Sergeant Polly Perks had no real concept of a personal ad, if only because, even without all the prohibitions set forth by the Book of Nuggan and its still growing list of Abominations standing in the way anymore, some things from the outside world filtered their way into Borogravia more slowly than others. Useful items and practices, such as the clacks or mass-produced canning jars and lids in a range of standardized sizes, made their way into local common usage far faster than cultural practices, fashion trends, and anything else the Borogravian people might be inclined to view as foreign frivolities, because while everyone wanted a better life, Borogravians in general wanted to remain Borogravians rather than turning themselves into Ankh-Morporkians. Had Polly ever acquired a copy of the Ankh-Morpork Times's personals section, she first would have boggled at the ridiculously high number of people claiming to enjoy long walks and getting caught in the rain. She then would have passed the paper on to the recruiting department, because anyone who liked long walks and getting caught in the rain would have a chance of enjoying life in the Borogravian army.
Outside their shelter, the rain appeared to be letting up some, but only relatively speaking.*1 It was still too miserable out there for anyone to bestir themselves out into it without a good reason, and since they were technically on leave, Polly could not think of anything resembling a good reason. Less rain or more, Maladicta was probably too focused on her little coffee engine to notice. She made nearly imperceptible adjustments to its various knobs. She rearranged how the campfire's coals were distributed around its base, piling them higher here, creating ventilation channels there. She did not look happy.
"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" Polly asked oh so casually, for only the second time that day, very carefully making sure to only glance up from the catalog which she was half-heartedly perusing. In a situation like this, it wouldn't do to jump straight into making flat-out accusations of a soldier not being fit to continue her duties without any sort of gradual lead up or preamble. It was her right as a sergeant, but it still wouldn't do. She had learned very early in her career in the army, years ago now, that there were times when good sergeanting required finesse, and she suspected this was one of those times.*2 Mentally, Polly began counting seconds. Outwardly, she made a great show of turning a page, though she did not bother with the part involving theatrically licking her finger, because the whole catalog was slightly damp already.
It had been yet another hard winter. However, Borogravians were used to hard winters. They hunkered down, knew to ration the food and the firewood sooner rather than later, got on with seeing to whatever making, mending, or other activities could be accomplished indoors, and hoped that the thaw would come soon enough for the farmers to be able to get away without needing to slaughter too many of their draft animals before calving/foaling season.
Hard springs on the other hand, those were another matter entirely. It had been the sort of wretched spring only seen once in a generation or two. The problem was not that the hard freeze of winter had simply lingered longer than it ought to have. In Borogravia, that sort of thing seemed to happen every other year, or at least so anyone who was not from Borogravia always insisted. No, while it was true that spring had not come to the land this year, the problem was that winter and summer seemed to be fighting with each other to fill the meteorological void, sending the weather swinging between late-season blizzards and sudden heatwaves at the drop of a hat. The freeze-thaw cycle was throwing its weight around in ways not seen for half a century or more. One week sudden blasts of sweltering heat would melt all the snows and break up the ice jams, sending detritus-laden floods crashing through the valleys, even the ones which did not usually contain rivers, and then the next week the cold would blow in from the Hub again, freezing everything solid once more and often dumping another few feet of snow just because it could. This had already happened four times so far, with only the occasional bout of torrential rain to break up the pattern.
"M'fine," Maladicta muttered after far too long of a pause. They were sitting shoulder to shoulder, but Maladicta sounded like she was a hundred miles away, not quite in another reality but edging in that direction, and Polly decided that maybe it really was time to escalate the situation. Technically, they were on leave at the moment, but if being Pol and Mal wasn't getting through Maladicta's fog, then Polly would just have to try it as the Sarge and Corporal they usually were.
"I said, Corporal," Polly said in her Sergeant voice, the one which let people know without a doubt that they were being shouted at, even when she kept it to normal speaking volume, "are you going to be okay?" That, at least, finally seemed to work somewhat.
"Doing great, sir! Ready for orders, sir!" Corporal Maladicta said, jumping to her feet and snapping a crisp salute. Then she blinked, seemed to come back to herself a little more, and settled back to her previous position, looking slightly dejected but present mentally instead of just physically. "I'm doing fine, Pol, really. I've had way more practice staying in control since the last time. It's just that this stuff," and here she gestured at her coffee engine while sliding into the full haughtiness that only a vampire can manage, "is repulsive sludge that, despite its shared lineage, does not deserve to be called coffee."
"Is it the engine, Mal?" Polly asked, knowing full well that was not the problem but figuring that the longer she could keep Maladicta focused on the here and now, the better. "Because, if that isn't working out for you, I've heard good things about Quirmian presses. They're supposed to be lighter and easier to maintain too. They're a can with this plunger thing, and you just--"
"The beans are moldy!" Maladicta interrupted. "Moldy! Can you believe it?" She dropped her head onto Polly's shoulder, as if the sheer injustice of ruined coffee beans left her too weak to keep herself upright. The fire crackled and hissed as stray raindrops blew into it, just like it had been doing ever since they first got it burning.
Yes, Polly could believe it, and not just because this was not the first time that Maladicta had made this particular complaint in recent days. It had been raining down in buckets, often accompanied by massive barrages of thunder and lightning, for the past two weeks now. Anyplace that could be flooded had been flooded. The whole country had unanimously agreed that horizontal rain should be written down as the last true Abomination unto Nuggan, even though it was one of the few things He had never seemed to have any complaint against.
The last of the true believers in the country claimed this was the wrath of Nuggan, punishing Borogravia for turning from His teachings. Everyone else just said, "Yeah, sure it is," and got on with the business of survival as best they could. A few may have secretly prayed to the Duchess for intercession on their behalf, but those who did felt guilty about it afterwards, because by now everyone knew that She didn't like people doing that.
Prince Heinrich of Zlobenia, on the other hand, had apparently said that he would not let anything stand in the way of him getting up to his usual tricks, because he had had his army mustered and probing Borogravia's borders before the first thaw, and if the Zlobenian army would not let the weather stand in its way, then neither could the Borogravian army, which led to Maladicta's, and therefore Polly's, current little problem by way of their unit being out in the field with supply lines thoroughly buggered. What roads were not washed out, blocked by landslides, or just plain underwater were turned into impassable sucking mires. They had not been cut off nearly long enough for lack of food or equipment to be a concern yet, but what food and equipment they had was beginning to turn distinctly furry in the perpetual damp. Mold, mildew, and funguses were running rampant to the point that people were beginning to hope for another hard freeze just to kill the stuff, and all of Maladicta's coffee stashes were just as much victims of the blight as everything else.
The only consolation in all of this was the fact that the Zlobenian army was suffering just as much as, if not more than, the Borogravians. Right before the latest floods struck, Prince Heinrich and most of his men had just finished digging themselves into the high ground of Drovny Ridge with the intention of turning it into a permanent foothold in Borogravia. When the waters rose with the abruptness that had become commonplace this spring, the Zlobenians soon learned the hard way why the Borogravians had never bothered to fortify such a tempting location and were now trapped there for the duration, the defensible hill having turned into an inescapable island, leaving too many men on too small of a crumbling spit of earth surrounded by an uncrossable half-mile-wide chasm full of raging, boulder-laden whitewater. Even if it stopped raining this very instant, it would be at least a week before the Zlobenians might be able to escape from their unintentionally self-made prison, hence the reason why select groups of soldiers including Polly and Maladicta had been granted a few days of leave in the middle of a campaign.
Well, they were technically on leave, but they had not really left. There was not much of anywhere for them to go on said leave, what with the only reachable town's only claim to fame being the production of cheese full of bits of horseradish and garlic, which Maladicta understandably avoided due to the garlic thing and which Polly thought sounded tasty but avoided due to the Mal-not-liking-garlic thing. The town did have a single tavern, which inquiries suggested should be mostly free of garlic cheese, so Polly thought the two of them might wander over in that direction later, just to keep an eye on her little lads if nothing else. Right now, though, they were both enjoying their little shelter rigged together from spare tent pieces just far enough past the picket line and into the woods for some real privacy while still being close enough to camp to hear and respond if a general alarm happened to be raised for any reason. Or at least they were enjoying it as much as anyone could enjoy anything while surrounded by rain and moldy coffee.
As if reading Polly's thoughts of coffee, Maladicta spoke up once more. "These are ruined," she said with a sigh, her head still resting on Polly's shoulder. "No matter what I do, I'm not going to be able to make anything drinkable from these beans."
"If this is going to be a problem, I can go back to camp and send out one of the new banshee messengers to get something for you, Mal." It might not be easy, but it would be simple. Polly was already calculating who she would need to bribe, cajole, or blackmail to get it done. She went to stand, but Maladicta wrapped her arm around Polly's waist and held her in place.
"No, I said I'm going to be fine, and I'm going to be fine," Maladicta said. "There's no need for you to work your sergeantly powers on anyone this time," she insisted, tightening her grip ever so slightly when Polly tried to pull away. It wasn't even close to her full strength, nor was it even close to being tight enough to hurt. It was merely a not so subtle reminder that in an unbiased contest of vampire muscle versus human muscle, the vampire would always win.
"I could order you to let go, Corporal," Polly warned.
"Yeah, you could," Maladicta said, "and if you did, I would follow that order, but you don't need to. The quartermaster swore up and down he'll have some of the good stuff for me by tonight, so I only need to last until then. I'll be fine, really." Mal must have sensed Polly's skeptical look, because she released her grasp on Polly's waist, sat up straight, turned to look Polly in the eye, one hand in the air as if swearing an oath. "On my honor as both a black-ribboner and a soldier, I will tell you the instant that there's even a hint something might be wrong, and then you can go rain hell on whoever needs it. Until then, just stay here with me. Please. This, us, here, together is too nice to end quite yet, ruined coffee beans or not."
"Okay," Polly said slowly, allowing herself to fully relax for the first time in quite a while, because the pleading look in Maladicta's eyes had nothing to do with desperation for either coffee or blood. "I can do that." They settled back into place, sitting shoulder to shoulder. Maladicta laid her head on Polly's shoulder once more, and snaked her arm around Polly again, not restraining this time, merely possessive. Polly returned the gesture of possessiveness, pressing a kiss into Mal's hair before resting her head atop Mal's and draping an arm across Mal's shoulders, because when push came to shove, Maladicta was just as much hers as she was Maladicta's. So much of army life was a case of 'hurry up and wait,' (there was often a great deal of overlap between that and the 'long walks and getting caught in the rain' parts) but this type of waiting was, as Mal had put it, nice. There was nowhere they needed to be, nothing they needed to do. For this brief stretch of time, they were free to simply sit there and exist together. Still, a small but insistent part of Polly's mind whispered, there were better things to do together than just exist, and judging by what she had seen in Maladicta's eyes, the vampire agreed.
"It's a shame about those rules against fraternization within the chain of command," Polly ventured several quiet minutes later. It was the opening move in an old game between the two of them.
"Yeah, too bad about them," Maladicta said, mock-thoughtfully, playing along as she picked up a stick and pushed around the coals of the campfire to fill in the hole where her coffee engine had previously been sitting. The ghost of a smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. "Nice though how they only really apply to officer officers on active duty, though."
"Yes," Polly said with equal mock-thoughtfulness, "yes, definitely nice. And very nice how, for NCOs on leave, the rules pretty much boil down to 'don't let the privates see, and don't tell the ruperts.'"
"'And don't let the ruperts see your privates'" Maladicta said with a snicker, before turning mock-serious again to add, "It's especially nice how we happen to be NCOs on leave, all alone here in the woods." She poked the fire again for emphasis.
"So nice," Polly agreed, "but I am still at a loss for what we could possibly do to pass the time as we wait for our exile to end. Do you have any ideas how we might while away the hours before we can return to our duties, Corpral?"
"I can think of a few," Maladicta said, sliding her free hand up along Polly's thigh. "Moreover, anticipating your orders, sir, I have already begun implementing a plan of attack."
"In the face of such military efficiency, there is nothing to say but 'carry on, soldier,'" Polly breathed.
Later, neither would be able to say whether Polly leaned in to kiss Maladicta or Maladicta leaned in to kiss Polly, because they both turned at more or less the same instant and met in the middle. A lesser author might be tempted to say that their tongues battled for dominance, but such an author would be the sort who could not understand when the military metaphor had been taken too far. Besides, in this case it was more like a waltz in which the two partners took turns leading. Maladicta's fire-poking stick fell by the wayside so that she could have both hands free, and matters progressed from there as such matters are wont to do.
Oh yes, very nice indeed. Eventually they would have go back to real life and all its attendant hardships and restrictions. For now, though, they had this. This was the sort of waiting that Polly did not mind at all. Who needed coffee when you could have canoodling? Polly hoped they got to wait like this for a good long while. Outside of their little shelter, the rain continued to fall, but this time neither of them noticed, because they continued to have eyes only for each other.
*1 A less landlocked country would have had a variation on the phrase 'pity the poor sailor on a night like this' in its local language, but not only did Borogravia lack coastlines, but it also lacked neighbors with coastlines. It lacked lakes large enough for a boat to ever sail out of sight of the shore. It lacked rivers which were consistently navigable for more than a couple dozen miles at a stretch. And, at the moment, thanks to all the rain, the country lacked rivers which were navigable at all. Therefore, the Borogravian language lacked a word for sailor. The closest they got was a word for ferryman, and though both ferrymen and sailors were people who worked with boats, even the Borogravians knew that the two professions were not the same thing at all.*3 Instead, speakers of Borogravian had to make do with the phrase 'nol schlodneg dov mrod-shvigne,' which translated to 'such weather would kill the prized swine' but could be applied to sufficiently inclement weather of any sort and did nothing to communicate the persistently violent sogginess of the current situation. By the end of the spring, though, Borogravians were likely to have coined a few new words just so that they could better tell stories about the whole mess later. ^
*2 There were also times that required Finesse, with the capital F and italics, but those times were generally reserved for when ruperts were involved. ^
*3 The Borogravian language did, however, have two words for a ferryman who would be out trying to ply his trade out in conditions like this. Those words were 'idiot' and 'dead.' ^