Morning inspection. Captain Fletcher clopped down the aisle of the barracks, glancing in each stall. "Mr. Vimont, fold your blanket before you leave." His desk was a mess, but that wasn't actually in the spec. Other than that, all was well. "At ease."
The recruits spread their forelegs and lowered rumps to the floor, folding their arms behind their backs and joining their hands over their withers.
Captain Fletcher looked them over. Only five. A smallish number, but there were never many. The barracks were built for a maximum of ten. There were, after all, few men who would volunteer for permanent transformation. The real issue was their variety.
Three were what Grand Normandy thought of as typical recruits to the Dedicated Cavalry: young men of good family—two were barons' sons—eager for careers of exotic adventure. But one of the other two was married and Scottish-born, and the other had been pushed into joining by a goblin.
More to the immediate point was the variety of their knowledge. Corliss had been here two extra weeks and was the sort to seek things out and look for angles, so there was probably little he did not know now. Littlejohn researched everything before acting, and anyway he was married. Darcy and Donovan had uncles and older cousins in the Cavalry. Only Vimont could be counted on to be ignorant.
No, the little Talk that Fletcher gave the recruits at this point wouldn't suit this year's audience. He would have to shorten it. Fletcher considered what to say.
The recruits were considering back at him, wondering what he was waiting for. Oh, well. Charge.
"Agility class up next, lads. But before you go, a little talk. You're two months in, and soon you will be allowed free time, to go about Ufham on your own. That means the reputation of the Cavalry will be in your hands. I'm going to have a short talk with each of you, later this morning, about how you are getting on and, in particular about your oath of bachelorhood." Littlejohn looked thoughtful, opened his mouth, then shut it again. Yes, there were subtleties in his case.
But Littlejohn wasn't going to be the problem. Fletcher glanced at Vimont, who was looking patiently bored, then at Corliss, who was also looking at Vimont.
"Make an appointment with Lieutenant Sanders at class. Dismissed."
On the way out, something made him cast one more glance in Vimont's stall. There was a pair of flip-flop sandals stirred into the blanket. White, small, probably feminine, certainly not for Vimont's hooves. Oh, dear.
Sanders leaned into Fletcher's office. "Corliss to see you, sir," he said. The tall palomino then withdrew to let Corliss enter. He saluted and stood to attention. He was now a tall, rangy bay, dark brown with dapples, clad in the rusty brown T-shirt that was fatigues for the Dedicated Cavalry. He smiled through a long curling beard.
"At ease. Have a seat," said Fletcher and watched as Corliss settled on the mat. He showed barely a sign of the unsure movements of a recent transformee—the fruit of two weeks' head start, diligent practice, and a natural nimbleness that had carried through the transformation.
"I have these little talks with everyone at the two-month mark," Fletcher told him. "Normally, I ask what brought them to join the Cavalry, then I try to decide if they're telling the truth."
"But you know my story, sir," said Corliss.
Fletcher nodded. "So we'll go on to the other thing I ask at these talks: What are your thoughts about the oath of bachelorhood?"
Corliss shrugged. He had, Fletcher now knew, a whole vocabulary of shrugs, variously expressing acceptance, indifference, annoyance, or dismissal. This was indifference. "You met Margot when she came with my family on induction day, sir. She was right when she said I'd never been the marrying kind. Of course, there are two oaths, aren't there? Not to marry and not to couple. Not making any assumptions about chastity, are we?" Corliss edged his smile. Fletcher mirrored it and shook his head. "Even though I'd have to be a moral monster as well as a physical one to try it now. Well, well. Many other men have adapted to the change in anatomy. I'm sure I can. Am I giving the right answers, sir?"
The tone and the glance were slightly ironical, though not insolent. He had made it clear he was scoping out Fletcher as surely as Fletcher was scoping out him. Well, they all did, if they had any brains. Corliss was just being open about it. "You are," Fletcher told him. "And I am very pleasantly surprised at how well you are taking your change of fortune."
"Not all that well. I heard you say you chose our shape willingly, even eagerly, and how you'd feel if you were made back into a tiny, tottery man-simple for the rest of your life, so I know you can imagine how I feel."
Fletcher nodded. "I've seen plenty of angry men coming out of transformations that were only technically voluntary, like yours."
Again, a shrug. "I gambled. I lost. I can't always win, but I can be a good loser. Don't think I'm a saint; I curse and repine and would gloat if something nasty happened to that goblin. But I lean away from that as much as I can. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
Fletcher nodded and smiled approvingly, but reflected that it seemed almost crazy to be so sane. Then it came to him: Corliss hasn't given up. He knows he can't turn back, but he's looking for a way forward. He's not just going to be a good, successful soldier-pony, or even a soldier now and an entrepreneur later. What's he looking for? Does he know?
"You are," said Fletcher, "doing very well, but I still want to talk to you about women and sex—always engaging topics, but professionally here. Not your own attitude but–"
"Yes. I have seen, and the rumor mill confirms, that you have been keeping an eye on him ever since he's been able to stagger about the base. Thank you for that."
Another shrug. "I'm paying back my debt. In return for taking me early, you asked me to help with the younger … pips, are we called?"
"That's the slang, yes. Well, I'm glad you see it in that light."
"Oh, it's a bargain! Two weeks of that old bugger's close company was two weeks in which to get into more and still more trouble! Anyway, Vimont's not such a bad chump. We 'pal around together'—that's what he calls it—and it's like walking a puppy: people think he's cute, but sometimes you have to apologize for him."
"Cute?" said Fletcher, incredulous.
"Well, he's rather blocky and always smiling, and he means no harm. Smiling gets you a long way."
"True. So that's his opening? Harmless and smiling?"
"Yes. Always on. And adding half a ton of horse didn't hurt at all. Girls like horses." Certainly the ones on the base did.
"Can you describe his, uh, technique?"
"If you can call it that. He just doesn't take no for an answer. I think he honestly doesn't believe it. He laughs it off, waits through a couple of exchanges, then offers again, with a different compliment or treat. Eventually, the girl either snaps at him, or tells him she can't because she's waxing her canary that night, or something. He's not grabby, if that's what you're worrying about, or even crude."
"And the objects of this unrelenting attention are Nadine and Ella?" These were civilians working at the base shop, new hires of lively disposition.
Corliss nodded. "Most often and most publicly." This confirmed what the rumor mill had delivered to Fletcher. There were plenty of other women on the base, most of them in the Standard Cavalry. These were all senior to a new pip like Vimont, and less accessible.
"Which one owns the white sandals in Vimont's stall?"
Corliss gave Fletcher a moment of glassy stare. "Of course you noticed. They are Nadine's. It's relatively innocent. I said he keeps making offers. What he mostly offers are rides." He was, after all, constrained by working in public. Even so, that was indecorously bold. "Well, I try to keep him away from Nadine because she's..."
"Less inhibited. But I missed this time and Vimont scored a hit: she cheerfully hopped aboard, so he got to give her the ride."
"In his T-shirt, I suppose?"
"T-shirt, sir?" asked Corliss, puzzled.
"Good Gad! What's wrong with today's youth? If you wear a jacket, the rider holds on to the straps on the back, but with a T-shirt, they—or she—may decide to hold on by hugging." Getting hugged from behind by a pretty girl clenching your horse ribs between her knees was about as good as it got for a new pip with very little unsupervised time. "There better have been some kind of shirt."
"Oh. Ah. Yes, there was. A T-shirt. And hugs and squeals. And then Nadine decided she could hang on better with bare feet, and Vimont was willing."
"Of course. Beats cavalry boots. Or sandals." Little sun-browned toes grabbing your belly hair… Down, boy. "Where did this happen."
"Behind the store, mostly. Ella insisted on that and hustled Nadine off when their break time was over."
"She may be riding herd on Nadine the way you are on Vimont."
"Yes, possibly. Anyway, I hustled Vimont back to barracks to get ready for the next class, and we discovered Nadine had tucked her sandals into his saddlebag. It's been warm and she likes to walk round barefoot, so she probably didn't notice them missing. He can return them the next time he goes to the shop, which I'm sure will be soon."
Centaur Leading a Procession by Norman Lindsay
The story did not sound too unlikely. Fletcher heard no alarm bells of suspicion go off in his mind. "Well, thank you," he said. "This has to be tedious for you. Now, we really should be talking about you. Let's see..." He puttered at his computer and hummed the refrain of "Lincolnshire Poacher":
♫ 'Tis my delight on a shining night / In the season of the year. ♫He glanced up at Corliss. The usual expression of calm wariness was still there, if canted more to the wary. Then Corliss smiled and sang:
"Oh once I took my moulies
And I set them in a snare.
'Twas then I spied a scroper's man
A-whirdling a hare.
But I was not a-feared my boys
Of that there is no doubt.
Oh 'tis my delight on a shining night
When the coppers aren't about."
Fletcher laughed. "Rambling Syd Rumpo! Where did you pick that up?"
Corliss grinned back. "My father loved listening to Round the Horne when he was a kid. He got the series on CD when I was a kid, and of course that number just about became the family anthem."
Fletcher momentarily felt very old, as he had first heard the parody as an adult, already a young cavalryman a few years up on hooves. Oh, well.
"Is poaching now the subject, sir?"
"Poacherly behavior, shall we say." Fletcher leaned forward, put his elbows on his desk, and steepled his finger. "You have no lights-out time because you now sleep so little. But you are supposed to stay in quarters. You've been out and about several nights, in the last couple of weeks. Maybe more and longer, but I usually have better things to do with my evenings."
"I've taught you everything you know about handling your new body. I haven't taught you everything I know. But, aside from breaking curfew, you didn't seem to be doing anything wrong. That I caught. Sometimes, you just seemed to be wandering around and pausing for thought. Sometimes, you seemed to be looking for something. What were you doing?"
"How–? Did you–?"
This was the first time Fletcher had seen Corliss's self-possession shaken. It was very gratifying. "Come now, Mr. Corliss. It must be a relief to indulge your honest streak once in a while. Give."
Corliss gave him a rueful smile. "Yessir." He sighed. Bested by a goblin, then by your teacher. Don't worry, Corliss, Fletcher thought. I'm sure you won't end up a professional good loser. Lots of wins ahead.
"Derrulleuw caught me taking my biggest prize yet, sir, a personal best. Maybe a family best. Salmon from a special pool."
Fletcher nodded. "I overheard. I think you let me overhear."
"Yessir. Well, I trust you, sir."
Fletcher blinked and gave him a slow nod. He felt honored but did not say so. "Thank you," was all he said.
On a related note, he had noticed "sir" was coming thick and fast, where it had been scarce when they were conspiring against Vimont. Fletcher didn't stand on military etiquette in these intimate talks; the respect behind "sir" should be earned or at least justified, Fletcher thought. It appeared that getting the drop on him did the job for Corliss. So be it.
"What Derrulleuw did not know, sir, was that he caught me taking the second set of salmon. He doesn't know about the three I left to my parents, in the freezer back at my old place. He might not think his vengeance to date covered those. I certainly didn't want him to have two more weeks to discover them."
"True. He did say you were quits. I heard him. But he might try to wiggle if he were mad enough."
"And you know I have cause to fear him, sir." Very true. Corliss's great-grandfather was still an oak tree because of Derrulleuw, and the transformation he had threatened Corliss with... "So I felt—feel—that I need to be prepared if I ever meet him again. Now, normally I trade my takings for favors or cash, but these are Salmon of Wisdom. They're supposed to confer magical power. I'm a good spell-sniffer, sir, and have a couple of little tricks, but I thought I needed more. I wrote to my parents, asking them to send me a bit of fish, even if it was a single square inch." He smiled. "They sent me the entire right side of a fish. Would've sent a whole fish, I think, but I specifically said not to."
"Through the mail?"
"Yessir, spelled for chill and preservation. So I zapped the thing in the microwave in the barracks, during a spare moment alone, and ate it, fins and bones and all. I've been sneaking out, sir, to test the results. Trying to see if new knowledge is creeping up on me, or if I can will things to happen. Nothing so far, sir."
"I see. What do you tell your classmates?"
"They know nothing about it, sir. I go out when they're all asleep."
Fletcher waited a moment to see if there was more, but there wasn't. "I see. Well, none of that, now. If you had trusted me a bit further, you'd have come to me about the salmon and I'd have said, 'Go to it, lad' and then sent you to Dr. Blackholt for diagnosis and lessons, regular lessons. Which is exactly what I'm doing now. We are delighted when pips have magical talent. We look for it. We cultivate it."
Corliss stared at him and started to grin.
"As for breaking curfew, two hours of cleaning tack for the next four afternoons."
The grin flickered, then came back a little lopsided. "Understood, sir."
"Thank you for a very interesting interview, Mr. Corliss. Dismissed."
Once he was gone, Sanders poked his head into the office and asked, "What's werdling and all the rest of it, sir? What's it mean?"
Fletcher smiled. "No telling. One can only assume the worst." After a meditative pause: "He trusts me. And you. That's something from someone of a sly profession, who got badly burned."
"Yessir. And it'll be something to have a mage in the class. Hope the fish works and some power kicks in."
"I think it already has. That's why I'll ask Blackholt to spend some time on him. He only went out when all the others were asleep. But they only need two, two and a half hours of sleep a night, so I think it unlikely they would often all be asleep by chance. And be asleep when he came back in."
Sanders took his own meditative pause. Then: "You think he's putting them to sleep? By just wanting hard?"
"Possibly. Blackholt can tell us."
"How did you track him, sir? And how did you know to go looking?"
Fletcher smiled. "Night-vision binoculars for the tracking. And my suspicions were aroused when I spotted his deck boots on morning inspection a while back."
"He bought himself a set of deck boots, about the time he got the fish, I assume. Why would he need deck boots when we're months away from setting foot on a ship? Well, they're hard rubber and muffle the clatter of hooves. And he's a poacher, or was."
"I can't tell, sir, if that's good guesswork or your Receptance kicking in."
"I stopped trying to tell the difference before you were up on hooves."
"That was all very friendly, especially considering it led up to a disciplinary action. A light one."
"I do like him. So many of the ones that were pushed into changing spend years full of resentment, naturally enough. Corliss is an almost eerily good sport. I now see that's because of the chance of magery. 'Well, I may have had to turn into a mythical beast, but if that's the price of becoming a mage, it's worth it.' Do you like him?"
"Yes, but I don't trust him. Not unless you say I can, sir."
Fletcher paused microscopically to consider the trust in that remark, then said, "You can trust him, at least at present."
"As long as he can trust us. And I want him to trust us and we him. A strong bond of faith. Yes, I like him and admire the way he perseveres, but the important bit is this: I think that, if all goes well, we have a budding spy mage here. A very talented and determined person, in any case. And I want him to stay on our side."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2019