Actions

Work Header

Winter Quarters

Work Text:

Borogravian mountains were not very high, but they did look nice when covered in snow.

They were considerably less nice to climb, especially with the night falling. Polly was glad she was wearing her army boots and trousers. For some purposes men's clothing was more practical, while for sheer warmth female clothing won. Which was why she was also wearing a flannel dress and a very large shawl.

Mal had invited her to stay for the winter at the end of the campaign season, but between letters both of them got, piles of paperwork and the extremely tentative nature of their understanding - based chiefly on shared furtive looks whenever one of them slapped the other on the back - Polly felt it was sensible to spend at least a few weeks at the Duchess. Religion was still a touchy topic in Borogravia, but the new extension of the clacks line was bringing in stories and songs that had people nsisting that of course there was nothing like the Hogfather. Or Hogswatchnight. And that was just random greenery they were putting up, thank you.

At the Duchess, a travelling Omnian priest and his guitar started a sing-song that barely mentioned hogs at all.

That, Polly admitted, had been nice. So was knowing that between them Shufti and Paul were getting along well. The Duchess had new paint on the wall and many images of birds. Little Jack was bringing terror to the chicken coop. And the old women in the village...

...remained the old women in the village. Which meant that when Mal's carefully casual and calligraphed not-at-all Hogswatch card arrived, Polly could read between the lines and was just as desperate to get away as the vampire was.

Which was why she was tramping up a mountain road at dusk four days after Hogswatch. At least the road was fairly broad and so rocky that she didn't slip much. It was well-maintained enough to admit a coach, such as the one that had passed her three times already at increasing speeds.

She could hear it coming up again. She stepped aside just enough to let it through without falling into a snow drift.

It stopped instead, and the coachman peered at her from his perch.

"Um - ma'am - I mean-"

Polly took pity on the man and pointed to the stripes on the jacket she was wearing over her dress. "Sergeant."

To the man's credit, he looked relieved. "Sergeant, I was - I mean, I assume you are coming up from Chagaldorf-"

Polly nodded. It was the nearest village where the peddler's cart could take her.

"Did you see a young lady there? I was sent to fetch her, but she never arrived, and I didn't see her on the road..."

"What kind of young lady?"

The man rubbed his nose. Paul did the same, Polly thought, when he wasn't sure if he was allowed to say what he was thinking.

"Ma-the Master said she was very unusual and unique. And blonde."

"Blonde," Polly repeated.

"She'd probably be very beautiful? I mean, most of them are. You know, the, ah, shape."

"Shape," she said. "Don't get many of those in the army."

"I guess." The coachman's eyes darted to one side, then the other. "Well, I'm on duty, but if she's not coming... Climb on, Sarge, I can give you a lift as far as the lodge. There's a fire and my ma had stew on, and there's plenty of beds going unused. The Master won't mind, all about supporting our troops. I was supposed to join up year before last, but things... I think it's famous, to be a soldier."

Polly only ever looked a gift horse in the mouth to see how hard it could bite. She clambered up to the coach box and pulled the blankets over her lap.

"They call me Martin," the coachman said cheerfully as he urged the horse on. "Or Boxhead, but I like Martin better."

Polly held on to her seat. "They call me Parts."

"Because you cut people into parts?

She wondered if taking the cutlasses had been a mistake.

*

The coach clattered over the cobbles in the yard. Polly decided that there was a word for people who called a three-storey building with its own coach house, stables and battlements a hunting lodge.

Then again, that word was probably "vampire".

She helped Martin unharness the horse, then followed him across the yard. The old woman in the doorway had to be his ma, and she looked so disapproving that Polly stopped for a moment. She hadn't told Martin her name. There was still time to turn back, insist that her destination was near, then break her leg going down the road and die of exposure by morning instead of facing this woman or the thing she'd been trying not to think about since the start of her leave.

A single lit window on the second floor opened with a dramatic flourish. For a moment, candlelight outlined a perfect silhouette in a flowing dress, long pale fingers breaking the ice that formed around the window frame.

Then there was an ear-piercing shriek and Polly had her arms full of vampire.

"You came," Mal said indistinctly into her shawl.

"You jumped from a window."

"I was overjoyed to see you?"

"That bad?" Polly pulled her shawl over the flimsy clothes Mal was wearing. It felt like muslin, but since the vampire was still clinging to her like a limpet, she couldn't look down and check.

"I barely escaped with my socks intact." Mal shuddered. "Mama wanted me to meet people."

Polly patted her back. "I had an Omnian sing-song," she offered. "About hogs."

"I think I'd prefer that." Mal reached up and pushed back Polly's shawl, letting out hair that was just starting to reach past her jaw. "You really came."

Polly looked down past the glittering dark eyes and sharp teeth. "Is that a corset?"

The face Mal made rivalled her grimaces at acorn coffee. "I didn't have time to change. Family gets on my nerves. I had to... meditate on coffee for a long time."

"It's nice," Polly offered. "It gives you shape." She was very aware it was the sort of shape she didn't have.

"It pinches." Mal let go and spun around. "Mrs Drobnik, coffee and food and logs on the fire and I hope that bedroom is aired out and did you remember to warm the bed of course you did what am I saying and a bottle of claret from the first cellar and crackers and-"

"And coffee," Polly said. After two campaign seasons, she knew the signs.

"Coffee and less corsets," Mal agreed. Then she darted in for another hug, over before Polly could respond to the touch of arms or the lips pressed, for a fleeting moment, to her ear.

*

Her room was half the size of the common room in the Duchess, and much warmer than the outdoors, though that was still cool enough for a warm brick under the sheets to be appreciated. The contents of her knapsack didn't even fill one shelf of the wardrobe, and the facilities were definitely upper class.

Polly concentrated on exploring to avoid the sharp looks from the housekeeper. Even a court martial didn't involve that much scrutiny.

"All satisfactory, miss?" Mrs Drobnik asked coolly.

"Yes, thank you. It's all luxury for a poor soldier like me." Polly knew it was better to face things head on sometimes.

"You've been a soldier long, miss?"

Polly frowned. That did not sound like the accusation she had expected. "Going on two years. Mal - Maladicta and I joined the same platoon on the same day."

Mrs Drobnik frowned. "You're - one of them? Ma- the Master's mess-mates?"

Polly nodded, folding her clothes methodically. She wasn't surprised that Mal hadn't told the servants about her in detail.

"Not short enough - you don't look bewitched - now, you must be Perks."

That did surprise her, though not as much as Mrs Drobnik grabbing the clothes away from her.

"Give me that, girl, I can do that faster. Thought you were one of the flighty ones, dressed up as a soldier because you finally figured out Mal doesn't go for the nightgowns and corsets. Didn't know you were her friend." She made short work of unfolding every shirt and folding it to her satisfaction. "You get too cold here, you come down to the kitchens, I keep them warm. Upstairs - you can tell vampires run the place, even colder than usual for a big house. Always room by the fire for one of Mal's friends. Never seen her look as happy as when she's telling stories about your war."

"Stories?" Polly asked, trying to rescue her cutlasses from overzealous attempts to hang them up on coat hooks.

"She don't think I'm listening, of course. Talks to my boy Martin, thick as thieves those two. But I've known her from a batling."

"Did you?" Polly knew that vampires who disdained the Black Ribbon sometimes had servants other than Igors, but those arrangements usually appeared in the bloodier stories.

Mrs Drobnik patted her arm. "Come to the kitchen, one day. I'll put soup on. That way even vampire ears can't hear."

Polly decided that vampire staff were even stranger than vampires.

*

"My great-grand-uncle built this place to get away from my great-great-grandmother's matchmaking attempts," Mal explained, waving her goblet around. She was wearing a suit just a little too loose to pass for evening wear, and looking much more comfortable than she had in a dress. "When she visited, he'd pull a fur over his head and pretend to be a bear."

"He must have been a character," Polly agreed. It was too early in the morning for wine, but sipping it gave her something to do while watching the way Mal sprawled on three chairs at once.

"He is. Best git in the family. Went cold bat decades ago, one of the first people to try it. He tried taxidermy instead, but he ended up going with butterfly collecting. He moves to Genua for the winter and lets me use this pile. I used to spend summers here instead, hiking after rare butterflies and letting Mrs Drobnik spoil me."

"She did say she's known you for some time."

"Decades." Mal tipped her head back, sprawling even further. "I think she and Martin were the first... regular people I knew. I mean, people who weren't-"

"Food?" Polly prompted.

Mal bared her fangs in a grimace. "Coffee's so much better. You know, it's kind of like the socks. Clinging to the old ways limits you as much as the corsets and underwire nightgowns."

Polly shifted on the sofa. From her vantage point, she could see almost all the way down Mal's dishevelled shirt. "Do traditional vampires nag you about not being a proper vampire?"

The fangs flashed again. "You should meet my mother. No. You shouldn't."

Polly sighed.

Mal reached out and snagged her hand. "Let's go hiking. That way we'll actually have a reason for the coffee. And the rum."

*

Polly took a long time to fall asleep. Her thoughts were chasing each other around the room and up the chimney. It was easier when Mal was there, because there was an instinct there that bypassed her brain. Some of that was the soldier thing, because they were a team, and some of it - some of it had been there from the start, with Mal's first bit of sarcasm and flashing, effortless danger. She remembered being uncertain if Mal was a boy or a girl, but now she knew that most days Mal wasn't sure herself.

Wrapped in sheets and fur coverlets, she let herself wonder how it would feel to let Mal closer. Or to pull her closer. That was the other thing - there were people like Lofty and Tonker where you could tell who was doing what just by looking at them, but with the two of them, it was much more fluid. Ranks didn't come into it, or the fact Polly served customers in an inn while Mal lounged around a castle, or that a few years before Polly would have been - food. All that should have mattered, but here, now, it felt like she was holding her breath all day because if she exhaled, something else would start.

A weight dropped onto her chest, knocking the breath out of her. She was awake in an instant, hands scrambling for cutlasses under her pillow, legs kicking out.

She opened her eyes and stopped. The girl straddling her chest was twelve at most. Corkscrew curls framed a snow-pale face and a bright, crimson grin in the moonlight. The girl was dressed like an expensive city doll, if someone decided to add extra lace to every single ruffle.

"I'm Araminta Cressida Selene in the short form," the girl announced. "Can I eat you? Mama says it's important to ask."

Polly wriggled up the bed until the girl was sitting in her lap. "Don't sneak up on soldiers. I could have hurt you."

Araminta shrugged. "With what?"

Polly pulled out the cutlasses.

Araminta clapped her hands. "They're shiny! Like papa's big sword!"

"I polish them," Polly admitted. "Why are you in my bed?"
The girl pouted and dipped her chin, looking at Polly through thick eyelashes. "I don't like sleeping alone and Uncle Theodoreauseamus never took down the protections around the staff bedrooms even though he's had the Ribbon for ages and ages and Mal is stupid and sleeps upside down and I've gone such a long way and I'm so very cold..."

"Does that usually work?"

Araminta nodded happily.

"And do your parents know where you are?"

That gave the girl pause. "I think they suspect," she hedged. "I usually go bother Mal when I'm annoyed at them. Mal is cool. She's my brother."

Polly had guessed as much. It was something around the fangs.

Araminta clasped her hands together and put both index fingers on her lips. "Can I stay with you for the night?"

It would be like kicking out a wide-eyed, fluffy and bloodthirsty kitten.

"Yes."

"Can I eat you?"

"No."

"Goodnight, Miss Soldier."

"Polly," Polly said quietly. "Polly Perks."

The small vampire burrowed under the covers. "You can call me Minty if you want to."

"Goodnight, Minty."

*

At breakfast, Mal took one look at the girl clinging to Polly's waist and groaned. "I'll get her a leash."

Araminta giggled.

"A cage," Mal amended. "What did you do this time?"

"I didn't do anything," the girl sniffed. "I'm Mama and Papa's little angel from the Dungeon Dimensions."

"Minty..."

"I painted Mr von Uberwald pink when he was sleeping," she said quickly.

Mal buried her face in her hands. "Fine. One week. Now sit down like someone with manners and keep your claws off my sergeant."

"Polly's nice," Araminta offered.

"And shut up."

Polly poured coffee for all of them, plus Mal's three extra mugs. It felt like a three-mug kind of day.

After the coffee, Mal took Araminta to the attic to hunt for clothes that would be more practical than a white dress spattered with four kinds of breakfast food. Polly helped Martin clean up despite his protests.

"I run an inn," she told him. "When the army doesn't need me."

He shook his head. "Sarge, you're really not like the rest."

"The rest of what?" Polly wasn't sure she wanted the answer, but she knew she needed it.

Martin stocked plates together carefully. "The Master - Mal's had girls over before. I mean, before the Ribbon. Mostly other vampires, but there were a few normal girls, too, the ones who go for vampires. They were - typical, you know? Flowing hair and curves and made-up names and not enough clothes."

Polly stared at the fireplace. Before the Ribbon - that would have been four years ago. Mal had been a Black Ribboner for two years when they met.

"You're the first one Mal's brought home since she stopped drinking blood," Martin said. "Take good care of her, Sarge."

*

By the third time Araminta ended up at the bottom of a gorge, Polly was starting to think Mal was trying to get more alone time with her. The first time, they just waited until the young vampire climbed back up. The second, Mal dragged her onward and it was fifteen minutes with just them and the birds before Araminta caught up.

Now she tumbled down the third time, and Mal caught Polly's hand again, but this time they found a cliff path that led up to a ledge and an old tree with branches shaped perfectly for climbing.

Polly perched in the nook formed by three branches and the trunk. Mal sprawled in a way that meant her head was just below Polly's shoulder.

"How long?" Polly asked. Her fingers were hooked over the flap of the breast pocket on Mal's jacket.

"I'll give her even odds to find us within half an hour or give up and go to the lodge," Mal said. "This is the view I wanted you to see."

Polly hummed three notes before she realised it was the national anthem. The sun was high, not rising, but in the winter it was close enough to the rim that the gold glimmer on the mountain tops looked like that dawn.

"My mother paints sometimes," Mal said. "If she ever takes the Ribbon, I think painting will become her life. I'll take her up here, then."

"Before we get our marching orders in the spring," Polly said. "Come to the Duchess with me. Shufti's Jack is walking now."

Mal sighed. "She'd probably expect me to wear female uniform. You know, she does remind me of my mother."

"You thought I expected you to wear female uniform," Polly reminded her.

"It's just my luck they never came up with a lieutenant's version."

Polly pinched her side. "Shut up, sir."

Mal turned with a sinuous motion that Polly could feel even through the winter gear they both wore. This close, her eyes were dark like coffee, and sharper.

A snowball splatted on Mal's cheek, sending a shower of snow over Polly as well. The vampire swore long and hard.

"I'm older now!" Araminta yelled from the ground. "And Papa said that I have to take care of you, too! I'm keeping you in training so that evil enemy soldiers don't kill you!"

"I want to put your sister through basic drill," Polly said.

"That's an order, sergeant."

*

Araminta finally left them alone when they climbed down into the next valley, mostly because she found rolling down snow fields more amusing than their careful military pace. They could see her in the distance, talking to a couple of children. Polly was fairly certain she wasn't trying to eat them.

"She'll keep to her manners," Mal said. "Papa's driven it into our heads. It makes people less likely to show up with pitchforks."

"It's like with the army and foraging," Polly agreed, then grimaced. "Sorry."
"It's all right, I'm good." Mal squeezed her hand. "Coffee's good. It's only been four years, but sometimes... You remember how I got without coffee? I was like that all the time, or close to it. It's like walking in a fog. You have to make a real effort to see people as more than the b-word. Stopping was bad for a month, but then... I was actually seeing things. People. Not just watching myself go through motions."

"I think most people just go through the motions," Polly said. "It takes too much effort to actually see things."

"That makes two of us." Mal's voice was low, just above a whisper. "Perks, you..."

"I know." Polly drew a deep, slow breath. This was big. Bigger than the mountains and the snow and maybe even bigger, for her, than Kneck.

The scream reached her a moment after Mal let go of her hand. Polly ran after her, but there was no catching up with a determined vampire, so by the time she reached Araminta, the argument was already in full swing.

"I was just showing my fangs! He asked me to!" Araminta stomped her feet. "It's not my fault he's a stupid screaming boy!"

"He's always screaming," one of the children confirmed. Polly was almost certain it was a girl. "And he cries when Grandpa tells us army stories."

The smaller child whimpered.

"Give it a rest, no-one's going to eat your leg!"

"Not without mustard," Polly said automatically. "Or, uh, so a corporal once told me."

"Our Grandpa's a Sergeant," the girl said proudly. "Sergeant Major."

Something about the iron in her voice made Polly look closer at her chubby cheeks. There was something about the eyes...

"That's a very high rank," Mal said. "What's his name, young lady?"

The girl was small enough for the appelation to cause a smile rather than a huff. "Grandpa Jackrum."

Polly held her breath.

"Sergeant Jackrum?" Araminta trilled. "Like in your stories? Mal, you said he was the most impressive man you ever met! I want to see him! Can we see him? You said your whole family was here for Hogswatch week!"

Polly and Mal exchanged glances. There were very few things that could stop a determined vampire in ruffled skirts.

*

The mountains in the hubwards part of Borogravia were considered both acceptable-looking and safely away from disputed borders, which made them a popular holiday destination. The truly rich, like Mal's family, owned whole mountains and castles (which they sometimes called hunting lodges). Prosperous craftsmen, like William Jackrum, hired neat little cottages in the Lisl valley and tried to ignore the renters in the two hundred neat little cottages along the same road.

William Jackrum had a pleasant face and dark eyes that shone brightly. His wife put up bravely with entertaining two of the Count's offspring and a strange young woman in men's trousers. After two cups of tea they bundled up their children and hustled them to bed, the younger daughter towing Araminta along for doll-demonstration purposes.

"Well," Sergeant Major Jackrum said.

Jackrum looked older than in Kneck. Some of the flesh had faded in a way that told Polly the retirement came just in time. But the eyes remained ice-sharp.

She was reminded of the road to Plotz, the way all recruits tried their best to be manly because while everyone suspected, no-one was quite sure who the women were. Could Mal smell Jackrum? Not before, maybe, with the tobacco and the mud, but now, old Jackrum sitting on the other side of the fireplace and looking at them with eyes that saw everything.

"I've kept the cutlasses polished," Polly offered.

"And she scares the fresh recruits just like you did." Mal sounded proud.

Jackrum spat into the fire. "Lieutenant, are you?"

Mal looked slightly sheepish. "My grandfather. He's been a general for three hundred years. In six armies."

"Times change."

"You changed them," Polly said. "We're helping things along."

"Did you tell-?"

Polly shook her head.

"I've watched you and learned," Mal said. "I learned an officer should trust his sergeant and don't ask too many questions."

Jackrum nodded slowly. "I may be retired, but I still hear things. The boys who come buy Willie's swords... sometimes, they tells me things. The girls, too."

"I'll write," Polly said. "Sir."

Jackrum's eyes moved between the two of them. "You be careful. I may be retired, but you're still my little lads."

Mal stood up and saluted crisply. Polly followed suit just a little slower, just a little more sergeant-like.

*

William Jackrum insisted on driving them back to the lodge, claiming he needed to exercise the horses anyway. Araminta curled up in the back of the sleigh and knotted a piece of string into intricate lace, humming to herself, while Mal and Polly squeezed into the seat next to William, sharing Jackrum stories they'd heard or lived through. An edited version of Strappi's downfall had William slapping his thighs.

"It couldn't happen to a nicer man," Mal concluded. "Sarge sees through everything. Left here."

"That he does." William tugged on a rein, directing the horses into the side road to the lodge. "You know, I wish I knew him longer. I've done all right, but - I guess knowing him would have helped when I was growing up. Made it easier to decide what it means to be a man."

"Sarge is proud of you," Polly said.

William grinned. "Old man never says it. Never says much, except to the kids. I keep meaning to get him drunk and get some stories out of him, but he can outdrink me any time. I wouldn't mind knowing what my mum was like. I like to think she was in the army too, followed the old man or met him there."

"Not openly," Polly hazarded.

"Like the army was ever all men," he snorted. "I make their armour, I can tell. At least every fourth swaggering young idiot who comes to me for something fancy." He nodded at Polly. "It's good to have it in the open. That way you can get armour that actually fits. Look me up if you're in Scritz, I've been working on a new line."

"We will," Polly promised.

The sleigh slowed to a stop in front of the lodge. Mal slipped into the back seat to pick up Araminta, who protested sleepily.

"Wish the old man showed up sooner," William said. "I've not much time left with him. That's the one thing you can never fix. Waiting."

Polly clapped him on the shoulder. Sometimes you didn't need words.

*

By some housekeeper sorcery Mrs Drobnik had a hot bath waiting for her. Afterwards, Polly wrapped up in unglamorous borrowed grey flannel and went looking for a book to read.

Mal was lounging in the library, looking through a small pile of letters. She shot Polly a look of faint desperation.

"Three invitations and four notices of people who plan on showing up here at any time in the next month. I'm tempted to ask the nearest witch to cast a spell so no-one can find this place."

Polly poured wine for both of them, and drained half her glass. "I thought you didn't have plans."

The armchair creaked as Mal got up. "One or two," she admitted. "But they are going all wrong."

"It's not a storybook holiday," Polly said. "It beats an overnight march."

Mal took her glass. For a moment their fingers touched, and the coolness of Mal's skin sparked a shiver that Polly had to fight to keep from showing in her breathing.

"Everything beats an overnight march," Mal said. "Maybe I've been thinking too much storybook. Or the kind of books my mother reads, where two people meet and nothing else matters. Today... I remembered what Jackrum told me once. Kissing don't last."

"I'm not Jackrum," Polly said.

The expression on Mal's face told an epic poem. "I hope not."

"I think bigger." Polly set her glass down. Maybe she should have found a nightgown with lace and underwire, but she needed to be herself, and if that meant grey flannel, so be it. "You can hide and get by and pretend to be something you're not, or you can stand up and take what you want."

Mal's eyes were wide and very dark. "What you want?"

The glass shattered on the floor, but Polly just stepped over it. She was taller than Mal, and that meant she was able to lift her just a little, just enough that their lips and bodies fit together. Cool hands were scrambling helplessly over her back, and Mal tasted of coffee just like Polly knew she would.

The vampire made a ragged sound halfway between moan and purr. Polly was taller, but Mal was stronger, and she seemed to take to heart the speech about taking what you want. Mal knew what she was doing, too, and when they tumbled on the sofa, Polly tried her best to take notes for later use. The way her brain was shorting out was a hindrance in that regard.

The gong made them both groan even before the library door opened with a bang.

"Dinner has been served," Martin announced, then ducked. The other wine glass shattered on the doorframe over his head.

*

Four weeks, three familial invasions and one surprise infestation of carnivorous rabbits later, Polly was lying in the big bed again. The doors were closed, barred and boobytrapped with buckets of holy water, as were the windows and every single secret passage. The fire was crackling happily, and the duvet and furs were warm enough that both of them were cozy.

Mal's arm rested around Polly's waist, fingers idly tapping a rhythm over her hipbone.

"If that is Sweet Polly Oliver, I'll stake you," Polly murmured.

Lips pressed against the back of her neck. "You'd get dust all over the sheets and Mrs Drobnik would glare at you."

She considered this. "Are you scared of her?"

"I'm terrified. And my mother sent another invitation to tea. Do you think you could wear male uniform and I'll go in a dress?"

"As long as you don't make me dance."

Mal yawned and pulled her closer. "I could order you to dance."

"An officer never gives his sergeant an order beneath the sergeant's dignity."
"Yes they do. That just means the sergeant gets someone else to do it."

"So I'll get Martin to dance with you," Polly threatened.

She was fairly certain of most of her decisions this winter, but letting Mal get her hands on Polly's ticklish spots was a definite tactical failure.

Outside, the snow storm howled. Somewhere, generals plotted campaigns and supply lines and recruitment drives. The world moved, with every swipe of Great A'Tuin's fins.

Inside, maybe they could have it all.