Note: So, after my last fic, wherein I decided that what Monstrous Regiment really needed was a zombie apocalypse, there were requests for something a bit lighter. Something with a little more peace and a little less, you know, gore. Maybe even some light gardening and/or kissing! This is the response. I tried to deliver, which is why Polly and Mal are meeting again on a snowy Hogswatch night with mulled wine and fireworks, but me being me, this is complicated fluff with tragedy in the background. Standalone, but follows up on the events in Schrödinger's Vampire (not required reading), hence the warnings.
No gardening, but there is a garden. No kissing, but... oh, who am I kidding. There's kissing; it's Hogswatch and these two deserve a break.
Warnings (none of this is explicit; all of this is in the past): rape, torture, imprisonment, kidnapping, abandonment, death, trauma.
A Bright and Peaceful Night (Part 1/3)
It was a bright and peaceful night.
Whenever these brief periods of peace came over Borogravia and the land enjoyed a – however temporary – respite from rationing, PrinceMarmadukePiotrAlbertHansJosephBernhardtWilhemsberg lit up.
Maybe it was the geography, with most of the town was nested in the shaded valleys between the seven hills that gave P'berg, as the locals called it, its full name. Maybe it was the proximity to all those bad decisions that had made Borogravia's recent history very trying indeed. In any case, the citizens of P'berg enjoyed setting things on fire.
Even now, despite the considerable progress of the evening, the streets were bathed in orange light from brightly lit shop fronts displaying wooden toys, glazed gingerbread, soap bars that looked like dessert and smelled like dessert, too, and boxes upon boxes of the little powdered chocolates Borogravia used to be famous for before chocolate was Abominated, and was now starting to become famous for again*. Decorative candle arrangements in the form of galloping hogs broke what little monotony there was (in the years since Nuggan's demise, the town had adopted a decidedly less subtle approach towards Hogswatch decorations). And of course, the newfangled gas lanterns recently delivered from Ankh-Morpork had met a very receptive target audience here.
*To be entirely accurate, it was starting to become famous not for the little powdered chocolates, but for having once been famous for them. It's the sort of fine distinction usually made by up-and-coming Ankh-Morporkians after a pint or three of dwarf ale, quaffed ironically.
The first snow of the winter – the last snow of the year – was dancing in the air, unsure whether it should settle on the cobblestones or melt into sludge. It was Hogswatchnight, and all things considered, Polly was not sad to see this year go.
Her boots crunched where they encountered freshly fallen snow (and other assorted crunchy objects). She usually didn't mind snow in general, provided she was not required to lead another half-baked campaign right through it, but she heavily resented this snow in particular.
Heavy snow in the mountains had already delayed her stage coach into P'berg by more than two days. Here, she should have changed for the coach travelling to Munz. Had it all gone smoothly, she ought to have arrived there late last night. And now, at precisely this minute, she might be sitting in front of the fireplace at The Duchess, with her father and Paul and Shufti and Baby Jack, all wearing silly paper hats. Her family was probably polishing off the last of the mince pies and eggnog before turning to the bitters and the crumbly bottom layer of a huge festive tin of Shufti's famous jam biscuits, possibly missing her, but hopefully reassured by the clacks message she'd sent this afternoon when it became clear she wasn't going to make it.
Because the same snow that had delayed her incoming stage coach, the same snow that fell so innocently on the cobblestones here in P'berg, that very same snow had come down hard on the southbound passages through the Borogravian Ramtops, and all stage coaches to Munz were cancelled until further notice. The now useless coach ticket was getting progressively more crumpled in her coat pocket.
They had mince pies and eggnog in P'berg, of course. But they put cilantro in the mince pies, and served the eggnog in preserving jars with a straw. It was not the same.
To be fair, they did make great mulled wine here, and Polly was currently warming her hands on her second mug while weaving her way through the tourists and locals alike. Despite the crowds, she was feeling quite lonely. Of course she'd felt lonely at the military school during the last eight months, too, amidst dozens of aspiring Blouses who were all about five years younger than her and quite unsure of what they were supposed to do with a national hero, so they mostly got out of her way.
But that was military school, it was to be expected. Hogswatch was no time to be alone.
She passed another of the little mulled wine booths, where a large cauldron suspended over a gas flame emitted heavy ethanol fumesk, when she noticed a curious group of men and women. Huddled between the booth and a large ornamental fountain (whose naked cherubs were wearing woolly Hogfather hats and carrying lit sparklers in their fat fists), they were holding large signs with emphatic, but simplistic messages on them, and, for good measure, shouting the same messages at the pedestrians (who were mostly ignoring them – P'berg was reliable in that regard).
"Nuggan lives!" someone shouted in her ear as she walked by. "Wake up! Repent!"
Of course, Polly thought. There was no oppressive theocracy bleak enough that you wouldn't find a bunch of nutters wanting to go back to it.
She decided she would follow the example of the locals and simply walk on with an uncomfortable expression on her face while the person was ranting in her ear about the evils of celebrating Hogswatch by indulging in gross materialism and worshipping of false gods and how it was all the fault of imperialistic Ankh-Morpork, and Borogravia urgently needed to remember its traditional values.
"Well, someone's getting coals in their stocking this year," Polly muttered under her breath. Okay, so keeping her mouth shut wasn't a skill she'd had practised recently.
"Stockings!" the person shouted, thusly encouraged. "Eggnog! The so-called Hogfather, jazz music, ballet! All Ankh-Morporkian ploys to appease the sheeple while these women in trousers continue to sign away Borogravia's claims to land!"
"And you're welcome." Polly knew she shouldn't let this get to her, but she was starting to get angry despite herself. A sidewards glance at the person who had accosted her revealed it was a young man – well, probably man, though she had learned not to assume – who, if it were not for the recent string of peace treaties with Zlobenia and several Uberwaldean splinter groups, would likely be dying in a trench right now.
A more perceptive person, she thought, might put together her long hair, trousers, and the military cut of her black overcoat, which was part of the lesser known winter dress uniform of Borogravian officers. But as it were, the young man was too far gone to notice or care as he continued with his script.
"All this," he shouted with an all-encompassing hand movement – and if she were being perfectly honest with herself, Polly could sort of see how the P'berg approach to Hogswatch decorations might be off-putting to the casual observer, "all this opposes and perverts the Nugganatic spirit of Hogswatch!"
Polly shouldn't have engaged, but damn it, she hadn't suffered through countless Sunday school lessons with Father Jube to keep her mouth shut now. "Which would be what?" she said. "A night to sit together quietly in the dark with no heating, food, or drink, and thank Nuggan for the things he put us through in the past year?"
"Exactly!" shouted the young man in the same tone of voice, though he seemed a bit suspicious.
"You don't appear very thankful," she pointed out.
"I'm just a vessel that Nuggan has filled with His rage," he shouted. "And I am thankful to pass on His message! Go home, Abomination, and count the things you're thankful for before He takes them away!"
Ah. So he had noticed. It had been a while since Polly had been called an Abomination to her face, and she was fuming, but not because of that. It was the kind of fuming that, in the past, might have meant someone was about to be kicked in the fruit-and-veg.
But he was just a boy, and it was just words, and he would find out soon enough. Peace never lasted long in Borogravia.
"Good day, kid," she said, and pure malice had her add, "And a happy Hogswatch."
She stomped on. Thankful was just about the opposite of what she felt about the year that had passed. Sure, they had achieved a treaty with Uberwald and Ankh-Morpork, in the process rendering harmless one of the most vicious enemies they had ever had the misfortune to rouse. They had achieved the peace and quiet and affluence that allowed the capital to light up like a – well, like a Hogswatch tree –, and young Borogravians to lounge about in its precincts carrying signs and wishing for a return to the old ways. She was thankful for that, mostly.
But it had cost her.
Well, it had cost Mal. And it had cost her Mal, so there was that.
Suddenly a lot less fond of her fellow citizens, she decided to forego the fireworks. If she ever made it to Munz, she was surely going to be prodded about it – P'berg's large Hogswatch fireworks were said to be quite the tourist attraction, and in a country that until very recently had been stifled by Abominations, even a small or medium-sized firework show would be guaranteed rapt attention. P'berg in particular seemed to resent having been so starved for entertainment. In fact, it seemed to Polly that the town was gleefully swinging into the opposite direction (gingerbread and soap and chocolates weren't all they were selling in the shops).
But as much as Polly wasn't going to sit quietly in the dark counting things she was thankful for, she also didn't feel like giving this year an explosive send-off. A large portion of it, she thought, was best forgotten. What she was going to do was, she was going to go back to the hotel, have a bath with one of those cupcake-shaped soap bars, perhaps another mulled wine, and hit the sheets early.
The main square, which held the coach lot, post office, and the sort of hotels that had started out stately but had slightly gone to seed at some point in the past hundred years, was even more crowded than when she had left it in the afternoon. Several more coaches had finally arrived at Borogravia's major connecting hub after massive snow-related delays. The emerging passengers looked stiff, frozen, and most of all lost, holding on to enormous pieces of luggage while it slowly sank in that no outbound coaches would be leaving the city tonight. Several mulled wine booths had popped up as well.
All in all, Polly was glad she had managed to book a hotel room when she'd first arrived in the afternoon.
The lobby was brightly lit by a truly monstrous, glittering chandelier and rows of equally eye-assaulting wall lights. Here, too, was crowded with stranded travellers trying to negotiate a shared space in the broom cupboard with the long-suffering receptionists.
One group in particular stuck out to Polly, their pale complexions and widow's peaks tell-tale signs they had travelled down from Ultz, the last major coach station before the Borogravian-Uberwaldean border. That journey took three days non-stop on back-to-back coaches even when it wasn't snowing. Polly knew (she also knew exactly how long the distance took an exhausted army marching through the snow, which was two weeks and a day).
One of them was currently deep in conversation with two middle-aged, slightly red-faced and giggling ladies of a somewhat scandalous persuasion. Polly had seen them before, they shared a room on her floor and had apparently come down to enjoy a drink with an umbrella in it (by the looks of it, that plan had progressed nicely) before going out to see the fireworks.
But it was the traveller that had peaked her interest. It wasn't the shock of déshabillé black hair – and that infernal descriptor kept cropping up, didn't it – , or the grey wool coat, tailored to form-fitting perfection (a true feat for a winter coat), not military but certainly inspired from more fanciful depictions. It wasn't the tall black boots, which most certainly were military, or the tiny gold-rimmed espresso cup turned between pale fingers, or the sword leaning casually against the table. She'd seen all of that before, and it had been a coincidence every time.
No, it was the fact that this person, even though they had their back turned, had visibly reacted when Polly's eyes had caught them across the lobby. Had accentuated the elegant lounge just a bit, as if they were suddenly conscious of how they were sitting. Had put down the cup, as if to prepare for a pouncing. She only knew one person with that kind of awareness for her surroundings, and she hadn't seen her in nine miserable months.
Polly, even while advancing, experienced a brief internal debate, mainly regarding the question whether someone whose idea of staying in touch was sending one postcard without a return address would be happy to see her. Luckily, the traveller seemed to reach the end of her own deliberation, got up elegantly and turned to her, casually leaning against the back of her chair with a tiny satisfied smile on her face, a hand flicking imaginary dust from her coat sleeve.
It really was Mal.
After awkwardly crossing the rest of the distance, Polly came to a sudden, equally awkward stop in front of the vampire. What was she supposed to do now?
"Mal!" she said. "It really is you! Wow! This is – I mean," her hands were flailing around a bit. "You look well," she finished, biting her tongue a bit. The last time she had seen Mal, the vampire had been decidedly not well. Was it insensitive to draw attention to that?
"And you, Polly," said Mal. The tiny smile turned into a smirk. Of course, watching her usually shouty sergeant stumble for words in her presence had always been a favourite source of entertainment for Mal.
The annoying thing was that Polly really had done well for herself. Regular, if terrible, meals at the military school, a warm bed to sleep in every night, exercise that actually happened on purpose, and close proximity to shower rooms, combs, and even the one or other hair product meant she had finally grown into the person she secretly thought she ought to look like, that person being strong, dressing well, and having great hair.
Polly nodded at the middle-aged ladies sitting with Mal. "Dolores, Edith," she said. "I hope I am not interrupting -"
The pair were making noises as if they were about to pipe up, but Mal just turned on her most distressing smile. "These charming ladies were just about to leave for the fireworks," she said. "Like I said, make sure to watch them from the top of the hill in Wilhelmsberg Park, there's nowhere you can see more of it at once, and they sell magnificent coffee-flavoured popcorn there. Off you pop or you'll miss the countdown!"
"I thought you were coming with us," said Dolores, clearly not deterred by that display of teeth, or by Edith tugging her sleeve, possibly to point out the teeth.
Mal dialled up the smile a notch. "No," she said.
Bemusedly, the two ladies got up in silence and gathered their coats, hats, scarves, muffs, and handbags. It took a while.
"That was rude, Mal," said Polly, when they had finally left. "They're really nice ladies."
"And they're going to have the time of their lives if they do as I said," said Mal. "The view from Wilhelmsberg Park is fantastic. I saw the fireworks from there two years ago, it was a thing of beauty. So much light, so many explosions, and the coffee-flavoured popcorn. It was a decadent dream then, and it's only going to be better this year."
"Still," said Polly. "It's a twenty-minute walk to Wilhemsberg Park."
"The countdown is not for three hours."
"Would you prefer me to call them back?" said Mal. "Come sit with me."
She drew up the empty chair next to her, and reflexively, Polly sat down. It wasn't entirely comfortable out here in the lobby, with the draft from the constantly opened doors and the crowds of people pleading with the receptionists, but Mal hadn't finished her coffee yet and Polly was not going to be as rude as Mal.
"So what brings you to our glorious capital at this time of year?" said Mal brightly, when they had both settled. "I would have expected you to spend the holidays in Munz."
"That was the plan, yes," said Polly. "Until it snowed. I expect it's much the same for you. Did you really come down from Ultz? What were you doing there?"
"Oh, this and that," said Mal. "Not much to do around Ultz. Best idea I had there was to board a coach to the capital, and look where that got me."
"You got stranded, huh," said Polly. ""
"Oh, I actually aimed to end up here," said Mal. "I just planned to get her a tiny bit earlier. Like yesterday. I was going to enjoy the sights and atmosphere, drink my weight in specialty coffees, explore the jazz bars and opium dens of Josephstadt, buy an ungodly amount of souvenirs, and spend the past five hours at the opera in a special end-of-the-year production of The Valkyries, eating chocolate-covered espresso beans. I had a ticket for the loge and everything. They finished half an hour before I got here, I heard it was beautiful. Seven curtain calls, standing ovations, booklet signing with the dramatic soprano during the after-show reception."
Unbelievable, Polly thought. Mal actually made the idea of spending Hogswatch in P'berg appealing.
"Sorry it didn't work out," she said.
Mal shrugged. "Yeah, me too. But here I am, and, " her face lit up, "here you are. It's good to see you, Polly. Been a while, eh?"
There were so many questions! Unfortunately, Polly didn't know where to begin, and which were even advisable.
"Yeah," she said. "One thing it has certainly been is a while." Did it sound bitter? She didn't want it to sound bitter. Mal had every right to wander off on her own after her honourable discharge from the army, and it wasn't as if Mal hadn't told her that it she would be gone for a while. But Polly had been desperately lonely at military school without Mal, hell, without anyone to talk to about her day. Surrounded by superior officers and adolescent Blouses, you forgot how to talk to actual people about things that were actually going on in the world.
All the while, Mal was looking at her as if she could see straight into her soul. It was, as usual, disconcerting.
"So, did you find a place to stay for tonight?" asked Polly.
At this, Mal finally broke eye contact. "No," she said. "I had a room booked at the Five Seasons -"
"Of course you had."
"Of course I had," agreed Mal. "But they gave it away when I didn't turn up last night. I was just in the process of procuring an alternative when you turned up."
Polly thought back to what Mal had been doing when she turned up.
"After all these years," she said, "you're still in the habit of seducing your way into a convenient bedroom in a pinch?"
Immediately she bit her tongue again. That mulled wine had really done a number on her. Or maybe it was because she had no protocol yet for this type of situation. Could they joke about sex now, or was that still off-limits?
"When I feel like it," said Mal lightly, a tiny smile playing around her lips, possibly directed at Polly's internal squirming.
"Though right now," Mal added, "I'd be happy to seduce my way into a convenient bathtub. Alone. I just spent what felt like a week in an unheated stage coach in the invasive company of increasingly smelly peasants. And a chicken."
"Well, if it helps, you don't look like you did," said Polly.
And it was the truth! Other than the slightly ruffled state of her hair, civilian life seemed to have done Mal good. Espresso cup raised halfway to her lips, she appeared calm and relaxed, her face and hands not quite as skin and bones as last winter. Her clothes were, of course, perfectly spotless without a crease or chicken dropping in sight. And there was – Polly squinted – make up. A subtle, perfectly smudged line of dark kohl around her eyes, a reddish tint to her mouth. The effect was interesting: It didn't make her look more like a woman, or a vampire, if anything, it made these features more ambiguous, because they appeared deliberate rather than incidental.
"Thanks," said Mal, "but I am really a lot sorer than I would like to admit. I think by now the knots in my shoulders have developed knots."
"I have a bathtub," said Polly. "Well, I have a room here, with a bathroom, which has a bathtub. Which I could be convinced to temporarily offer to you."
"Polly Perks," said Mal. "This is so unexpected. You got yourself a hotel room with a bathtub? What happened to barrack girl?"
Polly shrugged. "She became a national hero on a government stipend." So there was one perk to military school she had identified.
Mal sat back. Calculating. Watching her again. Then she stretched her shoulders and something creaked alarmingly (and possibly also deliberately).
"It's an innocent offer, Mal," said Polly. " But best decide before I call dibs."
"Oh, you had me at 'I have a bathtub'," said Mal. "I just needed a moment to scheme how to make this count as me luring my way into your bathtub, not you luring me into your bathtub."
"Should I throw a shoulder rub into the bargain?" said Polly. She was starting to realise the subtle signs of Mal reaching the end of her considerable capacity to stay awake. A tendency to focus on seemingly random points was right at the top of the list.
"That's what I meant," said Mal. "It just doesn't feel proper."
"And since when exactly -?"
Mal shrugged. "It's just that I recently spent a week in the company of my mother and it's like I actually remember all the stupid rules for once. It'll pass."
"You spent a week with Ilsa," said Polly. "Oh god. On purpose?"
Despite Mal casually calling her that, Polly had a hard time accepting Ilsa Bátoriová as Mal's mother. She was the capital's vampire queen, a dark looming presence located in a dark looming castle across the river, high up in the first outcroppings of the Borogravian Ramtops, and one of the few vampires intelligent enough not to hunt locally. The local youth even habitually dared each other to go to her balls. They usually returned thinking she was charismatic, and charming, and just moody. It was exactly the kind of thing Ilsa craved: the admiration of the young. Too young to know better.
It was probably why she made a serial habit of stealing small children from their parents and grooming them into adulthood to turn into vampires on their twenty-first birthday. From then, they wouldn't grow, would evolve, would forever adore her.
In the case of Mal, the plan had backfired a bit.
"Let me just quickly get over my identity crisis and into that bath," said Mal, "and I'll tell you all the sordid details. Do you have soap?"
Wordlessly, Polly presented the cupcake-shaped soap bar she had bought earlier that day. Of course, it was cappuccino-flavoured. Exactly where had her thoughts been?
"Oh yes," said Mal to the soap cupcake that had inexplicably changed hands without Polly even noticing. "I expect this will work out nicely." She looked up to Polly. "Take me to your room."
To be continued.