Bookends II: A Posteriori.
In the lower reaches of the castle, a scuffle had broken out. This was nothing new, fights had been breaking out all over as more and more people tried to inhabit the same space. High ranking officers had claimed the upper floors, leaving the troops to squabble over the cramped lower levels. The fight was about nothing special, one harassed and overworked corporal had bumped into another and the tension had exploded.
Normally this would not be a problem. After a short exchange of blows the MPs would come along and remove both protagonists, allowing life to continue. But one participant had simply had enough and was determined to thrash someone to make up for all the petty annoyances the world had inflicted on him and the other was a certain Magda Halter who would not give in to anyone or anything ever again. So it was that when Corporal Maladict came round the corner to see what the crowd were watching in such tense silence she found Tonker pressed up against the wall with a knife to her throat.
There was no plea for mercy in those eyes still blazing defiance at the world. You'd think the girl would know when to stop struggling but she kept on, clawing at his face even though one wrong move might drive the knife into her flesh whether her attacker meant it or not. Lofty was cowering in the far corner, white-faced and trembling.
Mal paused for a moment, unsure. Not a single soul would deny she no longer had any responsibility for these two. The war was over, the squad about to be disbanded and they'd each been left to fend for themselves. These two were more than able to fight their own battles; she'd seen that often enough. Perhaps she should just step back and leave them to it. After all, she had places to be.
On the other hand, the meeting wasn't due to finish for another hour.
It was easy enough to break up the fight. When it came down to it the mob were swiftly persuaded they were urgently needed elsewhere. It surprised Mal that she hadn't needed to flash more than irony at them but word of a vampire in the Cheesemongers had obviously spread far and wide. She smiled in pleasure at a job well done as she moved forward to check Tonker was ok. The girl appeared less pleased as to the manner of her rescue and launched into a flow of invective, abruptly cut short as Mal stepped aside to reveal the huddled form of Lofty.
Sometimes, Mal decided, there were things more important than maintaining vampiric superiority over other races. She turned her back politely as Tonker rushed forward, investigating with intense interest the dust on a nearby cabinet. Tracing the carved wood with a fingernail she let the quiet reassuring murmuring wash around her and flow away down the empty corridor. Two close inspections of the cabinet later, Mal had begun to consider moving her assessment to the state of the masonry when the voice behind her faded into silence. She didn't turn round. You never knew with Tonker.
It was a low voice, grudgingly stumbling into the previously unknown kingdoms of gratitude and appreciation. She turned to see them crouched in the corner, Tonker still protectively shielding the smaller girl. They were obviously waiting for her to leave, to go back to her business and leave them to their dark existence down here.
But they were comrades in arms; Polly always said you looked after your own.
Torn, Mal searched the cracked flags beneath her feet for inspiration. She could just order them to accompany her but with the mood Tonker was in there had to be a better way. There was no help from the flooring and as the antagonism rising from the conundrum in the corner increased, she shifted her gaze to the uneven stones that walled the corridor. Of course the masonry also failed to deliver a strike of genius and despairing of building materials in general, Mal pulled her unwilling vocal cords into some semblance of order and issued a gentle invitation. There was a shocked silence from the huddled pair and then she watched Tonker wiggle uncomfortably through a refusal. Remembering what Polly had said Mal tried again, resolutely describing the finer points of the little room on the quieter upper floors overlooking the stables. This sold the deal, a small hand emerging from Lofty's sleeve to tug gently at Tonker's jacket meant the decision was made.
Mal lead off through the bowels of the castle and they trailed behind her in silence. She blessed the boredom that had sent her wandering the corridors day after day as her brain woke up and ticked over, providing her with an array of routes to choose from. She'd done her best to keep entertained but eventually even an anti-authoritarian vampire got bored of winding up the top brass by being obviously qualified for officer rank by virtue of class but annoyingly persisting in being a corporal. It might not be by design, but she had a good working knowledge of every inch of this dull place and she picked her way through the crowded lower levels with ease, always finding a quieter corridor when a bottleneck appeared up ahead. She resisted giving them the tour, despite the temptation to point out interesting oddities as they went along. Neither of the pair said a word either and so the blessed lack of strained conversation continued until they had left the crowded lower levels and emerged into the more relaxed surroundings of the upper floors. Just as Mal was priding herself on getting through an difficult situation without too much embarrassment on either side Tonker broke the silence.
"She doesn't need you?"
Mal couldn't feign ignorance of whom they might be referring to. That might indicate she had something to be ashamed of.
"She's busy today, official business."
An awkward silence built up. Admittedly the awkwardness was mostly on Mal's side. Tonker was looking around her with curiosity having obviously not been up this high before and Lofty had even managed to drag her eyes up to take a quick sweeping survey of the hallway. The flight of stairs in front of them beckoned but it no longer looked as much like Mal's saviour as it had before this conversation had been launched.
"She's been very involved, in the diplomatic process and that, lots of meetings."
Which was an excellent thing, Mal reminded herself. Polly had been vital in ending the war and it was only right that the powers-that-be paid attention to her. There was no reason to feel slighted. No reason at all.
The three of them walked on abreast. At one end of the line Lofty followed the mortar of the flags from one stone to another with evident interest while at the other end Mal searched the walls and overly large portraits for some saving inspiration or perhaps a witty remark. In the middle Tonker strode forward sturdily. The little group paused at the foot of the stairs. Mal opened her mouth to release the amusing quip regarding the gentleman in the picture beside her head that she'd been saving up for the last five steps. But when she turned to speak she caught Tonker giving her an unexpected understanding eye and her brain stuttered. Then for some completely unknown reason that Mal refused to investigate Lofty lifted her eyes from her intense investigation of the flagged floor to offer her an encouraging glance before quickly slipping back into the sheltering radius of her companion.
Mal ignored the pair of them with great firmness and, there being nothing else to do, led off up the stairs, taking them two at a time. They followed her more slowly, forcing her out of politeness to wait for them at the top. Tonker's eyes were brimming with amusement when they regrouped and Mal made a note to thank the Duchess later that the girl had enough decency to not to comment.
They liked the room. They didn't say so, but after weeks in the field it had become easier to read their different silences. Tiny and tucked away most inconveniently at the end of a wing, it was quiet and lonely. The adjutants that normally racketed up and down the corridor were busy either taking copious notes to stay awake in boring meetings or tucked away writing complicated documents. Leaving the pair to explore the room around her while she brewed up Mal thought maybe she should have hunted them out and brought them up here before. It couldn't have been fun, constantly on the alert for trouble with that many people bumping into you on a daily basis.
"We were thinking of leaving."
The quiet tone cut across her adsorption. Mal glanced up from the coffee machine to find Tonker looking straight at her. Holding her gaze the girl nodded before turning back to the view. Neither of them felt the need to drag up how they'd caught Lofty fingering the highly inflammable tapestries in the great hall a couple of days ago.
"Maybe it's time."
She poured out the coffee. Out of habit she handed Tonker both cups and watched her gently guide Lofty's fingers around the fragile china. The army wasn't really the place for them any more, though it had served its purpose. She would miss them she realised and the thought surprised her for a moment. She wasn't used to missing people. But when she thought about it, it did make a kind of weird sense. It was an unlikely friendship but when you looked back they'd been an unlikely squad doing unlikely things and you took what you could when the chips were down.
They drank in silence, the grumbles of stable boys drifting up on the cigarette smoke from the stables below the window. Mal finished first, she was still recovering from the 'bag of beans' incident, or as Polly put it: her "crazy-batshit episode". Somehow one cup was never quite enough and she was strongly considering writing to the company that processed the beans to see if they had changed their roasting process. She replaced her cup carefully next to her paraphernalia and, moving quietly around the room to avoid disturbing the pair gazing with evident pleasure out of the window, began to gather items together. She needn't have worried, their attention was captured by the view down to the fields and the road away from the castle and they didn't notice her.
Eventually, unable to put it off any more, Mal cleared her throat politely and when Tonker swung round, indicated the packs now in the centre of the room with a throwaway gesture. It may have been somewhat her idea originally, but all credit to the squad; they'd pitched in without question. Igorina had surprised her with the amount of civilian clothing she'd been able to lay her hands on at short notice and Shufti had created small miracles down amongst the overworked laundry girls to get the blood stains out, returning them folded into sweet smelling piles. Explaining the plan to the open-mouthed figures in front of her, Mal made sure to emphasis the extent of their work. It wouldn't do for anyone to think a vampire could be soft hearted.
"… and Jade wandered round to the pay office with a few 'friends' and collected your wages." Mal concluded her tale with her best nonchalant shrug.
… and she would have helped with the wages collection, she really would - it had sounded like fun. But on the afternoon in question she'd been mooching around outside a meeting waiting for Polly and missed the all the excitement. She didn't think these two, who seemed to see more than anyone expected, needed to know that part of the tale.
Tonker finally managed to kick her brain into gear and began to protest until a gentle hand on her arm caused her to swallow her words. Mal, discretion to the last, found something very interesting in the bottom of her coffee cup and when it looked like the situation might continue longer than she envisaged, left the room quietly commenting that it was about time she attended to cleaning out her coffee machine. After all, who knew what terrible things might be forthcoming if grounds were allowed to clog the system? When she returned, a very boring ten minutes later, it appeared a decision had been made. They stood together, framed in the window. It would be hard to tell who had been reassuring whom and an invasion to look too closely. Mal busied herself packing away the coffee engine.
"You didn't need to."
Tonker, stubborn as usual, still needed to make it clear, not wanting to be beholden to anyone. Lofty, who had turned to investigating the packs, paused in her rummaging but didn't look up.
"I know." She didn't say anymore. She didn't need to.
Mal found she had nothing left to do. Not wanting to provoke her guests by staring she sat for a moment before deciding that damnit it was her room after all, and standing up again she deposited herself in position 427 (negligent slouch with hints of relaxed interest) against the small dresser. Straightening Polly's hairbrush she suddenly remembered a part of the plan as yet unfinished. After a planning meeting with the squad she'd scheduled a food collection run for the following day. Mal was especially proud of the sub-plan involving Igorina and the dissection of a mouse on the kitchen table. She mentioned this lack to Tonker but they didn't seem bothered any lack in the preparations made for them.
"We'll swing by the kitchen on our way out." They were wriggling into the packs, Tonker even managing to produce something like a grin as she helped Lofty adjust the straps. "We've got special skills for kitchens."
They came to attention in front of her, just to show they could. They would never do it for anyone who demanded it from them, yet they did it for her. She didn't deserve the snappy salute they gave her either. But she returned it. They were, after all, in the army. For now.
"And you don't want me to come?"
They both shook their heads, confident now; their minds on how best to raid the kitchens. Just before they left Tonker turned back.
"You should go back to her you know." Her meaning was obvious.
Mal could feel her shoulders tightening as she forced the light smile of denial. This thing, whatever it might be, was none of their business - friendship or no friendship. She thought she'd managed to hide it and it was only these two, smarter than most in these situations, that had seen through her pretence. She'd assumed Tonker would have been content to leave it alone but apparently that was no longer the case. Perhaps she could just tear her throat out a little bit?
Tonker thought for a moment, as though considering whether Mal was worthy of the knowledge before adding, factually: "She always looks for you when she comes out of the meetings."
It was the turn of Mal's jaw to drop.
"It must be hard for her, being diplomatic all day." Tonker shrugged. "Lonely as well, with no one to call friend."
Mal realising her jaw was still in the dropped position, attempted to rearrange her face into something more seemly for a disinterested person. Thankfully Tonker, satisfied with having said her piece, took the hint to discontinue the conversation, choosing instead to crack open the door and take a quick scrutiny of the corridor outside. Staring blankly at the girl's back Mal wavered for a moment, unsure quite how to process this new information. Turning back Tonker's lips twitched at her confusion before her face returned to its usual closed blankness. She turned to Lofty and murmured something, Mal assumed about the method of their leaving as they both shrugged more comfortably into the packs and drew themselves up in readiness.
Mal pulled herself upright but didn't offer her hand in farewell, amusing correctly that it wouldn't be welcome. They slipped through the door, Lofty tripping lightly after her taller companion and Mal drifted after them to lean nonchalantly against the door frame and watch them move quickly off towards the stairwell. She was good at nonchalant. She'd practised it on Polly often enough. At the last minute they turned and waved, just a small lifting of the hand in acknowledgement of time lived together. She could have sworn Lofty smiled.
Mal waited for a moment, in case they'd forgotten something, before going back into the room and closing the door. A small smile played around the corners of her mouth. She brewed another cup of coffee and drank it standing at the window.
When the clock struck six she quietly put down the cup, straightened her uniform and proceeded at a decorous pace to a small anteroom in the east wing of the castle. It was deserted and the raised voices within the accompanying chamber indicated the meeting was going to overrun again. She settled herself as comfortably as possible to wait.