The improved relations between Borogravia and Uberwald had put the little border town of Bad Romantz on the map. Literally, in fact, since the border wall erected by Lord Kanapay in previous decades had seen it divided back into its smaller component villages of Mantz and Bad Aroma. But now, in what Polly was learning was a common military activity everywhere, they'd been sent here to take down what previous Borogravian troops had been sent to put up.
Her little lads had taken to the task of demolition with enthusiasm - particularly young Spudger, AKA Nellie, who had to be dissuaded from tactics that would have levelled several nearby buildings along with the wall - and were now attacking sign-painting with equal gusto but a somewhat scattershot approach to spelling. Since few other Borogravians could read and write either, the people of Badd Rowmans probably wouldn't mind.
Maladicta had absented herself from proceedings, claiming a cultural aversion to watching bits of wood be pounded in with sledgehammers. Instead, she'd taken on the job of babysitting their current Rupert, the balding, slightly befuddled and above all malleable Lieutenant Garta, to make sure he didn't give away the country in their negotiations with the burgomaster from the Uberwald side of the line. Polly hadn't been entirely surprised when this ended in an invitation for her and Maladicta to stay at the local castle while Garta bunked down with the lads, on the theory that this built character. In fairness, he could certainly do with some.
Her Uberwaldean was limited, but the increasing urgency of the burgomaster's gestures as the night drew on had been hard to miss. "They were pretty suspiciously insistent," she said as they climbed the road to the castle through the rain. The storm clouds seemed to have gathered out of nowhere once they were over the border, and it was hard to escape the feeling that the burgomaster had wanted them out before the worsening weather forced them to stay the night in the town itself.
"They're used to more... old-fashioned vampires round here," Maladicta said. "They don't mind me being here, but they'd definitely rather I spent the night up at the castle where I belong."
Polly might have objected on principle, but she was learning these days that just because it was her principle didn't mean it was what other people actually wanted. Maladicta was always happier when they could find her a nice dark cellar to hang upside-down in, or at a pinch at least a cart to lie beneath. She complained that it didn't feel right trying to sleep flat on her back without a coffin lid overhead.
"So why did they want me to go with you?" she asked instead. She would have insisted on it anyway, but if it was just having a vampire in town after dark that bothered them, then it seemed odd.
"Tradition," Maladicta said, teeth gleaming in the moonlight as she smiled that annoying smile that said it amused her to know something Polly didn't. Polly still wasn't sure if that was a vampire thing or just a Maladicta thing.
She might have pressed for an explanation, but a deep rumble of thunder filled the air. Clouds that up until now had been content with draping themselves artistically around the moon abruptly decided they'd had enough of this vapour business and would rather try out a promising new career as a lake. Polly clamped her hand down on her shako to stop it from escaping in the rising wind. "How far to the-"
Perfectly on cue, lightning stabbed down from the sky, illuminating the shape of Castle Notfaroutoe against the skyline.
As castles went, it was very... pointy. Where Kneck Keep had clung to the rocks like a soldier trying to peer over the edge without sticking too many important bits into the line of fire, whoever built this place had clearly got a special offer on turrets, gargoyles and miscellaneous spiky bits, with a few bonus balconies thrown in for free. All those big windows didn't look very defensible, but that was all right, since the castle also wasn't built anywhere strategically useful.
But Uberwald, she'd learned, had castles like Borogravia had wars. There were castles because there had always been castles, until you couldn't stop building them no matter how ruinous the expense, because what was Uberwald without its castles? The locals might have lived in fear of the masters of the castle for centuries, but it would never have occurred to them to relocate to somewhere else free of its looming threat.
Of course, that had been in the bad old days, before the vampires had learned the benefits of repressing their instincts with a hearty chorus of Not Gonna Be a Sucker Any More and some really intense new hobbies.
Polly looked towards Maladicta and found her looking back, with a glint of teeth that somehow managed to find the one shaft of moonlight through the driving rain. "Well, let's go and check out the local hospitality," she said.
Castle Notfaroutoe perched improbably atop a rocky crag, the approach road a narrow ledge with a sheer drop on the left. As they made their way across, lightning struck a wiry tree above the path. It tore loose from the scree with a mighty crack, bearing down upon them in a gathering tide of rocks. Polly barely had time to even turn towards the sound before Maladicta swept up from behind, carrying her forward at a speed that almost felt like they left the ground.
The rockslide crashed down behind them, so close that the spindly branches of the fallen tree snatched at Maladicta's pack as it slid past. The buckles gave as it tore off of her shoulder, tumbling down over the cliff's edge.
"My coffee!" She looked about ready to dive off after it.
Polly flung a hasty arm out in front of her chest. "There's more back at camp," she reminded her. Everyone in their unit knew to carry extra coffee rations, just in case. "And you've still got the emergency necklace. You've only got to manage for one night."
Maladicta strained against her grip for a moment, though it was clearly more a yearning than any true effort to get away. For all that Polly could have wrapped her arms around her slender form with ease, she didn't kid herself that she could truly hold a vampire back against her will.
But after a moment, she regained control of herself. "Yes, of course. No, I'm perfectly in control. It's just a bit... atmospheric around here." A roll of thunder helpfully jumped in to punctuate.
Straightening up, Polly turned to inspect the scene of their close call. The rockslide had strewn a small heap of rubble across the path. Not impossible to clear, especially with Maladicta's strength, but it was no job for a stormy night.
"It's blocked the way back, too," she said. "What are the odds of that?"
"You'd be thurprithed," said a voice from right behind her.
She spun around in startlement at the familiar lisp. "Igor?" she said.
"No, it'th Igor. But it'th a common mithtake." The lopsided figure who'd appeared behind them wasn't their Igor, who in any case was an Igorina these days, but he was definitely an Igor. If the hump and the stitches weren't enough of a clue, the extra ear would have been. When an Igor said things like, 'He has his father's eyes,' they meant it literally.
"The thtormth are a devil for breaking off cartwheelth and dethtroying overnight bagth," he said. "And let'th not even talk about hortheth. If you thee candlelight flicker in a dithtant window, jutht drop your luggage now, that'th my advithe." He raised a storm lantern. "I'm here to ethcort you to the carthle."
"Do they have coffee?" Maladicta asked him urgently.
Igor drew himself - well, half of himself - up haughtily. "Count Notfaroutoe doeth not drink... coffee," he said.
"Tea?" Polly said optimistically, shivering in the damp. Even army saloop would have been welcome right now.
"Oh, he'th partial to a nithe cup of tea," he said, nodding. "And I think he'th thtill got thome of thothe little ginger bithcuith."
Their hosts were, unsurprisingly, vampires. Very determinedly vampires, in a way that made Polly think of socks and competitive belching. The Count was a portly little middle-aged man who introduced himself as Arthur Winkings before his wife corrected him to remind him of his title. He was, apparently, a wholesale fruit and vegetable merchant from Ankh-Morpork.
"Of course, the castle was in a real state when we inherited it," he told them. "Wasn't worth doing up, so we turned round and went straight home. But with the border opening again and the new railway line to Bonk, Doreen thought we should open it up for members of the League of Temperance to go on retreats."
"Igor hass been a great help," said the Countess, a woman who was doing her best to be pale and gaunt in defiance of a genetic destiny to be plump and ruddy-faced. Her accent seemed to get mysteriously stronger every time she addressed a comment to Maladicta. "I'm afraid we haff not yet completed the guest crypt, sadly. Artore still needs to svort out the damp down zere."
"It's very damp," Arthur said, nodding.
"And ze price ze local merchants charge for coffins iss shockink."
"Shocking prices," he agreed.
"But I'm sure zat you and your yunk lady vill be comfortable in ze guest rooms upstairs," the Countess said brightly. "Zey haff the traditional billowink curtains and dribbly candles and everythink."
Polly wasn't entirely certain what she meant by yunk lady, but decided it was probably best not to ask. The Winkings seemed nice enough, but their overly earnest efforts at vampirism reminded her rather painfully of early days with Lieutenant Blouse. Besides, Maladicta was starting to look distinctly twitchy amid all the opera dress and attempts to put her at her ease by offering blood pudding for breakfast.
Igor escorted them up to a pair of rooms up in one of the towers, managing to raise a symphony of creaks and groans from every step of the staircase. "Hourth of work, it taketh, getting thothe tuned," he told them. "It'th nithe to work for a mithtreth who apprethiateth the clathicth. Now, if you'll excuthe me, I've got to get back to knitting the thpiderwebth. There are thuitable nightclotheth provided if you want to change out of your wet thingth."
This parting comment was directed mostly at Polly. She couldn't help noticing that while she might be soaked to the bone, Maladicta looked as though she'd been for a pleasant stroll through a light mist. "How can you be barely even damp?" she demanded.
Maladicta's answering smile seemed to show more than the usual hint of teeth. "The trick is being fast enough to walk between raindrops," she said.
It was quite unfair, Polly thought, how vampires always managed to look alluring and mysterious. They seemed to have some kind of inherent glamour where no matter what state they were in, it was somehow always the most attractive one they could possibly be in right now.
Well, Maladicta did. Between Otto Chriek and the Winkings, she was starting to think that maybe it wasn't as universal a trait as she'd assumed.
Still, there was a definite hint of something manic around Maladicta's eyes. She lifted her emergency coffee bean necklace off from around her neck. "You'd better take this, or I'll just end up sucking it dry in my sleep." As their fingertips brushed, Polly could swear she felt Maladicta vibrating slightly. She watched Polly fasten it around her own neck with overly rapt attention.
The idea of being separated made Polly a little tense herself. She judged the threat level of the Winkings to be somewhere on a par with a six-year-old using apple slices for vampire teeth, but all the same, she'd grown used to bunking down with Maladicta in sight. Still, the thought of sleeping in a proper bed for once had definite appeal.
She revised that thought slightly when she got her first look at the room. Nuggan would definitely have declared this an improper bed. It was a vast four-poster with flowing silk sheets and a baffling profusion of pillows. Her imagination failed when it came to what any couple occupying it could do with more than two each, except possibly build a fort.
It was the only part of the setup that seemed particularly defensible, given the set of doors opening out onto the balcony. The billowing curtains were the only thing shielding occupants from spying eyes. Well, that and the sheer drop onto sharp rocks below the tower, admittedly. Still, it was clear that vampires designed their castles with more of an eye to style than the risk of enemy invasions.
Not to mention their idea of suitable sleepwear.
Back at the Duchess, Polly's chosen nightclothes had run to the durable and modestly all-covering in case of late-night guest emergencies. Since joining the army, her sartorial choices had largely been governed by how quickly she was likely to need to get back into whatever bits of uniform she'd taken off to sleep. Neither experience had prepared her for what, thanks to some almost-certainly-Abominated-by-Nuggan novels that the Widow Clambers had left at the inn, she had a hazy feeling was called a diaphanous pegnoyer.
It was sort of a dressing gown, in the same way that scubbo was sort of a stew; it technically fulfilled the basic requirements while distinctly lacking in substance. She supposed the satiny material was meant to feel decadent, but between that and the silk sheets she mostly just had the nagging feeling she was in danger of sliding out of bed during the night.
All the same, it was better than bunking down in her wet uniform, and the soldier in her had learned to snatch the opportunities to be warm and dry where they came. She mounted an expedition to find the middle of the bed, hoping she wouldn't be smothered by a pillow avalanche during the night.
Outside, the storm still raged. The curtains out onto the balcony fluttered in the wind, casting shadowy shapes with each flash of lightning. Paul had always been scared of storms, but they'd never bothered Polly. Bad weather meant good business for the inn, and it was amazing how a woman taking on men's work conveniently ceased to be an Abomination if it saved cold and thirsty customers from waiting too much longer for their drinks.
Storms in Uberwald, however, clearly had a flair for the dramatic. She could swear the silhouette cast by the wind-blown curtains looked almost like... a figure crouching on the balcony...?
She rolled off the bed and dived for her horsebow. As her fingers closed around it, a pale, lurching shape came crashing through the balcony doors with a deathly groan.
Polly's fingers slackened on the horsebow. Instead, she reached for the alchemical matches on the mantelpiece to light one of Igor's pre-dribbled candles. "Maladicta?"
By the candlelight, it was obvious her corporal was in bad shape. Her face was slick with sweat as she staggered forward to seize Polly by the collar. "They gave me a coffin to sleep in!" she said urgently.
"That's... nice of them?" Polly hazarded. They'd also apparently given her some fancy formalwear that included, she couldn't help envying, a pair of trousers. She was very much aware that the pegnoyer, being designed to show off assets she would have required some strategic deployment of socks to acquire, was not so much low-cut as outright gaping.
Maladicta shook her by the thin material, oblivious. "You don't understand! There are bats up in the belfry. I think I heard a wolf howling. My wallpaper has a blood-splatter pattern! It's too much. It's setting my teeth on edge, and they've got a lot of edge to be set on! I just turned into a bat for the first time in three years to fly over to this balcony!"
"Wait, you can fly?" Polly said. That sounded like something that would have been useful to know at some point in their military careers.
She looked momentarily sheepish. "Only off balconies. Otherwise I just sort of flop. It's an airspeed thing." Then her gaze dropped, rather lower than Polly was quite comfortable with given her current state of dress, or lack of it.
But right now Maladicta had eyes for only one thing. "I nnneed my coffee!" She tackled Polly to the bed, biting at the string of coffee beans around her neck. Polly yelped, craning her neck to avoid the snapping teeth. She was more startled than threatened, but an accidental scrape wasn't going to do any favours for Maladicta's fraying self-control.
A sharp jerk of Maladicta's head was enough to snap the string of the necklace. Beans pinged off the wallpaper and scattered across the bedspread as she sucked the section she'd torn free into her mouth. There was a tense pause, silent except for the faint sound of coffee beans being drained dry.
Polly had the chance to be very aware of the fact they were pressed practically full-length together. She blushed hotly, and hoped Maladicta couldn't feel it through the... well, actually, there wasn't an awful lot separating the two of them from being skin to skin, now she came to notice it.
At last Maladicta drew the string out from between her teeth. They seemed to have shrunk back down to more their usual size.
"Feeling better?" Polly asked. Her heart was still pounding.
"I'm fine," she said. "I just get a little agitated when I don't have my coffee within easy reach." She made no move to get off of Polly.
"Only, you seem to be... staring at my neck." Or somewhere in the general neck region, anyway. Possibly a bit lower down. She swallowed.
Maladicta smirked. "Just scouting out the territory," she said, and then darted her head forward to retrieve an errant coffee bean.
The sensation of cold lips brushing close to her ear was very, very disconcerting. "Urk," she said.
A hint of teeth glinted as Maladicta's smile widened. "Maybe I should just stay here for easier access. What do you say, sarge?"
Polly was aware there were undercurrents to this conversation that she wasn't practised at navigating. In fact, she'd barely even navigated any surface currents. She'd never quite figured out the appeal of boys beyond presuming it had something to do with the power of socks, and the relatively new idea that there could be other options was still something she'd only tentatively poked around the edges of.
She found herself wishing that she had some socks in place right now, and not just for the extra layer under her decidedly skimpy nightwear. That strange bravado that came into play with the swaggering walk they enforced would surely have generated some bolder, more daring response than to hold up what remained of the broken necklace and say, "Er, here's the rest of the beans."
The protagonists of Widow Clambers' romances, she was sure, would not have made that move. On the other hand, they also seemed to swoon at the drop of a hat and spend all their time mooning over whichever rich aristocrat managed to be the rudest, so she wasn't overly inclined to look to them for life advice.
She was, however, slightly disappointed when Maladicta just took the beans to tuck into her a pocket instead of picking them up with her teeth. Not to mention indignant that she'd wangled an outfit with pockets while Polly had been cast in the role of, well, a vampire's yunk lady. The spirit of socks rose up in a flash of woolly defiance.
"And I think one went down my diaphanous pegnoyer," she added. Then blushed again as Maladicta's gaze followed the likely path with distinctly predatory intent. "Er."
The spirit of socks, she'd found, had a tendency to make you dive into things first and only figure out how nervous you ought to be about them afterwards. Though it wasn't necessarily a bad sort of nervous...
Maladicta's smile had grown sharp edges. "Every day's a new adventure for you, isn't it, Poll?" she said.
She went in search of her lost coffee bean.
And Polly learned many new, interesting things.