If it's Tuesday, thought Polly, this must be Glitsch.
The situation was a bit of a hodgepodge. On the one hand, she was in charge of the troop, the Second Borogravia Irregulars, with Maladict as her second in command. On the other hand, Captain Schandel was very much in charge of The Mission, and his idea was that they should get through this inspection and goodwill tour as rapidly as possible. That meant each stop was Day 1, arrive and arrange quarters (Polly's job); Day 2, meet with the town guard and interrogate them about possible incursions from across the border (the captain's job); and Day 3, get up bright and early and march on to the next destination (everyone's job).
The first couple of weeks they'd traveled along the Zlobenian border. The weather had been fine, and Polly's reputation with Zlobenia had been a source of good cheer amongst the townsfolk. The lads had hardened to the captain's idea of a good day's march under the brilliant skies of early Spune—even scrawny little Viggy Viggins and Captain Schandel's aide and batman Leif "Twig" Rummage, who came by his nickname honestly.
That was just as well, because their march along the borders of Skund and Lancre was accomplished in thunderstorms and chilly gales. Viggy and Bramby Birdwhistle (whose real name was Abigail) had gone down hard with spectacular colds, and big Mash Dibben, whom Mal swore was half troll, had developed a disgusting case of foot-rot.
And whose job was it to get the troop on their feet and marching again, and the baggage mules harnessed up and the cart rolling? Why, that would be Sergeant Perks.
"Ain't it grand that women are good at that sort of slog?" said the captain. "That's why we have you, Perks."
By the time they reached the start of the long border with Uberwald, Polly was heartily sick of both their mission and their commander. The weather settled out to cloudy with a touch of drizzle, but at least it wasn't as cold as it had been, and that's all you could really expect when it was almost Sektober, anyway.
Who'd thought it was a good job to head north during Autumn Prime? They'd be crossing the foothills of the Rammerock Mountains by Hogswatch.
"Hello," murmured Mal, as they marched up the main street of Glitsch. "Does this place seem a little…off to you?"
Polly, who'd been trying to spot a likely inn, shifted her attention to the citizenry. They looked moderately prosperous, decently clothed, fairly well fed.
No, there…. The way some of them seemed to glance at the troop, pause for half a second, and then look away. "What's wrong with them?" said Polly. "They look as though we had—I don't know, some sort of horrible scars? Or something?"
"I'm glad it's not just me," said Mal. "Shifty folk. Twitchy. Oh, look," she said, pointing down the road. "What about that inn?"
"That inn" was a large, well-kept establishment named the Keg & Kettle, according to the crooked letters on the signboard. Paul could do better, thought Polly, but otherwise, the inn looked quite acceptable. "Captain! This looks a decent sort of place. Shall I ask for rooms?" said Polly.
The captain looked the inn over as though he expected a trap of some sort. "Solid enough," he allowed. "See to it, Perks."
"Wait here, you lot," she said to the Irregulars. "Mal, keep them in order."
The innkeeper was a massive woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Speight. In response to Polly's listing of the troop's needs, she offered a private bedroom with its own parlor for the captain and his batman, a double room for Polly and Mal, and two attic rooms with two large beds each for the soldiers, as well as stabling for the captain's horse and the baggage cart mules. The only problem that this could have presented was the fact that the troopers consisted of five lads and three "lads." But they'd been through this before: none of the three little lads was the least bit worried about Viggy.
"It'll do, thank you, ma'am," said Polly, and paid half in advance. She was also the paymaster and bursar.
"The rooms'll be ready in an hour," said Mrs. Speight. "Dinner's over these two hours gone, though. Will you be wanting supper, later?"
"I'll need to ask the captain," said Polly. The innkeeper nodded and shouted, Polly presumed, for the maids.
She went back out to the street. "We're stopping here," she announced, "But the rooms aren't ready yet. Dinner's long over, captain. The proprietress wanted to know whether we wanted supper."
'Oh, jolly good. Yes. Nothing fancy, mind. Good wholesome food."
"Yes sir," said Polly, reflecting that no one had anything very fancy these days, although the country had started to recover from the worst of the war years. They'd be lucky to get beer, bread, cheese, and a higher-class version of scubbo.
"We've made good time," said the captain, squinting at his pocket watch. "And we only had a scratch dinner on the road. Tell you what: give each trooper a two-pence bonus, Perks, and three pence each for yourselves and Rummage, here. Oh, and advance Rummage another penny for some shaving soap. Lads, I saw a market one street back. Takes yourselves off and be back in two hours for supper!"
This was amazing generosity, the first thing resembling a holiday they'd had since The Mission started. Polly opened the leather purse once again and doled out the pennies. "Corporal Maladict, keep an eye on them."
"What about you, Sarge?"
"I'll watch the cart and supervise the stabling first," said Polly.
"Good man, er, woman, Perks!" said the captain. "I'll go in and see what the lady of the house has in the way of wines and order supper."
Polly hoped the woman in question had something good stashed away: it would nice if the captain's genial mood lasted. The Irregulars went on their way, increasingly cheerful and noisy as they left the captain behind. The ostler showed up, and Polly warned him about the captain's horse, Drako, who tended to kick with uncanny accuracy if you stepped past him to the rear. She was getting to know quite a lot about horses and mules, and some of it had been learned painfully. With the beasts undercover, the baggage cart off the street in the stableyard, and no sign of the captain re-emerging from the inn, Polly went off to the market herself.
The street they had passed on the way to the inn opened out to an irregular square lined with taverns, shops, and market stalls. There was quite a crowd of townsfolk shopping and visiting with their neighbors. This far from the battlefields, the towns seemed to have managed to hold onto some prosperity. Polly spotted Griddler chewing an apple and looking over display of knives, Mash stolidly chewing his way through a large roll stuffed with cheese and watching some girls trying on straw hats, and Twofer trying to drag Sogs toward a puppet show. This must have come over the border from Uberwald, since puppets were still an Abomination as far as Polly knew. Suddenly her gaze was drawn to a well-dressed middle-aged couple who seemed to have spotted something dangerous across the square, from their sudden stillness and appalled expressions. Polly followed their stares.
Whatever had happened must have stopped happening. There was nothing to see but busy townsfolk, and Mal sitting on a bench outside of a storefront, with a small cup and saucer balanced on her knee. Polly maneuvered through the crowd to join her. An overwhelming smell of coffee was drifting out of the shop.
"There you are!" said Mal, with a cheery smile. "This is some really excellent coffee. Strong as an ox. It's the way they brew it in Genua, the shop owner said. They have an amazing coffee engine, with its own steam boiler. The brew's called essplosio."
"I'm glad you found it," said Polly. "I saw Griddler, Mash, Twofer, and Sogs out and about. Oh, and there're Mazz and Bramby, at the bakery window. Have you seen the others?"
"Yes. Viggy disappeared into that bookshop and hasn't come out. Twig finished at the apothecary and went into the cobbler's. I know his boots are down at the heel. Posker and Lumpy are in that little tavern, the Two Crows. Why don't you take a stroll, Poll? I'm fine here; I'm going to blow most of my savings on Genua roast beans."
She'd spotted what looked like a stationer's on the far corner of the square, with a mail agent's sign in the window. Maybe she could post a letter home. As she got closer, she saw that the shop had paint boxes and brushes for sale. As she looked them over, she heard a half-familiar voice behind her. "Well, what have we here? Sergeant Perks, as I live and breathe."
She whirled around. Behind her was a young man in a tidy brown coat, dark trousers, good boots, and a hat with a pheasant tail feather. Close-cut red hair gleamed below the hat brim. "Tonker!"
Tonker winked and then shook her cropped head. "Abel Tasker, at your service, Sergeant. So those are your lads there in the market?"
"They are. And Mal's too: she's back at the coffee shop."
"Not surprised. It's a famous place," said Tonker.
"Where's…the lady-friend?" asked Polly.
Tonker nodded to a shop across the way. Through the open door, Polly could see Lofty picking over bodkins and reels of cord. "She looks well," said Polly. "And you look very sharp…Tasker, me old cully."
"We've done pretty well the last few months," said Tonker, grinning. "Think we'll be heading south after this. Sto Lat's supposed to be quite the place, and the coach leaves next week."
Lofty, dressed plainly but neatly in a dress, apron, and cap, came out of the shop with a covered basket over her arm. Tonker put an arm around her. "And here's the wife. Look who's here, Lotty."
She gave Polly a bored look, then stopped and looked again. A tiny smile flashed and then disappeared. Polly gave her a little bow. "Pleased to see you again, ma'am. Have the two of you been here long?"
"Just a fortnight," said Tonker. "Why?"
"Some of the folk seem a bit odd. Twitchy, Mal said."
Lofty stared at her a minute, then tapped her arm and pointed to a stall Polly had not noticed earlier in the crush. It was flying a flag with a Nugganitic emblem. A cord stretched across the top of the booth dangled pieces of parchment or paper with arcane scrawls on them. Huge baskets of garlic and herbs rested on the counter, and as Polly watched, a man was purchasing half a dozen sharpened wooden stakes tied up neatly with string. When he stepped away from the booth and into the crowd, Polly could see the painted signboard hanging from the front edge of the counter: Keepe Off Ye Denizyns of Darknesse.
"Bugger," said Tonker. "Yeah, she's right. Some really hard-assed Nugganites here in Glitsch. The border with Uberwald's not five miles off; they get all creeped out about vampires and werewolves. Tell Mal to watch how she goes. Where are you and the soldier boys staying?"
"The Keg & Kettle. Anything I should know about it?"
"Oh, very posh; you must have a full purse. No, old Speight loves her gold more than she's worried about spooky coves from over the border, and she's got a name for being as honest as she is hard."
"Well, it's not my money, and the captain gave me the go-ahead. He likes his comforts, when he can get them. Where are you two dossing down?"
"We're doing it on the cheap, saving our coach fare. Smith Square's all but abandoned. So we've set up in an empty house. Looking at the South Market here, you'd never know it, but Glitsch was hit pretty hard by the war. They're roaring back, but they still lost plenty of lads and a lot of business. Only one other house on our square has anyone living in it. We're all rug: got a real bed and plenty of room."
"Come and say hello to Mal?"
"No thanks, Sarge. We're trying not to draw attention."
The sun was almost behind the roofs of the nearest house now. "Well, maybe I'll see you about," said Polly. "We're scheduled to pull out for Fardampt the morning after next, and the captain's a stickler. I'd better round up the lads and get them back to the inn." She lowered her voice and added, "May the Duchess look after you."
Lofty rolled her eyes and Tonker snorted. "D'you ever hear from old Wazzer, then?"
"Not for more than a year; she was fine last I knew." Polly nodded and went back to the coffee shop.
Mal was more or less as Polly had left her but for three fat paper parcels beside her on the bench, tied up snugly with string and reeking of roasted coffee. "Time to go, Sarge," she said.
"Yes, I know." Polly raised her voice to a shout: "Oy! Second Irregulars! Fall in!"
"You're getting almost as loud as old Jackrum," said Mal, appreciative. "And this place is really lively. I bet they have some prime nightlife. D'you know, I've had at least three po-faced gents in black suits come and stare at me? They looked more like vampires than I do."
"Yes, I need to talk to you about that. Let's get back to the inn, though,"
She had to shout once again before all the troopers came back. Posker and Lumpy were clearly tipsy, and Polly had to clout each of them on the ear before they at least pretended to be in good order. They marched briskly back to the Keg & Kettle, where Polly set them to unloading the baggage from the cart and stowing it in their rooms. She could smell supper cooking and began to feel optimistic about what they would be served. In her little room with Mal, she got out a clean shirt and socks, pulled the curtain across the small window, and set about washing her face and changing.
"What did you want to talk about?" asked Mal, lounging elegantly on the bed, her discarded boots in the corner of the room. She'd pulled out her civvies, a natty black suit and clean white shirt, and hung them on the single straight chair.
Polly dried her face, buttoned up her fresh uniform shirt, and went to peer out of the door. No one was about, although she could hear the other Irregulars thumping and clattering upstairs. She shut the door again. "I ran into Tonker and Lofty outside the market."
"What! And you didn't bring them by to say hello to their Uncle Maladict?"
"They're lying low. Mal, Tonk says a lot of the townsfolk are superstitious about vampires and werewolves. It's because we're so near the Uberwald border, she says. In the corner of the market there was a booth selling garlic and stakes and things."
Mal shuddered. "I didn't see it. Damn."
"So you'd better stick close."
Mal looked as though she were going to argue, but there was a knock at the door. "Mrs. Speight's compliments," said a young woman's voice, "Supper's on."
"D'you understand me, Mal?" said Polly, snagging her uniform jacket and opening the door. A moment later, Mal followed her down to supper.
The captain, his face rosy and mellow with wine, had a table of his own, with a cushioned chair and Mrs. Speight herself to wait on him. The rest of them had a long table with Polly at the head and Mal at the foot. Twig was crammed in anyhow between Mazz and Bramby on one of the long benches, and a plump young maid waited on and flirted with them. Supper was good fresh bread, mutton and vegetable soup that made scubbo seem like a bad dream, and plum tart with thin slices of aged cheese (and not one worm to be seen), accompanied by beer that Polly would not have been ashamed to serve back at the Duchess. The captain also had a nice meaty pig's trotter with mashed turnips, as well as cream for his tart, but Polly wasn't about to complain, and the Irregulars were loud with appreciation.
"Well, boys," said the captain at last. "Early to bed and early to rise, eh?"
Polly took the hint and shepherded the Irregulars out. Her belly was full, the bed was only the least bit lumpy, and the sheets were clean. She fell asleep while Mal was still puttering about.
She woke once, briefly, to the sound of the room's door closing. Just going out for some air, Poll. Had she really heard that? Sleep pulled her back down into the darkness behind her eyelids before she made up her mind.
She woke just after sunrise. When she rolled over and looked, Mal's bed was empty and barely rumpled.
Polly was on her feet in an instant, looking around. Mal's uniform was neatly hung up. Her pack was open. Her civilian clothing was gone.
Damn, damn, damn.
She got the Irregulars up, harangued them into their uniforms, and marched them down to breakfast, shrugging off questions about their corporal's whereabouts. The long table was set with steaming bowls of porridge, a jug of milk, slabs of bread, a dish of butter, and thin slivers of ham, plus a basket of apples. Two mighty teapots steamed by what would have been Mal's place, along with ranks of mugs. The captain had a dish of porridge, his own handsome little teapot and a china cup and saucer, little pots of honey and butter, and a basket of fresh rolls. As he came in and seated himself, the plump maid came out with a plate of ham and fried eggs for him.
"Ah, thank you, Gertie," said the captain, and picked up his knife and fork. The maid giggled coyly and left.
Polly seated herself at Mal's place and started pouring out mugs of tea. With every minute, it seemed less and less likely that her memories of last night were just a dream.
Finally, when the captain was on his second roll and third cup of tea, he looked over at the long table, then looked again. "Where is Corporal Maladict, Sergeant?" he asked.
"Captain," said Polly, controlling her voice with an effort, "may I have a word in private?"
He frowned and set down the half-eaten roll. "If you're quite sure that's necessary," he said, his tone icy. "Come upstairs with me."
Polly looked over at Griddler, who was the most respected of the privates, and said "Keep the lads in order, Private Podge." Then she followed their commander up the stairs.
The captain's parlor was in immaculate order. It had two arm chairs and a little side table, a desk with a straight chair, its own little heating stove, and a hanging lamp. The captain sat down in the desk chair and opened his notebook. Then he uncorked the inkwell, dipped his pen, and gave her a fierce look. "Perks, report. Where is Maladict?"
"Captain, I fell right to sleep last night. The last thing I'm sure I remember was Maladict getting ready for bed. But I woke for a moment at one point after that, and I recall hearing her say she was going out for some air, and the door to the room closing. This morning, her uniform is still here, her civilian clothes are gone, and her bed was hardly touched."
"Then she's A.W.O.L. Your little chum, Corporal Bloodsucker, has deserted."
Polly stiffened. "No, captain."
"No? Are you contradicting me. Perks? She left in the night, leaving her uniform, and she has not been seen or heard from since."
"Captain, I'm afraid—concerned that she may have been kidnapped. This is a very superstitious town, sir. At the market, there was a stall with garlic, charms, herbs, and wooden stakes. It was doing a good business, captain. A—young man told me that many townspeople fear vampires and werewolves, sir. It's because the Uberwald border is so near, he said."
"What fools," the captain said. He scribbled some notes. "We have a meeting with Mayor Plotz and the town guard in one hour, Perks. I don't suppose you can get this matter straightened out by then."
"No. sir. It's a good-sized town, sir, and I don't know it."
"You are supposed to take notes for me, Perks, and Corporal Bloodsucker is supposed to keep the men in order. Who is going to do that if you are searching for our errant 'creature of the night'?"
"Sir, couldn't you ask the mayor and maybe have the guard help—"
The captain slammed one fist down on the desk. "No! I am here to promote good will and see that the guard is in order. How am I to promote good will if I am accusing the citizens of being superstitious clods who would abduct a member of the army of Borogravia, Perks? If you think that's what's happened, solve it somehow. Quietly. Now, who is going to take my notes and keep the Irregulars in order during the inspection?"
It could be worse, thought Polly. He could have ordered me to forget all about her. "Private Viggins has the best hand at writing, sir, and Private Podge has the best way with command."
"Yes, I recall you've mentioned Podge before. Go tell them of their new assignments. Then go straighten this matter out. Quietly!"
"Regardless of what does or does not happen, we leave on time tomorrow morning."
"Sir." She saluted and left.
A quarter of an hour later, she was methodically combing the town, conspicuous in her red uniform jacket as the town woke up and people went about their business. The stationery shop might have had a map, but it was closed: the hour was early still. I don't even know where to start, she thought. They won't keep her in the Temple of Nuggan, because what if someone comes in to pray? But she could be anywhere else. They may have even taken her out of town. Don't think about that.
This part of town was less prosperous and less busy, although some of the buildings had been nice once upon a time. Here was an entire derelict-looking square. Something about it was tugging at her memory, although she'd never been there before. Above one large but grimy door was a wooden shield painted with a coat of arms: a fat red stripe on a dingy white ground, and atop that, an anvil. She looked around, her heart beating faster. Three young boys jogged into one corner of the square, punching one another and attempting to knock each others' schoolbooks to the ground. Polly gave them her best sergeant's shout: "Oy, lads! Is this Smith Square?"
They gaped at her and then pulled themselves up, trying to look martial and manly. She'd done a much better job herself two years ago. "Yes, sir! Yes, it is!" said the tallest one.
"Thank you, lad!"
They stared at her for a moment, then one poked the other two and whispered something about "Late!" They ran off, back toward the center of town. Polly waited for them to be well gone, then started examining the houses. The street was dusty with a summer's accumulated dirt, and the most obvious path was the one the boys had taken, from the northeastern corner to the southwest. One house actually had a cracked pot of asters at the side of its doorstep. Only one other had seen a like amount of traffic to its door. Smith Square's all but abandoned. So we've set up in an empty house.
She banged at the door, then noticed a bell-rope and pulled it. A dismal chime rang somewhere inside. "Abel Tasker!" she shouted. "Madam Tasker! It's Perks!"
A shriek of wood on wood broke the stillness over Polly's head. A slight figure appeared in an opened window, clutching a chamberpot. Polly leaped backwards, but Lofty recognized her and didn't empty the pot. She put it down somewhere out of sight and shushed Polly, frowning ferociously, then gestured down toward the door and held up one finger. Then the window screeched shut, Polly came back to the door. After a moment Lofty opened it, grabbed Polly by the arm, dragged her in, and shut the door behind her.
As Polly's eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw a dusty entry hall, with a black-and-white tiled floor. Doors on either side gave access to a dusty dining room, with the drawers all pulled out of the sideboard and only one chair left at the massive table, and a derelict parlor, with slashed cushions on the settee and chairs. "Is Tonker in?" asked Polly.
Lofty shook her head and held up both hands, all fingers extended. "Bread," she whispered. Then she dragged Polly toward the back of the house. The kitchen was less forlorn than the more public rooms to the front: it looked like Lofty and Tonker had actually been using it. A stack of splintered chair legs and backs occupied the stove's wood box, and there were a few apples and a block of cheese on the massive work table, which had two chairs still intact beside it. Lofty nodded at one, then started to fill a battered tea kettle with water from a chipped stoneware jug.
Polly stayed standing. "Mal's gone," she said. "She went out sometime in the night, probably dressed in her town clothes, and never came back."
Lofty dropped the kettle with a hideous clatter. Scowling, she picked it up again. "Told you," she said, at last.
She went back to her task, stirring the fire, adding a couple of chair legs, and setting the kettle to dangle from a pot hook. Then she fetched a remarkably fine-looking teapot and measured out some tea. They waited.
The front door opened and shut. Boots rang on the hall tiles, and Tonker came into the kitchen, a fresh loaf under one arm. "What're you doing here?" she asked, cross and wary. "Don't you have soldier stuff to do? Why'd you let her in, Tilda?"
Lofty only wrinkled her nose at Tonker.
"I banged on your door and made a fuss," said Polly. "I need advice. Mal went out alone last night, when I was mostly asleep, and she never came back to the inn. Where do you think your superstitious lot'd take her?"
Tonker dropped the loaf on the table and kicked at the hearthstones. "Nuggan's ass on a spike, Ozzer! She's probably dead! For real, I mean."
"What if she's not? I need to know."
Lofty muttered something.
"She said 'Woodger's,'" said Tonker.
"It's a warehouse down Trup's Mill Lane from the temple, at the edge of town near the graveyard. It's where people bring donations of food and fuel for the temple, and the priests keep a lot of the festival gear there between holidays. Yeah, they might have her in there. No one lives nearby."
"Is it busy?"
"Not much, except the day before Sabbath, when people bring prog for the priests," said Tonker. She took off her coat and hat and hung them on a hook by the back door.
It was two days after the Sabbath now. "Can you show me?"
"Oh, why not. But not before I have breakfast, dammit."
The kettle was boiling. Lofty made the tea and produced a huge knife to cut the bread and cheese. She poured a mug for Polly too and tried to get her to sit down. Polly compromised by perching on the far edge of the hearthstone, away from the fire. When Tonker and Lofty had finished their meal, Lofty put the remaining food in a huge crock with a heavy carving board on the top and left the mugs to soak in a dishpan of hot water. Then they left the house and strolled toward the South Market.
Tonker made a great show of showing Polly the town, keeping up a running patter of disrespectful description. After about an hour, they wandered off down the road toward the graveyard. Woodger's was a bleak building with a barred door and a few high windows. Beside it, toward the town, was an abandoned stables. Beyond it, the road ran uphill to the stone-walled cemetery.
"Come on," whispered Tonker. "Go around the back."
Behind Woodger's was a narrow, weedy yard, and in the blank wall was another door. Beyond the yard was an overgrown woodlot. Polly looked around. It seemed that no building was near enough or tall enough to overlook the yard. Tonker loped silently to the door. "Locked," she said, and rummaged in her pockets. She came up with something small and slender, which she inserted into the keyhole.
She's picking the lock, thought Polly. Lofty was watching the corners, to see if anyone came by. Birds tweeted from the woodyard, unconcerned. At last there was a click from the lock and a sigh from Tonker. She eased the door open, and Polly and Lofty followed her inside. It was dark there. Lofty set down the basket she was carrying and took out a little dark lantern, which she lighted. Now they could see a large room, filled with barrels and sacks, smelling of grain and root vegetables. Three doors pierced the far wall, toward the front of the building. The first, when unlocked, showed a room lined with racks, mostly empty except for a couple of dozen wine bottles. The second led to a hallway that ended at the front door. The third was also locked and….
The smell of blood hit them all at once. Tonker swore, and Lofty spat like a cat. Polly swallowed and took the lantern from Lofty.
The floor of the room was dirt. Mal, clad only in her trousers, was sprawled on the ground, a wooden stake through her chest, presumably hammered into the soil. A dark stain spread across the floor from her.
Polly set the lantern down and started toward her, only to be pulled back by the others. "What are you going to do?" hissed Tonker. "She's almost bled out, she'll wake up the minute you get the stake out, and she'll go for blood first thing. She needs it to heal."
"She's a Black Ribboner!" said Polly.
"Well, it's not like you have any coffee, do you?"
Polly stared at her and then pulled both of them back out into the main store room. "Not yet, I don't," said Polly.
After some discussion, they had a scheme. The scheme involved flowers. Lots of them. Six buckets, in fact: all of the flowers that the vendor had. "Some nobby eating houses are going to be in a right old taking when they send the maid out for flowers for the tables," said Tonker, who seemed to be warming to the task.
She and Lofty had come up with a two-wheeled handcart. In went the buckets of flowers, and between them and mostly hidden, four large stoneware jugs of coffee. Two of Best Dark Klatchian, and two of Genuine Genoan Essplosio. To these Lofty added a large mug, a moth-eaten blanket, and an elderly valise containing a suit of Tonker's clothes and a basket of meat pies and pastries that the coffee house had given them for free, since they had bought out most of the coffee.
Well, Polly was the paymaster. And the captain had said to handle it quietly, not cheaply.
While Tonker fidgeted by the cart, Lofty ran off and came back with with spools of ribbon and twine, and Polly bought three guaranteed anti-vampire charms.
"Nuggan's eyeballs, Ozzer," said Tonker, disgusted. "What are those for?"
"Throw anyone who's watching off our track," said Polly. "All right, let's go. At least it's a nice day for a picnic."
Tonker hoisted the handcart off its stubby single leg and trundled it down the street to the graveyard, Polly leading, Lofty following. Polly spelled Tonker up the hill, and they rolled slowly and somberly into the graveyard. Lofty promptly started doing up bouquets and dropping them on graves in some order that made sense to her. Once or twice she pulled a candle out of her apron pocket and set it to burn atop a gravestone. Polly realized, after a while, that these were the graves of young women who'd died untimely.
After a short time, they spread the blanket and settled down to eat. The sun was high, and no one seemed to be about. "Probably all at dinner," said Tonker. "Let's do this."
She and Polly took the jugs of coffee out of the cart, along with the mug, and went down the hill into the yard behind Woodger's. Back in the cemetery, Lofty resumed her grave-decorating scheme.
Tonker opened the back door again, and they lugged their burdens inside. They'd left the lantern just inside the door, and Tonker lit it again—not as quickly as Lofty had. With the outer door shut, they made their way into the room where Mal still lay staked to the floor.
Polly tried not to look at Mal as she gave the stake an experimental tug. "It's in really solidly, Tonker," she whispered. "Also, splinters."
"They probably used a mallet," said Tonker, drawing on a pair of leather gloves. "Let me have a go. You set up the coffee, Oz."
Polly fetched the jugs and opened one of the two marked with a red X ("Red for essplosio, like BOOM!" the shop owner had explained). She filled the mug with the powerful brew. Behind her, she heard Tonker grunting with effort and some wet, sticky sounds that she tried not to think about. "Come give me a hand," said Tonker, "'Nother pair of gloves in my right coat pocket."
Polly found the gloves and put them on. Tonker had one foot braced against Mal's bare shoulder to hold her down. It's not like she feels it, thought Polly, and gritted her teeth to do the same.
"That's the way," said Tonker, her voice thick. "On my count, pull. One, two, three!"
There was a truly horrible sound that Polly felt would haunt her dreams for years, and the stake came out. Tonker pulled it out of Polly's hands, threw it into the corner, said "Oh, shite!" and ran for the door. Polly fell over backward onto the dirt floor.
As she pushed herself up to sit, she could see why Tonker had run. Mal was sitting up too. Her eyes were dark pits, her cheeks were sunken, and her lips were drawn back from her teeth.
Including her fangs.
"You should have run off with Tonker," she grated. "I don't know if I can help myself, Poll." She wrapped her arms about herself, shuddering. "You've got what I need."
"Yes, I do," said Polly. She was shocked at how calm her voice came out. She got to her feet and picked up the mug.
"Polly, don't get close to me!" Mal warned. "I'm going to, I'm going to…." Mal's face was contorted as though she were weeping, but she had no tears to spare.
Polly knelt down beside her and held out the mug, sloshing it a bit. The warm, fierce scent of the Genoan special roast wafted out, and Mal froze.
"What you're going to do is have a good big cup of this vile stuff," said Polly. She held the mug to Mal's lips and tilted it.
Mal opened her mouth and seized the mug herself. She drained it in one long draft. "M-more, Polly!" she gasped.
Polly jumped up and grabbed the open jug. She reached for the mug, but Mal dropped it and grabbed the jug from Polly's hands.
Somehow Mal didn't choke. Of course, she didn't have to breathe, which helped. When the jug was empty, she set it down and shuddered once, then looked up at Polly, almost her own sane self again. "Have you got any more of it?"
"Yes, Mal, there's another whole jug, plus two more of dark Klatchian. And look, the mug didn't even break."
"You're wonderful, Polly," said Mal.
When Tonker came tiptoeing back, Polly had one arm around Mal, who had had almost finished the second jug of essplosio, Mal looked up calmly as the door to the room opened. "Hello, Tonker old chum."
"Look at you! Thank the Duchess," said Tonker, devoutly, and then shut her mouth with a snap and a frown. "Come on, let's get out of here. Tilda's in the old stables next door. Some of the water in the buckets is pretty clean: just a few flower petals. Let's get you cleaned up."
"Can you walk, Mal?" asked Polly softly, squeezing her shoulder.
"I can try," said Mal.
With Polly's arm around Mal's waist and one of Mal's arms across Polly's shoulders, they managed the move pretty smoothly. Lofty was waiting with the clothes and the buckets. She took one look at Maladict and pulled off one of her petticoats to tear up for wash rags and bandages. The wound had already started closing up. Mal shuddered as the chilly water touched her, but they managed to get her fairly well cleaned off and into Tonker's suit. It was too short and a bit too wide, but at least it covered her. Tonker finished locking up Woodger's, and then they loaded Mal into the cart and took the back roads to the Keg and Kettle. "Keep your head well down, Mal," muttered Tonker, and jammed her own hat on Mal's head.
The maid opened the door, goggled at them, and fetched the landlady. "Well now, the lost chicken has come home to roost," said Mrs. Speight, sorting out Mal with one sweeping glance. "My my, she's been to the wars, hasn't she? Take her 'round to the wash house behind the place; she looks like she could use a hot bath. Gertie will bring some towels out, and an old dressing gown. Then to bed. I'll bring up some beef tea. And a sandwich for you, sergeant."
"Madam, I'd give you my kingdom, if I had one," said Mal.
Mal was asleep—or at least, she had her eyes closed and was quiet—soon after she'd finished her beef tea. Polly wrote down an accounting of what she'd spent on the rescue, including the money she'd pressed on Tonker and Lofty while Mal was having her bath. Then, having borrowed Gertie's mending basket, she started on the fiddly task of making Tonker's old suit fit Mal better.
She'd only finished letting out the hems on the trouser legs when she heard the Irregulars return. She put the sewing aside and donned her uniform jacket and hat before going downstairs to greet them. Everyone seemed to be in decent spirits, so Polly guessed the inspection had gone well. The captain looked her over and said, "I'll see you in my parlor, Perks."
Just as that morning, he sat at the desk and got out his notebook and pen. "I presume you got her back, then. You've a good gambler's face, but not so good as to look so calm if you'd actually lost your, er, comrade."
"Yes sir. She's upstairs in bed, sir."
"Someone had staked her to the floor of a store room! Sir."
He laid the pen down slowly. "By the Duchess! And she's still alive? I mean, still with us?"
"Yes sir. Vampires have champion powers of recovery, sir."
"Kidnapping and assaulting a soldier of the Duchess. Confound it, that's not on!"
"Don't know exactly who did it, sir."
"How'd you find her, then?"
"Got some local intelligence, sir. They had some suspicions about where she might be, and they were right. Got her out and took care of her, sir."
"And you were quiet, Perks?"
"Quiet as I could be, sir. All anyone should have seen was a sergeant of the Irregulars helping a couple of locals put flowers on the graves in the cemetery, sir, as part of the whole good will job, and then maybe this same sergeant and two locals wheeling an ill comrade back to the inn with a handcart."
"I presume this means you bought some flowers. And bought or hired a handcart."
"Yes, sir, plenty of flowers, sir. Needed lots of them to disguise the coffee jugs, sir."
The captain's eyebrows were trying to join his receding hairline. "Coffee. How much did this cost, Perks?"
Polly produced her accounts. The captain looked over the figures. "I see. Well, the corporal will find her wages garnished for a while to pay some of this back. The coffee, at least. But still…. Have a seat, Perks. I need to write the mayor a note."
The only seat would be one of the easy chairs. Polly perched uneasily on the edge of one while the captain muttered and wrote. Finally, he folded and sealed the letter. "Perks, take this 'round to the mayor sharpish. We're leaving on schedule tomorrow."
Polly delivered the message and came back in time for supper. Mal slept on, but when Polly came up to bed, she stirred for a moment.
"Oh. It's you. Good," she said.
Polly knelt by the bed and grabbed Mal's hand. "Maladicta. Don't. You. Ever do that to me again! That's an order!"
Mal sighed. "I just wanted to see some actual nightlife, for once. This was the best town I've ever seen."
"After what I'd told you? Was it worth it?" asked Polly.
Mal pulled Polly's hand to her cheek. "I won't do anything like that again, sergeant. That's a promise."
The next morning, Mal was wobbly but on her feet on her own. The Irregulars packed up and formed up outside the inn, promptly after breakfast. The mules were harnessed, the baggage was stowed in the cart, and Twig led the captain's horse out for him. Captain Schandel stepped out the door, bidding a genial farewell to Gertie, and just then a little troop of the town guard showed up.
"Captain Schandel!" said the leader.
"Oh. Thrush, wasn't it?"
"Yes sir! The mayor asked us to bring this and see your troop off, sir!"
"This" was a small leather purse. The captain took it, hefted it, and said "Hah! Very good, Thrush. My regards to the mayor. Perks, take charge of this,"
Polly did so. The weight suggested that the captain had asked the mayor for considerably more than Polly's expenses for yesterday.
"And now…Corporal! Get up on the box with Sprull."
Mal looked up at Sprull, who sat on the cart's driver's box holding the reins, and back at their commander. "On the cart, sir?"
"You heard me. Can't have you slowing us down. We have a schedule to meet!" barked the captain. He mounted Drako, who sidled and shook his head, evidently annoyed by having to leave the inn stables for the road again. "And now, men—."
"Cor, look at that!" said Griddler, pointing.
A huge column of smoke was rising from the far side of town, boiling up into the cool early morning air. Polly ran rapidly over her memories of yesterday.
It was quite possible that Woodger's was on fire. Thank you, Lofty.
"Well, Thrush, don't just stand there," growled the captain. "Go form a bucket brigade or something. Second Irregulars, march!"
The Second Irregulars rolled on down the road to Fardampt.