Here’s the rest of chapter 3! My apologies for the delay: I’ve been distracted by wrapping my brain around interactive fiction.
The earlier bit of chapter 3 is here.
It wasn’t the proximity that unnerved her. She was used to working amongst the crowds of the wharves, shouldering her way through crowds of loud, rude, and pushy folk. Angry and yelling strangers didn’t faze her; she quietly wished that these servants would shout and reach out, push back against her, wished that she had a heavy load on her back, something that gave her a purpose for being here that she knew. But this man standing in the alcove at the stairs’ landing said and did nothing. He didn’t even meet her eyes. He had made an art of not being there. Of erasing himself.
She hoped he was breathing, but kept moving. Checking would only make things worse. If the clerk wasn’t checking, it would be rude of her to do so, wouldn’t it? Or it would show how out of place and uncomfortable she was, how vulnerable. Miska carefully kept her eyes out of the alcoves, staring at the clerk instead.
“If you would be so kind as to follow me?” The clerk spoke as they reached the head of the stairs, somehow making the obvious command sound like a perfectly natural question.
Nodding, Natalia followed him down the hall that led away from the balcony, to the first door on the right. He swung it open, stepped in, and spoke in that same clear voice, “Mistress? Your visitor Mistress Natalia, proprietor of the d’Alaroux sail loft, has arrived. Her daughter is here as well.” He blinked, then turned to face Natalia and Miska. “She will see you now.” He backed further into the room, hand indicating the direction they should go.
Natalia strode in with a confidence that Miska doubted. The room was aglow with sunlight streaming through tall windows in the long wall across from the door, bright with the yellow of the wallpaper and the furniture’s gleaming blonde wood. A woman rose gracefully from behind a massive oaken desk, circling around it with a calm smile. Yet again, Miska was certain she was the wrong sister for this errand: Mirabelle would have killed to spend time alone with Mistress Helene’s dress. The cut was like nothing Miska had seen before, the blue fabric embroidered in yellows that echoed the room’s, and it set off her lighter complexion; as she glided towards them, Miska would have sworn she wore embers flickering in an early evening sky.
And the dress was of a piece with the rest of the room, elegant and refined and brilliantly expensive. The windows were tall, their panes broad and clear; the walls held fine paintings, inky brush strokes against pale canvas; and there were books, row after row of books, bound in finely tooled leather and arranged neatly on shelves behind the massive desk.
“I’m so glad that you were able to join me today, Mistress Natalia. Would you and your daughter,” she glanced at Miska, cold and assessing, “care to join me for tea as we discuss our business?” Miska froze as her mother said yes, trying to understand what she had seen behind Mistress Helene’s eyes, but she’d missed her chance. The calm, false warmth was back in place as she spoke to her clerk. “Woodson, please call for the service.”
Mistress Helene beckoned them to join her in a trio of generously upholstered armchairs set around a small table, all warm with sunlight. Servants entered, serving tea before disappearing again, and Woodson retreated to a small desk that Miska had missed when she’d entered, set in clear sight of the door and across from Mistress Helene’s desk. His pen scratched quietly as her mother and Mistress Helene spoke, and Miska couldn’t shake the feeling that he was recording everything for later.
The conversation began with pleasantries, small questions that matched the tiny bites of food which lay on a platter between their teacups. Miska ate three dainties in two bites before she noticed how long Mistress Helene made each last. She fought her embarrassment, biting her lips to stop from eating and looking around the room more instead. There were tall curtains which hung to either side of each vast window, and the windows themselves looked out over a grove of already budding trees. Miska glanced back at her mother and Mistress Helene, and fought the temptation to get up and look at what lay below, beside the house. She sipped her tea instead, and flushed as the conversation paused just in time for her slurp to echo through the room. Even Woodson’s pen stopped for a moment.
Eyes still on Miska, that same calm smile smile still painted across her face, Mistress Helene beckoned to Woodson. He delivered a sheaf of papers and Miska watched, mortified, as her mother picked them up and began to slowly read, lips moving as she lingered over the text. Miska looked away again to avoid the embarrassing sight. But her eyes were caught by Mistress Helene’s momentarily unguarded expression, the look of cold satisfaction as she watched Natalia struggle through the words. She Miska quickly glanced away, watching from the corner of her eyes as Mistress Helene relaxed more and more, a tiny but true smile growing on her lips. It was both cruel and content. And the moment her mother looked up, Mistress Helene’s smile was kind once more.
Miska shivered. Something was deeply wrong here.
“What is this last bit at the end of this section here?” Natalia pointed, finger at the end of a passage. She narrowed her eyes, reading it aloud slowly, “‘May extract value commensurate to the value of the unpaid balance upon default’?” Miska was certain that she must have read it several times. “Extract value from what sources?” It was a good question. At least, Miska thought, her mother wasn’t stupid.
“Those sources are detailed in a list in the next section,” Mistress Helene smiled faintly as Natalia glanced at the next page full of dense cursive script, “but suffice to say that they encompass such items as household possessions, property, and other similar things. It’s a fairly standard clause. Certainly standard for any Parisian of good standing in any loan which they might make.”
Natalia nodded as though that answered her question. Miska bit her lip. Her belly’s snarled cramp of anxiety had finally gotten too powerful for her to ignore; it had metastasized into spots of tension all through her back.
“And where are the terms of the loan’s interest and repayment schedule laid out?” Natalia looked up at Mistress Helene. Miska caught her breath. She had thought of her mother as being so in control of herself, in control of her own life. Maybe her mother thought the same. But the last decade had given Miska an entirely new view on that. She watched in quiet horror as Mistress Helene calmly directed her mother to another page, also filled with dense text in a fine cursive script. All the terms were presented in writing, without any numerals at all.
Miska felt pain growing beneath her sternum; she couldn’t speak up and tell her mother to wait, to read everything with help, could she? On what grounds? Leonora should have been here, not her. She was a better reader, and Mother would listen to her. She’d never listened to Miska before. And it wasn’t as though Miska could tell her mother about the expression she’d seen on Mistress Helene’s face, not while she sat across the small table from them. That expression was back again, the chilling one Mistress Helene made while she thought no one was looking, as Miska’s mother struggled and squinted her way through the dense text. She was moving too quickly to really read it, Miska knew, and if she had to guess she’d say Mistress Helene knew that as well. And liked it.
Natalia set the papers down and shuffled them together. “Well,” she said as Miska’s heart dropped into the anxious boil of her gut, “I do think that everything seems to be in order. Shall I sign these?”
“Please, by all means.” Mistress Helene smiled. “Woodson, please bring wax and ink over to my desk.” She stood and swept across the white rug and around her desk. Natalia followed her across the bright white pile.
Woodson joined them with a loaded tray, setting it down on the desk beside the blotter. He laid out inkwell, pen, and blotting sand, and stood by with a burning taper and a block of sealing wax. Natalia signed page after page, Mistress Helene watching her hungrily, the way one of Fossuri’s Follies might stare at fat cattle. They signed the final sheet together, Woodson pouring a dollop of wax on the base of the page before presenting Mistress Helene with a ring which she pressed into the cooling puddle.
“Now, I believe you have present expenses to settle, do you not?” Mistress Helene’s eyes were welcoming again, no longer predatory. Natalia nodded. “Then let’s discuss what amount you’d like to receive immediately, in coin.” Miska flinched as her mother clasped Mistress Helene’s hand, speaking words of thanks.