Next, everything goes wrong.
They’d run out of time. Mistress Mariselle’s footmen had come calling with a note for her mother, something that Miska had watched her mother struggle to read. If she ever had the chance after this, Miska vowed, she would teach herself to read better. No one would be able to hold one over her just because they could keep a hidden message in writing. Nor would she sign anything that she couldn’t read and understand. She glowered at the footmen as her mother’s shoulders slumped.
“Yes, okay.” Natalia nodded, defeated. “We’ll come.” The footmen were eyeing Miska nervously. “That means you too Miska. Don’t make any trouble. That will only make things worse than they are.”
Miska held herself very still, her hands gripping her woven-rope belt. It was easier when she had something to hold onto. She, along with her sisters and her father, followed her mother. The footmen bracketed them, ahead and behind. A constable watched from several paces away, a mixed expression on his face, and fell into line behind them.
The trip through town felt unreal. It was strange to be walking along the same streets she’d always walked, knowing that this might be her last day walking as a free woman instead of an indentured servant or a slave. If she was indentured she might still be able to live here and work her way back into freedom, but she couldn’t see how that would happen if she was owned by someone like Mistress Mariselle. Given how she’d set things up from the very beginning, Miska couldn’t imagine that Mistress Mariselle would let someone ever earn their freedom when she could keep working them for as long as possible.
The estate loomed before them, its tall and blocky grandeur somehow seeming more threatening on this visit. The evening sunlight caught the upper stories with a warm light, but the entryway was left in shadow. The only lights within came from lamps that couldn’t compete with the dying light of the day. The constable watched them go in.
This time they weren’t brought to the drawing room. They were led through into other rooms behind the main staircase; they were still well made, but they were more clearly servants’ quarters, not intended for use by the Mistress herself. They were left to sit, waiting anxiously around a square table in a dimly lit room. The few windows were too narrow to let in much light, and would be difficult for anyone to climb in or out of.
They sat in silence, and Miska could feel the gnawing anxiety in her gut. Haubert would be wondering where she was right now. She should have been helping him with the second wave of dinner customers, taking orders, waiting tables. Her knee started bobbing without her trying to do anything.
Finally, the door opened and Nestor stepped in, followed by a young boy with a lamp. Nestor cleared his throat and held up a piece of paper to the light.
“As was agreed upon by Natalia d’Alaroux and Mistress Mariselle in contract, signed on this date one year ago; Natalia d’Alaroux and her family, given that Natalia has failed to repay the principle of her loan from Mistress Mariselle, shall be given into indentured servitude under the ownership of Mistress Mariselle for no less than five years worth of full labor, with further qualifications as agreed to in the same contract.” Nestor’s eyes rose from the page to scan the family, looking at them over the edge of the paper. Satisfied, he looked back down. “Seeing that all stated family members are here, we shall continue. All property shall be used as payment against the five years labor, with value determined by an independent assessor to be found by Mistress Mariselle.” There were stifled gasps from the family. Miska hadn’t realized that everything would be taken too. And if Mistress Mariselle was the one finding an assessor, who was to say that they’d actually get a decent price for anything?
“You will stay in servants quarters here overnight, to await the arrival of a tattooist who will give you the necessary tattoos of indentured servitude.” Nestor looked up, lowering the paper. “There’s more. But do you have any questions?”