men at arms (discworld #15) - Page 10


'Certainly, m'Lord,' said the Assassin, glumly. 'But—'

Noon began.

Noon in Ankh-Morpork took some time, since twelve o'clock was established by consensus. Generally, the first bell to start was that one in the Teachers' Guild, in response to the universal prayers of its members. Then the water clock on the Temple of Small Gods would trigger the big bronze gong. The black bell in the Temple of Fate struck once, unexpectedly, but by then the silver pedal-driven carillon in the Fools' Guild would be tinkling, the gongs, bells and chimes of all the Guilds and temples would be in full swing, and it was impossible to tell them apart, except for the tongueless and magical octiron bell of Old Tom in the Unseen University clock tower, whose twelve measured silences temporarily overruled the din.

And finally, several strokes behind all the others, was the bell of the Assassins' Guild, which was always last.

Beside the Patrician, the ornamental sundial chimed twice and fell over.

'You were saying?' said the Patrician mildly.

'Captain Vimes,' said Dr Cruces. 'He's taking an interest.'

'Dear me. But it is his job.'

'Really? I must demand that you call him off!'

The words echoed around the garden. Several pigeons flew away.

'Demand?' said the Patrician, sweetly.

Dr Cruces backed and filled desperately. 'He is a servant after all,' he said. 'I see no reason why he should be allowed to involve himself in affairs that don't concern him.'

'I rather believe he thinks he's a servant of the law,' said the Patrician.

'He's a jack-in-office and an insolent upstart!'

'Dear me. I did not appreciate your strength of feeling. But since you demand it, I will bring him to heel without delay.'

'Thank you.'

'Don't mention it. Do not let me keep you.'

Dr Cruces wandered off in the direction of the Patrician's idle gesture.

Lord Vetinari bent over his paperwork again, and did not even look up when there was a distant, muffled cry. Instead, he reached down and rang a small silver bell.

A clerk hurried up.

'Go and fetch the ladder, will you, Drumknott?' he said. 'Dr Cruces seems to have fallen in the hoho.'

The back door to the dwarf Bjorn Hammerhock's workshop lifted off the latch and creaked open. He went to see if there was anyone there, and shivered.

He shut the door.

'Bit of a chilly breeze,' he said, to the room's other occupant. 'Still, we could do with it.'

The ceiling of the workshop was only about five feet above the floor. That was more than tall enough for a dwarf.

Ow, said a voice that no-one heard.

Hammerhock looked at the thing clamped in the vice, and picked up a screwdriver.

Ow.

'Amazing,' he said. 'I think that moving this tube down the barrel forces the, er, six chambers to slide along, presenting a new one to the, er, firing hole. That seems clear enough. The triggering mechanism is really just a tinderbox device. The spring . . . here . . . has rusted through. I can easily replace that. You know,' he said, looking up, 'this is a very interesting device. With the chemicals in the tubes and all. Such a simple idea. Is it a clown thing? Some kind of automatic slap-stick?'

He sorted through a bin of metal offcuts to find a piece of steel, and then selected a file.

'I'd like to make a few sketches afterwards,' he said.

About thirty seconds later there was a pop and a cloud of smoke.

Bjorn Hammerhock picked himself up, shaking his head.

'That was lucky!' he said. 'Could have been a nasty accident there.'

He tried to fan some of the smoke away, and then reached for the file again.

His hand went through it.

AHEM.

Bjorn tried again.

The file was as insubstantial as the smoke.

'What?'

AHEM.

The owner of the strange device was staring in horror at something on the floor. Bjorn followed his gaze.

'Oh,' he said. Realization, which had been hovering on the edge of Bjorn's consciousness, finally dawned. That was the thing about death. When it happened to you, you were among the first to know.

His visitor grabbed the device from the bench and rammed it into a cloth bag. Then he looked around wildly, picked up the corpse of Mr Hammerhock, and dragged it through the door towards the river.

There was a distant splash, or as close to a splash as you could get from the Ankh.

'Oh dear,' said Bjorn. 'And I can't swim, either.'

THAT WILL NOT, OF COURSE, BE A PROBLEM, said Death.

Bjorn looked at him.

'You're a lot shorter than I thought you'd be,' he said.

THIS IS BECAUSE I'M KNEELING DOWN, MR HAMMER-HOCK.

'That damn thing killed me!'

YES.

'That's the first time anything like that has ever happened to me.' ,

TO ANYONE. BUT NOT, I SUSPECT, THE LAST TIME.

Death stood up. There was a clicking of knee joints. He no longer cracked his skull on the ceiling. There wasn't a ceiling any more. The room had gently faded away.

There were such things as dwarf gods. Dwarfs were not a naturally religious species, but in a world where pit props could crack without warning and pockets of fire damp could suddenly explode they'd seen the need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it's nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, 'Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!' or 'Aaargh, primitive-and-out-moded-concept on a crutch!'

Bjorn didn't waste time asking questions. A lot of things become a shade urgent when you're dead.

'I believe in reincarnation,' he said.

I KNOW.

'I tried to live a good life. Does that help?'

THAT IS NOT UP TO ME. Death coughed. OF COURSE . . . SINCE YOU BELIEVE IN REINCARNATION . . . YOU'LL BE BJORN AGAIN.

He waited.

'Yes. That's right,' said Bjorn. Dwarfs are known for their sense of humour, in a way. People point them out and say: 'Those little devils haven't got a sense of humour.'

UM. WAS THERE ANYTHING AMUSING IN THE STATEMENT I JUST MADE?

'Uh. No. No . . . I don't think so.'

IT WAS A PUN, OR PLAY ON WORDS. BJORN AGAIN.

'Yes?'

DID YOU NOTICE IT?

'I can't say I did.'

OH.

'Sorry.'

I'VE BEEN TOLD I SHOULD TRY TO MAKE THE OCCASION A LITTLE MORE ENJOYABLE.

'Bjorn again.'

YES.

'I'll think about it?

THANK YOU.

'Hright,' said Sergeant .Colon, 'this, men, is your truncheon, also nomenclatured your night stick or baton of office.' He paused while he tried to remember his army days, and brightened up.

'Hand you will look after hit,' he shouted. 'You will eat with hit, you will sleep with hit, you—'

' 'Scuse me.'

'Who said that?'

'Down here. It's me, Lance-Constable Cuddy.'

'Yes, pilgrim?'

'How do we eat with it, sergeant?'

Sergeant Colon's wound-up machismo wound down. He was suspicious of Lance-Constable Cuddy. He strongly suspected Lance-Constable Cuddy was a trouble-maker.

'What?'

'Well, do we use it as a knife or a fork or cut in half for chopsticks or what?'

'What are you talking about?'

'Excuse me, sergeant?'

'What is it, Lance-Constable Angua?'

'How exactly do we sleep with it, sir?'

'Well, I . . . I meant . . . Corporal Nobbs, stop that sniggering right now!' Colon adjusted his breastplate and decided to strike out in a new .direction.

'Now, hwat we have 'ere is a puppet, mommet or heffigy' – indicating a vaguely humanoid shape made of leather and stuffed with straw, mounted on a stake -'called by the hnickname of Harthur, weapons training, for the use hof. Forward, Lance-Constable Angua. Tell me, Lance-Constable, do you think you could kill a man?'

'How long will I have?'

There was a pause while they picked up Corporal Nobbs and patted him on the back until he settled down.

'Very well,' said Sergeant Colon, 'what you must do now is take your truncheon like so, and on the command one, proceed smartly to Harthur and on the command two, tap him smartly upon the bonce. Hwun . . . two . . .'

The truncheon bounced off Arthur's helmet.

'Very good, only one thing wrong. Anyone tell me what it was?'

They shook their heads.

'From behind,' said Sergeant Colon. 'You hit 'em from behind. No sense in risking trouble, is there? Now you have a go, Lance-Constable Cuddy.'

'But sarge—'

'Do it.'

They watched.

'Perhaps we could fetch him a chair?' said Angua, after an embarrassing fifteen seconds.

Detritus sniggered.

'Him too little to be a guard,' he said.

Lance-Constable Cuddy stopped jumping up and down.

'Sorry, sergeant,' he said, 'this isn't how dwarfs do it, see?'

'It's how guards do it,' said Sergeant Colon. 'All right, Lance-Constable Detritus – don't salute – you give it a try.'

Detritus held the truncheon between what must technically be called thumb and forefinger, and smashed it over Arthur's helmet. He stared reflectively at the truncheon's stump. Then he bunched up his, for want of a better word, fist, and hammered Arthur over what was briefly its head until the stake was driven three feet into the ground.

'Now the dwarf, he can have a go,' he said.

There was another embarrassed five seconds. Sergeant Colon cleared his throat.

'Well, yes, I think we can consider him thoroughly apprehended,' he said. 'Make a note, Corporal Nobbs. Lance-Constable Detritus – don't salute! – deducted one dollar for loss of truncheon. And you're supposed to be able to ask 'em questions afterwards.'

He looked at the remains of Arthur.

'I think around about now is a good time to demonstrate the fine points of harchery,' he said.

Lady Sybil Ramkin looked at the sad strip of leather that was all that remained of the late Chubby.

'Who'd do something like this to a poor little dragon?' she said.

'We're trying to find out,' said Vimes. 'We . . . we think maybe he was tied up next to a wall and exploded.'

Carrot leaned over the wall of a pen.

'Coochee-coochee-coo?' he said. A friendly flame took his eyebrows off.

'I mean, he was as tame as anything,' said Lady Ramkin. 'Wouldn't hurt a fly, poor little thing.'

'How could someone make a dragon blow up?' said Vimes. 'Could you do it by giving it a kick?'

'Oh, yes,' said Sybil. 'You'd lose your leg, mind you.'

'Then it wasn't that. Any other way? So you wouldn't get hurt?'

'Not really. It'd be easier to make it blow itself up. Really, Sam, I don't like talking about—'

'I have to know.'

'Well . . . at this time of year the males fight. Make themselves look big, you know? That's why I always keep them apart.'

Vimes shook his head. 'There was only one dragon,' he said.

Behind them, Carrot leaned over the next pen, where a pear-shaped male dragon opened one eye and glared at him.

'Whosagoodboyden?' murmured Carrot. 'I'm sure I've got a bit of coal somewhere—'

The dragon opened the other eye, blinked, and then was fully awake and rearing up. Its ears flattened. Its nostrils flared. Its wings unfurled. It breathed in. From its stomach came the gurgle of rushing acids as sluices and valves were opened. Its feet left the floor. Its chest expanded—

Vimes hit Carrot at waist height, bearing him to the ground.

In its pen the dragon blinked. The enemy had mysteriously gone. Scared off!

It subsided, blowing off a huge flame.

Vimes unclasped his hands from his head and rolled over.

'What'd you do that for, captain?' said Carrot. 'I wasn't—'