Sareh didn’t smell the smoke, and the snow couldn’t bother her now. For the first time in months she was warm.
The ‘shovels had hollowed out a small cavern in the rock. Steam rose up from the water in the center of the room. She sat cross-legged against one rough rock wall trying to enjoy the warmth, trying to forget about Pallas.
“You run the Filtered Rooms.” The officiant sat across the room from Sareh. A safe distance. He kept his tone conversational. “How did that start?”
Sareh tightened her lips, but did not reply.
The man leaned back, closing his eyes in the warmth. “That’s not something you fall into by accident.”
Water dripped. Sareh didn’t answer.
“For me, it was my name,” the officiant chuckled. “My father believed in a strong name. He hoped I’d be a heat baron, like old Graston. Not me. I had to have a heat-leak heart.” He shrugged. “But it serves me well enough now. The heart, that is. And the name. It’s Valerius McCay, by the way. Since I already know yours, I suppose it’s only fair I tell you mine.”
Sareh sat up a little straighter on hearing his name.
“Call me Val.”
“No, that would be too familiar, sir.”
“Hm. Well, Sareh Constance, did the Filtered Rooms start with a name? Or was it something else? And ideal?”
Sareh stared into the steam as it rose before her, considering. “No one should die alone,” she offered.
Val held the silence a few moments, waiting. “So, who died alone?”
“Lots of people.”
“No. No one says something like that unless it happened, unless it’s personal. Who died alone?”
Sareh looked down and hedged, “Why waste your heat credits on me?”
Val let out a half chuckle, “I told you. I find what you do worthwhile. You intrigue me. I know plenty of women who’d gladly give the price that guard asked you to pay. There’s a reason that pretty much every guard in the Pits gets Klanger’s. You refused. That shows some integrity on your part. And then, you run the Filtered Rooms. You put more into them than you ever get out, if what I hear is any indication. You’re unique. I want to know more.”
Water dripped. Sareh counted her breaths – one, two, three. The officiant simply waited.
“My father,” she conceded. “He got black lung. While I was at work one day, he stopped breathing. He was the only one home.”
“I can’t help everyone, but I can help some. If I can get people with black lung out of the smoke, they’ll be more comfortable.”
Val nodded. “You’re trying to atone for leaving your father alone.”
Sareh coughed a laugh. “No. I can’t do that. Someone else already atoned for me.” She shook her head. “I can’t atone. But I can try to do right. So that’s what I do. Simple enough.”
“Perhaps not as simple as it seems.”
The chimes sounded from above.
Val stood. “It appears our credits have been used. Time to return to the cold world. Thank you for your time, Sareh Constance. It has been a pleasure.”
Sareh stood. “And you, officiant.”
Sareh offered a shallow bow. “Thank you for sharing your heat.”
Read more of the world of Snow and Smoke here.
Read the previous story, A Catch for Charles, here.
Read the next story, Who You Know, here.