Polly's squad was two days on the road, now, from the mess hall at Pitch, where they'd stopped for provisions and a change of leadership, as lieutenant Everard left them under the command of lieutenant James S. Loafer, on their way to Kneck, to rejoin Major Blouse's forces.
She stood patiently in attention, staring straight ahead, while the Lt. Loafer (a tense, burly young man with an old-fashioned haircut and a habit of clenching his hands) walked up and down before the line of privates, inspecting their appearance, which Polly had made sure was as scrubbed and official as they could manage with their hand-me-down uniforms.
'I say,' he said at last, 'your squad's dress is abominable, but I have to say they've taken excellent care of their shaving.'
Polly saluted smartly, still staring straight ahead. 'Thank you, sir! We in the Ins-and-Outs insist on a smooth cheek!'
'Very good, very good,' said the lieutenant, looking puzzled for a moment. He then made a few more comments about appearance and attention, before releasing them and retreating for a bit of a read.
'If I didn't know you better, I'd say that was a double entendre,' murmured Corporal Maladicta as the privates dispersed. Polly laughed despite herself.
'Well, we do.' And she did insist on daily shaving where it came to those in the squad who did shave – for the same reason General Froc did: it was far easier to pick out a woman among men if you only looked for the beardless ones. 'And you're one to talk!' she added, for the corporal never did kick her habit of making Polly laugh at the wrong times.
Every once in a while Loafer's type of officer would turn up: one who knew the rulebook by heart, and furthermore loved it to an insane degree. The thing to do was to learn the book, abide by it on surface, and keep the lieutenant happy while you fought the actual battles yourself, because bookthumpers rarely had time to focus on leadership.
One of the first things the lieutenant had done upon seeing Maladicta was complain about the black ribbon, which was against regulations. This was possibly the first time in the history of the League of Temperance that any human had objected to the ribbon. Mal had raised an eyebrow, saluted and explained that were she to remove the ribbon, in point of fact, the privates would find pitchforks, torches and sharp bits of wood somewhere and attempt to run her through, which would be considerably more against the regulations, not to mention would cost them the lives of several privates. The lieutenant had given in with a hesitant 'Very well, carry on.'
'His indecisiveness is what's causing him to cling to the book,' Polly had remarked to Mal later on, thinking aloud.
'The only way he'll ever make it through the next battle,' Mal replied, 'is if you manage him well enough.'
'Well, that's the sergeant's job, keeping the officers in line.' It was half-way to being a joke, since to a lieutenant she would have insisted it's the sergeant's job to keep the men in line. Both, she felt, were true to a significant degree.
Mal looked at her thoughtfully. 'You're only a hair's breadth away from your next promotion, you know,' she remarked. 'Would you let a sergeant manage you like that, if you were promoted?'
'Probably not.' Polly smiled thinly. Her thoughts turned towards the Kneck and what they would find there. The war was practically over. They were sent in as superfluous reinforcements, since Zlobenians weren't going anywhere near Kneck again. She wondered if they were being kept out of the way for some reason, and turned to Mal to relay this notion. She stopped when she saw Maladicta looking at her in a thoughtful way. Her attention derailed, the words died on her tongue.
What had Mal been saying again? Promotions...
'Has someone said something?' she asked, her tone as noncommittal as she could.
'Not exactly, but I hear Major Blouse has lost his third lieutenant and has been holding back on promoting a new one.'
'How do you hear these things?' exclaimed Polly, who never ceased to be amazed – annoyed, really – by how very informed her corporal was.
'Remember the wounded we passed yesterday?'
Of course. Polly never did interview the men of private rank – they were intimidated (and rightly so) by the sergeant rank, and would not have been likely to tell her much, anyway.
Polly considered. lieutenant was an officer rank; it would give her more power to move her forces where she felt they were needed; she would be free from control by the bookthumpers, shouters, overly honourable men, and villains that had commanded her so far – at least until they met a captain. On the other hand, she'd be on the other side of the wall, then, with no direct contact with the men; they would look at her and salute, and they wouldn't be her little lads anymore, not really.
Mal watched her think, hiding her own thoughts behind her silence.
'Only... only if they make you my sergeant,' she said at last.
She needed a bridge to the men, someone she knew and trusted. A vampire is not a comfortable bedfellow to your average soldier, but sergeants aren't supposed to be comfortable, anyway; and Mal's charm would make sure the men would still talk to her; and her way of being quiet and watching was what would keep her informed, despite the wall that grew thicker with each promotion.
'Aww,' said Mal with a grin.
Polly punched her in the arm, but was laughing already. 'Don't make me reconsider!'
'Should we hug?'
'I have access to your coffee machine, you know. I could go Strappi on it anytime.'
'That's below the belt, sarge.'
'Under your sleeping roll in your bag, actually.'
'Next to the wooden stake.'
Polly fell quiet, stunned. Mal had suddenly turned deathly serious, too, following the subject. 'That should be in your bag, though; along with the hammer.'
Polly was beset by the feeling, the conviction, which she'd held ever since the question had first been brought up, that if that did become necessary, she would never be able to do it. She would never do it.
'I'd not be me anymore, sarge,' Mal said levelly. 'Igorina's not with us. It would be up to you.'
Polly looked away, annoyed.
'Look, take them. Put them in your bag. That's all I ask. That, or I'll go under some other lieutenant.'
Polly smiled slowly. 'Corporal, if I didn't know you better...'
'Oh, hush,' said Mal with a grin. 'Take them, Pol. It's only a hammer and a piece of wood.'
Polly nodded, feeling sick. 'All right.'
She didn't think it would be so much harder to actually touch the wood, when Mal handed it to her; that the weight of the hammer would turn her stomach. She put them away quickly, tugging them against the outer side of the bag, but just knowing they were there was enough to take away her appetite.
'Well done, sarge,' murmured Mal near her ear, and then, suddenly, the vampire's arms were around her – arms that did not squeeze, but carefully lay against her flesh, as if afraid of crushing. Her scent drifted to Polly: a touch of old roses, dust, iron and coffee.
And then she was gone, quick as a candle flame going out. 'Afraid to be punched again,' she'd joke later.
Whatever thoughts Polly had at that point, staring into the growing darkness, surrounded by wind and trees and the distant murmuring voices of the soldiers, were probably against regulations, so eventually she sighed, resolved, and left to check up on the privates on watch.