Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the sequel to The Flight of the Gryphon.
(Email: email@example.com )
"That concludes the opening statement for the Prosecution." The Chief Prosecutor squared his papers and replaced them on the lectern, then pushed his horn-rimmed spectacles back up his nose.
Mavra sighed with relief. The courtroom benches were as hard as church pews and her backside had lost all feeling half an hour ago. From the fidgeting going on next to her, Orlenda hadn't been doing much better.
"Thank you, Justice Fisher," said the President of the International Military Tribunal, who came from Cheltain. He glanced at the huge clock on the dark-panelled wall then looked at the two other judges. "Is this a convenient time to break for lunch?" The judges, a Westrian man and an Arcadian woman, nodded. "Very well. Court will adjourn and restart in an hour and a half at—" he glanced at the clock once more, "—2.00." He rapped the table with his gavel.
The courtroom filled with noise and movement as the Tribunal members stood up and filed out.
Armed sentries escorted the ten defendants towards the door at the back of the courtroom and the lift that would take them down to the holding cells. The tall, grey-uniform-clad figure of Markus Rahn drew Mavra's attention like a magnet. That hawklike profile was marred now, the nose broken and a livid scar stretching from his hairline to his jaw. Though he limped badly and needed a walking cane, he still carried himself with pride. As though sensing her regard, he turned to look at her, but there was no recognition in those deep-set eyes. That would change.
"Look at the bloody queue," complained Orlenda, as Rahn disappeared from view. "I told you we should have sat nearer the exit!"
Mavra turned to survey the logjam of people between them and the way out. What with the marshal, three judges, six prosecutors, twenty defence counsel, assorted witnesses and their friends, court recorders, secretaries, interpreters, members of the Press, not to mention a film crew recording the Trial for posterity, the place was packed—no wonder the room felt so hot and stuffy.
At last the crush eased and with an exclamation of relief Orlenda started towards the exit. Mavra trailed after her, following the glimpse of brown that was Orlenda's uniform until they were standing outside on the wet pavement.
Across the road was the Hotel Splendide, where the world's Press and many of the Trial's participants were staying. The Splendide and the Palace of Justice had both survived the War almost unscathed. That and the fact that there was a prison adjacent to the Palace, large enough and, as important, secure enough to hold all the defendants, was the reason Hauptburg had been chosen to host the War Crimes Trial.
Mavra stepped off the pavement, heading for the hotel—though she and Orlenda were commuting daily from the Arcadian zone they were entitled to eat their meals there. Orlenda grabbed her by the arm.
"Hang on a minute. Just seen someone I need to have a word with." Taking Mavra's acquiescence for granted, she hurried away.
"Don’t take too long," called Mavra after her friend. "I'm starving." She wondered slightly apprehensively what would be on the menu today. The Westrians had been put in charge of supplying the Splendide's food, and she had yet to acquire a taste for that canned pink meat they were so fond of.
Weak Autumn sunlight was filtering through the dispersing rain clouds, and she tilted her face towards it and closed her eyes. It had been a long morning, made worse by the proceedings being conducted in Cheltish and Justice Fisher's tendency to drop into a monotone whenever he read from his notes. It didn't help that she had once more had a disturbed night. (Damned nightmares!) Several times, Mavra had felt her eyelids drooping, and it was only Orlenda's timely elbow in her ribs that had kept her from dropping off.
"It is you!" came a startled voice from beside her. "I wasn't sure."
Mavra opened her eyes. A young woman wearing the blue uniform of the Cheltish Air Transport Auxiliary was staring up at her. She was a head shorter than Mavra, and her fair hair was tucked up inside her forage cap.
For a moment Mavra thought she was dreaming, and she checked her surroundings to reassure herself that she wasn't. As they locked gazes once more, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She wondered if Gwen could feel the current of attraction running between them too.
"Um," Gwen managed at last.
Mavra gathered her scattered wits. "What you do here?" Her Cheltish was no more fluent than it had been when she last saw the ferry pilot, nearly a year ago.
"I could ask you the same thing."
"Witness in Trial."
"Are you? Golly! ... I'm on leave."
"You based here now?"
"In Hauptburg?" Gwen shook her head. "I ferried a Nimbus over last week. That's the first time I've ever flown across the Channel—they wouldn't let us while the War was on. It was scary, flying so low over water, but I managed not to ditch her in the drink." Her pride in her achievement was so obvious that Mavra gave her a warm smile. At that, Gwen visibly relaxed. "It's good to see you."
Mavra nodded. "Yes."
"I've got two more days. Before the next taxi home," continued Gwen. "And we're at a bit of a loose end." She cocked her head, her expression expectant.
Mavra arched an eyebrow. "'We'? You and—" What was the name of that drunk? "—Jack?"
Gwen's eyebrows shot up. "Whatever gave you that idea? I haven't seen him since that night at the dance. No, I'm here with Joan. We're sharing a billet." She paused. "Remember her?"
"Red hair? Talks lots?"
Gwen chuckled. "That's her."
Mavra gestured at the Palace of Justice. "Surely much nicer way than this to spend leave."
"It was Joan's idea. 'History in the making'," said Gwen. "Flipping boring history, if you ask me." Then she frowned. "I wonder where she's got to. She'll be furious when she hears she's missed you."
"Excuse me," interrupted a voice in Arcadian. "Are you Lt. Vlasik?"
Mavra turned. The person addressing her was a dumpy, middle-aged woman wearing a drab headscarf and a shapeless brown coat that had seen better days. "Yes?"
The woman beamed at her. "I just wanted to say thank you." She grabbed Mavra's hand in both of hers and shook it, while Gwen looked on in surprise.
"For what?" asked Mavra.
"I am from Chojnek."
"Ah." They held one another's gaze for a long, intent moment then Mavra asked, "Are you here to testify?"
The woman nodded. "I intend to see Rahn hang."
"Then he will," said the woman, as though that settled the matter. With a last heartfelt shake of Mavra's hand she turned and slipped back into the crowd.
Gwen looked at Mavra. "What was that ab—"
"That bloody man!" came Orlenda's voice. "He still hasn't sorted out that chit. And you know you can't even blink in the Cheltish Zone without a chit. Right, let's get some lunch. I hope they have that canned—" She halted next to Mavra. "Oh, sorry. Am I interrupting?" Brown eyes raked Gwen from head to toe, and, from the expression on Orlenda's face, liked what they saw.
"Hands off," said Mavra, also in Arcadian.
Her friend raised her hands, palms out. "Just looking. Don't mind me."
"I won't." Mavra turned back to Gwen who was looking puzzled at this exchange. "Lt. Orlenda Voronina. Same fighter regiment as me."
"Pleased to meet you." Gwen held out her hand. "I'm Gwen Brooke. Mavra may have mentioned me."
"Yes." A grinning Orlenda waggled her eyebrows and accepted Gwen's hand. "More than friend, I think."
"Enough." Mavra grabbed Orlenda's arm, forcing her to cut short a handshake that from Gwen's uncertain look had outstayed its welcome. "Must get something to eat then get back to court." She turned back to Gwen and gave her an apologetic smile. "But tonight we talk, yes? Over dinner, maybe? Just you and me. ... Not Joan and not Orlenda," she added, just to be sure.
"Spoilsport," muttered her friend.
"I'd like that," said Gwen.
"Good," said Mavra, meaning it. "Where your billet?" Gwen told her an address in the less ruined part of the city and she committed it to memory. "I call for you. About seven? Yes?"
"Seven," agreed Gwen.
"Later, then." The matter settled to her satisfaction, Mavra grabbed Orlenda's arm and shoved her towards the Splendide and lunch.
"You'll need these." Mavra threw Orlenda the keys to their jeep.
"Thanks." The other fighter pilot snatched them out of the air and used them, then paused, one gloved hand on the ignition. "How will you get back?"
"I can always hitch a lift."
"You might not need to." Orlenda leered. "That pretty little blonde might ask you to stay the night. And since the Trial's been adjourned for a day, there's nothing to stop you."
"What? And cause an international incident? This is the Cheltish zone, remember. Think of the headlines." Mavra sighed. "Besides, we haven't even kissed yet." And I'm not even sure if she wants to.
Orlenda started the jeep then leaned over and rummaged around. After a few seconds she straightened and threw something to Mavra. "You might find a use for these tonight," she shouted above the throaty roar of the engine.
Mavra fielded the object: a pack of Cheltish cigarettes. "Thanks." With a nod and a cheery wave, her friend drove off.
She tucked the cigarettes in the pocket of her greatcoat, where an identical pack already nestled, then turned up her collar against the evening chill, and set off walking.
Orlenda's cigarettes had given Mavra an idea. By all accounts there was a thriving Black Market on the way to the address that Gwen had given her. She would like to give Gwen a present. A piece of jewellery, maybe. She would call in there first.
The streets were largely empty, the lines of Vieden women clearing rubble in exchange for a hot meal gone for the day, but as she drew closer to what had once been an ornamental park, the numbers of people about, soldiers and civilians, began to increase.
The Viedens among them were instantly identifiable, their faces gaunt, clothes shabby, shoes in need of resoling, and expressions defeated. Some young women were offering themselves for cigarettes or bars of chocolate, and a group of well-fed Westrians, the worse for alcohol, looked as though they were going to take them up on the offer. A tall Cheltish army officer glanced at the laughing soldiers, his expression one of disgust and disdain, then turned pointedly away. He threw Mavra the same look as she drew nearer, but she was used to it and ignored him.
Entering the park at last, she saw that it was bustling with wheelbarrows and trestle tables piled high with items of all descriptions. She had expected furtiveness, but no one seemed to care that what they were doing was illegal; in fact several military policemen were among those looking at the goods on display.
The first stall Mavra came to, lit by a flickering storm lantern, was selling cameras, binoculars and optical instruments, which didn't interest her. She moved on to the next, which was surrounded by soldiers, wondering what the draw was. Elbowing her way to the front, she saw that the trader was selling contraceptives for those who'd planned ahead, and penicillin for those who hadn't. She grimaced and elbowed her way out again.
A hand plucked at her sleeve. "Please," said a gaunt Vieden man in a shabby suit, his face strained, his Arcadian halting. "Spare cigarettes? My wife and child starve."
Mavra brushed his hand away. "At least they're alive."
"War not their fault," he pleaded. "Please."
But her heart was like stone. "Tell your wife to sell her hair or clear rubble like the others," she said and walked away.
The third stall stocked chocolate and cocoa, chewing gum and tea, and had an odd sideline in dogs—two mangy-looking mongrels were tethered to a table leg with a piece of rope. She wondered if he was selling them as pets or as food, then decided she'd rather not know.
The fourth trader, an old man with a walrus moustache, was selling fountain pens, porcelain, watches and rings, and even the odd oil painting. She inspected the goods on his table but nothing caught her eye. As she was about to turn away, however, she noticed a delicate oval brooch. Its single stone might well match the green of Gwen's eyes. She pointed to it and arched an eyebrow at the old man.
He stroked his moustache while he weighed her up, his gaze lingering on her uniform. "Two packs cigarettes." If she had been Westrian, he would probably have asked for three.
He pursed his lips then picked up the brooch and turned it over. "Silver. See. Hallmarked." A gnarled finger pointed at the symbols. "Good quality emerald too, not paste. Two packs."
"You can't eat emeralds." She pulled out a single pack of cigarettes and offered it.
When he saw they weren't the cheap-and-cheerful Arcadian variety his eyes brightened, but he went through the motions of protesting nevertheless. "Robbery! Two packs."
"Take it or leave it."
His shoulders drooped and he let out an exaggerated sigh. "OK." Snatching the cigarettes from her, he dropped the brooch into her palm.
An old woman was rooting through the dustbins outside Gwen's billet. She straightened up as Mavra approached and gave her a wary glance. Mavra ignored her and started up the steps to the front door, so she bent and resumed her scavenging.
The three-storey house was one of the more intact ones, its roof newly patched, only a few of the windows on the top floor boarded up. The front door was ajar so she pushed it open with a gloved hand and ventured inside.
Numbered doors led off the stairs that climbed from the tiny hallway. Mavra chewed her lip and tried to remember. Had Gwen mentioned a flat number? Just then a door on the ground floor creaked open and a tired-looking Vieden woman in an apron peered out at her, blanching at the sight of Mavra's uniform.
"Yes? I help you?"
"First Officer Brooke," said Mavra. The woman, who must be the building's caretaker, looked none the wiser so she went on, "Pilot from Cheltain?" Still no reaction. "Woman. Short. Fair hair. ... Gwen?"
"Oh, Gwen." The caretaker's face split into a relieved smile. Clearly, if Mavra knew Gwen, she couldn't be all bad. "Flat 2." She pointed up the stairs.
"Welcome." The caretaker watched Mavra start up the stairs then disappeared back inside her room.
Mavra was about to rap her knuckles on the door marked '2' when it opened. The young woman who emerged wasn't looking where she was going and cannoned into Mavra. Mavra grabbed the banister to steady them both.
"Whoops! Sorry," said the redhead. "Oh, it's you, Lt Vlasik."
Mavra recognised Gwen's fellow pilot. "'Mavra', please. Hello, Joan."
Joan stooped to retrieve her forage cap and crammed it back on her head. "Nice to see you again, Mavra. Gwen said you were coming round. Hey, Gwen," she called. "She's here."
"I'll be right there," came a voice from inside.
"She's looking forward to catching up on your news," confided Joan. "Where are you taking her?"
Mavra was unfamiliar with this part of the city. She hadn't thought this through, she realised. What had she intended? That they walk aimlessly until they spotted a likely watering hole? She gave a helpless shrug.
"Thought so." Joan grinned. "There's a new place opened just round the corner." She pointed, nearly knocking Mavra's hat off. "It's cramped and he charges the earth, but it's good scoff. Of course, it's probably horsemeat, but well...." She checked her watch and gave a little squeal. "Must dash. I met this Westrian airforce officer last night. He's dreamy. And he can dance too."
With that, she hurried off downstairs, waving at the caretaker who had opened her door to see what all the commotion was. "Hello, Mrs Bechler. All right? I'm just off out. I'll bring the nippers back some chocolate, shall I? And some fags for you? Don't wait up. Ta ta."
Movement in the flat doorway reclaimed Mavra's attention.
"Hello," said Gwen.
"Hello." Mavra gave the other woman an appraising glance. Gwen's uniform had been brushed and pressed, and she was wearing a touch more makeup than usual. Mavra wondered what that lipstick would taste like. "Look nice."
"Thank you. You don't look so bad yourself."
Mavra grinned. "Ready for some dinner?"
"Starving. Here. You'll need this." Gwen handed Mavra her ration card, but Mavra handed it back.
"On me tonight."
Gwen gave her a doubtful glance. "Really?"
"Mm. Let's go."
Gwen pulled the flat door closed behind her and followed Mavra down the stairs.
A young boy had replaced the old woman scavenging the bins out the front. He fled when he saw Mavra's uniform. She ignored him and waited for Gwen to catch up.
"Good place for 'scoff' round corner, Joan says."
"Joan always knows what's what," agreed Gwen, allowing Mavra to take her elbow. It was a fine night and as they walked she took in a deep appreciative breath and gazed up at the stars. "So how are you?"
"Fine. And you?"
"No, I mean really, Mavra." Green eyes turned towards her. "News from Arcadia was sporadic, but we heard enough. They said that things got really, you know, bad... just before the end. I wondered if you were all right."
'Bad' was something of an understatement, thought Mavra. "Was hard," she conceded. Then, as an afterthought, "Was wounded."
Gwen's eyebrows shot up. "Wounded? Where?"
"Right thigh." She slapped the leg in question.
"You're not limping."
"No. All better now."
"Were you shot down?"
"Long story. Another time maybe. What about you? Not answer question. How you?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm fine too. Unscathed, though the same can't be said of some of the planes I delivered." She grinned.
"Not your fault," said Mavra. "So. No longer with Jack?"
Gwen blinked at the change of topic. "No, thank heavens. He married someone else. Poor girl!"
"How your family take it?"
"How do you think? Mum was furious. She thinks I'm going to end up an old maid. Dad was more disappointed than anything—Jack was his blue-eyed boy."
"Eyes looked bloodshot to me," said Mavra, recalling the tall CAF officer charging across the dance floor at her, his cheeks flushed with drink, his expression a ferocious scowl.
Gwen chuckled. "To be fair," she said, "Jack wasn't looking his best that night."
"Parents still angry?"
"At me? No. They're still not happy I haven't got a boyfriend, but.... No. Remember I told you Jack married someone else? Well, he had to marry her, you see, which rather blotted his copybook... with his family and with mine."
Mavra pursed her lips. "Bun in the oven?"
Gwen gave an unladylike snort. "That's one way of putting it! Where did you learn your Cheltish, Mavra?"
Mavra grinned. "Pick things up all over."
They walked on in silence for a few paces.
"So, you with someone else now? Someone dreamy?" Oh, very subtle, Mavra.
"'Dreamy'?" Gwen laughed. "You've been talking to Joan, haven't you? No. There's been no one since Jack. To tell you the truth, Mavra—" she became fascinated with a bombed-out house across the road, "— the men I meet just don't seem to interest me."
This sounded promising. "Oh?"
"Mm. I've had plenty of offers, heaven knows, but.... Oh look," Gwen sounded relieved to be able to change the subject. "We're here." She halted.
They had reached a little bistro called, ironically, Mavra hoped, The Bomb Shelter. Candlelight streamed through gleaming windows and the muffled laughter grew loud as Mavra opened the door and gestured Gwen to enter first.
As they took in their packed surroundings, the proprietor, who was Cheltish by the look of him, rushed forward to greet them.
Mavra pulled her ration card from her coat pocket. "Table for two?"
She braced herself for rejection. But he was already nodding, and beckoning one of the Vieden waiters to show the two women towards what turned out to be the only spare table in the place—a two-seater circular affair in a cramped alcove under the stairs.
Heads turned as they stuffed their gloves in their pockets, hung their coats on the hooks near the door, and made their way towards the table, but Mavra's challenging gaze meant the onlookers soon found more interesting things to look at. If it was this popular, she decided as they took their seats in the alcove and she narrowly avoided cracking her head on the underside of the stairs, the 'scoff' must indeed be good.
A thin waitress came to take their order and light the candle; her smile was fixed and didn’t reach her eyes. The menu was limited, so ordering didn't take long. When the waitress had gone, they rested their hands on the little table, which rocked slightly, and looked at one another.
"This is cosy," said Gwen.
Mavra smiled. "Cosy is good."
"Mm. It's a good job you didn't invite Orlenda though. There wouldn't have been room."
"She seems like quite a character. ... But doesn't she know how to pluck her eyebrows?"
Mavra chuckled at the jealous note in Gwen's voice. Orlenda did indeed have rather thick, black eyebrows but— "Is just friend, Gwen. Shares billet, like you and Joan."
Gwen had the grace to look shamefaced. "That was catty of me, wasn't it?" She drummed her fingers on the table. "Is she a witness in the Trial too?"
"No. Is here to give me, how you say, moral support?" Mavra paused. "Rather not talk of Trial tonight."
"S'OK. Another time, maybe. For now just want to look at you." It was hard to tell in the glow of the candlelight, but she thought Gwen blushed.
"You're easily pleased."
"Not so." Mavra reached over and took a smaller hand in hers.
As if on cue, the waitress reappeared with their soup and Gwen hurriedly freed her hand. Mavra glared at the Viedon woman and waited for her to set down their bowls, fill their glasses with water, and hurry away. When she had gone she wondered whether to grasp Gwen's hand again then sighed and reached for her soup spoon instead.
"Why were you so mean to that waitress?" asked Gwen, reaching for her own spoon.
Mavra blinked at her. "Was not."
"You were glaring daggers at her. Is it because she's Vieden?"
"That and stupid grin."
"It didn't look natural, did it?" Gwen chuckled. "Her boss probably ordered her to look happy for the customers, poor thing." She threw Mavra a thoughtful glance. "But that wasn't the real reason, was it?"
Gwen leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, Mavra. It's just.... Well, it's too public here to hold hands. Things like that may not matter in Arcadia, but in Cheltain—"
"Understand. Not worry. Will find less public place... later."
Gwen raised her eyebrows at that but didn't say anything. She adopted an enigmatic smile and began to eat.
After they had finished their soup, the smiling waitress cleared away the dirty crockery and brought them their main course.
"I bet her face muscles ache by the time she goes home," muttered Gwen when she had gone.
Mavra shrugged, sliced off some of the succulent-looking steak and speared it with her fork. The meat was as tender as it looked, so who cared what animal it came from? She chewed and swallowed then said, "See still in uniform. Thought you'd be, how you say, demobbed by now."
"So did I. It can't be long 'til my number comes up, a few months at most. It'll be strange to be back in mufti after all this time."
Mavra had no idea what 'mufti' was but didn't say so. "What you do after War?"
Gwen chewed a mouthful of fried potatoes and swallowed before answering. "I'd like to fly, and maybe teach others how to fly too. But the men will expect their jobs back—"
Mavra stabbed another piece of steak. "Bugger men." A soft splutter made her look up. "What?"
Gwen smiled and shook her head. "Nothing."
"You fly as well as man." Mavra emphasised her point with her fork. "In Arcadia we have saying: 'Will be trouble if cobbler makes pies.' You are good pilot. Must not let idiot men take job."
"Oh, Mavra. I wish everyone thought like you." Gwen sighed. "What will you do when you're back in Civvy Street?"
Mavra shrugged. "Am pilot. Will be pilot."
"It sounds so simple."
"Is simple. Much else to do also, of course." She thought of her ruined homeland and sighed. "To rebuild, replant, those will be priorities."
"Maybe Arcadia will be even better than it was before the War."
"Hope so. Live in Kasholsk. Was beautiful once, will be so again. You must come and see."
Gwen smiled at her. "I'd like to."
When they had mopped their plates clean, even of the rich gravy, neither had any room left for dessert. So they paid the bill, retrieved Mavra's much depleted ration card, donned their coats, and left.
It was a fine night and the moon was full. Once that would have brought a sense of dread and the overhead drone of bombers, but now....
"What shall we do?" asked Gwen.
"Not want to take you home yet. Walk awhile?"
"These streets aren't safe after dark."
"Not worry. Have gun." Mavra patted the left pocket of her greatcoat. She doubted she'd need to use it though. She had discovered that something about her, the confident way she carried herself perhaps, seemed to deter the riffraff who roamed the streets preying on the weak.
"All right then."
They set off walking. None of the streetlamps had been repaired yet, and the streets were largely deserted.
"Not too public now," said Mavra, draping her arm around Gwen's waist. There was only a momentary hesitation before Gwen returned the favour. Mavra smiled in the darkness and walked on.
Gwen was reminiscing about their time together at the Ferry Pool, and Mavra was contemplating the subject of kissing, when Mavra remembered the brooch. She halted, and dug in her pocket.
"For you." She produced it with a flourish.
"It's lovely! Thank you." Gwen held the brooch closer for a better look, and Mavra obligingly pulled out a box of matches and lit one for her. Gwen turned startled eyes towards Mavra. "But it must have cost you a fortune."
"Not so." The match threatened to burn Mavra's fingers and she blew it out.
"You shouldn't have."
Mavra shrugged. "Will match eyes, I think."
"And you paid for the meal too."
"Will take kiss in exchange," said Mavra with a grin. "Then 'all square'." There was a long silence at that and she frowned. "If not want to, no problem. Keep brooch anyway. No strings.... But I would like to kiss you. Think all evening of kissing you."
Gwen ducked her head for a moment then looked at Mavra again. "I've been thinking about kissing you too," she admitted shyly. "But now the moment is actually here... Um. I've never kissed a woman before, Mavra. What if I don't like it?"
"We stop. No harm done. OK?"
Gwen swallowed. "OK." Her eyes were wide and a pulse was beating at the base of her throat. At that moment, she reminded Mavra of a startled faun.
Taking her gently by the elbow, Mavra led her into a deeper patch of shadow. She removed a glove and stroked a finger down Gwen's cheek, then dipped her head and kissed her. There was no trace of the lipstick Gwen had worn earlier, just a hint of gravy. Tense lips softened under hers then Gwen began kiss Mavra back, tentatively at first, but soon more ardently.
It was Mavra who broke away first. "All right?"
Gwen nodded. Even in the moonlight her cheeks looked flushed, and her gaze had turned inward. She licked her lips. "Your lips are so soft!" She sounded surprised. "And your chin isn't scratchy like Jack's."
Mavra chuckled. "Hope not."
"And you're a much better kisser." Gwen looked as if she has just experienced a revelation. "Golly!"
Mavra realised that her feet were getting cold and stamped them.
"It is cold, isn't it?" said Gwen. "Let's walk some more."
They linked arms and strode on, taking a roundabout route that would eventually bring them back to Gwen's street. Gwen chattered non-stop, but Mavra took in very little of what she said—she was preoccupied with the sensation of Gwen's lips against hers.
On the steps up to Gwen's billet the two women lingered.
"Can't you come in for a while?" asked Gwen. She lowered her voice. "Joan won't be back yet. And the rules only say we can’t have men in our rooms. We could kiss some more."
Mavra checked her watch and wondered where the time had gone. "Would like that very much but not want to risk you being brought up on charges," she said, only half joking. Then an idea occurred to her. "Spend tomorrow with me? I show you round Arcadian zone."
"I'd like that." Gwen raised a hand to Mavra's cheek and stroked it. Unable to resist, Mavra checked the coast was clear and kissed her.
"That's almost worth being court-martialled for," said a breathless Gwen, when they broke apart at last.
"Almost?" Mavra pretended to be insulted, then she smiled. "Tomorrow," she said. "Will pick you up early."
Mavra woke unrested and sweating from dreams of death and destruction. Never mind that in reality Lilya had been killed by shrapnel during one of the first bombing raids, in her dream her fiancée had been lined up with the villagers of Chojnek by the dry stone wall, face strained, eyes full of fear, awaiting her turn to be shot. And all Mavra could do was watch helplessly—
"You've been snoring like a pig." Orlenda was standing by the sink, washing her face and underarms with a flannel
"Sorry." Mavra sat up and yawned.
"What time did you get in?"
"Early hours sometime."
She had headed back towards the checkpoint, striding along deserted streets, fearing she was never going to get a lift. Then a jeep roared around the corner, its occupants Arcadian soldiers. She stepped out into the road, flagged them down, and got out of the way sharpish as they barrelled straight at her. The jeep screeched to a halt fifty yards further down the road, then reversed towards her.
The Arcadians, two men and a woman, were in a merry mood. They had been in at the discovery of a cache of Vieden wine, the good stuff too, and had already guzzled half of their spoils. They offered to share a bottle with Mavra, but she smiled her thanks and declined.
The jeep had dropped her off outside her billet then roared off into the night, its occupants singing at the top of their lungs.
"Did you get lucky?" Orlenda turned to grin at her.
"Not that it's any of your business, but we kissed for a while."
Mavra threw back the sheets, stood up, and stretched. "Can I have the jeep today? I've said I'll show Gwen round our zone."
Orlenda put her hands on her hips. "Suppose I say no?"
"I'll toss you for it."
"With that double-headed coin of yours?"
"It’s not double-headed."
"That's what you say. Oh all right. Who am I to get in the way of your plans to get laid?"
"Ha! Don't act the innocent, Mavra. I know you too well."
"Thanks. I owe you."
"And don't you forget it."
The Arcadian sentry returned Mavra's salute with a wink as the jeep bowled back through the checkpoint—she had explained half an hour ago that she would be returning with a Cheltish passenger and he had wished her luck.
She swung the jeep onto the broad, once tree-lined avenue, now punctured by filled-in bomb craters, and headed towards the Victory Gate. It had been stripped of its Vieden flags and lightning bolts, though atop its massive lintel the winged charioteer still lashed her four horses to a gallop. The gate was stained with soot and daubed with graffiti, but it still exuded a brooding sense of presence.
Gwen evidently felt so too. She reached for the camera slung around her neck and raised it. Mavra slowed so she could take a picture.
"We go to Chancellery, see Bunker where Ubel Bannan died?"
Gwen's voice was muffled by the camera, which she had borrowed from Joan. "Yes, please. I promised Joan I'd get a picture." She pressed the shutter button then lowered the camera.
Mavra put the jeep in gear and her foot down. As they roared between the central pillars of the Victory Gate, Gwen leaned back in the passenger seat and stared up at the stone block suspended high above her. Then they were out the other side, and heading along the avenue towards the Chancellery.
"It make the news in Cheltain?" asked Mavra, as she drove. "How the Dictator die?"
"Of course. We got all the gory details. Trust him to take the easy way out. By all accounts he was just a pathetic old man at the end."
Mavra shrugged. "Bullies are like balloons. Puncture them and—" She blew out her lips in illustration then smiled at Gwen.
"Pity no one punctured him at birth."
The Chancellery grew steadily larger as they drew closer. The Dictator's huge HQ had been built from marble and, though parts of it were now open to the sky, was largely intact. Shabby brown uniforms were everywhere, as members of the Arcadian armed forces came to see the place where the Vieden leader had spent his last days, carve their initials into the stone, or have their pictures taken.
Mavra parked the jeep by the kerb and pocketed the keys. She got out and waited for Gwen to join her.
"My uniform makes me stand out like a sore thumb," muttered Gwen as they walked towards the Chancellery.
"All friends," soothed Mavra. And indeed, several of the sightseers called out friendly greetings in Cheltish to the young pilot. Gwen blushed and returned the greetings but moved a little closer to Mavra, who laughed and draped a protective arm around her shoulders. "Come."
She led Gwen through huge doors that were hanging off their hinges and into a long, marble-pillared corridor with not much left of its roof. At intervals along the corridor, as though to ram home the point that nothing was sacred, not even the very heart of the once powerful Vieden Empire, Arcadian soldiers had set up stalls from which they were selling Vieden militaria.
Gwen stopped and fingered a medal decoration that had once belonged to a Vieden airforce pilot, a look of disquiet on her face.
"Want buy it?" asked Mavra.
Gwen shook her head and put it back. "This is morbid. Let's see the Bunker and get out of here."
She indicated a door to the left of the corridor. Gwen stepped through it then stopped and stared.
"Is this all there is?"
The underground room where Bannan had shot himself was now a large blackened hole, yards deep, containing several burned containers and lots of unidentifiable debris.
"Oh well." Gwen raised the camera to her eye and took a picture, then turned to Mavra. "You know, this place really gives me the creeps. Can we get out of here and go somewhere nice?"
Mavra thought for a moment. There was little left that was 'nice' in Hauptburg these days. Except— "There is path alongside river." She offered Gwen her arm. "Yes?"
Gwen gave her a relieved smile and accepted. "Yes."
They sat on benches or strolled arm-in-arm, talking of inconsequential things like how they had each spent VV Day. The Ferry Pool had gone the whole hog, according to Gwen. Her day had started with a service of thanksgiving, conducted by the Chaplin, then had come a slap-up feed in the mess, followed by a fancy dress parade (Gwen had gone as a milkmaid, Joan as her cow) with a break at 3pm to listen to the radio broadcast by the Prime Minister, followed by yet more food and much drinking, singing, and dancing into the early hours. Mavra's recollections of how she spent the day were somewhat hazy due to an overindulgence of red wine, but they involved firing her pistol into the sky, hugging a silver birch tree, finding herself lying flat on her back in a puddle and wondering how she had got there, and being helped back to HQ.
Gwen's stomach rumbled suddenly and she pulled out a bar of Cheltish chocolate. Mavra accepted a cube and sucked it. "We go find lunch somewhere," she suggested.
She guided Gwen up the steps from the riverbank to street level. They were walking past a rather imposing house, only slightly damaged and set in its own grounds, and Gwen was wondering aloud how the iron gates had escaped being melted down, when an elderly Vieden woman with rather aristocratic features straightened from behind a hedge. From the secateurs held in one gloved hand, she had been gardening.
"My gates are about the only thing that has not been taken from me," she said in perfect Cheltish.
Mavra halted, her anger flaring. "Have life. More than can be said for some."
"Barely," retorted the woman.
"What you know of suffering?" challenged Mavra, taking a step towards the woman, who flinched at the hard glare but held her ground.
"Mavra!" Gwen's hand on her arm halted her.
"How long have you been a soldier?" asked the woman.
Mavra blinked at the odd question. "Not soldier," she corrected. "Fighter pilot. Four years now. Not want to fight, kill. No choice. Viedens," she spat the word, "invaded homeland, murdered countrymen, family... fiancée."
For the first time the woman dropped her gaze. There was a tense silence and Mavra was about to urge Gwen to walk on when the woman asked quietly, "Would you like to come in?"
"Yes," said Gwen at once.
Mavra frowned at Gwen but received a shrug and a mouthed, "Where's the harm?"
She sighed. "OK."
The woman opened the gates for them and led them along the garden path, past borders and shrubs in need of attention, towards the house. From close up it was obvious that what Mavra had taken for gardening attire wasn't. The material and cut was much too good for that; the clothes had obviously been tailored for a much wealthier and stouter person and bore signs of much washing and mending.
They entered an imposing hallway whose stained glass, leaded windows were miraculously intact. The woman put her secateurs down on the lowest tread of the wide uncarpeted staircase then started to show them around. Each room they came to it was the same. There was no furniture of any description, and even the carpets and curtains had been removed. All that remained was the wallpaper, on which faded squares and oblongs showed where paintings had once hung.
The woman saw the direction of their gazes. "Taken to furnish the office of an Arcadian General."
Mavra refused to feel guilty. "Have roof over head."
The woman looked at her, her gaze unfathomable, then nodded. "Yes, I have a roof." Oddly, the concession made Mavra feel ashamed rather than vindicated.
She led them upstairs. In one of the smaller bedrooms were four mismatched chairs and a rickety table on which sat a tiny paraffin stove, a tin cup, and a saucepan. There was no sign of a bed; the blankets lying neatly folded on the floor in one corner must be where she slept.
"Do you live here on your own?" asked Gwen.
"Now, yes. My husband and son were killed on the Eastern Front."
The woman shrugged. "We've all suffered in this terrible war. Please. Sit." She took one chair for herself then indicated the others. After a moment both Mavra and Gwen sat down.
"I would offer you tea," said their hostess, "but I'm afraid—" She raised her hands and let them fall. "—I have no tea. Or sugar. Or milk either. I can offer you water though."
Mavra shook her head. "Not thirsty, thank you."
Gwen reached into her pocket, and pulled out what remained of her chocolate bar. "Here," she said. "I think you could use this more than me."
The woman blinked at her. Slowly, warily, as though fearful it might be snatched back at any minute, she reached for the chocolate.
"Thank you," she said. But she didn't fall on it hungrily, as Mavra had expected her to, but sat cradling it in her lap.
"Of course you don't have to eat it," said Gwen. "You can sell it for something of more use to you."
The woman gave her a half smile. "I know," she said. "I want to savour it for a while and the kindness of the woman who gave it to me. It's been a long time since anyone was kind to me."
Gwen blushed. "It's nothing."
"No," said the woman gravely. "It is not." She paused then said, "My name is Ilse."
The woman nodded. "Well, Gwen. Will you allow me to tell you my story?"
Suddenly Mavra knew what the Vieden woman was going to say and an overwhelming need to get out of there overtook her. She cleared her throat and stood up. Gwen looked up at her in surprise, which changed to exasperation, then to consternation, and finally to compassion. "Had enough?" she asked.
Rendered dumb by the unnerving feeling of panic, Mavra nodded.
"Wait for me outside?"
"OK," she managed. And with a feeling of immense relief she made her escape.
"She was raped, of course," were Gwen's first words when she joined Mavra in the garden.
"Arcadians?" Mavra looked up from her seat on a low stone wall, where she had spent the last hour kicking her heels and feeling by turns confused, angry, guilty, miserable, and ashamed.
"Yes. Three of them. They held her down and took turns, the bastards."
"You don't sounds surprised."
"No," she said dully.
The Co-Presidents had imposed restraint on their occupying forces, but enforcing such orders must be impossible, especially if, like Mavra, most Arcadians despised every Vieden they came across, guilty or not. I have been as arrogant and cruel as the Viedens.
Gwen looked at her. "Do you think Ilse deserved what they did to her?" From the intentness of her gaze, the answer was important.
Mavra hung her head. Right now she didn't like herself very much. "Wanted to think so," she muttered, "but... no."
Gwen's expression softened and she rested a hand on Mavra's shoulder. "This is hard for you, isn't it?"
She tried to put into words what she felt. "Easier to hate, feel angry than...." She trailed off.
"—than to let yourself feel loss and grief," supplied Gwen.
Mavra blinked at her. "Yes."
"Are you scared that if you let yourself feel the sadness it might overwhelm you?"
She thought about that for a moment then nodded. "Are wise, Gwen!"
"I don't know about that. I just have the luxury of more distance. If Cheltain had been occupied like your country, I don’t know whether I—"
"No," contradicted Mavra. "You would not hate. Are kind person, I think. Not like me."
"I don't believe that for a minute!"
Mavra gave the indignant Gwen a fond glance then looked up at the first floor window where a silhouetted figure was gazing down at them. She sighed. "Will come back, bring cigarettes and coffee, milk and sugar."
"You see!" Gwen smiled and hugged her. "I'm sure Ilse will be very grateful. ... Now, shall we go and get that lunch?"
"Are you going to eat that?" asked Gwen.
Mavra realised she had been stirring her fish soup for the last five minutes. She sighed, put down her soup spoon, and pushed the bowl to one side. "Not hungry. You want?"
"I've got enough here, thanks." Gwen swallowed another mouthful of soup then added, "You look tired."
Mavra gave her a weary smile. "Am tired. Of ruined cities, of Trial, of nightmares—"
"Nightmares?" Gwen reached across the table and took her hand.
"And other things."
Mavra smiled and squeezed Gwen's hand. "Not your fault."
Gwen released her grip, pushed her bowl to one side, and wiped her lips on a napkin. "I'm tired of ruined cities too," she said. "I don't know why I thought the Arcadian zone would be any better than the Cheltish zone. Is your billet near here?"
Mavra blinked at her. "Not far."
"Let's go there then and... you know."
Gwen stood up. "Do I have to spell it out? Come on. It'll make you feel better." She held out her hand.
After a stunned moment Mavra kicked back her chair, stood up, and took Gwen's hand.
"It's a bit like our room at the Ferry Pool," said Gwen, inspecting the cramped billet Mavra shared with Orlenda. "Except the walls aren't peeling and they aren't a dirty beige."
"No," agreed Mavra, whose depression had disappeared, replaced by a mood of tingling anticipation. "More like vomit yellow. Also no photo of Jack on bedside table." She sat on the lumpy single mattress that was hers and patted the spot next to her.
"Just as well," muttered Gwen, accepting Mavra's invitation. "He certainly wouldn't approve. ... Now what?" She seemed suddenly less self-assured.
"Now we, how you put it, 'you know'." Mavra cocked her head and studied Gwen as a thought occurred to her. "How far you go with Jack?"
Gwen blushed. "You mean did we, um, 'do it'?" She shook her head. "Men are such hypocrites. They keep on at you about sex, but if you let them you're a tart. And if you get pregnant, well, then you don't see them for dust."
"Kicked up by their heels as they run away," explained Gwen. "I'm sorry, I'm babbling. I think I'm nervous."
"Ah." Mavra tilted Gwen's face towards hers and kissed her. "Still feel nervous?" A breathless Gwen shook her head and smiled.
"Never fuck then?"
Gwen looked startled, and Mavra wondered if she had used the wrong word. The younger woman shook her head and blushed.
"Not worry," soothed Mavra. "Can still feel good without that." Gwen's surprised look made her chuckle. "Plenty other ways to enjoy one another," she said.
"But we could do that too?" pressed Gwen. "I mean, it's possible between two women?"
Mavra blinked. "Of course. Would be honoured to, but once given cannot be taken back. Usual to give first time to someone speci—"
Gwen's fingers against her lips stopped her. "You are someone special, Mavra. Now will you just kiss me again and get on with it, before I change my mind?"
The two of them lay naked on Mavra's bed, limbs entwined, sweat cooling.
"Feel all right?" asked Mavra, remembering with quiet satisfaction how Gwen's grunt of discomfort had turned into gasps of surprised pleasure.
"Wonderful," came the drowsy response, warming the skin of Mavra's shoulder. "I feel as wobbly as a blancmange. Is it always as nice as that?"
"Gets even better." Mavra kissed the crown of Gwen's head and inhaled the scent of her shampoo.
"But I'm being selfish." Gwen struggled to one elbow. "Will you show me how to—"
"Later," soothed Mavra. "For now, relax, enjoy feeling."
Gwen's head flopped back onto Mavra's shoulder. "Thank you."
"Welcome." Mavra stroked Gwen's arm, admiring the fine blonde hairs. "Thought often of you since Cheltain. Dreamt of us like this." It had been a welcome respite from the nightmares.
"In bed together, you mean?"
"I dreamt of you too. But my imagination isn't that good, I'm afraid. In my dreams we'd hold hands and make bedroom eyes at one another, but when we got to the bedroom... well, either I woke up or everything became rather vague."
Mavra smiled. "Can fill in details now."
"Yes. You know, I still can't quite believe I've 'done it'." Gwen sounded amazed. "And with a woman too!"
"Is because of uniform," joked Mavra. "Women cannot resist."
Gwen snorted. "With respect, Arcadian uniforms aren't very flattering at the best of times. And brown isn't your colour."
Mavra chuckled. It was true that both the quality of the fabric and the cut of her dress browns left much to be desired. But then, what did that matter? The Viedens had the most dashing uniforms of all. "What's inside uniform then," she amended.
Gwen yawned. "It certainly seems to do the trick for me!" She stroked the scar on Mavra's thigh and Mavra jerked her leg out of reach.
Gwen laughed and snuggled closer, letting out a contented sigh when Mavra draped an affectionate arm around her.
Mavra let her thoughts roam. There had been several 'romances' after Lilya—Mavra was no saint after all—but with no one else had she felt so at ease, so comfortable, out of bed and in it, as she did with Gwen. There was an innate kindness to the other woman, a gentleness that soothed her. I need that, she realised. I want that. So much it almost hurt.
That would be selfish, though, wouldn't it? After all, what kind of a life could she offer Gwen in a bombed-out Arcadia? It wouldn't be fair to ask it of her. This was just a one-off, two worn-out souls taking a moment's comfort in one another.
Be grateful and move on, Mavra.
Yet even as her inner voice was telling her to let Gwen go, her traitorous mouth was blurting out something else entirely. "Come back to Arcadia with me."
"Can't," mumbled Gwen into her shoulder.
Mavra's heart stopped. That's that, then.
"At least not until after I'm demobbed."
Her heart resumed its beating. "After, then."
"Are you serious?" Gwen lifted her head and peered at Mavra, her eyes crossing as she struggled to focus at such close range.
"Yes." And she found that she was.
During this long hard war Mavra had learned not to think ahead. For what could the future hold except more sorrow? But the war was over now and by some miracle her side had won. Surely it was safe to start living again, to make plans?
She held Gwen's gaze and saw the realization sink in that she meant what she said. "Come live with me. Women together is not crime in Arcadia. Can be pilot. Will be hard at first but—"
The opening of the door stopped her mid sentence. Gwen squeaked and rolled off Mavra, grabbing for the sheets to cover her nakedness.
"Well, well!" Orlenda stopped in the middle of the room, her eyebrows raised. "Looks like someone's been having a good time." She put her hands on her hips and leered.
Mavra positioned herself so that her naked body screened Gwen's from view. "You're back early. Can you give us half an hour?"
Her friend's glance became calculating. "Why should I? It's my room as much as yours."
Mavra rolled her eyes. Trust Orlenda to take advantage. "One pack of cigarettes?"
"Damn you. Two packs then."
"Deal." With a grin and a wave, Orlenda turned on her heel and left the way she had come.
As the door clicked closed behind her, Mavra glanced at Gwen. She was barely visible under her sheet, and her cheeks were a mortified red. "All right?"
"I don't believe this. Didn't you even lock the door?"
"Forgot," admitted Mavra. "Sorry. If consolation, have nothing Orlenda not seen before."
"That's not the point."
"What is point?"
Gwen opened her mouth then closed it again. "Being with you is never dull, is it?" She gave a crooked smile.
"Hope not," said a relieved Mavra. "Have only half hour left. Make love again, then take you home?"
"I don't know whether I'm in the mood any more," warned Gwen.
But when Mavra pulled her close, she didn't seem to mind, nor did she hold onto the sheet when Mavra stripped it from her.
"The prosecution calls Lt. Mavra Vlasik to the stand."
Mavra glanced at the clock on the dark-panelled wall. It was 10.40am. Would she have finished testifying by the time Gwen had to leave? She hoped so. She stood up and squared her shoulders.
"Good luck," whispered Orlenda.
Mavra walked towards the witness box, past the dock which today contained but a single occupant. Rahn's counsel must have told him who she was, for as he settled his headphones more comfortably over his ears, his venom-filled gaze followed her. She ignored him and took the stand, aware of the film crew in the far corner of the courtroom, their camera trained on her.
Justice Fisher regarded her through horn-rimmed spectacles. "Your name is Mavra Vlasik?" he asked in Cheltish.
The court recorders began to scribble, as did several members of the Press. She allowed herself a quick glance to where Gwen was sitting, smiled at the 'thumbs-up' gesture she received, then steeled herself for the ordeal ahead.
"And you are a Senior Lieutenant with the Arcadian 63rd Fighter Regiment?"
"Before we continue, Lieutenant, I see that you're not wearing headphones. Do you speak Cheltish?"
"Speak bad, understand good. Why? Is problem?"
Fisher shook his head. "No, no. If you are happy to do without the services of an interpreter, that's fine. Now where were we?" He peered at the papers on the lectern in front of him to remind himself. "Ah. Yes. Now about that decoration, Lieutenant." He pointed to her breast pocket. There, beside the Order of the Green Banner, was pinned her newest acquisition: a gleaming silver star dangling from a crimson ribbon.
"The Crimson Star." He glanced round the courtroom before returning his short-sighted gaze to her. "That's its name, isn't it?"
"Will you tell us what it is?"
Mavra shrugged. "Gift from Co-Presidents."
"Come now. No need to be modest, Lieutenant. Isn't that particular decoration awarded only to Heroes of the Arcadian Republic?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Gwen's jaw drop. She shuffled her feet. "Yes."
"For what did you receive it?"
"Highest number of kills—"
"Forgive me for interrupting, but by 'kills' you mean enemy planes shot down?" His spectacles had slid down his nose and he pushed them back up.
"Correct. Award was for those and also what happen at Chojnek."
"Ah, Chojnek." Justice Fisher turned to the three members of the Tribunal and said, "We have become all too familiar with Chojnek during the course of this trial, haven't we?" When they didn't react, he turned back to Mavra. "When were you at Chojnek, Lieutenant?"
"Earlier this year?"
"The period of interest to us, good." Then he frowned. "But you are a fighter pilot, surely. Were you above the village or in it?"
"I see. Now, Lieutenant, would you explain to the court what you were doing in or above Chojnek on the 3rd of March this year?"
Mavra took a firmer grip on the witness box. "Gryphon out of petrol. I land to find more."
She had been returning to base after a lengthy mission when five Vieden Sabres attacked her. Shooting down two and shaking off the rest had used up the last of her fuel and she had been forced to crash land in occupied territory. That landing still gave her nightmares; there had been a very real risk she would plough into the trees bordering the bumpy field and she half expected Vieden soldiers to emerge from the pine forest, guns blazing.
"The 'Gryphon' is your airplane, yes?"
"Local man heard sound of landing, came to help. Asked where was nearest petrol depot," said Mavra. "He told."
Borys had been a godsend. The forester was not very bright, but he was strong. With his help she had manhandled the Gryphon round, ready for take off. Then he had chopped off some branches to camouflage the plane, pointed her in the direction of the nearest petrol supply depot, and lent her his bicycle.
"And the nearest depot was in Chojnek?" prompted Justice Fisher.
"Just outside village." That it was unguarded had been a very pleasant surprise. As had the 2-gallon cans already filled with petrol. All she'd had to do was grab three of them and strap them to her bike's handlebars and crossbar. "Got petrol and started back but heard gunfire close by."
"The gunfire was coming from the village? From Chojnek?"
"So what did you do?"
"Left petrol and went to look."
"And what did you see?"
"Vieden soldiers, thirty, maybe? Slaughtering villagers."
Fisher raised his eyebrows. "That's a strong word, Lieutenant!"
She shrugged. "Soldiers lined villagers against wall and shot. Laughed and jeered. What else call it?"
He pursed his mouth as though considering then gave a small nod. "'Slaughtered' will do. So. These villagers you say you saw being lined up, were they unarmed civilians?"
"And were the soldiers killing just the men?"
"No." She swallowed at the memory. "Saw women and children shot. Babies too." There was a universal intake of breath in the courtroom at that.
"I see. And who was in charge of this Vieden... execution squad?"
She pointed at Rahn, who straightened in his seat and gave her a cold glare in response. "Him."
"You are pointing at the dock and at the defendant currently sitting in it, Major Markus Rahn," said Fisher.
Since he seemed to expect a response, she said, "Yes."
"Are you certain it was him, Lieutenant?"
He took off his spectacles, polished them with a clean handkerchief, and put them back on. "Very well. So. What did you do next?"
"Get bike and petrol."
"Were you unarmed, Lieutenant?"
She hesitated at the strange question, wondering where he was going with this. "Had pistol."
"But you didn't use it?"
"No." A hiss of disapproval swept around the courtroom at her reply, and Fisher held up his hand for silence. Mavra gripped the witness box until her knuckles were white.
"Were you more concerned with saving your own skin than saving people's lives?"
She kept her voice level with an effort. "Eight bullets, thirty Viedens. Had better plan than throwing life away."
"I see." Justice Fisher gave her an amiable nod and some of the tension left her. He had been trying to pre-empt any attempt by Rahn's defence counsel to tarnish her reputation and diminish her credibility as a witness, she realised. "So you got your petrol... and your bicycle... and returned to your plane?"
"Had the Viedens discovered it?"
"No. But were combing area. Ran into patrol on way back."
"Was wounded." She patted her thigh.
The Chief Prosecutor's eyebrows shot up. For effect, presumably, since his assistant had interviewed Mavra and knew all about her wound. "They shot you in the thigh?"
"Yes." And she had shot two of the bastards in the head and crippled six others before her magazine ran out.
"But in spite of your wound, you managed to evade your pursuers, refuel your plane, and take off?"
"Yes," she repeated.
The brief exchange didn’t really do justice to the nightmare chase through the woods, thought Mavra. Her progress had been hampered by pain and blood loss and the necessity of dragging with her the heavy cans of petrol, without which she wouldn't be going anywhere.
Borys had been shocked by her appearance when she finally made it back to the Gryphon, though the makeshift tourniquet around her thigh had slowed the bleeding. The forester had urged her to let him take her to a doctor, but she was determined to get airborne. Eventually he had thrown up his hands at her stubbornness and let her give him instructions about what to do when she shouted 'Contact'; he'd followed them to the letter too.
Thanks, Borys. If you ever want a job with my ground crew....
"What did you do then, Lieutenant Vlasik?" Fisher peered at her over the top of his spectacles. "Once you were airborne?"
"What anyone would. Go back to Chojnek. Strafe Viedens." This time the hiss that went round the courtroom was one of satisfaction.
The Viedens had made it easy for her. The dry stone wall had provided the villagers with protection from her machine guns. Their grey-uniformed tormentors weren't so lucky. She could still see their faces in her sights as she thumbed the gun button. They weren't laughing but gaping in terror as retribution roared towards them out of a clear March sky.
"How many did you kill?"
Mavra stared unseeing at the sage-green drapes covering one of the courtroom's huge windows, then said, "At time thought all. But—" She gestured at the scarred man in the dock. "—seems not."
"And you are sure the defendant was there that day, Lieutenant? Think carefully before you answer. This man, Major Markus Rahn, was in charge of killing the unarmed villagers of Chojnek?"
"Yes." She turned to fix that hawklike face with a cold glare. "Still see him in dreams."
"Thank you." Justice Fisher gave her a benign smile then turned towards the members of the Tribunal. He pushed his spectacles back up. "Your Honours, I have no further questions."
"Very well," said the President, after checking with his fellow judges. "Does any other prosecutor want to ask any questions of this witness?" All along the prosecutors' bench, heads shook. "Does any member of the defendant's counsel wish to ask any questions?" Rahn scowled as they too shook their heads. "The witness may retire."
With a feeling of relief, Mavra left the stand.
"That must have been tough." Gwen's eyes were full of sympathy. She was waiting for Mavra outside the Palace of Justice, and even though it was against regulations had pinned the emerald brooch Mavra had given her to her jacket lapel.
"Glad my part over," agreed Mavra.
"No wonder you have nightmares. And no wonder you hate the Viedens so much."
She grunted. "This afternoon, Rahn will take stand. No matter what excuse, cannot escape fate now, I think."
"He doesn't deserve to. ... Why didn't you tell me you're a Hero of Arcadia?"
Gwen reached up and straightened the collar of Mavra's greatcoat. Mavra smiled and wondered if Gwen realised how openly proprietorial her manner was; if she did, she no longer cared who saw it.
"Need cup of coffee." Mavra indicated the Hotel Splendide. "Join me?"
"Need you ask?"
They crossed the road and entered the hotel's cramped restaurant. Selecting a table by a window overlooking the street, they ordered coffee for two and regarded one another in pensive silence.
"When you go?" asked Mavra, broaching the dreaded subject.
Gwen checked her watch and grimaced. "I'm meeting Joan in half an hour. I don't want to go, but.... What else can I do, Mavra? The taxi is all arranged."
"Must go. Would be deserter otherwise." Gwen knew this already; they had discussed it at length over breakfast. She must be in need of reassurance, decided Mavra. She reached across the table and took Gwen's hand. "Won't be for long."
Gwen cocked her head to one side. "No?"
"Only until demobbed, remember?" Mavra recalled the slip of paper in her pocket and with her free hand pulled it out. On it she had scribbled the address of her HQ. "Write me here when 'number comes up', OK? Will come over and fetch you."
"In your Gryphon?"
Mavra arched an eyebrow. "No room in cockpit, silly. Will think of something else. Hero of Arcadia must be good for something." Gwen chuckled at that. "Diplomatic mission, perhaps. I come to Cheltain and when return home, take you with me."
Gwen tucked the slip of paper in her pocket. Then her eyes clouded. "What if this is all just a glorious daydream, Mavra? What if the authorities won't let me go back with you?"
"Smuggle you home in diplomatic bag," joked Mavra.
"Hush. Will build house for us—know perfect spot in Kasholsk by river. Will be hard life at first and food not good—likely cabbage or beetroot soup and black bread until sick of it. But will get better and am good cook. In time will have meatballs and summer berries, chicken and pancakes... whatever you want. And after we eat, will drink wild berry liqueur and make love all night. How that sound?"
"It sounds wonderful. But what if—"
"Nothing will stand in way," said Mavra firmly. "Will petition Co-Presidents for help if need be. Be ready, Gwen. Learn Arcadian. Wait for me."
Gwen studied her for a long moment then her shoulders relaxed and she nodded.
The arrival of their coffee interrupted them but in spite of the waiter's round eyes Gwen didn't free her hand from Mavra's grip. When he had gone she said, "I should warn you now, I'm hopeless at languages."
"Worse than me?"
"Ah, but broken Cheltish is so sexy," objected Gwen.
Mavra grinned at her. "Look forward to seeing if broken Arcadian is sexy too."
Return to the Academy