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26.12.2018

“In my opinion,” said Lord Vetinari, “it’s some kind of warfare. Possibly a rival gang has hired a wizard. A little local difficulty.”

“Could be linked to all this strange thieving, sir,” volunteered Wonse.

“But there’s the footprints, sir,” said Vimes doggedly.

“We’re close to the river,” said the Patrician. “Possibly it was, perhaps, a wading bird of some sort. A mere coincidence,” he added, “but I should cover them over, if I were you. We don’t want people getting the wrong idea and jumping to silly conclusions, do we?” he added sharply.

Vimes gave in.

“As you wish, sir,” he said, looking at his sandals.

The Patrician patted him on the shoulder.

“Never mind,” he said. “Carry on. Good show of initiative, that man. Patrolling in the Shades, too. Well done.”

He turned, and almost walked into the wall of chain mail that was Carrot.

To his horror, Captain Vimes saw his newest recruit point politely to the Patrician’s coach. Around it, fully-armed and wary, were six members of the Palace Guard, who straightened up and took a wary interest. Vimes disliked them intensely. They had plumes on their helmets. He hated plumes on a guard.

He heard Carrot say. “Excuse me, sir, is this your coach, sir?” and the Patrician looked him blankly up and down and said, “It is. Who are you, young man?”

Carrot saluted. “Lance-constable Carrot, sir.”

“Carrot, Carrot. That name rings a bell.”

Lupine Wonse, who had been hovering behind him, whispered in the Patrician’s ear. His face brightened.’ ‘Ah, the young thief-taker. A little error there, I think, but commendable. No person is above the law, eh?"

“No, sir,” said Carrot.

“Commendable, commendable,” said the Patrician. “And now, gentlemen-”

“About your coach, sir,” said Carrot doggedly, “I couldn’t help noticing that the front offside wheel, contrary to the-”

He’s going to arrest the Patrician, Vimes told himself, the thought trickling through his brain like an icy rivulet. He’s actually going to arrest the Patrician. The supreme ruler. He’s going to arrest him. This is what he’s actually going to do. The boy doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. Oh, wouldn’t it be a good idea if he knew the meaning of the word ‘survival’ . . .

And I can’t get my jaw muscles to move.

We’re all dead. Or worse, we’re all detained at the Patrician’s pleasure. And as we all know, he’s seldom that pleased.

It was at this precise moment that Sergeant Colon earned himself a metaphorical medal.

“Lance-constable Carrot!” he shouted. "Attention! Lance-constable Carrot, abou-uta turna! Lance-constable Carrot, qui-uck marcha!”

Carrot brought himself to attention like a barn being raised and stared straight ahead with a ferocious expression of acute obedience.

“Well done, that man,” said the Patrician thoughtfully, as Carrot strode stiffly away. “Carry on, Captain. And do come down heavily on any silly rumours about dragons, right?”

“Yes, sir,” said Captain Vimes.

“Goodman.”

The coach rattled off, the bodyguard running alongside.

Behind him, Captain Vimes was only vaguely aware of the sergeant yelling at the retreating Carrot to stop.

He was thinking.

He looked at the prints in the mud. He used his regulation pike, which he knew was exactly seven feet long, to measure their size and the distance between them. He whistled under his breath. Then, with considerable caution, he followed the alley around the corner; it led to a small, padlocked and dirt-encrusted door in the back of a timber warehouse.

There was something very wrong, he thought.

The prints come out of the alley, but they don’t go in. And we don’t often get any wading birds in the Ankh, mainly because the pollution would eat their legs away and anyway, it’s easier for them to walk on the surface.

He looked up. A myriad washing lines criss-crossed the narrow rectangle of the sky as efficiently as a net.

So, he thought, something big and fiery came out of this alley but didn’t come into it.

And the Patrician is very worried about it.

I’ve been told to forget about it.

He noticed something else at the side of the alley, and bent down and picked up a fresh, empty peanut shell.

He tossed it from hand to hand, staring at nothing.

Right now, he needed a drink. But perhaps it ought to wait.

The Librarian knuckled his way urgently along the dark aisles between the slumbering bookshelves.

The rooftops of the city belonged to him. Oh, assassins and thieves might make use of them, but he’d long ago found the forest of chimneys, buttresses, gargoyles and weathervanes a convenient and somehow comforting alternative to the streets.

At least, up until now.

It had seemed amusing and instructive to follow the Watch into the Shades, an urban jungle which held no fears for a 300-lb ape. But now the nightmare he had seen while brachiating across a dark alley would, if he had been human, have made him doubt the evidence of his own eyes.

As an ape, he had no doubts whatsoever about his eyes and believed them all the time.

Right now he wanted to concentrate them urgently on a book that might hold a clue. It was in a section no-one bothered with much these days; the books in there were not really magical. Dust lay accusingly on the floor.

Dust with footprints in it.

“Oook?” said the Librarian, in the warm gloom.

He proceeded cautiously now, realising with a sense of inevitability that the footprints seemed to have the same destination in mind as he did.

He turned a corner and there it was.

The section.

The bookcase.

The shelf.

The gap.

There are many horrible sights in the multiverse. Somehow, though, to a soul attuned to the subtle rhythms of a library, there are few worse sights than a hole where a book ought to be.

Someone had stolen a book.

In the privacy of the Oblong Office, his personal sanctum, the Patrician paced up and down. He was dictating a stream of instructions.

“And send some men to paint that wall,” he finished.

Lupine Wonse raised an eyebrow.

“Is that wise, sir?” he said.

“You don’t think a frieze of ghastly shadows will cause comment and speculation?” said the Patrician sourly.

“Not as much as fresh paint in the Shades,” said Wonse evenly.

The Patrician hesitated a moment. “Good point,” he snapped. “Have some men demolish it.”

He reached the end of the room, spun on his heel, and stalked up it again. Dragons! As if there were not enough important, enough real things to take up his time.

“Do you believe in dragons?” he said.

Wonse shook his head. “They’re impossible, sir.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Lord Vetinari. He reached the opposite wall, turned.

“Would you like me to investigate further?” said Wonse.

“Yes. Do so.”

“And I shall ensure the Watch take great care,” said Wonse.

The Patrician stopped his pacing. “The Watch? The Watch? My dear chap, the Watch are a bunch of incompetents commanded by a drunkard. It’s taken me years to achieve it. The last thing we need to concern ourselves with is the Watch.”

He thought for a moment. “Ever seen a dragon, Wonse? One of the big ones, I mean? Oh, they’re impossible. You said.”

“They’re just legend, really. Superstition,” said Wonse.

“Hmm,” said the Patrician. “And the thing about legends, of course, is that they are legendary.”

“Exactly, sir.”

“Even so-” The Patrician paused, and stared at Wonse for some time. “Oh, well,” he said. “Sort it out. I’m not having any of this dragon business. It’s the type of thing that makes people restless. Put a stop to it.”

When he was alone he stood and looked out gloomily over the twin city. It was drizzling again.

Ankh-Morpork! Brawling city of a hundred thousand souls! And, as the Patrician privately observed, ten times that number of actual people. The fresh rain glistened on the panorama of towers and rooftops, all unaware of the teeming, rancorous world it was dropping into. Luckier rain fell on upland sheep, or whispered gently over forests, or patterned somewhat incestuously into the sea. Rain that fell on Ankh-Morpork, though, was rain that was in trouble. They did terrible things to water, in Ankh-Morpork. Being drunk was only the start of its problems.

The Patrician liked to feel that he was looking out over a city that worked. Not a beautiful city, or a renowned city, or a well-drained city, and certainly not an architecturally favoured city; even its most enthusiastic citizens would agree that, from a high point of vantage, Ankh-Morpork looked as though someone had tried to achieve in stone and wood an effect normally associated with the pavements outside all-night takeaways.

But it worked. It spun along cheerfully like a gyroscope on the lip of a catastrophe curve. And this, the Patrician firmly believed, was because no one group was ever powerful enough to push it over. Merchants, thieves, assassins, wizards-all competed energetically in the race without really realising that it needn’t be a race at all, and certainly not trusting one another enough to stop and wonder who had marked out the course and was holding the starting flag.

The Patrician disliked the word ‘dictator.’ It affronted him. He never told anyone what to do. He didn’t have to, that was the wonderful part. A large part of his life consisted of arranging matters so that this state of affairs continued.

Of course, there were various groups seeking his overthrow, and this was right and proper and the sign of a vigorous and healthy society. No-one could call him unreasonable about the matter. Why, hadn’t he founded most of them himself? And what was so beautiful was the way in which they spent nearly all their time bickering with one another.

Human nature, the Patrician always said, was a marvellous thing. Once you understood where its levers were.

He had an unpleasant premonition about this dragon business. If ever there was a creature that didn’t have any obvious levers, it was a dragon. It would have to be sorted out.

The Patrician didn’t believe in unnecessary cruelty.[12] He did not believe in pointless revenge. But he was a great believer in the need for things to be sorted out.

Funnily enough, Captain Vimes was thinking the same thing. He found he didn’t like the idea of citizens, even of the Shades, being turned into a mere ceramic tint.

And it had been done in front of the Watch, more or less. As if the Watch didn’t matter, as if the Watch was just an irrelevant detail. That was what rankled.

Of course, it was true. That only made it worse.

What was making him even angrier was that he had disobeyed orders. He had scuffed up the tracks, certainly. But in the bottom drawer of his ancient desk, hidden under a pile of empty bottles, was a plaster cast. He could feel it staring at him through three layers of wood.

He couldn’t imagine what had got into him. And now he was going even further out on to the limb.

He reviewed his, for want of a better word, troops. He’d asked the senior pair to turn up in plain clothes. This meant that Sergeant Colon, who’d worn uniform all his life, was looking red-faced and uncomfortable in the suit he wore for funerals. Whereas Nobby-