All that Mae really wanted was a bath.
She stank of the desert, it was matted into her hair and under her fingernails. Mae didn’t understand pilgrims who thought that the Kalahandra was a dead thing. It was alive, more alive than anything else, and it was tenacious. Even here, within the walls of Moresha, walls that Mae had never left, the sand found its way into everything, into the soles of your shoes and the seams of your clothes, into the tiny spaces in between your eyelashes, the creases between your fingers. It rubbed on Mae’s sleeping pallet at night, a million tiny insults on her back as if she hadn’t already felt enough that day. There were storms, and then there were days as dry and hot as today, when even though the dawn light hadn’t crowned above the buildings around her, she knew that the heat would be punishing.
And she hadn’t had a bath in over a week.
Mae was watching the crowds outside the Muleera, the public bathing houses by the Rose of Radia. The baths here were free, for weary pilgrims to wash their feet before entering the temple’s hallowed halls. But Mae shouldn’t be here. It was deep in Maacher territory, and one quick look at the nape of her neck would reveal her as a Kilruddin. Indentured and branded, maybe, and Mae might be able to argue that case and spare her life, but only until they got her back to the barracks by the East Gate. And Baxter would definitely have something to say.
But Mae couldn’t afford a private bath house, with their perfumed oils and masseurs dressed all in white. So here she was, risking her life for a bath.
There weren’t any faces that immediately struck her as Maacher recruits though they numbered in their thousands and a low-ranking lackey like Mae could never hope to know them all. So she took her chances, blending into the crowd taking off their shoes at the women’s entrance. The pilgrims and tourists still liked to come to these baths even though they could afford any of the others in the city. The guides told them that the Muleera were more ‘authentic’. Mae liked their shocked smiles as she pushed into the line. She was a genuine Moreshan, wearing the real scent of the Kalahandra desert. They couldn’t ask for a more authentic experience.
She slipped her shoes off and watched as the other women did the same. Mae couldn’t stop the stab of jealousy at the jewelled and silk-lined slippers, the well-made boots whose soles were still attached to their uppers, even the thongs of the neat, unripped leather sandals. The women’s clothes were no less fine, embroidered tunics and spotless white linen trousers, long dresses cinched at the waist, scarves and hats in every colour imaginable. They were ushered into the changing rooms and Mae had to stop staring. She tugged off her own tunic and the ragged leggings that an older girl had left in the barracks when she made a run for it. Initially, Mae had taken them out of spite, how dare she break her indenture when the rest of them were still stuck here?
She’d later learnt that the girl had died, alone and parched, in the Kalahandra. Now she wore the leggings as a memorial to her bravery.
Even as she cast her eyes down modestly, she felt jealous at the ankles – the ankles! – of the women around her. There were one or two pretty beaded anklets, but what Mae hated was how well fed they were. Some of them had fat ankles, some of them simply had well-muscled calves that sunk into the slender bones. She felt ratty, half-formed, as if everything about her marked her out as a slum daughter, as someone who had been sold to Knash Kilruddin and never loved, never made a meal, who had to come and use the Muleera not out of choice, but because there was nowhere else for her to go.
The Kalahandra was the only thing that ever wanted to be near her.
She moved with the crowd into the first room, kept dark, the air sweating. Each woman was to take a seat and scrub herself down before sinking into the first hot pool, and then they could move into the cold room next door. There were no masseurs here in the Muleera, no basins to sink into full of mud, no herby oils. Just water, and bars of soap stacked up on the ledge next to thick bristled brushes. Mae had never felt more of a thrill at hot water. Eager, she fetched herself a bucket and a stool, and grabbed a bar of soap and a brush. She started with her arms, her fingernails, watching as the red of the desert faded from her body under the brilliant white soap suds, then began streaking her legs with it, the gaps between her toes. She abandoned the brush for her hair, working her now clean fingertips into the roots of it, dragging out clumps of sand. When no one was looking, she even dared to flip her hair over her face and scrub the back of her neck where the double K of Knash Kilruddin burnt still against her skin. No amount of scrubbing would ever take that brand away.
But she felt clean for the first time all week as she sunk into the hot pool, letting the steam surround her head, feeling the ache of sleeping in doorways sink from her limbs. Once she was clean, she could think about food. And then she could think about how to get some money.
None of it made sense. She didn’t want to sleep in the Kilruddin barracks. But she had to pay to sleep there. If she couldn’t pay, then she was out here, ripe for the taking. And if the Kilruddins found her out here, they would kill her. Her only way to stay alive was to keep paying off her indenture – a figure that rose and rose, that she would never be able to pay. She had to pay them to keep being their slave. The only thing worse than that was death – and death was the only other option.
Mae clambered out of the hot pool and went next door to the cold plunge. She submerged herself completely in the water, kept cold by a magician in the corner, who read a book with one hand and every few minutes sparked an icy sheen over the water with a flick of her hand. Mae gasped at how freezing it was, how delicious when all she knew was heat and dust. Some of those pilgrims queuing outside came from cold places. Mae didn’t understand what would possess them to come to Moresha.
She moved on, back to the changing room, and found herself remarkably alone. Her jealousy turned to something else.
This was an opportunity.
She couldn’t take any of the clothes themselves, but she needed to have a hunt through their pockets – and there, there it was, the right one. The owner had tucked the pocket in underneath, but then ruched the dress as if that would hide what she had done. Mae dove for it, and dug her hand into the pocket, finding forty lire in her fist as she withdrew it.
A smile melted onto her face.
Mae threw on her own tunic and leggings, and left the lire in her pocket. There was enough for food, and to keep Baxter happy.
Still no one else had come into the room.
Maybe just one more.
She picked her target, a bright blue robe with silver and yellow hems. Even as she nudged it on the bench, she heard something jangling. Jewellery, she thought. Someone had been stupid enough to leave jewellery behind for her.
Mae shook the robe a little bit to reveal the earrings and the bangles from its depths, glinting like pieces of coal in the dim light. She reached out to grab a heavy earring.
She pocketed the earring and ran. Mae flew through the doors of the Muleera before the guards outside could think of stopping her. There was no time to pick up her ragged shoes – but with that trinket, she could buy new ones. Her clean feet, rubbed pink by the soap, slapped against the hard ground. Mae ran.
Her heart began pummelling her chest – she didn’t know this part of the city well, it was Maacher land, she wasn’t even meant to behere. She saw the sun, the first rays that broke the walls of the city casting long shadows. East. Back to the Kilruddins, to her captors and the only family she knew.
“Thief! Stop her!”
Mae cursed – the guards from the Muleera weren’t giving up. But neither was she. She needed to get off the streets. And that meant there was only one way to go. That way was up.
She took a sharp right into the spice souk – the vendors just starting to untie the tops of their sacks and unfurl their canopies. She pushed through them, searching for a wall with purchase, and found one. With a single bare foot, Mae bounded on top of a barrel, then onto the doorframe of the house behind, grabbing a window ledge and hauling herself up, edging along. The building next door was a slightly smaller. Mae took a deep breath – and leapt. Her fingertips just found the roof. She grinned in relief and hauled herself up, lying on her belly as she caught her breath.
The vendors didn’t care – she hadn’t robbed any of them, but there was a young man in the street watching her, dark eyes and thick brows. He was stupidly handsome – Mae assumed it was a glamour, that only the Unsighted like her would be distracted by. The problem was, he was looking right at her, and his gaze was arresting. Mae didn’t dare move.
The city guards came running into the souk. “A thief!” they called. “A thief in the Muleera Did she come through here?”
The vendors didn’t comment, just grumbled, went about their business. They knew well enough not to get involved with the gangs, nearly every one of the spice merchants paid protection money to the Kilruddins. Mae held her breath. The handsome young man was still looking at her.
He opened his mouth and Mae cursed, bending her knees, getting ready to leap off this roof onto the other side, into the alleyway beyond.
“She went that way,” he said, and pointed down a small passageway going right, the opposite direction to Mae.
The city guards hurried off. The young man cocked his head at Mae. But if he thought he was getting a thank you for that, then he would be disappointed. Mae waited until the guards had left. Then she began scaling the wall of the house next door. It was rough-hewn bricks of sandstone, old with easy footholds. She reached the top of the house, blinding sunlight beating down on her.
Her feet were ruined, and she was drenched in sweat. But the coins and the earring sang in her pocket. It was enough to pay Baxter, enough to get back into her house at the barracks, enough for a pie, and maybe even enough for a new pair of shoes.