Still in need of rewrites, as per the rest of this material. I’ve fought off the temptation to edit before I post this, beyond pulling out the material I’d already struck-through back in April.
The preceding chapter starts here, and continues here and here.
Miska was surprised by her mother the next morning while she ate her oatmeal.
“Miska, I’d like you to come with me on an errand today.” Miska exchanged a glance with Mirabelle. Natalia continued, “Mirabelle, you’ll be in charge of the loft for the day. Tell Leonora,” their mother’s brow furrowed at her eldest daughter’s absence, “to go ahead and hire the builders we discussed. Whenever it is that she gets up.”
The two sisters both stared into their bowls of oatmeal, fighting smiles. They hadn’t been awake for her return last night, but she had certainly been snoring up against the wall when they woke in the morning. They hoped she’d had a good time.
Natalia frowned. “And wake her if she isn’t up by the third bell. Sleeping in like this isn’t like her at all.”
Miska watched from under her eyelashes as Mirabelle bit her lip hard to keep from laughing as she replied, “Yes Mother.” Her father caught her eyes, raising one eyebrow. Miska shook her head the tiniest bit before looking back at her mother. Natalia was staring at the letter she’d spread out on the table in front of her in a small pool of early sunlight. The paper looked unusually rich, and the penmanship was exquisite. But Miska couldn’t read it upside-down and backwards.
“My dear, are you really sure that you want to work with Uli and her crew?” Alonso’s question was quiet. He rubbed his hand across Natalia’s back, a comforting gesture that the daughters knew well.
Natalia closed her eyes, and Miska noticed the deep dark circles under them for the first time. “No,” she sighed, “but someone must have spread rumors. She and her crew are the only ones willing to work for the amount I’ve been able to offer up front. Worse, they’re taking higher rates afterwards too.”
“What about Yves? Was he not able to do anything?” Alonso took a bite of his oatmeal and chewed patiently, eyes on his wife.
Natalia slowly rubbed her temples. “Yves has no building crew on hand. He said it would take him at least two decades for all the people he’d want to become available.”
“Twenty days?” Mirabelle blurted out. “That’s nearly a month, never mind however long it takes his crew to rebuild the loft! We’d lose more customers to Renee and Argrite for sure.”
Natalia nodded, face taught. Miska was surprised to see the lines around her mother’s eyes. When had that happened?
“That’s why I’m not waiting for Yves,” she sighed, “… even if it does mean dealing with Uli.”
“So what’s that letter?” Miska asked the obvious question.
Natalia gave her half a smile. “The one bright point in all of this. Mistress Helene wishes to meet in person to discuss a business deal, and she’d like one of my daughters to attend as well.” Miska nodded slowly as her mother looked at her. “I believe we’re being offered a loan. At least, the letter suggests that we might be able to reach ‘a generous accommodation.’” Natalia chewed her lip for a moment, a pained expression on her face. “Mirabelle, would you please help Miska find something presentable?”
Miska’s face flushed. Her wardrobe had always tended towards the utilitarian, and the few nice things she’d had were just so much ash in amongst the rubble of the loft. Looking presentable might be both difficult and uncomfortable, depending on what her sister could find. Anxious to change the topic, she asked another question. “Mistress Helene has the old Lord and Lady’s estate, no?”
The name was vaguely familiar to Miska, but when her father nodded, she knew she’d made the right connection. A very wealthy and successful woman, and a Parisian if she remembered correctly. “Are you sure you want to take a loan from a Parisian?” That would be socially awkward, at best. Relations between Marseille and Paris were strained. The fact that the family sail loft was purely Marseillaise had long been a point in their favor, for most people around here. Miska couldn’t imagine being in debt to a Parisian. The stories she’d heard…
“I’m hardly going to refuse so generous a gift from so successful a woman, Miska.” Her mother’s voice was tired, tired enough that Miska bit back her thoughts about gifts and Haubert and her mother’s hypocrisy.
That wasn’t a fight she needed to relive just now. She finished her oatmeal and washed up in tense silence. She hoped her mother didn’t notice. Mirabelle rescued her from the kitchen and they retreated to their room for a quick change.
It was a beautiful day for a walk. It would have been a better one, Miska thought, if she hadn’t been wearing her taller sisters’ clothes. Mirabelle knew what she was up to, and had somehow dressed Miska well in outsized hand-me-downs, but not even the chill blue sky and distant cries of gulls could make her feel truly at home in Mirabelle’s split skirts and an old blouse of Leonora’s, no matter how much nicer than her laborer’s trousers and shirt they were. Her own vest, tugged on at the last moment, felt more right. They’d tied her grey stevedore’s sash on at the last moment, even though it still smelled suspiciously of Haubert’s cider and Gartarken’s pipe smoke.
None of it truly mattered. Beside her mother, wearing a dress Mirabelle had made for her two years earlier, she felt shabby.
They strode down the broad boulevards of the wealthier quarter of Marseille, approaching the estate of the old rulers of the city. They’d been deposed and replaced by a smaller local government with Parisian representatives long before Miska was born; back then, Paris had asserted her dominance over Marseille, forced Marseille into the Parisian Alliance, and imposed daughter-city status on her. That was when Marseille had lost her own daughter-cities, all her colonies.
Having a wealthy Parisian live in the Lord and Lady’s old estate seemed quietly offensive.
Miska stole a glance at her mother as they walked, wondering whether she was hiding any of the same thoughts. Natalia was staring intently at the letter as they walked, mouthing the words silently, struggling to sound some of them out as they moved down the street. Miska looked away in sudden embarrassment.
She wasn’t embarrassed that her mother had difficulty with words, Miska told herself. Some folk read well, and some did not. But watching her struggle with this finely crafted letter in public, paying no attention to the street ahead of them, left Miska with a strange sense of shame; they were about to meet one of the wealthiest women in Marseille. The woman who had written that same letter in such a fine hand. They were simply outclassed.
It hurt. And Miska knew that if it weren’t for Haubert’s lessons and encouragement, she might have been even more like her mother: still quick with numbers and figures, but hopelessly slow with words and letters. Miska knew that she was not talented with words, but at least she didn’t have to fight them on the page and sound them out one by one.
“Mother?” Miska kept pace by her mother’s shoulder. The nervousness and embarrassment settled in the pit of her stomach, tingling and cold. She felt better as her mother looked up from the letter, holding it loosely in front of her. “Do you believe she’ll offer us a loan?” Miska asked. “Or do you think she’d rather purchase shares?”
Natalia gave her a small smile. “I’m glad that you’re finally taking an interest in the family business.” Natalia spoke quietly, but her voice was warm. Miska squirmed inside. She’d only wanted her mother’s embarrassing struggle with the letter to be over. “And I’m glad that you’ve been talking about our situation with Leonora,” Natalia continued, “but the letter is not perfectly clear on the matter. I’m hoping for a loan.” She was silent for a moment, smiling at Miska before looking at the street ahead of them. “I want to give all of it, all of the family business, to you and your sisters some day.” She glanced at Miska again, opening her right hand palm up, empty. “I can hardly do that if I only have a little of the stock left to pass on. Yes, it’s more complicated than that,” Natalia nodded at Miska’s furrowed brow, “but I think a loan is likely best at present.”
Miska didn’t feel certain enough to argue. She’d learned mathematics from her mother, but it wasn’t truly the same thing as finance.
They were welcomed into the estate’s compound by the gate guard. The two men with their bright, crisp household uniforms made Miska feel even more poorly dressed than she had before.
A servant led them down a long carriage path, under shade trees and past topiary that must have been nearly as old as the city. The building’s first owners had been elves, prior to the Great War. Its ancient and imposing grandeur tantalized from behind the leaves, strangely organic, and Miska stopped and stared for a moment as she and her mother reached the end of the carriage path. She had to focus on the entryway beneath a flower-like portico to not be lost in staring at the manor itself.
The interior of the house opened into a broad room, and inspired a different kind of shock. It was ringed by a balcony, with a staircase running up the walls on their left to meet the balcony in what might be a reviewing area. The floor was fine marble, with a long rug in rich colors running its length. It caught Miska’s eye for a moment, before she was overwhelmed by the room’s beautiful tapestries and paintings, and the ornate vases set on small tables along the walls. At least one of the wall hangings depicted the assassination of the Queen and her family in Elfhome, which had set off the Great War so long ago.
Miska swallowed anxiously. Her mother’s dress seemed inadequate. And as for what she wore herself… even the servants she’d seen outside were better dressed. She had thought that her family was well off. This was something else entirely.
“Ah, Mistress d’Alaroux?” The voice was crisp and clear, and called from the upper balcony. Miska looked at her mother, then up at the balcony. A man, blandly dressed in a clerk’s clothes, skin a warm brown, stood at the edge of the balcony. He held his hands clasped in front of him, and bowed very slightly as Natalia acknowledged him.
“Mistress Helene awaits you in her office. This way, if you please.” He freed one hand for just long enough to indicate the stairway to Miska’s left. It wasn’t until she and her mother were halfway up the stairs, past the bend from the outside wall to the interior one, that Miska realized that there were servants standing silently in some of the small alcoves between wall-hangings on the first floor. She thought she saw a few more in similar alcoves around the balcony.
Miska glanced up at the clerk again, finding his eyes still on her. She steeled herself and followed his lead, resolutely ignoring the servants just as he did. A little shiver ran down her spine as she passed one, close enough to touch, without the slightest movement from him.
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