I bow to thee, vainglorious Prince. King before your time, you are. Visit another country and surely they will call you Emperor and scrape their knees on the ground. Your will is superior to my own, your heart stronger, your skills masterful, your virtues shining, your clothes the finest materials and the richest dyes –

But dare to defy your own father, and I will destroy you myself.

Grand Warlock Auros

 

There were, by a creative trick, two bedrooms upstairs. The wooden platform that was the second floor was divided by a heavy woollen curtain.

“You’ll take that side,” Gregor said. “My apprentice can sleep downstairs with Ionas.”

“I don’t want to displace anyone,” she said. “I’ve slept on floors before.”

He clasped her shoulder. “That old bastard doesn’t care where he sleeps,” he said. She eyed the grey in Gregor’s hair, raising her eyebrows. He laughed. “Lady gets a bed,” he said. “No telling when you’ll see one again, little miss.” He squeezed once, gently. “Set yourself up,” he said. “We’ll go to the bath house.”

Bath house! The mere idea was enough to make her crave it. A steady supply of real hot water. The big, thick woollen towels she’d watched them wash outside once. She’d danced out in rain storms to get clean, like the other children. Just the thought of getting that far lost, until she was nothing but the dirty wrecks wandering the west side –

“I thought you’d like it,” Gregor said kindly. “Pick out a change of clothes. We’ll be waiting for you.” He let go and pushed past the curtain.

She stood alone, staring at the windows. “I’m not a lady,” she called out.

A resounding laugh from the other side of the room. “Well, you sure act like one, sweetheart.”

Footsteps on the stairs.

She said down on the bed, wriggling the pack off. No bedside table, and barely enough space around the free-standing bed for her to walk, but the windows streamed the last of the day’s light into the room and the curtain looked like it could be drawn all the way around to form two walls. She had more bedroom than she had at home.

Gregor said he had an apprentice. Where was this boy? On errand? And why didn’t he have anything lying around?

Downstairs she heard him talk to Ionas, voice a low, indistinct rumble. She unpacked her bag, digging down to her clothes. She lifted out the first dress she found, a yellow one, with pale ribbons sewn to the hems for decoration. More importantly, it had sleeves right down to her wrists. The claw marks were healed, but the scars left behind looked like welts. If she rubbed her arms, she could feel the bumps.

Sarea pushed her hand down, feeling the soft, light cloth of her best dress, buried under her other two dresses. Hidden. Tucked away. Tineke had always been a generous mistress.

“You are coming, aren’t you?” Ionas called out, then – “Ow!”

“Take all the time you need, girl,” Gregor said. “Never mind him.”

She shook her head, but she hurried, wrapping socks and all in a bundle with the dress and stowing her bag between the wall and the bed’s headboard. Running down the stairs, she said, “Ionas, have you -”

“Warded and safe,” he said, spinning around, coating flaring dramatically. She rolled her eyes to the heavens – at least let him do that over something worth it – and caught Gregor’s knowing smile.

“No carpenter worth his weave is so poor they don’t have defence against fire,” he said. “Not hard to get a fellow to hide other spells around the place. You’re safe here, little miss.”

She frowned at him. “How long have the two of you been friends?”

“Since he was your age,” Ionas said cheerfully.

Gregor huffed. “Not that the man bothers to be old.”

“Far too much to be doing with my time, Gregor.” Ionas bounced on his toes. “Are we off?”

“A moment, Pachin, wait.” Gregor took a basket from the side table and held it out to her. “For the bath house,” he said. “I can afford luxuries.”

She took it, gripping her bundle with one arm. It had a lid of two halves, and a dividing line down the middle. For dirty and clean clothes, she guessed, but… she looked up. “Why are you treating me kindly?” she said.

Ionas frowned. “Why wouldn’t -”

“The Durasoona had power here,” Gregor said, his voice gentle. “When Durabilis was the heart of the empire, they ruled. It is remembered.” He laid his hands over hers, left over right. She looked down. His rough hands seemed to dwarf hers. He had a ring on that he hadn’t earlier. Half moon, half sun. She glanced up, meeting his eyes. He nodded.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Pack up quick and I’ll even buy you the full works,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. “But not the bonus, mind?”

She nodded, dropping her gaze. So she knew for certain these friends of Jesse’s were connected to her family, but this… if they were planning something… no Durasoona was going to run anything, even just a town. What did he want from her?

:-#-:

The bathhouse was quiet in twilight. Master Gregor paid at the door with glittering silver coins, and was given three long, black cords in return. Sarea looped hers around her wrist, tucking both ends under, and followed a tired-eyed, thin attendant through to a row of small, square, unmarked changing rooms. An open brown robe, made of soft wool, hung on a hook. The air was warm, hazy with steam rising from who knew where. The floor, she decided after she stripped her feet bare, wriggling her toes on the hot ground.

The robe was too large for her, the high collar as tall as her ears and the bottom scraping the floor. But when she tied it shut around her, it covered more than enough of her to pass for modest. She packed her clothes away in the basket and set her boots on top. The same attendant took it from her when she opened the door, bowing before he turned away. She followed the the hallway around, past the second row of changing rooms, to find a blank wall ahead of her and a curtain of wooden beads to her right.

But why does a blank wall have runes on the top? She reached out a hand and her finger tips sank through the bland paint, encountering a row of wooden beads not unlike the ones she could see. Interesting. She turned away to her right, passing through the curtain.

The scent of flowers – spring flowers – filled the air of the little corridor. She moved forward, pushing her way through the second curtain at the other end, and stopped.

It didn’t look at all like a bath house. It looked and smelt like a garden, the sun high and bright in a blue sky above. Steps into a pool of bubbling, moving water lay before her. On her right, there was a high brick wall, covered in climbing vines. Across the pool was a wooden fence with a garden gate, and on her left there were two more widely spaced, and a wide alleyway that ran between the two fences. The ground was gravel, shifting under her feet. On the fourth side, to her left, were a row of spaced wooden garden gates, running down a wide alleyway.

“Illusion,” she breathed.

“Yes, ma’am,” an attendant said. Sarea turned back, blinking at the short woman there, dressed in a thin cotton dress. “Haven’t you visited before, ma’am?”

Sarea flushed, cheeks heating. “I’m a traveller,” she said. “I haven’t been to Durabilis before.” Easier to lie to a stranger.

“Welcome to the Garden Bath House, ma’am,” the attendant said, expression unchanging. “You progress through the rooms and come back through the alley. Do you wish to be escorted, ma’am?”

Sarea shook her head.

“There are bells at every stage, ma’am. Ring and you will be attended.” The attendant bowed shallowly and stepped back, seemingly into the wall.

Turning back to the pool, so at least the woman couldn’t see how red her face was, Sarea took her robe off, folding it up and laying it on the gravel. She dipped her toe into the water cautiously. Without need, she discovered. It was comfortingly warm to the touch and, as she followed the steps down, so deep it came up to her waist.

“Excuse me,” she called out. “What are the rooms?”

The woman emerged from the wall. “Two steam rooms, ma’am,” she said. “With a cool room in between, and another pool on the other side.”

Sarea nodded. “Thank you,” she said. The woman inclined her head and stepped back again. Sarea sighed, sliding down against the edge of the pool, neck-deep in the warm water.

She could get used to luxury like this. The thought gave her a twisting feeling. This luxury, for a battered silver penny, when in the west side the same money would’ve fed her da and her sister and her for two weeks. One week, if it he bought hot food. Heat and magic here, when she and Amisine spent winter huddled up together to be warm. She shivered, hugging herself. This was the luxury her da said they should have had, from the day they were born. Having it now…

The warm water didn’t feel quite so good.

back home forward