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A Soldier's Return

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“You are my little lads,” said Polly, “– or not, as the case may be – and I will look after … you.

She put a hand on the shoulder of each of the new recruits, and winked at Maladicta.

If, at any time over the past six months, Mal had been asked whether she expected to enjoy the experience of being winked at by Polly, she would have said yes without hesitation. In context, this did not turn out to be entirely true. She found that she felt rather put out about it.

It wasn’t that she’d joined up because of Polly, per se. The notion had been percolating for some time. Somewhere between the coffee fiasco and the sack of beans delivered straight to her skull via pigeon, her military record had gotten a little … embarrassing. Mal did not generally do embarrassing. She was quite sure that she could do better the second time around.

The question she’d been stuck on was how much difference that would make if Borogravia itself could not do better. Even as she plotted out her route to Munz, she hadn’t been certain. She hadn’t committed herself yet. There was still a chance to abandon the ridiculous uniform and take up a slightly less suicidal career, like werewolf-baiting, or iconography.

And then Polly had ridden past her on the road to the ferry, resplendent in her military skirt and her sergeant’s stripes, and Mal realized several things at once:

1.) that Polly Perks would not be signing back up for another unwinnable war if she didn’t have some kind of devious plan up her sleeve;

2.) that not only Mal quite like to demonstrate that she could do better a second time, she specifically would like to demonstrate this in front of Polly, who had been showing quite encouraging signs of categorizing Mal as ‘irritatingly cool and debonair’ before the entire coffee fiasco et cetera;

and, 3.) that the uniform was nowhere near as ridiculous as she’d thought, and, moreover, if she wanted to look irritatingly cool and debonair, she probably should have brought a horse.

Still, when she walked onto the ferry and smiled at Polly, she was absolutely sure she had made the right decision.

That had lasted right up until Polly turned her attention to the recruits.

**

The new recruits bunked in a pile of musty straw in the shed out behind the inn.

Polly and Mal were officers; they got a room. This meant that their pile of musty straw had a sheet thrown over it, and there were fewer mice. On the other hand, there were significantly more bedbugs, so the advantage was debatable.

(Mal had plenty of money with her. She could, if she chose, have gotten them two rooms. For a variety of reasons, she decided not to volunteer this information. For reasons of her own, presumably, Polly didn't ask.)

Mal made coffee with the pot of hot water she’d brought up, and watched Polly prowl around the room. She inspected the mattress, and made a face. She inspected the floor, and made another.

Finally, she turned to Mal. “All right,” she said, “let’s have it.”

Mal lounged back against the door and took a sip of her coffee. “Well, Poll –”

“Sergeant,” said Polly, coolly.

Really?”

Yes, if you’re going to glare at me all day.” Polly thought a moment longer, and then added, more firmly, “And yes, in general.[1] If this is going to work, I’ve got to be the sergeant. We can’t just be play-acting.”

“All right,” said Mal, “but you can be a Sarge without turning yourself into the Sarge. Sarge.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Mal was fairly sure that Polly knew exactly what she meant. She sighed. “Look – I know the Sarge achieved what’s basically the platonic ideal of Sergeanthood. It’s impressive. And hard to shake, I expect, if that’s what you’ve got in your mind.”

“But it doesn’t suit Corporal Maladicta,” said Polly, flatly.

“I regret to confess –” Mal smiled at her, and didn’t care that the teeth were showing. “– that it does not.”

They glared at each other, and Mal let the smile drop.

“Nothing against the Sarge, but it’s not good enough. Jackrum was the best there ever was at being someone like Jackrum. He knew what he was doing, so he never tried to change it. He never tried to stop it. He just ran the same patterns, over and over. Thirty-mumble years of little lads! But you –”

“Probably more like forty-mumble,” said Polly. “Or fifty-mumble.”

Mal looked at Polly. I watched you all the way to Kneck Valley, she thought, but did not say. I watched you at first because it was so clear you thought you were clever; then I watched you because it was so clear you really were

Cleverer than Jackrum, and he was no fool. Cleverer than me, almost certainly. But damned if I’ll tell you that – and you already know it, anyway.

Instead, she said, “I signed up to –” She found the phrase ‘serve under,’ considered it, and, regretfully, rejected it; now was not, unfortunately, not the time for innuendo. “-- to serve with Sergeant Perks. Not with Jackrum in skirts. I’ll follow you wherever you’re going, just so long as I’m sure it’s you going there, and not Jackrum’s ghost!”

“Jackrum’s still alive.”

“Someone like Jackrum doesn’t need to be dead to have a ghost!”

There was a pause. Then, all of a sudden, Polly’s thin face relaxed into a smile. “Jackrum’s ghost,” she said. “I expect there’ll be a folk song about that before long. It might even come in useful. Thanks, Corp.”

Mal eyed Polly. She had a terrible suspicion she was being mollified. “Sarge,” she said, suspiciously.

Polly wandered over to the corner of the room where they’d dropped their packs. “I told you I didn’t know where all this was going to lead. I wasn’t bluffing you.” She turned around, and began unbuttoning her uniform jacket, dripping unconcern – in much the same way, Mal thought, she had pointedly radiated Boyish Ease when she kissed the Duchess as Oliver Perks. “I’m not planning on another forty years of little lads. I do mean it to be different this time round. I promise you. But they – the ones out there, right now – need a sergeant. Now, I’ll admit I may have been laying it on a little thick –”

“Hah,” said Mal. “Regulation thickness for a stick is one inch. You were well into Abomination territory, my child.”

“Still, it worked on us, didn’t it? They need to know they’ll be taken care of, or they won’t have room to become whoever it is they want to be.” She shrugged out of the jacket, and leaned down to open her pack. “And I need them as well. If I show up at HQ by myself, I’m an oddity. If I show up with troops, I’m a sergeant. And sergeants can do anything...”

“All right,” said Mal. "I can see that --"

At which point her train of thought went briefly off the rails; Polly, still facing the corner, had just pulled her shirt over her head.

Mal ran her tongue over the sharpness of her teeth, and went on, with determination: “I can be your corporal, Poll. I’ll follow orders – better than you followed mine when you were still a private, for that matter --”

Muffled by linen, Polly said, “To be fair --”

“Yes, all right,” said Mal, who had just realized that perhaps bringing that period up had been a tactical error if she was attempting to put the errors of the past behind her.

“-- you know, the murderous coffeelust –”

“Yes, all right,” said Mal, “what I’m trying to say here is --”

“That I need you, too?” said Polly, and glanced over her bare shoulder – almost, Mal thought, as if she hoped to catch Mal looking. Which, of course, she had.

Mal raised her eyebrows, and took a long sip of coffee, lounging more emphatically than ever. In some things, at least, she still felt fairly confident in her ability to be cooler than Polly Perks. “Yes,” she said. “You do.”

Polly’s face was slightly pink as she turned her head back away from Mal. “I don’t, actually,” she said, linen-muffled again, as her nightshirt came down where the day-shirt had been. (The word ‘négligée’ floated through Mal’s mind, but did not settle; it would have required significantly more frills, and most likely some other assets as well that Polly’s nightshirt was not designed to emphasize even if Polly had got them.) “I don’t need you. A sergeant can designate any corporal she likes. I could make – Rosemary corporal tomorrow, if I wanted.”

“Ouch,” said Mal.

“I don’t need you,” Polly went on, “but I'm glad to have you. You like to act like you’ve got all the answers, but it doesn’t stop you thinking about the questions. That’s useful. But if you can’t back me up when I need it –”

“I will,” said Mal, “but before I start in on the yes-siring, can I ask you to promise me something first?”

“You can ask,” said Polly, to the wall. “Can’t promise I’ll answer.”

“When you’re using all those cunning sergeant skills to talk your way round the ruperts – don’t forget to use them on the Jackrum in your head too, all right? I know he’s in there. He’s in mine, too – same as you’ll always be with those children outside, I expect. But he’d have had us down there, in the valley with all the others, and everything would have been the same. You’re the one who got into the fortress. Remember that.”

Polly was silent a moment. Then: “All right,” she said. “That I will promise, Corporal.”

She turned back round to Mal – then blinked, and kicked furtively backwards with her foot.

Both of their packs were still exactly where they had been. Both of them were now open. Mal, now wearing striped pajamas, gave an elegant one-shouldered shrug.[2] “You led,” she said, and smiled. “I followed.”

Polly opened her mouth. She shut her mouth.

“Proud to serve under you, Sarge,” added Mal, pleased to have found the right time for innuendo at last.

She threw in the very faintest hint of a smirk, for good measure – just enough to let Polly know that she knew there was an Implication to be found there, and that she knew Polly knew she knew there was an Implication to be found there, and wasn’t it nice that they were all on the same page and clever enough to notice these things?

Polly gave her a flat stare back. Her cheeks had gone flushed again. Then she sighed, and turned to look at the bed.

“I don’t suppose,” she said, after a moment, “that being a vampire gives you any particular powers over insects?”

“Like, for example, bedbugs? Alas, no.”

“Shame,” said Polly. “It’ll be the floor for me, then. I don’t fancy getting bitten up tonight -" And then her face turned a bright, unmistakable pink, as she heard what she'd said.

“Yes, sir,” said Mal, politely, and noticed, with interest, that Polly’s face got pinker yet.

Her own smile broadened.

It really was amazing, she thought to herself later, how a person could be bunked down on an uncomfortable wooden floor, with a respectable three feet of distance between themselves and – well, something that might make sleeping on a wooden floor slightly more appealing – and still feel absolutely certain that they were exactly where they wanted to be.