When Maladicta was forty her mother took her walking on a battlefield. She's long since forgotten who the scrapping nations were, but one side wore green and the other red, with blue and yellow dotted among the carnage – pretty colours, almost like dresses, but they were all men, the dead and the dying. The fighting had moved on beyond the trees; no army men were around anymore, no-one to bury the dead or carry away the wounded. Two civilian men were walking among the dead further away, picking up valuables, good cloaks and boots.
They supped on a dying soldier with grey eyes who barely seemed to notice. Her mother sat daintily on the wheel of a fallen cart, smiled at her and called this a nice picnic, wasn't it, Mallah dear? Then she took the girl on her knee and explained war to her.
It made no sense to the little girl, no sense at all; but valour, now, that was something she would love to see one day. It sounded like the most senseless thing of all.
The girl was very pretty, in a blonde country-girl way, dimpled and plump and seductive. Her heart beat a healthy rhythm, and the blood under her skin seemed almost to steam with the promise of warmth and vitality. Maladicta's mouth watered just to listen to the beat, but she held back, teasing herself, waiting, preparing.
The girl had no idea – she was chattering on about her lovely soldier boy, and how he'd come back a decorated hero, and they would marry and their children would grow in a more secure Borogravia, at peace at last, as if her boyfriend's single contribution could change a hundred-year tradition of continuous warfare.
Maladicta wondered if the boy hadn't been one of the ones she'd passed some miles away, a squad shot dead in an ambush, the red of their coats leaking into the road. None had escaped. She was certain he had been; and suddenly this girl, by extension, seemed part of that ending.
Maladicta reached languidly and closed her cold fingers on her warm wrist, pulling the surprised girl in with her inhuman strength and her slow smile, and so tied the loose end.
She tried a poem about it later that night, a sestina using the words red, death, futility, ending, lie and faith, but it all turned terribly mundane in the face of reality, of the magnificent absurdity of ordinary human behaviour.
She needs this one. They need this one. Each part of her beautiful puzzle is as important as the next. Alice can't be protected just by a bunch of young women. That's why the troll. That's why Jackrum. That's why this one.
Annagovia can only move small things, and the dreams of vampires are great, big, hulking things. She finds her choice, a restless vampire girl clutching a ribbon in her sleep, teeth clinking in the darkness of the cellar at some nightmare cause as daylight begins to fade.
She whispers, calling on Alice's strength, and on a thousand prayers across the land. Whispers, begs, suggests, persuades. The army, she repeats over and over again. The army will make a man out of you.
Maladicta gazes into the mirror and sees the faint outline of herself begin to form in it as reality asserts itself around her will. She will not be a monster. She will not be a vampire. She will be seen in the mirror.
She will not be crazy, she will not, will not be what they want her to be. She will be Maladict, a he, a man, a vampire man, no, a Ribboner man. She will be free.
The outline becomes clearer, reflecting her suit, the ruffles on her sleeves, her sharp features, as masculine as they must be for her ruse to work. She's thinking of Ankh-Morpork, but something keeps nagging on the back of her mind, and for a moment the reflection shows her suit red, crossed with white, and her top hat turning into a shako. Surprised, she stares harder, until the uniform is gone.
She shakes her head. What a strange sudden fancy. What a strange…
She was planning on leaving the country, going into the big world, leaving the whole bloody mess to fall and rot, or continue its provincial circles until the Turtle perishes; she was going to leave, but then again, she hasn't tested her illusion. She's sure it will work, but would it be such a terrible thing to try it out? Try it out here where a pair of trousers was all it took to make a man… Learn the walk… The army…
It makes no sense, and Maladicta laughs – why not? Humanity is what she strives for, for humanity is her greatest love; humanity will be what she will surround herself with, in its rawest form, on the battlefield.
She feels a sudden, unexpected surge of love, almost like nostalgia, for her dingy, provincial, blood-splattered country of birth.
'For the spanking red uniform, of course.'
'The chance to serve my country.'
'Allow me to answer that with a "ha".'
'Strong words, sarge.'
'I feel tempted to follow it with a "hrumph" or even a "tchah", Mal.'
'Just because I don't drink the blood doesn't mean I don't still miss spilling it.'
'The uniforms tell me who to kill. It's very comforting, and human. It's pretty much the whole point of the Temperance League. We do so want to be more like humans.'
'Have some coffee, Mal. And I'll forget we ever had this conversation.'
She knows Polly assumes she's joking. For her sake, she almost wishes she was.