In hindsight, Polly thought, it had to happen. She glanced at Maladicta, who raised one eyebrow at her before they both looked back at the small, skinny girl standing in front of their table. She was wearing a rather nice blue dress and had an Adam’s apple.
“Could you repeat that, please?”
“IsaidIwannaenlist,” the boy said, in a rushed out exhale of words that, despite squeaking with nervousness, were still deeper than they probably should be.
“Right,” Polly said. “As a girl?”
“Yes,” was the agonised response. The boy’s cheeks were turning bright red.
Mal placed her elbows on the scarred wooden table and leaned forwards, the light of interest in her eyes. “Why?” she said.
“I heard you, in Früz,” the boy said. “You told those girls that were trying to enlist – the little one, and the big one whose socks had shifted halfway down her leg? – you told them they had a choice.”
“We did,” Mal said, and looked at Polly. “Fair’s fair,” she said.
“True,” Polly said. “Right, my little lady, what’s your name?”
“Sarah Hopswood,” the boy said, and her face glowed.
“We’re going to have to have a word with her,” Mal said to Polly later, over a beer. “This is not a case that will be solved by just socks. She doesn’t walk right, and she needs to wear a scarf round her neck.”
“We’ve done it before,” Polly said. “What’s in this beer?”
Mal took a sniff, and said, “I’m making an executive decision that you don’t want to know the answer to that, sarge.”
“Thanks,” Polly said dryly.
“And yes, we’ve done it before,” Mal said. “It can’t be that hard the other way round.”
Sarah gazed at them with big blue eyes and said, “But I did practise, damn it.”
“Sure,” Polly said. “Lots of opportunities to walk around in a dress in Früz?” Mal, lounging against a tree, snorted. Sarah blushed.
“No,” she said. “But I put it on in my room.”
“The thing is, Sarah,” Polly said, trying to sound kind and nurturing instead of tired and world-weary, “that there’s lots of things you’ve got to get right. It’s not just the clothes. I commend your use of socks, though.”
Sarah glanced down at her chest. “It’s not socks,” she said. “It’s zbinzal balls.1”
“Oh, very nice,” Mal said, sounding interested. “How have you strapped them on?”
“My dad works leather. I’ve got a sort of… harness.”
“I like that. Shows initiative. You’ll be a corporal soon, young lady.” Mal lit a cigarette and smiled at the girl.
“If,” Polly put in, “you can learn the right walk. And other stuff.”
“I walk the same as you, sarge,” Sarah said, and it was probably true. The girl was clearly putting a bit of effort in, she just hadn’t practised enough, and so her walk was ending up somewhere in a big grey middle area, where her hips swayed a little too little and her arms swung a little too much. Polly wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that she did the same thing.
“Difference is, if someone challenges me and I lift my skirt, they’re the ones with red faces.” Mal coughed gently. “Oh, all right,” Polly said. “If someone challenges me and I drop my completely regulation you remember that chat we had with Captain Blouse, corporal? trousers, they’re the ones with red faces.”
“Oh,” Sarah said. “Right.” Her small face drooped.
“Corporal Maladicta is going to demonstrate, because she’s a vampire and vampires do good walks.”
Mal pushed herself off from the tree, ground the cigarette under her foot, and demonstrated. After a moment or two, Polly came back into herself, stopped metaphorically drooling, and heard Sarah saying plaintively, “I don’t have that much that to walk with.2”
“None of us do, private. It’s a curse,” Polly said. “But I think you can still divine the basic principles, right?”
Sarah looked both doubtful and determined, a curious clash on a face as narrow as hers. There didn’t seem quite enough space for the two feelings to co-exist. “Yes, Sergeant Perks,” she said. “Bit more shimmying on the bottom half, and a bit further forward with the zbinzal balls.”
“And don’t swing your arms so much,” Polly said. “Unless you’re marching, because then you have to. But let’s walk before we march.”
After about ten minutes of walking instruction, Sarah was doing a much better job of it. “I think you’ve got it,” Polly said finally, looking to Mal. The vampire hadn’t moved from her tree, but she nodded briskly, and Polly looked back at the girl – practically a child, she thought – in front of her. “Here’s the other thing.” She held out a scarf. It was blue and finely woven, and went very nicely with the uniform that Sarah was now wearing.
“What’s that for?”
“Your neck,” Mal said. “Unfortunately it’s a bit of a tell. Vampires aren’t the only ones who look in that area.”
“Oh!” Sarah said, and took it hastily. “Thank you!” She wrapped it under her chin. “Is that better?”
“You look swaddled,” Polly said, finally letting herself smile. “Here, come here a second. You need to drape it.” She twitched the fabric until it was satisfactory, and then admired her handiwork. “It’s not regulation, but your sergeant’s going to look the other way.” She winked.
“Thank you, sarge,” Sarah said, an uncomfortable quaver in her voice.
Polly nodded as briskly as she could and said, “You’re dismissed, private,” hoping to head off any display of emotion. It seemed to do the trick.
The clearing was silent after Sarah left, until Mal said, “There’s more stuff she needs to know, Ozzer. She swore, did you hear her?”
“I swear,” Polly said.
“You’re not a fresh-faced farmgirl from Früz, you’re a soldier.”
“So’s she, and she’s a soldier with a bunch of other girls. She’ll pick it up, she seems quick.”
“I suppose.” Mal shrugged.
“All of our lot managed to be vaguely convincing with not much help,” Polly said.
Mal lit another cigarette, and nodded. “True. And only strange girls join the army anyway.”
“Do you think she’s our first going that way?” Polly joined Mal against the tree. It was large enough for both of them to lean against it shoulder to shoulder.
“Probably,” Mal said. “Unless there are some that have practised really well. Haven’t smelt anything off.”
Polly nodded, and accepted the cigarette that was proffered to her a moment later. I wonder why she’s doing it, she though, but not with real enquiry. She knew, really. It was the same as Jackrum.
“Ozzer,” Mal said, very quietly.
“Yes?” Polly said, blowing smoke out of the corner of her mouth and looking up at the stars.
“I want to re-enlist.”
“I know,” Polly said. It was the same as Jackrum, and the same as Mal. “As a man, right?”
“Yeah,” Mal said. He sounded faintly surprised. “You knew?”
“You waited for ages to tell us,” Polly said. “And you’ve never taken advantage of the trouser compromise I negotiated with Blouse.”
“How does that tell you anything?” Mal said, a trifle sharply.
Polly turned her head and smiled at him. “You were too scared,” she said. “You don’t like wanting things too much.” She flicked the coffee bean necklace around Mal’s pale neck. “I don’t want to lose a corporal, though. We’ll just have to do some paperwork fiddling.”
“It’ll take more than that! They’ve all seen me, the whole squad.” Mal tipped his head back against the tree trunk. He looked upset. “And the ruperts.”
“So you’re your own brother, no problem. Also called Mal. Coincidentally acting exactly the same, only with trousers and some paperwork that says you’re… you.”
Mal’s movement was sudden as a striking snake. In a second, he had Polly pinned to the tree. “Think you’re so clever,” he growled.
“Yes,” Polly said. “And you do too.” She was filled with a calm sense of knowing. She’d worked alongside Mal for a year, she was certain of him. “Come on, let’s skip the argument, just kiss me. It’s allowed now, right?”
“Polly Perks…” Mal said, and then ran out of words. He shook his head, and then, very slowly, started to smirk. “Not technically allowed. You haven’t fiddled with any paperwork yet. Probably shouldn’t kiss you until you have. Incentive, old chap, you’ve heard of it?”
Polly was astonished to hear a very small sound come from her throat, something… hungry. “Don’t be an idiot, Mal.” And then she decided that actions should speak louder than words, fisted her hands in Mal’s uniform jacket, and dragged him towards her with a satisfied sigh.
There were no fireworks, and a string quartet did not play anything pulsing with plaintive beauty in the background. It didn’t matter.
1Zbinzal is a game played only in the north of Borogravia and the south of Toldorvia. It involves a live rooster, three small balls, and twenty men.
2 All vampires have a lot of that. Humans only have this.