As it transpired Irena would not find herself starting basic until seven days after her birthday. Not that Agnieska minded; putting the burn on Renka was just for funsies. Besides, seven days was a more harmonious passage of time. No, more than that: an ideal amount of time. All seven Heavenly Crowns would look upon her as she transitioned from "gentle princess" to "immenent hardened warrior for the Reunification," all seven modes of thought and seven paths in life, time to reflect and prepare. And, evidently, to paint her little heart out.
In her room, Irenka nudged the painting into place--a few gentle taps from its left, another from its right, and she could finally stop messing with it. She stepped back, flopped into a fainting couch one of the maids had brought for her viewing, and took in the painting she meant to paint on her birthday.
It was hung next to the painting she had started on her birthday, and both were flaned by a library of sketches. The grass-stained incomplete painting was spare and, in fact, still had a stray leaf clinging to it, but its emptiness spoke to her. That was a sort of beauty on its own. Beauty in accident. Find it where you will. Today's work hung next to it, substantially more busy, the lower half a blur of motion and human figure.
In a way it hurt to see. That first moment had been so pure, so effortless, it had felt like someone had been guiding her brush, whispering the right and hidden way of things in her ear, the means of creating something that was more than human hands could make. But it was over all too soon, gone before it could be born. This painting, made today, her last day of freedom, had been born more from desperate need than divine inspiration.
But it was enough.
It was a moment--dozens of moments all across the canvas, gestures from dozens of Bronze and Steel classes on their break. Two Bronze men, mechanics maybe from the oil stains on their coveralls, arguing while passing an apple between them. A pack of young students on tour, led by a vividly animated teacher maybe as old as she was. A haggard mother feeding a plump baby, the faintest smile in one little slip of paint... that one she was proud of.
It wasn't perfect, but it was a moment in time, a time to put her theory into practice. The paint work was sloppy, the gestures inconsistent; she had spent so much time dabbing at nervous sweat and downing nerve-steadying sips of cool water she would sometimes forget where she was focusing, or miss some moment she knew she should have memorized in its passing. And of course she was only eighteen. You're just a kid, she thought. You're grown, but not as much as you'd like to be. You'll get better, in time. You'll find another perfect moment.
Provided that your hands aren't blown off, she thought. That was a possibility. A terrifyingly vivid one; there had been that photo of the Górazima soldier whose gun had burst in his hands after it had been splashed by a Boiler. There had been a caption below it: "A lesson in friendly fire being a contradiction in terms." And she felt woozy again.
Princess Irena, she thought, you are not going to get your hands blown off. You are going to learn about being a soldier, you're going to get some exercise, get yelled at some, keep odd hours, learn to love a bed, and you will be fine. Better than ever before. You'll remember how worried you were and it'll all just be the funniest thing. And you will go back to being a princess or a queen and everything will be alright.
Just like everything was alright right here, in that breathless moment between wakefulness and sleep, between one day and the next, and between her present life and what she was about to become.
Her eyes fluttered.
As she slipped off to sleep at last, she could almost see the figures move.
Not long after she began snoring, her mother slipped in at last, and, with a little effort, transported her daughter to bed. "Stay safe, Renk," she cooed. "Your mama worries."
* * *
Irenka's heart hammered in her throat.
Drill Seargant Stolarz had a good foot in height on her. Her boots made a sharp sound with each step around the seated princess. Her dark, half-lidded eyes inspected Irenka from hair to foot. The princess wondered what she was looking for, or if she needed to look for anything at all. The mere act of looking was doing wonders for her desire to not screw up.
After far too long she spoke wth a steely, purposeful voice. "Your Highness."
"Your Majesty, I object to being called sir, as I work for a living."
"Very good. After we leave this room, you shall no longer be my superior. You will be not be Princess Irenka; you will be Private Kowalzcyk. If you are under any false impression that special treatment owing to your status as the heir apparent and sole child of the last king and queen of the Reunification will continue once you are in training, I wish to dismiss them here and now."
"Oh, no, I wasn't expecting anything like that. Sir--Seargent. That'd just be, uh, foolish."
"Good. That said... this would be the last time you have the opportunity to make a reasonable request. Being the first-born daughter of the late lamented king and the ever-watchful queen does have its perks; merely that heated beds and home-cooked meals, for instance, will not be among them the next few months."
Irenka didn't need to think too hard about it at all. "A journal, maybe? And grease pencils."
A little smile crossed Stolarz's face. "Quite reasonable indeed. As it happens grease pencils come standard here. As for journals... I presume you've read a number of those books soldiers have published the past few years. Most of them started out life like your journal is about to start: desperate scrawls back to ma and pa to get you out of the line of fire before you're stabbed, shot, or exploded."
Irenka laughed. Well, she tried to laugh.
"I can't promise we won't suddenly declare a war while you're in training, Your Highness, though Third Crown knows who we'd be calling it on. But I can promise you that I will teach you to the best of my ability, and that you come from stock such that you may very well make a fine soldier."
The soft schk of sharp metal sliding free sounded behind her head.
"Which leads to the last question."
There was a soft rustling sensation at the back of her head; the barber handed Stolarz a length of the princess's bright red hair. "We allow lengths of up to half an inch." She indicated how long that would be. "Would that be to the princess's liking? Or would you rather be done with it."
"I... half an inch is fine!"
"And today, you are glad you had a boy's haircut to begin with."
"It's a bob cut. It's... it's very feminine." The barber pinned her head in place with one finger and set about shearing her with mechanical precision.
"I'm sure it is these days."
There's nothin' on the radio when you're dead~ Ah, not that that particular song has anything to do with anything. Just listenin' to it as I wrap up today's Nanowry. And tomorrow, and morrow after, my weekend, where I can do more and finally catch up~! The machine rolls on!
Today: 1237 words!
Today: 1237 words!