Danal sat by the window and marveled at the reflection. He never saw windows this large anywhere else. Everyone else hoarded their heat and savored it in the heart of their little caverns. Graston, though, showed off how much heat he could waste. Big windows? Why not?
In one glance Danal saw the party behind him. He recognized the predators and the powerful talking with each other. Graston stood at one end of the room, McGrevich at the other. They didn’t dare approach one another. Servants circulated through the crowd, offering glasses of various beverages. Over there a flute quartet played bland music.
Through the glass he looked up to observe the throng at the edge of the pit. At least there he could see the hostility in people’s faces. Here, he knew the danger of saying the wrong thing, though he didn’t know what the wrong thing might be.
He wished he was out on the plains.
Zeresh approached. “Danal! Have you met Nick Graston?”
Danal turned to see his redheaded partner. “Yes.”
The younger hunter stood behind Zeresh. “Danal and I have met.”
Zeresh smiled. “Oh! So you don’t need me, then.” Her eyes twinkled. She gestured from Danal to Nick.
Danal sighed and stood. “She wants me to ask you to introduce me to the visitors.”
Nick huffed a laugh. “She always wanted me to use my status as a hunter to increase my standing here. It was never my intent. There’s a reason she left me.”
“And if Danal doesn’t get his act together, he’ll be without a partner, too.”
Danal answered, “And who do you think would accept you if we won’t have you?”
“I only want what’s best for you,” Zeresh whimpered as she adjusted Danal’s tie.
Nick broke in, “She always tried that line with me, too. Gets annoying after a while, doesn’t it?”
“You could say that.” Danal waved the woman away. “I look fine.” He coughed.
Nick nodded. “Me, too. Not as bad as you from the sounds of things, but I can’t stand being in the Pits very long anymore. I feel like a bear in a net: Either I’m going to break free and kill something soon, or something’s going to kill me.”
“It gets worse. I should have left yesterday, but my partner convinced me it would be a good idea to stay one more night to come to this little party. To be seen and all that.”
“And then command higher prices next time you come back,” Zeresh hissed.
“Right.” Danal sighed and coughed again. “Anyway, Nick, if you can introduce me, I’d appreciate it. One hunter to another.”
“Yeah. You need to get out of the Pits. You’re starting to sound like one of them. Asking nicely?” Nick shook his head. “I’ll take you.” He gestured into the crowd.
People swirled around in the strange habitat of human crowds. Danal followed Nick through the mass. They passed women in richly ornamented dresses and servants in their formal tuxedos.
Off in a corner, not far from Graston, stood a man in brown loose leather pants and a heavy coat. He perspired in the heat of the room. His skin was dark and his eyes a strange almond shape. Behind him sat a woman with slightly darker skin. She panted on her chair. Both had bright white hair.
The man brightened. “Friend Nick! We have met so many people tonight, though we fear we have come for nothing.”
Nick nodded. “I don’t know what you’re looking for. You still haven’t told me.”
The man returned the nod. “We cannot share with you what you do not recognize. Perhaps someday, Friend Nick. I would like that.” He turned to Danal. “You have brought someone to introduce to us?”
Nick gestured. “This is Danal, another hunter. He makes his home out on the plains. Like you, he doesn’t appreciate the Pits. Danal, this is Djellian, from the village by the sea.”
Danal offered his hand. Djellian took it, his hand limp. He vibrated his hand. “I am told you shake hands when you meet someone new.”
Danal nodded. “Exactly.”
Nick continued, “And this is his wife, Ffenyi.”
The woman stood and offered her hand. Nick shook it as best he could – her hand also remained limp. Then they both coughed.
“It sounds like you like the air here as much as I do,” Danal offered. “Here, let me introduce my partner –” He turned, but Zeresh had vanished into the crowd. Odd. She loved being the center of attention, and this would be the place to do it.
Ffenyi regarded Danal. “You know what it is to suffer.”
Danal glanced at Nick. “Yeah. Most people do.”
“No. I can tell looking at you. There is something inside you that knows it is suffering. I heard it when you coughed. A familiarity with pain.”
Danal looked to Nick to interpret. Nick shrugged.
“Excuse me, I think I’ll let you meet some more people. People more important than me.” He nodded to Djellian and turned to go.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Friend Danal.” It was the woman. “I am sorry. We have been searching for something, and you are the closest we have yet met. Will you stay and talk with us? Please?”
He coughed. He coughed again.
He heard a callous laugh. “Why, my fabulous hunter. What are you still doing here?” Graston slapped him on the back.
It didn’t help his coughing.
Danal finished his fit and stood again, breathing heavily.
Graston shook a finger at him. “You get our visitors sick, and I won’t buy anything from you anymore.”
Danal nodded. “I don’t think they can catch what I have.”
Ffenyi offered a dry cough. “The smoke here harms us. I do not know how you survive here, Friend Charles.”
Graston shook his head. “I had filters installed here. The best I could buy. It takes out all the smoke before it gets into the room.”
Danal answered, “I’m sure I know someplace better than here.”
The heat baron shook his head. “No place is better than here. Don’t forget it.” He noticed someone else in the crowd and left to greet them.
In Graston’s wake another man approached. “Hello. You two must be Djellian and Ffenyi, our guests. And you two are Nickolas Graston and… another hunter? Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Valerius McCay, an officiant.” He offered his hand, and both visitors gave their odd shake.
Graston backed away as Danal felt another coughing fit approach. The officiant and the visitors talked, though it was clear they were not interested in what he had to say. The woman kept glancing back at Danal. She coughed. Again.
Danal walked a few paces away and snagged a passing glass of water and drank it, letting the cool liquid tame his throat. He saw an old, gaunt man approach the visitors as the officiant talked with them. Old Man McCrevich. The other heat baron. He must be steaming that Graston got a hold of the new resource and he didn’t.
As Danal watched, the officiant slipped back, allowing McCrevich the entire attention of the visitors. The officiant reached a hand into his suit jacket and retrieved a savage-looking dagger. No one in the busy crowd noticed.
Danal blanched. The officiant aimed to assassinate a heat baron.
Read more of the world of Snow and Smoke here.
Read the previous story, Like a ‘Shovel without Smoke, here.
Read the next story, Like the Fury of the Blizzard, here.