We’ve made a deal with a dragon that we can’t undo. Back to Guards! Guards!
The Watch is stationed about for the coronation (after Carrot makes note that he thinks Errol must be ill because he’s far too hot). Vimes causes a ruckus at the sight of raven’s wings, which infuriates Wonse, who tells him to turn over his badge. Vimes heads back to the Watch House while his officers talk to each other through the fog. What Colon thinks is a statue turns out to be the dragon, and it takes to the sky. Vimes hears the screams outside, puts on his helmet, and rushes out to help. He runs into a child and has to threaten it to get it to leave, then Lady Ramkin jumps down from a nearby fountain. They watch the priest of Blind Io give the dragon the crown meant for the coronation—but it’s only gold-foiled, so that dragon burns the fellow to ash. Lupine Wonse tries to flee, but the dragon snatches him up and head for the palace. Vimes is hysterical with laughter for the monarch they’ve actually crowned.
True to Vimes’s expectation, the people of Ankh-Morpork do begin to accept the idea of a dragon as a king. The various leaders are summoned to a lunch. Wonse is present for the proceedings and explains the new system to them; they are now a privy council, and they will advise everyone to pay homage to the king with treasure. In addition, they will be reconsidering their relationships with various outlying kingdoms and getting a great deal of treasure from them. The king will need to be fed once a month, unmarried women of any age. As they leave, one of the councillor’s notes that Wonse had said two final words very quietly: “Help me.” This is because Wonse is the Supreme Grand Master of the Elucidated Brethren, and he’s being held by the dragon, which can communicate directly to him. Wonse tells the dragon that this plan is better than terrorizing people, and soon they’ll act as though it was their own idea. The dragon is mortified by that notion, but lets him continue on, though it won’t budge on the eating people bit, insisting that’s what Wonse wanted anyhow.
Nobby, Colon, and Carrot are back at Pseudopolis Yard, looking over a dwarfish cake Carrot’s mother sent along. They get to talking about Vimes’s departure, and about how none of them wants to be captain. They head out at night, and run into palace guards who let them know about the decree of eating virgins and tell them they have to inform the public. Colon doesn’t believe the people will stand for it. Vimes brings Errol to Lady Ramkin over his odd eating habits, and insists that he stay with her; he’s got to be leaving and looking at prospects elsewhere now that he’s fired. Lady Ramkin tries to tell him that he’s brave, but Vimes won’t have it, and they part awkwardly. Suddenly, Vimes has a thought and rushes off. Colon gives the news to the people and almost gets them on board with resisting the dragon, but plenty of them think this is a pretty decent plan. One fellow with daughters dissents, but the dragon appears and promptly vaporizes him. The dragon starts several fires after that to make a point, and all dissent seems to die down.
Carrot mentions that the way you kill a dragon is to hit it in its “voonerable” spots, which is what his dad taught him. Nobby notes that Colon is reportedly great at archery, so he should give it a go. Colon insists that if he’s going to, Nobby has to accompany him, and Carrot offers to come along too. Vimes shows up in the Patrician’s office where Wonse is, claiming to have figured it all out. Wonse tries to pass off the problem as the Patrician’s idea, but Vimes tells him that he noticed he ran from the coronation the same way the hooded figure ran from the Elucidated Brethren’s demise. Wonse says he’ll give Vimes his job back, but Vimes claims it was never his to take in the first place because he’s an officer of the law. And now the only law left in the city is the dragon’s anyhow. Wonse calls in the guards, who worry Vimes must be a hero type since he’s smiling and not carrying weapons. They throw him in the dungeon—where he’s got company.
Lady Ramkin gets up to tend her dragon and finds Errol cold as ice. There’s a knock at her door, and she rushes to it, thinking it’s Vimes, but it turns out to be a palace guard. They’ve been sent to summon her for sacrifice, and she tries to fight them off, but doesn’t succeed. Vimes realizes that the Patrician is also in the dungeon with him, and he’s got the rats there aiding him—he offers advice and they help him out and bring him all the news. Vimes thinks the Patrician has lost it, believing that he has control from inside the dungeon, but he’s directed to look at the door. Vimes realizes that though it’s got an impenetrable lock, all the bolts and bars of the door are on the inside. Meanwhile, the rank get up on the roof and prepare for Colon to fire his lucky arrow at the dragon. They discuss the importance of believing in million-to-one shots, otherwise there’d be no point in living. Nobby suggests that they remember to jump into the pond below in the event that this doesn’t work out.
We continue on this theme of what people are willing to put up with, but as is usually the case with Pratchett, we get two sides to that argument. While Vimes and the dragon and even Colon are generally horrified over what people will say yes to, how they will allow themselves to be subjugated if the deal sounds reasonable enough, Lady Ramkin takes it from a different perspective—you can’t expect people to handle things well when they’re frightened. And the point is that everyone is right, of course. Fear gets the human brain to do all sorts of awful and irrational things, and some of that really comes down to instinct. Conversely, though, it is terrifying to realize the things people can convince themselves to be okay with under difficult circumstances. This is basically a satirical version of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, and you’re not liable to feel great about it in the aftermath.
The discussion about having Colon use his special arrow to shoot the dragon in the “voonerables” is, of course, a longform reference to many fantasy stories, but The Hobbit in particular. Which is mostly excellent because the idea of Colon as a suitable replacement for Bard the Bowman is hilarious. Honestly, most of the fun of the Watch stories comes from whenever most or all of the rank is hanging around and talking about how they’re going to handle a given situation, so this time on the roof is wonderfully done. I am beginning to realize that when I remembered this book, I always thought of Carrot as having more a central role in the action, however. Strange what your brain does in filling in the gaps of stories.
I also definitely thought we got more clues about what was going on with the dragon, but aside from Errol, we don’t get much of a hint. Which I like quite a bit, in fact.
We have the parting between Lady Ramkin and Vimes because we’ve hit that essential trope—the point where a woman tells a man to step up, but he’s not up to the challenge yet. (I’m always put in mind of different versions of this scenario every time I encounter it; this time around I was thinking about Peggy Carter giving Steve Rogers a hard time on his USO tour as he sketched himself as a performing monkey: “And those are your only options?”) It’s the first time we haven’t seen Sibyl’s indefatigable nature bring out the best in people. Vimes is too busy film noir-ing himself into depression to get it together.
But it’s this bit that always gets me the hardest, as he’s walking away and telling himself he won’t look back: “So when he heard the door shut when he was only halfway down the drive he suddenly felt very, very angry, as if he had just been robbed.” This might just be a me thing, but this is one moment when I feel for Vimes’s overly-dramatic nature. There’s a self-awareness to him that feels frightfully real sometimes, because plenty of us do have that inclination to frame our lives as stories. The moments when Vimes is looking to see a certain cliché fulfilled only to get blocked by reality, are the moments when he feels far more possible as a person than anyone Humphrey Bogart or Clint Eastwood ever played.
Similarly, as a send up of these sorts of stories, I adore the confrontation between Vimes and Wonse because it is always treated this way, as though figuring out the mystery is the endgame because no one would ever have a plan once they knew they’d been discovered. Like being caught robs a villain of their adaptability and imbues the detective with a power of their own. Oh no, Detective Poirot is going to explain to us who the killer is, it’s all over now. When that is, of course, nonsense. If you’ve survived as long as Wonse has doing this sort of thing, you are at least somewhat prepared for the eventuality of being confronted. And it’s apropos that here is where we get the title drop, as Wonse calls for guards to drag Vimes away.
And then we get this fascinating clarity around the Patrician. We’ve gotten windows into his head before, but for some reason, there is nothing so telling as his relationship to the rats and how he creates order in his cell. That and the insistence that you should never build a dungeon you wouldn’t stay in, which feels very Princess Bride. But we don’t get to the good part of this until next time.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Okay, but I love that the child bothering Vimes about the dragon is never given a gender. To the point where it’s referred to as “it” because it is a generic stock character child.
- The line where it says “Someone out there was going to find out that their worst nightmare was a maddened Librarian. With a badge.” is a reference to a movie with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte called 48 Hrs. And if that isn’t the oddest place to find a reference for it, I’m not sure what is.
- There’s a cute mention of Mort here, where Lady Ramkin suggests that she could get Vimes a new job with the Duke of Sto Helit, which makes me extremely curious about her relationship to other Disc nobles.
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.
The dragon blinked with Jurassic patience.
He laughed on, knowing that when he stopped black depression was going to drop on him like a lead soufflé.
“The people united can never be ignited!”
She had cried a bit before going to sleep, but not much, because it was no use being soppy and letting the side down.
Next week we finish the book!