Nobby looked innocent. “Well, I thought we might as well make a cup of tea before we go out. It’s a shame to waste-”
“Take it off him!”
Noon came. The fog didn’t lift but it did thin a bit, to allow a pale yellow haze where the sun should have been.
Although the passage of years had turned the post of Captain of the Watch into something rather shabby, it still meant that Vimes was entitled to a seat at official occasions. The pecking order had moved it, though, so that now he was in the lowest tier on the rickety bleachers between the Master of the Fellowship of Beggars and the head of the Teachers’ Guild. He didn’t mind that. Anything was better than the top row, among the Assassins, Thieves, Merchants and all the other things that had floated to the top of society. He never knew what to talk about. Anyway, the teacher was restful company since he didn’t do much but clench and unclench his hands occasionally, and whimper.
“Something wrong with your neck, Captain?” said the chief beggar politely, as they waited for the coaches.
“What?” said Vimes distractedly.
“You keep on staring upwards,” said the beggar.
“Hmm? Oh. No. Nothing wrong,” said Vimes.
The beggar wrapped his velvet cloak around him.
“You couldn’t by any chance spare-” he paused, calculating a sum in accordance with his station- “about three hundred dollars for a twelve-course civic banquet, could you?”
“Fair enough. Fair enough,” said the chief beggar amiably. He sighed. It wasn’t a rewarding job, being chief beggar. It was the differentials that did for you. Low-grade beggars made a reasonable enough living on pennies, but people tended to look the other way when you asked them for a sixteen-bedroom mansion for the night.
Vimes resumed his study of the sky.
Up on the dais the High Priest of Blind Io, who last night by dint of elaborate ecumenical argument and eventually by a club with nails in it had won the right to crown the king, fussed over his preparations. By the small portable sacrificial altar a tethered billy goat was peacefully chewing the cud and possibly thinking, in Goat: What a lucky billy goat I am, to be given such a good view of the proceedings. This is going to be something to tell the kids.
Vimes scanned the diffused outlines of the nearest buildings.
A distant cheering suggested that the ceremonial procession was on its way.
There was a scuffle of activity around the dais as Lupine Wonse chivvied a scramble of servants who rolled a purple carpet down the steps.
Across the square, amongst the ranks of Ankh-Morpork’s faded aristocracy, Lady Ramkin’s face tilted upwards.
Around the throne, which had been hastily created out of wood and gold foil, a number of lesser priests, some of them with slight head wounds, shuffled into position.
Vimes shifted in his seat, aware of the sound of his own heartbeat, and glared at the haze over the river.
. . . and saw the wings.
Dear Mother and Father [wrote Carrot, in between staring dutifully into the fog] Well, the town is On Fate for the coronation, which is more complicated than at home, and now I am on Day duty as well. This is a shame because, I was going to watch the Coronation with Reet, but it does not do to complain. I must go now because we are expecting a dragon any minute although it does not exist really. Your loving son, Carrot. PS. Have you seen anything of Minty lately?
“Sorry,” said Vimes. “Sorry.”
People were climbing back into their seats, many of them giving him furious looks. Wonse was white with fury.
“How could you have been so stupid? ” he raged.
Vimes stared at his own fingers.
“I thought I saw-” he began.
“It was a raven! You know what ravens are? There must be hundreds of them in the city!”
“In the fog, you see, the size wasn’t easy to-” Vimes mumbled.
“And poor Master Greetling, you ought to have known what loud noises do to him!” The head of the Teachers’ Guild had to be led away by some kind people.
“Shouting out like that!” Wonse went on.
“Look, I said I’m sorry! It was an honest mistake!”
“I’ve had to hold up the procession and everything!”
Vimes said nothing. He could feel hundreds of amused or unsympathetic eyes on him.
“Well,” he muttered, “I’d better be getting back to the Yard-”
Wonse’s eyes narrowed. “No,” he snapped. “But you can go home, if you like. Or anywhere your fancies take you. Give me your badge.”
Wonse held out his hand.
“Your badge,” he repeated.
“That’s what I said. I want to keep you out of trouble.”
Vimes looked at him in astonishment. “But it’s my badge!”
“And you’re going to give it to me,” said Wonse grimly. “By order of the king.”
“What d’you mean? He doesn’t even know!” Vimes heard the wailing in his own voice.
Wonse scowled. “But he will,” he said. “And I don’t expect he’ll even bother to appoint a successor.”
Vimes slowly undipped the verdigrised disc of copper, weighed it in his hand, and then tossed it to Wonse without a word.
For a moment he considered pleading, but something rebelled. He turned, and stalked off through the crowd.
So that was it.
As simple as that. After half a lifetime of service. No more City Watch. Huh. Vimes kicked at the pavement. It’d be some sort of Royal Guard now.
With plumes in their damn helmets.
Well, he’d had enough. It wasn’t a proper life anyway, in the Watch. You didn’t meet people in the best of circumstances. There must be hundreds of other things he could do, and if he thought for long enough he could probably remember what some of them were.
Pseudopolis Yard was off the route of the procession, and as he stumbled into the Watch House he could hear the distant cheering beyond the rooftops. Across the city the temple gongs were being sounded.
Now they are ringing the gongs, thought Vimes, but soon they will-they will-they will not be ringing the gongs. Not much of an aphorism, he thought, but he could work on it. He had the time, now.
Vimes noticed the mess.
Errol had started eating again. He’d eaten most of the table, the grate, the coal scuttle, several lamps and the squeaky rubber hippo. Now he lay in his box again, skin twitching, whimpering in his sleep.
“A right mess you’ve made,” said Vimes enigmatically. Still, at least he wouldn’t have to tidy it up.
He opened his desk drawer.
Someone had eaten into that, too. All that was left was a few shards of glass.
Sergeant Colon hauled himself on to the parapet around the Temple of Small Gods. He was too old for this sort of thing. He’d joined for the bell ringing, not sitting around on high places waiting for dragons to find him.
He got his breath back, and peered through the fog.
“Anyone human still up here?” he whispered.
Carrot’s voice sounded dead and featureless in the dull air.
“Here I am, Sergeant,” he said.
“I was just checking if you were still here,” said Colon.
“I’m still here, Sergeant,” said Carrot, obediently.
Colon joined him.
“Just checking you were not et,” he said, trying to grin.
“I haven’t been et,” said Carrot.
“Oh,” said Colon. “Good, then.” He tapped his fingers on the damp stonework, feeling he ought to make his position absolutely clear.
“Just checking,” he repeated. “Part of my duty, see. Going around, sort of thing. It’s not that I’m frightened of being up on the roofs by myself, you understand. Thick up here, isn’t it.”
“Everything all okay?” Nobby’s muffled voice sidled its way through the thick air, quickly followed by its owner.
“Yes, Corporal,” said Carrot.
“What you doing up here?” Colon demanded.
“I was just coming up to check Lance-constable Carrot was all right,” said Nobby innocently. “What were you doing, Sergeant?”
“We’re all all right,” said Carrot, beaming. “That’s good, isn’t it.”
The two NCOs shifted uneasily and avoided looking at one another. It seemed like a long way back to their posts, across the damp, cloudy and, above all, exposed rooftops.
Colon made an executive decision.
“Sod this,” he said, and found a piece of fallen statuary to sit on. Nobby leaned on the parapet and winkled a damp dog-end from the unspeakable ashtray behind his ear.
“Heard the procession go by,” he observed. Colon filled his pipe, and struck a match on the stone beside him.
“If that dragon’s alive,” he said, blowing out a plume of smoke and turning a small patch of fog into smog, “then it’ll have got the hell away from here, I’m telling you. Not the right sort of place for dragons, a city,” he added, in the tones of someone doing a great job of convincing himself. “It’ll have gone off to somewhere where there’s high places and plenty to eat, you mark my words.”
“Somewhere like the city, you mean?” said Carrot.
“Shut up,” said the other two in unison.
“Chuck us the matches, Sergeant,” said Nobby.
Colon tossed the bundle of evil yellow-headed lucifers across the leads. Nobby struck one, which was immediately blown out. Shreds of fog drifted past him.
“Wind’s getting up,” he observed.
“Good. Can’t stand this fog,” said Colon. “What was I saying?”
“You were saying the dragon’ll be miles away,” prompted Nobby.
“Oh. Right. Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t hang around here if I could fly away. If I could fly, I wouldn’t be sitting on a roof on some manky old statue. If I could fly, I’d-”
“What statue?” said Nobby, cigarette halfway to his mouth.
“This one,” said Colon, thumping the stone. “And don’t try to give me the willies, Nobby. You know there’s hundreds of mouldy old statues up on Small Gods.”
“No I don’t,” said Nobby. “What I do know is, they were all taken down last month when they re-leaded the roof. There’s just the roof and the dome and that’s it. You have to take notice of little things like that,” he added, “when you’re detectoring.”
In the damp silence that followed Sergeant Colon looked down at the stone he was sitting on. It had a taper, and a scaly pattern, and a sort of indefinable tail-like quality. Then he followed its length up and into the rapidly-thinning fog.
On the dome of Small Gods the dragon raised its head, yawned, and unfolded its wings.
The unfolding wasn’t a simple operation. It seemed to go on for some time, as the complex biological machinery of ribs and pleats slid apart. Then, with wings outstretched, the dragon yawned, took a few steps to the edge of the roof, and launched itself into the air.
After a while a hand appeared over the edge of the parapet. It flailed around for a moment until it got a decent grip.
There was a grunt. Carrot hauled himself back on to the roof and pulled the other two up behind him. They lay flat out on the leads, panting. Carrot observed the way that the dragon’s talons had scored deep grooves in the metal. You couldn’t help noticing things like that.