It has to be said that I never heard this tale of Maljie’s past from the lady in person. This one I had from Laxey, the sub-Hierodeacon. It has to be confessed that like Temple Wardens, the various levels of the hierodeaconate are chosen not for their overwhelming spirituality, but because they are useful when it comes to hewing wood, drawing water, and intimidating the inappropriately rumbustious. Still, Laxey told me this story, shortly before he disappeared on a week-long silent retreat. Given that there may have been fasting involved, it could be that his superiors considered the exercise to be more penitential than spiritual.
This tale, if I understand Laxey aright, probably comes during the period after Maljie’s mother had inadvertently misplaced both husband and fortune. Because of this oversight on her part the family were forced to relocate to less salubrious surroundings. Notwithstanding the family’s failing fortunes, Maljie’s mother seems to have decided to keep up standards, and amongst the possessions she managed to salvage from her old home was ‘the bath.’
Now let us not beat about the bush here. I have no problems with bathing. But a proper bath is a comparatively light and portable apparatus. Ideally long enough for a gentleman to lounge in comfort. I loathe these poky contrivances where you are forced to rest your chin on your knees! The perfect place for a bath is in the kitchen. The water can be conveniently heated on the stove, and as the stove warms the water, it warms the room. Also given that the kitchen is the centre of the household, it means that the bath’s current occupant is able to continue to participate in the family discussions, trade gossip and generally keep abreast of what is going on.
Now I have been informed by my good friend Benor Dorfinngil that in his family home in Toelar, they have a tiled room next to the kitchen. Their stove, as is the custom in that strange and barbarous city (one only has to see how they spice their dishes to realise that the trappings of civilisation are worn lightly by them) has a large water tank built into it. Thus when the stove is lit you always have warm or even hot water. From this stove a pipe runs to the tiled room next door where there is a bath. Thus one can return home and wash away the grime and scrapes of the day without getting in the way of the cook. Thus it is possible to sit down to your meal clean and refreshed. If true this could well be an advance.
But in all candour, the sole reason for having the bath located in some distant upstairs room is to display to the world that you are a person so careless of your wealth that you have staff with nothing better to do than to traipse around the house carrying jugs and buckets of hot water backwards and forwards.
Not only that but the bath owned by Maljie’s mother was no up-to-date tin bath. It was an altogether more substantial article. Indeed those who saw it claimed that it owed more to the famed jelly-baths of the Perfected Emperors than it did to family hygiene. In this bath, three or four children or two adults could disport themselves. It must be confessed that given the size of the household and the total lack of domestic staff, it faded from memory. Instead the family took their turn borrowing the hipbath owned by Murtal Mudrake four doors down. She hired it to other families in the street for ten dregs an evening.
Now having set the scene I must take a detour. I have mentioned before the park that beautifies the slope below the Council of Sinecurists’ building. Whilst a lot of it is steep, there are a number of level parts and in these there are water features. One day, when Maljie was passing, she noticed that one of these ponds was being cleaned out. Lying on a heap of mud there were a number of small fish. Being a caring child, she pocketed them, thinking that they would provide a pleasant supper for the family cat. She gave them to her mother, who decided they were too muddy and dropped them in a sink to wash them off. Much to everybody’s surprise the fish started swimming, apparently none the worse for their ordeal.
After some consideration it was decided the fish would be kept as pets, and Maljie carried water to the great bath upstairs and the fish were moved to their new home. They seemed entirely happy with their change in circumstances, and became an established part of the family. So established that their presence was taken for granted and they were rarely mentioned.
Now these fish were the Common Grey Rub. They’re found in fresh water throughout Partann. They’re an unassuming species which will eat just about anything in a meek and self-effacing manner. Apparently, according to piscatologists, they are related to the Red Bellied Rub. This differs from the commoner Grey in two distinct features. The first is that it has a red belly. The second is that it is a ravening carnivore. Legends abound of experimental taxonomists who have dropped horse carcasses into ponds. If the pond contains the Common Grey, the carcass floats serenely for weeks. Should the pond contain the far less common Red Bellied Rub, there is a seething and thrashing in the water and within minutes the carcass disappears. You are apparently left with nothing but a few well chewed bones and a considerable number of plump fish who belch urbanely from time to time. Indeed I have been informed that this is the only practical method of searching for the Red Bellied. Still they are apparently very rare. Seemingly, on this side of the mountains they survive mainly in the disposal ponds of a few of the more old fashioned Partannese nobility. Still, legend insists that several leading criminal masterminds in Port Naain have considerable numbers of these fish. No thirty-dreg romance is complete without the heroine dangling above one of these pools whilst a strategically placed candle slowly chars its way through the rope that keeps her from certain death.
All this would be nugatory, had Maljie’s mother not become involved with a gentleman who she felt would make a perfectly acceptable fourth, (or was it the fifth?) husband.
Maljie had already made up her own mind about the ‘gentleman’ in question and saw no reason to encourage the relationship. So when Mother summoned Maljie and instructed her to have ‘the bath’ filled with hot water for when Mother and her new swain returned from wherever they were dining, Maljie felt distinctively put-upon. It wasn’t merely carting the water, where on earth was she going to put the fish? It was then that she conceived her masterplan. She did carry a lot of water up to the bath, meaning that it was barely tepid. She also conducted a careful study of her mother’s collection of cosmetics, and after a little experimentation discovered that the red blusher was evidently an oil based cream. Finally she hung a towel over one end of the bath. From long experience she knew that the fish would happily sit at that end. She then proceeded to watch the street from the bathroom window.
Immediately her mother and admirer came into sight, she caught her fish and carefully painted their bellies with the blusher before returning them to the water. That done, she made her way demurely to her bedroom and locked her door by the simple expedient of propping a chair under the handle.
It seems that Madam and her admirer made their somewhat stumbling way upstairs. Whether due to the gloom (this was probably due to the desire to use only one candle, rather than to any urge to create a romantic ambiance), or perhaps the imbibition of rather more cheap red wine that some would consider wise, I wouldn’t like to say. Then apparently there was a whispered conversation at the top of the stairs. Maljie might have heard comments along the lines of, ‘and I’ll come and wash your back in a few minutes.’
Then potential husband number four (or perhaps five, estimates vary) made his way into the bathroom. He took with him the one candle. Maljie’s mother, doubtless knowing the layout of her own house, made her way back to her own room and made her own preparations.
It appears that the gentleman in question had taken off his clothes and was lowering himself into the bath when in the dim light he noticed what appeared to be a shoal of fish with red bellies swimming towards him. Even as his drink sozzled brain registered this information, other parts of his consciousness were demanding to be heard. They were asking questions along the lines of, “How many husbands has she had and what happened to them?” Indeed even the promise to, “Come and wash your back in a few minutes,” took on an altogether darker meaning. He shrieked, leapt out of the bath, grabbed his clothes and boots, and fled, barely slowing down as he got to the end of the street. Maljie’s mother, somewhat bemused, wandered down stairs to see what had happened to him. Maljie contented herself with picking up the change that had dropped from his pockets as he fled. She then returned to her bed, secure in the knowledge that she’d have plenty of time to remove any remaining red blusher from the fish in the morning.
Tallis gets involved in other fishing stories as well!
As a reviewer commented, “Benor Dorfinngil learns new skills in this story. He sets out to help a friend and he definitely gets into deep water. I always enjoy these little tales which sometimes take a surprising turn. If you’ve not read any before I think you could just dive straight in.”