“It’s all part of the social. . . social contract,” said his assistant woodenly. “A small price to pay, I’m sure you will agree, for the safety and protection of the city.”
“From what?” said Nobby. “We’ve never had an enemy we couldn’t bribe or corrupt.”
“Until now,” said Colon darkly.
“You catch on fast,” said the guard. “So you’re going to broadcast it. On pain of pain.”
Carrot peered over Colon’s shoulder.
“What’s a virgin?” he said.
“An unmarried girl,” said Colon quickly.
“What, like my friend Reel?” said Carrot, horrified.
“Well, no,” said Colon.
“She’s not married, you know. None of Mrs Palm’s girls are married.”
“Well, yes,” said Colon.
“Well, then,” said Carrot, with an air of finality. “We’re not having any of that kind of thing, I hope.”
“People won’t stand for it,” said Colon. “You mark my words.”
The guards stepped back, out of range of Carrot’s rising wrath.
“They can please themselves,” said the senior guard. “But if you don’t proclaim it, you can try explaining things to His Majesty.”
They hurried off.
Nobby darted out into the street. “Dragon on your vest!” he shouted. “If your old mum knew about this she’d turn in her vat, you goin’ around with a dragon on your vest!”
Colon wandered back to the table and spread out the scroll.
“Bad business,” he mumbled.
“It’s already killed people,” said Carrot. “Contrary to sixteen separate Acts in Council.”
“Well, yes. But that was just like, you know, the hurly-burly of this and that,” said Colon. “Not that it wasn’t bad, I mean, but people sort of participating, just handing over some slip of a girl and standing round watching as if it’s all proper and legal, that’s much worse.”
“I reckon it all depends on your point of view,” said Nobby thoughtfully.
“What d’you mean?”
“Well, from the point of view of someone being burned alive, it probably doesn’t matter much,” said Nobby philosophically.
“People won’t stand for it, I said,” said Colon, ignoring this. “You’ll see. They’ll march on the palace, and what will the dragon do then, eh?”
“Burn ’em all,” said Nobby promptly.
Colon looked puzzled. “It wouldn’t do that, would it?” he said.
“Don’t see what’s to prevent it, do you?” said Nobby. He glanced out of the doorway. “He was a good lad, that boy. Used to run errands for my grandad. Who’d have thought he’d go around with a dragon on his chest …”
“What are we going to do, Sergeant?” said Carrot.
“I don’t want to be burned alive,” said Sergeant Colon. “My wife’d give me hell. So I suppose we’ve got to wossname, proclaim it. But don’t worry, lad,” he said, patting Carrot on one muscular arm and repeating, as if he hadn’t quite believed himself the first time, “it won’t come to that. People’ll never stand for it.”
Lady Ramkin ran her hands over Errol’s body.
“Damned if I know what’s going on in there,” she said. The little dragon tried to lick her face. “What’s he been eating?”
“The last thing, I think, was a kettle,” said Vimes.
“A kettle of what?”
“No. A kettle. A black thing with a handle and spout. He sniffed it for ages, then he ate it.”
Enrol grinned weakly at him, and belched. They both ducked.
“Oh, and then we found him eating soot out of the chimney,” Vimes went on, as their heads rose again over the railings.
They leaned back over the reinforced bunker that was one of Lady Ramkin’s sickbay pens. It had to be reinforced. Usually one of the first things a sick dragon did was lose control of its digestive processes.
“He doesn’t look sick, exactly,” she said. “Just fat.”
“He whines a lot. And you can sort of see things moving under his skin. You know what I think? You know you said they can rearrange their digestive system?”
“Oh, yes. All the stomachs and pancreatic crackers can be hooked up in various ways, you see. To take advantage-”
“Of whatever they can find to make flame with,” said Vimes. “Yes. I think he’s trying to make some sort of very hot flame. He wants to challenge the big dragon. Every time it takes to the air he just sits there whining.”
“And doesn’t explode?”
“Not that we’ve noticed. I mean, I’m sure if he did, we’d spot it.”
“He just eats indiscriminately?”
“Hard to be sure. He sniffs everything, and eats most things. Two gallons of lamp oil, for example. Anyway, I can’t leave him down there. We can’t look after him properly. It’s not as if we need to find out where the dragon is now,” he added bitterly.
“I think you’re being a bit silly about all this,” she said, leading the way back to the house.
“Silly? I was sacked in front of all those people!”
“Yes, but it was all a misunderstanding, I’m sure.”
“I didn’t misunderstand it!”
“Well, I think you’re just upset because you’re impotent.”
Vimes’s eyes bulged. “Whee?” he said.
“Against the dragon,” Lady Ramkin went on, quite unconcerned. “You can’t do anything about it.”
“I reckon this damn city and the dragon just about deserve one another,” said Vimes.
“People are frightened. You can’t expect much of people when they’re so frightened.” She touched him gingerly on his arm. It was like watching an industrial robot being expertly manipulated to grasp an egg gently.
“Not everyone’s as brave as you,” she added, timidly.
“The other week. When you stopped them killing my dragons.”
“Oh, that. That’s not bravery. Anyway, that was just people. People are easier. I’ll tell you one thing for nothing, I’m not looking up that dragon’s nose again. I wake up at days thinking about that.”
“Oh.” She seemed deflated. “Well, if you’re sure . . . I’ve got a lot of friends, you know. If you need any help, you’ve only got to say. The Duke of Sto Helit is looking for a guard captain, I’m sure. I’ll write you a letter. You’ll like them, they’re a very nice young couple.”
“I’m not sure what I shall do next,” said Vimes, more gruffly than he intended. “I’m considering one or two offers.”
“Well, of course. I’m sure you know best.”
Lady Ramkin twisted her handkerchief round and round in her hands.
“Well, then,” she said.
“Well,” said Vimes.
“I, er, expect you’ll be wanting to be off, then.”
“Yes, I expect I had better be going.”
There was a pause. Then they both spoke at once.
“It’s been very-”
“I’d just like to say-”
“No, you were speaking.”
“No, sorry, you were saying?”
“Oh.” Vimes hesitated. “I’ll be off, then.”
“Oh. Yes.” Lady Ramkin gave him a washed-out smile. “Can’t keep all these offers waiting, can you,” she said.
She thrust out a hand. Vimes shook it carefully.
“So I’ll just be going, then,” he said.
“Do call again,” said Lady Ramkin, more coldly, “if you are ever in this area. And so on. I’m sure Errol would like to see you.”
“Yes. Well. Goodbye, then.”
“Goodbye, Captain Vimes.”
He stumbled out of the door and walked hurriedly down the dark, overgrown path. He could feel her gaze on the back of his neck as he did so or, at least, he told himself that he could. She’d be standing in the doorway, nearly blocking out the light. Just watching me. But I’m not going to look back, he thought. That would be a really silly thing to do. I mean, she’s a lovely person, she’s got a lot of common sense and an enormous personality, but really . . .
I’m not going to look back, even if she stands there while I walk all the way down the street. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
So when he heard the door shut when he was only halfway down the drive he suddenly felt very, very angry, as if he had just been robbed.
He stood still and clasped and unclasped his hands in the darkness. He wasn’t Captain Vimes any more, he was Citizen Vimes, which meant that he could do things he’d once never dreamt of doing. Perhaps he could go and smash some windows.
No, that wouldn’t be any good. He wanted more than that. To get rid of that bloody dragon, to get his job back, to get his hands on whoever was behind all this, to forget himself just once and hit someone until he was exhausted . . .
He stared at nothing. Down below the city was a mass of smoke and steam. He wasn’t thinking of that, though.
He was thinking of a running man. And, further back in the fuddled mists of his life, a boy running to keep up.
And under his breath he said, “Any of them get out?”
Sergeant Colon finished the proclamation and looked around at the hostile crowd.
“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I just read the things. I don’t write ’em.”
“That’s human sacrifice, that is,” said someone.
“There’s nothing wrong with human sacrifice,” said a priest.
“Ah, per say, ” said the first speaker quickly. “For proper religious reasons. And using condemned criminals and so on. But that’s different from bunging someone to a dragon just because it’s feeling peckish.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Sergeant Colon.
“Taxes is one thing, but eating people is another.”
“If we all say we won’t put up with it, what can the dragon do?”
Nobby opened his mouth. Colon clamped a hand over it and raised a triumphant fist in the air.
“It’s just what I’ve always said,” he said. “The people united can never be ignited!”
There was a ragged cheer.
“Hang on a minute,” said a small man, slowly. “As far as we know, the dragon’s only good at one thing. It flies around the city setting fire to people. I’m not actually certain what is being proposed that would stop it doing this.”
“Yes, but if we all protest-” said the first speaker, his voice modulated with uncertainty.
“It can’t burn everybody, ” said Colon. He decided to play his new ace again and added, proudly, “The people united can never be ignited!” There was rather less of a cheer this time. People were reserving their energy for worrying.
“I’m not exactly sure I understand why not. Why can’t it burn everyone and fly off to another city?”
“The hoard,” said Colon. “It needs people to bring it treasure.”
“Well, maybe, but how many, exactly?”
“How many people? Out of the whole city, I mean. Perhaps it won’t need to burn the whole city down, just some bits. Do we know what bits?”
“Look, this is getting silly,” said the first speaker. “If we go around looking at the problems the whole time, we’ll never do anything.”