Sorry everyone. I’ve been pulled from my regular posts by school work, and until now I didn’t have any kind of extra material lying around that I felt okay about putting up here. I warn you now that I will likely not finish Miska’s story here this time around. But if you liked Miska before you’ll be happy to know that you’re about to get a few weeks of Miska posts. I figure doling out the first few chapters in chunks is appropriate. They’re way better now: I’ve written and rewritten the story a few more times, and I have the prologue and then some ready to share with you.
Here’s that prologue…
Miska woke coughing on smoke. Not sweet woodsmoke but something thick and foul, rank with plaster and oils. She choked on the air, sitting up so quickly that she struck her head on her oldest sister’s bunk above her. Reeling from the blow, she slumped out of bed. Even that short drop made a difference, the air by the floor cool and clear by comparison.
It was dark, only starlight creeping through the window, and she fumbled out of her blankets. She spent precious moments blinking through her headache and confusion, before her sisters’ coughing brought her to her senses.
“Leonora!” Miska croaked as panic gripped her chest. “Mirabelle!” She crabbed across the shared bedroom’s floor, reaching up to pat the blankets of Mirabelle’s bed. Relieved to feel Mirabelle stir, Miska grabbed her older sister’s arm and leg and hauled. The two of them tumbled across the floor in a mess of sheets, Mirabelle yelling in sleep-addled surprise.
“Fire!” Miska shouted, pushing her sister off. She gasped for the floor’s clean air and shouted again, peering up through the gloom at Leonora’s bunk above her own. She took another deep breath. Tucked in against the wall as Leonora always was, Miska would struggle to reach her. Leonora’s coughs already sounded weaker.
Miska didn’t have time to be frightened. She took a third deep breath, then leapt. In one movement she swept upwards from the floorboards, pushing up with her hands, pulling her legs underneath her, and then forcing herself up with her hands outstretched. Her hands touched the frame of Leonora’s bunk, and Miska continued rising. She pushed her breath out in a steady stream, feeling her thighs bunch and tense, and then Leonora’s bunk gave way with a loud snap.
The wood of the upper bunk collapsed with a crash, Leonora falling with it and rolling down her pallet towards Miska’s waiting arms. Miska fell to the floor again, dragging her sister with her, and drew another breath in the already hotter air. She belted out again, “Fire!”
Half crawling, half dragging Leonora, Miska and Mirabelle struggled out of their room and into the sail loft which was part of their home. A fire raged on the ground floor below, already beyond containment, over against the wall where the loft’s oils were kept. The sisters stared in fright, but Miska acted first.
Pushing Mirabelle towards the ladder down, Miska rolled to the platform’s edge with unconscious Leonora, searching the stark shadows below for the bale of canvas she knew should be there. There was no way she’d be able to carry her down the ladder Mirabelle had used, but if she rolled over the edge with Leonora held just right…
The sisters fell with all the grace of a sack of grain, Miska cushioning Leonora’s fall with her own body. Her ribs shifted with a tearing ache as Leonora landed on top of her, but she struggled upright immediately. She slung her sister over her shoulders like the massive sails she had delivered for years, and followed Mirabelle’s fire-lit shape as her sister staggered into the rest of the house.
Flames lapped higher behind them.
Still choking on smoke, Miska and Mirabelle screamed their warnings of fire into the apprentices’ quarters, slammed open journeymen’s doors as they struggled towards the vast kitchen and the house’s front door. Their mother appeared, eyes wide with disbelief, and Miska grabbed and dragged her out of the house with them as she tried to go back in towards the flames.
“It’s reached the oils,” Miska apologized as she set Leonora down gently on the cobblestones across the street. Her mother’s face set like fired clay and she nodded. Within moments, she sent Mirabelle off to fetch the fire watch and began organizing stragglers as they stumbled out of the burning sail loft.
As the firefighters arrived and set up a bucket chain to the nearest pump, Miska looked up at her home again. The fire’s glow rose in the sky over the roof, sparks soaring upwards in the chill end-of-winter air. Mirabelle returned, her fears written in her wet eyes. “Is she well?” She squatted down by their sister.
Miska shook her head, a tumult of adrenaline and panic washing across her, cold and hot. Leonora was breathing. But she hadn’t woken up.
“Go,” Miska jumped as Mirabelle took her hand and gripped it, hard. Looking up at Miska, Mirabelle croaked, “I’ll watch over her. You and Father will be most needed fighting the fire, not chewing your cud out here. Ox.” The last came out with a smile.
Still woozy from the smoke, Miska bent down for a quick hug. She ignored the pain in her ribs, and the deep emptiness that fear and shock had opened somewhere in her chest. Squeezing her sister’s hand once more, she turned and trotted back towards the fire, joining the growing chain of firefighters as they battled the hungry blaze to save what remained of her family’s livelihood.
Hours later, across the port city of Marseille, a tall and strong man stood before a massive finely carved pale wooden desk. The woman behind the desk wore a lavish yellow robe, and ate a generous breakfast of eggs, noodles, and citrus. She did not bother to look at him standing in the early morning sunshine.
“The building was well ablaze by the time that I left,” the man reported, “I can check it again later, but I’d be surprised if much of it still stands. The business should be in cinders.” He shifted his weight between his feet, as though he wasn’t certain what to do with himself. “It looked like all the people inside survived, for the most part.”
The woman in the robe tsked and set down her chopsticks. “For the most part. I need something more exact than that. Did the owner live? Her family?”
The man nodded.
She sighed and rang a small bell that sat on her desk. “Woodson,” she spoke to the man who entered, still not looking at the tall man in front of her desk. “Give my associate here half the agreed on pay.” Woodson nodded and made to withdraw.
“Half? I—“ the tall man stopped as she held up her hand. He swallowed as her eyes finally met his.
“You did half the job, you receive half the pay. We’re done here. Speak with Woodson on your way out. Have a good morning.” She picked up her chopsticks and turned back to her breakfast, breaking away another piece of fried egg.
The tall man swallowed again, nodded, and left, following Woodson out.
She picked at her meal for a little longer before pushing its silver tray away from her and exposing her desk’s leather blotter. She looked up at the beautiful streams of sunlight that poured through her large windows and into her office, glowing on the fine furniture and dandelion yellow wallpaper. It looked serene and warm, she thought, like the heart of a candle. A little frown tugged at the corner of her mouth.
“What a waste,” she muttered to herself, “this is all going to be so much slower and messier now.”
She pulled a creamy sheet of paper from her desk, freshened her pen in her inkwell, and began a letter with obviously long-practiced and beautiful penmanship.
My dearest niece Livinia,
I’m dreadfully sorry to tell you that, while I have made some progress, I haven’t been able to completely secure the situation which you so deserve. I know that I promised that I would have everything ready for you by this time, but I’m afraid that even I am not able to control every variable in these sorts of situations. I would very much love for you to come and visit me here in Marseille despite all that. When might you be able to do so next?
I know that this news of yet another delay on my part must come as a severe disappointment to you, but I beg you not to tell your mother about this latest setback. Perhaps while you are here we could speak further about your plans for the future. I’ve been ever so intrigued by your desire to own and operate your own sail loft this past year, and I expect that you could make good connections here while you visit by speaking with some of the captains who may happen to be in port at the time. I am sure that, even without your own loft yet established here, they would be overjoyed to tell you about the designs and specifications which they require. Surely some of this might be of good use to you in your planning efforts…
She looked up at the sun peeking through her windows, closed her eyes, and basked in its faint winter warmth. “Patience,” she whispered to herself.