The sounds of the reveille floated above the Borogravian military headquarters outside PrinceMarmadukePiotreAlbertHansJosephBerhartWilhelmsberg (or PetersFolly for short), it’s repetitive tooting finding its counterpoint in a chorus of groans from the assembled military staff. In one particular suite of rooms, chosen for their northern prospect that ensured they remained gloomy even on the brightest days, one particular Colonel remained still and silent, having effectively muffled the noise of bugles into insignificance through a carefully deployed pillow.
This did not however, preserve her slumber from the swift kick her batman aimed at the leg of her bed.
‘Good morning sir!’ He shouted, with aggressive cheerfulness, ‘it’s a fine day!’
‘I can hear the wind howling through the hallways from here,’ Colonel Maladict growled into her sheets, ‘I should put you on fatigues for lying to a superior officer.’
‘Of course sir,’ Sergeant Braddock said gravely, ‘should I report to sanitation directly rather than going down to the kitchens sir?’ He kept his face carefully blank as the Captain leaped out of bed, her hair wild and her regulation nightshirt twisted round her bony knees.
‘Don’t even consider it Sergeant,’ Mal hissed, ‘you will go to the canteen immediately and procure me as much coffee as you can carry, and see to it that you brew it yourself, don’t let those amateurs in the mess touch it. Nuggan knows how they turn it to slurry but they somehow always manage to. Then report back on the double, I need to report to the General this morning so I will need to down at least two more mugs than normal.’
‘Very good sir,’ Braddock replied, and took the well-worn path to the kitchen, the staff there moving out of his way and letting him access the Genuan coffee pot without comment. He took his time over the brewing, letting the brass get on with washing and dressing. Assisting in this process would normally be one of his duties, but he’d been relieved of that obligation as soon as he’d entered the Colonel’s service, a circumstance his brain carefully skirted around before going on its merry way.
About half an hour later, suitably dressed and provisioned, Mal strode out towards the offices of the Borogrovian High Command, the wind already ruffling her hair into a style that had nothing to do with regulations and a full canteen of coffee warming her pale and grasping hands. Glancing at the rather ostentatious clock set into the palace walls, she noted that there was time enough for her to drop into her Logistic Corps before she was due to see the General, so, performing a swift about-turn on the cobbles, she turned her steps towards the wing of the Autumn Palace that they had commandeered.
Inside the long and rather draughty room that had acted as one of the more minor ballrooms and which was now the central hub from which all the supply lines of the Borogravian army ran there was already a purposeful hum of activity. Mal inhaled the scent of sawdust and ink and watched with proprietorial satisfaction as her staff worked at their ledgers and ran backwards and forwards bearing messages, the more alert ones jumping to attention as they saw her come in.
‘At ease,’ Mal waved her hand lazily before too many of them could stand up, accepting the expected pile of clacks messages from her staff sergeant and taking her place behind her wide desk at the head of the room, the severely precise order of which stood in stark contrast to its owner’s rather rakish demeanor.
‘Sir, Engineering are asking for a delivery of pig-iron to be sent to the northern front,’ Lieutenant Vadima said, who, alone among the staff, was still standing stubbornly to attention in front of Mal’s desk.
‘At ease, for Nuggan’s sake,’ Mal said wearily, waving her hand, before frowning over the first of many requests she would hear that day. ‘I distinctly remember sending a similar shipment a scant two weeks ago, wasn’t that the case Lieutenant?’
‘Yes sir,’ Vadima replied, her face carefully blank, ‘I’m not sure if Engineering have a similarly clear recollection of that sir.’
Mal smirked, ‘I’m sure they don’t if it fails to satisfy their insatiable appetite for materiel. Authorise half of the previous delivery we sent, that should be enough to keep them quiet. We’ll need to keep some back to send to the East, its been about a week and a half so I’m sure they will feel the need to send me a clacks soon. I assume for the moment, that the northern battalions are adequately supplied in all other respects?’
‘Ah, about that sir...’ Vadima began, watching with an air of apprehension as Colonel Maladict’s eyes began to narrow dangerously and her booted foot, slung carelessly over the arm of her chair, started tapping out an ominous tattoo. ‘I have received a clacks from Captain Griskovsky requesting more boots and muskets sir.’ She swallowed nervously after giving the news, the Colonel was, on the whole, one of the better members of the top brass to work for, but Nuggan knew he could get his knickers in a twist over the slightest alteration to his careful allocation of supplies.
‘I see,’ Mal said silkily, ‘did the good Captain somehow mislay the fresh supplies he was sent a scant four weeks ago? Were they lost along the way and he somehow forgot to inform me? Is Captain Griskovsky’s regiment marching so vigorously that they are wearing through boots in a matter of weeks?’
Vadima, who had been looking progressively more nervous as the volume of the Colonel’s voice had risen, drew on all of her training and steeled herself to deliver the coup de grace.
‘Captain Griskovsky did receive the supplies sir, but it seems he elected to divert them to another regiment... At the request of Captain Blouse sir.’
‘He did WHAT?’ Mal screeched.
A reflexive flinch flickered around the room.
Lieutenant Vadima swallowed, but stood her ground. ‘He indicated that he thought it would be beneficial to the war effort sir.’
‘Oh of course!’ Mal threw her hands up in disgust, ‘I’m sure redirecting carefully allocated supplies for those foolhardy Cheesemongers to fritter away on their ridiculous schemes is a perfectly good use for them! It’s not as though we have to conserve all that we have in order to avoid complete military disaster, is it Lieutenant?’
Disregarding the urgent silencing motions that the assembled staff were making behind Mal’s back, Vadima ploughed onwards. ‘Well sir, Captain Blouse’s regiment has seen some signal successes...’
‘Oh yes,’ Mal hissed, ‘do tell me more about their glorious victories, I hardly ever hear of them! its not as though it is all anyone talks about! Oh yes! Did you hear about how Lieutenant Perks used a entire battalion of decoy troops to lure a large part of the Zlobenian infantry into a bog? How she and her soldiers requisitioned five entire herds of sheep in order to con another of the enemy’s battalion’s into surrendering? How they SET FIRE to a perfectly good fort that they assumed was going to fall into enemy hands? Yes, do tell me more about their daring feats of valour, its not like I have to spend most of my waking hours attempting to manage the LOGISTICAL IMPLICATIONS!’
The methodical clicking of the clacks machine and Lieutenant Vadima’s racing pulse were the only sounds that could be heard as Mal, exhausted by her outburst, abruptly cast herself back into her chair, completing the effect by running her hand through her (by now irrecoverable) hair.
Vadima cast around for aid and seized gratefully upon the tray that Sergeant Braddox was bringing into the office.
‘Look sir, your coffee has arrived!’ She said, with rather desperate cheeriness.
‘My only succour, my sole support in this whole benighted bureaucracy’ Mal murmured, seizing the cup and draining it in a single gulp. ‘I’m sorry to do this to you Lieutenant, I assure you I bear you no personal ill-will but I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you up for promotion. I find I cannot work under these diabolical conditions. I will see the General this morning and resign my commission at once.’
‘Of course sir,’ Vadima said soothingly and a surprising amount of equanimity for one who faced the prospect of having unwanted responsibilities deposited upon their head.
It was after all, Mal’s fifth declaration that she was about to resign this week.
At ten to nine, having calmed down as far as she was capable, Mal began the short journey across the main courtyard towards the offices of General Froc. In any other military base she might have taken it at a leisurely walk, most of them still operating on what was affectionately known as ‘Borogravian time’, where a delay of half an hour was expected and anything up to a full hour still well within the realms of acceptability. However, General Froc had been taken a tour of the Sto Plains and Ankh Morpok while he was still a Brigadier and had acquired ‘ideas’ about military discipline and punctuality as a result. So Mal hurried, Braddox trailing behind her with a tin of pomade in his hand.
‘Your hair sir,’ he said, as they neared the General’s rooms.
‘We don’t have time,’ Mal waved a dismissive hand.
‘Your Hair Sir,’ Braddox repeated firmly, and Mal sighed and obediently came to a halt, bending her head to receive his ministrations.
‘Quite finished Braddox?’ She said, as her crow’s wing of a forelock was put neatly back in its place.
‘Yes sir,’ his professional pride satisfied, Braddox gave a cool nod and released Mal in time to enter the General’s office at nine on the dot.
One of the most striking things about General Froc’s office was the near-total silence, broken only by the scratch of the General’s pen, the ticking of the clacks machine and the odd whispered message from his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Clogston. With a small fire burning in the grate and the curtains drawn back to let in the meagre morning light the General’s office was a vision of orderly calm and discipline. Of course, it was one that Mal knew was only a mask for the loud, frantic work that went on behind the scenes, but nonetheless she admired the skill with which the artifice had been constructed.
As Mal shut the door softly behind her General Froc glanced up, his mouth twitching upwards a bare millimetre, in what could only be described as a smile by someone who was engaged in a hefty amount of wishful thinking. ‘Ah Colonel Maladict, thank you for being so prompt,’ he gestured forwards, ‘at ease.’
‘Sir,’ Maladict said, relaxing down into parade rest, ‘you wanted to see me?’
‘Yes Colonel,’ General Froc dropped all attempts at smiling, looking up at Mal with his stern, hooded gaze, ‘I would firstly like to congratulate you on the efforts made by you and your staff in getting the necessary articles to the new eastern front. by all accounts our troops have never been so well supplied...’
‘Thank you General,’ Mal said into the expectant silence that followed this, as it seemed to be required, while she awaited the ‘but’ that she was sure was going to follow.
As expected it came swiftly, ‘But Lieutenant-General Clogston here couldn’t help but overhear you in the officer’s mess the other night, expressing a certain amount of frustration with some of the conditions of supply. Now the continued effectiveness of your department is of signal importance to the war effort, so,‘ Froc‘s gaze sharpened even further, ‘is there anything which is causing you concern Colonel Maladict?’
Mal sighed, of course Clogston would have overheard that particular episode. It had been two days ago, at the end of a very stressful Tuesday, where Mal had been required to go toe-to-toe with the strategists explaining that, no, she could not teleport light artillery to the eastern front at their whim. At the end of the day, she had gone down to the officer’s mess to drink a well-deserved brandy, only to find one of the junior officers occupying the best armchairs in front of the fire, excitedly regaling his fellows with an article from the Ankh Morpok Times about the exploits of the heroic Lieutenant Perks. Now Mal had perhaps overdone it a little on the espressos throughout the day and might have made a few comments about the budgetry implications of said heroics that were, on reflection, probably expressed a little more vehemently than necessary.
‘Well sir,’ she began, searching for an appropriate form of words, and could any sentence that started that way end happily? ‘As it happens I am a little concerned about the possible...misapplication of scarce resources. Only this morning I was informed that a Captain had seen fit to divert supplies intended for his regiment to Lieutenant Perks and is now requesting further supplies of his own, now, I have calculated our budget...’
General Froc interrupted Mal by raising a quelling hand, ‘I believe that the ‘Cheesemongers’, as I am informed they are called, are in fact commanded by Captain Blouse.’
‘I am aware that Captain Blouse is officially in command sir. I am also aware that his regiment’s exploits are greatly admired sir, but...’
‘Their exploits are essential,’ Clogston intervened, her voice deceptively soft. “For morale and for other considerations...’ She trailed off, turning to the General, silently seeking his permission to continue.
Mal turned back towards the General and found him fixing her with an evaluating stare, evidently wondering how much she should be told. Mal stood silent under his scrutiny, schooling her face into impassivity. She was well aware that even now the Borogravian High Command wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. When she had first arrived, using the contacts her uncle; who had gone cold bat and turned into a military historian, had built up in order to secure an officer’s commission, their initial instinct had been to sideline her into a purely ornamental role, a flash of danger in the stultifying Borogrovian military rituals. However, once she had successfully organised a reliable personal supply line of quality Genuan coffee beans across half a continent, a small mountain range and through enemy territory, she had found herself rapidly seconded to Logistics. There, to her surprise, she had arguably found her metier, the detailed planning and occasional fits of skullduggery she had to engage in to secure scarce supplies suiting her mentality exactly, though she was aware that many of the officers still found her dedication to the job a little uncomfortably obsessive.
Evidently, General Froc had decided she was trustworthy, because he beckoned her closer and urged her to take a seat, gesturing to Clogston that she should wait outside the door in order to ensure that no-one could eavesdrop.
‘This is highly classified Colonel,’ he said gravely, ‘the slightest hint of it getting out would completely scupper all hopes of peace.’
‘Peace?’ Mal enquired, keeping her voice low in spite of her surprise, ‘are the Zlobenians willing to agree to our terms?’
‘I believe they may,’ the General said, ‘or at least, all the ones that matter. Now, we’re doing better than anyone might have hoped, thanks, in no little part, to your sterling work,’ he inclined his head in acknowledgement, ‘but we are in no position to force a surrender, at least, not alone.’
‘But with Ankh Morpok...’ Mal breathed.
General Froc smiled thinly, ‘precisely. At the start of this war our affairs were of as little concern to the denizens of that city as sheep yields in Lancre. But this,’ he tapped a copy of the Times, folded by his elbow, ‘has changed matters. Lieutenant Perks and her comrades have become heroes there, their adventures are pored over, and pressure has been brought to bear on the Patrician to intervene.’
‘Pardon me sir, but Lord Vetinari does not strike me as the type to bow easily to public pressure,’ Mal observed.
‘Ah so you’ve met the man too,’ General Froc smiled wryly, ‘no indeed, unless the pressure is pushing him down a route he already wanted to travel, then he’ll accede as meekly as a lamb... At any rate, he’s responding by sending Captain Vimes to us to try and broker an agreement, or to bang heads together at the very least.’
‘I imagine he will take to that task with considerable enthusiasm,’ Mal observed, taking the cigarette the General offered her gratefully, ‘so,’ she said, swirling the idea around in her mind like a mouthful of wine she wasn’t quite sure of, ‘we could be looking at peace in the near future?’
‘More than that,’ General Froc said, ‘Ankh Morpok is going to want improved communications and trade links in return for the city’s help. The transition will be interesting and full of as many opportunities as pitfalls. We are going to need people like Perks for their symbolic status as well as people like you with a keen eye for detail...’ He attempted to widen his smile at this point, though the effect was not entirely successful.
‘Sir...’ Mal said, ‘so you’re asking me to play nicely and give Perks anything she wants?’
‘Within reason Colonel,’ the General replied, ‘think of it this way, if we play our cards right, you won’t have to do so for long.’
Once she was dismissed from the General’s office, Mal stood in the courtyard for a minute or so, allowing the wind to beat against her face and watching the uniformed staff hurry to and fro. All the activity seemed rather surreal, now that Mal knew that the end was in sight, and it left her with an odd feeling of redundancy, a sense that the purpose she had briefly found was slipping through her fingers once again. But there was time, nothing but centuries of time, for her to ponder that. Right now she had a job to do, so she tucked her chin into the shelter of her collar and walked swiftly back to her office.
When she got back to her desk Mal took a moment to examine the copy of the Times that was delivered daily, but which she usually ignored, its rather fanciful reports offering her little information that was of interest. Sure enough, on the inside page there was another ‘missive from the Borogravian frontline’, illustrated by a rather fanciful etching of the famous Lieutenant Perks kicking a hefty Zlobenian trooper in the face. The artist had given her both an expression of grim righteousness and, in a fit of whimsy, a flowing cape that had nothing to do with standard issue Borogravian military garb.
‘Ridiculous,’ Mal muttered, casting the newspaper to one side only to find it picked up by Kurov, a young and rather tactless junior officer who had been recently passed on to her department.
‘Oh sir, do you not want to read that? Only I was hoping to take the most recent report,’ he leaned forward, oblivious of the warning sign provided by the faint twitch in Mal’s cheek, and added, as though proferring a significant confidence, ‘I have an entire album sir, of the exploits of our brave Cheesemongers, should you ever like to consult it.’
Mal took a little more pleasure than was strictly correct in the way his face paled as the pencil she had been holding in her hand broke with an audible snap.
Of course, it was inevitable that Lieutenant Perks would be invited to the peace talks, all the participants being eager to gawp at the spectacle of Borogravia’s latest national hero. Mal would admit to a certain sense of vexation as she listened to the fervid speculation about what the famous Lieutenant was ‘really like’. It was understandable that the general populace would thrill to tales of derring-do, but she would have expected those working in High Command to have realised that it was the people working hard behind the scenes who really kept the wheels of the army turning.
Of course this did mean that she would scorn the opportunity to have a friendly word in the Lieutenant’s ear, just one comrade to another, about the implications of some of her more elaborate schemes for the stability of military supply-lines and budgets.
To this end, Mal had hoped that she would be able to watch the dignitaries arrive at the Katerinehof, in order to catch sight of Perks for herself. She had spent the days running up to the event amusing herself by speculating as the the kind of ridiculous entrance the famous Lieutenant might make, would she come crashing through the ballroom window on one of the military horses she had misappropriated? Would she use some of the army’s scarce supply of explosive material in order to add a little panache to her entrance? Mal could feel herself working up to a pleasant state of righteous fury at the very thought of it.
However, with crashing inevitability, on the appointed day a minor crisis about the supply of socks to the mountain forts had duly arisen, which Mal had been forced to manage in order to satisfy her perfectionist instincts. So as it was, she had only had a bare half-hour to allow Braddock to spruce her up, ready to make her appearance in the Ducal ballroom. So it was that Mal ended up arriving late, pulling at the too-stiff collar of her dress uniform, and her hair already falling out of its pomade. Giving it up as a bad job, she quickly secured a glass of champagne, and commenced scanning the crowds for the sight of someone who resembled a series of rather fanciful drawings in the Times.
‘Is this really necessary to seek out Lieutenant Perks sir,’ Lieutenant Vadima sighed, instantly divining her purpose after having been forced to listen to various rehearsals of Mal’s long-awaited confrontation during the quieter moments in their day. ‘I mean, it isn’t really important that she’s wasting supplies any more, is it? The war is over.’
‘Ah ah ah Lieutenant,’ Mal waved an admonishing finger, ‘the peace talks haven’t even begun yet, this is merely the inaugural reception. We may yet require the scant remains of our military budget after Lieutenant Perks and her regiment have commandeered all the bolsters and muskets in the country to assist in one of their schemes.’
As she said this, Mal became aware that she had caught the attention of a smartly dressed young soldier, evidently one of the new female officers who had only half-heartedly continued maintaining their male disguise once Perks and her regiment had blown that particular military secret wide open (one of the few things Mal could wholeheartedly thank them for, despite choosing to retain an air of ambiguity herself). Her wavy blonde hair was perhaps a little longer than regulations decreed, but she was otherwise the picture of military correctness in the dress uniform of an officer in the infantry, a half-empty champagne glass balanced elegantly in her white-gloved hand. When Mal had begun talking she had been standing a little way in front of her and Lieutenant Vadima, but, as Mal’s tirade had continued, she had glanced over her shoulder and begun watching them with interest.
Mal met her gaze, raising an interrogative eyebrow that could be interpreted as either a quelling gesture or an invitation to approach. Deciding to take it as the latter, the soldier had flashed a rather charming smile, turning all the way to meet them.
‘I’m very sorry,’ she said, her voice bearing the trace of an accent common in the northern forests ‘I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about the Cheesemongers. I must confess that I’m curious, your perspective is very different to those that I normally hear.’
Mellow with champagne, Mal smiled, letting the eavesdropping and the lack of the word ‘sir’ in the soldier’s rather informal speech slide. She was, after all, rather attractive, with an intelligent cast to her face and a wide, humorous mouth and Mal didn’t really feel like pulling rank and possibly ending a promising opportunity to vent.
‘You mean I’m not praising them effusively?’ She enquired wryly. “Well that’s mainly because I had the dubious pleasure of supplying their regiment, which, let me tell you, was a significantly troublesome duty. My impression of the Lieutenant Perks’ elite corps was that they appeared to be unable to stay in one place for more than a week, frequently issued the most eccentric demands for supplies and, if they couldn’t get them straight away from me, often resorted to taking what they needed from neighbouring regiments, which, as you can appreciate, threw all of my plans into disarray.’
‘You’ll forgive me,’ the soldier said, ‘but is that not in the nature of a Logistics Officer’s job? Managing disarray?’ It was a vastly impertinent response, but it was said with another one of those charming smiles so that Mal found herself laughing before she had fully registered what had been said.
‘Managing disarray, that’s as good a job description as any,’ Mal allowed, ‘but that does not mean that those that make the job even harder are always appreciated. ‘Of course,’ she allowed, feeling uncharacteristically generous and taking note of the tan visible above the cuffs of the soldier’s dress-coat that spoke of active service, ‘they were doing an important job, and I do see that someone who has seen a lot of action might take exception to me carping from behind the lines.’
‘Not if they had an ounce of sense,’ the soldier said, suddenly serious, ‘we know how important your job is and, for all the...mythology around active service, there’s no particular grandeur to any of it when all is said and done. Her face shuttered for a moment, before she visibly shook the dark mood off and continued, in lighter tones. ‘What I can say, is that it’s certainly not the kind of job that can be done with cold feet and on an empty stomach.’ She smiled gravely up at Mal, ‘you may not hear it much, but please know that what you did for us all was appreciated.’
Mal was proud to say that she hadn’t had occasion to blush once for the last two centuries. It was the sort of thing that was frowned upon even among Black Ribboners. The heat she felt in her cheeks was therefore almost certainly the effect of champagne and the multitude of candles in the ballroom. As for the strange feeling of batwings in her stomach, well the only cause she would countenance was a biologically implausible fit of indigestion.
‘Thank you,’ she said and, oh dear, her voice was a little higher than she had planned. She cleared her throat and tried again, glancing at the stripes on the soldier’s tunic to gague their rank. ‘Thank you Lieutenant..?’ She paused, waiting for the officer to supply her name.
In response, the Lieutenant looked abruptly rather nervous, glancing away from Mal and fidgeting with her now empty glass. As she waited Mal was suddenly seized by a terrible suspicion, taking fresh note of the blonde hair, air of recently having seen action and casting her mind around to see whether she had in fact, ever seen this particular officer round headquarters before. He fears were borne out when, through the faint ringing in her ears she heard the forceful tones of General Froc echoing out from across the ballroom.
‘Lieutenant Perks! There you are! I see you’ve met Colonel Maladict,’ he cast Mal a sharp look that she was too mortified to return, and scooped Lieutenant Perks away and out of danger, leading her away through the crowds.
As they walked away Lieutenant Perks did glance back, trying to catch Mal’s eye before she was swallowed up in the talk surrounding the rest of the Borogravian High Command. But by that point Mal had already turned sharply on her heel, snagged another glass of champagne and left the ballroom with the full intention of throwing herself into the Virna.
Needless to say, the bitter wind that caught Mal full in the face as she walked back towards the Autumn Palace dissuaded her from continuing her journey down to the river, and she took to her rooms instead, cursing her own fool tongue and the incompetent illustrators at the Times for getting Perks so unforgivably wrong. Oh yes, there was the blonde hair, but it had been soft, almost tousled, not pulled correctly back, and she supposed they had got the basic shape of her face right, but where was the satirical eyebrow? The upwards quirk of her mouth? No, they were all idiots who should never have been allowed to take up a pencil, and they had all committed the unforgivable sin of causing Mal to make a colossal prat of herself.
‘I should write a bloody letter,’ she grumbled as she rolled disconsolately into bed, barely heeding the reassuring sound of Braddox snoring away in the other room. In the end, it was only when she had completed several drafts of it, each more scathing than the last, in her head that she was able to fall asleep.
To Mal’s relief, the following days were so frantically busy enough that there was little time to encounter Lieutenant Perks. Oh she caught sight of her a few times in the mess, when she ventured forth for a desperate search for enough coffee to carry her through the interminable meetings without breaking her oath not to draw blood, but she took care that these sorties were conducted with such rapidity that even a seasoned campaigner like Perks couldn’t catch her. On one occasion she caught sight of Perks raising her hand as though to beckon her over, but she had pretended not to see it and had hurried away.
The peace talks between Borogravia and Zlobenia were not devoid of conflict, as might be expected of two countries who’s penchant for royal intermarriage alone surpassed their eagerness to go to war with each other on the slightest pretext. But under the keen, no-nonsense direction of Captain Vimes, they proceeded far more smoothly than anyone had dared hope, and in the end it was a mere fortnight before all participants grudgingly agreed to a treaty, which was duly signed, the usual compromises having been made. By Mal’s estimation, Borogravia had done pretty well out of it, and if she was not jubilant about the result, she nonetheless felt a certain satisfaction at her job having come to a successful close.
The next few days were a further trial as Mal strategised her way through the closing celebrations, a strange position to be in for one who had had a reputation in certain circles for being a fixture at every party in Uberwald, but that had been a long time ago. On the final evening she resolved to stay for the formal dinner, but then duck out before Perks, who had been increasingly persistent, had the chance to corner her and revel in her discomfiture, demand an apology or get whatever else it was that she wanted from Mal.
She was feeling pretty pleased with herself, having sent the long-suffering Lieutenant Vadima over to monitor Perks’ conversation with Clogston to ensure she was occupied while Mal made her escape through a convenient anteroom. Upon entering however, her self-congratulation was rapidly brought to a close as she almost ran straight into Perks, who was stood in an unimpeachable military posture, and realised she had been betrayed.
‘Colonel,’ Perks stood up, firing off a regulation salute, her face inscrutable in the candlelight, ‘I wanted to speak with you, if I may.’
Rebuffing her would be intolerably rude, so Mal gestured at her to precede her through the door into the courtyard and the blessedly crisp night air. ‘Lieutenant,’ she said rather stiffly, ‘I must apologise...’
‘For beginning the conversation Colonel? Or for refusing to continue it?’ Perks said, rather archly, then grimaced at her own words, waving them away and continuing in a more measured tone, ‘I didn’t mean to start with that, in fact I probably owe you an apology too, for carrying on a conversation with you under false pretenses,’ she sighed, ‘it was quite nice to have someone speak freely to me, I can count on the regiment for that, but I can’t say I’ve had much experience of it from High Command. I probably should have spoken up , but,’ and here she looked rather reproachfully up at Mal, ‘it would have been nice, however, if you had given me the chance to explain myself.’
‘Well,’ Mal said, a little lost as to what to say. ‘I didn’t know you wanted to, that is, I wasn’t sure the whole episode mattered enough to you to warrant any explanations.’
‘Well I’m here aren’t I,’ Perks replied, and there was that charming smile again, ‘in fact I felt rather bad about the whole affair,’ at this her smile widened, ‘I can only assume it was because you managed to make quite an impression on me after exchanging little more than a few words. Do you often have that effect?’
‘Ah,’ Mal said, and there was that strange feeling in her stomach again, she really would have to have a word with the kitchens. They walked a little further in a surprisingly comfortable silence, before Mal realised, with mounting frustration, how many conversations she could have had with the profoundly interesting Lieutenant Perks had she not made such a dreadful hash of the situation. The feeling of self-reproach was such that she felt unable to keep it entirely to herself, pausing in her path and addressing the lieutenant as she came to a halt alongside her. ‘I’m dreadfully sorry Lieutenant, I seem to have got the wrong end of the stick about all of this. And now I suppose you’ll be heading back to your regiment soon?’
‘Tomorrow morning,’ Perks replied apologetically, ‘and at first light, more’s the pity.’ She paused, studying Mal carefully before evidently coming to some kind of decision. ‘Look,’ she said, placing her hand on Mal’s wrist, ‘I realise this might seem like a strange request, seeing as we haven’t exchanged more than a few words, but in my opinion I think they’ve been good ones, in general, and certainly more interesting than most of the endless talk I have had here, but would you care to write to me? If we can’t speak in person, it’s not a bad second option, and I feel strangely reluctant to completely part ways like this.’
‘Of course I’ll write,’ Mal said faintly, somehow unable to tear her eyes away from Perks’ hand, which was still resting on her sleeve. ‘I’m sure you’ll want to hear about what’s going on here,..with the High Command, I mean.’
‘If you like,’ Perks said softly, and then her warm, strong fingers curled briefly around Mal’s wrist, squeezing once before letting it go and striding off towards the opposite wing of the palace. Her pale hair was the only part of her that didn’t fade gradually into the dark as her figure receded.
Unwilling to explore why she had felt the compulsion to loop her own fingers round her left wrist and press them sharply against the bone there, Mal stood for some time before walking uncharacteristically slowly back towards her own rooms. Her mind was, for once, not busy with the details of supply routes and calculations about the availability of bootstraps, the only idea that hovered there was the persistent feeling that this could prove to be an interesting, but rather dangerous correspondence.