I’ve got more for you.
Miska felt useless for the next few days. Her head throbbed when she saw bright light, it throbbed when she heard noise, it throbbed when she thought too hard. She lay in bed and rested as best as she could. She knew that Haubert came to visit several times, bringing soup and cider with him. Her sisters tried to move quietly around the room. But no matter how many times they told her that it wasn’t her fault that she’d lost, she couldn’t help but feel worthless. She’d needed to win that prize purse. She’d needed to be able to keep working immediately after the fight. She hadn’t considered what losing the fight might do to her. She hadn’t considered what she might have done to the other people she’d fought before. Maybe they’d been just as desperate for cash as she was. Surely they wouldn’t have been fighting in the first place if they weren’t so desperate. But it was the waves of nausea that brought her regret back again and again.
She felt sick and miserable, and she knew that she was letting her family down. She was certain that she could hear her parents talking to Haubert more than once, but they were never quite loud enough for her to understand what they said through the walls. And it hurt to try to listen too hard.
It took several days for the symptoms to subside. More than almost anything else, she was glad to be able to use a chamberpot on her own again for the first time. Getting back to work took more effort.
The trip to Mistress Mariselle’s was worse than normal. The sack Miska was carrying felt too light. And though she felt far better than she had, she was still recovering. They were given entry to the estate just as they always were, with an air that suggested they weren’t quite deserving of the courtesy.
But it was Mistress Mariselle’s expression when she saw them that left Miska certain. Somehow, her smile had gotten worse. Her sympathy as she offered her condolences on Miska’s defeat in the ring felt like a thin facade to cover her gloating. And the fact that she knew about it left Miska with little doubt that Mistress Mariselle had had something to do with the Larmer brothers showing up as well. Even though they both knew it was coming, Mistress Mariselle’s satisfied pronouncement that Nestor had found their contribution to be lacking was a heavy blow.
Miska sat dully in her chair while her mother chewed on her lips. Watching her mother grovel to Mistress Mariselle, begging for some sort of extension or alternate method of payment was the worst part. Miska closed her eyes and tuned out the conversation as best as she could. It hurt to hear, in a way that almost made her wish for her concussion again.
The walk home was little better.
“Mother,” Miska waited for her mother to respond, to give some sign that she was paying attention and not stuck back in Mistress Mariselle’s salon.
“Mother, I could get another loan. Something smaller that would help us get back on top of those payments.”
Natalia looked at her daughter. “Whatever you do, Miska,” her tone was sharp, “never do that.”
Miska shifted uncomfortably. She just wanted to help, wanted to make it possible for them to live as a happy family again, the way that she remembered.
“If you do that,” Natalia continued, “you’ll end up in exactly the same place that we are now, except that there will be two loans to pay off.” She shook her head. “The people who would loan to us, to you,” her voice petered out for a moment. “They don’t care about us.” She sounded like she was giving a lesson, or maybe repeating one that she’d heard long ago and lost track of. “They don’t care whether we get by or not. In many ways it’s better in their eyes if we don’t, because then they can own us.”
“No Natalia, I don’t want you to do it!”
Miska lay in bed in the dark. Her parents were still arguing in the next room. If anything, they’d only gotten louder. She could hear her mother say something, the words indistinct.
“Well I don’t care! We can—“
Her father was cut off. Miska listened to the sounds of her room, trying to guess whether or not her sisters were still awake.
“I wish they’d just go to sleep.” Leonora whispered.
“Me too.” Mirabelle was awake as well.
Miska sighed. “They wouldn’t be arguing like this if I’d won that last fight.”
“Never think that—“
Her sisters spoke over each other in their rush to reassure her. It was touching, but she had a lingering sense that, if only she’d won, they’d be sleeping well right now instead of listening to their parents argue in the next room. Eventually her sisters quieted down enough for one of them to speak at a time.
“You know that wasn’t a fair fight, right Miska?” Mirabelle’s voice above her was warm, comforting.
Miska’s throat felt tight. “Yeah,” she croaked, “I guess.”
“It was a setup Miska,” Leonora weighed in from the top bunk. “They were trying to trick you.”
Miska clenched her fists. She could feel her arms straining in place. “Yeah, well, they sure succeeded.”
“Stop it!” Mirabelle hissed at her. “You fought two huge men without any weapons and put one of them out of the ring. If you’d surprised them you probably could have won. You were amazing.”
Miska sighed. “I guess.”
“No, you don’t ‘guess.’ You know it too!” Leonora echoed their older sister. “They hit you enough. Stop beating yourself up too.”
Miska felt her face heat, blushing. “But…”
“But what.” Leonora’s reply was dangerously level.
Miska waited for the words to come to her. “If I’d won, we’d be doing way better now. I’m not helping out enough. I’m not,” her words felt inadequate, “helping enough! I’m not good like you two.”
The room was quiet, except for the muted angry conversation echoing through from their parents’ wall. Miska wondered whether she’d made her point.
“You really think that?” Mirabelle sounded puzzled. Amazed, even.
Miska was too embarrassed to reply.
“You think you’re not good like us?”
Miska felt an ache in her chest. “Yes.” The feeling only got worse. “You’re doing what Mom wants you to do. You help out at the loft. You’re,” she took a breath, realizing that she hadn’t breathed in a while, “good daughters. You’re going to inherit the business, take it over, make it succeed again. You like sewing, making sails. You like business.” Her voice got quieter, weaker. “I don’t.”
There was a chuckle in the darkness. Miska thought it was Leonora.
“You really believe that.” Leonora sounded like she was looking at something too amazing to understand. “That’s … silly.”
Miska frowned in the dark.
“Look,” Mirabelle spoke up again, “I don’t think you get it.” Miska could imagine the way that she’d be marking her words with her fingers. “There’re three of us. We can’t divide the loft three ways and still have a business. At least one of us is going to have to do something else. Leonora and I,” Leonora grunted agreement from her top bunk, “have spent a lot of time going over the numbers. They just don’t work out. They didn’t work out for three sisters before the fire, and they sure don’t now.”
“But nothing.” Leonora interrupted. “Whatever Mom and Dad may say, we’re happy that you want to be a sailor. If we had our way, you’d have been apprenticed on a ship a couple years ago. But you’ve been bringing in enough as a porter and stevedore that we didn’t really want to argue with Mom and Dad. They’re kind of touchy about people going to sea,” she said, “in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“You haven’t really been brought in on the loft’s finances all that much because Mom finally admitted that it didn’t make sense to force you to join the family business a few years ago. Dad’s been happy to have your help. You’re actually bringing in nearly as much as he is, on average. Sometimes more, sometimes less. In case you didn’t realize.”
Miska lay in her bunk trying to absorb all of that. She hadn’t known that she was helping out nearly so much.
Mirabelle cut in, “And with the other work that you’ve been picking up, you’re actually bringing in more on average.”
Miska wasn’t sure what to say.
“Guess you didn’t know that, huh?”
Miska shook her head. “No,” she whispered.
“Of course,” Leonora giggled, “you’ve been driving Mom mad by working and training with Haubert.”
Miska felt herself smiling despite herself.
“You ought to hear her talking about him while we’re working on some big sail. ‘That pirate!’ she calls him.” Miska could hear the smile in Mirabelle’s voice. “‘She’s going to run off to sea and set fire to other people’s ships, I just know it!’” They all started giggling.
“‘Why, with Haubert teaching her there’s no telling how much money she’ll make!’” Leonora jumped in with her own impersonation of their mother. “‘She’ll come home dirt poor and beat someone to a pulp to take their business!’”
Miska tried to stifle her laughter, but it felt too good.
“Thank you,” she managed to squeeze it out between heaving gasps of laughter.
“You’re welcome.” Mirabelle whispered as the laughter died away again.
“Just make sure,” Leonora continued, “that you don’t sink any of our ships.” Miska could hear the smile.
“Your ships?” Miska replied. “You don’t have any ships!”
“Yes, well, once we get rid of that deadweight sister of ours, we’ll have enough money to buy plenty of ships!”
That got all of them chuckling again. It was almost enough to drown out the sounds of the argument coming through the walls.