You Live Your Life in the Shadow of the Mountain: 11. Sinners and Liars

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11. Sinners and Liars

 

There were eight public baths in the city that had segregated areas to allow women, and the house Sidaizon and Márathul usually attended was not one of them. The nearest women's bath was a twenty minute walk directly to the east, but in the interest of a more memorable family outing Sidaizon had announced they would try something new and visit the main bath house in the centre of the city. Though farther, it was also far larger and infinitely grander, with an exterior of gleaming marble and a vast silver dome as its roof. The afternoon sun lit the dome with a fire almost blinding in its whiteness.

Márathul and Nautalya shielded their eyes with their hands and looked up at the building in appreciative wonder as Sidaizon paid their fees to the attendants at the gate. "Well?" he asked. "Does this look like a nice place?"

"Yes!" said Nautalya. "Is this the bath house that princes use?"

"Sometimes, perhaps, if they're in the city. But princes have their own hot water baths in their own homes, as do the lords. Most of the visitors to this place are citizens."

Even the absence of princes was not enough to dampen Nautalya's spirits. She swung her bundle of clothing and hummed her way up the paved walkway, jumping from stone to stone at Sidaizon's side until they arrived at the women's door in the side of the building. There, attendants hung wet towels over wooden frames to dry in the sun.

A woman folding dry towels nodded to Nautalya. "How long?"

"Two hours," said Sidaizon. "Maybe a little longer? No less than two, though."

"I'll have her done by then. Once she's finished she can sit on the cushions and wait until you're ready." Smiling, she put the towels aside and held out her hand to Nautalya. "Well, little princess? Would you like me to wash your hair for you?"

Nautalya took the offered hand greedily. "And use coconut oil after?"

"Of course. And lily perfume powder all over your skin."

The two of them disappeared inside without a single backward glance from Nautalya, leaving Sidaizon and Márathul to retrace their steps back to the front of the building. The walkway led to a set of wide, shallow stairs, which in turn led up to a hammered bronze door twice as tall as any man and nearly two armspans wide. Beside it stood a smaller, wooden door. The bronze door was guarded by two large and cross-looking men, standing with their hands clenched at their waists and frowns on their faces.

"Which one do we use?" whispered Márathul. "Wooden, I guess?"

Sidaizon grinned at him. "Oh, no. One of the benefits to being an Almatar is the great joy of being allowed to use the nobles' door in any of the King's buildings. The nobles usually react with looks suggesting that they want to strangle me for being so impertinent as to think myself their equal, so I make a point of doing so whenever possible."

Márathul laughed in reply, but kept his head down as they passed through the great bronze door. True to expectations, the guards glared contemptuously at Sidaizon's clothing as if hateful thoughts could make up for the embarrassment of having to stand aside for such an obvious commoner. They shut the door after him as soon as he and Márathul were inside, hiding them both.

The bronze door led to a short corridor of gleaming white stone, with a high roof of silver lattice to let the sunlight through. At the corridor's end was another bronze door, identical but unguarded, which led to the dressing room. Like the corridor, the dressing room was built of pristine white stone that shone in the light streaming through the roof. Stone benches lined the walls, with shelves and pegs above for clothing. Only two other men, both half dressed, were in the room when Sidaizon opened the door. He smiled brightly at them. They frowned, turned their backs, and continued their conversation in hushed murmurs.

"We could have used the other door..." Márathul began. He hated confrontation, Sidaizon knew, and hated drawing attention to himself.

"Nonsense. The other dressing room is in the basement. It has tiny windows up near the ceiling, and no drains, so it's dark and damp. Isn't this one much nicer?"

Márathul's only reply was to pull off his clothing as quickly as possible before moving to stand by the inner door, in a corner where the two nobles could not see him. Sighing, Sidaizon did the same. The noblemen sniffed over their shoulders as he grabbed clean towels down from the shelf, taking care to mutter loudly enough that he could hear:

"What is the purpose in having a private dressing room if the doormen let these commoners in?"

"Appalling. Now I recall why I've not been here in so long. Fortunate we're leaving; they'd likely steal our clothes."

"Steal their...!" Márathul hissed. He shoved open the inner door that led to the baths with more force than needed. "Attu, they'll probably steal our clothes!"

"No, they won't. They'll complain to everyone they know about how the bath house has become overrun with peasants, and loudly swear never to return, even though they will, of course. But they won't steal or even touch our filthy, threadbare rags. That might contaminate their precious hands."

Márathul looked unconvinced. "If my clothes are gone..."

"We'll steal someone else's and buy you something new on the way home," Sidaizon said.

The inner door from the dressing room opened into an arched alcove. Separating the alcove from the vast, domed bathing area beyond was a counter staffed by a handful of attendants, where bathers could buy luxurious soaps and perfumed oils of higher quality than the basic products included in the price of admission. Two loud boys leapt up as soon as they spotted Sidaizon and Márathul, waving jars in the air and shouting about the wonders they sold.

"Almatar! Almatar! Come see this! New lavender perfume from Tirion!"

"This one is better! From Alqualondë! Scented with myrrh!"

"I also have soap made from sea plants!"

"I have apricot soap!"

"Cinnamon!"

"This one has chrysanthemum petals in it!"

"Nothing today," said Sidaizon.

"But you haven't tried-"

"No."

"I just want to show you-"

The unfortunate side to using the nobles' door and dressing room had always been the deliberate parade past the soap hawkers, who had a talent for being difficult to ignore. But after them came worse. Past the end of the soap counter, Sidaizon quickly steered Márathul around and down the steps to the bath, careful not to make contact with any of the peering eyes that haunted the shadows along the edges of the walls.

"Who are-" Márathul started to ask.

"Don't speak," Sidaizon warned. "Don't say a word, and don't look at them. They are forbidden by law from approaching without invitation, but they seem to interpret any acknowledgement of their existence as permission to hound you for money."

"But who... what are they?"

"Nothing. They are nothing, and they should be ignored."

"But-"

Sidaizon put his hand on the back of Márathul's head to push him straight forward. "Don't look!"

At the bottom of the stairs, the tiled floor of the bath house was wet with condensation and warm to the touch. Down on this level, steam rising from the bathing pools was thick as clouds, turning the bodies of other bathers into dim and ghostly grey shapes in the distance. Light from the oculus in the high silver dome could hardly penetrate the fog. Márathul made the mistake of trying to take a deep breath; he gasped, choked on the heavy air, and doubled over coughing.

"Here, sit down," Sidaizon said. He led Márathul to the edge of one of the steaming pools, where three other men already sat and soaked. Two held a quiet conversation; the third appeared to be asleep with his head and arms resting on the pool's tiled edge. Reluctantly, Márathul removed the towel he had wrapped around himself and slid into the water. He submerged himself until only his head remained above the surface, still coughing.

Márathul would never admit it, but he was shy when it came to his body and hated being naked. Unlike Tarmanaz, who viewed visits to the bath house as an opportunity to strut around like a peacock and proudly display his splendid self, Márathul hid. He was shorter than Tarmanaz and skinny as a stick, with sunken chest and bony shoulders. Sitting as he was, with his knees tucked under his chin and his arms hugging his shins, he looked twenty years younger than his true age.

Still just a boy, thought Sidaizon. Too young to go up the mountain.

He lowered himself into the hot water at Márathul's side and leaned back, closing his eyes. He could worry about his sons' chances at the academy later; now it was time to relax and think of nothing. Think of the water. Think of its smell: like hot stones. Tiny currents caused by the movements of the others in the pool swirled around his bare skin. He heard shallow splashes, and the water level dipped. Someone must have climbed out. It did not matter who. He was too lazy even to open his eyes and see. The heat always made him drowsy.

The hand on his shoulder could have been part of some hazy half-dream. The fingers squeezed, and a voice spoke in his ear. "Almatar Sidaizon."

He dropped his head to the side to glance at his shoulder. A hand with skin darker than his own rested there: a hand with long fingernails and a faded tattoo of interlocking, abstract curls winding down from the forearm. A familiar tattoo. It belonged to a devotee of Nessa. That much he could recall.

"A devotee of Nessa," he murmured. As soon as he spoke the words, their meaning grew clear. They snapped him awake with a lurch in his gut. He jerked his head upright and wheeled around to see the man crouching behind him.

"Ah," said the tattooed man. "You remember that; I'm impressed. You remember my name, then?"

"Anin."

A wide grin spread across Anin's face. "You do remember! Almatar Sidaizon, that is very good. And you've not been to visit me in over one hundred years!"

"There's a reason," Sidaizon growled. "Go bother someone else, Anin. I have no interest and no money."

Anin, if he heard, did not accept the dismissal. He shuffled closer until his toes perched at the edge of the pool, as close as he was allowed, and put his hand back on Sidaizon's shoulder. Sidaizon shrugged off his touch. Pouting, Anin crossed his tattooed arms across his chest, framing another set of similarly knotted lines that decorated his collarbone. The ends of the collarbone tattoo curved up to his shoulders and disappeared behind his coppery hair, which hung in two limp plaits long enough to drag on the ground in his crouching position. A fourth design scrolled down from his navel to disappear into his loincloth. "Almatar Sidaizon," he said, "I was worried about you all these years. I thought you moved away, or even died. One hundred years is a long time. But then finally you returned today! I recognised you. Tall and handsome as always, huu?"

"Anin..."

"Of course I had to come and see if it was really you. And I was right." He paused to look over at Márathul, and his voice took on a sharper tone. "Who is that you're with?"

"My son," said Sidaizon. "We're trying to enjoy our bath without horrors like you disrupting things. Go away!"

Wide-eyed as he watched the conversation unfold, Márathul had sunk farther into the bath to better hide himself. Only his head from the nose up showed above the surface. As soon as Anin made eye contact, he dropped his gaze and stared into the water.

"Shy?" asked Anin. He glanced from Márathul to Sidaizon, fishing for a response from either of them; none came. "Oh well. I can give you a good deal, Almatar Sidaizon, since you've been away so long. For everything – private massage and hair wash too – only eight tambimindi."

"No! Anin, I told you to go."

"Seven, then," Anin offered. "Only seven tambimindi. I usually charge fourteen. I know you have seven."

"I have nothing!" Sidaizon shouted. With a splash, he stood up in the pool and held his arms out wide, letting the water run down his naked skin. "Do you see? I have no purse on me, and no coins anywhere. Even if I did, I would give nothing to you! Now by Manwë's grace, leave me alone!"

Márathul sunk completely under the water as bathers turned to see what had caused the shouting. Discreetly, the two men sharing the pool slipped away and found another. All eyes were on Anin, but he seemed as calm and oblivious to disapproval as he had always been. He stared back at Sidaizon without so much as blinking. An awkward pause dragged on, accented by the occasional coughs of those who watched. Sidaizon held his breath and waited; Anin could be the one to break the silence.

"You can pay me next time," he finally said. As soon as he did, two large men grabbed him under either arm and hauled him to his feet. They needed little effort; he was small and light, no bigger than Márathul. They stood him upright, and Anin's face, which had for a moment been frozen in confused shock, suddenly filled with rage as he realised what had happened. Howling, he tried in vain to flail and squirm his way free. The two men held him fast.

"Is this piece of filth bothering you, Almatar?" the one on the left asked.

The two of them were naked and dripping wet, having clearly just climbed out of their own bath to investigate the commotion, but even out of uniform there was no mistaking that they were King's Hands. They looked, like all Hands, as if they could be brothers: tall and athletic, with angular, aristocratic features and cold eyes. The one who had spoken kept his gaze fixed on Sidaizon, waiting for the word of command. His companion stayed trained on the howling Anin. Even off-duty Hands never missed an opportunity to flaunt their power.

These off-duty Hands would also gladly cut short their bathing for the joy of hauling Anin back to their affectionately named Brass Pit for a beating and, very likely, worse. "If you did not invite him to speak to you," the man on the left continued, "he is violating the law. We can take care of him."

They could take care of him thoroughly, Sidaizon knew: take care of him in such a way that he would never bother another bath house patron again. As appealing as the outcome was, the means made his conscience scream. He shook his head. "No, thank you. That won't be necessary."

Anin's howling faded into a pitiful moan and then silence. He ceased his struggles, but the Hands did not release their hold.

"You... requested his presence?" the other one asked.

"No," said Sidaizon, "but I will admit to having done so in the past. He, not unreasonably, assumed that the invitation still held. It's nothing more than a misunderstanding."

"Shall we remove him?"

"No. He may stay. I will remove myself."

The Hands exchanged looks of annoyance, but released Anin without complaint. He sunk to the floor, moaning again, and covered his face.

Careful not to stand too near, Sidaizon stepped out of the bath. He took up his towels from the floor while nodding graciously to the Hands. "I thank you for your assistance, though," he told them. "That was very kind of you to think of helping me."

They replied with thin smiles. Of course their actions had been motivated by anything but kindness.

"Márathul," he continued; "I will be at the barbers and then a quick massage. You can find me there later, or I will look for you. You can manage here without me?"

Márathul, who only peeked above the surface of the water as much as was necessary to breathe, gave a tiny nod to indicate that he had heard. Without waiting for more, Sidaizon fled.

It was easy to disappear in the fog of the bath house. He could turn left around one pool then right around the next, crossing the floor in a winding pattern amid dozens of other bodies. He could duck to hide behind a pillar or slip down the stairs like a whipped dog to the sunken corner where the barbers flashed their razors. It was easy to run from conflict and disaster when he gave himself no time to recognise the cowardice of his actions.

He stopped, sat down gracelessly on the edge of the stair, and pushed the sweat- and steam-slicked hair back from his eyes. "Oh, by Manwë's breath!" he swore.

If he lied to his own conscience, he could insist that he had chosen to come to this bath house because he had forgotten that the wretch Anin even existed. But he had not forgotten. He had only assumed, foolishly, that Anin would have somehow disappeared over the long years he had stayed away. One single lapse in judgement, and Márathul had been at his side to witness it all. He could slap himself for being so careless.

He dropped his head down onto his knees, wrapping his arms around his head like a protective shell. The position helped him think no better, but it least it felt like a penitent pose. He could more easily feel sorry for his sad predicament while hunched over like a beggar. His neck ached and his shoulders cramped, and the blood flowing to his head throbbed stronger with every breath he took. Discomfort was a welcome distraction.

A light hand touched his arm, and he nearly leapt out of his skin for fear that Anin had followed him. But in place of the tattooed skin and limp plaits, concerned eyes stared back at him, framed by shoulder-grazing short hair.

"Are you troubled, my son?"

Oh, this is just what I do not need... He clenched his teeth to keep from swearing again and let his arms fall to his side. At the sight of his hair, the other Almatar stepped back.

"Ah... Forgive me, Brother. I did not see."

"There is nothing to forgive," said Sidaizon. "You are a wise man. I am troubled."

"How so?"

The words of dismissal sat ready in his throat, but Sidaizon paused. The easy road out would have him shrug off the inquiry and keep his worries to himself, but it was that habit of easy irresponsibility that had snared him in the first place. How terrible could it be to simply tell the truth?  This other Almatar would have sworn to uphold the same laws of Taniquetil to which he himself was bound; any confessions spoken would be held in confidence.  Sidaizon took a breath, letting the steam clear away his doubts, and before he could stop them the words began to flow like a river from his tongue.

"I am a liar," he said. "Everything in my life is built, brick by brick, from lies. Five hundred years ago I lied to the Academy, vowing to be an obedient servant of Manwë when in truth I have not. While there, I lied my way through sixty years of prayer and worship. I followed rules I do not accept and spoke words I do not believe. I promised to uphold the sanctity of the King's Laws, which I have not fully done. And I lied when I put forth my name for promotion to head Almatar of my Lavazat. I was given my position based on a lie. And only the other day, I lied to an Oraistar face to face, in the very courtyard of that Lavazat that I gained on lies. I am a hypocrite and a liar. But it does not end there!

"I have lied to my mother more times than I can count. I have lied to my grandfather. I would probably lie to my father, too, if given the chance, but alas he exists as nothing more than a faceless ghost from my mother's stories. I have lied to my wife. I have led her to believe that I am a good and respectable man, but truly I am not. I am a lying sinner. All of my many sins have led me to tell more lies, even to my children. Just moments ago I lied to my son, or as good as lied, because I did not tell him the truth. So you see!" He slapped his hands down onto his knees to emphasise the word. "I am very troubled."

The other Almatar stared back at him, lips pursed in silent uncertainty. "I..." he finally managed.

"I don't expect you to have any salvation for me. But do you know what the worst of it is?"

Gingerly, the Almatar shook his head.

"The worst is that, if I ask myself truthfully, I do not care. Because in my heart I am convinced that this is all for the best. I have lied for my own gain, and those lies have served me well. If not for lies, I would be much less fortunate today, and much less happy. So how can I hate myself for lying? No, what troubles me is that I know I have done the wrong thing, innumerable wrong things, but fate has been rewarding me for my actions. Until today. Now one of my lies has caught me, and I don't know what to do. Like all good liars, I'm not sorry for lying. I'm sorry for being caught."

Whether or not he felt unburdened for having made those confessions was impossible to tell. He did feel exhilarated. Something in the act of speaking aloud what he had kept hidden for so many years made his heart race. The danger of letting those secrets be known sent a tingling thrill throughout his entire body.

The reaction of the other Almatar hovered somewhere between offended and horrified: offended, surely, that a fellow Brother in Manwë's order could behave so terribly, and horrified to hear the admission of guilt spoken aloud. He teetered on his heels and sucked his teeth as if grasping for anything he could say in reply. "Manwë save you, Brother," he stammered. Then with a dip of the head, holding out his hands in a wary blessing, he backed away to disappear into the swirling steam.

"Indeed," Sidaizon murmured to the hazy, retreating shape. Manwë save me indeed.


 

 

 

Tambimin - copper piece (pl tambimindi)

Tyelpilin - silver piece (pl tyelpilindi)


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Darth Fingon

Status: General

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 1st Age

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 06/20/11

Original Post: 02/07/09

Go to You Live Your Life in the Shadow of the Mountain overview

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