23,513
07.03.2019

The figure stared at him in astonishment.

“Why?” it said. “It’s my bloody dragon.”

“Have another drink, not-Corporal Nobby?” said Sergeant Colon unsteadily.

“I do not mind if I do, not-Sgt Colon,” said Nobby.

They were taking inconspicuosity seriously. That ruled out most of the taverns on the Morpork side of the river, where they were very well known. Now they were in a rather elegant one in downtown Ankh, where they were being as unobtrusive as they knew how. The other drinkers thought they were some kind of cabaret.

“I was thinking,” said Sgt Colon.

“What?”

“If we bought a bottle or two, we could go home and then we’d be really inconspicuous.”

Nobby gave this some thought.

“But he said we’ve got to keep our ears open,” he said. “We’re supposed to, what he said, detect anything.”

“We can do that at my house,” said Sgt Colon. “We could listen all night, really hard.”

“Tha’s a good point,” said Nobby. In fact, it sounded better and better the more he thought about it.

“But first,” he announced, “I got to pay a visit.”

“Me too,” said the sergeant. “This detecting business gets to you after a while, doesn’t it.”

They stumbled out into the alley behind the tavern. There was a full moon up, but a few rags of scruffy cloud were drifting across it. The pair inconspicuously bumped into one another in the darkness.

“Is that you, Detector Sergeant Colon?” said Nobby.

“Tha’s right! Now, can you detect the door to the privy, Detector Corporal Nobbs? We’re looking for a short, dark door of mean appearance, ahahaha.”

There were a couple of clanks and a muffled swearword from Nobby as he staggered across the alley, followed by a yowl when one of Ankh-Morpork’s enormous population of feral cats fled between his legs.

“Who loves you, pussycat?” said Nobby under his breath.

“Needs must, then,” said Sgt Colon, and faced a handy corner.

His private musings were interrupted by a grunt from the corporal.

“You there, Sgt?”

“Detector Sergeant to you, Nobby,” said Sgt Colon pleasantly.

Nobby’s tone was urgent and suddenly very sober. “Don’t piss about, Sergeant, I just saw a dragon fly over!”

“I’ve seen a horsefly,” said Sgt Colon, hiccuping gently. “And I’ve seen a housefly. I’ve even seen a greenfly. But I ain’t never seen a dragon fly.”

“Of course you have, you pillock,” said Nobby urgently. “Look, I’m not messing about! He had wings on him like, like, like great big wings!”

Sergeant Colon turned majestically. The corporal’s face had gone so white that it showed up in the darkness.

“Honest, Sergeant!”

Sgt Colon turned his eyes to the damp sky and the rain-washed moon.

“All right,” he said, “show me.”

There was a slithering noise behind him, and a couple of roof tiles smashed on to the street.

He turned. And there, on the roof, was the dragon.

“There’s a dragon on the roof!” he warbled. “Nobby, it’s a dragon on the roof! What shall I do, Nobby? There’s a dragon on the roof! It’s looking right at me, Nobby!”

“For a start, you could do your trousers up,” said Nobby, from behind the nearest wall.

Even shorn of her layers of protective clothing, Lady Sybil Ramkin was still toweringly big. Vimes knew that the barbarian hublander folk had legends about great chain-mailed, armour-bra’d, carthorse-riding maidens who swooped down on battlefields and carried off dead warriors on their cropper to a glorious roistering afterlife, while singing in a pleasing mezzo-soprano. Lady Ramkin could have been one of them. She could have led them. She could have carried off a battalion. When she spoke, every word was like a hearty slap on the back and clanged with the aristocratic self-assurance of the totally well-bred. The vowel sounds alone would have cut teak.

Vimes’s ragged forebears were used to voices like that, usually from heavily-armoured people on the back of a war charger telling them why it would be a jolly good idea, don’tcherknow, to charge the enemy and hit them for six. His legs wanted to stand to attention.

Prehistoric men would have worshipped her, and in fact had amazingly managed to carve lifelike statues of her thousands of years ago. She had a mass of chestnut hair; a wig, Vimes learned later. No-one who had much to do with dragons kept their own hair for long.

She also had a dragon on her shoulder. It had been introduced as Talonthrust Vincent Wonderkind of Quirm, referred to as Vinny, and seemed to be making a large contribution to the unusual chemical smell that pervaded the house. This smell permeated everything. Even the generous slice of cake she offered him tasted of it.

“The, er, shoulder … it looks . . . very nice,” he said, desperate to make conversation.

“Rubbish,” said her ladyship. “I’m just training him up because shoulder-sitters fetch twice the price.”

Vimes murmured that he had occasionally seen society ladies with small, colourful dragons on their shoulders, and thought it looked very, er, nice.

“Oh, it sounds nice,” she said. “I’ll grant you. Then they realise it means sootburns, frizzled hair and crap all down their back. Those talons dig in, too. And then they think the thing’s getting too big and smelly and next thing you know it’s either down to the Mor-pork Sunshine Sanctuary for Lost Dragons or the old heave-ho into the river with a rope round your neck, poor little buggers.” She sat down, arranging a skirt that could have made sails for a small fleet. “Now then. Captain Vimes, was it?”

Vimes was at a loss. Ramkins long-dead stared down at him from ornate frames high on the shadowy walls. Between, around and under the portraits were the weapons they’d presumably used, and had used well and often by the look of them. Suits of armour stood in dented ranks along the walls. Quite a number, he couldn’t help noticing, had large holes in them. The ceiling was a faded riot of moth-eaten banners. You did not need forensic examination to understand that Lady Ramkin’s ancestors had never shirked a fight.

It was amazing that she was capable of doing something so unwarlike as having a cup of tea.

“My forebears,” she said, following his hypnotised gaze. “You know, not one Ramkin in the last thousand years has died in his bed.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Source of family pride, that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Quite a few of them have died in other people’s, of course.”

Captain Vimes’s teacup rattled in its saucer. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“Captain is such a dashing title, I’ve always thought.” She gave him a bright, brittle smile. “I mean, colonels and so on are always so stuffy, majors are pompous, but one always feels somehow that there is something delightfully dangerous about a captain. What was it you had to show me?”

Vimes gripped his parcel like a chastity belt.

“I wondered,” he faltered, “how big swamp . . . er . . .”He stopped. Something dreadful was happening to his lower regions.

Lady Ramkin followed his gaze. “Oh, take no notice of bun,” she said cheerfully. “Hit him with a cushion if he’s a bother.”

A small elderly dragon had crawled out from under his chair and placed its jowly muzzle in Vimes’s lap. It stared up at him soulfully with big brown eyes and gently dribbled something quite corrosive, by the feel of it, over his knees. And it stank like the ring around an acid bath.

“That’s Dewdrop Mabelline Talonthrust the First,” said her ladyship. “Champion and sire of champions. No fire left now, poor soppy old thing. He likes his belly rubbed.”

Vimes made surreptitiously vicious jerking motions to dislodge the old dragon. It blinked mournfully at him with rheumy eyes and rolled back the corner of its mouth, exposing a picket fence of soot-blackened teeth.

“Just push him off if he’s a nuisance,” said Lady Ramkin cheerfully. “Now then, what was it you were asking?”

‘ ‘I was wondering how big swamp dragons grow?” said Vimes, trying to shift position. There was a faint growling noise.

“You came all the way up here to ask me that? Well … I seem to recall Gayheart Talonthrust of Ankh stood fourteen thumbs high, toe to matiock,” mused Lady Ramkin.

“Er . . .”

“About three foot six inches,” she added kindly.

“No bigger than that?” said Vimes hopefully. In his lap the old dragon began to snore gently.

“Golly, no. He was a bit of a freak, actually. Mostly they don’t get much bigger than eight thumbs.”

Captain Vimes’s lips moved in hurried calculation. “Two feet?” he ventured.

“Well done. That’s the cobbs, of course. The hens are a bit smaller.”

Captain Vimes wasn’t going to give in. “A cobb would be a male dragon?” he said.

“Only after the age of two years,” said Lady Ramkin triumphantly. “Up to the age of eight months he’s a pewmet, then he’s a cock until fourteen months, and then he’s a snood-”

Captain Vimes sat entranced, eating the horrible cake, britches gradually dissolving, as the stream of information flooded over him; how the males fought with flame but in the laying season only the hens* breathed fire, from the combustion of complex intestinal gases, to incubate the eggs which needed such a fierce temperature, while the males gathered firewood; a group of swamp dragons was a slump or an embarrassment; a female was capable of laying up to three clutches of four eggs every year, most of which were trodden on by absent-minded males; and that dragons

"Only until their third clutch, of course. After that they’re dams.

of both sexes were vaguely uninterested in one another, and indeed everything except firewood, except for about once every two months when they became as single-minded as a buzzsaw.

He was helpless to prevent himself being taken out to the kennels at the back, outfitted from neck to ankle in leather armour faced with steel plates, and ushered into the long low building where the whistling had come from.

The temperature was terrible, but not as bad as the cocktail of smells. He staggered aimlessly from one metal-lined pen to another, while pear-shaped, squeaking little horrors with red eyes were introduced as “Moonpenny Duchess Marchpaine, who’s gravid at the moment” and “Moonmist Talonthrust II, who was Best of Breed at Pseudopolis last year”. Jets of pale green flame played across his knees.

Many of the stalls had rosettes and certificates pinned over them.

“And this one, I’m afraid, is Goodboy Bindle Featherstone of Quirm,” said Lady Ramkin relentlessly.

Vimes stared groggily over the charred barrier at the small creature curled up in the middle of the floor. It bore about the same resemblance to the rest of them as Nobby did to the average human being. Something in its ancestry had given it a pair of eyebrows that were about the same size as its stubby wings, which could never have supported it in the air. Its head was the wrong shape, like an anteater. It had nostrils like jet intakes. If it ever managed to get airborne the things would have the drag of twin parachutes.

It was also turning on Captain Vimes the most silently intelligent look he’d ever had from any animal, including Corporal Nobbs.

❮❯