Warnings: This chapter contains descriptions of a relationship between two women (yeah, I know, FINALLY). If that's not your thing please don't click below.
Tis the Season to be Jolly… and other things ending in 'olly
Sir pTerry: Hogswatch
After initially friendly overtures, winter came all at once to the border regions accompanied a chill rainstorm that swept in off the mountains. Without waiting to be formally introduced the rain thrummed on the castle roofs and lashed angrily at the windows while outside the defensive walls the river rushed by, swollen and noisy as it threw itself against the rocky banks in a sulky attempt to invade the town. When the clouds eventually deigned to move on, the season turned abruptly cruel and they suffered a week of bitterly freezing winds that blew straight off the ice-fields, penetrating all but the thickest walls of the castle. The temperature dropped like a stone. Unused to such conditions the more recent arrivals stumbled about on frozen feet complaining loud and often as a distraction from their nagging fear that it might get even worse. The veterans amongst them huddled in sensibly stashed away woollens and swore fluently at the sharp pains of returning circulation when hands were held over glowing braziers. The demand for scarves, gloves, warm underwear and other essentials soared as sufferers attempted to solve the urgent problem of heat capture. But if there was one thing a posting to the Border Patrol taught it was swift adaptation in the face of adversity and eventually the sight of bundled spheres of youth sliding cheerfully over the frozen ground could be seen wherever a trickle of water had made an attempt to escape.
Two floors above the latest exuberant display Polly was about to nibble on the end of her writing implement when she was stopped abruptly by the realisation that it was a pen and not her usual pencil. Frustrated in her aim she returned her attention to the words scrawled across the page before her.
Thank you so much for the hat, with the weather dropping colder it has been much appreciated. Dipping her pen in the ink she added: …I am the envy of the entire fort with my dashing head apparel.
She squinted at apparel. Should that be one 'p' or two? Mal would know but then Mal wasn't here was she? No, she was off sulking (again) and thus unavailable for the asking of even banal questions related to spelling. Polly sighed.
The empty hearth mocked her, the lack of a familiar sardonic figure skulking by the fire a constant reminder of her changed circumstances. As the weather had closed in Mal had revealed an instinct to gravitate to any source of heat like moth to flame. It hadn't taken her long to catch on that the supply office had been given dispensation to have a fire (Polly's ability to manipulate a writing implement being somewhat adversely affected by the cold). It had quickly become one of the vampire's favourite haunts, her dry commentary on the varied and interesting aspects of form filling becoming a regular accompaniment to the working day.
To be fair, Polly hadn't been that adverse to the distraction she admitted wryly, stretching her legs under the desk and letting her eyes drift again to that forlorn spot on the hearthstone. A ledger was a ledger was a ledger, but a pair of laughing eyes, a teasing grin and an embellished, impossible and unfortunately unfabricated tale of vampiric youth were a much more pleasant way of passing the time. Of course Polly had contributed her own share of exaggerated tales, introducing a side of life as observed from behind the bar of a small town inn. But as Mal had a great span of years to pull stories from (and Polly was after all meant to be working) the balance of words had fallen to the vampire more often than not. Polly wasn't complaining.
Lulled into a false sense of security, she'd allowed herself to get used to this state of affairs. Got used to mornings filled with laughter and exclamations of disbelief, warm cosy afternoons with a steady voice unwrapping private pearls of memory, and weaved through all the ever present scent of expensive coffee. Dammit Mal, where are you?
Polly pushed any thoughts of an annoying vampire to the back of her mind and bent her attention back to the letter. She had to get this done today or she'd miss the post and with the storms moving in over the mountain who knew when the road would be open again? She drew the inkwell closer.
I was pleased to receive your letter; it's always nice to get news from home. Even when it's such shocking news as this time. I can't believe that that was young Jack's first word! Tell my brother he and I will be having a little conversation when I get back. I will have some serious words to share with him regarding his carelessness in exposing my innocent young nephew to drovers talk (though you have to admit, it's kind of sweet the way he's willing to take the little mite everywhere with him, even when he's unloading the barrels).
Don't be too hard on him Shufti, our Paul might be a bit of an idiot (underlined three times), but he's got a good heart. Knowing my brother he probably only wanted to keep the lad from pestering you while you're so tired.
Which brings me nicely to the congratulations I owe you both! So, another nephew or niece is on the way? My, you have been busy.
She sketched a smiling face with swift strokes of her pen and paused again, casting an eye over the letter propped up at her left hand. The quiet of the room once again impinged on her thoughts dragging them away from that familiar inn hundreds of leagues away and back to more immediate problems.
It wasn't even like the row with Mal had been her fault (Polly found herself adding "this time" to that statement and scowled). The whole idiotic situation was entirely due to the arrival of that blasted hat and by association that made it Shufti's fault, although Polly wasn't going to put that in the letter. Glancing up to where her coat hung disconsolately over the back of the armchair (Mal's armchair), Polly caught sight of the soft wool peeking out of a pocket and sighed. That damn hat.
Previously she'd always been pleased to receive those carefully wrapped parcels, excitement bubbling up on first sight of that sturdy brown paper. Shufti (bless her over-maternal heart) persisted in sending out little slices of home life, a painting of Jack by Paul to remind Polly what her nephew (adopted) looked like, candies that Polly always denied that she looked forward to, fllavoured soaps she liked that Shufti knew she couldn't get out here and (of course) the ubiquitous bag of coffee for Mal. And as to why Shufti had suddenly decided that coffee should be included, Polly had no idea. It wasn't like she even mentioned Mal that often in her letters home!
Since the first inclusion of that bag of coffee Mal had become as interested in the arrival of a parcel as Polly. This latest delivery had been no exception. It had been yesterday when Mal had bounded into her office, cheerfully interrupting Polly's serious and worthy attempts to brief Ganzfield on their requirements with regard to forms over the coming week. As interruptions of this kind had been occurring with ever smaller frequency ever since that useful regulation regarding coal allocation neither clerk reacted as the door slammed back on its hinges. Well, outwardly anyway. Inwardly Polly may have struggled to suppress a traitorous upsurge of happiness. But in her defence, compared to the piles of dry paperwork any interruption would have been pleasurable.
When had it first become apparent that this woman, originally nothing more than a friend in need, had become a companion for every occasion, her ready wit a soothing calm for all frustrations, her insanity a welcome distraction and her flashes of calm common-sense a balance to Polly's occasional private bouts of depression? Polly didn't know. All she knew was that as the irritating interruptions had kept occurring with unfailing frequency she had found herself meeting them more and more often with a lazy smile that sprawled over her face without any attempt at prior consent. Luckily, before her thoughts could get too knotted up in the problem Polly had been yanked back to reality when a smallish, tidily wrapped box had been dumped onto her desk.
"What's this then?"
She had spoken calmly; this was a supply office after all. Hundreds of deliveries passed through their hands every month. Just because there was a vampire on the other side of her desk twitching with glee was no reason to change standard operating procedure.
"Parcel addressed to Sergeant Perks, sir. Arrived this morning, sir. Return address of Munz. Sir." And Mal had pulled off a snappy salute, every inch the professional soldier.
Keeping a straight face with difficulty Polly had quickly dismissed the respectfully non-curious Ganzfield with a short apology and a promise to reschedule. When Mal had closed the door firmly behind him and turned back to the desk Polly been lucky enough to catch the expression of disappointment that flashed across the corporal's face as she found the parcel still there, pristine and untouched, absolutely not torn apart in an explosion of wild curiosity. Today was looking suddenly more interesting. The very epitome of calm, Sergeant Perks had leant back in her chair, relaxed hands folded over her belt buckle. It was a well-known fact that nothing could induce a vampire to express excitement. It just wasn't done. Tempting them to do so had therefore become one of the little high points of Polly's life.
The whimper of disappointment that had escaped her corporal's lips didn't go completely un-noticed, but Polly had been generous enough to pretend it hadn't happened. She waited.
"Aren't you going to open it?"
Feeling every inch the superior NCO Polly had drawn her eyebrows together and fixed the jiggling figure with a stare. The game was now officially afoot.
"Would I be correct in thinking that something in this parcel has excited your interest, Corporal?"
There had been a fraction of a second when Mal hung frozen before the vampire had relaxed into pose 24, comfortable insouciance. A less observant human wouldn't have noticed it. Polly did. She had also picked up on the occasional flicker that tugged at the corner of her corporal's eye indicating that all this serenity was taking considerable effort.
"Me, Sergeant?" Mal's tone had been so calm you could have floated paper swans on it without fear of capsizing them. "I was just curious to see what those rascally boys in the post room have done today in order to liven up the tedium of our daily life."
She had stepped back to perch nonchalantly on the arm of the deep armchair that had been putting down roots beside Polly's fire ever since a vampire had decided it was her parlour as much as the fort's Supply Clerk's office.
"I don't believe it's a prank." Reluctant to give way to the giggles that had been threatening to overtake her and thus lose the game Polly had flipped the parcel over to check the post mark. "It has the usual return address on it. Do you have some other source of intelligence, Corporal? Perhaps from the gossip shops you inhabit?"
When she had looked up from the brown paper she had been surprised to discover Mal attempting to give her the smallest hint of a puppy dog look. She had been practising again.
No-one had yet fathomed why Mal had decided to develop this so very human manipulation technique. Vampires didn't need pleading sad eyes in their arsenal with so many other (more deadly) tools at their disposal. It made no sense. However, weeks had gone by and Mal had persisted in attempting to gain this facet of humanity until they had reached this state of affairs whereby Polly was coming to accept it as normal. She reassured herself that it was probably just an indication that the vampire had been living amongst them too long. Mal must have picked it up by osmosis from Finchley who had been known to use it to devastating effects in card games.
Unfortunately it was a hard expression to learn and on that auspicious morning Mal's attempt had merely produced a muscle contraction such as might be found on the face of a constipated duck. It had been pathetic. Embarrassingly pathetic. Polly had fished in her desk for a penknife to cut the string. It was the merest hint of the white flag of surrender but sensing that they were finally getting to the point Mal had taken one long eager stride to hover over the desk.
Back in her office, the letter to Shufti crying out for her attention, Polly paused the memory and allowed it to fill out the image of that moment for a long minute. The chill steel of the knife under her fingers as she snapped it shut, the deep blue of Mal's jacket where it stretched across purposeful shoulders, the tension drawing open that perfectly cut collar to reveal the line of a long throat that ran away into shifting shadows thrown by that ridiculously ruffled creamy shirt. Mal's shirt. Her friend Mal. Hurriedly squashing all trains of thought, Polly jolted the memory into fast forward, long practice enabling her to ignore the traitorous voice at the back of her mind that whispered a request for her precise definition of friendship.
Eventually there had been no more paper to unwrap and Polly had folded back the flaps to remove the contents. The box contained the usual letter and oddments and something else. Nestled between the small sack of coffee and the paper wrap of sweets was...
"It's a hat."
Mal had sounded disappointed and when Polly had looked up from the letter she had caught the vampire turning the soft knitting over and over in those delicate hands.
"Are you sulking?"
Mal had given no response and despite her best efforts Polly had been unable to stop the unhelpful laugh as she took her corporal's expression.
"You are! A 200 year old vampire is sulking because her surprise was ruined!"
Mal had growled, there was no other word for it, and Polly had been forced to throw herself over the desk in order to rescue the hat. Smoothing it out carefully on the desk she had folded it and returned it to its place.
"Let me make one thing quite clear to you, Mal. When you finally get off your arse, lose the vampiric need for perfection, stop unravelling the hat that you're knitting in secret every damn three rows because it's not exactly flawless, and just get on and complete it the blasted thing. When you eventually do that, stick the bauble on and hand it over…" She drew a much needed breath. "I'll wear it. With pride. And I will be the envy of all my friends. You have my word. But until that day comes, let me tell you, I will not freeze my hair off just to assuage your ego. Are we clear?"
"I aint knitting no hat."
While Polly had been stuck behind the desk still puzzling over a possibly clever use of grammar, the corporal had retreated steadily, only pausing at the door to reiterate "vampires don't knit" before vanishing grumpily into the corridor. That had been yesterday and the Supply Clerk's office had seen neither hide nor hair of the annoyance since. Polly sighed and dipping her pen into the ink again, continued with her letter.
Mal would send his congratulations as well, but he's off sulking at the moment. No real reason, he's just decided that humans are annoying, me in particular of course and thus he's probably diluting his sorrows by winning as much money off them at cards as physically possible. 30 hours straight now, would you believe anyone could hold a grudge for so long over a simple hat? (I'll have to tell you about it in my next letter, I'm running out of room now, sorry). But don't worry, any minute now I expect a shamefaced apologetic vampire to knock nervously at my door...
The soft knock that came at the door at that very second brought a twitch of a smile to the busy correspondent. Polly paused in her writing, holding the pen to one side to prevent accidental blotting of the letter and called out her invitation of entry to the unseen knocker. Mal poked a cheerful head into the room.
"Supper time, Pol. Are you coming?"
Polly put down her pen.
"Am I forgiven?" She folded her hands under her chin and gave Mal an interrogative look. But, uncooperative to the last, the vampire feigned a lack of understanding forcing Polly to sigh and shake her head as she clarified: "for having the temerity to receive a generous gift, to wit a hat, from my sister in law?"
"Oh that." Mal inched further into the room. "It took all night and most of today, but if you still want it..." She withdrew her hand from behind her back and proffered a woollen bundle.
Handing the item over the vampire shrugged with what couldn't possibly be embarrassment. "You kept saying you were cold. It was going to be a surprise, I wanted to make sure you'd be warm on patrol. But then it took longer than I planned and I wasn't sure I'd get it finished in time. I didn't know you'd found out about it."
"Impressive." Looking up and catching Mal's eye she added "No, seriously. This is brilliant Mal. Thank you." Examining the cap in more detail Polly was astounded by the effort that had gone into producing something so small. The close weave of the wool boded well for heat capture purposes and Mal had managed to match the colour of their uniform jackets perfectly. The little decorative motif around the brow was a nice extra touch.
"It was kind of fun in the end."
"Really?" Polly broke into a mischievous grin as she fitted the cap over her curls. "How delicious, I can't wait to let the League know how beneficial knitting can be to the unsteady temperament of the domestic vampire."
"You wouldn't dare."
"In this hat? In a hat as cunning as this I'd dare anything." She adjusted it rakishly.
"I would be forced to wreak horrific revenge, you do know that don't you, Polly?" Mal crept closer as she spoke, stalking cautiously as her prey moved out of reach behind the desk.
"Aw, come on, Mal. I don't believe even you could behave in an evil fashion toward someone wearing a hat as gorgeous as this. The power of cute would compel you."
"Pah." The corporal drew herself up in mock affront. "I would be easily able to withstand such dastardly attacks. I am after all the spawn of the underworld. Perfidy runs through my veins! Plus, all I would need to do is remove the hat and you would be in my power." She accompanied her words with the appropriate action, divesting Polly of the hat in one quick movement.
Polly retaliated but Mal easily batted her hands away as her feebly human opponent attempted to reclaim her property. She then hid the cap in an aggravatingly evil manner behind her back mocking the unsuccessful sergeant unmercifully.
"How are the mighty fallen." She sidestepped a sudden rush. "One little slip and you fall completely under my spell. Mwuhahahahaha, ha-ha, ha." She paused using her minuscule advantage in height to hold the hat out of reach. "Make me coffee, Polly."
"I don't think so!" Making a sudden grab for the cap Polly failed miserably but in the process of recovering her balance appeared to fall awkwardly against the armchair and with an exclamation of pain disappeared behind it in a clatter of fire irons.
"Pol!" Mal hurried across the room to drop to her knees beside the curled up figure. "Are you ok? Did you hurt yourself? Should I call someone?"
"Only the Diplomacy Corp with the articles of surrender because you've been completely rolled up! Horse, Foot and Trebuchet!" Polly rolled away to the other side of the hearth, cap held safely in her hand. She waved her trophy gleefully into that shocked face. "Gotcha!"
"Polly!" Mal sat back on her heels shaking her head. "You should be ashamed. Such behaviour! What would Shufti say?"
"She'd say good show, about time you got one across that blasted vampire."
"Hmph." Mal clambered to her feet, but rudely refused to offer the sergeant a hand up. "You're a disgrace to the notion of honour and decency and I've a good mind not to take you down to supper." She paused at the door to cast a sparkling look back over her shoulder.
"Hang on." Slipping behind the desk, Polly scribbled a last paragraph.
Just to add, Mal's back (hurrah?) and we're off to supper so I must stop now or I'll never catch the post. All my love to you and Paul (Mal's too). Give my nephew a hug from me and punch my brother in the arm – he'll know what for. I'm not sure when we'll be able to get letters through again so don't worry if you don't hear from us until the spring. I'll do my very best not to murder the aggravation I appear to be lumbered with before the snow melts.
Best wishes for a good winter.
Sprinkling sand over the still wet ink she shook off the excess and grabbed an envelope, waving the sheet to dry the last of the damp lines as she made her way to the door. "We can drop this off with Ganzfield on the way past." She paused at the threshold to retrieve Hat Mark II from her pocket and crammed it down over her curls as they hurried out of the room to be the envy of all her friends, as promised.
According to tradition winter was a terrible time to be stuck on Border patrol but Polly found this hard to believe as they hurtled down the slope for what felt like the fifty millionth time. Mal had been unwilling to come tobogganing when Polly had first broached the subject. She'd claimed the activity was much too undignified for a vampire and anyway, why would anyone want to leave a nice warm coffee shop and an almost current copy of the Ankh Morpork Times (how Mal's packages of neat newsprint were still getting through when the rest of them had received no post for weeks was a mystery) to get snow in their underwear? There was no reasonable argument.
Polly had smiled, stolen the Times and admitting there was no sense in the pastime she had offered an unreasonable argument instead.
Racing down the gentle incline, the wind whipping up colour in her cheeks and bringing tears to her eyes, Polly felt strong arms tighten around her and grinned. Perhaps Mal was enjoying herself just a little. It was at this inauspicious moment that the sledge met an unexpected bump and flew off at right angles to bury its nose into a snowdrift with a muffled thump. A snow-insulated silence fell over the winter scene.
As she struggled to her knees, spitting out snow and shaking it out of her short-coat Polly looked around for Mal and found the vampire sprawled out on her stomach calmly picking snowflakes out of her hair. On closer examination, however, it could be seen that the tightly held shoulders were subject to random uncontrollable shudders and Polly flung herself forwards over the snow, worry pooling in her stomach. What had Mal landed on? Rolling the vampire over with the greatest of care her frantic scramble to remember emergency first aid as related to the un-dead was halted by the realisation that Mal was merely fighting an insidious attack of the giggles. So far she seemed to be winning. Accepting she was under observation the vampire swallowed the last of her chuckles and presented a perfectly blank face as Polly shook her head in mock-despair.
Luckily the sergeant was distracted from commenting on such perfidious behaviour by the arrival of Barnett who flew past them on a piece of board, backwards. He didn't seem to be overly pleased with this state of affairs, judging by his tightly squeezed shut eyes and the lip clamped between his teeth. They watched his journey with interest until he parted company from his mount and took up accommodation in a nearby bush.
Wincing in sympathy they left him to extricate himself as best he could and turned their attention to their own needs in order to return to the fray. Somewhere, thought Polly frowning, somewhere there was a sledge. As she began to cast a searching eye over their immediate surroundings Mal sat up and began to straighten her greatcoat before being overtaken by an almost human shiver. Flicking open a couple of buttons the vampire pulled out the collar of the jacket beneath, had a quick look and remarked in a most calm and disinterested tone: "I think I have snow in my shirt." Unsure quite how to respond to this thrilling discovery Polly choked, her shoulders heaving as she tried desperately to keep a straight face. Then she caught a glimpse of the revealing twitch in Mal's cheek and there was no remedy for either of them but to lie back in the snow and give way to hysterical laughter.
One soul restoring interval later Mal sat up once again and readjusted her muffler. "This is a most silly game" she commented, drawing up a knee and flinging an arm around it to keep her balance on the uneven slope. Polly wiggled around to rest against the greatcoat covered shoulder, wiping the rapidly cooling remains of the tears of laughter from her eyes and they watched the unlucky Barnett begin the long walk back up the hill, dragging his board behind him.
"Do you want to go back inside?"
"And admit defeat? Sod that!" Mal scrambled to her feet, offering a hand to the smugly grinning sergeant. "Company D have been accusing us of being slowcoaches all week. Are you going to take that lying down? It's time we made those bastards eat their words!" Fishing the toboggan out of the drift she led the way back up the slope at a determined speed.
It got a little insane after that, people were going down in threes, in fours, at one point the idiots from Company D got 6 people on one toboggan. They didn't get far, the bumpy snowfield spinning them off in all directions. As people hurried down the hill to untangle limbs and carry off the survivors Polly made use of the chance to draw breath, her gaze drifting from the mountains that ringed their playground down the slope of the fields, across the roofs of the village to the castle on its brave promontory.
This was it then, the thrilling life of Perks and Maladict: one time heroes who had been lifted aloft on the shoulders of the nation but were now reduced to the mere rank and file of the Borogravian Army. Upstanding lads they'd been, honourable takers of the Shilling who'd kissed the Duchess full face only to be shoved out of sight for being a smidgeon too irritating to be ignored. They'd had their fun and kicked up a deliciously lively ruckus, but now the dust had finally settled here they were, stuck out on the edge of the world as prisoners of the infamous Border Patrol.
Odd that, she thought as she watched two lads from Company D race each other back up the hill. The terrible fate hadn't proved itself all that soul destroying after all. For all it didn't resemble anything she'd thought she wanted, life in the Border Patrol was surprisingly bearable. Yes, there were the chilly mornings and the endless paperwork. But alongside this there was another side, the constant attempts at distraction by Mal, cold afternoons spiced with energetic training (fighting a vampire armed with two swords was 'interesting' to say the least). This was leavened with dark evenings that drew in quickly and welcomed all indoors to huddle round fiery braziers or deep inglenooks, cards or perhaps Thud to pass the time, friends spinning tales in the flickering warmth, the give and take of teasing barbs over mulled beer. All topped off with freezing nights, infinite darkness above and a vampire at her shoulder pointing up into the abyss as she guided her willing pupil through the basics of star navigation, both bundled up to the nines against the cold. Really, when you came down to it, it wasn't such a bad life in the army. She even got to throw things at Mal's head occasionally.
She was drawn out of her introspection by the cheering as Turner (employing the judicial use of a foot to pick the fastest line) beat his most recent challenger into a poor second place. The lad was a natural and it was most beneficial that he had declared for them against the nefarious Company D only that morning. Adding her whistle to the applause that rose up again as the triumphant young man gathered up his sledge far below she felt a distracting nudge at her shoulder and turning found herself rubbing elbows with a familiar vampiric form once again.
"Wish me luck?"
It was the snow in her ears. It must have been. There was no other reason why she should have misheard that innocent request. Unfortunately having heard four words instead of three Polly could only rock back on her heels and mouth "what?" while the background chatter faded away leaving them in an enclave of portentous silence. Her blood had cravenly abandoned ship, draining away into her boots as her thoughts spun out of control, taking the simple question and examining it intensely from every angle. It was only then that Polly realised (to her now reviving embarrassment) that the dratted vampire had in fact said something entirely innocuous and not the more physical demand that a certain distracted sergeant had heard.
Not that it wasn't a tempting proposition, despite the fact Mal hadn't actually said... Even on her most restrained day Polly would have to admit she had had thoughts. It must have been something to do with snow blindness she thought vaguely. That was it. Hadn't they only been warned that morning as to the unbalancing effects of sun on fresh snow? What other explanation could there be for the narrowing of her vision to focus on wind chapped lips as a whispering voice came slinking forward to murmur of riches unimaginable and the benefits of just leaning in one smidgeon closer...
Mal's concerned hand on her arm had only been intended to steady her, but Polly was suddenly intensely conscious of the supportive grasp that encircled her forearm so delicately. She drew in an uneven breath feeling her previously well behaved stomach contract oddly, lightning racing on in molten streams down unsteady legs to earth itself in the snow at her feet. Eager to get in on the act the disc put in an additional spin especially for her whilst the encircling mountains shunned physics to get up and dance a slow gavotte. She looked up into glowing dark eyes that seemed to echo everything she was feeling and more.
The moment broke. Mal wrenched back her hand as though she'd been burnt and stumbled backward in the snow. Fighting for composure Polly watched as a mingled confusion of shock and fear flashed over that unexpectedly open face before the familiar portcullis was dropped back into place. Looking again she saw only a self-possessed vampire straightening the lapels of her coat. But despite that Polly was unable to forget the glimpse she had caught of the vulnerability lurking in those dark depths. Feeling like the worst kind of spy, she shoved her hands into her pockets, switching her gaze to the safer territory of the powdery snow on the corporal's shoulder. A lingering temptation urged her to brush it away gently, the texture of light flakes in conjunction with the rougher texture of thick wool unfolding in her mind.
"Er..." Why did her mind chose now to go completely blank? Clutching at the calm presence of mind under pressure that had held her in such good stead during the long and complicated negotiations in Ankh Morpork she forced out a shaky "Good luck?"
Mal nodded and turned away. Feeling the blush start Polly could only thank the fates that the surrounding crowd were currently distracted by Finchley being his usual variety of idiot. No one had noticed that their respectable sergeant's rational thinking centres had dissolved into mush and were dribbling out of her ears. As she stood there trembling someone bumped into her and by the time she had recovered her balance Mal had vanished into the crowd clustered around the start. There was an encouraging roar from the crowd and two dark shapes flew away over the snow leaving the sergeant behind to frown and rub confusedly at her forehead.
 And really, in what world did vampires ever need kissing for luck anyway?
 In later years it became a frequent point of argument between them, oft returned to but never satisfactorily resolved. Polly usually ended up explaining to whomever had enquired in the first place that whatever she might have actually said, Mal's intent had been clear enough for any sensible person to pick up on it and therefore the precise wording used was beside the point.
What exactly had happened there then?
Polly allowed herself the small consolation of a mini panic attack, deaf to the excited cheers of those watching the race. Standing there, chill reality striking up through the thin soles of her boots she quickly ran the last few minutes back over in her mind. It would be nice if she could say the events were surrounded in a haze of confusion but every second stood proud and crystal clear in her memory. And made absolutely no sense, even in hindsight. Polly frowned, the image of a concerned gaze dissolving into twin pools of infinite darkness playing and replaying in her mind. Mal had had more than her usual dose of coffee that morning, there was no sensible reason why she should have slipped. If this was a slip... Polly pushed that thought away quickly.
It wasn't like she didn't understand the mechanics; life in the army was extremely educational in all kinds of encyclopaedic ways. But growing up looking after a brother and a pub didn't give a girl that much freedom to explore her available options. Then of course there had been the war and its aftermath. Not really the best time for getting up a dalliance, though that didn't mean some of the more foolhardy subalterns hadn't tried. And what had Mal had to say about that? Nothing. Just smiled that closed smile and graciously bowed out to leave Polly her privacy. The vampire hadn't gone far though, had been there in a flash when that Ensign had tried to carry his mission a little too deep into enemy territory. And what had happened when Polly tried to express her thanks? Nothing. Again. Mal's throwaway shrug had particularly hurt that time.
After the war was over there had been those six months at home when Polly could have kissed anyone she wanted. Could have, but didn't. She'd been distracted by other matters, getting The Duchess up and going again and overseeing Paul and Shufti's stumbling courtship didn't leave much time for her own. And the fact that she'd been too busy trying to work out the ache in her heart? The ache that had mysteriously disappeared when she'd re-joined the army?
The army. That had been fun. And busy of course. Before long she'd been off to Ankh Morpork. Now there'd been plenty to kiss there. And explore, should she have so wished, the city was famed for its diversity. But though she had dallied here and there, in times when the negotiations were going badly or when loneliness clawed too deep (she still remembered with fondness the night Lt Schmidt had taken her to throw pebbles into the Ankh, watching them dissolve into strange fizzing colours) nothing had seemed worth the effort.
And now here she was. Here they were.
Mal hadn't instigated anything, all the vampire had done was to ask a friendly question, the rest had all been in Polly's imagination. All of it. Embarrassment, previously squashed by panic and confusion reared a pertinent head. Oh Gods, she had made such a fool of herself. She had almost... There was only one thing for it. The strange little incident would just have to be put out of mind. Friendship with Mal was too precious to throw away over something as stupid as this.
Polly took the next dare without thinking. As she lowered herself onto the narrow sledge and prepared to take the hill head first a little voice tried to comment that if she hadn't been quite so unsettled she wouldn't have even considered it as an option. Polly ignored it and pushed off. But as the snow sped past her nose all her stupid worries dissolved away in the rush of mingled fear and excitement. At such speeds distractions simply could not be permitted and the even the persistent image of dark eyes that seemed to be longing for something blew away into the wind that howled around her ears.
The clapping drifted down from the gathered hoards at the summit as Polly rolled off at the bottom but her well-earned applause died away before she had even managed to pick herself up to give her stateliest bow. As she squinted up the hill she could see that there was some sort of lively discussion going up there. It looked like Mal was in the middle of it, but Polly couldn't be sure. It wasn't until she was dragging the sled back up the hill that she saw clearly what they had been cooking up. Before her disbelieving eyes a stupidly persuadable vampire walked calmly forward to the lip, placed the sled with precision and prepared to take her stance upon it.
"MAL!" Polly's scream must have reached the group but her shouted warning went ignored and she could only swallow back her cry of fear as the graceful figure kicked off, the sledge hanging for a moment on the crest of the hill before succumbing to gravity. Mal swept down toward her, balancing easily as the runners sang over the smooth snow, picking up more and more speed as she approached the bumpier terrain of the middle slope. There hadn't been enough snow to build up a safety buffer here and rocks dotted indiscriminately here and there stuck up menacingly through the too thin white covering. These obstacles sniggered insolently at Polly as the fragile duo of sledge and vampire hurtled into their midst. Polly held her breath.
Mal flew past. The blasted idiot was managing to keep her footing against all the odds as her unconventional steed bucked and wobbled in what seemed a knowing attempt to toss her into one of the many passing snowdrifts. If Polly hadn't been quite so petrified that she would be imminently eulogising this scene over a beautifully carved casket she would have taken a moment to admire the natural ability that enabled the irresponsible rapscallion to look so good whilst cheating death. As it was she dropped the string of her toboggan and ignoring its escape entirely ran back down to the bottom of the hill to give Mal a somewhat loud and vehement piece of her mind, all previous embarrasment forgotten.
Unfortunately her furious progress was interrupted when she tripped in the deeper snow and it was only Mal catching her flailing hands and bringing her to a gentle halt that prevented her from inadvertently grovelling at the vampire's feet. Despite this kindness Polly found herself perfectly able to ignore the foolish happy smile plastered all over the completely infuriating corporal's face and burst out into a formidable scold.
"What on earth were you thinking? You could have broken your neck! Are you completely out of your mind?"
"Quite possibly." For all Mal couldn't help but notice the benefit to Polly's complexion delivered by the flushed cheeks and sparking eyes, now was possibly not quite the moment to bring this up.
"It would damn well serve you right if you broke your leg! In fact I hope you do. Both legs! That'd learn you! And don't you dare come crying to me." Polly, having determined that her vampire had not taken any bad effects from her adventure was overtaken by reaction and wiped distractedly at suddenly wet eyes. "I'll not sit up with you and deal the cards to keep you amused. I'll laugh. Haha, that's what I'll say. See? Ha HA!" She left Mal silent and standing there with her jaw dropping loose to her knees as the compact ball of trembling fury stormed away.
"Polly!" Mal struggled through the deep snow as she chased after that stiff back. "Polly! Come back. Please? I'll be good! I promise I'll never do anything outrageous again. I'll be a little angel. Polly!"
The object of her pleading turned round at last. "You'll never do anything outrageous?"
"Never! I swear." Mal didn't appear to have crossed her fingers behind her back, but that was probably only because Polly had shown herself wise to that little trick before.
"You wouldn't be able to resist." Polly was shaking her head in denial but she had paused long enough for Mal to catch up. The vampire teased apart those folded arms to grab for gloved hand, holding them in a reassuring clasp.
"If that was what you really wanted I would. Promise." Polly's hands made an abortive attempt to escape but were easily recaptured. Pressing them together in a steady clasp Mal employed her most serious expression. "I swear."
Mal actually looked like she meant it.
Polly, unable to comprehend a world in which vampires obeyed her every whim, merely laughed as she extracted herself.
"I don't think I could survive that. A well behaved and decorous Mal?" She slipped her arm through the corporal's. "The peace and quiet might be nice at first, but all that agonised waiting for the other shoe to drop? Nah, I couldn't bear it." Grinning, Polly tugged at the arm linked with hers and they began to make their way up the hill for another go.
Later, sipping hot chocolate in front of the fire in the guardroom Polly let her eyes drift in warm satisfaction around the sprawling figures dotted here and there in a wide array of chairs ranging from the deep but shabby to the stiff and unyielding. Around her the conversation ebbed and flowed as one after another the gathered rank and file took turns to tell widely exaggerated tales of their exploits amongst the snow. Mal was quiet for once as she sat curled up in one of her graceful poses at Polly's feet. As the sergeant yawned she felt the vampire relax sideways against her knee, the dark head resting trustingly under her hand. With the warmth from the fire easing through tired muscles and slowing her mind like treacle she allowed her fingers to drift absent-mindedly through the light strands of hair.
She wasn't consciously aware of her actions and luckily the only person who saw (Goldhawk the ever observant) was too much of a gentleman to comment on the sight of a sergeant running her hands through the carefully dishevelled locks of the corporal sitting so quietly at her feet. Neither did he think there was anything to say when the corporal in question frowned suddenly and extracted himself with great dignity from the tableau to wander most nonchalantly away to a serendipitously darker corner of the room. And to whom could he mention the flash of loss that he had caught in those blue eyes and the momentary echo of darkness flickering across dark eyes in the shadows before they were once again hooded?
Best to let them get on with it, he decided. Vampires could get somewhat shifty if you interfered in their personal affairs and he liked his limbs attached.
Even Polly had to admit the popularity of the gramophone wasn't completely Mal's fault.
Snow was falling from a heavy grey sky as a disconsolate sergeant moodily descended the stairs from the upper floor. Upper in more ways than one it contained the suites of power, the Border Patrol's motley collection of commanding officers. That long corridor was home to those whose authority all too often outstripped their meagre intelligence and was known for sending most petitioners away frustrated. Today had been no exception.
Ever since the arrival in late summer of an inventive vampire one particular Supply Clerk had been learning to forget that the Army owned her, body and soul. By hook and by crook the odd couple of Perks and Maladict been able to fool themselves that life in the army didn't always have to mean Rules, Regulations and what Captain Slone persisted in referring to as "Discthipline". With Latimer on their side they and their ragtag group of non-commissioned officers had carved for themselves a little corner of individuality out here on the forgotten edge of the normally restrictive Borogravian Army.
And then there were days like today that brought it home to her how powerless they all were when you really got down to it.
Polly slumped against a handy alcove. Through the deep windows she could see that the upper snowfields were enshrouded in low cloud, their loss a painful reminder that she had once again been denied a patrol. Somewhere up there a squad was pretending to monitor the border whilst indulging in illicit sledging races and burning their way through the carefully stacked wood stores. Yes, it would probably be cold and wet and terribly uncomfortable but she had wanted to go. She sighed, the solid walls more than usually confining today. Below in the courtyard she could hear Latimer encouraging his longbow trainees. He had managed to get his plan approved, why was re-discovering the art of longbow archery historically familiar to the lower orders more worthy of commendation than her request to make up the numbers on a routine patrol? She rested her forehead against the cold glass and closed her eyes.
It had not been a productive morning, the captain suffering with a more than usually vindictive hangover. Even with her aforethought to bring a steaming cup of tea it had been an uphill struggle to get him to understand even the simplest of paperwork. Polly herself hadn't been in the most amenable of moods and both had suffered through the meeting with ill grace. All she wanted now was to lock herself in the office and have a good mope over her files. She was definitely not in the mood for Mal's concept of entertainment and frowned as quick ears caught the sound of the corporal bounding her way up stairs.
Catching sight of her quarry slumped in the alcove, Mal halted mid leap to exclaim "There you are! I've been looking for you everywhere!"
"Yes, here I am, Mal. Where else would you expect me to be? Where else other than somewhere in this delightfully situated castle, where the wind howls all through the freezing nights with no pity for all the hard-working folk who are trying to sleep?"
Polly had continued her descent, the irritated tirade with associated frustrated gestures accompanying her progress without any obvious ill effects.
"Surely in my role as the one and only supply clerk in the entire border patrol there could be no other place I'd rather be than stuck in this wonderful example of a busy and efficient bureaucratic hub." The sergeant thought for a second after her brain caught up with her ears and amended the previous statement with a swiftly added, "though if you'd been eavesdropping on the conversation I was lucky enough to share with our illustrious captain this morning you'd find that hard to believe."
Mal had renewed her boisterous ascent during this tirade and thus it came to pass that the pair met on the second floor landing. Interrupting Polly's rant without any sign of remorse Mal grabbed the sergeant by the arm and tugged urgently in the direction of away.
"Come on, Polly. Time's a wasting!" Not waiting for an answer the vampire spun around and set off back down the flight, taking the steps three at a time. Landing lightly on the first floor landing she sensed something was amiss and turned back. Her face fell as she realised Polly was still waiting where she had been so callously abandoned, halfway down the stairs. "Polly?"
"Where are we going?"
"I can't tell you. Desperately secret mission." The clipped sentences shot out, Mal's instinctive verbosity reined in by the excitement coursing through her veins. "Come on!"
"What? Why?" Drawn into the adventure, however unwillingly, Polly began to descend the stairs. "What did you do this time?"
Satisfied with Polly's evident capitulation Mal flashed a grin, protested "Nothing! Yet..." and on that ominous epithet disappeared from view along the corridor leading to the supply sergeant's office.
Moving more sedately in her wake Polly found the passageway empty of vampire. However, muffled noises of a frantic search reached her ears from the door worryingly ajar at the far end. Slightly concerned, the sergeant picked up her pace, breaking into a series of muttered threats against untidy members of the undead fraternity. Thus it was that when Mal popped her head back out into the corridor she found Polly a lot closer than anticipated. A pleased smile broke out over her face.
"Where's your coat?"
"Behind the door, where it usually is." Polly watched warily as Mal disappeared for a second time, re-emerging quickly with Polly's short-coat under one arm. Pulling the door closed behind her the corporal came back up the corridor almost at a run, spun Polly round and began pushing her back the way they had come.
"Mal!" Polly struggled ineffectively against the flow. "My files!"
"Leave them with Ganzfield." They were snatched from her hand and she could only look on with gaping mouth as Mal ran back down the corridor, opened a different door, thrust the folders at the unflappable Ganzfield and ran back. Finding Polly still standing in exactly same position that Mal had left her in, the vampire growled in frustration and dragged her on towards the Great Hall. "At least put your coat on Polly. It's freezing outside."
"But where are we going?" Polly managed to stick her arms into her coat sleeves and set about fishing in her pockets for her hat.
"I told you, vital secret mission." Mal glanced back and had to grin as she caught Polly in the middle of adjusting her head covering. But she could not be distracted for long. Flinging an encouraging arm about Polly's shoulders she urged her onward with a cheery "Now, come ON!"
It quickly became clear that the secret was not hidden within the castle walls. Stumbling through the slush along the slippery road into town the kidnapped sergeant found breath to reiterate her enquiries as to the purpose of their expedition. But Mal was deaf to any attempts of conversation, dragging Polly along by strength of will and seemingly blind to her struggles. However, when the sergeant did eventually slip on a patch of black ice her flailing arm was quickly caught in a strong grasp and Mal held her up until she found her balance again, those dark eyes meeting hers in soft apology. After that Mal did slow her frantic pace a little, slipping her arm through Polly's and keeping it there supportively even after they had reached the cleared paths of the High Street.
Firm ground underfoot at last, it wasn't much longer before they reached their destination and Mal was soon pausing outside Le Fouquet's. Naturally, thought Polly, rolling her eyes. Where else outside the castle would Mal be able to create mayhem without consequence? The owner of Le Fouquet's, mindful of the amount of coffee the corporal could put away had swiftly become her boon companion and his café her safe haven amongst the illiterate hordes. Le Fouquet's were quite nice to Polly too but she could never be sure whether this was merely due to her association with the blessed (if demanding) Corporal Maladict.
"Are you ready?" Dancing eyes met Polly's over tightly bound scarves.
"For this!" And Mal swung wide the door, waving Polly inside.
The warmth provided by the smallish stove backed up by Le Fouquet's ingenious central heating systemhit them like the proverbial brick wall and Polly quickly wriggled free from her scarf, throwing it carelessly onto the back of the nearest chair. This didn't completely appease the heat fairies so pulling off her hat and thrusting it into a handy pocket she struggled to undo the buttons of her coat with tingling fingers before adding it to the pile. Liberated at last she strolled towards the bar her eyes darting warily here and there in a quest for anything surprise shaped. Mal, unbearably frustrated by her un-robing antics, had pushed past and Polly followed the slim back that was weaving a hurried course between the smartly laid tables.
Reaching the counter and finding it deserted the vampire called urgently for service, her excitement betrayed in the dancing fingertips subconsciously drumming along the top of the bar. She called again but her demands were answered not the one she sought, it was not Louis but his son, Jean-Paul, who popped his head out of the kitchen to pass on the information that he was making a fresh batch of chocolat and would bring some over for Polly "immédiatement." Polly, calm, warm and rapidly improving in her mood as Mal became more and more frustrated, settled her elbows on the bar and smiled her thanks. He gave her a cheerful wink and vanished. Luckily for Mal's rising impatience it was only moments later that his father appeared to take position behind the bar, the ubiquitous towel over his shoulder.
"An espresso M'sieur?" Louis was already turning to the shiny monstrosity behind him but Mal had other things on her mind.
"Mais, attend, mon petit vert chou fleur. J'ai reçu le mot il y avait une livraison pour moi, vous l'avez ici?"
Polly blinked and dropped her gaze to the bar, her fingers tightening unconsciously on the polished wood. Nothing in her varied life had prepared her for the effects of a vampire speaking fluent Quirmian. Polite etiquette aside, people should warn people before they did that. She took a steadying breath and forced herself to relax, folding her hands together in an imitation of calm that even impressed her by its verisimilitude.
Her attention coming back to the room Polly realised she hadn't understood a smidgeon of Mal's (beautifully accented) rattled sentence, her grasp of foreign languages being virtually non-existent despite her extensive travels (Ankh Morpork counted as more than one country surely). But as the proprietor was pointing in the direction of a back table she could decipher that Mal had probably been asking about the eponymous "it". Following Louis's finger Polly thought she could make out something large on one of the corner tables. Mal had vanished leaving the now intensely confused sergeant to thank the helpful Louis politely before abandoning him to his espresso machine. Behind her the sounds of steam built eagerly and she winced at a particularly loud blast as she weaved her way in Mal's wake.
Absorbed in examining her trophy Mal had upended the sturdy box on the table to squint at the labels and turned to Polly with such a smile of glee that the brave sergeant feared for not only her future sanity, but the survival of the entire fort.
"Mal..." Polly's swiftly composed (yet still highly detailed) statement of the need for caution was brushed to one side before it could get under-way as her target audience, nominally distracted at the best of times, now bounced past her, only one aim in mind.
"Thank you, thank you, Monsieur! Vous êtes superbe, mille bénédictions."
Louis, ambushed in the act of placing the tiny cup and saucer on a nearby table found himself facing a jubilant vampire who kissed him effusively on both cheeks. Extracting himself with difficulty he slipped away to take refuge behind his bar leaving Polly to enquire for the umpteenth time what exactly was going on.
"Hand over the knife Pol and I'll show you."
Mal thrust a demanding hand in her direction. The cords that had been wrapped so tightly around the box were thick and even with her strong fingers she couldn't get in. Polly, still wary, took a long moment to consider withdrawing her co-operation over the lack of information but when it became apparent that Mal was quite willing to bite her way in, the beleaguered sergeant sighed and handed over the pocket knife with a shake of her head.
"This had better be worth it." Polly hadn't completely used up her reproving comments quota yet. "I'm painfully behind on the requisition lists for this month as it is."
Mal ignored her and, cutting the cords with a clean stroke, went on to rip eagerly through the paper gummed over the join where the lid sat tightly against the main body of the box. Eventually nothing stood between them and whatever this was but the heavy box itself. There should have been fanfares, Polly thought, perhaps the release of a dove, or at least a few sparrows. Mal, on the other hand, was obviously unaffected by the magnitude of the moment and efficiently hauled off the lid to stand stunned before the prize thus revealed.
"Oh you beauty." An unholy smile of joy broke over the vampire's face as she scrabbled about amongst the shredded paper shovelling large handfuls over the side in her desire to get at the contents.
"What is it though?" Polly had yet to achieve a state of enlightenment. Looking around she noticed that in addition to this her promised chocolat hadn't arrived. Such evidence that the universe hated them would make anyone cranky.
"Oh, Polly. Staid, reliable Polly." Mal withdrew her head from the crate to bestow a superior smile upon the befuddled sergeant. "This an abomination such as you have never seen. A terribly wicked thing. They call it a gramophone." Reaching back inside the packing case she lifted a carved wooden box out onto the table, running a caressing hand over the polished surface.
"A gramophone. When I was in the Bright Young Things..."
"You were busy corrupting the innocent and murdering the general population."
"Yes, that too. But the music we used to listen to back then, dancing the night away at the Kit Kat Club..." Mal's voice trailed off, suddenly distracted. "Great Armundsen, they've sent some records! Medals all round for service above and beyond the call of duty. I must write to Dyscs and recommend them."
Ignoring Polly's mounting frustration the corporal delved back into the crate, emerging with her hands full of paper sheaths. "Look, Pol, Chaz Parkin, Betty Smythe, a bit of Partially Sighted Lemon Jefferson and what's this? Ella Fitzgeorge? Fantastic!"
She pushed the jumbled heap into Polly's hands and returned her attention to the box, thereby missing the look of confusion that her sergeant addressed to her new acquisitions.
"Gonna help me set it up, Pol?"
Mal paused in her distracted activity, struck by the difficulty of how to explain such complicated machinery to one so completely un-technological. Luckily she was saved from this unenviable task by the entry into the café of a ramshackle collection of youths, numbering amongst themselves the inevitable Barnett and Finchley. After quickly taking in the situation the group made tracks toward the unfolding drama, coming up alongside the table with curiosity bursting from every pore.
"What have you got there, Corp?"
The lowly private's somewhat crude enquiry was not met by the usual scornful glare but rather a look of relief from Mal.
"Thank goodness for little boys." She was still hauling parts out of the box. "C'mon, give me a hand here."
The new arrivals were accompanied by a number of willing hands and curious minds were swiftly drawn into what Polly still considered a sort of general madness. Barnett removed the remains of the crate and the others gathered around eagerly to sort through the various parts. Before long the magnificence was exposed for all to see.
"It's a gramophone."
"Very observant of you Corporal Finchley, I shall be writing a letter of commendation to your commanding officer." Mal 's fingers danced amongst the orderly laid out pieces, hovering over a long slender piece coated in some sort of black resin.
"What's a gramophone?"
"One of these apparently." Polly smiled graciously on the still confused Barnett. "All I've managed to discover so far is that it's the most terrible variety of abomination and has an insidious effect on vampires similar to the most addictive of drugs ever invented."
"It's a way of playing music" Finchley was fastening random examples of wood and beaten metal together with dexterous fingers as he spoke. "They had one in the Big House back home. Banned of course, but that never stopped the Big House folk from doing what they wanted." He picked through the heaped cogs before selecting the one he wanted.
Mal left him to his task and turned her attention to the records, muttering quietly to herself as she flicked her way through the untidy pile. Polly was left to look on in incomprehension as the carved box grew a flat circular surface, a long arm and some sort of large horn that she couldn't even begin to make sense of in terms of where one might blow into it. Or why.
Before Polly could fully form the question Mal pounced on an otherwise undistinguished paper envelope with glee. Pushing Finchley to one side she placed a black disc on the shiny circular surface and turning the handle at the rear of the device she used her other hand to do something complicated with the fiddly long arm. Music burst out of the air, astounding Polly and filling the café with its richness. It was unlike anything Polly had heard before and she stood opened-mouthed as the tune stole into her ears and began to get down and busy within her hind brain, hot wiring down her spine and setting her feet tapping. It was somewhat disconcerting.
"What is it?" She pulled on Mal's arm, nudging the corporal back from wherever the music had taken her and slowly the vampire responded, dragging open lazy eyes clouded by memory. "Mal! What is it?"
"I told you: a gramophone."
"No. This. What is this?"
"Oh, this? This is Jazz." Mal grinned, little devils in her eyes dancing salaciously to the driving beat. "Terribly bad for you and banned almost everywhere but still the only music worth listening to. Why, I recall one year we walked twenty miles after the carriage overturned just to get to Ronald Pict's..."
Emerging back into the present she drew Polly away from the admiring crowd. Finchley willingly took over the manipulation of the driving handle without comment, singing along under his breath as the chorus entered its second reiteration. Resting a hip nonchalantly on one of Louis's perfectly laid table Mal made sure her cuffs were perfectly in place before asking:
"Do you like it then, Pol? Was it a good surprise?"
Polly, turning from where she'd been watching the tableau around the gramophone, caught a glimpse of a tiny flutter of expectant hope lurking deep behind the mischief and felt again that odd sensation curling deep in her belly. Did she like it? Mal had managed to find the one thing that brought freedom no matter how solidly the walls might try to close in. Had found it and had got it (goodness knew what that had entailed) and had then given it away. As the music sang on, carrying Polly's spirits up with it to the rafters, she was struck by a sudden urge to throw grateful arms around her benefactor and show the incorrigible idiot exactly how much she appreciated this stupid, crazy, idea.
But she couldn't. It was stupid to hope that the idiotic vampire had engineered this surprise specifically for a lonely frustrated sergeant. Such daft ideas were only fit to be ignored. It was more likely that the vampire had merely done it to alleviate her own boredom, stuck as she was in a mediocre castle with only the lower ranks of the soldiery to talk to. Caught up in cursing her stupidly over-active imagination Polly realised the original question was still hanging without a reply and she pummelled her speech centres back into gear. Whatever this thing was, it wasn't worth pursuing at the extent of a hard won friendship.
In an off-hand manner Sergeant Perks murmured that she would have to reserve judgement, turning back to check that the foreign music delivery system wasn't having a deleterious effect on the lower ranks. Luckily this answer seemed acceptable to the corporal and hitching herself off the table she corporal returned her attention to the task of preventing Finchley from breaking anything in his over enthusiasm.
Polly, left behind to watch the discussion of technique that sprang up, couldn't know that behind that outer equanimity Mal was struggling with a new sensation someone less sure of themselves would recognise as insecurity. And yet, hesitation or not, the vampire couldn't find it within herself to be sorry. The expression that had burst onto Polly's face as the music began to play had been worth a million confusing thoughts. Mal, hyper aware of the gaze still on her, measured the trouble and frustration of getting the gramophone all the way from Ankh Morpork (including the hiring of a man, two pack-ponies and the difficult invention of an ingenious sling design) and found it worthwhile.
 The Bright Young Things, Uberwald's most stylishly dressed club contained the very creme de la creme of the Ramtops young vampire bloods (perhaps not the best description but there you are). Entry was tightly overseen and successful applicants, would only find entry secured by walking across the bridge that crossed the raging River Thyng in Uberwald at high noon.
Most did it in a coat and hat. The best of fashion naturally, but still protected against the elements. Mal did it bareheaded and in shirtsleeves on a Tuesday in late spring.
Of course she'd been practising in secret since the depths of winter, slowly acclimatising her skin to the thin sun and then persisting as it grew stronger. But no one else had to know that as she picked her way delicately along the parapet (never one to diminish the chance for showing off). Stopping in the centre of the bridge she had tucked her cane under one arm and calmly lit a cigarette, blowing a satisfied smoke ring as the clock over the market place struck noon.
The sunburn that kept her in bed for two days and the migraine that accompanied it were put down to too much celebration and the pair of delicious twins she had persuaded to support her home in the post-party goodbyes.
 Dyscs: All the Discs on the Dysc. Ask us about vynll.
 Tourism for London requests that I inform non-natives that Jazz clubs other than Ronnie Scott's can be found in our fair capital. Always remember to do your own research and use a registered cab company to get home. Oh, and don't drink the absinthe. Mind The Gap.
The gramophone enjoyed a majestic reign at Le Fouquet's for the next few days, Mal sneaking down to worship it as often as possible. However, once she had scouted the best line of attack and had plotted the times when she could be certain the coast was relatively clear she informed Polly that it was time to bring the beauty home. Naturally the 'staid' and 'boring' Sergeant Perks (Mal's words) disagreed. However, despite Polly's extensive sabotage tactics and most strenuous efforts of distraction Mal managed to persuade a subset of the available soldiery that it was their bounded duty to help sneak the gramophone into the castle. In fairness it was a good speech. Polly was left to trail behind the rabble as they snuck down into the town and as Mal's self-designated "genius plan" came to victorious fruition, nothing remained for the vanquished sergeant to do but sigh and skulk in the background as the procession wound its way home across the bridge with much rejoicing.
Forced to call on the array of skills she'd been induced into developing since the vampire had slunk back into her life Polly found the strength to be gracious in the face of defeat. She even allowed Mal to persuade her that the item in question should be hidden in her office away from prying eyes. The corporal really was getting much better at those pleading eyes.
Once installed, word quickly spread through the castle of the latest abomination that the blasted vampire had introduced into their lives. The response was generally positive, young men knocking on Polly's door with a hopeful look in their eyes and a polite request to look at the instrument in question. Of course, some were less well-mannered: young Finchley (who had fallen in love with the gramophone at first sight) stole it away at every opportunity. But despite the combined efforts of the entire fort to play with her new toy Mal did manage to occasionally get her hands on what was essentially her own property. It did, however, take all her powers of persuasion, including lying, whining and on one occasion theft. Though, as she explained to Polly when she raced into the office and hid with it in her arms under the desk, it was hers to steal.
Every week new records arrived wrapped in thick white paper and cardboard (the post was coming through in dribs and drabs despite the weather). Slipping into the supply office with a package under her arm and an eager glint in her eye, Mal would wait only for the beginning of a permissive nod before dragging the gramophone out and installing it on the rug before the hearth. Seated there with the fire at her back, one knee casually tucked under chin she would set about introducing Polly to the joys of swing, guiding her through the foothills of close harmonies and mountainous peaks of complicated syncopation. On one rare occasion a special parcel arrived all the way from Quirm and they had an educational detour into counterpoint and the symphonic harmonies found in a Swedehoven sonata.
These quickly became times to treasure, one step removed from the dreary routine of Border life that attacked them at every turn. Polly, working industriously at her ledgers, found herself glancing up from time to time with a quiet smile at the vampire sprawled across her easy chair, one leg thrown absent-mindedly over an upholstered arm. Mal was generally too caught up in the intricacies of her abominable toy but on rare occasions some strange awareness would act to prompt her of the sergeant's amused gaze and she would raise her head to meet it with an answering soft smile of her own.
Time, racing past so quickly as the weather beat against the cold stone of the fort's defences, slowed down for them on those lazy afternoons. Polly thought sometimes that this was almost too perfect, a small flicker of fear at the back of her mind wondering exactly what she had done to deserve such happiness and exactly when and how the universe might be expecting payment. But in general her thoughts ran on far more gladdening lines, about how it was better to live content in the moment and enjoy any gift received, no matter how small. The army was very insistent about teaching you that lesson and she had learnt it well.
Outwardly unburdened by such problems Mal happily picked her way through her now extensive collection, playing record after record as the fire crackled and spat at her back. There were even rare occasions when she forget her audience enough to break into quiet song as the discs spun on beside her. As the weeks passed Polly found that she was also humming these unnamed tunes as she went about her daily tasks. It was somewhat disconcerting, especially when the Captain found her doing the soft shoe shuffle to "On top of the world" by The Wood-shapers along an upper level corridor.
On one otherwise unremarkable Saturday night Finchley finally persuaded Mal to allow him to bring the abomination to the card game. Hogswatch was fast approaching and as the 'uncivilised savage festival' was an abhorrence to any orthodox follower of the Nugganic church, the entire fort was naturally looking forward to it with great excitement. On the morrow the last patrol before the celebration would set out for the high snow fields and as Mal had been selected for this great honour she was more than willing to be distracted by some sort of party. Where Mal led everyone else by now was more than willing to follow and so it was that the protests of the more dour members of the group were overruled without much argument. Under confused direction the table in the guardroom was pushed back to open up a minuscule area of bare boards which was generously declared to be the dance floor.
Mal, refusing to give up control of her precious possession, found them a lively tune and it quickly became apparent that what the mingled soldiery sorely lacked in skill, they were more than willing to make up for in eager enthusiasm. Caught out by their antics Polly saved herself with a discreet coughing fit before hurriedly hiding her laughter behind a decorous handkerchief. When she had regained her composure and could once again lift her head it was to the awe inspiring sight of Finchley surprising them all with a previously unsuspected hidden talent for leading out the ladies. To Mal's undisguised amusement he was forced to demonstrate this skill with Barnett (the Border Boys being somewhat lacking in persons of an admitted female nature).
Eventually, her capacity for the manual labour of turning the handle exceeded, Mal handed over the operation of the gramophone to another. Scowling in response to Polly's amused commentary (via eyebrow and expressive smirk) the corporal retreated to the calmer waters of the room's perimeter. Polly followed willingly and they gravitated automatically to the card table around which sat the select few who did not dance. Squashed into the dark corner these shining examples of dignity looked down upon the prevailing jollity as a Morningside spinster might address the antics of a troop of Bonobos in full swing. Kettering was dealing and as Mal hovered over the shoulders of those lucky enough to snatch a seat amongst the lack of space, he indicated with a wave of the hand that vampires were not welcome this evening. Unusually refraining for once Mal nodded and bowing to the ring of deeply serious players she drifted on, Polly at her heels. They happened upon an unclaimed stores crate left against the wall by some undisciplined youth and after a short but frank discussion on precedence and relative needs with regards to space they settled comfortably to observe the scene.
Finchley had of course asked for Polly's hand during the long and complicated processes that had been necessary to get Mal to release the precious gramophone into the rowdy environment of the guardroom. She had refused him, all sixteen times. However, before long he became forgetful and despite the past evidence of her unwillingness to walk the boards with him he bounced over to try again. The fact he had by now exhausted and comprehensively embarrassed Barnett may have contributed to his unwise persistence. Sadly for him, Polly was perfectly happy on her crate and said so, each time waving him back to the dance with a cheerful smile. Left in peace she returned to her previous and most pleasant position, leaning comfortably against Mal's shoulder as the sharp barbs of the vampire's murmured commentary on the prancing couples were dropped sweetly into her ear.
Surprisingly it was Goldhawk who won her hand first. He'd brought them refreshment from time to time, standing beside them in their little corner and both had come to look upon his approaches as a welcome addition to their evening. However, this time he had something different on his mind and bowing low as the music flowed into a more familiar vein he offered himself as partner for the folk dance they were trying to set up with great difficulty in the small space available. Polly, tempted by the lively rhythms, looked to Mal for aid but found none as her helpmate merely leant back against the wall and reaching into her pocket for her tobacco pouch indicated the dance floor with a negligent wave of the hand.
Goldhawk was a good partner, skilled and considerate and Polly had so much fun that when the dance was over and she turned from thanking him to find Finchley at her elbow she threw caution to the winds. As she was dragged away through the throng she cast the distinguished sergeant an apologetic look over her shoulder but was rewarded by a shake of the head and a smile of genuine amusement at her ambush. Fun wasn't quite the word for what happened next. Obviously, whoever had taught Finchley to dance had not skipped out on the flashier side of a leading man's responsibilities. Twirled and lifted Polly found herself more often holding on for dear life than proceeding on a shared course. Indeed, the first time he tried to dip her they almost ended up in the coal scuttle and she was forced to order him to tone it down a little. Blushing he apologised profusely and they spent the next song weaving a more sedate path in and out of the jostling bodies. Slowly Polly got her confidence back and they began to add a twirl here and there, Finchley warning her well in advance and collecting her carefully after each procedure. She even allowed him dip her again (after checking the area carefully for unexpected obstructions).
As Polly moved around the room her attention may have been mainly on the difficult task of not stepping on Finchley's feet but she never lost sight of where the vampire sat, the crate to herself now, one knee tucked under her chin. She couldn't be sure who exactly Mal's steady gaze was following, there were various others prancing about and vying for the vampire's amused attention. But non-the-less, whenever Polly glanced over it seemed Mal was always watching her, the corporal breaking into encouraging smiles as soon as their eyes met. There was, however, one moment when she caught Mal unawares. Twirled around in her partner's arms Polly managed to snatch only the merest glimpse as she spun past but what she saw jolted her. For that split second there had been a sadness in the dark eyes, a look almost of yearning, but as soon as she had steadied herself and glanced back she found the slim figure was laughing merrily at her across the floor, the revealing look gone as though it had never been.
The last patrol of the year was hell itself. Over those two weeks, as a determined suite of blizzards beat about the walls of the watchtower up on the mountain, Mal found herself holding tightly to the memory of that happy evening. Surrounded on all sides by the muttered complaints of her squad mates and suffering an aching loneliness that she could not name the vampire found herself turning again and again to those flickering images. It wasn't as though there were any other pleasant distractions to take up her time. The long nights dragged on and watch after watch she remained shivering at her post, face often screwed up against the driving snow. It was not an experience she would have recommended to anyone but somehow nothing seemed quite so bad when she had the memory of Finchley and Barnett waltzing to warm her heart. Even to herself she couldn't quite admit that it wasn't just the blazing heat thrown out by the fire on that wonderful evening that brought a soft smile to her lips even as the snow melted around her collar and dripped down her neck.
Off duty, they all struggled to sleep in the bitter cold but the few minutes of slumber Mal did snatch were filled with vivid dreams of flickering firelight, spinning shadows and blond curls above a beaming smile that slipped in and out of view as grey forms twirled in the wind. Waking to a cold pallet she could never decide whether such dreams were a blessing or a curse but eventually the patrol drew to an close and as the lads began to speak of their return to the world below she found she didn't care. Dreams were all she could ever hope for down there in the real world and so dreams would have to suffice.
Vampires are a long lived species and over time their memory stores have evolved to hold a great deal more information than the average human. Even so it would be impossible to remember absolutely everything and Mal, as scion of one of the older vampire families, knew this. None-the-less, she swore to do everything in her power to preserve the precious image of Polly twirling in the strong arms of an energetic young Corporal Finchley, their shadows swaying around the walls in the dancing firelight.
The perfectly framed iconograph of Finchley bending Polly delicately backwards, her hair flying loose as she laughed up at him with sparkling eyes, was a treasure Mal vowed to protect against the ravages of time for all time in the secret places of her heart. This she would remember.
The snow eventually blew away over the mountain and it was a clear blue sky that hung over the castle as Polly leant idly against the wall that separated the upper walkway from the lower levels. Her gaze was directed downward at a figure of high distinction and class clearing the snow from the cobblestones of the exercise yard below with the menial tool known as a shovel. Watching the vampire toiling doggedly against the snowdrifts Polly couldn't help the beginnings of an amused smile from tugging at the corners of her mouth. It was good to have Mal back again. She had been somewhat missed.
Inexplicably the sergeant's mood changed and she slumped miserably over the wall. The smooth course of life generally travelled by the respected Sergeant Perks had entered somewhat uncertain waters recently and most of that uncertainty could be traced to a single source. Polly sighed, the lonely little puffs of her breath hanging around doggedly in the cold air. It was a hard life, being an abomination.
She'd been unsettled ever since Mal had waved a cheerful goodbye and disappeared under the grand gatehouse at the tail of that blasted patrol. At first Polly had put the feeling down to a well-deserved hangover from the night before. The send-off had been most comprehensive. Nursing a sore head she had decided to think no more on the matter and sensibly returned to her ledgers. But the confused misery had refused to dissipate; sticking around even after the headache had receded. Before long Polly had had to admit defeat, the strange loneliness having built a solid beach-head across her emotions and settled down for the duration.
She'd hidden it well, but as one day of blessed quiet after another slipped by Polly had found herself struggling, unable either to pull herself together or discover why it was she felt so darned incomplete. Perplexed by her inability to control this nonsensical behaviour she'd found herself turning for comfort to the familiar melodies held within Mal's treasured black discs. Gazing out of her frost decorated window as the music spun out merrily behind her Polly had wandered through empty rooms of memories. If she couldn't beat 'em perhaps she could at least survive 'em. It wasn't Mal, but she had thought it might have been close enough to help.
The days passed slowly and painfully, but they did pass and eventually the Patrol returned to the fort, safe and sound if a little bit cold around the edges. Polly hadn't been waiting on the battlements for them to return, she'd stayed sensibly warm in her little room. The fact that the weather was so bad no-one, not even a Sergeant squinting through snow-caked eyelashes, could see more than 100 yards down the road was not mentioned. Besides, the simple precaution of bribing the youngest guard to inform her the minute anyone was seen enabled her to be there in the courtyard waiting as the Patrol blew in. If one were being entirely truthful it might be said that Polly had been somewhat exuberant in her welcome, despite all her resolutions to be present a calm and collected response. Luckily the over-effusive greeting was hidden in the general excitement of the troops as now that the patrol was back, preparations for Hogswatch could begin.
Having seen Mal safely returned to the fold Polly had foolishly assumed that that would be the end of it. The wretchedness she'd been suffering was obviously merely the outward expression of a natural worry for a friend out in terrible conditions. But the unsettled feeling had remained. The scent of coffee might be filling Polly's office again but uncertainty filled her mind. She should be happy; didn't she have everything she wanted now that the annoying presence of a vampire was once again weaving its familiar interruptions through her day? But ever since the triumphal return Polly had found herself searching out opportunities to watch Mal about her normal business as though reminding herself of what the vampire looked like. As if anyone could forget that face...
Polly jerked upright as a familiar voice interrupted her in the middle of a complicated thought involving the delicate features currently hidden behind snow-dampened tendrils of black hair. Luckily the cold temperatures disguised the tell-tale blush and neither Finchley or the accompanying Goldhawk noticed anything amiss. Covering her discomfort she greeted them cheerfully enough, a small corner of her mind glad of the distraction. After the customary banter they settled in beside her, easy smiles breaking out despite the cold weather.
"What's brought you out here then?" Glancing over the wall Finchley blinked at the resplendent sight thus displayed. "Ooh, Fatti-guews. Did der widdle vampire get on nasty Sergeant Kettering's last nerve again?"
Their voices must have drifted down to the theatre below because Mal straightened, performed a perfect about-turn and came to attention, upending the shovel over her shoulder like a pike as she saluted crisply.
"The old rascal's in the infirmary, malingering." Goldhawk returned the corporal's salute politely. "I do however, recall that the Lieutenant's toupee was somewhat misaligned this morning."
"I told him." Polly shook a sorrowful head. "I said, clear as day: 'the lieutenant's shiny new cap, tempting though it is, is not carte blanche for you to start flinging snowballs hither and yon.' But did he listen? Did he heck-as-like." The shovel-wielding crystalline-precipitation-chucker shrugged unrepentant shoulders. "A prime rollicking, two days fatigues and a reminder that he should thank his lucky stars he's not missing the party tonight."
An array of disapproving looks were cast down to the accused below. Mal responded by ignoring them completely and returning to her task. They settled more comfortably against the wall.
"The hall looks nice."
"Oh?" Polly managed to turn her head to acknowledge Finchley's remarks but her gaze was inexorably dragged back to the activity going on in the square below.
"Yeah, we just came from there; van Hoeffler is doing a great job with the decorations. He's got Turner up a ladder nailing the branches along the eaves."
All three took a moment to watch the hard-working activity that continued methodically below.
"Do you reckon he'll be finished in time?" Finchley asked the question without his usual relish.
He was overheard.
"I've only got to do this bit and then along by the kitchens."
They all looked at the so far undisturbed remains of "this bit", the virgin snow stretching unbroken from one side of the parade ground to the other.
"You might want to hurry it up a bit." The look Finchley received for his pains could have melted the remaining snow with enough left over to heat the castle for a week.
Industrious silence reigned for precisely one minute and 48 seconds.
"You missed a bit." Goldhawk graciously forbore to comment further as Mal snarled under her breath and turned back to clear the minuscule spot of snow he had indicated.
Watching as Mal doggedly returned to the fray Finchley distributed his height more comfortably against the parapet and began to mull over his collection of gentle insults that could safely be dropped into the square below. The afternoon stretched before them, filled with nothing vital that had to be done and the trio looked forward to a pleasurable hour or so of helpfully assessing the standard of work and offering advice as and when required.
Unfortunately their delicious plans were doomed to failure.
"Excuse me, Sergeant Perks." Polly turned to find Ganzfield apologetically at her elbow. "I'm sorry Ma'am but we really need to go over the invoices before this afternoon, I'm having to pay for some of the deliveries up front."
She nodded and watched him scurry away, his files securely held under one arm. As he vanished from sight she sighed, turning back to the figure busily flinging snow up into the air.
"I have to go to work now." She had pitched her voice to reach down into the courtyard but Mal gave no sign that she had heard. Polly continued non-the-less, having been lectured on the superiority of vampire hearing on too many occasions to believe in the sudden deafness of the corporal. "My office needs me. My lovely warm office with its glowing grate filled with nice hot coals."
Mal might have winced, it was difficult to tell.
"I must away," Polly flung out a dramatic arm. "There are demands on my attention, work that I am paid for, work that brings me the admiration of the lower ranks. Work that is incidentally totally unlike manual labour".
Mal made a face at her shovel.
"I might play some records."
"I might play some records..." Mal's muttered imitation of Polly was excellent and completely wasted on the shovel.
"Finchley might even pop round to teach me new dance steps for tonight."
That got a quick pained glance over one shoulder, Mal throwing the snow in the direction of her neat pile with unneeded violence.
"And don't forget you're supposed to be escorting me this evening. I'm not walking into that bear pit unaccompanied."
"I know." Mal planted her shovel and straightened to push back unruly locks of damp hair. It was a gentler smile than was usually seen on that sharp face as she craned her neck to meet Polly's eyes. "I shall, as always, endeavour to satisfy you M'lady."
Polly felt that inexplicable ache again, right under her rib cage but managed to smile back. The moment stretched a little too long before Mal's smile slipped into ruefulness and she stepped back to give a bow and a flourish.
In the quiet they heard the clock strike the quarter, the chimes rising up through the clear air.
"I have to go." She didn't want to, confused by a desire never to leave that moment, the longing tinged with a fluttering urgency regarding the evening that was coming closer every minute quicker, a new tension building, making it difficult to breathe.
"It's OK, Pol. Go, work, be busy and officious." Mal waved an all-encompassing hand. "I'll swing by the office when I'm done and you can braid the flowers in my hair for the ball then."
Finchley snorted at the image that produced and the tension shattered into a million pieces that melted away in the weak sun. Relieved, though also for some reason feeling a little bereft Polly sketched a rough salute and, following a quick goodbye to the lads, she traipsed back inside to where her ledgers waited. The two left behind remained leaning over the wall looking forward to a full afternoon of offering advice, but their called advice was getting little response and even they noticed more urgency in the lazy movements below.
The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains and the last of the colour was leaching out of the sky when Polly was interrupted in her preparations by a long awaited knock at the door. Responding to her quiet "come in" Mal slipped through the heavy door and closed it softly behind her. The amusing conversational opener died on her lips as she took in the vision before her. Having been worriedly waiting for the first response to the effects of her efforts Polly was inexplicably pleased at the look on her face.
It had taken a while to get all the creases out of her best coat and Polly had attempted the cravat at least fifteen times before it was anything approaching acceptable. Her boots she had shined until she could see her face in them and despite the fact it was a broken representation due to the many cracks she thought they looked very nice indeed. Finally she had washed her hair specially in some of Shufti's more treasured gifts and it felt very light and free and distracting as she bent her head to squint at where she was attempting to mediate the disputed interaction between collar and cravat.
"Let me." Mal stepped forward, fingers gentle as she made those vital tiny adjustments that every well-dressed vampire could do instinctively. One final tweak and she stepped back to view her handiwork. There was a long silence while Polly's tension levels increased to almost unbearable levels.
"You left your hair down."
"It is a party, Mal. A smidgeon of effort is usually required." Mal had obviously not found time to do much more than find a clean shirt and run a wet rag over her boots. Standing there with her jacket half undone she looked rakish and debonair and simply perfect and Polly wouldn't have wanted her any different.
"It's beautiful. It shimmers in the candle-light like millions of tiny stars."
The compliment, coming as it did out of the blue, caught Polly up short and she blinked, pulling a strand of hair forward into view so that she could assess this effect. It just looked yellow to her but as she dropped the strands Polly became aware that Mal hadn't taken more than the original step back and was still somewhat too close for comfort. Polly cleared her throat.
"Would you help me with the pin?"
"Pin?" Mal took possession of the tiny box cautiously as though it might explode. Opened, the box revealed the glossy lacquer of what someone at high command had obviously though fitting for young women to wear. Mal frowned for a moment in confusion and then as Polly watched the memories stirred and cleared. "You still wear this?"
"I won it fair and square; I don't see why we shouldn't wear them. Besides it keeps my collar from slipping."
Her practicality made Mal smile as she picked the minuscule pin from its velvet cushion. Bending her head the vampire squinted at the smidgeon of collar available to site the jewel. Polly, wishing to help, tilted her head to allow more light on the difficult procedure, only later realising that this exposed rather more of her neck than one usually offered to a vampire. Luckily before she could begin to panic about Mal's ability to resist temptation the job was done and Mal's hand was at cupping her cheek as she encouraged her to stand straight again.
"Hold on a tick, Pol. Let me see?" Polly froze, the weight of Mal's hand on her shoulder holding her still a comforting anchor to counterbalance the light fingers along her jawline.
"We should have written to Clogston about getting you something for the Ankh Morpork Fiasco. Another one on the other side would balance you out perfectly."
Mal was smiling, the laughter lights dancing in those soft dark eyes and despite the delights waiting them in the Great Hall Polly wanted nothing more than that the moment would last, Mal's perfectly proportioned nose only centimetres from her own. But the candles flickered in an unseen draft and Mal's amusement died with them on a caught breath. She stepped back, emphasising the distance between them and ran her hand disjointedly through already adequately dishevelled hair.
"We should go." Mal may have been shaken, but her gait as she moved over to open the door was steady enough.
Polly wasn't sure what had just happened, but she held onto what had previously worked and that meant not commenting and moving on. She gave the vampire a few seconds while she collected up the last of her personal effects and when she shot Mal a quick searching glance before taking the arm offered her corporal presented nothing but the most calm demeanour. Thus, arm in arm in perfect harmony (if a little shaken underneath the masks) both went down to celebrate Hogswatch Eve in style.
The Great Hall was crowded and lively. It seemed as though all the townsfolk had walked up, slipping and sliding over the ice in all their finery, to swell the ranks. Smartly turned out Border Boys bowed low as they requested the hands of delicate (and in some cases not so delicate) maidens and dotted here and there the officers promenaded pompously with willing matrons. The young lads from the town huddled in dark corners, grumbling quietly about the unfair effects of a uniform on the female brain but tempers were eased when they got the chance to get their own back as the small band struck up a local air. There was plenty to eat and more than plenty to drink, the Fort doing its best to buy the goodwill of the town for the rest of the year.
Polly danced with anyone who asked, the music drawing her back to the floor whenever she took a break for air or refreshment. She danced with Turner (carefully polite), with Barnett (struggling to lead after his many lessons in the arms of Corporal Finchley), with various lads from the village and of course with Finchley himself. Mal didn't dance though there were any number of opportunities for her to do so. It amused Polly immensely to see the village wenches queuing up for her hand, obviously much enamoured of the corporal's carefully crafted dishevelled style. But despite Polly's laughing encouragement (and some barefaced jealousy from some of the lads) Mal refused to entertain any of the beckoning glances thrown her way.
Spinning around the floor with one happy partner after another, Polly did try to keep in touch with that reserved figure sticking to the sidelines but to no avail. Yet again and again, as at the smaller dance in the guard room, she kept feeling those eyes on her across the room. And every time she slumped into a nearby chair struggling to catch enough of her breath to force out a solicitous enquiry Mal smiled, supped delicately from the small glass of port she held steadily in one hand at all times, and said nothing.
It was in one of those aggravating moments of peace that Polly lost patience and was about to demand a little more participation when Mal put a silencing hand on her arm and indicated the podium where the band were just coming to the end of a local air. The crowd applauded politely and then watched patiently while the musicians shuffled the scores on their music stands and went into a small huddle. Polly leant in to whisper an enquiry but Mal only shook her head and kept her eyes on the small stage. As the huddle broke up and the musicians took their places again Polly found herself leaning forward in anticipation.
There was a chord and then silence. A singer stepped forward and took a breath.
"There may be trouble ahead..."
The band picked up the melody and they were off, the couples quickly finding the new beat to their liking. Polly turned to Mal, a puzzled frown creasing her forehead.
It was at this auspicious moment that Goldhawk, who had been walking in a stately fashion around the room with his hands folded behind his back, arrived at their quiet little corner. He bowed low.
"Mr Goldhawk." Putting her question aside for a better time Polly struggled to fight the giggle that had bubbled up uncontrollably all night every time someone made this introduction.
"Would you do me the great honour of allowing me the pleasure of this dance?"
"I believe it is you that do me the honour, sir."
He bowed again and she stood up from her chair to give him a curtsey in exchange. He offered an arm and feeling very much the lady she laid a delicate hand on it. But for some reason Goldhawk didn't immediately lead her away. Polly waited, unwilling to commit the faux pas of tugging her partner onto the floor, especially when her escort had access to so many sharp implements.
"You have my gratitude, Mister Maladict."
Polly swung a sharp glance at the assassin and then switched her gaze to where Mal sat so nonchalantly. The undercurrent of tension grew stronger as the silence lengthened and her eyes flicked from one protagonist to another. Then she watched in incomprehension as the vampire at last unfolded her length to return Goldhawk's nod with a gracious one of her own.
"Any time, Mister Goldhawk." Mal murmured.
Was Polly imagining the thread of irritation running through those polite words?
She didn't have much time to ponder the odd exchange however as with the niceties over Goldhawk was leading her off into the throng. Dragging her feet as the singer was crooned something about fiddlers fleeing and bills to pay, Polly looked back over her shoulder and caught Mal throwing off the last of her wine. She lost sight of the corporal then but before her view was completely obscured it looked like had Mal turned on her heel and stalked away.
Distracted by her churning thoughts Polly had bumped into the now stationary Goldhawk who held out his hands in a gentle reminder her of her responsibilities. Allowing him to take her in hold she half frowned at the glitter of amusement in his eyes.
"What are you and Mal up to?" she demanded.
"Separately, or together?"
He answered the penetrating look she gave him in response to that with a calm and inscrutable smile. Once again indicating the band with a tilt of the head he urged her into movement and they at last began to dance. The crooner was taking a well-deserved break, swigging enthusiastically from a friendly bottle as the band and the song continued on without him.
"I wish you wouldn't wind him up." They were coming up on a group of youths and Polly paused for a moment to concentrate on following her partner's lead as he steered her through the confusion. Once past however, she returned to her point. "An Assassin should know better. And it's not remotely fair considering you know he's had something on his mind ever since he came back from that blasted patrol."
"Has he really?"
Glancing up Polly frowned at Goldhawk's quizzical eyebrow as they rotated on the spot, his dapper feet guiding her around in perfect circles before returning them to their stately progress around the room. It was a delicate manoeuvre but the lady involved refused to be distracted, even by such high quality of dancing. She continued with her conversational thread.
"I've been trying to get to the bottom of what's been eating him, but he's not co-operating. Has he said anything to you?"
"Not in as many words, no."
He smiled down at her in a paternal fashion and Polly strongly considered kicking him in the shins. But there were all those secreted implements to bear in mind. She took the more diplomatic route.
"I don't think you should laugh at your partner, not actually during the dance anyway. It's not the best of gentlemanly behaviour."
He opened his mouth to refute her accusation but before he could produce a word Polly stated that she was hereby refusing to talk about it any more. They danced on in silence. Left alone to her thoughts Polly found the words unconsciously rising to her lips as the band swung into the chorus.
"...So while there's moonlight and music,
And love and romance..."
Polly stopped abruptly bringing Goldhawk to a stuttering halt. Uncomplainingly he waited patiently for an explanation, shielding her from the other dances with a hint of surprise in his eyes. She apologised while the the crooner took advantages of the last line that were illegal in three shires.
"Would you excuse me? There's something I have to do."
"Of course." Goldhawk looked over her head at the far corner and added "He's over by the punch bowl at the moment. I would seize the moment if I were you."
"I will." She blushed suddenly. "I'm sorry."
Goldhawk smiled his forgiveness, bowed low over her hand and let her go.
Polly found Mal making friends with the punchbowl. The buffet was quiet, most couples either taking a turn on the floor or otherwise occupied in quiet corners. Despite the hunched shoulder indicating Mal knew she had company there was no acknowledgement of Polly's presence from either the vampire or the punchbowl. Mal kept her back turned. Sensing a smidgeon of tension Polly settled against the buffet table as though she had all the time in the world and watched as the corporal placed the ladle at the precisely perfect angle in the bowl before turning her attention to lining up the remaining glasses.
"Mal, I don't want to be an annoyance."
"You're not." The vampire turned at that, attempting to pull a reassuring smile over an expression worryingly closed and wary.
"What were you going to say before Goldhawk came over?"
"Nothing." Mal's gaze slunk away to her shiny top-boots while traitorous fingers picked at a fragment of uneven stitching in the table cloth.
Polly let her gaze drift back to the interweaving tapestry of dancers. Goldhawk had retreated to a clear area of wall where he was leaning, his attention apparently completely on the entertainment. However, as though feeling her gaze he looked over and gave Polly an encouraging nod. Her courage growing she laid a gentle hand over those scrabbling fingers. They stilled under her touch.
"Not wanting to press the point, but you do seem a little on edge."
"Never." Mal calmly withdrew her hand and reached instead for her wine glass. Taking a sip she savoured the flavour before adding: "Vampires are suave and at ease in every situation."
Polly heaved herself off the buffet table and manoeuvred herself round until she was facing the vampire again. Placing a light hand on Mal's perfectly creased jacket sleeve she asked: "Did you ask them to play this song? Did you teach it to them?"
Muscles tensed under her hand. Mal, avoiding her eye glanced over her shoulder and winced at the heaving crowd that filled the room from wall to wall.
"Could we get some fresh air?"
Hardly waiting for permission, Mal had already started to move and Polly had to hurry to keep up. Following as close as she could she hung on as the vampire pushed through the door and out into the cool and quiet of the outer hall. But despite the quiet without compared to the bustle within, the vestibule was full of couples, every alcove occupied and every small corner brimming with intent youths attempting to get some privacy. Mal kept going, sweeping across the tiled expanse to drag open one of the large doors to the courtyard. She halted on the threshold as the freezing air swept in.
"Bugger me!" Polly shivered violently. Folding her arms over her chest she swayed a little as the crisp air did something unpleasant to her ability to focus. She really shouldn't have had that last glance of punch.
Mal slammed the door shut again and swore under her breath as she turned back to the cluttered vestibule. It hadn't got any better since they last examined it.
"I'll get my coat." Despite the dawning realisation that she was a little drunk, Polly realised this was one of the times that the vampire needed her quiet support and a definite lack of questions.
Mal kept step with her on that long silent walk along the quiet corridors to the supply office. It was a shame to cover up those long ago efforts in the field of high couture but Polly knew how cold the nights could be out here on the edge of the world and so didn't jibe in the face of scarf, hat and gloves. While she made sure she had gathered all the vital equipment Mal merely grabbed her own greatcoat from behind the door and slipped into it. But, though ready in seconds, the corporal waited patiently to help Polly with the more fiddly buttons.
Dragging open the main door for the second time the cold still struck a heavy blow but this time Polly just ducked her head and kept going. The quad was deserted, only a minimal number of guards were posted and the snow that had drifted back over the large flagstones during the dance was unmarked by any footprints. Mal who so far had seemed to know exactly where she was going suddenly stopped, uncertain. Left to her own devices the Polly craned her neck to pick out the guards on the outer walls. She let her head drop back and stunned by the number of stars visible she pointed vaguely upward as with only the slightest slur in her voice she murmured "pretty..."
Mal glanced over, saw what she was doing and followed the pointed finger up into the infinite sky. The view appeared to inspire her and she reached up to grab Polly's wavering hand, dragging her off in the direction of the central tower. As she followed willingly across the courtyard Polly looked up at their destination and noted that the usual sparks of light from the guards lanterns were missing.
"They're only on the outer walls tonight." Mal had seen where she was looking and answered the unspoken question. "We'll have it to ourselves."
She paused at the base of the tower, her hand on the door as though asking Polly permission to take this step. But it was only a tower and the stairs in this one were wide enough for the sergeant not to worry about navigating even in her slightly inebriated condition. Besides she wasn't drunk, just a little tipsy, Goldhawk's punch merely smoothing the edges of life and feeding the little voice inside that encouraged her to keep going and see where this ended up.
They climbed in silence, Polly following Mal's sure-footed ascent, and just when the sergeant was starting to get a little bit bored with stairs that went round and round but never seemed to get anywhere they emerged through the small door onto the lower roof. Up here the stars were almost close enough to touch and Polly, un-noticed behind Mal's back, reached out as though to grab at the bright sparks dangling overhead.
Having got Polly up here Mal seemed to have no plan for what to do next. As the sergeant wandered from side to side, murmuring quietly to herself at what she could see below Mal was satisfied to merely watch her perambulations while rolling the inevitable cigarette. Turning round Polly caught that gaze on her and smiled encouragingly, settling with her back against the low wall that prevented the unsteady from stumbling into the courtyard below. Whether it was the smile, or mere curiosity she couldn't say but the corporal pushed herself away from where she'd been leaning beside the door and wandered over the roof to take a place at her side. She lit the cigarette. They stood in silence, watching the guards on the Rimwards wall share a joke before moving off on their designated patrol routes.
The minute hand on the clock above the Great Hall swung ponderously up to the vertical and the noise from the dance rose to a new peak as the chimes rang out into the crisp air. It was midnight. Polly nudged the stiff shoulder next to hers.
"Happy Hogswatch, Mal."
"Happy Hogswatch, Polly."
Mal turned around and brushed away the snow on the parapet so she could lean more comfortably on her elbows, cigarette in hand. Voices drifted up from below, and turning round also and looking down Polly could see recognisable figures stumbling out into the snow, backlit from the bright hall. But her gaze was drawn out and up, to the mountains promising great things for the future. Buoyed up on a gentle fuzz of alcohol Polly found herself humming under her breath but recognising the tune she stopped short, the blush rising to her cheeks despite the cold air. Mal moved uncomfortably, elbows shifting on the wall. Suddenly it seemed she had come to a decision and she stood up bracing herself with locked arms on the parapet. She abruptly stubbed out the cigarette in the snow and turning to Polly asked, as though determined to get the words out before she changed her mind.
"Would you dance with me?"
It wasn't the question Polly had anticipated, expecting some request perhaps to stop humming that infernal song. She stood open mouthed. Mal, gentleman to the last, reiterated the question with a greater degree of politeness.
"Would you do me the great honour of allowing me the pleasure of this dance?"
Polly smiled, as Mal unconsciously echoed Goldhawk's approach. Breeding did tell after-all. Even when standing in ankle deep snow. Yet even as she enjoyed the moment her corporal indicated with the most delicate bow that the aforementioned dancing partner was still waiting. Mal was the epitome of calm but for some reason the hand she held out trembled in the clear air. It was the uncertainty that caught Polly's heart. Vampires weren't meant to be unsure. They were cold and supercilious to the core, not vulnerable or hesitant, standing there hopeful but desperately afraid of rejection.
Polly thought about uncertainty, remembering a stolen glimpse of lonely eyes, a sheepish vampire hands in pockets hovering outside her half opened door waiting for her to finish her paperwork. A wrinkled nose produced when deep in thought, hair usually so pristine mussed in frustration and a mischievous grin that could break out at a minutes notice over a serious face. About disappointment shielded behind dry wit, an ever present coffee addiction, and a little smile without agenda that snuck out sometimes for Polly and Polly alone. Freely, without any anticipation of second thoughts, she placed her life in that outstretched hand.
Disappointingly the actual detail of the dance was uncomfortable and awkward. Bulked up in big coats they could only stumble like around in clumsy circles like great bears and Polly's heart ached desperately, knowing this couldn't have been what Mal had wanted. But when the vampire halted suddenly causing Polly to bump into her she looked up into sparkling dark eyes that held just a hint of mischief. Mal, it appeared, had had an idea. The reassuring smile Polly remembered all too well from previous "great ideas" broke out over that mobile face as Mal uttered the fateful lines.
"Do you trust me?"
"Of course." There had never been any resisting that.
Mal let go of her hands for a moment to shrug out of her greatcoat and Polly wondered again why the vampire never wore gloves or any of the other accoutrements necessary for warmth in this climate. But her train of thought was brought shuddering to a halt as Mal began to remove the glove from her left hand. It was 10 below up here on the tower and Polly naturally pulled back, wondering what trick this was. But Mal merely held on as the gloved hand jerked in hers and repeated the earlier challenge.
"Do you trust me?"
And of course she did. It was only a glove; her fingers wouldn't fall off in the next five minutes, surely.
Bare hand in bare hand they stood there under the stars. Polly, her breath streaming out in visible evidence of the temperature stretched her fingers in the firm cool grasp, marvelling at the warmth flowing through them and up into her arm.
Mal removed the other glove, carefully maintaining at all times a connection of skin to skin. Reaching up to lift off that old contentious hat, the corporal must have forgotten she still had Polly's hand captured safely in one hand as she trailed the back of the other down a cold cheek, her fingers sliding gently over the contours of her face. A light touch drifted up to her forehead and then back around her ear, tucking away the merest strand of hair.
"You should wear your hair down more often, it suits you." Mal smiled and traced the line of her eyebrow before finally allowing her hand to drop away.
It must be to keep the magic working, reasoned Polly, finding a moment to think as Mal stood before her, both hands captured, a considering look on her face.
It was the scarf, Polly realised suddenly. It was going to need two hands and was thus creating a mild hiccup in the carefully thought out plan of action. Mal eventually solved the problem by releasing Polly's hands for a brief second to loosen the coils, before lifting it gently over her head with a spare hand.
After that, not even the difficult buttons on Polly's overcoat could put up much resistance. Left handed (her other hand seemingly now permanently connected to Polly's) Mal released them slowly, one by one, Polly's breath catching as the last one refused to cooperate for a moment before falling to those dexterous fingers. She turned slowly, allowing the coat to be lifted away and then found herself, having reached the terminus of her slow spin, captured once again in those slim hands. Mal met her smile with a soft one of her own and whispering: "shall we?" led her once again into the simple steps.
It was easier this time. Without the coats between them Polly found she fit perfectly into her partner's graceful hold and the music drifted up from below to guide their steps while the pinpricks of stars overhead twinkled brighter than the most expensive chandeliers. It was a moment out of time. Nothing existed but the cool hand in Polly's and the guiding pressure in the small of her back. They moved together, watched over only by the guarding mountains and Polly would never be able to say when exactly Mal brought her that last few inches closer, folding their clasped hands under her chin.
This was the only place in the world Polly wanted to be, pressed up against this young woman, nowhere not touching, as they swayed together under the stars. Her own hand slid without conscious decision to rest in the small of Mal's back as she lowered her head onto a firm shoulder and inhaling the mingled scents of coffee and tobacco she wished she could capture the moment for ever. It was in this state of mind that she felt rather than saw Mal's movement and instinctively lifted her head so that it was her lips that received the kiss rather than Mal's intended target.
It was the merest smidgeon of contact, just a light brush of lips and as the connection broke Polly could feel the whipcord tension in the body pressed against hers. While her thoughts might be spinning in an attempt to clarify what exactly had just happened Mal seemed well in control of the situation and cautiously holding herself in check. A large part of Polly's mind screamed at her to ignore this, to concentrate instead on how good that had felt and what exactly one needed to do to induce it to happen again.
The solution was provided for her as Mal bent her head again and having already had one run at the experience Polly slipped urgent fingers up over those tense shoulders to twine them through those tempting strands of short dark hair as she had long wanted to do. Responding to this affront on her dignity with a distressed sound, the vampire's hands which were had been hovering in civilised manner at Polly's waist suddenly tightened, pulling the sergeant closer with unconscious need. There were parts of Mal colliding with parts of Polly in all sorts of interesting ways and she was afraid she may have moaned.
Unafraid Polly waited, held close in those encircling arms. She was at the top of an exposed tower on a freezing hogswatch night but her forehead was resting quietly against Mal's neck and she couldn't think of anywhere else she'd rather be.
"Polly." As Mal gently called her name, the soft tones couldn't help but remind Polly of the time she'd first heard them, rousing her from sleep in the pre-dawn light of that very first autumn patrol.
She had never told Mal that she'd heard her, or that she'd felt the gentle touch of chill fingers against her cheek. But the vague memory of that tender voice reaching down into her dreams had persisted despite all Polly's sensible intentions, cropping up every now and then to invade the drowsy drifting moments as she hung on the edge of sleep cocooned in enfolding blankets. At these times, when her ability to resist temptation was lowered by encroaching slumber, Polly would have to admit that occasionally she did allow her replaying of the situation to continue beyond the bounds of historical accuracy.
That whole patrol had been something out of the ordinary, the balmy autumn days providing a series of perfect moments one after another and Polly felt her lips curl into a smile against a protruding collarbone at the memory.
"Polly." The call was repeated a little louder but again went ignored, Polly currently finding Mal's neck much more fascinating, clumsily exploring the smooth skin that lay cool under her warm lips.
True enough there were other areas of potential interest, but Polly wasn't fussy, especially when flying high on one too many glasses of punch. The neck was what she was offered so the neck was what she would take. Besides, if Mal was going to invade Polly's office and curl up on her hearth, head tilted to one side as she serenaded her precious gramophone then she couldn't blame Polly for taking the opportunity to investigate the area in question when such occasion arose. Her explorations passed unwittingly over a pulse point and she felt the explosion of heat as the vampire flushed and jerked under her touch.
"Polly." Mal allowed a warning tone to slip into her voice.
Polly obediently stopped exploring and let herself just lean against that familiar chest. Mal was solidity to rest against in a whirling world, the encircling arms keeping her safe. The army had turned out all-right in the end but sometimes it was heaven to stop having to be everything Borogravia wanted from her, to step aside from being Sergeant Perks for a minute and just be. She blinked and lifted her head to see Mal's eyes darker than usual against the star pricked sky. It was funny, that face was so familiar, the planes and shadows as well known to her as the sword calluses on her own hands. It seemed idiotic that Polly hadn't been able to read the incredible truth hidden there until tonight.
It was while she was processing this that she saw the view. The tower lay all of ten feet below them, darkly silhouetted against the lights that were streaming out from the Great Hall in wide bars across the drifting snow.
Adrenaline is a great introducer of reality and the real world swung back into prominence as Polly grabbed on to Mal for an entirely different reason, her fear driving the need not to be separated from the tense body under her hands.
"If you drop me!"
But Mal didn't produce the laugh Polly had expected, the vampire silent as she concentrated on guiding them down. Landing them both safely she took an immediate step back. Polly reached for her, smiling, but a second retreating step penetrated the fuzz of punch surrounding her brain and she stopped in confusion. The after effects of the drink were fuddling her thoughts and the wind struck cold now that Mal was no longer maintaining the contact between them. She shivered and reached out for that slim hand again, needing to reassure her companion that things were ok.
"Leave it Pol."
Mal turned away, searching out and collecting up the various warm winter woollies they had discarded so heedlessly. Holding out the coat for Polly to put on she continued to refrain from smiling, silent still as she handed over the other accoutrements whilst managing to maintain a generous distance between them.
"Why?" The small voice was trying so hard not to show hurt and Mal paused, unable to meet Polly's eyes.
There was only the hat left to put on and as Mal stepped in and slipped the hat over blond curls she lightly kissed the forehead between her hands.
"You're drunk. A gentleman never takes advantage of a lady not in full control of her actions. I couldn't."
Polly attempted to protest but Mal wasn't paying attention, her eyes lifted to the guarding mountains that encircled them. Responding to Polly's hand on her sleeve she dragged her gaze back from the lofty peaks but still seemed unable to meet the sergeant's eyes. Staring at her feet instead she appeared to struggle to find the words she needed.
Polly waited and eventually Mal sighed and lifted her eyes. Forgiving blue met apologetic black and below them the clock struck the quarter. Mal waited for the mocking echoes to fade before she at last spoke.
"I should have said something before Pol, I'm sorry. But I thought I wouldn't have to, I thought we could avoid this whole embarrassing scenario. I swear to you, I never meant it to come to this."
She straightened the links of Polly's scarf, tucking the ends in carefully to make sure not a single millimetre of skin was exposed to the cold. Nervous fingers flicked a piece of lint from Polly's shoulder before reaching down and capturing a willing hand in order to ensure there was no gap between cuff and woollen glove. It was displacement activity of the most obvious order, but it seemed to give Mal the courage to continue haltingly.
"You never knew, but I wanted you back then, back at the beginning. You were beautiful and smart and cheeky and young and so... so tempting and I know it sounds stupid but I was lost from the first moment I saw you. Well, maybe the second. But you weren't interested, you weren't that kind of girl and that was fair enough – I've never pushed."
Polly opened her mouth to deny something, but Mal's up-flung hand stopped her.
"But I came to see there was more to Polly Perks than that cheeky over-cocky, over-clever brat with no idea of which fights weren't worth picking. You were confusing and real and not always right but able to work out a way through anyway and I decided that if you wouldn't have me, so be it, I'd put my hand up to it and Maladict would be the best damn friend a girl ever had." She smiled weakly. "It was a steep learning curve at times, but I stuck to it." Her voice dropped and became more introspective. "And as I got to know that Polly Perks I realised I'd do anything to keep her friendship. Anything."
Mal paused and took a deliberate step back, freeing her hand from Polly's and watching it drop away with quiet sadness, unmasked now and vulnerable in her openness. She took a steadying breath, drawing back up her defences.
"So now, as a friend, I'm advising you not to do this. Let it go, chalk it up to a stupid misunderstanding between two people too drunk to know better and allow it to fade away. We're called abominations for a reason". She moved away. "You'd best go down and get warm."
"Mal." The figure paused, the heavy door latch under her hand. "Please, don't go."
"I'm sorry." She didn't turn round. "Happy Hogswatch Polly"
Left alone on the tower Polly swore. Not for long (she still didn't know that many words) but long enough to build up enough rage to kick the parapet. It hurt, reminding her of Mal's sardonic comments on the quality (or lack of it) of her boots. She paced up and down the small square of roof for a short while; consigning Mal to a number of unpleasant situations mainly involving sharpened wooden implements (a ladle entertained her for a good few minutes). But eventually the cold began to bite and as the frustration wore off a low sort of depression crept in to replace the burning heat of her rage. It wasn't everyday a vampire turned down your advances and she was definitely owed a bit of moping. However, as she slumped miserably against the parapet where it had all started she began to think. Really think.
It wasn't hard to find holes in Mal's idiotic conclusions. Polly remembered a conversation quietly shared in the middle of the night that time they'd had their first real argument (about thrall of all things). Mal, for all her quick brain, did have this birdbrained tendency to jump to the wrong conclusions from time to time. This was obviously one of those occasions when she needed a more sensible person to make the decisions for her. Even if those decisions involved tying the blessed imbecile to a chair and batting her around the head with a length of iron bar until she came to her senses.
Polly dwelt on that image for a long and exceedingly satisfying moment.
Really, when you got down to it, the whole thing was very simple. You couldn't not do something you'd already done, no matter how much somebody advised you it wasn't a good idea. Mal could talk until the cows came home about making the right decision, but there was no decision here to make. Polly had already decided.
As she looked out over the peaceful town a song rose to her lips and she smiled.
"I couldn't say what made it so exciting...
Why all at once my heart took flight...
I only know when she
Began to dance with me
I could have..."
However, Polly thought as she made her way carefully down the tower stairs, she might have to get a little sneaky in order to get Mal to agree.
Acknowledgements for musicical interludes go to:
Let's Face The Music And Dance, Nat King Cole
I could have danced all night, written by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
"Corporal Maladict?" The vampire looked up to see Ganzfield hovering in the doorway. She put down her coffee grinder and at the signal of her attention her continued, "Sergeant Perks would like you to drop by the office at your earliest convenience." He paused. "Is there an answer?"
"Tell her," Mal paused, fighting the clammy sensation suddenly twisting in her belly. "Tell her I'll be over this afternoon." It was apparently time. Mal wiped suddenly damp hands on her breeches and tried to focus on the usually calming process of brewing coffee.
Ganzfield was making a neat and succinct note in one of the many files currently piled up on the Supply Clerk's desk so he didn't see Polly look up swiftly at the tentative knock at her door. As he didn't immediately allow the noise to interrupt his careful underlining of a salient point he also missed the smile that flashed over her face as she caught a glimpse of a vampire hovering in the corridor, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep into her pockets. He did however notice that she dismissed him with some abruptness and almost didn't wait until he was out of the door before acknowledging her visitor.
Ganzfield should have taken his armful of files and gone back to his desk to immerse himself in the minutiae of maintenance payments on kitchen utensils. But the vampire he had passed in the corridor had looked more on edge than usual and, as Ganzfield didn't want to have to train another new boss, he hovered nervously in his office doorway instead. Thus it was he saw the vampire slouch into the room and come to a halt in the centre of the rug. Corporal Maladict did not salute.
"At ease Corporal." He heard Sergeant Perks push back her chair and she came into view as she rounded the desk to perch on the edge, legs extended, ankles crossed. Not until she was settled comfortably did she break the silence.
"I believe there is some unfinished business we need to address."
Creeping forward down the corridor Ganzfield noticed that it looked like she was fighting some sort of facial twitch.
The pause so unkindly left languishing on the rug between the two occupants of the office lengthened until it became almost unbearable. Corporal Maladict seemed unable to lift his eyes from the pattern of the floor covering at his feet.
"I've not had a drink for three days." Sergeant Perks hefted herself away from the desk, crossing her arms as she stepped forward, now within a foot of the vampire. "I think I would, by all methods of measurement, be considered sober."
She glanced up and caught sight of Ganzfield as he stood ready to rush in and save her from insane undead vampire corporals. Frowning a detailed and threatening dismissal, she quickly crossed the floor and closed the door solidly in his face. With a sigh and a shake of the head, Ganzfield went back to his files.
Polly had returned to her desk and once again took up her perch.
"Now Corporal, I do believe there was a conversation that took place between us recently, where you alluded to a big decision I needed to mull over before making up my mind?"
Mal was employing the patented expressions for use when facing a superior officer with a grievance and Polly was forced to bite the inside of her cheek in order to keep her equanimity. She persevered.
"Yes, Corporal. Now, it is my well-considered opinion that three days is quite long enough to spend in consideration of something so important." She leant back on her knuckles. "Don't you agree?"
Mal took a minute to consider her options and settled on a shrug.
Polly was still talking. "It may interest you to know, Corporal, that I've come to my decision."
Before her, Mal held her breath, praying for the strength to bear the words in dignified silence.
"You are an unmitigated ass!"
At that Mal did look up and blinking in confusion she was unprepared for what came next. Having dismounted from the desk Polly began to employ a series of painful pokes to the chest, each one a little more pointed to emphasise her statement.
"Corporal it is with great irritation that I have to inform you that you are a Dope! A Dufus! A veritable idiot of the first order!" Her sergeant drew breath.
At this point, Mal, employing that aggravating gift to dodge almost any attack took advantage of the second of warning to slip away and put a certain amount of distance (including the desk) between them. Reaching the sanctuary of the window she flicked a smidgeon of dust from her cuff.
Polly was still advancing. Mal, caught in a corner, began to seriously consider clambering out through the window and scaling the outside wall.
"Gods-dammit Mal!" Polly had rounded the desk and was coming on strong. "I'm a woman in the army for goodness sake! I don't even exist! You think any of your stupid reasons (including the fact that I might wreck my career over this – yes, I saw it on the tip of your tongue) will prevent me, from making up my own mind about the most annoying, rascally and impertinent vampire I ever met?"
Mal swallowed. She had forgotten what she was going to say. In all truth she had quite possibly forgotten the sequence of muscle movements that led to the production of the spoken word by use of a voice box and larynx.
There are times when a gentleman, or at least an abomination attempting to follow the rules of behaviour of the upper set, should stand up for themselves against the tyranny of an overbearing bully. There are times when any sane being knows that they should step up and do the right thing. But Mal, remembering that even the most exalted persons had allowed discretion to be the better part of valour decided that on this occasion, despite incredible provocation there was nothing she could do but humour the lunatic before her.
Polly, boldly taking the gesture as a sign of submission, moved in with purpose and thus began the second attempt to completely corrupt Corporal Maladict against her will.
"Are you sure?" Mal found words at last, struggling to believe the reality of the woman now in her arms.
"No, you idiot." Polly's attempt to soften her words with a smile were well received. "I'm not at all sure but I've wanted to for a long time and I've waited my three days and now I am going to kiss you."
After a small period of exploration, during which Mal found her hands dropping from where they were defensively holding back Polly's upper arms to slide supportively around her waist, they settled out into a comfortable position with Sergeant Perks's head resting without fear on the shoulder of a dangerous vampire.
"Hmm?" Mal, tilting her head to bring that thoughtful face into view found Polly was touching her tongue to her bottom lip with a very odd expression on her face.
The vampire loosened her hold immediately. Damn. Why had she assumed that an attempt au natural would have been acceptable? Cursing herself for not using even the smallest drop of glamour, Mal racked her brain for a way, any way to ease out of the difficult moment. This was an unmitigated disaster. She would have to run away to sea and be a sailor. And she didn't even like boats...
"Teeth." Polly explained.
"Oh." Overcome with relief Mal managed to hold back the laugh but couldn't quite banish the dancing devils that drifted back into her eyes. "Were you not expecting them?"
"Shameful brat." Polly blushed. "You may well laugh. It appears I hadn't quite thought through the mechanics of the thing."
"Ah." Mal settled herself more comfortably against the window embrasure ignoring the rough stone digging into her spine. A thought trickled into her mind that Polly could really look no better than at this very moment, peeping up through her lashes with the blush still lingering on her cheeks.
"Retract? Unfortunately, no." Mal let the smile linger, canines unashamedly on show. It was amusing to watch as Polly attempted to apply logic to the problem. Of course, with her many years of experience Mal had any number of solutions to suggest but Sergeant Perks had got herself into this mess, let the sergeant get herself out.
"Hmm." Polly lifted a hand to Mal's chin, turning the vampire's head this way and that as she examined her teeth for all as though she were a servant waiting in the market to be bought. Coming to a decision she nodded, a determined expression creeping over her face as she released her hold.
"Right" Polly ran a tongue over her lips and appeared to be preparing for another assault but Mal checked her momentarily, enquiring as to whether the sergeant was certain of her intent. Polly frowned.
"Of course I'm sure! Dammit Mal, apart from the minor teeth problem it's pretty damn well near exceeding expectations."
Blast Polly, the incorrigible darling had the gall to grin up at her and attempt a wink. Holding the advancing Polly back Mal took a brief second to thank her lucky stars for what she was about to willingly receive.
"In that case..." her own wicked grin peeked out. "It's much less of a problem if you rotate in from the left."
Polly, still apparently pondering the mechanics of the matter, looked up in surprise and Mal, ever willing to make good use of an unexpected attack approved heartily of the position this left her in and took charge. It was a much better effort, Polly navigating around the obstructions as and when they cropped up and Mal doing her best to guide explorations away from potential problems. In fact the experience was only marred by the exceedingly unwelcome interruption of Ganzfield. His unexpected arrival caused the protagonists to spring apart and when he was far enough through the door to see anything he found Polly shuffling idly through the untidy heap of papers on her desk while Mal appeared to have found something of great interest outside the window.
"Oh." He paused uncertainly. "Excuse me Ma'am. I didn't know you were still indisposed."
Polly blushed and delightedly watching the sergeant's reflection in the window Mal admired the effect this had on her dimples, the little dips emphasised by the deepening colour. Pulling herself together, Polly managed to produce something that passed as an intelligent enquiry into Ganzfield's needs.
"It's just the coal order Ma'am. I'll come back later. Sorry to have disturbed you."
"No, no Ganzfield." Mal had never been able to resist temptation. "The life of the Border Blues must go on." She smiled tenderly into the worried eyes that flashed up to hers and began to drift across the room in the direction of the door. "My conversation with the sergeant can just as easily be continued at some other time." She forbore to wink, but Polly, worryingly easily able to read her mind blushed anyway. Again. Assuming correctly that the sergeant would be unable to find her voice in time Mal paused in the doorway and knowing she was out of sight behind Ganzfield had no problem with bowing gracefully and kissing her fingers to the dumbfounded Polly with a murmured "until later, m'dear".
Sergeant Perks, dreamily tapping her teeth with her pencil while a vista of previously unimagined delights opened up before her, was brought back to a sense of her surroundings by the fifth enquiry from her clerk. Admonishing herself hurriedly Polly turned instead to the much more prosaic demands on her attention as summed up in the latest coal use figures.
Some time later, much later than Polly would have wished there came a soft knock at the door and a familiar untidy head appeared around the frame. Mal, slightly unsure of her welcome after prior events, was gifted with a smile that lit up the sergeant's whole face in the candle light and put aside all worries for the moment.
"Hey you." A fatuous remark she knew, but her usually sharp brain had unaccountably turned to mush. Polly, however, obviously thought it acceptable as she replied with an equally soft "hey."
For a moment it was enough just for each to gaze on the other, seeing the familiar lines of expression anew with fresh knowledge as to the emotion that was hidden beneath each quirky smile or raised eyebrow.
"Are you coming in?"
Polly pushed back her chair and crossing the room briskly she dragged the vampire in, shutting the door behind her firmly. Before Mal could speak she found herself pushed up against said door and welcomed in a most thorough fashion. Polly was obviously not one to be backward in coming forward. But even through the haze the prickles of Mal's conscience were still active.
"What's worrying you, dearest?" The endearment flared along Mal's nerve endings unknotting the tension in her stomach, but she couldn't completely give in. Not yet. Not until she was sure. Putting Polly away from her she moved to her accustomed position on the hearth, adding an extra log to the fire as the sergeant took her place in the armchair, dragging it closer. Finally settled to her satisfaction, though with her gaze still sliding away from those penetrating blue eyes, Mal confessed her fears about subconscious thrall.
Polly laughed. She actually laughed!
"You really think that you're that powerful? You can't even make me get you a coffee refill and we know that that desire will always be stronger." Leaning forward in the chair her hands cupped Mal's face, rocking the vampire from side to side gently. "C'mon Mal. We covered this. Look at me."
Mal slowly lifted worried eyes and they were met by a reassuring smile. "This is not some society débutante chasing the debonair vampire Maladict. This is me, Polly. Who is for some idiotic reason best friend to Mal, a lowly corporal in the border guards, and most likely to stay that way despite all the advantages money can buy due to being somewhat of a snarky mischievous pain in the butt."
She stroked back an unruly lock hair, tidying it away behind an ear where it belonged.
"Polly, a dumb sergeant who still wonders why it is this popular soldier puts time aside to teach her about the stars. Me, Mal. Polly Perks, Supply Clerk to the Army, whose day is repeatedly improved by the sight of a rascally vampire hanging around outside an office door in the vain hope of encouraging mischief."
Polly, as she watched her words banish the fear from those expressive eyes couldn't help but think of the things left unsaid. Of the things that could not yet be said. Things like how special it felt to be the one who was lucky enough to catch the soft laughter Mal produced on rare occasion, so different from the more common sardonic bark. And how terrifying to find unexpectedly like a bolt from the blue that the way Mal smiled could melt a heart despite everything the vampire had tried over the past months to warn Polly away. She was out of her depth, lost in the woods, but damn it she was going to keep going anyway.
"You didn't make me want this, Mal. I decided it off my own bat in the face of not inconsiderable opposition. Now, are you going to keep on with this nonsensical degradation of your character or are you going to shut up and kiss me?"
Mal had to admit she presented a good argument.
Much, much later, after a respectable amount of time had elapsed, a small store-room in a hidden corner of the castle far up under the eaves (having recently acquired what looked like a hay mattress) gave host to an upstanding (if nervous) sergeant of the Border Blues and an exceedingly courteous vampire. Between them and the outside world lay a thick solid door (the key turned in the lock and checked and re checked by a certain sergeant with a perfectly understandable need for privacy). The host, reassuringly voluble as she led the way along maze like corridors, had vowed to lay down good money should anyone other than a insatiably curious vampire know that this room existed. Taking in the general air of cleanliness and the crackling fire in the small grate Mal looked around her at her handiwork and saw that it was good.
Polly, hovering by the door felt the tremors begin. Bluster was all very well and especially in the army could carry you far, but eventually one faced a situation where the metal - as it were – met the meat.
The vampire turned to see a hesitant Polly, suddenly uncertain.
"Hey," Mal walked back to her softly, her footsteps quiet in the empty room. Approaching slowly, as one might a rare and timid mammal, she reached out a hand and waited. Taking a deep breath Polly put hers in it. Grasping those trembling fingers lightly Mal drew the young woman toward her and capturing the final hand stood in patient silence until blue eyes lifted to black. Deep in those depths desire fought a confused battle with trepidation and won.
Hunting for reassurance Mal felt the words of a much wiser soul drop into her mind. Walking backwards as she towed Polly with her, she smiled.
"You are my little lad, and I will look after you."
 The definition of a respectable amount of time is left open for enterprising folk to determine as they will. A well brought up author would never dare to presume as to the proximity of the mind of an average reader to the gutter.