The night was cold. While Borogravia's generally unpleasant climate often resulted in far more frigid conditions, the midwinter chill of the Sto Plains was enough to put a respectable layer of frost on the ground. The region's iconic cabbages had all been harvested long ago, leaving a frozen brown landscape dotted with patches of slowly melting snow and slush. They'd managed to find enough wood scattered about to make a small fire—a blessing, considering the circumstances. Tilda had calmed down after they'd got the fire started.
Magda glanced at her traveling companion—now fast asleep—and smiled. The nightmares were less frequent the further they travelled from Borogravia. The army had been their vehicle to a better life, nothing more; they'd joined to flee their past, not out of some misplaced patriotism. It would be years before Borogravia would be able to finally get back on its feet, and Magda didn't see that happening anytime soon. Borogravia had beaten her down, had robbed her of her future. The years of trauma that she'd been put through by the impotent priests and hypocritical clerics had torn away whatever vestigial patriotism she might have had. It had warmed the wobbly bits of her heart to watch the Gray House burn.
The reason why two homeless girls were hiking across the Sto Plains in the middle of winter was simple: they both wanted to start over. They'd fulfilled what obligations they'd had to their old country and to the Duchess. Now they were off—to Ankh-Morpork, to hope, to a future. There wasn't much that they could do in Borogravia, even with Nuggan's hold upon the country loosening by the day, and no particular reason why they should remain. No friends, save those they'd made in the army. No home. No family. They were just two girls headed to the city, paying their way with what they'd plundered or found or stolen.
There were entire neighborhoods in Ankh-Morpork, they'd heard, home to dwarves and trolls and humans, with Agateans and Klatchians and Genuans, worshipping Om and Offler and Io and sometimes no particular god at all. The priests had been quite irritated over that last bit, and had made their feelings quite clear during the sermons; the girls had listened but didn't much care, especially once the starving times began. In all truth, Magda figured that Ankh-Morpork couldn't be as bad as described; a city where women could become watchmen and people had enough to eat sounded like an excellent place to settle down and raise hypothetical future grandchildren.
Magda drifted off to sleep holding Tilda in her arms, alone on the frigid Sto Plains. That night, she dreamed of a boy who played the harp. It was a fleeting, ephemeral sort of dream, the kind you forget upon awakening. She couldn't remember the words to the song, but its memory stayed with her for weeks.
 Found on a bumper sticker in Dunmanifestin: YOU CAN HAVE MY FOLLOWERS WHEN YOU PRY THEM FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS.
 For somewhat obvious reasons, Magda's attachment to Tilda (and vice versa) has precluded the possibility of future grandchildren, barring significant advances in magic or technology upon the Disc within the next twenty years or so.
Despite the expansion of the City Watch, the introduction of the clacks, the renovation of the Post Office and the Mint, and the other myriad changes brought about as Ankh-Morpork was dragged kicking and screaming into the Century of the Anchovy, the city of hope still bustled. There was still life in the old city, the sort that was roughshod and slightly smelly but incredibly human. Mildly annoyed middle-aged do-nothings would occasionally send letters to the Times asserting their profound displeasure at the dwarves and trolls and foreigners mucking about. They were usually listened to, blithely reassured, and tactfully ignored. By this point, the multicultural morass that was Ankh-Morpork had managed to wrap its collective head around the idea of dwarves and trolls and foreigners and Nobby Nobbs mucking about.
It was into this great sea of chaos that Magda and Tilda were thrust.
They had not been in the city for more than ten minutes when a representative of the Thieves' Guild approached them and quite politely explained some of the more civilized and convenient ways of the city. He even showed them his license and assured them that there was no need to worry, he could see they were new to urban life. You'll probably bump into another one of us sometime in the future, trust me, we're really a nice bunch of folks. All business, nothing personal, you know how life goes. Contact the Guild and ask for "Fingers" McSweeny if you wish to get in touch, perhaps we can set up a permanent arrangement so you don't have to go through the hassle of being robbed on the street. He even gave Magda an "Official Tourist's Guide to Ankh-Morporke" and a receipt in exchange for a few coins, whereupon he left the two bemused visitors to their own devices. It was the most polite robbery the two had ever experienced.
Magda glanced at Tilda and shrugged. "Somehow, I didn't quite expect city life to be like this." She was already leafing through her pamphlet, arm casually draped across her companion. "Let's see here…Authentic Local Food can be purchased at the Mended Drum, choreographed bar fights, pleasant company, lovely atmosphere…historic sculptures by B.S. Johnson …oh, and there's a note that says, 'For goodness sake do not purchase Merchandise or Foodstuffs from Mister Dibbler, his sausages are terrible.' Wonder what that's about."
She absentmindedly flipped past pages detailing local ordinances, regulations, and customs, eventually pausing at the section listing Ankh-Morpork's cultural achievements in large letters to make up for the lack of content. "Here, this says the Opera House is doing a new show. I'll be damned—there's even two complementary tickets in this thing. Want to go have a look, Tilda?" Tilda gave a weak little smile, which Magda took to be an affirmative. Arm in arm, the two visitors to the Disc's greatest city went forth. Maybe there would even be chocolates.
 It was not the first time that someone had attempted to rob them, however. Once, a trio of unfortunate highwaymen had attempted to waylay them in a mountain pass. The sole survivor was found days later by a caravan of passing traders, gibbering semi-incoherently about demons of fire and blood. They were not bothered again.
As he reflected back upon his life, Walter Plinge reasoned that things were going well for him. Affairs at the Opera House were far less stressful than before. Christine, fortunately for his sanity, was packed off safely to Fourecks to give some performance of some sort at the Opera House over there and study with performers who had to be twice as annoying as she was. She sent Walter a crateful of letters every day. Apparently, she was enjoying the experience immensely, except for the local fauna and the food. He always had to remember not to read her letters while in the process of drinking anything; her latest missive described her inquiries into native customs. He'd nearly choked upon reading of a hypothesized symbiotic relationship that she had innocently described, based on an observed encounter between a human resident of Fourecks and one of the more nonlethal species of animals. Her unique brand of innocence and ignorance had resulting in her misinterpreting the event to great humorous effect. The mental image was one he would never forget. In any case, that distraction was out of the way, leaving much more competent people to run things. Apart from that unpleasant business with the Post Office, the Opera House had been experiencing a wave of good fortune. In all honesty, the chandeliers had clashed with some of the room's more modern furnishings, Walter thought. He was almost glad to see them go.
The chandelier had been dealt with. Christine was away. He'd even managed to write a few little pieces that he thought would do well. The last run of Ankh Side Storyhad actually brought a profit. Then again, there were always those people who preferred more traditional musical numbers. Half the papers of Ankh-Morpork were, at the current moment, roundly castigating the Opera House for upsetting the metaphorical applecart. The other half, of course, were full of rave reviews.
Still, there was no need to completely abandon the past. He'd met with a few of his more vocal critics and talked the whole thing over. People wanted some vestige of familiarity, with perhaps the faintest whisper of the exotic. But in Morporkian, of course, because nobody wanted to go to a theatre and listen to a bunch of people gab in some foreign lingo for an hour and a half. Although, to be honest, the foreign singing was really…sophisticated-sounding, you know? Traditional, that's how it ought to be done, the way the great masters had done it. We want the sounds of the past, refined for modern sensibilities. They'd ended up argued back and forth among themselves for the better part of the morning before he'd tactfully seen them out.
It took a week for the spark of inspiration to strike; he nearly laughed aloud when the idea sprang into being. They wanted traditional? He'd give them traditional. The music of the farmer and the soldier and the tinker and the sailor—nobody had yet attempted to immortalize the simple tunes of the working class. He grinned to himself as he jotted down notes and time signatures. Maybe this wasn't quite what they'd asked for—but they wanted a show, and by Offler he'd give them one. To piss them off even further, he'd even try out a few promotional tactics he'd been hoping to test for awhile. He'd already entered into discussions with the Guild of Thieves and the Guild of Merchants.
His eyes came to rest upon a copy of the Ankh-Morpork Times. It was all the inspiration he needed.
 Insert joke about the indistinguishability of the two aforementioned entities.
The doorman or whatever they called the fellow whose job was to stand at the Opera House door and make sure everyone had their tickets glanced somewhat suspiciously at Magda and Tilda, thought twice about challenging either of them, and let them enter. They were wearing enough finery (mostly stolen) to mingle inconspicuously among the guests.
They didn't have much time to mingle, unfortunately, as the show was soon starting. Magda made sure to buy a box of expensive chocolates for the two of them, and they found their seats without too much hassle. They'd even managed to get posh seats way up in the balcony, where they had an excellent view of the stage. Magda had seen to it that they would not be disturbed before picking up another pamphlet from a somewhat cowed young usher. Her passable literacy in Morporkian was enough to allow her to read most of it, although occasionally she stumbled over a few of the longer words.
"'The Alchemist's Opera, a delightful fusion of traditional and contemporary musical tastes…prepare to experience Mr. Plinge's newest masterpiece, now premiering in the Ankh-Morpork Opera House. A humorous and heartwrenching tale of romance and forbidden love.' How delightfully Abominable. And there's chocolates, too. Here, try one, Tilda. They're really good. I think it's called a bonbon." Tilda cautiously nibbled at her confection while Magda read the rest of the brochure. "It says: 'The tragic tale of a young highwayman and the daughter of the city's leading alchemist—scored using authentic traditional tunes from Ankh-Morpork and elsewhere.' And right underneath that there's this illustration of a brave young lad in a red coat with a positively enormous sword—not very subtle, is it?—and he's riding on horseback, accompanied by some girl in this really posh outfit. There's a bit at the top that says 'Authentick Folk Songs,' and there's a list of the people singing and dancing and things on the back. Hm." She glanced at the somewhat emptier box of chocolates. "Here, you didn't eat all of them already, did you?"
The Opera House, seconds before echoing with the conversation of impatient patrons, had fallen silent as Walter Plinge himself stepped out onto the stage. He nodded to the audience, said a few words, and motioned to the orchestra. Music swelled, and the great artist retreated behind the curtain. Magda and Tilda settled down to watch.
Walter Plinge, in his musical genius, had decided to eschew the traditional bombastic opening; the first notes to emerge hauntingly forth from the instruments of the Opera House were quiet and soothing to the ears. If either of the two young girls seated in the highest box had been scholars, they might have identified the song as one popularized by the War of the Genuan Succession, and subsequently used as a recruiting air and nursery rhyme. Neither was, although Tilda thought that she recognized a similar melody from her distant childhood. The dashing highwayman, she thought, greatly resembled her companion.
On the whole, it was very much like real life, only nicer. There were even proper explosions.
Several hours later, Magda and Tilda exited the Opera House arm in arm, feeling slightly more cheerful. Magda was still humming one of the catchier numbers as she stopped to look at the Opera House one last time. "That was incredible. We should do this every day." Then, to Tilda: "It's getting late. We ought to find someone who'll rent us a room."
The two of them turned and walked directly into Polly and Maladict.
 Reading wasn't the only forbidden activity Magda participated in while at the Gray House. Make of that what you will.
 A war which was primarily precipitated by the extinction of the Genuan royal family due to truly unspeakable amounts of inbreeding, and which was finally concluded by the timely arrival of General Tacticus and a very large Morporkian army.
If Polly noticed the stunned expressions on her friends' faces, or the ever-so-slightly hostile expression on Magda's, she gave no sign. Mal looked amused, but said nothing as Polly hugged Magda and Tilda quite enthusiastically. Mal reflected to herself that Polly didn't usually act that exuberant, except when Mal managed to obtain more chocolate, in which case Polly would put on her best pleading puppy-dog eyes until Mal shared. In all honesty, Mal didn't mind at all, but she wasn't about to give up the opportunity to…but that is another story.
Magda would have rather liked to politely excuse herself as soon as possible, and, with Tilda, leave Ankh-Morpork via side roads and alleyways. Polly, however, convinced her that maybe they ought to join them for a few minutes, catch up on recent events, and relax for awhile. Mal suggested a visit to Biers. After a sharp glance from Polly, Mal amended her suggestion to a visit to one of Ankh-Morpork's lovely late-night coffee shops. And so it happened that two bandits, a vampire, and a blonde avoided walking into a bar.
Mal, of course, ordered coffee, using several hundred syllables to describe her order in the fashion of the young intelligentsia of the city. Polly and Magda, only semi-impressed by the performance, both ordered tea heavily laden with milk and sugar. Tilda shyly asked for a hot cocoa. All four drinks were delivered with remarkable swiftness, especially after the barista caught a glance of the black ribbon elegantly attached to Mal's uniform.
The four of them ended up at a table wedged up in the corner. Silence reigned for a minute as four young veterans applied themselves diligently to hot drinks while studiously avoiding each others eyes. Finally, Mal opened her mouth.
"We're not going back," Magda said, interrupting the vampire. Mal, for her part, looked remarkably unsurprised at the outburst, and decided that now was a good time to examine her coffee.
"Froc told us to ask, should we ever happen to run into you," Polly said. She had the decency to look apologetic. "We told her what the answer would be. She insisted."
"We're not going back," Magda repeated, glancing over at Tilda. Her companion, at this hour typically somewhat drowsy, was alert and following the conversation intently, wide eyes darting back and forth between the speakers. "There's nothing for us. You can't give us anything that'll make us want to return, even if the two of you are still wearing Borogravia's colors."
"Magda, you're preaching to the choir," Mal interjected quietly. "We know. We aren't trying to pressure you into anything. Honest."
"Of course." Magda wanted to feel annoyed, but the fatigue of the past few weeks was starting to weigh down upon her. She suppressed a yawn. "Now what?"
"Why, as respectable young ladies and former comrades-in-arms, I would think that idle conversation between us is the recommended option," Polly volunteered. "Lovely weather we've been having, haven't we?"
"A little cold for my tastes," Magda rejoined. "Perhaps I'll move off to Klatch. Bring Tilda with me. It'll be plenty warm there."
"I am reliably informed that summertime in Ankh-Morpork can be quite warm indeed," observed Maladict, sipping at her coffee. "It smells even worse with the heat, I'm afraid."
"Wonderful." Magda drained her cup. "What, if I may be so bold to ask, are two young Borogravians doing halfway across the Disc in Ankh-Morpork?"
"I suppose we could ask you that question ourselves," Polly observed. "We're with Special Services. Tomorrow we're going to have to meet with some people to discuss the terms of some sort of treaty, now that Zlobenia's started it all over again. I'm not sure I can say much more than that."
"That de Worde fellow is going to have a field day. His precious little regiment gets another hour in the spotlight." Magda stood. "I really do apologize, but we must be off. I'd like to see Tilda tucked in bed before it gets any later." She was showered with farewells from Polly and Mal, who watched her shepherd a sleepy Tilda out the door. Then they were gone, and two young soldiers sat in silence in the coffee shop. Around them, though night had long since fallen, Ankh-Morpork bustled.
Polly was ready to fall asleep after Magda and Tilda left, but Mal wanted to continue their night on the town. Besides, they still had to visit Biers. Mal could be quite persuasive when she wanted to. She was on this occasion. She'd had experience in this particular field.
The end result was an exasperated Polly having to half-lead, half-carry an intoxicated vampire back to their lodgings in the wee hours of the morning. Fortunately, Mrs. Cosmopilite was kind enough to leave the door unlocked.
"Bloody disgraceful, that's what you are," she grumbled as she managed to open the door to their shared bedroom with her foot while still providing support for her inebriated companion. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'll take the floor tonight. With all due respect, sleeping with a vampire that's just consumed enough distilled beverages to kill an elephant does not appeal to me." She watched as Maladict stumbled to the bed and collapsed upon it, looking wonderfully deshabillé but mostly drunk. Mal blinked, eyes focusing, and grinned absently in Polly's general direction.
"You know, the play we saw was really nice," she murmured, barely even slurring her words. "I think we should do that again, you know? Singing and dancing and chocolates and things…"
"We will not if you decide to conclude the evening with another visit to Biers," Polly retorted, gathering the room's spare blankets into a makeshift cot. "It was also rather damn silly of you, if I may be so bold, to begin singing after your tenth mug of scumble. While I'll admit that you've broadened my vocabulary by quite a bit—not an easy task, I'll grant you that, lucky for you that I wasn't yet familiar with hedgehog anatomy—it's just…not something to do in public. Really, Mal, we're representing Borogravia. Could you at least show an ounce of restraint?"
"Not my fault," Mal yawned, surprisingly coherent despite the alcohol in her bloodstream. "Vampires are natural party animals. Well-known fact. Besides, Sally and Otto and Igor from the hospital all joined in. In fact, I think Igor started it. Not that Igor, the other one, you know, the nice man who runs the bar and sings just a bit off-key…"
"Look, Mal…could you just stick to drinking coffee in the future?"
"I drink coffee on many occasions," Mal serenely proclaimed from her position on the bed. "I just decided to add a bit of alcohol to the mix tonight. I mean, coffee's nice, but sometimes there's nothing you want more than a Screaming Or—."
"It would be best if you did not finish that sentence," said Polly, barely keeping a straight face. "Besides, they weren't serving those at Biers. I'd advise you to try to get some sleep tonight, because we have that meeting with the Duke tomorrow. I'm pretty sure it's important."
Maladict giggled in a very uncharacteristic manner as she leaned back into the pillows of the bed. "Yes, sarge. Of course, sarge."
"Are you eyeballing me, Mal?"
"No, sarge. Just trying how to remember how this one song went." She distractedly hummed a little tune before letting out an exclamation of triumph. "Aha! I have it: 'O Polly is all wet, poor Polly/Polly is seldom dry…'"
"Really, that's quite enough. Bedtime. Now."
"You're still humming."
"Another song. I remember when it was first performed. 'Good Gracious, Miss Polly,' I think it was called. Quite a sensation."
"That's 'Sergeant Polly' to you, Mal. The only people allowed to call me Miss Polly are old men who don't know better."
"Yes, sarge. I will endeavor to have the lyrics changed on your behalf."
"Much better. Go to sleep."
"I could've sworn he was elvish, too—you know, what with all the young impressionable ladies throwing themselves at 'im like he—"
"Not that I was one of 'em, you see, except sometimes, because his voice was like—"
"If you don't go to sleep, I'll kick you inna socks. That clear?"
"Perfectly. Especially the fact that, strictly speaking, socks are not in my possession. Except for these silk stockings, which I keep on account of being a fashionable and incredibly attractive vampire—"
"Good night, Mal."
 Mrs. Cosmopilite, despite her age, is a very open-minded woman. Her thoughts on this matter are to be left to the reader's imagination.