The Black Sheep

A Discworld short.

The adventurer walked through the gloomy streets of Ankh-Morpork. It was winter, and the city was in its usual default state of cold dripping rain. Under his troll-hide jacket, which he claimed he'd taken from its previous owner after several hours of life-or-death single combat(1), he felt a steady rivulet dribbling down his back. That was the problem with these clothes. They fit the image, they drew the crowds, they helped fill the hat, they suggested a persona.

They had, however, been designed for something other than an Ankh-Morpork winter. Half a world away from Ankh-Morpork, in fact. His feet squelched in something nameless on the pavement. He winced. His credit at the Gamblers' Guild had run out. The old trade in escorting soft city people on safe adventuring had dried up. There was less and less wilderness in the Central Continent these days to warrant a paying guide. And people were beginning to say There ain't no such thing as a Balgrog, mister! Bloody cynics. Just because he'd never seen one either didn't mean to say they didn't exist! And the Mended Drum, in better times the local for him and people like him, didn't want to know. The new management had thrown him out for panhandling after his beer-buying money had run out. And nobody from the old set had been in. Nobody. It was like a ghost town.

He felt cold, tired, wet and hungry. The only bit of kindness had been some hours ago, when Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, recognising a fellow entrepreneur down on his luck, had advanced him a sausage-inna-bun for free. Well, not free so much as on credit. Pay me when you're on your feet again, Balthazaar.

The adventurer reckoned he was in for another spot of luck. Sometime around now. Or else it'd be a spike at the Omnian mission tonight. He shuddered. Two hours of thickly laid on sermon. A bowl of very thin soup and an anaemic-looking bread roll. And a mattress that might last have been dosed on by Foul Ol' Ron.

Ye gods, this had better work! He prayed, fervently, turning up Filigree Street.

Johanna Smith-Rhodes and a group of pupils returned from a water survival lesson at Mort Lake. The Guild viewed the City's reservoir of relatively clean water(2) as a gift for tuition in how to swim, handle boats of various kinds, and survive capsizing, shipwreck and the sort of little irritations a client might seek to install so as to deter a seaborne approach from their dedicated personal Assassin.

Still not fully habituated to the rigours of an Ankh-Morpork winter, Johanna had kept the lesson to the basics of managing and steering canoes, together with the inevitable demonstration of how to rescue somebody who had fallen in, followed shortly by a teach-in on dealing with how to resuscitate, and then how to revive an exposure case. (Matron Igorina, who made a point of accompanying Johanna's outdoor classes since there was invariably an interesting injury or two, had been on hand to oversee taking the casualty back to the Guild for further treatment).

She had avoided falling in herself, but still felt cold and wet around the edges and was looking forward to a hot bath and a change of clothes. She thanked the lesson plan that this had been the last formal lesson of her day – designed to take place in the late afternoon to capitalise on the last of the daylight and allow ample time for pupils to return, take a hot drink, and get ready for their early evening classes - and quickly supervised stowing away the canoes, paddles and lifejackets into the Guild's boatsheds, a place no sane Thief would ever dream of attempting to rob. Then the Guild omnibus turned up to carry them back across the river to the Guild, a teacher, a teaching assistant, and twenty-eight cold but attentive students.

Johanna wondered why the porter, Mr Maroon, had an odd expression on his face, and why the two senior students who had been assigned gate duty for an hour were looking at her with thinly hidden smirks, as if she were the butt of a joke she hadn't realised had been told.

Maroon touched his cap.

"Er, miss? " he said, clearly unsure of how to proceed.

"How mey I help, Mr Meroon?" she said, politely.

"There's an…er, gentleman, here. He claims to be a relative of yours."

One of the gate Assassins sniggered, uncontrollably. Under her glare, it turned into a coughing fit. She sighed. She did have family in Ankh-Morpork, it was true: the Howondalandian Ambassador was her uncle. There was his wife, Aunt Frijda. Sometimes a cousin from Home had passed through, a son or daughter of the ambassador, sometimes a Smith-Rhodes from the socially upmarket and exceedingly prestigious end of the family. (Johanna had no illusions about herself: from the branch of the nearly-royal colonial family that had chosen to marry into the Boors, over time her family had become rooinecker Boor farmers living on the frontier.) But from the way Maroon was acting, it was not one of those slightly supercilious relatives who always made her fists itch. She felt a nasty suspicion.

"Cless, you ere dismissed!" she said to her pupils. "I'm sure you ell hev other lessons to ettend? Or perhaps homework to prepare?"

The students took the very large hint, in the main, and shuffled off. Although they were keen to know exactly what had rattled Miss Smith-Rhodes, they were also wet and cold and uncomfortable, and the more thoughtful ones had no wish to add further discomfort to their immediate burden. One or two, however, who sensed mirth and gossip, needed a more intense disapproving glare before they got the hint and moved on.

Johana scowled, and wrapped her cloak about her.

"Where is this relative of mine, Mr Meroon?" she inquired.

"We sent him under guard to one of the consulting rooms, miss." said Maroon. "He's been politely advised not to stir from there until you turn up."

"Good" she said. The consulting rooms were a discreet suite where contractees could wait, in order to discuss details of little surprises they wished to have facilitated for clients of the Guild. Another horrible thought struck Johanna.

"He doesn't want me to discuss a contrect with him, does he?"

"Can't say, miss." Maroon said, diplomatically. "But between you and me, he looked like he could barely scrape together the ffee for Corporal Nobbs."

The contract on Corporal Nobbs of the City Watch stood at fifty pence. It was only allowed to remain on file because it was a standing joke among Assassins.

She nodded.

"Lead me on, Mr Meroon!"

"Johanna! Poupette!" he exclaimed, rising from the couch where he had been taking his ease and flinging his arms wide.

"He was like that all the way up, miss." said Maroon. "Talking about what a lovely child you were and how the family's pet name for you when you were little was "puppet"."

"IzzzatSO…" she breathed. No wonder the senior students on gate guard had been smirking. She hoped he had not brought out any family iconographs.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noted the Assassin guarding the door was barely restraining his shoulders quaking with mirth.

"Johanna! Doll! Don't you recognise your old uncle?"

"I'll take it from here, Mr Meroon. Thenk you both so much!" she said, with a meaningful glare at the door guard.

He was Howondalandian, like her. He was dressed in Howondalandian bush uniform, like her. But it was battered, threadbare and much repaired. He wore a non-politically correct trollskin jerkin. Any troll seeing that on a human in this city was not going to be a happy troll. A whip, a crossbow, and a quiver of arrows were stacked on the floor next to a field pack that she recognised as Howondalandian Army surplus. A machete, much chipped and slightly rusted, completed the outfit.

It was a shame it was on a body like Uncle Balthazar, skinny, hunched and slightly beer-bellied, a man who had perhaps had one outdoor adventure too many.

"My! Hesn't my little girl grown up!" he exclaimed.

His little girl swore virulently in Vondalaans. He affected to look shocked.

"Now whet would your poor mother, my brother's dear wife, think if she heard that?"

Johanna stomped furiously to the window and looked out. Yes, a few students were loitering within listening distance. She allowed her lips to purse to the point of invisibility. They got the message, and moved on.

"Whet do you went, Uncle Balthazar?"

"Well" he said, "I wes rather hoping my niece, the successful and well-rewerded Essessin, might see her way clear, out of the essential kindness of her heart, to caring for her dear uncle in the time of his need…"

He faltered, seeing the expression on her face.

"Five hundred dollars?" he asked, hopefully.

"You're still grifting, eren't you? The Belgrog scem?" she demanded. He nodded.

Howondaland Smith, Balgrog Hunter(3) (formerly Howondaland Smith-Rhodes, until the family got to hear about it and strongly suggested he change his name) stood, shameless and expectant. His niece shook her head, disapprovingly.

"I don't know, Uncle. You're not getting any younger end most people know there's no such thing es a Belgrog. End for goodness' sake, lose thet jacket! Trolls live in this city! If they see you, you are dead!"

"So you are concerned for my welfare, puppet?"

"Look, I'll buy you a new jecket! I'll even borrow one you can wear out, so thet no troll sees you in thet! The Wetch would call it suicide, you know?"

"Johanna, your kindness does you credit! End the five hundred dollars?"

She sighed, knowing she was being manipulated by a master.

"I'll draw on my Guild eccount." she said, reluctantly, knowing she'd never see the money again. "But on two conditions. One, no more scemming people end leading them to think you are raising expedition funds to go out hunting the evil Belgrog. When ell the time you are taking it easy in Brindisi or Genua until the money runs out. You understand? And you ere well over fifty now. Most of the other edventurers end heroes, the real ones, heve died or retired. Good grief, Herena The Henna-Haired Harridan is now Gerontia the Grey-Haired Hag! End you should see the erthritis she hes from not wearing very much in all weathers! Get a new job, uncle!"

Her uncle nodded mute agreement on both points. Johanna sighed, knowing the money was lost, together with whatever sturdy raincoat she was able to obtain for him. She also suspected he'd never get a safe day job. But this was family.

He thanked her most courteously for both gifts.

"Johanna, is there anywhere around here a fellow cen get a square meal?" he asked.

She took a deep breath. She counted to ten, once in Morporkian and a second time in Vondalaans.

"You're family. I suppose I could get you into High Dinner as a guest. But do you not dare emberress me!"

And that was it. Until the morning later in the week when, with her embarrassing uncle long gone, Johanna received a courteous letter from the Gamblers' Guild noting that they now understood she, Johanna Smith-Rhodes, had assumed responsibility for the financial affairs of her uncle, Mr Balthazar Smith-Rhodes, trading as Howondaland Smith, Balgrog Hunter. In that case, could they ring the little matter of two thousand seven hundred dollars in gambling debts to her attention and trust payment would be prompt?

Johanna swore for quite some time. It was an education to listening students.

(1) He'd actually won it in a down-and-dirty game of Cripple Mr Onion.

2 (2) Compared, for instance, to the Ankh

3 (3) He has cameo roles in Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures and Guards! Guards!