I consider myself to be a man of principle. But what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, believes his actions to be moral after a fashion.
Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?
I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
ASH FELL FROM THE SKY.
Vin watched the downy flakes drift through the air. Leisurely. Careless. Free. The puffs of soot fell like black snowflakes, descending upon the dark city of Luthadel. They drifted in corners, blowing in the breeze and curling in tiny whirlwinds over the cobblestones. They seemed so uncaring. What would that be like?
Vin sat quietly in one of the crew’s watch-holes—a hidden alcove built into the bricks on the side of the safe house. From within it, a crewmember could watch the street for signs of danger. Vin wasn’t on duty; the watch-hole was simply one of the few places where she could find solitude.
And Vin liked solitude. When you’re alone, no one can betray you. Reen’s words. Her brother had taught her so many things, then had reinforced them by doing what he’d always promised he would—by betraying her himself. It’s the only way you’ll learn. Anyone will betray you, Vin. Anyone.
The ash continued to fall. Sometimes Vin imagined she was like the ash, or the wind, or the mist. A thing without thought, capable of simply being, not thinking, caring, or hurting. Then she could be … free.
She heard shuffling a short distance away, then the trapdoor at the back of the small chamber snapped open.
“Vin!” Ulef said, sticking his head into the room. “There you are! Camon’s been searching for you for a half hour.”
That’s kind of why I hid in the first place.
“You should get going,” Ulef said. “The job’s almost ready to begin.”
Ulef was a gangly boy. Nice, after his own fashion—naive, if one who had grown up in the underworld could ever really be called naive. Of course, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t betray her. Betrayal had nothing to do with friendship; it was a simple fact of survival. Life was harsh on the streets, and if a skaa thief wanted to keep from being caught and executed, he had to be practical.
And ruthlessness was the most practical of emotions. Another of Reen’s sayings.
“Well?” Ulef asked. “You should go. Camon’s mad.”
When is he not? However, Vin nodded, scrambling out of the cramped—yet comforting—confines of the watch-hole. She brushed past Ulef and hopped out of the trapdoor, moving into a hallway, then a run-down pantry. The room was one of many at the back of the store that served as a front for the safe house. The crew’s lair was hidden in a tunneled stone cavern beneath the building.
She left the building through a back door, Ulef trailing behind her. The job would happen a few blocks away, in a richer section of town. It was an intricate job—one of the most complex Vin had ever seen. Assuming Camon wasn’t caught, the payoff would be great indeed. If he was caught … Well, scamming noblemen and obligators was a very dangerous profession—but it certainly beat working in the forges or the textile mills.
Vin exited the alleyway, moving out onto a dark, tenement-lined street in one of the city’s many skaa slums. Skaa too sick to work lay huddled in corners and gutters, ash drifting around them. Vin kept her head down and pulled up her cloak’s hood against the still-falling flakes.
Free. No, I’ll never be free. Reen made certain of that when he left.
* * *
“There you are!” Camon lifted a squat, fat finger and jabbed it toward her face. “Where were you?”
Vin didn’t let hatred or rebellion show in her eyes. She simply looked down, giving Camon what he expected to see. There were other ways to be strong. That lesson she had learned on her own.
Camon growled slightly, then raised his hand and backhanded her across the face. The force of the blow threw Vin back against the wall, and her cheek blazed with pain. She slumped against the wood, but bore the punishment silently. Merely another bruise. She was strong enough to deal with it. She’d done so before.
“Listen,” Camon hissed. “This is an important job. It’s worth thousands of boxings—worth more than you a hundred times over. I won’t have you fouling it up. Understand?”
Camon studied her for a moment, his pudgy face red with anger. Finally he looked away, muttering to himself.
He was annoyed about something—something more than just Vin. Perhaps he had heard about the skaa rebellion several days to the north. One of the provincial lords, Themos Tresting, had apparently been murdered, his manor burned to the ground. Such disturbances were bad for business; they made the aristocracy more alert, and less gullible. That, in turn, could cut seriously into Camon’s profits.
He’s looking for someone to punish, Vin thought. He always gets nervous before a job. She looked up at Camon, tasting blood on her lip. She must have let some of her confidence show, because he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, and his expression darkened. He raised his hand, as if to strike her again.
Vin used up a bit of her Luck.
She expended only a smidgen; she’d need the rest for the job. She directed the Luck at Camon, calming his nervousness. The crewleader paused—oblivious to Vin’s touch, yet feeling its effects nonetheless. He stood for a moment; then he sighed, turning and lowering his hand.
Vin wiped her lip as Camon waddled away. The thiefmaster looked quite convincing in his nobleman’s suit. It was as rich a costume as Vin had ever seen—it had a white shirt overlaid by a deep green vest with engraved gold buttons. The black suit coat was long, after the current fashion, and he wore a matching black hat. His fingers sparkled with rings, and he carried a fine dueling cane. Indeed, Camon did an excellent job of imitating a nobleman; when it came to playing a role, there were few thieves more competent than Camon. Assuming he could keep his temper under control.
The room they were in was less impressive. Vin pulled herself to her feet as Camon began to snap at some of the other crewmembers. They had rented one of the suites at the top of a local hotel. Not too lavish—but that was the idea. Camon was going to be playing the part of “Lord Jedue,” a country nobleman who had hit upon hard financial times and come to Luthadel to get some final, desperate contracts.
The main room had been transformed into a sort of audience chamber, set with a large desk for Camon to sit behind, the walls decorated with cheap pieces of art. Two men stood beside the desk, dressed in formal stewards’ clothing; they would play the part of Camon’s manservants.
“What is this ruckus?” a man asked, entering the room. He was tall, dressed in a simple grey shirt and a pair of slacks, with a thin sword tied at his waist. Theron was the other crewleader—this particular scam was actually his. He’d brought in Camon as a partner; he’d needed someone to play Lord Jedue, and everyone knew that Camon was one of the best.
Camon looked up. “Hum? Ruckus? Oh, that was nothing more than a minor discipline problem. Don’t bother yourself, Theron.” Camon punctuated his remark with a dismissive wave of the hand—there was a reason he played such a good aristocrat. He was arrogant enough that he could have been from one of the Great Houses.
Theron’s eyes narrowed. Vin knew what the man was probably thinking: He was deciding how risky it would be to put a knife in Camon’s fat back once the scam was over. Eventually the taller crewleader looked away from Camon, glancing at Vin. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“Just a member of my crew,” Camon said.
“I thought we didn’t need anyone else.”
“Well, we need her,” Camon said. “Ignore her. My end of the operation is none of your concern.”
Theron eyed Vin, obviously noting her bloodied lip. She glanced away. But Theron’s eyes lingered on her, running down the length of her body. She wore a simple white buttoned shirt and a pair of overalls. Indeed, she was hardly enticing; scrawny with a youthful face, she didn’t even look her sixteen years. Some men preferred such women, however.
She considered using a bit of Luck on him, but eventually he turned away. “The obligator is nearly here,” Theron said. “Are you ready?”
Camon rolled his eyes, settling his bulk down into the chair behind the desk. “Everything is perfect. Leave me be, Theron! Go back to your room and wait.”
Theron frowned, then spun and walked from the room, muttering to himself.
Vin scanned the room, studying the decor, the servants, the atmosphere. Finally she made her way to Camon’s desk. The crewleader sat riffling through a stack of papers, apparently trying to decide which ones to put out on the desktop.
“Camon,” Vin said quietly, “the servants are too fine.”
Camon frowned, looking up. “What is that you’re babbling?”
“The servants,” Vin repeated, still speaking in a soft whisper. “Lord Jedue is supposed to be desperate. He’d have rich clothing left over from before, but he wouldn’t be able to afford such rich servants. He’d use skaa.”
Camon glared at her, but then glanced at the “servants.” Physically there was little difference between noblemen and skaa. However, the servants Camon had appointed were dressed as minor noblemen—they were allowed to wear colorful vests, and they stood a little more confidently.
“The obligator has to think that you’re nearly impoverished,” Vin said. “Pack the room with a lot of skaa servants instead.”
“What do you know?” Camon said, scowling at her.
“Enough.” She immediately regretted the word; it sounded too rebellious. Camon raised a bejeweled hand, and Vin braced herself for another slap. She couldn’t afford to use up any more Luck. She had precious little remaining anyway.
But Camon didn’t hit her. Instead he sighed and rested a pudgy hand on her shoulder. “Why do you insist on provoking me, Vin? You know the debts your brother left when he ran away. Do you realize that a less merciful man than myself would have sold you to the whoremasters long ago? How would you like that, serving in some nobleman’s bed until he grew tired of you and had you executed?”
Vin looked down at her feet.
Camon’s grip grew tight, his fingers pinching her skin where neck met shoulder, and she gasped in pain despite herself. He grinned at the reaction.
“Honestly, I don’t know why I keep you, Vin,” he said, increasing the pressure of his grip. “I should have gotten rid of you months ago, when your brother betrayed me. I suppose I just have too kindly a heart.”
He finally released her, then pointed for her to stand over by the side of the room, next to a tall indoor plant. She did as ordered, orienting herself so she had a good view of the entire room. As soon as Camon looked away, she rubbed her shoulder. Merely another pain. I can deal with pain.
Camon sat for a few moments. Then, as expected, he waved to the two “servants” at his side.
“You two!” he said. “You’re dressed too richly. Go put on something that makes you look like skaa servants instead—and bring back six more men with you when you come.”
Soon the room was filled as Vin had suggested. The obligator arrived a short time later.
Vin watched Prelan Laird step haughtily into the room. Shaved bald like all obligators, he wore a set of dark grey robes. The Ministry tattoos around his eyes identified him as a prelan, a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry’s Canton of Finance. A set of lesser obligators trailed behind him, their eye tattoos far less intricate.
Camon rose as the prelan entered, a sign of respect—something even the highest of Great House noblemen would show to an obligator of Laird’s rank. Laird gave no bow or acknowledgment of his own, instead striding forward and taking the seat in front of Camon’s desk. One of the crewmen impersonating a servant rushed forward, bringing chilled wine and fruit for the obligator.
Laird picked at the fruit, letting the servant stand obediently, holding the platter of food as if he were a piece of furniture. “Lord Jedue,” Laird finally said. “I am glad we finally have the opportunity to meet.”
“As am I, Your Grace,” Camon said.
“Why is it, again, that you were unable to come to the Canton building, instead requiring that I visit you here?”
“My knees, Your Grace,” Camon said. “My physicians recommend that I travel as little as possible.”
And you were rightly apprehensive about being drawn into a Ministry stronghold, Vin thought.
“I see,” Laird said. “Bad knees. An unfortunate attribute in a man who deals in transportation.”
“I don’t have to go on the trips, Your Grace,” Camon said, bowing his head. “Just organize them.”
Good, Vin thought. Make sure you remain subservient, Camon. You need to seem desperate.
Vin needed this scam to succeed. Camon threatened her and he beat her—but he considered her a good-luck charm. She wasn’t sure if he knew why his plans went better when she was in the room, but he had apparently made the connection. That made her valuable—and Reen had always said that the surest way to stay alive in the underworld was to make yourself indispensable.
“I see,” Laird said again. “Well, I fear that our meeting has come too late for your purposes. The Canton of Finance has already voted on your proposal.”
“So soon?” Camon asked with genuine surprise.
“Yes,” Laird replied, taking a sip of his wine, still not dismissing the servant. “We have decided not to accept your contract.”
Camon sat for a moment, stunned. “I’m sorry to hear that, Your Grace.”
Laird came to meet you, Vin thought. That means he’s still in a position to negotiate.
“Indeed,” Camon continued, seeing what Vin had. “That is especially unfortunate, as I was ready to make the Ministry an even better offer.”
Laird raised a tattooed eyebrow. “I doubt it will matter. There is an element of the Council who feels that the Canton would receive better service if we found a more stable house to transport our people.”
“That would be a grave mistake,” Camon said smoothly. “Let us be frank, Your Grace. We both know that this contract is House Jedue’s last chance. Now that we’ve lost the Farwan deal, we cannot afford to run our canal boats to Luthadel anymore. Without the Ministry’s patronage, my house is financially doomed.”
“This is doing little to persuade me, Your Lordship,” the obligator said.
“Truly?” Camon asked. “Ask yourself this, Your Grace—who will serve you better? Will it be the house that has dozens of contracts to divide its attention, or the house that views your contract as its last hope? The Canton of Finance will not find a more accommodating partner than a desperate one. Let my boats be the ones that bring your acolytes down from the north—let my soldiers escort them—and you will not be disappointed.”
Copyright © 2006 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
Copyright © 2016 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC