23,519
07.03.2019

The dragon gave him a long, blank stare.

“In fact,” said Wonse, trying to keep the trembling out of his voice, “before too long, if someone comes along and tells them that a dragon king is a bad idea, they’ll kill him themselves.”

The dragon blinked.

For the first time Wonse could remember, it seemed uncertain.

“I know people, you see,” said Wonse, simply.

The dragon continued to pin him with its gaze.

If you are lying … it thought, eventually.

“You know I can’t. Not to you.”

And they really act like this?

“Oh, yes. All the time. It’s a basic human trait.”

Wonse knew the dragon could read at least the upper levels of his mind. They resonated in terrible harmony. And he could see the mighty thoughts behind the eyes in front of him.

The dragon was horrified.

“I’m sorry,” said Wonse weakly. “That’s just how we are. It’s all to do with survival, I think.”

There will be no mighty warriors sent to kill me? it thought, almost plaintively.

“I don’t think so.”

No heroes?

“Not any more. They cost too much.”

But I will be eating people!

Wonse whimpered.

He felt the sensation of the dragon rummaging around in his mind, trying to find a clue to understanding. He half-saw, half-sensed the flicker of random images, of dragons, of the mythical age of reptiles and-and here he felt the dragon’s genuine astonishment-of some of the less commendable areas of human history, which were most of it. And after the astonishment came the baffled anger. There was practically nothing the dragon could do to people that they had not, sooner or later, tried on one another, often with enthusiasm.

You have the effrontery to be squeamish, it thought at him. But we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless and terrible. But this much I can tell you, you ape-the great face pressed even closer, so that Wonse was staring into the pitiless depths of its eyes-we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.

The dragon stretched its wings again, once or twice, and then dropped heavily on to the tawdry assortment of mildly precious things. Its claws scrabbled at the pile. It sneered.

A three-legged lizard wouldn’t hoard this lot, it thought.

“There will be better things,” whispered Wonse, temporarily relieved at the change in direction. There had better be.

“Can I-” Wonse hesitated-“can I ask you a question?”

Ask.

“You don’t need to eat people, surely? I think that’s the only problem from people’s point of view, you see,” he added, his voice speeding up to a gabble. “The treasure and everything, that doesn’t have to be a problem, but if it’s just a matter of, well, protein, then perhaps it has occurred to a powerful intellect such as your own that something less controversial, like a cow, might-”

The dragon breathed a horizontal streak of fire that calcined the opposite wall.

Need? Need? it roared, when the sound had died away. You talk to me of need? Isn ‘t it the tradition that the finest flower of womanhood should be sent to the dragon to ensure peace and prosperity ?

“But, you see, we have always been moderately peaceful and reasonably prosperous-”

DO YOU WANT THIS STATE OF AFFAIRS TO CONTINUE?

The force of the thought drove Wonse to his knees.

“Of course,” he managed.

The dragon stretched its claws luxuriantly.

Then the need is not mine, it is yours, it thought.

Now get out of my sight.

Wonse sagged as it left his mind.

The dragon slithered over the cut-price hoard, leapt up on to the ledge of one of the hall’s big windows, and smashed the stained glass with its head. The multicoloured image of a city father cascaded into the other debris below.

The long neck stretched out into the early evening air, and turned like a seeking needle. Lights were coming on across the city. The sound of a million people being alive made a muted, deep thrumming.

The dragon breathed deeply, joyfully.

Then it hauled the rest of its body on to the ledge, shouldered the remains of the window’s frame aside, and leapt into the sky.

“What is it?” said Nobby.

It was vaguely round, of a woodish texture, and when struck made a noise like a ruler plucked over the edge of a desk.

Sergeant Colon tapped it again.

“I give in,” he said.

Carrot proudly lifted it out of the battered packaging.

“It’s a cake,” he said, shoving both hands under the thing and raising it with some difficulty. “From my mother.” He managed to put it on the table without trapping his fingers.

“Can you eat it?” said Nobby. “It’s taken months to get here. You’d think it would go stale.”

“Oh, it’s to a special dwarfish recipe,” said Carrot. “Dwarfish cakes don’t go stale.”

Sergeant Colon gave it another sharp rap. “I suppose not,” he conceded.

“It’s incredibly sustaining,” said Carrot. “Practically magical. The secret has been handed down from dwarf to dwarf for centuries. One tiny piece of this and you won’t want anything to eat all day.”

“Get away?” said Colon.

“A dwarf can go hundreds of miles with a cake like this in his pack,” Carrot went on.

“I bet he can,” said Colon gloomily, “I bet all the time he’d be thinking, ‘Bloody hell, I hope I can find something else to eat soon, otherwise it’s the bloody cake again.’ ”

Carrot, to whom the word irony meant something to do with metal, picked up his pike and after a couple of impressive rebounds managed to cut the cake into approximately four slices.

“There we are,” he said cheerfully. “One for each of us, and one for the captain.” He realised what he had said. “Oh. Sorry.”

“Yes,” said Colon flatly.

They sat in silence for a moment.

“I liked him,” said Carrot. “I’m sorry he’s gone.”

There was some more silence, very similar to the earlier silence but even deeper and more furrowed with depression.

“I expect you’ll be made captain now,” said Carrot.

Colon started. “Me? I don’t want to be captain! I can’t do the thinking. It’s not worth all that thinking, just for another nine dollars a month.”

He drummed his fingers on the table.

“Is that all he got?” said Nobby. “I thought officers were rolling in it.”

“Nine dollars a month,” said Colon. “I saw the pay scales once. Nine dollars a month and two dollars plumes allowance. Only he never claimed that bit. Funny, really.”

“He wasn’t the plumes type,” said Nobby.

“You’re right,” said Colon. “The thing about the captain, see, I read this book once . . . you know we’ve all got alcohol in our bodies . . . sort of natural alcohol? Even if you never touch a drop in your life, your body sort of makes it anyway … but Captain Vimes, see, he’s one of those people whose body doesn’t do it naturally. Like, he was born two drinks below normal.”

“Gosh,” said Carrot.

“Yes … so, when he’s sober, he’s really sober. Knurd, they call it. You know how you feel when you wake up if you’ve been on the piss all night, Nobby? Well, he feels like that all the time. ”

“Poor bugger,” said Nobby. “I never realised. No wonder he’s always so gloomy.”

“So he’s always trying to catch up, see. It’s just that he doesn’t always get the dose right. And, of course-” Colon glanced at Carrot-‘ ‘he was brung low by a woman. Mind you, just about anything brings him low."

“So what do we do now, Sergeant?” said Nobby.

“And do you think he’d mind if we eat his cake?” said Carrot wistfully. “It’d be a shame to let it go stale.”

Colon shrugged.

The older men sat in miserable silence as Carrot macerated his way through the cake like a bucket-wheel rockcrusher in a chalk pit. Even if it had been the lightest of souffles they wouldn’t have had any appetite.

They were contemplating life without the captain. It was going to be bleak, even without dragons. Say what you liked about Captain Vimes, he’d had style. It was a cynical, black-nailed style, but he’d had it and they didn’t. He could read long words and add up. Even that was style, of a sort. He even got drunk in style.

They’d been trying to drag the minutes out, trying to stretch out the time. But the night had come.

There was no hope for them.

They were going to have to go out on the streets.

It was six of the clock. And all wasn’t well.

“I miss Errol, too,” said Carrot

“He was the captain’s, really,” said Nobby. “Anyway, Lady Ramkin’ll know how to look after him.”

“It’s not as though we could leave anything around, either,” said Colon. “I mean, even the lamp oil. He even drank the lamp oil.”

“And mothballs,” said Nobby. “A whole box of mothballs. Why would anyone want to eat mothballs? And the kettle. And sugar. He was a devil for sugar.”

“He was nice, though,” said Carrot. “Friendly.”

“Oh, I’ll grant you,” said Colon. “But it’s not right, really, a pet where you have to jump behind a table every time it hiccups.”

“I shall miss his little face,” said Carrot.

Nobby blew his nose, loudly.

It was echoed by a hammering on the door. Colon jerked his head. Carrot got up and opened it.

A couple of members of the palace guard were waiting with arrogant impatience. They stepped back when they saw Carrot, who had to bend a bit to see under the lintel; bad news like Carrot travels fast.

“We’ve brung you a proclamation,” said one of them. “You’ve got to-”

“What’s all that fresh paint on your breastplate?” said Carrot politely. Nobby and the sergeant peered around him.

“It’s a dragon,” said the younger of the guards.

“The dragon,” corrected his superior.

“ ‘Ere, I know you,” said Nobby. ‘You’re Skully Maltoon. Used to live in Mincing Street. Your mum made cough sweets, din’t she, and fell in the mixture and died. I never have a cough sweet but I think of your mum."

“Hallo, Nobby,” said the guard, without enthusiasm.

“I bet your old mum’d be proud of you, you with a dragon on your vest,” said Nobby conversationally. The guard gave him a look made of hatred and embarrassment.

“And new plumes on your hat, too,” Nobby added sweetly.

“This here is a proclamation what you are commanded to read,” said the guard loudly. “And post up on street corners also. By order.”

“Whose?” said Nobby.

Sergeant Colon grabbed the scroll in one ham-like fist.

“Where As,” he read slowly, tracing the lettering with a hesitant finger, “It hathe Pleas-Sed the Der-Rer-Aa-Ger-the dragon, Ker-Ii-king of kings and Aa-Ber-Ess-Uh-Ler-” sweat beaded on the broad pink cliff of his forehead-“absolute, that is, Rer-Uh-Ler-Eh-Rer, ruler of-”

He lapsed into the tortured silence of academia, his fingertip jerking slowly down the parchment.

“No,” he said at last. “That’s not right, is it? It’s not going to eat someone?”

“Consume,” said the older guard.

❮❯