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Time passes; this is what time does.
Irenka took to her paints, and Osanna to her little life in the Flatlands.
This is how it went:
* * *
Six in the morning, and bells chimed.  It was the end of the late shift for all the happy little workers of Mountainheart, and the start of the morning for the dayfolk.  It was the start of Irenka's morning, too, and oh, how painful it was to peel herself out of her bed.  She'd learned to love her stiff bunk, her lumpy bedroll.  Sleeping in a real bed was like sleeping with her head in heaven.  But the day waited, and the day would roll on without her.
A brisk shower, changing into her day clothes, breakfast with the family.  Another round of questions from Henryk and Tymon, asking if they could shoot her gun today.  (The answer was no.)  Chou and Noriko asked her how her sleep went, and if she had any dreams ("I thought I was a poor sick girl in a hospital, except I was healthy enough to sneak out all the time to sell old books for an old man who lived in the wading pool"), and if they could shoot her gun today.  (The answer was no.)  Agnieska simply smoked two joints and ate her share of breakfast.  It took her a while to warm up.
Schooling during the morning shift.  Calculus and astrology and hagiography before lunch; lunch by herself on a patio outside, watching the servants and laborers below as they worked on the castle, sketching one she'd finished up her food.  Post-lunch: socio-economics, etiquette, today's foreign language (Albedo, one of the languages of the brutal northern wastelands).  And time to brush up on her soldiering.
Thunderbolt slung over her shoulder, ammo cans hanging from her hips, strapped into a backpack loaded with necessities, she hiked into the woods around the city, followed close behind by whoever was assigned to her today.  She didn't recognize them--they must be new.  She struck up a convesation about what their training was like, shared stories.  It seemed that no matter where one went, when it came to training people in the art of fireams, the world had plenty of people like Stolarz to keep them from accidentally shooting each other.  Or so Irenka hoped, and wow, she had just hoped for more people like Stolarz.  That was a realization that gave her pause.
When her workday ended with the chiming of distant bells, she found a nice quiet spot in the woods, assembled her easel and doled out paint on her pallet.  Her machine gun strapped to her back, she painted what, in her opinion, was just a lovely little depiction of the forest as the evening sun poured through the bough, red and sleepy and warm.
She let her bodyguards watch the paint dry and ensure no leaves or bugs or other debris smacked into it as it did.  In the meanwhile, she dug a little foxhole with her entrenching tool, dug in, and emptied a few belts into a tree growing in front of a hill.  The poor thing didn't take two full belts to get chopped down.  She jotted down where she'd found the log; she was going to burn that son of a bitch for warmth in the winter.  (That and she needed practice with the sharp edge of her entrenching tool.)
Life was good.
* * *
In a small apartment on the bad side of town, the train that passed by yards of her endow did its usual job of waking her up at six in the evening.  The sound drowned out the bells over here.
Osanna filled a bucket and took a cold rag-bath, bracing but awakening.  Some days she missed the hot showers on base.  Other days it was too hot at work for her to want a hot shower in the morning.  Her morning, rather.  Today was the right day for a cold bath.
Breakfast was toast and butter.  Lunch was salted haddock rolled in rice and wrapped in seaweed, packed tight in a paper-lined lunch tin.  She tried not to think too hard about her lunch on the train ride over to work; it was part of what made work worthwhile.
At nine in the evening the bells tolled and the steam whistle shrieked for the start of the graveyard shift.  Poor little Karolina Osanna; Iron class worker at a steel mill.  Too useful to not pay, not useful enough to pay well.  In particular she loaded the raw stuff into the blast furnaces and carted the molten product to the next stage of processing.  Step one: load iron and coal into the furnace chute.  Step two: stoke the fire, bring the mess to a boil.  Step three: purify with limestone flux.  Step four: dump the stuff in a vat, wheel the vat over to the next station.  Step five: get more coal, iron, and limestone, and take a long swig of cold water if need be.  (She had her issues with the Winter Mountain, but at least they put out for safety.)  Step six: back to step one.  It was heavy, hot, dangerous work, but it kept her in shape.
The locker rooms were a good distance from the rest of the plant, and were nice and cool.  Her lunch kept her going.  Her lunch reminded her of quiet days fishing alongside her mother, hoping for dinner, settling for time together and peace.  Also, allowing for a little pride, she smoked a damn fine haddock.
Then, back to it.
At the end of her shift, the first and most important thing was hitting the locker rooms, taking a brisk shower (also cold; more for safety, she imagined, than a lack of means to heat water) and changing into her spare outfit.  Then the walk to the absolute shittiest neighborhoods in the city of Blackhold, under the shadow of the mill.  It was a miserable place to live; she had scraped and occasionally stabbed to claw her way out from it.  But there was one feature here that was useful to her.
Three brisk matches in the not-strictly-official "martial arts expositions."  They had the faintest air of officiality, in nice little buildings in imitation of the old style of dojo, but the old dojos didn't have wire cages for the fighters, nor were their nurses men with off-the-shelf first aid kits and a few syrettes of Sweet Dreams morphine.  There were no titles and honors to win, just fistfuls of bills and rolls of coins after the fact, adjusted for performance and crowd favor.
On the other hand, an actual dojo didn't pay cash for victory, and if she ended an actual fight with actual judges and actual honor by grabbing her opponent by the hair and slamming her head in the ground until it sprung a leak, she'd be disqualified.  Not to mention the unsportsmanlike conduct as she hurled the worst words she knew into their ear as she did so.
So there were advantages.  And this morning she brought in as much money in an hour as she did in eight hours of labor.
Life was good.
And in two weeks she'd be back in Icemelt.
* * *
Irenka hustled down the training range, machine gun cradled to her chest, Osanna two steps behind her.  "Count of three!" Gwendolyn shouted a few yards above them.  "One, two..."
The priness reached the gap and leaped, and a freezing gust hurled her upward.  She blinked fast, as she had been trained, losing momentum just as she reached the platform ahead and landing at a run.  Osanna was just behind her, tucking and rolling and loosing a few demonstrative rounds from her Boneshaker at a steel target on the walls flanking the course.
"Nice!" said Gwen, swooping down lower to the ground.  The mantis saluted them.  "You're really taking to this!"
"I learn quickly!" Irenka said, readying her gun and loosing a half-second burst downrange at a pop-up target before hurling herself behind cover.  Osanna slid into place near another raised barrier and peppered downrange with her fancy new submachine gun.  Target after target popped up.  Irenka held up her left hand in a fist, then kept sending single shots downrange, some targets flopping down, others popping back into hiding.
With a crack Gwen propelled herself behind enemy lines, Irenka and Osanna ducking behind cover once she was in their line of fire.  With a few swift gestures, Gwen sent targets flying out of cover, ripping free of their mounts.
The siren sounded, and the test ended.  Gwendolyn doffed her helmet and took the pin from her hair, shaking waist-length sea-green hair free.  "That went well," she said, offering a crisp bow.
"Glad to be part of the team," Irenka said, returning the bow.
Osanna joined in hesitantly.  "Of course it had to be the Royal Rejects," she said.
"Well, hey, you're not the only non-royal," Gwen said, patting Osanna's back.  "My Piotr's just a humble courier when he's not toting a shotgun for the good of the Reunification.  And I don't know if Mayumi is actually... anything.  I've not heard her say a thing that wasn't 'sir yes sir' or 'sir no sir.'"
"Reminds me of a few people," Irenka said.
"Would it be this person?" Osanna said.
"Oh, I don't want to name names," Irena said, whistling innocently.
"Hey, I talk now!  I'm downright conversant."
"All it took was us nearly killing each other, too."
"Hey, hey, let's set the record straight, you set me up to be killed by other people."
Gwendolyn raised her hand.
"...yes?" Irenka said.
"Do I want to ask the story behind that?"
"It's not that interesting.  She nearly died, I saved her, she started hitting my head after I got a concussion... you know, the usual."
"Seven crowns, and you work with this chick?"
"I'm just that good," Osanna said, giving her Boneshaker a pat.
"Yeah, nobody swaps out barrels like a psychotic Równiny girl," Irenka said.
"Oh, to hell with you," Osanna said, throwing her arms up.
Life was good.
As you might be able to tell, this is not gonna be neatly wrapped up in ten days.  We're in for the long haul, fokes!

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November 20, 2014
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