Hello everyone – humblest apologies about the long wait for the next chappie – lots of things happening at my end. I lost my job a couple of months ago (I hated it anyway, but still, having money was nice.). I'm back at college doing a part time course in computing, so hopefully I can get a career in that area. Thanks to everyone for all the lovely reviews (blub!), and thanks for your patience. Hopefully, I'm out of the rut and can get on with regular updates. Anyway, on with the show!
The shock had worn off and had given way to barely controlled panic. Mildred loitered nervously in the entrance foyer of Unseen University, watching the Count being relieved of his cloak by a servant. Lord Vetinari, who hardly ever had Balls in the Palace , had already arrived; looking through the doors of the Great Hall, she could see him politely terrorising Mr Boggis of the Thieves Guild.
Her? At a big posh do? Alright, it was the stuff of fairy tales, what girl didn't love the idea of dressing up in a lovely gown (and it was a lovely gown, elegant and sweeping in black with a low neck line) and being taken to a glittering function by a charming gentleman? That was the problem. It was the stuff of fairy tales. Mildred had never really trusted fairy tales – she reckoned they were poor preparation for children facing real life. The cream of Ankh Morpork society, such as it was, would be horrified to see a girl from Cockbill escorting the new ambassador. It was all right when she was serving them a drink, but to be there almost as an equal— Well, Lord Rust was not alone. Mildred suspected this was why Lord Vetinari was quite happy to let her go. She did enjoy it when his Lordship wound up the other nobles; their impotent spluttering was more fun than any street entertainment. But why did it have to be her as the instrument of winding upthis time?
And why did it have to be her that the Count had chosen to go with him? Of all the things that were making her panic at the moment, this was what worried her the most. His Excellency was attractive, polite and charming. He was also a vampire.
A vampire who was emphatically not a Black Ribboner.
And who had shown a considerable amount of— interest in Mildred.
She'd looked him up in the Almanak de Gothick in the Palace library. Under "Hobbies" was "Pursuing adventurous young ladies over the age of seventeen who look good in a nightdress."
This was not reassuring.
Mildred, who had plenty of time to think while the gown was pinned and tucked and shortened around her, finally decided to err on the side of caution and take a little something along that might discourage the gentleman, should she need to. Garlic and holy symbols were out. They were a bit too obvious, and if the ambassador's intentions were honourable, this might insult him. A memory of some wise advice from her grandmother prompted her to examine the handbag that went with the dress. She reckoned it was about the right size, and had nipped into her room for a few moments.
The handbag now hung with a reassuring weight from Mildred's arm. Hopefully, she wouldn't need it.
Count de Magpyr turned back to Mildred, and the butterflies in her stomach underwent a population explosion. He smiled and held out his arm to her.
Mildred breathed in deeply and took his arm. Right, she thought, you can do this. It's pretty simple. You just walk up to them and say; "Good evening Mr or Mrs So and so, may I present His Excellency Count Karl de Magpyr of the Uberwaldian Embassy. Then you tell the Count who they are, and what they do. They'll probably be too engrossed in trying to sell him something to care about you. Yeah.
And as for what the Count might be after— Well, there were loads of people here. She'd be safe enough. She felt herself calming down. Yes, she could do this! Lord Vetinari wouldn't have let her come if he thought she couldn't, right? She grinned up at the Count, "Let's do it."
Nobby would have swallowed his dogend. Colon would have fainted. Carrot would have been genuinely perplexed. Even Lord Vetinari would have raised his eyebrows higher than usual. In another universe, it was akin to a Beefeater discovering that the ravens had left the Tower of London. The unthinkable had happened.
Sir Samuel Vimes was at a High Society Ball, wearing the formal uniform he detested so much, surrounded by people he did his very best to avoid most of the time.
And he had no intention of leaving.
None at all.
Sybil was quietly delighted with his good behaviour. Although making her happy was a good fringe benefit, it wasn't the sole reason he was standing there blocking out Lady Selachii's twittering at Sybil. No, the reason he wasn't desperately praying for a sudden increase in crime levels that evening was that he was lying in wait for a vampire.
He went over all the facts he'd spent the day learning. It wasn't a lot. Karl de Magpyr had spent the last five hundred years or so living, aha, quietly in his castle. Or as quietly as you could be while chasing after young women in nighties and attempting to outsmart scythe wielding mobs. He certainly hadn't taken much interest in international politics or diplomacy. Why the man had suddenly decided to come to Ankh Morpork on a diplomatic post was a mystery to Vimes. But then, Vimes himself hadn't taken too much interest in all that sort of thing, either, but that hadn't stopped Vetinari packing him off to Bonk.
The bloody vampire was going to cause trouble. It was all a bit too sudden for his liking. Suddenly Mr Gruszka, the previous ambassador, is called away on urgent family business, and suddenly Count de Magpyr decides to get involved in politics, and suddenly the Uberwaldians decide to send him to Ankh Morpork.
Vimes lounged beside one of the buffet tables in the Great Hall of Unseen University, and occupied himself by watching the other guests, Ankh Morpork nobility, Guild leaders, foreign ambassadors and diplomats. And the wizards, of course. They had jumped at the chance to host the reception as it gave them the chance to dress up in their finest robes, eat a lot and, like the others milling about, the chance to be nosy about the newest arrival to Ankh Morpork's diplomatic community. Wizards like a bit of gossip as much as the next man.
He sighed and fished a cigar out of his silver case and glanced over at the doors. Still no sign of—
"No, I'm afraid the Uberwaldian Ambassador has not arrived yet, Commander," said Lord Vetinari, by his elbow, "I believe he is fetching his companion for the evening."
Vimes spun about. He'd seen the Patrician talking to Boggis at the other end of the damn room not two seconds ago. He hadn't seen him cross over. Assassin's Guild training was all very well and good, but sometimes what Vetinari did verged on the uncanny. Vimes would have given a lot to know just how the bugger actually did it.
He went into "report" mode; standing at attention and gazing at a point over Lord Vetinari's left shoulder. It was slightly more difficult here as his Lordship was currently standing up and was rather taller than Vimes. It made Vimes look as though he were studying the ceiling.
"I do hope the criminal fraternity has the good manners to avoid any over zealous activity. It would be a great pity if you were suddenly dragged away at some point. Lady Sybil was telling me earlier how much she was looking forward to this little function."
Vimes sighed. That's right, he thought, rub it in. "Sir."
Lord Vetinari swirled the liquid in the glass he held. The Patrician had a talent for nursing the same drink for hours on end, and in this particular case Vimes really didn't blame him. It was that horrible sherry they always seemed to have at these things; he'd already watched the Genuan ambassador discreetly pour his into a plant pot.
"Young Samuel is in the care of a reliable person, I trust?"
Yes, he is definitely taking the— extracting the urine."Yessir. It's one of the Emmas, turns out she was a nanny before she took up dragons."
"That is reassuring to hear, Sir Samuel."
"Has Mrs Dipplock managed to clean your robe, sir?" Vimes asked with an innocent air.
The Patrician looked at him, that piercing stare that went straight through your eyes and nailed the back of your head to the opposite wall. "I have not had the opportunity to ask her. She has been rather busy today."
Trying not to grin, Vimes went on, "Only Sybil's got this great soap, gets baby puke out of almost anything. I could get the address of the shop for you, if you want."
"How very— thoughtful of you." Lord Vetinari's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Vimes crowed internally and decided he was really going to treasure the memory of his son throwing up on the Patrician. It would help him during those times when Vetinari was being especially devious.
Vetinari glanced over Vimes' shoulder, "Ah, it appears your quarry – pardon, our guest of honour has arrived."
He turned to see an exceptionally tall man in old fashioned evening dress escort a young lady through the doors of the Great Hall. Despite the fact that the vampire was the sole reason he was putting up with all this soiree nonsense, Vimes wasn't actually able to look at him. His full attention was caught by the petite young woman on the Count's arm. It was—
Lord Vetinari glanced at him, "I'm sorry?"
"T-that's Mildred Easy with Magpyr, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is."
"What the hell's she doing with him?" Vimes tore his gaze away and settled it on the Patrician; "She's his companion?"
An hour later and Mildred managed to calm down just enough to start enjoying herself. She introduced de Magpyr to most of the nobles and the Guild leaders; who appraised the Ambassador of the services they provided.
Mr Boggis of the Thieves informed the Count of their special rates for visiting foreign dignitaries. The Count had replied that was most kind of him; but he wasn't quite sure what any thief would want with a coffin containing earth, several jars with strange things floating in them, a dog bowl and three barrels of sulphuric acid with copper wire. However, they were most certainly welcome to try.
Queen Molly of the Beggars Guild had asked if his Excellency could spare ten thousand dollars for a small castle. A quick search of his pockets had yielded twenty Uberwaldian Crowns. Queen Molly had said that was fine for a large bottle of turpentine.
Mrs Palm had discreetly told the Count that her Guild also had special rates for visiting dignitaries, and that that their doors were always open to gentlemen of the nocturnal persuasion. Magpyr politely said he would bear it in mind.
Mildred had her hand crushed in Mustrum Ridcully's iron handshake, and was gratified to see tears appear in the Archchancellor's eyes when he shook hands with the Count and came up against the vampire's undead strength.
"I was actually planning on visiting you tomorrow, Archchancellor," Magpyr said, as Ridcully tried to massage some feeling back into his hand, "But since I'm here, I'd like to ask a favour of you."
"Oh, really?" Ridcully felt the circulation coming back, and flexed his fingers. The Count smiled and pointed to a hulking object at the far side of the Great Hall.
"I'm rather a music lover, you see. I wondered if I could possibly have a go on that magnificent pipe organ you have here. A Johnson, isn't it?"
Mustrum Ridcully glanced over at the Mighty Organ and shrugged, "Uh— Well, I don't see that bein' a problem, yer Excellency." He quickly looked about, then leaned in close; "It takes bloody hours to pump up the bellows on the thing, so your best bet is to come along tomorrow evening. I'll try and keep the Librarian occupied, gets very touchy about strange people playin' it, y'see. You might want to bring some bananas along to placate him if he does find out."
The Count raised his eyebrows, "Bananas?"
"The Librarian here's an orang-utan, sir." Mildred told him, "There was a magical accident, I think," she looked over at Ridcully, who nodded cheerfully.
"Funny thing, can't quite remember what the feller looked like before. Still, he seems quite happy—" Ridcully turned to look at a pale young wizard who'd been hovering on the edge of the conversation, "Something you wanted, Stibbons?"
"Yes, Archchancellor. It's about this printout we got from Hex today—"
"Is this going to be about quantum, Stibbons?" asked Ridcully wearily. Mildred sucked in a deep breath and grabbed the Count's arm.
"Ah— Me and his Excellency are just nipping over to the buffet, now," she said quickly.
Ridcully gave her a sympathetic look. "Good thinkin'. Wouldn't mind gettin' me a plateful of something, would you?" He glanced significantly at Ponder, "Only I think I might be here for some time."
"That's Ponder Stibbons with the Archchancellor, you see," Mildred said as she steered de Magpyr toward the huge buffet table, "Once he gets started on a conversation with the word "quantum" in it you'll be stuck with him for two hours and you'll still won't understand by the time he's finished. Lives in another world, he does."
"I see. You handled that little escape quite deftly."
"Well, it's nice to be able to escape. Usually I'm stuck there servin' tea when he's trying to explain things to his Lordship— Oh, there's his Lordship there," Mildred curtsied to Lord Vetinari, who was standing beside a tough, wiry looking man in a formal uniform that looked rumpled. The man regarded de Magpyr through narrow, suspicious eyes.
The Count smiled toothily, an easy thing for a vampire. "Commander Samuel Vimes, is it not?" he asked, holding out his hand.
"That's me," Vimes shook his hand unenthusiastically, watching his face. He noticed that the vampire grinned a lot— Bloody hell, he wasn't even attempting to hide those bloody great fangs. Vimes searched the well tailored jacket; and the Black Ribbon was conspicuous by its absence.
"A genuine pleasure to meet you at last, Commander. I heard much about your recent visit to my country." The Count smiled wryly, "I do hope it hasn't put you off returning. Captain Tantony of the Bonk Watch asked me to pass on his regards."
Vimes brightened up. Tantony had been involved with him during the mess in Uberwald. From what Vimes had been hearing he'd been making a lot of changes since then. "Tantony, eh? How's he doing? I know he's been employing a lot of our trainees." Vimes glanced over at Lord Vetinari, who seemed content to stand there and listen in on the conversation.
"Indeed, yes. "Sammies", I believe they're called. Yes, the young chap's doing very well; I think you made rather an impression on him, Commander. One of those mad doctors was causing trouble last year, and do you know, the good Captain not only arrested him, but also the mob that was battering down his door?"
Vimes grinned, "Breach of the Peace, right?"
"Oh, yes. And Damage to Private Property. He confiscated their battering ram. Young Tantony feels that if the Watch are there, there should be no need for a mob." De Magpyr cocked his head to one side, looking thoughtful, "Damn good idea about the Private Property, actually. The amount of times we've had to replace the doors in Don'tgonearthe—"
The Count chuckled, "My castle. You see, every time someone visits the area, people keep on telling them, "Whatever you do, don't go near the castle! I decided to make it official, since that's what everyone calls it. It saves time."
Despite himself, Vimes found he was grinning at the vampire. He was reminded slightly of talking with Prince Khufurah before all that trouble with Klatch. You looked into those twinkling eyes and knew you probably couldn't trust him an inch, but you couldn't help but like the bastard. In a strange way, he was completely honest about what he was. He stood there in his evening dress and order and sash, constantly flashing enormous fang filled smiles.
One of which was being directed at Mildred Easy. Vimes felt his good mood drain away.
"I, er, see you're not a Black Ribboner, your Excellency," he said. The Count gave him a measured look.
"Ah, yes. I'd heard you were a rather forthright man, Commander. It's most refreshing, I must say; most people tend to tiptoe around the subject. No, I am not a Black Ribboner. I'm far too old to change my habits, and between us I feel the those in the Temperance League are – well, somewhat naive."
"Many Black Ribboners have coped admirably with their change in lifestyle, your Excellency," Lord Vetinari said, quietly.
"I don't doubt that, your Lordship. However, many of those who have were not entirely happy with their existence in the first place. I know Otto Chreik was more interested in the composition of light and shadow than he ever was in seeking blood." The Count shrugged, "As for me, well, I am a vampire. And the defining characteristic of a vampire is to feed on blood. I feel perhaps the real problem is not so much that we drink blood, but in how we acquire it." He grinned again and winked, "But not to worry, Commander, most people who have encountered me tend to think I'm not so much a terror in the night as a bloody nuisance. Just keep the garlic handy."
Again, Vimes found himself grinning at the Count's humour. He looked again at Mildred, looking small and delicate next to the Ambassador, and that helped him push on in the line of questioning he wanted to take. Mildred was looking up at the Count, with a wry look on her face. She was thinking the worst. Poor kid, she hated doing it; Mildred liked to think to best of everyone, but she wasn't stupid. But she'd feel too awkward to actually come out and ask the Count what he was up to.
Well, he wasn't shy. Bugger diplomacy. "Will there be any girls 'round here who might need to keep garlic handy, Ambassador?"
He saw the Count's smile widen, "Very forthright. Hmmm," the vampire's eyes rested on Mildred, who had moved a few feet away to accost a glass of wine; "There may be. I've heard that the ladies of Ankh Morpork are quite formidable. I'd be interested in— investigating that. "
"Like Mildred, maybe?"
Mildred, who'd been listening in, tensed up. She nervously took a sip of her wine.
"Why, yes," the Count said, lightly. Mildred nearly choked on her wine. Vimes looked thunderstruck; complete honesty from someone you're questioning was always a shock to a Watchman. Mildred, waves of horror rising within her, glanced at Lord Vetinari. He was watching her with an unreadable expression on his face.
In the background, the music changed. The beat was similar to a march, but any soldiers stepping in time with this would be wiggling their hips. Before Vimes had recovered and could give vent to his outrage, the Count was suddenly beside her. She jumped. She hadn't seen him move.
"Ah, the Tango," he said, taking her suddenly nerveless hand, "It's been years since I've danced to this. Would you care to trip the light fantastic, my dear?"
Mildred stared up at him, her mouth opening and closing. He'd just admitted that he wanted to bite her, and now he wanted to— dance?
She suddenly felt furious. "I don't know how to dance, your Excellency," she said coldly, "Why don't you ask one of the ladies from the Assassin's Guild? They all really good dancers." And they've probably all got nasty sharp knives stuck in their garters that could gut you like a fish, you little git, she thought. "I'll stay here with Mr Vimes and his Lordship and make sure nobody pinches our drinks."
She tried to ignore the nasty thought that de Magpyr would probably think of her as one of the drinks.
The Count gazed down at her with a strange look in his eyes. They pulled her gaze in. She felt a moment of strange pressure in her head—
"I would rather like to dance with you, Miss Easy," she heard him say through the haze, "It's not so difficult once you start."
—and then she knew how to dance the Tango. The steps and movements poured into her brain and down her arms and legs; the music vibrated in her ears and through her bones. Mildred suddenly found she couldn't keep still. She wanted to move.
Frowning, she let the Count lead her onto the dance floor.
Right, you put your right hand on his shoulder like this, he takes your left hand like this, you move up close to him like this, and then—
The tango that Mildred was vaguely familiar with was the type where the partners clasped hands and held them out at right angles to the body, marching forwards and back across the dance floor. This tango was another thing entirely. It was a complex, more intimate dance. They moved like tigers; ones that had given up on hunting for the day and wanted to get to know each other a little better. The Count held her close to him, his hand in the small of her back, and Mildred was amazed at herself. She'd no idea she could move like this. Her spine seemed to have grown extra vertebrae for a start.
"You hypnotised me, didn't you?" she hissed as she stepped smartly around him, her legs moving sinuously, "You bloody well went and bloody hypnotised me!"
"Have no fear, Miss Easy, I merely wish to dance with you at the moment," the Count sounded extremely pleased with himself, "And it's a faster way than several months of lessons, is it not?"
"Maybe, but couldn't you have picked a waltz or something? This is—" she broke off as the Count arched her body backwards in a dip. His face was barely a few inches from her upper chest. "Um, I think you could get arrested for moving like this in public!"
"Your Commander Vimes certainly seems to think so, judging by the look on his face," de Magpyr chuckled.
Mildred suddenly felt angry again. She narrowed her eyes as he pulled her upright. "So you want to bite me then, Mr Vampire?"
"Would you think it terribly impolite of me if I sank my teeth into your throat?"
"I don't believe this!" Mildred put her hand on Magpyr's chest and pushed him back a little, "Yes, I would think it bloody impolite of you!" She shook her head, "Why me? I thought you lads went after better lookin' ladies with classier nightwear!"
The Count suddenly spun her about and pulled her back against him. When he spoke, his breath tickled across her neck. She shivered.
"Oh, come now. You're a most attractive young lady, Miss Easy—"
"Don't be daft. My face couldn't even launch a leaky canoe for one." The Count pulled her around to face him again. He grinned at her, his eyes twinkling.
"A wonderful sense of humour."
"I'm starting to lose it."
"Lovely, big brown eyes."
"Yeah, when I'm not squinting."
The Count leaned in close to her. Mildred leaned back. "And you look positively edible in that dress," he purred. Mildred managed to pull her hand out of his and shook her finger under his nose.
"I'm warning you, mister. I've got a half brick in this handbag and I'm not afraid to use it!" She was dimly aware she was shaking her finger at a foreign diplomat and threatening him with violence, which was something you did not do. But the Count's twinkling eyes and amused expression; like it was all a game, was pushing her into whole new realms of anger.
De Magpyr raised his eyebrows, "Is that a typical— accessory for Morporkian ladies?" The music was coming to an end. The Count pushed her back over for one final dip. They stared at one another, the Ambassador grinning, Mildred glaring.
"My Gran always said that diamonds are a girls best friend, but a half brick makes a great chaperone. So just you behave yourself, or there'll be a very painful international incident."
For a frozen moment, the Count stared at her. Then he threw back his head and roared with laughter. Still laughing, he pulled her upright. Mildred felt the odd sensation in her head drain away. She blinked. She was now no wiser about how to dance the tango than she was fifteen minutes ago. The Count took a step back and bowed to her deeply.
"Good reply," he chuckled, "Very good reply. I thank you for a most entertaining dance, Miss Easy," he straightened up and looked into her eyes, "And I swear to you upon my honour that I will never bespell you again, not without your permission."
Mildred stared back at him. The amusement was still there in his eyes, but also respect. Weird. She rubbed her forehead.
"Do you know, Miss Easy, that you are the only lady who's actually talked back to me whilst under my influence? I am quite impressed. I like—"
Mildred held up a hand, "Oh, no. If you say 'I like a girl with spirit', I really will hit you."
"I was going to say that I like surprises," said the Count, looking reproachful. He looked over her shoulder; "Hello— something's happening."
Mildred turned. Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson had arrived and was talking quietly to Vimes and Lord Vetinari. Vimes was scowling. The Patrician said something to the Commander, who nodded and started toward the doors. Mildred headed over to Lord Vetinari, the Count trailing after her.
"Ah, Mildred," the Patrician said, "That was quite an impressive display out there."
"Er, thanks, Milord. Something happening?"
Vetinari took his cane from where it had been propped against the buffet table, "It appears the Palace Museum has been broken into. I am returning there now. The Ball appears to be finishing up now, in any case."
Mildred looked about. People were drifting out of the Great Hall in small groups. She could see Mrs Whitlow, the University housekeeper, attempting to collect half empty dishes before the Faculty could wander off to their rooms with them.
"I think I'd better head back too," she said. The sooner she got back to the Palace, the sooner she'd be away from de Magpyr.
"Was anything taken, your Lordship?" the Count asked as they headed toward the doors.
"That has not yet been ascertained, your Excellency. The Watch were called and are investigating." They emerged from the warmth of the Hall into the sharpness of the Ember night. Coaches were waiting at the foot of the steps. Mildred shivered; the gown had not been designed with thermal protection in mind. Lord Vetinari strode toward his coach, stopping and turning before he climbed in.
"I trust I will see you back at the Palace, Mildred."
"Yessir," under her breath, she muttered, "Unperforated, I hope."
"The distance between the University and the Palace takes ten minutes to travel by coach," Lord Vetinari said, climbing into the coach and sitting back as the footman closed the door, "That would hardly be enough time for his Excellency to bite you, even with that formidable half brick in your handbag to consider. Good evening to you, your Excellency." He tapped his cane on the roof of the coach and it moved off. Mildred watched it go, her mind blank with shock and her mouth slightly open. She became aware of muffled snorts behind her. Count de Magpyr was also staring after Lord Vetinari's coach, his shoulders shaking.
"He's a very perceptive man, isn't he?"
"You could say that," said Mildred, weakly. She had a horrible feeling that she had Some Explaining To Do when she took his Lordship's tea to him tomorrow morning.
"He's quite right, you know. And in a coach?" the Count's nose flared in elegant distaste, "How déclassé! That's the sort of thing hormonal adolescents do when they don't want their parents to find out." Despite her nerves, or perhaps because of them, Mildred started to snigger.
The Count gently took her arm again and steered her toward his coach. Igor hopped down from the driver's seat and opened the door for them. The Count helped her into the coach.
"I do assure you, Miss Easy, that you'll be perfectly safe from me," he flashed her a grin as he settled himself in the seat opposite from her, "Tonight, at any rate."
Mildred sighed wearily.
Lord Vetinari was famed for not having any Balls. Hanna Stein had remarked that this didn't affect his performance.