4/16/1272 13:00 Milford, County Pim, Pamhia Province, Penamharik
Lord Ebrill was correct, Tania thinks to herself as her two wagons, and four outriders trudge wearily through the west gate of the war-fitted but remote town of Milford in County Pim. She’s learned to hide in the lowest places, camp in the most tic-ridden, nasty deciduous forests, drink from muddy streams, and shit into holes in the ground. Assiduously avoiding towns and even villages, she’s now startled at the appearance of organized groups of people. Tania the fugitive can barely remember Tania the princess, lost under two months of road grime, reeking of sour peasant fabrics and exposing only her pale, sunburned toes from under the whole body disguise.
The wagons roll east on Kiribhane Court Road past a tiny Marwbrite temple. They move past empty lots where a business section should be, past a growing garden next to a red-painted Gingerbread house. Above that house flies the arms of the county and of a clan that Tania has never seen. There’s also a wreath of mourning on the front door of the large red house. None of that holds the fugitive Princess’ interest.
What interests her is across the street. There lies a dream beyond her imagination.
“Grand Opening,” the sign says. “Milford Public Bath House.”
Below that cherished text, something else catches her eye.
“Financed by Lady Pim and the Pennington Bank & Trust.”
“Halt!” Tania shouts from inside the wagon.
The train pulls to a stop in front of the bathhouse. The outriders trot to within hearing-distance of the front of the wagon.
“Two of you explore the town and find the Pennington Bank & Trust,” Tania says.
“Aye!” the outriders say, disciplined for two months not to apply her honorifics.
She points to the second wagon in the train. “Tell my body servants to meet me in there!” she commands. “Tell them to bring clean underwear, good shoes, and one of the gowns we saved from the northern mercer wagon,” she concludes.
She clambers down from the first wagon and walks to the middle of the street. She rescues a few Song coins from her purse, tossing the rest of the bag back to her wagoneer. Also in her hand from the purse is a “fire” runestone.
She completely disrobes in the middle of the street while rubbing the runestone, chanting, and tossing the filthy peasant fabrics on the cobblestone street. The remaining outriders and her ladies-in-waiting stammer try to remember the Penamhrikan words for “stop” or “wait.”
The clothes catch fire with a sanitizing green flame. In less than three seconds, they’re reduced to ash. Tania doesn’t even watch. As passing soldiers stare, snow-blinded by her alabaster flesh and waist-length white hair, she strides into the bathhouse, tosses money to the bored-looking clerk, and begins to speak. Her voice is hoarse. She and her ladies-in-waiting exhausted their personal stories and secrets in the first month on the road. Silence has been her companion for the last twenty-four days.
“For the next hour, this bathhouse is mine!” she says in heavily accented Penamhrikan.
“Young Mistress,” the clerk says. “This bathhouse is yours anyway. There’s no one else here, and since Her Ladyship just opened the place this in the morning, I can’t exactly say there’s been pent-up demand.” He looks at the coin. “Are there twenty-five of you? Because you’ve grossly overpaid.”
The body servants enter, giddy at the sparkling newness of the building. Tania turns to them. “Get my ladies!” she commands in Arghentian.
The servants immediately exit. They come back with Tania’s four teenage ladies-in-waiting, who look dumbfounded as they peer around the premises. The servants advance behind them with a bag of toiletries.
“I’m going to get rid of the forest on my legs,” Tania says. “And we’re going to soak until our scalps wrinkle! And by all the Saints and all the Demons, I will never wear scratchy cotton knickers again! We are at the end of the world, and I am Princess Tania Alejandra Tsiarkeh. The knuckledraggers in this town are going to know glory when I walk down their streets.”
Carmella bursts into ecstatic tears. Enrica bounces up and down on her dirty toes. Lycorinda wobbles on the edge of fainting. Venetia falls to her knees, praying to Marwbren in thanks before rising.
“Let’s go, people!” Tania says and leads the way through the door. They watch in amusement as the servants clean up first. They, after all, have to be clean enough to wash the nobles.