I had a bath this morning, and I’m trying hard not to feel totally humiliated about it. I do have a sense of personal hygiene, it’s just that sometimes I go days or even, once, weeks with no more chance to bathe than a couple of quick swipes in strategic places. And I’m usually by myself, so there’s no one to be offended if I smell bad. So I admit that sometimes I forget how long it’s been. Really, though, your own smell grows so gradually, and is around you all the time, it’s no wonder I can’t always tell when I’m becoming ripe.
But this morning at breakfast, I saw Audryn wrinkle her nose in my direction—she didn’t realize I noticed—and when the meal was done, she said, “I’m going to take a bath, Thalessi, would you like to join me?” and I wanted to die of embarrassment. Terrael had no idea what was going on. He’s beautifully ignorant sometimes. Now all I can think about is how everyone must have been so disgusted all week, what with me wandering around trailing my unique stench.
Still, Audryn was perfectly well-mannered about it, and kept up the pretense that she needed to bathe—I doubt she’s ever smelled of unwashed body in her life, and her hair is never stringy or greasy as mine sometimes gets when it’s humid. She took me through the cavern to a door that opened on a wider, straighter corridor, and we went a short distance to what looked like a natural cave opening. It couldn’t have been, though, because there were curving passages that went left and right that were shaped stone. I could smell water near, hot water, and feel that wetness in the air that comes from a large body of water in an enclosed space. We went to the left, turned a corner, and the passage opened up into a large cave with a high ceiling. Five or six pools of varying sizes, the largest maybe fifty feet across, were scattered across the floor, one of them coming all the way to the right-hand wall, which unlike the rest of the cave was perfectly straight and smooth. There were a few women relaxing in the smaller pools, and one woman swimming with long, smooth strokes back and forth across the largest pool. All of them were completely naked. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder what kind of modesty taboos Castavirans had, but now I know it’s perfectly normal to go naked among members of your own sex, and completely embarrassing to be naked in front of someone of the opposite sex you’re not sleeping with. So the bathing pools are segregated—that’s what the wall is for. When we were sitting in one of the hot pools, Sovrin—never mind, I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Audryn started shucking her clothes as she walked toward the back of the room, nodding at a few of the women, and I followed her example. It was a little uncomfortable, because Balaenic custom is that nudity is really only acceptable in front of people you’re close to, male or female, but I make a habit of following the customs of whatever place I’m in, and the women in the pools seemed disinclined to ogle. Audryn’s really beautiful, well-proportioned in a way I’m not, and when she loosed her hair from the day’s clip (I still haven’t seen her wear the same one twice, and they’re all exquisite works of the metalsmith’s art) it fell nearly to the small of her back like a chocolate waterfall. I try not to compare myself to other women, because I know I have a tendency to be overly critical of my physical flaws, but it was hard not to wish I had legs like hers.
The far end of the cave had a fold in it that led on one side to a room with three commodes, all of them with water flowing through them, and on the other side to a room where water poured in a steady flow from an opening in the wall and disappeared down an iron grate. The floor was very wet, but too rough to be slippery. Audryn took a long-handled dipper with a wide, deep bowl, and an odd-looking sponge, so I did the same. She filled the dipper from the stream of water and poured it over herself, then began scrubbing with the sponge. “You drop it in that hole there when you’re finished,” she said, pointing, and went back to washing herself. I held my dipper under the water, then poured it over my shoulders. It was lukewarm, just a little warmer than the ocean off Thalessa, but fresh instead of salt, and oh, how good it felt! I started scrubbing and discovered the sponge had been treated with some kind of soapy liquid that foamed up wherever I rubbed. It wasn’t a natural sponge, though it looked like one, but I don’t know what it was made of. I scrubbed myself pink, then rinsed off and poured more water over my head. Audryn handed me a large dollop of a gritty brown soap and demonstrated how to rub it into my hair. I felt as if I could rub my scalp with it all day long, it felt so good, but eventually I rinsed my hair—this took a while, I have a lot of hair—and squeezed the extra water out. Then I dropped the sponge into the hole and hung the dipper back on its hook.
“This is my favorite part,” Audryn said, and we went back into the cave, where Audryn made straight for one of the pools. This one was already occupied, and steam rose off its surface, and as we approached I could smell the hot water. There were steps carved into its side, and Audryn gingerly went down them, making a couple of squeaks, then swam to the side of the pool opposite the steps. I followed her. The water was hot. Not boiling hot, not truly uncomfortable, just several degrees hotter than body temperature. It was too deep for me to touch bottom, so I swam to the side and discovered there was a ledge circling the pool that was just deep enough that when I sat on it, my shoulders were barely above the water. And it felt amazing. I stretched out my legs and felt every one of my muscles begin to relax. I hadn’t realized how tense I was until that moment.
“Your hair is incredible,” the other woman said. I don’t know how she knew that, given that her eyes were closed and I’d thought she was asleep until she spoke. “I’ve never seen that color before.”
“I have,” said Audryn. “A lot of Viravonians have hair that color. I don’t suppose you come from there, Thalessi? I mean the corresponding place in your world.”
“No, I was born near the ocean,” I said. “You all seem to have hair the same color, mostly.”
“Sarial’s hair is red,” Audryn said, “but mostly we’re all native Castavirans or Helvirites. Though there’s more intermarrying, this last century.”
“True. My mother’s mother is Endellaviran,” the other woman said. “I’m Sovrin, by the way. I’d salute you, but I think my muscles have melted in sheer joy.”
That made me laugh. “We don’t have anything like this where I come from,” I said. “The rich houses have plumbing, and large baths, but all the natural hot springs I’ve seen are too hot for bathing.”
“This isn’t natural, it’s a kathana that does it,” Sovrin said. “And made the wall between the chambers, after creating the pools. The men’s side isn’t as nice as ours.”
“That seems a little unfair,” I said.
“I’ve heard they piss in the pools sometimes,” Audryn said, “but I don’t really believe it. That would get disgusting very quickly. There’s a reason we bathe in the kiorka instead of out here. So we don’t have to swim in our own filth.”
“Fae sneaked in there with Haddan once, after midnight, and she said the men leave their towels lying around for the person on duty to clean up in the morning, when he makes the sponges,” Sovrin said.
“I thought the sponges looked unnatural,” I said.
“They are. Though with you coming from near the ocean, I guess you would know,” Sovrin said.
“Thalessi, you’ll want to wash your clothes, yes?” Audryn said. “Sovrin can lend you something. You’re the same height.”
I eyed Sovrin’s breasts, which are quite a bit larger than mine, but said, “That would be nice. And I don’t suppose anyone did anything about my jacket?”
“It’s probably in the laundry somewhere,” Sovrin said. “We can find it, and take your clothes there. Damn, it’s my turn in the laundry tomorrow. I hate the laundry. Always leaves your hands wrinkled, no matter what th’an you use.”
Audryn slipped off the ledge and swam to the stairs. “Sovrin, stop lazing about and come with us. You know how your group hates it when you show up late.”
“What are they going to do about it?” Sovrin said, but she climbed out of the pool and I followed them both. We dried off, and I tried to get as much water out of my hair as I could, but I knew from experience it was going to stay wet for a while. I wished I had time for a real swim in the large pool. I think I’ll go back tomorrow morning, after I find a way to keep my hair wrapped around my head so it doesn’t get wet again.
To be continued….