Marie-Suzette rode into Ankh-Morpork with the morning produce. People stared. They stared at her mount, a bearded male unicorn that shone like moonlight, at the small dragon that swooped and glided merrily above her head not unlike a brightly colored if somewhat reptilian butterfly and at the slender, slinky cats, nine black and one white, who rode regally on Marie-Suzette's lap and shoulder and the unicorn's crupper and wove in and out between its silver shod hooves, but most of all they stared at Marie-Suzette herself. Her simple white dress clung to every slender curve of a willowy figure, there were ropes of pearls around her neck, her wrists and her unbelievably tiny waist. Three gold rings, one set with a diamond, another with a sapphire and the third with a ruby glistened on long, delicate fingers. Pale golden hair, that seemed to glimmer with its own light, fell down her back brushing the unicorn's withers with looped braids to keep it out of a face that could only be described as perfect. Marie-Suzette ignored the stares, she was used to them.
In the crowd Mr. John Point, a well dressed gentleman of obvious importance, tore his eyes away and continued, against the traffic, out of the Deosil Gate taking up his station on a low mound - it couldn't really be called a hill - overlooking the main highway. Shortly thereafter the daily wagon train to Pseudopolis issued forth, big creaking wooden things pulled by teams of oxen with passengers riding on the roofs and more people trudging alongside to enjoy the protection of the Merchant Guild's armed guard. Towards the end of the train there was a different kind of wagon, not so large but pulled by several more oxen as it was entirely covered with steel plate. This was the strong wagon carrying the weekly gold shipment to Ankh-Morpork's bankers in Pseudopolis. Mr. Point watched the train pass with a most thoughtful expression on his face before reentering the city.
He wound his way through the broad and airy streets of uptown and the cramped and crowded downtown streets to the palatial headquarters of the Thieves Guild, entered with a polite nod to the apprentice on door duty and made his way up several flights of stairs to an office with a big window and even bigger desk. A decidedly rotund and definitely overdressed 'gentleman' (inverted commas automatically attached themselves to the word in his case) lounged behind said desk, feet propped up on a blotter, chair leaned back to a positively hazardous angle.
He removed the cigar from his mouth. "Do something for you, Point?"
"I have an idea," Master Thief John Point replied, taking a seat without being asked.
"Well, let it out, man, before it dies of solitary confinement!"
Point ignored the pleasantry. "A crime," he said, "a big crime like in the old days, not the penny-ante stuff we get up to today."
"Budget," Junior Assistant Guildmaster Rogar Whinge said laconically.
"We're well under budget, as you know," Point replied. "The income from inn-sewer-rants doesn't count now does it?" Whinge grunted and Point went on: "That's what we do these days isn't it? Collect rant money from the marks - aside from pocket-picking, purse snatching and minor pilfering by the juniors. Don't really have the right to call ourselves Thieves anymore. We should change our name to something like the Guild of Inn-sewer-rants Agents!"
Whinge grunted again, his plump face doing its best to contract in a frown but defeated by the fat filling every possible wrinkle. "We're doing all right."
"Oh yes, raking in the money, I grant you that. But what about pride? What about upholding the great traditions of our forbearers? We get no respect these days. We've become fa - er - domesticated, safe, predictable. What kind of reputation is that for self respecting thieves? "
"Mmm," said Whinge noncommittally
"Now if we should pull a really big job, something bold and audacious -"
"No upsetting the Patrician," Whinge interrupted sharply. "Some of us got families to think of you know."
"Big, bold, audacious, but within the budget," Point hastily amended. "Nothing Vetinari could object to - or even Commander Vimes."
Whinge snorted his disbelief. Point smiled: "Mark I have in mind will get no sympathy from Old Stoneface believe you me, Assistant Guildmaster,"
"Mr. Boggis doesn't want to rock the boat, " Whinge observed. "Raking in the rants and petty pilfering is all right by him."
"Mr. Boggis is getting a bit past it in my opinion," Point said with a distinctly pointed innocence. "Just about due for an honorable retirement if you ask me. A really big, flashy, profitable crime might be just the thing to give him the necessary push - if you know what I mean, sir."
Whinge's feet hit the floor as did all four legs of his chair. "Interesting. Very interesting. Just what is it you have in mind, Mr. Point?"
Ankh-Morpork was not exactly a shining city on a hill, the Princess Marie-Suzette reflected after an hour or two of wandering its back alleys, more like a somewhat dingy metropolis on a muddy plain - but at least she'd lost the crowds. And what in Ephebe's name was that smell?
"Oh," she said out loud.
She had arrived at the banks of the River Ankh, at least so she assumed. The surface was a sort of greenish-brown with an oily, iridescence coiling in lazy patterns across it. And it flowed very slowly, like semi-solid pancake batter being poured by an extremely patient cook. The odor was quite indescribable so Marie-Suzette didn't bother to try, even to herself.
'Smelly, isn't it?' a cheerful voice said inaudibly.
'All right for you,' another, grumpier, voice answered soundlessly, 'you can fly up and get a breath of fresh air anytime you like!'
"The fourth circle of Hell smelled worse," Marie-Suzette observed. A number of feline voices rumbled something between a mew and purr. "Though not by much," she admitted. "Let's look for a bridge shall we?"
The sun rose higher. Ankh-Morpork bustled about its daily business of cutting throats both literal and metaphorical. Members of the Day Watch patrolled, two by two. Troll with dwarf, living with undead, giant with gnome, man with woman. The City Watch was the most diverse body in Ankh-Morpork - from a certain point of view. From another, that of Commander His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, it was the most homogenous. As he told every new batch of recruits, the moment you put on the badge you were no longer a human, a troll, a dwarf, or whatever - you were a copper, and every other copper was your brother, except when she was your sister. Something, possibly the granite set of his jaw, the gimlet gleam of his eye or the steely rasp of his voice managed to almost magically instill a similar conviction in each new set of Watchmen.
Thus Constable Precious Jolson, human female, two meters tall and proportionately broad in shoulders and hips, regarded her partner, pictsie Nicht Nought-Naethin, five inches tall in his issue boots and weighing four ounces sopping wet, as an equal and comrade-in-arms for whom she would gladly shed blood, preferably somebody else's but her own if absolutely necessary, secure in the knowledge that he felt exactly the same way about her. The Watch took care of its own!
Their current beat was marbletown on the Ankh side of the river, a very upscale area near the docks, populated by rich merchants from other cities on the plain and even farther places. It had big houses set well back from tree lined roads, the finest restaurants in Ankh-Morpork and lots of fancy, overpriced shops with names like 'La Emporia Granda' or 'The Batique Boutique'. It was most emphatically not the sort of place where one expected street affrays, which was why Jolson and Nicht found it almost impossible to believe their eyes as one evolved right before the aforesaid incredulous orbs.
A phalanx of Serapians backed a sallow man with a curly moustache, the whole dozen or so clad in the national costume of exquisitely tailored suits with an abundance of lace at throats and wrists, a-twinkle with cuff-links and tie-pins set with stones the size of pigeon - or even hens' - eggs. They confronted a similar number of equally angry gentlemen in the long colorful coats and fur hats of Pseudopolitans led by a heavily bearded fellow with bristling eyebrows who was shouting at Mr. Moustache, who shouted right back while their fellow citizens acted as chorus.
Constables Jolson and Nicht hovered indecisively in the middle distance. "We ought do summat," the pictsie said dubiously as the first punch flew.
Jolson, a big strapping girl who wouldn't have hesitated a moment to wade into a gang confrontation and bang heads together, answered; "Such as?"
Nicht didn't know. Laying about with truncheons and shouting 'What's all this? What's all this?' didn't seem to quite fit the circumstances.
Moustache now had Beard on the ground, they rolled around trying to choke each other as their followers inexpertly punched and kicked.
"Noo too good at it are they?" Nicht observed.
"They might hurt each other," Jolson worried as a fur hat sailed by.
"Weary themselves out more like," Nicht answered cynically.
"Thing is they're not Morporkian citizens," Jolson said thoughtfully.
"But they be in Ankh-Morpork," said Nicht.
"True," said Jolson. Two Pseudopolitans and one Serapian staggered to their feet and fled in opposite directions.
"On the o'er hand they're not damaging ony Morporkian property."
"Noo problem of our'n that."
"We're supposed to keep the peace," said Jolson.
"Or pick up the pieces," said Nicht.
A voice soared over the constables' heads like the music of silver trumpets. "What is this?!" Mercantile gentlemen froze mid-punch and choke and all heads turned towards its source.
A lady in a white gown sat on a white horse with the sun behind her like her own personal aura. Eyes watered, dazzled by the brightness. "Can I believe what I am seeing?" the voice continued. "Are gentlemen of Serap brawling in the streets like common drunks?"
"I ken a few drunks who'd noo appreciate that," Nicht muttered in Jolson's ear.
The merchants staggered apart trying to straighten their clothes. "Ma'am, ma'am, these Pseudopolitans -" Moustache spat out the word like it tasted bad.
The lady didn't let him finish. "I am aware that our two great cities are currently experiencing difficult relations," she said, "but that is no reason for distinguished gentlemen like yourselves to act like snot nosed schoolboys!"
"And I know some snot nosed schoolboys who'd resent that," Jolson muttered to Nicht.
"Gentlemen have more elegant ways of settling their differences," the lady continued. "If offense has been given you may send your seconds to call in the approved manner."
"Yes, ma'am," said Moustache meekly, "sorry, ma'am."
Her head turned. "As for you, citizens of Pseudopolis, whatever our differences I had at least thought you to be gentlemen of honor and dignity!"
"Yes, ma'am," Beard said meekly, "sorry, ma'am."
"Now get along home all of you," the lady said crisply. The men slunk away obediently, shoulders hunched and heads hanging.
The two constables watched fascinated as the lady rode towards them out of the sun. They saw that the 'horse' had a sharp horn on its forehead, that a number of black cats and one white rode on its back or wove between its hooves, and they noticed for the first time the small, opalescent dragon flapping lazily after the lady. Dragons are usually far more noticeable than ladies but not in this case. She stopped in front of them and Nicht and Jolson found themselves being sucked into the glimmering violet vortex of her eyes.
"Excuse me, Constable," she spotted the pictsie on Jolson's shoulder, "pardon me, Constables. Could you point me to the nearest bridge."
Jolson surfaced, gasping. "A few blocks thataway, ma'am."
A smile irradiated them both, turning brains to mush. "Thank you."
Jolson and Nicht stared after her until she disappeared round a corner.
"Who was that then?" the pictsie breathed.
"No idea," the girl answered.
"You're insane," Mr. Whinge said with considerable force and conviction.
"Barking mad. Not fit to be let out without a keeper -"
"Just listen, sir, please." Mr. Point began to talk very fast, slowing as thoughtful consideration pushed and shoved sheer horror off the Assistant Guildmaster's moonlike countenance.
"If it worked..." he breathed at last.
"It will work, sir. I stake my life on it!"
"Truer words were never spoke," said Mr. Whinge.