Of course, that was always an outside chance, Vimes added.
“Under the floorboards,” he said aloud. “First place anyone’d look. Rather foolish, that was.”
“I know. I suppose he didn’t think anyone would be searching,” said Wonse, standing up and brushing the dust off himself.
“I’m sorry?” said Vimes pleasantly.
“Vetinari. You know how he was for scheming and things. He was involved in most of the plots against himself, that was how he ran things. He enjoyed it. Obviously he called it up and couldn’t control it. Something even more cunning than he was.”
“So what were you doing?” said Vimes.
“I wondered if it might be possible to reverse the spell. Or maybe call up another dragon. They’d fight then.”
“A sort of balance of terror, you mean?” said Vimes.
“Could be worth a try,” said Wonse earnestly. He took a few steps closer. “Look, about your job, I know we were both a bit overwrought at the time, so of course if you want it back there’ll be no prob-”
“It must have been terrible,” said Vimes. “Imagine what must have gone through his mind. He called it up, and then found it wasn’t just some sort of tool but a real thing with a mind of its own. A mind just like his, but with all the brakes off. You know, I wouldn’t mind betting that at the start he really thought that what he was doing was all for the best. He must have been insane. Sooner or later, anyway.”
“Yes,” said Wonse hoarsely. “It must have been terrible.”
“Ye gods, but I’d like to get my hands on him! All those years I’ve known the man, and I’d never realised …”
Wonse said nothing.
“Run,” said Vimes softly.
“Run. I want to see you run.”
“I don’t underst-”
“I saw someone run away, the night the dragon flamed that house. I remember thinking at the time that he moved in a funny way, sort of bounding along. And then the other day I saw you running away from the dragon. Could almost have been the same man, I thought. Skipping, almost. Like someone running to keep up. Any of them get out, Wonse?”
Wonse waved a hand in what he might have thought was a nonchalant way. “That’s just ridiculous, that’s not proof,” he said.
“I noticed you sleep in here now,” said Vimes. “I suppose the king likes to have you handy, does he?”
“You’ve got no proof at all,” whispered Wonse.
“Of course I haven’t. The way someone runs. The eager tone of voice. That’s all. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Because it wouldn’t matter even if I did have proof,” said Vimes. “There’s no-one to take it to. And you can’t give me my job back.”
“I can!” said Wonse. “I can, and you needn’t just be captain-”
“You can’t give me my job back,” repeated Vimes. “It was never yours to take away. I was never an officer of the city, or an officer of the king, or an officer of the Patrician. I was an officer of the law. It might have been corrupted and bent, but it was law, of a sort. There isn’t any law now except: ‘you’ll get burned alive if you don’t watch out’. Where’s the place in there for me?”
Wonse darted forward and grabbed him by the arm.
“But you can help me!” he said. “There may be a way to destroy the dragon, d’you see, or at least we can help people, channel things to mitigate the worst of it, somehow find a meeting point-”
Vimes’s blow caught Wonse on the cheek and spun him around.
“The dragon’s here, ”he snapped. “You can’t channel it or persuade it or negotiate with it. There’s no truce with dragons. You brought it .here and we’re stuck with it, you bastard. ”
Wonse lowered his hand from the bright white mark where the punch had connected.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
Vimes didn’t know. He’d thought of a dozen ways that the thing could go, but the only one that was really suitable was killing Wonse. And, face to face, he couldn’t do it.
“That’s the trouble with people like you,” said Wonse, getting up. “You’re always against anything attempted for the betterment of mankind, but you never have any proper plans of your own. Guards! Guards!”
He grinned maniacally at Vimes.
“Didn’t expect that, did you?” he said. “We’ve still got guards here, you know. Not so many, of course. Not many people want to come in.”
There were footsteps in the passage outside and four of the palace guards padded in, swords drawn.
“I wouldn’t put up a fight, if I were you,” Wonse went on. “They’re desperate and uneasy men. But very highly paid.”
Vimes said nothing. Wonse was a gloater. You always stood a chance with gloaters. The old Patrician had never been a gloater, you could say that for him. If he wanted you dead, you never even heard about it.
The thing to do with gloaters was play the game according to the rules.
“You’ll never get away with it,” he said.
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. But never is a long time,” said Wonse. “None of us get away with anything for that long.”
“You shall have some time to reflect on this,” he said and nodded to the guards. “Throw him in the special dungeon. And then go about that other little task.”
“Er,” said the leader of the guards, and hesitated.
“What’s the matter, man?”
“You, er, want us to attack him?” said the guard miserably. Thick though the palace guard were, they were as aware as everyone else of the conventions, and when guards are summoned to deal with one man in overheated circumstances it’s not a good time for them. The bugger’s bound to be heroic, he was thinking. This guard was not looking forward to a future in which he was dead.
“Of course, you idiot!”
“But, er, there’s only one of him,” said the guard captain.
“And he’s smilin’,” said a man behind him.
“Prob’ly goin’ to swing on the chandeliers any minute,” said one of his colleagues. “And kick over the table, and that.”
“He’s not even armed!” shrieked Wonse.
“Worst kind, that,” said one of the guards, with deep stoicism. “They leap up, see, and grab one of the ornamental swords behind the shield over the fireplace.”
“Yeah,” said another, suspiciously. “And then they chucks a chair at you.”
“There’s no fireplace! There’s no sword! There’s only him! Now take him!” screamed Wonse.
A couple of guards grabbed Vimes tentatively by the shoulders.
“You’re not going to do anything heroic, are you?” whispered one of them.
“Wouldn’t know where to start,” he said.
As Vimes was hauled away he heard Wonse breaking into insane laughter. They always did, your gloaters.
But he was correct about one thing. Vimes didn’t have a plan. He hadn’t thought much about what was going to happen next. He’d been a fool, he told himself, to think that you just had a confrontation and that was the end of it.
He also wondered what the other task was.
The palace guards said nothing, but stared straight ahead and marched him down, across the ruined hall, and through the wreckage of another corridor to an ominous door. They opened it, threw him in, and marched away.
And no-one, absolutely no-one, noticed the thin, leaf-like thing that floated gently down from the shadows of the roof, tumbling over and over in the air like a sycamore seed, before landing in the tangled gewgaws of the hoard.
It was a peanut shell.
It was the silence that awoke Lady Ramkin. Her bedroom looked out over the dragon pens, and she was used to sleeping to the susurration of rustling scales, the occasional roar of a dragon flaming in its sleep, and the keening of the gravid females. Absence of any sound at all was like an alarm clock.
She had cried a bit before going to sleep, but not much, because it was no use being soppy and letting the side down. She lit the lamp, pulled on her rubber boots, grabbed the stick which might be all that stood between her and theoretical loss of virtue, and hurried down through the shadowy house. As she crossed the damp lawn to the kennels she was vaguely aware that something was happening down in the city, but dismissed it as not currently worth thinking about. Dragons were more important.
She pushed open the door.
Well, they were still there. The familiar stink of swamp dragons, half pond mud and half chemical explosion, gusted out into the night.
Each dragon was balancing on its hind legs in the centre of its pen, neck arched, staring with ferocious intensity at the roof.
“Oh,” she said. “Flying around up there again, is it? Showing off. Don’t you worry about it, children. Mummy’s here.”
She put the lamp on a high shelf and stamped along to Errol’s pen.
“Well now, my lad,” she began, and stopped.
Errol was stretched out on his side. A thin plume of grey smoke was drifting from his mouth, and his stomach expanded and contracted like a bellows. And his skin from the neck down was an almost pure white.
“I think if I ever rewrite Diseases you’ll get a whole chapter all to yourself,” she said quietly, and unbolted the gate of the pen. “Let’s see if that nasty temperature has gone down, shall we?”
She reached out to stroke his skin and gasped. She pulled the hand back hurriedly and watched the blisters form on her fingertips.
Errol was so cold he burned.
As she stared at him the small round marks that her warmth had melted filmed over with frozen air.
Lady Ramkin sat back on her haunches.
“Just what kind of dragon are you-?” she began.
There was the distant sound of a knock at the front door of the house. She hesitated for a moment, then blew out the lamp, crept heavily along the length of the kennels and pulled aside the scrap of sacking over the window.
The first light of dawn showed her the silhouette of a guardsman on her doorstep, the plumes of his helmet blowing in the breeze.
She bit her lip in panic, scuttled back to the door, fled across the lawn and dived into the house, taking the stairs three at a time.
“Stupid, stupid,” she muttered, realising the lamp was back downstairs. But no time for that. By the time she went and got it, Vimes might have gone away.
Working by feel and memory in the gloom she found her best wig and rammed it on her head. Somewhere among the ointments and dragon remedies on her dressing table was something called, as far as she could remember, Dew of the Night or some such unsuitable name, a present long ago from a thoughtless nephew. She tried several bottles before she found something that, by the smell of it, was probably the one. Even to a nose which had long ago shut down most of its sensory apparatus in the face of the overpoweringness of dragons, it seemed, well, more potent than she remembered. But apparently men liked that kind of thing. Or so she had read. Damn nonsense, really. She twitched the top hem of her suddenly far too sensible nightshirt into a position which, she hoped, revealed without actually exposing, and hurried back down the stairs.
She stopped in front of the door, took a deep breath, twisted the handle and realised even as she pulled the door open that she should have taken the rubber boots off-