Here’s the second section of mid-April’s draft of chapter 2! One more section to go.
Miska sat at the bar of The First Blood, nursing her hot spiced cider. Haubert hadn’t come out from the kitchen yet, but Yelena knew her favorite drink by heart. She’d also pushed back her coins when Miska had tried to pay, and Miska wasn’t sure what to think about that. The tavern seemed so normal: the common room was comfortably filled, warm against the chill of the evening, with lanterns hung from the ceiling’s low beams and a fire cheerily licking around the edges of a large pot in the fireplace. The room smelled faintly of woodsmoke and old beer, but the aromatic scents of chicken fat and root vegetables wafted from the soup on the fire.
For a moment, Miska could pretend that nothing in her life had changed.
“Miska!” Haubert stepped through from the kitchen, cane in one hand, large food-laden tray resting on the other. He set the tray down on the bar in front of Miska, then limped quickly around the bar and wrapped Miska up in a hug that she was happy to return. He was so much taller than her that even the stool only helped a little, broad in the shoulders, with strong arms and a small prosperous gut. His smile, when he stepped back, was equal parts affection and concern. It tugged at the old scars on his cheeks, pale and bright against his dark skin in the lantern light. “You heard about Fancy Dancer, Miska? Captain Gartarken made port earlier today.”
Miska nodded, swallowing past a lump in her throat. “Yes, I saw them come in.”
Haubert sighed, then looked down at the tray. “Oh, come, I made this for you.” He pulled the large dish off it, set the bowl to one side. He clumped back around the bar and waved Yelena off.
“For me?” Miska stared at the meal in front of her. Dinners at home had become somber, quiet affairs. Haubert’s cooking was lush and rich by comparison.
Haubert filled steins for other barflies, looking at Miska out of the corners of his eyes. “Aye, for you. I heard that Fancy Dancer was in, and I figured that you’d be here to the captain.” Miska opened her mouth, about to disagree, but Haubert kept talking, topping off the mugs. “You’re not exactly one to shy from a hard duty. It seemed a safe bet.” He smiled at her as he set the steins down on the bar. “A bet I won, I might add.”
Miska shut her mouth and frowned.
“Now eat up, before it gets cold.”
Miska stared at the meal before her, at her mug of cider, at the little pile of coins on the bar in front of her. “I can’t, Haubert.” Eyes still on the bar, she resolutely pushed the food away. She tried not to breathe in too deeply. It smelled amazing.
Haubert put his hand in the way of the plate, stopping it. “You can’t what. Can’t eat my food?” He waved at Miska’s mug, “Can’t drink your favorite cider?”
“I came here tonight to tell you,” Miska swallowed, still not looking up at Haubert, “to tell Captain Gartarken I can’t join. And tell you that I can’t afford to come here any more.”
There was a moment of silence between them. The regulars on either side of Miska eyed her quietly. “Rough luck,” one of them muttered.
“So I can’t take your food,” Miska continued, looking up at Haubert. Her eyes felt hot again, but after the last few days, after the last few hours, she didn’t think she had more tears.
Haubert’s sad frown nearly broke her heart. He sniffed, and wiped at his eyes with the cloth he used to wipe the bar. “Miska,” his voice was throaty and unbalanced, but it cleared as he kept talking. “You have bought more than enough mugs of cider from me over the years.” He smiled, laughed, and sniffed again. “You’re nearly the only family I have these days. My favorite niece,” he chuckled and pushed the food back towards Miska. “So eat up. Enjoy it!”
Miska frowned, looking down at the food back in front of her. “I’m not really your niece, Haubert.”
Haubert laughed, wiped away the last of his tears with a thumb. “Hunh! Let an old man be inexact every once in a while! Besides,” he leaned in, speaking low, “I already told Yelena not to take your money. You might as well eat your meal.”
Miska smiled back at him, pain and awkwardness filling her chest. Taking it for free seemed wrong, but… “You’re not really that old either, Haubert.”
“Oh, you wound me!” Haubert leaned back, hand on chest as though he been stabbed.
Miska couldn’t help but giggle. Fighting her own smile, she begrudgingly took a bite.
It was exactly as good as she’d thought it would be.
Haubert left her in peace for a few minutes, letting her settle in to plow through her meal. He returned as she was wiping up her bowl with a chunk of fresh bread, and refilled her mug of cider before leaning in close.
“How is your family doing?” Haubert settled on his forearms. His hands clutched his elbows as though he had to hold them down to keep them from flying away.
Miska silently chewed through the rest of her soup-soaked bread. “Not much better.” At Haubert’s insistent nod, she continued, “Mother is worrying herself into the ground. Father is trying to be supportive, but there’s only so much he can do.” She shrugged, looking down at her plate. “What did you expect? It looks like none of us will get any of what we wanted.” Haubert drew in a breath as though he were going to speak, but gave up and sighed instead. “Were you going to tell me that it would all be alright?” Miska asked bitterly.
Haubert shook his head. “I wish your mother had taken my offer.”
“It’s nice to wish for things.” Miska muttered, pushing away the remains of her meal. She and her sisters had already started talking about how they could find enough money to rebuild. That was easy to do, now that they were all crammed into the same bed every night. Mirabelle had cried about parting with her small savings. Leonora had insisted that she’d record everything and repay her when the loft was built again. Neither of her sisters had said anything to Miska about sailing. They’d just silently hugged. But with Mirabelle giving over her savings, Miska couldn’t do any less. Everything she made now, she’d decided, would go towards her family.
Sudden commotion pulled Miska out of her thoughts. The tavern’s door had swung open, and a rowdy crew stamped in with the cold night wind following behind them. At their head was a tall woman, her divided skirts swishing beneath a jacket of crushed velvet. The sound of her boots hitting the floorboards punctuated the hubbub of her following flock. Miska’s chest froze at the sight of Captain Gartarken. The captain grinned at the sight of her.
“Haubert, you dog, a round for my crew! And for Miska!” The captain’s broad, toothy smile nearly matched Haubert’s, brilliantly bright against her dark olive skin. She effortlessly cleared a path across the full floor to the bar, cutting through the crowd like a ship’s prow through water. Her crew settled into vacant benches and crowded tables like a chortling parliament of rooks. The tavern was noisy with their enthusiasm.
“To the ever victorious Gartarken,” shouted one of them, a stout woman who might have been made from leather. “To The First Blood,” cried another, “and every blood thereafter!” They laughed, and a third called out, “To Captain Gartarken, first blood, and safe bets!” That brought the loudest response, and they congratulated each other and the captain.
Miska watched as Haubert filled stein after stein, passing them off to Yelena who dispersed the beer to enthusiastic cries. Gartarken stepped up next to Miska, clapping her on the shoulder with a strong hand and that same dazzling smile. “Good to see you already here. Where’s your sister?” Turning, she faced Haubert. “This is for those drinks,” the captain dropped a clinking purse on the bar, her smile growing predatory as she tapped the sword sheathed on her hip. “The ring was kind to me tonight, decent odds and an easy victory.” She paused, sniffing appreciatively, “Use the rest for a course of whatever it is you’ve got on that hearth. If you would please.” She pulled off her peaked hat and set it on the bar, running one finger across the feather stuck in the hatband.
“So it’s ‘you dog’ for the drinks, and ‘if you would please’ for the food?” Haubert raised an eyebrow, mock serious.
“Aye, well.” Gartarken leaned on the bar, crossing her legs at the ankles. “Your usual beer is swill. But that soup,” she sniffed again, eyes closed in rapture, “smells magnificent.” She opened her eyes again, gazing at Miska. “You should have some of this round too, you know. You’re ready to sail with us in two days, are you not?”
Miska bit the inside of her cheek. The cold tension in her chest grew thicker, denser. “I—“ she stopped herself, uncertain what to say.
Gartarken frowned. “You aren’t ready yet? Miska,” she shook her head, “if you’re to be one of my under-officers, you need to be ready when the moment comes. You’ve had ages to prepare for this.” She paused, peered more closely at Miska, who shrank under the attention. “You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”
“No!” Miska’s voice was strangled, taught. “I just,” her hands clenched, knuckles bright, “I can’t.”
Gartarken looked at Haubert, who looked at Miska. “It’s hers to tell,” he said. “Unless you want me to speak for you, Miska.”
Miska shook her head, pulling her hands into her lap. “My family’s home, our business… it burned down. I don’t know the exact figures, but we’re badly in need of money.”
“Is your family well? Is Leonora?” Gartarken leaned in, concern clear. Miska nodded, and the captain relaxed. “So why not sign on with me now?” She asked, confused. “You’ll get more shares with me than elsewhere. We spoke of this last time.” Her eyes flickered back and forth between Miska and Haubert. “Am I missing something here?”
“I still haven’t told my mother my plans,” Miska muttered, “and I can’t just leave my family now. Not like this.” She looked up. “I’ve got to stick around and help out. Unless,” she smiled bitterly, “you can pay me a great deal more.”
Gartarken blinked. “Well.” She slapped the bar, “Well! I admire your loyalty and sense of duty. And it’s good of you to think to ask for more money. You’ve got your head in the right place.” She paused for a moment, looking at Miska. “But I’ve already offered you the sweetest deal I can.” She smiled wistfully, “Your sister saw to that.” Shaking her head, she continued, “I can’t offer you more. And if you don’t come with me now, I can hardly guarantee that I’ll have such a position for you in the future.” She shrugged. “I mean no harm, but I have to promote someone to fill that gap before we leave. I’ll always be glad to have you as a hand though. When you’re ready.”
Miska nodded, numb. She felt like the charred wood they’d been pulling from the rubble of the loft, burned and spent.
Captain Gartarken nodded thanks as Haubert served her a bowl of his soup. “And you know, Miska… until you choose your own path, instead of asking your mother’s permission, you’ll never really be free to make your own way.” She set her hat back on her head, scooping up her bowl in one hand and tapping her temple with the other. “She’ll always be in here, telling you what you ought to be doing. If you know what you want, act. Don’t wait for her to say it’s okay.” She turned around, wending towards her noisy crew. She added, over her shoulder, “And tell your sister I’ll be here for two nights!” Her crew whooped and cheered.
Miska turned back to the bar and cradled her face in her hands. “What am I doing?” She whispered. “That’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”
She could feel Haubert’s hand settle onto her shoulder, and she leaned into it. His voice was sad but soothing. “What you believe to be the right thing. I hope.”