The white orbs that gave off light were placed oddly, on the floor and on a low table, illuminating only the center of the room. An iron brazier burned smokelessly, adding a slight note of warmth. The rest of the chamber softened off into shadow. I glimpsed a large bed crouching at the edge of the light, and a row of servants standing silently, waiting to be summoned. I could not tell how large the chamber was. The Pale Woman had just emerged from a tub of steaming water. The tub itself seemed to be made of very thick glass. The water within it was a cloudy white, and the fragrance of summer flowers rose with its steam. She stood naked on a lush white bearskin, calmly regarding us as two dispassionate maids patted and rubbed her dry. She seemed to feel no discomfort at baring herself to our gaze. She was an even white all over, a woman of snow or marble. Her white hair was painted flat to her skull with water that dripped off the pointed tips of her tresses. The faintest hint of rose showed in the standing nipples on her globular breasts. The tuft of hair at her loins was as white as that on her head. Like the Fool, she was long limbed and limber waisted, but lush of hip and breast. No man could have looked at her and not felt a stirring of lust. She knew that. Yet she showed herself to us, captive and guards alike, as if her ability to flaunt her body and yet remain safe from undesired attentions emphasized her power over us all. Her stone-faced guards made no reaction to seeing their mistress thus. They stood, one on each side of me and one behind me, and waited.
Her handmaidens brought her soft fur boots and draped her in a robe of fine silk, followed by a second, heavier pelisse of wool trimmed with white fur. She took her time seating herself in a low-backed throne of dark wood. A third Outislander woman entered, and I recognized her suddenly as Henja. She carried a fresh towel and brushes and pins. She moved behind the Pale Woman and began to dress her damp hair for her. And all this while, the lady had not spoken a word. She leaned back in the chair, and gave herself over to Henja's attentions with evident pleasure, for her eyes closed to narrow slits as Henja's ivory brush moved slowly through her white mane. When her long hair had been combed out and then braided in a multitude of long plaits and pinned to her head, she opened her eyes and looked about the room. She gazed at me as if noticing me for the first time and gave a small frown.
“He is unwashed! Did not I tell you to provide washwater for him before you brought him to me?”
The guards cowered and one said hastily, “We did, my lady. He ignored it.”
“I am not pleased.” These simple words to my guards made them pale.
She shifted her gaze to me. “You reek like Kebal Rawbread. I had thought Six Duchies men were cleaner.” Her eyes flicked toward the tub. “Remedy it now. There is water in the tub.” She lounged back in her throne, challenging me. “Wash, FitzChivalry. You will dine with me, and I desire to smell the food, not you.”
I did not move or allow my expression to change. She smiled lazily.
“Do you fear to lose your dignity by undressing and washing? I assure you, most of my servants do not remember what ‘human dignity' means, let alone care for yours. You cling to your stench as if it were your pride. I promise you this: you will lose far more than your dignity if you must be forced to bathe. Choose swiftly. I am not patient, and I will not smell such a smell at my table.” In an aside to her servants, she observed, “You would think that a king's son, even a bastard, would have more pride in himself.”
“My hands are bound,” I pointed out stiffly. My mind searched for escape, for advantage in the situation, and found none. Her words had made me aware that I did stink. I felt a moment of shame and then recognized her tactic. Chade had long ago explained the usefulness of breaking a man's pride and self-worth before interrogating him. For some men, it was more effective than torture. Take a man's dignity, imprison him like a beast, and when you offer him back the small comforts of civilization, his gratitude is often disproportionate. Sometimes a man can be won over simply by a small display of kindness. Kept in a cold cell in the dark with no food, a man will perceive a candle and a hot bowl of soup as an offer of amnesty. It is far less work to break a man that way than with torture.
She smiled at me. “Ah, yes. Bound hands would make your task more difficult.” She gestured to the guard. “Take him to the tub and cut him free.”
I was propelled to the tub in a way that left no doubt that they would force me to do anything she desired. Refusing would give the guards further excuse to beat me. Complying might yield me some advantage, if only that of having my hands free. I gritted my teeth and surrendered my dignity. Once my hands were free, I turned my back to her and stripped. I managed to palm my fox pin from inside my shirt as I did so. I entered the water. I washed quickly, refusing to let the warm water offer me too much comfort. One of her women brought me soft soap in a bowl. Somehow I found myself gravely thanking her. She made no reply. The water was gray when I stood up from it. Two women advanced on me with towels. I took both towels and turned away from them to dry myself. A moment later, they were back, offering soft shoes of felted wool and a clean white wool robe. My weary Buck garb had vanished. I put on what they offered, concealing my pin inside the collar of the robe, and turned back to my audience. The Pale Woman had had her chair turned so that she could watch me. She smiled a cat's smile now, and observed, “You have some interesting scars. And the body of a warrior. Shave him, Henja. I would see the full face of the man who was almost a king.”