The afternoon and evening passed in a haze, and Ella made several mistakes in her songs that night because her fingers shook so much. Not that anyone seemed to notice; the tavern was so packed that the chatter drowned out most of her music anyway.
When Ella hurried home and bolted the door behind her, she jumped when she heard a muffled sniffle. She hurried to light the lantern near the door as a shape in the shadows moved.
“It’s me,” squeaked a voice.
“Lu?” Ella fell beside her sister, who lay crumpled on the floor. Lucinda hugged herself, her ragged dress torn at the shoulders. “What happened?”
Lucinda’s makeup ran down her cheeks, the crimson on her lips smudged.
“He… he said a whore like me didn’t deserve to be paid,” she sniffled. Ella set down the lantern and wrapped her arms around her sister’s shoulders, holding her as she sobbed. Ella didn’t need to ask who had said it.
“Ma never wanted this for us,” Ella whispered, rocking Lucinda back and forth as if she were a child.
Lucinda scoffed, blowing wet air onto Ella’s arm. “Ma was this.”
“Exactly.” Ella pressed her forehead against her sister’s. “Exactly, Lu. Ma was this. She didn’t see any other way after Pa died. It was the only way we could keep this house, remember?”
Lucinda gave a quivering sigh in response.
“I promised myself that no matter what, I’d never be like her. Ever. It’ll be over soon, Lu. I’ve been saving up. You won’t have to do this anymore.”
Lucinda’s eyes filled with fresh tears. “You were always the well-behaved one,” she wailed. She fiddled with the signet ring on her finger. “Sell this,” she suggested, sniffling.
“No way,” Ella scoffed. “It’s Ma’s. We aren’t selling it.”
Lucinda seemed too tired to argue, and brought the ringed finger to her chest, closing her other hand protectively over it. “I miss her.” She gave a long, rattling sigh.
“I miss her too,” Ella felt her own eyes burn as she watched their merged shadow rock back and forth on the floorboards.
Two days later, Lucinda was gone.