** Here's the last chapter! Thanks to all of you who've come all this way with the story, lurkers and reviewers alike. The next instalment of the saga is already underway and is coming along nicely (so far). Towards the end of Absentia, you'll get a hint what the new story should be about. No promises, though, and no timetable yet. Thanks for your encouragement, comments, curses, questions, appreciation!**
The delegation elected by the City Council to personally appeal to Lord Vetinari to return to Ankh-Morpork and resume his position as Patrician included the heads of the major guilds, Lord Downey too, who had been railroaded into sailing with the others to Khavos. The other lords had advised him that a show of repentance might make Vetinari allow him to keep his presidency of the Assassins Guild. And his skin, of course.
The ten members of the delegation landed at the island's small pier, tramped up the path to the villa and were ushered into what the housekeeper called the Sun Room. It was well after six o'clock, a time when the sun had already begun to sink, softening the room with a golden light.
It added to the Council members' shock.
Lord Vetinari was stretched out on an elegantly carved couch, an arm draped over the back, a book in his lap and a half empty glass of white wine beside him. Perhaps it was the light – it had to be – but he looked years younger. The pallor of his skin was gone. His face when he looked up in apparent surprise at his visitors was relaxed, healthy, the face of a man who got plenty of peaceful sleep. It had been years since any of the delegation members had seen him wear anything but a black robe but there he was, in dark blue trousers and a loose white shirt open at the throat. He wore no shoes.
"Ah! I do beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen," he said, setting his book aside. "I expected you an hour or two later. I shall make myself presentable forthwith. Now…where is my jacket?" He glanced around. "Hanna? Have you seen my jacket?"
The delegation had been so busy staring at Vetinari that they hadn't noticed Hanna sitting at a small table in the windowed bay facing the sunset and the ocean. She was sewing. She bit the thread, shook out the embroidered peach shawl and draped it over her arms. Vetinari allowed her to help him into the jacket she'd fetched from the back of her chair.
"I am so happy to finally have guests," she said. "You will all be amazed at what the cook can do. We thought you might like to try some of the local delicacies. I hope you're ready for something spicy."
Mrs. Palm and Queen Molly smiled.
Vetinari puttered around the room, scanning the floor. "Where did I put my shoes?"
"I don't know where you put them," said Hanna.
"I thought they were under the divan."
"Did you look behind the hibiscus?"
"Of course I looked behind the hibiscus. It was the first place I looked."
The delegates looked warily at each other. They weren't altogether sure what was going on.
Hanna bobbed behind the divan and reappeared holding a pair of black shoes.
"They were here all the time. You didn't even look."
"I certainly did." Vetinari slipped them on.
"If you'd looked, you would've found them."
"I simply don't have your uncanny ability to see things that are there."
They straightened up, Vetinari fully suited, Hanna tan and outdoorsy-looking in her sleeveless gown and shawl. Simultaneously, they gave the delegation near identical smiles.
"We shall try this again," he said. "Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the Casa Vetinari. It is indeed wonderful to see you all here. Have you seen the house and grounds?"
There was a cough.
"It's urgent that we get right down to business," said Lord Rust. "We've come to--"
"Surely not before dinner," said Hanna. She took Mrs. Palm's arm. "I insist on showing all of you the gardens at the very least. There is an ancient dragon tree on the third terrace that you must see."
"Miss Stein, a tree is not our concern at the moment," said the delegation's only zombie.
"Hanna insists, Mr. Slant, and believe me, it is useless to resist her," said Vetinari. "I have one year, eight months, two weeks and two days experience to back me up."
"Do follow me everyone," said Hanna. "Watch your step here."
The smile of encouragement on Vetinari's face and Hanna's determination made the delegation slowly file out behind her. Lord Downey was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
"A moment of your time, Dr. Downey. I am curious about one or two tiny matters…"
Vetinari was no longer smiling.
Only after the post-dinner coffee was served did Lord Vetinari allow members of the delegation to bring up the matter at hand. By then, they had seen the house and gardens, taken in the view to the sea and eaten a chicken and potato dish that featured a fiery Ephebian pepper sauce that shocked the bland palates of the Morporkians. Vetinari swiped up the last of the sauce off his plate with a piece of bread and ate it without breaking a sweat. Several of the delegates were worried about the effects of the sauce on their digestion. Stomach powders had been ordered. It was the ideal time, in Vetinari's view, for business.
Mr. Slant delivered the unnecessarily long preamble.
"…and so, your lordship, we at the Council hoped that you would excuse the unpleasantness of the past months and shoulder once again the burdens of office."
Boggis wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. Hanna opened a window and returned to stand behind Vetinari's seat. She draped a hand over his shoulder.
He gazed around the table at the uncomfortable faces, lingering longer on Downey, who looked like he'd turned to stone. He hadn't said a word during dinner.
"I am honoured to receive this request. Doubly honoured that you have come here to deliver it personally. I have thought over the matter and…" Lord Vetinari hooked a hand with Hanna's. "…I am afraid I must refuse."
"Come now, Havelock," said Lord Selachii. "We hoped you would take this gracefully."
"No need to make us beg," muttered the head of the Merchants Guild.
"I wouldn't dream of it, sir. Yet I must point out that I have genuinely enjoyed my time here. The air is invigorating, the peacefulness of the island a balm to the soul. I have had time to pursue interests that were impossible in Ankh-Morpork. The library here is excellent. It will take me years to read everything in it."
"You can't just refuse," said Boggis.
"An aviary of some kind would transform the garden into a veritable paradise, wouldn't it, Hanna, my dear?" Vetinari demonstratively squeezed her hand. "Cages are quite cruel; I would prefer free-roaming birds. Some peacocks, perhaps."
"I like ducks," said Hanna.
"Parrots," said Vetinari, nodding. "We could import them from some of the neighboring islands. Khavos appears to be parrot-poor but we can remedy that."
The Council members stared at them. "You can't be serious," said Lord Rust.
"And don't forget the flamingos," said Hanna.
"Flamingos go without saying," said Vetinari. He smiled up at her. She smiled down at him. "So you see, ladies and gentlemen, I have other concerns at the moment than taking up the reins of office. Though once again I do thank you for the offer."
There was silence in the dining room. It had not entered the minds of any of the delegates that Vetinari would refuse his old post. Even Mrs. Palm and Queen Molly were affected by the moment of uncertainty. The possibility that Havelock Vetinari had changed his mind and was content with toppling Downey without interrupting his…
It was true that he had occasionally talked about retiring, about taking up gardening in some lonely house when his work for the city was done. No one had believed it. It was just something that was said. One day, years from now, long in the future, perhaps it will happen. People said things like that. People like Vetinari weren't supposed to mean it.
Lord Rust scowled, his elbows on the table. "All right, Havelock. What do you want?"
"I beg your pardon?"
Mr. Slant unfolded a piece of paper from his suit pocket and dryly cleared his throat.
"The City Council is willing to make the following concessions. Point One, on the matter of municipal taxes, the guilds have agreed to…"
A month later, a rainy Sektober in Ankh-Morpork, a reception was held at the Palace. It was a thank you from the Patrician Lord Vetinari to the people who'd made his return possible, and a signal to all the others that he was back in business.
Sam Vimes was there puffing rings from his cigar, his wife Sybil arrayed in a healthy amount of dark green silk. The City Watch had been brought back up to its old strength and Vimes was Commander Vimes once again. Not normally invited to Palace events, Buggy Swires was living it up, quaffing beer and being kicked by some of the finest ladies in the city. Detritus lumbered after him but the gnome flitted from silk skirt to velvet, dancing out of the troll's grasp.
Mrs. Palm, Queen Molly, Mr. Boggis and Mr. Gloss beamed at the guests. They were looking pleased with the way things had turned out. As were the guests whose businesses had returned to normal after the repeal of the Milk Tax and the end of the Seamstress strike. The Guild of Brewers was also represented, partly by members of Hanna's family, who were relieved that their breweries were under Vetinari's protection again.
Non-humans mingled in the crowd. Their fellows throughout the city were rejoicing at Vetinari's symbolic rewording of Ankh-Morpork's statutes to include "citizens of all species."
Various ambassadors were there, many of them relieved to have Vetinari back in the saddle. Business contracts and foreign treaties were put into effect again, diplomatic relationships smoothed over. Most of the ambassadors thought the Patrician something of a snake but the competent snake you knew was better than the incompetent one you didn't.
Which led to Downey, who was also there. He was drinking his wine out of a straw that was sunk in a glass held under his chin by a servant. His hands were wrapped in thick white bandages. He'd been allowed to remain president of the Assassins Guild, a bigger punishment than if he'd been thrown into the Palace scorpion pit. Now he was there at Vetinari's (dis)pleasure and everyone knew it. Whenever he joined the lords for a meeting in the Oblong Office, Downey had to sit in the corner. It wasn't easy. Literally.
Shortly after Vetinari's return, he and Downey closeted themselves up in a soundproof room in the Palace dungeon. They didn't discuss Downey's future; that had been sorted out during their private talk on the island. This meeting was something else.
Downey immediately took off his jacket and tie, unstrapped the dagger from his right arm and set it aside. He rubbed his hands.
"And now you're going to give me one for your bloody seamstress, eh? Her knight in shining armour." He smirked.
The Patrician leaned on his stick. He stared. It was the snake stare, uncomfortably long and menacing.
"She's just a whore, Vetinari. Have you forgotten that? You embarrass yourself every time you show her public favour. It embarrasses me. I'm a lord too, you know. You can't let that kind of thing get out of hand. It makes us all look bad."
"I am sorry to hear that, Downey."
"But then," the smirk again, "you never did know how to deal with a real woman. A lady. And I don't mean undead ones."
The stick rotated in Vetinari's hands, the silver knob gleaming in the torch light.
"I suppose you are right, Downey."
"Go on. Take a swing." Downey held out his arms. "You can have the first punch."
The Patrician appeared to consider this.
"Go on!" Downey said. "If we'd done this years ago, a hell of a lot would have been sorted out."
Vetinari's stick tapped once on the floor.
"Come on, Dogbotherer! Swing! Are you a man or a mouse?"
"Interesting you should ask that, Downey. The issue of rodents was on my mind just now."
The stick tapped the floor a second time.
The rats flooded in from every corner of the room, a silent, seething mass of gray and brown fur and long whip tails. Some of the rats wore scraps of cloth, a vest here, a little hat there. One of the larger rats, gray with red eyes, stood up on its hind legs and saluted Vetinari with a tiny claw.
"Ah, Skrp. Punctual, as usual. I do appreciate that."
The rats at the Palace had tunnels all the way to Unseen University. Some of the magic had rubbed off, making them even more clever than they were before. Lord Vetinari advised Skrp and his people and they assisted him whenever he asked.
Downey was backed up against the wall. He started laughing. It rolled out of him until there were tears on his face.
"This is so typical," he said. "I was thinking – Can Vetinari get any lower? Is there any form of life lower than harlots, beggars and thief-takers he could ally himself with? And look." He waved around the room. "Rats. Perfect. I should have guessed." He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. "Will you be calling out your army of roaches next? Or perhaps a division of ants? I'm sure you have very vicious fish around here somewhere."
"No, Downey," said the Patrician. "There's just the rats. Skrp, please avoid anything above the waist. Focus on the hands. No permanent damage. You have thirty minutes."
The rats clustered at Downey's feet.
The Patrician went to the door.
"Wait! This isn't necessary. We can talk about—"
Skrp let out an authoritative squeak and the rats started pouring up Downey via his trouser legs.
"STOP! I DEMAND TO—" Downey started kicking. "VETINA--"
The door slammed and locked. Lord Vetinari went upstairs to join Hanna for tea. She'd chosen Downey's punishment but didn't have the stomach to watch it. Downey always had such nice legs.
Since then, Downey had limped around, his hands bandaged up. He had to be dressed, undressed, fed and privied by a servant. The Palace reception was his first social event since the episode with the rats. He was stared at, whispered about. That was worse than the pain and the helplessness and the lattice of tiny scars he'd always carry.
Townsend and Kinsey weren't at the reception but they'd got their rewards already; a promotion in the Assassins Guild for Townsend, and for Kinsey, a post as assistant to the Palace gardener.
Lord Vetinari, back in his old black robes but still looking rested and healthy, was standing on a raised dais beside Hanna. She was promised a revised contract identical to the old one except for four key words that he'd felt it necessary to insert. He hadn't said what they were and he hadn't shown her the new version yet. After the reception, he'd said.
He was winding down the hand outs of rewards to his supporters. The Seamstresses this time.
"…and this sacrifice will be returned to them with interest at three and a half percent-"
"We did agree on four percent," whispered Hanna.
"…four percent, to be evenly distributed to the membership quarterly over the next calendar year."
The Patrician beamed over the crowd.
"Again, let me thank you all for your energetic support. It is a relief to know that during my holiday, the city was in good hands." He shot Downey a wide smile. "Alas, there is still quite a lot of work to be done, so I believe…" He waved toward the refreshments.
A few people drifted toward them but the rest stayed, trying not to look embarrassed. They were staring at Hanna. Some blinked significantly or coughed or nicked their heads in her direction.
The Patrician looked puzzled for a moment, then turned in surprise as if he hadn't known she'd been standing beside him all along.
"Dear me. I forgot Miss Stein. Did I call you miss? I do beg your pardon, milady."
There were gasps from the crowd. Hanna stared out over the heads of the people, her face frozen but her mind working. Milady. He hadn't…
"An old habit that I shall quickly break, I assure you," the Patrician was saying. "I meant of course to use the title appropriate to your new status. As you know, the island of Khavos and the title it carries with it passed to Ankh-Morpork after the baron's death. There is no need for the city to retain either one. As of now, it doesn't."
Lady Hanna, Baroness of Khavos, bit the inside of her cheek. Hard. She was determined not to smile, not to show one emotional twitch on her face. She wasn't all that happy with the stares she was getting from the nobles in the crowd. Downey choked on his straw. A servant had to remove it from his mouth for him.
"Your duties as baroness will not be too strenuous or fiscally draining," the Patrician said. "At your leave, I hope to perhaps visit your barony once a year for a short constitutional. I found it very relaxing. Since one never knows when one may have time to travel, the cost of upkeep of the house and grounds will of course be my responsibility."
There was applause, cheers from Hanna's family and the seamstresses, polite patter claps from the nobles, and whistles from Buggy Swires, which died out under the glare of Vimes. Sybil gave Hanna a monstrous hug, and Hanna's family squeezed the air out of her.
The seamstresses surrounded her for several minutes. Mrs. Palm kissed her on both cheeks and the two smiled at each other, arm in arm. They didn't say anything; it was all on Mrs. Palm's face. Honour to the Guild. No seamstress had been ennobled in centuries.
Rufus Drumknot was back as Vetinari's secretary. He appeared with a letter for Hanna, which turned out to be from Madam Meserole. It congratulated the new baroness and invited her for a visit. Madam's letter used phrases like "woman-to-woman" and "heart-to-heart." Hanna wondered if the Patrician had seen it.
Eventually, she was left alone on the dais. It was clear what four words had been inserted into her contract. Lord Vetinari had always been a stickler for the proper use of titles. What still puzzled her was the Assassins Guild contract. He'd had hers raised before his exile and the baroness nonsense. He wouldn't tell her why.
She felt a light pressure on her hand, then gentle taps and brushes.
"You have some nerve pulling a Vimes on me, your lordship," she whispered.
"Stop calling me that, sir. The ladies all hate me except Sybil and the Duchess of Quirm. I'll never get along with the rest. I don't want to be noble."
The Patrician smiled. "Life is much easier if you are satisfied with what you are. And now I believe we should mingle. I'm afraid it is expected of a gentleman and lady of our social position."
Lord Vetinari and Lady Hanna mingled all the way up to Lord Downey. Every time the Patrician's politely threatening manner forced Downey to cough out a "milady," Hanna started to see the benefits of nobility after all.