The Dragon Slayer

 

February 1635, Wietze

John Felix “Puss” Trelli didn’t know why it always seemed to happen to him, but here he was, on one of the coldest days of the year, walking patrol around the makeshift enlisted housing at Wietze. One advantage of the cold was that most of the garrison was staying indoors. A disadvantage was that they were likely to be bored. Unfortunately, bored soldiers tended to find ways of relieving their boredom that negatively impacted the quality of life of military policemen, of which Puss was one.

Puss let his baton hang from its wrist-strap while he adjusted his hat. It was a classic fur-lined hat—as seen on various episodes of M.A.S.H. With flaps that could be folded down and tied under the throat. Not that he had his tied under his throat. That was a recognized choking hazard if you got caught in a fight and someone pulled back on your hat. Right now, Puss wasn’t so sure that the improved levels of safety justified the painful cold affecting his ears.

“Keep moving, Puss, otherwise we’ll freeze to death,” Dietrich Fischer said.

Puss glared at his patrol partner from the down-time garrison’s equivalent of the military police. The man had been a soldier for most of his life and he took a veteran soldier’s interest in his own personal comfort. Dietrich’s fur hat covered most of his head and face, and he was wearing a heavy cape that just about trailed on the ground—unlike Puss’ heavy woolen field coat, which barely covered his knees.

Puss shoved his gloved hands into the pockets of his coat to try and keep them warm, and continued walking. The going was reasonably easy, as the heavy freeze of the last few days had frozen the previously muddy ground. One had to be careful of the wheel ruts now that they were frozen, but at least you didn’t pick up half the field with each step.

They were passing the road that headed north from the village of Wietze to the ford across the river of the same name when Dietrich broke the silence. “How’d you get a nickname like ‘Puss’ anyway?”

“It’s something the kids at school used to call me.” Puss saw Dietrich smile, and he was sure he was about to say something, but there was a loud scream from just behind them.

Mad dog!

Puss spun towards the voice. He could see someone running, and chasing him was a dog. Not just any dog. A big dog. Puss had neglected to tell Dietrich how he’d earned his nickname. It hadn’t been just the association with the cartoon character “Felix the Cat” that had led to the nickname “Puss.” When he was very young he’d been terrified of dogs. He’d grown out of the habit of running from any dog—one of his teachers had explained that dogs were predators, and any running animal tended to be viewed as something to chase—but he’d never really lost his fear of the beasts.

The man who’d called out the warning managed to get to the safety of a building and slam the heavy wooden door before the dog could catch him. The dog hit the door hard and bounced. Then it turned towards Puss and Dietrich.

Puss stared at the animal. He knew the cry of “mad dog” implied rabies—probably one of the most lethal diseases known to man. Other diseases might kill more people, but usually a good proportion of those infected survived. That wasn’t the case with rabies. Even back up-time, Puss had heard of people dying of the disease—from bat bites rather than dog bites, but that was more a case of the dogs mostly not having rabies while lots of bats had it—and that was with the benefit of modern medicine and vaccines, which were sadly lacking down-time.

He wanted to move, to run, but he was frozen to the spot in terror. The dog was staring back at him, and then it started walking toward him. Puss felt for the pistol he had safely under his coat—on patrol the carrying of easily accessible hand guns was discouraged. They were only expecting to have to deal with drunks, and a drunk grabbing a gun could easily escalate a confrontation between MPs and soldiers. He started to fumble with his coat buttons, but the dog suddenly sprinted towards him.

The dog launched itself at Puss and knocked him to the ground. Puss only managed to stop the animal sinking its teeth into his throat by the simple expedient of letting it chomp down on his left forearm instead.

Once it had its teeth into the sleeve of Puss’ coat the dog didn’t seem interested in letting go. Instead it tried to tear Puss’ arm off. With his body being pulled around by the dog, Puss tried to beat it off with his baton. A sharp rap across the snout just seemed to further enrage the beast, so he tried to hit the animal around its ears.

But the dog was having none of that. It pulled away at just the wrong moment, and Puss’ next swing struck his own hand. That forced a rethink. He gripped the baton tightly and struck at the base of the dog’s skull with the butt until the animal collapsed.

Puss pulled his arm free and, using both hands to grip his baton, proceeded to beat the dog’s skull to a pulp. Only when he was convinced the dog was never going to get up again did he stop. Then he tried to stand.

That was a mistake. The effort was more than his poor abused body could take. He blacked out and collapsed in a heap.

Grantville

“Some reporters to see you, Corporal Trelli.” The overly cheerful nurse pushed Puss forward so she could fluff up his pillows.

“Why would reporters want to see me?” Puss asked as he placed the book he’d been reading on the bedside table.

“It seems you’re a hero, and you didn’t tell me.” Nurse Lise Gebauer waved a forefinger remonstratively.

“I didn’t do anything,” Puss protested.

“Of course not,” Lise agreed with a smile. “I’ll just show them in.”

Puss was slow to react, and before he could call out for her to wait she was closing the door behind her.

He lay back in his bed and stared at the closed door. He didn’t understand what was going on. He’d recovered consciousness quite quickly back in Wietze, when a medic poured antiseptic solution over his arm before bandaging it. He’d sort of slept for a couple of hours after that, to be woken by Dr. Rivera-Sullivan jabbing an enormous needle into his abdomen. Then he’d been bundled onto an airplane and flown to Grantville. That had been two days ago. And although his parents had visited daily, this was the first he’d heard anything about being a hero.

The door opened and Nurse Gebauer let in the reporters or, more precisely, some reporters and Dylan Pence.

Dylan carried none of the normal accoutrements of a reporter. Instead he looked more like a door-to-door insurance salesman. Though what he had in the laundry sack he was carrying, Puss couldn’t guess.

Dylan strode towards Puss and dumped his laundry sack on the bed. “It’s good to see you looking so much better than when I last saw you. How’s the arm?” he asked.

Puss almost got to ask when exactly Dylan was supposed to have seen him, because he certainly didn’t remember the meeting, but one of the reporters got in first.

“Ernst Schreiber; Grantville Times. How badly were you injured, Corporal Trelli?”

“The dog . . . ”

“Tore up his arm real bad,” Dylan interrupted. He pulled a field coat out of the laundry sack and held it up so everybody—especially the television reporter’s cameraman—could see it. “Look at the damage to that sleeve. And that was all the protection Corporal Trelli had against a large rabid dog.”

Puss watched several supposedly intelligent reporters record the barefaced lies and half-truths Dylan was spouting with mounting horror. Heck, he’d been told that his old field coat had been incinerated with the rest of the clothes he’d been wearing as a public health measure, so he didn’t know where Dylan had got the coat he was showing them.

“So the dog did infect Corporal Trelli?” Ernst asked.

Puss was so engrossed by the outrageous lies Dylan was telling that he failed to react in time to prevent him removing the loose bandage on his left forearm to reveal massive bruising—from the crushing of soft tissue by the dog—and the mass of inflamed wounds where the dog’s teeth had broken the skin. He rescued his arm from Dylan’s grip, wincing with pain as he gathered it protectively against his body. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

“You’re a hero,” Ernst Schreiber announced.

“But all I did was kill a dog,” Puss protested.

“A rabid dog,” Ernst said, and the rest of the reporters nodded in agreement.

“That still doesn’t make me a hero.”

Ernst shook his head. “Eye witnesses have told us that you stood between the charging dog and the Bürgermeister’s wife and children.”

Puss looked at the attentive faces, and lens of a TV video camera, all waiting eagerly to hear about his heroic feat, in his own words. “I stood there because I’m effing terrified of dogs,” he all but shouted, and watched in horror as the reporters carefully recorded each and every word for posterity.

“Wow! Terrified of dogs and yet you stood bravely between a rabid dog and a defenseless woman and her children. You deserve a medal.” The speaker looked across at Dylan. “Herr Pence, is Corporal Trelli in line for a medal?”

Dylan slid off Puss’ bed and stood to face the reporter. “Unfortunately, Corporal Trelli’s feat of valor didn’t happen on the battlefield, so there is no current award to which he is entitled.”

“Not even the Purple Heart?” Ernst asked.

“Not even the Purple Heart,” Dylan confirmed.

“Well there must be some way Corporal Trelli’s valor can get the recognition it deserves,” Ernst said.

“Yes . . . ” Dylan started to say.

“Dylan Pence, what are you doing disturbing my patient?” Dr. Annamarie Rivera-Sullivan demanded.

Instead of answering, Dylan hastily collected his reporters and ushered them out. “As you can see, Corporal Trelli is getting the best of medical care . . . ”

Puss missed the rest of what Dylan was saying because Dr. Rivera-Sullivan had shut the door after them and was leaning against it looking in his direction. “They think I’m some kind of hero,” he told her in disbelief.

The doctor ignored Puss. Instead she turned a baleful glare onto Nurse Gebauer. “I hope you have a very good explanation as to why you permitted that media circus to disturb my patient.”

Puss glanced in the direction she was glaring. He’d completely forgotten about the nurse. He added his glare to Annamarie’s.

“Herr Pence had a letter from Dr. Adams,” Nurse Gebauer said.

“Did Herr Pence allow you to read the letter? Or did you just take his word for it?” Annamarie asked.

“But why would he lie?” Nurse Gebauer asked.

“Because he’s Dylan Pence. If he really had a letter from Dr. Adams he would’ve shown it to me when I ordered him and his circus out. No, Master Dylan Pence is up to something.”

“He’s trying to make out that I’m some kind of hero,” Puss said.

Annamarie nodded. “That’s what he’s doing. The question is why?”

****

That evening the story hit the TV news. Puss could only sit and watch in horror as an act of self-defense while in a condition of abject terror was turned into an act of valor that, if it had occurred against an enemy, would have been worthy of the highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

Puss felt as if everyone in the TV lounge were looking his way. As quietly as he could he got out of his chair and walked back to his room.

“Is something the matter, Puss?”

Puss turned to see Dr. Rivera-Sullivan watching him, a concerned look on her face. “They’re making out that I’m a hero.”

“Who? The other patients?”

“No,” Puss shook his head. “The media. The TV news was full of it. How I overcame my terror of dogs to heroically stand between a charging rabid dog and some woman and her kids . . . ”

A comforting hand landed on his shoulder. “Come on; let’s get you back to your room and into bed. I’ll do what I can to stop them bothering you.”

****

The next morning Puss sat up in bed reading the papers. None of them contained good news. It seemed there was a growing movement to award him with some kind of medal for heroism. The worse of the articles was one penned by Rodger Rude—the byline assigned to the Grantville Gazette‘s regular “In the Public Interest” column. It wasn’t that the article said anything that was untrue—the column had a reputation for always getting its facts right—the problem was the spin the writer had put on even the most innocent of comments.

Puss looked up from reading the Rodger Rude column to see Dr. Rivera-Sullivan watching him. He folded the paper and passed it over to her. “Can it possibly get worse?”

Annamarie snorted. “Have you seen what the National Inquisitor had to say?”

Puss checked the pile of as yet unread papers on his bedside table. “Not yet.”

“Don’t bother. At least Rodger Rude didn’t ask why the nation’s latest hero wasn’t being treated by a real doctor.”

Puss winced. Dr. Rivera-Sullivan was one of the up-time trained nurses who’d taken the opportunity to upgrade their qualifications to a medical degree, and was probably one of the first people to be awarded the brand new (for down-time) Doctor of Osteopathy degree. No way was she going to be happy to have her qualifications questioned. On the other hand, “Why are you in charge of my case?”

“Because I’ve had more experience with treating rabies than anybody else. Some of the places I served in with the army had bad feral dog problems.”

“Still, shouldn’t any of the other doctors have been interested in how you’re treating me?”

Annamarie leaned over and gave Puss a motherly pat on the head. “You poor dear, are you imagining that you’re the first case of possible rabies infection we’ve had since the Ring of Fire?” She shook her head. “No, you’re being ignored by the other doctors and even the medical students, for which you should be suitably grateful, because last year alone we treated over a dozen cases.”

“I didn’t read anything about that in the papers,” Puss said.

“Nobody who got bitten was sufficiently important for the papers to take an interest.” Annamarie shoved her hands into the pockets of her white lab coat and stared hard at Puss. “Georg Lenkert has asked me to ask you if you wouldn’t mind being the face of a publicity campaign for the new rabies treatment.”

“Who’s Georg Lenkert?”

“He’s the head of the Sanitation Commission’s new Emergency Operations Center here in Grantville. He organized the charter flight that got me and the rabies vaccine to you in Wietze so quickly.”

Ouch! No pressure. The man had probably helped save his life, so there was little Puss could do but agree to at least talk to Herr Lenkert.

A couple of days later

Puss lay in his hospital bed and glared at his visitor. It didn’t help that he’d just had another dose of rabies vaccine, but Dylan Pence was not his favorite person.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Puss demanded.

“Because your nation needs you,” Dylan answered.

Puss felt his brows climb. Dylan was definitively not someone to play poker against. Not when he could utter a line like that with such a straight face. “You’ve already had your pound of flesh. I can’t even walk outside my room without everyone wanting to touch the hero.”

“Do you have any idea how much your treatment has cost the government?” Dylan didn’t give Puss a chance to answer. “A fortune! And that doesn’t include the cost of the air charter to get Dr. Rivera-Sullivan and the vaccine to you as quickly as possible and bring you back to Grantville.”

Puss just stared.

Dylan must have understood Puss’ lack of response. “Don’t worry; the government doesn’t expect you to pay back the money.”

“But they do want their jot of blood,” Puss retorted.

“What?” Dylan shook his head. “Never mind. Sign here please.”

Puss managed to catch the paper Dylan had thrust at him before it fell to his bed. Clearly Dylan had never read Shakespeare; otherwise he would have recognized the reference to Portia’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice.” “Shouldn’t I read it first?”

Dylan passed over a pen. “It’s just an authorization for the reward the people of Wietze want to give you.”

Puss ignored Dylan and kept reading. “I’m investing all of it in war bonds?” He stared at Dylan. “Is that what this is all about? Selling war bonds?”

Dylan shrugged. “War’s are expensive.”

“You’re turning my life upside-down just to sell war bonds?”

“You wouldn’t want our boys on the front line to not have the best of equipment just because there wasn’t enough money now, would you? Just sign it, and you can get your old life back.”

“Until the first public appearance,” Puss said sourly.

March, BlackshireElementary School, Grantville

Puss closed the door behind the assistant principal’s secretary and turned to face Mr. Jones, the assistant principal. “Thanks for agreeing to see me at such short notice.”

David Jones gestured towards a chair. “You picked a fine time to learn not to run from a dog.”

Puss felt instantly at ease. This wasn’t someone who thought he was a hero. This was the teacher who many years ago told him that a dog would instinctively chase anything that ran away. He slid into the chair Mr. Jones had indicated. “I would have loved to have turned and run, but I was too terrified to move.”

“That’s not what the papers are saying,” Mr. Jones said with just the hint of a question in his voice.

“Yeah, everyone seems to think I’m some kind of hero, but I’m not.”

Mr. Jones leaned back in his chair and interlaced his fingers. “You are doing a great service promoting the rabies treatment, and I hear the demand for war bonds has gone up.”

“If I wasn’t publicizing the rabies vaccine at the same time I wouldn’t be doing it, but all the hype about me being a hero is . . . ”

“Wearing you down,” Mr. Jones suggested.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Puss said. “It’s more like, I can’t get my mind around the fact that people are making out that I’m a hero for killing a dog that was trying to kill me.”

Mr. Jones grinned. “That does seem like an eminently sensible reason for killing a dog. I think your problem is something psychologists call cognitive dissonance. You’re being told things you know can’t be true. It’s a bit like motion sickness, where the body knows it’s moving but the eyes can’t see any change.”

“Sometimes what I’m hearing makes me want to throw up,” Puss agreed, “but what can I do about it?”

“If you can’t get away from the source of the problem—” Puss shook his head to indicate that wasn’t possible. “—then the best I can suggest is that you develop some kind of coping strategy.”

“‘Scuse me?”

Mr. Jones grinned. “Find something to do that takes your mind off what’s happening.”

“You got any suggestions? It has to be something I can carry with me, because I’m going to be moving around a bit with the war bonds road show.”

Mr. Jones chewed on his bottom lip and stared into the distance for a while. “I seem to remember you and James Warren used to amuse yourselves writing film scripts one year.”

“That was just playing around, Mr. Jones. A little bit of fun seeing what we could come up with. Mostly based on some of the movies we’d seen.”

Mr. Jones nodded. “I did read a couple of them, you know. They were entertaining, and for your age, quite good. Maybe you could try writing as a coping strategy.”

“You mean a story with me as a real hero?”

“Something like that. If you create your own fantasy world where you’re the hero, then the media and everyone else calling you a hero would then become just an extension of your own fictional world and you shouldn’t feel so much cognitive dissonance.”

Puss stared blankly at Mr. Jones. It sounded like witchcraft and snake oil. “You really think that might work?”

“It can’t be any worse than anything else you could do. Basically, I think you need to give yourself something cognitively intensive to take your mind off what’s happening to you.”

Puss stood up and held out his hand to shake the one Mr. Jones was offering him. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Jones. If there’s anything I can do . . . ”

“Actually, if it’s not too much trouble, could you talk to some of the students?”

Puss winced.

“Oh, don’t worry. I expect the boys at least will be more interested in all the gory details of your fight with the dog and the medical treatment than in the idea that you’re supposed to be a hero.”

“That I don’t mind talking about,” Puss said. “I’m happy to tell people that we’ve got rabies vaccine.”

Mr. Jones flicked through his desk calendar. “Would Wednesday at eleven be convenient?”

Sunday, April 1st, 1635, Wietze

 

Today was April Fools Day, and Puss couldn’t help but think the timing was eminently suitable. He fingered the new sergeant’s stripes on his arm. Dylan had had the audacity to feed the media the story that he was being promoted as the army’s contribution to recognizing his valor, even though Puss knew he had more than enough points to have been promoted in May anyway. Thinking of Dylan, Puss’ gaze drifted over to him.

He now understood why Dylan Pence had been so determined to turn him into a hero. It was all about money. According to reliable sources—and they didn’t come much more reliable than his mother, who had a very good ear for gossip—Dylan Pence was being paid a commission on every war bond sold through his little dog and pony show.

Dylan was the first to speak. He opened with the now almost obligatory call for people to buy war bonds. Then he described Puss’ act of valor before inviting the Bürgermeister of Wietze to say a few words. Then, with the wife of the Bürgermeister stepping up holding a velvet cushion with a medal laid on it, Puss was called forward.

The weight of the chain was a surprise. It couldn’t possibly be real gold, surely not. Not a chain this big. Puss lifted the medal hanging from the chain and examined the image on it. It looked like St. George killing a dragon. Puss thanked the Bürgermeister. Then he took possession of the microphone and faced the waiting crowd.

Magdeburg

It was going to be a while before the commanding officer of the USE Marines was free to talk to him, so Puss let his eyes drift around the room he was waiting in. A painting hanging on the wall attracted his attention. He approached it, taking in that it was of a fortress somewhere. He read the inscription on the frame. Hammershus, Bornholm, 1634. It didn’t ring a bell, but the scene depicted USE Marines in combat. He searched the room for his Press Corp handler. “Corporal Andreyevna, do you know anything about a battle involving the Marines at Bornholm?”

The young woman turned from the window she’d been looking out of. “Bornholm is a Danish island in the Baltic. King Gustav Adolphus was supposed to be intending to make Hans Richter’s woman the Baroness of Bornholm. So some fool decided that was a good reason to invade the island, and another fool thought the Marines should be involved. It was a complete fiasco that has been comprehensively ignored by the Press Corp.”

“What about the Hammershus?” Puss pointed to the painting.

She glided gracefully over to the painting and examined it for a moment. “It probably depicts the view from the hills above the Hammershus where the Marines fought a small scale action. It was once the most powerful castle in Europe, but gunpowder changed that. It has probably remained the seat of power of whoever holds Bornholm for the Danish crown.” She waited long enough to see if Puss had anything else to say before returning to her window.

Puss couldn’t help but admire the cat-like grace with which she walked. Not that he had any hopes in that direction. Puss had few illusions as to his personal attractiveness to girls, and he couldn’t see a girl with Corporal Andreyevna’s looks ever being interested in him. So he settled for admiring her on a purely aesthetic level.

Before she reached the window she’d been looking out of—just in case she looked back and caught him watching her—Puss turned his attention back to the painting. The Hammershus looked like a perfect villain’s stronghold. He checked his watch. There was still a while until his appointment to speak to the Marines, so he returned to his bag and hauled out his notebooks and sat down to work on his script. Mr. Jones had been correct. Writing about the heroic exploits of a fictional hero had helped him cope with the attention he was getting.

“Sergeant Trelli!”

It was the kick in the shins that actually brought Puss out of his writer’s daze. He looked down to see the hard object that had connected with his shin. It was a leather shoe. Said shoe was being worn by a delicate foot, which in turn was connected to a shapely leg, all belonging to Corporal Andreyevna. He met her eyes. “Yes?”

“What is it you are writing?”

Puss glanced down at the notebook in his hand. He didn’t really want to talk about what he was writing, and he certainly didn’t want to explain why he was doing it, most especially not to the gorgeous Corporal Andreyevna. “I’m just trying my hand at writing a story.” He smiled, hoping that this sudden burst of interest in his activities would just as suddenly die a natural death. “It’s just something to occupy the time.”

“Could I read what you’ve done?”

Puss stared at the hand the girl held out. Then he followed the arm up to her face. She wasn’t smiling, but then, Puss was used to Corporal Andreyevna not smiling. He passed over the first of his completed notebooks.

He didn’t know what he actually expected, but he was surprised when she accepted the notebook and settled down in a chair to read it. Well, he wished her luck. His teachers had always complained about his handwriting and, as he’d never expected anybody else to read his movie script, the level of legibility had reached new lows.

****

Corporal Svetlana Andreyevna only asked if she could read what Sergeant Trelli was writing because she was bored and wanted something to do. However, after just a single glance she knew what she held wasn’t an attempt to write a novel. It was a play or movie script. And just recently she’d witnessed a discussion (okay, listened to it through the door) between Jabe McDougal—the man she loved—and Gino Bianchi, a producer of plays and extravaganzas and wannabe movie producer. Jabe and Gino were interested in producing a movie. All they needed was a suitable script.

Svetlana couldn’t help but imagine how much Jabe would appreciate being handed a good script. Maybe her assignment to baby-sit Sergeant Trelli wouldn’t be a complete waste of time. She settled down to read. The handwriting was atrocious, but compared with Jabe McDougal’s almost illegible scrawl, it was easy to read.

June, Grantville

Puss had been granted leave before he had to join General Mike Stearns’ Third Division in Magdeburg and he’d elected to take it with his family back in Grantville. He got off the tram a short block from his parents’ place and with his rucksack slung over his shoulders, set off for home.

He hadn’t gone far before he was pounced on by an energetic and happy Jabe McDougal. “You’ve been holding out on me,” Jabe accused.

“What?” Puss would have preferred a more intelligent response, but he was lost for words. What could Jabe possibly be taking about?

“Your writing.” Jabe waved one of the notebooks Puss had discovered missing after his visit to Magdeburg.

Puss reached for it. “Where the hell did you get that? It’s mine.”

Jabe pulled the notebook protectively away from Puss’ outstretched hands. “Corporal Andreyevna thought I might be interested in your writing. And she was right. Me and Gino have been searching for a good story to make a movie about for ages, and with a bit of work, we think we might be able to do something with this.” He patted the notebook sitting securely under his arm.

“That’s just something I was playing with to pass the time while I was being led around with Dylan Pence’s dog and pony show,” Puss protested.

“Good, then you don’t have too much emotional attachment to your story, because it needs a few major changes.”

“What the heck are you talking about?” Puss demanded.

“Making a movie from your script.”

Puss let Jabe lead him to a tavern where he was introduced to Gino Bianchi.

****

Gino Bianchi actually liked his screenplay. And if Puss could make a few minor changes to better suit the medium—like removing almost all the dialogue and increasing the action—Gino would turn it into a movie. Puss walked out of the tavern in a bit of a daze. He adjusted his rucksack over his shoulders and set off for home.

And almost ran slap into Prudentia Gentileschi. Fortunately, he managed to jump to one side in time, otherwise the clearly worked up young woman would have plowed straight into him. Puss stared after the girl. He was tempted to call out that she should look where she was going, but decided not to. There was no telling what a female in her obviously agitated state might say or do. Instead he turned and walked on.

He heard the weeping as he neared the alleyway. Curiosity, a besetting sin often associated with cats, had him stop to look at the source of the noise.

Corporal Andreyevna glared at him through tear-filled eyes, but glares were like water off a duck’s back to a military policeman. Someone had recently slapped Corporal Andreyevna. He glanced over his shoulder. In the distance he could still see Prudentia Gentileschi striding aggressively down the street. He had an idea what had happened. He just didn’t know why Jabe McDougal’s fiancée had slapped her.

It wasn’t in Puss’ make-up to desert a female in distress, but what to do with her? He couldn’t take her back to her office. Not with that mark on her face and her eyes red from crying. People were bound to ask embarrassing questions. He could take her home, but a moment’s reflection—mostly concerning how his mother might interpret the act of bringing a young woman home—suggested his favorite cousin might be a better bet. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and turned her toward the back of the building. “Come on, you can’t stay here.”

He was surprised when she offered no resistance when he tried to move her, but he didn’t let that slow him down. He used his intimate knowledge of Grantville and its various shortcuts to get the pair of them to Betty’s house without running into anybody.

****

Betty was at home. She answered the door with Master Michael Avery in her arms. “Puss!” she said, then she noticed his companion. “My god, what’s happened to her?” She thrust Michael into Puss’ arms and dragged Corporal Andreyevna into her home.

Puss headed straight for the nursery where he put Michael down in his crib. He had the baby settled before Betty came looking for him.

“Who is she, and do you have any idea who hurt her?”

“She’s Corporal Andreyevna of the Press Corp, and I think she’s had a run in with Prudentia Gentileschi.”

“Ahhhh!”

It was the sound of enlightenment dawning. Betty obviously knew something Puss didn’t. “Does that mean something to you?”

Betty nodded. “There’ve been rumors that Jabe was playing around with someone last year.”

Puss glanced at Corporal Andreyevna. She certainly had what it took to distract a normal guy, but Jabe wasn’t really normal, not when it came to Prudentia Gentileschi. “Can she stay here?”

“For how long?”

“Until she pulls herself together, I guess.”

Betty sighed. “I guess so, but I don’t know what Isaiah’s going to say.”

“Your husband’s a counselor; he’ll probably be able to help.”

****

Cousin Betty had been pretty closemouthed when she’d phoned him at his parent’s. She’d demanded that Puss show up after seven that evening and then she’d hung up. So, after an early dinner with his parents, Puss walked over to his cousin’s place.

Betty was waiting for him and dragged him inside as soon as he reached the door. “Your lady friend has a small problem,” she explained as she guided him into the lounge where Corporal Andreyevna was quietly sitting in an armchair petting the family cat, watching Bugs Bunny videos.

“She’s not my lady friend, she just happened to be my handler from the Press Corp when I was doing the rounds for Pence’s dog and pony show,” Puss whispered to her.

“As of now, she’s your lady friend,” Betty hissed back.

“What?”

“Look who’s turned up,” Betty announced.

Corporal Andreyevna glanced up and gave Puss the barest nod of acknowledgement before returning to the more important task of petting Maxie while she watched television.

“What’s going on?” Puss demanded.

Betty pushed Puss into a chair beside Corporal Andreyevna and settled into the couch opposite. “It’s quite simple. Svetlana has been invited to Jabe and Prudentia’s wedding, and she needs an escort.”

Puss switched his gaze from Betty to Svetlana. So that’s Corporal Andreyevna’s name. Both of them were looking at him. Heck, even Maxie was staring at him, but that might be because Svetlana had stopped petting her and she was assigning blame for that where she thought it belonged. He pointed to himself. “Me?” Betty nodded. An expression that might have been agreement flashed across Svetlana’s face.

“Why me?” He waved a hand in Svetlana’s direction. “A girl with her looks can have any guy she wants.”

That didn’t go down well. Svetlana buried her face in the handkerchief she was holding and sobbed. Betty glared at him. Puss wasn’t slow. He realized almost immediately that Svetlana was upset precisely because she couldn’t have the guy she wanted. “What I mean to say is, why me? I’m just a sergeant in the army.”

“But not just any sergeant. You’re the sergeant with the very fancy gold necklace,” Betty pointed out.

“It’s a gold chain, with a medal on the end,” Puss corrected. And it was gold, well, eighteen karat gold. Nobody made ceremonial chains out of pure gold—it was too soft.

“Gold chain, gold necklace, what does it matter? What matters is that you have it, and everybody knows why you got it. That, plus the fact you’ve been seen in public together makes you an ideal candidate to be Svetlana’s escort.”

“But why does Corporal Andreyevna need a pseudo-hero as her escort?” Puss asked.

“Prudentia accused her of pursuing Jabe, and she needs a suitable escort to the wedding to show that she has better fish to fry.”

“I’m supposed to be better than Jabe McDougal?” Puss asked.

Betty shrugged. “You clean up well, and besides, you’ll be wearing your gold chain and medal.”

“You want I should carry my gold inlaid revolver as well?” Puss asked sarcastically. He’d received a number of presentation quality weapons, all beautifully engraved and gold inlaid, and totally impractical as service weapons.

“That won’t be necessary. Now, to be convincing you’ll have to learn to use Svetlana’s name. Better yet, use her nickname—Sveta. And Sveta, you’d better try calling Puss ‘Puss.'”

“I refuse to call a grown man ‘Puss.'” She stared at Puss, and for maybe the first time since he’d met her, she smiled. She sent the television a glance, then looked straight at Puss. “I will call him George. It can be my pet name for him.”

Betty burst out laughing, and even Svetlana broke a smile. Puss just shrugged. He’d been called a lot worse. Besides, he wouldn’t have to put up with it for long. “You do realize that I’m supposed to be joining the Third Division in eight days?”

“That’s not a problem,” Betty said. “It’s not as if you and Sveta are really interested in each other. This is just for show. And by the time you get back from the campaign, everyone will have forgotten.”

“Gee, thanks for the sympathy. People get killed in wars, you know.”

“Come off it, Puss. You told me yourself that the role of MP’s in times of war is to make sure the traffic keeps moving. The chances are you’ll never see a shot fired.”

“That’s how I’d like it to be, but you never know.”

 

The day of the wedding

Puss showed up at Betty’s early. He slipped out of the hansom cab and called up to the driver. “I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

“Women are never ready,” the driver agreed.

Puss grinned and headed up the path. Betty met him at the door and showed him in. Inside, Betty’s mother and sisters were gathered around a startlingly beautiful woman. So that’s what she looks like out of uniform.

Betty’s mother, the owner-operator of Carole’s Beauty Salon, stepped up to Puss. She looked him up and down as she walked around him. Occasionally she brushed her hand across a spot on his suit. Eventually her circuit brought them face to face again. “You do clean up well, Puss. And what’s this?” She reached for the medal hanging from the chain and studied the enameled image. Then she smiled. “Well, George, are you ready to go out and slay your lady’s dragons?”

****

 

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