Steamy, Scented Opulence
A Clean Death: Part Five of Twelve
A Clean Death is the fourth in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the fifth chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
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Steamy, Scented Opulence
Built in the foothills of the southern Severed Spine Mountains, where they and the Youl swept down to Greatsand Gulf, Youlmouth was positively flowing with mostly-clean water. Thanks to the ever-present threat of earthquake or eruption from the nearby volcano, the Blackfang, it was also well-serviced with an abundance of geothermal activity.
Pepper had taught Hedda that the industry surrounding the hot springs and thermal baths that followed had been the reason the city had developed where it was. There was a more sheltered bay a day’s walk to the east, on the opposite side of the Youl. There was a small town there, Llym, a stop on the road to the city of Skefflinn, but it was mostly home to fisherfolk and shorehunters, as well as the prospectors and adventurers who returned to the coast every fall before the winter hit the mountains.
The residents of Youlmouth thought themselves considerably more refined than their eastern cousins, the hot springs attracting visitors from around the coast, boatloads of pilgrims wishing to cleanse themselves, spiritually and literally. Other springs dotted the route to Youlbridge, but they were neither as popular nor as easily accessed.
The spring that served the Great Baths had long ago been tamed and sent hissing and gurgling through pools and pipes and across richly marbled floors. The waters were ever-flowing, scented with sulphur and soft to the touch. There remained some outdoor springs, where patrons could luxuriate in the heat while enjoying the cold of the winter air on their faces, but this one had long ago lost its view of the sky.
The building itself looked like any other from the outside, if superbly constructed and considerably larger, but as soon as Hedda entered the opulence was revealed. The floors were stunning, with richly-veined marbles and a curving strip of yellow onyx running through the whole, creating a riverine scene with a shore and islands. The craftsmanship was incredible.
‘Can we help you?’ A man asked, hurriedly appearing from a shadowed alcove to Hedda’s right. His mask was a light blue, with two small red dots on each cheek which she guessed were some sort of badge of rank or station. He looked her up and down. ‘I think you may be in the wrong place.’
‘I do not think I am.’ She smiled and held out her hand to the man, dropping three fat coins into his swiftly-raised palm.
‘Of course not. My mistake. I am Fra, the Doorman,’ he spoke his job as though it were a title which, Hedda realised, it perhaps was. ‘Please, this way.’ He moved to one of the doors at the rear, tall and richly-polished mahogany. ‘Have you been here before?’
‘No, this is my first time in Youlmouth. My parents left when I was very young, and I wished to visit relatives and see my home city. I was on my way to view the Black Pyramid and pay my respects when I was pushed over by a man fleeing the Guard,’ she gestured to the dirt remaining on her clothes. ‘I asked at an inn nearby and they gave me an old coat and kindly told me how to find your establishment—a friend had already told me of your waters.’
‘I am so sorry to hear that, a terrible inconvenience for a guest to our city. Rest assured this is a rare occurrence indeed, the Guard is diligent and these matters are swiftly dealt with.’ He held open a second door for her, careful not to touch her dirty clothing. ‘Here we have the disrobing rooms. This is the Robemistress, Shra. Shra, this honoured guest has never attended our steams before.’
The woman bowed her head slightly and Hedda returned the gesture. The Robemistress’s mask was white with three red dots.
‘Many thanks, Fra. When I return to the Heights in Annezi Gap, I shall be sure to tell my family and friends of your kind welcome.’
The man bowed, deeper this time, and backed out of the room. The wealth of the Heights district was legendary.
Hedda knew she had paid nine times the normal rate, but that had always been a part of the plan.
‘Honoured guest,’ Shra said. ‘If I could take your coat?’
Hedda carefully removed the garment and passed it to the woman, who unlocked a door and placed it on a padded hanger. The rich scent of lavender and camphor drifted from the wardrobe.
Closing and locking the door, she gestured behind her.
‘Please, this way.’
Hedda was led through an archway to where another woman was waiting, this time without a mask, wrapped in a plain robe bearing a single embroidered red dot.
‘This is Stasia, she shall be your guide to the steams. We always ensure visitors who have never before visited have a guide, to ensure their safety. The heat can become disorientating and potentially dangerous if you are not aware.’
‘Many thanks, Shra,’ Hedda said. As she walked away with her guide, she asked, ‘Do you get many visitors from other nations?’
‘Yes, many hundreds every year. We are the third eldest of the steams, and the largest. We received our charter eighteen hundred and forty-three years ago, not long after the city was founded on the ruins of ancient Ablandin. Much has changed since those days, but people travel from all the way around the Horned Sea to visit us.’
Hedda nodded in reply, following the woman through another archway.
‘I was born here, but my parents moved to Annezi Gap when I was young. I have always wanted to visit, wanted to see my homeland.’
The floor of the room they entered was tiled in alternating red-streaked and white-streaked marble, plain benches lined the walls and intricately-woven baskets hung from above. Two women stood in the corners, each dressed as Stasia, with the addition of heavy batons hanging from scarlet sashes.
‘These are Soumra and Talruni, they are the Robeguard, they ensure your belongings are not touched.’
‘Is that a problem? People stealing things?’
‘Not here, no. Other steams, it can be. We only allow discerning clientele into our premises. We employ them as an added deterrent and to maintain our history, they are mostly ceremonial now.’ She smiled at the two women, who smiled back. Hedda knew they were more than ceremonial, the way they stood, the way their eyes searched—both indicated power, skill and experience. Adding in the small scars on their knuckles and on Soumra’s cheek, and she knew they had survived more than one fight. Stasia continued, ‘If you would disrobe, I shall fetch you a housecoat and show you all we offer.’
Hedda chose a bench with an empty basket above and began undressing. Her loose-fitting pants were dirty from the fight, dubious stains and odious smells. They would need comprehensive cleaning. Her boots went under the bench, her eyes quickly checking the other footwear as she placed hers, as though she might be able to tell whether Rinc was here through his footwear alone. There were, however, no boots or shoes she immediately recognised as being the work of Eastsea cobblers.
Once she had taken off all her clothes, carefully folding them and placing them in the basket on the wall, she accepted the robe, or housecoat, Stasia handed her. She still wore her matching ivory bracelets, but her guide gestured to them.
‘You can leave them here, they will be safer here than falling off in one of the deeper pools, and the waters and cleansing products can sometimes damage jewellery.’
Hedda nodded and removed the jewellery, along with the garrote contained in the right and the flexible and vastly expensive knife in the left. It was always good to have a backup or two, only now she had none.
Stasia began to lead her out of the room as another two women entered, already shrugging off their coats.
‘I heard a rumour about some sort of skin disorder, something that can only be removed with the special waters of the springs. Have you heard this?’ Hedda asked and Stasia nodded.
‘Yes, this morning. We have many people visit for cures to a number of ailments. I am not surprised the waters can also cure this latest disease. We shall stay open longer this evening, the management anticipates a higher than average footfall today.’
Hedda nodded in reply, thinking about how one little rumour had created a swirling vortex of activity, all because of one man. The economic potential of rumour was certainly worth further investigation.
They passed along a wide colonnaded corridor, expansively tiled, with niches lining the walls, each filled with beautiful rocks, carvings, and statues. Mythic beasts, heroic scenes, fish leaping from fountains, proud men and women in various costumes and stances. There did not seem to be a theme. Stasia pointed out several, listing names and dates and artists.
‘How long do your guests stay when they visit?’ Hedda asked in a pause in the commentary.
‘That depends. Some visit every morning, briefly, cleansing their minds and bodies before the day of work, some come after work before they head home, others conduct their business from here. We have the facilities.’
‘I am expecting a business acquaintance, although I am unsure whether he shall arrive today or tomorrow. It was he who told me about your establishment.’
‘Very good, I shall show you everything you need.’
The tour continued, through rooms filled with steam and naked people, along corridors with more statues, chambers with different pools, benches lining the walls with more men and women, those who were resting between dips and plunges. Some were wrapped in their housecoats, but most were naked. The masseurs and cleansers were robed, faces wet with sweat as they worked. It was opulent, rich and rather ostentatious. It would also be very difficult to kill anyone without immediately attracting attention.
Stasia finally left Hedda after she had shown her all the different cleansing rooms, the toilets, the rooms to work in, and two different places for refreshments. Anything extra she bought, whether a massage or a meal, would be added to a tab paid upon leaving. The breadth of humanity was represented here, along with a pair of hairless and pale Underworlders, their wide, dark eyes perfectly adjusted to seeing in dim light. The only thing missing was Rinc the Fourth.
‘If you have any further questions, simply ask any member of staff. It has been a pleasure talking to you. Enjoy your day and your stay in Youlmouth.’
Hedda thanked her and returned to a room with three different plunge pools, hanging her housecoat on one of the many pegs and slowly lowering herself into the water. She had been warned not to spend too long in the heat and steam, to cool off and move to the rooms where the air was neither as hot nor humid. The last thing she needed was to feel faint, that would certainly be the moment that Rinc appeared.
Sighing at the warm waters and allowing herself a moment of simple pleasure, she then laid out a plan, one that would seem natural, whilst also allowing her to move from room to room, patrolling, waiting, watching.
The day wore on, peculiarly slow and comfortable, considering she had only recently killed a man. Strange, how quickly that thought kept slipping her mind—she smiled to herself, suddenly relieved that the profession she had trained for all her life felt normal, felt right to her. Now, all she needed to do was kill another man, then head home.
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