The Final Empire
ASH FELL FROM THE SKY.
Lord Tresting frowned, glancing up at the ruddy midday sky as his servants scuttled forward, opening a parasol over Tresting and his distinguished guest. Ashfalls weren't that uncommon in the Final Empire, but Tresting had hoped to avoid getting soot stains on his ﬁne new suit coat and red vest, which had just arrived via canal boat from Luthadel itself. Fortunately, there wasn't much wind; the parasol would likely be effective.
Tresting stood with his guest on a small hilltop patio that overlooked the ﬁelds. Hundreds of people in brown smocks worked in the falling ash, caring for the crops. There was a sluggishness to their efforts-but, of course, that was the way of the skaa. The peasants were an indolent, unproductive lot.
They didn't complain, of course; they knew better than that. Instead, they simply worked with bowed heads, moving about their work with quiet apathy. The passing whip of a taskmaster would force them into dedicated motion for a few moments, but as soon as the taskmaster passed, they would return to their languor.
Tresting turned to the man standing beside him on the hill. "One would think," Tresting noted, "that a thousand years of working in ﬁelds would have bred them to be a little more effective at it."
The obligator turned, raising an eyebrow-the motion done as if to highlight his most distinctive feature, the intricate tattoos that laced the skin around his eyes. The tattoos were enormous, reaching all the way across his brow and up the sides of his nose. This was a full prelan-a very important obligator indeed. Tresting had his own, personal obligators back at the manor, but they were only minor functionaries, with barely a few marks around their eyes. This man had arrived from Luthadel with the same canal boat that had brought Tresting's new suit.
"You should see city skaa, Tresting," the obligator said, turning back to watch the skaa workers. "These are actually quite diligent compared to those inside Luthadel. You have more… direct control over your skaa here. How many would you say you lose a month?"
"Oh, a half dozen or so," Tresting said. "Some to beatings, some to exhaustion."
"Never!" Tresting said. "When I ﬁrst inherited this land from my father, I had a few runaways-but I executed their families. The rest quickly lost heart. I've never understood men who have trouble with their skaa-I ﬁnd the creatures easy to control, if you show a properly ﬁrm hand."
The obligator nodded, standing quietly in his gray robes. He seemed pleased-which was a good thing. The skaa weren't actually Tresting's property. Like all skaa, they belonged to the Lord Ruler; Tresting only leased the workers from his God, much in the same way he paid for the services of His obligators.
The obligator looked down, checking his pocket watch, then glanced up at the sun. Despite the ashfall, the sun was bright this day, shining a brilliant crimson red behind the smoky blackness of the upper sky. Tresting removed a handkerchief and wiped his brow, thankful for the parasol's shade against the midday heat.
"Very well, Tresting," the obligator said. "I will carry your proposal to Lord Venture, as requested. He will have a favorable report from me on your operations here."
Tresting held in a sigh of relief. An obligator was required to witness any contract or business deal between noblemen. True, even a lowly obligator like the ones Tresting employed could serve as such a witness-but it meant so much more to impress Straff Venture's own obligator.
The obligator turned toward him. "I will leave back down the canal this afternoon."
"So soon?" Tresting asked. "Wouldn't you care to stay for supper?"
"No," the obligator replied. "Though there is another matter I wish to discuss with you. I came not only at the behest of Lord Venture, but to… look in on some matters for the Canton of Inquisition. Rumors say that you like to dally with your skaa women."
Tresting felt a chill.
The obligator smiled; he likely meant it to be disarming, but Tresting only found it eerie. "Don't worry yourself, Tresting," the obligator said. "If there had been any real worries about your actions, a Steel Inquisitor would have been sent here in my place."
Tresting nodded slowly. Inquisitor. He'd never seen one of the inhuman creatures, but he had heard…stories.
"I have been satisﬁed regarding your actions with the skaa women," the obligator said, looking back over the ﬁelds. "What I've seen and heard here indicate that you always clean up your messes. A man such as yourself-efﬁcient, productive-could go far in Luthadel. A few more years of work, some inspired mercantile deals, and who knows?"
The obligator turned away, and Tresting found himself smiling. It wasn't a promise, or even an endorsement-for the most part, obligators were more bureaucrats and witnesses than they were priests-but to hear such praise from one of the Lord Ruler's own servants…Tresting knew that some nobility considered the obligators to be unsettling-some men even considered them a bother-but at that moment, Testing could have kissed his distinguished guest.
Tresting turned back toward the skaa, who worked quietly beneath the bloody sun and the lazy ﬂakes of ash. Tresting had always been a country nobleman, living on his plantation, dreaming of perhaps moving into Luthadel itself. He had heard of the balls and the parties, the glamour and the intrigue, and it excited him to no end.
I'll have to celebrate tonight, he thought. There was that young girl in the fourteenth hovel that he'd been watching for some time….
He smiled again. A few more years of work, the obligator had said. But could Tresting perhaps speed that up, if he worked a little harder? His skaa population had been growing lately. Perhaps if he pushed them a bit more, he could bring in an extra harvest this summer and fulﬁll his contract with Lord Venture in extra measure.
Tresting nodded as he watched the crowd of lazy skaa, some working with their hoes, others on hands and knees, pushing the ash away from the ﬂedgling crops. They didn't complain. They didn't hope. They barely dared think. That was the way it should be, for they were skaa. They were-
Tresting froze as one of the skaa looked up. The man met Tresting's eyes, a spark-no, a ﬁre-of deﬁance showing in his expression. Tresting had never seen anything like it, not in the face of a skaa. Tresting stepped backward reﬂexively, a chill running through him as the strange, straight-backed skaa held his eyes.
Tresting looked away. "Kurdon!" he snapped.
The burly taskmaster rushed up the incline. "Yes, my lord?"
Tresting turned, pointing at…
He frowned. Where had that skaa been standing? Working with their heads bowed, bodies stained by soot and sweat, they were so hard to tell apart. Tresting paused, searching. He thought he knew the place…an empty spot, where nobody now stood.
But, no. That couldn't be it. The man couldn't have disappeared from the group so quickly. Where would he have gone? He must be in there, somewhere, working with his head now properly bowed. Still, his moment of apparent deﬁance was inexcusable.
"My lord?" Kurdon asked again.
The obligator stood at the side, watching curiously. It would not be wise to let the man know that one of the skaa had acted so brazenly.
"Work the skaa in that southern section a little harder," Tresting ordered, pointing.
"I see them being sluggish, even for skaa. Beat a few of them."
Kurdon shrugged, but nodded. It wasn't much of a reason for a beating-but, then, he didn't need much of a reason to give the workers a beating.
They were, after all, only skaa.
Kelsier had heard stories.
He had heard whispers of times when once, long ago, the sun had not been red. Times when the sky hadn't been clogged by smoke and ash, when plants hadn't struggled to grow, and when skaa hadn't been slaves. Times before the Lord Ruler. Those days, however, were nearly forgotten. Even the legends were growing vague.
Kelsier watched the sun, his eyes following the giant red disk as it crept toward the western horizon. He stood quietly for a long moment, alone in the empty ﬁelds. The day's work was done; the skaa had been herded back to their hovels. Soon the mists would come.
Eventually, Kelsier sighed, then turned to pick his way across the furrows and pathways, weaving between large heaps of ash. He avoided stepping on the plants-though he wasn't sure why he bothered. The crops hardly seemed worth the effort. Wan, with wilted brown leaves, the plants seemed as depressed as the people who tended them.
The skaa hovels loomed in the waning light. Already, Kelsier could see the mists beginning to form, clouding the air, and giving the moundlike buildings a surreal, intangible look. The hovels stood unguarded; there was no need for watchers, for no skaa would venture outside once night arrived. Their fear of the mists was far too strong.
I'll have to cure them of that someday, Kelsier thought as he approached one of the larger buildings. But, all things in their own time. He pulled open the door and slipped inside.
Conversation stopped immediately. Kelsier closed the door, then turned with a smile to confront the room of about thirty skaa. A ﬁrepit burned weakly at the center, and the large cauldron beside it was ﬁlled with vegetable-dappled water-the beginnings of an evening meal. The soup would be bland, of course. Still, the smell was enticing.
"Good evening, everyone," Kelsier said with a smile, resting his pack beside his feet and leaning against the door. "How was your day?"
His words broke the silence, and the women returned to their dinner preparations. A group of men sitting at a crude table, however, continued to regard Kelsier with dissatisﬁed expressions.
"Our day was ﬁlled with work, traveler," said Tepper, one of the skaa elders. "Something you managed to avoid."
"Fieldwork hasn't ever really suited me," Kelsier said. "It's far too hard on my delicate skin." He smiled, holding up hands and arms that were lined with layers and layers of thin scars. They covered his skin, running lengthwise, as if some beast had repeatedly raked its claws up and down his arms.
Tepper snorted. He was young to be an elder, probably barely into his forties-at most, he might be ﬁve years Kelsier's senior. However, the scrawny man held himself with the air of one who liked to be in charge.
"This is no time for levity," Tepper said sternly. "When we harbor a traveler, we expect him to behave himself and avoid suspicion. When you ducked away from the ﬁelds this morning, you could have earned a whipping for the men around you."
"True," Kelsier said. "But those men could also have been whipped for standing in the wrong place, for pausing too long, or for coughing when a taskmaster walked by. I once saw a man beaten because his master claimed that he had 'blinked inappropriately.' "
Tepper sat with narrow eyes and a stiff posture, his arm resting on the table. His expression was unyielding.