23,514
07.03.2019

“Hadn’t,” he panted, “hadn’t we better warn people?”

Colon dragged himself forward until he could look across the city.

“I don’t think we need bother,” he said. “I think they’ll soon find out.”

The High Priest of Blind Io was stumbling over his words. There had never been an official coronation service in Ankh-Morpork, as far as he could find out. The old kings had managed quite well with something on the lines of: “We hath got the crown, i’faith, and we will kill any whoreson who tries to takes it away, by the Lord Harry.” Apart from anything else, this was rather short. He’d spent a long time drafting something longer and more in keeping with the spirit of the times, and was having some trouble remembering it.

He was also being put off by the goat, which was watching him with loyal interest.

“Get on with it!” Wonse hissed, from his position behind the throne.

“All in good time,” the high priest hissed back. “This is a coronation, I’ll have you know. You might try to show a little respect.”

“Of course I’m showing respect! Now get on-”

There was a shout, off to the right. Wonse glared into the crowd.

“It’s that Ramkin woman,” he said. “What’s she up to?”

People around her were chattering excitedly now. Fingers pointed all the same way, like a small fallen forest. There were one or two screams, and then the crowd moved like a tide.

Wonse looked along the wide Street of Small Gods.

It wasn’t a raven out there. Not this time.

The dragon flew slowly, only a few feet above the ground, wings sculling gracefully through the air.

The flags that crisscrossed the street were caught up and snapped like so much cobweb, piling up on the creature’s spine plates and flapping back along the length of its tail.

It flew with head and neck fully extended, as if the great body was being towed like a barge. The people on the street yelled and fought one another for the safety of doorways. It paid them no attention.

It should have come roaring, but the only sounds were the creaking of wings and the snapping of banners.

It should have come roaring. Not like this, not slowly and deliberately, giving terror time to mature. It should have come threatening. Not promising.

It should have come roaring, not flying gently to the accompaniment of the zip and zing of merry bunting.

Vimes pulled open the other drawer of his desk and glared at the paperwork, such as there was of it. There wasn’t really much in there that he could call his own. A scrap of sugar bag reminded him that he now owed the Tea Kitty six pence. Odd. He wasn’t angry yet. He would be later on, of course. By evening he’d be furious. Drunk and furious. But not yet. Not yet. It hadn’t really sunk in, and he knew he was just going through the motions as a preventative against thinking.

Errol stirred sluggishly in his box, raised his head and whined.

“What’s the matter, boy?” said Vimes, reaching down. “Upset stomach?”

The little dragon’s skin was moving as though heavy industry was being carried on inside. Nothing in Diseases of the Dragon said anything about this. From the swollen stomach came sounds like a distant and complicated war in an earthquake zone.

That surely wasn’t right. Sybil Ramkin said you had to pay great attention to a dragon’s diet, since even a minor stomach upset would decorate the walls and ceiling with pathetic bits of scaly skin. But in the past few days . . . well, there had been cold pizzas, and the ash from Nobby’s horrible dog-ends, and all-in-all Errol had eaten more or less what he liked. Which was just about everything, to judge by the room. Not to mention the contents of the bottom drawer.

“We really haven’t looked after you very well, have we?” said Vimes. “Treated you like a dog, really.” He wondered what effect squeaky rubber hippos had on the digestion.

Vimes became slowly aware that the distant cheering had turned to screams.

He stared vaguely at Errol, and then smiled an incredibly evil smile and stood up.

There were sounds of panic and the mob on the run.

He placed his battered helmet on his head and gave it a jaunty tap. Then, humming a mad little tune, he sauntered out of the building.

Errol remained quite still for a while and then, with extreme difficulty, half-crawled and half-rolled out of his box. Strange messages were coming from the massive part of his brain that controlled his digestive system. It was demanding certain things that he couldn’t put a name to. Fortunately it was able to describe them in minute detail to the complex receptors in his enormous nostrils. They flared, subjecting the air of the room to an intimate examination. His head turned, triangulating.

He pulled himself across the floor and began to eat, with every sign of enjoyment, Carrot’s tin of armour polish.

People streamed past Vimes as he strolled up the Street of Small Gods. Smoke rose into the air from the Plaza of Broken Moons.

The dragon squatted in the middle of it, on what remained of the coronation dais. It had a self-satisfied expression.

There was no sign of the throne, or of its occupant, although it was possible that complicated forensic examination of the small pile of charcoal in the wrecked and smouldering woodwork might offer some clue.

Vimes caught hold of an ornamental fountain to steady himself as the crowds stampeded by. Every street out of the plaza was packed with struggling bodies. Not noisy ones, Vimes noticed. People weren’t wasting their breath with screaming any more. There was just this solid, deadly determination to be somewhere else.

The dragon spread its wings and flapped them luxuriously. The people at the rear of the crowd took this as a signal to climb up the backs of the people in front of them and run for safety from head to head.

Within a few seconds the square was empty of all save the stupid and the terminally bewildered. Even the badly trampled were making a spirited crawl for the nearest exit.

Vimes looked around him. There seemed to be a lot of fallen flags, some of which were being eaten by an elderly goat which couldn’t believe its luck. He could distantly see Cut-me-own-Throat on his hands and knees, trying to restore the contents of his tray.

By Vimes’s side a small child waved a flag hesitantly and shouted “Hurrah”.

Then everything went quiet.

Vimes bent down.

“I think you should be going home,” he said.

The child squinted up at him.

“Are you a Watch man?” it said.

“No,” said Vimes. “And yes.”

“What happened to the king, Watch man?”

“Er. I think he’s gone off for a rest,” said Vimes.

“My auntie said I shouldn’t talk to Watch men,” said the child.

“Do you think it might be a good idea to go home and tell her how obedient you’ve been, then?” said Vimes.

“My auntie said, if I was naughty, she’d put me on the roof and call the dragon,” said the child, conversationally. “My auntie said it eats you all up starting with the legs, so’s you can see what’s happening.”

“Why don’t you go home and tell your auntie she’s acting in the best traditions of Ankh-Morpork child-rearing?” said Vimes. “Go on. Run along.”

“It crunches up all your bones,” said the child happily. “And when it gets to your head, it-”

“Look, it’s up there!” shouted Vimes. “The great big dragon that crunches you up! Now go home!”

The child looked up at the thing perched on the crippled dais.

“I haven’t seen it crunch anyone yet,” it complained.

“Push off or you’ll feel the back of my hand,” said Vimes.

This seemed to fit the bill. The child nodded understandingly.

“Right. Can I shout hurrah again?”

“If you like,” said Vimes.

“Hurrah.”

So much for community policing, Vimes thought. He peered out from behind the fountain again.

A voice immediately above him rumbled, “Say what you like, I still swear it’s a magnificent specimen.”

Vimes’s gaze travelled upwards until it crested the edge of the fountain’s top bowl.

“Have you noticed,” said Sybil Ramkin, hauling herself upright by a piece of eroded statuary and dropping down in front of him, “how every time we meet, a dragon turns up?” She gave him an arch smile. “It’s a bit like having your own tune. Or something.”

“It’s just sitting there,” said Vimes hurriedly. “Just looking around. As if it’s waiting for something to happen.”

The dragon blinked with Jurassic patience.

The roads off the square were packed with people. That’s the Ankh-Morpork instinct, Vimes thought. Run away, and then stop and see if anything interesting is going to happen to other people.

There was a movement in the wreckage near the dragon’s front talon, and the High Priest of Blind Io staggered to his feet, dust and splinters cascading from his robes. He was still holding the ersatz crown in one hand.

Vimes watched the old man look upwards into a couple of glowing red eyes a few feet away.

“Can dragons read minds?” whispered Vimes.

“I’m sure mine understand every word I say,” hissed Lady Ramkin. “Oh, no! The silly old fool is giving it the crown!”

“But isn’t that a smart move?” said Vimes. “Dragons like gold. It’s like throwing a stick for a dog, isn’t it?”

“Oh dear,” said Sybil Ramkin. “It might not, you know. Dragons have such sensitive mouths.”

The great dragon blinked at the tiny circle of gold.

Then, with extreme delicacy, it extended one metre-long claw and hooked the thing out of the priest’s trembling fingers.

“What d’you mean, sensitive?” said Vimes, watching the claw travel slowly towards the long, horse-like face.

“A really incredible sense of taste. They’re so, well, chemically orientated.”

“You mean it can probably taste gold?” whispered Vimes, watching the crown being carefully licked.

“Oh, certainly. And smell it.”

Vimes wondered what the chances were of the crown being made of gold. Not high, he decided. Gold foil over copper, perhaps. Enough to fool human beings. And then he wondered what someone’s reaction would be if they were offered sugar which turned out, once you’d put three spoonfuls in your coffee, to be salt.

The dragon removed the claw from its mouth in one graceful movement and caught the high priest, who was just sneaking away, a blow which knocked him high into the air. When he was screaming at the top of the arc the great mouth came around and-“Gosh!” said Lady Ramkin.

There was a groan from the watchers.

“The temperature of the thing!” said Vines. “I mean, nothing left! Just a wisp of smoke!”

There was another movement in the rubble. Another figure pulled itself upright and leaned dazedly against a broken spar.

It was Lupine Wonse, under a coating of soot.

Vimes watched him look up into a pair of nostrils the size of drain-covers.

Wonse broke into a run. Vimes wondered what it felt like, running away from something like that, expecting any minute your backbone to reach, very briefly, a temperature somewhere beyond the vaporisation point of iron. He could guess.

Wonse made it halfway across the square before the dragon darted forward with surprising agility for such a bulk and snatched him up. The talon swept on upward until the struggling figure was being held a few feet from the dragon’s face.

❮❯