"Hrumph!" said Froc.
"What say?" said Stoffer, looking puzzled.
"There are ladies present, brigadier. That is, ahah, the problem."
"Damn right!" said Tonker.
"Understood, general. But the party was led by a man, am I right?"
"Lieutenant Blouse tells me he is a man, sir," said Clogston. "Since he is an officer and a gentleman, I will take his word for it."
"Well, then, problem solved. These young ladies helped him. Smuggled him in, and so forth. Assisted him. Fine traditions of Borogravian womanhood and all that. Not soldiers at all. Give the man a big medal and make him a captain, and all this'll be forgotten."
"Excuse me one moment, general," said Clogston. "I will consult with what we would call the accused if anyone would enlighten me as to the precise nature of the charges."
He walked over to the squad and lowered his voice. "I think this is the best offer you're going to get," he said. "I can probably get the money, too. How about it?"
"It's completely ridiculous!" said Blouse. "They showed tremendous courage and determination. All this would not have been possible without them."
"Yes, Blouse, and you would be allowed to say that," said Clogston. "Stoffer has come up with quite a clever idea. Everyone gets what they want, but you just have to avoid any suggestion that you were in fact acting as soldiers. Brave Borogravian women going to the aid of a gallant hero, that works. You could take the view that these are changing times, and you are helping them change faster. Well?"
The squad exchanged glances.
"Er... I'd be happy about that," Shufti ventured. "If everyone else is."
"So you'd have your baby without a husband?" said Polly.
"He's probably dead anyway, whoever he was," sighed Shufti.
"The general has influence," said Clogston. "He might be able to - "
"No, I'm not buying into this," said Tonker. "It's a gooey little lie. To hell with them."
"Lofty?" said Polly.
Lofty struck a match, and stared at it. She could find matches anywhere.
There was another crump, high above.
"Maladict?" said Polly.
"Llet tthe bball rroll. II ssay nno."
"And you, lieutenant?" Clogston asked.
"It's dishonourable," said Blouse.
"Could be problems for you if you don't accept, though. With your career."
"I suspect I haven't got one, major, whatever happens. No, I will not live a lie. I know, now, that I'm not a hero. I'm just someone who wanted to be one."
"Thank you, sir," said Polly. "Er... Jade?"
"One of der trolls wot arrested me hit me with his club an' I frew a table at him," said Jade, looking at the floor.
"That was mistreatment of a pris - !" Blouse began, but Clogston said: "No, lieutenant, I know something about trolls. They are very... physical. So... he's a rather attractive lad, is he, private?"
"I got a good feelin' about him," said Jade, blushing. "So I don't want to be sent home. Nothin' for me there, anyway."
"Private Igor... ina?" said Blouse.
"I think we ought to give in," said Igorina.
"Why?" said Polly.
"Because Wazzer's dying." She raised a hand. "No, please don't cluster round. Give her air, at least. She hasn't eaten. I can't get any water down her at all." She looked up with red-rimmed eyes. "I don't know what to do!"
"The Duchess talked to her," said Polly. "You all heard. And you know what we saw down in the crypt."
"And I said I don't believe any of that!" said Tonker. "It's her... mind. They made her crazy enough. And we were all so tired, we'd see anything. All that stuff about wanting to get to the High Command? Well, here they are, and I don't see any miracles. Do you?"
"I don't think she would have wanted us to give in," said Polly.
"Did you hear that?" said Polly, although she wasn't certain that the word had turned up in her head via her ears.
"No, I didn't!" said Tonker. "I didn't hear it!"
"I don't think we can accept this compromise, sir," said Polly to the major.
"Then I won't," said Shufti promptly. "I don't... this wasn't... I only came because... but... look, I'm staying with you. Erm... what can they do to us, sir?"
"Put you in a cell for a long time, probably," said the major. "They're being kind to you - "
"Kind?" said Polly.
"Well, they think they're being kind," said Clogston. "And they could be a lot worse. And there's a war on. They don't want to look bad, but Froc didn't get to be a general by being nice. I have to warn you about that. You're still turning this down?"
Blouse looked round at his men. "I believe we are, major."
"Good," said Clogston, winking.
Clogston went back to his table and shuffled his papers. "The allegedly accused, sir, regretfully turn down the offer."
"Yes, I thought they might," said Froc. "In that case, they are to be returned to the cells. They will be dealt with later." Plaster showered down as something hit the outer wall again. "This has gone quite far enough!"
"We won't be sent to the cells!" Tonker shouted.
"Then that is mutiny, sir!" said Froc. "And we know how to deal with that!"
"Excuse me, general, does that then mean the tribunal does agree that these ladies are soldiers?" said Clogston.
General Froc glared at him. "Don't you try to tie me up with procedural nonsense, major!"
"It's hardly nonsense, sir, it's the very basis - "
The word was the faintest, merest suggestion in Polly's head, but it also seemed to be wired to her central nervous system. And not only hers. The squad ducked, Igorina throwing herself across her patient's body.
Half the ceiling collapsed. The chandelier fell down and exploded in a kaleidoscope of splintering prisms. Mirrors shattered. And then there was, by comparison at least, silence, broken only by the thud of a few late bits of plaster and the tinkle of a tardy shard.
Footsteps approached the big doors at the end of the room, where the guards were just struggling to their feet. The doors swung open.
Jackrum stood there, shining like the sunset. The light glinted off his shako badge, polished to the point where it would blind the incautious with its terrible gleam. His face was red, but his jacket was redder, and his sergeant's sash was the pure quill of redness, its very essence, the red of dying stars and dying soldiers. Blood dripped off the cutlasses thrust into his belt. The guards, still shaking, tried to lower their pikes to bar his way.
"Do not try it, lads, I beg you," said Jackrum. "Upon my oath I am not a violent man, but do you think Sergeant Jackrum is going to be stopped by a set of bleedin' cutlery?"
The men looked at Jackrum, steaming with barely controlled rage, and then at the astonished generals, and took an immediate decision on their own desperate initiative.
"Good lads," said Jackrum. "With your permission, General Froc?"
He did not wait for a reply but marched forward with parade-ground precision. He came to boot-crashing attention in front of the senior generals, still brushing plaster dust from their uniforms, and saluted with the precision of a semaphore.
"I beg to report, sir, that we now hold the main gates, sir! Took the liberty of putting together a force of the Ins-and-Outs, the Side-to-Sides and the Backwards-and-Forwards, sir, just in case, saw a big cloud o' flame and smoke over the place, and arrived at the gates just as your lads did. Got 'em coming and going, sir!"
There was a general cheer, and General Kzupi leaned towards Froc. "In view of this pleasing development, sir, perhaps we should hurry up and close this - "
Froc waved him into silence. "Jackrum, you old rogue," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I heard you were dead. How the devil are you?"
"Fightin' fit, sir!" barked Jackrum. "Not dead at all, despite the hopes of many!"
"Glad to hear it, man. But, while your rosy face is a welcome sight at any time, we are here to - "
"Fourteen miles I carried you, sir!" Jackrum roared, sweat pouring down his face. "Pulled that arrow out of your leg, sir. Sliced that devil of a captain who pushed an axe in your face, sir, and I'm glad to see the scar's looking well. Killed that poor sentry lad just to steal his water bottle for you, sir. Looked into his dyin' face, sir, for you. Never asked for nothing in return, sir. Right, sir?"
Froc rubbed his chin and smiled. "Well, I seem to remember there was that little matter of fudging some details, changing a few dates - " he murmured.
"Don't give me that bleedin' slop, sir, with respect. That wasn't for me, that was for the army. For the Duchess, sir. And, yeah, I see a few other gentlemen round this table who had reason to do the same little service for me. For the Duchess, sir. And if you was to leave me one sword I'd stand and fight any man in your army, sir, be he never so young and full of mustard!"
In one movement he pulled a cutlass from his belt and brought it down on the paperwork between Froc's hands. It bit through into the wood of the table, and stayed there.
Froc didn't flinch. Instead he looked up and said calmly, "Hero though you may be, sergeant, I fear that you have gone too far."
"Have I gone the full fourteen miles yet, sir?" said Jackrum.
For a moment there was no sound but that of the cutlass, vibrating to a halt. Froc breathed out. "Very well," he said. "What is your request, sergeant?"
"I notes you have my little lads before you, sir! I'm hearing that they are in a spot of bother, sir!"
"The girls, Jackrum, are to be restrained in a place of safety. This is no place for them. And that is my order, sergeant."
"I said to 'em when they signed up, sir, I said: if anyone drags you away they'll have to drag me away, too, sir!"
Froc nodded. "Very loyal of you, sergeant, and very much in your character. Nevertheless - "
"And I have information vital to these here deliberations, sir! There is something I must tell you, sir!"
"Well, by all means tell us, man!" said Froc. "You don't have to take all - "
"It requires that some of you gentlemen quit this room, sir," said Jackrum, desperately. He was still-at attention, still holding the salute.
"Now you do ask too much, Jackrum," said Froc. "These are loyal officers of her grace!"
"No doubt of it, sir! Upon my oath I am not a gossiping man, sir, but I will speak my piece to those I choose, sir, or speak it to the world. There's ways to do that, sir, nasty new-fangled ways. Your choice, sir!"
At last, Froc coloured. He stood up abruptly. "Are you seriously telling me that you'd - "
"This is my famous last stand, sir!" said Jackrum, saluting again. "Do or die, sir!"
All eyes turned to Froc. He relaxed. "Oh, very well. It can't do any harm to listen to you, sergeant. God knows you've earned it. But make it quick."
"Thank you, sir."
"But try this again and you'll be on the biggest fizzer you can imagine."
"No worry there, sir. Never been one for fizzers. I will by your leave point to certain men..."
They were about half of the officers. They rose with greater or lesser protest, but rise they did, under Froc's sapphire glare, and filed out into the corridor.
"General, I protest!" said a departing colonel. "We are being sent out of the room like naughty children while these... females are - "
"Yes, yes, Rodney, and if our friend the sergeant doesn't have a damn good explanation I'll personally turn him over to you for punishment detail," said Froc. "But he's entitled to his last wild charge if any man is. Go quietly, there's a good chap, and keep the war going until we get there. And have you finished this strange charade, sergeant?" he added, as the last of the officers left.
"All but one last thing, sir," said Jackrum, and stamped over to the guards. They were at attention already, but nevertheless contrived to become more attentive. "You lads go outside this door," said the sergeant. "No one is to come close, understand. And I know you boys won't try to eavesdrop, because of what'd happen to you if I ever found that you had done so. Off you go, hup, hup, hup!"
He shut the doors behind them and the atmosphere changed. Polly couldn't quite detect how, but perhaps it was that the click of the doors had said "This is our secret" and everyone present was in on it.
Jackrum removed his shako and laid it gently on the table in front of the general. Then he took off his coat and handed it to Polly, saying, "Hold this, Perks. It's the property of her grace." He rolled up his sleeves. He relaxed his enormous red braces. And then, to Polly's horror if not to her surprise, he brought out his paper screw of foul chewing tobacco and his blackened penknife.
"Oh, I say - " a major began, before a colleague nudged him into silence. Never had a man cutting a wad of black tobacco been the subject of such rapt, horrified attention.
"Things are going well outside," he said. "Shame you aren't all out there, eh? Still, the truth's important too, right? And that's what this tribunal is for, no doubt about it. It must be important, the truth, else you wouldn't be here, am I right? 'Course I am."
Jackrum finished the cut, palmed the stuff into his mouth and got it comfortable in a cheek, while the sounds of battle filtered through from outside. Then he turned and walked towards the major who had just spoken. The man cringed a little in his chair.
"What've you got to say about the truth. Major Derbi?" said Jackrum conversationally. "Nothing? Well, then, what shall I say? What shall I say about a captain who turned and ran sobbing when we came across a column of Zlobenians, deserting his own men? Shall I say that ol' Jackrum tripped him up and pummelled him a bit and put the fear of... Jackrum into him, and he went back and 'twas a famous victory he had that day, over two enemies, one of them being in his own head. And he came to ol' Jackrum again, drunk with battle, and said more'n he ought..."
"You bastard," said the major softly.
"Shall I tell the truth today... Janet?" said Jackrum.
The sounds of battle were suddenly much louder. They poured into the room like the water rushing to fill a hole in the ocean floor, but all the sound in the world could not have filled that sudden, tremendous silence.
Jackrum strolled on towards another man. "Good to see you here, Colonel Cumabund!" he said cheerfully. "O' course, you were only Lieutenant Cumabund when I was under your command. Plucky lad you were, when you led us against that detachment of Kopelies. And then you took a nasty sword wound in the fracas, or just above, and I got you through with rum and cold water, and found that plucky you might be, but lad you weren't. Oh, how you gabbled away in your feverish delirium... Yes, you did. That's the truth... Olga."
He stepped round the table and started to stroll along behind the officers; those he passed stared woodenly ahead, not daring to turn, not daring to make any movement that would attract attention.
"You could say I know something about all of yez," he said. "Quite a lot about some of you, just enough about most of you. A few of you, well, I could write a book." He paused just behind Froc, who stiffened.
"Jackrum, I - " he began.
Jackrum put a hand on each of Froc's shoulders. "Fourteen miles, sir. Two nights, 'cos we lay up by day, the patrols were that thick. Cut about pretty dreadful, you were, but you got better nursing from me than any sawbones, I'd bet." He leaned forward until his mouth was level with the general's ear, and continued in a stage whisper: "What is there left about you that I don't know? So... are you really looking for the truth... Mildred?"
The room was a museum of waxworks. Jackrum spat on the floor.
"You cannot prove anything, sergeant," said Froc eventually, with the calm of an icefield.
"Well now, not as such. But they keep telling me this is the modern world, sir. I don't need proof, exactly. I know a man who'd have such a tale to tell, and it'd be in Ankh-Morpork in a couple of hours."
"If you leave this room alive," said a voice.
Jackrum smiled his evillest smile, and bore down on the source of the threat like an avalanche. "Ah! I thought one of yez would try that, Chloe, but I note you never made it beyond major, and no wonder since you try to bluff with no bleedin' cards in your hand. Nice try, though. But, first, I could take you to the bleedin' cleaners before those guards were back in here, upon my oath, and, second, you don't know what I've writ down and who else knows. I trained all you girls at one time or another, and some of the cunning you got, some of the mustard, some of the sense... well, you got it from me. Didn't you? So don't any of you go thinking you can be artful about this, because when it comes to cunning I am Mister Fox."
"Sergeant, sergeant, sergeant," said Froc wearily, "what is it you want?"
Jackrum completed his circuit of the table and finished in front of it, once again like a man before his judges.
"Well, blow me down," he said quietly, looking along the row of faces. "You didn't know, did you... you didn't know. Is there a... a man among you that knew? You thought, every one of you, that you were all alone. All alone. You poor devils. And look at you. More'n a third of the country's High Command. You made it on your own, ladies. What could you have done if you'd acted tog - "
He stopped, and took a step towards Froc, who looked down at her cloven paperwork. "How many did you spot, Mildred?"
"That will be 'general', sergeant. I'm still a general, sergeant. Or 'sir' will do. And your answer is: one or two. One or two."
"And you promoted them, did you, if they was as good as men?"
"Indeed not, sergeant. What do you take me for? I promoted them if they were better than men."
Jackrum opened his arms wide, like a ringmaster introducing a new act. "Then what about the lads I bought with me, sir? As cracking a bunch of lads as I've ever seen." He cast a bloodshot eye around the table. "And I'm good at weighing up a lad, as you all know. They'd be a credit to your army, sir!"
Froc looked at her colleagues on either side. An unspoken question harvested unsaid answers.
"Yes, well," she said. "All seems clear to us, in the light of new developments. When beardless lads dress up as gels, there's no doubt that people will get confused. And that's what we've got here, sergeant. Mere confusion. Mistaken identities. Much ado, in fact, about nothing. Clearly they are boys, and may return home right now with an honourable discharge."
Jackrum chuckled and stuck out a palm, flexing the fingers upwards like a man bargaining. Once again, there was the communion of spirits.
"Very well. They can, if they wish, continue in the army," said Froc. "With discretion, of course."
Polly stared at Jackrum, and then realized the words had, in fact, come from her own mouth.
Froc raised her eyebrows. "What is your name again?" she said.
"Corporal Perks, sir!" said Polly, saluting.
She watched Froc's face settle into an expression of condescending benevolence. If she uses the words "my dear" I shall swear, she thought.
"Well, my dear - "
"Not your dear, sir or madam," said Polly. In the theatre of her mind The Duchess Inn burned to a cinder and her old life peeled away, black as charcoal, and she was flying, ballistic, too fast and too high and unable to stop. "I am a soldier, general. I signed up. I kissed the Duchess. I don't think generals call their soldiers 'my dear', do they?"
Froc coughed. The smile remained, but had the decency to be a bit more restrained. "And private soldiers don't talk like that to generals, young lady, so we'll let that pass, shall we?"
"Just here, in this room, I don't know what passes and what stays, sir," said Polly. "But it seems to me that if you are still a general then I'm still a corporal, sir. I can't speak for the others, but the reason I'm holding out, general, is that I kissed the Duchess and she knew what I was and she... didn't turn away, if you understand me."
"Well said, Perks," said Jackrum.
Polly plunged on. "Sir, a day or two ago I'd have rescued my brother and gone off home and I'd have thought it a job well done. I just wanted to be safe. But now I see there's no safety while there's all this... this stupidity. So I think I've got to stay and be a part of it. Er... try to make it less stupid, I mean. And I want to be me, not Oliver. I kissed the Duchess. We all did. You can't tell us we didn't and you can't tell us it doesn't count, because it's between us and her - "
"You all kissed the Duchess," said a voice. It had an... echo.
You all kissed the Duchess...
"Did you think that it meant nothing? That it was just a kiss?"
Did you think it meant nothing
just a kiss
The whispered words washed against the walls like surf, and came back stronger, in harmonies.
Did you kiss meant nothing meant a kiss just think a kiss meant a kiss
Wazzer was standing up.
The squad stood petrified as she walked unsteadily past them.
Her eyes focused on Polly, and then looked down at her own legs.
"So good to have a body again," she said. "I wonder what all the fuss is about..."
So good a body
the fuss is I wonder the fuss
Something was in Wazzer's face. Her features were all there, all correct, her nose was as pointed and as red, her cheekbones as hollow... but there were subtle changes.
She held up a hand and flexed her fingers.
"Ah," she said. "So..." There was no echo this time, but the voice was stronger and deeper. No one would ever have said that Wazzer's voice had been attractive but this one was.
She turned to Jackrum, who dropped onto his fat knees and whipped off his shako.
"Sergeant Jackrum, I know that you know who I am. You have waded through seas of blood for me. Perhaps we should have done better things with your life, but at least your sins were soldier's sins, and not the worst of them, at that. You are hereby promoted to sergeant major, and a better candidate for the job I have never met. You are steeped in deviousness, cunning and casual criminality, Sergeant Jackrum. You should do well."
Jackrum, eyes cast down, raised a knuckle to his forehead.
"...Not worthy, your grace," he muttered.
"Of course you aren't." The Duchess looked around. "Now, where is my army... ah."
There was no hesitancy now, and none of Wazzer's cowering and downcast eyes. She positioned herself directly in front of Froc, who was staring with his mouth open.
"General Froc, you must do one final service for me."
The general glared. "Who the hell are you?"
"You need to ask? As always, Jackrum thinks faster than you. You know me. I am the Duchess Annagovia."
"But you are - " one of the other officers began, but Froc held up a hand again.
"The voice... is familiar," she said, in a faraway whisper.
"Yes. You remember the ball. I remember it, too. Forty years ago. You were the youngest captain ever. We danced, stiffly in my case. I asked you how long you had been a captain, and you said - "
" - Three days," breathed Froc, with her eyes shut.
"And we ate Brandy Pillows, and a cocktail that I believe was called - "
" - Angel's Tears," said Froc. "I kept the menu, your grace, and the dance card."
"Yes," said the Duchess. "You did. And when old General Scaffer led you away, he said, 'That'll be something to tell your grandchildren, my boy.' But you were... so dedicated that you never had children... and what a man you became... my boy..."
...my boy... my boy...
"I see heroes!" said the Duchess, staring at the tableau of officers. "All of you gave up... much. But I demand more. Much more. Is there any amongst you who for the sake of my memory will not die in battle?" Wazzer's head turned and looked along the row, and smiled.
"No. I see there is not. And now I demand that you do what the ignorant might feel is the easier thing. You must refrain from dying in battle. Revenge is not redress. Revenge is a wheel, and it turns backwards. The dead are not your masters."
"What is it you want of me, ma'am?" Froc managed.
"Call in your other officers. Make what truces are necessary, for now. This body, this poor child, will lead you. I am weak, but I can move small things. Thoughts, perhaps. I will leave her... something, a light in the eye, a tone in the voice. Follow her. You must invade."
"Certainly! But how - "
"You must invade Borogravia! In the name of sanity, you must go home! The winter is coming, the trusting animals are not fed, old men die of cold, women mourn, the country corrodes. Fight Nuggan, because he is nothing now, nothing but the poisonous echo of all your ignorance and pettiness and malicious stupidity! Find yourself a worthier god. And let... me... go! All those prayers, all those entreaties... to me! Too many hands clasped, that could more gainfully answer your prayers by effort and resolve! And what was I? Just a rather stupid woman when I was alive. But you believed I watched over you, and listened to you... and so I had to, I had to listen, knowing that there was no help... I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe. Go. Invade the one place you've never conquered. And these women will help. Be proud of them. And, lest you think to twist my meaning, lest you doubt... let me, as I leave, return to you this gift. Remember. A kiss."
...a kiss a kiss return to you kiss
As one woman, as one man, the crowd in the room reached up hesitantly to their left cheek. And Wazzer folded up, very gently, collapsing like a sigh.
Froc was the first to speak. "This is... I think we need to..." She faltered into silence.
Jackrum got to his feet, brushed the dust off his shako, placed it on his head and saluted. "Permission to speak, sir?" he said.
"Oh, good heaven, Jackrum!" said Froc distractedly. "At a time like this? Yes, yes..."
"What are your orders, sir?"
"Orders?" Froc blinked, and looked around. "Orders, orders... yes. Well, I am the commander, I can request a... yes, I can request a truce, sergeant - "
"That's sergeant major, sir," said Jackrum. "Right you are, sir, I'll organize a runner to go to the Alliance."
"I suppose a... white flag would be - "
"Good as done, sir. Leave it to me," said Jackrum, radiating efficiency.
"Yes, of course... Er, before, before we go any further... ladies and gentlemen, I... er... some of the things said here... the whole issue of women joining as... women... obviously..." She raised her hand to her cheek again, in a kind of wonderment. "They are welcome. I... salute them. But for those of us that went before, perhaps it is not... not yet the time. You understand?"
"What?" said Polly.
"Lips sealed, sir!" said Jackrum. "You can leave it all to me, sir! Captain Blouse's squad, attention! You will obtain uniforms! You can't go around still dressed as washerwomen, oh dear me!"
"We are soldiers?" said Polly.
"O' course you are, otherwise I wouldn't be shouting at you, you 'orrible little woman! The world's turned upside down! It's a bit more important than you right now, eh? You've got what you're after, right? Now get hold of a uniform, find yourself a shako and wipe your face, at least. You are taking the official truce to the enemy."
"Me, sarge?" said Polly.
"Right! Just as soon as the officers have done the official letter. Tonker, Lofty... see what you can find for Perks to wear. Perks, don't be cowed, and bull yourself up. The rest of you, hurry up and wait!"
"Sergeant Jac - er, sergeant major?" said Blouse.
"I'm not a captain, you know."
"Are you not?" said Jackrum, grinning. "Well, leave it to Jackrum, sir. We shall see what the day brings, eh? Minor point, sir. I should lose the dress if I was you!"
Jackrum marched off, his inflated chest as red as a robin's and twice as threatening. He shouted at orderlies, harried guards, saluted officers and, despite everything, hammered the blade of purpose out of the red-hot steel of panic. He was a sergeant major in a roomful of confused ruperts, and he was happier than a terrier in a barrel of rats.
Stopping a battle is much harder than starting it. Starting it only requires you to shout "Attack!" but when you want to stop it, everyone is busy.
Polly could feel the news spreading. They're girls! The orderlies scuttling in and out once more kept staring at them, as if they were some kind of strange insects. I wonder how many Jackrum missed, Polly thought. I wonder...
Bits of uniform turned up. Jade found some trousers that fitted by locating a clerk who was Polly's height, lifting him up and pulling them off him. A jacket was acquired. Lofty even stole a shako of the right size and polished the badge with her sleeve until it gleamed. Polly was just doing up her belt when she spotted a figure on the far side of the room. She'd completely forgotten about him.
She pulled the belt tight and thrust the leather through the buckle as she walked and then strode through the crowds of figures. Strappi saw her coming, but it was too late. There was no escape short of running, and captains didn't run from corporals. He stood his ground, like a rabbit hypnotized by the approaching vixen, and raised his hands as she approached.
"Now then, Perks, I'm a captain and I had a job to - " he began.
"And how long do you think you'll hold that rank, now, sir?" hissed Polly. "When I tell the general about our little fight? And how you sicked the Prince onto us? And how you bullied Wazzer? And about my hair, you sticky little miserable apology for a man! Shufti's a better man than you and she's pregnant!"
"Oh, we knew there were women getting in," said Strappi. "We just didn't know how far the rot went - "
"You took my hair because you thought it meant something to me," hissed Polly. "Well, you can keep it! I'll grow some more, and no one is going to stop me, understand? Oh, and one other thing. This is how far the rot goes!"
It was a blow rather than a slap, and it knocked him down so hard that he rolled. But he was Strappi, and staggered upright with a finger pointed for vengeance.
"She struck a superior officer!" he screamed.
A few heads turned. They looked at Strappi. They looked at Polly. Then they looked back grinning to what they had been doing.
"I should run away again, if I was you," said Polly. She turned on her heel, feeling the heat of his impotent fury.
As she was about to rejoin Jade and Maladict, someone touched her arm. She spun round.
"What? Oh... sorry, Major Clogston," she said. She felt she wouldn't be able to deal with Strappi again, not without committing murder. That would probably get her into trouble, even now.
"I should like to thank you for a most enjoyable day," said the major. "I did my best, but I think we were all... outclassed."
"Thank you, sir," said Polly.
"This was a pleasure, Corporal Perks," said Clogston. "I shall watch your future career with interest and envy. Congratulations. And since in here protocol seems to be flapping loose, I will shake you by the hand."
They shook. "And now, we have duties," said Major Clogston, as Jade arrived with a white sheet on a pole. "Oh, and by the way... my name is Christine. And, you know, I really don't think I could get used to wearing a dress again..."
Maladict and Jade were chosen to see Polly through the castle, a troll because a troll commands respect and a vampire because a vampire demands it.
There were groans and cheers as they elbowed their way along the passages, because news had already got around. That was another reason for taking Jade. Trolls could push.
"Okay," said Jackrum, bringing up the rear. "At the bottom of these steps there's a door, and beyond that door is enemy territory. Put the white flag out first. Important safety tip."
"Can't you come with us, sarge?"
"Hah, me? I dare say there's a few people out there who'd take a potshot at me, white flag or no. Don't you worry. The word's gone out."
"What word's that, sarge?"
Jackrum leaned closer. "They ain't gonna shoot a girl, Perks!"
"You told them?"
"Let's just say that news gets around fast," said Jackrum. "Grab the advantage. And I'll find your brother while you're gone, upon my oath. Oh, one other thing... look at me, Perks."
Polly turned in the crowded, jostling corridor.
Jackrum's eyes twinkled.
"I know I can trust you, Perks. Make the most of it, lad. Kissin' don't last!"
Well, that couldn't be plainer, Polly thought as the armed men by the door beckoned them forward.
"Stick to the walls, okay, ladies? And be quick with that rag!"
The heavy door swung open. Half a dozen arrows bounced and pinwheeled along the corridor. Another one tore through the flag.
Polly waved it desperately. She heard distant shouting, and then cheers.
"Go! Go!" said a guard, pushing her forward.
She stepped out into the sudden daylight and, to make sure, waved the flag overhead a few more times. There were men in the courtyard and lining the battlements around it. There were bodies, too.
A captain, with blood soaking through his jacket, stepped across the fallen and held out his hand.
"You may give that to me, soldier," he said.
"No, sir. I must deliver it to your commander, and wait for his reply, sir."
"Then you give it to me, soldier, and I will bring you back the reply. You have surrendered, after all."
Polly shook her head. "No. This is a truce. That's not the same thing. I have to hand this over personally and you aren't big enough." A thought hit her. "I demand to take this to Commander Vimes!"
The captain stared at her, and then looked closer. "Aren't you one of those - "
"Yes," said Polly.
"And you locked them in chains and threw the key away?"
"Yes," said Polly, seeing her life start to flash before her eyes.
"And they had to hop miles with shackles on and no clothes?"
"And you're just... women?"