To Catch a Thief - Part Six - A Formal Affair (3 of 4)
Don’t bloody well drag me into it, thought Vimes. I want no part of your madness.
Lord Rust looked about him, an unnerving steeliness in his eyes. There was a vein standing out in his neck, as if his whole body was tensed, clenched like a fist.
‘But it may interest you more to know that this arrest will most likely not stand.’ There were curious murmurs from various parts of the room after Lord Rust said this. Vimes’ devotion to the law was known throughout the city, and it was also common knowledge that he rarely, if ever, arrested the wrong person.
‘For you see, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Rust, spreading his arms wide, like some insane deity. ‘The young man whom you see before you, the master criminal of Ankh-Morpork, is none other than…’ Lord Rust paused for effect. If Nobby had been within earshot, Vimes thought, he would have bet a good couple of Dollars that he’d yell “Get on with it!” from somewhere in the back.
Lord Rust smiled a terrible smile.
‘Lord Vetinari’s son!’
The effect was instant. The curious murmur that had died down while Rust shouted from atop the table resumed immediately. People began talking rapidly, looking at Clarence, at Lord Vetinari, and at Lord Rust. Vimes was keeping a close eye on all three, wanting to keep close track of everything that was going on. Sam Vimes could smell a powder keg from three streets away, and right now Lord Rust was juggling flaming torches.
Vimes pulled his gaze away from the nauseatingly self-satisfied expression on Rust’s face and looked again at the Patrician.
He was smiling!
It was faint, but it was there.
Lord Vetinari was smiling!
Oh, shit, thought Vimes.
‘That’s enough, your Lordship,’ said Vimes, approaching Rust cautiously, as if he might explode at any moment. If there was one thing that Vimes had learned about the Patrician, it was that he only ever broke his normally stony façade when it suited his purpose. Lord Rust had crossed a line, or was awfully close to doing so, and Lord Vetinari was feeding him all the rope he could hang himself with.
The poor fool doesn’t even realise, thought Vimes. Part of Vimes’ mind wanted to just step back and let Rust talk himself further and further into the open waters of unequivocal doom, but he was a copper, and if he was paid to protect one citizen, he was paid to protect them all, no matter how much her personally wanted to smack them in the mouth.
Vimes continued to approach the table, his hands open and apart in a gesture he hoped would convey that he was trying to help.
‘Let’s get you down from there, your Lordship,’ said Vimes, quietly.
Rust was having none of it, though. He snorted with derision at the sight of Vimes and ploughed on. In for a cent, in for a Dollar.
‘Now our benevolent ruler,’ said Rust, casting a smug smirk in the direction of Lord Vetinari that made Vimes wince. ‘Does not wish you fine people to know that he has fathered a child.’ More people looked at the Patrician, and more people noted the small smile on his face. A few of them took a step or two backwards.
‘A child, I might add,’ said Rust, loudly and triumphantly. ‘That he fathered out of wedlock!’ Lord Rust paused for effect again, clearly considering such a thing to be the height of scandal.
A current seemed to be pulsating in the air as the scene continued to unfold. People were growing afraid; it wasn’t every day that the best and brightest of Ankh-Morpork were treated to a verbal bashing of the Patrician of the city, and many fought the twin urges to flee from the ballroom and stay to see what happened next.
And still Lord Rust continued.
And still Lord Vetinari stood there, smiling that terrible, terrible smile.
‘I have it on good authority, ladies and gentlemen, that Lord Vetinari has been so keen to keep this little secret from you, the people, that he has been paying what I hear to be extortionate amounts to keep the matter private!’
‘Yes, to you.’
Lord Rust stopped dead. It was Lord Vetinari who had spoken, softly and clearly but somehow it seemed to cut through all other voices in the room. Anyone else talking at that point promptly shut their mouths and strained their ears.
For a moment, the two men stared at each other; Rust’s eyes bulging and mad, Vetinari’s cool and impassive. Rust’s arm was raised, his finger pointed, ready to emphasise another hammer-blow of his bringing down of the Patrician. He must have realised that he was holding it up, and his arm fell limply by his side. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a strangled sort of noise was able to escape his suddenly constricted throat.
Lord Vetinari took this moment to step forward.
‘As our dear Lord Rust seems to have temporarily lost the power of speech, I shall interject.’
All eyes were now on the Patrician.
‘Lord Rust is quite right,’ said Vetinari, as he placed his hands lightly behind his back and started to walk slowly, up and down, in the empty space of floor in front of the table that Lord Rust was still standing on. ‘This young man is indeed my son.’ People exchanged glances and muttered things to each other, hurriedly. Eyes darted from the Patrician to the one who had been identified as Clarence, and back again. People, especially Vimes, were also keeping a wary eye on Lord Rust, who was still standing, rigid, his eyes wide.
Lord Vetinari looked over at Clarence before continuing.
‘It will come to no surprise to my son that his…coming to be… was not planned.’
More muttering. Some people nudged others in the ribs, eager not to miss a word.
‘Despite rumours to the contrary,’ said Vetinari, the smallest of smiles playing again across his lips. ‘I am only human. And, as a human, I am susceptible to, shall we say, errors of judgement.’
Again, Lord Vetinari looked at his son before speaking again.
‘That is not to say that I consider Clarence an error,’ he said firmly, as if to quash any thoughts that might be heading along these lines in the assembled mass. ‘At least, not anymore. I confess, when news of his impending arrival reached me, I was…scared.’
Vimes felt his feet tense in his boots, as if they were preparing to either run or stand and fight. Lord Vetinari was always the one in complete control, that’s how it had always been. So, to have him stand before the upper echelons of Ankh society and admit something as human and vulnerable as fear was itself a frightening concept. Vimes often wondered if the city of Ankh-Morpork worked the way it did, such as did, because enough people believed the Patrician to be somehow more than a man, more than human.
Vetinari looked at the sea of faces that were staring at him. He seemed to read their thoughts.
‘Yes, scared. I was faced with a situation that I could not control, and that was a new concept for me. I was at a loss as to what to do.’
Words from the past came floating back to him in the moment.
You must do what you feel is right.
‘So, I did what I thought best at the time, and went about my duties as appointed leader of this city, leaving this most private of matters just that, private.’
Lord Vetinari stopped pacing and turned to face Lord Rust, who seemed to quail under the Patrician’s suddenly hard stare.
‘But the matter did not remain private, did it, your Lordship?’
Rust gave no answer. He couldn’t.
‘How long had that poor, unfortunate individual been in your employ before you had them betray my confidence?’
Again, Rust said nothing.
The Patrician smiled.
More of Vimes’ body tensed. All of this felt like build-up, and the tension was starting to become so thick that Vimes could practically chew on it.
‘I’ll tell you, shall I?’ said Vetinari. ‘A year and seven months. You must pay handsomely for a member of my staff to turn information to you, your Lordship.’
‘I…,’ was all that Lord Rust could manage. His popping eyes flitted down for a moment, and he suddenly felt very exposed, standing on the table in full view of everyone.
‘Or you would pay handsomely,’ said Vetinari. ‘Had you not squandered the last remnants of your family’s fortunes some years back.’
Eyes now darted from Vetinari to Rust and back again. Lord Rust had just enough presence of mind to look almost affronted.
‘How…?’ he managed to croak.
‘Oh, come now, your Lordship,’ said Vetinari, smoothly. ‘It really was rather foolish of you to think that anything could happen in this city without me finding out about it.’
Rust’s eyes resumed their resemblance of a frog that was being squeezed a bit too tightly.
‘I am sure there are many people in Ankh-Morpork who think that they are being clever enough to – what’s the phrase – “get one over on old Vetinari,” but I assure you that anyone thinking such a thing is only doing so because I allow them to.’
Rust tried to moisten his lips wish his tongue, but it was no use. It felt like he was dragging sandpaper over yet more sandpaper. He felt hot and cornered. His brow was prickling with sweat. But the Patrician remained maddeningly unruffled, just as he always did.
Vetinari looked up at Lord Rust and raised an eyebrow.
‘And this extends even to you, your Lordship,’ said the Patrician, almost matter-of-factly. ‘Really, ten out of ten for effort, but if you needed money so badly why did you not simply ask?’ Vetinari knew full well that the proud old aristocrat would pursue all other avenues before going cap-in-hand to another for charity, even if it was so far as to attempt to blackmail him. Despite Lord Rust feeling wholly overwhelmed and more and more like a trapped animal with every passing second, his ingrained sense of indignancy could not fail to rise to this.
He spluttered as if he were choking on his sherry.
‘Well…I never…’ was all he managed to blurt out, his expression a mask of the most refined affront, before the Patrician raised his finger to indicate that he had not, in fact, finished.
‘But of course, that is not your way, is it, your Lordship?’ Vetinari placed his hands behind his back again and continued. ‘The lengths you have gone to conceal the hard times you have fallen on would be impressive, were they not so utterly depressing and pitiful. I take no pleasure in seeing one of the citizens under my charge suffer unnecessarily, but I am afraid that I really must draw a line at this level of deceit and dishonesty. And you not even a member of the Thieves’ Guild either, your Lordship.’
The Patrician then turned his attention away from Lord Rust and faced the assembled partygoers, who were a veritable tableau of agog faces and curious expressions.
‘There are some amongst you, ladies and gentlemen, who have received letters from my office. Perhaps you have those letters about your person this very evening. Perhaps not.’ At this, one or two people in the crowd produced pieces of paper from within jackets or pulled them out of purses.
The Patrician nodded, and then continued.
‘For those of you not in the know, our unfortunate Lord Rust here targeted not just me in his endeavours to rebuild his fortune, but others amongst the city’s more affluent individuals.’ Vimes looked out into the assembled crowd and noted a few frowns and angry faces amongst the sea of curiosity and confusion. Harry King was massaging his knuckles on his beringed fingers with a menacing air, and Lady Selachii – gods, was the old fool desperate enough to go after them? – was looking at Lord Rust as if trying to decide which bit of him to dissect first.
The Patrician continued.
‘Now, it may surprise Lord Rust – or perhaps it won’t, I am not sure – that were it not for me, this issue would have been culminated with definite finality some weeks prior. I do not believe that the other targets of this programme of blackmail knew for certain who was behind it, but if there is one thing that I wish Lord Rust to take away from this is that he is only standing there, living and breathing such as he is, because, again, I have allowed it to be so. I have even heard from Chrysoprase that he himself was attempted to be extorted.’ There was an intake of breath from many corners of the room. Chrysoprase’s reputation as the godfather of the troll underworld was well-known, and if the thought of someone trying to blackmail Havelock Vetinari sounded like lunacy, then trying it on Chrysoprase was nothing short of lunacy turned up to eleven. Vetinari had the trappings of a civic leader and head of state to consider when conducting his business, Chrysoprase did not. It was becoming clearer to the audience just how desperate Lord Rust was.
And, if that had left anyone unconvinced, what Rust did next left no one in any doubt whatsoever.
Lord Rust effectively committed suicide.
Something inside him seemed to snap, and after taking a rapid and manic look around the room, he sprang from the table with an agility that belied his advanced age and made for Clarence. The people at the front of the crowd stepped back, and the members of the Watch who were present tensed at his sudden movement. Vimes’ fists clenched, and he readied himself for a fight, or a chase, or both. Captain Angua had hold of the slit in her dress, ready to make it more possible to move, as the situation may dictate. Captain Carrot moved slowly but steadily amongst the people, begging their pardons as he did so.
The knife was at Clarence’s throat before anyone knew that Rust even had it.
‘Rust!’ shouted Vimes.
‘Quiet!’ hissed Rust, the maddest of glints in his eye. Clarence stood stock still and looked at his father. He didn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat. That seemed to infuriate Rust even more. He pressed the blade of the knife even harder to the young man’s throat.
‘Stop!’ said Vetinari, taking a step forward and reaching out a hand. His face showed genuine concern, even love.
‘Got you now, haven’t I?’ spat Rust. ‘You’ve stopped me from reclaiming what is rightfully mine, so in turn I will take away what is most dear to you!’
The Patrician lowered his arm and stood, looking at his son’s captor.
‘Don’t be a fool, your Lordship.’