After the Talk that morning came the individual interviews. Littlejohn's promised to be more individual than most.
Alistair Littlejohn was a 24-year-old dapple gray, though black of hair, beard, tail, and legs. Perhaps because of his brisk, neat movements, perhaps because he kept himself well brushed and groomed, he made the words "dapper" and "dapple" chime in Fletcher's mind.
He saluted with polite cheer and sat down, when invited, with perfect facility, not at all like someone who has had the use of four legs and a half-ton body for only two months. This precocious agility had been obvious from the moment after Fletcher had shot him: he did not thrash and kick, confused by the feel of added legs and a second, larger torso; instead, he had gathered his legs under himself and simply stood, beaming.
The second odd thing about Littlejohn was that, when the transformations were over and the families were invited in to see the results, Littlejohn had been greeted by a young woman in Standard Cavalry uniform, his wife.
Married recruits were not unknown. The Dedicated Cavalry didn't allow you to get married after joining, but it could not afford to turn down married volunteers. Usually, they joined for the pay, to support their families. Sometimes they volunteered as a drastic and permanent way of separating. Occasionally, they joined to save their lives, having learned that they were among the few cases where transformation would erase a grave illness. None were happy situations, though they might be met with smiling fortitude or grim relief.
Littlejohn and his wife, however, seemed perfectly happy. Fletcher, professionally nosy, wanted to know why, but the first minutes after transformation were not the time to go into it. However, he did greet Mrs. Littlejohn, and learned her name was "Karla." "How long have you been in the Standard Cavalry?" he asked her. Short, slight, and fair, she barely came up to her husband's chest, at his new height.
"Just three weeks," she said. That was when the last expedition had returned. "But I'm not officially in the cavalry. I'm a civilian consultant, a bestiarist." Her accent twanged with North American English; Chenelaise was not her first language. "But I need the same training, to go on the expeditions, so here I am. Here we are!" And she threw an arm across her husband's new equine back, very comfortable with the gesture.
Now, two months later, Littlejohn sat before him. "Normally," Fletcher told him, "I use this interview to ask the pip what he makes of my talk this morning—what he thinks and feels about it, how he plans to cope with the bachelorhood oath. But since you're married, I think we'll use this meeting for other things."
"Certainly, sir. But you may be sure my wife and I discussed the matter thoroughly beforehand. I have her full consent in this. Each of us owns the other's body, after all, as St. Paul says."
"Ah, right. Good." Really? Fletcher stared doubtfully at Littlejohn. When he transformed, the fellow had been barely past his first wedding anniversary. What normal young couple would–? Well, Fletcher knew well enough that "normal" did not apply to the men who volunteered for the DC.
But what did Karla Littlejohn think and, more importantly, feel? Her husband might think it was all fine between them, but husbands had been wrong about that before. Not officially Fletcher's business, but Mrs. Littlejohn was right here, training on the same base. If the Littlejohn marriage suffered disruptions, that was a fifth of the class in turmoil and the rest of the class in forced close proximity.
On the other hand, he had just said his body belonged to her. Maybe she liked his new form?
Fletcher had let the doubtful stare go on too long. Littlejohn was now blushing. His accent thickened up. "I canna, in decency, give much more detail, sair. Not without Karla's say-so. But I assure you–"
"No, no! Quite right. Let's move to a different uncomfortable subject. I know you've sworn loyalty to the Crown, Littlejohn, but I don't know why. Do you mind my asking?"
The dapple recruit smiled and relaxed. "Not at all, sir. After our adventure, Karla and I were something in the way of metaphysical refugees, alone in le monde-majeur, and we went looking for the best home we could find."
"And you picked Grand Normandy?" asked Fletcher, hoping not to hear that they were a second choice after, say, the Sunset Empire or one of the Napoleonic states.
"Yessir. Powerful and wealthy, of course, but we reckoned you got that way by having the best government."
"Interesting." Fletcher hesitated. "I don't want you to think I'm trying to ferret out unorthodox political opinions. You've sworn loyalty and that's enough. But I'm curious. People from le monde-mineur, especially in the West, often regard our government as almost scandalously old fashioned, when they learn of it. Are we just the best of a bad lot or–"
"Not at all, sir! A good monarchy is the best form of government. It's all there in Aristotle! Of course, a bad monarchy is the worst—corruptio optimi pessima—but Grand Normandy has a good monarchy, and has had for several generations now. And we made a careful study of the royal family and its rising generation, you may be sure." Fletcher was sure. "King Stephen is a good man, as far as mortals can judge from mere report, and we're pleased to swear allegiance to him."
Littlejohn radiated sincerity, just as he had when he assured Fletcher than his marriage was in good shape. He often radiated that way. Fletcher had known him for two months, now, and found him honest to the point of bluntness.
"And," he went on, "the king swears to uphold our rights. A magically binding oath like our own. We wouldn't find that in le monde-mineur."
Fletcher nodded, smiling a little weakly. The kings' oaths were no guarantee of utopia. Many had done foolish things in the honest belief they were acting for the best. Others had simply been willing to pay the penalty the oathbreaking brought down, and some had engaged mages to tamper with the oath itself. Still, none of those applied to King Stephen or, pray God, to any of the rising generation of royals.
"A good king is the best of it, certainly," Littlejohn went on, "but Grand Normandy has other advantages to keep it clear of tyranny. It has elements of all three forms of government."
Fletcher took advantage of a (very) brief rhetorical pause to scrape Aristotle's political taxonomy up from the cellars of memory. Besides monarchy, there was aristocracy and democracy, rule by one, some, or all. "I see where we have an aristocracy, of course," he said, "but where does the democracy come in? Every generation or so, there's a push to form a parliament..."
Littlejohn frowned judiciously. "That might be a good idea, but it isn't what I meant. No, sir, I admit the democratic aspect isn't obvious. But we looked for it and found it." He grinned brightly. "And I don't think we found it only because we insisted on looking. It's there in the customs and culture rather than in an institution.
"Your aristocrats—excuse me—our aristocrats, now—do not live so far removed from us commons. Being Sundered limits how showy you can be. More important, when Grand Normandy started, it was almost nothing but some refugee aristocrats following a sprig of the Plantagenet house across the Sundering into the monde-major. So they had to become working aristocrats, and they still are. And there are still a lot of them compared to the commons."
"The numbers are important?" A fierce grin flashed in Littlejohn's black beard and Fletcher realized he had said, in a way, the wrong thing. Of course numbers were important; Littlejohn was that kind of academic—set to become a physical scientist, or Pythagorean, or some other kind of mathemagician.
"Certainly, sir! Your social pyramid doesn't look so pyramidal if the first and second layers are about the same size. There aren't enough commoners to go around, for each noble to have a big staff of servants. That makes a commoner closer in value to a noble. Supply and demand applied to people, you see, sir.
"And few people can be real servants. Most people have ordinary jobs. So the typical noble house has many fewer servants than family, if they have any servants at all."
"One can be subordinate without being a servant," Fletcher pointed out.
"Very good point, sir." How nice; Fletcher was one of the brighter pupils. Oh, here was a fellow Chiron and no mistake. "But the nobles still don't have a big staff waiting directly on them. And another factor comes in. Because of the fugitive and dispersed nature of a cryptic nation, it has never been feasible to tie commoners permanently to one lord. At least, that is not the way Grand Normandy has done it."
Fletcher nodded. "Yes, but I'd say our being traders, and so rovers, is at least as important to your point. Which is, I take it, that we can vote with our feet, if need be, and leave a bad noble to mend his ways or shift without workers. That was made official in the Decree of Restoration."
"Exactly, sir!" Fletcher might be allowed to clean the blackboard afterward. (Did classrooms still use blackboards? He'd heard they didn't.) "And there are other democratic elements in your– in Grand Norman society. In several branches of the Church, bishops and abbots are elected, and no branch is wholly dependent on the Crown. And the military..." He paused and cocked his head.
"Varies," Fletcher supplied.
Littlejohn nodded. "Yessir. In our cavalry, the Magery, the Constabulary, and the Vanguard, you have to work your way up—you don't automatically start at a high rank just by being noble." Hence an immigrant like Littlejohn started on an equal footing with Vimont and Darcy, both barons' sons.
"Meritocratic," Fletcher said, and Littlejohn smiled.
"The Standard Cavalry, the Infantry, and of course the Palace Guard have commands dominated by the aristocracy. The Navy is in the middle."
"You've been very thorough," Fletcher said, wondering if and how Littlejohn had researched all this before applying for citizenship. "Very good: so we have elements of all three forms of government. How does this protect us from tyranny?"
"Machiavelli goes into that, sir. Not a good reputation, I know, sir, but that doesn't stop him from having valid ideas. We mustn't commit the genetic fallacy."
Fletcher stifled an impulse to reply "No, sir." "And we are in no great position to criticize reputations," he said instead.
"To get on our high horse?!" Littlejohn almost crowed.
Why did academics love that sort of thing? Fletcher smiled stiffly. "But I don't recall anything like that in The Prince. It's all from a monarchist perspective."
"Oh, it isn't in The Prince, sir. It's in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy."
"Oh, right." What?
"The idea, sir, is that if one part of society goes wrong, the other two can put things right. And because each is differently constituted, they're not likely to all go wrong in the same way at the same time."
"Separation of powers. The Americans are very big on that."
"Yessir, a very good idea, or I don't think Americans could have done as well as they have." Americans, the tone seemed to imply, needed all the help they could get in such matters.
"I wondered," he said, "not only why you came to Grand Normandy, but why you enlisted in the military. Especially the Dedicated Cavalry. That's ... costly." He glanced pointedly at Littlejohn's dappled body.
The recruit leaned forward. "To tell the whole truth, sir, there are two reasons we picked Grand Normandy. One is that you're a good home, worthy of allegiance, but the other is this Age of Exploration you've embarked on. Discovery ... is what Karla and I are about. We met while investigating, then we had to discover a way out of danger and back home. Discovery's just what we want to do together."
It seemed an odd basis for a marriage, but Fletcher mentally shrugged and pursued a more practical question: "Then why didn't both of you sign on as civilian consultants? Why take this form and swear to fourteen years' service?"
"Oh, sir, after what we've been through, coping with a new form is not so bad. Not after some of the shapes we've coped with."
"This illusionist you escaped, it put seemings on you?"
"Yessir. Designed to humiliate or horrify. Or just drive us mad. We'd never have survived without help. As it was, there was another captive."
"The Norembegan, the American elf," Fletcher said.
"Yessir. Kalotseko is his name. He'd been captured long before, but he was slowly building his own power and seeming-skill to fight back. Add in our little help and the three of us were able to escape."
"I was wondering," said Fletcher, "how you could contemplate transformation after such an experience, but now I'm guessing that the seemings weren't all bad."
Littlejohn smiled. "Not at all, sir. Not Kalotseko's. I don't think Karla would mind my telling you this: I was transformed when I proposed to her. We had just escaped, were on the run. The three of us were working our way out of the wilderness. We were resting under an oak tree. Kalotseko was keeping watch as a hawk, up on a branch. She and I were cuddled up as a pair of otters in the leaf litter. And I asked her."
"You could talk?"
"Yessir. Kalotseko was careful to let the seemings permit that, so we could work together. So you see, I know transformations, the good with the bad. This one is fun! Fast and strong and– Well, Karla says it looks– Well, we're having fun. And if we go exploring, there are great advantages to having me in the DC. It's only a pity we can't both join." Fletcher nodded. The spell did not work on women. "You'll teach us the business of discovery. We'll be on expeditions with military backing. And in this form–" Breath. "–I can well protect her."
Which explained the extra time at the archery and gun ranges, and the eager inquiries into martial arts and sword classes. There was a burning timbre in Littlejohn's words that made Fletcher mark them. If the werewolves recruited, this one would now be his wife's guard dog.
But again, the explanation felt incomplete. "You are concerned enough about danger to turn into—excuse me—a warding monster but determined enough on a career of exploration to court the danger?" Littlejohn looked guilty. Fletcher waved a hand. "I'm not saying you were wrong. I'm just trying to understand."
"More is true, sir," Littlejohn burst out. "I canna convey to you how confused and uncertain we felt, even after we escaped. Had we escaped? Really? Ye've heard of Descartes' Demon?"
"An evil genius that can put over any deception. A thought experiment," said Fletcher.
"It was like that for us, no thought experiment. We only escaped with the help of countervailing magic. Sir, we must become mages, Karla and I, just to feel safe."
Fletcher remembered asking them, at his transformation, "Are you mages?" and he had answered, "Not yet."
"Sir, this—" He gestured down at himself. "—and expeditions to the far edges of reality seem like an excellent beginning. Especially if I can be her 'warding monster.'"
Fletcher sighed, finally understanding. "You won't always be billeted with her, you know," Fletcher warned.
"We know, sir, but we'll be on the same expeditions. She won't go on any I'm not on. That's why she's still a civilian, so she can pick and choose."
Why did you join? and, to phrase it broadly, How are you coping with being a stallion? Those were the questions he always asked recruits at these interviews. It would, of course, be better to ask before the men were changed, but he didn't get that chance. Take all the recruits you can and sort it out later; that was how the brass ran it. Littlejohn seemed to be doing fine. To wrap up:
"Well, you've clearly thought carefully about all this, and your physical performance is fine—excellent agility. Is there anything about your transformation you find troubling?" Not that we can undo it, Fletcher thought, but we should start coping right away.
Pause. "Not really, sir," Littlejohn answered, but the tone was flat and for the first time the bright, chipper look wavered. "Well, yessir." After a silence, he admitted, "There are personality changes."
A chink in the armor. In fact, such a controlled person would be particularly worried about such things. "That always happens," Fletcher said reassuringly. "Describe them."
"Yessir. The new energy... It could turn into panic, sometimes, if I let it. Or bad temper. I'd say my hardest work has been keeping my temper with– with people."
With Vimont, you mean, thought Fletcher. He nodded. "That's normal in a new stallion. You're doing a good job."
"Thank you, sir. And– and I find myself feeling very sorry for the unmarried lads... Um..."
Fletcher raised his eyebrows and gave a half-smile. "We cope. I hope you didn't say that to any of the other lads."
"Ah, no sir, though I came close once or twice. And there were other things. Sir, that's maybe the oddest change I've seen. I was never the most diplomatic person in the world, but now I think I'm even more ... indiscreet. I try not to be, but things slip out. And... I can't lie anymore. I don't mean," he added hastily, "that I made a practice of it before. But you know about social lies. 'How are you?' 'Oh, fine.' When you're not. 'Is that okay with you?' 'Sure.' When it isn't. I can say the words, but they stick in my throat first and my acting's terrible now. You saw that just now, I think.
"I don't understand that, sir. It doesn't seem particularly ... horse-related. Horses and dogs and such, they can all act deceptively. And the other lads—they seem normally discreet, though of course I didn't know them before. I don't understand."
Fletcher considered his next words. For some time, he had suspected the spell incorporated an element of wish-granting—nothing worthy of a jinni from a lamp, but a definite slant to the transformation. To a degree, a slight one, you became what you wished you were. But one didn't bandy about talk of wishes, even slight ones. It was like saying you might have some spare bricks of plutonium in the basement.
"When you transform," he said slowly, "your brain changes, too. You know that. New sensory and motor areas. You instantly understand equine body language. Fight-or-flight gets cranked up. And the spell takes some guidance from deep, even unconscious, desires."
"And my desire is..."
"To be very honest, it seems. To her?"
Littlejohn nodded mutely. Then he found voice and said, "I promised. Before I proposed. Before I even knew I loved her. In that ... adventure, you could call it, now that it's safely over ... we had to fight illusions, deceptions. We had to be honest to survive. We promised each other we always would be."
Fletcher saw tears starting in Littlejohn's eyes. Therefore, he smiled and said, "And now you always will be. I look forward to hearing about your adventure. You might want to re-learn discretion, though. That's still useful."
"Yessir. Thank you, sir."
After Littlejohn left, Sanders said, "Have you noticed what he has on his desk, in barracks?"
"Um... a great many books. A laptop. Papers. Sketches..."
"I meant the picture. It's not of his wife. I'm not sure if that should concern us. Or her. He leaves it out in the open, so I didn't feel it was a breach of privacy to look at it."
"Well, what is it?"
"There: I've emailed it. It's that book cover by Frazetta. You must have seen it sometime. It's easy to find on the web. He's got a little high-quality print of it framed, on his desk."
Fletched looked at his email. A luscious, milk-pale maiden, clad mostly in a strategic pose, rode cuddled on the back of a dark, blocky, almost ape-like centaur.
"Oh, yes. A novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It may look Lapith-like at first glance, but the young lady with the wardrobe deficit is 'the Moon Maid,' the title character, and I believe the fellow she's riding is an ally."
"'Ally' was never the word that occurred to me in such circumstances, but... Well, fond memories, but not very monogamous ones, if you take my meaning. Or do you think the Moon Maid there represents Karla Littlejohn?"
Fletcher nodded. "I can't imagine the Littlejohns not researching everything seven ways from Sunday, and I feel sure that when Littlejohn set himself to become a stallion, he already had his lead mare firmly in mind. This picture, you could say, is aspirational." He studied it. It was certainly easy to spot a Frazetta girl. She and her mount didn't look much like the Littlejohns.
Of course, Fletcher reflected, Littlejohn didn't look as he had two months ago. How much was he going to change for her? And she for him? Fletcher might be an old bachelor, but he knew that's how it was supposed to work.
After his interview with Littlejohn, Fletcher decided he had the excuse he needed to do something he already wanted to, and asked Karla Littlejohn if he could talk to her. After comparing schedules, they settled on an early afternoon hour at the Bow and Sabre. They met in front of the pub.
"It's very good of you to see me, Mrs. Littlejohn," he said.
"I've been wanting to," she answered. "I hear a great deal about you from Alistair, after all. So I guess we're both here to verify his reporting, aren't we?"
Fletcher smiled, nodded, and opened the door for her. The Bow and Sabre was a comfortable, countrified establishment, notably roomy. "Where would you like to sit?" he asked.
"Here will do," she said, walking up to one of the oddly tall tables. It had no chairs, only mats on the floor, but she hauled a high seat over from one of the other tall tables. "When you're my size, you might as well get used to climbing." She set foot on the rung of the chair.
Fletcher put a hand under her arm and gently lifted as she climbed. "When you're my size," he replied, "you might as well make yourself useful." She smiled and settled into the seat. He sat down, rear legs only, on the mat opposite.
She was indeed short, probably under five feet, and not merely slender but thin, with blonde hair cut short. Just now, she wore the jodhpurs and jacket of the Standard Cavalry, her insignia identifying her as a "consultant." She smiled again at Fletcher. "Now we're both comfortable. Is this a followup on that talk you had with him a couple of days ago?"
"Yes, ma'am. I have a chat with each recruit about two months after their transformation, to find out why they joined and how they mean to go on, in particular how they feel about their oath of bachelorhood."
"Which he didn't take."
"Actually, he did. The exact wording promises not to get married. It doesn't address being married. And the Crown is not in the business of dissolving marriages."
She cocked her head. "That doesn't seem a very consistent attitude."
"It isn't, I admit. Clearly, some people just can't bear the idea of women, human-simple women, marrying the likes of us. There are parties that would like to forbid married men from enlisting, but we are always so short of recruits, they are ignored."
She nodded. "Are there many married men in the Dedicated Cavalry?"
"Not many, but a few. In most cases, they are fellows who absolutely had to support their families and absolutely could not find another way."
"A drastic expedient," she murmured, her eyes moving over Fletcher's equine body.
Fletcher nodded. "Which is why I wanted to talk to you. I admit, I am a nosy person." She laughed. Her face, rather bony, young but already weathered, suddenly lit up. Fletcher found he wanted to make her laugh again. Not now. "But I have a good excuse with my students. I'm not only their teacher and commander, I have to be something of a therapist. The transformation is painless and almost the reverse of an amputation, but it's still drastic, a trauma, and leaves them with a lot to learn. I need to track how they're doing. And you, ma'am, both complicate your husband's situation and give me a great opportunity of understanding it better."
"Yes, I see."
"Nosy as I am, though, I'll try not to pry where I shouldn't. Feel free to refuse any answer, or to end this conversation at any time, please. I am not your commanding officer." As a civilian consultant, she didn't have one.
"That's quite all right, Captain. Please ask what you like."
"Well, then. Is my traumatized student also facing tension in his marriage because of his transformation?"
"What does Alistair say?" This was more than a rhetorical ploy. She was curious.
"He says it's fun. That you are both–" He stopped, not wanting to say too much.
"Both exploring his new body," she completed, nearly quoting her husband. She smiled, almost as good as the laugh. "It is fun. He so enjoys being big! You saw him before, of course, the first day."
Fletcher nodded. Littlejohn had not been tiny like his wife, but he'd been on the short side of average. One arrow later, he'd been just under seven feet tall. That first day, when the families had come in after the transformations, while Fletcher was politely listening to Baron Vimont try to conceal how aghast he felt at what he had pushed his son into, Littlejohn had called out "You first!" and swung his wife up onto his back. She was to be the first to ride him. And off he had gone, with surprising facility for one on new legs.
"Fun, yes," agreed Fletcher, remotely. He had had over fifty years of this fun and had another point to get to. It was his main point and he had thought over the wording several times, without success. Oh, well. Charge. "And no ... serious elements of ... frustration?"
Almost the laugh. She was two, maybe three, generations more modern than him, and not natively Grand Norman. He knew she knew what he was getting at, and she knew he knew, and so on. "How much of our story do you know?" she asked.
"Not much more than what has been made public."
"Has he told you anything about Kalotseko?" she asked.
"That's the American fay, the Norembegan, who helped you escape. I know he's skilled in seemings, but that's all."
"Very skilled. And he gave us some parting gifts, five seeming skins. Alistair hasn't mentioned them?"
"He has not. Which was prudent." He hadn't mentioned if they owned any gold ingots, either. Possessions that rare could cause problems. It also showed he had been able to exercise some discretion.
"Well, two of them are otter skins and two of them are hawk skins. We spent a great deal of our honeymoon in them. And you know–" This time the smile was impish. "–it turns out not to matter much if one of the hawks now has four legs or one of the otters now has six."
He wondered when they had had a chance to try the skins out in the last two months. But love would find a way.
"And the fifth skin?"
"You said there were five skins. You mentioned two otters and two hawks. What was the fifth skin?"
"Ah! That's why he was so agile right away. He'd had practice."
He turned to another aspect of the Littlejohns vis-à-vis transformation: "He told me he took this form the better to protect you."
She nodded and now looked grim. "You see that shape-changing, as such, doesn't bother us. But that we argued about. We have an agreement. I may not yet have turned into a mythological beast to protect him, but meantime there's marksmanship class."
"But even if you only go on expeditions with him, there's no guarantee he'll always be at hand."
"We will see what can be arranged. And there's our lives after his hitch in the cavalry, God willing."
Fletcher gave it up as not his problem. "There is one last point I want to discuss. Did he tell you about my interview with him?"
She looked very interested. "No. We've hardly had a chance to speak since then. We're always battling our training schedules, of course. But he phoned me that evening. He said he didn't want to talk about it in barracks, but I should ask you."
Fletcher smiled a little tightly. "So he was being candid and discrete at the same time. Good for him." He told her about his theory concerning Littlejohn's honesty.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, loudly enough to turn heads at the next table. "Are you sure?" She looked appalled.
"Not really. But he seemed to believe it. And I do think it likely."
"But it's not fair!"
"To you?" Fletched asked, puzzled.
"To him! We'd already promised to be honest to each other. Now, he's under this magical compulsion and I'm not."
"It's not exactly–"
"It's so unnecessary!"
"No one planned it. I think it's very much in accord with his original personality," Fletcher said, hoping to comfort.
"It certainly is. I'd never have suspected if you hadn't said. We'd already promised," she repeated.
"Could you explain that?" Fletcher asked, with half a notion of getting her mind off a painful situation. "He said you had to be honest to survive."
She nodded. "The monster– the illusionist– Kalotseko called it the Venom Dreamer– would disguise itself as one of us, over and over. But it was very vain. Natural, I suppose, when you're all about appearances. But if the person we were talking to was honest, didn't brag, was willing to admit mistakes, or confess to weaknesses or old shames, then we could know it was the real person. It couldn't bring itself to act like that."
"But about this compulsive honesty: Is there some way to make it fair? For me to draw level with him?"
"You've already promised him your honesty. If it makes you feel any better, I suppose you could take some kind of binding oath. But really, shouldn't someone in the family be able to ... be diplomatic? And you should probably know that he seemed delighted about it—to know he would never lapse in being honest to you." Her eyes started to brim, just as Littlejohn's had. "But," Fletcher added, "I have to say I am just guessing." He looked her solemnly in the eye. "Honesty compels me."
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