Three servants, two men and a woman, stood shoulder to shoulder on one side of the deep, white porcelain bathtub, their uniforms gray, their faces ashen. Their hands were clutched before them as if they were praying.
In a way, they were.
At the moment, they were watching the long, pale index finger of Lord Havelock Vetinari pierce the bath water for one minute…two…then surface again. The steam wafting through the washroom and the light from assorted candelabras gave the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork a disturbing, unearthly look. His face had the pallor of a corpse and his dressing gown was white as a shroud.
He trained his eyes on the female servant, Sarah. She had thin, calloused hands and large feet in black, buckled shoes.
"You are new here?" he asked.
"Yes, m'lord." Sarah bobbed.
The two male servants closed their eyes and tried to ignore the perspiration beading their foreheads.
"I trust your colleagues have informed you of my requirements?"
"Yes, m'lord," said Sarah, bobbing again.
The Patrician gazed down at the water, his lips pursed.
"I believe we have ninety seven degrees."
"Oh! But m'lord--"
The only thing that cut Sarah's words was the look the Patrician gave her when he raised his eyes from the tub. It was a look that told her he was open to any and all contradictions as long as she was aware of the consequences of contradicting him. It was a quietly confident look of utter menace.
Sarah looked to her co-workers for help but they had taken a step backward in an attempt to disassociate themselves from her.
"Now," said the Patrician, folding his hands, "what is the required temperature of the water?"
"Ninety six degrees, m'lord."
"Correct. You were given a thermometer with which to measure this. Have you been instructed in its proper use?"
The Patrician gave her an understanding smile. "Perhaps it malfunctioned." He went to the small porcelain table in the corner where the thermometer was usually stored. It wasn't there. After he went back to stand again in Sarah's direct line of sight, he looked at her expectantly.
She fumbled in her apron pocket. The slim glass tube with a few drops of quicksilver at the bottom was the smallest thermometer in the world. The inventor Leonard of Quirm had drawn the plans, while a master glassmaker had been persuaded to execute them.
Sarah wasn't supposed to carry the thermometer in her pocket but she'd been running late and had simply forgotten...
She held it out to the Patrician, her hand trembling, the steam in the room and the heat from the bath adding to the dampness of her fingers.
Lord Vetinari did not reach for it. He left her standing there, shivering with fear, holding the thermometer out over the tub.
What happened next was inevitable.
Everyone in the room watched the glass slide from her fingers and slip into the water.
Strangely enough, Lord Vetinari did not look displeased. By the thoughtful expression on his face, he could have been watching an interesting scientific experiment.
"Would you excuse us?" he said to the two male servants. They scurried out without a single sympathetic glance at Sarah. She watched them go with a mixture of envy and panic.
The Patrician wiped a towel across his forehead.
"A bit warm in here, don't you think? It would certainly be useful to know exactly how warm. I wonder how that can be achieved now that the thermometer is…" he looked over the tub, "…submerged. I am open to suggestions."
"I could…fish it out, m'lord."
"Fishing! What a lovely idea. By all means." Lord Vetinari waved at the tub, stepping back a bit to better observe Sarah from the standpoint of an audience watching the action on a theater stage.
Sarah pulled up her sleeve and looked into the water. It was too dim in the washroom to see much more than the reflections of the candles on the surface. Tentatively, she dipped her hand in, then pulled it out quickly, flicking the water off her fingers.
"Too hot?" said the Patrician.
"No, m'lord…" She gritted her teeth and tried again, reaching into the water, past her elbow, almost up to her shoulder. She still couldn't feel the bottom of the tub and had certainly not found the thermometer yet. When the heat became too much, she pulled her arm out and tried to rub away the numbness.
"If I may make a suggestion," said the Patrician. "Perhaps if you stepped closer to the edge of the tub, you could lean down a bit further." He smiled pleasantly. "I'm sure you will find the thermometer much easier that way."
Sarah got as close to the edge of the tub as she could, took a deep breath and reached in again. She was practically balancing herself on the edge. Though her fingers were tingling from the heat of the water, she rummaged around a bit and thought, for a moment, that she felt the glass brush past her fingertips.
"I think I found it, m'lord!" she said excitedly. "I just have to…"
She leaned over a little more…
The Patrician looked on, his hands folded in front of his slightly upturned lips.
…and the one shoe that was still on the floor slipped out from under her. She toppled head first into the tub. Water splashed over and onto the floor but not far enough to reach the Patrician, who had positioned himself at just the right distance to stay dry.
Sarah bobbed up, emitting little screams of surprise and shock. With one hand she tried to reposition the soaked bonnet that hung limply on one side of her head, while attempting with the other to stop her skirts from billowing unladylike over her knees.
"Oh!" she cried.
"Dear me," said the Patrician, his lips pressed firmly together.
The servant tried to pull herself up, slipped and fell back again with a monumental splash that caused a tidal wave of water to course out of the tub and across the floor.
Since he believed firmly that all people should have the chance to help themselves, the Patrician observed her fail to stand up once more before offering the charity of his hands. He hauled her to her feet. She stood unsteadily, the water above her knees.
"I'm so sorry, m'lord," she said, her uniform and apron sagging, her hair dripping. She looked on the point of tears.
The Patrician almost felt sorry for her. "No harm done," he said soothingly. "Accidents happen to the best of us."
Sarah sniffed and clutched Lord Vetinari's hands for dear life as she eased herself onto the edge of the tub in preparation for swinging her legs out.
"Haven't you forgotten something?" said the Patrician.
Sarah's mouth dropped open. "But…m'lord!"
He smiled briefly and acknowledged to himself that the poor girl had probably been through enough. "Never mind. Do be careful there…" He helped her over the tub and planted her on the floor.
She dripped forlornly.
"Can I…?…um… Can I go now, m'lord?"
"Of course. It would be a pity if you caught cold." The Patrician opened the washroom door for her. Sarah bobbed a curtsey before squishing past him.
When she was halfway across his bedroom, he called after her, "Do mind the carpets…"
Sarah gave a small yipe and sprinted the rest of the way to the hall door.
The Patrician closed himself back into the washroom and allowed the full force of his mirth to rise to the surface.
As he discarded his robe and stepped into the bath water, he tried to feel ashamed about the slippery smear of soap he'd made on the floor an hour before, right where the maid had stood. But shame was one of those emotions the Patrician had discarded early in his political career after finding it generally inconvenient.
He lay back with a contented sigh and let the heat of the water cocoon him up to his chin. The thermometer was next to his left foot but he didn't care what it said. He never really had.
Who needed entertainment in the streets when one could arrange it in the privacy of one's own palace?