1. Vetinari's Aunt
"...and his policies have had a chilling effect on trade between Djelibeybi and Ankh-Morpork..."
Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician and supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork, passed the salt.
"...which can't go on indefinitely. The sand trade is, as you know, worth millions. Everyone seems to want glass windows these days."
"Disgraceful. Are you finishing that?"
The seamstress Hanna Stein reached over and speared a piece of chicken on Lord Vetinari's plate. She was actually Lady Hanna, Baroness of Khavos but all of that was new and rather embarrassing. She was a Hanna kind of person, not a milady.
Their working dinner took place in a cozy little dining room at a table that seated fifty. Though Lord Vetinari and Hanna were, to some extent, the lord and lady of the Palace of Ankh-Morpork, they didn't bother to sit on opposite ends of the table. The Patrician was at the end with Hanna on his left. A good deal of the rest of the table was covered with paper. Head clerk Rufus Drumknott had brought it in on a wheelbarrow an hour before.
The Patrician, a thin man with a Mephistophelian face, had barely stopped talking since. He had a fork in his left hand, a quill in his right. Important looking papers were spread out next to his dinner plate.
A gold-encrusted grandfather clock at the wall let out a series of long, low, echoing bongs.
The Patrician pushed his plate aside and picked up another paper.
"The Djelibeybian situation threatens to develop in unhealthy directions. The General appears to be..."
"I have to go," said Hanna. "Pseudopolis, remember? Auntie Bobbi?"
"...bringing up the old border dispute with Ephebie. You read the old treaty from..."
Hanna got to her feet. "I'll be late for the ship."
"...1,233 years ago, which laid the border at a one mile width down the length of the Djelibeybian river. I would consider that long enough for a precedent."
Hanna fetched her hat off a stack of files and secured it on her head with a pin. "I'm out of time. They'll sail without me."
"When you return, perhaps you could make a friendly visit to the embassy," said the Patrician. "The new vice ambassador is known for being something of a rake. See what you can get out of him about the General's intentions on the question of Djelibeybian currency."
"I thought you were worried about the borders."
Hanna paused from buttoning her jacket. It made sense. The Patrician would never send her to get any actual information from anyone. She made a much better red herring. He had professionals to do the real spying.
The last bong reverberated around the room and died out.
Lord Vetinari got up and began shuffling through the files. "I don't see the contraband list. Did you finish it?"
"I'm leaving. You'll have to get one of your other clerks to finish it." She put on her gloves. "Try not to let the city fall apart while I'm gone."
Lord Vetinari plucked up another paper on the landscape of the table. "I will do my level best."
"And try not to look too happy that I'm not here. People get nervous when you smile too much."
He scribbled a note on the paper. "Hm?"
"Never mind." She went to the door. "I'll give your aunt huggies and kissies from you."
The Patrician mumbled something about an adjustment to the graduated income tax.
"Right," said Hanna. "I'm off, then." She opened the door.
"One last point," said the Patrician.
She turned to find him beside her already. He was smiling.
"Have a pleasant journey and a relaxing holiday, my lamb."
He kissed her warmly.
Pseudopolis was a strange city because it was one of the few on the Disc that undulated. The streets sloped up and down at alarming angles, following the shape of the foothills of the Carrack Mountains, which loomed hubwards-widdershins. The Carrack River was the only straight, flat line in the city. It was wide and deep enough to have docks on both sides and there were some nice bridges that were raised by Carrack trolls when the ships came through. When the spring drainage poured out of the mountains, the Carrack River carried it and any accumulated winter sewage from the city to the Rim Ocean. This annual flush, along with the mountains, gave the city the kind of crisp, clean air that Morporkians could only find locally if they paid to be hooked up to a tank of it in one of the new-fangled Air Bars. In the trendy parts of Ankh, Pseudopolis Air was going for fifty dollars a pop.
Madam Roberta Meserole didn't get it for free, but if anyone wanted to enjoy it as long as she did, it was cheaper to buy a house in Pseudopolis. She did years ago, for health reasons. She took the air every day, either in town or in the garden behind the house. That's where Hanna found her.
"Hanna! Oh, my dear! Come kiss your auntie!"
At first, Hanna couldn't get a good look at Havelock Vetinari's aunt because there was too much hugging going on. Madam was taller than her, but stooped a little, and her hair was dark brown with white at the roots. And she was thin. As far as Hanna could feel, the only thing that filled out Madam were the layers of skirts and sweaters and the wool coat on top.
Madam pulled back, her nose wrinkled. "You're smelling very nautical, my dear."
"The blasted ship had... never mind. I'd rather forget about it."
Hanna had sailed in on the Jewel of Istanzia because she enjoyed sea travel better than a carriage ride through the Sto Plains. Normally. Endless fields of cabbage would've been an improvement to the nauseating stink that permeated every plank and hatch of the Jewel. It was prawns. And none too fresh. Hanna stunk of them. So did her luggage. The ship stank so badly, Hanna had roamed the decks and cargo hold at night. Sleep was impossible when it smelled like she was the cocktail olive in a week-old shrimp salad. She intended to lodge a formal complaint with the owner of the ship. He was going to get a piece of her mind. And she planned to dump her stinking clothing onto his doorstep to make her point.
"I am so sorry I couldn't come to meet you at the docks," said Madam. She had the faint twang of a Genuese accent. "I just couldn't bear the thought of getting into a carriage today. Some days are like that, I'm afraid."
She had a remarkable face. Her eyes were dark, the almond shape enhanced by kohl and liner. Her eyebrows were carefully shaped too. The skin on her face wasn't very wrinkled, but it was just loose enough to give the impression of natural forces at work. Age, in this case. Madam minimized it with artfully applied rouge and lipstick.
Hanna was a good forty years younger but she felt underdressed in Madam's presence. Or at least, under cosmeticed.
"I'm so glad to finally meet you, Madam," she said. "Your nephew has told me so--"
"Come now. I'm not your madam. Auntie is good enough."
"I'm at an age when I'm everyone's auntie. Or grandmother, and believe me, that is not something I'm willing to be."
They went together into the house. Madam walked slowly and stiffly.
"Champagne? Cecil, champagne, please."
The servant Cecil was a tall, white-haired, and proper servant in the service of Madam Meserole since Madam left Genua decades before to pursue her (significant pause) business interests around the Disc. He gave Hanna a deep Pseudopolis bow and headed for the cold room, where a large supply of champagne chilled on ice.
The parlor was furnished simply and tastefully as long as the taste was oriented to thirty years ago. Nobody was hanging orange curtains anymore but Madam had them. And Hanna thought it best not to linger too long on the shag throw rugs. She shouldn't have been surprised. It was called the Awfully Orange Drawing Room.
Madam crossed over to a cabinet and started pushing cups aside.
"How is my dear nephew?"
"Fine. He sends his greetings. Respectful greetings, he said."
"That's nice. And how is he really doing?"
Hanna accepted a mug from her. "He's still quietly terrorizing everyone, I suppose. The other day he stared at the officers of the Guild of Plumbers so long that they volunteered to give him a discount on the new Palace water closets."
Madam smiled. "How long was this price worthy stare?"
"Twenty minutes, I heard. I wasn't there. They said he didn't blink or speak the whole time. He just stared at them over his fingertips like he does. The plumbers sweated so much, the servants had to replace part of the carpet in the Oblong Office."
The mug Madam gave Hanna had a pink fluffy kitten painted on the side.
"The teddy bear is mine," said Madam, holding the mug up. "Family heirloom. I thought you'd be the pink kitten type. Do you like it?"
"It's horrible, Madam...Auntie."
"What's wrong with fluffy, cute widdle pink kittens, Hanna? As a woman of position and a businesswoman as I am, I highly recommend you take up a symbol of wholesome goodness and softness. It throws people off, you know." She winked.
Cecil appeared with a cold bottle of champagne in an ice bucket.
"I'm afraid Cecil will be doing the honours," said Madam. She held up her hands. The finger joints were swollen. "Uncorking a champagne bottle is one of the joys I can no longer manage on my own. Time is merciless and brutal."
Relaxed in cushiony furniture just tasteless enough to fit into the Awfully Orange Drawing room, they loosened up under champagne drunk out of their mugs. Madam wanted to know what her nephew had told Hanna about her. That topic was exhausted in under five minutes. Lord Vetinari rarely spoke about his family at all. He'd mentioned spending his holidays with Madam after his parents died. He said she was an interesting, influential woman that Hanna would surely like. That was about it.
"Don't worry," said Madam. "You won't be bored here. I have stories to tell! We don't know each other well yet, so I won't bore you at the moment with stories about me. Talking about my nephew is so much more fun."
Hanna refilled their mugs. She was liking Madam already. Maybe it was the champagne, but she felt she could say whatever she wanted to her.
"To be honest, I was hoping to get a holiday from him," she said. "I need one. Do you know what they're calling me in Ankh-Morpork these days?"
"Vetinari's lamb." Madam smiled. "You follow him everywhere. Even into exile."
"It's undignified. I don't follow him." Hanna tossed back a drink. "Makes it sound like I don't have a life of my own. I don't, but people don't need to remind me of it."
Hanna lived at the Palace of Ankh-Morpork as part of the three-year contract she had with the Patrician. In exchange for Hanna being a hostess, bed warmer and all around companion, she got a great deal of money, work and stress. Her time with Lord Vetinari included a rebellion in the city and a period of exile on an island she now "ruled" as baroness, though there wasn't much more on Khavos than a villa, a nice beach and a few assorted leper plants.
If being the Patrician's special friend wasn't work enough, Hanna was doing more and more of the kind of work she really hated – paperwork. There'd been bits of it before the exile, but since their return from Khavos, Lord Vetinari had been passing her all sorts of things: budget estimates, confidential files, trade agreements, and of course, the contraband list that she hadn't had time to finish. These days, she felt the only difference between her and a clerk was she got to sleep with the Patrician if she wanted. At least, she hoped that was the difference.
"I admire your perseverance, if I can call it that," said Madam. "Two years of your contract almost down, one to go. Do you think you'll make it to the finish line?"
"It'll be damned expensive if I don't. I'd have to sell everything I have to pay the penalties on a broken contract. Besides, I'm interested to see what kind of prize his lordship will give me in the end. Maybe a set of steak knives or a crystal punch bowl."
"I'm sure it will be more than that. I can tell from his letters that he's learned a great deal about women since you came along. It's astonishing."
"Why? What was he like before?"
"Havelock usually relied on the old insights he gained from his systematic study of women."
Hanna burst out laughing. "Systematic study? Really."
"Oh yes, the dear boy called it a study at the time," said Madam. "He always relied on books for basic theory and then went out into the field as an observer to deepen his knowledge. Very sensible for learning about, say, the migration patterns of geese, but not so effective when it comes to women."
"Did he hide in the bushes observing ladies with a telescope?"
"Almost. He pulled his Assassins tricks at every opportunity and gained entrance to places a boy his age should not have been fooling around in. Sanctums of womanhood, Hanna. Bath houses. Boudoirs. Lingerie shops."
Madam drained her mug and emptied the rest of the champagne bottle without asking.
"Imagine my surprise," she said, "when a precocious 12-year-old boy comes sauntering into my house on my birthday, marches up to me and presents me with, and I am not joking – a set of black satin sheets, a blindfold and a jar of orange marmalade!" Madam was laughing with Hanna now. "What could possess a boy to give his auntie those gifts? What kind of night did he think I was going to have?"
"Did he say anything?"
"I had to be careful not to laugh. Havelock was still very literal and serious about everything back then. I thanked him and asked why he'd chosen to give what he did. He said, 'I hope you have a good time tonight, Madam.' That was all."
Hanna took a swallow from her champagne to stop the laughter. It didn't help.
"That was it? He didn't say anything else?"
"I didn't see the little snipe until the next morning. But that night –" Madam smiled broadly. "—I had a visitor. I don't remember his name now but he owned an exclusive linens shop. He'd come to complain that my nephew had been annoying his female customers. The boy had been following them around, listening in on their conversations, that sort of thing. Havelock bought the sheets there, of course, but he was apparently very cheeky about it. He told the owner my address and said he didn't care if I was told about his mischief. And so..." Madam sighed happily. "I opened my door to find a 6 foot tall, dark-haired gentleman with a lovely mustache demanding to see Roberta Meserole." Her eyes sparkled. "Orange was his favorite flavor. He was quite good at guessing it while blindfolded."
Hanna clapped her hands. "Brilliant! It sounds just like him. I'd love to see an iconograph of him from back then."
Madam set her mug aside. "I've been collecting old ones for you for weeks. Let me see, where did I..."
She was at a table, a drawer open, rummaging through the papers.
"His lordship never talks about his childhood," said Hanna. "It's hard to believe he ever was a child. It's like he was born 40."
The kitten on her mug was grinning at her. She grinned back.
"He's always trying to get me to talk about my childhood but I won't tell him. I tell him it has to be a fair trade; you tell me a story about you and I'll tell you one about me. But he never takes me up on it..."
She noticed Madam wasn't making the little noises women tended to make when listening to someone else talk. She looked up.
Madam clutched the side of the table, her thin fingers like claws on the edge. She was bent over and breathing hard. Hanna was beside her in an instant.
Madam's grip on the table failed. She fell into Hanna's arms. She weighed almost nothing.
"I just need...to lie down for a while." Madam's face was so pale that her make up looked comical, like how actors look when they aren't on stage.
"Cecil!" Hanna shouted.
He appeared quickly and knelt beside them.
"A little too much excitement, Madam?"
"Very funny...Cecil. Get me to the couch."
Cecil fussed over her, tucking a blanket around her, fluffing the pillows. Madam told him weakly to stop it.
"Hanna will think I'm...an invalid. So undignified."
She looked grateful to be lying down.
"What happened?" asked Hanna.
"Madam has a blood circulation problem."
"The latest in my...army of ailments, my dear." Madam took a deep breath and let it out.
"The pain is the worst of it," said Cecil. "Madam is in constant discomfort. Some days she is not able to hold a cup on her own."
"Have you seen a doctor?"
"I've been diagnosed...as being old. It happens to the best of us." Madam paused again for breath. "Think nothing of it."
Hanna got to her feet. "Havelock doesn't have any idea how you're doing or he would have told me. I'll send a clacks to him right--"
"NO!" Madam fell back into the pillows. "Please. Don't bother him."
"He should know."
"He knows I'm old and that's enough." She reached out to pat Hanna's hand. "Be a good girl and keep Auntie's secret, hm? I'll be better tomorrow. I promise." She closed her eyes.
Hanna went out with Cecil when he fetched the tea.
"How long has she been like this?"
"Several years, milady. The last year has been worse. Steadily worse. These episodes happen more often. I fear there will soon be a "
"Can't the doctors do anything?"
"They could make her worse." Cecil smiled grimly. "One suggested Madam drink a bottle of champagne per day to help her circulation. I believe that has caused other problems."
He carefully set the silver tea things on the tray.
"There's nothing else anyone can do?"
"No, milady. Unless you happen to know someone with Hershebian chocolate."
Hanna had heard of it. Recently. She wracked her brains... The contraband list for the Patrician. Hershebian chocolate had been on it. She remembered wondering what kind of chocolate was so dangerous that Lord Vetinari didn't want it imported into Ankh-Morpork.
"What could chocolate do?" she asked.
Cecil sliced a lemon and spread the pieces on a small plate.
"The doctors said the properties of Hershebian chocolate would combine to soften Madam's pain and regulate her circulation."
"Then why don't we get some?"
Cecil blinked at her. "Even if we could find a supply, which I doubt we could since it is banned almost everywhere, it is highly addictive. The withdrawal effects are said to be quite unpleasant."
"What difference does that make if the alternative is Madam having a final collapse?"
Cecil lifted the tea tray. "If you find the chocolate, milady, I will be sure Madam takes it. However, I doubt you will find any. I have heard only smugglers and pirates know where the caches are, if there are any left. And none of us deal with that sort of people."
Cecil straightened his back and strode carefully back into the Awfully Orange Drawing Room.
Note: German readers will recognize the famous Kreislaufstörung (i.e. blood circulation collapse), the most mysterious ailment ever to be treated with sparkling white wine. (Yes, non-German readers, this is a true complaint and a popular folk treatment).