Polly was really good at ignoring things that arrived in the mail.
When Commander Vimes had sent her a series of letters – she knew they were from him because of the thick paper and official seal – she'd tucked them behind the heavy wooden clock on the mantelpiece to deal with later.
Later had only come when she'd hidden yet another letter behind the clock, and the clock, which had been inexorably moving closer to the edge with each missive, finally gave up and toppled off the mantelpiece with an ear-splitting crash. The letters had followed, raining down like, well, rain. If rain were like gold-edged envelopes, that was, each containing an invitation from Commander Vimes to spend some time in Ankh Morpork – 'details to be discussed'. One of them contained, probably accidentally – possibly accidentally – a hand-scrawled note, presumably from the duke himself, reading: Fred - if you tell me again that a donkey may have eaten the last invite, and that is why Miss Perks has failed to respond, it will not go well with you.
She'd soon learned, though, that ignoring the commander did no good; he'd simply turned up one day, without ceremony, and clogged up a prime bar-spot, terrifying the locals – the legend of Vimes the Butcher had stuck around like a funny smell – until she agreed to talk to him.
It seemed, though, now, as she stowed yet another sack of extremely expensive, extremely pungent coffee beans in her cupboard, in the top-floor room of the Ankh Morporkian house where she was currently lodging – and did her best to shut the door on them; it required brute force now – that she wasn't anywhere close to learning her lesson. Ignoring her mail didn't pay.
It was not a helpful thought.
Ankh Morpork, all in all, was an experience. People said that about things sometimes – that they were an experience. They rarely qualified it with the words good or bad, and in Polly's experience that was usually because the phrase walked hand in hand with the words 'character-forming'. I.e. nothing could be less fun, and things would probably get even less fun as time went on, but you weren't allowed to complain. 'They' never explained what sort of character you were supposed to be forming, either.
So it was typical, probably, of the whole 'experience', that just when she especially didn't want to think about Maladict – because she was homesick, and overwhelmed, and . . . and had quite enough trouble not thinking about Mal, as it was – the world had become curiously coffee-flavoured. She didn't even like coffee, Polly thought as she glared at her ominously bulging cupboard door. She'd have to admit defeat and buy another cupboard soon – if she didn't throw any of it away, that was.
You don't want to throw it away though, do you? her traitorous brain added. Just in case.
'Pah!' she said, out loud, and then she said it again, just for good measure. 'Pah!' And having dealt with her feelings properly, she decided the best thing to do was to leave the house and not make a decision about what to do with the stuff for at least, oh, another day or two.
She yanked the door to her room open, strode out into the hall, head held high . . . and tripped.
On another sack of coffee.
He'd given her a long look – and she'd tried not to flush miserably. OK, so she wasn't a soldier right now, but then again, who was to say she wasn't? Just because she was currently serving behind the bar at The Duchess, rather than treading time learning how to shout at people up at the Castle and polishing her uniform buttons really, really well, that didn't take away the fact she could be called up at any minute.
It was just . . . There wasn't a war. For the first time in perhaps the whole history of Borogrovia, there wasn't a war.
Polly sometimes had to suppress the sneaking feeling – mostly in the middle of the night, when she rose to use the privy – that she'd, well, grabbed the cheese too darn— damn successfully, in the last war. It had been so bloodless that you couldn't even call it a war, really. Two months of intense negotiations, aided by Sergeant-Major Jackrum's little book of blackmail material – and abetted by Major Blouse's almost preternatural understanding of the clacks, and of psychological warfare – had, well, ended. In peace. They'd sewn up the negotiations so tightly that there would be peace, too, for a hundred years – which, Commander Vimes had told her cheerfully, probably meant two or three actual years, which was as good as you could hope for these days.
Either way, that meant that right now, Polly was free to do whatever she liked. Which was to return to The Duchess and spend time with the people she loved, in the country she loved, free from danger. It would be lies and vile calumnies to suggest that, in any way, shape or form, she was bored to death. Or that she was . . . pining. Soldiers didn't pine, and sane people certainly didn't pine for . . . Well, it didn't matter, did it, given that she wasn't pining. Absolutely not.
"Killed many people, then, have you?" Commander Vimes asked mildly and took a sip of his pint. His pint of water. "In your career as a soldier."
"No-o," Polly said, still fascinated by the water. She didn't think she'd ever seen a man willingly drink it when he had a choice, unless it was adulterated by, say, malt, sugar and yeast, heated and then left to ferment for, oh, a week or so, give or take.
Polly considered this. "Um, no, though there was that time I got very cross and nearly—"
"Could you?" he interrupted – although vaguely apologetically. He was looking at the ceiling, now, rather than her, as if to give her space to think.
She didn't want to take it. "Yes!"
He dropped his chin to look at her and raised an eyebrow.
"I could, sir," she protested, and honesty – along with the curiously penetrating stare – compelled her to add: "well, I could do it to protect my friends."
"Ah," he said and drummed his fingers on the table. "So, for that matter, could I, though I'd much prefer to arrest the bastard and make him pay for it properly."
Polly said nothing. The idea of killing someone still made her feel sick to her stomach, and she hadn't quite reconciled this with the fact that she was a soldier. She was a soldier, she was, even though she was currently . . . resting, and nothing this jumped-up – canny, all-knowing, irritatingly accurate – man in front of her could say would make any difference to that. She was just . . . just . . . a peaceful soldier, who much preferred a cup of hot sweet tea to a stab.
"How do you feel about eating another man's leg?" Vimes asked. "I hear it's practically a diet staple around here. Although, in these days of equal opportunity, I should say another person's leg, I'm sure. Though Om knows what you do when the other person in question is a troll," he continued, seemingly lost in idle speculation. "You'd need a chisel, and even then."
"Depends," Polly said carefully, not quite sure where the conversation was going; the man was twistier than a corkscrew. "Is there salt and pepper? And I knew a soldier once who could work wonders with a marinade."
Vimes laughed. "If you come to work for me – just for a time, of course – I can offer you all the delights of Ankh Morporkian cuisine, which is decidedly non leg-based. Just don't let Carrot take you out for lunch, unless rat with ketchup is your idea of a treat."
"I really don't think—"
Vimes sighed. "Look, Polly—"
"—Sergeant Perks," Vimes amended seamlessly, "if I can't persuade you on your own merits, can I persuade you on behalf of your country? Borogrovia needs people like you – and it needs them alive, and not waving cutlasses about like there's no tomorrow. If you wave cutlasses about, there often is no tomorrow. I'm offering you the chance to learn something about running a city – how to catch criminals, and how to dispense justice. If Borogrovia's going to survive, it has to grow – and it can't grow without law. You've lost your god, and in finding peace you've lost your purpose – and soon the people are going to realise it. What's going to stop them then? Who's going to apply the law, if no one bloody knows what law is? Also" – and here he grinned – "I can teach you how to persuade the really big mucks to do what you say without them knowing it was your idea in the first place. So, how about it?"
It was the last thing he said that clinched it for Polly; it was so reminiscent of Jackrum that she couldn't say no. And it wasn't like there was anything keeping her in Munz, not really. Her father, Paul, Shufti and baby Jack liked having her about, but they didn't really need her – The Duchess ran smoothly, in their capable hands. Sergeant-Major Jackrum was gloriously retired, and his last letter had read, simply: If you're reading this, what the hell are you still doing at The Duchess, lad? Get back out there and grab the cheese! Blouse was now a civilian, and after a brief stint working for the clacks he was now doing something top secret and technical and no doubt extremely boring for Ankh Morpork's tyrant himself, Lord Vetinari – he'd sent her a string of long, beautifully written letters that were enthusiastic but largely incomprehensible. The rest of the regiment had dispersed, although they all kept in touch.
All, that was, apart from Mal.
But that was fine. It was absolutely fine. Probably, after living for two months in what felt like each other's pockets, Corporal Maladict had just needed a break from his superior officer. Which was fine. It wasn't like they were anything more than work colleagues, were they? No, it was all absolutely fine. And it wasn't like she needed to stick around in Munz, on the off-chance Mal remembered she existed and wanted to stop by to say hello. Or write. Or anything at all. Anyone who suggested that that was what she was doing would get very short shrift indeed.
So it was absolutely one hundred percent the idea that Commander Vimes could teach her how to manipulate the really top-drawer ruperts, in case there was future need, that made her say, "Yes, OK, I'll do it," rather than . . . anything else.
Besides, it would be an experience, as they said. And if she didn't like it, she didn't have to stay, did she?
"You don't want to stay in the watchhouse," she'd said confidentially. "Unless, of course, you like people knowing your business?"
"Er, no," Polly said, willing to go along with the idea that she might have some business to hide at some point.
Angua had taken her to a quiet boarding house and introduced her to a very small woman wearing a very large hat. Polly thought that the name Mrs Cake was an auspicious one, despite the woman's slightly odd manner, as if she knew what Polly was going to say before she'd actually said it, but she was too tired for actual, proper thinking, and when the women had led her upstairs to what seemed like a reasonable room, she'd fallen asleep pretty much straight away.
On Polly's second day in Ankh Morpork, she realised she was lodging with a psychic medium, two werewolves, a zombie and two vampires, but it seemed rude to quibble – especially as, also on the second day, she found her arrival in the city was the Times' front-page story. Sergeant Perks, possibly 18, who readers will remember as the plucky young soldier who delivered an eye-watering knee to Prince Heinrich of Zlobenia's Royal Prerogative, is staying with the City Watch and—
She was doomed, Polly thought, to go down in history as the girl who kicked a prince in the meat and veg. But on the plus side, at least the press hadn't managed to track her down yet for an interview; she had Angua to thank for that.
On Polly's third day in Ankh Morpork, she met Nobby Nobs, and that seemed quite enough excitement for one day. She had to lie down for a while, with a cold flannel on her forehead, to get over it.
On her fourth, she walked the beat with Commander Vimes himself, and by her fifth she'd already made four arrests, been threatened five times, been involved in three high-speed chases, a duel involving umbrellas, investigated a case of an exploding cheese, talked an enormous orang-utan down from murdering a skinny student over him folding down the corner of a page of a book and started at least five different versions of a letter to Vimes containing, in so many words, the phrase Can I go home now, please? I am so tired that I think if I do anything else I might die.
On her sixth day, the coffee started to arrive – and with it, a whole host of emotions that Polly had thought she'd left firmly behind in Borogrovia, under the bed in a locked box with her notebook of names, her cutlasses, her photo of Jackrum and his family and a silk handkerchief monogrammed simply M.
Besides, Polly still wasn't precisely sure, even now, whether Mal had simply not been telling the truth, and had confessed to being a girl just to . . .
Polly didn't even know. To join in? To put Polly at her ease – or, more alarmingly, vice versa? Either way, her thoughts skittered away whenever she tried to put some sort of definition on the vampire – boy or girl – and short of attempting some seriously unhinged surveillance in, for e.g., the privy (the thought made her blush, all the way through), she supposed she'd never know for sure. And anyway – what did it matter if Mal was a boy, a girl, or something that was somehow both while being neither at all? Mal was Mal was Mal. He didn't seem feminine, with his hard angles and louche disdain and maddening air of absolute authority. But then he didn't seem particularly masculine either – if you went by your standard definition of masculinity, which, as far as Polly was concerned, was drinking more than you could handle and leading from the socks. Mal was probably an abomination unto Nuggan either way, what with the vampirism and the coffee drinking and the way he chain-smoked cigarettes which made his voice low and husky, sending tingles straight down Polly's spine.
It was lucky, all in all, that Nuggan was dead, wasn't it?
Polly had thought that she and Mal had been friends, that first war. OK, it was an odd sort of friendship – with Mal all supercilious, and knowing, and capable of ripping her head off at any given moment – but they'd been friends. Or so she'd thought. Because afterwards, when it was all over, and they'd marched back home together in triumph, Mal had just disappeared. And OK, yes, Polly had felt empty, although that had been the sense of deflation, after the excitement was all over, she was sure of it, and the return to familiar life and familiar routine. It was enough to send anyone a bit . . . melancholy, wasn't it? But there was fresh excitement enough – in baby Jack, in the upheaval to well-worn routines at The Duchess and the well-worn routines of daily life in the village – to blunt that, somewhat. If Mal wasn't there, then so what? He probably had . . . vampire stuff to do. And who knew what that entailed? Polly didn't. And with that realisation came the further realisation that she didn't actually know anything personal about Mal, so perhaps they hadn't really been friends at all – just work colleagues, who'd been thrown together so profoundly that an illusion of closeness had sprung up.
The fact he hadn't even said goodbye was certainly good enough evidence that that was the case, as far as Polly was concerned.
But then, six months later, when the call to arms had come, she'd answered it – and so had Mal. And while Mal hadn't said sorry, in so many words, or explained where he'd been, or what he'd been doing, or why he hadn't said goodbye – or anything at all about it, at any point, come to think of it – he'd looked sheepish, and smiled, and it had only taken about ten seconds after Polly had seen him for her to forgive him, and another hour or so for them to be back on the same footing as before – easy, and cheerful, and . . . and with an undercurrent of knowing, from Mal's side, that drove her mad, because she never knew what, exactly, it was that Mal knew and she didn't.
Last time, Mal had known she was a girl, so that that was that. But this time . . . well, who knew what Mal knew? Apart from Mal. Obviously.
The two months with Mal as her corporal had flown by, almost as if in a dream. OK, sometimes a really strange dream, that was true, filled with arguing generals, and clandestine clacks messages, and bizarre formal food, and a really odd code of facial gestures concocted by Blouse, but a dream, nonetheless. In the dream, Mal was always there, by her side, with . . . with his supercilious expression sometimes slipping when he looked at her and thought she wasn't looking back.
In the last week or so they'd been together, he'd drunk what seemed like gallons of coffee, as if in an experiment to prove that vampires could be affected by caffeine if they tried hard enough – and sure enough, they could, because Mal was constantly twitchy and on edge, his voice sometimes blurring and his eyes . . . ever so slightly wrong. He'd alternated between vanishing for hours at a time and sticking to her side like a shadow.
She woke up from the dream – in the middle of finalising the peace negotiations – when Mal vanished again. Without saying goodbye again. And, since he had forgotten to say goodbye to the army too, he was officially listed as AWOL and, despite Polly's vehement protestations, given a dishonourable discharge in his absence.
It was possibly the first dishonourable discharge ever issued to a Borogrovian soldier; Jackrum wrote to Polly, soon after it was all over, and told her so. Usually soldiers didn't last enough to acquire one – or were sent home (missing the standard limb or three, if they were unlucky enough not to have met an Igor in time) before they could consider it an option available to them. Although, of course, there's plenty of dishonourable discharge in the army, he'd added irreverently, in what Polly assumed was a bizarre attempt at cheering her up, as those lads that don't follow their sarge's good advice, when it comes to which ladies of disrepute they visit in their time off, soon discover!
She didn't know why Jackrum assumed she needed cheering up. Mal wasn't her friend, was he? How many times did something have to be proved before she accepted it to be true? Twice, it seemed. She tried not to be bitter and succeeded, most of the time.
It wasn't like Mal had promised her anything. And it wasn't like she'd had any expectations. What expectations could she have of . . . of an androgynous vampire, after all?
So she'd got on with her life, at The Duchess, and stopped thinking about him. Much. Until now, that was – because now she was in a different country, living at an address that no one knew apart from Sergeant Angua and a few of her new Watch colleagues, and . . .
Someone was sending her coffee. In vast, ridiculous quantities.
And there was only one person she could think of who would do that. Except, it couldn't be him, could it? He wasn't her friend, and she was determined not to be fooled into thinking he was again.
Angua gave her a thoughtful look over her cup of tea, and Polly took the opportunity to take a large mouthful of perhaps the greasiest breakfast she'd ever eaten. It was, apparently, the Full Morporkian, and came highly recommended – even when eaten at four in the morning, pumping with adrenaline after chasing a band of robbers through the Shades . . . and then being chased out again. Polly was learning that, even with a werewolf by her side, sometimes retreat was the better part of valour. The notion was still a bit of a foreign one, but then she was in a foreign land – and here to learn, wasn't she?
"And your young man thinks you like coffee, does he?" Angua asked eventually.
Polly half-choked and then recovered. "I don't have a young man!" she protested.
Angua continued to eye her narrowly. "A young woman, then?" she amended. "I know what more . . . conservative countries can be like, trust me, but here in Ankh Morpork we are much more tolerant of—"
"No!" Polly squeaked.
Angua smiled, and Polly went hot, as if the werewolf could see right through her. Could werewolves smell when you were lying? But it wasn't as if she was actually lying, in any case. She didn't have a young . . . person of either gender. Kisses don't last. In fact, she'd go one further – they particularly don't last when they'd never even started.
"But why would anyone send me coffee and a coffee-maker?" Polly protested, when Angua just continued to smile, in that knowing way that reminded Polly uncomfortably of the person she was trying very hard not to think about.
"So you can make some coffee?" Angua said reasonably.
"Surely it's . . . it's . . . unhygienic to use it in my room!"
Angua snorted. "I'm sure Mrs Cake would let you use her kitchen, if you asked her nicely. She's taken to you, for some reason. Probably the fact you're norm—" She broke off, looking slightly shame-faced.
"There's nothing wrong with not being – what you didn't say," Polly said awkwardly, and hoovered up a bit more fragrant fat and grease, seasoned with crispy bits. It was heaven on a plate, and she suspected if she ate it too frequently it would send her straight to heaven.
"Yes, I know," Angua said easily – a bit too easily, but she looked pleased, anyway. "You're all right, Polly, you are," she added. "I hope you stick around."
Polly blushed into her plate.
"Anyway, one of the reasons I thought you might want to stay at Mrs Cake's with me was in case your young m— I mean, your young vampire friend comes to stay. He'll be more comfortable there than at the watch. The commander tries not to show it, bless him, but he's not much of a fan of the Undead."
Polly was rendered a bit speechless.
"He likes his coffee, doesn't he?" Angua continued, with what Polly now thought was heartless enthusiasm. "Perhaps it's a good thing that a mysterious someone has sent you some coffee and a machine to make it in, eh?"
"It's not— He's not—" she managed. "We fell out," she said listlessly. It was sort of the truth. Mal hadn't been around for her to fall out with, but if he turned up now, Polly was willing to give the missing argument a damn good go.
"I rather guessed that," Angua said with sympathy.
"How?" Polly asked, looking up from her plate with surprise.
"Oh . . . disappointment in lo— in friendship has a sort of . . . pinkish-grey smell to it," she explained with a shrug. "Sorry. Werewolf nose. Hard to explain."
Polly could see why Angua was a sergeant; she just had to look at you to know exactly what it was you didn't want anyone else to know. And she knew it practically before you even did. Polly scowled – not at Angua, as such, because it wasn't a good idea to scowl at a werewolf, particularly one who you hoped was becoming a friend – and said crossly to Angua's right ear, "I don't even like coffee!"
It did the trick though. Angua laughed, the tension broke, and the conversation moved on. Unfortunately, though, the coffee machine . . . didn't. It was still sitting on the one small table in her room, dominating her space, looking at her, with its cogs and wheels and shiny twiddly bits, when she returned home – her temporary home, she mentally amended – after a hard night's work. She felt an inexplicable urge to chuck it out the window, as a gesture to the universe that it could sod right off, but her sensible side intervened just in time. So she simply chucked a shirt over it and went straight to bed, putting her pillow over her head and telling herself it was the overenthusiastic dawn chorus outside her window that was stopping her from falling instantly asleep.
She didn't get out of bed, but she did reach beneath her pillow to wrap her hand around the regulation two-inch-thick baton she kept there, jammed between the pillow and the head of the bed where it didn't poke her eye out in the night.
Very cautiously, moving as little as possible, she shuffled to the edge of the bed and leaned over a fraction, squinting across the room to spot the source of the disturbance. It . . . wasn't difficult. There, right in the middle of the room, was a saw rising through the floorboards, cutting a neat square in both the floor and Mrs Cake's thick red Persian rug.
Polly watched, fascinated, as the saw finished the fourth side of the square, and then . . . "Ow," came a sound from the room beneath, but the unseen craftsman soon recovered from being hit on the head by a thick square of wood and soon a pair of hands appeared, brandishing hinges and a screwdriver, and in less than five minutes the work was done.
Polly got out of bed, sliding her feet in her slippers and shuffling over to examine the new trapdoor in her floor carefully. She felt glad she'd switched, some time ago, from nighties to pyjamas, because she didn't particularly fancy the idea of some unknown pervert – possibly of the Undead nature – pushing the trapdoor up a fraction and, well, catching sight of more than her ankles.
She walked around the trapdoor, and examined it from all angles, but it was unsatisfactorily silent, and refused to give any clues to why it had suddenly appeared – right there, in her floor, without her permission. Polly sighed and reached for her dressing gown, wrapping it tight around herself, and glanced quickly in the mirror to check her curls weren't standing completely on end, before letting herself out of the room and padding down the stairs to her landlady's room.
She knocked, quietly, and waited.
"I told him you'd think some sort of pervert was lurking, to get a sight of your drawers," Mrs Cake said, appearing with startling suddenness. "Didn't I say?"
"Mrs Cake, I thought you should know—"
"Your young man, that's who. I think he expected he could just stay in your room, but I told him I was having none of that under my roof, especially with such a nice gel as yourself," Mrs Cake said with a sniff, folding her arms.
They stared at each other for a moment. Angua had told Polly that this happened occasionally, what with Mrs Cake being a medium verging on small, who could turn her precognition on and off at will, but it was one thing being warned about it and quite another to actually experience it. It was a bit like having your mind put through a mangle, with all the thoughts wrung out of you entirely without your volition.
"Damn," Mrs Cake said, in a slightly less refined accent than she had so far used. "I left it on again, didn't I? Sorry about that, love." She fiddled with her ear, and then smiled hopefully at Polly. "If you could just, you know. Only, it don't 'alf give me a headache if you don't say it, when I've already precognited it, you see, dear."
"Oh, er," Polly said, thinking back and trying to put the conversation in order. "Um – told who?" she guessed.
Mrs Cake beamed at her. "Aren't you a dear. Now, what can I do for you?"
It seemed churlish to complain now, for some reason, but . . . Polly was getting heartily sick of everyone thinking she had a young man when she absolutely didn't. And now this imaginary young man appeared to be reason for a – a – trapdoor appearing in her room! She shuddered to think what the reason for it was.
At least – she ought to shudder at the reason for it.
She tried to inject a stern tone into her voice. "Mrs Cake, are you trying to tell me that you have created a trapdoor in my bedroom floor on purpose?"
Mrs Cake blinked. "Well, yes, dear," she said. "There's locks, if you need them, but I'm not completely heartless – never let it be said that Evadne Cake stands in the way of young love." Then she frowned. "But . . . did you say 'who', dear?" She cleared her throat delicately. "Angua told me all about your . . . situation, so I didn't think to check with you before I went ahead."
"Oh, she did, did she?" Polly asked, trying not to grind her teeth. He'd . . . he'd been in her house! And had a trapdoor installed in her floor! And he hadn't had the common decency to even knock on her door first!
If 'he' was who she thought he was, that was. Polly wasn't certain whether it would be more worrying if this mysterious, presumptuous vampire was Mal – or if it wasn't.
"Yes, dear," Mrs Cake said. She looked worried now. "If I did wrong, I can easily—"
"No, it's fine, Mrs Cake. Don't worry," Polly interrupted, trying to sound sure.
"If you're sure, dear?"
Polly nodded, and Mrs Cake – still looking faintly dubious – nodded and disappeared back behind her door.
Polly made her way back up the stairs to the top of the building and went into her room. She stared at the trapdoor for a few moments, and then – her heart pounding – lifted it up.
A ladder led down to the room below, which was pitch black. Polly reached into the pocket of her dressing gown for a match and lit it, leaning down to peer into the darkness. As the match flared, she saw the heavy blackout blinds. The lack of furniture. The wooden beam, stretching from one side of the room to the other. And on the floor, resting jauntily in the corner, a coffin – empty – with the lid propped up against the wall beside it.
It didn't go with Mrs Cake's floral carpet, Polly thought dispassionately, shaking her hand as the match burned down to her fingers and went out.
She banged the trapdoor back down and slid the bolts too, clicking the locks into place. They were silver, she couldn't help but notice. And all on her side of the room.
It was . . . it was typical of a certain person – a certain type of person – Polly thought: to act in such a high-handed manner, but to do it so ineffably politely. Although, rather than 'ineffably', Polly thought a much ruder word.
She looked from the trapdoor, to the bulging cupboard, to the monstrous shape under the shirt on the table, and back again.
Polly Perks was good at ignoring things, but she had a feeling that soon she was going to have to do more than actively ignore this. Still . . . She didn't have to act now, did she?
With a sigh, she shucked off her slippers and crawled back into bed, falling into an uneasy sleep where, in her dreams, Mal sat in her single bedroom chair, sipping at a chipped mug of coffee, and smiling at her in that exceptionally infuriating way he had.
The trapdoor was still there, with its half a dozen silver locks firmly in place, and Polly decided that for today she'd simply . . . slide the mutilated carpet back in place on top of it and pretend it wasn't there.
So she did just that, and dressed quickly in her modified uniform – she was still a Borogrovian soldier, but wearing red shouted cheerfully, 'Come at me with a half-brick in a sock and beat me 'til I cry!' in certain parts of the city, so she'd agreed to wear her black uniform skirt with its gold piping and a Watch-issue breastplate over her uniform starched white shirt. She wished she'd brought her cutlasses, after all, but Vimes had offered her a vast choice of cutlery, and she'd selected a short sword and a pair of handy knives, which she strapped under her clothes. There was a bit of a risk that she'd move too quickly and stab herself in her own kidneys and/or bottom, but so far so good, and being a Watchman in Ankh Morpork – even one on secondment from Borogrovia – was proving to be rather more dangerous than actively taking part in the recent wars.
Besides, carrying illicit cold metal next to her skin made an interesting change from illicit socks. Wearing the skirt . . . changed things. People – mostly men – were more impolite. But with the knives kept close, she ensured she could be impolite right back.
When she stomped down the stairs, however – except quietly, because she didn't want to wake up Countess Notfaroutoe, who had a temper, particularly when roused before she'd had time to put on her white face-powder – Angua was waiting for her, looking extremely sheepish. It was hard to look sheepish, Polly thought crossly, when you were basically a dog, but Angua seemed to manage it anyway.
"I'm sorry, Pol," she said.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I talked to the Countess and explained that it wasn't your fault that she had to give up her sitting room for your . . . for your friend," Angua said, rallying well in the face of Polly's death stare, "so at least I've saved you that."
Polly stomped out into the street and onwards.
"I don't even know why I'm saying sorry!" Angua protested, chasing after her. "It's not my fault he's decided to . . ." She trailed off when Polly turned to glare at her. "I tried to tell Mrs Cake about how you'd, er, fallen out, but I'm afraid that only made her more determined to fix things for him. He was very . . . persuasive, apparently." She sniffed. "I'm surprised Mrs Cake fell for it. She's usually much better at telling when a bloodsucker's using his charms on her. Er, no offence meant, of course."
"WHO has decided to!" Polly said, stamping her foot. She didn't want to stamp her foot, but something inside her just made her do it. "I don't HAVE a young man, much less one who's a . . . a . . . a vampire!" she managed. "The only vampire I know is Corporal Maladict, and he is strictly a work colleague. I don't even know where he is right now! He didn't even say goodbye!" She took a deep breath, her throat feeling spiky from all the italics.
Angua took a ginger step forward and patted her on the arm. "Er, there, there," she said. "I'm not very good at this . . . female stuff. Why don't we go and have a coff— I mean, tea, before work starts. We have time."
Polly felt her lower lip wobble and she told it sternly to stop. "Yes, OK," she said, and Angua looped her arm around Polly's and they walked in step to their usual café.
"Why don't you tell me about it," Angua said nicely when they were seated and Polly was bolstered with a cup of hot sweet tea and a very large bacon sandwich.
Polly wanted to tell her that there was nothing to say, but that wasn't precisely true, was it? So she told Angua about her friendship with Mal, and his disappearance, and then her renewed friendship with Mal – and his disappearance. "He just left without a word! Right in the middle of us wrapping up the peace negotiations! I thought we were . . ." She frowned at her sandwich. "He could have at least said goodbye," she muttered.
Angua seemed to consider this. "I . . . know a little about young Maladicta's family," she said. "You did know that he's technically Maladicta, didn't you?" she asked carefully. "I'm afraid this nose doesn't lie."
Polly nodded. "Yes, of course. I just . . ." She shrugged. "He seemed to prefer not being Maladicta, and it didn't seem important to insist on a technicality."
Angua's shoulders relaxed. "Well, Maladicta – excuse me, Maladict, is from Überwald, like me. We had a little . . . chat, last time I saw him, and he told me his full name. Do you know much about the different lineages of vampire?"
Polly shook her head.
"Ah." This didn't seem to surprise Angua, but she chose her words carefully. "Maladict is from one of the more . . . noble families." She paused. "Überwald – well, some parts of it, anyway – is a seething mass of tension. Not only between vampire and werewolf feudal families, but werewolf against werewolf, vampire against vampire, each family fighting for supremacy. In these more modern times . . ." She paused again. "The issue of food is a more pressing one, and the meat, er, I mean, the villagers are less, shall we say, suggestible, than they once were. Increasingly, there is less and less to go around, and so unless the families choose to go vegetarian – and believe me, the majority of them do not choose to do so – they must suppress all rebellion at home and do their best to increase their territory simultaneously."
"Right," Polly said. She could feel a headache gripping her temples, as if a troll had her head in its hands and was squeezing.
"As the sole daughter of the family, surrounded by brothers, Maladict will have certain responsibilities," Angua continued carefully. "Vampire clans can be very protective of their daughters. It is a wonder she ever manages to give her family the slip, let alone wander the world at large, however well disguised she is. I mean, he."
"Right," Polly said again. "So you're saying I should be grateful that Mal ran away without saying goodbye, not once, but twice?"
Angua shot her a quelling look, and Polly subsided.
"Sorry," Polly said, "but I just . . . Mal could have left a note!" Then she realised something. "And now he's bloody here, isn't he! In Ankh Morpork! And he . . . he . . ."
"Turned your room into a coffee emporium, bought you a fancy coffee machine, and persuaded the estimable Mrs Cake – who can be a . . . a . . . a little difficult – that what your room needed was a cellar, fit for a guest with specific requirements," Angua said, obviously trying not to laugh. "I'd say he's working up to dropping in to say hello, yes?"
It was certainly . . . one interpretation. But: "Cellar?" Polly said. "My room's on the top floor!"
Angua just laughed.
Nothing on the vampire-front, at any rate. At work – Polly was almost starting to think of herself as a proper temporary watchman now, though she'd confessed to Angua that she would be more comfortable with watchwoman, or at the very least watchperson – time flew. Sometimes literally. Commander Vimes and his wife (who was enormous and slightly terrifying, in the fine way that reminded her of traditional Borogrovian womanhood – one part motherly to two parts Sergeant-Major Jackrum) had taken her under their wing and they both seemed to be taking great delight in showing her the more unusual parts of city life. This week Vimes had introduced her to the wizards and the various ways they had of cheating gravity; to the alchemists, who blew things up so frequently they might as well be flying; and Mrs Vimes – "Call me Sybil, dear!" – had shown Polly her dragons.
Polly had bent over a pen of the adorable things, and perhaps in a week or two she'd have the start of some eyebrows again.
Polly had watched the trapdoor to see if anything happened, but it just . . . was. There was no sign of it being moved, and when she'd plucked up the courage to go down a floor and knock on the door that faced into the hall, she'd been met by ringing silence. If anyone was there, they weren't saying.
It was on peak-eyebrow-immolation day that Polly returned to her room to find a box on the floor outside her room. Expecting it to contain yet more coffee, she sighed loudly – just in case anyone was about – and picked it up. It was lighter than she'd expected and yet . . . it felt like it had weight, without actually weighing much.
Slightly unnerved, she unlocked her door and went in. She couldn't put the box down on the table because that was still cluttered up with coffee machines, so she put it on her bed, before unstrapping her breastplate and sitting in her chair to tug off her stiff, knee-high military boots.
Once she felt a little more at home, she approached the box. For some reason, she was wary of it. She sat on the bed next to it and peered down. Her name and address was written on the top in beautiful copperplate script, and the box itself was of very thin dark wood, rather than cardboard, and when she ran a hand over the side of it gingerly it felt smooth and faintly warm.
The lid was attached to the box with an elaborate clasp, and it took her a couple of goes to get to grips with it. She took a deep breath and opened the box, peering in.
Inside was . . . a pile of dust.
Polly stared at it. "You have got to be kidding me," she said sternly to the pile. The pile said nothing, being a pile, but the silence in the room was pregnant with meaning.
"You would do this today, of all the days, wouldn't you?" she said – this time to the universe in general. She rubbed a finger over the place where her eyebrows had once been and encountered . . . stubble. Would Angua have an eyebrow pencil?
Polly sighed. Possibly the only thing more ridiculous than her current lack of eyebrows would be new ones drawn on with an inexpert hand. So, instead, she drew her pencil skirt up her leg a fraction and removed one of her knives from the holster around her thigh. Holding her left hand carefully over the box, she took another deep breath and nicked the tip of her middle finger.
A single drop of blood fell and landed, with a soft whump sound, in the pile of dust.
Polly wondered, for a fraction of a second, if someone had sent her their floor sweepings as some kind of joke, but then the pile . . . bloomed. One minute it was grey dust, and the next . . .
"Ow," Mal said, shifting on the bed and pulling out a very broken box from underneath him. "Splinters."
Polly wanted to say hello, she really did, but she restrained herself to raising an eyebrow and putting her cut finger to her mouth, sucking the sting away. She was still holding the knife. For some reason.
Maladict gave her an extremely sheepish grin. The last time he'd seen her again, after disappearing, he'd given her a sheepish grin, but this was quite spectacular in its sheepishness. It went beyond sheepish and into . . . something more sheepish than a sheep. He ran a hand over his perfect hair – still short and immaculately styled – and straightened the lapels of his dinner jacket. He was wearing what amounted to black tie; he looked like he was about to go to the opera. Polly wondered what on the Disc he'd been doing before he was killed and then . . . carefully put in a box and sent to her.
The very sheepish smile revealed a hint of teeth. Wolf dressed as sheep, Polly reminded herself, keeping a firm grip on the knife.
"Well, this is a surprise," Mal said, attempting his usual sangfroid. "Of all the rooms in all the world, I find myself in yours, sarge. I don't suppose I could have a cup of coffee? I'm gasping." His smile turned cheeky. "Nice eyebrows, by the way. Trying out a new look?"
Polly found herself quite speechless and feeling like she really would like to stab him. It wouldn't last, of course; it would simply spoil Mal's suit. But the look of surprise on his face would be a treat.
"So . . . is that a coffee engine I see, cunningly concealed under that, er, throw?" Mal continued, his air of confidence slipping for a moment when he spotted the shirt covering the blasted thing, but it soon reasserted itself. "I'll just make myself one, shall I? Can I tempt you to a cup? Now, where do you keep your coffee . . ." He rose from the bed with unspeakable grace and slouched over to Polly's bulging cupboard, opening it up and peering in.
She nearly cheered when the cupboard gave up on life, showering beans in Mal's head. She was unwillingly impressed though when he pretended he hadn't noticed and simply reached further back in the cupboard for an unbroken sack, withdrawing it and crunching across the room to the coffee machine and setting the clockwork grinding-machine going.
"A-aren't you going to say anything, Pol?" Mal said, his back to her. There was a tiny tremble in his voice which Polly felt perversely glad about, but she could already feel herself sliding from anger to . . . something else. It was impossible to stay cross at Mal; just looking at the line of his back, the way the tailored suit clung to his slim form, the curve of his pale neck, was . . . Not calming.
"Did you really dress up in that suit and then . . . what?" Polly said, working it out in her mind. "Stand in the box and . . . stab?" She remembered the size of the box – it hadn't been that large. "You'd have had to stand on one leg." She tried not to giggle at the sudden mental image. "And then what? Someone – Igorina, maybe, or one of her kind – would have had to sweep up the bits you missed and pop the lid on you."
The vampire twitched. "No," he said, unconvincingly.
Polly snorted. "Honestly, Mal. Could you not have just . . . knocked on the door, like a normal person?"
Mal extracted the ground beans from the machine and poured them carefully into the correct compartment, setting it going again. He turned and leaned against the table, hands casually shoved in his pockets. He looked obscenely relaxed. "How are you, sarge?" he said.
"You may think you're clever, ignoring the question," Polly said sternly, "but I'll ask you again later, you know."
Mal grinned, a very lazy, wide grin, and Polly felt her heart thud. It was probably a reaction of her blood, she thought – it was trying to run away. Polly could see his very white teeth . . . and his very white, neat fangs.
"What are you up to, Mal?" Polly asked, with a hint of despair.
Mal looked even more relaxed; if he was a cat, he would have been purring. "Me?" he said. "Absolutely nothing."
He turned back to tend to the coffee machine, but before he did he spoiled it all with a knowing, infuriating wink.
Skipping through the Shades with a bat on her shoulder, singing a happy song?
What the actual – frick?
She didn't want to open her eyes. The room was very dark – however light it was outside, or not, it was dark in her room with the blinds shut. In fact, it was so dark in her room that the darkness had . . . texture. It was almost furry. Polly tried very hard not to be awake during it. It was all down to Mrs Cake, she supposed; the landlady was very thorough about such things. Polly supposed that in a business like hers, she had to be prepared for all types of clients. But now . . . she thought she could see a glimmer of a light.
She wriggled her hand under her pillow to grasp the reassuring bit of wood – if something was about to eat her, it wouldn't stop it, but at least she could give it a headache first – and opened her eyes.
A skeleton with bright-blue eyes was staring down at her, its entire body lit by an eerie phosphorescence.
JUST . . . CHECKING, it said, the pause indicating it was embarrassed to be caught in the act. It stood back.
"You again!" Polly said, sitting up with a jerk. "Checking what?"
OH, THIS AND THAT, the skeleton said. THAT AND THIS.
"You're checking I'm still alive, aren't you," Polly accused.
NO, the skeleton said unconvincingly. ANYWAY, BEST BE OFF. THINGS TO DO. YOU KNOW HOW IT IS.
"No, I bl . . . ooming well don't!" Polly said, but she said it to the thick, velvety darkness because the six-foot skeleton had vanished, without even the decency to flare its robes or leaves some residual sparkle in the air. Although, she supposed, it was Death – perhaps sparkle would be inappropriate. And if it left ash behind, although more thematically apposite, that would be a bugger. It was bad enough being visited by the grim reaper without having to get down on your hands and knees with a dustpan and brush afterwards and sweep up after him.
She lay down again, but she couldn't sleep, and she found herself tense – her body clenched as she listened, hyperaware, for any hint of movement and wasn't disappointed. Although rats and miscellaneous small creatures stayed well away from the house – another unlooked for bonus of staying at Mrs Cake's – the house . . . creaked. It was probably pipes. And outside, the blameless citizens of Ankh Morpork did things that could be best described as: 'It weren't me, guv, I swear. I wasn't even 'ere!'
So she groped for a box of matches and lit one, touching it to the candle resting on her bedside table. The dim light cast huge, flickering shadows through the room. It was not hugely reassuring. But it was better than the suffocating darkness, so Polly sat up and self-consciously rubbed a finger over her eyebrows. They had not – alas – grown back overnight. Or overday. Which was it? She supposed she could get up and push back the blinds, but that would mean getting up, and she was curiously aware that right now she felt like there might be more under her bed than just a chamber pot for night-time emergencies. Something might . . . grab her ankle.
Sod that, Polly thought. She leapt out of bed and stomped over to the window, flinging up the blind, and drawing back the curtain behind it, and then tackling the second blind.
Dazzling sunlight permeated the room.
Polly felt a bit silly. Now there was only one monster left to tackle . . .
"But that doesn't seem to do anything!" Angua snapped. "Are you sure he—"
Polly and Angua glared at each for a moment, and then both subsided into giggles.
"Sorry," Polly offered.
"It's OK," Angua said. "How about we try . . ."
Polly had spent what felt like the most frustrating half hour of her life trying to operate the coffee engine that . . . that someone had given her. All right, she knew it was Mal, beyond a doubt, but he'd refused to admit it, so she didn't see why she should either.
Anyway, the machine was possibly the worst gift in the world, and only a true demon could have thought otherwise.
It had looked so easy when Mal had used it! Grind the beans, feed them into the . . . ground bean slot and then slide the dials to do . . . something. Mal had added water at some point, she presumed, although when and where he'd got it from, she wasn't entirely sure. Either way, Mal had simply turned the beans into a perfectly drinkable mug of coffee via the machine, without visible effort, so it couldn't be that hard, could it?
Polly had only, so far, been able to produce blood, sweat and tears.
Instead of putting the damn thing on the floor and stamping on it, though – she suspected her foot would come off worst – she'd decided to bring in reinforcements. Angua liked coffee, didn't she?
"I hate to bring this up," Angua said, slightly muffled – she had her head almost inside the machine now – "but you don't actually like coffee, do you?"
"That's not the point!"
Angua withdrew her head. "No, I got that when you woke me up," she said, her words taking on an edge.
Oops. "Sorry, Angua," Polly said hastily. "I didn't think. I can take over if you want. I think I've got it sussed now."
Angua rolled her eyes but tactfully said nothing.
Polly subsided onto the edge of the bed. "Go on, say it," she said.
"What?" Angua said, all innocence.
"That thing that you're tactfully not saying."
"Oh, that," Angua said. "Well . . . and don't bite my head off, Pol, but . . . Why don't you just ask Maladict to show you how it works? He did send it to you," she continued relentlessly. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind. Vampires like their . . . friends to know how to take care of them, while they sit back and watch someone else doing all the work."
Polly felt that Angua might be hinting something there. "Look, I know you don't like—"
"I thought you didn't, either," Angua interrupted, very reasonably, darn her. Then she sighed. "Sorry, Pol, I'm not being a good friend. How was it?"
"How was what?" Polly asked, caught off guard.
"It was fine," Polly interrupted quickly before the word could fully form. "Fine!"
"Well . . . fine," Angua said, and they tinkered with the coffee machine for a while. "What sort of fine?" Angua asked carefully as she investigated a long shiny pipe. "The fine fine, or the . . . miserable fine?"
Polly thought about that. It had been strangely normal to see Mal again. She'd expected it to feel surreal, or overwhelming, or anger-inducing, and, yes, it had been all of those things to some extent, but the overriding emotion had been . . . normality.
Seeing Mal in her room, lounging about like he belonged there, she'd thought . . .
This is home.
Polly plumped for, "It was the confusing sort of fine," and waited for Angua to speak. She didn't. Polly knew that she wasn't speaking so that the silence would stretch out and Polly would feel like she had to break it, so would keep talking. She was immune to that sort of trickery though.
The silence stretched.
"He acted like nothing had happened!" she burst out. Oh blast. But also: oh well. Better out than in, they said. "I really missed him, Angua," she said miserably. "But now he's back and I don't miss him any more, I – I want to kill him! Except, someone already did! Because the coward thought it would be much smoother to turn up at my door in a box, so I had to carry him over the threshold, rather than simply knocking!"
Angua snorted. "He did what?"
Polly explained. In some detail.
"He must be really keen on you. Er, making up with you," she added quickly. "Don't you think? Vampires aren't knowing for trying hard – just being trying." She stood up straight, rubbing her neck. "I think it might be quicker to go and buy a cup of coffee, you know, Pol." She yawned widely. "And maybe some cake."
"Bit of an odd time to eat cake," Polly pointed out.
"Bit of an odd time to be awake," Angua said pointedly, to counteract the pointing.
Polly blushed, but allowed Angua to take her arm and steer her out of the room and down the stairs. Was Mal . . . keen on her? As an, um, friend? Certainly, all the signs pointed to a certain . . . warmth. He'd sent her coffee, and a coffee machine, and had arranged things so that her bedroom had a – hah! – cellar, for visiting guests. And he'd turned up dressed up to the nines.
Perhaps that was what vampires always dressed like, Polly thought, allowing doubt to enter her mind. The Count downstairs certainly wore tails regularly . . . although Polly had begun to wonder if that was the Countess's doing. The Count had a certain comfiness about him that made her think that if he had his way, he'd be wearing a cosy cardigan with egg down the front, regardless of when he'd last eaten it.
And, also on the demerit side, Mal's visit had been short. Very short. He'd drunk the coffee, wrinkling his nose at her mismatched collection of mugs, had airily announced that he couldn't stay long, and . . .
And he'd left. Without, Polly couldn't help but notice, explaining anything. Why he hadn't said goodbye, that last time. Where he'd been. Why he'd sent her such a quantity of coffee. And then there was the 'cellar'; that needed an explanation, if ever anything did.
And he'd failed to tell her if he'd 'drop by' again – either by post (hah!) or by foot.
Before he'd left, though, he'd smiled at her . . . in such an open, warm way that it had made her dizzy.
"Polly?" Angua said, nudging her. "Are you OK? You seem miles away."
"Yes," Polly said. But she wasn't quite sure if it was true.
This time, she didn't dither. She glared at it, picked it up without ceremony – it felt as light as air – and took it inside, almost throwing it on the bed. She yanked open the complicated locking mechanism on the side and . . .
The pile of ash inside was much smaller than before.
Panic clawed at her insides. She didn't know, after all, how vampire resurrection worked, exactly. Did you need all the ashes for it to succeed? Or if, say, you'd left a smallish leg-sized pile somewhere, would a vampire bloom back to life with the new nickname Hopalong?
She grabbed a knife and gave herself another minute flesh wound – ow – and let the resulting drop of blood fall into the ash.
What blossomed up was . . . well, blossom. A luxurious bunch of deeply-black roses, with dark-green foliage. They were unnerving in their lushness, and she couldn't help but think that she'd fed them with her blood. She certainly wasn't planning to sleep in the same room as them – what if they leaped up in the night and got her by the throat? She hadn't heard of vampire roses before, but then she was learning that there were a lot of things she hadn't heard of before.
Gingerly, as if they might bite, she tugged the bouquet from the box, but the flowers seemed simply flowers.
Once she'd stuck them in a mug filled with water, they looked more innocuous. She'd ask Angua, she decided. Angua would know if she was at risk from her flowers or not.
Polly tried very hard not to think that a vampire had sent her flowers. Did they even have the same significance as sending flowers did in other, more human cultures? At least they weren't lilies, she supposed.
Instead, it contained, when she reconstituted the contents with her blood, a bunch of pure-white lilies. Polly stared at them, a myriad of possibilities running through her mind.
A-HEM, Death said, clearing his throat, from somewhere just behind her.
"If you don't . . . sod off right now, I'll . . . I'll kick you in the socks!" Polly said fiercely.
THE SOCKS? Death said, contriving to sound puzzled.
There was no reply. When Polly turned round, the skeleton was gone.
Still, just in case, she ran a brush through her hair and checked her face in the mirror before she went to deal with the box. Her eyebrows, she was pleased to see, were coming along nicely, although there was a yellowing bruise on the side of her face from where she'd been accidentally struck by a dwarf who'd been quaffing beer with much too much enthusiasm but too little attention to detail. Polly had just been leaning down to tell him – or her, it was hard to tell with dwarves – that perhaps it might be a good idea to call it a night, when wham! And ouch. It still felt tender when she prodded it – and she had to prod it every now and then, just to check.
She took a deep breath – although it was a slightly shallower one than normal, after the accident with the exploding pig; the details best forgotten – and walked over to the box. It was the same style as normal – gorgeous flowery handwriting addressing it to her, and wood that looked polished and expensive. She fiddled with the lock, peered in to check – yep, normal. (She wasn't sure it was a good thing, all in all, that receiving large piles of ash was now becoming classed as 'normal' in her head, but never mind.) She gave herself a tiny cut on her fingertip as normal. The blood dropped in as normal.
But she forgot to stand back, and instead looked down to see what Mal had sent her this time.
"Oooof!" Polly said after about ten frozen seconds from her position on the floor. Her position under Maladict. He was lying – also frozen – right on top of her. He'd exploded from the box, catching her a glancing blow on the chin, and when he'd grabbed for her, she'd been falling backwards, and he'd gone down right along with her. "I thought vampires were meant to be graceful!"
"It's possible this counts as unusual circumstances," Maladict drawled, his face somewhere in her hair. He sounded slightly breathless – a difficult thing to achieve in a voice that wasn't powered by breath. Or was it? Polly realised she didn't actually know.
One thing she did know: Mal was heavier than he looked. That was why Polly felt so breathless, she was sure of it. He was constricting her lungs. "Er," she said.
"Sorry, sarge," Mal said, rising effortlessly.
For a moment Polly thought he was going to just let her lie there on the floor like a tortoise turned over on its back – she felt a bit like she couldn't move even if someone paid her – but after examining her a bit too closely, with eyes that glinted, he offered his hand and pulled her up. His skin was noticeably cool, and he let go as soon as she was on her feet.
His eyes flickered – darn it! – from her face to the mantelpiece, where she'd put the pair of mugs containing the flowers, side by side. They were still blooming, as fresh as the day she'd . . . got them. Angua had raised her eyebrows first at the roses, and then at Polly, and told her that she was safe from the flowers, at any rate. Polly wasn't sure she'd liked Angua's tone. She hadn't told her friend about the second delivery; she didn't think she was strong enough for the disapproving look that Angua would no doubt give her.
Polly had absolutely meant to chuck the things, though. She'd just . . . forgotten. Yes, that must be it.
"You're growing them back," Mal said, grinning.
Mal's smile widened. "The eyebrows," he said, nodding at her face.
"I seem to be growing a lot of things," Polly said sternly, feeling all the blood in her body rush to her face. "Eyebrows, flowers . . . vampires. You haven't said thank you, by the way. What if I'd just left you in there?"
"Oh!" Mal said, evidently a little taken aback. "Would you?"
"Yes," Polly said, again sternly. "And it would serve you right." She sniffed and folded her arms. "I'd offer you a drink, but I only have two mugs, and they're both otherwise engaged."
Mal reached up to scratch the back of his neck and looked very, very slightly ill at ease. "Oh," he said again. "I should have thought of that."
Polly continued to – not exactly glare, but as good as, and Mal . . . wilted, a little more.
"Oh, come on, then," Polly said, relenting in the face of infinitesimal misery, "let's go and get a coffee, then. There's a place I know just around the corner."
Mal brightened up. "Really?"
Polly nodded, and they left her room together. Mal led the way, and Polly noticed that he sped up when he went past Angua's room, and was practically a blur when he passed Mrs Cake's. They were both out, but she didn't think he deserved to be told that.
Once inside the café, the waitress' eyes flickered down to Mal's black ribbon and the line of her neck relaxed as she took their orders. Polly had her usual hot sweet tea, and Mal a coffee that was as black as a moonless light – if you were inside with your eyes closed and a blindfold on. Moonless nights, she was learning, could be pretty darn bright.
Mal wrapped his hands around the coffee, lifted it up to his mouth, inhaled deeply and then . . . slurped. In under five seconds, he'd tipped the whole thing down his throat. "Ye gods!" he said, putting the mug down. "I needed that."
"Does it . . . hurt, being a pile of ash?" Polly asked, taking a sip of her tea. It was almost too hot to drink.
Mal leaned back in his chair and fumbled in his jacket pocket. He was wearing black velvet breeches with ribbon ties, long off-white silk stockings, an off-white frilled shirt and a well-cut black velvet jacket. "Darn, no cigarettes," he said vaguely, patting down his trouser pockets too.
He looked . . . Polly wasn't sure she had words to describe how he looked. Ridiculous, yes, might be one word. Full of himself, yes, those were a few more. But also . . .
"What?" Mal said lightly, catching her staring.
Polly tried not to blush again. "You didn't answer my question. Does it hurt, being a pile of ash?"
"Oh," Mal said. "Well, not really."
Mal's lips quirked. "It's hard to explain. When I'm" – he waved a hand vaguely – "not myself, I still am, sort of. So . . . I can feel things. But not." He pursed his lips. "I can feel time passing, in a sense, but it's almost like I exist somewhere else, ready to just . . . pop back." He shrugged. "Becoming the pile of ash . . . stings a bit. But you get used to it." He half-smiled at her. "Vampires are basically impossible to kill permanently. Lots of people try though. I'm a bit blasé about the whole thing now, after all these years."
Polly took a fortifying sip of tea. "Why, how old are you?" she asked.
"How old are you?" Mal replied.
"Nineteen," she said defensively – and inaccurately – applying a bit of Jackrum logic to her age. OK, so this was aging herself up rather than down, but in these circumstances she thought it defensible.
Mal grinned, showing lots of teeth. "You were 'seventeen' when I first met you. That was about a year ago, yes?"
"Please don't change the subject," Polly said severely; the severe thing had seemed to do the trick before. "We're talking about you."
"I'm twenty-one," Mal said. And when Polly snorted, he said, "No, really! Even if you get to be centuries old, you have to start somewhere. I was born a vampire," he added airily, "so I started at the beginning, just like you."
"Not just like me," Polly said, thinking back to Munz, and The Duchess, and her monotonous but much-loved daily life. She'd been to war to protect that monotonous and much-loved daily life, hadn't she? And then she'd . . . left it behind again. Not once now, but twice. She certainly ran away a lot from somewhere she'd run away to protect.
"No," Mal said. "I suppose not." He drummed his fingers on the table. Polly noticed his nails were short and neat and slightly shiny, as if they'd been manicured. He turned a beaming smile on a passing waitress. "Excuse me, miss, if I give you a note, could you fetch me some cigarettes?"
"Oh, yes, sir, certainly, sir," the girl twittered, and Mal winked at her. She ran off, all a flutter.
Polly tried not to grind her teeth. One second she was glaring out the window though, and the next . . . Mal had all but leaped over the table at her. He had her chin tight in his hand, and it almost hurt. He turned her head, which exposed her neck . . .
"What are you doing?" Polly asked in her best school-teacherish voice. "Stop that at once." It was quite a practiced voice. Sometimes the men in The Duchess had proved hard to eject, come kicking-out time – and when threats didn't work, sometimes treating them like naughty boys worked strange wonders.
Mal let go quickly and sat back, folding his hands in his lap. "I didn't do that, did I?" he asked, his eyes a little wild.
Mal swallowed. "Your face! The bruise."
"Er, no," Polly said, reaching up to poke it to see if it still hurt. Surprise, surprise, it did. Mal still looked alarmingly unstable though, so she added, "Don't be silly. It wasn't you. And it was just an accident. Mal?"
Mal was swaying slightly, but he snapped upright. "Yes, sarge?"
"I'm not your sarge," Polly said, suddenly cross. "You were dishonourably discharged. What happened, Mal?"
The waitress returned with Mal's cigarettes, and he lit one in a split second, sucking on it as if it was his new best friend. Polly drank her tea and determined to say nothing.
Mal had chain-smoked four cigarettes in under four minutes, and drained two refills of his coffee, by the time he spoke. "It was a personal matter," he said evasively.
"Yes?" Polly said.
"I did want to tell you before I went, honest, Pol, I really did," Mal said, first staring at the table and then looking up to fix her with enormous, dark-brown eyes. "I just . . . couldn't."
"Why not?" Polly asked reasonably. Except the way she said it didn't sound all that reasonable – there was a hint of a wobble in her voice that she couldn't keep out.
"You didn't need me, anyway," Mal said, lighting up a further cigarette.
"I did!" Polly protested.
Mal looked at her and raised an eyebrow very slightly. "You didn't. You – you would have made our old sarge proud, sarge. Sorry – Polly."
It was the first time Polly had heard the word 'sorry' on his lips since she'd seen him, and it reminded her that he hadn't said sorry. He'd just . . .
Sent her lots of presents and turned up – twice – by putting himself in a vulnerable position, rather than knocking and barging in. She had a fireplace, didn't she? She could simply have . . .
The idea made her feel as if someone had tipped a bucket of iced water over her head.
She was pretty sure that the only reliable way of permanently killing a vampire was fire.
"Are you OK, Pol?" Mal asked. "You've gone a bit of a funny colour."
"Yes, fine. Look," Polly said, making a decision. "I'll forgive you, if you promise not to do it again."
Mal blinked and raised his eyebrows a fraction. He was sitting back in his chair again, lounging with unspeakable grace, and he looked entirely at ease.
Polly decided not to let him put her off, the git. "I get it," she said, trying to make her voice sound firm rather than squeaky. "Maybe it's because you're a vampire, or maybe it's just because you're you, but you can't bring yourself to say sorry. You are sorry though, or you wouldn't be here. Right?"
Mal appeared to consider this. The cigarette burned, untended, between his fingers. Finally, he nodded. It was so small a nod that he barely moved, but it was a nod all the same.
"So – I forgive you. If you promise not to do it again." She sat back with relief that she'd managed to get it all out and took a gulp of tea.
Mal cleared his throat. "What if – hypothetically speaking – you were in danger, if I didn't leave immediately?" he said, his voice far away.
Who from? Polly thought. You? "Even then," she said firmly.
Mal's face had gone grey tinged and the cigarette was burning down in his hand. If it was scorching his fingers, he didn't appear to even notice. But he nodded again, creakily, as if moving his neck hurt. "Yes," he said. "I promise."
And Polly thought she could be content with that.
Although, yes, actually, it was literally – as in, a six-foot tall skeleton in a cowl was sitting on her bed with an impatient air – but not literally, as in an assassin with a knife.
WHAT KEPT YOU? Death asked, standing up with a swish of robes.
"Oh, Nuggan, not you again," Polly said crossly. She sat down on her bedroom chair and started to pull her boots off.
WELL, I LIKE THAT, Death said, miffed. IF YOU WERE MY DAUGHTER, YOUNG LADY, I WOULD SEND YOU TO YOUR ROOM.
"Yes, well," Polly said, tackling her breastplate and reaching into various secret places to pull out her hidden knives. "Are you watching me?" she asked, looking up. "Like some sort of . . . bony pervert?"
Death jumped. NO, he said, turning his skull to the wall with haste.
Polly laughed, putting the last of her knives on her dresser. "You can turn around now," she said. "And tell me why you won't leave me alone."
Death turned, and his eyes flared in a way that made Polly feel deeply uncomfortable. I WANTED TO SHOW YOU MY . . . SOCKS, he said.
Polly choked. "I beg your pardon?"
Death was technically always grinning, but his skull took on an increasingly mischievous mien. He drew up his robe to reveal . . .
Socks. Actual knitted, woollen socks on his skeletal feet. They were dark purple, with – Polly couldn't help but see – a pattern of little white skulls.
DO YOU LIKE THEM? Death asked.
"Very . . . appropriate," Polly said.
GO AHEAD, Death said. KICK ME IN THE SOCKS. He looked at her expectantly.
"I think I'll pass," Polly said.
Death looked disappointed, but he lowered the hem of his robe. NO? he said. SOMETIMES, I WONDER WHY I BOTHER.
"Maybe next time," Polly said, before she'd thought that through, because there was something . . . tragic about a disappointed-looking skeleton. She didn't quite want to pat him on the head – for starters, she'd need to stand on a chair – but still.
YES, NEXT TIME INDEED, Death said, and before Polly could retract her statement, Death was gone, leaving nothing but an indent in the covers on her bed.
Polly sat in the hollow; the bed was cold, as if no one had been there. She hoped she wasn't going mad. She'd certainly been having some . . . funny dreams recently. There was the old 'skipping through the Shades with a bat on her shoulder, singing a happy song' one, which had turned into a proper recurring nightmare – in the sense that even she wanted to kill her dream self, for being so relentlessly perky. But this dream had been joined by others. There was the one where she kept being forced to drink mugs and mugs of coffee, while a presence lurked ominously over her shoulder. (She didn't even like coffee! But in the dream, she suspected that if she stopped drinking it for a moment, then: wham! And arrrrrgh. She didn't know the details, only that it couldn't be good.) And there was the one where she was in bed, wearing a diaphanous nighty, and for some reason she kept exposing her neck.
The very idea! She would never wear a diaphanous nighty. What was needed next to the skin was flannelette, for preference – a nice thick brushed cotton. Anything else was just asking for trouble. Chilblains, and the like.
Polly sighed and looked over to the mantelpiece, where the flowers still bloomed – snow-white lilies next to deep-black roses – as fresh as ever. She wondered how long, exactly, they'd last. It was faintly creepy, and yet they were so beautiful. They were dead, yes . . . and yet simultaneously so alive they almost shone with vitality.
She needed to pull herself together. Mooning over . . . flowers wasn't going to do any good, was it? She sighed again, picking up the necessaries and heading to the bathroom. She'd feel better once she'd had a good scrub; it was hard to feel romantic and wistful while you were washing your face.
It didn't help that the last time she'd seen him, he'd promised that he wouldn't leave again without saying goodbye. She was sure he'd meant it. But . . . what if he hadn't?
It dawned on her again – as it had before – that she actually had very little idea where Mal had been and what he'd been doing, or even what he was doing now. She'd only seen him twice, to be fair – snatched visits where he'd alternated between self-possessed and nervy – and both times he'd failed to tell her what he was doing in the city and when he'd come to see her again.
She didn't even know where he was staying; if it was in the room underneath hers, which he appeared to have engaged – Mrs Cake had cheerfully told her that he'd paid a full three months' rent upfront – then he was certainly very quiet about it.
She didn't know what he was doing. And she didn't know what she was doing, mooning about like a . . . thing that mooned. She was driving herself mad. She was certainly driving Angua mad. And even Commander Vimes had asked her if she was all right – although awkwardly, and when pressed had mumbled that his wife had made him do it.
She was all right, she absolutely was. She was just . . . angry, that was it. Angry, that she was being messed about again, by the one person she really didn't want to be messed about by. Her . . . best friend, yes.
She hoped – pretty much all the time, right now – that he would drop by soon, and sit down, so she could lean over him and shout a lot. That would make her feel better, she was sure of it. She might even deign to let him use the coffee engine afterwards, if he was really lucky.
But still Mal didn't show his face.
Two weeks later, anger had faded to . . . something that had Angua patting her on the arm a great deal, saying, "There, there," bracingly and offering, with great enthusiasm, to manufacture a large quantity of wooden stakes.
On that particular day, it was raining, and Polly was soaked through, right down to her actual socks. Angua was off somewhere with Captain Carrot, and although she'd asked Polly if she wanted to come along, Polly just wanted to be alone so she could sulk properly. She'd had a good deal of practice this past week, but she thought she could still put in some proper, intense practice, and you couldn't do it in company – particularly not the company of Captain Carrot, who was annoyingly cheerful pretty much all the time.
She was off to a good start, what with the rain; she felt like a drowned rat, and she was properly cold, down to her bones. When she got to Mrs Cake's, she spent some quality time with the doormat, trying to dry her shoes before she entered properly. Mrs Cake would be scathing, if she tramped mud all over her stairs. Polly finally gave up and just tugged her boots off on the doorstep, before carrying them in, dripping as she went.
As she went past Mrs Cake's door, the door opened suddenly, and Mrs Cake peered out, hat emerging first.
"H-h-hello, Mrs Cake," Polly stammered, trying to drip surreptitiously.
Mrs Cake's all-seeing eyes took her in, from top to toe, and she sniffed. "Hello, dear," she said. "A scruffy young lad left a parcel for you. I didn't like to leave it on the floor outside your room because of the carpet. It looked like it might stain. Hold on a moment—" She vanished inside and then came back with a lumpy thing, poorly wrapped in mud-stained brown paper. There was no name or address on the outside.
"Are you sure that's for me?" Polly asked politely.
Mrs Cake sniffed again. "That's what the young lad said. He was most specific." She held it out with the tips of her fingers, and Polly hefted her boots in her arms and took it from her.
A bit of mud that Polly had missed went glop, and she and Mrs Cake watched as it fell on to Mrs Cake's pale hallway carpet. "Er, I'll come back and clean up," Polly said.
"Don't worry, dear," Mrs Cake said calmly, but with an edge. "It's what I'm paid for."
Once she was in the safety of her own room, she dropped the boots and the parcel on some newspaper – it was all the Times was good for, in her opinion – and dithered. She was cold and wet and it would make sense to get into some dry clothes, but . . . something about the parcel called to her, on a level she couldn't understand. So she crouched down on her haunches and used a knife to slit the dirty string holding it together, then carefully unfolding the thick layers of brown paper to reveal . . . a pile of ash.
Polly frowned at it. And then something glinting in the dirt caught her eye. Gingerly, she fished for it, and drew out a necklace. It wasn't something designed for style, although it was long enough that it could be easily concealed under the neck of a shirt. It was gold, though – a slim filigree chain, with a large, flat, oval pendant, with writing on. Polly lifted it up to read it. It said:
Property of Polly Perks. To be returned to her, along with the ashes, on pain of death.
Polly turned it over. There was writing on the back too.
Yes, actual death. I mean it!!!
Polly considered this. She rose, necklace still clutched in her hands, and walked back down the stairs to Mrs Cake's room.
"Yes, I thought it was odd too that the parcel arrived here, dear," Mrs Cake said, opening the door before Polly had even knocked. "What with it not having an address on it. But the young lad – needed a good scrub, he did – said he'd asked for Sergeant Perks at the watchhouse." She pursed her lips, being too much of a lady to roll her eyes. "Silly buggers," she said. "Telling him your address just like that. Haven't they ever heard of a lady needing privacy?"
Polly looked at her, considering.
"No, I ain't got my precognition switched on, dear," Mrs Cake said with a more genuine smile – she was evidently halfway there to forgiving Polly for the mud. "I just knew what you were going to say."
"Right," Polly said and walked back up the stairs, thinking. By the time she got to the top, she was almost at a run.
When she cut her little finger and held it over the dirty parcel, she stood well back once the first blood drop had fallen. It was a good thing too – Mal mushroomed back to life and spun around wildly. He'd have clocked her one in the face if she hadn't been careful.
"What?" Mal said, also wildly. "Where? Who? When?"
Polly snorted, sucking her finger. "You forgot the most important question," she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm.
Mal spun around.
"Why," Polly said. "I think the why is . . ." She trailed away. The last couple of times when Mal had turned up, he'd been immaculately dressed and immaculately groomed. She presumed that the reanimation pretty much reflected how the vampire had been looking just prior to temporary death – and each time, it had clearly been an arranged, comfortable staking.
This time, she wasn't so sure. Mal was in a simple black suit, with a white shirt, and although the clothes oozed style, and were obviously expensive, he looked . . . rumpled. As if he, as well as the clothes, needed a good iron. His hair, usually immaculate, with no strand out of place, was messy, and there were marks of dirt on his face and hands.
"Polly," Mal said – with intensity, as if she were a long, tall, glass of . . . water, she made herself think. Water. And besides, she was hardly tall. The analogy didn't work on even the most basic of levels. Then he blinked. "You're soaking!" he said, in a different voice.
Perhaps it did work a bit, Polly amended. She was certainly wet. And now she felt it, under Mal's search-light gaze. She crossed her arms across her chest and wished he wouldn't. She was wearing white, and it had a tendency to go . . . oh Nuggan . . . blooming diaphanous!
"Have you been sending me dreams?" she accused.
Mal blinked. "Maybe," he said. "It depends."
"Depends on what?"
He gave her a look and clearly didn't like what he saw. "No."
"You did," Polly protested. "Stupid ones, about bats, and coffee, and necks, and . . . and see-through nighties."
Mal's cheeks . . . almost blushed. At least, his face looked marginally less pale; he was milk white, shading to grey, today. "See-through nighties?" he brazened out.
Polly jutted out her chin. "Yes!" And then she shivered, as if she were wearing a see-through nighty, because she was blooming cold.
"Right, let's get you out of those wet clothes—" Mal said, advancing on her with a determined look in his eye, although he was shaking slightly, as if he was blurring around the edges.
Polly stepped back. "Um!" she squeaked.
Mal paused and cocked his head on one side. "—and into a see-through nighty?" he said.
Polly glared. "I don't own one of those!"
Mal grinned. "I never thought you did. Sorry, Pol, I'm only teasing." He reached past her and grabbed a towel, chucking it at her. "I'll wait outside until you're changed." And he'd left the room before she could object, closing the door quietly behind him.
Polly blinked at the door for a moment, then looked down at the pendant she still had clutched tightly in her hand. She shivered, though whether that was from cold or . . . something else, she wasn't sure, and set it to one side, stripping quickly and reaching for a fresh set of clothes, only to find that – of course – she was waiting for her laundry to be delivered, so there were no clean clothes. The only dry thing she had left to wear were her flannelette pyjamas. They were decorated with little bats. She hoped it wasn't an omen.
She put them on – what choice did she have? – and shoved her slippers on her feet, towelling her hair roughly. It was chin-length now and the curls stuck out at odd angles, but it wasn't long enough for her to tie back. She supposed she could put a bag on her head, but that might present other problems – like drawing attention to the pyjamas.
She wondered, when she opened her door, if Mal would even still be there, but he was. She expected him to snort when he saw her in her cosy pyjamas, or say something disparaging that would make her blush. She didn't expect to see him sway, as if he could barely stand up.
She remembered – how had she forgotten? – how alarmed he'd seen when she 'woken' him up, and how rumpled he was. What had he been doing?
She reached for him, to take his arm, but he shied away. "A cup of ccoffee would be nnice," he said, with a smile that was evidently attempting to be blasé.
"Right," Polly said, wondering if now was a good time to admit than no one she'd asked up to examine the machine had been able to work it. Even Captain Carrot had had a go, and he'd become unusually foul mouthed by the time he'd finished with it. She supposed she could pop over the road – in her pyjamas, oh Nuggan! – and fetch him a cup, or perhaps Mrs Cake could be persuaded to—
She opened her mouth to suggest it, and blinked – Mal wasn't there. She turned and looked inside her room, and Mal was already working the coffee machine, tapping his fingers impatiently on the table and muttering. There was a sucking noise, and she could see he was popping beans in his mouth from the open sack next to him like sweeties.
"Are . . . are you OK, Mal?" she asked, taking a ginger step towards him.
The coffee boiled – possibly the heat of the vampire's intensity had made the machine get a move on – and in the absence of a mug, Mal simply tipped the whole thing up and poured the emerging liquid down his throat.
AHEM, said a voice in her ear.
"Not now!" Polly hissed.
"Not now what?" Mal asked, putting the machine down with a clang and licking his lips. There was a dribble of coffee running down his chin, and he wiped it with one pale finger and sucked it off.
"Nothing," Polly said. "Do you need a lie down?"
Mal narrowed his eyes. He was still swaying, very faintly, as if there was a breeze in the room that Polly couldn't feel. "In what sense?"
"Um, in the usual, horizontal sense," Polly said. "There's, er, a bed. You look like you could use it."
Mal made a voiceless reply – in that he staggered, and Polly felt like she would be a poor hostess if she didn't run forward to catch him.
He sniffed her, in an alarming fashion, and made a noise that almost had Polly frozen to the spot in fear. Perhaps putting her neck right so close to an unstable vampire wasn't the best idea she'd ever had. But this was Mal! It was Mal. She pulled herself together.
"Right," she said in an absolutely non-shaky voice. "Small steps. Over we go now. A nice lie down and you'll feel much better," she said, breaking out the school-teacher voice again.
"Yess, Polly," Mal said, attempting to do as asked, and they stumbled across the room together, only hindered by the way Mal kept apparently trying to eat her hair.
When they reached the bed, Polly shoved, and Mal fell, and with a bit of hoicking she managed to get him on the bed and then under the covers, shoes and all. She'd probably need to send out the sheets secretly before Mrs Cake noticed.
Mal looked over at her with interest. "Don't think I've ever been in a bed before," he said politely. "Thank you." His eyes, Polly couldn't help but notice, were tinged with . . . pink, she thought charitably. Not red, pink.
"Er, back in a moment," she said, and ran.
When she returned, Mal was staring at the ceiling with an expression of intense concentration, but he dragged his eyes away to stare at her with something like mute horror. She tried not to feel offended.
"Here," she said, and passed over the cup of, ugh, blood, complete with straw.
Mal's eyes widened so quickly it was almost comical.
"It's fresh," Polly said quickly. "And not human. Of course!" It was definitely fresh; the cup was still steaming. Mrs Cake, seemingly used to these sorts of Undead emergencies, had sorted it out for her, and Angua – summoned from her date with Captain Carrot (by who? Polly had no idea) – had thrust a well-sharpened wooden stake in the waistband of Polly's pyjama bottoms, just in case. Angua and, Polly suspected, every single other resident of the house, along with half the watchmen (she expected Captain Carrot and Commander Vimes to burst in at any moment), were outside the door right now, fighting for the privilege of pressing their eye to the keyhole to spy and make sure she wasn't being eaten.
Though she suspected, somehow, that if she was being eaten, whatever they did to help would be a bit too late. Still, the thought was there.
Mal made a revolting slurping noise, sucking up the dregs, and then sighed happily, licking his lips. When he turned his face to Polly, he looked much better – his face less bizarrely blurred and his brow relaxed. "Sorry," he offered, setting the cup to one side.
He looked strangely small in her bed – and vulnerable. She didn't think she'd ever seen him look vulnerable before. She suspected he wasn't, but equally that wasn't the point.
"What happened?" she said, coming over to sit on the edge of the bed. "And don't even think about saying 'nothing'," she added.
Mal looked embarrassed. "So, I've been doing a little – er – secret work for Commander Vimes, and it, er, went a bit wrong this time. It meant I went a little too long between, er, meals."
Of all the things she'd expected to come out of his mouth, it wasn't that. "!!!" she said. "Since when?" she added.
Mal's embarrassment deepened. "Since last time, you know? I really shouldn't be telling you this, Pol. He asked me to go undercover, and—"
"So, the dishonourable discharge?" Polly interrupted.
"Not entirely true," the vampire murmured. "I've been working for him ever since."
Understanding dawned on Polly. "And then I came to Ankh Morpork, quite by coincidence," she said flatly.
"I didn't ask him to persuade you to come!" Mal protested, sitting bolt upright. "I just may have, er, mentioned you a few times . . ." he said, trailing off in the face of Polly's anger.
Because she was angry. At being manipulated, as if she were a child. At being summoned to a foreign country, and treated like a guest, and a friend, and a trusted colleague, just so a stuck-up vampire could treat her to the worst non-apology in the world.
She blinked and the hot tidal wave of anger ebbed away. She'd agreed to come, hadn't she? And she was all those things too – guest, and friend, and trusted colleague. Vimes having an extra motive for wanting her in Ankh Morpork didn't take any of that away. And . . . and she'd wanted to see Mal again, hadn't she? Had, in fact, left home so that she didn't have to stay stuck somewhere where Mal very much wasn't. Deep down, she'd hoped very much that she'd . . . bump into him, casually, and . . .
"You still could have left a note," Polly said, because it was the truth. "Before you left."
Mal picked at the covers, not looking at her. "It wasn't just Vimes, Pol," he said quietly. "I was going a bit . . . funny."
Well, that was true. In that last week of negotiations, it was almost as though the coffee had stopped working so well. Mal had gone twitchy. Not nearly as bad as the first war, when he'd hallucinated so hard that he'd sucked them all into his visions with him, but . . . not exactly good, either.
"I think it was you," Mal said.
"Me!" Polly said. "How was it my fault?" The wooden stake dug into her back. She wondered if she should stake him, just to make herself feel better.
Mal had entirely lost his usual poise. He moistened his lips. "Well. Um. As a Black Ribboner, I transferred my cravings for bluh-bluh-blood from . . . what I just said, to coffee. And that was fine! It worked! Until I, uh—" He cleared his throat. "Craved something else a bit more," he said, determinedly staring at his hands.
For a moment, Polly didn't get it. And then she did. "You wanted to drink my blood?" she said, incredulous. "But you're my friend!"
Mal looked up and stared at her like she was a grade-A dunce. Perhaps, Polly thought, she didn't get it. Well, not entirely. Surely he didn't mean . . .?
"Anyway," Mal said, "Commander Vimes took me aside, and asked if I'd do this little job for him, and I thought it would be safest all round if I just . . ."
"Left," Polly finished for him.
"Yes," Mal agreed. He pursed his lips. "I suppose I didn't think it through entirely. I'm very glad you're here," he said, and gave her a blinding smile that made her knees go weak; she was glad she was sitting down. "I think I've got it under control," he added. "I can do it. I can."
"Not drink my blood?" Polly asked, just to be certain.
Mal rolled his eyes. "Yes, Pol, that's exactly what I mean," he said with cutting sarcasm.
Polly was just opening her mouth to say something back – because, OK, yes, Mal was clearly not quite well, and she felt bad that he'd obviously been ambushed and hurt and killed with intent this time, rather than in a blasé manner, but that didn't mean she had to treat him like an invalid – when there was a knock at the door.
Although, it wasn't actually a knock. It was Countess Notfaroutoe, saying, "Knock knock!" in a tinkly voice, after she'd already opened the door.
Mal's head whipped round and he all but bared his teeth, before . . . subsiding, sending the Countess a strange look.
"So sorry to intrude," the Countess said, directing her words to Mal, "but myself and my huzband – zer Count, you know – ve thought ve might take zer opportunity to say hello, my dear lady. If zere is anythink you need, do just ask."
"Thank you," Mal said with cold, bored politeness. "How nice to see you again, Doreen." He turned to Polly. "Doreen is treasurer of the Temperance League," he said. "Our little vampire support group. Despite not actually being a vamp—"
"I don't zink I gave you permission to call me by my first name," the Countess interrupted, her thick accent slipping a bit. She blushed hotly – and humanly – behind her white face powder and put her nose in the air. "I must say, I zink you could be a little more polite, young Maladicta! After I gave up my sitting room for you to have a room here too!"
Polly could see, behind the Countess, a veritable pile of people, all of whom were looking around vaguely, trying to pretend they weren't there, but obviously not wanting to leave, either. Some of them were carrying stakes, but in a kind of vague 'gosh, what am I carrying this for? I only asked for a toothpick' kind of a way.
She felt tired, all of a sudden, of being some sort of . . . sideshow. She wondered if she should start selling tickets. It would be a useful addition to her wages. She clapped her hands, cutting off Mal's reply to the Countess – which was probably just as well. It was bound to be rude. She didn't like the Countess, as such, but she did feel sorry for her – finding herself part of a vampire family without being one herself, and without any of the substantial resources that made – presumably – being a vampire half bearable. Mrs Cake's boarding house was perfectly respectable, but a massive castle it most certainly was not. Her clothes, too, were also perfectly respectable, but they never had that luxurious, effortlessly expensive look that Mal's did. It didn't seem fair.
"Everyone out!" she said. "I'm perfectly safe," she said, with an edge to her voice, when the gathered throng – she didn't want to call them a mob, seeing how they were composed of her friends – opened their mouths as one.
The Countess stepped meekly outside the door and Polly shut it with a very soft click. Then she turned to Mal, who was grinning. "Don't you say anything!" she said. "Just . . . lie down!"
"Yes, Pol," Mal agreed, doing so. He didn't look tired any more, just amused, as if he couldn't wait to see what she was going to do next.
Polly's maternal instincts took over. At least, she thought they were her maternal instincts; she didn't know what else they could be. She went around the bed, tucking Mal in tight. "Right! I'm going to leave you to get some sleep," she said firmly.
"Yes, Pol," Mal said. He looked completely relaxed, his dark hair fanning out on the pillow, his smile soft and faintly knowing.
Polly walked over to the window and drew the various curtains and blinds, then paused in the thick blackness that had descended on the room. Damn! She straightened her back and tried to walk casually back to the door without Mal – who had perfect night vision, blast him – realising that she couldn't actually see anything.
Mal laughed. "Watch out for the bed," he said, his voice drifting towards her from . . . much closer than she'd thought, and she cracked her leg on the wooden bedframe.
"Ow!" she said.
There was a rustling sound, and then a candle flared. Mal set it on the bedside table and smirked at her. The dim light was . . . romantic, and made Mal's cheekbones look razor sharp, his eyes even more deep-set. Polly felt as if he could look right into her – and possibly out the other side. His lips were thin but shapely, with a definite cupid's bow, and . . .
She couldn't possibly just stand there, thinking about Mal's lips! "Sleep well!" Polly squeaked and made a dignified run for it.
Angua was waiting for her outside the door, and Polly glared at her, but her heart wasn't in it.
"Sorry," Angua said, not sounding sorry. "Want to go for a drink?"
Yes, Polly absolutely wanted to go for a drink. As far away from her bedroom, with Maladict in her bed, the soft candlelight flickering on his fine features and glossy hair, as possible.
So she did. And when she got back some hours later, stumbling a little, and entered her room . . . Mal was gone. So, Polly noticed, was the pendant, with its ridiculous message. But her bed, and her pillow, smelled of coffee and roses.
It wasn't a very tuneful song. And 'not very tuneful' was putting it kindly. Polly wondered, as her heart pounded – she wasn't very good at sudden awakenings; what had woken her up? – if it had been composed, on the spot, by someone with no musical talent at all.
She sat up in bed and ran her fingers over her hair. She thought it probably looked like she felt – tired, and on edge. There was a smart knock on the door, in a jaunty rhythm that suggested the caller thought they were being amusing. She expected that a previous knock had been the thing that had woken her up.
"Yes?" she said, expecting Angua had come to take the piss out of her hangover. Not that she had one. She just felt a little delicate. It was probably the air pressure. "Come in, the door's unlocked."
The door opened, and . . . someone who wasn't Angua stuck their head around the door. Mal was grinning. "Nice pyjamas," he said, and his eyes flickered from her pyjama top and up, to linger on her hair.
"No smart remarks," Polly said severely. "Not before I've properly woken up."
Mal came in, pushing the door to with his backside. His hands were occupied by a couple of reinforced paper cups, and he came over and passed her one. "Tea," he said.
Polly took a sip – it was just how she liked it.
"I'll leave you to it," Mal said, going back to the door. "But . . . are you free today?"
"Ye-es," Polly said. Vimes had asked her if she'd like to take the day off, and when she'd said no, he'd smoothly changed it to an order.
"Good," Mal said. "Knock on my door when you're ready. I'm in the room just below you," he continued airily. "If you didn't know."
And he left, before Polly could explode, though she did yell to the closing door, "That was a really bad tune, by the way!" and she thought she could hear Mal laughing as he went down the stairs.
Polly thought that Mal would probably always be secretive, to a certain extent – and even if he wasn't being secretive, he had an air of 'I know things you don't' that she thought he cultivated just because he liked to be annoying. It came, she supposed, from being brought up rich, and pampered, though she reminded herself that despite the rich pampering he was here, not back in Überwald, so his life there couldn't have been entirely satisfactory.
She tried not to worry that he'd run away again.
She tried not to worry that the coffee would stop working and one day she'd wake up to find him entering her bedroom not to bring her tea but to drain her dry. Though Death himself had been curiously absent for a while; not that that meant anything. She supposed he was a busy man.
She tried not to notice that the shirts Mal wore were all high necked and buttoned up tight, as if to conceal a pendant beneath them. It wasn't something he'd mentioned, and she certainly wasn't going to bring it up. Property of Polly Perks indeed.
The trapdoor in her bedroom remained very firmly locked.
Soon after Mal officially moved into Mrs Cake's, he seemed to officially become a watchman too. So instead of Polly's life being measured by pre-work Mal, and post-work Mal, it was now all-the-flipping-time Mal. She didn't mind it – if she was honest with herself, it was rather lovely – but at the same time, it was entirely exhausting. She felt like she never got a rest from her feelings, and since she couldn't define, exactly, what her feelings were, that was tiring in and of itself.
Mal didn't seem to find things . . . difficult in any way though. He slipped into life in the Watch as easily as he'd slipped back into Polly's life. He slipped into the Watch uniform particularly nicely, too – although Polly suspected it was a bespoke version, because it fitted so well that it couldn't have been made for anyone other than Mal, who was lithe and slim-hipped and short without being too short, and imposing despite that. Everything about him shone – his hair, his armour, the silver accents on his clothes, his shoes, his jewelled sword-handle . . . his smile, when he looked at Polly.
And if his hand occasionally shook a tiny bit, and he drank perhaps a tiny bit more coffee than he used to, well, Polly tried not to notice. It was probably her imagination.
Mal seemed to like being a watchman, either way – and he particularly liked how people called him sir, and sometimes, if they were new to the city, presumed that he was the Watch commander, rather than Vimes. He certainly looked the part. And despite Angua's warnings that the commander wasn't the biggest fan of the Undead, if he didn't like Mal, he didn't show it.
All in all, life was . . . fine. It was . . . yes, fine, Polly told herself firmly. It wasn't like she wanted anything else from it, was it?
"Coffee," Mal said, his eyes widening. He dropped the pile of papers he was carrying, and the pages fluttered down to the floor. He didn't seem to notice.
"Well, yes," Polly said, suddenly wary. "The Alchemists' Guild exploded – again – and the projectile hit a neighbouring warehouse. Which happened to contain—"
"Coffee," Mal said again, sniffing the air. He swayed slightly.
"Are you—?" Polly started, slowly, but Mal had already walked towards her. He leaned in close and took a sniff, and then another.
"Did you just smell me?" Polly demanded, her heart racing faster than a fleeing villain who knows Angua is on his tail in her 'undercover' mode.
"Yess," Mal drawled, and sniffed again. "You smell wwonderful."
"Thank you," Polly said dubiously.
Mal's eyes were huge, and he licked his lips, leaned in a bit further and—
EVERYTHING UNDER CONTROL? Death asked. RECONSIDERING YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS YOUNG MAN – WOMAN – PERSON, NOW, ARE YOU?
"No!" Polly said, trying not to squeak. "Everything is absolutely fine." She turned to see Death looking at her speculatively. He was holding a cup of steaming liquid in his hand. "What's that?"
Death gave an unconvincing shrug of surprise. THIS? he said. OH. I FORGOT ABOUT THAT. JUST SOME COFFEE THAT I REALISE I NO LONGER NEED. PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE IT? HERE. And he thrust it at Polly, who took it, rather than wear it down her front. He rather spoiled it by winking as he departed.
"Here," Polly said, thrusting the cup in turn at Mal, who took it as a drowning man reaches for a lifebelt.
"Need. Some. Air!" he said, and practically bolted down the stairs and out the door.
Polly sighed and leaned against the desk, before bending down to pick up all the scattered paper that Mal had dropped. She went down the stairs eventually and out, to see Mal leaning against a wall, smoking furiously.
Mal gave her a rather sheepish smile, his teeth slightly too long. "Coffee perfume," he muttered. "Maybe not the best idea you've ever had, Polly."
Various answers presented themselves to Polly, of which 'It was hardly my fault the warehouse exploded!' was a top contender. But she held her tongue. Clearly Mal had . . . what? Found the combination of her scent, mixed with the coffee, to be too much to take? Why though? It didn't make sense.
"Could you . . . take a step or two back," Mal said carefully, still smoking. "I'm still feeling a little . . . overwhelmed. Sorry," he added, again sheepishly. And then, as if he thought Polly couldn't hear him, "I can do it, I can. Suck it up, Mal! Breathe it out!"
Polly thought it wise to go back to her lodgings and scrub. With garlic-scented soap. When she returned, Mal seemed to have recovered himself, enough that he wrinkled his nose and complained about the reek.
But . . . it didn't erase what had happened, did it? Instead of calming his blood-lust, now coffee and Polly – in combination, at any rate – seemed to increase it. It was a situation that couldn't go on indefinitely now, could it?
"Don't worry, you can change at the watchhouse," Angua said. "I have a spare shirt there that should fit you."
For some reason, Polly had nodded, and sponged off the worst, but as she walked to work, feeling annoyed that she'd left her breastplate there the previous shift for once and so her shirt had taken the full force of the coffee, she was hyper aware of just how wet she was. It was Klatchian Coffee, too, blast it – the strongest there was. She'd never known Angua drink it before. It was just her luck!
And of course when she got to work, and Angua fetched the clean shirt from her locker and sent her up to her office to change, Mal was in there already.
"Oh," Polly said.
Mal twitched and he said, very loudly, "It's OK, Polly! I can do this! Don't worry!"
"Sorry, Mal, I didn't know you were in here," Polly said quickly. "Angua just . . . spilt some coffee on me. I'll go elsewhere to change, and—"
Mal gave her a crazed smile. "Polly, my dear," he drawled with what seemed like infinite patience – the infinite patience of someone who's about to crack. "Forgive me for asking, but are you trying to be sexy, or are you trying to be breakfast?"
Polly flushed, and looked down at herself. "No-o. Why, do you think I'm sexy?" she asked, in an attempt at lightening the mood.
Mal – and there was no other word for it – twitched, and the silence that followed was more expressive than simple words.
Oh dear, Polly thought, with an edge of hysteria. It would probably be less awkward if Mal did want to eat her, and besides, who knew what a vampire's version of romance was? She became aware of an extremely overwhelming desire to kiss Mal, but the way his teeth had lengthened and he was swaying, very gently, on the spot, gave her pause for thought.
What if it was the food thing, after all? Or the spilled coffee, making her blood even more attractive than it would usually be, and not her at all? Not only would it be hideously embarrassing to have kissed a hungry vampire, but it would also put a crimp on her future career – being dead had a tendency to do that, she'd noticed, and she didn't much fancy being a zombie. Not, anyway, now she'd discovered high heels; she had a feeling that lurching and stilettoes would not be a happy combination.
Besides: Major Jackrum had told her an important thing, once upon a time, which seemed apt for the situation. Kisses don't last – but having your head torn off by a vampire is forever. All right, he hadn't exactly said that, but the implication had been clear, as far as Polly was concerned.
"I'll just . . . go and change somewhere else!" she said, and to her eternal gratitude, Mal nodded and – with what seemed like an immense effort, as Polly backed out of the room – stayed still and failed to eat her.
When she told Angua off though, and accused her of knowing full well that Mal would be in her office – did Angua want her to get eaten, or something? – Angua simply laughed and told her that it was mere coincidence. Though she did look slightly annoyed, as if what she'd hoped would happen . . . hadn't.
Polly really liked Angua. She felt relatively confident that Angua didn't want her to be eaten. Did she?
She supposed it was coincidence that the knitting needles were wooden, and remarkably pointy. Angua had given her a silver pair too, although well wrapped up; she said it stung a bit if she had to touch them herself. Apparently, the silver needles were good for the really fine knits, although Polly didn't know how Angua knew that, considering.
Angua wasn't a very good knitter, either. But it seemed impolite to say. Perhaps, Polly thought, she should downgrade her hopes of knitting a little cardigan for Jack and knit a simple scarf for Paul instead.
About half an hour later, when Polly and Angua were deep into the mysterious intricacies of casting-off – Angua seemed almost as clueless as Polly herself – Polly heard someone clear their throat.
"Oh, hello, Maladict," Angua said. "Do take a seat." She gestured at the third chair at their table, and Polly told herself it was entirely coincidence that she did it with her wooden, pointy knitting needle.
"Hello," Mal said politely, and then turned to grin at Polly. "Hello, Pol."
"I didn't know you were joining us!" Polly said, and turned to Angua for an explanation.
Her friend sighed. "You two," she said, "are driving us all mad."
"No, don't get offended, Polly, you know I love you. But you are! So, since you both seem completely unable to take a hint, I thought I'd just, you know, knock your heads together until you crack."
Polly shot a glance at Mal. He was still smiling, pleasantly enough, but it was a bit forced. He looked like, given half a chance, he would have pulled Angua's head off – but politely.
"Maladict, I know you don't like me much, and trust me, I don't think you're nearly good enough for Polly, but then I go out with Carrot, and I know people say much the same about me. So talk. For Om's sake! Or I won't be held responsible for my actions. Even Vimes is getting unnerved by all the boiling hormones whenever you two are together, and Nobby keeps asking me for advice about women. I can't do it any more! I just can't!" She drained her cup of tea and stood up, gathering her knitting with great dignity. "Talk!" she said, as her parting shot, and then shot out partingly.
Polly looked at Mal across the table, even though she absolutely didn't want to. He was smiling determinedly.
"Do you think you might put down the stakes?" he said politely.
"What stakes? Oh, these," Polly said, laying aside the needles. "Angua was just teaching me how to knit."
"I bet she was," Mal said with a snort.
An awkward silence fell.
"Coffee?" Polly asked, to break it.
"No," Mal said.
The awkward silence fell again, blast it. Well, Polly wasn't going to be the one to break it this time, she absolutely wasn't, no way, not at all, not even if— "What did Angua mean?" she said, breaking it. Damn!
"She meant that we have this mumble-mumbleship and . . . and I'm not sure if you'd like me to be your mumblefriend or not!" Mal said.
It was a bit like a game of fill in the blanks, Polly thought. A terrifying one. It said something, if it made Mal, of all people, incoherent – although it was still a louche, self-assured sort of incoherency, which made Polly feel quite cross, all things considered. Why did she have to spell things out? She wasn't going to. She absolutely wasn't going to.
Oh, OK, maybe she was. "You're not sure if I'd like you to be my boyfriend, did you say?" she said archly – because she was Sergeant Polly Perks, goddammit, even if she was a watchperson right now, and she wasn't going to be put off her stride by a mumbling, insouciant vampire – and tried not to mind that her face was suddenly glowing as brightly as the sun rising over the fields.
Mal's jaw tightened and he raised one fine, perfectly groomed eyebrow. "Boyfriend . . .?" he echoed, with heavy emphasis.
Polly felt her face glow even more brightly; more exploding sun than simply rising. "Girlfriend, then!" she said, which didn't seem to make Mal feel much happier. "What else am I meant to say! Friend hardly covers it, does it?" She folded her arms across her chest. "None of which is the point!"
"No?" Mal asked, with a tone that Polly found infuriating beyond the telling.
"No!" she protested. "I couldn't care less about, er, the contents of your sock department! It's the fact you're a bloody vampire that's the trouble!"
Mal didn't flinch; he seemed to have gone past calmness and into zen. "Less of the bl-bl-bloody, thank you," he said with exquisite politeness. "But I take your point." And he just sat there, the sod, as if this wasn't an important conversation, the most important Polly had ever had, with his hair all perfect and his clothes all perfect and his face . . . well, that wasn't perfect. It was supercilious and arrogant and composed and . . .
For some reason she couldn't explain, Polly found a great big annoying sob rising up in her chest, and she couldn't stop it escaping, in all its pathetic glory. And, to her chagrin, it was followed by another, and she tried to breathe through it, but for some reason that only seemed to make it worse.
And she was crying in a café! That put the cherry on the ignominious cake, all right. People were trying very hard not to look – except they were, because Ankh Morporkians were nosy beyond the telling. She was used to it from home – Borogrovian womenfolk were only out-gossiped by Borogrovian menfolk when they'd had a pint – but right now she wished she was hiding under the bed where no one could see her.
Mal's face . . . crumpled. He shifted in his seat, as if he didn't know what to do with himself, his usual air of complete self-possession deflated like a pricked balloon. He opened his mouth—
"I'm fine!" Polly squeaked, scrabbling in her pocket for a hanky – where was the blasted thing? "Absolutely fine! Don't mind me!"
"Oh, Pol," Mal said, and he sort of . . . blurred. One second he was over there, and the next he wasn't – he was, instead, right up in Polly's personal space, a heavy weight in her lap, his arms wrapped tight around her, face nuzzled tight in her neck. His skin against hers was faintly chill, and the planes of his body hard and angled in some places and . . . unexpectedly – well, expectedly, really – soft in others. It wasn't a comfortable embrace, but then, Polly thought, going past sobs and into the hiccupping-stage, it probably wasn't wise to feel comfortable with a vampire's mouth so close to your jugular, even if it was Mal.
She would trust Mal with her life.
She certainly wanted to be able to.
"Are . . . are you sniffing me again?" she asked suspiciously, after she'd hiccupped a bit more, because – well – Mal was, and he was trembling against her.
Mal snorted; it was odd, up close, because there should have been a puff of breath against her skin, but there wasn't. "Maybe just a little," he said, the supercilious tone clanging back in place with all the finesse of a hammer against a sheet of metal: loud, and blunt, and wobbling around the edges.
"What do I smell like?" Polly asked, because clearly she was suicidal. Clearly her curiosity had overridden her survival instinct; unless it was the famous vampiric mesmerism in action, telling her – the herd animal – to stay nice and calm and still while the pleasant, friendly, big, bad wolf has just a small chew, honest, you won't feel a thing.
Mal gave a little shudder. "Are you ssure you wwant to kknow?" he asked. There was a vibration to his voice, like the buzz of a saw.
"Well, yes," Polly said, because if she was going to be lunch, she might as well be well-informed lunch. She thought, with a little irritation, that when the romances told of the happiness of dying in a loved one's arms, they neglected to tell a careful reader whether happiness was still the correct emotion when it was the lover who caused the death. Not that she thought that Mal actually, really, truly was going to hurt her.
And they failed to say that you might meet your untimely end in a café with lace-edged tablecloths, surrounded by elderly ladies, who were not only gawping but actively cooing. She suspected that if she survived, she'd end up with free cake; the owner would think them good for business.
But either way, she wasn't ready to die, and she wasn't going to, blast it. She'd learned a thing or two in her time, hadn't she? OK, Gummy Abbens' trick with the crown jewels wouldn't work on Mal for obvious – well, fairly obvious – reasons, but Captain Jackrum had taught her a rather marvellous up-close trick, if it became necessary to . . . discourage Mal. Not that it would, Polly told herself loyally. Now, how did it go? Oh, yes. Teeth in the earlobe, and then—
Something cleared its throat; it sounded like dust shifting in a tomb. ER, HELLO, it said. DON'T MIND ME.
"You again?" Polly asked. She looked around; Mal seemed to have frozen in place, and there was a sparkling chill in the air that was getting really, really irritating. "I know I walk with death every day, but this is getting ridiculous."
I'M SO SORRY, the walking skeleton said, sounding miffed. He was wearing, Polly couldn't help but notice, a little white lace apron round his waist, as if he was trying to blend in with the scene. PERHAPS YOU'D CONSIDER A DIFFERENT CHOICE OF . . . He paused. FRIEND? LOVER?
"Yes, well, we were just in the middle of working that out when you interrupted," Polly said, tightening her grip on Mal's waist.
FAR BE IT FROM ME TO GET IN THE WAY OF YOUNG LOVE, Death said, grinning – although he always grinned. It was hard for a skull to work a variety of expressions. THOUGH, I MUST SAY, ONE OF YOU IS CONSIDERABLY MORE LIKELY TO EAT THE OTHER, GIVEN HALF THE CHANCE, he added contemplatively. And he paused. It was a pause redolent with meaning, and only spoiled by the way his hand shot out to purloin a pink-frosted cupcake from the nearest table.
"That's a very pessimistic outlook," Polly said sternly.
Death shrugged, tucking the stolen baked goods in his voluminous black robes.
"Now, if you wouldn't mind?" Polly said pointedly. "You're ruining the mood."
FINE, FINE, Death said. I WAS ONLY BEING FRIENDLY. YOU TRY TO MAINTAIN GOOD RELATIONS WITH YOUR LONG-TERM CLIENTS, AND WHERE DOES IT GET YOU? NOWHERE. He stepped forward and thrust a square of fabric at her. A GOOD BLOW IS REQUIRED, he said. ROMANCE IS NEVER AIDED BY SNOT.
Polly's urge to reply was damped by her urge to do as she was told – and quickly. Because Death was right, blast it, and she didn't especially want him to depart halfway through her honking into a hanky. So she awkwardly struggled one arm free from Mal's tight hold and blew hard, and wiped, and held out the soggy ball to the skeleton.
Death took it with the very tips of his finger bones and although his face couldn't express emotion, it somehow did. A LITTLE GRATITUDE GOES A LONG WAY, he said pointedly. BUT FAR BE IT FROM ME TO MUTTER MUTTER MUTTER—
Polly tuned him out. He'd . . . called her a 'long-term client', hadn't he? That must be a good thing; it suggested she wasn't imminently going to die, right here in the café. Now she only had to deal with despatching the sulking skeleton and she could get back to . . . being smelled by Mal. In public. Oh gods.
Mal shifted against her, and Polly blinked, realising that Death had stalked out – aka buggered off in a huff. "You smell . . . alive," he said, his voice low and hypnotic, and there was a depth of hunger in his voice that Polly had never heard before. "I can feel your heart pumping, smell the richness of your life's blood pumping through your veins. It's intoxicating. It's like everything – everything I've ever wanted," he murmured. His voice was mesmerising, smooth and soft and silky, winding through her senses. Her heart went patter patter patter like . . . like a frightened rabbit, confronted with a grinning fox, something screamed inside her. "Your heart thrumming, the anticipation of it – of the hunt, the seduction, the . . ."
Polly blinked hard, trying to snap out of it. She could feel an anticipation of her own coil through her gut, and – it annoyed her. "Stop making the fact you want to kill me so – so – sexy!" she said.
Mal snorted against her hair. "You did ask," he said, his tone slightly more normal. "Sorry. If it helps, I really, really don't want to kill you. Even though, technically, I do."
"Thanks, I think," Polly said.
"You're welcome," Mal said easily.
"Let's . . . get out of here and talk," Polly said.
"Sure thing, Pol," Mal said, making no attempt to move.
"People are looking," Polly hissed.
"Let them," Mal said, but then he sighed – with resignation, not unhappiness. "OK, let's go," he said, rising from her lap. He threw down about twice as much in change as was necessary to pay the bill, taking Polly's hand and tugging her out of the café and down the road.
As they walked, they were still hand in hand. Polly . . . liked it. Oh Nuggan, she really, really liked it. But . . .
"I'm still a bit concerned you're going to eat me," she said as they walked.
Mal squeezed her hand. "Are you?"
"Well, no," Polly admitted. "But the sniffing thing is a bit odd. You've been a bit odd, Mal. You have to admit."
Mal shrugged. But after a while he said. "I don't think you quite understood what I was telling you before, about why I had to leave the peace negotiations so suddenly."
They were making their way back to their lodgings, Polly realised. "No, I suppose not," she said, because it was true. A combination of Vimes asking and the coffee not working, wasn't it? Except, she was in the mix there somewhere – the scent of her blood doing terrible things to Mal's equilibrium. Did she have particularly . . . pungent blood, or something?
Mal shot her a quick look. "It wasn't that the coffee stopped working, exactly," he said, a little awkwardly. "It was that . . . I preferred you."
"Me?" Polly repeated a little dumbly. "My blood, you mean?"
"No!" Mal said, stopping dead. "You're not getting it, Pol. Not your – bluh-blood. Absolutely not."
"Then what?" Polly asked, tugging him a bit closer to the nearest shop front, so they didn't impede the flow of people walking. It was a butcher's. It was bloody typical, that's what.
Mal didn't seem to notice though. "You, Polly," he said hotly. "You. It was like . . . I could only satisfy my craving for bl-bl-blood when you were around. You . . . satisfied it. Your face, and the smell of your skin, and your voice, and your . . . Just you, Pol. It's always been you. Ever since I met you. I just can't control it any more. I've tried! I really have! But I can't."
Polly swallowed hard. He looked so wild. And needy. It was doing strange things to her insides. "And is that a problem?" she asked faintly.
"It is if you don't feel the same!" Mal snapped, all his usual self-possession fled. "And I don't know. Gods! I always know, but I just can't . . . You don't even like the dreams I've been sending! I mean, I know I'm not very good at them, but I've never needed to try before! I've never met anyone before who I–" He broke off, panting for the breath he didn't need.
"The dreams aren't that bad," Polly said.
Mal tried to smile. "No?"
"Though the coffee stuff . . . that was a little . . . self-indulgent. I don't actually like coffee, you know."
"I suppose so," Mal said. He was still holding Polly's hand, and his thumb was rubbing lazy circles on her skin. "The flowers?" he asked.
"Well, they're very pretty," Polly said, feeling warmth flood through her. "But it's a bit peculiar having to feed flowers your own blood, you know, Mal."
"Right. Right. I'll know for next time."
"A vase would have been good."
"Fine. Yes. Tick."
"And as for the darn trapdoor in my floor . . ."
"Just a little."
Mal sighed. "I haven't done this very well, have I?"
"Done what?" Polly asked, because she wanted to hear him say it.
Mal raised an eyebrow. "Romanced you, you daft . . . cheesemonger."
"A bit of Lancre Blue might have sped things along," Polly said, trying not to smile and not succeeding very well. It kept bursting out, like the sun from behind a cloud after a rainstorm.
Mal went very still. "Pol?"
"Will you go out with me?" he said, nerves dripping from his voice. "Even though I'm a . . ."
"Vampire," Polly supplied.
"Yes, and also a . . ."
"Good person," Polly said.
"It's OK, Mal," Polly interrupted. "I . . . I love you for you, not for anything more . . . biological."
Mal swayed a little, as if someone had hit him over the head. Or stabbed him with a wooden knitting needle, maybe, and missed the heart. "Really?" he murmured. "You don't mind that—"
There was obviously only one way to shut him up. It was a bit alarming, and new territory for Polly, but she wasn't a soldier for nothing. So she leaned in – right there on the street, in front of the butcher's shop – and kissed Mal.
And rather to her satisfaction, Mal kissed her right back.
She hoped she was imaging the distant applause, but with Mal's lips warm and soft against hers, his hands tight on her waist, she honestly couldn't care much either way.
It was from Sergeant-Major Jackrum. Nuggan knew how he'd found out so quickly. Or perhaps Angua did. Polly suspected that they were kindred spirits, of a strange and very differently shaped sort.
Remember, lad, he'd written. Kisses don't last. Except when they do.
Polly smiled and allowed herself to be led into her bedroom by Mal. He wasn't smiling back so much as . . . adoring. His expression was awed and reverent, and it made her go hot from head to toe.
"This is OK, isn't it, Pol?" he asked quietly, taking her hands and placing a kiss gently in first one palm and then the other.
"Oh," Polly said, leaning in towards him. "Oh yes."