Paperwork. Pow. Duty.
When I got to the Commanding General’s Office at seven thirty-five, my desk was already piled high with papers. Either Buck had been working late or Lieutenant Sabre had been in early. Both, probably. I made coffee, and, as the other clerks trickled in, began to sort. At eight thirty, Poppy rushed in, hung Pow’s cradleboard on the coat rack, and rushed out, saying he’d be back by lunchtime. I’d just finished stamping the incoming mail and begun to log it in the Correspondence Received Register when Pow woke up and began to howl. Even Private Hargrave’s bunny imitation, normally a baby side-splitter, failed to distract him; you can’t tell a five-month-old baby to wait for his chow. So I hefted the cradleboard over my shoulder and went in search of Buck.
I found her down at the cavalry stables, worrying over Sadie, who still hadn’t foaled. While Buck sat on a hay bale and fed Pow, continuing her conversation with Dr. Mars, I ran over to the post bakery and got two dozen donuts and three cups of coffee. I returned to the stables and found that Buck and Pow had already gone.
So back to the office I went, balancing the coffee and donuts carefully so I wouldn’t get anything messy on my uniform. The rain, which had been pouring down for the past week, was finally letting up a bit, but everything was soggy. The parade ground was too wet for drills and the roads were ankle-deep in mud. At Building 56, a sign had been hung by the main door reminding everyone to scrape their boots before coming inside, but the front porch and hallway were streaked with mud. A sorry-looking private with a wet mop was trying to keep the mess down, without much success.
Buck took a coffee and donut and put a finger to her lips: Pow was asleep again, so I was dismissed back to my correspondence. I finished logging and had begun on my endorsements when Buck realized she was late for a meeting with the Warlord and had left the Command Baton at the O Club.
I rushed to the Club, found the Baton in one of the lavs, and raced back to the CGO. There I discovered that Sergeant Carheña had gone to the quartermaster storehouse to get more paper and pen nibs, leaving Private Hargrave in charge, and Private Hargrave, who is what’s commonly known in the Army as a coffee cooler, had disappeared into the sinks with the Califa Police Gazette. Flynn and Pow were alone in the office—Buck had left without the Baton—and while Pow was still sleeping peacefully in his pen, Flynn had eaten an entire box of donuts, fourteen in all.
So, back to Dr. Mars, with a puking dog slung over one shoulder and a sleeping baby slung over the other. Dr. Mars dosed Flynn with calomel and pronounced he’d live. Back again to the CGO, Flynn sluggish but no longer foaming, Pow awake and chirping happily. I stuffed Pow into his pen with a toy to chew on, and had no sooner sat down at my desk when Lieutenant Sabre popped out of his office and asked why I was taking so long with the mail.
I bit back a snappy reply. They are not big on snappy replies in the Army. While Lieutenant Sabre lectured me on time management, I glanced at the wall clock. Surely it was almost lunchtime.
It was only nine-thirty.
With the Infanta Sylvanna’s arrival only three weeks away, the CGO was frenzied. The Infanta was traveling from the Huitzil Empire via a small flotilla of ships, which had to be protected from pirates, sea monsters, icebergs, typhoons, kelp forests, and goddess knows what else. Once she arrived in the City, she had to be protected from terrorists, overzealous admirers, assassins, and goddess knows who else. All this protection took a lot of organizing, which took a lot of paperwork, which took a lot of staff officers, which is why I’d been detached from the Barracks and sent to be Buck’s slave.
From the fire into the flood, as Nini Mo says.
The duties of an ADC are tedious enough to make you weep. It’s all meetings and reviews and inspections and briefings and endless errands. Buck may be my mother (sort of), but she treats me like any other member of her staff, for the most part, which means she works me like a servitor.
The one exception to the most part is Pow, or, to give him his full name, Powhatan Reverdy Florian Poligniac Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca, a name that weighs more than he does (currently, fifteen pounds five ounces). If I had been an ordinary aide, Buck would never dare stick me with baby-watching. After all, Lieutenant Sabre isn’t expected to change Pow’s diapie or burp him or give him tummy time. When I pointed this out to Buck once, she gave me a sorrowful look and said that Pow was my brother, not Lieutenant Sabre’s, and that Lieutenant Sabre actually had, on occasion, changed Pow’s diapie and burped him without complaint, and how sad it was that I balked at helping her when she asked so little of me, really (ayah, right).
Buck is a genius when it comes to putting the screw in. That’s what makes her a great general; people are compelled to follow her orders not just because she’ll court-martial them if they don’t, but because they will feel so terrible if they disobey her. I felt like the world’s worst person for complaining even while I knew that she was gaming me, because Pow is only my half-brother. But Buck doesn’t know I know that. She doesn’t know I have discovered she’s been lying to me all my life.
Lieutenant Sabre finished his lecture and returned to his office, taking the mail with him, and I went back to work. The morning crept by like mud until just before lunch, when Buck, long since returned from her meeting, came out of her office with Pow in his cradleboard slung over her shoulder and went off to an inspection, Lieutenant Sabre in tow.
As soon as they were out the door, everyone but me gave up any pretense of work and started to chatter about costumes and pirates and candy. The enlisteds didn’t dare shirk off around Lieutenant Sabre—as the old Army saying goes, he’s so straight, he pisses at attention—but I was only a second lieutenant (provisional), so they weren’t particularly worried about me. All they cared about was that tonight was Pirates’ Parade, the holiday that commemorates the time long ago when pirates tried to plunder the City but were kicked back by resourceful citizens. Once a year, kids celebrate this event by dressing up as pirates and going door-to-door, demanding candy tribute. Later, pirate effigies are burned in the old City Center zocolo. Since no one remembers the exact day the pirates came, the holiday now falls on the night of the year when the Current is at its highest. Hence, it’s also magickal amateur night, which I intended to take full advantage of.
I ignored the chattering and continued to work. I couldn’t leave until all my copying was done, and I intended to leave exactly on time, if not a minute or two early. Normally I hate copying, but today I welcomed it. The concentration kept me from feeling jittery about what I had planned for later that night.
"Hey, Lieutenant," Private Hargrave said.
"I’m working." I did not look up from my ledger.
"Are you going to see Califa’s Lip Rouge tonight? They got a new lead singer, you know."
A sharp, sour feeling jabbed me in the liver. Califa’s Lip Rouge did indeed have a new lead singer, and just the thought of him made me feel a weird combination of jealous and mean.
"No, I’m not going," I answered.
"I thought Udo Landaðon was your friend," Sergeant Carheña said. "He used to come in to the office with you all the time."
"That was a long time ago," I said. "He’s a courtier now. He’s busy. He’s important."
"The Zu-Zu is so sweet," Hargrave said. "She plays a mean guitar. I’d like to—"
"That’s the Infantina you are talking about, Private,"
Sergeant Carheña said sharply. "Be respectful of the Warlord’s granddaughter!"
"I am being respectful!" Hargrave protested, winking at me.
I did not wink back. Instead, I wiped my pen and put it on my pen rest, and went down to the lav. There I locked myself in a stall and spit up the Gramatica Word lodged in my throat. The Word was black and shiny, with wiggly antennae. I didn’t recognize it, but when it landed in the toilet, the water roiled and bubbled pinkly, so I knew it was a hot one. Well, I’d known it was a hot one already; my throat felt like I’d been eating sandpaper.
I used to think you learned Gramatica. Now I know Gramatica learns you. I hadn’t gotten far with my Gramatica Vocabulary before I had to give up my studies, but the Words I had already learned still skitter around inside me like mice. I can feel them crawling through my veins and scrabbling in my brain.
Most of the time, I can control the Gramatica, keep it inside where it belongs. I know it’s dangerous to let the Words out, but sometimes I just can’t help it. It’s either spit or explode. Literally, maybe.
Back in the office, the clerks were now bent over their papers, silent and industrious. Lieutenant Sabre had returned. After lunch, Buck rushed in from her meeting in an absolute fury. Between the pirates and the Birdies and the Warlord and the budgets, she was almost always in a fury now. In a clipped voice, she told me not to disturb her unless there was a fire or a war, then shut herself and Pow in her office. Lieutenant Sabre dumped a rush copy job on my desk and went off to another meeting.
The afternoon crept by as slowly as the morning, the quiet of the office punctuated only by the scratching of our pens, Flynn’s sleepy yawns, the hiss of the gas lamps, the click of the office clock. No sound at all came from behind Buck’s door. I suspected she and Pow were napping. The closer it got to dismissal, the more excitement pricked at me. Finally, after all this time, tonight.
At a quarter to nineteen, Sergeant Carheña picked up his bundle and said he had some papers to deliver. I doubted he was coming back. Hargrave was still copying away. With Lieutenant Sabre out of the office, I was in charge, and even though I’d finished the rush job, I couldn’t leave until Hargrave was finished. So I took advantage of my rank and dismissed him, even though he wasn’t done yet.
Private Hargrave did not wait for me to tell him twice. He threw down his pen, shoved his papers into a desk drawer, grabbed his sack coat and forage cap off the coat rack, and ran out the door, not even bothering to salute. I dumped my completed copies on Lieutenant Sabre’s desk and rushed back to the outer office to gather up my overcoat and hat. As the sounds of Retreat spilled in through the open window, Flynn sprang out of his snooze and ran to the door expectantly. We were now officially off- duty. I was pulling the office door closed behind me, when I heard Buck calling my name.
I froze, hoping that if I didn’t answer, Buck would think I had already left.
"I know you haven’t left yet, Flora!"
Fike. Buck has catlike hearing. I sighed heavily, flung my overcoat on my chair, and answered Buck’s call. She was sitting in her nursing chair, Pow curled in her lap like a pill bug, slurping noisily. The faint smell of apple pipeweed lingered on the air, and I looked at Buck sharply. Had she taken up smoking again? Surely she wouldn’t smoke around Pow.
Buck said, "Hotspur won’t be here to pick up Pow for another half an hour; can you keep an eye on him until then? As soon as Tiny Man is done, I have to run over to the stables to check on Sadie. In the meantime, can you read me the officer-of-the-day report? It’s too awkward to balance the logbook with one hand, and also could you make me some tea?"
"But I’m off-duty! I’m going to the Califa’s Lip Rouge show!" I lied.
"It won’t take very long, Flora. I know it’s a big night," Buck said. In her lap, Pow’s pink feet waved and kicked; he is a very energetic eater. "Please. I really need your help here. You’ll still be able to make the show. Don’t cross me. I’m in a bad mood."
Thinking many sweary evil thoughts, I went to the stove to make the tea. Poppy had better be on time; I had a lot of prep work to do still. Buck leaned back in her chair, eyes closed. Pow was sleeping six hours at a stretch at night now, which Poppy said was pretty good for a five-month-old. But Buck had been back at her desk within forty-eight hours of Pow’s birth, which had been a bit rough, and she’d never had a full chance to recover.
Well, I didn’t have any sympathy. No one made her have a baby at her age, and no one made her do all the extra work. She took it all upon herself, and she should know her limits. Not very charitable, I know, but it was hard for me to think charitably about Buck at all, not after my discovery how she had let me believe for all those years that she was my mother. Just because my true heritage had to be a secret from our Birdie overlords didn’t mean that it should be a secret from me. Buck could have trusted me with the truth. She had not. And I had suffered.
"Here’s your tea." I carried the cup over to her and put it on the arm of her nursing chair. Buck jerked awake and handed Pow over to me. Wobbly with fullness, he was soft and pliable like a doll, and he smelled warm and cozy. I balanced him against my shoulder; he wrapped his pudgy hands around my dangling aiguillettes and almost strangled me. He was a Fyrdraaca, no doubt about that.
Buck said, "Thanks. I needed that. Pigface, I wish this day were over. Can you read me that logbook, please?"
I disengaged Pow from my aiguillettes, put him down in his pen, and gave him a stuffed horse to strangle while I dug the logbook out of the mess on Buck’s desk. Three tedious pages later, a tapping interrupted me. A pigeon had alighted on the windowsill and was gently rapping at the glass with its beak. When I opened the window, the bird glided across the room and took up perch on the carrier stand on Buck’s desk.
"Pigface, I hope this is good news. I deserve some," Buck said, putting down her cup. The pigeon extended one dainty pink foot and she unclipped the message cylinder from it, withdrawing the tiny message roll. I hoped for good news, too, but all the news I would consider good (that Lord Axacaya was dead, that the Birdies were withdrawing from Califa, that Udo had broken up with the Zu-Zu) was pretty unlikely.
"Pigface!" Buck said. "Hotspur’s stuck across the Bay. He won’t make it back until tomorrow morning. And I have to go to the Pirates’ Parade party at Saeta House. You’ll have to sit with Pow tonight."
"But I have plans, remember?" I said desperately. It had to be tonight.
"I’m sorry, Flora, but I can’t take Pow with me. You’ll have to watch him. I’ll try not to be too late."
"I haven’t had a full night off in weeks. Lieutenant Sabre authorized my leave and you endorsed his authorization."
"I’m sorry, Flora. Someone has to watch the Tiny Man."
Buck has lots of nicknames for Pow: Powser, Powie, Chubblet, and Scratchy, but Tiny Man is her favorite. Buck has nicknames for Poppy and my sister Idden both (Glorious Boy and Pudgie). She even has even a nickname for Lieutenant Sabre. But she never calls me anything but Flora.
"Can’t Lieutenant Sabre do it? I’ve been looking forward to the show forever," I pleaded. "It’s Udo’s big debut."
"Lieutenant Sabre has gone on sick leave. He’s got the ague, so I sent him home. Besides, I thought you and Udo were no longer friends."
"We made up," I lied hastily. "Can’t you take Pow with you? He went with you to lunch with the Mayor of Millos last week."
Buck switched from mother to commanding general. "I don’t understand why you are arguing with me, Lieutenant. Shall I make it an order?"
I could play this game, too. "The Articles of War, section twelve, paragraph fifty-two, forbid any superior officer from asking a subordinate to do personal work."
"Why don’t you prefer charges against me then, Lieutenant?" Buck said. At her tone, Pow burst into a frightened howl. Sighing heavily, Buck scooped him up and over her shoulder, where he began to gum her shoulder board. "Can’t you just help me out, Flora. Please?"
A nasty Gramatica Word was making my blood tingle, my head pound. "I don’t see how I have a choice."
Buck bounced Pow and kissed his head, making hushy noises. "You don’t. But you could be gracious about it. I count on you, Flora. You are the only person I can rely on. You are all I’ve got. Also, can you file this letter before you leave? It got mixed up in my mail this morning."
My jaw clenched tight enough to bite silver, I took the letter from her. If I was all that Buck had, she was in sorry shape indeed.
And now, so was I.