Captain Fletcher's hooves clattered over the floorboards of the barracks as he finished morning inspection and turned to face the line of new stallions. Packed earth would have been quieter, but was demeaning. Carpeting would have done, too, but was expensive, especially the way hooves tore it up.
The stalls were tidy and the recruits in good order. All stood at attention, in the rusty red T-shirts that were the cavalry fatigues, still fresh and clean at the start of the day. Right about now, they would be wondering why he was pausing. This was because it was time for the Talk. Experience had taught him that two months in was about the best time. He had given the Talk dozens of times, but of course it was always a little awkward.
"Good. At ease." The recruits eased their hindquarters down onto the floor and spread their forelegs to brace, but kept their man-backs straight, arms folded behind. There were only six, but that was a pretty good year's recruitment for the Dedicated Cavalry.
A bit of shaving soap behind an ear caught his eye. "Darneley, how many times a day are you shaving?"
"Three, sir. You see–"
"Yes, five o'clock shadow keeps coming early now. Like to look sharp?" His smile was forced and faintly worried. Beards were the fashion in the cavalry now, as was often the case. If Darneley was bucking that trend, he might just be individualistic, but if he was shaving thrice a day to keep up with his new metabolism, he might be doing it for some girl, which was concerning. Which brought Fletcher's mind round to the Talk again.
Fletcher gazed abstractedly at Fells, the only other clean-shaven pip. Fells was even more concerning, being handsomer. He assumed Fells shaved to show off his noble profile. Not that Fletcher blamed the fellow, with that jawline. Fletcher's jawline, like everyone else's, was concealed by a full beard. Fletcher knew that, with his flowing white beard, he looked like an athletic Santa Claus, from the waist up, a resemblance enhance by the red uniform jacket with white piping.
The profile was turning pink under Fletcher's stare, so he averted his gaze.
"It's just that my beard comes in patchy, sir," said Darneley.
"Maybe it used to, but it won't since you got on hooves." He glanced at Wardley, huge and dark, his Adam's apple already hidden forever. Wardley smiled back, or so one inferred from the rounding of the cheeks and the lift of the mustache ends.
"Next up, agility training. But a word before you go, men. And it is as men I wish to speak to you, not as stallions. You will have noticed observers at the edge of the exercise field. Many of them are girls and young women." Carlin and Fells smiled slightly. Weldon looked unhappy. Hm. "I believe some of you have talked with them." Carlin certainly had. "And that's all fine. But next month you will start getting leave time some days, to go into town, and I need to remind you of some things about the career and shapes and life we have chosen.
"By the time you took that sagitta in the chest, each of you had agreed to live as a confirmed bachelor. So I'm sure the increase in female interest is frustrating as well as gratifying, especially when you're now feeling even more vigorous." You didn't pause before the word "vigorous." It encouraged snickering.
"It's a regular thing. You'll encounter it wherever you go. A couple of you have older brothers on hooves; they may have told you about it." Or your sisters may have. "Girls are often horse-crazy. If the horse is also a gentleman, he often finds himself very popular. You must learn how to respond." Take a basic fondness for big healthy animals. Add to this animal the capacity to flirt.
"You respond as a gentleman. Part of your new popularity is their feeling that, with you, they are safe. Safe from being sexually pressured."
"You mean like with a gay friend?" ask Carlin, slightly incredulous. Normally, pips shouldn't break in like that, but Fletcher wanted candor at the moment, and as group lectures went, this was as free-rein as it was possible to get.
"A bit, yes. In that particular regard. And you will do nothing to disturb that feeling of safety. Otherwise, you will be punished as a man, not a beast, and to the fullest legal extent. It does happen, once in a while, and that is how we respond.
"Most people know the old stories, of course, and many have seen a lot of classical art, and that puts an edge on the attraction, too, but only as long as it stays good and imaginary. Technically, we're monsters, and people will remember that damned fast if you give cause. People of both sexes." The observers at the exercise field had included fathers and mothers of the girls, and they were watching the girls, not the pips.
"Ordinary conversation, of course," said Fletcher, in the tone of one going down a list. "Friendly chat, fine. Flirtation– There's two kinds of flirting: testing the waters and just for amusement. We are restricted to the latter.
"And that's as far as it generally goes, except for rides. 'Will you give me a ride?' It always comes up. And everyone remembers Hartlett." Everyone in cavalry circles, at least. Hartlett had been a cavalry guard at the palace for decades and had given rides to three generations of royal children and their friends. One of his saddles was in a museum, with photos and watercolors around it.
"Rides are fine if you use common sense. Give them in daylight and in public. (You'll be withers deep in children after the first one.) Use a saddle—more comfortable for everyone—and insist on a good saddle pad. But refuse reins. Anyone who asks you to put on reins is very ignorant, teasing, or has very ... specialized tastes." There, they could snigger at that one. "Of course, if your tastes are the same, there's no more to be said."
"Can we gallop, sir?" asked Carlin. His performance on the exercise field showed he clearly delighted in this gait that was so specific to four legs. Fletcher thought he delighted in other things, too.
"Certainly, if you're confident she can stay on. Learn to gauge how tightly your riders are gripping with their knees, and pay attention to where their weight is.
"But make sure they're up for it. No surprises. They may like the fantasy of being run away with, but not the reality." Geraldine Thurbright certainly hadn't. And it was only her suspicion, not reality. He'd been quite innocent, just picking up his pace a bit from trot to canter. His rear ribcage still twinged at the memory of her heels digging in. "As you were, sir! What do you think you're up to?" Expostulations and indignation from him. Deliberately insincere apology from her. The rest of the ride had been concluded with barely a word.
"Anything remotely like that ends badly for you. There's a copy of Hamilton's Mythology in the library. Read the stories about Nessus and the Lapiths. They're easy to find: the book falls open to them.
"So you're going to be bachelors. But that doesn't mean you have no families. You won't have children, but I think you all have siblings or cousins. Most of their children will think having an uncle on hooves is amazingly 'cool.' " He knew he pronounced it with quotation marks. He couldn't help it. "So if you want family life, see them as much as you can while you're in. That way, the contact will still be there after your stint." Assuming, of course, you survive. Scouts in the out-zones had plenty of hazards.
"Are you an uncle, sir?" asked Fells, he of the noble profile. Fletcher was a little surprised to get the question from that quarter.
"Yes, by St. Martin! And great-uncle. Talk about rides! I take exercise to keep from getting swaybacked." Chuckles from the pips.
"So there you are. Your bachelorhood is a disadvantage, but there are mitigations. I know that was very personal and awkward, but we're not quite done yet. After agility, I want to see each of you individually, some time this morning. See Lieutenant Sanders about times. Grab a bowl of mulch, then off you go."
Sanders opened Fletcher's office door and looked in. "First one's here, sir. Fells."
Lt. Sanders was a rangy palomino with white-blond hair. He had a close-trimmed yellow beard, waxed to a point, and vast waxed mustaches. A usual beard is just a fashion choice, thought Fletcher, but that one is a hobby. Fletcher privately thought of him as "the triceratops."
But Fletcher also suspected Sanders was subtle enough to be using his silly whiskers to a purpose—to look less intimidating. He was, after all, a seven-foot tall, half-ton, semi-human monster. But with silly whiskers. That took the edge off, as did, say, looking grandfatherly, even if you couldn't help looking grandfatherly. Certainly, no one in town was afraid of Sanders or him, as far as he knew, and that was not always true of the pips.
Sanders backed out of the door—a move the pips could not yet do easily—and admitted Fells of the noble profile.
He was undoubtedly gorgeous, a positive recruiting poster for scrambling your species, leanly muscled, a palomino even more golden than Sanders, in his late twenties, and with that handsome face.
It was no wonder he had lots of conversationalists waiting for him whenever he finished his rounds on the track and came over to the fence for a breather. How much of a problem was that going to be?
But Fletcher was Receptant. He had learned to recognize and trust that source of hunches, and he thought Fells looked fragile, for all his athletic grandeur. The fellow had taken the sagitta like a martyr.
He paused with his barrel halfway through the door and saluted. "Have a seat," Fletcher said, indicating the pad in front of his desk. Fells sank down into a crouching posture easily. That was good.
He smiled at Fletcher. "So do you want me to grow a beard, sir?"
Fletcher smiled back and waved the subject away. "Just badinage. Given all the rest you've changed, your face is your own. See what we looked like when I was in your place." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at a picture on the wall.
Fells rose and looked. Eight recruits, four clean-shaven, one with muttonchops, two with goatees, and one mustachioed. "That's you with just the mustache, sir?"
Fells looked at the arrow mounted on a wooden plaque just under the picture. "Is this your sagitta, sir?"
"Yes. It's just a stick, now, of course, but it makes a good souvenir. Did you keep yours?"
"Yes, sir." He came back to the pad. A man would have done it by turning on his heel. Fells couldn't do that anymore, but he wheeled in a tight arc with only a hint of coltish awkwardness remaining.
He began talking at once. He had prepared for this. "It's not vanity, sir, or stubbornness. It's just that I want my daughter to know me. She's very small, four years old, and she hasn't seen me a lot. Her grandparents are bringing her up here in a few days, as soon as they can make it."
And that was why he hung about the spectators. He was on the lookout.
"My wife died two years ago. I... wasn't good for anything after that. I just kept grinding to a halt. My parents had to take custody of my daughter—I tried to take care of her but... Well, I'd rather not catalog those failures. I tried counseling, and medication and even shock treatment. Finally, I decided to try magic. To turn into something else and ... get a little distance."
"And is it working?"
"I think so, sir. A whole new life. New body. New feelings." Especially those, Fletcher thought.
"You're not running away," he said to Fells.
"No, sir, please don't think that."
"I don't. It wasn't a question or a challenge, but an observation. You're eager to see your daughter; that shows you're not running."
"Yes, sir. They're moving here, actually, my parents and her, so I can see as much of her, of all of them, as possible."
Fletcher nodded. "And they've prepared her for your change of form?"
"Yes. I've sent pictures, too."
"Good. Children are very accepting of strange creatures, anyway." He suppressed the reflection that parents were another matter. Parents were suppose to be unchanging, axiomatic. And already her mother was dead. Would Fells make a better father as a sane beast than as a mad man? Arguably. Fells thought so. Too late now.
"If you can arrange it," Fletcher said, "let her see your face and talk to you before she sees your whole body. So she knows Da is there. There's some low hedging by the car park..."
Fells nodded. "Thank you, sir."
"I was going to probe you about the issue of bachelorhood, your understanding and plans, but we seem to have got beyond that."
Fells waved a hand dismissively. "I've had love and a marriage. I don't want another. This just seals it."
If this were a novel, Fletcher thought, he'd find another love, all against his better judgment, and his transformation would be a hell of a plot complication. As it is, maybe the main problem is that Da is trooping off to the out-zones in a few months. Well, he leaves a good salary for support. "Thank you, Fells. I know much more about where we stand, now. And best of luck."
"Thank you, sir."
When he had gone, Fletcher glared at the folder on the desk before him. "There is nothing in here about marriage or a child or being widowed or psychiatric trouble. They just certify that he's a Crown subject in good standing, not in gaol, and competent to take the oath. They give his before and after medical data, and that it was me that shot him. And that's it."
Sanders sighed. "They want more cavalry than there are men willing to take the oath, sir. They're going to use a coarse filter."
"So we have these little talks."
Brice was next. Fletcher looked forward to Brice. He came clipping in briskly, reminding Fletcher of a peppy goat, except for the bit where he stumbled in the doorway. He was a wiry little chestnut, only six and a half feet tall. The rusty red T-shirt clashed with his coat color, but what could you do?
He snapped off an enthusiastic salute and did not seem to mind at all when he collapsed through the last half of the procedure when seating himself on the pad before the desk.
"How did agility go?" Fletcher asked, since the subject was intruding on his mind.
"All right, sir. Didn't knock anything over, but my time is still slow."
"That'll come. By the time you go home for the holidays, you'll be able to sit in your kitchen and make your family breakfast."
"That'll surprise Mum. I never did that before."
Fletcher smiled. "Your Mum must be hard to surprise by now. She already has one son in the Dedicated Cavalry, right?"
"That's right, sir. My brother Ed. He's the reason I joined. He likes it a lot, so I thought I would."
Fletcher rested his elbows on the desk and smiled at Brice. "Same way I got in. Only for me it was an uncle. Where is he?"
"He's master of horse at Yetzirah-Thoth Station, sir. That means he can get home on leave pretty often." Barely into the out-zones at all. Yetzirah-Thoth was boring but safe, a supply depot as much as anything else. His parents must be relieved. But master of horse would be running supply caravans out to the next posts—tough, necessary, productive work and very proper to the Cavalry of course. It was one of the things they were for.
"He must be pretty young for a job like that."
"That's what Da says." All about Ed poured out. His rank and the dates of his promotions, as well as a hero-worshipping younger brother could recall them. Ed's exploits in the cross-zone passes. Funny things horses had done to Ed. Funny things Ed had seen horses do.
Fletcher turned the conversation a little more professional: "I've taught various cousins and uncles of yours but not your brother. Did he train here? I feel sure I'd remember him, if I was on post at the time."
"No, sir, in France. He trained under Captain Alain." Fletcher nodded. He knew Alain well and saw him often.
"How did you feel when Ed joined up?"
"I was pretty little. Ed and my folks tried to explain to me. I was mostly upset that he was leaving home. But I thought the part about being transformed sounded terrific! I felt kind of weird when I learned it was permanent, that Ed was always going to be..." He gestured down at himself.
"Yes. It is a serious step."
"But he was happy with it, so pretty soon I was too. And here I am, sir!"
"And we're very glad to have you." Dear God and St. Martin, if only they could all be like this little pip. "Did you take in what I said about being bachelors?" Careful, he told himself. He's not a child; he just sounds like one at the moment, for sheer joy.
"Yes, sir, I think so, sir. Um. Dating is all right, isn't it, sir? It's not that different from giving rides, is it? I mean, if you think about all the before and after parts of the ride?"
"Because Ed dates, you see. He has a rota of girlfriends, sort of, that he dates when he's home on leave. He doesn't lead them on. Everyone knows what's what. One of them even invited him to her wedding. Of course, she'd been off the rota for a bit, sir."
"I have the pictures. See?" He had a belt and pouch hidden under the slightly-too-big T-shirt. From this he produced a phone and began clicking through pictures.
There was a shot of the altar, decked with flowers, empty and expectant.
There was the bride arriving in the rental limo.
There was the altar again, now staffed with a priest, a beaming young man that must be the groom, and three ushers, the last of which had to be Big Brother Ed. He was a larger, slightly older version of Brice, with notably bushy eyebrows. The chestnut beard was fuller and, it seemed, carefully sculpted with a bit of styling gel for the occasion. He wore a tuxedo jacket, and his fore-hooves wore spats and were glossy black with shoe polish. The rest of him was out of the frame.
Click click click. The bride entered with bride's-maids. The vows flickered by, and the tossing of the bouquet. Then the show paused at the recessional, Ed offering a courteous elbow to the bride's-maid he escorted, who had to reach up to hook her hand through his arm. She was trying not to laugh. Fletcher could see that all four hooves were polished and in spats.
Now the reception. The speech and some dancing flickered quickly by. It paused.
"He dances?" asked Fletcher, staring. There was Ed with the bride, apparently waltzing. At least the front feet seemed to be.
"Yes, sir! Famous for it in town, sir. Of course, he does kind of crowd the dance floor." Fletcher nodded, wondering if the redoubtable Ed had been as clumsy as his brother two months after transformation.
And now here was Ed with the bride's-maid in his arms, leering for the lens in a modern parody of a no-good Lapith-grabber, the bushy eyebrows much in play. She appeared to be kicking and laughing. "Um," said Brice and quickly clicked on. Fletcher mentally shrugged. Slightly edgy, but it was more decorous than the tradition of the bride throwing her garter to the ushers. He had probably just given her a bristly kiss and put her down.
Now here was Ed and a different bride's-maid. She was feeding him blossoms off a bouquet, his mouth open in a grin, his head wreathed in an improvised garland.
"Um, can I eat flowers like that now, sir?" asked Brice.
"About as well as you could before. Your brother is a good sport." He kept smiling but waved the phone away.
"The groom was fine with all this?" Fletcher asked.
"Yes, sir. He's one of Ed's best mates." Fletcher remembered the awkward, nervous reactions of his own friends when he first came home on hooves, though they had been warned. It occurred to him that Ed seemed to put a lot of effort into making people happy to have him around.
"Your brother should go into diplomacy if he leaves the cavalry. From what I can see, dating is fine, if you let Ed be your teacher." Brice beamed.
Having had enough of Ed for the moment, Fletcher led Brice to tell him about the rest of his family. They were one of the "horse tribes" (Fletcher's private term)—families with close ties to both cavalries, working civilian jobs for them and supplying a steady a stream to both Standard and Dedicated Cavalry. Brice's family bred and trained horses for the cavalries.
"Do you have a horse of your own?"
"Yessir, Farthing. He's a little red gelding. I'm a little worried, sir. Do you think he'll take my change okay?"
Fletcher's memory opened on his own first homecoming. His family was not part of the "horse tribes," but were still "horsey." When he came home changed, he cautiously approached his own old pet, Bub, not knowing what to expect. Bub had shied a bit, smelled him all over for at least fifteen minutes, then blissfully rested his head on Fletcher's rump and gone to sleep. Young Fletcher, fierce new warrior man-horse, had burst into tears, because the only other creature Bub did that with was his brother Lob. They were all brothers now.
"I expect Farthing will be fine. Even pleased."
A bit wistfully: "Of course, I can't ride him any more."
"Take him for walks. That will work fine."
Fletcher dismissed him. "See you in horse-care." Brice might be rubbish at agility, at the moment, but he was first in horse-care.
As he left, he paused and tried to turn in the doorway, knocking his hips into the wall. "Oh, sir– Sorry, sir. –I meant to ask: Why are new recruits called 'pips'?"
"It's a nickname for 'Philip,' which means 'loves horses' in Greek. Pretty friendly as such nicknames go."
"Yes, sir. Proud to be a pip, sir!" He threw a gratuitous salute, bumped the doorframe on the other side, gave another sunny apology, and left.
Sanders leaned in and looked pointedly at the name plate on the desk, reading "Philip Fletcher."
"They never make the connection," Fletcher said. "Or if they do, it never gets back to me."
"Yessir. We shall be tired of hearing about Brother Ed soon, I should think."
"I'm sure I was just as boring about my uncle, at first. The brother's a lot bigger. I note that Brice signed up the moment he could, as young as we allow them. They often have a growth spurt when they change that young. He may yet grow to match Brother Ed."
"I'll lay in extra feed."
Next Sanders led in Wardley. Fletcher already knew all he needed to about Wardley. He would be easy. The most difficult part was his entry into Fletcher's office. Two months ago, when Fletcher had shot Wardley with the sagitta, the fellow had been tall but skeletally thin and an oatmeal sort of color. He had wheezed all through his entrance interviews, refreshing himself constantly from an inhaler, but eyes feverishly eager. The sagitta had knocked him over like a felled tree. He had whooped and writhed and inflated, and stood up changed.
The office was built to cavalry spec, but still Wardley had ducked a little when coming in the door. By the time his hindquarters were well in, his forefeet were at Fletcher's desk. And he towered. Fletcher was seven feet tall; Wardley was easily eight. The largest cavalry T-shirt available strained across his chest. He saluted and did what he had been doing ever since the arrow struck: radiated simple happiness.
Fletcher returned the salute. "Have a seat." A minor seismic event followed. Fletcher reflected that, no matter how well Wardley scored in agility training, he was unlikely to cook breakfast for the family when home on leave, unless he could do it by leaning through the kitchen window. Where, he wondered idly, did all that matter come from? He was used to the transformations, now, and rarely thought about the mechanics, but the sheer magnitude of this case brought them back to mind. Did a patch of sea-water go missing, somewhere? Or was all that horseflesh just created?
"I've been asking each of you why you joined the cavalry, but in your case I think I can guess."
Wardley grinned, teeth gleaming in the jungle of black beard, and spread his arms. Lt. Sanders moved back a pace. "It saved my life, sir," he answered. "Cystic fibrosis. Might not have had a year left. Your arrow fixed all that. Now I can breathe!" He inhaled, man chest then horse chest, pulling a cubit meter of air out of the room, then returning it. Fletcher thought of all the years Wardley had spent, learning to breathe as deeply as he could.
"My family ran through the baseline treatments years ago, and we've been looking for an effective magic for a long time. Finally, a couple of really good seers said transformation would work for me."
"Why this transformation?" Fletcher asked.
Wardley raised shaggy brows in a "Why would you ask?" expression that heartened Fletcher. "Merman is a big environmental barrier, sir. And sphinx– I wanted to keep my hands. Satyr–" Dismissive wave. To turn satyr was almost to sign on as a ne'er-do-well. There were other transformations—lammasu, scorpion man—but they were still more freakish for this realm, and where would you even find someone to cast the spell? "This way, I get my health, keep my hands, can visit home, and even draw a salary and get an education. All in exchange for a body that wasn't working anyway." Of course, we also ship you out to explore unknown dimensions where absolutely anything might happen to you, but there it is.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am, sir! I'll serve my fourteen years gladly, and maybe more. It's a gift just to have all that time to look forward to! I didn't have any plans before, sir. No point!" The giant was burbling like a happy schoolboy, though not about schoolboy things. Fletcher sent up a silent prayer that the big pip got to enjoy all that new-found time.
He nodded. "Lots of men come into the cavalry that way." He glanced at Lt. Sanders, who took this for an invitation to join in.
"It was heart, with me," he volunteered. "Leaky valves. Now, no leaky valves and two hearts!" He grinned.
"Sir, that reminds me—I really have two hearts?" Wardley asked.
"And the rest? I mean, how am I put together? I sort of rushed into– No, I don't mean that. I thought over the decision carefully, really." But quickly, Fletcher thought, and no wonder. "But I wasn't thinking about the biology details then. But I am interested in medical things."
Again, no wonder. "Good. Maybe you'll become a cavalry vet. We'll go into all the details in the health classes, but just for a start, we're as close as possible to what the dictionary says we are: man to the waist and horse past the withers. Two hearts. Two stomachs. Two livers. Four lungs; the windpipe continues down into your barrel."
"Yes, I can feel it." Another meteorologically deep breath. If you got pleasure from just breathing, you were set for life, weren't you? "Is that why my voice changed, sir?"
Everybody's did, but it was especially noticeable on Wardley's scale. "That's right. Two more lungs, even bigger than your first two—lots of resonance."
Wardley nodded and hummed softly to himself, experimentally, a pipe-organ noise. "What else gets duplicated?"
"That's about all. Only the horse kidneys and bladder. The piping would be ridiculously long if the human set were included. No human intestine; that space is filled with muscles for the horse neck or the human trunk, whichever way you want to put it."
"I'm looking forward to those health classes, sir," Wardley said.
"Good. Speaking of matters medical– Well, somewhat medical– What did you think of my talk this morning?"
"Sounded sensible. It actually gave more leeway than I thought we'd get. I thought it would be more monastic."
Fletcher tried to picture Wardley in monk robes, but ran out of material. "And even that would be acceptable to you?"
"More acceptable than death. And it's reasonable. We obviously can't marry women."
"It may not seem as reasonable to you if you're chatting with one of those girls and suddenly notice how pretty and friendly she is."
"Well, then maybe I'll learn to flirt, sir. I never had the energy to spare before. I understand what you're saying, sir: all this live meat and blood and hormones–" He stretched theatrically, nearly touching the ceiling while seated. "–is going to want to do what it's made for, and I'm not used to it. Less used to it than any of the other guys, I suppose. All I can say is that I'll try to remember that I thought your rules sensible. Meantime, I don't borrow trouble. I learned that lesson. But don't any women take the sagitta?"
"No. It doesn't transform them. In a few cases, an entire horse springs from their blood. But they find they can't bear to be separated from it, nor it from them. They must spend their lives together and die together."
"Why would it work like that?"
Fletcher shrugged. "No one knows. Dr. Blackholt once proposed that it's because it is in the nature of females to bring forth complete new lives, not in the nature of males. But he was guessing. The long and short of it is, there just aren't any women in this shape."
"How about mares? Well, not marry, of course, but anatomically..."
It was not a new question. "We're not supposed to. You're a man as well as a horse, and a man isn't supposed to."
Wardley nodded calmly. "It was a theoretical question. It's not like I want to."
Since Wardley seemed to like clinical directness, Fletcher answered, "Wait until you smell a mare in heat. Then you'll realize you're a stallion as well as a man. So brace yourself. That's to be the subject of the next heart-to-heart from old Captain Fletcher at morning inspection, but you got to it first." They often did.
Wardley gravely nodded again. "I understand, sir. As I said–" He was interrupted by a gurgling growl from his equine belly. "Sorry, sir," he said through a laugh.
"Are you hungry?"
"I'm always a little bit hungry."
"Mm. Come out here." Wardley squeezed after Fletcher into the outer office, where a large crock pot stood beside the coffee machine, exuding a smell like fresh-cut grass. Fletcher lifted the cover and ladled something dark green into a large bowl. "You shouldn't always be hungry. Eat up." He handed the bowl and a spoon to Wardley.
Wardley looked at it with distaste. "So far, mulch is the only part of this I don't like."
"Nobody likes mulch. But your equine digestion needs it. And if you're hungry all the time, you're not getting enough. You eat plenty of human food, don't you?"
"More than seems reasonable. I asked Dr. Blackholt about portions."
"Good. You should have said you were hungry."
"But it was just a little bit. Before, I was ravenous all the time. It was part of my CF."
And he had still been so skinny, before erupting into this. Every sagitta carried the same spell but took guidance from its target. Mostly, it followed the nature of the man: Wardley had been tall for what he had been, so he was tall for what he was now. He had black hair, so now he also had a black coat. And so on. Usually, this principle meant that any grave illnesses were blindly copied, too. But occasionally not. Sanders and Wardley were both very lucky, and knew it.
Maybe Wardley's bulk just reflected what he would have been without the CF. But after seeing scores of transformations, Fletcher was sure a component of wish got in. Wardley had been deeply tired of being skinny and frail. Ta-da!
"You'll form new habits. And they'll have to include mulch."
Wardley took a large spoonful and chewed without enthusiasm. "Try not to chew," Fletcher advised. "Just gulp it down."
Wardley obeyed. "Just chopped and boiled grass, right?" he asked.
"That's right. Pasturage. Only we don't have horse teeth, so we chop and boil it."
Wardley swallowed again. "I see what you mean. If you just gulp it, you taste it less. Can you do the same thing with hay?"
"Yes, but it doesn't taste any better and is less nutritious. These help." He pulled salt and pepper shakers to the front of the table, and a shaker labeled Mixed Herbs. "Everyone makes up the recipe that works for them. I just bolt the stuff and get it over with."
"There's oats," volunteered Sanders. "Take as much oatmeal as you like. The captain and I are office workers, so we shouldn't have too much; makes you antsy. But you pips are exercising all day, so you can take it whenever it's on offer."
Wardley thanked them, obediently ate all their mulch, and left.
"That chap's all grown up already," Sanders observed.
"And grown and grown. But I know what you mean. He's come through a lot of hard choices and lessons. Like you."
Sanders hoisted his enormous mustaches in a smile. "Happy endings, though, sir."
They started a new pot of mulch.
Weldon paced in somberly, saluted, and took his seat on the pad when directed. He was a buckskin, with black hair, beard, socks, and tail, and a tan coat. He seemed quite ordinary except for the gloomy tension he radiated. Physical evidence suggested nothing worse than nervous shyness, but alarms went off in Fletcher's head.
"At ease, Weldon," he said, which made no sense to someone already sitting, unless you saw how Weldon was sitting, his spines forming a Euclidean right angle. "You're not here for a reprimand, you know. I'm talking with everybody."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." The spines flexed slightly by a deliberate effort. Then silence, eyes front, hands resting on lower shoulders.
Well, after all, it wasn't up to Weldon to begin. "Tell me, Weldon, how did you come to enlist?"
Pause. Then, "I want to have new experiences and see the out-zones."
"Enough to transform in order to do it?"
"Yes, sir. And do the fourteen years service. As far away as you want to send me. Do you know when yet, sir?"
"No. There will be the six months of introductory training, then we'll go out with the first expedition to a suitable realm, as trainees. But the timing of the outgoing expedition depends on when other expeditions return, with information and personnel. We might go out immediately or have to wait another few of months. We'd spend such time in more training."
"I see, sir." Silence again. But he had thawed a little. Hands moved on the equine shoulders, and he met Fletcher's eyes. Fletcher's turn again. He waited just a little. Could he torture a twitch of spontaneity out of this fellow?
When he had shot this batch of recruits, slaying them out of the species of their birth, most had fallen down, changed under the kneading magic, then staggered to their new feet and tried themselves out. They stood, or tried to—Brice had fallen down several times but had appeared to enjoy it, laughing—picking up leg after leg, stumbling, patting themselves down, swishing their tails and looking back along their new bodies to observe the effect.
Weldon had risen slowly, in careful stages, then stood motionless, arms held out to his sides. He had breathed slow, deep breaths and stared blankly before him. Blackholt had sauntered toward him, just in case of catatonia or a burst of hysteria, but Weldon had waved him back. Then he touched the red spot on his chest that marked the sagitta strike and glanced down at the sagitta itself, lying spent at his forefeet. Only then did he start a slow, careful inventory.
It was not a rare reaction, but Fletcher noted how it chimed with his attitude now. And he had certainly been the quietest recruit, these past two months. Well, someone had to be quietest, if you made a ranking of it. Though Fells and Darneley were hardly rowdy, and there was big, steady Wardley. No broncos this time around.
Weldon was not required to be spontaneous. Stop being mean, Fletcher.
"Did you have any questions about my little lecture this morning? About how to handle your bachelorhood?"
"No, sir. Very clear."
"Good." Something told Fletcher to be a little mean again. He waited.
"What are the migrations, sir?" Bingo.
"You said being a bachelor was a disadvantage but there were migrations, or something like that. I thought that meant there were trips we could take. To help. But I didn't see how."
"Oh, mitigations. Means ways to make the situation not so bad. So you were close, but trips don't come into it." Fletcher did not aim to confuse; he hadn't thought the word so exotic. Or maybe Weldon had heard what he wanted to.
"My brother's getting a good education, too, sir, like you have. In the cavalry." Right, this was the other fellow with a brother. What a contrast to Brice.
"Yes, that's another cavalry tradition—scholars on hooves. In the old stories, the best one of us was a teacher."
"Yes, sir, I read about him when I was a kid. It's a sad story, though."
"Most myths are sad. But in the stories, there's nothing against Chiron. He was a great teacher and died in an accident. Never malicious. Honored by the gods. For what that's worth, considering the gods in question. You, ah, seem to be looking forward to travel a good deal." Migrations.
"Yessir. Very much, sir." He almost sounded animated now. "My father's a trader, and he took us abroad a lot. I've been to monde-mineur New York and Bilbao and Amsterdam, and Paris ci-Dessous and Micklemont. Once, we went to Yesod-Khonsu and stayed in the Marches. It was amazing!" Definitely animated now. Well, he wouldn't be going anywhere in the monde-mineur soon. "My brother showed us pictures he took in the Ithil Reach." Genuine out-zone, no denying that, not like Yesod-Khonsu, which was merely alter-zone. Fletcher thought Weldon might already have quite a good education. "I would love to explore someplace no one human– Uh..."
Fletcher smiled. "We still count, for these purposes. And you'll have human troops with you."
But tripping over the word "human" had reminded Weldon of something. "It's too bad about the migrations, though." It was? And now the little spring thaw was done and he was freezing over again. "But for better ways of being a bachelor... I was thinking." Pause. "I noticed in the stables we have mares and geldings but no stallions."
"That's right. We're the only stallions here." And you live in barracks, not stables, even if they are divided into stalls, to make it clear you're still people. "Having stallions in the stables would be an unnecessary complication. Though–"
He had been going to say, "Though you'll eventually learn to work with stallion war horses," but Weldon actually cut him off in his hurry to get out his next utterance:
"I was wondering, sir– To make it easier to be a bachelor– Since it works so well with the mares and geldings– I mean, the geldings are no trouble so, I wondered if it wouldn't be simplest if Dr. Blackholt just..." He trailed off in the face of Fletcher's expression.
Pop-eyed shock was not an expression Fletcher used much, but he had not forgotten how. In the outer office, Sanders knocked over a can of pencils, then did not curse but stayed intently silent. Fletcher's Receptance, apparently working overtime on Weldon, kicked in again.
"You didn't take the sagitta because a girl threw you over, did you? You did!"
"By St. Martin, you did!" Weldon blushed furiously behind the new beard and looked miserable. "Well, be that as it may, no, you may not get yourself gelded. Quite apart from the monstrosity of the idea—and we're monstrous enough as it is—the point of putting you on hooves is to make you strong and brave for the service of the realm! So we are not going to undo any of that! I don't know what you wanted out of your transformation, but we want a strong man welded to a war horse."
Weldon's eyes glanced from Fletcher down to his human torso, now certainly more heavily muscled than before. He was actually listening. In response, Fletcher assumed a less hectoring, more lecturing manner: "A stallion's-worth of testosterone doesn't just work on your new legs and horse-back; it's in your arms and shoulders and man-back, too. We have intelligent men and women; we have strong horses and machines. But it's a real edge to have the intelligence and strength in one body.
"You are not to deprive us of that edge by– I wish I could show you a horse stallion next to a gelding. You'd see the difference."
"A lot bigger?" Weldon asked quietly.
"Heavier neck and shoulders. But mainly, more fiery."
"And being fiery makes us brave?" he muttered. A touch bitterly? "Does that mean more fiery?"
"Sorry, I spoke in heat." Quick smile. "After all, I too am a stallion." Fletcher thought his language had been quite parliamentary, considering what Weldon had suggested, but he was trying to sell Weldon on being a stallion. Fletcher continued in lecture mode while he waited for more clues.
"No one else can make you braver. But any emergency room or prison shows you that men are more rash than women. Being a stallion cranks that way up. It's up to you to turn 'rash' into 'daring.' " Or tragedy ensues. "Testosterone's supposed to make it easier for a man to take risks, to be daring, and even more so for us. Supposed to be. And if it isn't, we make it so."
He unfolded his legs and leaned over the desk. "But courage isn't just about taking the risk. It's also about enduring when it's tough. Any kind of tough. Enduring a trek through partial vacuum and twisty gravity in the out-zones, or enduring the consequences of your mistakes, or enduring a broken heart. That's not about testosterone or being male. That's just being a... a mensch. A worthwhile person. There's even courage in living with a frustrated sex drive rather than... Did you think the company of women would be so very hard to put up with?"
"I don't think it'll come up any more." Almost whispered from a face gone from crimson to white.
"Are you running off to the out-zones or away to the out-zones? Because one is willing to endure and the other is not, even if they take you to the same place."
He didn't cringe. Weldon stared back at him, white-faced, but he did not cower. He actually listened, and nodded a little, and husked, "I understand, sir. No, I really love the idea of exploration. And I want to be of some use."
Use. Yes, being useful could be a great way to punish yourself, if you took hard service. Leave home, bind yourself for fourteen years, foreswear marriage (which had foresworn you) and abandon your very shape. Yes, that would work very well. You could go on to become masculine in pronoun only, then see what else you could inflict.
Fletcher sat back down with a thump. He hated being angry. "I apologize, Weldon, for the lecture. But don't repeat that suggestion to Dr. Blackholt if you don't want a worse reaction."
"I ... won't repeat it at all, sir."
"Good." Fletcher tried to tally how bad the situation now was.
Apparently Weldon was doing the same. "Was it a mistake for me to take the sagitta?" he asked. "Is that what you meant by living with the consequences?"
It had been, at that moment, but what did Fletcher really know? He believed his Receptance about the girl more than ever, but maybe she had been the one love of his life—maybe that's how his heart was built—and now there was no point in staying human. Maybe he really did have a passion to explore, and that's what was now left to him. In short, maybe he had not made a mistake. But he still ought to keep his balls.
This time, Weldon waited him out. Fletcher suppressed the urge to say, "Well, it's too late now!" Whoever invented the sagittae, they wanted the transformations to stick. Subsequent transformations broke or wore off easily. It took beings more powerful than humans, fays, or jinn to make changes stick, and such creatures were rare and dangerous. Even seemings were hard if they aimed to disguise you as human. Horse seemings were easy.
At length, he answered, "It's too soon to tell. Go out there and show us how indispensable you can be to a scouting expedition. Discover something. Rescue someone. Be a great scholar on hooves. Be a terrific uncle."
"Be a mesh?"
"Mensch. Yes. It's Yiddish. Means a worthwhile person. I learned it from a golem. I thought he was a mensch. Be a mensch and the sagitta wasn't a mistake. It all depends on what you do with it."
"Thank you, sir."
Fletcher cast about for something calming and positive to say, some way to lower the conversational temperature. Then Weldon did it for him by asking, "Is it true, sir, that Dr. Blackholt gets the sagittas from up the Road to the Sun?"
"He makes them. And he has been up the Road to the Sun at least twice, for some distance. But I don't know if that's where he got anything related to the sagittae. Their nature is a trade secret, a family secret, protected by a royal patent. His great-uncle was the one who analyzed the spell. It's copied from one used on us in a surprise attack, back during World War Two. Before that, we didn't know this–" He spread his arms, indicating his body and Weldon's equally. "–was a transformation. We thought it was the form of a rare kind of fay from Greece."
"Have you ever been up the Road to the Sun, sir?" The eager note was back in the voice.
"A way. As far as Meru and Patala. We saw nagas, rakshasa, gandharvas, asparas..."
For a few minutes, he let himself be a reminiscing oldster enchanting a youngster. He was quite sure now that, whatever catastrophe on the romantic side haunted Weldon, he really did yearn for far places.
And then, as it did a handful of times a year, Fletcher's Receptance blossomed into a moment of Sight:
He was standing in front of Weldon, who was now older. They were both in some kind of heavy gear. Behind Weldon was a cavalry troop, a scouting expedition of many species of beasts and people, all geared like them. A rocky, warping landscape that was almost a web of stone faded away behind them into a perpetual sandstorm. Fletcher was handing Weldon a passage map that they both knew to be two-thirds guesswork. Weldon was smiling proudly. And this was the last time Fletcher would ever see him.
Would he go to death, or just out of Fletcher's ken? Would they never meet but Fletcher would hear of Weldon's exploits years later? The Sight was just a glimpse.
"Sir? Was there anything else?"
Fletcher realized he was giving Weldon an X-ray stare. "No, Weldon, that's all."
When Weldon had left, a trifle tottery, Sanders poked his head in and said, "I don't know why we bother to keep a chaplain."
"What was I supposed to say, when he proposed castration?"
"I think you did fine. He sure caught me on the off foot. If he were another sort of man, or lived in the monde-minor, he might have just run away to sea to be a sailor. Only he's done something more drastic than getting an anchor tattooed on his shoulder. Are you having that vision thing again, sir?"
"Shut up, or I'll read your tea leaves."
Carlin entered panting, flipped an adequate salute, and stood in the doorway. He was a paint, with patches of ruddy brown on a white ground.
He was smiling, but there was always a quarter-smirk to his expression that brought to mind the phrase "Take that look off your face." However, a crooked smile is not insubordination and Fletcher reminded himself to play fair.
He returned a smile that felt slightly brittle and said, "Have a seat, Carlin. Have a good gallop?"
"Yessir. That's a fair treat. Best thing so far about this new shape."
How about that? An innocent statement. "Were you a runner before?"
"Nah, not particularly. Am now!" He puffed in his new 4:4 rhythm for a few seconds, then evened out. Quick recovery.
"Perhaps you'd like to be a courier. That's the only way to have reliable communications with the out-zones."
"Yeah, that might be a go!" Actual enthusiasm. Perhaps he had misjudged the beast.
"Around now in the training schedule, when people are over the shock and starting to settle in, I try to get to know each of you more individually. For a start, what prompted you to join?"
That smile and a shrug. "It looked like fun," he said, as one stating the obvious.
"Well, yes, I agree. But it is a serious step. Permanent transformation. Fourteen years service." And your pants no longer fit. Why was he stating the obvious? Because he got the feeling Carlin hadn't taken in the situation.
"That's okay," Carlin answered. "Anyway, transformations and things happen in the out-zones, too, don't they?"
"Yes, but they're not the kind of thing you can count on. Or want to encounter. Have you heard of the Eadmon Expedition? It was eight years ago. Two passages out from Gevurah, in some march with nothing but a hazy index number, they met something we later called the Maelstrom Afrit. It was never really classified, though. Lit into the expedition with all manner of nastiness, including shapecasting. Eleven people did get back, but they had quite a chore, proving who—or even what!—they had originally been. Our fay mages did their best, and got jinnish help, but there was no trace of the old forms to return to. In the end, the survivors' appearances had to be reconstructed from old photos and medical records."
Carlin listened with interest but no trace of apprehension.
"You don't want to encounter shapecasters in the out-zones," Fletcher insisted. "And most of them aren't even as survivable as the Maelstrom Afrit. They're more in the pillar-of-salt line. I hope and expect to live out my life in this form."
The smile remained. "That's fine, too."
"Well, good. Fine. I have to say, though, that you almost sound like you don't care what shape you are."
"Oh, no. It has to be a good one, like this." Carlin reached back and slapped himself on the flank.
Fletcher made one more try: "You aren't under the impression that this wears off when the fourteen years are up, are you? I've known one or two very muddled fellows who thought that, and of course they're still nailing their shoes on in fours..."
The smile finally vanished, replaced by irritation. "I get it! Four legs and a tail! A lot of horse meat. And it's this way until further notice. There's always seemings."
Fletcher gave a slow half-nod. "You should know that it's hard to make us seem human."
"Who said I wanted to seem human?"
Fletcher ignored the insubordinate attitude as he had been ignoring the lack of "sirs." Carlin wasn't usually quite so flip and there would be time for correction later. Fletcher wanted to explore the fellow's attitude.
So Carlin looked forward to life in a large, strange form, alleviated with a series of magical disguises. Disguises that took him still further from his original appearance.
This, unfortunately, fit well with what Fletcher knew about Carlin. He had not taken against the fellow because of his smirk. That had just iced the cake. Rather, the scanty documentation he got on the new pips indicated that Carlin had been "released without conviction" on a smuggling charge within the past year.
Carlin would be very far from the first man to seek a fresh start in the Dedicated Cavalry, but Fletcher had always thought it prudent to make inquiries about such recruits. Fellows who had made one big mistake or a string of little ones along the lines of drunken brawling often turned out fine. Nothing like having your nervous system rewired for breaking bad habits, apparently, and Fletcher would definitely teach you self-discipline. But Carlin's record ran to smuggling and theft, some minor and paid for, others medium to major and never proved—crimes of deliberation.
Fletcher wondered if it was the wish-granting aspect of the sagitta was responsible for Carlin's sudden new bent for running.
The penny dropped. Carlin was on the run. He was a smuggler-thief from London, with pretensions to being big-time, and something had gone very wrong, so he had done a serious skip. As with Wardley, for him it was transform or die. That's why he was so blasé about the change. Any serviceable form would do.
At least, transformation was the evasion he had chosen, and it was probably a good one. His pursuers might never think to look up the obscure public records of who had enlisted this year in the Dedicated Cavalry. (Carlin was probably his real name.) Or by the time they thought to, he would have trooped off the zone under, as it were, military escort.
He would visit the furtherest known reaches of existence, gaining experience. Then, fourteen years from now, or very likely much sooner, he would light out into the gallimaufry of world-fragments and be gone.
This, of course, was hunch, though Fletcher did not doubt it. He reminded himself that, even given the hunch, he did not know whether Carlin or his unknown enemies were more in the right. Carlin could be the (comparatively) innocent victim.
All Fletcher could do was be just to Carlin while he was here. And protect his other charges from Carlin and his troubles, if need be. For instance, if Carlin looked like corrupting Brice, Fletcher would cheerfully stuff a sofa with him.
Carlin, meanwhile, was still annoyed. "I can deal with the shape just fine. The fourteen years are the hard part, if you want to know." The smirk came back. "Is there some kind of early discharge possible, in return for extraordinary services?"
"You mean time off for good behavior? You're not in prison, Carlin. You volunteered." Carlin's smirk was gone again. He traded brief, cold glances with Fletcher. "There's medical discharge, of course, if you're incapacitated." Fletcher decided to go fishing. "And one does hear rumors of fellows taken out of the regular service for special expeditions." The smirk was back, maybe even something of a genuine smile. "Fellows sent out singly or in small teams, all on their own, in zones with strange, little-known cultures. Spying. Dangerous, of course. They often never come back."
Carlin was grinning now. These prospects clearly suited him to the tip of his newly acquired tail.
"But these opportunities don't come along right away." If they exist. "First there's the trainee run, then Heaven knows where."
"That's fine. I like seeing new things." Distant ones.
"Well, then. About this morning's talk on bachelorhood...?"
"I'd like some clarification. I figured 'bachelor' was a bit of what they call a euphemism. Am I right?"
"Not really. You are, in law, not allowed to marry now."
"Well, marriage was never on my list anyway."
"To spell out the part not implied by the word 'bachelor': You are bound by your oath, which has the force of law, not to couple with any woman. It won't work and you'll hurt her if you try."
"That seems a little unimaginative."
"No coupling. Other than that, you are only under the same constraints as any other man in the realm. Imagination is quite legal. But for your own safety, if not that of all your fellow stallions, avoid giving even the appearance of forcing yourself on any woman."
Again the smirk. "Not my style anyway. Never had to. So, to sum up, no coupling with a woman. Other than that, she and I are as free as before. And no coupling with a woman. That's what I can't couple with. Am I right?"
Fletcher drily acknowledged this standard loophole: "Should you, for example, meet an adventurous giantess or shapeshifter in the out-zones, nothing in your oath would prevent the two of you from comporting yourselves in any way you chose." He did not mention morality or local marriage laws and neither did Carlin.
"Yeah, that's an example. Okay, good enough. You don't have to worry about me and the girls. We'll manage. Are we done, sir?"
"Yes. Go do pure deeds." Carlin smiled at the sarcasm, rose and saluted without visible insolence, and left.
"That one will be at the mares soon," said Sanders. "He as good as said so."
"Then, if he's caught, we will see to it that he learns to say he is sorry in a very sincere manner."
"Given the predictability of this problem, sir, it's occurred to me to wonder why we have mares in the stable at all. Why not just geldings?"
"Better mares than village girls."
"I see, sir. The mares do smell lovely when it's their time, sir."
Fletcher nodded and put Carlin's folder in the Out basket. "Hard for a chap to say no. Who's next?"
Darneley was next and last. He was a big bay, rather heavily built, though not in Wardley's weight class. He was always sober, but more so now, though he did not radiate Weldon's intense unease.
He saluted and sat, then said, "I'm sorry about the shaving, sir. I didn't realize it was, uh, an issue."
Mentally, Fletcher got up, turned round, and kicked himself in the back of the head with both rear hooves. It has been an extraordinarily bad idea to bring the subject up at all, especially in front of the others. And if this was his Receptance telling him so now, why couldn't it have done so beforehand?
"Not at all, Darneley! I shouldn't have been making personal remarks. Not an issue at all." He decided to pay for the gaffe with some disclosure. "Personal grooming was on my mind because, sometimes, when a fellow take special care with his appearance, it's because of a girl, and given the subject of bachelorhood, I couldn't help wondering... But I know now that neither you nor Fells–" He brought himself up short. He had no right to talk about Fells to Darneley, and how did he know if Darneley did or didn't–? Only he did know. Now. Maybe. He was no Delphic Oracle.
"No, sir, it's nothing like that."
"Ah. Good." Here is an awkward pause, thought Fletcher, and it's your own fault. "I wanted to know how you came to decide to enlist."
Darneley seemed to suffer his own awkward pause, though shorter than Fletcher's, then said, "I wanted to better myself, sir." But the bland remark had cost him effort.
Fletcher blinked. "Well, that's uncommonly generous of you, Darneley. There are still plenty of people who consider the transformation degrading."
Darneley nodded. "Less than a man."
Hm. "Rot, of course. Ah, better yourself how?"
"I ... wanted to pursue my academic interests."
Fletcher nodded. He thought Darneley was now shying away from his difficult subject, but he wasn't lying. The other recruits in this batch had just written short, stilted letters of application—at most. Carlin had just sent in the application form. Darneley had sent in a resumé:
He had a bachelor's degree from a monde-minor college where he had studied physical science with a minor in philosophy, and two letters of recommendation from royal advisors attesting to his knowledge of, and interest in, metaphysical geography.
He had also applied for membership in the Kerdeans, and though he had been refused, the rejection letter invited him to re-apply once he had discovered something. His cover letter explained that he wanted to work on the problem of the origin of the out-zones, the multitude of realms and domains and dimensionettes that linked to the world.
Already a scholar on hooves. But why the hooves?
"The expeditionary forces will be happy to give you full scope on that. But why did you pick the Dedicated Cavalry rather than, say, the infantry or the Standard Cavalry? We all go on the expeditions together."
And now he was screwing himself up to the difficulty. The central virtue of a scientist was honesty. The central virtue of a solider was courage. Darneley wants to be both. Let's see how he does.
"I have a question," Darneley said.
"Am I a man?"
Fletcher examined the question for a moment. Not "Am I still a man?" as he was often asked by those who found the changes more upsetting than they expected.
Fletcher sidled up to the question. "Do you know what 'liminal' means?"
"It means 'on the edge' or 'on the border.' "
"Right. When you stood up to take the sagitta, you volunteered for a liminal life, a life on the border. It means questions like 'Am I a man?' often have long answers. Physically, no, clearly not: you're half of a man and most of a stallion." He had picked "man" and "stallion" over "human" and "horse" deliberately, and watched Darneley's reaction. He had a suspicion.
"Spiritually, you're still a son of Adam, with all the baggage that comes with that." Fletcher knew there had been arguments about this—maybe still were in some circles—but he knew what he thought on the subject and he wasn't going to muddle Darneley about it now.
"In between those two poles, the answer is usually that you are a man and you are a stallion and you are both at once, not by turns, not in patches. The both-at-once part is the trickiest, because there's no training for it. Except places like here and Saint-Eloi.
"Does that answer your question? And to get back to my question, why did you choose us?"
"I chose the cavalry," Darneley said slowly, "instead of the others because I was dissatisfied with my own personality. I ... wanted to change. To change me. And not just my shape. I know there's more to this than just the shape."
"Change in what way?" Fletcher asked as mildly as he could.
In a murmur: "I never felt I was very good at ... being male."
Ah, one of those. And that explained the shaving. If you thought your manhood—okay, now read "masculinity"—was defective, you didn't want to draw attention to it by doing anything so overtly male as growing a beard.
And then good ol' Cap'n Fletcher drew everybody's attention to the issue this morning. He mentally wheeled and kicked himself a few more times. He must have been in Receipt about this already, at inspection, only with nowhere near enough clarity.
He reflected it would be interesting to make Weldon and Darneley share a stall, the one feeling all unworthy of masculinity, the other feeling all unworthy for lack of it.
You're twenty-three, the file says. Young enough to think your problem very rare and strange and contemptible. What mockers passed judgment on you and made it stick? Doesn't matter now. If one was insecure about one's masculinity, there were obvious attractions to this transformation. Yet here he was, "imbruted, incarnate, installed in a stallion," as the poet said, and still asking. Worried the magic hadn't worked.
But authority has its own magic. Fletcher couldn't instantly undo whatever wounds had been struck by whatever tormentors lay in Darneley's past, but he could make a beginning.
"I'm your captain and teacher, not your therapist–" Fletcher began. In the outer office, Sanders snorted and turned it into a cough. "–but I'll help if I can. Did you choose us hoping the transformation would make you more masculine?"
"Are you afraid it hasn't?"
"Well, I've been watching myself–" I bet you have. "–and the other fellows for ... signs of horsiness. In behavior."
"And have you seen any? Would it bother you if you did?"
"No, sir, it wouldn't. I'd like–" He'd like to find he was getting "horsey"? "But I don't know. I can't tell about the other guys. But I feel different now. Shook up. Edgy. Full of hunches. And in the classes on horse care—I never knew a lot about horses before, but it seems, uh, suspiciously easy to understand."
"That's as it should be. Besides changing your shape, the sagitta gave you intuitive knowledge of equine body language and what it's like to be a horse generally. It's a lot easier to spot a rock in a hoof if you've had one yourself." And just wait until the first time you have colic. That will teach you sympathy! "There are horse vets who've taken the sagitta just for that. But this business about horse knowledge isn't what worries you; it's just evidence that you've changed. Are you worried about feeling 'edgy'?"
"Yes sir. I'm worried I might be even– that I might be more fearful."
Than you were before. You come looking to become more masculine and think you may have become more cowardly. But Fletcher knew the answer to that problem: "The 'edginess' is extra energy, because you're young and healthy as both human and horse, and horses are meant to run. Enjoy it. Oh, you might feel jumpier. You've got adrenal glands the size of cantaloupes now!" Not literally true. "But you're not a coward." Which was what he needed to hear. "The sagitta creates the stallion in you following the nature of the man. And only a brave man stands in front of me and lets me shoot him in the chest." Again, what he needed to hear.
But Fletcher's encouragement was not pure propaganda. There had been certain cases of men who ran or ducked at the last moment. If they were struck a glancing blow that pierced the skin, they sometimes changed anyway. It was not a good way to start. Darneley had been the last in line, as Fletcher had paced solemnly past six naked young men and shot them in the chest, one by one, from three yards away. Darneley had seen all the others yelp or groan, then melt, churn, and start to ferment. But he had stood his ground. None of them were cowards. Darneley's courage might have been taught by desperation, but it had been learned.
"So don't worry if you feel strange and wobbly. If you didn't, I'd be worried, considering the trauma you've been through."
"You've had half your body swept away and replaced by something inhuman, had new nerves crawl into your brain and blossom into new motor centers. You're still re-learning to walk and eat. Of course that's trauma. If you took it casually–" He thought of Carlin. "–I'd be worried. You have one of those self-winding minds that worries about how much it worries and is upset over being upset." I recognize a kindred spirit. "But don't worry about feeling weird here and now."
A smile. "It's normal to feel weird now?"
"Oh, my, yes. I've seen scores of transformations, good and bad—almost all good—and yours went fine." In a jocular tone, he added, "Whatever you were before, now you're a big strapping man-stallion." Fletcher knew perfectly well what Darneley had been before: a slightly tall, slightly bulky young man, but let's imply clean slates, new beginnings, and use macho words. Yes, my lad, you are in fact a Real Boy, and I officially certify you genuine. The Blue Fairy can save herself the trip.
Fletcher wondered if he was laying it on too thick. Darneley was blushing, eyes cast down, but he was also wearing a big, goofy grin, so probably not.
He gazed at the huge creature in front of his desk and wondered how such a one could feel unsure of being properly male. One pep talk from the old guy in loco parentis was a start, but only a start. What did it take?
The answer, if there was one, was not a matter of words, but finding some male friends, all comfortable with their maleness, all assuming he was just as simply, routinely, obviously male as they. Just so they were friends. Mates. Buddies. He might feel like an impostor among them, but that could wear off. He needn't have taken the sagitta to get such an answer. The friends could just as well have been human or any number of other things.
The musing slipped into another flash of Sight: Darneley, an older Darneley with a graying beard, reared on his hind legs against something like a radio mast, one foreleg braced against the mast, working on an instrument pack at the tip. He wore a khaki jacket, a lot of harness, and a visor that looked like glasses but was probably something hi-techy.
A dwarf sat on Darneley's back, one leg hooked into the harness, fussing with wires in the mast. A badger and a raccoon worked under him at the base of the mast while two men in uniforms, one on horseback, one afoot, watched. They all stood on a bit of rocky hill, and over them hung a sky swirling with colors like oil on water. And Darneley smiled an easy, contented smile.
Well, okay! That made up for the ambiguous one with Weldon. Fletcher realized, though, that he was giving Darneley a similar X-ray stare. Darneley stared back, curiously. "Are you all right, sir?"
"To be sure!" Fletcher answered, realizing that he himself was smiling.
"Just one of his little spells," called Sanders from the outer office.
Fletcher snorted. "I was merely preoccupied with a train of thought. Sorry, Darneley. I hope you're, ah, less worried. Just take that new energy and use it for the forward charge!" Advice he would never give to some pips, but there was no danger of Darneley ever slackening the reins on himself.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Fletcher realized they were now, finally, at the point in the conversation where he meant to ask Darneley about how he meant to cope with bachelorhood. He decided to skip it. They were both wrung out. And when Darneley reached the point where an oath of bachelorhood was cramping his style, it would be a day of victory: he would have a style to cramp.
"Dismissed, Darneley. You'll be fine."
"Thank you, sir."
"So, are you secure in your masculinity, Sanders?" Fletcher asked when they were alone.
"Mum told me I was a boy. Dr. Blackholt concurs."
"I'm sure Darneley wishes it were that simple for him."
"May I offer an opinion, sir?"
"Maybe Darneley should be told that being uneasy about his male identity or whatnot is just a cross he has to bear, like leaky heart valves or cystic fibrosis. And a cross that's a good deal lighter than those."
"That's wise enough, lieutenant. But he may know that already. He seems to be getting on with things. I haven't seen him slacking or whining. He's not as withdrawn as Fells. And you and Wardley dropped your crosses when you could."
"Fair enough," Sanders admitted. "But if he's told we all have defects, this one just happens to be his, he might not feel so specially inferior. Make it easier for him."
"I think the jump he has to get over is to realize that his problem is a feeling of special inferiority, not actual inferiority. Like realizing that your problem is hallucinations, not real crabs the size of tables."
"Does this relate to that story of yours about going drinking with the merman on Victory Day?"
"It does indeed."
Fletcher closed Darneley's file, put all the files away, and stepped into the outer office. There, he stretched, whisked his tail, shivered the skin on his flanks (an action that still startled the pips whenever they did it by accident), and wished he had a mane to shake; it clearly gave horses great satisfaction. Too much desk time.
"Never take a lot of psychology classes if you're Receptant," he told Sanders. "They interact disastrously."
"Fortunately, sir, I'm as mundane as they come."
"Said the mythical beast."
"I meant besides that."
"I still don't believe you. I think I have time for a couple of laps around the track before horse-care class, and I need them."
"May I join you, sir?"
Sanders put his own paperwork away, locked the computer, and stood. "Let's see. We've got two come for lost love, one come for his health, one following his big brother, a crook on the run, and one trying to find himself."
"A bloody Equine Foreign Legion. About usual. Not such fools as the ones who come on a dare or a bet, or for a thrill. No one went into a screaming funk when they transformed. And all but Carlin are willing to work their fourteen years. Carlin will probably bolt at the first opportunity and I shall smile and wave bye-bye. Waste of a sagitta. Until then, mustn't be unfair just because I don't like him. The rest are straight-souled, I think. I shall have to work not to show favoritism to Brice or Wardley."
"As to their souls, sir, and as I remarked, we do have a chaplain."
"Who is a splendid fellow, but who has never been transformed and is not going to spend months with us on an expedition to the out-zones.
"Sanders, normal men don't enlist in this cavalry. They either have strange backgrounds, like Brice and me, or severe problems, like the rest of you. Sometimes the problems are straightforward, like yours and Wardley's; other times, they're twisty. These six are all I have to work with for a year or more. I have to know them and make the best of them."
"Make the best of them. That's a rather ambiguous phrase, sir."
"Well, what are creatures like us if not ambiguous?"
Fletcher headed for the track: walk, trot, canter, gallop.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017