Monday, 14 September 2009


The chick-shaw dropped me off outside the bath-house and skittered off again, claws rattling against the cobbled street. A few seconds later the driver's howl of fear reached me; the street was so steep that I thought I'd been horizontal coming up it at one point so going down again must be far worse. I always walked down the steeper hills in Tal Mallan, and occasionally I wondered why they'd been so perverse as to build on them.
I entered, and in the vestibule was a cedar desk as fragrant now as it had been when it was first cut. It stretched a good twenty feet and was pristinely empty, not even dust dared rest upon it. A young lady sat behind it reading a book, and I noted that there were fourteen columns of characters across the double page. Almost certainly that meant it was written in Haruspic, the language of the Haruspice-eaters. She closed the book before she looked up, and she smiled at me dreamily.
"I'd like a bath, please," I said, and she nodded. Standing up, she moved further along the desk and produced a register which she proffered. A pen was attached to it with a blue silk ribbon, and I signed where she pointed. Two towels then appeared from some hidden container, along with a discreet bill slipped on top of them. I read it; it was written in Elatinate, the common language, and swallowed as discreetly as she'd passed me the bill. I paid anyway, as I had reasons to be here other than the bath. She pointed to a door in the wood-panelled wall, and I departed the desk.
The changing rooms, or deshabillation as the Mallan called them, were simple: some large wardrobes with plenty of hangers, some stacked footlockers with heavy iron keys, and a low bench running the length of the room. I disrobed and hung my clothes up, putting my wallet and the sealed package under my spare towel in a locker. Then I passed through.
The bath room was a large, cedar panelled room with high, broad windows that started thirteen feet above the floor and went up to the ceiling. There were twenty four baths laid out in a rectangular pattern, each sunk mostly into the floor. A lip, raised about six inches all round, stopped the unwary from walking into the baths, but not from tripping over and falling in face first. I imagined, knowing the Mallan temperament, that that would be a cause of much hilarity. Fragrant steam billowed and gusted in the air whenever the door opened or closed, and I could smell meadowsweet, wild violet, gentian and Attic rose wreathing around me. Almost immediately I felt myself relaxing.
I slipped my towel off and stepped into the second bath in the third row. The bath-house had only two other occupants, so getting the bath I'd been told to take was thankfully easy. I'd had no idea what excuses I could have made for waiting for a particular bath to come free. The water was hot enough to make me catch my breath, but I acclimatised quickly, and soon the only evidence was the beading of sweat on my brow. I laid back, relaxed, and waited for my contact.

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