Chapter 9

The Bathhouse

The tile beneath Rin’s feet fell open into a trapdoor, and he dropped like a stone. His gasp of surprise was left stranded on the landing above as he plummeted. Pink and blue and white and black all streaked by in a muddled haze of panic. He had no clue what had happened or where he was going or what would happen to him when he got there. All he could be sure of was that gravity most certainly worked, and it was working against him.

His throat contracted and his lips parted as one instinct bubbled up before every other. I’m gonna die!

The scream had barely ripped from his lungs before he hit a liquid surface. Pain exploded across his torso, throbbing as cool water washed into his mouth and down his throat. Every nerve went from heated to frozen.

Stunned, he hung there, suspended in water and slowly drifting down. A dim, blueish light filtered down to him as the pain slowly dissipated. For an idle moment, he imagined his ribs shifting back into place from the impact. Then his lungs began to burn. Limbs worked frantically, and Rin burst back up to suck in air.

His flailing hand hit something smooth and cold, and he grabbed it, using it to haul himself up. He struggled for a moment before he got his legs under him. Only to discover that the water was just level with his hips. Oh.

Rin glanced up at his support and found a pair of large, blue eyes staring back at him. With a startled yelp, he jerked back, spun to run, and slipped, landing once more in the water.

He spluttered and shook soaked curls from his eyes before peering back up.

A marble statue graced his sights.

It was of a beautiful woman, half-naked as she bent to offer one outstretched hand to him. Bluer-than-blue sapphires had been cleverly worked into the stone of her eyes, and a string of black pearls studded her neck. Crystal clear water poured down thick, petrified curls to fall from the hand that clutched her tunic to her chest.

Blood and bloody bone! Where the abyss am I?! Rin lurched around to the rest of the room, spraying water every which way as he spun.

It was a small, circular room, with an arching, lapis lazuli ceiling that glowed a soft blue from etched light sigils. Carved into the marble walls were classically handsome men displaying classical warrior traits, such as chucking spears and wrestling hydras. Above the men, glittering gems picked out birds, mostly parrots, soaring through a lapis sky. At the base of the walls stood two half-rings of stone benches, flanked by a pair of tall, porcelain vases. A wooden chest sat between the stone benches, half-open with thick, fluffy fabric poking through. A single door led out.

A bath! Rin staggered to his feet with a relieved giggle. It’s a bath! After the illusory lava, the rather mundane room was an unexpected but welcome reprieve.

He splashed to the rim of the fountain and staggered over it, kneeling with an exhausted squelch on a basalt floor. Carved channels in the stone led the water dripping off him down into several bronze grates set into the pink marble base of the fountain. More lapis lazuli inset into the basalt spiraled outward in rings of indigo.

For a moment, Rin just stared down at himself and his thoroughly soaked attire. I’m alive. Flashes of fire spit through his mind before he shook himself free. Sodden curls whipped against his cheeks, cooling the lingering flush.

With a huffed sigh, he dragged his sash over his head, not bothering to untie his equally soaked spider leg before tossing the whole thing to the side. Then he set about the difficult task of removing his linen garments. He peeled his shirt up, then gaped down.

The black-and-blue mess that was his side dwindled to a splotchy yellow before his wide eyes, then vanished entirely. As rivulets of water dripped over the scabbed punctures from the spider attack, the skin slowly smoothed and left a line of circular scars behind. The various nicks and small abrasions he had accumulated from his time in the Pyramid vanished. Even the tension in his joints eased as he stood there.

Rin’s gaze fell upon the fountain. Beneath the rippling so-clear water, engraved into pink marble, was a ring of characters–safety, housing, rest–and a single glowing mana sigil in the center: life. Like a benign patron spirit, the statue stood over the runes, water trailing from her fingertips into the fountain directly above the mana sign. Her soft smile seemed just for Rin.

Healing water. And safety. His head dropped to the rim of the basin. It’s a safe room. Tears pricked behind tightly closed eyelids. An honest to Bajulo safe room. He wrapped his arms around himself and squeezed. Everything was going to be alright.

Mum had mentioned safe rooms: special rooms within the Pyramid marked as places of rest. They gave you what you needed and always had some kind of healing. Nothing could attack you — or even get to you — while you were in a safe room. But they were very rare. Only Grandfather had ever found one. And it had been after he’d conquered a particularly difficult arena room.

Once he began to shiver, Rin finally stripped out of his soaked clothes. For a moment, he sat still and naked, just looking over all the various injuries that had piled up over the course of the day. Eventually, he took a remaining scrap from the not-sari and soaked it in the healing water. He dabbed it across his body, then scrubbed more vigorously. Unfortunately–but not surprisingly–the water wasn’t a cure-all. Even the water of the Koki Sinkhole couldn’t fix everything.

But the water did enough. His bruises and scratches all vanished. Small cuts took a few pour-overs, but also eventually closed up and disappeared. No amount of scrubbing further healed the puncture scars along his side, but the acid gash in his shoulder smoothed over and softened. The sickly green hue it had taken on faded away into a much healthier rough red, but the scar itself remained.

After an hour, Rin dropped his rag and stretched. He felt cleaner, if damper, than he had before entering the Pyramid. And drinking the water seemed to even dull the hunger pangs. He almost felt human.

A yawn cracked his jaw as his gaze fell on the wooden chest. And the thick cloth inside it. Throwing back the lid to thud against the wall revealed a stack of towels and blankets and wraps. They were pristine. Rin buried his face in a blanket and thought furiously about not crying. Instead, he set about pulling every scrap of soft comfort that he could from the chest.

You don’t deserve this, niggled the dark, scornful voice. You can’t even stick to your clan’s path.

Rin’s hands stilled.

You’ll never find it now. The voice grew louder, closer. As if it could whisper right into his ear. Did you really think you could do this?

Rin bit his lip, fingers digging into fluffy fabric.

Did you really think you could succeed where Aapo failed?

“Shut up,” Rin whispered, tugging a towel over his head. “Shut up.”

I’ll find the path, he told himself, pressing soft cloth to his eyes. I’ll find it, and I’ll get out, and I’ll make Mum proud. And no one will have to cry.

So sure, the voice drawled, finally fading.

Rin ignored it.

He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, spread another over his lap, and hugged a third close against his chest. Then he flopped sideways to the floor and curled into a tight ball.

Tucked below a stone bench, with the steady trickle of the fountain filling his ears, Rin lost himself to sleep.

Light reflected off the water, glittering white and golden under the Izzian sun. Muffled shouts and orders rang over Shima’s docks, and from somewhere along the city walls came the pungent aroma of roasting chiles.

Rin leaned back against the stone support of the Crossing Bridge and watched the lazy flow of the Inanishi River. A crooked half smile hung about his lips as he idly listened to Nika ramble away.

“… and then she says that I should know this, since Dad’s trading with Shoroon and…”

Rin let the sound of his brother’s voice wash over him as he let the afternoon sun sink into his skin. His head tipped back as he enjoyed the warmth from the stone after the cool dip in the river.

It had been a good day. A great day, in fact. Even Grandmother had been in a decent mood. So a swim in the river to end it all was just perfect. Peaceful, in fact.

“… now she wants me to get the key to his office and…”

The faint gurgling of the river combined with the many calls of the jungle birds to create a new kind of harmony.

What are they saying? Rin wondered as he watched a flock of macaws swirl about each other in an intricate aerial display, cooing and cawing to each other. Macaws were the chattiest of all spirits. He wondered if either of them would feature in any bird tales.

Nika suddenly flopped backwards to the ground beside Rin. His cheeks puffed out in a big, gusty sigh. “You’re not even listening, are you?” he muttered.

“Uh…” Rin blushed and glanced down. “Sort of…”

Another sigh drew his gaze down to notice his brother’s uncharacteristic frown. He straightened and turned to face Nika. “Stressed? You’re going with Dad this season, right?”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.” He threw an arm over his face. “The key to success is relations with your buyers and suppliers!” His twelve-year-old mimicry of Dad’s deep voice came out too squeaky.

Clouds passed over the sun, throwing Nika’s face in shadow. A cool breeze blew over the river, and Rin shivered with the sudden loss of warmth.

We should get back. Rin squinted down at the grass. There was something important he was forgetting. What was it? Meggi’s birthday?

“What?” Nika sat up. “Did you say something?”

“We should probably get back,” Rin responded, licking his lips. His throat felt too dry. He pushed himself up and shook off the last lingering drops of water.

“Ugh. Yay, back to Grandmother’s lessons,” Nika griped. But he accepted Rin’s hand and let himself be yanked upright.

“We should do this again. Tomorrow,” Rin suggested, picking up his shirt. He scanned the brush. Huh… I could’ve sworn I left my sandals right here…

“We can’t, Rin. You know that.”

Rin blinked, then turned towards the voice with another shiver. Azti should be back home. “What?”

His older sister smiled sadly down at him atop the bridge, Nika suddenly beside her. Staring up at them, Rin shivered again.

“You have to wake up, Rin.”

Rin woke with a jolt, narrowly missing the edge of a stone slab in his rush to consciousness. He struggled frantically against tight bonds before the last of sleep’s fog cleared.

The fountain. He’d fallen asleep in the safe room. He groaned and rubbed his eyes. Then stiffened into full alertness as his eyes alighted on the polished metal door. Still closed. A relieved sigh whooshed out.

How long has it been? Rin ran his fingers through his mess of tangled curls in vain. His clothes, still lying where he’d dropped them, were only slightly damp. The spider leg laid tangled in his sash nearby, also dry. So… maybe a few hours?

He huffed and sat up, hands picking Nika’s ribbon from a knot of hair. I need to get moving. He still hadn’t found the third ring. He hadn’t even seen anything from Mum’s description of their clan’s path. His stomach grumbled. Or food. He eyed the door wearily, slumping against the bench.

I could just stay here, where it’s safe. Even as he thought it, Rin shook his head. He wanted out. A tiny smile tugged at his lips as he ran the yellow ribbon through his fingers. Besides, he’d promised Nika.

So, with a grunt of effort, he extricated himself from his cozy nest of blankets and stumbled to the fountain. He splashed water over his face, then sipped some to soothe his clenching belly. Focus, he told himself firmly, glancing at the door out. A shiver ran down his spine at the sight. One thing at a time. And the first thing was to dress and get moving again.

By the time he had dressed, tied his mess of curls back, and drank more healing water, Rin felt more certain of himself. In fact, he almost felt ready to tackle whatever was on the other side of the room’s only door.


Another year, another chapter!

Happy New Year, everyone!

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