A-N: Many many many apologies for taking so long with the last chapter. I've had a helluva past 6 weeks or so. Hopefully the wait was worth it – this chapter should leave y'all smiling, and that's my goal in life, right? (grin). As far as the next Hanna-Havelock story goes, there isn't one at the moment, and I don't know when/if there will be one. For those of you who don't already know the reason, check out my Live Journal. So...enjoy the rest of the story! oOo
17. E Pluribus Optimum
After three days at sea spent mostly kneeling over a chamber pot, the first thing Hanna did on the docks of Ankh-Morpork was wobble down the gangplank, ease herself to her knees and kiss the ground. Then she wiped her mouth on her sleeve because Ankh-Morpork wasn't known for its taste.
There were iconographers. Otto happened to be the only one set up perfectly for the kneeling shot, which tomorrow would be on the front page of the Times, to the great satisfaction of Lord Vetinari. There were clusters of people of the dock variety as well as more well-dressed gawkers kept back from the main circle of events by the watchmen Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs. Comments were made about Hanna's hair, not all of them complimentary, but all of them made with admiration. Octiron Blonde may not always be attractive but it was very, very expensive.
In the background, back behind the crowd, was a familiar all-black carriage.
Drumknott stepped out of the circle of people, a massive bouquet of flowers in his arms, a sopping great smile on his face. He was genuinely happy to see Hanna. He hoped his boss would be easier to deal with from now on.
"Welcome back, milady! His lordship trusts you had a pleasant journey."
"Thank you, Mr. Drumknott. Is he here?" she asked, though she knew he was. Griffin had told her. The Pseudopolis episode made Hanna think it unwise to believe anything anybody ever said to her again, but there was something honest about Griffin. When he showed up on the Star of Ephebie an hour after it left Pseudopolis, he admitted right away that he was a spy set to watch her during the journey. She wondered how many honest spies there were in the world and why Vetinari would hire one. Regardless, he turned out to be a priceless companion. He supplied Hanna with fennel tea and dried biscuits to ease her stomach and read to her when she lay in her cabin in a swoon of tearful panic and nausea. Semaphore-clacks messages dashed between the ship, Pseudopolis and the Palace, all of them sent and received by Griffin. He was the one who told her the fate of the Hershebian chocolate: it was destined for Djelibeybi, where Madam had scheduled a coup to topple the General sometime at the end of the week. Like Polk, he would be arrested for possession of a very controlled substance.
The last clacks informed her that Lord Vetinari had changed his plans and was going to meet her at the Ankh-Morpork docks.
"He's in the carriage, milady," said Drumknott.
"Good. Do you have any money?"
"I used all mine up giving tips on the ship. Could I borrow a dollar or two? I'll pay you back."
Drumknott searched his pockets and came up with a few coins. "There you are, milady. Now, if you'll come this way, his lordship would--"
But Hanna was already cutting through the crowd toward a few stalls set up further up the docks, the last of the morning fish market sellers. Drumknott did a dignified double-step back to the Patrician's carriage. The black curtain was twitched aside and the window was pushed up by a pale, blue-veined hand.
"Her ladyship is, er...busy, my lord. She's up at the fish market." Drumknott squinted. "She appears to be buying some kind of fish."
Silence from inside the carriage. Then the swish of fabric moving across the leather seat, Vetinari shifting closer to the window. He didn't show himself.
"What kind of fish?"
Drumknott got a little closer to the stalls, observed a few moments, then returned to the carriage.
"It's herring, sir."
"Yes, sir. Smoked, I believe. The seller is wrapping some up for her."
The fish was wrapped in old newspaper. Hanna tucked the package under her arm, then moved off to another stall. She opened the lid on a barrel, leaned over and took a long whiff of the contents.
"She's buying something else, my lord. I'm not quite sure what..." The clerk had to move in closer again to see what was going on, then trotted back to the carriage, flower petals trailing behind him from the bouquet he still clutched in his hand.
"I think it's pickles, sir."
Vetinari's face finally appeared in the window. He was frowning.
"Yes, sir. The seller is putting quite a few of them in a large jar for her ladyship. With pickle juice from the barrel."
A tiny curl of Vetinari's lip showed his opinion of pickle juice. Hanna never ate pickles except in his presence. She did it solely to annoy him.
"She's coming now, my lord. Wait. Wait. I think she's... Now it looks like she's buying an egg."
Sighing, Vetinari propped his elbow against the carriage door and rested his cheek on his hand. Hanna's revenge was obviously starting already. No one else would dare make the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork wait for the purchase of an egg.
Drumknott offered a running commentary.
"I assume it's a hard boiled egg because the seller is peeling it for her right there. And now...the egg is being salted. Her ladyship is handing the pickle jar to the egg seller to free up a hand. She's taken the egg and... Yes, there it goes. She ate it all in one bite. She must not have had breakfast yet, my lord. She's got the pickle jar back. And now...now, I think she's really coming."
Drumknott opened the carriage door and stood at attention as Hanna came out of the crowd with her purchases. She thanked him for the flowers and thrust them into the carriage, followed by the fish. Then she held out the pickle jar.
"Could you hold this, sir?"
Lord Vetinari pulled a pair of black gloves from his pocket and put them on before taking the jar. He balanced it between his fingertips like it was bomb about to go off.
Before letting Drumknott help her into the carriage, Hanna ordered the driver to take them to her house, not the Palace. When she was settled inside, she took the pickle jar and set it between her feet. It sloshed quietly as the carriage rolled into motion.
There weren't any greetings. There weren't any inquiries into the journey or comments about looking well-rested (neither of them were), and no updates about what happened at home while Hanna was away. They looked out their respective windows, the fish and flowers forming a barrier on the seat between them.
Morning rush hour traffic slowed things down. They got stuck near the cattle market, which didn't improve the mix of unpleasant fish-pickle scents inside the carriage. Vetinari's hand hovered in front of his nose.
"Very well. I will begin the sparring match." He drew a breath. "I trust you gained valuable insight into my family and my aunt during your trip."
Hanna turned on him, eyes flashing.
"She deserves to be drawn and quartered! They put me on a horse, Havelock. A horse!"
"I made it clear to Madam how displeased I am with the whole episode. She will be doing several unpleasant political tasks for me to make up for it."
"Nothing will make up for it. You should be ashamed of yourself, allowing her to string me along."
Shame was not a feeling the Patrician was familiar with. He paused to see if something shame-like settled over him. It didn't. There was something else but it wasn't shame.
Hanna hefted the jar into her lap, unscrewed the lid and took out a fat pickle with her fingers.
"You should also be ashamed of those letters you wrote about me."
"I believe my aunt explained the--"
"When you're being personal, you're being political. Pardon me if I call that utter bosh. It doesn't excuse any of it. I don't give a damn why you did it, or that you did it behind my back. The fact is that you did it at all after two years of..." She couldn't find the word she wanted, and went for, work. If you wanted to complain to someone about how stupid, immature and useless your seamstress is, you should have got a girl who fit the bill. I know a few who do. But that's not who I am, and I won't suffer having you or anyone else insult me that way for any reason, political or otherwise."
Her point was rounded off by waving the pickle at the Patrician. Juice splattered across his cloak. He slowly took out his handkerchief and dabbed it at the fabric.
"Well?" demanded Hanna.
"What is it you would like me to say?"
"You could say you're sorry."
"I was rather waiting for you to do that."
"Oh, sir. You've got some nerve." She took an indignant bite of her pickle.
"Indeed. That's how I've got where I am today. You appear to be well-stocked with it as well. It took a great deal of nerve to drag poor Mr. Maltesi into your web of deceit."
Hanna almost choked. "My web of deceit? Who was doing the intriguing behind my back while I risked my neck for a slab of chocolate?"
The Patrician relaxed into the seat, his arms folded.
"If I recall the details, there was a certain amount of blackmail involved at the beginning, hm? And then there was the desecration of a temple graveyard. Impersonation of a corpse. Gratuitous nudity captured in iconograph form..." He held up a hand to stop Hanna from interrupting. "A good deal of alcohol, at least one minor breach of client confidentiality, several rounds of insults aimed at me, expressed in a most underhanded manner in two languages, and – lest we forget – the seduction, partly involving a song that began, 'I want to be loved by you.' Not subtle, but effective, as we saw when you sailed off for a romantic evening at sea with poor Mr. Maltesi." He frowned. "My word, it certainly all sounds deceitful, doesn't it?"
"I thought I had cause."
"So did I."
"It's not the same thing!" She shoved the rest of the pickle into her mouth.
Gently, the Patrician took the jar out of her lap and set it back on the floor.
"I suggest we call a truce, a moratorium on deceit against one another. Deceit against others is perfectly all right as long as it's well thought out and has a clear end that justifies the means."
Hanna counted to ten in her head, then said, "All right. But from now on, don't say anything to Lady Margolotta about me. Not one word. I won't ask you to stop writing her; I've heard you're practically twins separated at birth. I couldn't possibly come between you. Just don't say anything to her about me anymore. It should drive her crazy. I don't know the woman but I think she should be punished in all of this along with the rest of us."
"Feeling vindictive, are we?"
The Patrician gazed up at the ceiling of the carriage.
"Promise me, sir. I'm not any of her business. I don't ask you about her, do I?"
"Mmm... Very well. I will not mention you ever again, if that is your wish."
"My, you are thorough this morning." He sighed. "I will not mention you even indirectly. I hope this jealous nonsense will stop now."
"I'm not jealous." Hanna snapped a rose off of its stem, pushed the rest of the bouquet aside and started plucking the petals off. "But I was wondering: What was all that about inviting Anthony to the Palace if he ever showed up in Ankh-Morpork?"
"It was just as it sounded– a friendly invitation to meet the gentleman who unwittingly did so much good."
"Mhm. And I suppose you'd kill him with kindness, wouldn't you?"
The Patrician looked confused. "Dear me, why should I? There are so many more efficient methods."
The carriage had been lurching slowly through the streets, the area it was passing through at the moment defined by the smells drifting through the window with the cold air. Cattle urine was left behind, as was the ancient smell of grease from the Treacle Mine Road. The more intense scent of the Ankh faded as the carriage passed into the street where Hanna's house was, a pleasant middle class lane lined with chestnut trees.
The house was warm. A fire burned in the parlor hearth, another in the stove in the kitchen where a kettle was whistling. Hanna didn't have servants, and assumed the Patrician had enlisted some of his to get the place ready for her. Which means he'd guessed she would want to go home – to her home – not the Palace. Lord Vetinari fixed tea while Hanna's luggage was carried in by the driver and footman. Then Hanna and the Patrician were left alone to drink in front of the fire.
"Griffin informed me that you had a rough passage," said the Patrician between sips. "Rather a puzzle considering the sea was uncommonly calm the entire way."
"It was nothing."
"Just a little bug?"
Hanna realized she was clutching her cup too tightly and tried to relax. "It was nothing."
"Still, you wouldn't object to Dr. Lawn examining you after you've had some rest. Just to be sure."
"I don't need to be examined."
"It would be wise."
"A waste of time."
"I don't require your presence at the Palace until the end of the week. You have plenty of time to get some sleep and have the good doctor check that everything is in order."
"I don't want to be examined, sir."
Lord Vetinari set his cup aside. "Ah. Want is very different than need. I can understand not wanting an examination; I know very little about it but I can't imagine it's pleasant. However, when I hear reports that you've spent the last weeks with an increase in appetite, emotional instability, fatigue and nausea, the logical conclusion is that an examination is what you need. Unless you're aware of other biological factors that would rule out a "
Hanna slammed her tea cup onto the tray. "This is ridiculous! I'm a seamstress!"
"I was not aware your profession was exempt from the laws of nature."
"That can't happen to me. I'm a professional!"
"E pluribus optimum," the Patrician murmured.
It took her a moment to sort it out. Of the many, the best. The compliment didn't make her feel any better. She hunted around for paper and started folding a piece obsessively on her thigh. "There's nothing to worry about," she said. The paper was folded, creased, crinkled. "Bloody hell," she whispered, "what if there is?"
"We'll sort it out if things come to that. There is no sense making yourself ill with worry." He frowned. "Which is what I expect you've been doing."
"I'll be ruined!"
The Patrician looked surprised. "Really? My goodness. Is that the usual effect?"
"You're making fun of me, Havelock. How could you make fun of me at a time like this?"
"Pardon. It's a coping mechanism. Of course I'm burning with anticipation. Dr. Lawn will be by on Thursday, by the way." He watched her folding and tucking and creasing the paper, then snatched it out of her hands. "You don't need to fidget so."
There was an edge to his voice that made Hanna almost slither off the couch. When the Patrician was nervous, there was definitely something to be nervous about. Panic soured her stomach, which wasn't very stabile to begin with. She had the urge to run to a window and get some fresh air, to breath. Her chest constricted, as if iron bands had been clamped around her lungs, and her hands were moist, the reason her origami didn't get very far. All she could think, over and over, was It can't be true. These things happened to other people, not to her. It can't be true.
She didn't realize she was crying until the Patrician put his arm around her and tried to give her the folded paper back.
"Of course you can fidget all you like," he said.
She flung the paper onto the floor. "Don't tell me you'd be glad. You'd be lying. I know you."
He dabbed his pickle-scented handkerchief at her cheek.
"When I was a young man, long before I became Patrician, I developed a theory: in politics, it is useful to cultivate the qualities of water. A river, for instance, yields at the slightest touch, yet has the power to carve valleys into the earth. Later when I had some years behind me as Patrician, the special interests in the city wondered how I managed to stay in power when I'd essentially yielded to their every demand. The ultimate power is in flexibility, Hanna. Many people misunderstand that; they think a kind of iron-willed control is the secret. Margolotta thinks this. She hasn't moved beyond basic notions of power, past the idea of strength through rigidity. Curiously enough, you think the same way, at least you appear to at times like these when you fall into despair at something you can't control. My suggestion is to yield to whatever comes, as I will. Don't invent problems before they present themselves and don't label something an evil when it's quite possibly a blessing."
He wiped her nose, then set his damp handkerchief fastidiously aside. "Will you stop fighting? You'll feel much better if you do."
"I can still be scared. I have a right to be scared."
"As long as the fear is not paralyzing. I need you as fit as possible for some work I've been saving for you. Whatever Dr. Lawn's verdict, you will have no excuse to shirk your duties."
He took a stack of files from a table and eased back with them onto the couch.
"These are the preliminary background reports worked up by Saffron about the water situation. Genua has had some problems with a contagious illness that appears to arise from tainted drinking water, so I thought it time to do a survey of our own resources. A small staff has been put together to compile the results of an investigation into wells, fountains, water tables, pumps and so forth. A team of engineers are ready to assess water quality in various key locations. I believe Saffron has noted recommendations."
Hanna wiped the last tears from her face, amazed as she always was at the Patrician's rapid pendulum swings – tender and attentive with her one moment, all business the next. Sighing, she skimmed the thick file he set on her lap, most of it in her secretary's handwriting, some of it in the Patrician's. There were instructions, numbers, definitions, city maps, lists of experts and their duties.
Her mind couldn't fasten on it. Municipal water quality. What did that matter when there were perhaps so many critical things happening inside her own skin?
"It looks like there's nothing left for me to do but be sure everyone does his job," she said wearily.
"You've just hit on the fundamental secret of leadership, my love." The Patrician handed her a second file. "A rather good survey of the water supply was made under Lord Bigglesworth one hundred years ago. Of particular interest are the aquifers he notes hubwards of the city that we were not aware of. If you look here--"
Hanna put a hand on his arm. "What did you say?"
"I said there are aquifers hubwards of the city. Do pay attention, Hanna. This new concept of public health is of major importance and it will not do for you to get woolly-headed at the start of the project."
"Woolly-headed! I am not woolly-headed. I distinctly heard you say--"
"No, before that, you said--"
"Lord Bigglesworth, yes." He tapped the file in her lap. "For a man who wore corsets under his suits, he had a good mind for engineering. Disregard the more technical aspects of the survey in favor of..."
"...the central points of well access, water purity and..."
"Yes? Am I going too fast?"
"You know very well what you're doing, and it's going to stop." She poked him in the chest. "You can't just say something like that and expect me to forgive everything and just fall into your arms like some kind of..." Hanna made a face, "...storybook princess."
"At the moment, I expect you to fall into my arms for thirty thousand per annum."
"That's right. Don't you forget it."
"Gods forbid." He unfolded another map from one of the files. "May we continue?"
Lord Vetinari explained the strengths and weaknesses of Lord Bigglesworth's survey in relation to what his engineers had found in the hubwards suburbs in recent weeks. Hanna didn't listen to a single word until he said, "...and so, we come to the conclusion that two of the wells might contain the purest water in the area. After our people take the measurements, we'll be having Palace water delivered solely from there. We have to keep you healthy, my love."
"I can't believe it!" Hanna whacked his shoulder with a file. "You said it again!"
The Patrician looked offended. "I certainly don't deserve a frontal attack."
"It's worse than being called lamb! Stop it!"
"Of course I will. As soon as you're round enough to fit the description, I will call you...mmm....my little butterball."
Hanna laughed. "If you ever, ever call me that, Vimes'll be looking for your remains with a magnifying glass."
"My..." The Patrician tapped his lips with his fingers. "That sounds like a serious threat. I'm afraid there are penalties for threatening the Patrician." He strolled over to the table, lifted the papers there and held up the soft, white feather he found underneath.
Hanna backed up from the couch. "I'm sorry, your lordship."
He smiled. It was a devilish smile that wasn't affected by apologies. He took a step toward her. She took a step back.
"I'm really, really sorry. I take back everything, sir. You can call me whatever you want."
"It's far too late for that, my dear, sweet, unfortunate Hanna."
In his hand was the Feather. It was the most exquisite torture known to Hanna, and it had been used on her only once. That was enough. Still backing up, she clasped her hands together and started pleading.
"You don't have to do this, your lordship...sir...Havelock..." She squeezed her eyes shut a moment and tried not to think too hard about what she was about to say, "...dear." The word sat on her tongue like a sticky piece of melted butterscotch. "We can talk about these things."
He was still moving towards her.
"I was lying before," she said. "I love it when you call me lamb. And my love. And even... Oh blast! Butterball is just too silly!" She banged into a plant stand and caught the miniature fern before it fell over. That cost her backing up time. The Patrician closed the gap until there was a wall at her back.
"Why do you bring me to such ugliness?" he sighed, the Feather twiddling in his fingers.
"All right, how about this. There's nothing in the world I'd rather do than..." she squeezed her eyes shut again, "...have your child. If that's what's going to happen. I'm so happy about it that I look unhappy, you know? That's real happiness. And...Havelock, wait, don't do that. Listen. I realize now I was put on this Disc to...er...obey you in all things and to worship you like a god..."
She fell onto her knees and threw her arms around his legs in preparation for the real, pathetic begging. It wasn't necessary because he was already laughing. It was the word obey. There was always something comical when it came out of Hanna's mouth. Worship came in a close second. He laughed so much that he had to go sit down.
Hanna stayed on the floor by the wall. She was laughing now too. Of course she was. The Feather was out of her immediate vicinity.
Eventually, Lord Vetinari patted the cushion beside him. "Come sit, Hanna. I have something very important to ask you."
She didn't move. She didn't want to. But he was sitting there looking so thoughtfully at the fire that she sat beside him out of curiosity and dread. He took her hand.
"I hesitated to bring this up before because it is a sensitive issue," he said, "one that I find difficult to address."
There was silence. The Patrician was pursing his lips.
"I have never asked anyone this before."
"For good reason, probably."
"Indeed." He blinked at her. "I'm afraid I may not express myself properly."
"Then why bother? We can just forget about it and--"
"No, no. It's far too important. In fact, I may be...distressed if you say no."
Hanna's stomach flopped. Lord Vetinari tightened his hold of her hand and gazed into her eyes.
"Madam's little game taught me to accept certain...realities. The past two years have not always been smooth between you and I, but they have been, overall, a success. We are close enough that anything can be said between us without guile or subtext. You are the only person on the Disc who has the courage to tell me the truth at all times, and the only one I can safely tell the truth to. It is a vulnerability, this unlimited openness, but it also a gift." He paused.
Hanna held her breath.
"Since we have such an excellent basis in trust, openness and – I dare say – affection, I am confident enough to ask: Would it be possible for you to consider, at some point in the near future, dyeing your hair back to its original color?"
Hanna blinked. "What?"
"Blonde doesn't quite suit you."
"I realize a gentleman who criticizes a lady's hair is usually inviting a painful death of some kind, but you and I have been through enough together to discuss these things like mature adults."
She stared at him with her mouth open, then put her face in her hands. "Gods, if you wanted to torture me, you should've used the feather. It's more merciful."
"I have no idea what you mean." He patted her on the knee. "Do think about it. Get some rest, eat well, and you'll make the right decision."
When Lord Vetinari went to fetch his cloak and stick, Hanna curled up on the couch and tried to calm herself down. It was the close call of all close calls, and she hadn't decided if she'd ever forgive him for it. Manipulative weasel.
He opened the front door. The cold wind scattered the ashes in the fireplace and bothered the flames. "Dear me, I nearly forgot," he said. "Hanna?"
"Haven't you scared me enough for one day, sir?"
"Aside from the business with the water supply and your hair and Dr. Lawn, of course, you may want to give a thought to your preference for a wedding date." He shut the door behind him.
A minute of frozen shock passed. Then Hanna slithered off the sofa, flung open the door and yelled, "I'M NOT MARRYING YOU!"
His coach was already halfway up the street, out of ear shot.