It appeared to examine him for some time, turning him this way and that. Then, moving on its three free legs and flapping its wings occasionally to help with its balance, it trotted away across the plaza and headed towards the-what once had been the Patrician's palace. To what once had been the king's palace, too.
It ignored the frightened spectators silently pressing themselves against the walls. The arched gateway was shouldered aside with depressing ease. The doors themselves, tall and iron-bound and solid, lasted a surprising ten seconds before collapsing into a heap of glowing ash.
The dragon stepped through.
Lady Ramkin turned in astonishment. Vimes had started to laugh.
There was a manic edge to it and there were tears in his eyes, but it was still laughter. He laughed and laughed until he slid gently down the edge of the fountain, his legs splaying out in front of him.
“Hooray, hooray, hooray!” he giggled, almost choking.
“What on earth d'you mean?” Lady Ramkin demanded.
“Put out more flags! Blow the cymbals, roast the tocsin! We've crowned it! We've got a king after all! What ho!”
“Have you been drinking?” she snapped.
“Not yet!” sniggered Vimes. “Not yet! But I will be!”
He laughed on, knowing that when he stopped black depression was going to drop on him like a lead souffle. But he could see the future stretching out ahead of them . . .
. . . after all, it was definitely noble. And it didn't carry money, and it couldn't answer back. It could certainly do something for the inner cities, too. Like torching them to the bedrock.
We'll really do it, he thought. That's the Ankh-Morpork way. If you can't beat it or corrupt it, you pretend it was your idea in the first place.
He became aware that the small child had wandered up again. It waved its flag gently at him and said, “Can I shout hurrah again now?”
“Why not?” said Vimes. “Everyone else will.”
From the palace came the muffled sounds of complicated destruction . . .
Errol pulled a broomstick across the floor with his mouth and, whimpering with effort, hauled it upright. After a lot more whimpering and several false starts he managed to winkle the end of it between the wall and the big jar of lamp oil.
He paused for a moment, breathing like a bellows, and pushed.
The jar resisted for a moment, rocked back and forth once or twice, and then fell over and smashed on the flagstones. Crude, very badly-refined oil spread out in a black puddle.
Errol's huge nostrils twitched. Somewhere in the back of his brain unfamiliar synapses clicked like telegraph keys. Great balks of information flooded down the thick nerve cord to his nose, carrying inexplicable information about triple bonds, alkanes and geometric isomerism. However, almost all of it missed the small part of Errol's brain that was used for being Errol.
All he knew was that he was suddenly very, very thirsty.
Something major was happening in the palace. There was the occasional crash of a floor or thump of a falling ceiling . . .
In his rat-filled dungeon, behind a door with more locks than a major canal network, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork lay back and grinned in the darkness.
Outside, bonfires flared in the dusk.
Ankh-Morpork was celebrating. No-one was quite sure why, but they'd worked themselves up for a celebration tonight, barrels had been broached, oxen had been put on spits, one paper hat and celebratory mug had been issued per child, and it seemed a shame to waste all that effort. Anyway, it had been a very interesting day, and the people of Ankh-Morpork set great store by entertainment.
“The way I see it,” said one of the revellers, halfway through a huge greasy lump of half-raw meat, “a dragon as king mightn't be a bad idea. When you think it through, is what I mean.”
“It definitely looked very gracious,” said the woman to his right, as if testing the idea. “Sort of, well, sleek. Nice and smart. Not scruffy. Takes a bit of a pride in itself.'' She glared at some of the younger revellers further down the table. ”The trouble with people today is they don't take pride in themselves."
“And there's foreign policy, of course,” said a third, helping himself to a rib. “When you come to think about it.”
“What d'you mean?”
“Diplomacy,” said the rib-eater, flatly.
They thought about it. And then you could see them turning the idea around and thinking about it the other way, in a polite effort to see what the hell he was getting at.
“Dunno,” said the monarchical expert slowly. “I mean, your actual dragon, it's got these, basically, two sort of ways of negotiation. Hasn't it? I mean, it's either roasting you alive, or it isn't. Correct me if I'm wrong,” he added.
“That's my point. I mean, let's say the ambassador from Klatch comes along, you know how arrogant that lot are, suppose he says: we want this, we want that, we want the other thing. Well,” he said, beaming at them, “what we say is, shut your face unless you want to go home in ajar.”
They tried out this idea for mental fit. It had that certain something.
“They've got a big fleet, Klatch,” said the monarchist uncertainly. “Could be a bit risky, roasting diplomats. People see a pile of charcoal come back on the boat, they tend to look a bit askance.”
“Ah, then we say, Ho there, Johnny Klatchian, you no like-um, big fella lizard belong-sky bake mud hut belong-you pretty damn chop-chop.”
“We could really say that?”
“Why not? And then we say, send plenty tribute toot sweet.”
“I never did like them Klatchians,” said the woman firmly. “The stuff they eat! It's disgustin'. And gab-blin' away all the time in their heathen lingo ...”
In the shadows, a match flared.
Vimes cupped his hands around the flame, sucked on the foul tobacco, tossed the match into the gutter and slouched off down the damp, puddle-punctuated alley.
If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn't as cynical as real life.
We've got along with the other guys for centuries, he thought. Getting along has practically been all our foreign policy. Now I think I've just heard us declare war on an ancient civilisation that we've always got along with, more or less, even if they do talk funny. And after that, the world. What's worse, we'll probably win.
Similar thoughts, although with a different perspective, were going through the minds of the civic leaders of Ankh-Morpork when, next morning, each received a short note bidding them to be at the palace for a working lunch, by order.
It didn't say whose order. Or, they noted, whose lunch.
Now they were assembled in the antechamber.
And there had been changes. It had never been what you might call a select place. The Patrician had always felt that if you made people comfortable they might want to stay. The furniture had been a few very elderly chairs and, around the walls, portraits of earlier city rulers holding scrolls and things.
The chairs were still there. The portraits were not. Or, rather, the stained and cracked canvases were piled in a corner, but the gilt frames were gone.
The councillors tried to avoid one another's faces, and sat tapping their fingers on their knees.
Finally a couple of very worried-looking servants opened the doors to the main hall. Lupine Wonse lurched through.
Most of the councillors had been up all night anyway, trying to formulate some kind of policy vis-d-vis dragons, but Wonse looked as though he hadn't been to sleep in years. His face was the colour of a fermented dishcloth. Never particularly well-padded, he now looked like something out of a pyramid.
“Ah,” he intoned. “Good. Are you all here? Then perhaps you would step this way, gentlemen.”
“Er,” said the head thief, “the note mentioned lunch?”
“Yes?” said Wonse.
“With a dragon?”
“Good grief, you don't think it would eat you, do you?” said Wonse. “What an idea!”
“Never crossed me mind,” said the head thief, relief blowing from his ears like steam. ' 'The very idea. Haha."
“Haha,” said the chief merchant.
“Hoho,” said the head assassin. “The very idea.”
“No, I expect you're all far too stringy,” said Wonse. “Haha.”
“Hoho.” The temperature lowered by several degrees.
“So if you would kindly step this way?”
The great hall had changed. For one thing, it was a great deal greater. Several walls had been knocked into adjoining rooms, and the ceiling and several storeys of upper rooms had been entirely removed. The floor was a mass of rubble except in the middle of the room, which was a heap of gold-Well, goldish. It looked as though someone had scoured the palace for anything that shone or glittered. There were the picture frames, and the gold thread out of tapestries, and silver, and the occasional gem. There were also tureens from the kitchens, candlesticks, warming pans, fragments of mirror. Sparkly stuff.
The councillors were not in a position to pay much attention to this, however, because of what was hanging above their heads.
It looked like the biggest badly-rolled cigar in the universe, if the biggest badly-rolled cigar in the universe was in the habit of hanging upside down. Two talons could be dimly seen gripping the dark rafters.
Halfway between the glittering heap and the doorway a small table had been laid. The councillors noted without much surprise that the familiar ancient silverware was missing. There were china plates, and cutlery that looked as though it had very recently been whittled from bits of wood. Wonse took a seat at the head of the table and nodded to the servants.
“Please be seated, gentlemen,” he said. “I am sorry things are a little . . . different, but the king hopes you will bear with it until matters can be more suitably organised.”
“The, er,” said the head merchant.
“The king,” repeated Wonse. His voice sounded one dribble away from madness.
“Oh. The king. Right,” said the merchant. From where he was sitting he had a good view of the big hanging thing. There seemed to be some movement there, some trembling in the great folds that wrapped it. “Long life to him, say I,” he added quickly.
The first course was soup with dumplings in it. Wonse didn't have any. The rest of them ate in a terrified silence broken only by the dull chiming of wood on china.
“There are certain matters of decree to which the king feels your assent would be welcome,” said Wonse, eventually. “A pure formality, of course, and I am sorry to bother you with such petty detail.”
The big bundle appeared to sway in the breeze.
“No trouble at all,” squeaked the head thief.
“The king graciously desires it to be known,” said Wonse, “that it would be pleased to receive coronation gifts from the population at large. Nothing complex, of course. Simply any precious metals or gems they might have by them and can easily spare. I should stress, by the way, that this is by no means compulsory. Such generosity as he is confident of expecting should be an entirely voluntary act.”
The chief assassin looked sadly at the rings on his fingers, and sighed. The head merchant was already resignedly unshipping his gilt chain of office from around his neck.