The Clacks was back up again. But why shout it from the mountaintops when all you had to do was find the right ear to whisper in? She'd have a chance to train her own little lads, maybe a generation or so out, but as it were, there were wrists to be twisted and few better to do it. Plenty of people to meet in the interim. Polly had a longing for a proper bed, for coffee that didn't taste like the pot it was boiled in.
Maladict looked at the place askance through the trees.
"It's a taphouse with a brothel attached."
"I know these places, Mal. And I'm sick of tents. Besides, there'll be hot water in it for you."
The inn yard had a distinct lack of comical chickens at play in it but a lot of half-frozen mud and old boot prints. The actual meeting place was a shambles of whitewashed wood. It had held up better than most, though, and there was woodsmoke on the air, and a barmaid in the doorway, apparently posted as lookout from the way she scurried off on seeing them. Free advertisement as well, if her hitched-up skirts were anything to go by. Presenting less an alluring flash of bare ankle and more quite a bit of sturdy woolen stocking.
"Ah, good. Rest and recreation," Maladict said brightly, and doffed her cap.
"Nothing, Perks, nothing."
It served Maladict right for tagging along. And her strange moments came less and less often, but they still came. Polly gripped her arm for support, briefly, and the chill got just a little worse.
(Recreation? Polly thought. You never did know with vampires. They did have their quirks. And the world probably looked a little different when the first place your eyes went on an attractive specimen of either gender was a bit lower. Or higher and to either side.)
Mrs. Peakes clearly had a side trade in a more timeless field. Maybe in the city there were establishments for this kind of thing, but this was a smoke-stained old inn that smelled like an old woman's best sitting room. Polly felt like the proprietress ought to be sucking on peppermints and wrapped in a dozen different shawls. (Not that shawls were uncommon wear for women of any age. All the old women Polly knew looked practically mummified.) Instead she was a thin, red-faced woman with a scrupulously clean dress and a mistrustful look. Her eyes seemed to brighten at the sight of the uniform, but it was still unnerving. You didn't want to run off and undress, you wanted to put on all the clothes you had and run away. Polly felt rather appraised. (She knew how inns were run, and if she knew this kind of woman, she'd be a widow. She'd be good at keeping an eye out.)
"Will you be wanting company, then?" Mrs. Peakes ventured, in a way that could make your skin creep and that made Maladict grimace into the collar of her coat.
"Just the room will do."
(The woman had a battered portrait of the Duchess pinned to her dress, hastily altered with a small and unobtrusive symbol of some other god. Old habits died hard.)
There wasn't much more than the actual beds themselves, but some feeble pretensions to comforting domesticity. She couldn't speak for Maladict, but the air had an unpleasantly organic smell to it that she had to make a serious effort to ignore. There was a bed, and a desk, and a few abandoned pictures that no doubt provided ample entertainment for lonely men on the road.
Polly suddenly felt more naked than the girls on the postcards did. That wasn't the difficult part any longer, once she had the hang of the whole sock business. She didn't stammer or turn odd colors on presentation with nudity, which was more than could be said for an actual young male. She scrutinized the blotchy engraving hard and tried to fake being enthralled.
"Well, gosh," she intoned under her breath to no one in particular. The play-acted quaver in her voice might have been a momentary imitation of what Sergeant Perks once thought of as her male mode. (Piping young boy, with a side of pathetic swagger. Or an innocent young girl, though growing up as she did, there were few to be found.) For someone already acquainted with female anatomy, there wasn't much to actually hold interest. Just dimpled legs and abundant bosom and, just behind the reclining figure, someone had attempted gamely to include bedsheets and an urn. They weren't spread out on the dressing-table but furtively tucked to the side, a dingy sort of appetizer for the presumable pleasures of the flesh this place might have offered. They even felt-- Polly gave herself a mental good kick-- they even felt Abominable. Like they'd been handled too much by all sorts of hands.
There was a waiting silence. Polly sunk back onto the bed, trying to ignore the dust this raised and the way the straw tick sagged. There was no telling glink at the doorknob turning, but the grating sound of wood on wood –
Reflexes are difficult to overcome. She was out of bed and armed before the door was even open.
It was the girl who'd served them their drinks. She gave off an air of being scrubbed, of chapped skin and the kind of build ascribed to beer-hall tune shepherdesses. Polly knew this kind of girl well enough. They were on the precarious edge between badness and simple bad quality, but they were biddable girls, not that this got them much. Nuggan smileth on obedient daughters, and not much else for young unmarried women. She slipped through the doorway with eyes modestly lowered and her head bent. (There was a handkerchief folded neatly and pinned over her hair. Some traditions never died, no matter how much you wanted them to.) You could see it register in her eyes that one of her guests was holding a knife-- a sword, to be perfectly honest-- and in a flash she was clutching her skirts, taking a step back in the direction she'd come from.
"I'm sorry," she said, in a voice like a frightened mouse.
Polly grimaced. In the dark, there was a vague impression of skirts settling.
"Mam told me to tell you that there's supper downstairs, if you're hungry."
"No, I'm not. Just here for the bed." This was reasonable enough, wasn't it? Sometimes a man just wanted to put his feet up. Just wanted the mug of beer and the atmosphere, not female companionship. "Tell your mam I give my best regards, all right?"
The girl nodded, eyes big, and finally left. Polly lay with her sword in the crook of her arm for the rest of the night, sleepless.
The night seemed to wear itself out. Without the constant struggle to keep a body upright -- proper food, for one, that you'd almost feel guilty to eat if you weren't still so damned hungry- sleep didn't come easy. Lying up with eyes firmly closed, she tried to set the day's events in order and ignore the overpowering smell coming off the straw tick, both at once. After dirt and leaf mold, and a much greater spectrum of human smells than presented here, it should have been nothing, but maybe it was the one long note of it, sweat choked under soap from the sheets. And wet leaves, unpleasant as they were, had the advantage of not smelling like sex.
This is stupid, Perks thought. I've been freezing, tired, hacked up, shot at, imprisoned, court-martialled, I've paid for the damn room and now I've got a decent night's pause and I can't sleep –
In the dark, something leather went creak. This time there was no shock, no bolting upright. If there was stabbing to be done, it'd be done without catapulting upright like a frenzied berserker.
Maladict leaned in the doorway quite casually, candle in tow and with boots gleaming. In her hands were a pack of cards and a reeking mug of coffee. And once again, her clothes were immaculately clean.
Polly's saber rattled a bit when she sat up. There was a rueful baring of teeth on her part, though unsurprisingly not on the vampire's.
"Well," she heard Maladict say with that particular slightly-snide tone, "that went well."
Perks slept with her coat buttoned up, not for lack of bandages but for a distaste for the exposure. Not of cotton binding thick enough to stop a blade. (She needed to bind things now -- when did she spontaneously develop enough to bind? It had snuck up on her. For practicality rather than the necessities of the game. ) For fear of seeing war wounds, ones she might not even have yet. They ought to have some utility-- this scar here from a brawl, this ugly patch of split-apart calluses here. Tell when bad weather's coming or something, ache meaningfully when it's cold out and somebody else ought to buy the next round. But they'd healed. All that was left was the muscle you get living on your feet, and the memory aches where none should be. That and a healthy packet of potential blackmail material tucked inside her coat lining with a few stitches whipped through the flap to keep it in place.
Shufti had The Duchess back home and she had Jack, and she had Paul. Wazzer had quiet rooms of her own and all the time in the world. Tonker and Lofty had each other. Polly had Paul back home and Mal beside her, and the road in front of her.