--- Here it is, the short Vetinari romance I promised, in 3 chapters. Warnings: This is not comedy. This is rather twisted, and gets twistier as it goes along. I never wanted to actually post it; it was written originally in early 2003 before "Say Yes." But I dusted it off and gave it some polish so I could dedicate it to a reader and friend I thought might like it --- Dominofalling. So here's to you, Domino, for your support and kindness.
Disclaimer: DW belongs to Terry Pratchett. --
There are seven ways to get out of the Winter Palace without being seen. The Patrician knows of six, and makes use of them at rotating intervals. Today it's the passage from the third storage room in the widdershins wing that winds round toward the garden, proceeds underground, connects up with a forgotten part of the old Ankh-Morpork sewer system and emerges on Rimes Street. He blends into the crowd in the shopping district; his black suit does it, the high collar and starched cravatte, the top hat, the package under his arm. As a young man he moved about in gray and blended into the background based on principles of camouflage. That's no longer a challenge. More interesting to make others think him something he isn't. It's partly a matter of clothing but mostly of attitude. Today he's a prosperous businessman with a newspaper in his overcoat pocket. He's a middle aged man of investments. When someone knocks into him and rushes on without apology, the Patrician is satisfied with his disguise.
As supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork, the Patrician can't enjoy the city as a reader enjoys a book. He dissects it, like a writer deconstructs the story to see how it works. The coal chutes on Rimes are spaced too widely apart, he thinks. There's a broken lantern on the corner of Gleam and Cable. Septimus Square on the outskirts of the Shades has more than its share of night soil. A woman shouts "Gardy Loo!" from somewhere above and the Patrician hops out of the way as excrement, potato peels and chicken bones arch out of a window and splat on the pavement beside him. He checks his coat for dirt and adjusts the package under his arm. Drains, he thinks. Gutters on Rimes. Street sweepers, water pumped up from the Ankh to clear away the debris. He suddenly wants the city clean. He wants a brush in his hand, a bucket of soapy water, a broom, a garden hose. It's a subject he's ignored for too long, sanitation. The time has come. Clean it up, scrub it till it shines like the face of a child...
On the other side of the square he pauses to check the package he carries. The paper is the same dark blue as his eyes and there's a silver ribbon tied in a bow. He's crushed the bow under his arm but tries to fluff it back up. It sags again. A small card hangs from the ribbon: For Ellie.
Twenty years ago, Septimus Square was the center of Ankh-Morpork's pleasure district. The shops sold specific articles for specific occasions that arose in the night between women and men, girls and men, boys and men. There was no guild yet to regulate it all. Lord Vetinari, a young, ambitious nobleman, walked in the square, dissecting it, deconstructing. It was his habit to walk the city, examining it with sharp eyes and a sharper mind. In Septimus he thought of the organization of vice. This energy funnelled into profit. He ignored the suggestions, the offers, the flashes of skin. A guild for the good of the women and men, he thought. And the children. If demand could not be stifled, control the supply.
He paused to watch a typical scene. A boy of about 13 with raw lips and a bent spine stopped a well dressed man and whispered something to him. Rings flashed in the daylight as the man slapped the boy hard across the face. The boy blinked up at him. The man nodded. They left together.
The little voice was accompanied by a tug on Vetinari's sleeve and an unpleasant smell. It was a girl, tall as Vetinari's elbow, thin as a twig, so grimy that her braids could have been blond under the dirt, her face white under the soot. It was hard to tell. The only clean part of her were her eyes, large and honey brown.
"Sir, do you...?" Her eyes darted to an alley, where a man leaned against the wall, his arms folded. She looked back up at Vetinari. "Sir, do you want…?" Vetinari stepped away but she followed, tripping in the gutter.
"Sir! I can..."
Children, he thought as he brushed her aside and wiped his hand on his coat. The demand could not be controlled. But there was something not right about children. He wasn't happy with the direction of his thoughts. They were almost moral.
The girl followed him, stumbling behind, her hand outstretched. "A coin, at least, for the queen of Hersheba, sir?" she said.
He turned. If he was not mistaken, and he rarely was, the girl had just quoted a line from the classical play "Atalanta." In her face he saw fatigue, hunger and fear. Not a spark of whatever it was that would bring a street rat to quote the classics. He assumed someone taught her the line as a trick, an intriguing talent to rope in more learned and moneyed clients. Disgusted, he turned again and left her behind.
He walked the full circuit of the pleasure district and turned back onto Septimus Square before he realized what he'd done. He'd been remembering "Atalanta" and feeling slightly ashamed. He should have given the filthy thing a coin.
The surge of people in Septimus at dusk didn't hinder Vetinari from spotting her quickly. The man who had watched them earlier was shaking her and she was crying, her hands up to protect her face. He swatted her arms away and slapped her with the back of his hand. Once, twice. The third time Vetinari caught his wrist with one hand and held up a bright object of interest with the other. A coin.
"For the girl," he said.
The man freed his wrist and stared as if expecting the coin to turn into coal if he blinked.
"The scamp's not worth gold."
The man enclosed the coin in his hand, smiled slyly and patted the girl on the head.
"You be good, little mite," he said. He did an exaggerated bow before Vetinari. "Enjoy your purchase, sir. May you gain more profit from'r than I." He kissed the coin with a loud smack, tucked it into his vest pocket and strolled up the street, whistling.
The girl's hands still covered her face. Vetinari suppressed the distaste he felt, grasped the back of her collar with thumb and index finger and pulled her away from the square. He halted her at the door of a cheap house where the smell of cabbage poured into the street.
"Stop crying," he ordered.
The girl wiped her runny nose with a soiled sleeve, took one look at Vetinari, and broke into fresh sobs. He hadn't yet cultivated the pallor, looming thinness and unblinking stare that were part of his carefully chosen image later in life. As a young man, his face was composed of sharp things – an angular nose, slim, arched eyebrows, a thin, unsmiling mouth. He'd never thought about the effect of his appearance on children. There were no more in his family and he never wished to meet anyone else's.
It was this lack of experience that made Vetinari stoop before her, reasoning that she'd calm if she got a good look at his face. He'd seen other adults do it, with positive result. She looked at him through her fingers, then shrank away. Vetinari caught her, pulled her hands away from her face and pressed them to her chest.
"Your heart is inside of you for a reason, child," he said. "Never show it on your sleeve."
He directed her into the public house and sat her at a table in the corner. By the time bread with sausage, cabbage soup and a glass of water sat before her, the girl's eyes were dry. She took such large bites from the bread that Vetinari could see where her milk teeth had been.
"What is your name?" he asked.
She choked down a bite of sausage. "Ellie, sir."
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen, sir." He guessed ten or eleven.
"Was that your father?"
She paused, her eyes on her soup. "No, sir."
Vetinari had walked the rougher streets enough to know that the genteel concept of family did not apply. "Never mind. Do you know the play 'Atalanta'?"
"Can't read, sir."
She dunked the last of the bread into the remains of the soup and pressed it into her mouth. It was washed down by a great gulp of water. He could see the energy pour back into her.
"Do you want to be a prostitute?" he asked.
She plunked down her glass. "It's a lie! I'm not, sir!" The tears spilled over again, cutting creeks in the dirt on her face.
He held out his handkerchief. "Dry your face, child. You're quite unbearable when you blubber like that."
On the street again, Ellie kept the handkerchief before her nose and Vetinari led her once again by the collar. He halted her in front of a wooden house where a sign overhead announced "Peterson's Rest." The place did not have hourly rates, and charged enough to weed out the truly vagrant and criminal.
"What's this place?" asked Ellie.
"A hotel of sorts."
She blew her nose loudly, crumpled up the handkerchief and looked as if she resolved something. She went in without being led.
The owner leaned over the counter, stared at them and stated, "This is a respectable house."
Vetinari pulled Ellie aside and held up a coin. "If you're frugal, this will last you at least a week, food and lodgings." She stared at it as if she'd never seen anything like it.
"Thank you, sir," she whispered.
"Get them to give you a bath."
"And eat at least one hot meal a day. You're too thin."
She folded the coin in her hand and pressed it to her chest. Vetinari examined her a moment and noticed her trembling. Perhaps she was ill.
"Sleep and drink tea."
She looked up at him with eyes so wide he could see the whites around the irises. She was so small, childish, a thin, trembling thing. Drowned kittens looked less pitiful. With a sigh, Vetinari held up a second coin. Ellie's eyes followed it. Gold.
"Keep this safe," he said. "Others will try to take it from you…"
His voice trailed off as a tiny idea took root in his mind. It sprouted, grew, blossomed in the space of a few seconds. An idea so elegant – he couldn't think of a better word for it— that he looked down at the girl and smiled at her for the first time. He dropped the gold coin into her outstretched hand. "Don't spend it. I'll need it when I come back. In one week. Do you understand?"
The two coins together were more than most street people earned in a month. Ellie clutched them tightly in her fist.
Savouring the thoughts that lined up like soldiers in his mind, Vetinari pushed open the hotel door. Ellie followed him outside.
"Who are you, sir?"
Over his shoulder he said, "Mr. Trenolone."
Vetinari arrived at Peterson's Rest after a week of walking, thinking and cultivating his idea. Ellie was there in a little room that smelled of roses and contained a single bed, a table, two chairs, a dresser and a small window that faced a bricked in shaft. She welcomed him with a cheerful smile, ushered him into the room and showed him around as if it was a palace. She wore a banana yellow dress of taffeta with white lace frills. It was sparkling clean, as was Ellie herself. Her hair was dark blonde and braided down her back, tied off with a yellow ribbon. There was no more grime under her finger nails.
"I've eaten two meals a day since you left, Mr. Trenolone," she said happily, flouncing into a chair. "Hot meals. And I drink lots of tea."
"Good," said Vetinari. "Where's my coin?"
"Look, sir! I have soap. It smells like peaches." She fetched the soap and held it up to him. He shook his head.
"My coin, please."
"Do you like my perfume, sir? It's called Rose Garden."
The girl's manic smile fell a little. "I have sugar biscuits. Do you want one, sir?"
Vetinari ignored the tin she held out to him. Ellie backed away, shoved a biscuit nervously into her mouth and set the tin on the dresser. When she reached under a bed pillow, a black-haired doll fell onto the floor. She tucked it back hastily, and drew a beaded purse out instead. Coins rattled as she poured them into her palm. Vetinari held out his hand. Ellie gave a little yelp, dropped the coins at his feet and scampered away. On the other side of the bed, she dropped to her knees and held her arms over her face as if to deflect a blow.
Vetinari looked at the coppers on the floor.
"I am disappointed, Ellie," he said. "Tell me, where is your old dress?"
From her crouch, Ellie stared at him through her fingers. Vetinari took matters into his own hands, opening the dresser drawers one after the other until he found the soiled dress. He tossed it onto the bed.
"Put it on."
She shook her head.
He stared down at her and repeated himself more slowly, deliberately. "Ellie. Put-the-dress-on."
"No," she whispered. "Sir."
Vetinari stooped and plucked at the yellow dress. "You must take this off."
Ellie shrank into the wall, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. "I don't want to!"
At that moment, Vetinari did, to his annoyance, lose his patience. Unlike some men, he did not show this with a raised voice or, especially with children, a raised hand. The change resembled more the transformation of mortar from a strong yet flexible material to an immovable substance on which houses are built. In other words, impatience made him stubborn as a brick.
He yanked Ellie to her feet and undid the first few buttons of her dress. "Go change," he ordered, steering her toward a screen in the corner.
"No!" She hooked her arm around the bed post and held on like it was a ship mast in a storm.
Vetinari paused for a quick self-assessment and decided to take a different, more calming tack.
"Ellie, I asked you not to spend the gold coin, remember?" He waved a hand. "It's done and we can't change it. But perhaps I will let you keep your doll if you change back into your old dress."
She looked at him through eyes slit with distrust. "I want my dress and my doll."
Vetinari tipped his head to the side as if considering. "That would be nice, and I would like you to have both. I really would. Unfortunately, as things stand, you must choose: the doll or the dress."
"You know you did wrong to spend the gold coin. I'm very disappointed and I'll tell you why. I wanted to buy you a dress myself. A prettier one. All the girls in Ankh are wearing blue these days. A blue like the ocean, have you seen it?" He shrugged. "Alas, you've chosen that thing. Yellow. Not a very nice color."
"I like it." Ellie's voice had an edge of uncertainty.
"No doubt you do, no doubt you do. But your doll, now…" Vetinari fetched it from under the bed pillow and looked at it admiringly. "She is beautiful." He moved a ceramic arm up and down, a wave to Ellie, who had eased her grip on the bed post. "What's her name?" he asked.
"Mary. Wonderful. Such a lovely porcelain face, rosy cheeks and lips. And these eyes… it's almost like she's alive." He nodded. "Yes, I'm sure Mary keeps you company very well. She would be sad if you gave her up."
Ellie went slowly up to Vetinari, snatched Mary out of his hands and crushed the doll to her chest. He smiled down at her, all encouragement.
"So. Will it be Mary or the dress?"
Ellie smoothed back the doll's black hair and straightened its dress. It was blue.
"You'll buy me a blue dress, sir?"
"That is entirely up to you."
With a nod, Ellie scooped up her old, soiled dress and carried it with Mary behind the screen. In the meantime, Vetinari gathered up the biscuit tin, the perfume, a cheap bracelet he spotted on a chair and the cosmetic pots and hair ribbons he'd seen in a dresser drawer. When Ellie reappeared, he took the yellow dress from her hands and used it to bundle up the other things. Ellie watched without protest. She carried Mary in the crook of her arm.
"Now then," said Vetinari. "You are a wise child. You made the right choice." He took two new coins out of his pocket, one gold. "You get a second chance. One coin for you to spend, one for me when I come back. In a week. Do you understand?"
Ellie nodded. Vetinari patted her on the head.
A week later, she threw open the door of her room to him. She hopped around him, giggling, the gold coin already in her hand. The smile he gave her was broad, indulgent. She beamed under his gaze.
"You'll soon get your blue dress," he said.
"Today, Mr. Trenolone?"
"Mmm…not today. I have something else for you."
From behind his back he brought out a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Ellie swooped it up, spun to the bed and ripped it open. Her excitement dimmed. The package contained a primer, a speller, a notebook and a packet of pencils. Vetinari sat down beside her.
"You will learn to read and write," he said.
Ellie pushed the books aside.
"To please me."
After the little girl learned her first lessons in prioritization, self-denial and thrift, she became Vetinari's special project. He approached it with the same single-mindedness that he showed in all his work. Within a month of their meeting, she had her blue dress and a shiny new pair of black shoes, a reward for quick progress on the alphabet. Within a year, she had a closet full of dresses. She soon knew the play "Atalanta" by heart. "A coin, at least, for the queen of Hersheba?" she'd recite with a comic edge. She had told him she learned it from a thief, a woman who used to cackle it like vaudeville to passersby on the Brass Bridge.
She worked hard and grew older and Vetinari was pleased, and a little surprised, at how everything moved along according to the plan he'd worked out in those first few weeks, based on that elegant first idea. Ellie learned literature, history, geography, a smattering of natural science in relation to poisonous plants. She learned the anatomy taught in the Assassins Guild school, where Vetinari had learned it. She devoured books and filled notebooks with a childish scrawl that soon turned into a sophisticated script, an imitation of Vetinari's clipped and efficient style except for the exuberant swirls at the end of her y's and g's. They invented a secret code based on "Atalanta" as an exercise in language and mathematics. She began the basics of several foreign languages. Vetinari drilled her so hard that at times she fell asleep over her notebook, pencil in hand. He'd leave her alone for a couple of hours, then wake her and start again. "You can sleep longer when you die," he'd tell her. "For now, you have work to do." With that, she learned to live on only a few hours of sleep, at least when Vetinari was there. He still lived in the family mansion in Ankh but he visited her most afternoons or nights of the week, new books under his arm, notebooks, quills, maps.
By the time she was 14, Vetinari subtly shifted the lesson plan. If he spent the morning talking with corn factors about the city's grain supply, he spent the afternoon with Ellie explaining the concept of supply and demand. An afternoon alone examining the condition of the streets became an evening with Ellie and a city map, discussion: solutions for traffic control. Bored at first, Ellie was soon infected by Vetinari's interest in these things. She pinned a large map of the Disc on the wall and questioned him closely about foreign countries. It was an encouraging development. He introduced her to the concept of diplomacy.
In between the discussions about city planning and foreign cultures, he taught her less tangible lessons. Beware of friendly faces, he told her. Suspect the smile and the open hand. Savour silence and its power. He looked to another line in their favorite play: "Atalanta, do not marry. Marriage will be your ruin," and taught her the wisdom of self-reliance. Self-containment. Inner direction. Once when he urged her to fall backward in front of him as a test of his trustworthiness, he intended to let her fall. It was a lesson she needed to learn. He planned it that way right up to the moment when his arms reached out and caught her.