23,674
07.03.2019

“Why, gentlemen!” said Wonse. “This is most unexpected!”

“Um,” said the Archchancellor of Unseen University. “You will be-that is, I am sure the king is aware that, traditionally, the University is exempt from all city levies and taxes …”

He stifled a yawn. The wizards had spent the night directing their best spells against the dragon. It was like punching fog.

“My dear sir, this is no levy,” protested Wonse. “I hope that nothing I have said would lead you to expect anything like that. Oh, no! No. Any tribute should be, as I said, entirely voluntary. I hope that is absolutely clear.”

“As crystal,” said the head assassin, glaring at the old wizard. “And these entirely voluntary tributes we are about to make, they go-?”

“On the hoard,” said Wonse.

“Ah.”

“While I am positive the people of the city will be very generous indeed once they fully understand the situation,” said the head merchant, “I am sure the king will understand that there is very little gold in Ankh-Morpork?”

“Good point,” said Wonse. “However, the king intends to pursue a vigorous and dynamic foreign policy which should remedy matters.”

“Ah,” the councillors chorused, rather more enthusiastically this time.

“For example,” Wonse went on, “the king feels that our legitimate interests in Quirm, Sto Lat, Pseudopolis and Tsort have been seriously compromised in recent centuries. This will be speedily corrected and, gentlemen, I can assure you that treasure will positively flow into the city from those anxious to enjoy the king’s protection.”

The head assassin glanced at the hoard. A very definite idea formed in his mind as to where all that treasure would end up. You had to admire the way dragons knew how to put the bite on. It was practically human.

“Oh,” he said.

“Of course, there will probably be other acquisitions in the way of land, property and so forth, and the king wishes it to be fully understood that loyal Privy Councillors will be richly rewarded.”

“And, er,” said the head assassin, who was beginning to feel that he had got a firm grip on the nature of the king’s mental processes, “no doubt the, er-”

“Privy Councillors,” said Wonse.

“No doubt they will respond with even greater generosity in the matter of, for example, treasure?”

“I am sure such considerations haven’t crossed the king’s mind,” said Wonse, “but the point is very well made.”

“I thought it would be.”

The next course was fat pork, beans and floury potatoes. More, as they couldn’t help noticing, fattening food.

Wonse had a glass of water.

“Which brings us on to a further matter of some delicacy which I am sure that well-travelled, broad-minded gentlemen such as yourselves will have no difficulty in accepting,” he said. The hand holding the glass was beginning to shake.

“I hope it will also be understood by the population at large, especially since the king will undoubtedly be able to contribute in so many ways to the well-being and defence of the city. For example, I am sure that the people will rest more contentedly in their beds knowing that the dr-the king is tirelessly protecting them from harm. There can, however, be ridiculous ancient . . . prejudices . . . which will only be eradicated by ceaseless work … on the part of all men of good will.”

He paused, and looked at them. The head assassin said later that he had looked into the eyes of many men who, obviously, were very near death, but he had never looked into eyes that were so clearly and unmistakably looking back at him from the slopes of Hell.

He hoped he would never, he said, ever have to look into eyes like that again.

“I am referring,” said Wonse, each word coming slowly to the surface like bubbles in some quicksand, “to the matter of … the king’s . . . diet.”

There was a terrible silence. They heard the faint rustle of wings behind them, and the shadows in the corners of the hall grew darker and seemed to close in.

“Diet,” said the head thief, in a hollow voice.

“Yes,” said Wonse. His voice was almost a squeak. Sweat was dripping down his face. The head assassin had once heard the word “rictus” and wondered when you should use it correctly to describe someone’s expression, and now he knew. That was what Wonse’s face had become; it was the ghastly rictus of someone trying not to hear the words his own mouth was saying.

“We, er, we thought,” said the head assassin, very carefully, “that the dr- the king, well, must have been arranging matters for himself, over the weeks.”

“Ah, but poor stuff, you know. Poor stuff. Stray animals and so forth,” said Wonse, staring hard at the tabletop. “Obviously, as king, such makeshifts are no longer appropriate.”

The silence grew and took on a texture. The councillors thought hard, especially about the meal they had just eaten. The arrival of a huge trifle with a lot of cream on it only served to concentrate their minds.

“Er,” said the head merchant, “how often is the king hungry?”

“All the time,” said Wonse, “but it eats once a month. It is really a ceremonial occasion.”

“Of course,” said the head merchant. “It would be.”

“And, er,” said the head assassin, “when did the king last, er, eat?”

“I’m sorry to say it hasn’t eaten properly ever since it came here,” said Wonse.

“Oh.”

“You must understand,” said Wonse, fiddling desperately with his wooden cutlery, “that merely waylaying people like some common assassin-”

“Excuse me-” the head assassin began.

“Some common murderer, I mean-there is no … satisfaction there. The whole essence of the king’s feeding is that it should be, well… an act of bonding between king and subjects. It is, it is perhaps a living allegory. Reinforcing the close links between the crown and the community,” he added.

“The precise nature of the meal-” the head thief began, almost choking on the words. “Are we talking about young maidens here?”

“Sheer prejudice,” said Wonse. “The age is immaterial. Marital status is, of course, of importance. And social class. Something to do with flavour, I believe.” He leaned forward, and now his voice was pain-filled and urgent and, they felt, genuinely his own for the first time. “Please consider it!” he hissed. “After all, just one a month! In exchange for so much! The families of people of use to the king, Privy Councillors such as yourselves, would not, of course, even be considered. And when you think of all the alternatives …”

They didn’t think about all the alternatives. It was enough to think about just one of them.

The silence purred at them as Wonse talked. They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought: one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapprove, because at a time like this it behooves all decent men to nearly stand up and be almost heard . . .

But no-one said anything. The cowards, each man thought.

And no-one touched the pudding, or the brick-thick chocolate mints served afterwards. They just listened in flushed, gloomy horror as Wonse’s voice droned on, and when they were dismissed they tried to leave as separately as possible, so that they didn’t have to talk to one another.

Except for the head merchant, that is. He found himself leaving the palace with the chief assassin, and they strolled side by side, minds racing. The chief merchant tried to look on the bright side; he was one of those men who organise sing-songs when things go drastically wrong.

“Well, well,” he said. "So we’re privy councillors now. Just fancy.”

“Hmm,” said the assassin.

“I wonder what’s the difference between ordinary councillors and privy councillors?” wondered the merchant aloud.

The assassin scowled at him. “I think,” he said, “it is because you’re expected to eat shit.”

He turned the glare back on his feet again. What kept going through his mind were Wonse’s last words, as he shook the secretary’s limp hand. He wondered if anyone else had heard them. Unlikely . . . they’d been a shape rather than a sound. Wonse had simply moved his lips around them while staring fixedly at the assassin’s moon-tanned face.

Help. Me.

The assassin shivered. Why him? As far as he could see there was only one kind of help he was qualified to give, and very few people ever asked for it for themselves. In fact, they usually paid large sums for it to be given as a surprise present to other people. He wondered what was happening to Wonse that made any alternative seem better . . .

Wonse sat alone in the dark, ruined hall. Waiting.

He could try running. But it’d find him again. It’d always be able to find him. It could smell his mind.

Or it would flame him. That was worse. Just like the Brethren. Perhaps it was an instantaneous death, it looked an instantaneous death, but Wonse lay awake at night wondering whether those last micro-seconds somehow stretched to a subjective, white-hot eternity, every tiny part of your body a mere smear of plasma and you, there, alive in the middle of it all …

Not you. I would not flame you.

It wasn’t telepathy. As far as Wonse had always understood it, telepathy was like hearing a voice in your head.

This was like hearing a voice in your body. His whole nervous system twanged to it, like a bow.

Rise.

Wonse jerked to his feet, overturning the chair and banging his legs on the table. When that voice spoke, he had as much control over his body as water had over gravity.

Come.

Wonse lurched across the floor.

The wings unfolded slowly, with the occasional creak, until they filled the hall from side to side. The tip of one smashed a window, and stuck out into the afternoon air.

The dragon slowly, sensuously, stretched out its neck and yawned. When it had finished, it brought its head around until it was a few inches in front of Wonse’s face.

What does voluntary mean ?

“It, er, it means doing something of your own free will,” said Wonse.

But they have no free will! They will increase my hoard, or I will flame them!

Wonse gulped. “Yes,” he said, “but you mustn’t-”

The silent roar of fury spun him around.

There is nothing I mustn ‘t!

“No, no, no!” squeaked Wonse, clutching his head. “I didn’t mean that! Believe me! This way is better, that’s all! Better and safer!”

None can defeat me!

“This is certainly the case-”

None can control me!

Wonse flung up his finger-spread hands in a conciliatory fashion. “Of course, of course,” he said. “But there are ways and ways, you know. Ways and ways. All the roaring and flaming, you see, you don’t need it . . .”

Foolish ape! How else can I make them do my bidding ?

Wonse put his hands behind his back.

“They’ll do it of their own free will,” he said. “And in time, they’ll come to believe it was their own idea. It’ll be a tradition. Take it from me. We humans are adaptable creatures.”

❮❯