“Why, Captain,” she said winsomely, “This is a who the hell are you?”
The head of the palace guard took several steps backwards and, because he was of peasant stock, made a few surreptitious signs to ward off evil spirits. They clearly didn’t work. When he opened his eyes again the thing was still there, still bristling with rage, still reeking of something sickly and fermented, still crowned with a skewed mass of curls, still looming behind a quivering bosom that made the roof of his mouth go dry-
He’d heard about these sort of things. Harpies, they were called. What had it done with Lady Ramkin?
The sight of the rubber boots had him confused, though. Legends about harpies were short on references to rubber boots.
“Out with it, fellow,” Lady Ramkin boomed, hitching up her nightie to a more respectable neckline. “Don’t just stand there opening and shutting your mouth. What d’you want?”
“Lady Sybil Ramkin?” said the guard, not in the polite way of someone seeking mere confirmation but in the incredulous tones of someone who found it very hard to believe the answer could be ‘yes’.
“Use your eyes, young man. Who d’you think I am?”
The guard pulled himself together.
“Only I’ve got a summons for Lady Sybil Ramkin,” he said uncertainly.
Her voice was withering. "What do you mean, a summons?”
“To attend upon the palace, you see.”
“I can’t imagine why that is necessary at this time in the morning,” she said, and made to slam the door. It wouldn’t shut, though, because of the sword point jammed into it at the last moment.
“If you don’t come,” said the guard, “I have been ordered to take steps.”
The door shot back and her face pressed against his, almost knocking him unconscious with the scent of rotting rose petals.
“If you think you’ll lay a hand on me-” she began.
The guard’s glance darted sideways, just for a moment, to the dragon kennels. Sybil Ramkin’s face went pale.
“You wouldn’t!” she hissed.
He swallowed. Fearsome though she was, she was only human. She could only bite your head off metaphorically. There were, he told himself, far worse things than Lady Ramkin although, admittedly, they weren’t three inches from his nose at this point in time.
“Take steps,” he repeated, in a croak.
She straightened up, and eyed the row of guards behind him.
“I see,” she said coldly. “That’s the way, is it? Six of you to fetch one feeble woman. Very well. You will, of course, allow me to fetch a coat. It is somewhat chilly.”
She slammed the door.
The palace guards stamped their feet in the cold and tried not to look at one another. This obviously wasn’t the way you went around arresting people. They weren’t allowed to keep you waiting on the doorstep, this wasn’t the way the world was supposed to work. On the other hand, the only alternative was to go in there and drag her out, and it wasn’t one anyone could summon any enthusiasm for. Besides, the guard captain wasn’t sure he had enough men to drag Lady Ramkin anywhere. You’d need teams of thousands, with log rollers.
The door creaked open again, revealing only the musty darkness of the hall within.
“Right, men-” said the captain, uneasily.
Lady Ramkin appeared. He got a brief, blurred vision of her bounding through the doorway, screaming, and it might well have been the last thing he remembered if a guard hadn’t had the presence of mind to trip her up as she hurtled down the steps. She plunged forward, cursing, ploughed into the overgrown lawn, hit her head on a crumbling statue of an antique Ramkin, and slid to a halt.
The double-handed broadsword she had been holding landed beside her, bolt upright, and vibrated to a standstill.
After a while one of the guards crept forward cautiously and tested the blade with his finger.
“Bloody hell,” he said, in a voice of mixed horror and respect. “And the dragon wants to eat her?”
“Fits the bill,” said the captain. “She’s got to be the highest-born lady in the city. I don’t know about maiden,” he added, “and right at this minute I’m not going to speculate. Someone go and fetch a cart.”
He fingered his ear, which had been nicked by the tip of the sword. He was not, by nature, an unkind man, but at this moment he was certain that he would prefer the thickness of a dragon’s hide between himself and Sybil Ramkin when she woke up.
“Weren’t we supposed to kill her pet dragons, sir?” said another guard. “I thought Mr Wonse said something about killing all the dragons.”
“That was just a threat we were supposed to make,” said the captain.
The guard’s brow furrowed. “You sure, sir? I thought-”
The captain had had enough of this. Screaming harpies and broadswords making a noise like tearing silk in the air beside him had severely ruined his capacity for seeing the other fellow’s point of view.
“Oh, you thought, did you?” he growled. “A thinker, are you? Do you think you’d be suitable for another posting, then? City guard, maybe? They’re full of thinkers, they are.”
There was an uncomfortable titter from the rest of the guards.
“If you’d thought, ” added the captain sarcastically, "you’d have thought that the king is hardly going to want other dragons dead, is he? They’re probably distant relatives or something. I mean, it wouldn’t want us to go around killing its own kind, would it?”
“Well, sir, people do, sir,” said the guard sulkily.
“Ah, well,” said the captain. “That’s different.” He tapped the side of his helmet meaningfully. “That’s ‘cos we’re intelligent.”
Vimes landed in damp straw and also in pitch darkness, although after a while his eyes became accustomed to the gloom and he could make out the walls of the dungeon.
It hadn’t been built for gracious living. It was basically just a space containing all the pillars and arches that supported the palace. At the far end a small grille high on the wall let in a mere suspicion of grubby, second-hand light.
There was another square hole in the floor. It was also barred. The bars were quite rusty, though. It occurred to Vimes that he could probably work them loose eventually, and then all he would have to do was slim down enough to go through a nine-inch hole.
What the dungeon did not contain was any rats, scorpions, cockroaches or snakes. It had once contained snakes, it was true, because Vimes’s sandals crunched on small, long white skeletons.
He crept cautiously along one damp wall, wondering where the rhythmic scraping sound was coming from. He rounded a squat pillar, and found out.
The Patrician was shaving, squinting into a scrap of mirror propped against the pillar to catch the light. No, Vimes realised, not propped. Supported, in fact. By a rat. It was a large rat, with red eyes.
The Patrician nodded to him without apparent surprise.
“Oh,” he said. “Vimes, isn’t it? I heard you were on the way down. Jolly good. You had better tell the kitchen staff-” and here Vimes realised that the man was speaking to the rat-“that there will be two for lunch. Would you like a beer, Vimes?”
“What?” said Vimes.
“I imagine you would. Pot luck, though, I am afraid. Skrp’s people are bright enough, but they seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to labels on bottles.”
Lord Vetinari patted his face with a towel and dropped it on the floor. A grey shape darted from the shadows and dragged it away down the floor grille.
Then he said, “Very well, Skrp. You may go.” The rat twitched its whiskers at him, leaned the mirror against the wall, and trotted off.
“You’re waited on by rats?” said Vimes.
“They help out, you know. They’re not really very efficient, I’m afraid. It’s their paws.”
“But, but, but,” said Vimes. “I mean, how?”
“I suspect Skrp’s people have tunnels that extend into the University,” Lord Vetinari went on. “Although I think they were probably pretty bright to start with.”
At least Vimes understood that bit. It was well known that thaumic radiations affected animals living around the Unseen University campus, sometimes prodding them towards minute analogues of human civilisation and even mutating some of them into entirely new and specialised species, such as the .303 bookworm and the wallfish. And, as the man said, rats were quite bright to start with. “But they’re helping you?” said Vimes. “Mutual. It’s mutual. Payment for services rendered, you might say,” said the Patrician, sitting down on what Vimes couldn’t help noticing was a small velvet cushion. On a low shelf, so as to be handy, were a notepad and a neat row of books. “How can you help rats, sir?” he said weakly. “Advice. I advise them, you know.” The Patrician leaned back. “That’s the trouble with people like Wonse,” he said. “They never know when to stop. Rats, snakes and scorpions. It was sheer bedlam in here when I came. The rats were getting the worst of it, too.”
And Vimes thought he was beginning to get the drift. “You mean you sort of trained them?” he said. “Advised. Advised. I suppose it’s a knack,” said Lord Vetinari modestly.
Vimes wondered how it was done. Did the rats side with the scorpions against the snakes and then, when the snakes were beaten, invite the scorpions to a celebratory slap-up meal and eat them? Or were individual scorpions hired with large amounts of, oh, whatever it-was scorpions ate, to sidle up to selected leading snakes at night and sting them?
He remembered hearing once about a man who, locked up in a cell for years, trained little birds and created a sort of freedom. And he thought of ancient sailors, shorn of the sea by old age and infirmity, who spent their days making big ships in little bottles.
Then he thought of the Patrician, robbed of his city, sitting cross-legged on the grey floor in the dim dungeon and recreating it around him, encouraging in miniature all the little rivalries, power struggles and factions. He thought of him as a sombre, brooding statue amid paving stones alive with slinking shadows and sudden, political death. It had probably been easier than ruling Ankh, which had larger vermin who didn’t have to use both hands to carry a knife.
There was a clink over by the drain. Half a dozen rats appeared, dragging something wrapped in a cloth. They rathandled it past the grille and, with great effort, hauled it to the Patrician’s feet. He leaned down and undid the knot.
“We seem to have cheese, chicken legs, celery, a piece of rather stale bread and a nice bottle, oh, a nice bottle apparently of Merckle and Stingbat’s Very Famous Brown Sauce. Beer, I said, Skrp.” The leading rat twitched its nose at him. “Sorry about this, Vimes. They can’t read, you see. They don’t seem to get the hang of the concept. But they’re very good at listening. They bring me all the news.”
“I see you’re very comfortable here,” said Vimes weakly.
“Never build a dungeon you wouldn’t be happy to spend the night in yourself,” said the Patrician, laying out the food on the cloth. “The world would be a happier place if more people remembered that.”
“We all thought you had built secret tunnels and suchlike,” said Vimes.
“Can’t imagine why,” said the Patrician. “One would have to keep on running. So inefficient. Whereas here I am at the hub of things. I hope you understand that, Vimes. Never trust any ruler who puts his faith in tunnels and bunkers and escape routes. The chances are that his heart isn’t in the job.”