Icemelt could've snugly fit in one of the boroughs of Mountain Home, but for its smallness it was as modern a town as Irenka had ever seen, and cozy for all that. Electric lights glowed throughout the town, illuminating handsome houses of antique style, painted with bright patterns on roofs and doors. The closer she and Osanna came to main street, the louder the music playing there became, a delightful cacophony of disparate styles and instruments, many of which sounded live.
And then Osanna's arm pressed into her back and steered her towards a small grocery store, a sign hanging from the door reading "Always Open." "Oh--do they have a--like, a bar in the back?" Irenka said.
"Oh, no." Osanna opened the door and slipped the two of them inside. The place was dimly-lit and had a strange, slightly mildewy scent to it. The sign declared it a grocery, but Irenka didn't see any food on display outside of a few perfunctory rows of cans in the middle aisle. There were, however, a great many bottles in assorted sizes and colors and styles, and she had not paid enough attention at her mother's parties to know what shape or brand name signified what. "Bars are expensive, Kowalczyk. We have to warm up before we begin."
"Y-you know, I can--" Irenka said.
"Ut." Osanna held a finger to Irenka's mouth. "I'm not going to take a free ride on the ginger train just because you offer. This isn't reparations. This is going out and getting tarnished. On soldier's terms. Understand?"
Irenka nodded, slowly.
"Good." She took her finger away. "Now. This is what we'll need." She held up a slender bottle a little longer than her palm. The label read "Winter Choice 20-20 Fortified Wine -- Ruby Flavor." The liquid inside was a vivid red Irenka associated with paint thinner. "Red, blue, green, or purple? What's your flavor, Kowalczyk?"
"Those aren't flavors."
"They are in the magical land of fortified wine."
"Uh... are they anything like cherry, or blueberry..."
"They are red, blue, green, or purple. They don't taste like anything in nature." She dangled a bottle of bruise-colored WC 20-20 in front of the princess's face. "Royal purple? You know you want it. Or something that matches your hair?"
"I'll... have what you're having," Irenka said.
"Ruby, the classic choice." She set the other bottles down and walked to the front with two red-filled bottles. She handed over forty cents to the tiny pale man at the counter and immediately wrenched the caps off of both bottles. Osanna steered the princess out of the grocer's; once they were on the small porch outside, she handed Irenka one of the bottles. The smell rising out of it made her wonder if it actually was paint thinner. "On the count of three we're popping the cherry. One... two..."
She took a long swig and held up three fingers. Irenka matched Osanna's powerful swig and nearly choked. The stuff tasted a bit like cherries, a bit like strawberries, and overwhelmingly like kerosine. She sputtered and coughed, wiping foul-smelling liquid on her sleeve. "Wh-what is this?!" she said. "This--no, this is like when Stolarz sent us to get headlight fluid, isn't it? It's some kind of..."
Osanna had already finished her bottle. "It's liquor for people who don't waste time. Kowalczk, you are going to finish your breakfast or I am going to whip you with a switch. Gonna send you to get a whippin' switch, like grandad. Would you like that?" She leaned closer to Irenka. "Would you, in fact, like that?"
"Why is everbody mean to me?" Irenka said. It was as sincere a question as she'd ever asked
"Because you're little and cute. People have two reactions to that. Either they want to pet you, or they want to kick you. And cute things get cuter when they're kicked. Understand?"
Osanna pointed at her scars. "Begging got a lot easier after I got these little bastards. Getting kicked can pay off in the long term. So are you gonna get mean with me or are ya gonna stay behind?"
"I don't know if I can--"
Nowakowski put her hands on Irenka's shoulders.
"Hey. Hey," Osanna said. "I know you're freaked out right now. You don't wanna get in trouble. Or you don't wanna wake up with a hangover."
Irenka shivered. "I've had one. It... it wasn't nice."
"Ah." Osanna laughed. It was the first time Irenka had ever heard her laugh. It was nice, actually, warm and a little rough. "So you're not totally new to the drinking thing! Underestimated you. How bad was it?"
"I couldn't open my eyes 'til noon."
"Not bad, not bad. Tell you what." She plucked the evil-smelling wine from Irenka's hand and took a long drink. "I lead, you follow. If I get too drunk for you, take me back to barracks. Or to an inn. We're clear 'til tomorrow evening, right?"
"Yeah, we are."
"Okay. Wires still not crossed." She finished the bottle. "Warmed up, ready to go. We're gonna drink 'til you want us to stop. Okay?"
"You trust me?" Irenka said.
"Well, I trust me drunk. That's as good as trusting you sober and with a machine gun. If you want me to trust you like I trust me drunk, you've got some proving to do."
"So, let's do us a little looking, Kowalczyk. Find us a happy little place to drink."
* * *
The happy little place to drink was a noisy dive called the Bloody Prince. The sign was a riff on a classic painting, The Prince in the Ashes of his Father's Kingdom, which hung in the royal gallery. It was one Irenka was intimately familiar with, having stared at it for many long minutes in her youth and having vivid nightmares about it. Seeing the prince take a bracng sip from a flask in lieu of what he cradled to his chest in the original painting made her feel oddly... relaxed. The flash of levity stirred her.
And so she and Osanna were drinking here, right there at the bar, Kowalczyk downing a pint following a bracing shot of whisky, Osanna sipping a mix of phosphate and rum. The bar was greasy and smelled like beef tallow, which was funny, since they didn't seem to serve food here outside of communal bowls of peanuts and assorted pickled things in jars behind the bar. Irenka was startled her sleeves weren't staining. That would explain how there were not two but three empty seats on the bar when everything else was packed with Wood, Leaf, and Stone class workers. Many of whom, it smelled, had worked well outside when they were supposed to and come straight here.
"Wha'ya think, Kowalczyk?" Osanna said, setting down an empty pint. "Do you like? Huh?"
"I think I might've picked a better bar," she said, trying to say so under the bartender's hearing. "But the drink is nice!"
"See? Just have to get something to... do... your... taste... thing... right." Osanna laughed, and Irenka was already happy that laughing was now part of her repertoire. "Guess you're just a sissy lil' girl when it comes to drink. I hear they make, uh, these crazy sorta... fruit drinks... in Threshold. You ever have any?"
"I've been to one of the islands!" Irenka said. "But I was too young to drink. They looked cute, though."
"Hear they make Water Closet look like grape juice, in the gettin' you hammered department, at least. Taste like ice cream, too. You ever have ice cream?"
"Yeah. All the time."
"Okay, tonight, you're not my retainer... girl. But you are definitely going to be getting me a bunch of ice cream when... I dunno. I visit? Can I visit? Shit, they'd probably shoot me on sight just in case."
"Uh, I can get it delivered, I guess."
"There you go!" Osanna ave her a hearty slap on the back. "You're not too bad, you little ginger... so and so. Shit, I can't cuss at you too much now, huh? 'Cause we're partners."
"You can cuss at me all you like. Just don't kick me to make me cuter."
"Shit, I don't need to do that!" Osanna edged her pint and shot at the bartender, who dutifully attended to them. "Look at you. You're tiny."
"I'm five foot one..."
"You're still tiny! I have like eight inches on you. Ha, don't take that the wrong way, people!" she said, to nobody in particular. She took a moment to swig down a shot and follow it with a long gulp of beer. "An'... an' you have red hair and when you blush you blush like you dipped your face in paint and you blush all the goddamn time. You ever notice that?"
"I, uh, do." Irenka's ice had almost entirely melted by now. It was her first drink of the night.
"Yeah, I knew you couldn't not notice that. It's like your head is a lighthouse or something and you gotta warn people that you're tiny and sensitive. Ain't you some kinda, like, artist, too?"
Irenka nodded. "I paint when I'm at home. And I've been keeping a sketch journal while I've been training."
"Totally one of those sensitive types. Ha, and of course your mama throws you at the army. And you still look like a little red cat!"
"Well, uh, I like to think that I've learned some discipline! And, uhm, how to fight. I did manage to... oh, right."
"Yeah, you actually got me off." Osanna snorted. "Ha, got me off. Almost got me killed you little witch, and here we are, shootin' robots like... like we were... meant to." She took a long drink. She'd gone through four shots and four pints. Where was she keeping it all? "You know, maybe this wasn't all a big waste of time. You know I write poems, right?"
"We should get back to base, compare notes!" Irenka said.
"Like now?" Osanna leaned against her. "But we just star-ted."
Irenka glanced around. "I guess we did. But, uh. All these people smell really bad and I don't want to stay here too long."
"Pansy." Osanna hiccupped.
"Maybe yeah alright yes you're right. I am kind of a pansy and I don't want to stay here drinking. Also I'm hoping nobody will start hitting on me beause that will be so awkward."
"Eh," the bartender said. "I've seen hotter in here." The bartender was a one-eyed woman with a finely-embroidered eyepatch.
"You gonna take that?" Osanna said.
"Huh?" Irenka said.
"You gonna take that from her?"
"Take what? She was reassuring me."
"She was taking the piss, Irenka. Don't take that from her. Or at least don't tip her."
"Why would I want to make an enemy out of nowhere?" Irenka dug around in her pockets and pulled out some cash. "If I make enemies everywhere I go I won't have anywhere to go."
"...shit, that's brilliant," Osanna said. "You know, only place I can still drink back home is... like... the guy's who sells... the bad stuff. Shit, I think this is startin' to kick in." She fumbled around for her own cash. Irenka pulled open one of Osanna's breast pockets, the faint glint of coinage inside reminding her. "Shit, there we go. Thanks, Red."
"Yeah. Let's get back home."
"You're a pansy, Red. But at least you're not a..."
"Maybe don't use that word?"
"I'll... try. But I am very drunk."
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