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26.12.2018

“What do you mean?” said Lady Ramkin, not tearing her gaze from its armoured flanks.

What did he mean? What did he mean? He thought fast.

“It’s just not physically possible, that’s what I mean,” he said. “Nothing that heavy should be able to fly, or breathe fire like that. I told you.”

“But it looks real enough. I mean, you’d expect a magical creature to be, well, gauzy.”

“Oh, it’s real. It’s real all right,” said Ramkin bitterly. “But supposing it needs magic like we need, like we need . . . sunlight? Or food.”

“It’s a thaumivore, you mean?”

“I just think it eats magic, that’s all,” said Vimes, who had not had a classical education. “I mean, all these little swamp dragons, always on the point of extinction, suppose one day back in prehistoric times some of them found out how to use magic?”

‘ "There used to be a lot of natural magic around once,” said Lady Ramkin thoughtfully.

“There you are, then. After all, creatures use the air and the sea. I mean, if there’s a natural resource around, something’s going to use it, aren’t they? Then it wouldn’t matter about bad digestion and weight and wing size and so on, because the magic would take care of it. Wow!”

But you’d need a lot, he thought. He wasn’t certain how much magic you’d need to change the world enough to let tons of armoured carcass flit around the sky like a swallow, but he’d bet it was lots.

All those thefts. Someone’d been feeding the dragon.

He looked at the bulk of the Unseen University Library of magic books, the greatest accumulation of distilled magical power on the Discworld.

And now the dragon had learned how to feed itself.

He became terribly aware that Lady Ramkin had moved, and saw to his horror that she was striding towards the dragon, chin stuck out like an anvil.

“What the hell are you doing?” he whispered loudly.

“If it’s descended from the swamp dragons then I can probably control it,” she called back. “You have to look them in the eye and use a no-nonsense tone of voice. They can’t resist a stern human voice. They don’t have the willpower, you know. They’re just big softies.”

To his shame, Vimes realised that his legs were going to have nothing to do with any mad dash to drag her back.

His pride didn’t like that, but his body pointed out that it wasn’t his pride that stood a very reasonable chance of being thinly laminated to the nearest building. Through ears burning with embarrassment he heard her say: “Bad boy!”

The echoes of that stern injunction rang out across the plaza.

Oh gods, he thought, is that how you train a dragon? Point them at the melted patch on the floor and threaten to rub their nose in it?

He risked a peep over the horsetrough.

The dragon’s head was swinging around slowly, like a crane jib. It had some difficulty focusing on her, right below it. Vimes could see the great red eyes narrow as the creature tried to squint down the length of its own nose. It looked puzzled. He wasn’t surprised.

“Sit!” bellowed Lady Ramkin, in a tone so undisobeyable that even Vimes felt his legs involuntarily sag. “Good boy! I think I may have a lump of coke somewhere-” She patted her pockets.

Eye contact. That was the important thing. She really, Vimes thought, shouldn’t have looked down even for a moment.

The dragon raised one talon in a leisurely fashion and pinned her to the ground.

As Vimes half-rose in horror Errol escaped from his grip and cleared the trough in one leap. He bounced across the plaza in a series of wing-whirring arcs, mouth gaping, emitting wheezing burps, trying to flame.

He was answered with a tongue of blue-white fire that melted a streak of bubbling rock several yards long but failed to strike the challenger. It was hard to pick him out of the air because, quite clearly, even Errol didn’t know where he was going to be, or what way up he was going to be when he got there. His only hope at this point lay in movement, and he vaulted and spun between the increasingly furious bursts of fire like a scared but determined random particle.

The great dragon reared up with the sound of a dozen anchor chains being thrown into a corner, and tried to bat the tormenter out of the air.

Vimes’s legs gave in at that point and decided that they might allow themselves to be heroic legs for a while. He scurried across the intervening space, sword at the ready for what good it might do, grabbed Lady Ramkin by an arm and a handful of bedraggled ballgown, and swung her on to his shoulder.

He got several yards before the essential bad judgement of this move dawned on him.

He went “Gngh”. His vertebrae and knees were trying to fuse into one lump. Purple spots flashed on and off in front of his eyes. On top of it all, something unfamiliar but apparently made of whalebone was poking sharply into the back of his neck.

He managed a few more steps by sheer momentum, knowing that when he stopped he was going to be utterly crushed. The Ramkins hadn’t bred for beauty, they’d bred for healthy solidity and big bones, and they’d got very good at it over the centuries.

A gout of livid dragonfire crackled into the flagstones a few feet away.

Afterwards he wondered if he’d only imagined leaping several inches into the air and covering the rest of the distance to the horsetrough at a respectable run. Perhaps, in extremis, everyone learned the kind of instant movement that was second nature to Nobby. Anyway, the horsetrough was behind him and Lady Ramkin was in his arms, or at least was pinning his arms to the ground. He managed to free them and tried to massage a bit of life back. What did you do next? She didn’t seem to be injured. He recalled something about loosening a person’s clothing, but in Lady Ramkin’s case that might be dangerous without special tools.

She solved the immediate problem by grabbing the edge of the trough and hauling herself upright.

“Right,” she said,’ ‘it’s the slipper for you-” Her eyes focused on Vimes for the first time.

‘ ‘What the hell’s going on-" she began again, and then caught the scene over his shoulder.

“Oh sod,” she said. “Pardon my Klatchian.”

Errol was running out of energy. The stubby wings were indeed incapable of real flight, and he was remaining airborne solely by flapping madly, like a chicken. The great talons swished through the air. One of them caught one of the plaza’s fountains, and demolished it.

The next one swatted Errol neatly.

He shot over Vimes’s head in a straight rising line, hit a roof behind him, and slid down it.

“You’ve got to catch him!” shouted Lady Vimes. “You must! It’s vital!”

Vimes stared at her, and then dived forward as Errol’s pear-shaped body slithered over the edge of the roof and dropped. He was surprisingly heavy.

“Thank goodness,” said Lady Ramkin, struggling to her feet.’ ‘They explode so easily, you know. It could have been very dangerous."

They remembered the other dragon. It wasn’t the exploding sort. It was the killing-people kind. They turned, slowly.

The creature loomed over them, sniffed and then, as if they were of no importance at all, turned away. It sprang ponderously into the air and, with one slow flap of its wings, began to scull leisurely away down the plaza and up and into the mists that were rolling over the city.

Vimes was currently more concerned with the smaller dragon in his hands. Its stomach was rumbling alarmingly. He wished he’d paid more attention to the book on dragons. Was a stomach noise like this a sign they were about to explode, or was the point you had to watch out for the point when the rumbling stopped?

“We’ve got to follow it!” said Lady Ramkin. “What happened to the carriage?”

Vimes waved a hand vaguely in the direction that, as far as he could tell, the horses had take in their panic.

Enrol sneezed a cloud of warm gas that smelled worse than something walled up in a cellar, pawed the air weakly, licked Vimes’s face with a tongue like a hot cheese-grater, struggled out of his arms and trotted away.

“ Where’s he off to?” boomed Lady Ramkin, emerging from the mists dragging the horses behind her. They didn’t want to come, their hooves were scraping up sparks, but they were fighting a losing battle.

“He’s still trying to challenge it!” said Vines. “You’d think he’d give in, wouldn’t you?”

“They fight like blazes,” said Lady Ramkin, as he climbed on to the coach. “It’s a matter of making your opponent explode, you see.”

“I thought, in Nature, the defeated animal just rolls on its back hi submission and that’s the end of it,” said Vimes, as they clattered after the disappearing swamp dragon.

“Wouldn’t work with dragons,” said Lady Ramkin. “Some daft creature rolls on its back, you disembowel it. That’s how they look at it. Almost human, really.”

The clouds were clustered thickly over Ankh-Morpork. Above them, the slow golden sunlight of the Disc-world unrolled.

The dragon sparkled in the dawn as it trod the air joyously, doing impossible turns and rolls for the sheer delight of it. Then it remembered the business of the day.

They’d had the presumption to summon it …

Below it, the rank wandered from side to side up the Street of Small Gods. Despite the thick fog it was beginning to get busy.

“What d’you call them things, like thin stairs?” said Sergeant Colon.

“Ladders,” said Carrot.

“Lot of ’em about,” said Nobby. He mooched over to the nearest one, and kicked it.

“Oi!” A figure struggled down, half buried in a string of flags.

“What’s going on?” said Nobby.

The flag bearer looked him up and down.

“Who wants to know, tiddler?” he said.

“Excuse me, we do,” said Carrot, looming out of the fog like an iceberg. The man gave a sickly grin.

“Well, it’s the coronation, isn’t it,” he said. “Got to get the streets ready for the coronation. Got to have the flags up. Got to get the old bunting out, haven’t we?”

Nobby gave the dripping finery a jaundiced look. “Doesn’t look that old to me,” he said. “It looks new. What’re them fat saggy things on that shield?”

“Those are the royal hippos of Ankh,” said the man proudly. “Reminders of our noble heritage.”

“How long have we had a noble heritage, then?” said Nobby.

“Since yesterday, of course.”

“You can’t have a heritage in a day,” said Carrot. “It has to last a long time.”

“If we haven’t got one,” said Sergeant Colon, “I bet we’ll soon have had one. My wife left me a note about it. All these years, and she turns out to be a monarchist.” He kicked the pavement viciously. “Huh!” he said. “A man knocks his pipes out for thirty years to put a bit of meat on the table, but all she’s talking about is some boy who gets to be king for five minutes’ work. Know what was for my tea last night? Beef dripping sandwiches!”

This did not have the expected response from the two bachelors.

“Cor!” said Nobby.

“Real beef dripping?” said Carrot. “The kind with the little crunchy bits on top? And shiny blobs of fat?”

“Can’t remember when I last addressed the crust on a bowl of dripping,” mused Nobby, in a gastronomic heaven. “With just a bit of salt and pepper, you’ve got a meal fit for a k-”