In which we observe the exploits of Ankh-Morpork's Finest and have an unrivaled opportunity to partake of alchemical tea and biscuits
The Commander was Not Having A Good Day.
It was one of those lovely, quintessentially Morporkian days, in which the fumes coming off the 'surface' of the Ankh were strong enough to kill(a) a man with a weak constitution and the temperature of the stuff was easily high enough to cremate the body. The last time they'd had a summer day that hot, a horse had exploded, which had admittedly been entertaining.
This, on the other hand, was not entertaining. At all.
Throughout the Watch house, full-grown, armed and armored men, women, dwarves, trolls, zombies, golems, gargoyles, gnomes, werewolves, vampires, and Nobbses ran for cover. Or at least sidled towards it in a suspiciously nonchalant fashion.
In Vimes' office, the imp known to all as Gooseberry repeated his message.
"He wants me towhat?"
"Why, attend Lady Selachii's annual Hogswatch Ball, Insert Name Here! In," the innocent yet ill-fated imp added, consulting the message it had apparently, in a fit of absent mindedness, written on its wrist, "full dress uniform!"
Vimes glared in silence, because a few streets away from Pseudopolis Yard, East Avenue, marked the beginning of the area where Nice People still dare to live, and when he yelled a representative tended to come over and complain(b). At length.
Across from him, unnoticed by all, a doorknob twisted and turned vaguely, embarrassed by the Look.
Becoming aware that, though his doorknob might have been cringing, the imp was merely giving him a blank look, he lit a cigar and said,
"Does Sybil know about this?"
"Ah, you will be pleased, I know, to hear that the Duchess has already received a message and thoroughly approves! In fact she apparently added, upon hearing, that she was looking forward to the opportunity to do some advertising for the Sunshine Sanctuary and that this was the perfect chance!"
Vimes covered his face with his hands, splaying his fingers slightly so that he could still stare through them at the manically bright, disquieting blue face before him, in much the same manner that a sentenced man had regarded his executioner, once upon a time not so very long ago, who asked him to sign the rope.
"Bloody buggering hell," he muttered, in a remarkable show of restraint. Sitting up slightly and facing the imp, he was struck by a sudden, hopeful thought. "Did he say why he wanted me to go? I mean, he's never previously required -"
"Why, yes!" said the imp. The second exclamation point was on its way, judging from the slight strain in its squeaky voice, and, yes, here it came- "His Lordship said he thought your presence would be of immense assistance in delicate diplomatic discussions with the Ambassador from Pseudopolis!!"
"Damn." There was no hope. Vetinari had even brought Sybil in it, a move that surely counted as cheating under any set of rules. He wrote a note to himself to check up on the situation with Pseudopolis - Ankh-Morpork relations and then promptly subsided into a healthy session of subdued yet stress-relieving ranting. Gooseberry retreated to its box. Below, the rest of the Watch began once more to creep from their respective hiding places, dust themselves off, look sheepish, generally avoid eyes, and, eventually, resume their normal duties, content in the knowledge that the bomb had been safely defused. All appeared to be well, or at least acceptably lacking resemblance to a pear.
It was, therefore, somewhat surprising to all concerned when the Commander's office exploded with a loud bang.
Well, all right, not the entire office. To the watchmen below, however, it certainly seemed that way. What actually happened was that the door was blown off its hinges by a rapidly expanding fireball, which then left an aesthetically pleasing scorch mark on the opposite wall before evaporating into nothingness(c).
In the ensuing loud silence, Captain Carrot was the first to react, barreling up the stairs and almost knocking himself unconscious on the doorframe in his enthusiasm to discover the origins of the mysterious eruption.
To his mild surprise, the source of the latter was not the Commander, but was in fact, as far as he could tell, the Commander's desk, which was lying in several interestingly-shaped pieces and scattered rather widely about the room, along with a veritable snowbank of paperwork and, for some reason, the crispy remains of what appeared to be a rare sub-species of Astoria Fly Trap.
His superior officer was in fact hanging from the windowsill by his fingertips. After carefully reviewing various aspects of the situation and listening for a few seconds to the steady stream of expletives coming through the open window, he decided that Mister Vimes probably wasn't there by choice and obligingly pulled the man back in.
"Right," said Vimes briskly, once safely back on solid ground, "Now, what the hell just happened? ANGUA!"
"Yessir?" said Angua, who had not, of course, followed Carrot up but remained outside to eavesdrop in any way whatsoever. She peered at the wreckage within.
Vimes made the universal gesture of Well?
She nodded, once, and stepped inside the office proper. She took a deep breath, and smelled...
Oiliness, a sickly stench that streaked across the room towards the door. It wasn't pungent, but there was a pervasiveness to it that made her stumble backwards.
"What's wrong?" said Vimes, clearly alarmed. "Sergeant, perhaps you should step outside -"
Then he stopped, because at this point Angua, who had begun to sway, collapsed.
(a) As opposed to, say, merely inspiring mild hallucinations involving purple giraffes and oddly fluorescent mushrooms. You know the ones.
(b) They tended to be so incoherent that it was a waste of time listening to them, and to the day he died Vimes never found out which upset them more, the fact that they could hearhis voice - or the fact that they could hear the individual words.
(c) Though Visit pointed out that if it were a sign that a demon occupied the Watch house, the fact they could not see it meant nothing, and incidentally was anyone interested in this exorcism pamphlet he had been holding in his hand at the very moment of the explosion, by the grace and glory of Om?
Meanwhile, some little ways away, in the dark and dusty basement of the Alchemists' Guild, a curious assembly were enjoying some tea and biscuits.
It was watery tea and the biscuits were rather stale, but alchemists are used to poor fare and, after a few months in the lab, everything tastes like formaldehyde.
The group came in all shapes and sizes, insofar as individual features could be discerned under the dark, heavy cloaks they all seemed to be wearing. They sat in a circle, grouped around what appeared to be a bubbling cauldron over open flame.
The fact that the open flame was dark indigo would probably not have comforted any observers.
"Uh...when shall we... six... meet again?" queried a thin, ancient voice.
"We are not witches, and this meeting hasn't occurred in the first place," said another, coldly. "We are rational men of science. Are we not?"
There was a general murmuring of agreement.
"Good. And now, to our young errand boy, how goes your mission?"
One of the cloaks sat up slightly. "Not sure, my lord."
The cloak managed to give off an impression of uneasiness. "Nossir."
"It landed on his desk, sir, but there was an almighty bang, sir, and then the Duke came through the window..."
"Oh, he didn't fall, sir, he was still hanging on, and then Captain Carrot pulled him in, but the potion doesn't seem to have worked."
"Are you sure it landed on target?"
"Oh, yes, sir. Why else would it have exploded like that?"
"You have met Vimes before?"
"Never mind," sighed the figure, sitting back in its chair. "Well, continue persevering, my dear boy. It will pay off. We must have the formula right this time."
"Certainly," echoed the other five. "Certainly."
It is, perhaps, worth noting that the Alchemists' Guild has also Certainly been about to find the correct formula for turning lead into gold for the past five hundred years.
After hopefully prodding the prone werewolf a few times, Carrot and Vimes lifted her up bodily and carried her down to Igor's cell. Igor, who was always an obliging fellow, hurried over.
"What can I do for you, thur?"
"Bring her around, for preference," snapped Vimes. "Carrot, tell Cheery to look at that damn desk, would you? And I'll-" he hesitated.
"You'd best go home to Lady Sybil, sir. After all, the party's tonight."
Vimes didn't look happy about it, but he nodded. "I suppose. Bloody Vetinari. Send me a clacks if anything turns up, okay?"
"Yessir," said Carrot.
"Yeth, thur," said Igor.
The Commander elected to walk home. He took a shortcut along one of the alleys behind Elm Street, explicitly did not examine the street across from his office window, and neither did he make a few quiet yet pressing inquiries among various relatively innocent bystanders. By the time he arrived at Scoone Avenue, he was glowing with the warm and fuzzy knowledge that he had succeeded in making everyone foolish enough to be near Pseudopolis Yard at the the time of the explosion just a little bit unhappier than they had been previously, even if he had not actually found anything useful.
Willikins met him at the door.
"Good afternoon, sir. I believe Lady Sybil is waiting for you in the Mildly Yellow Drawing Room."
In fact, she was sitting by the window, darning a pair of his socks.
"Hallo, Sam. I hadn't expected you home quite yet. Did you hear about the party?"
"Unfortunately," murmured Vimes. Sybil flicked him. "Sorry, dear. Er... there's been a bit of excitement at the Watch House..."
"I know. Carrot clacksed me. Your desk exploded?"
"So it would seem."
"I did tell you not to eat curry at the office," Sybil pointed out, looking, Vimes felt, altogether too cheerful.
"Haha," he said, in tones entirely free from humor. "I'd like to point out that Angua took one sniff and was out like a light."
"Really? Poor girl. Probably that special Klatchian Fizzbanger(a) stuff -"
"All right, all right. Give us a kiss."
He did so, grumpily.
"Now, Purity laid out your dress uniform in the bedroom. You can change and read to Young Sam, and then we'll be off."
(a) A type of packaged curry renowned for both its potency and its suspicious technicolor shades. Occasionally explodes when dropped. A pinch of the powder is enough to make a full meal for any reasonable person. Vimes, however, preferred to enjoy an interesting solution created through the use of two cups of Fizzbanger, an additional gallon of water, for emergencies, and one of those little bread roll things on the side.
Twas a week before Hogswatch, and all through the house, not a creature was sleeping, not even a mouse.
Madam Meserole watched the proceedings with a certain amount of amusement. It had been years since she'd last visited Ankh-Morpork, and now she was wishing she'd gone more often. Oh, Pseudopolis was pleasant, a nice, peaceful city almost entirely free from the excitement of her youth, and she was glad enough for that. At sixty, it was time to enjoy life(a) and reap the profits of certain little investments she'd made, here and there.
But there was a flare to Ankh-Morpork that Pseudopolis could never match. From the smoke of the air to the screams of the public, the atmosphere was intoxicating(b).
Lady Selachii's famous Hogswatch Ball, less so.
The music wasn't bad, but the buffet, Madam reflected, was simply horrifying. The salad in particular was enough to make the connoisseur weep, or possibly punch someone. She avoided it, on general principles, and stood a little distance away from Lady Louisa and her entourage.
Lady Louisa was the reason for Madam returning to Ankh-Morpork at last.
She was, officially, the ambassador of Pseudopolis to Ankh-Morpork. Unofficially, she was Madam's latest political protegé in the first real test of her honed skills. Madam was quite proud of Louisa, who was, in her not particularly humble opinion, a work of art worthy of her own advanced years, lengthy experience in those matters, and natural talents, and she cut a pretty figure in a crowd of rather mediocre noblewomen.
She was tall and slender, and walked with the air of someone who knew exactly that. Long blond hair, coiled in a perfect bun - check. Wide, slightly glassy blue eyes - check. Pale skin - check. Perfect deportment. Carried her heavy, multi-layered white ballgown well. Attracting the eyes of many a gentleman, Madam observed, and allowed a flicker of a smile to cross her face. It was quite impressive, really. Louisa Garrumond would have been barely recognizable to her own father, who hadn't seen her for six weeks.
Admittedly he probably wouldn't have been pleased with the changes instated during the intermittent period, but that was a secondary detail.
She decided that enough mingling was, really, enough, and that Pseudopolis' new delegate's reputation was happily assured in the minds of Morporkian high society. It was time to find her nephew, who was no doubt lurking around here somewhere.
Slipping through the crowd as easily as a very small camel through the eye of a really big needle, although with infinitely more style, Madam made herself known to the rest of the party and kept an eye out for Havelock. She eventually found him, as expected, leaning against the wall in a shadowy corner, examining the other guests.
"Ah, Havelock," she said loudly, "how nice to see you here."
"Hello, Madam," said Havelock, rather unnecessarily drily, in her opinion. "I thought you might come."
"How could I miss an opportunity to see my beloved nephew?"
"How could you indeed," he replied, amused. "And I have no doubt the supervision of the exploits of her ladyship over there have nothing to do with it?"
"Of course not. I have Pseudopolis' best interests in mind, anyway. Are you well?"
"Quite, I assure you."
"Are you sure? You look positively skeletal."
"And this is different because...?"
"True," Madam conceded. There was a pause. "I am doing wonderfully, thank you very much," she added.
"So I understand."
She smiled, warmly, although she made sure he caught the slight warning in her voice when she said, "Spying on your dear old aunt, Havelock? Surely not."
"Of course not," he said amiably. "I merely read your correspondence."
They laughed, in the way that a particular type of very intelligent person does. It was a family trait.
"May I direct your attention," he said, when the laughter had trailed off uneasily, "to the couple approaching from the side closest to me?" There was a faint note of real humor in his voice, as if eager to share a joke that no one else had got - or, knowing Havelock, ever would. "They are the Duke and Duchess of Ankh."
"Really? Commander Vimes is here? I was under the impression that he does not often attend parties?"
"Correct. This is a special occasion. Hogswatch's Eve, after all."
They turned to look at the pair. The woman, who Madam assumed was Lady Sybil, Vimes' wife, was leading the way. She was a large, friendly looking woman, dressed all in light blue, as was traditional for her sort. Vimes himself was in a rather splendid uniform, and did not appear to be happy about it, although the large red hat he was wearing effectively prevented her from making out any distinct features.
She strode over to greet them, hand outstretched, knowing that otherwise Havelock would introduce her, and Havelock's introductions, while entertaining, were Not Appropriate to situations such as this.
"Lady Sybil and Sir Samuel! I have heard so much about you. I am Madam Roberta Meserole, but everyone calls me Madam..."
Almost at the same moment she had finished her sentence, the Duke of Ankh looked up, sharply.
Madam's eyes met his, and she took a step back...
...because the face staring at her was a face out of history. She had last seen it thirty years ago, two days before the owner's death.
She knew who it belonged to.
It belonged to Sergeant John Keel.
(a) That is, more so than she had previously, which had, admittedly, required some effort.
(b) Madam staunchly refused to acknowledge the variety of jokes that inevitably popped up there. Even the one about the crone, the priest, and the errant rhinoceros.