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Page 51

“I, er,” he said. “If you, er. If you'd said, er. I'd, er. Dress more suitable, er. Extremely, er. Very. Er.”

She bore down upon him like a glittering siege engine.

In a sort of dream he allowed himself to be ushered to a seat. He must have eaten, because servants appeared out of nowhere with things stuffed with other things, and came back later and took the plates away. The butler reanimated occasionally to fill glass after glass with strange wines. The heat from the candles was enough to cook by. And all the time Lady Ramkin talked in a bright and brittle way-about the size of the house, the responsibilities of a huge estate, the feeling that it was time to take One's Position in Society More Seriously, while the setting sun filled the room with red and Vimes's head began to spin.

Society, he managed to think, didn't know what was going to hit it. Dragons weren't mentioned once, although after a while something under the table put its head on Vimes's knee and dribbled.

Vimes found it impossible to contribute to the conversation. He felt outflanked, beleaguered. He made one sally, hoping maybe to reach high ground from which to flee into exile.

“Where do you think they've gone?” he said.

“Where what?” said Lady Ramkin, temporarily halted.

“The dragons. You know. Errol and his wi-female.”

“Oh, somewhere isolated and rocky, I should imagine,” said Lady Ramkin. “Favourite country for dragons.”

“But it-she's a magical animal,” said Vimes. “What'll happen when the magic goes away?”

Lady Ramkin gave him a shy smile.

“Most people seem to manage,” she said.

She reached across the table and touched his hand.

“Your men think you need looking after,” she said meekly.

“Oh. Do they?” said Vimes.

“Sergeant Colon said he thought we'd get along like a maison en Flambt. ”

“Oh. Did he?”

“And he said something else,” she said. “What was it, now? Oh, yes: 'It's a million to one chance,',” said Lady Ramkin,' 'I think he said, 'but it might just work'.''

She smiled at him.

And then it arose and struck Vimes that, in her own special category, she was quite beautiful; this was the category of all the women, in his entire life, who had ever thought he was worth smiling at. She couldn't do worse, but then, he couldn't do better. So maybe it balanced out. She wasn't getting any younger but then, who was? And she had style and money and common-sense and self-assurance and all the things that he didn't, and she had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city.

And eventually, under siege, you did what Ankh-Morpork had always done-unbar the gates, let the conquerors in, and make them your own.

How did you start? She seemed to be expecting something.

He shrugged, and picked up his wine glass and sought for a phrase. One crept into his wildly resonating mind.

“Here's looking at you, kid,” he said.

The gongs of various midnights banged out the old day.

(. . . and further towards the Hub, where the Ram-top Mountains joined the forbidding spires of the central massif, where strange hairy creatures roamed the eternal snows, where blizzards howled around the freezing peaks, the lights of a lone lamasery shone out over the high valleys. In the courtyard a couple of yellow-robed monks stacked the last case of small green bottles on to a sleigh, ready for the first leg of the incredibly difficult journey down to the distant plains. The box was labelled, in careful brush-strokes, “Mstr. C.M.O.T. Dibbler, Ankh-Morpork.”

“You know, Lobsang,” said one of them, “one cannot help wondering what it is he does with this stuff.”)

Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Colon lounged in the shadows near the Mended Drum, but straightened up as Carrot came out bearing a tray. Detritus the troll stepped aside respectfully.

“Here we are, lads,” said Carrot. “Three pints. On the house.”

“Bloody hell, I never thought you'd do it,” said Colon, grasping a handle. “What did you say to him?”

“I just explained how it was the duty of all good citizens to help the guard at all times,” said Carrot innocently, ' 'and I thanked him for his co-operation.''

“Yeah, and the rest,” said Nobby.

“No, that was all I said.”

“Then you must have a really convincing tone of voice.”

“Ah. Well, make the most of it, lads, while it lasts,” said Colon.

They drank thoughtfully. It was a moment of supreme peace, a few minutes snatched from the realities of real life. It was a brief bite of stolen fruit and enjoyed as such. No-one in the whole city seemed to be fighting or stabbing or making affray and, just for now, it was possible to believe that this wonderful state of affairs might continue.

And even if it didn't, then there were memories to get them through. Of running, and people getting out of the way. Of the looks on the faces of the horrible palace guard. Of, when all the thieves and heroes and gods had failed, of being there. Of nearly doing things nearly right.

Nobby shoved the pot on a convenient window sill, stamped some life back into his feet and blew on his fingers. A brief fumble in the dark recesses of his ear produced a fragment of cigarette.

“What a time, eh?” said Colon contentedly, as the flare of a match illuminated the three of them.

The others nodded. Yesterday seemed like a lifetime ago, even now. But you could never forget something like that, no matter who else did, no matter what happened from now on.

“If I never see any bloody king it'll be too soon,” said Nobby.

“I don't reckon he was the right king, anyway,” said Carrot. “Talking of kings: anyone want a crisp?”

' 'There's no right longs,'' said Colon, but without much rancour. Ten dollars a month was going to make a big difference. Mrs Colon was acting very differently towards a man bringing home another ten dollars a month. Her notes on the kitchen table were a lot more friendly.

“No, but I mean, there's nothing special about having an ancient sword,” said Carrot. “Or a birthmark. I mean, look at me. I've got a birthmark on my arm.”

“My brother's got one, too,” said Colon. “Shaped like a boat.”

“Mine's more like a crown thing,” said Carrot.

“Oho, that makes you a king, then,” grinned Nobby. “Stands to reason.”

“I don't see why. My brother's not an admiral,” said Colon reasonably.

“And I've got this sword,” said Carrot.

He drew it. Colon took it from his hand, and turned it over and over in the light from the flare over the Drum's door. The blade was dull and short, and notched like a saw. It was well-made and there might have been an inscription on it once, but it had long ago been worn into indecipherability by sheer use.

“It's a nice sword,” he said thoughtfully. “Well-balanced.”

“But not one for a king,” said Carrot. “Kings' swords are big and shiny and magical and have jewels on and when you hold them up they catch the light, ting. ”

“Ting, ” said Colon. “Yes. I suppose they have to, really.”

“I'm just saying you can't go round giving people thrones just because of stuff like that,'' said Carrot. ”That's what Captain Vimes said."

“Nice job, mind,” said Nobby. “Good hours, kinging.”

“Hmm?” Colon had momentarily been lost in a little world of speculation. Real kings had shiny swords, obviously. Except, except, except maybe your real real king of, like, days of yore, he would have a sword that didn't sparkle one bit but was bloody efficient at cutting things. Just a thought.

“I say kinging's a good job,” Nobby repeated. “Short hours.”

“Yeah. Yeah. But not long days,” said Colon. He gave Carrot a thoughtful look.

“Ah. There's that, of course.”

“Anyway, my father says being king's too much like hard work,” said Carrot. “All the surveying and assaying and everything.” He drained his pint. “It's not the kind of thing for the likes of us. Us-” he looked proudly-“guards. You all right, Sergeant?”

“Hmm? What? Oh. Yes.” Colon shrugged. What about it, anyway? Maybe things turned out for the best. He finished the beer. “Best be off,” he said. “What time was it?”

“About twelve o'clock,” said Carrot.

“Anything else?”

Carrot gave it some thought.' 'And all's well?'' he said.

“Right. Just testing.”

“You know,” said Nobby, “the way you say it, lad, you could almost believe it was true.”

Let the eye of attention pull back . . .

This is the Disc, world and mirror of worlds, borne through space on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the back of Great A'Tuin the Sky Turtle. Around the Rim of this world the ocean pours off endlessly into the night. At its Hub rises the ten-mile spike of the Cori Celesti, on whose glittering summit the gods play games with the fates of men . . .

. . . if you know what the rules are, and who are the players.

On the far edge of the Disc the sun was rising. The light of the morning began to flow across the patchwork of seas and continents, but it did so slowly, because light is tardy and slightly heavy in the presence of a magical field.

On the dark crescent, where the old light of sunset had barely drained from the deepest valleys, two specks, one big, one small, flew out of the shadow, skimmed low across the swells of the Rim ocean, and struck out determinedly over the totally unfathomable, star-dotted depths of space.

Perhaps the magic would last. Perhaps it wouldn't. But then, what does?

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