138: Steam Heat

on January 17, 2008 in 05: The Weekend Shift

In Which Mackenzie Comes Clean

Outside the showers, Amaranth took my towel and hung it up along with her own on one of the hooks. I felt both meek and numb at the scene of my so-recent crimes, and was retreating into myself, into my sense of owned-ness, of belonging to her.

I hesitated again at the threshold of the showers. I felt an odd sense of foreboding as if I thought I’d step through and see bloody chunks of flesh on the floor, or be grabbed by an enraged rocky hided fighter as soon as I was inside.

Amaranth tugged on my hand and then I was in.

The floor was wet and cold. The air inside the little enclosure was, too. Amaranth left me standing in the center while she went around and turned on all of the showers. She turned the temperature up fairly high, though not as high as I would have.

I shivered in the chilly air and longed to huddle closer to the hot streams, or immerse myself under them, but I stayed where I’d been put.

“I just love steam,” Amaranth said, turning back to me. She shivered herself, as if her habitually bare skin had suddenly become sensitive to the cold. “It’s so hot, and wet, and… steamy.” She giggled. “There’s no adjective for it that doesn’t sound sexual.”

I nodded.

“Ian says you’re pretty good at the elemental invocation,” Amaranth said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I mean, I’ve got some natural talent. I haven’t actually done much with it yet.”

“I’d like you to do something with it now,” Amaranth said. “I’d like you to make some more steam… fill the room with it. Can you do that for me, baby?”

I thought hard before answering.

Steam was air with an excess of fire and water… or rather, with an excess of water that had an excess of fire. Even that was something of a simplification. The layperson was likely to think of elemental composition as a simple matter of balance: this much earth, that much water, but I could no more make steam by simply adding water and fire to air than Two could make cookies by putting flour and sugar and whatever else went into cookies in a big pile.

We were surrounded by hot water, though, and it was already moving through the air. Could I call that fiery water into the air? It wasn’t quite what I’d been learning to do… but fire and water were my best elements.

I could try it, at least.

“I can try,” I said. “Ma’am.”

“Try, then,” Amaranth said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I put myself over the drain in the center of the room, where the water was collected to be cleaned and cycled back into the reservoirs which fed the showers.

The cold stone floor was slow to warm up, but I could feel the hot water running around the bottom of my feet. I could feel the heat coming from the four jets of water. I closed my eyes and opened my senses.

I felt the hot water… reached out and experienced it as heat and water separately. I could feel the nascent fire within the cool water.

I could feel it. What could I do with it? It didn’t take me very long at all to realize I couldn’t force it into steam through invocation… but I could play with it. What if I pulled the fire a bit closer to the surface? What if I fed it?

I reached out and pushed, and felt the water changing. In my mind, it glowed red and then… exploded. The sound of running water changed, became more of a blasting hiss. I heard Amaranth exclaim, and a wave of heat hit me, but neither of those were the reason why I shuddered and swayed… I was pushing too hard.

I let up a bit, and I could hear the sound of water hitting the floor again. Hotter and steamier than normal. I couldn’t keep it up, though. The falling water was too hard to hold on to.

I opened my eyes. The initial burst of steam had filled the room, but it was already clearing.

“That was a good try,” Amaranth said, but I was still engrossed in the problem. The warmth and steam were escaping out through the curtained doorway, and cold air was coming in.

The curtain helped a bit, but not nearly enough. Could I make it better?

I went over and touched it. Curtains kept things in or out; it was their primary function, as a knife’s was cutting. I held my fingertips out near the curtain, traced the edges. It was just a piece of cloth treated with rubber… far from perfect.
I could improve it. I could enhance it.

I did it the hard way a couple times to make sure I had the technique down. It was almost exactly the same as making a knife sharper, only completely different.

I did my best to make sense of those differences and then formulated a quick-and-dirty spell that would turn that thin, grimy-looking curtain into an almost perfect insulator, transform the almost symbolic barrier it represented into an actual one.

Once I had the spell in place, I probed at it a bit. It would last a while… definitely less than an hour. Maybe half an hour? Hopefully long enough.

I’d burned through a lot of energy, though I still had plenty for invoking fire. This time, I turned up the heat in only one of the showers, for several seconds, then went around and turned the hot water for all the showers all the way up.

We stood ensconced in a bank of fog, wrapped in a cocoon of heat. Amaranth had already taken off her glasses and put them where ever her things went when she wasn’t using them. She looked around in wonder.

“That’s very good,” she said. “I’ve never been in a steam room. I’d never been in a shower, until recently. I’ve had a nice life, but you miss some things, living out in a field.”

She wandered through the space as if seeing it for the first time. Not that there was much to see, even without a bunch of billowing clouds in the way. The showers took up about as much space as a dorm room, give or take, with one spout in each corner. She held her hands out, palms up, as she walked a slow circle, as if she were catching snowflakes.

“Now,” she said, turning to me with startling abruptness. “I think you need to tell me what happened today.”

“I… well, I woke up feeling weak this morning,” I said. “At first I thought it was because I’d accidentally invoked water in my sleep, but then I started getting… pangs. I realized I was about a week overdue for feeding, so I, um, I tried to arrange for a feeding.”


“I… um,” I said, blanching. “Do you remember when we went to the market and there was that man, Hrothvar?”

“The slaver,” Amaranth said. “Oh, baby, no…”

“I didn’t know what else to do,” I said. “I knew that slavers would have blood, but I kind of thought I’d just be able to buy a neat little container and not have to sweat the details. Hrothvar had other ideas, though.”

“You had other options,” Amaranth said gently. “You could have told your friends. We would have helped.”

“I was ashamed,” I said, squeezing my eyes shut. I still was ashamed. Virgin blood. Not the worst thing I could have craved in purely practical terms, but pretty near the top in the hierarchy of evilness. “I came here with the idea that I could keep my nature secret forever… or at least until people got to know me a little, and then that got blown wide open before I even settled in. I guess I didn’t want people to know just how bad I was.”

“I should have pressed you,” Amaranth said. “But, the first weekend here, talking about your feeding habits upset you so much that I didn’t want to… I thought you’d let me know in your own time, before things got desperate.”

“I should have,” I said. “It’s my fault.”

“You need to take responsibility for your actions,” Amaranth said. “But so do I. Either one of us could have prevented all of this if we’d reached out, and that makes us both responsible.”

“No, it’s not your…” I started to say, but she shushed me with a finger on my lips.

“I’m your owner,” she said. “You should have told me, but failing that, I should have found out. I can’t punish you for my lapse, so… Steff will. She’ll stand in for the friends you didn’t trust, the people you… well… endangered. Do you understand?”

I swallowed. Steff punishing me? I had a feeling we weren’t talking about a paddling. Steff frightened me some of the time… and excited me some of the time.

Actually, they were generally the same times. I didn’t know how to feel about that.

Actually, I did: excited and frightened.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said when she removed her finger.

“And when you have problems, you will trust your friends to help you without judgment,” Amaranth said. “You will trust me. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “There’s… um… there’s more.”

I told her what happened after the conversation with Hrothvar, the encounter with Barley. She laid a finger on my lips when I started describing Barley’s appearance… in particular, the part about her clothing.

“Mack, baby, you’ve had a long day,” she said. “You were hungry and tired, and probably justifiably confused. So, please… think hard about what you’re saying before you go on.”

She looked at me, her eyes pleading with me through the haze. She wanted me to lie to her. She didn’t want to know.

She released me, and I took a breath.

“She was wearing a shirt and socks,” I said, and Amaranth sunk to the floor, her face anguished.

“How could she?” she wailed. “How could she?”

The response might have seemed overblown, coming from anybody else. To Amaranth–maybe to all nymphs–wearing clothing was the ultimate taboo. I knew she’d violated it in private, to her deep shame. I could understand why it would affect her so hard to know that Barley was walking around flaunting it in public.

“There’s something else you have to know,” I said, when she’d calmed down a bit. “The stuff she was wearing was all… um… dirty.”

“Dirty?” she asked, looking up at me in confusion. “What do you mean, dirty?”

“Just that,” I said. “They were dirty. The shirt was sweaty and stained, and the socks… well, she wasn’t wearing anything over them, so you can probably imagine.”

“That shouldn’t be,” Amaranth said. She got to her feet and began to pace, chewing on her lip. “Whenever I’ve… imagined myself wearing something, I figured it would stay clean the same way I do.”

“I don’t think she’s clean,” I said. “She tried to make me taste her blood, and it was nasty… it tasted bitter, about as unclean as you can get.”

“That doesn’t sound right,” Amaranth said. “Nymphs are pure. If anything, we should taste delicious. I’ve always thought I would be, if somebody killed and ate me… or ate me alive…”

“What does it mean?” I asked, trying to keep her on focus. Amaranth could be a bigger masochist than I was. The fact that she was functionally immortal sometimes led her to consider taking it to unsettling extremes.

“I… I… um, it could be a couple different things,” Amaranth said. I was sure she’d been about to say she didn’t know. “I’ll have to leave you early in the morning, baby. I need to get a signal fire going for dawn. Mother Khaele needs to know about this.”

“Don’t… um… don’t you think she might know already?” I asked.

“No!” Amaranth said. “How could she? She would have done something if she knew.”

“Um…” I said, not sure how far I should push a delicate issue.

“What, baby?”

“Don’t you think it’s possible she’s already done something?” I asked. “I mean, Barley has stepped across a couple pretty big lines.”

“Barley’s strayed off the path a bit, but I don’t think she’s gone that far,” Amaranth said. “Remember, we don’t know how far she actually would have gone that night she assaulted you.”

“Well, maybe Mother Khaele will be able to clarify it for you,” I said. Amaranth had considered Barley her best friend and more for her entire life. I couldn’t raise any argument that would overcome that. Maybe a goddess could.

“I’m sure she will,” Amaranth said, her voice full of the confidence that only comes from having both a plan and a higher authority to turn to. “Now, let’s continue your story, and not another word about Barley.”

“Um… there’s more about Barley,” I said.

“Oh,” Amaranth said. “Sorry.”

“She went nuts when she saw my reaction and started tearing into me… or my clothes, anyway,” I said. “She couldn’t hurt me. Except they were Two’s clothes, and she ended up tearing off some buttons and stealing my–Two’s–headband.”

“Why were you in Two’s clothes?” Amaranth asked.

“She, uh, wouldn’t let me leave the room in dirty clothes to go do laundry,” I said. “Sorry. That was before all the bad stuff started.”

“Okay,” Amaranth said. “Well, we’ll have to try to get that back. I’ll talk to Mother Khaele about that, too. Is that all you have to say about Barley?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “Go on, then.”

I continued the story of my day, detailing how I’d staggered upstairs and back to my room, collapsed on my bed, and woke up hungry. I stumbled and hesitated over some parts from that point on.

Her face was red from the heat, but it grew paler and paler as I went on to describe the encounter with the skirmishers, my dinner date with Ian, the disastrous card game, and everything else that had led up to me being held by Dee’s magic. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her all the details of everything that I had been thinking, but I left out none of my actions.

When I had finished, I ducked my head and waited for her reaction. Amaranth put her hand under my chin and lifted my face up.

“That wasn’t you,” she said. “What you thought, what you did… that’s something inside of you. It’s… it’s like a condition. We’re both responsible for letting you get to that point, but nothing you said or did once you got there… nothing you thought… is your fault, because it wasn’t you.”

“It was,” I said, in a quavering voice. “It was… the real me.”

“Hush… I know the real you, and I love her,” she said. “I love her in a way I’ve never loved anybody before, and I never want to come as close to losing her as I did tonight. I’ll get a calendar. We’ll start keeping track. We can find more blood. There’s no reason for this ever to happen again.”

“What if it does?” I asked.

“Then we’ll get through it,” she said. “I’m no Dee, but I can channel divine energy if she’s not around. We’ll manage.”

“But… what if we can’t?” I asked. I felt small and weak after reliving the events of the evening.

“Shh,” Amaranth said, pulling me in close to her. “I love you, Mack, and you love me. That’s all we need to handle anything.”

On one level I knew that she was wrong, that love couldn’t overcome everything… but wrapped up in her arms, pressed against her chest in that reassuringly warm wetness, I had to believe her anyway.

We had love. That was enough.

It had to be, because we didn’t have a lot else going for us.

“Let’s get cleaned up, baby,” she said.

She took me over to one of the corners and turned that shower down. I let her wash me, with honeysuckle scented body scrub. She followed that with a separate moisturizing cream. She then applied a self-heating facial cleanser, before shampooing and conditioning my hair.

In the midst of the shampooing, my spell on the curtain broke down and we both jumped at a sudden rush of cold air.

Being bathed by Amaranth was an intimate experience, and an educational one. I simply had one bottle of all-in-one cleanser I used to wash my hair and dirty bits with. Efficiency versus extravagance… I could see advantages both ways.

When she finished, she held out her scrubber and asked me if I wanted to help her… I started to reach for it, but then shied away. It was too intimate. That might sound strange after everything I’d done with her, but it’s how I felt. I was inadequate to the task.

“No?” she said, her serene smile not faltering. “Watch me, then. You’ll do this for me, some day.”

I watched as she dripped sudsy water over her breasts, then poured some more of the body wash onto the scrubber and started to work up a lather. I watched her wash herself off… a purely perfunctory act, as of course she was already completely clean… but one she obviously took great pride and pleasure in.

When she finished, I felt cleansed myself… and yet also, surprisingly dirty.

“There, now,” she said cheerily. “A good, long, hot shower can solve just about anything.”

I didn’t agree, but it was still a good start.

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3 Responses to “138: Steam Heat”

  1. pedestrian says:

    Sharing a shower is fun but you have to be careful. A couple slip and fall can be painfully disastrous. A guy I used to work for and his shower buddy, in the midst of their gymnastics routine, got careless and had a bad dismount.

    As the paramedics were trying to were trying to get the ambitious couple out of the tub and onto gurneys, My boss’s wife came home and then the really painful disaster began to unfold, when she took the woman’s purse and called Mrs. Nimble’s husband.

    Current score: 0
    • JN says:

      Let’s just call him Jack B.


      Current score: 0
      • nobody says:

        Jack B. Nimble.
        Jack be quick.
        Someone might loose
        his candlestick.

        Current score: 1