"My lady?" It was necessary for Willikins to raise his voice above the hungry gobbling of his employer's dragons. A face rendered expressionless by leather and isinglass turned towards him.
"Several ladies have called, my lady." Willikin proffered the silver card tray. "I put them in the mildly pink drawing room, my lady."
Sybil Ramkin shoveled the last of the coal into the feeding troughs and walked down the long aisle between the dragon pens towards the butler standing, with sensible caution, just outside the doorway. She pulled off helmet and gauntlets and picked up the bits of pasteboard on the tray.
Two were standard calling cards, one engraved with the name Mrs. Susannah Hobbs, the other Mrs. Sarah Brass. Both had addresses on Brookless lane. (1) The other two were business cards belonging to a Mrs. Silvia Camphor Sick Nurse, Midwife, and Herbalist of Cheap street; and Mrs. Sophia Pratt Headmistress of the Elmstreet School, Elm Street.
Lady Sybil had never heard of any of them in her entire life.
"Is it some kind of subscription, Willikins?" she asked, bewildered.
"Not so far as I could see, my lady."
Sybil shrugged helplessly under her heavy protective gear. "I suppose I had better see them. Bring us some tea will you, Willikins."
"Yes, my lady."
A sketchily washed and brushed Lady Sybil in an only slightly singed afternoon dress walked into the mildly pink drawing room. Four ladies came to their feet and one swept forward to offer her hand.
"Lady Sybil? I'm Sukey Hobbs, Sam's eldest sister."
Her ladyship's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. "Oh, of course. Sam said he had sisters."
"And not much else I'm betting." The wry smile was unnervingly familiar, as was the square set jaw and steely glint of the eye. Mrs. Hobbs shook her head. "My brother is not the most communicative of men." She turned to present the others: "And these are our other sisters; Sally Brass, Silvie Camphor and Sophie Pratt."
All four ladies had the Vimes jaw and eye but otherwise varied considerably. Sukey was nearly as tall as Sybil herself but had Sam's wiry thinness and a great deal of dark mouse hair. Sally was a handsome, middle aged woman distinctly fuller in figure with almost blue eyes and fair hair. Silvie was the most like Sam to look at, she even radiated the same aura of angered innocence that made Sam the unique and wonderful man he was in Sybil's eyes. Silvie's hair was quite gray and screwed back in an unbecoming but functional knot. Sophie resembled Sally, being fair and curvy, but was possessed of a considerable presence - which also reminded Sybil of her intended - and she had a pince-nez perched on the end of her undistinguished nose.
"Our dear brother only troubled to inform us of his engagement yesterday or we would have called long ago," Susannah - Sybil simply could not think of her as a 'Sukey' - continued, sitting down. "I understand the wedding is set for the twenty-eighth of Grune?"
"Er, yes," said Sybil, somewhat bemused at finding herself in the presence of four Vimes at once. One alone tended to be a little overwhelming.
"If we can be of any assistance at all please don't hesitate to ask," Sally said kindly. "Sukey and I are barely a step away."
"So I see." Sybil made an effort to pull herself together. "No doubt we would have met long ago if I went about more."
Susannah laughed. "Oh no, Sally and I are in trade and quite beneath the notice of the great folk. Thank the gods!"
"We're co-owners of the Supermarkets," her sister put in, to ease over any awkwardness caused by such plain speaking. "Of course we don't have any branches on the Ankh side of the river but the middling folk of Morpork find them very convenient."
Susannah nodded. "We have greengrocer, dry goods, hardware, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, all under one roof. One stop shopping we call it."
"Really," Sybil said, genuinely impressed. "What a very clever idea."
Thank you," said Susannah. "We thought so."
"And you're a nurse, Mrs. Camphor?" Sybil said turning to her silent visitors.
She flashed a brief , businesslike smile. "Silvie, please, we are going to be near relatives are we not? Yes, my practice is downtown, the Shades and parts widdershins of it." She gestured at her youngest sister. "Sophie here is quite an important person these days. She's Principal of the Teacher's Guild."
"That wasn't on your card," Sybil said with interest.
Sophie shrugged. "I'm not going to throw away a lot of perfectly good business cards. Principal will go on the next lot."
"Very sensible," Sybil agreed warmly. She was beginning to like these unpretentious future sisters-in-law of hers.
"The trouble with Sam is he's so proud - and stubborn with it," Sybil said, emptying the last drops from the decanter into her glass, the stiff formality of tea having given way to the easy conviviality of sherry some little time ago.
Sally Brass nodded. "Don't we know it. You can't imagine the trouble we have getting him to accept the occasional meal from his own dear sisters!"
"Or a new shirt or pair of socks," Susannah Hobbs agreed.
"I offered to buy him a good pair of boots last week, the ones he's got are a disgrace - cardboard soles, actual cardboard - and he practically bit my head off." Sybil blinked back sudden tears. "I suppose after we're married -"
"I wouldn't count on that, Sybbie dear," said Silvie Camphor shaking her head. "It'll still be your money as far as our Sam is concerned."
"Oh no," Sophie Pratt protested. "Surely not even our Sam could be that thick headed?"
"Care to put a fiver on that, Sophie?" Silvie inquired.
She thought a moment, then grimaced. "No."
"I won't have it!" Sybil declaimed, slamming her glass down on a table so hard that the crystal rang - and Willikins, hovering in the background, winced. "I'm not going to have my husband - my own husband - walking around on cardboard soles because he won't live off his wife! It will be our money, won't he understand that?"
"Knowing Sam, no," Susannah said gloomily.
All five women contemplated this unpalatable fact gloomily.
An idea dawned in Sybil's eye, gradually irradiating her whole face. "What if it were his money?"
"But it's not." Susannah pointed out.
"How can it be?" Sally wondered.
"Oh!" said Sophie, eyes widening in sudden comprehension.
"Oh what?" Silvie demanded.
Sybil smiled, satisfaction oozing from every pore of her sizeable body. "Back in the olden days everything a wife had became her husband's upon marriage."
"Well, yes," Susannah conceded. "But that was a long time ago."
"The law is changed, now," added Sally. The two of them had gone into the matter in great detail before their own marriages - just to be sure.
"It's been amended," Sophie corrected. "I remember Jack explaining it to me at some length in connection with his paper on the devolution of the de Moustache title. (2) A lady doesn't have to avail herself of the new protections, she can let the old law take effect - if she wants to."
Sybil nodded triumphantly. "Exactly. Old Morecombe went through the whole thing with me yesterday morning. I can let Sam have it all."
Susannah was grinning to match her sister-in-law-to-be. "And not even our Sam can possibly object to his wife spending his money on him, can he?"
Sam Vimes blinked as the front door to the Ramkin mansion opened unexpectedly in his face and took a quick step back to keep from colliding with his eldest sister. "Sukey?" He did not sound pleased.
"Ah, Sammy," she said calmly, smoothing on her gloves. "We were just leaving -"
"We?" He saw, with mounting horror, that his three younger sisters were right behind her - and Sybil. Oh gods!
Sally bussed him lightly on the cheek. "Of course. It's etiquette for the relatives of the Groom to call on the family of the Bride, don't you know."
"Of course he doesn't," Silvie said crisply after her own peck. "Our Sam knows everything there is to know about coppering and absolutely nothing about how normal people live."
"You and Sybil are coming to dinner at my house tomorrow," Sally told him, adding over her shoulder: "And try to get him to wear something other than his uniform won't you, Sybbie?"
"It's all right for the Groom to accept a present from the Bride, you know," Sophie whispered in his ear with her kiss.
"Don't look so horrified, Sammy. I assure you we have been models of discretion," Sukey said laughing.
"Not one story of your misspent youth," Sally assured him.
"We don't want to put Sybbie off now do we?" said Sophie, adding to Sybil. "It will be a vast relief to know some responsible person is finally looking after our Sam."
"Too right." Silvie agreed. And off they went down the path to a waiting carriage.
Sam looked helplessly at Sybil, face burning. His intended gave him her big, beaming smile. "Come in, Sam dear, you're just in time for dinner."
1. A fashionable street on the upscale Ankh side of the river just below the Tump.
2. Professor John Pratt, Deputy Headmaster of the Elmstreet School, is also a well known historian specializing in the Veltrick Era (3)
3. The period, 1486 to 1603 U.C., during which Ank-Morpork was governed by the six kings and two queens of the Veltrick dynasty: Audebert Veltrick who took the throne from Henricus the Hunchbacked assumed the royal title of King Cirone I and was called 'the Unsteady' for his precarious grip on said throne (1486-1509). He was followed by Cirone II, popularly known as 'Greenbeard' (1509-1547) who was succeeded by his three children, one after the other: Cirone III 'the Assassin' (1547-1553) (4); Queen Ondine 'the Dumpy' (1553-1558) and Queen Candace 'the Man-Hater' (1558-1562). King Veltrick I, grandson of Cirone I's younger son the Duke of Veltrick, succeeded Queen Candace (1562) followed by Veltrick II 'the Parricide', briefly the husband of the Empress Rehenna of Sto Lat (1562-1571) and Veltrick III, Veltrick II's son by his first wife Lady Ann Wickware, the 'Bachelor King' (1571-1603)
4. The Veltrick Cirones belonged to a quite different dynasty and so numbered themselves all over again despite there being some record of earlier Cirones who were Kings of Ankh back in the Good Old Days. As it happens by Veltrick times the number of earlier Cirones had been all but forgotten and the deeds of all five Ankhian monarchs of that name were commonly credited to two legendary figures known respectively as Cirone the Builder (fl. 3rd c. B.U.C.) and Cirone the Wise (fl. 2nd c. B.U.C.) There was also an earlier Veltrick (fl. c. 11th c. B.U.C.) from whom the later dynasty rather questionably claimed descent.