yes, dear, but so are you, and you've managed a family as well."

Vimes turned slightly pink. "Well, I was lucky," he mumbled.

Sybil beamed. "Come on, dear, let's go speak to young Mr. de Worde and Miss Cripslock. You know how much you enjoy fencing with him."

***

Angua knew that the reception would last a good few hours, and she didn't fancy waiting in the cold for her Commander to leave. Once the crowds began to disperse, she slipped back to the Watch House, signed out, and hung up her helmet in her locker.

Then she thought for a few minutes.

It would be breaking the rules. Angua was quite keen on rules, being an officer of the Watch. Rules were much better than laws, because rules were what you got before you got law and lawyers. The Patrician was a ruler. He was not a lawyer, and that made a distinct difference in how his city's Watch operated.

None of this was relevant, but human beings have a habit of thinking about everything but what they're about to do, when they think they're deciding whether or not to do it.

Finally, she stood up. Well, the hell with it.

The problem with an unwritten rule isn't that you can't erase it. It's that you can't look it up and use it to sue someone with.

Angua set off for school.

The Frout Academy, to be precise.

Some of the less disciplined teachers at the Frout Academy had let their classes out for the afternoon to attend the arrival of Madam Gumboni. It was the last day of school before holidays, anyhow.

Miss Susan had said this was ridiculous, and had instead given the children in her class a lesson on international politics. This had, however, included a brief and unnoticed appearance of the entire classroom, just outside the Patrician's palace, as he introduced Madam Gumboni to the city leaders. Miss Susan was strict, but she knew the value of a practical lesson when she saw it.

Angua knew she would be Looked at by Susan when she arrived. It was bad form, it was against the rules, to visit someone you knew from the occult community, if you hadn't been asked. Some people guarded their privacy jealously, especially those who could pass for fully human, like Susan.

But she was the only person Angua knew who smelled like Marisia Gumboni had smelled. Human, but slightly...wrong. No, not wrong. Just...as though they were missing some vital organic element.

Angua often found it frustrating to try to discuss animal smells with human words.

Still, she knocked on the door. It was answered by a young, rather dribbly child.

"Can I speak to Miss Susan?" Angua asked, quite seriously. The boy squinted up at her.

"You're in armour an' all," he said.

"That's right."

"Are you a soljer?"

"No. I'm a police-woman."

"Are you here to arrest someone?" he asked, impressed.

"Let me in or I'll break your arms."

The door swung wider open, and the boy scuttled back to his seat. Susan looked up from a small desk, where she was helping another dribbly young child with his spelling.

There was the Look. It lasted several seconds. But Angua had been Looked at by the best, and had done some of her own. Finally, Susan sighed.

"I thought he'd put you on it," she said. "Let's talk outside."

She didn't bother to tell the children to behave. They would.

"I took the children on a...field trip, this afternoon," Susan said, when they were in the chill of the hallway. "Madam Gumboni is certainly not human. And, on that note, how dare you come to the school looking for me?"

Angua sighed. "I'm sorry, I came on my own, Mister Vimes didn't send me, he doesn't know, it won't happen again."

"It had better not!"

"So what is she?"

"I don't know," Susan said. "She's not a ghost. I'd have heard. Granddad really hates that kind of thing. It gets right up his nose, the dead carrying on as if they were having the time of their life."

"His nostrils are an inch across each. I imagine lots gets up his nose."

"He had a moth in there for days once. But that's not the point. I guess you'd have smelled if she was a w -- "

"She's not."

"Well, then, what is she? It gives me the creepy-crawlies, and I am not subject to romantic nonsense about chills up one's spine."

"She doesn't seem malevolent," Angua said. "Listen, I know you don't like to rely on your granddad, but if I could talk to him -- "

"Ask the wizards. They've got a ritual and everything. Dribbly candles, chalk on the floor, very spooky." Susan looked up, suddenly, as if she was listening to something. "In fact," she said, "I think if you follow the Archchancellor home, you'll probably be spared the trouble of asking."

Angua approved of this. She was, on the whole, rather closer to the rest of the human race than Susan, but they both shared the belief, common to people with extra talents, that asking for this sort of thing was second to simply getting it.

"I'd better get back to the classroom," Susan said.

"And I think I have a wizard to follow," Angua agreed. There was a moment of silence.

"Lunch tomorrow?" Angua asked. "I'll treat."

"I think I'm free," Susan said. "We could go to Paulo's."

"All the waiters want to marry you."

"It's the outfit. I never seem to quite get any control over it, on my days off," Susan confided.

It's not easy being a career woman in Ankh-Morpork. You take your friends where you find them.

***

Marisia Gumboni sat, slightly tiredly, in front of a vanity table. Emme had unpacked for her, and the vanity had the usual assortment of beauty products, cremes, oils, and various mysterious things in jars that every middle-aged woman acquires. What it did not have was a mirror, though there were mounts for one.

"That was well done," Vetinari said, helping her to remove her necklace. "I imagine most people would pay quite a lot of money to hear what you said to shut the Commander up so thoroughly."

"Including you, Havelock?" she asked, as she began the process of removing her makeup.

"Regrettably, the surprise would be spoiled on me. You don't plan to do anything illegal that anyone's going to find out about? Shame on you, Marisia, I expected better."

"What? You think I ought to be more flagrant?"

"I think you oughtn't to assume that I won't find out."

Marisia laughed, the full laugh of a woman raised in the relaxed atmosphere of Genuan society. "This is very much something a mad scientist in some distant castle in Uberwald would think up, Havelock."

"There are vast differences," the Patrician replied, leaning against a wall. His leg gave him trouble, she saw, but not as much trouble as he liked to let on.

"Yes. For one thing, I don't intend to obey your every word."

"I should be disappointed if you did."

"Ah. Yes. I do have free will, don't I? Charming social concept." She frowned as one of the flowers on her dress flickered. "Blast. Ankh-Morpork is more stubbornly pragmatic than I had imagined."

"They'll come round, given time. It's not that they don't believe you're here, it's just that they don't believe you're really going to marry me. People tend to...write out of existence what they think shouldn't exist."

"Why shouldn't a city ruler marry?"

"I have ruled Ankh-Morpork for a long time."

"That's no answer."

He nodded. "It is a complex question. It has to do, as ever, with expectation and belief. If it is believed that I do not possess the softer emotions, it is much easier to believe that I will exterminate anything and everything that stands in the way of the smooth operation of the city."

"When in reality you're a soft-hearted, lonely man who detests violence?"

"Good gods, no. Although I much prefer alternatives to extermination, I am quite committed to the smooth running of the city by whatever means necessary. The truth is, I have people to take care of that sort of thing. Vimes, for one. I merely point, and give commands, and they are obeyed. Or sometimes disobeyed, but I'm much more careful about those."

"When do you think everything will become final?" Marisia asked. "My chaperone seems to have vanished."

"I think she was offending people. A lady only travels with beautiful handmaids and..." he sighed. "...charmingly common manservants."

"That explains why I loathe my footmen."

"I apologize. If it's any consolation, they'll probably vanish too. I can, of course, provide others."

Two of the rings on Marisia's fingers disappeared altogether. "I hope this will not be an ongoing nusiance," she snapped. "I liked that ruby very much."

"No. After the wedding, everything should...congeal."

"That's a terrible word for it."

"I believe the most appropriate term for what will occur is 'consecration' but it's such a religious word."

She turned to him fully now, and cocked an eyebrow. "Consecration?"

"Weddings are quite mythic things, when you boil them down. Have you read the old legend of The Mauve Knight?"

"I have read everything you have. And several more books on fashion and hair and things," she said haughtily. "Sir Duwayne mistakenly beheads a knight in stylish mauve armour, who is apparently uninjured, though I think that's a cheap party trick for anyone with a well-made plaster head and an oversized suit of armour. To save his own life he has a year in which to answer some stupid riddle."

"And the woman who helps him is...?"

"Oh, I don't know, some woman with buck teeth. He promises to marry her so she gives him the answer to the riddle," Marisia said in a sing-song voice. "But they have to be married in front of the whole kingdom, or she stays buck-toothed forever. Frankly I think there could be worse things."

"And at the marriage -- "

" -- her teeth shrink to normal size and they live happily ever after, or at least until the kids are born with incisors the size of coffin lids."

He waited. She pondered.

"A marriage is a ritual," she said finally. "It lifts the curse, because it's official and it's got witnesses and nobody could say it didn't happen."

"Or, in this case, it puts the finishing touches on the curse."

"I wouldn't call it a curse as such."

"The spell, then."

"And nothing's going to vanish or change or anything after that? It's so tiresome, not knowing who your staff is going to be from one minute to the next."

"With Vimes as my official witness? I should think so." Vetinari smiled, and bowed out the door. "Good evening, your ladyship."

"Good evening, Lord Vetinari," she replied. The door closed with a soft click, and Madam Gumboni was alone.

***

Vimes was halfway to his coach when Angua's hand shot out of the crowd and pulled him nearly off his feet. Sybil, seeing him stop, turned and gave him an inquiring look. When she saw Angua, she nodded, and continued on her way alone. Vimes sidled between elbows until Angua decided they were in the clear.

"What's going on?" he asked. "I'm not used to being grabbed by my officers, sergeant."

"No time to explain. We've got to get up to the University," she said, setting a brisk pace away from the Patrician's Palace. "The wizards know something about Madam Gumboni."

"I know that. How did you?"

"I have sources. And she smelled wrong."

Vimes nodded. When Angua talked about smell, you didn't question her. "And what do your sources think is the problem, sergeant?"

"She didn't know. But she knows who will. The wizards are going to perform the Rite of Ashk'ente. You know what that is?"

Vimes was not on the cutting-edge of magical theory, but he'd spent a lot of time with Carrot, who'd spent a lot of time in the University library. "That's the one to call up Death, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir. They think Madam Gumboni might be...related, somehow."

Wasn't there an old rumour about a, a sort of quasi-death, a distant cousin of the Big Black Cowl? Living in Ankh-Morpork? Vimes sped up the pace a little. If anyone would know, it was Angua.

"They're going to ask him about her. He's got to answer, if he knows."

"What if he doesn't?"

"If Death doesn't know the answer, sir, then we're all buggered."

"Fair enough, sergeant."

They wound their way along back-streets and through alleys until they reached a narrow gap in the wall surrounding the University. Policeman learn about this sort of gap fairly quickly.

The Archchancellor was just entering through the main gate, and Angua held up a hand. Vimes stayed, in the shadow of the wall, while she followed him softly. After a moment, she waved him on, and he joined her near the hinges of the huge main gate.

"The library," she whispered. "Damn. The Librarian'll know we're there."

"Can we get up to the dome?" he asked, as they ducked into the library's arching doorway. Even as he said it, he realized that the last place he ever wanted to go again was up on that bloody dome. The last time he'd been there, he'd almost been stabbed, not to mention being thrown through a hole in space-time.

"I think so," she answered. "Won't hear much, though."

Vimes frowned. "Right, well, let's talk to the ape, then."

"Talk to him?"

"He was deputized by the Watch. It's his duty to help us."

"Will he see it that way?"

"Do you think we could take an orangutang, Angua?"

"Don't want to find out, sir."

"Ook?"

Vimes went perfectly still. A whiff of banana-laden breath went past his ear.

"I don't think we have a choice," he said stiffly. Angua nodded, quite slowly, as the Librarian's fluffy hand clamped down on Vimes' shoulder.

Chapter Text

"Ook! Eek."

"I don't like it either!" Vimes hissed, staring through a gap in a bookshelf at the empty floor directly beneath the great dome of the library of Unseen University, the most magical library anywhere in the Disc. The Librarian was peering anxiously down at them from his perch near the top of the shelf. "Listen, man -- "

"Ook."

"Ape, right, this is a matter of national security, so you can bloody well serve the badge for once."

The Librarian had dug out the old Watch badge, given to him by Carrot several years ago, and hung it around his neck on a strap of leather, proudly. But that didn't mean he liked people spying on other people in his library. It bothered the books. He dangled, making soft burping noises to calm them.

"Might as well do it properly," Ridcully was saying, on the other side of the shelves. "Someone fetch the dribbly candles. He hates it when we don't go through the motions, at least."

Vimes scowled. "Are we going to survive this?" he asked Angua. She shrugged.

"We may not even see him when he does show up. Sus -- erm, my source says that sometimes people don't."

Vimes thought back to Uberwald, when he was being chased by Angua's family, who were not as kind and understanding about the existence of regular human beings as she was. He'd hallucinated that Death was sitting in the boat with him. At least, he'd put it down to hallucinations. Cops don't like to think that a seven foot skeleton dressed in black could be roaming their streets with impunity. Dealing with the normal citizens of Ankh-Morpork was bad enough without anthropomorphic personifications dropping in to tea.

On the other side of the bookcase, the wizards began to chant.

***

Death sat in his study. His eyes glowed.

BUT WHAT DOES IT DO? he asked. Albert pursed his lips.

"It's all down to physics an' somethin'," he said.

IS IT A SORT OF GARDEN ORNAMENT?

"I don't think so, Master."

The object on the table in front of Death appeared to be a bubble made of glass. It sat on a small pedestal of black stone, and a rod apparently made of the same black stone thrust up into the bubble about halfway. When left to itself, blue light crackled around the black rod, almost too dim to see.

Death put a bony hand out and touched one finger to the glass. Instantly, a bolt of blue light shot out from the rod and attached itself to the inside of the glass, just on the other side of where his finger was. He touched another finger to the glass, and a second bolt of light shot out. When he put an entire hand on it, several dozen lines of light appeared, connecting the rod and his hand.

DOES IT MAKE NOISE? OR POSSIBLY COOK THINGS? LOOK, IF I TAKE MY HAND AWAY...

"Dunno sir. I seen 'em in shops in Ankh-Morpork. I think they're just supposed to...er, be pretty. And teach kiddies Science," Albert added disapprovingly. He didn't like Science. It got in the way of good old-fashioned magic. A thought occurred to him. "Young Susan bring it in, did she?"

NO. IT APPEARED IN THE HALL OF HOURGLASSES. Death prodded the glass again. HOW INTERESTING. UNLESS SOMEONE IS AROUND TO SEE AND TOUCH IT, IT DOESN'T EXIST.

"Right corker for the atheists, I guess."

SORRY?

"All that believing only in stuff you can touch."

I FAIL TO SEE YOUR POINT, ALBERT.

"Worl, it's sort of like...it's something that you can see an' touch, but it doesn't exist."

OH, said Death, whose sense of irony was not finely-tuned.

"Has it got a name on it?"

Death examined the base, carefully. IT APPEARS TO SAY MARISIA -- OH, BUGGER...

"Marisia O. Bugger? I feel sorry for that -- " Albert stopped. Death had vanished.

***

Sam Vimes had lived a long and colourful life, and while he was a good man, generally speaking, the word 'blameless' could really only be applied to said life with very strong glue. He had probably broken a few of the stricter religions' commandments in his time, though he usually had a good reason, such as self-defence or pre-emptive paranoia. In cases where he didn't, well, he had a sharp sword, which is decent second to 'good reason'.

He didn't think he had done anything that would earn him the serious hot seat in any given afterlife, but even a man with Captain Carrot's good-behaviour record doesn't like to see Death up close and personal.*

* In a way, it could be said that Death was the ultimate copper. Everyone everywhere goes into a mental checklist of all the illegal things they could possibly have done or be doing, when they see a policeman; it's part of humanity's vast insecurity complex. When face to face with Death, all the little sins of a lifetime accumulate into a list right behind the eyeballs, which we pray like hell that nobody else can see. In reality, of course, neither Death nor the Police care that we stole a candy-bar when we were eight, but they know that we care, and that's where the trouble usually starts.

Next to him, Angua was growling anxiously. The Librarian hid behind them.

The wizards, standing in a circle, were looking quite smug.

YOU COULD TELL ME BEFORE YOU DO THAT, Death said, in an irritable voice. KNOCK BEFORE YOU OPEN THE DOOR TO UNSEEN DIMENSIONS, ET CETERA. AND NONE OF THAT 'FOUL DEMON' STUFF. I WON'T BE HAVING THAT.

"Good to see you looking so well, y'honour," Ridcully said. He'd had experience with these things. "How's the young lady?"

Vimes looked at Angua and mouthed 'Young lady?'. She shook her head.

FINE, FINE, Death said testily. I HAVEN'T GOT ETERNITY, YOU KNOW.

There was a pause.

WELL, OBVIOUSLY I HAVE GOT ETERNITY, BUT NOT TO HANG AROUND HERE.

"Just a few questions," Ridcully answered smoothly. "About the Woman."

WHAT WOMAN?

"Madam Gumboni. She's going to marry the Patrician," supplied Ponder Stibbons, his voice cracking.

YOU SUMMON ME HERE FOR...GOSSIP? Death asked, with icy politeness. The wizards looked mildly embarrassed.

"There's somethin' not right about her," said Ridcully darkly. Death's fingerbones clicked as he tapped his, for want of a better word, chin.

MARISIA GUMBONI, I SUPPOSE.

"What's wrong with her?" the Dean asked, cautiously. Death appeared to be considering things.

SHE EXISTS...AND SHE DOES NOT EXIST, he said finally.

"I knew it!" Vimes whispered. The Librarian's large, leathery hand clamped over his mouth.

"I saw folks dancin' with her," Ridcully said, to nobody in particular. "She seems real enough."

NO. SHE EXISTS ONLY BECAUSE THERE ARE PEOPLE TO SEE HER EXIST.

"What, like a God? On account of belief?"

SHE IS NOT VISIBLE BECAUSE PEOPLE BELIEVE IN HER; PEOPLE BELIEVE IN HER BECAUSE SHE HAS BEEN MADE VISIBLE. Another pause. ER. I THINK.

Several of the wizards scratched their heads.

"Is that a conundrum?" Ponder asked hesitantly. Death turned to look at him.

IT IS A FACT.

"That's not very helpful, beggin' your pardon," Ridcully continued.

DO YOU REMEMBER THE EATER OF SOCKS, ARCHCHANCELLOR?

"Well, of course, that was last Hogswa..." The Archchancellor suddenly grew very thoughtful. "It's all that extra belief sloshin' around again, is it?"

YES.

"Only this time, right, instead of imaginary monsters, it's this... woman?"

I BELIEVE SO.

Vimes pounded Angua on the shoulder, triumphantly. His eyes rolled, above the Librarian's silencing hand. She was pursing her lips.

The Patrician, she mouthed. He nodded. Both of them looked as if they might be ill.

***

It was midnight. Death had gone off to do whatever it was he did. The wizards had gone to a late dinner. The Librarian had gone to chip up the candle dribblings they'd left behind.

A very nervous Angua and a chain-smoking Vimes, both ominously silent, worked their way back to the Watch House, on automatic pilot, while trying to figure out what to do next.

Carrot was there, with cocoa, waiting for them.

"I heard him talking about it, a few months ago," Vimes said, gloomily, when things had been explained to the Captain. He was aware of just how much better the cocoa would be if there was a good stiff shot of alcohol in it somewhere. Or even if it was a mug of alcohol with a shot of cocoa. He wasn't picky. "Ridcully was going on about how you get a lot of spare belief around, on account of the Hogfather, or some idiocy like that. And Vetinari asked him where it all went, and he said that nobody knew. He had a theory that the gods got hold of it, somehow."

"Wouldn't put it past Vetinari to get a jump on the gods," Angua agreed.

"It was very clever of him," Carrot said thoughtfully. They looked at him, surprised. "Well, all those things everyone's saying...about him settling down and all. If you've got to get married, wouldn't it be best if you married someone that you'd, erm, that you'd designed yourself? That's how he'd see it."

"He didn't exactly build her or anything. Not like an Igor," Vimes answered. "It's not like him to muck about with magic. Vetinari gets really sarcastic when the wizards give the fabric of reality a good tug."

"So do you, sir."

"Yes, but I didn't magic up a bride for myself, did I? I went and found someone and got married in a normal fashion."

Angua and Carrot exchanged an amused look. Vimes' marriage, while undoubtedly accomplished in the traditional way, was anything but normal.

"What do we do about it?" Angua finally asked.

"I don't know," Vimes answered frankly. "Carrot?"

"Don't see why we've got to do anything. I mean, technically it's not against the law. Unless you count falsifying government documents. I suppose it's a crime to marry someone if they don't exist." Carrot thumbed through his well-read copy of the Laws and Ordinanfes of Ankh and Morpork. "Yes. But only if he's doing it for the purposes of tax-evasion."

"If we arrest him on tax-evasion, we'll have to arrest half the city," Angua pointed out.

"I'd give a big clock to know how he rigged it," mused Vimes. "I mean, for the gods' sake, William de Worde had a file on her."

"If the newspaper prints it, it must be true," Carrot said thoughtfully.

"Well, she's here now," Vimes said finally. "Time enough to deal with this in the morning. I'm knackered, and I'm going home."

"Goodnight, sir," Angua and Carrot chorused, as Vimes pulled on his coat and stepped out into the misty Ankh-Morpork night. Angua glanced up at Carrot, who had an absent expression on his face.

"Would you rather have a perfect woman than a real one, Carrot?" she asked. He smiled, without looking at her.

"My dad always says that if it's perfect, it's useless," he said. "I don't think he means women, but I guess that's about right."

The most unsettling thing, Vimes thought as he trudged towards home, was the way Death had seemed to look through the shelves, just before he'd vanished. One of the blue lights in that brightly polished skull had flickered, for a split second, right at him.

***

In another part of the city, which may, in its own way, be considered another world...

A dark figure, hunching down against the spitty mist that was hanging over the city, kicked his way through the slurry on the streets. He was not a happy man. He had been a man for only a short time, and already he knew that he was distinctly Not Happy. It'd taken all of his newly-created willpower not to leap out from behind a bookshelf and throttle someone.

"Did you see that?" he said to the sky. This behaviour might have attracted attention, despite the fact that it was happening in the Shades, but it was a chilly night and even the miscreants were staying in. "Did you bloody hear what he told them?"

He didn't expect a heavenly reply -- gods usually don't listen to mortals, and almost never answer -- but he didn't need a reply. He knew what the reply was going to be. Of course we heard. So did you. What're you going to do about it?

"I tell you what I'm going to do about it, I'm going to break it up, that's what. Oho, not Death. Death's not worth my time. But that one! He's a mortal! He's not even a young heroic type! He's just some old bugger who happens to be a little clever. Well, I tell you what, blow that for a lark. I'm not lettin' that happen." He trembled with righteous anger as he walked along. "Puttin' one over on the gods. Ha!"

On Cor Celesti, which was almost literally another world, the assembled gods looked down on their emissary with concern.

"I said we shouldn't put a little bit of everyone in," said Io. "I did say. Poor bloke doesn't know whether he's a vengeance god or a mad oracle."

"Least he knowwlss he's a he," said Bast, scratching herself with one claw. "I mean, therrre's been worrrse avatarrrrs than hrrim."

"Yeth, but ith he going to do anything utheful?" Offler the Crocodile God asked. "Or ith he jutht going to walk about like an idiot talking to the thky?"

Below them, the man continued to rant. "Belief, huh? I'll give them belief. First the Believer. Then the insolent mortal. That'll take care of her. In front of everyone."

When men use words like Insolent and talk to the sky, there's only one way things can go.

***

The next day was Hogswatchnight, and the city was strung tighter than an Assassin's piano-wire. It wasn't just Vetinari's impending nuptials, either. Say what you like about the winter holidays, it's the very best season for domestic homicides.

Most of the Watch officers patrolling the streets were dwarves and trolls -- species that didn't have much truck with Hogswatch anyway. After all, to a troll, a sausage is just a way of giving C.M.O.T. Dibbler something to occupy his time. To a dwarf, the idea of giving someone a gift when you don't know what they're going to give you* is just one more illustration of the homo sapiens' lack of grip.

* For instance, what if you got Snori Shieldsmasher a big bag of gold, and all he gave you was a slightly smaller bag of gold? Dwarves aren't very imaginative gift-givers, by and large.

Sybil was quite proud of Sam. He managed to escape the Watch house by noon. And while, yes, he was a bit broody on the fact that on Hogswatchday he'd have to stand up in front of a good quarter of Ankh-Morpork while wearing the hated Duking outfit and watch Vetinari get married to a woman who didn't exist, he still managed to keep at least most of his mind in the present. Just currently, after dinner, on the presents.

The Hogswatch tree, which was nearly twelve feet high, had been decorated in red bows, white candles, and lots of glass balls with bright colours painted on. Vimes was never sure how things like this happened; he certainly didn't order it, and while Sybil might, he couldn't imagine how she would ask Wilikins, who was elderly and unflappably dignified, to arrange for a large, sap-covered, spiky-leafed tree to be butchered, brought inside, and decorated.

Vimes was an outdoor sort of person, and thought trees ought to be outdoors too.

The presents piled beneath it already formed a sort of mountain of wrapping paper and ribbons. Sybil was a big-hearted woman, and liked gift-giving. There were presents for the servants, for Vimes, from Vimes for Sybil; presents for friends who would be dropping by, for friends who might be dropping by without warning, and for young Sam. Lots for young Sam, most of which would be useless to a child who couldn't yet tell the difference between baby food and his own foot, but the joy, so Vimes had learned from Hogswatch cards, was in the giving.

Sybil ought to be just about the most joyous woman on the Disc, if that was the case.

"Sam? Are you in here? I've just brought some eggnog -- I won't tell you what they put in it, but it ends up tasting all right, I suppose." Sybil appeared in the doorway, and smiled. "It's rather like drinking a spice rack."

"Hm?" He glanced up from his survey of the presents, and nodded. "Thank you, dear."

"Still thinking about tomorrow?" she asked, setting the tray down and sinking into an armchair. "You'll do fine, Sam. As long as you don't forget the rings. Where are they?"

"On top of the dresser in the black velvet box," Vimes said dutifully.

"I think it's frightfully exciting. Do you know, most of the people I've spoken to don't think he'll go through with it? They think it's down to politics," Sybil added.

"Oh, I don't know..." Vimes tried the nog, tentatively. "I think -- my gods, is it supposed to be like this?"

"I'm sure cook made it exactly as it's supposed to be," Sybil answered. She hadn't touched her own glass. He set his down carefully, as if it might explode.

And then it did.

His first move was to knock Sybil out of the chair and onto the ground; this was not a great improvement, since the arrow that had broken the window and knocked the glass over was on fire, and merrily starting a warm crackling flame in the middle of the carpet. He grabbed the other glass of nog and threw it on the fire, beating the remaining embers down with the tray. Sybil was shaking.

"YOU BASTARD!" Vimes shouted. This was not, on reflection, the smartest move he could have made.

His crossbow was in the umbrella rack by the door -- and to send an arrow through solid glass, they had to be using a one-shot.

Not an Assassin, then, just a plain old homicidal lunatic. Damn.

Several servants, alerted by the noise, arrived in the doorway just in time for a second arrow -- this one mercifully unlit -- to come whizzing into the room, a few inches above Vimes' right ear. He growled.

"Hogswatchnight! You'd think they could put it off for two damn days! Get out of the doorway!" he yelled at the servants, who were staring at the window in stunned surprise. They scattered, hopefully to do something sensible like fetch a Watchman.

You're a Watchman, said the slightly mad little voice in his head. He glanced at Sybil.

"Don't move," he said quietly, and rolled for the doorway. It took a few minutes to load a one-shot, and they were hell to cock. An arrow shuddered into the doorframe just as he reached it.

In the hallway, he didn't even seem to move from the door to the rack; he was simply in one place, and then in another. The bow was cocked, safety on, quarrels ready. He slotted one in and slammed the safety off.

If it were any other place, if he had Carrot or even Colon here, he'd nip around outside and nick the bastard where he stood. But Sybil was in that room.

He spun through the doorway, got off a shot that arced through the broken window into the darkness beyond, and pressed his shoulderblades against the frame. "Sybil, run. Now."

She didn't need telling. She was out the door and in the hallway, breathless, almost before he'd finished talking.

"What's going on, Sam?" she asked.

"Someone's trying to kill us."

"I was hoping you wouldn't say that."

He fit another bolt into the crossbow. "Sorry dear. Won't be but a minute -- "

"Don't you dare go in there -- "

"Get upstairs and get Sam!"

He gauged his moment just right; one bolt had just been fired, and the sod was reloading. He lunged for the window, fired, heard a satisfying thud as arrow met flesh, and dove through after it. There were footsteps, running --

He groped forward in the darkness, eyes still adjusting, and ducked as another arrow whirled out of the darkness.

He swore, while Sybil wasn't close enough to hear it, and backed slowly towards the house. When no more shots were forthcoming, he reached through the window, undid the latch, and lifted it, climbing in cautiously.

"Mister Vimes!" someone called. Carrot came charging into the hallway. "We heard someone tried to shoot you!" he said breathlessly.

Carrot paused, then, and took in the crossbow in the Commander's hands, the mess inside, and the bolt still stuck in the doorframe. Vimes could see him considering what to say. "I guess someone did" is always a good fall-back, but "did you get him" was a close competitor for dumbest-phrase-of-the-year-award.

"I winged him," Vimes said briskly. "Is Angua -- "

"Right here, sir. We were on the bridge when an All Officers went out on the big clacks at Pseudopolis Yard." Angua lifted her head, sniffed once or twice, and peered into the drafty drawing room. "I'll just...go have a look around," she said calmly. Carrot and Vimes looked the other way as she walked into the room. There was a change in the air- pressure, like a soft sigh from everywhere at once, and a clank.

"All Officers?" Vimes asked, when the furry, golden shape vanished through the window. "So just about any minute now -- "

A squadron of helmeted, axe-carrying dwarves appeared in the hallway, followed by Wilikins. There were two trolls looking over the butler's shoulder.

He was handling the situation with admirable resolve. It was not the first time the house on Scoone Avenue had been invaded by Watchmen.

"I'll fetch some nog for the officers, shall I, sir?" he asked.

"You just brew up some tea," Vimes said firmly. "Detritus?"

"Yes, sir," Detritus replied, saluting.

"Take Stronginthearm and Pickfighter and fetch some plywood from the garden shed. I want that window covered up."

The troll saluted again, turned, and walked out the door calmly. It was hard to surprise Detritus; he was, quite literally, a rock. Vimes turned just in time to see Sybil coming down the stairs, carrying Sam, a worried look on her face.

"Here we are," Vimes said, hurriedly handing the crossbow to Carrot and taking his son in his arms. "Not to worry. Angua's out there tracking him, and I've sent Detritus to board up the window."

"I'm not worried," Sybil said, with a gallantly false smile. "Are we staying here tonight, dear?"

"Might be best if you did, sir," Carrot said, examining the one-shot bolt in the doorframe. "There's plenty of traps on the grounds, and if he's hurt, he's not likely to want to have another go tonight. Angua's bound to get hold of him, and we can station -- "

"I'm not making my officers stand guard around the house all night. We'll stay up at the Yard. We can come back tomorrow morning when there's a bit of light out and have a nice Hogswatchday," he added, seeing Sybil's mouth open to protest. "Anybody trying to get into a building full of Watchmen'd have to be more daft than I give this one credit for. There's plenty of empty rooms. We'll put Sybil and Sam in a separate room, so even if he does make a try for it..."

"I'll just have Wilikins pack some things for the baby," Sybil said. Vimes tucked a straying blanket corner closer around his son, and turned as Angua came back in the room, adjusting her uniform.

"I'm sorry, Mister Vimes," she said. "He dropped a scent bomb right in front of a whole group of Watchmen. The world is full of peppermint and not much else."

"I thought he might. That wasn't Assassin's Guild," Vimes said. "It was some nutter who wants me dead. Who've I made that angry recently?"

"Dunno, sir. Relative of Timbry's, maybe. Didn't think he had any family."

"I hate it when they do this sort of thing," Vimes said vehemently. "All right, I'm pretty sure I hit him so he's not likely to be up again soon. But I want the honour guard at the Patrician's wedding to stay sharp. Every man carries a crossbow in addition to his sword. If they're taking shots at me, it's likely they'll try the Patrician, too. I'm not going to be responsible for the man dying on his wedding day."

"Right you are, sir," Carrot said. "Shall I call up some of the off-duty officers?"

"Hate to do it on Hogswatch," Vimes murmured. "All right, offer them overtime. I'll pay it myself. Volunteers only. And real volunteers, not Detritus' type of volunteers."

Carrot saluted. Young Sam woke, finally, and launched into a choking cry.

***

It was the volunteer bit that he regretted, in the end. Word got around quickly that someone was taking pot-shots at the Commander. It wasn't as though Vimes was particularly beloved of his subordinates, but he was their boss, he was a regular Watchman who'd Made It, and he was a copper. Coppers don't like coppers getting shot at.

By morning, the Yard was flooded with Watchmen, in and out of uniform, milling about importantly, getting in each other's way. Vimes woke to the sound of Carrot trying to quietly carry a breakfast tray in, and failing completely.

"Yargh," he said, sitting up. "What time is it?"

"Nine ay-emm, sir," Carrot said smartly.

"Mf. And what time is the wedding?"

"Three in the afternoon, sir."

"Good. Wake me at two-thirty."

Vimes pulled the blanket back over his head, and tried to muffle the sound of Carrot's perfectly reasonable explanation why he had to get up.

"There's half the Watch downstairs," Carrot continued, when Vimes had finally caved to the inevitable. He staggered to the wash-basin and began to shave, slowly. "People are a bit perturbed, sir," the Captain added.

"Yes, I know how they feel. How's Sibyl?"

"Still asleep, sir. Young Sam too. I thought it best to wake you first."

"Thank you, Carrot. Now. Tell me what I should be thinking."

Carrot nodded. "I've already had guards go over every inch of the main hall. The wizards promise they'll see if anything supernatural is going to happen. Dorfl's co-ordinating with them."

"Wizards are lazy. Is Buggy around?"

"Yes, sir -- "

"Get him on that bird of his and put him wherever in the hall he can see the most. I want Downspout and Cornice on balconies."

"They won't like being inside, sir."

"Good, it'll make them edgy. Edgy people notice things."

"Yes, sir. I've got Andre and some of his lads in plainclothes, blending in with the visitors. They seem to think it'll be much more fun than the usual Hogswatch events."

"Andre's that way."

"Yes, sir," said Carrot, with barely suppressed disapproval. He didn't like it when coppers were out of uniform; if they had to be undercover, they shouldn't enjoy it. "And there's a dwarf with an axe at every entrance."

"Try and explain to them at least the concept of being subtle about things? And trolls patrolling -- "

"Patrolling the grounds. The wizards are a bit touchy about that, sir."

"Well, Sybil's been meaning to endow a reading room in the library, now's her chance. Honour guard are armed?"

"Swords of course, sir, and I thought crossbows as well."

"Good lad. Who've we got?"

"Angua and I, sir, and Reg Shoe and Fred Colon, and Detritus and Cheery. Nobby has seniority, but he said he'd rather not, sir."

"Really?"

"Yessir. Says he'd rather mingle."

"Oh, dear." Vimes finished shaving, and patted his face dry. Nobby wanted first crack at the feast, in other words. "What about the coaches?"

"Got constables riding with the drivers. The Patrician is being somewhat sharp about things, sir."

Vimes laughed.

"Vetinari's got nerves after all! I knew he was human underneath all that iron," he said. "Thank you, Carrot, you've made my Hogswatch. Now get out of here so I can change and check on a few things."

***

It was somewhat untrue, given precedent, that a Patrician who was not up-to-date on events was not a Patrician for long. Several former Patricians had proved this by being, not only slow on the uptake, but slow to recognize Reality when they saw it, if they saw it at all.

Vetinari had learned from these men. He'd learned what not to do.

The report of the attempted murder of Sam Vimes reached him just as Vimes himself was reaching Pseudopolis Yard. A second report, concerning the murder of a doctor in Treacle Lane, reached him shortly afterwards. He wasn't too concerned about the doctor, who had a nasty habit of patching up criminal types that didn't want it noised about how they'd gotten that crossbow stuck in their shoulder. He was concerned about Vimes.

Vimes lived in the moment, and specialized in reacting, rather than acting. It made him a good copper. Vetinari lived in the moment, but it was always the moment just ahead of everyone else. He thought in ways that would make a normal person's head hurt. Just now, he was thinking quite hard.

A man tries to kill the official witness to his wedding on the night before it occurs. Not just the official witness, but really the only man for the job, because nobody he knew had that single-minded intensity of conviction that Vimes did. And it was that intensity that Vetinari -- no, not even Vetinari anymore -- that Marisia needed. Just until the ceremony was over. After that, as he understood it, things would be sealed. If Vimes was the witness.

It wasn't that Vetinari particularly wanted a wife. It wasn't even that he felt she would be useful. But he knew a good opportunity to acquire one when he saw it, and was loathe to let it slip by.

Now, obviously, someone was angry. Someone was angry that the belief normally floating about like extra onions in the soup of life had been taken for a purpose that was not, by and large, celestial.

Someone human, however. Or at least, posing as human. A priest, perhaps. Not one of Ridcully's, the man didn't have the imagination to understand what was going on. Come to that, most priests didn't.

Vetinari had set up a temporary office, consisting of a table and rickety chair supplied by the Archchancellor, in an anteroom of the Great Hall. Occasionally, clerks brought in papers or carried others away*. Now, he steepled his fingers and watched the sun rise over his city, from a nearby window. Soon, Marisia Gumboni would awake; in a few hours, she would ride to the Great Hall of Unseen University and they would be married. It was enough to make a normal man want to hire a fast horse and buy a map to the Ramtops.

* City rulers do not get holidays. At least, not when they rule Ankh- Morpork.

But Lord Vetinari was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a normal man.

He looked down on the city, and put the small, vague worry aside.

Certainly, Vimes was capable of this. If anyone was.

***

"I'll smite him. That'll finish it."

"You can't thmite him. It'th the ruleth. Ath long ath he hath the power, he'th got to be dealt with ath a human, by humanth. The Avatar ith really doing rather well."

Io glared at Offler, who was peering interestedly down at the playing board.

"Since when have rules mattered to gods?" Io asked icily.

"Thinth we'll lothe the belief anyway if you thmite him," Offler replied casually.

"Some Avatar. Can't even shoot a man properly."

"Humanth are unpredictable. Who knew thith man Vimeth wath that paranoid?"

"We did. We're omnipotent. We know everything," Io replied.

"Technically thpeaking," Offler reminded him. "But all thith Unthertanty ith bloody annoying."

"So we can do nothing?"

Offler grinned a toothy grin. This is an excellent activity for a crocodile god.

"Well, we can do thomething," he said. "But it'th a lateral move. You won't like it."

Io didn't like it.

He didn't like it one bit.

***

It was certainly not the best Hogswatch anyone ever had. Sybil and Sam were nervous, and children -- especially babies -- pick up on emotion. Young Sam, while enjoying the bright colours and rustling of the Hogswatch presents, nonetheless grew cranky and teary whenever his parents were more than a few inches away.

But, Sybil thought, as she watched her husband engage in a game of tug-o-war with young Sam over a bright red velvet ribbon, it wasn't the worst Hogswatch either. She'd already been out to the dragon house to find Sam's wonderful gift for her -- a small, shy dragon with a bow tied around its neck, which it was spiritedly trying to eat.

Sam seemed to like his new silk pajamas, and the newfangled sighting mechanism for his crossbow. Sybil didn't pretend to understand how it worked, but apparently the little box clamped onto the stock with the twist-mechanism. Inside was a specially-enchanted salamander in an insulated chamber. When you lifted the lens-cover on the front of the box, the light from the salamander shone out, focusing a bright red dot on the area where the quarrel would hit, if you fired it.

By the set of Sam's jaw, she could tell that the first person he wanted to test it on was the mental case who'd fired through their window last night.

Neither of them could stop themselves looking over their shoulders at the boards tacked across the broken window. And the time until the wedding seemed to pass all too quickly.

When Carrot appeared in the doorway, helmet under arm, Sybil sighed and gathered up young Sam. Vimes kissed his son, gave Sybil a confident look that he didn't feel, and went upstairs to change and get the rings.

He looked terribly impressive in the uniform. She knew he hated it, but Sam Vimes saw the uniform as a sign of betrayal -- he was a Watchman, a Cockbill street boy who'd happened to be lucky. Sam Vimes was also, however, a man worthy of everything he'd been given, and she wished he'd see it.

Sam would go on ahead, double-checking the arrangements at the Great Hall. She would leave young Sam with a pair of trusted Watchmen at the Yard and arrive, with the rest of the wedding guests, when Sam had made sure it was safe.

Watchmen never really went off duty.

She and Sam waved goodbye from an upper window, as the coach set off across the city. Then she took young Sam to the nursery, and began to prepare for the wedding.

***

The Great Hall was in an uproar. Drumknott, who was apparently going for the award for least sleep achieved in a single week, had a clipboard and a murderous look for anyone who got in his way.

Carrot also had a clipboard, and he and Vimes moved through the crowds of decorators, under-servants, florists, and secretarial staff with difficulty. Several watchmen, already stationed around the palace, saluted as they passed.

"You'll stand here, Commander," said Archchancellor Ridcully, indicating the front of the great hall. "You and the Patrician -- do you really think he'll go through with it?"

"Couldn't say," Vimes said. It was a safe statement. It didn't mention insane snipers, imaginary women, or the madness of Lord Vetinari at all.

"Well, we'll soon know. The Dean is performing the ceremony -- "

Vimes nodded at the Dean of Unseen University, who had also married him and Sybil. He was a windbag, but he was a respectable windbag, and trustworthy. Vime smelled trouble of the magical persuasion, but not from the wizards.

Vetinari dabbling in magic! It set the world on its ears.

Speaking of which...

He saw the Patrician entering the Great Hall, unescorted and alone. For a brief moment he was reminded of his own uselessness before his wedding, but then good sense took over, not to mention reflexes. There was a large, tattered tapestry above the entrance where the Patrician stood, held in place by a thick iron bar.

Which was wobbling.

Carrot was already there, a redheaded blur of armour, and Vimes didn't even flinch as he saw the bar begin to fall. Instead, he ran.

Across the hall and up the stairs and along the narrow balcony walk, not looking down in case he fell down, and around across the maintenance scaffolding behind the pipe organ, to the stairs nearest the mechanism that held the tapestry in place. It was a stupid plan, he thought, as he slid into a solid mass of shadow. Too far from the stairs. Better to bide your time --

But what he said was, "Nicked! Damn you!"

An elbow came up into his ribcage and a knee attempted to ensure that young Sam would forever be an only child, but Vimes was ready for it and brought his fist down hard on a kneecap, stopping the leg and very nearly cracking the bone. He dove head-first into the man's belly, scrambled forward when they both fell, and had his knees on the uneven, heaving chest, trying to hold down four limbs while only using two, himself.

A second tapestry fell. Wood crashed below. Half of it slipped over the balcony railing and entangled the two men further. Vimes felt himself kicked off the other man, and flailed out, getting a good grip on what turned out to be his head.

"Give it up!" he shouted, tangling in the thick, mothball-laden cloth.

"Blasphemer!" the man yelled back. It was not the curse that Sam Vimes was expecting, and he didn't have a smart reply ready for that particular adjective. He tightened his grip.

"You're under arrest. I'm an officer of the Watch!"

"Blasphemer and worshipper of idols!"

Wish I had one now, thought Vimes. Nice big stone idol I could crack him across the head with.

By now, other officers had begun to gather, and he heard a dwarvish war-cry as an axe tore into the tapestry. A giant stony hand reached in, groped around, and plucked the other man out by the collar.

"You want I should find a wall, Mister Vimes?" Detritus' deep voice boomed.

"No, Detritus! Keep hold of him, he's slippery!" Vimes called, finding the hole and managing to push through it. "How's the Patrician?" he demanded, running to the balcony edge. Carrot, down below, waved both hands.

"No harm, sir!" he called.

This was not, strictly speaking, true.

"Nathty knock to the head," Igor said, half an hour later, as Vimes and Carrot stood nearby. Most of the city's leaders were clustered outside the University doors; the watch patrols wouldn't let them any closer. Those who were already inside were huddled near the door of the Archchancellor's office, where they'd carried the unconscious Patrician. "Not a lucky man, Lord Vetinari."

"Tell that to the iron bar that nearly split him in half," Vimes growled. "He going to be okay?"

"Oh, yes, sir. Fix him up a treat. Ten minutes, he'll be good as new."

"No surgery, Igor!"

"Yes, sir," Igor sighed. "I'll call when he'th up and about."

Vimes tucked his helmet under his arm and tried to smooth his hair. "Best go tell the rest of them. You take care of the guilds, Carrot," he added, knowing that they'd believe him. He'd have to deal with the wizards and Palace staff himself.

Oh, and one other --

Vimes winced as a salamander flared just outside the door. Otto, early as always when photographs were to be taken, had snapped several fine images of the fistfight between Vimes and the attacker. Now he held the iconograph box in front of the Watchmen, and held up a thin, white hand.

"Be standing still, please!" he said, as the salamander flared again. Vimes put a hand over the lens. Otto, not at all discouraged, pulled out a small notepad and a bit of pencil.

"Do you haff a statement for ze Times on zer unlikely collapsing of zer Patrician?" he asked, licking the tip of his pencil.

"Chriek, you're an iconographer," Vimes snapped. "What are you doing?"

"Oh, vell, zer reporters veren't here, vere zey? Zo I am, as they szay, fillink in."

"Fillink in," Vimes sighed.

"Indeed. Vould you szay zer vedding is off?"

"No!"

"Ah, zen zer Patrician vill go through vith it?"

Vimes rolled his eyes, and gathered his thoughts. "The Watch has apprehended a suspect in an attack on the Patrician earlier this afternoon. He is being tended by the best doctor -- " he saw that Otto was writing furiously. "Here, that's Uberwaldean."

"Oh yes, a good language for reporting. I vill translate later. You vere juszt about to say that he vas expected to recover in szhort order."

"Yes, I was," Vimes said with a glare. "We are confident that his Lordship will be recovered in plenty of time for the wedding."

"Vhy vas zer attack perpetrated?"

"That has yet to be determined."

"Szo you don't know?"

"So I'm not telling."

Otto looked crestfallen. "Vhat vould Villiam ask, here, please?" he said, plaintively.

"William de Worde would know I wasn't going to tell him any more, and retreat."

Otto considered this. "Zank you for your time, Commander," he said, and vanished into the gloomy hall.

Vimes breathed out, slowly, and walked down the hallway, to an empty office where Detritus was guarding* the prisoner.

* Detritus' definition of 'guarding' varied wildly from day to day; for cooperative vict -- er, prisoners, he merely looked incredibly threatening. For troublesome folk, he sometimes employed furniture. As a club.

He was a small man, with wispy brown hair and wild bloodshot eyes. When Vimes entered, he shot forward, pointing, froth forming at the corners of his mouth.

"Blasphemer! Worshiper of idols! Pagan practitioner of dark deeds!"

Vimes eyed him, curiously.

"No," he said, finally. This stopped the man in his tracks.

"What do you mean, no?" he demanded.

"No, I'm not," Vimes clarified.

"Course you are."

"Nope, sorry."

"Liar! Bewitcher of men!" the man continued, but with less enthusiasm now.

"You can't say dat," Detritus growled.

"Oh, I'd like our friend here to talk," Vimes said, leaning against the wall. "I'd like to hear the whole story."

"You'll have to torture it out of me!" the man said happily. "I knew you were a godless man!"

"Which one?"

"Sorry?"

Vimes detected that he was dealing with an easily-derailed train of thought. This is an advantage, in an interrogation.

"Which god?" Vimes asked.

"All of them!"

Oh, dear.

"What's your name?" he tried.

"I am called Vengeance of the Gods!"

"Hard name to fit on an arrest form. Got a shorter one?"

"You -- "

"All right, all right." Vimes held up a hand. "Why were you trying to kill the Patrician?"

"Abuser of power!" the man shrieked. "The idolatrous stealer of belief! She doesn't even exist!"

"Ah. Someone else finally tumbled," Vimes nodded. "We know. She's fairly charming, for a nonexistent entity."

The man stared at him.

"You knew?"

"I'll ask the questions," Vimes said sharply.

"Then I didn't have to do any of that?"

"Any of what?"

The man pulled up his shirt, displaying a bandaged ribcage underneath. "You shot me! I could've just come and knocked on your door and instead I had to go to all kinds of trouble and -- "

He was flat on his back and Vimes was straddling his chest, sword to his throat, before either man knew what was happening.

"You shot through my window?" Vimes demanded, through gritted teeth. "That was you?"

"Yes! Because you can't believe in her! You can't!"

"You bastard!"

Vimes felt a craggy hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Mister Vimes," Detritus murmured. He sat back, re-sheathing the sword.

"You tell me what this is all about, right now, or I'll..." Vimes cast about for an appropriate threat. "I'll let Igor improve you!"

"The gods hate him!" the man yelled. "He stole their belief!"

Vimes felt the first inklings of everything beginning to come together.

"The gods sent you, you, because they don't want Vetinari marrying Gumboni? Because he used belief they think belongs to them? To make her?"

"Yes!" the little man was almost weeping with relief, now. "But you're the witness, see? So if you don't believe, it's all okay! That's why I was sent here by the gods! That's why I let you catch me!"

"Let me catch you -- "

"So I could tell you not to believe!"

Vimes stood. He had rarely actually believed anything in his life. Coppers generally didn't. They had enough to deal with in the real world without wrestling over the metaphysical realm. Oh, there were things he knew were true, and things he wished were true (so very, very many of those), but there weren't many things he believed on faith.

Who needed to believe in Marisia Gumboni? She was like the weather. She was so obviously there.

On the heels of that thought came a shriek, and the sound of people shouting.

"Detritus, handle things," he said, and darted out the doorway.

There was pandemonium in the Great Hall. Marisia Gumboni had arrived, and the guards had let her inside; now she stood, near the pipe organ, shrieking in anger.

"You can't do this to me!" she shouted, looking up at the roof of the hall.

"Madam Gumboni -- "

"Curse you!" she cried, turning to point at him. "You're supposed to help him! What good are you, disbeliever!"

Vimes'd had just about enough of people calling him names. He went to grab her shoulders and calm her down. His hands passed right through them.

"Marisia!" someone bellowed. Vimes, turning, was absolutely floored. Vetinari stood in the doorway, out of breath, leaning on the jamb for support. There was a livid bruise over his left eye.

"It's all fading," she said, tiredly. "It's not going to work, Havelock."

"I am not accustomed to failure," the Patrician said, gathering himself to his full height. "Summon the Dean, please," he said, turning to a Watchman. "Do it now," he added icily, when the Watchman looked to Vimes for confirmation. Vimes nodded.

"Do what he says," he said. "You'd better tell me what the hell is going on, here."

"There is not time for that," the Patrician said, and Vimes saw his usual cool efficiency returning. "Come, Sir Samuel."

He limped past them, taking Vimes' arm with one hand and gesturing Marisia forward with the other. "Here and now, in this place," he said, almost to himself. The Dean arrived, puffing breathlessly.

"Mr. Chriek," the Patrician called. "Over here, please."

Otto, who had been lurking sulkily near the fallen tapestry, came forward.

"Yes, szir?" he asked, hesitantly.

"Sit there," the Patrician ordered. Otto sank into the front row of the audience.

"Sam?"

Vimes turned again, feeling dizzy. Lady Sybil emerged from a side-entrance, hesitantly. "A constable let me in. What's going on?"

"I don't know," Vimes answered.

"Duchess, if you would be so kind," the Patrician gestured to the seat next to Otto. Sybil, shocked, sank into it.

"Proceed," Vetinari snapped, at the Dean, who cleared his throat and began. The words washed over Vimes as he watched Marisia, standing next to the Patrician, fading rapidly in and out.

Suddenly, his mind went blank. The rings, the rings.

He reached into his pocket. Oh, gods. There they were. Just in time, too...

The Patrician calmly accepted one of the rings, and Marisia held out a hand that was not quite opaque.

"It's not going to go on -- " she said, but Vetinari stopped her. He maneuvered the ring onto the ephemeral finger. Something like a shockwaved passed through the hall. The Dean winced. But the ring stayed.

"Sir Samuel, I need a great favor of you," the Patrician said calmly. "You must -- "

"Believe, yes, I am catching on," Vimes said sarcastically. "Who needs to believe in -- "

"If you didn't know, you'd do it automatically," Marisia said. "But you do know. So you have to. Please, your Grace."

Vimes stared. "You're not going to get anywhere calling me that," he said weakly.

"Please, Sir Samuel," she said. He frowned.

How did you go about believing in something?

Take it on faith.

Take it on faith that she's a solid woman, solid as rock, and it's just your imagination playing tricks on you, says she's fading like a memory.

Faith?

He stared at her, concentrating.

He realized that, until that moment, he hadn't himself believed that the Patrician was going to marry this woman.

Believe it, Vimes. Look at him. He's standing there, barely keeping upright, and his wife is depending on you for survival.

How in the world do I get involved in these things?

Marisia breathed a sigh of relief, and he looked at her, suddenly. She was solid again.

How did I do that?

"Thank you, Sir Samuel," she said quietly. She accepted the other ring from his numb hand, and placed it on Vetinari's finger.

He didn't so much as smile. Just nodded at Vimes, and turned back to Marisia, with a questioning look.

"It's all right," she said, relieved. "They can't get me now."

***

Like the celestial equivalent of the upstairs landlady, Blind Io stomped his foot viciously. His eyes zinged around like flies in need of Valium.

"Some plan!" he raged. "Tell him everything, you said. He won't be able to believe anything after that, you said."

Offler set his considerable jaw. "If Batht hadn't -- "

"It's all gone! It's been used up and that, that monstrosity of a woman is real!"

"Nithe girl, though," Offler said. Io stared at him.

"Oh, no," he moaned.

***

The disintegrating tapestries had been swept away. The iron hanger and wrecked chairs had been hauled out of the hall by two trolls and the Librarian, who was a hands-on sort of person. Vetinari had been given his cane, and a bandage for his forehead. Vimes thought he'd like a picture of that, for days when the world could do nothing but depress him.

He was impressed by the stamina involved in this particular wedding. Technically, they were already married. But Marisia insisted and the Patrician agreed. They were already here, after all. Why not put on the show for the rest of the city?

Now, Vimes was standing, in his slightly-dented dress armour -- courtesy of 'Vengeance of the Gods' -- as the upper crust of Ankh-Morpork society seated itself in the Great Hall. Vetinari, standing nearby, was still and silent, watching everything with that little look he had, the one that told you he could read every thought in your head, and you couldn't even see the large print version in his.

"Do you want to explain what the hells just happened?" Vimes asked, as he acknowledged a greeting by one of the plainclothes officers.

"Do you really want to discuss it here?" Vetinari asked.

"Yes, actually. I do. My wife was nearly shot last night, thanks to you and your little magic trick."

Vetinari sighed, but kept the clear, still expression on his face. "Belief is fueled by nothing so much as hard evidence of the idea in question. One man began believing in Marisia Gumboni because his officers in the far reaches of the Disc notified him that it was so. Rumour is a fickle goddess, but I knew I could count on the Watch."

"I only told de Worde, and then only because I had to."

"Ah yes. Mr. de Worde. Do you know, he doesn't even keep those filing cabinets locked?"

Vimes thought back to Carrot's remark. If the newspaper prints it, it must be true.

"So you set it all up."

"You make it sound as though I was a criminal mastermind. I merely arranged a few things that might, as it were, come together to form an opportunity. When it occurred, I took advantage of it." Vetinari nodded at Lord Venturi, who was passing through the aisles, trying to find an empty seat. Vimes tried to ignore the fact that Carrot was desperately trying to get his attention. He had a feeling he knew what the Captain was going to tell him.

"But she required a certain amount of belief, you know. More than I could provide. You are a man who does not hold many convictions, Sir Samuel, but those you do hold are quite...oh, how shall I put this...quite firm. When you do believe, as I think has been admirably demonstrated today..."

"That's why you wanted me as best man. I'm a good witness," Vimes said dully.

"I was not lying when I said I could not think of anyone else I would rather have fill the position."

"That's no kind of an answer."

"No. But it will have to do, for now. I must say, I didn't expect an attacker to descend. I imagine someone on Cor Celesti is not very happy with me right now. Alas, they do not have you on their side, Sir Samuel."

Vimes opened his mouth to reply, but he was effectively drowned out by the Librarian, who had begun a sort of improvisation on Fondel's Wedding March, using the giant organ in the great hall, which had several buttons that might cause explosion if used when the air reservoirs were at their fullest.

Marisia Gumboni -- now a solid, real woman -- appeared at the entrance arch, wearing an unusually fancy wedding dress, and preceded by the honour guard, in terrifically shiny uniforms.

"Best foot forward, Sir Samuel. It'll all be over in a few minutes," the Patrician said, over the wheezing of the organ. "My..." he gave Vimes a funny little look. "My wife and I appreciate your efforts on our behalf."

The ceremony, when not made urgent by the temporary transparency of the bride, was quite long. For Vimes, it consisted mostly of standing, and trying to ignore the whirling thoughts in his head, and giving them the rings again. Then there was a ledger for him to sign, saying that he'd witnessed the damn thing, and the honour guard had to be led out of the Hall.

"Sir," Carrot said, as he walked by to join the others in the honour guard, "The man who attacked you vanished. Detritus says -- "

"Don't worry, I know. I expected as much," Vimes said wearily. "I don't think he'll trouble us again. I don't think he can."

"But sir -- "

"Smile and march, Carrot," Vimes said, as he led the Patrician and Marisia to the front of the line. "I'm not making a toast," he said under his breath, to Vetinari.

"Happily, Sir Samuel, I anticipated as much. There are many dignitaries here today who would gladly take your place," Vetinari replied. Vimes detected a mild double-meaning. "I have asked the Genuan ambassador to make a small speech."

Outside, as news of the wedding passed from the Great Hall to the streets below, a cheer went up. Vetinari sighed.

"I do hate it when they go patriotic," he said dryly. "Still, I suppose I have the citizenry to thank."

"How's that?" Vimes asked.

"Who do you suppose spent more time imagining -- believing in -- this woman? Myself, or the people of the city? I barely went beyond a quite simple physical description. I did not select her personality or her talents. I have you to thank for that."

"Me?"

"Oh yes. And the rest of Ankh-Morpork. They are the ones who imagined the sort of woman I would marry. Marisia was molded to fit Ankh- Morpork's expectations of her, not mine. No indeed." The Patrician took her arm, falling back slightly. "In a way, you could say I have married the city. A good match all round, I think."

Vimes, who'd had one too many shocks for anyone to deal with, simply shut his mind down after that.

***

"That was quite a Hogswatchday," Sybil said, sinking into a chair in the Ghastly Yellow drawing room and removing the dancing slippers, which she hated almost as much as Vimes hated his dress uniform. "What happened to Havelock? You could hardly tell it was him, under that bandage."

"Carrot happened," Vimes grunted, removing his armour and handing it to Wilikins, who carried it out to the rack. He sat back on a couch, exhausted, and looked at the ceiling. "Someone tried to drop a tapestry on Vetinari's head."

"That wasn't very nice, Sam."

"I didn't do it!" He said, indignantly. There was a slight pause. When he looked over at her, she was smiling.

"I know, Sam," she said gently.

"Oh, gods..." he put his hands over his face. "I'm going to bed and sleeping for a week. Maybe two."

"I'm sorry. Tell me what happened," she said.

"Carrot knocked him out of the way. Into a wall." He sighed. "There are easier ways to get married. There must be."

"We seemed to do all right."

"I was half an hour late for ours and covered in slime. Vetinari got shot."

"But it was a lovely ceremony."

He grunted. "Yes. I guess it was."

"Do you suppose they'll be happy? Havelock and Marisia?"

"Dunno. Reckon they're in love?" Vimes asked, thinking of the one, crystallizing moment when Vetinari had stood in the doorway, calling Marisia's name. And then he thought of the fact that no-one could be as devoted to this city as he and Vetinari were, without loving it. Loving Ankh-Morpork was not a satisfying hobby, but it went with the job. If you wanted to keep the job.

"They looked happy," Sybil answered, virtuously. She didn't add that, for Vetinari, 'happy' was anything beyond a blank poker-face. "It's not always easy to tell."

"No, I suppose not," he said. "It's not the way I'd go about getting a wife, I can tell you that."

She laughed, gently. "I hope you're not planning on anything of the kind."

"No, dear."

***

"So this is myself," Marisia said, looking at herself in her bedroom mirror for the first time. The Patrician sat nearby, hands on his cane, watching her admire herself. "I quite like it."

"Of course," he replied. "Nothing you would change?"

"No, Havelock."

"Good. Then the job was well done. I appreciate craftsmanship."

"Yours, or the Duke's?"

"Both, I suspect."

"And what," she asked, turning to face him, "Do we do now?"

A small smile appeared on his lips.

"We care for the city, Marisia. First and foremost, always."

"After we've done caretaking?"

"We are never done caretaking."

"Oh, yes," she said dismissvely. "But after the duties are seen to. At the end of the day?"

"Then, I think, we may be allowed a few minutes of privacy," he answered. "I don't think even the gods would deny us that."