"So," Vetinari said, sipping from his glass. "Do tell me about this trip of yours."
The dinner party conversations on Sybil's right lulled as several people attempted the impossible task of trying to eavesdrop without giving the impression that they were doing so. Previously spirited conversations were left to flounder as their owners stopped paying any attention to what they were saying, let alone their conversational partner. It was one of the pitfalls of high society dinners; Sam had been known to engage someone in a conversation for several minutes while his partner was trying to overhear something else, saying nothing but "rhubarb" while they politely nodded and agreed.
The conversations on Sybil's left, however, continued as they had previously. This was because Sam was both to her left and in a Mood, and so his neighbouring diners had spent the majority of the party in a sort of terrified silence. One upcoming young man who had called upon innumerable favours to be seated near the Patrician and His Grace was currently frozen, all his carefully thought-out conversational starters curling up and dying as Sam pioneered fusion cusine by belligerently re-imagining foie gras into duck guts sarnies.
She nudged soothingly at Sam's foot, entreating him away from further culinary atrocities, and made a mental note to chit chat later with the young man currently experiencing his first harrowing encounter with Vimesian Cuisine. "It's not much of a trip, to be honest. The Society used to do it every few years, before all that trouble. We'd like to do it more often, but it's such an effort to get set up."
"But to count dragons? Several townspeople have informed me-- in correspondence not always in crayon-- that there's only one suitable number of dragons to have around Ankh-Morpork. It's not a terribly high number, to be frank. I suspect that any number you provide will top it, though we may have to wait for your opponents to take their shoes and socks off to double-check."
Sybil sighed. "Oh, nonsense. Dragons have been living in the swamps outside the walls for-- do excuse my language-- a bally long time. They wouldn't harm a fly, and I'll put my word to that."
"Indeed. And as we all know, swamp dragons are remarkable hunters, especially when it comes to small, fast-moving prey."
Sybil kept her face perfectly straight and took a sip of her wine.
Vetinari politely gave up. "Well, nonetheless. To be perfectly honest, I'm rather relieved that Ankh-Morpork doesn't have much nature to worry about."
"You're not looking in the right places, then. I'm willing to bet that there's more species inside the average pub than outside the city walls," Sam chipped in, elbows steadfastly on the table. "Some of the new recruits have been taking field guides with them on their first rounds."
"Citizens aside, we do have the benefit of some quite... robust natives," Sybil said. "Break-and-enter sparrows have been breeding in droves, going by reports from the bird-watchers guild and the hospital, and I believe some intrepid young fellows are planning to build a viewing platform for visitors to see the Ankh cod in action. Apparently they have a disc-wide reputation for stripping carts to the screws in under sixty seconds."
"Still, I'm fairly sure that swamps are home to some quite unfriendly creatures. Are you certain that that's safe?"
"Havelock, I'm married to the head of the Watch. Don't try to tell me that the countryside is more dangerous than going for a walk through many parts of the city."
"Be that as it may, the average Ankh-Morpork citizen is unlikely to give you raving swamp fever." Vetinari raised his hand as Vimes opened his mouth. "Generally. Do take care."
"Come now, I've been doing field counts for the dragon fanciers society since I was a gel. Besides, the press will be attending the count. I'm sure the presence of a reporter will keep the proceedings respectable."
"Hello? I appear to be stuck. Should I be stuck?"
Sybil looked back at Sacharissa. One besocked foot was raised above the surface of the swamp, her gumboot stuck in the mud just slightly out of reach, and her other hands were raised above her head for balance, notebook and pencil clutched tightly. On the whole she rather looked like a statue of some ancient goddess, though one with an un-goddess-like fondness for respectable necklines.
With a "Would you, dear?", Sybil commandeered a nearby Emma, skirts tucked sensibly into her boots, to squelch over to Sacharissa and escort her back to a slightly more solid part of the swamp. While still less solid than most Ankh-Morpork pub beers, it at least did not attempt to devour her gumboots.
As Sybil continued through the muck, Sacharissa flipped though her notebook. "So, Your Grace--" She licked her pencil, and by her expression immediately regretted doing so. "The dragons in question, they're the biggest breed still around, correct?"
"Oh, yes. They're about a third bigger than the Quirm species. It's all that having to deal with the runoff from the Ankh. They're quite robust little things."
Sacharissa made some notes. Sybil just made out A-M's dragons put the rest of the disc to shame!
"And what are all the rulers and calipers for, exactly?"
Sybil prodded some vines out of the way of their path. "We record the average size of specimens. The society likes to know what's happening in the wild population."
"You... measure them? Isn't that dangerous?"
"They do carry on a little, but it's all bluff. The first bite is the worst!"
"I'll take your word on that. And what are the shovels for?"
"The shovels. The ones over there?" She gestured to two shovels, propped up on a nearby tree.
Sybil looked at them carefully for a long moment, then cleared her throat. "Girls," she said, and her party of assistants appeared in a mud-spattered whirl, blinking at her. Voice even, she asked "Did anyone bring these?"
The girls shook their heads, looked at each other, then looked at the fresh mud on the handles. Without a word they scurried off in all directions. Sacharissa spun around in confusion, watching them go; one scrambled up a tree, another strode out into the nearest swamp, gumboots squelching, and others still picked their way through reed beds, peering into the muck.
One by one, they all squelched, stomped, and, in the case of the one that had climbed the tree, fell awkwardly back into place. Every last one of them was furious, cheeks pink with anger.
"There's diggings everywhere!" one said, outraged, and the others all nodded. "They're taking the hatchlings!"
"Who are?" Sacharissa asked, eyebrows raised.
Sybil exhaled. "Poachers." She looked at the Emmas, all of them blotchy with anger and some nearly to the point of tears. "My first responsibility is your safety. We're heading back."
There was a chorus of desperate "Your Grace!"es, a few "You can't!"s , and one or two stomped gumboots. It was odd, Sybil thought. Every one of the girls had grown up in houses decorated with trophy skulls and tapestries featuring elaborately embroidered innards, but the idea of dragons being hurt...
She looked at the girls, then at Sacharissa, scribbling furiously. She thought of what Sam would say, and then about what Sam would do.
Sybil held up a hand. "Before anything else, we need to know how many there are." She nodded to two girls, who immediately peeled off and headed into the swamp ahead of them.
Sacharissa gasped. "You're sending defenseless young ladies to look for criminals?"
"If they can sneak around a broody long-snounted ratsnapper without getting spotted, then they can sneak around anyone, by Jove."
The girls were only gone a moment before returning. One, clearly getting caught up in the spirit of the thing, had painted muddy stripes across her face. It was a bit like being addressed by a swamp creature with exceptional posture. "Two of them, ma'am."
Sacharissa looked between the girls, steeling themselves, and Sybil. "You're surely not going to make untrained young women fight-- I mean, how many of you have had proper training with weapons?"
The girls all shook their heads.
"I do believe that that may be a misleading question," Sybil said. She turned to the girls. "How many of you have brothers?"
All of them raised a hand.
"How many of you have quite frankly ridiculous amounts of swords all over your estate?"
All hands stayed raised. Some of the girls were starting to fight grins.
"How many of you practiced with said swords against said brothers until they came down with a nasty case of pride?"
All hands stayed raised, and the grins were losing their battles.
The Emma with the war paint put a comforting hand on Sacharissa's arm. "Miss, I've wrestled a robust bronzesnout in musth. At least men can't sneeze fire at you."
"But you don't have any weapons!" Sacharissa managed.
Sybil looked them over. "Indeed. They've only got meter-long metal rulers. You know, the interesting thing about meter-long metal rulers is how that when you get down to it, they're three feet of metal with horrendously pointy edges."
One of the Emmas flicked her ruler out through the air in front of her. It made an impressive vwip! noise.
"Oh, bloody hell," said Sacharissa. She closed her notebook, neatly put it into a pocket, and picked up a shovel. "Let's make some headlines."
It was a brief struggle. It was not the sort of epic battle that merited a tapestry, although an optimistic embroiderer may have been able to immortalise it on a smallish cushion. The Emmas, each and every one of them used to wrangling creatures that were half furnace, half crocodile, and all bastard, were not phased by shouts and wild blows. Acting in unison as a sort of extremely well-mannered militia, they soon had the men trussed up like uncooperative cobbs; indeed, just as if she was dealing with a temperamental cobb, one Emma had the younger man in an eye-watering grip with the calipers.
"Do let the young man's nose go, dear," Sybil said. Cruel and unusual treatment ceased, she faced the two. "I do believe this is a citizen's arrest, gentlemen." Behind her, Sacharissa went into paroxysms of journalism.
The older of the two men spat. "This isn't city territory! We're outside the walls!"
"Be that as it may, I think you'll find that the jurisdiction of the city laws were extended quite a while ago. It was after that incident when some people decided to be clever and remove the bricks from the outside of the walls."
Behind the men were a stack of lightweight cages, covered in tarps and neatly tied down. The transport of dragons had to be a delicate affair lest it become an explosive one, and the Dragon Fanciers Society had shelves full of literature on how to move prized dragons to and from dragon shows without their owners losing said dragons (along with their eyebrows, hair, and, if they weren't careful, several fingers). With a growing surprise, Sybil realised that the Society could have binned the whole shelf and simply displayed an iconograph of the the poachers' cages.
"That's quite a lot of dragons you've caught, there," she said.
The older man slumped in his restraints. "Does it matter? You can only hang me once."
The younger man jerked in his ropes, "Dad, no!" He swung around, beseeching his captors. "We were only trying to survive, miss-- ma'am! There's not a lot of ways to earn a living in a swamp."
Under her warpaint, the Emma holding him at rulerpoint started to tear up. Her and the young man locked eyes, although his were still slightly watery from the calipers. Sybil sensed that she'd need to to have a talk with the young lady's family in the very near future.
Sybil eyed the men, and the knots on the dragon cages. "You've still got your eyebrows, I see."
The younger man shuffled uncomfortably. "Well, yeah, you get used to handling the buggers. It's not so hard."
A long time ago, Sybil's father had read to her from a book on warfare. It detailed many strategies, although Sybil privately thought that the majority of the strategies pretty much boiled down to changing when and where you stabbed the other party, and how many people you did it in front of. Still, some of them hardly involved stabbing people at all. She'd discovered over the years that those sorts of strategies tended to keep one on a lot more Hogswatch card lists.
Sybil made her decision, and turned on her heel.
"Ladies, put down your rulers and get the tea going. Gentlemen, if you'd be so kind as to join me?"
Sam put the morning's Times on the table. "Apparently one of the girls who muck out the pens hired some locals and started a dragon sanctuary in the swamps. Front page. It says they're expecting dragon fanciers from all over the disc. There's an iconograph of her and her young man wrestling something covered in mud and smiling. They're the ones covered in mud, I mean." He squinted at the paper. "No, the thing they're wrestling is covered in mud and smiling, too. Ye gods, that's a lot of teeth."
"Morning, Sam. I always thought she was a driven young lady." Sybil cut another toast soldier for young Sam, who was making his troops fight to an untimely and awfully crumb-y end, pausing only from his running commentary of squeaky voices to devour the vanquished.
"She must have done a lot of hob-nobbing to get those land titles signed over. All on her own."
"Well, you do know her family. Her pedigree is basically bred to hob-nob."
"Still, it's impressive for a girl I've seen walk into trees while daydreaming."
"Inspiration comes easily when you follow your passions, Sam."
"Hmm." He dropped into the chair next to her, setting upon his breakfast with watchman-like efficiency (which was even more efficient than military efficiency, because it wanted to get it over with as soon as possible and bunk off for a pint). "I don't suppose you had anyth--"
There was a series of roars as young Sam took a vaguely fish-shaped toast soldier and walked it over to this father's plate. With a decidedly un-fish-like snarl, he jabbed it into one of Sam's pieces of toast. "Argh! The mighty Ankh cod claims another victim!" He popped the toast in his mouth, gnashing loudly.
Sam looked stoically at the empty space on his place. With a conspiratorial air, he leant over and slung an arm around his son. "You know what's above a cod in the food chain?"
Young Sam shook his head wildly, eyes large. "A monster?"
"No, not a monster."
"No, not a dragon."
"What is it?"
Sam reached out, neatly stole the toast cod, and with a dramatic flourish, bit off its head. As young Sam squealed with horrified delight, he chomped down the body. "A watchman!"
Young Sam wriggled around in Sybil's lap, giving her a wide-eyed pleading look and covering the front of her dress in eggy crumbs. "Mum, mum! What's above watchman on the food chain?"
"Hmm," said Sybil, shuffling young Sam around in her lap. "I think I might know this one..."
Sybil neatly took Sam by his collar and pulled him in for a peck on the lips.
"Mum is the head of the food chain!" young Sam squealed, then proceeded to make the obligatory my-parents-are-kissing noises peculiar to young boys.
Sam grinned. "You know, I think our son may be the smartest boy in the city."
"I do believe you may be on to something there," said Sybil, and pulled him back in.