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26.12.2018

‘They were. In the embassy. But in the fire many hands were needed to carry important documents to safety. It was a very… useful fire.’

‘A death warrant for his own brother… well, you can’t argue against that in court…’

‘What court? The king is the law.’ Ahmed sat down. ‘We are not like you. You kill kings.’

‘The word is “execute”. And we only did it once, and that was a long time ago,’ said Vimes. ‘Is that why you brought me here? Why all this drama? You could have come to see me in Ankh–Morpork!’

‘You are a suspicious man, commander. Would you have believed me? Besides, I had to get Prince Khufurah out of there, before he, ahah, “died of his wounds”.’

‘Where’s the Prince now?’

‘Close. And safe. He is safer in the desert than he would ever be in Ankh– Morpork, I can assure you.’

‘And well?’

‘Getting better. He is being looked after by an old lady whom I trust.’

‘Your mother?’

‘Ye gods, no! My mother is a D’reg! She’d be terribly offended if I trusted her. She’d say she hadn’t brought me up right.’ He saw Vimes’s expression this time. ‘You think I am an educated barbarian?’

‘Let’s just say I’d have given Snowy Slopes a running start.’

‘Really? Look around you, Sir Samuel. Your… beat… is a city you can walk across in half an hour. Mine is two million square miles of desert and mountain. My companions are a sword and a came] and, frankly, neither are good conversationalists, believe me. Oh, the towns and cities have their guards, of a sort. They are uncomplicated thinkers. But it is my job to go into the waste places and chase bandits and murderers, five hundred miles from anyone who would be on my side, so I must inspire dread and strike the first blow because I will not have a chance to strike a second one. I am an honest man of a sort, I think. I survive. I survived seven years in an Ankh-Morpork public school patronized by the sons of gentlemen. Compared to that, life among the D’regs holds no terrors, I assure you. And I administer justice swiftly and inexpensively.’

‘I heard about how you got your name…’ Ahmed shrugged. ‘The man had poisoned the water. The only well for twenty miles. That killed five men, seven women, thirteen children and thirty–one camels. And some of them were very valuable camels, mark you. I had evidence from the man who sold him the poison and a trustworthy witness who had seen him near the well on the fateful night. Once I had testimony from his servant, why wait even an hour?’

‘Sometimes we have trials,’ said Vimes brightly. ‘Yes. Your Lord Vetinari decides. Well, five hundred miles from anywhere the law is me.’ Ahmed waved a hand. ‘Oh, no doubt the man would suggest there were mitigating circumstances, that he had an unhappy childhood or was driven by Compulsive Well-Poisoning Disorder. But I have a compulsion to behead cowardly murderers.’ Vimes gave up. The man had a point. The man had a whole sword. ‘Different strokes for different folks,’ he said. ‘I find the one at shoulder height generally suffices,’ said Ahmed. ‘Don’t grimace, it was a joke. I knew the Prince was plotting and I thought: this is not right. Had he killed some Ankh–Morpork lord, that would just be politics. But this… I thought, why do I chase stupid people into the mountains when I am part of a big crime? The Prince wants to unite the whole of Klatch. Personally, I like the little tribes and countries, even their little wars. But I don’t mind if they fight Ankh-Morpork because they want to, or because of your horrible personal habits, or your unthinking arrogance… there’s a lot of reasons for fighting Ankh–Morpork. A lie isn’t one of them.’

‘I know what you mean,’ said Vimes. ‘But what can I do alone? Arrest my Prince? I am his policeman, as you are Vetinari’s.’

‘No. I’m an officer of the law.’

‘All I know is, there must be a policeman, even for kings.’ Vimes looked pensively at the moonlit desert.

Somewhere out there was the Ankh–Morpork army, what there was of it. And somewhere waiting was the Klatchian army. And thousands of men who might have quite liked one another had they met socially would thunder towards one another and start killing, and after that first rush you had all the excuses you needed to do it again and again… He remembered listening, when he was a kid, to old men in his street talking about war. There hadn’t been many wars in his time. The city states of the Sto Plains mainly tried to bankrupt one another, or the Assassins’ Guild sorted everything out on a one–to–one basis. Most of the time people just bickered, and while that was pretty annoying it was a lot better than having a sword stuck in your liver. What he remembered most, among the descriptions of puddles filled with blood and the flying limbs, –the time one old man said, ‘An’ if your foot caught in something, it was always best not to look and see what it was, if’n you wanted to hold on to your dinner.’ He’d never explained what he meant. The other old men seemed to know. Anyway, nothing could have been worse than the explanations Vimes thought of for himself. And he remembered that the three old men who spent most of their days sitting on a bench in the sun had, between them, five arms, five eyes, four and a half legs and two and three–quarter faces. And seventeen ears (Crazy Winston would bring out his collection for a good boy who looked suitably frightened). ‘He wants to start a war…’ Vimes had to open his mouth because otherwise there was no room to get his head around such a crazy idea. This man who everyone said was honest, noble and good wanted a war. ‘Oh, certainly,’ said Ahmed. ‘Nothing unites people like a good war.’ How could you deal with someone who thought like that? Vimes asked himself. A mere murderer, well, you had a whole range of options. He could deal with a mere murderer. You had criminals and you had policemen, and there was a sort of see–saw there which balanced out in some strange way. But if you took a man who’d sit down and decide to start a war, what in the name of seven hells could you balance him with? You’d need a policeman the size of a country. You couldn’t blame the soldiers. They’d just joined up to be pointed in the right direction. Something clicked against the fallen pillar. Vimes glanced down and pulled the baton out of his pocket. It glinted in the moonlight What damn good was something like this? All it really meant was that he was allowed to chase the little criminals, who did the little crimes. There was nothing he could do about the crimes that were so big you couldn’t even see them. You lived in them. So… safer to stick to the little crimes, Sam Vimes. ‘ALL RIGHT, MY SONS! LET ‘EM HAVE IT RIGHT UP THE JOGRAPHY!’ Figures bounded over the fallen pillars.

There was a metallic whirr as Ahmed unsheathed his sword. Vimes saw a halberd coming towards him – an Ankh-Morpork halberd! – and street reaction took over. He didn’t waste time sneering at someone stupid enough to use a pike on a foot soldier. He dodged the blade, caught the shaft, and pulled it so hard that its owner stumbled right into his upswinging boot. Then he jerked away, struggling to untangle his sword from the unfamiliar robes. He ducked another shadowy figure’s wild slice and managed to make an elbow connect with something painful. As he rose he looked into the face of a man with an upraised sword– –there was a silken sound– –and the man swayed backwards, his head looking surprised as it fell away from the body. Vimes dragged his headdress off. ‘I’m from Ankh-Morpork, you stupid sods!’ A huge figure rose in front of him, a sword in each hand. ‘I’LL CUT YER TONKER OFF’F YER YER GREASY– Oh, is that you, Sir Samuel?’

‘Huh? Willikins?’

‘Indeed, sir.’ The butler straightened up. ‘Willikins?’

‘Do excuse me one moment, sir KNOCK IT OFF YOU MOTHERLOVIN SONS OF BITCHES I had no apprehension of your presence, sir.’

‘This one’s fightin’ back, sarge!’ Ahmed had his back to a pillar. A man already lay at his feet. Three others were trying to get close enough to the wali while staying away from the whirling wall he was creating with his sword. ‘Ahmed! These are on our side!’ Vimes yelled. ‘Oh, really? Pardon me.’ Ahmed lowered his sword and removed the cigarette holder from his mouth. He nodded at one of the soldiers who had been trying to attack him and said, ‘Good morning to you.’

‘ ‘ere, are you one of ours, too?’

‘No, I’m one of–’

‘He’s with me,’ Vimes snapped. ‘How come you’re here, Willikins? Sergeant Willikins, I see.’

‘We were on patrol, sir, and were attacked by some Klatchian gentlemen. After the ensuing unpleasantness–’

‘–you should’ve seen ‘im, sir. ‘e bit one bastard’s nose right orf!’ a soldier supplied. ‘It is true that I endeavoured to uphold the good name of Ankh–Morpork, sir. Anyway, after we–’

‘–and one bloke, sarge, stabbed ‘im right in the–’

‘Please, Private Bourke, I am apprising Sir Samuel of events,’ said Willikins. ‘Sarge ort to get a medal, sir!’

‘Those few of us who survived tried to get back, sir, but we had to conceal ourselves from other patrols and were just considering lying up until dawn in this edifice when we espied you and this gentleman here.’ Ahmed was watching him with his mouth open. ‘How many were in this Klatchian patrol, sergeant?’ he said. ‘Nineteen men, sir.’

‘That’s a very precise count, in this light.’

‘I was able to enumerate them subsequently, sir.’

‘You mean they were all killed? ‘Yes, sir,’ said Willikins calmly. ‘However, we ourselves lost five men, sir. Not including Privates Hobbley and Webb, sir, who regrettably seem to have passed away as a result of this unfortunate misunderstanding. With your permission, sir, I will remove them.’

‘Poor devils,’ said Vimes, aware that it was not enough but that nothing else would be, either. ‘The fortunes of war, sir. Private Hobbley, Ginger to his friends, was nineteen and lived in Ettercap Street, where until recently he made bootlaces.’ Willikins took the dead man’s arms and pulled. ‘He was courting a young lady called Grace, a picture of whom he was kind enough to show me last night. A maid at Lady Venturi’s, I was given to understand. If you would be good enough to pass me his head, sir, I will get on with things SMUDGER WHO TOLD YOU TO SIT DOWN GET ON YORE FEET RIGHT NOW GET OUT YORE SHOVEL TAKE OFF YORE HELMET SHOW SOME RESPECT GET DIGGINGHA!’ A cloud of smoke rolled past Vimes’s ear. ‘I know what you are thinking,’ said Ahmed. ‘But this is war, Sir Samuel. Wake up and smell the blood.’

‘But… one minute they’re alive–’

‘Your friend here knows how it works. You ‘He’s a butler!’

‘So? It’s kill or be killed, even for butlers. You’re not a natural warrior, Sir Samuel.’ Vimes thrust the baton in his face. ‘I’m not a natural killer! See this? See what it says? I’m supposed to keep the peace, I am! If I kill people to do it, I’m reading the wrong manual!’ Willikins appeared silently, hefting the other corpse. ‘I was not privileged to know much about this young man,’ he said, as he carried him behind a rock. ‘We called him Spider, sir,’ he went on, straightening up. ‘He played the harmonica rather badly and spoke longingly of home. Will you be taking tea, sir? Private Smith is having a brew–up. Er…’ The butler coughed politely. ‘Yes, Willikins?’

‘I hardly like to broach the subject, sir…’

‘Broach it, man!’

‘Do you have such a thing as a biscuit about you, sir? I hesitate to provide tea without biscuits, but we have not eaten for two days.’

‘But you were on patrol!’

‘Forage party, sir.’ Willikins looked embarrassed. Vimes was bewildered. ‘You mean Rust didn’t even wait to take on food?’

‘Oh, yes, sir. But as it transpired–’

‘We knew there was somethin’ wrong when the mutton barrels started to explode,’ muttered Private Bourke. ‘The biscuits was pretty lively too. Turned out bloody Rust’d bought a lot of stuff even a rag’ead wouldn’t eat–’