There was a cheerful air in the great hall on Fridays. Fridays were special days, if only for the meals. The boys would sit in rows on the hard benches, noise level naturally high except in the nearest vicinity of Mr Bodganov's cane, and dig into their meatloaf, vegetables and soup. Meatloaf was special. Meatloaf had actual meat in it, and they were pretty sure it was beef. The usual weekday fare was liver or soup, and on the whole soup was preferred. There wasn't quite anything like liver to make a boy appreciate meatloaf. On liver days, talk often turned to turkeys and pork and fantastic dishes they'd only heard of, dishes so delicious they were almost certainly abominable.
Then came the final exams, meals almost forgotten in the anxiety, despite the clawing background pangs of hunger. It was an era Rupert Blouse later remembered much as he later would his first battle, as a black stretch of time remembered with a mix of pleasure and pride as horrible effort brilliantly rewarded. It was rewarded in part with dishes - such dishes - dining in the best inns of the capital, and then at the great graduation dinner. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious since.
It was the memory of this, and of the faces of his schoolmates, half-forgotten now except for the older masks worn by those of them who were now his colleagues, that brought a smile to his face when he took another careful sip of scubbo. (He was wearing his best shirt for the occasion, and didn't want it ruined yet.) The taste brought back the long table and the joy of meatloaf after a week of liver and Academy scubbo. He didn't, on the whole, remember the cane too much, rather remembering the glee of having escaped it. Memory glossed over desperation, the woodshed, and the more inventive punishments such as winter flag watch, and brought back the joy of geometry, mathematics, the smell of the old library, cricket in the sun, and friendship.
"Colonel Blouse, sir?" The voice brought him back to the present, and he looked into the face of Sergeant Perks. "They're ready for you, sir."
"Oh, right." He blinked, and put the bowl down with a last touch of regret. "As you were."
He pulled aside the flap that served as a door to the shack that served as his frontline headquarters, ducked and walked out into the trenches. Men were lined up along the raised earth on both sides, stretching as far as he could see. Perks and Maladict were there as well, swords and horsebows ready, as were the messengers. There was a distant, taunting boom, somewhere in the mists on the other side.
"This is it," he told Perks, waving his folded orders. "Word arrived just before lunch. Send the message to all captains. We go over the top at 14:00."
He watched hope die in Perks's eyes, and felt sorry for what he was about to do to her. "All except your squad. Prepare to receive the wounded and beat a retreat should the attack take a worse turn."
"Sir," said Perks in an undertone, "if you're offering me a way out because of our connection..."
"You will obey my orders, Sergeant," said Blouse sadly. "This is more important than your pride."
"Sir." Polly stood back, and to attention, her face wiped blank.
"Sir," began Maladict, but Blouse interrupted him.
"You will be excepted. Do what you can for your country."
He didn't tell them what he'd decided. Borogravia needed sergeants, sensible ones, who could be there on the spot and come out with most of their men alive. It had plenty of majors and generals, who alone could do nothing (as he so well knew by now, after all these days, these hours, these letters) and in congress seemed to trip over each other.
Blouse's next in command, Major Tart, was a good man, intelligent, and most importantly, still full of fire. He would get a step up for this battle, if he survived, and Blouse hoped he knew where to direct his fire, and when. That was a hard enough lesson for any man to learn - when not to fight.
He fingered his sword in its sheath as he watched Perks give out orders to a pair of paling youths who would likely not see tomorrow. Perhaps this was for his pride. Perhaps it was for Emmeline and George, gone all these years, and sorely missed. Perhaps he was just tired of fighting at last. He had always wanted to be a hero. He had always wanted to have a famous last stand.
He smiled a little, remembering youth, the bitter beloved taste of it still in his mouth.