Even though there was no need, Alice always woke early, when the first birds began to sing. On Midsummer's Day, this was very early indeed.
She lay still, with her eyes closed, immersed in the first quiet moments. No sound demanded her action. The chirps of the birds did not count.
Slowly she opened her eyes and sat up. She was wearing a simple nightgown, still very clean and washed by someone who was not Alice. Likewise the sheets on her bed, which was her very own. This small room, with a window of real glass, was her own. Even after nearly half a year, the whole thing seemed a miracle. And that idea spurred her to action at last,
Alice got out of bed, walked the three steps to the window, and dropped to her knees. There was a cushion, a gift from the General. Everything, from her nightgown to the quiet of the room, was a gift. She raised her hands, bowed her head and prayed.
Good morning, Alice, said the faint voice in her head. And Alice was filled with love, joy, and gratitude.
An hour later, when the sun was properly up, she went down to the kitchen, dressed as a young lady. It was what they seemed to expect of her now. She had a skirt and bodice of good blue-grey cloth, with a petticoat, underbodice, and drawers. In the back hallway, by the kitchen door, was a row of hooks with aprons on them. She took hers and tied it on as she entered the kitchen.
"There you are," said the cook. "Porridge ain't quite done yet. There's a pot of tea and a cup for you."
Alice poured herself tea, added milk and sugar. No one went hungry in the General's house, even during the terrible winter that had just passed. The sweet, hot drink made her think of her comrades in the Tenth Foot. How they would have relished this tea! Except for Maladict, of course. The kitchen even had a coffee engine, like Mal's but larger. The General, however, preferred chocolate.
"Is there anything I can do, Cook?" asked Alice, when she had finished her tea.
The cook checked the porridge pot and nodded. "Set a couple of eggs to boil for the General. Add one for yourself, if you fancy. Then get started on the chocolate."
The hens were laying again. There were so many eggs now that even the common soldiers could have one or two a week. Alice took three eggs from the big bowl on the mighty kitchen table and put them carefully into the little pot, then ladled boiling water over them from the huge kettle steaming on the hob. She set the pan to simmer and turned over the little sandglass. Then she got the grater and another bowl, unwrapped the block of chocolate, and got started on the drink.
Soon the eggs were ready, pulled from the pot and wrapped in a warmed napkin, then nestled in a little basket. There was a lovely bowl of strawberries, a basket of hot rolls, butter, and honey. No bacon yet, but many of the sties in the countryside had sows nursing piglets. Cook looked over the breakfast and nodded. "Take it out, then ring the bell for 'im."
Alice loaded a tray with the good food and carried it into the dining room. She set the tray down, went out into the front hallway and rang the bell, and then returned to set the General's breakfast on the table. When she heard Froc's footsteps on the stairs, she went back into the kitchen for the porridge and the chocolate pot.
"Thank you," said the General. "Won't you stay and keep me company?"
"Yes, Sir," she said and went to fetch her own bowl of porridge. Then she laid another place setting at the General's left hand, nearest the kitchen door, and sat down. It had become a little ritual. Neither Alice, a common orphan, nor Private Goom, a common soldier, were suitable dining companions for the most powerful military leader in Borogrovia. But Alice had also been the Duchess, and the General liked to have Alice by her whenever possible. The whole thing made no sense, but it kept both of them happy.
The General was spruce and suave in her dapper day uniform. Alice was conscious of the straightness of Froc's back, her upright posture, and fine eyes. She was less conscious of the fact that the General was actually a woman. It didn't seem to matter.
"Eat up, Alice," said General Froc. "Clogston's coming by for your lessons, isn't he?"
"Yes, Sir." The General thought Alice should be less ignorant, so Alice was pleased to have lessons. She was even more pleased that Major Clogston was her tutor. Clogston was patient, lively, and humorous. Alice finished her egg and took a roll. "Butter," said the General and passed her the dish. Alice would have eaten the roll as it was: it was so much finer than the horse bread she'd had with the Ins and Outs, or the stale or moldy loaves she'd had before that. But now she added a smear of the fresh butter. The combined taste made her want to cry, it was so good.
There was a knock at the door. The housemaid hurried to answer it. "That'll be Clogston," observed the General, and indeed it was.
"Good morning, Sir," said Clogston, her glasses shining in the light from the big window as she put a wedge of books down on a side chair. "Good morning, Miss Goom," she added. "No, don't get up, child."
"Have a seat, Major," ordered the General. "Fetch him a cup, Alice." In the General's mind, all soldiers were still men.
It was the same little dance of courtesies every morning, soothing in its regularity. Alice fetched the Major her cup, and the General poured out the chocolate. Clogston took her cup with all the speed that manners allowed and sipped it, closing her eyes in momentary bliss.
"What's the news this morning?" demanded the General, once Clogston had taken three sips.
"Not so good," said Clogston. "Zlobenia's pushing at the border again. The usual: with the Duchess gone, the prince says the kingdom is his."
There was a stir in Alice's head. She could almost hear the words: Well! Really!
The General looked sidewise at Alice and then back to Clogston. "We'll talk about this later, Major." She popped the last bit of her roll into her mouth and washed it down with cocoa. "I'm off to the armory, to see that everything's all rug for the celebration. I'll see you both there at noon. Farewell."
Clogston nodded and sipped her cocoa. When the General was out the front door, she shook her head. "She hasn't fooled you one bit, has she, Alice?"
"N-no," Alice whispered. "Will she go off to war?"
"Perhaps. No point in worrying about it. Ready for lessons?"
Alice nodded. Perhaps some hard work would occupy the space in her head that was filling up with worry. They went into the little drawing room, which had become her schoolroom. Clogston arranged the books on the small desk and pulled up a second chair. "Now, let's see. Your handwriting has come on very well. It will never be a classic formal hand, but it's quite readable, and you get on with it quickly. I think we can dispense with that as a subject. Essay writing: a trifle awkward, although your logic is usually sound. We'll continue with that. History: you have the basics. Geography, likewise. Mathematics: again, solid on the basics. How did the General react to the notion of your keeping the household books?"
"She was surprised, I think. But she said if you thought I could do it, then I should."
"Right. I think that the solid nature of household accounts will work for you. Makes a little contrast to your other life…you know, when Her Grace speaks to you."
"Speaks as me," said Alice, her voice deepening, and for a moment, everything was a little different. Clogston twitched.
"Right-o," she said, after a moment. "That brings me to another point: I think a bit of philosophy wouldn't go amiss. It might give you some perspective on your experiences. We'll start with the Platitudes of Aristocrates."
"Yes, Major," said Alice. She was not certain she knew what philosophy meant when it came to lessons, but she had found that Clogston would eventually get around to explaining such mysteries, and it would all come naturally by then.
"Let's see how we get on," said Clogston. "Now, Aristocrates was the secretary to the Tyrant…."
After more than an hour of listening to the history of Aristocrates and his followers, Alice's head felt stuffed too full of words. But she had a question for her teacher. "Has the General ever had a secretary?"
"He used to have an aide, which is much the same thing, for an officer," said Clogston, giving her a keen look. "Poor Corporal Treddle was killed in the war. Thinking of applying for the position, are you?"
Alice looked down at her exercise book. "Could I?" she whispered.
Clogston leaned back in her chair and considered, twirling her spectacles by one earpiece. "You've made a good start. Most aides are just youngsters with some basic education. Perhaps I'll drop a word in General Froc's ear, start her thinking about that. Or you could start as her batman. You know what a batman's duties are, I think?"
"Yes. Polly—Perks did it for Lieutenant Blouse. Captain Blouse, I mean."
"Aha, yes." Clogston put her spectacles back on. "Think about the word 'secretary' for a moment. It comes from 'secret.' You already know the biggest secret about the General. And that might be your most important qualification." He glanced at the little china clock on the fireplace mantel. "Time to go, Private Goom."
Alice shut her notebook and wiped her pen carefully while Clogston stacked the books and made a few notes of her own. "I think I'll leave the books here, if I may?" the Major said.
"Of course, Sir," said Alice. She hung her workday apron on its hook and tied on an embroidered one instead. Then they left the house and walked to the armory.
The General's house was located on the outskirts of the little town of Gudazitgets, which was only a mile and a half from Prince Marmaduke Piotre Albert-Hans Joseph Bernhardt Wilhelmsberg. The capital was reaching suburban tendrils out to its smaller neighbor, but they hadn't merged quite yet. Where Gudazitgets ran out and Prince Marmaduke Piotre Albert-Hans Joseph Bernhardt Wilhelmsberg was still only a rumor, a gaunt, threatening, and ugly structure had been built. This was the Armory of Borogravia, and it presided over several acres of dusty field that had been meant for military training. It had been easily a dozen years since the army had been populous and organized enough to bother.
Today, the least overgrown of the fields was occupied by rows of trestle tables and wooden benches. At their head was a rickety platform earnestly decorated with bunting in the colors of the flag. Carts were being unloaded, and the smell of fresh bread and something that seemed surprisingly like beef was drifting over to Alice and Clogston. A couple of tough-looking women were setting up beer barrels on sawhorses, and a dozen lads and lasses were putting baskets of bread onto the tables.
"Oh, jolly good," said Clogston. "It looks like the troops will have a proper Midsummer's feast."
"Where did they get beef?" asked Alice, marveling.
"From Ankh-Morpork, I believe," said Clogston. "So I daresay it was dried, or salted. Still, it smells good, doesn't it?"
The table nearest the platform had some proper chairs about it. A captain in dress uniform rushed out of the armory and showed Alice and Clogston to two of the chairs, Clogston at what would presumably be the General's right and Alice at the foot. Her stomach felt peculiar at the thought that she was meant to be the hostess.
"Steady on," said Clogston, reading Alice's face easily. "You might have to offer the General the bread and salt, and then say a prayer. But you can do that: I've heard you. And then you'll sit and share the solders' meal. And I'm sure you'll be sent off before the serious drinking starts."
Alice wasn't particularly worried about soldiers with a few beers in them, but she wasn't sure how to explain this to Clogston. In the end she just gave the major the best smile she could muster.
A ragged fanfare of trumpets squawked out, following by a heroically steady drumbeat. Out of the armory came the musicians, followed by the General and several officers that Alice recognized. They marched up to the platform, and the General climbed upon it in a stately manner. Around the armory came the troops, several dozen soldiers and a handful of sergeants, all recommended by their officers as deserving of this fine dinner, all scrubbed within an inch of their lives. The townsfolk who were setting up the meal cheered gamely.
The sergeants marshaled the troopers along the tables, a maneuver reminiscent of sheepdogs cutting out sheep for shearing. When every man (or woman: Alice noted several) was at his (or her) place, the trumpets screeched out again, and the General raised a dignified hand.
The General spoke of the happiness of the season and the joys of camaraderie. The troops and the officers were praised. No mention was made of any problems at the border, and no god was invoked. At the end, however, the General did give thanks to the Duchess.
At least Froc hadn't asked her for anything.
A sergeant major who lacked Jackrum's volume and vigor nevertheless roused the soldiers to cheer, and the General nodded regally and climbed down. All of them watched their high commander stride to his seat. When the General was seated, there was a lot of noise and shuffling as everyone climbed onto the long benches. Then the townsfolk rushed over with pitchers of beer and pots of food.
The meal turned out to be beef stew with new carrots and potatoes, followed by strawberry and rhubarb jam pasties. It wasn't bad, although nothing like as tasty as Cook's back at Froc House. The officers seated at the General's table quickly dropped out of jovial talk about the speech into hushed conversations about the border, as Alice had expected. She kept her eyes on her plate as much as possible, in the hope of learning more, but it was all what-ifs and rumors. Nobody seemed to expect the army to be pulled together for a march to the frontier anytime soon, at least.
Several soldiers finished the meal hurriedly and then ran to dismantle the platform. When the last crumb of pastry was gone, various talented soldiers got up and demonstrated their martial skills. Not one of them was near as good a shot as Tonker. When a show of saber fencing was given, Private Goom found herself remembering the feel of a hilt in her hand. She'd been near-useless with the sword, but apparently she'd learned enough to follow a sham fight, at least.
When the festival broke up and the troops marched away, Alice was shooed away from helping load the carts and striking the trestle tables. A set of young ladies from the town came by, heading for Stravling Copse to cut green boughs and early wildflowers to decorate their family supper tables for Midsummer. Alice knew a few of them by name, and the General sent her off with them, looking relieved. Alice was sure Froc meant to have a serious talk with the officers once she was out of earshot.
The girls were nice enough, although Alice was sure none of them would have wanted anything to do with her three years ago. Being the General's ward was very different from being a resident of the Girls' Working School. These girls were bubbling over with gossip and plans for Midsummer's Eve, when many couples first announced their marriage plans.
As they began cutting hazel and wild pear branches, their chatter was as cheery and thoughtless as the chirping of the songbirds in taller trees. Alice wondered whether any of them had heard the rumors of war. Surely not? But perhaps they would have chattered on about Pieter and John and Mattias ever so. The urge to feather a nest and have a family of fledglings was as strong a force as any in the world.
"Berta, leave that alone!" ordered the oldest of the young ladies, whom Alice remembered as Trudy.
"But they'd look lovely on my Ma's table," protested Berta. Her hand was on a stem of wild rosebuds
"They'll just wilt and never open," said Trudy. "Roses don't open proper when you break them off and carry them half a mile. You can't force a rosebud."
"Leave them to bloom in their own time," said Alice, as much to her own surprise as theirs.
"Right, Alice," said Berta, after a moment. "Look, there's some columbines. Do you have any yet?"
They walked Alice home about an hour later. Cook let her arrange vases of branches and flowers in the scullery and then set the table, but after that, Alice was shooed out of the kitchen. Apparently supper was to be a surprise. Alice retreated to the little parlor and her desk. She wished that Clogston were there to give her advice on how to broach the subject of being an aide to the General. Finally, she tried to address herself as she imagined the Major might and wrote down a list of points to make.
Cook called her to supper, and Alice rang for the General. Supper was grilled trout, a salad of fresh greens, and flaky butter rolls. As they were finishing up, a tantalizing smell came from the kitchen. Alice cleared the plates, trying hard not to look at what Cook was doing at the range. At last Cook marched triumphantly into the dining room, bearing a napkin-lined plate piled high with….
"Aren't those—" began Alice.
"Brandy pillows?" finished the General.
"Indeed they are," said Cook, beaming. "We heard you liked them, Sir. Turns out Mevis down at the Golden Perch knows how to make them, and she taught me."
"Indeed, I do like them," said the General. "Alice, take one."
The pastries were still hot, dusted with sugar and spices from the far south. As Alice tasted hers, memories came, sharper than they had since she led the army to victory last autumn. The General's eyes met hers, and time seemed to stop. Somewhere a slim young officer and his Duchess danced, and drank, and ate….
"Don't let them get cold, now," said Cook, cheerfully.
The moment slipped away. The General and her ward ate their pastries and sipped tea. When they had finished, the two of them retreated to the General's library to read, as they had on so many evenings since she had joined the household. "Would you rather be down at the bonfire on the common?" asked the General. "This is rather a quiet evening for a young woman at Midsummer's."
"No," said Alice. "This is just what I want to be doing." She settled into the armchair with the floral upholstery, and opened her book, All Too Many Klatchian Nights. She had been enjoying the interlaced stories immensely, but tonight, everything she read seemed to lead back to the General, Alice's own time in the army, and the burgeoning war. An old soldier eluded some robbers: Jackrum would find that no challenge. A girl disguised herself to save her brother: Polly Perks to the life. A wise king rewarded an old woman who offered him hospitality even though she'd lost everything in the wars: of course the General would do that. Finally, Alice sighed and closed the book. "S-sir?"
The General looked up from her own travelogue. "Yes, Alice?"
"Will, will there b-be a war?"
The General glanced at the page she had reached and then closed the book. "There may be. We are truthfully trying to avoid it. I myself am now of the mind that our warlike nature has become nothing but a bad habit. There may be other ways to solve this issue of the prince's baseless claims."
"Would you g-go if there was?"
The General set the book aside on the little carved table by her chair. "I would have to, my child."
Alice winced from the endearment. "I would go with you."
She had surprised Froc. The General's lips parted soundlessly for a moment, then, "Alice—."
"N-no, Sir. Hear me out. You have no aide, no batman. I believe I am well qualified for both p-positions. Major Clogston says my handwriting is readable and that I write quickly and accurately. I am g-good at sums and have a good memory. I know how to care for clothing, boots, and weapons."
The General tilted her head to one side, and her lips curved in a small smile. "All these things are true. But we must face facts. You are no sort of soldier, Alice Goom."
"Neither are most young lads when they sign up. And I've actually served some months. An aide needn't be a crack shot. A batman needn't be any sort of a swordsman. And Sir, I'm a past master at keeping secrets."
The General's face went still. "You make a persuasive argument. I rue the day I let Clogston teach you rhetoric." She rose from her chair. "Come here, Alice."
Alice put her book aside and went to stand before the General. Froc reached out to gently push aside a lock of Alice's hair, which was growing long enough to be a nuisance. "It would be a pity to cut your hair again, but needs must when the devil drives."
"It's just hair, Sir. Not very good-looking hair at that.'
"That's a matter of opinion," said the General. "I happen to like it. I would miss you, if you stayed behind. It would be selfish of me to take you along."
"What's here for me if you left, Sir?"
The idea seemed to disturb the General. She put both hands on Alice's shoulders and looked deep into her ward's eyes. "Could it be…? No, surely not."
Froc dropped her hands and straightened. "If you're to be my aide, you should be in the barracks with the rest right now."
"Yes, Sir. I understand, Sir." Alice was surprised how disappointed she was that Froc had let go of her. But she was sure she'd seen an answer to her own sudden longing in those eyes, You can't force it. It must bloom in its own time.
"Let's put off your…re-enlistment for now," said the General, at last. Her voice was warm and kind "I don't wish to break off our time together, like this, any sooner than I must. Perhaps your Captain Blouse and his colleagues will save us all a lot of bother and a trip to the border."
"And if not?" Alice whispered.
The General reached out and ruffled Alice's hair. "Then we'll have to get you a haircut and a new uniform, young Goom."
Title drop: "Rosebud in June" by Steeleye Span (YouTube link)