Summary: A difficult conversation and its aftermath.
Spoilers: Not really.
Rating: PG-13? (suggested but not explicit m/m sex)
Disclaimer: These characters are the proprety of Terry Pratchett. No profit is being made off the fiction below.
Shadows of evening died into night.
‘Of course. Do not hesitate to leave.’
The spectacle that was Foul Ole Ron left the Oblong Office, and out of fondness of its creator his smell left also. The Patrician tapped his pen against his lips irritably and leaned his chair back. Surreptitiously he glanced around the room, checking that he was, indeed, alone – and when he was quite sure he buried his head in his hands like the old man he rather suspected himself of becoming.
There was a noise. No louder than an ant sighing, but perceptible to the Patrician. Hastily he sat bolt upright, snatched a piece of paper from his desk and read it swiftly. The door to the left and rear of his desk opened on oiled hinges and revealed the face of Drumknott, Lord Vetinari’s head clerk.
‘A most disturbing report, my lord.’
‘Indeed. Have something done about. Inform Vimes that I don’t mind whether he investigates the matter or not.’
‘My lord! Lady Sybil is dead!’
‘Presumed, or rather rumoured to be murdered, actually.’
Drumknott looked to argue further. Vetinari raised his eyebrow. ‘Hmm?’ he said.
‘Yes, my lord.’
Vetinari gave no signal that Drumknott should leave, so the clerk hovered, with one hand still on the doorknob. Vetinari rose and went to the grey window that framed the brownness of Ankh-Morpork, inspected the blue and red carpet most intently, and then turned to face Drumknott. ‘How long have you been my clerk?’
‘Approaching five years now, my lord.’
‘Where is your family?’
Drumknott was carefully still. Trying to understand Vetinari was more difficult than trying to understand the gods. ‘I have no surviving family.’ Pictures are said to contain stories. This sentence, short and simple, seemed to posses a novel of its own. Vetinari half-closed his eyes.
‘That must have been distressing.’
‘It was.’ Drumknott almost unnoticeably tightened his jaw.
Vetinari denied himself further pursuit of the subject, and instead glided slowly towards Drumknott with cast-down eyes until he was very near.
‘Are you lonely, Drumknott?’
‘Do you not miss other people’s company?’
Finely tuned as Drumknott’s perception was, he was not quite sure how to interpret his master’s thoughts at this moment – especially with him standing so suffocatingly near.
‘I have no time nor inclination to keep company.’
‘You keep me company.’
‘Yes, my lord, but it’s not the same—‘ Drumknott tried to suck the words back before they were heard. Panic-stricken he stared with hot shame at the Patrician’s carefully immobile face.
‘I am a human being, you know.’
Drumknott’s red cheeks did indeed show that he knew.
‘Some may call me,’ here Vetinari sneered and turned away sharply, ‘a tyrant, heartless, ruthless…’
‘I was not aware that such fragments of trifling gossip troubled my lord.’
‘They do not trouble me, but I think of them often.’ Vetinari seemed to be making his mind up about something. Papers on his desk were briskly shuffled and squared.
‘Do you agree with what they say?’ Lord Vetinari said, after the papers were arranged to his liking. A flash of blue indicated that a reply was expected.
Drumknott now felt that this conversation would last a long while. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, uneasy as always when completely alone with his master. That was a funny thing – Drumknott thought – he had never got used to the man. Capricious as a storm cloud, unmoveable as a rock.
‘I believe you do what is necessary.’
‘Necessary!’ spat the Patrician with the speed and venom of a snake. ‘I do what I think is right. Does that make me what they say?’ he sat down heavily on a chaise-lounge which occupied the wall farthest away from Drumknott.
‘Well--‘ Drumknott paused; this conversational territory was unfamiliar and frightening to him. Surely there was a letter somewhere to be written firing a fifty-nine year-old district nurse, or a cesspit to be swum through – anything but this- ‘in my opinion, you could not be a truer ruler.’
This direct flattery confused the Patrician for a micro-second. ‘True.’
He turned his pale blue gaze from his knees to Drumknott. Lord Vetinari studied him carefully, taking in the worried, pale face, the round spectacles huddled on his nose, the unruly, nondescript brown hair that was losing a battle with being plastered down with water to his head. The frame was very slight, the hands protruding from his grey, sensible woollen suit were almost as white and veined as the Patrician’s own.
‘How old are you, Drumknott?’
There was no answer.
The clerk snapped out of his trance and burbled, ‘twenty-seven, my lord.’
‘Do you know how old I am?’
Rufus Drumknott paused – he thought he had known, but in fact had no clue. ‘No.’
‘I am fifty-three.’
Drumknott could not help wondering if the Patrician had always looked as he had done now. Vetinari had not changed in years. The children pointing and laughing at his greying hair and stress-lines on his forehead. Loneliness. Drumknott felt dizzy and pressed his fingers to his own forehead. Unconsciously he crept across the floor towards his master.
‘Are you stressed, my lord?’
Vetinari had had his next question carefully calculated and was rather thrown by clerk’s impromptu inquiry. ‘Um. Well. Yes. Probably. You know – I’ve never thought on the subject at length. I have never had time.’ Vetinari flashed a lightning smile.
‘You must think of yourself as much as you think of the city, my lord.’
‘I’m not half so interesting.’
‘Are you not?’
Vetinari’s eyes narrowed once again and scrutinised the clerk’s wooden face. This moment of attention brought self-consciousness to Drumknott, and he realised he was only a few feet from the chaise-lounge. Colouring, he stiffened his posture and corrected himself; ‘my lord,’ he added. Vetinari sagged, one arm over the arm of the chair, one arm flung over the back.
‘Sit down with me.’
Drumknott obeyed. The clerk had heard stories about Vetinari’s last clerk, Wonse, who had betrayed him most dreadfully. Rumours still flirted around what had actually happened to the clerk. As far as Drumknott was concerned, there was nothing that he himself would not do for the Patrician.
Totally unexpectedly and so subtly that Drumknott had no time to recoil, Vetinari’s arm reached out, and his fingertips brushed the clerk’s lips gently, like a butterfly, and then withdrew quickly so that Drumknott doubted it had ever happened.
‘Your lips are chapped,’ Vetinari whispered. ‘I will send a memo to the apothecary to provide something.’
Drumknott’s throat constricted and his breath, although he struggled against it, came in short, inaudible gasps. He could think of nothing sensible to say. ‘I’m afraid I lick them rather a lot, my lord.’
‘Please – do not call me lord.’
Vetinari raised a warning hand. ‘Do not call me anything.’ Vetinari leaned forwards towards the clerk, who was seated ramrod-straight. It seemed to the clerk that Vetinari was reading his mind by studying his face. The eyes then moved downwards, and searched for information elsewhere. ‘This suit is most unsuitable for you.’
‘It itches a bit,’ said Drumknott, his mind reeling.
Vetinari reached out once again, and while the wild, staring eyes of Drumknott watched, the Patrician’s hand stroked the woollen sleeve. ‘Hmm.’
‘You yourself do not like fine clothes,’ murmured Drumknott. He then flinched as Lord Vetinari looked up to meet his eyes. Desperate to escape, the clerk diverted his gaze to the Patrician’s own clothes. They were plain and rather shabby black robes of rough cotton. The dye was wearing away at the seams. Drumknott’s hand, to his horror – or rather, to his conscience’s horror at touching his master in such a forbidden way - stretched out, shaking, and ran its finger briefly over the folds nearest to him. Vetinari watched dispassionately, then the corners of his mouth turned up, at last. The Patrician leaned forward once again, as did Drumknott.
It was cold, was Drumknott’s first thought. It was pitch black in the Patrician’s bedchamber. A figure was huddled on the other side of the bed. The clerk sat up, realised that this meant his bare chest and arms were exposed to the icy air, and shrank back down under the rough sheets.It was very early morning, and the Oblong Office was quite quiet. Nobody had appointments with him at this ungodly hour – and the morning was Vetinari’s to spend composing reports or reading forgotten items from yesterday. He had not yet seen his head clerk. Just as this thought crept past, Drumknott’s door to the room breathed open. A familiar face entered, closed the door and stood in front of the desk. The face looked at a piece of paper in his hand, one of many, and said, ‘appointments for today are as follows-‘ Vetinari’s face was like stone– ‘Eight-thirty A.M, Gerhardt Sock of—‘
Visions from that night shrank and prowled through his memory. The Patrician’s poor, thin chest – like that of those dreadful iconographs of the starving people of Klatch – the ribs could be easily counted. A scar shaped like a wicked grin disfigured the stretched skin. Drumknott had asked how it came to be there, as his fingertips traced the pattern. The Patrician was eerily silent, and tightened lips indicated that the subject was not to be pursued.
Cold as the world outside the bed was, he could not face those cold blue eyes in the morning. Gathering courage, he oozed out of the bed and felt in the darkness for his woollen suit. Damn the thing! He found it, covered himself appropriately, and left like a criminal in the direction of his own bedchambers to sit, staring into the dark to think.
The Patrician was not asleep as Drumknott thought. He felt the clerk leave his bed, and heard him padding around the room and finally leave. Lord Vetinari’s eyes snapped open and he changed his position so that he was facing the ceiling with his hands behind his head. He also recalled what had passed: Drumknott’s back turned to him before Vetinari had blown out the candle. The back had been white and soft and smooth.
Guilt! That was the feeling that so irritated his spirits now. He found his face frowning at the ceiling. What did he have to be guilty for? The answer was there, waiting in the gloom, waiting to assail his thoughts, but he turned his back on it, as Drumknott had turned his back to him. He slept and then rose before dawn.
‘I believe there was an element of that sentence that was absent.’
Unspoken hurt passed through the electrified air.
Vetinari’s gaze broke, and he looked at his desk and nodded slowly. ‘Indeed.’
Drumknott left as soon as he could. He could bear no more.