There was a movie theater with an all-night program en route. The words "in color" cinched the deal.
"You ever see..." Osanna said, before falling into a sputtering laugh. "Of course you've seen a movie in color. They probably screen all the big hits at your place before they, uh, before they even get out to the rest of us."
"How would they be hits if they haven't premiered yet?" Irenka said.
"I dunno. Guessing?" She fished around her pockets before Irenka pointed at her chest. "Don't stare. It's... unbecoming." She checked around a little while longer before the gears clicked. "Ooooh yeah. Pocket, money, there." She paid the man in the ticket booth. "One for me. You sell food in here?"
"Yes, m'am," the man in the booth said.
"Fantastic." She shouldered through the door before Irenka could buy her own ticket.
Irenka didn't pay too much attention to the movie. It was a Threshold import, so there were a lot of brown-skinned girls in scandalous bathing suits singing about the weather, the goodness of the gods, and how fun it is to beat the hell out of people. One of them was an heiress, maybe. Her Tradespeech was a little rusty.
"Do you speak Trade, Osanna?" she said during a calm scene where the heroine was talking things over with her love interest, some pale-skinned Continental who needed a little loosening up.
"Not a word," Osanna said. She'd used her unspent drinking money to pick up a pile of snacks from the snack bar. "I don't really care. Look at that! Color!"
It was either too early or too late--it wasn't quite midnight--for there to be anyone else slumming it in a movie theater. They didn't bother keeping their voices too low.
"It's neat, yeah." Irenka settled into her seat. "Nice seats, too."
Onscreen, the heroine leaned over to pick up a fallen shotgun shell. "You're telling me."
Irenka pondered her next words carefully, then blurted, "So, uh, you like girls?"
"I do." She popped a candied almond in her mouth. Or, at her mouth. "Ever since I was a kid. Never had an eye for boys. How 'bout you?"
"Uh... I don't know."
"You don't know, or you don't want to tell me?"
In the movie, the cast sang about how the heiress could never love a man who couldn't shoot straight. Oh, so that must have been the plot.
"Still not telling me," Osanna said.
"I... don't really... I mean, I, uh..." She tried to will herself to stay pale, but no go. "I kind of like both."
"Ah. That's handy. So, this is really your kind of movie, isn't it?" She gestured at the hero, who was presently shirtless and posed dramatically before the sunset. Irenka wondered how they could film straight into the sun without it washing out the image, before realizing it must have been a backdrop. It had fooled her for a moment; the visual effects were fantastic. "Guess they haven't invented dress clothes in Threshold."
"They, uh, they have clothes on when they're at our parties. But they're usually pretty drunk, and uh, I think their vice president is a pervert."
"I'd be too. Damn, look at the tits on--ohhh, damn, really look on the tits on that one!" The heiress's suit-top had mysteriously come undone, offering just the most tasteful glimpse. "Ha, gods bless those oyster-eating sons of bitches. Almond?"
"Gods, I love movies." Osanna tilted the bag, letting Irenka take a handful. "You know what the best part is?"
"What's the best part?"
"A nickel gets you two movies, some cartoons, the news, and an afternoon of central heating. In the winter a little central heating is like being reborn."
"Feelin' rich girl guilt yet?"
"Feeling like I should be taking notes."
"Ha. 'Cause you'll be a queen one day."
"You know, unless you die, like, 'cause you're a machine gunner."
On the screen, the heiress was talking to a buxom woman in a pointed black hat perched on her head and an '84 Broomstick autorifle hanging from her shoulder. Irenka had the chance to fire off a few magazines in training, leftovers from Threshold's care package to Górazima. She had no idea what to think of it; it felt like a marksman rifle that wanted to be a machine gun. How it could be one without taking ammo belts and with only twenty rounds per mag, she could never understand.
"You know what the average life span of a Broomsticker was?" Osanna said "In the Border Skirmish last year, I mean."
"Not off the top of my head."
"Twenty minutes. Two times ten. Minutes. You carry that kind of payload around, everybody wants you dead. Why do you think I'm with you? Just to change your barrels and lug your ammo? If you die, I pick up where you left off. And when I die, somebody picks up from there." She shook her head. "It's always like that with guns. Magi, you have to keep them in the game. They can... survive. They can defend themselves. With guns it's all kill, kill, kill. You can't keep yourself alive with a gun. You just kill the other guy first."
In the movie, the pointy-hatted girl gave the heroine a whack on the backside with the butt of her gun, then made a pun so painful Irenka and Osanna paused the conversaiton just to wince at it.
"Just so you know," Irenka said, "part of why Równiny's mage advantage never panned out was because all their mages wore distinctive uniforms. All our marksmen had to do was point and shoot. Either they were too busy defending themselves to fight back, or they didn't defend themseves."
"Gotta kill any forward momentum this relationship was building, don't you, girl?"
"You don't talk like you're drunk."
"I've been drinking all my life. I'm used to it."
"We need to get more into you."
"...you were using all this time to sober up, weren't you?" Irenka said. "Just so I'd get you drunk again."
"I'm not sober." Osanna pushed a handful of almonds into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Bu' I 'ay as 'ell 'e. Aw in th' min'."
"Clever girl," Irenka said.
On screen, the witch's top tastefully slipped.
* * *
It was almost five in the morning by the time Irenka and Osanna finally made it back into the bunks. It seemed they were the only girls in the barracks to bother coming back here to sleep, in fact. Not that they wanted to, but Osanna insisted on paying for any hotel room out of pocket and Irenka had already seen her spend too much.
The barracks were dimly lit, and they were alone.
Alone but for Irenka's mother, gently dozing on one of the bunks near her and Osanna's.
"Oh, no," Irenka whispered.
"Hmmmmm?" Osanna said. Irenka had been giving her a piggyback ride the past mile or so. All things considered she more or less weighed what Irenka carried into battle. "Who was it? Is it?"
"It's my mom," Irenka said.
"Oh, hey, Queen... Queen Whatserface!" Osanna said, waving.
"Mm... did you wake me~?" Agnieska said, rousing from her sleep.
"I did!" Osanna waved harder.
Irenka groaned. "Morning, mom."
"So-o-o, my little lady passed her bein' a soldier exam!" The queen slid from the bunk and skipped over, wrapping Irenka in a firm hug. "I thought I'd show up for graduation a little early. Say hi, give you a hug..."
"Thanks, mom," Irenka said, laying her head on her mother's shoulders. She hadn't drunk near as much as Osanna, but she'd managed to get a few in nonetheless.
"This isss awkward," Osanna said from Irenka's back.
"Hush," Agnieska said. "You two've been getting along so well. And you're the assistant gunner to my little lady! That makes you part of the family as far as I'm concerned." She leaned over and planted a kiss on Osanna's forehead.
"Aw, man..." Osanna said.
"And now the shoe's on the other foot," Irenka said, pleased.
"So! Any fun stories about basic training?" Agnieska said, taking a seat on another bunk. "Fun stories about blowing stuff up? Fun stories about that time Osanna nearly shook herself apart? Or fun stories about shooting those fancy little test dolls and trying not to get a titful of paint?"
"Ha, what even is it with tits tonight?" Osanna said. Irenka hoisted her up onto her bunk.
"Go to sleep, Osanna, you're drunk," Irenka said.
"O-kay. I'll try. But no promises. Beeeecause I am... so very drunk." Osanna gave her a thumbs up.
"I can tell," Irenka said. She sat next to her mother. "I don't really want to talk about it. I'm just glad it's almost done."
"I bet you are. Missing your bed and your easel?" Agnieska said.
"I... yeah. Not as much as I thought, though."
"Gonna miss your gun when you're back home?"
"Well... I still have to check in every now and again, right? Until it's wartime. Or I..."
"Or you could go to officer training school! Get your stripes, never actually have to look down the sights at somebody's poor head before it pops like a melon. Schlorp!" Agnieska mimed a pistol going off.
"It's... no, that's... alright. I don't think I'm cut out to lead that much, anyway."
"Ut, ut. What's that I heard? Run that by me one more time?"
"I... don't think I'm... oh. This is a point you're trying to make, isn't it."
"You're a queen and you don't think you're leadership material. This doesn't strike you as a problem, Irena?"
"I'm... I'm not a queen yet! I'm a princess!"
"But one day you will be a queen. Unless you're not cut out to be a leader. I'm sure one of your many siblings can pick up the slack."
"W-well... that's what they're there for, right?" Irenka said, sheepishly.
"Irena." Her mother touched her face. "Irena Jadwig Wojciecha Kowalczyk-von-Jez. Your life is yours to live, but I think you're made of better stuff than the kind of girl who stands back and lets her baby sister lead the country because she doesn't think she can handle the responsibility. Oh, there it goes, you're blushing again..."
"I... well, I'm a little drunk..."
"You're a lot of little things, Irenka, but one thing you're not little at is potential. Don't write off being a leader just yet, alright, hon? I don't mean drop everything and sign up for generalissimo school, I mean--just don't write yourself off so easily, okay? Did you ever think you'd be lugging around a huge cutting-edge gun and actually being good at using it?"
"...N-no, I guess not."
"So think about it. You may not think you're tough now. But you've got more tough in you than I think anybody here knows. Okay, Irenka?"
"So don't let me hear you go 'I'm not a leader, I'm not a queen...' because I think you can do the first, and I know you're going to be the second. So buck up. Now's not the time to write things off."
"I... I promise I won't."
"There." She kissed Irenka's head. "That's a girl."
Irenka hugged her mother. "Thanks for believing in me, mom."
Agnieska hugged her right back. "I wouldn't have thrown you here if I didn't think you could hack it." She giggled. "'Hack it.' I sound just like a soldier, don't I?"
"Ooh... speaking of soldiers..." She glanced up at Osanna, who was already snoozing. "Have you two hit it off? Romantically, I mean?"
"But think about it, 'Renka, you come from opposite sides of the tracks, she's dark and edgy, you're little and red, it's just absolutely perfect. Unless..." Agnieska gasped. "Irena Kowalczyk, are you telling me that the men make nightly sojourns here so they can relieve their powerful male urges with--"
"Moooooom!" Irenka said.
"'Ooh, ooh, ohhh!'" Agnieska said in a fainting falsetto, falling back on the bed. "'Please, be gently with me, or I'll, eeeee!'"
Irenka brought a stiff pillow over her mother's face.
"Aaaah nooo, I'm being assassinated!" Agneska declared from beneath the pillow. "But not really in case anybody is listening!"
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