Mal lasts almost five days before vanishing. Those five days, spent picking up three more soldiers and then making their way towards the current army headquarters, are, in a way, reassuring in their familiarity; Polly is unavoidably reminded of the long, slow march to the capital. She and Mal make use of the time to teach the new soldiers something about being soldiers.
The squad consists of three girls and two boys; only one of the girls had joined up as a girl, but there’s an instant kinship between Patricia, who immediately becomes Pusher, and the other two. Mary and Rosemary (now going by Marvin and Earnest but quickly dubbed Dosser and Conchie), had grown up together, Polly soon finds out, and Mal informs her that the two girls are more than just friends. While there are rules against fraternization, Polly quietly and subtly makes it clear that as long as no higher-ups find out, those rules don’t really apply.
Of the two actual boys in the squad, only one initially balks at being under the command of two women. He’s known as Pozzy, which Polly finds confusing sometimes, but she lets it slide. She doesn’t let his attitude toward women slide; by the second day, he’s properly respectful. He also flinches every time he’s near Mal, so something may have been said there too.The other boy, Kenneth, hasn’t said more than about ten words total, at least that Polly has heard, since joining up, but he seems bright. On the third day, Polly suggests to Mal that this is a lad who may do well with Blouse, helping him out, and Mal agrees that it's a good idea, and someone should see to it once they’ve actually managed to find Blouse.
At night, when the lads (for they are Polly’s little lads, regardless of gender) are in their leaky tent and Polly and Mal are alone in their own slightly less leaky command tent, they talk. At first it’s just reminiscing about the war, about the long journey to the Kneck, and the cheering mob on the road to PrinceMarmadukePiotreAlbertHansJosephBernhardtWilhelmsberg, and how everything had changed the moment it became clear that no one in their squad was actually a man. The topic of conversation then drifts to what everyone is doing now.
“Shufti’s Jack is almost a year now,” says Polly on the fourth night. “She’s thinking about having another one. She said she’s going to find a better man this time, though. She’s never said, but I think she’s a bit worried Jack is going to turn out like his father.”
“Is she going to get married this time?” asks Mal lazily.
“I don’t think so,” says Polly. “She seems to be happy with the way things are.”
“Are you?” asks Mal suddenly. “Happy with the way things are?”
Polly’s first instinct is to respond that yes, of course she is, this is what she wants to be doing. This is Mal, thought, Mal who was there for the whole adventure and was the last of them to say anything about gender and can understand. So Polly thinks for a few minutes, and then offers an honest answer.
“Sometimes I think it was better when no one knew we were women,” she admits. “But this is better in the long run. Look at Pusher - she’s a great soldier, and she’s doing it as a woman. We weren’t important as soldiers. We were just - mascots. But maybe, if we keep going, someday a girl can be important as a soldier.” She stops, uncomfortably aware that she’s just made a speech. She hadn’t even known that that was her opinion until just now.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Mal points out quietly.
Polly sighs. “Then no, I’m not happy. I liked it better when we were just soldiers. But there’s no going back. And anyway, Jackrum told me, and I think he’s right: whatever you do, good or bad, it’s important that you do it as you.”
The tent was silent for so long that Polly was afraid she’d put Mal to sleep.
“You’re right,” said Mal eventually. “That is important.” Polly’s not sure what to say, so she says nothing. Soon, the thoughtful silence gives way to the silence of sleep.
The next day, Mal is gone.
“The corporal is on a mission and will be back soon,” she says when Dosser asks. Seeing Pozzy perk up at this news, she turns towards him. “Why are you smirking, soldier? Something funny?”
“No, Sarge,” mumbles the unfortunate Pozzy.
“That’s sergeant to you,” snaps Polly. She lets herself get swept up in the business of being in charge of a squad and manages to put Mal out of her mind.
It’s hard to fall asleep. Polly is surprised and a little ashamed that it took her so little time to become used to Mal’s presence, Mal’s breathing, Mal’s talk, the pervasive smell of coffee that always accompanies Mal. She sleeps fitfully, wondering if something had happened, or if maybe vampires just need to vanish sometimes.
The sixth day since Polly left the Duchess for the second time is very similar to those that came before it. Polly realizes that she should appoint a new corporal. Much as she balks at the thought of replacing Mal in any capacity, it needs to be done. If Mal hasn’t returned in two days, she promises herself, she’ll find one. Conchie seems promising, if not very interested in winning wars, or maybe Pusher, if she can learn to shout.
Polly has just finished putting up her tent when she feels a presence behind her. Spinning around and drawing on of the cutlasses she inherited from Jackrum, she sees a dark shape that resolves itself into Mal, now wearing a pair of trousers rather than a skirt and looking sheepish enough that Polly is reminded of the boat where they met up a week ago, but otherwise unchanged.
“You’re back,” she says, slowly sliding the cutlass back into its sheath. Aware that this remark was particularly inane, she rallies and tries again. “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” replies Mal, in a tone that suggests this should be enough of an explanation. It isn’t.
“And?” prompts Polly. It starts to drizzle, and she ducks into the tent, closely followed by Mal. “What I said when?”
Mal settles on one of the still-rolled-up bedrolls Polly had tossed into the tent while setting it up. The tent is silent but for the pitter-patter of raindrops on canvas.
“You said that whatever I do next, I should do it as me,” says Mal. “I needed to go figure out who ‘me’ is.”
And you couldn’t do that here? Polly wants to ask, but she knows that there’s no good answer. “Who is you, then?” she asks instead. “Or who are you, I suppose?”
“Not someone who wears the women’s uniform, to start with,” says Mal. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s not right for me.”
“Are you not a woman, then?” asks Polly. She’s not particularly surprised. Of them all, Mal-the-boy had always seemed least like a costume.
“Probably not,” agrees Mal. “But I’m not a man, either.”
“You’re you,” says Polly. “That’s enough.”
“Good.” Mal seems to be at a bit of a loss, like they hadn’t expected things to go this well. Polly unrolls the bedroll not being perched on by Mal and drops her pack near the end of it. She turns back to Mal to see that they’re no longer sitting, but rather standing near her. Quite near her.
“Mal?” Polly starts to say. She’s cut off by a kiss from Mal. It’s a short kiss, no more than Mal’s lips brushing against hers, and it’s over before Polly can decide how to respond.
“Is this OK?” asks Mal. They look a little nervous, and very much like she should be kissing them. Polly is suddenly very glad that she’s already decided fraternization rules don’t apply to her squad.
“More than OK,” she responds, putting all thoughts of the soldiers under her command out of her mind and leaning in to kiss Mal back.