Miska Redux

I’ve been working on my Miska story for class, and as such have more material for you.  Some of it is rewritten old stuff, some of it is new.  I think I’ve done a better job of firming up her voice, and showing off her life.  I hope you enjoy it!

***

Miska strode down the street from her mother’s new sail loft, feet firm on the dusty cobbles, her load of heavy canvas rubbing her shoulders raw through the shirt her mother had made for her.  Ahead, the stripped spars of ships clustered like a dead forest in the harbor, while the Mistral wind whipped the waves into whitecaps.  Every so often a gust would stagger her from behind, catching on the heavy, densely wrapped bales of fabric she bore towards the docks.  She’d done this so many times by now, she’d come to expect them.  The wind was cool, almost chilling, but carrying so much fabric still left her sweating.

She slowed as she neared the quays, where the ships she loved so much tied up to unload their goods and take on new stores.  She easily navigated the crowds, outpacing the weary coffles of indentured slaves, pushing her way through the merchants, the stevedores, the sailors and those who hawked their wares.  Warehouses mingled with dockside housing and taverns, some good, some cheap, some a debatable mix of the two.  Marseille’s famous leisure houses were there too, though the better ones were a little further inland from the harbor.  She could spot the sailors by the way they moved, their drunken steps and sober faces, and she wished, as she hitched her load a bit further up on her back to re-balance it, that she could be one of them too.

She moved through the bustle, unconscious of the crowd around her as she stared at the ships in port.  So many of them came to Marseille, so many of them brought the news and goods of the wider world and left once more, bound for other places, other things; they left for adventure, where all Miska could see ahead of her was more of the same, drudgery, carrying her mother’s sewing and cloth wherever it had to go.  Today’s delivery was no different from last week’s, no different from the week before that or the week to come, and Miska was tired of it.  She didn’t even realize that she’d almost made it until she heard her father’s voice calling to her from the crowd ahead.

“Miska! There’s my strong girl!” He smiled as he strode through the crowd ahead of her, yelling for folk to make way. Two of his fellows followed behind, smiling at Miska as she came. Bernice had always been friendly to her, like a favorite aunt, but Renard was about her age, and had just started paying more attention to her.  She wasn’t sure if she liked that or not.  She definitely didn’t like—

“Hey there my girl, you’ve got a load for four on your back! Let us help you, hey?” Her father had a big beaming grin.  Miska couldn’t stand having him call her his girl in public. She grit her teeth as she slowed to a stop, stance strong against the weight of her load. Her legs felt like a dwarf’s pump, all that power packed into them. Her father took the first piece from her load, grunting as he shifted it. Bernice and Renard followed suit.

“Alonso,” Bernice’s voice was low enough to be hidden in the bustle of the wharves, “give her a break, she’s a young woman and doesn’t need you calling her ‘girl’ in front of all and everyone now.” She shifted her load and straightened up, leading the group back the way she’d just come.

“But Bernice,” her father began, “she is my daughter. She’s my girl! I’m proud of her! How many others do you think could have taken that load all the way from Natalia’s works down to here all on her own?” He looked almost confused. Miska kept her eyes on the ground ahead of her, not making eye contact as her father looked back.  At least Renard hadn’t joined in the conversation.

“Even so Alonso,” Bernice left it at that, mercifully. Miska’s chagrin was sour in her mouth. She was glad that Bernice had spoken up for her, but she wished she’d done it herself. It didn’t matter so much that her father still called her his girl, she supposed. It was that he was just so… embarrassing about it. She liked being told that she was strong, because she knew that she was. Her father was right that no one else she knew would have moved that load in one trip all on their own. But it was like he took all of that away from her every time he said something about it, because he always, always, called her his ‘little girl.’

The rest of the trip was easy by comparison, and the conversation was good.  They usually didn’t waste breath on talking when they were carrying a load, but the work was light enough with all four of them there. Miska learned that Reaver’s Love was due in soon, a Northman ship all the way from the New Sea with news of the daughter-cities there, and Daughter-To-Be had come in with a heavy load of silks and spice from its run to the eastern coast of the Middle Sea.  There was word of fighting north of Bospor, as the coasts of the Inner Sea were burned by slavers, and the fighting tribes from just north of there had started gathering for their traditional wars earlier than usual.  Some of the sailors had claimed that all the cities of the Inner Sea would soon be at war.  Meanwhile, there was word that the Trade Ports of Elfhome were thronged with ships, and that the Good Masters had opened trade restrictions all along their northern coast.  Merchants were racing there in the fear that such an opening might not last. With every new story, Miska thought back to the one thing she knew for certain; she wanted, desperately, to be a sailor some day, to go adventuring on the seas.

***

Miska watched her father while they walked home from the waterfront.  “Daughter-To-Be is back again.  Early, this time.  Have you heard from Cousin Gregory yet?”

Miska’s father Alonso shook his head.  “No, I imagine he’s been much too busy helping with the unloading.”

“Well.” Miska’s lips quirked into a smile. “That’s not quite true.  I saw Gregory yesterday, on my way back from a delivery.  He says his crew’s share is enough for him to keep Great Aunt Marguerite living well for at least another year.”

“Hmmph.”  Alonso looked flummoxed.  “Lucky little tyke.”

“What, aren’t you happy for him?”  Miska narrowed her eyes.  “He’s made more in one trip than we make in a year of hauling.”

“Sure, sure.”  Alonso was silent for a few moments, then looked down at Miska.  “But what if he hadn’t made it back?”

Miska made a raspberry.  “Dad!  What if a net separates tomorrow and drops its load on me?  At least he’s making plenty of money.”

Alonso shook his head.  “It’s not reliable, Miska.  He made plenty of money this voyage, but how many times has he slunk into town with little more than his standard wages, just enough to seem like something because he’s only onshore for two days?”

Miska shrugged her shirt collar a little higher up as wind gusted down the street.  She frowned, trying to come up with a response.

“Darling,” Miska’s father looked at her, concern written across his forehead, “it’s just not reliable.”

“It’s as good as anything else.”  Miska thought of what she’d been paid for that day’s work.  “Sometimes it’s far better.”

Her father was silent, looking away from her.

“I could make at least three times what I do now, all for the family.”

Alonso’s eyes were on the ground ahead of them, but were clearly seeing something else.

“I’d even have plenty left over for myself.  I’ve spoken with sailors Dad, I’ve asked.  I did the sums, even.”

Her father remained silent.

“I’ve been talking with Gregory, and he says his captain’s looking for more hands.”

“Good for him.”  The far away look in her father’s eyes only seemed to get stronger.  Miska had the feeling her father was walking in a different world.

They strode onwards in uncomfortable silence for what felt like an eternity.

“Dad?”  Miska looked over at her father.  It wasn’t like him to be so quiet.  Certainly not on the walk home after an easy day’s work.

He shook his head.  “Nothing, Miska.  Naught that ought to concern you.”

They were rounding the corner, and down the longest stretch of straight road Miska knew of in this neighborhood, she could see the sign for The First Blood, the tavern by their home.  They were almost there and she still hadn’t convinced her father of anything.

“I could get a spot on the crew, Dad.”

Her father spoke quietly, and Miska almost didn’t hear him at first.  “You know the story I’ve told you of how your mother and I met?”

How couldn’t she?  It had been her favorite story when she was little, and she and her sisters had asked their father to tell it time and again.  There were at least three variations, depending on what kind of mood their father was in and what he thought was the most romantic at the time, but Miska knew all of them.  He started it at the party where he and her mother had met, at The First Blood, and he always ended it with the births of his daughters, one two three.  For years that had been Miska’s favorite part.  There was something that she’d loved about hearing how she’d been born, something she loved about hearing how she and her sisters had come to be.  These days it was a bit embarrassing to hear, especially in public with the way her father would moon over her mother while he told it, but it was still adorable.

Somehow, she didn’t think that whatever her father was about to say would be adorable.

Her father sighed.  “Of course you do.”  He shook his head.  “What you don’t know is why we met in the first place.”

Miska stared at her father.  This did not sound like the happy tale she’d always heard before.

“We met at that party, because that party was a wake.  The whole neighborhood’d come together to celebrate the lives of our loved ones, my brother, your mother’s aunt, who’d been on the Lovely.  Lost with all hands.”

Miska was quiet.  “Dad,” she tried to sound convincing, but she could feel the fight had gone out of her, “I could get a spot on the crew.”

Alonso shook his head.  “No, love.  No.”

Miska tried one last time.  “But Gregory—“

“Miska.  Your cousin may do as he pleases.”  Her father looked both sad and stern.  “You’ll not go to sea.”

Miska sighed and nodded.  They’d come home.

***

That night after dinner, as she often did when she’d made a little extra coin, Miska left home to visit Haubert at The First Blood.  He was healthy for his age, stout without being truly fat; he was a barkeep, with a friendly solidity that quickly turned to a simmering glower when someone started making trouble in his establishment.  The tavern had been his since before she was born, but Miska heard that he’d won it in a duel after returning to Marseille from years at sea.  She’d known him since she was a baby, and he always smiled when he saw her.

The room was smoky, full of folk, and smelled of good food.  Haubert was smiling as he waved her to the only open stool left by the bar.  Miska was certain that he’d saved it for her.  He had cider ready for her by the time she’d made it through the crowd, and he leaned forward to give her a hug as she sat down.

“You should go listen to my friends over there by the fire!”  He pointed towards the cluster of Northmen gathered around two tables near the fireplace.  Their green skin and large teeth marked them clearly in the mostly human establishment, though they ranged in shade from light and pale to more dark and leathery.  All of them had scars on their hands and arms; they even had some on their faces, more of the little lines and dots like the few Haubert had on his cheek.  Miska had spent enough time around Haubert, and asked him enough questions, to know what that meant.

“They’re pretty important then, aren’t they?”

Haubert laughed.  “You could say that.  They’re good at what they do, and their clan knows it.”

“Where’re they from?”

Haubert just kept smiling as he leaned back.  “Go find out for yourself!  They’ll like you.  Let me know if you want any soup, we’ve our good fish stew tonight.”

Miska smiled back at him, shaking her head as she pushed off from the bar and through the happy crowd.  He always tried to feed her a second meal immediately after dinner.  It wasn’t that she didn’t want his food, which was delicious, it was that she wanted a little time to digest what she’d eaten only a few minutes earlier.  He knew, but he kept offering every time.

The crowd was quiet, for how many people were there.  Just the usual hubbub of everyone having a quiet conversation all at once.  The common room had the sort of comfortably full feeling that she relished here, like moving through the crowd on the wharf but where everyone was your friend, or close enough.  Faces she knew nodded and smiled at her, making way for her to pass, and it took her barely any time to make it to the edge of the crowd around the orcs.

One of them turned to look at her, furrowing his brow.  “Are you,” he enunciated carefully around a mouth too full of teeth, “Haubert’s young friend?”  He looked her up and down, taking stock of her.

Miska felt immediately self-conscious, and tried to hide it by taking a drink.

“Is it true,” this came from the female orc sitting across from the first speaker, “that you can lift one of these tables on your own?”

“Oh.”  Miska shrugged.  “Well, yeah.  It’s not hard.”

This immediately brought a smile to the female orc’s face.  “Then what about this table, with me sitting on top?”

Miska considered the table and the orc, took a sip of her cider, and shrugged again.

“Ah, look at her, she’s short!  And look at her arms.  She can’t be hiding that much muscle there.”  The first orc waved a hand dismissively.  “She couldn’t do it.”

The female orc’s smile broadened.  She looked at Miska, “You wouldn’t mind us betting on it?”

“No, I’ll lift you.”  Miska reached into her pocket and pulled out the only coin she had left.  It was supposed to pay for her cider.  “Here.  Put it on me.”

The Northmen grinned up at her, then started laughing and talking quickly, slapping coins down on the table as they bickered back and forth about whether or not she could do it.  Miska couldn’t follow everything, but it sounded like the odds were fairly even.  Haubert must have talked her up to them.  When the Northmen stopped piling on coins, the female orc cried, “Clear for action!”  Everything on the table was gone within fifteen seconds, settled in a sudden pile on the other table also full of orcs.  They’d all joined in the betting.

The female orc smiled down at the first orc, sneering as she crossed her arms and lay down on her back on the tabletop.  “Prepare to lose Jurgens!”

Jurgens simply snorted.

Miska crawled underneath the table, positioning herself just as though it were any other oversized load, lining up her hips, knees, and ankles with extra care.  She took a deep breath in, and then let it hiss out as she slowly stood up, hands balancing the table on her back.  She could feel the moment that its legs left the ground, as she started having to correct for its wobble, and she focused entirely on keeping it steady as she ever so slowly turned herself around, table rotating above as she did below.  The orcs began to cheer.  One full rotation later, she settled the table down where it had begun.

The Northmen pulled her from underneath the table, clapping her shoulders and laughing.  Even Jurgens was smiling.  He handed her her little coin, and another of the same size, and then clasped her, forearm to forearm.

“Those are your winnings, by the challenge,” his lips pulled back and Miska could see his huge protruding canines, “but tonight your food and drink are on us.  Join us!”  He delivered the last with a hefty clap on Miska’s shoulder, and then she was sitting nestled between the boisterous Northmen as they regaled her with stories of their travels.

Their news from the New Sea was marvelous and grim; the last expedition to go in search of the fabled golden cities was dead, but for two fellows they had rescued from an isolated beach on the southern shores of the New Sea.  Parisian privateers had seized the Amsterdamer port of Thomastown, and word had it that Marseille’s merchants were expected to foot the bill yet again, “for the improvements of their markets.”  But better yet, these Northmen had raided Fort Baumana, the outpost Paris’ fleet had recently acquired from the Lisboan servants of Toledo, and word was that their sister ship Whip’s Crack would be using the captured fort as a stopping off point to raid New World Sugar Company ships.

“It’s not so exciting as taking a fort,” said Gresht, the female orc who seemed to be in charge of things, “but there’s profit in selling stolen sugar, and nothing’s so sweet as tweaking the nose of that NWSC.”

Miska couldn’t help but smile back.  She knew she’d have to go home to bed soon, with work early in the morning, but for the moment she was having the time of her life.  She was surrounded by sailors, voyagers who’d seen the wide world with their own eyes, and she could practically feel their adventures seeping in through her skin.  She positively glowed.

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