Jaya was late again. The moon was high above her by the time she slipped through the workers’ entrance into the bathhouse. She fumbled with her clothes and grabbed a coarse towel from the rack in the cloakroom, wrapping it securely around her waist. “I’m coming!” she said to no one in particular, hurrying into the steam chamber. A bathworker was waiting by the entrance, wearing the telltale green shift. Jaya almost walked right past them before she noticed the tray they were carrying. She let out a long whistle.
“Who let you get at the coffee?” she said, snagging one of the tall, cloudy glasses. Late nights at Prosperity were for employees only, and people like Jaya who never let anyone forget that she had been a bathworker too, thirty-odd years ago. But though the bathworkers were encouraged to use the baths and improve Prosperity’s process, they were only allowed the leftovers of the day’s food, like rats. Rats did not get coffee like this. The bitter taste struck Jaya hard; she smacked her lips at the sharp chicory.
The bathworker grinned. “The malik’s looking the other way for tonight. Might as well, since the likes of us won’t use the baths again!”
Jaya tried to hide her grimace. She had told herself to pretend tonight was like any other night, but that was proving difficult. She coughed, and said, “Have you seen Kiren? Short, old-timer like me?”
“In the corner there. Enjoy.”
She could just make out Kiren’s familiar shape through the billowing steam. As Jaya inched close, Kiren lifted a hand in a halfhearted wave. She was lying flat on her back, limbs akimbo, eyes shut. Jaya could not hold back a snort. She looked so worn down, one would think they were still bathworkers exhausted after the long day. Jaya lay down beside her, taking note of the warmth emanating from her, her fingers flexing—signs of her small-magic at work.
“Knees hurting you again?” said Jaya.
Kiren groaned. “Like fire. I swear they only stop aching when I’ve been through the Prosperity process about five times. Those bastards are going to keep me in agony if they shut me out of here.”
“You have enough magic to treat yourself,” Jaya said. She patted Kiren’s arm in reassurance, then made a face. Her friend’s skin was slick with moisture.
“Well, I wish I didn’t have to. I’m going to deplete the bathhouse stores as much as I bloody can before we leave tonight. Lavender scents, please!” Those last words were shouted at the middle of the chamber, where green-shifted bathworkers were barely visible through the mist. Someone cranked the controls, and the air filled with the smell of lavender.
“What does lavender mix well with?” said Kiren. “You think I can get them to add another scent?”
“Oh, stop it. You’re only giving them more work to do.” The bathworkers were moving in unison, conducting the steam through the room. Jaya focused on the pinprick of awareness in the back of her mind; their small-magic was a faint, happy hum, calling to hers, twisting with heat. She let herself be lulled by the familiar rhythm, pushing away the reminder that it would soon be lost to her forever.
Kiren scoffed. “Work, ha. You think they can get away with mischief when they’re on duty during the day? They’re enjoying this.”
Shapes coalesced in the steam: a snarling tiger, a hissing snake. Jaya frowned. Surely she was imagining things. The first chamber at Prosperity was agni, fire. For people like Kiren, the thick heat was like calling to like, a swirl of energy that heightened emotion so that it could be released in the next room. Jaya’s own small-magic had always been a cool, slippery thing that preferred the river’s currents to its sunbaked ghats. Even a few minutes in the first chamber felt stifling—made her liable to see things in the mist.
Jaya prodded Kiren’s arm. “Let’s move on.”
“Hay, so soon?” But she sat up slowly, allowing Jaya to help her to her feet. “I’m only doing this because they’re serving real food tonight, Jaya. Don’t think I’m bending to your will.”
Jaya only rolled her eyes. They crossed the warm wooden floor to a set of small doors; the bathworker cracked the doors open so that too much steam would not escape, and the two of them ducked into the next chamber.
They made their way to the raised platform in the middle of the room, dabbing at their damp skin. Thankfully, there was space enough for both of them. Jaya left Kiren stretched out on the hot stone, and went to grab one of the copper vessels at the platform’s centre. It was full of a thick green-brown sludge, smelling of herbs and clay and comfort. She hefted up the vessel and brought it back to Kiren, feeling rather proud of her own steadiness. The Prosperity process was taking effect: strength trickled into her tired muscles, and her small-magic stirred like a waking housecat.
Kiren was watching her with an unreadable expression. “What, are you pretending you’re still a bathworker?”
Jaya dipped a hand into the clay and began scrubbing it over her arms. “I’m always pretending that.”
“Take a washcloth, mu-ma,” a voice said. Jaya looked up to see Bo staring at her with definite disapproval, washcloth in hand. Bo’s green shift was stained with clay; Jaya had to resist the urge to pull the girl closer and scrape it away.
“Thank you,” said Kiren, accepting a washcloth and slathering herself with mud. “Please, Jaya, allow Bo to do her job.”
“All right,” Jaya muttered.
But the sternness had not faded from Bo’s eyes. “You shouldn’t be overexerting yourself. Either of you. Who’s going to fix your aches and pains after tonight?”
“You,” Kiren said cheerfully. “Between the three of us, we can recreate the Prosperity process in the jungle, right?”
Jaya shot her friend a look. “Don’t tease.”
In the same moment, Bo said, “No, actually, the company’s bought the jungle.”
“What?” said Jaya, astonished. “What do you mean, bought the jungle?” Kiren looked just as shocked.
Bo glanced between the two of them, and sighed. “Wait here. I’ll bring the food.”
Something twisted in Jaya’s gut. She finished painting the clay over her wrinkled skin in silence. It hardened like a cool shell over her body, helped by the ovenlike warmth of the stone. But it could not shut off her anxiety. Jaya tried to imagine her worries discharging into the earth, like lightning on a stormy monsoon afternoon.
“How could the company buy the jungle? I thought they only bought the bathhouse,” Kiren whispered, startling Jaya out of her trance. “Can you…buy land like that? Who sold it to them?”
A hundred possibilities bubbled to Jaya’s lips. “I don’t know,” she said. It was best not to speculate, after all. What good would that do?
Bo arrived soon after, bearing a wooden tray stacked with simple, uncooked fare: flatbread, fluffy cottage cheese, dried figs. She set the food on the stone between them and sat down, folding her legs beneath her. Jaya turned to face her, feeling the clay caked over her skin crack at the motion.
“Eat first,” said Bo, offering them the figs. Her small mouth was twisted in unhappiness; her fingers were knotted tightly together. Jaya sensed her magic too, a roiling mass of emotion stirring against its bounds like a river testing a dam. “The company signed a treaty with the shah. They get the bathhouse, the harbour, the whole town. The jungle. All of it.”
Kiren waved a chunk of flatbread in the air. “Not likely! The shah was just warring with the company—”
“Times change.” Bo’s voice broke; she swallowed hard, and looked away. Jaya covered the girl’s hand with her own. Bo lived in the strange new way that the company men encouraged—with only her blood family—because her brother had been one of their foot soldiers. At least, before he had died in the war with the shah. Bo understood far more than Jaya did, and Kiren pretended to, about the outsiders and their strange new ways. But the cost was a fractured home, and Jaya could not induce her to join one of the walled communes like the rest of them. Deep in Jaya’s belly, her small-magic skittered around like a nervous thing.
“Tell us there’s something we can do.” Kiren fisted her hands, heat pulsing from her body in waves. “Someone we can fight.”
A cold spike of certainty hit Jaya through the warm fog.
“Be silent!” She seized Kiren’s wrist with her free hand. “For goodness’s sake, Kiren. The malik sleeps upstairs. You think she won’t sense something going on here if you spread talk of sedition?”
Jaya held up a hand. “Bo, put the tray away. We’ll go through to the next chamber.” She had no children or grandchildren by her own blood, but Jaya knew that stubborn clench to the young girl’s jaw. If she could not draw Bo into her fold, she would have to find some other way to protect her. And the last way to keep any of them safe was treason.
Bo scuttled away, looking still more mulish. Jaya waited until she was beyond hearing to open her mouth again. “You heard her. If her news is true, and the shah has allied with the company, then talking against the outsiders is sedition.”
Kiren worked her jaw. “Talk isn’t enough.”
Now, a real fear curled into Jaya’s chest. “What does that mean?”
Kiren met her gaze with a steady stare. “Who is the shah, to barter the land we live on in a treaty to outsiders? Who are the outsiders, to come here on their boats and decide what we do and how we live?”
Jaya knew there were many in town who shared Kiren’s views. War had taken a toll on the communes, to say nothing of the factories, which had pulled away those of them with stronger magic. But the outsiders, though they died at a bite of a mosquito, had been clever about this. The powerful were separated, put to work in offices or the company’s army, given paper money so that they would stay content. The weak were angry, but they could do nothing about their anger. Jaya would die weak. She did not want to spend the remainder of her life angry.
“Who are we,” she said, “to defeat anyone in a fight? You and I have so little magic that we were not even summoned for the factories’ most menial jobs. What can small-magic do?”
Kiren had no answer to that.
The bathwater was just warm enough to feel cool after the oppressive heat of the previous two chambers. Here Jaya let her small-magic seep into the air around her, smiled as the scented water swirled into tame little currents. They had scrubbed off the clay and washed off its traces; now they would soak for as long as they liked. Bo returned with their main course, still tight-lipped with some stirring revolution.
“Don’t get food in the water,” she said, sitting outside the bath and leaning against its bamboo-panelled wall.
“We’ve worked here same as you, young lady.” Kiren popped a fish cutlet into her mouth, letting out a long sound of appreciation. “I hope you won’t take that tone with your new, pale-faced customers.”
A shadow crossed Bo’s face. “I certainly won’t.”
Sensing that they were coming to dangerous territory again, Jaya took a noisy gulp of the spiced buttermilk. “My, have they improved the recipe for this?” Her attempt at distraction proved useless; both Kiren and Bo ignored her.
“What will you do, then?” Kiren was not teasing anymore, Jaya realised. She was wearing an expression rather like determination. Kiren, who could hardly walk a mile without needing to stop to rest her knees! The comfort of Prosperity was slip-sliding away like an eel from Jaya’s grasp.
She glanced at the painted ceiling, picturing the fearsome malik asleep in her silk sheets. The malik kept the bathhouse workers under her thumb with a considerable magic—not great-magic, which was the work of sorcerers, generals, and kings, but not the paltry small-magic that Jaya herself wielded. Even now the malik’s magic sat dormant, a faint awareness in the back of Jaya’s mind.
What destruction would she wreak on her workers if she discovered what they discussed, between agni and vayu? Jaya was certain now that she had not mistaken the shapes in the steam earlier: a tiger, a snake. Promises of vengeance, symbols of resistance in stories carried from other harbour towns that the outsiders had taken for their own. Sedition eddied in the bathwater, hung thick in the air like condensation. Jaya and Kiren could be overlooked, of course. But what of the girls who worked here every day? Jaya looked to Bo, at the restless push-pull of her magic.
“I’ll not take this lying down,” said Bo, her voice thick with emotion. “If I must burn down factories to free other magic-workers, I will. The outsiders can’t take this away from us.”
Jaya shook her head, letting out an incredulous laugh. “Bo, what will you fight with? We have no strength.”
Bo did not respond to that, but Kiren gasped.
“What?” Jaya said.
“Speak for yourself!” Kiren extended a shaking hand to Bo, pressed a finger to her collarbone.
There was a sudden flash of light, the sharp smell of something burning—and, far stronger, a dull roar of magic, a surge of power that sent Jaya’s small-magic cowering, like a predator’s call. How often had Jaya called to another’s magic that very same way, to see which little babies in the commune carried it within them? But the responses she had received were whispers in comparison to this. The bathwater sloshed onto the stone floor. Jaya let out a yelp as it turned cold as ice. Every bathworker who had been controlling the Prosperity’s fine-tuned process would find their magic stiff with fear.
Jaya batted Kiren away, and the force went silent. Warmth seeped back into the water; murmuring to themselves, the bathworkers turned as one to look at Bo. But the greater harm had already been done. Somewhere above, magic sparked up with a start. The malik was awake.
Jaya scrambled out of the bath, dripping water all over the floor. She fumbled for a towel, and tossed another at Kiren. “Get up. We’re going.” The last chamber, vayu, would only need a brisk walk. Neither of them felt any particular affinity for the element of air, so there was no need to linger. Jaya was already thinking of the quickest route back to her commune.
But Kiren was paying her no attention. “Great-mage,” she said with awe, staring at Bo. “I knew I felt something from you.”
“And you had the brilliant idea to test out your theory here! The malik is awake, Kiren. No doubt the whole town felt that.” Jaya wrapped the towel around herself, knotting her wet mass of hair at her neck. She called to her fitful magic and drew out the water in a long stream, directing it back into the bath with a flick of her wrist. She could not look as if she’d been here at all. There was no doubt that Bo had kept her magic hidden—and to evade the outsiders’ call for powerful magic workers would bring punishment upon them.
“Bo, come with us,” said Jaya, holding out her hand. The girl still had not moved an inch since her extraordinary burst of strength. No doubt all the bathworkers would be tested again. Could Bo avoid such an examination? Would the other bathworkers help? Better still for her to be gone before the malik arrived.
None of them even so much as twitched. Jaya grabbed both Kiren and Bo, and pulled them through the doorway.
Bo was shaking her head as Jaya dragged them along. The last chamber was more a corridor, its walls painted in soothing blue whorls that did nothing to calm Jaya now. Little vents brought gentle winds whistling through the hallway, smoothing the last droplets of water from their shoulders. In the middle of the chamber, Bo yanked her arm free.
“I’m not leaving. And let the malik come! She’ll take us outside to test us again, and I’ll burn down this bathhouse.”
Her words held no hint of hesitation. Jaya stepped away from her—from the curling, hot magic she could not keep leashed.
“How could you say that?” Prosperity had kept the townspeople’s small-magic in balance for so many years. It was as much a part of Jaya as the salty air, as her own writhing magic. But Bo, she realised, had been born into a different world. A world where outsiders seized the docks and then the young, a world tainted by the seafarers’ touch. A girl with power such as hers would not sit back and watch.
Bo’s furious gaze confirmed Jaya’s fear. “If we can’t have the bathhouse, they can’t either.”
Jaya fought to keep the tremor out of her voice. It seemed to her that they were all three of them on the precipice of something, but only Bo was liable to jump. “And what of the town? The jungle? Will you burn those too, just so the company cannot have them?”
That distant rumble of magic filled Jaya’s ears again. “I’ll burn everything and start again, mu-ma,” Bo said like a promise, “if it means I can keep them out.”
Jaya tried to picture that, a town that had not felt the influence of the outsiders. It looked like her childhood. But she knew how they twisted every situation to their advantage, how they fought with the shah one month and signed treaties with him the next. They would be back, like the blight that reshaped itself and attacked crops. Jaya reached for Bo’s hand again, squeezing it hard.
“Burn them too,” she said. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, drowned out by the surge of Bo’s power. But the girl’s grim smile showed that she had heard well enough. Jaya adjusted her towel and hurried through the corridor with Kiren on her heels. They stopped in the cloakroom long enough only to gather their clothes before ducking through the door.
The night air rushed to greet them, the absolute silence punctured only by their gasps.
“What did you say to her?” said Kiren, massaging her knees.
Jaya squinted away from the bathhouse. From here she could see the harbour, still bright with lamps even at this hour, light dancing over the tall sails of the outsiders’ ships.
“Nothing,” she said. “Come. It’s getting late.”