They could hear footsteps. Somewhere off to their left, there was a snigger.
“We must form a square,” said the captain. They all tried to form a point.
“Hey! What was that?” said Sergeant Colon.
“There it was again. Sort of a leathery sound.”
Captain Vimes tried not to think about hoods and garrotting.
There were, he knew, many gods. There was a god for every trade. There was a beggars’ god, a whores’ goddess, a thieves’ god, probably even an assassins’ god.
He wondered whether there was, somewhere in that vast pantheon, a god who would look kindly on hard-pressed and fairly innocent law-enforcement officers who were quite definitely about to die.
There probably wasn’t, he thought bitterly. Something like that wasn’t stylish enough for gods. Catch any god worrying about any poor sod trying to do his best for a handful of dollars a month. Not them. Gods went overboard for smart bastards whose idea of a day’s work was prising the Ruby Eye of the Earwig King out of its socket, not for some unimaginative sap who just pounded the pavement every night . . .
“More sort of slithery,” said the sergeant, who liked to get things right.
And then there was a sound-
-perhaps a volcanic sound, or the sound of a boiling geyser, but at any rate a long, dry roar of a sound, like the bellows in the forges of the Titans-
-but it was not so bad as the light, which was blue-white and the sort of light to print the pattern of your eyeballs’ blood vessels on the back of the inside of your skull.
They both went on for hundreds of years and then, instantly, stopped.
The dark aftermath was filled with purple images and, once the ears regained an ability to hear, a faint, clinkery sound.
The guards remained perfectly still for some time.
“Well, well,” said the captain weakly.
After a further pause he said, very clearly, every consonant slotting perfectly into place, “Sergeant, take some men and investigate that, will you?”
“Investigate what, sir?” said Colon, but it had already dawned on the captain that if the sergeant took some men it would leave him, Captain Vimes, all alone.
“No, I’ve a better idea. We’ll all go,” he said firmly. They all went.
Now that their eyes were used to the darkness they could see an indistinct red glow ahead of them.
It turned out to be a wall, cooling rapidly. Bits of calcined brickwork were falling off as they contracted, making little pinging noises.
That wasn’t the worst bit. The worst bit was what was on the wall.
They stared at it.
They stared at it for a long time.
It was only an hour or two till dawn, and no-one even suggested trying to find their way back in the dark. They waited by the wall. At least it was warm.
They tried not to look at it.
Eventually Colon stretched uneasily and said, ‘ ‘Chin up, Captain. It could have been worse."
Vimes finished the bottle. It didn’t have any effect. There were some types of sobriety that you just couldn’t budge.
“Yes,” he said. “It could have been us.”
The Supreme Grand Master opened his eyes.
“Once again,” he said, “we have achieved success.”
The Brethren burst into a ragged cheer. The Brothers Watchtower and Fingers linked arms and danced an enthusiastic jig in their magic circle.
The Supreme Grand Master took a deep breath.
First the carrot, he thought, and now the stick. He liked the stick.
“Silence!” he screamed.
“Brother Fingers, Brother Watchtower, cease this shameful display!” he screeched. “The rest of you, be silent!”
They quietened down, like rowdy children who have just seen the teacher come into the room. Then they quieted down a lot more, like children who have just seen the teacher’s expression.
The Supreme Grand Master let this sink in, and then stalked along their ragged ranks.
“I suppose,” he said, “that we think we’ve done some magic, do we? Hmm? Brother Watchtower?”
Brother Watchtower swallowed. “Well, er, you said we were, er, I mean-”
‘ ‘You haven’t done ANYTHING yet!”
“Well, er, no, er-” Brother Watchtower trembled.
“Do real wizards leap about after a tiny spell and start chanting ‘Here we go, here we go, here we go’, Brother Watchtower? Hmm?”
“Well, we were sort of-”
The Supreme Grand Master spun on his heel.
“And do they keep looking apprehensively at the woodwork, Brother Plasterer? ”
Brother Plasterer hung his head. He hadn’t realised anyone had noticed.
When the tension was twanging satisfactorily, like a bowstring, the Supreme Grand Master stood back.
“Why do I bother?” he said, shaking his head. “I could have chosen anyone. I could have picked the best. But I’ve got a bunch of children. ”
“Er, honest,” said Brother Watchtower, “we was making an effort, I mean, we was really concentrating. Weren’t we, lads?”
“Yes,” they chorused. The Supreme Grand Master glared at them.
“There’s no room in this Brotherhood for Brothers who are not behind us all the way,” he warned.
With almost visible relief the Brethren, like panicked sheep who see that a hurdle has been opened in the fold, galloped towards the opening.
“No worries about that, your supremity,” said Brother Watchtower fervently.
“Commitment must be our watchword!” said the Supreme Grand Master.
“Watchword. Yeah,” said Brother Watchtower. He nudged Brother Plasterer, whose eyes had strayed to the skirting board again.
“Wha? Oh. Yeah. Watchword. Yeah,” said Brother Plasterer.
“And trust and fraternity,” said the Supreme Grand Master.
“Yeah. And them, too,” said Brother Fingers.
“So,” said the Supreme Grand Master, "if there be any one here not anxious, yea, eager to continue in this great work, let him step forward now.”
They’re hooked. Ye gods, I’m good at this, thought the Supreme Grand Master. I can play on their horrible little minds like a xylophone. It’s amazing, the sheer power of mundanity. Who’d have thought that weakness could be a greater force than strength? But you have to know how to direct it. And I do.
“Very well, then,” he said. “And now, we will repeat the Oath.”
He led their stumbling, terrified voices through it, noting with approval the strangled way they said ‘fig-gin’. And he kept one eye on Brother Fingers, too.
He’s slightly brighter than the others, he thought. Slightly less gullible, at least. Better make sure I’m always the last to leave. Don’t want any clever ideas about following me home.
You need a special kind of mind to rule a city like Ankh-Morpork, and Lord Vetinari had it. But then, he was a special kind of person.
He baffled and infuriated the lesser merchant princes, to the extent that they had long ago given up trying to assassinate him and now merely jockeyed for position amongst themselves. Anyway, any assassin who tried to attack the Patrician would be hard put to it to find enough flesh to insert the dagger.
While other lords dined on larks stuffed with peacocks’ tongues, Lord Vetinari considered that a glass of boiled water and half a slice of dry bread was an elegant sufficiency.
It was exasperating. He appeared to have no vice that anyone could discover. You’d have thought, with that pale, equine face, that he’d incline towards stuff with whips, needles, and young women in dungeons. The other lords could have accepted that. Nothing wrong with whips and needles, in moderation. But the Patrician apparently spent his evenings studying reports and, on special occasions, if he could stand the excitement, playing chess.
He wore black a lot. It wasn’t particularly impressive black, such as the best assassins wore, but the sober, slightly shabby black of a man who doesn’t want to waste time in the mornings wondering what to wear. And you had to get up very early in the morning to get the better of the Patrician; in fact, it was wiser not to go to bed at all.
But he was popular, in a way. Under his hand, for the first time in a thousand years, Ankh-Morpork operated. It might not be fair or just or particularly democratic, but it worked. He tended it as one tends a topiary bush, encouraging a growth here, pruning an errant twig there. It was said that he would tolerate absolutely anything apart from anything that threatened the city, and here it was . . .
He stared at the stricken wall for a long time, while the rain dripped off his chin and soaked his clothes. Behind him, Wonse hovered nervously.
Then one long, thin, blue-veined hand reached out and the fingertips traced the shadows.
Well, not so much shadows, more a series of silhouettes. The outline was very distinct. Inside, there was the familiar pattern of brickwork. Outside, though, something had fused the wall in a rather nice ceramic substance, giving the ancient flettons a melted, mirror-like finish.
The shapes outlined in brickwork showed a tableau of six men frozen in an attitude of surprise. Various upraised hands had quite clearly been holding knives and cutlasses.
Then Patrician looked down silently on the pile of ash at his feet. A few streaks of molten metal might once have been the very same weapons that were now so decisively etched into the wall.
“Hmm,” he said.
Captain Vimes respectfully led him across the lane and into Fast Luck Alley, where he pointed out Exhibit A, to whit . . .
“Footprints,” he said. “Which is stretching it a bit, sir. They’re more what you’d call claws. One might go so far as to say talons.”
The Patrician stared at the prints in the mud. His expression was quite unreadable.
“I see,” he said eventually. “And do you have an opinion about all this, Captain?”
The captain did. In the hours until dawn he’d had all sorts of opinions, starting with a conviction that it had been a big mistake to be born.
And then the grey light had filtered even into the Shades, and he was still alive and uncooked, and had looked around him with an expression of idiot relief and seen, not a yard away, these footprints. That had not been a good moment to be sober.
“Well, sir,” he said, “I know that dragons have been extinct for thousands of years, sir-”
“Yes?” The Patrician’s eyes narrowed.
Vimes plunged on. “But, sir, the thing is, do they know? Sergeant Colon said he heard a leathery sound just before, just before, just before the, er . . . offence.”
“So you think an extinct, and indeed a possibly entirely mythical, dragon flew into the city, landed in this narrow alley, incinerated a group of criminals, and then flew away?” said the Patrician. “One might say, it was a very public-spirited creature.”
“Well, when you put it like that-”
“If I recall, the dragons of legend were solitary and rural creatures who shunned people and dwelt in forsaken, out of the way places,” said the Patrician. “They were hardly urban creatures.”
“No, sir,” said the captain, repressing a comment that if you wanted to find a really forsaken, out of the way place then the Shades would fit the bill pretty well.
“Besides,” said Lord Vetinari, “one would imagine that someone would have noticed, wouldn’t you agree?”
The captain nodded at the wall and its dreadful frieze. “Apart from them, you mean, sir?”