Miska, Chapter 1 (4/15/17)

I’m sharing this with you immediately after having gone through it with my mentor, knowing full well that there are many changes that I want to make. It’s a little painful to give it to you when I know that there’s so much more to be done. But I’ve got to share something, and if I wait for it to be perfect you’ll never see it. Real artists ship, right?

I’m also not giving you the entire chapter in one go, because that would be 4.5k. Here’s the first half, instead, coming immediately after the (also to-be-revised) prologue from before. Enjoy!

There was a firm hand gently shaking Miska’s shoulder, and a familiar voice calling her name. She blinked, looking up at an unfamiliar slat-and-beam ceiling overhead, sloping away from her. “Miska, good, I’m glad you’re awake.” An older man’s face leaned into view, slight wrinkles creeping in around his eyes and mouth. Some salty gray shone in his nappy dark hair, and regularly spaced scars dotted his cheeks. Relief was written in his smile.

Miska rubbed at her gummy eyes, slowly smiling. “Haubert,” she sat up and hugged him.

“I’m so glad to see you all in one piece,” Haubert was muffled by Miska’s shoulder. He gave one last squeeze and sat back awkwardly on his heels, grimacing as he kneaded a thumb into his left hip. “Mirabelle told me you went back in after you carried Leonora out.”

Miska shrugged, looking at the floor. Her pallet rested on its bare planks, and she knew Haubert must be hurting himself to sit with his legs folded beneath him like that. She pulled back the blanket, nose wrinkling at the rank smoke that clung to her clothes. There was a window set in a dormer about an arm’s length past Haubert, light gleaming through its rippled glass. She rose to look out of it.

“You might wish to move slowly—“ Haubert leaned back and reached out, but Miska was already sitting back down as her world buzzed, tilted, and lost color for a moment. She clung to the steadying hand Haubert laid on her shoulder, staring at the floor as she hoped it would stop moving.

“Where am I?”

Haubert’s expression could only generously be called a smile. “Across the street. Here, have a look.” He supported her as she stood up, slowly this time, and stepped to the window. Miska could just make out the front of her house through the wavy diamond panes. It looked to be late afternoon. There was still a thick group of people wending in and out of the alley beside her home, but she couldn’t see any of the damage.

Perhaps, she hoped, some of her plans weren’t completely ruined.

Haubert pushed himself to his feet with his thick cane, gripping the solid metal head. “Your mother asked Yves to give you a bed for the evening. Morning,” Haubert sighed as his weight came off his hip and he prodded the recalcitrant joint, “or however long you slept. You follow.”

Miska smirked up at Haubert, stooped beneath the eaves. There were advantages to being shorter. She waved a hand at the window, “I can’t see much from here. How does it look, Haubert?”

Haubert shook his head. “It looks rather bad, Miska. Nearly the whole building,” his eyes were sad, “the loft is gone. You and your sisters’ bedroom, certainly. Nearly all the apprentices quarters, all but one of the journeymen’s rooms,” he sighed, eyes on the floor as he lifted and set his cane back down with a solid thump. He looked back up. “You kept the neighbors’ houses from catching. But,” he spread his hands, “I think your family is in a bad way.”

Miska felt the bottom of her stomach drop out. Her eyes widened.

Haubert, still watching her closely, spoke quickly. “Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you like that, Leonora is safe. In fact, she took charge when your mother fell asleep earlier. Mirabelle is safe, your mother is as well, and Alonso,” Haubert smiled as he mentioned her father, “managed to carry you up the stairs after you exhausted yourself last night.” He blinked, “This morning, I suppose.”

“Father carried me?” Miska smiled, one bright spot of familial comfort amidst all the loss. “That hasn’t happened in…” she tried to remember the last time, and failed. Her stomach gurgled and clenched. She leaned against the side of the dormer as she was struck by another wave of lightheadedness.

Haubert looked at her carefully. “Food and water, I think. Yes?”

Miska nodded cautiously. She and Haubert teetered down the stairs together, supporting each other.

The cobbled street outside was still busy, street traffic wending its way around the fire brigade that labored around the burned house. A canvas hose ran down the street from the pump up the hill, sweating droplets before it disappeared down the alley towards the back of the still smoking sail loft. Or what remained of it.

“Elrik!” Haubert called out, waving to a small boy who had obviously had some orc parentage. The boy nodded and darted off down the street. “Let’s get you to your family,” Haubert spoke to Miska, “the food will be along soon.”

Haubert led the way through the small crowd, pushing open the front door. The front entryway, with its many hooks and pegs for coats and shoes, looked untouched. But it reeked of smoke, a powerful scent that clung to everything and gave one headaches.

The vast kitchen just inside also seemed to have escaped the fire, but the chaos was more evident; dirt and soot had been tracked across the usually clean floor, and a jumbled pile of salvaged supplies had been strewn across nearly every surface. Sections of canvas, boxes of needles, heavy spools of thread, and all the assorted other trappings of a large sail loft lay in one vast mess. It didn’t take much for Miska to see that they’d only rescued a fraction of their supplies.

Miska’s mother and father sat at the kitchen’s long trestle table, Mirabelle beside them, all three bleary with fatigue. They were tallying up what they’d been able to save from the loft before the fire grew too extreme.

“Natalia, your daughter has awoken.” Haubert rested one hand on his cane, and swept the other in dramatic fashion to beckon Miska into the room.

Startled, Natalia looked up and rose to meet them in a rush, wrapping Miska in a tight hug. Miska closed her eyes and hugged her back. Even her mother smelled of smoke. Haubert took a step back to give them room.

“Oh Miska, I’m so glad to see you up and well.” Natalia murmured as she squeezed her daughter. Surprised, Miska didn’t try to suppress her smile, pressing her face into her mother’s shoulder instead.

Her father spoke from somewhere behind her mother. “I’d like a turn too, my dear,” Alonso touched Natalia’s back, and Miska’s mother stepped back slowly with a smile while her husband took her place.

“I’m glad to see you all so happy,” Haubert cleared his throat, “but I thought perhaps you could use some food.” Miska’s belly rumbled again as though for emphasis. “I took the liberty of arranging to have some dinner brought over for you. I’ve coordinated with Katrina—” Miska nodded, the chef of the Sloping Deck was well liked, with good reason, “—to contribute some food for your apprentices and journeymen as well.” He leaned on his cane with a satisfied look and smiled at Miska, “And I’ve made sure that there will be some spiced cider as well.”

Alonso murmured thanks, but Natalia drew herself up and gave a little shake, perhaps to clear her head. “Thank you Haubert. I’ll be glad to pay for the food.”

Haubert shook his head. “Nonsense Natalia. You are here in a time of need, and I am willing and able to assist. Neither I nor Katrina request anything for this.”

Natalia frowned, and opened her mouth to reply.

“Thank you Haubert,” Alonso interrupted, “for being so generous. And please thank Katrina for us too.” Alonso stepped up beside Natalia and took her hand in his.

Miska glanced at her mother, who still looked like she wanted to say something, and spoke up before her mother could. “When should we expect the food?”

Haubert strode towards the front door and stepped outside for a moment to look. He leaned his head back in, “They’re coming down the street with it at this very moment.” He grinned, “It’s not as though it’s very far from my kitchen to yours.”

Miska and Alonso quickly shifted the various things piled across the trestle table, moving them aside as Elrik led the first servers staggering into the house, toting pots and trays and crocks full of food. Natalia called in the firefighters, apprentices, and journeymen, still sifting through the smoking rubble, and everyone filed past the vast collection of food to serve themselves. It wasn’t as happy or lively as meals usually were there, but Miska was too hungry to care. She sat down with her family and Haubert, and stuffed herself with food until she could hardly bear to move.

Haubert sipped from a small mug of soup, every so often getting up to refill drinks from a pitcher, his cane clunking on the floorboards.

On his second trip, Alonso looked up at him with concern. “Haubert, you don’t need to shift back and forth like this. Give your hip a rest.”

Haubert shook his head, his broad smile for Alonso crinkling the regularly spaced scars that dotted his cheeks. Miska sometimes forgot how close he and her father were in age, but that smile made Haubert look years younger. “I didn’t let that musket ball slow me then, I’ll hardly let it slow me down now.” Natalia scowled as though she’d just bitten something sour or rotten, but she didn’t say anything. “Besides,” Haubert continued, “I couldn’t be there to help last night, and you worked the entire way through. Let me help out now.” Alonso settled back down begrudgingly. As Haubert came around and refilled mugs again, Alonso smiled back up at him.

“Now Natalia,” Haubert said as he returned and settled onto the edge of an open box, “I trust you’re already thinking about rebuilding?”

Natalia took her time chewing through a piece of gristle before she responded. She kept it curt, “Yes, I am.”

Miska looked back and forth between her mother and Haubert. She was sure Haubert wasn’t paying close enough attention. Haubert and her mother normally avoided each other, because of her mother’s… convictions. But couldn’t he see that her mother was already upset?

“Well,” Haubert leaned forward a little bit, his strong dark hands resting on the bright metal bird’s head that topped his cane, “have you given a thought to how you’re going to afford it? Do you have the money on hand?”

Natalia chewed through another bite, not looking at Haubert. “Not on hand. Not enough to handle food and lodging for all my workers and rebuilding at the same time. I’ll need to go in search of a loan, most likely.”

Dread filled Miska’s chest. She shook her head minutely, but Haubert was looking in the wrong direction.

“Maybe I can help you with that.” Haubert’s eyes flickered between Natalia and Alonso. “I’m sure that, with help from some of my acquaintances, I would be able to gather up enough to keep you afloat while you get through this period. There’d be no need for you to go out looking.”

Natalia looked up from her plate at Haubert, and Haubert’s smile faltered. “I will accept food from you, Haubert, on account of the long history and friendship between you and Alonso and the affection that my daughters feel for you. You have been a good friend to my family.”

She didn’t look at Miska, but she hardly needed to. Miska could feel herself shrinking inside. Her mother couldn’t know she’d been talking with Haubert about going to sea ever since she was little, but that hardly mattered; she’d spent enough time in his company. Miska had known that her mother wasn’t especially fond of Haubert, known that she didn’t like his history, but Miska had never been pulled into the center of things like this, a token to be fought over. She didn’t like the feeling. And from the looks of her mother’s and Haubert’s faces, things were about to get a lot worse.

“But,” Natalia continued, “I have no desire to take your money, or the money of your friends. I cannot, I will not condone piracy. And I will not justify it by accepting its fruits.”

Haubert’s mouth settled into a scowl. “Natalia, you’re in a rough spot. This isn’t going to just fix itself with a little extra work. You’ll need money, and from what you’ve said, you need money that you don’t have.”

It was, Miska was sure, exactly the wrong time to try pressing this. Her mother, as she well knew, wasn’t going to be convinced in one sitting. And he was going about it all wrong. She looked at Haubert, trying to catch his eye again without letting her mother see what she was doing, but her heart fell as she saw how focused Haubert was. His eyes were locked on Natalia’s. He looked painfully earnest to her, a face she knew and loved, but for a moment Miska recognized what her mother must see instead: the facial scars of a highly successful pirate, one who’d sailed with the Northmen, the shrewdest traders… but also the most fearsome reavers to ply the waves.

“I want to offer you a chance to rebuild without fear looming over your head.” Haubert’s voice caught, and he tried again, “Natalia, I know you dislike what I did as a younger man. It wasn’t what you think, but,” he shook his head, “that’s neither here nor there. I’m here now. I’m your neighbor, I love your family like my own,” Miska caught the flicker of his eyes across her father’s face and her own, “and I only hope that you’ll let me help you in your time of need. If I cannot, from my place of security, help you when you need it most… what good is success? What use are friends?” He spread his hands, cane resting against his thigh.

Miska knew that this was the moment to intervene, the moment to keep the peace, the one before her mother responded in the moment and ruined any chance of hope. She caught her father’s eye and they opened their mouths—

“What good indeed.” Her mother’s voice was cold. Her plate settled on the bench beside her with a clunk. Miska watched, stricken, as her mother stood. “I think it’s telling that you still consider your history of bloodshed, of preying on innocents, success.” Natalia waved a careless hand at the scars dotting Haubert’s cheeks. “That you insist on using something so ridiculous as that sword cane, as though you need to better remember what it felt like to—“

Miska stood up, “Thank you so much for the food Haubert.”

“Yes, thank you for coming by to help.” Alonso stood beside Miska, walling off Haubert and Natalia from each other.

“Maybe I could see you back to The First Blood,” Miska put out her hand, offering it to Haubert where he still sat, face set in pain and frustration. She could hear her father murmuring something to her mother, but didn’t pay close attention to the words. She saved her focus for Haubert, watching as his jawline bulged from the force with which he ground his teeth together. Much quieter, Miska added, “Please?”