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He knew the prescribed rat-reply. "Well, hardly ever."
She even summoned up a ratly look of acquisitiveness. "Chocolate Cointreau straws? I wouldn't stay for less. Someone who loved me would give me those."
"Hmph. Cupboard love," he said loftily, knowing he'd won at least a reprieve, especially as he had some of the desired item.
She took it. To his surprise she offered him a bite. It was the most unratly gesture he'd ever seen her make. Then, with her sticky chocolate, she burrowed under the bedclothes. "Well. I can't love your tail. I still think 'tis a sad lack in you. I mean size does count, and a girl could get some respect with a boyfriend like you, if you had a tail in proportion."
When Fitz opened his eyes again, there was a four-star general, and several other staff officers, looking at him. He hoped that the general was not aware of the beady eyes peering at him from under the blanket. There were also two people who bore the unmistakable mark of "press" even if one hadn't borne a shoulder-cam as well. The other one grimaced. "Better focus on the right side of his face. He's not a pretty sight on this side. Right, General, you're on. Roll it, Paul."
Fitz discovered that he was now a major. The bits of gold in his hand seemed a very poor recompense for his troops' lives. "And for service over and above the call of duty in the capture of the first intact Magh' fieldpiece: The George Bernard Shaw Cross, first cla.s.s."
"Thank you, sir. But I believe the credit should go to the men and rats in my unit, sir. A number of them lost their lives in this action, and I'd like them to get the recognition for their courage. And we captured an entire pod of Magh' guns. We'd have held them if Colonel Brown had sent us the reinforcements we were promised. Loss of life and loss of those fieldpieces is due to his and General Bulcher's decisions not to back us up." Fitz hoped this was going out live.
The general was only momentarily discomfited. "General Bulcher was unfortunately misinformed by the colonel. The matter is under investigation. But you and the men under your command did very well under the circ.u.mstances. A rather substantial number of medals are being awarded. Lieutenant Cavanagh will command one of the most decorated units on the front." He cleared his throat. "I believe you may be invalided out of active frontline duty, Major. You're a valuable soldier. Too valuable to waste on just any desk job. Which is why I have ordered your transfer to the Military Intelligence Corps. You'll be replacing Major Dunsay."
"No thank you, sir. I'd like to try and get fit, and return to my unit."
The general looked as if he'd just bitten into a slug in his salad. He made a quick recovery. "Intelligence is where you can really make a contribution to the war effort, young man. However, I am open to other requests."
"Very well, sir. I'd like to add a severely injured rat to my staff. We need someone who understand rats, sir. They're valuable military a.s.sets. It's due to them and the courage of my troops that I owe what success we had. It is my feeling that the rats should be paid. They'd be much better motivated then."
The general blinked. "Yes. Well. We shall have to see what can be done. The bats that we are about to introduce will make a great deal of difference too, eh."
A little later when the general and his entourage had left, Ariel emerged. "Why did you agree?" she asked, helping herself to a grape.
Fitz shrugged. It was a painful experience. "Because . . . G.o.d knows if either of us will ever be fit to fight again. And, well, the Maggots always attacked where we were weakest. They obviously have good intelligence. We also need it. And maybe at Military Headquarters I can get something done about idiots like Colonel Brown and General Bulcher. Maybe we can make the system work."
Ariel chuckled. "'Tis the HAR army we speak of, Fitz. Methinks it will be 'once more into their breeches' and bite their b.o.l.l.o.c.ks."
Fitz grinned. It hurt his face. "We'll try it my way first, okay?" He looked at the order that the general had left behind.
It was signed: H. Cartup-Kreutzler.
He stared at the signature for a long time. He began to understand just why he'd been posted to "Fort Despair." Or why the orders for relief had been delayed. And just what his posting to "Intelligence" might be. It wouldn't stop him. But it would make for interesting times, ahead.
Ariel shrugged in her turn when he pointed it out. "Methinks we'll end up doing things in my way after all. 'Tis the only way the army works."
A few minutes later, they had another visitor. An elderly woman, this was, wearing what looked like a laboratory coat. She was holding an antique-looking item in her hands. A bra.s.s object of some sort. At first, Fitz though it was an oddly shaped teakettle, until he realized it was an oil lamp.
The woman placed the lamp on a small table next to the bed and gazed down at Fitz. He couldn't read the expression in her face. There was something there . . . Amus.e.m.e.nt, maybe, combined with satisfaction. Hard to tell.
Then the woman spotted Ariel's nose poking out from under the covers. She smiled, and murmured some verses under her breath. Fitz could just barely make out the words.
"The culminating pleasure that we treasure beyond measure, Is the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done."
Fitz cleared his throat. "May I help you, Ms. ah . . . ?"
"Just think of me as John Wellington Wells. A dealer in magic and spells. And that's all I'm going to tell you."
She started to turn away, gesturing with a finger at the oil lamp. "A gift I brought for you." Her eyes went back to Ariel, whose entire head was now sticking out of the covers. "I'm glad to see it will be trebly appreciated."
And with that, she headed out the door. On her way through, Fitz heard her murmuring: "The genie out of the bottle, indeed."
When she was gone, Ariel popped out from under the blankets. "You humans are a daft lot, but that is the first one I have ever heard quote Gilbert and Sullivan." She scrutinized the gift on the nearby table with a rat's usual intentness when the possibility of loot arose. "What's that?"
Fitz shrugged. "Nothing you'll be interested in. Me neither, actually. It's an antique kind of lamp."
Ariel was puzzled. "What for? When you want light, you flip a switch. When you want light and can't get it-like in a tunnel in a Maggot raid-that silly thing will be useless. Won't even make a good bludgeon."
Fitz shrugged again. "Like you said, humans are all daft. That old lady, for sure."
But Ariel had already leapt onto the table. Though disgruntled, she wasn't going to leave even a faint possibility of loot unchecked.
She lifted the lid. Then, squeaked sheer glee.
"It's full of chocolates! And-!"
Ariel reached in and plucked out a little sample bottle of Grand Marnier. Then, clutching it to her chest, she replaced the lid and perched herself atop the lamp. Looking, for all the world, like a guardian demon.
She gave Fitz a slit-eyed stare.
"I'll share the chocolates-maybe. If you're sweet to me. But the booze is mine."
Fitz rolled his eyes. "Rats!"
"It's important!" insisted Ariel. "There's not going to be any of that human folderol in this romance." Now, she looked positively indignant. "Won't ever find a rat-sure as h.e.l.l not a rat-girl-getting her stars crossed. Much less her loot. That silly c.r.a.p's got to go."
Fitz leaned back in the pillows, chuckling. He thought he understood now-a bit, at least-of the weird old woman's last words.
"Genie out of the bottle! One way to put it, I guess."
"Why do humans have so many useless words?" grumbled Ariel. "And what's a 'genie,' anyway?"
"You are." Fitz thought about it for a moment. "Or maybe we are."