One ice-blue evening at camp, Irenka and Osanna set up camp far out in the fields outside of Icemelt. Irenka hacked down a small tree with her entrenching tool, more or less just to show off that she was good at it, and set up a nice warm campfire. Osanna set up the tent and church-keyed open the first beer, taking a long, loving drought as Irenka worked her flint and tinder, catching the kindling alight and getting the flame started in earnest. "Keep at it, almost there," Osanna said.
With a few flaps of her blanket the kindling caught, licks of fire pressing up through the pile of logs. "There we go," Irenka said. She took a seat on her bedroll next to Osanna and watched her campfire blossom. "Heck of a thing," she said.
"Hell. You can say hell." Osanna reached for another beer from her satchel (of beer) and punched two holes in the tin. "You ever have Black Bliss?"
"What's its vintage?" Irenka said.
Osanna laughed. "Ha ha, oh, you poor ginger bitch." She held out the can. "Brace yourself, this is gonna be good."
Irenka took the can, read the label, sniffed the punched holes, and stared at Osanna warily. "This is supposed to be drunk by humans, right?"
"It's supposed to get humans drunk, yes."
"It's always about getting drunk with you."
"One of these days I'm going to have a conversation with you off-duty and you will be sober while it's happening." She took a drink and flinched. She spit it out. "--what even is this?! Did something pee in it?"
"Probably! But you don't argue with ten per cent alcohol by volume in a beer. Ice-fortified beer is the Winter Mountain's cold cruel mercy for thinking minds." Osanna reached for her satchel.
Irenka swat at her hand.
"He-e-ey. What'd you do that for?"
"Corporal Karolina Osanna Nowakowski. We are going to talk to each other without either of us being drunk."
"Fine." Osanna slumped onto her bedroll. "What is it you want to talk about, little miss lightweight?"
"We could talk about anything." Irenka reached for her own backpack and retrieved her sketchbook.
"What kind of anything?" Osanna said. "I don't like talking about myself. Everything you do is public knowledge. So what else? The news? The weather?"
"Books, maybe? What kind of books do you like to read?"
"I don't like talking about literature."
"So it's really just liquor with you."
"Well. As far as you care." Osanna crossed her arms. "Maybe if I got a little drunk I'd be more interested in talking."
"You can't talk literature when you're drunk," Irenka said, leafing through her journal.
"Did you know I'm an artist?" Irenka said.
"Well. I know you write in that thing a lot. So you're drawing instead?"
"I am indeed. Would you like to see?" She glanced over at Osanna, wagging her journal invitingly.
"Sure. Not gonna kill me." Osanna reached for the journal; Irenka handed it over. The princess flopped onto her bedroll and watched her assisstant gunner leaf through the book.
"Huh, first thing in here and it's me... and Stolarz. Ha, was that the start of your unrequited crush on me?"
"It's not a crush..." Irenka said, smiling.
"Not really how it works, so you know," Osanna said. "Leg position is really important, you can't just stand like this and expect to get any hits in. Or not get flipped on your back... or your head. If we had knives we'd be cutting the hell out of each other too. Not how you win a knife fight."
"How do you win a knife fight, Sana?"
"Don't get friendly with me, ginger. But the trick is to get them before they get you. It's the easiest thing in the world to get cut up. You want to end it as soon as you can. You ever... well, I'm starting to get you haven't seen or done most things, so I'll just tell you. Amateurs, they pull their knives like they're little fencing champs. Usually both of them die, one right there, the other after he bleeds out. So what you do is you get his knife under control, and your knife in his throat or eye or groin..." She realized she was pointing at her own groin in the sketch and quickly readjusted to point at Stolarz's. "Ahem." She turned the page. "Moving on."
"You're a real scrapper, aren't you?" Irenka said.
"You could say that."
"They did wind up giving you the biggest bayonet we make."
"Yeah, they did. Not that I need the biggest. Reach isn't everything, though it helps. When it comes to bayonets, you need something sorta... you're actually listening to me, aren't you?"
"I am." Irenka scooted a little closer, for emphasis. "It helps to be a good listener."
"Hell. Maybe you might even learn something."
"Go on. What is it about bayonets?"
"Well... they can't be too long, or they unbalance the gun, and you're supposed to use it like a spear, see. And spears don't have too long a point. Scythes, yes, but that's because of how they're used. Basic spears are pick-up-and-go weapons..."
This went on for some time.
"...like, of course some idiot's going to run in and ram his sword in your guts. You have like a two-foot reach and exactly two feet. That's why we mount the blade parallel to the haft." She used the journal to indicate what she meant, placing it flat along her arm. "You don't get that reaping motion and you can't punch through somebody's helmet, but it's still a big meaty chopping blade with a sharp point. And you can actually, you know, uh, adjust how you're going to grip it... thrust it... slash it... hit somebody with the blunt end... all that good stuff."
"...shit, I've been going on a while..." She propped herself up and went for another beer, pausing to make sure Irenka wasn't going to smack her hand again. Irenka waved her along, and so she fetched herself a drink. "There." She took a long, slow drink. "Shit, my throat feels like it's been scoured. You let me go on, didn't you?"
"It was nice. You were really passionate about it. It's nice hearing people go on about what they're really into."
"Spoken like someone who's never had the plot of Endless Blue Symphony explained to them." She slew the drink in a final deadly draught and tossed the can off into the distance.
"You know you're collecting those in the morning," Irenka said.
"Tomorrow's tomorrow. Today is right now. Ergo I do not fucking care."
"You really like that word, Osanna."
"It expresses everything I feel in as few syllables as possible. It is a miracle word."
Irenka rolled over, at last. She'd lost feeling in her elbow. "So... what do you do when you're not a soldier?"
"Smelt iron. Fight people."
"Had a feeling about the second thing."
"How 'bout you?"
"I paint still lifes. I'm still getting my education, otherwise. How old are you?"
"Oh... right." Irenka laughed. "Everybody knows, don't they."
"Everybody. Hard to miss it. Friggin' queen won't stop having babies and she won't stop reminding us when it's their birthday. How are you not spoiled rotten?"
"You haven't spent twenty-four hours with her. Or your entire life. She, uh, she has her ways."
"'least she didn't raise a bitch. Or too big a one, anyway." Osanna stared up at the stars. "What do you know about the Astral Court?"
A long quiet unfolded where only the crackle of the fire and the distant moan of wind sounded.
"You've got to be kidding me."
"You're--what--in college? And you don't know anything about the Astral Court? The fucking gods of the stars?"
"Oh--well, I know that you worship the stars. That's the Równiny oath, isn't it? 'The earth mirrors the sky.'"
"The gods aren't stars. The gods are among the stars. The constellations are... oh, I can't start with you." Osanna covered her face with her hands. "I cannot begin to start with how much I am hating Social Harmony right now."
"I... well." Irenka turned away from Osanna. "Well, there goes that."
"There goes what."
"I'm not goin' anywhere. You're not gonna hike off without me. We're both still here."
"But I just pissed you off."
"Everything pisses me off. It's... it's alright. You get used to it. I think you'll get used to it." She paused. "I don't have a lot of friends... or any. I don't have any friends." A longer pause. "Fuck me, I don't have any friends. Star Maiden, how did I never notice that? Or care? Closest thing I have to a friend are the idiots who keep trying to go for a rematch. My mom's dead, your mom killed my dad, my brother killed himself, my sister killed herself, I'm the last fucking one and I don't have anyone who's gonna miss me."
Irenka turned back around. Osanna's hands were resting on her stomach. Her eyes were open and staring at the stars. Her expression was, as often it was, unreadable.
Osanna tilted her head, looking Irenka in the eye.
"I'd miss you, if you died," Irenka said, just above a whisper.
"Well. Somebody's got to carry your bullets."
"I like you, Osanna. You're my friend."
"Well, you'd say that. You're a princess. You have to be... what's it... gingerly? No, that's--"
Irenka planted a soft kiss on her forehead.
"I'm saying it because you're my friend. I like you and I'm glad I know you."
A crooked, ungainly smile crossed Osanna's face.
"Well, shit. I was kind of enjoying the angst, there, for a minute."
"Well. I still don't know anything about the gods, and none of my brothers or sisters do... probably not one in ten people in Winter Mountain know either. So I guess you still have reason to be... angst-y."
"Hey, you're right." Osanna chuckled. "Don't let anybody tell you you're not half-bad, okay?"
"I'm a princess. I can have them killed if they do."
"Hey, speaking of. Don't waste that beer. Or hand it over here if you would."
Irenka glanced at the beer can still resting on the grass next to her. She chose option two, and Osanna knocked it back.
"Ahh. Bliss." She flicked it away. "What do you think your mom's up to, anyway?"
"Trying to make another baby," Irenka said, sighing. "If Mr. Devarajah ever says yes, anyway."
"By the gods, woman, why the hell does she have so many?" Osanna said.
"I wish I knew. Some days I think she just has a problem."