Chapter 3, Part 2

Fortunately, the lack of any kind of physical barrier between the slums and the city meant that it was child’s play for a skilled thief to slip past the guards. Alessandra and her team hid in the shadows of the buildings on the slum side of Lasamar Street, and one by one, slipped across the street and started scaling one of the buildings on the Viunay side of the street. Of course, there were guards posted on the roofs of the nearby buildings as well, but not so many that it was difficult to evade them. Alessandra watched as her team members made it up on top of the building and disappeared, and then it was her turn. She shed her jean jacket, leaving it in a small cubby hole in the wall of a nearby building, where she could hopefully retrieve it later, and then she ghosted across the street and reached the opposite side of the street. Lasanar Street was brightly lit, but even the best artificial light left shadows that a skilled thief could take advantage of. Once up against the wall, she began climbing, using windows and drainage pipes to make her way to the top. As soon as she reached the top, she saw a burly mercenary on the other side of the building. He had a sword strapped to one side of his hip, and a long cudgel strapped to the other side. Alessandra flattened herself against the roof of the building as soon as she saw him, and once he turned around she swiftly and silently got to her feet and slipped across the roof. As soon as she reached the other side of the building, she dropped over the side and quickly climbed down to the alley below.

Making their way through the streets of Viunay District was easier than simply getting into the district in the first place, but it wasn’t as simple as taking a stroll through the slums. The mercenary clans had guards posted everywhere, and they weren’t shy about accosting anyone they thought looked like a slum dweller and demanding their papers. Fortunately for thieves, the mercenary clans only thought in terms of strength, and they had very poor understanding of stealth. That made it easy for skilled thieves to evade the mercenaries’ gaze.

Soon enough, Alessandra and her team had reached a point where they could see the Vanmorzen manor in the distance. The building was massive, at least ten times the size of the Mekoval clan house, which was one of the largest buildings in the slums. The manor was made out of ornately carved marble, was three stories tall, and had hundreds of large windows on every side. Those windows no doubt allowed in a great deal of natural light, but they also made the manor a tempting target for thieves. No matter how many mercenaries guarded the manor, there was no way they could have someone posted at every window.

Now that they could see their target, it was time for their plan to go into effect. Alessandra, Breska and Veloran formed one group and continued walking toward the manor, while Mikaelo, Ahlen and Nieshata took to the roofs to await their signal to proceed. Once they reached the manor, Alessandra and Breska took up their positions in a nearby alley, while Veloran went on ahead. The manor was surrounded by a ten-foot tall brick wall, with spikes lining the top of it all the way around. There were four entrances to the manor, one on each side of the wall. Three of them were larger and had six guards each, but the one in the back was only guarded by two guards. This was the entrance that Veloran was headed for. She had a sway in her walk and a smoldering fire in her eyes as she approached the guards. Alessandra and Breska were too far away to hear what she was saying, but they could see the effect she was having on the guards. One of the guards was very eager to follow this strange woman into the alley, but the other was clearly reluctant. Before too long, though, Veloran and the eager guard had convinced his reluctant friend to abandon their post. Alessandra and Breska exchanged a wry look as Veloran and the guards approached. As useful a skill as seduction could be, Alessandra wasn’t too upset that it was a skill she didn’t possess.

As soon as the guards entered the alley, Alessandra and Breska stepped out and eliminated them, Breska by snapping one guard’s neck, and Alessandra by driving a knife through the other’s throat. That done, they hid the bodies under a dumpster, and then quickly the three of them moved forward toward the gate. As they reached the gate, Alessandra turned around and waved three times in the direction of the nearby rooftops. That was the signal to Mikaelo’s team that the path was all clear.

Inside the courtyard, Alessandra’s team found a small garden that had been marked on the map of the manor. After checking to make sure it was clear, they hid in the shadow of a large elisai tree and waited for Mikaelo’s team to arrive. As soon as they saw Mikaelo and the others pass through the gate, they began flitting like shadows toward the massive manor.

They had no way of knowing exactly which windows would be clear, but they had a few in mind to check. Fortunately, nearly every window in the manor was lit up, so it was easy for the thieves to see if there was a guard standing in the window without having to get too close. A quick glance at the building’s facade told Alessandra that their preferred entry point on the third floor was clear, so she signalled for Nieshata to do her work. Nieshata quickly scaled the side of the building and made her way up to the window. The windows were rigged with alarms that would go off if any of them were opened from the outside, but Nieshata was an expert at bypassing security alarms. After a few minutes, the window was open, Nieshata had slipped inside, and Alessandra and the rest of her team were climbing up to follow her.

To be continued…

Chapter 3, Part 1

Alessandra strolled into Vayer Square just as the sun dipped below the Serotopolis skyline in the distance. She was wearing a jean jacket over a t-shirt and leggings that were tight enough that they wouldn’t easily get caught on anything, but loose enough that they didn’t restrict her mobility at all. She was wearing a long, blond wig, and her skin was dyed so that she actually looked paler than usual. Her hands were in the pockets of her jacket, and she looked as if she was just another young woman out for a stroll. Or rather, she would, if young women ever just went out for strolls in the slums at sunset in Serotopolis. Alessandra was well aware that anyone who looked at her would know what she was about. Let them see her, and let them know that Alessandra Mekoval’s time to shine had finally arrived.

She was the first member of her team to set foot in Vayer Square, but she wasn’t surprised about that. They would be here soon. It was natural that they wouldn’t be quite as excited about this job as she was. After all, none of them would be made a Clan Leader if this job was a success. But even so, they would still get plenty of reward. They had every bit as much incentive for this job to go well as she did. Especially since the price for failure would almost certainly be death at the end of a Veldisa mercenary’s sword.

Alessandra walked across Vayer Square and sat down on a stone bench at the far side. Vayer Square was poorly named, not least because it was actually in the shape of a triangle. The square consisted of three sidewalks that crisscrossed the area, ending at each corner of the triangle. Between the sidewalks was some scraggly brown grass that just barely survived amidst the many-storied buildings that surrounded every side of the square. In the very center was a worn statue of a heroic-looking man wearing magnificent robes, holding one fist in the air triumphantly. A plaque at the statue’s base said “In Honor of Serasu Vayer, for his heroic service to the Empire”. Not for the first time, Alessandra idly wondered who Serasu Vayer had been, what he had done to deserve a statue, and what Empire he had served. Presumably the statue was a relic from the days before the barrier went up. Had Serotopolis been part of the Empire? It must have been if this statue was here. So much history was lost from those days. Now, the world consisted of two parts: the demon-infested wasteland outside the barrier, and the city of Serotopolis inside the barrier.

Alessandra hadn’t been sitting long when Mikaelo walked up and sat down next to her. He was wearing a similar outfit to hers, except instead of a jean jacket, he was wearing a long brown trench coat. His short brown hair was covered up by a long black wig tied in a ponytail, his skin was dyed a deep brown, and his brown eyes were disguised by bright blue contacts.

“Not much longer now,” he said with a small smile as he sat down. Alessandra nodded, but her expression didn’t change, and she didn’t look at him. There was no point in engaging in idle chit chat right before a job. She needed to focus her mind and her emotions on what she was about to do, not waste that energy on pointless conversation. Fortunately, Mikaelo understood that, and he didn’t say anything more.

A few minutes later, the rest of her team approached the square, coming from different directions. Alessandra stood up as soon as she saw them, nodded to them, and started walking toward the Viunay District, where their target was located.

It took them awhile to reach Viunay. Serotopolis was a huge city that covered a vast span of territory. Alessandra had spent her whole life crisscrossing the city, searching for fortunes to be liberated from their possessors, and she had only seen a small fraction of the whole city. Fortunately they didn’t have that far to go. The slums were the largest district in the city, but Clan Mekoval’s territory was right on the edge of the slums, right next to where they ran up against Viunay District. Unlike every other division of the city, the slums had no official name. They were just the slums, largely ignored by the more prosperous denizens of the city.

Alessandra sometimes wondered what the slums had been like before the barrier went up. Most of the buildings in the slums were little more than shanties, rickety things slapped together with whatever materials the builders could scavenge, but there were a few that were in much better shape. These were buildings that had almost certainly been built before the barrier went up, because they were extremely old, but despite their age, they were actually in better shape structurally than the newer buildings in the slums. Clan Mekoval’s headquarters was one of those buildings. In fact, most clans had their headquarters in a pre-barrier structure. They were the only buildings solid enough to have a chance at being defended in the event of an attack by a rival clan. The fact that such buildings were not only usable but actually desirable over a thousand years after their construction almost certainly meant that the slums hadn’t always been slums.

There was no physical boundary between the slums and Viunay District, but it was obvious the moment Alessandra and her crew passed from one to the other. On one side of Lasamar Street, the buildings were ramshackle hovels that looked as if they’d fall over at any minute, while on the other side of the street, the buildings were made of dressed stone and were well-painted and immaculately maintained. Unfortunately for thieves like Alessandra, entering Viunay District wasn’t as simple as just crossing the street. Residents from the slums were rarely allowed into the city proper, and only if they had a very good reason. There may not have been a wall around Viunay District, but there were guards posted at every street leading into it. Those guards were pulled from the mercenary clans, and they took a great deal of pleasure out of beating the snot out of any slum dweller who drew too close to their domain.

To be continued…

Chapter 2, Part 5

“Boy, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Alessandra replied, rolling her eyes.

“Better than if he said he thought it would definitely fail,” said Nieshata, smirking and crossing her arms across her chest. She was a short, lithe woman with close-cropped mousy brown hair and olive colored skin. She had a small scar slashing down her left cheek, and another one that just clipped the edge of her right eyebrow. She was exceptionally good at bypassing the various security systems that the mercenary clans set up to defend their territory. Automated turrets, alarms, nerfota, lumoss, that sort of thing.

“The last thing we want is for our leader to suffer a lack of confidence twelve hours before the job starts,” said Breska with a frown. He was a towering wall of a man, with black skin, a shaved head, and a shaggy beard that went down to his waist. He was a quiet, serious man who was exceptionally good at beating up mercenaries, which was the main reason Alessandra wanted him on her team, but he was also a lot smarter than he looked as well. Several of the best parts of her plan had come from him.

“Breska, Alessandra couldn’t suffer from a lack of confidence if she tried,” Veloran said with a grin, leaning forward. She had spiky blond hair, and was almost as tall as Alessandra, but much curvier. She had a perpetual gleam in her blue eyes, as if she was constantly on the lookout for someone to seduce, but Alessandra knew that it, like most aspects of her personality, was mostly an act. She was also fantastically good at deception and disguise.

“I think I’m offended by that,” Alessandra said with an amused expression on her face

“You’re offended because Veloran thinks you’re confident?” Ahlen asked with one eyebrow raised. She was short, even shorter than Nieshata, and skinny rather than slim, with long, curly black hair and skin that was almost as dark as Breska’s. Her demeanor was almost as serious as his, too, but every once in awhile she’d say something that would make people fall over from laughing so hard. Although, even then, she wouldn’t crack a smile. She was a very good lockpick, but, as evidenced by the fact she was Alessandra’s third pick, not the best lockpick in Clan Mekoval. She would be good enough for this job, though. Or so Alessandra hoped.

“If she was offended, Veloran would be dead right now,” Nieshata said in a matter-of-fact voice. Veloran only grinned wider.

“Bring it on, chiela,” she said, whipping out a knife and twirling it between her fingers. Alessandra just rolled her eyes. Veloran was a great thief, but she could be excessively showy sometimes.

“Who’s being overconfident now?” Alessandra asked. Veloran grinned even wider, but there was a feral cast in her eyes now.

“Now, now, ladies,” said Mikaelo soothingly. “Let’s save our aggression for Clan Veldisa, shall we?”

“Ah, Mikaelo,” Breska said in his deep, soothing voice. “Always the peacemaker, aren’t you?”

“Somebody has to do that around here,” Mikaelo said with a shrug and a wink. Ahlen snorted, and Nieshata shook her head. Alessandra and Veloran glared at each for a moment, and then Alessandra smiled.

“Mikaelo’s got a good point,” she said. “We’ve got a chance to do something truly spectacular, something that will make us known throughout the whole city. Let’s not mess it up by fighting amongst ourselves, yeah? We’ve got a good plan here, so let’s go get some sleep and be ready to move out as soon as the sun goes down.” Veloran gave her a look that was halfway between a grimace and a grin, and then the knife in her hand disappeared and she stood up.

“I’m not sure I want to be known throughout the whole city,” she said. “Kinda bad for thieving business, if everyone know who you are. But I do want to be rich, and there ain’t no better way to get rich as a thief than to rob the Vanmorzen manor. So yeah, let’s do it.” She gave her teammates a dazzling grin, winked, and then turned and strolled down the hallway. Alessandra and the rest of her team watched her go, and then Alessandra shook her head and turned back to the rest of them.

“If I didn’t need her for this job, I think I would have challenged her right then and there,” she said with a frown. “That woman is crazy, and sometimes I wonder if she’s more of a liability than an asset.”

“Maybe,” Ahlen said, mirroring Alessandra’s frown. “Too bad she’s so good at what she does.”

“Let’s be fair, though,” Breska said. “We’re all a little bit crazy. Everybody in this city is at least a little bit crazy.”

“How would we know that?” Nieshata asked, a puzzled frown on her face. “Nobody has left Serotopolis for a thousand years, or so they say? What if the rest of the world is just as terrible as this city is? It must be, right? They say it’s infested with demons, and the barrier is the only thing that keeps them out.”

“I always wonder about that,” Mikaelo said thoughtfully. “The Order of Sunaru fights the demons, but what does that entail, if they’re in the city, the demons are outside the barrier, and nobody can pass through the barrier?”

“I’m not interested in wondering what the Order of Sunaru does or how they do it,” Alessandra said firmly. “All I care about right now is getting a fat haul from the Vanmorzen manor. Somehow I doubt the Order will have any interest in what we do there.” There was general agreement around the table at that. “Okay, team, let’s go get some rest. We’ll meet in Vayer Square at sundown.” Everyone agreed, and they began getting up and departing for their own rooms. Alessandra gathered up the plans and maps and notes spread out on the table, and smiled as she did so. This was really happening. Tonight would be a night that she would never forget, for as long as she lived.

To be continued…

Chapter 2, Part 4

“Yes, really,” Bezzum sneered. “If you want to prove yourself to me, this is the way to do it. The Vanmorzen manor is the biggest prize in the whole city, or at least the biggest one that won’t bring the Elder Guard sweeping into the slums if we try to take it. So this is your big chance. You pull this off, and I’ll make you a Clan Leader.”

Alessandra shook herself, and very slowly began to pull herself together. Bezzum was right. This was her big chance. Short of challenging Bezzum to a duel and beating him, this was the best opportunity she’d ever have to make something of herself, and win the position she knew she deserved. She couldn’t screw this up. It was time for her to put her money where her mouth was.

“I’ll do it,” she said firmly.

“Of course you will,” Bezzum replied, nodding slightly. “You’ll need to start putting together your team.”

“I want Mikaelo as my second,” Alessandra said. Bezzum just nodded. “And Veloran for a decoyer.”

“You got her,” Bezzum said.

“I assume I’ll need a lockpick?” Alessandra asked, raising an eyebrow, and Bezzum nodded. “Shaloy,” she said. Bezzum shook his head.

“I sent him out two days ago, and haven’t heard a thing,” he replied.

Alessandra frowned.

“How about Neskata?” she asked.

“Need him for a job three nights from now,” Bezzum said.

“Ahlen?” she asked.

“She’s all yours,” Bezzum said.

“Okay, and how about Nieshata?”

“What do you want her for?”

“Bypassing security, cutting through walls, that sort of thing.”

“Good choice. You can have her.”

“And Breska for muscle,” Alessandra said.

“I’ll let him know,” Bezzum replied.

“So what’s the job?” Alessandra asked.

“Whatever isn’t tied down and won’t weigh you down too much when the mercenaries come after you is fair game,” Bezzum said, “but there is a specific item I need you to retrieve. On the third floor of the manor is a treasure room, and inside is a small, gilded chest made of velisite wood. Open it, get what’s inside it, and bring it back to me.”

“What’s in the chest?” Alessandra asked.

“None of your damn business,” Bezzum replied. “You’ll find out after you open the chest, and then you’ll forget as soon as you get back here. Understood?”

“Yes, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, saluting.

“Here,” Bezzum said, handing Alessandra a rolled up sheaf of papers. “Plans of the manor, everything we know about their defenses, guard postings, security systems, you name it. Memorize these before tomorrow night. Get together with your team, and devise a plan to get in.” He paused for a moment, and held Alessandra with his eyes. “I know you lust for a position of authority and influence. Get me what’s in that chest, and I promise you will have it.” Alessandra just stared at him for a moment, and then she grinned and nodded.

“I’ll get it, Clan Master. Don’t worry.”

***

The next day flew by for Alessandra. This was the moment she’d been waiting for. An opportunity to finally prove to Bezzum that she was the best thief in the clan. An opportunity to stake her claim as a leader in Clan Mekoval. And not just a leader in a figurative sense, but an actual Clan Leader, one of the elite. She’d dreamed of this moment for so long, and now it had finally come. She needed to pull off this job, and do it in such a way as to take everyone’s breath. Once that was done, her future would be assured. She would be the one to take Bezzum’s place as Clan Master for sure.

The waiting would have been unbearable, but fortunately Alessandra had plenty to do before she and her team could head out. They needed to go over the maps and information they had about the Vanmorzen manor, and come up with a plan to sneak into the manor and obtain what they were looking for. The Vanmorzen family was probably the richest family in Serotopolis that didn’t have a connection with the Circle of Elders. Because of their great wealth, the Vanmorzens could afford to hire the best mercenary clan in the city to guard their manor, but because they weren’t part of the Circle of Elders, thieves who targeted them didn’t have to worry about bringing down the ire of the Elder Guard. Not that Clan Veldisa were slouches, but they were no match for the Elder Guard. No thief clan, or at least none of the clans in the slums, would dare go after a member of the Circle.

This, of course, put the Vanmorzen family in a difficult situation. Scarcely a month went by without a thief clan attempting to break into their manor. That they rarely succeeded was a testimony to the effectiveness of Clan Veldisa, who had guarded the Vanmorzen manor for as long as anyone could remember, but Alessandra intended to succeed where most other clans had failed. As far as Alessandra knew, Bezzum had never sent anyone in Clan Mekoval against the Vanmorzens. Either he had more confidence in Alessandra’s skills than he’d ever let on before, or he really, really wanted whatever was in that box.

The trickiest part about this was going to be the fact that Clan Veldisa was going to be ready for them. Veldisa always expected a raid on the manor, which was a large part of the reason why the frequent raids rarely succeeded. But Alessandra knew that the Vanmorzen manor, while a tough nut to crack, was not impregnable. Just last year, Clan Balmorna had pulled off a massive heist there, without losing a single member of their crew. Alessandra knew that she and the clan members she’d chosen were better than anybody in Clan Balmorna. She had the utmost confidence that her heist would be even more epic than theirs.

“I think this just might work,” Mikaelo said, leaning back in his chair at the end of several hours of planning.

To be continued…

Chapter 2, Part 3

“Hali, do you ever get sick of being wonderful?” Alessandra asked with a grin as she ladled some stew into Halidasa’s bowl.

“Nope!” Halidasa replied, grinning right back. She took her bowl back to her seat, and was replaced by Bezzum.

“Giving out seconds, girl?” he asked with a sneer.

“Is that against the rules now?” Alessandra replied, raising an eyebrow. “We’ve got plenty of this slop, just like we always do.”

“I should slap the insolence right out of you,” Bezzum growled. “I never should have taken you in. I don’t care how good a thief you are, you’re not worth it.”

“Well, Torea thinks I am,” Alessandra said with a shrug. “And so does Hali. Your two favorite people in the world like me. I’m not sure what your problem is.”

“My problem,” Bezzum snarled, grabbing Alessandra by the collar and pulling her close, “is that you don’t give me the respect I deserve, and I’m sick and tired of it.”

“Maybe you should do something that deserves respect then,” Alessandra shot back, her voice slightly strained by the awkward angle that Bezzum was holding her at. Bezzum glared at her coldly for a moment, and then released her.

“Be careful what you wish for, girl,” he said, giving her one last look, and then turning and walking through the mess hall and out the door. Alessandra watched him go, and then she sighed and went back to dishing out stew for the other thieves in line.

That was the most interesting thing that happened to Alessandra in the few days after robbing the jewelry store. As always when she was between jobs, she started feeling the itch to get back out there and do some more thieving, and as the days wore on, the itch grew stronger and more persistent. And yet, Bezzum refused to send her out on another job. Four days later, that was odd, but not unheard of. But after a week had passed, and Bezzum still hadn’t sent her out, that was almost unprecedented. It was as if Bezzum was looking for an excuse to kick her out of the clan, by claiming that she wasn’t pulling her weight. But that couldn’t possibly work. Torea and the other Clan Leaders would know that she wasn’t bringing in any loot because she wasn’t being given the opportunity. So what was Bezzum’s game? What was he up to?

Alessandra was getting so frustrated by not being allowed to go out eight days after her last heist that she almost whooped for joy when one of her clanmates showed up at her door and told her that Bezzum had summoned her. Normally being summoned by Bezzum was not something that Alessandra looked forward to, but maybe this time she was at least going to get an explanation for why her talents were being wasted.

She strolled up to Bezzum’s quarters, rapped on the door twice, and then pushed it open when she heard his voice call her in. He was sitting at the desk in the outer room, where Torea had been sitting the last time Alessandra had been in there.

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, not looking up at her. Alessandra folded her arms and tried not to glare at him. What was the point of summoning her to his quarters if he wasn’t ready to actually talk to her. She started tapping her foot impatiently, and then she remembered what Torea had said to her, and she stopped. It was an effort, though.

Finally, Bezzum set down his pen and looked up at her. For a moment he just looked at her, as if he was studying her. It took all of her self-control not to fidget under that intense gaze.

“You’re probably wondering why I haven’t sent you out on a job recently,” he said, breaking the silence. Alessandra couldn’t think of a response to that which wasn’t insolent, so she said nothing. Bezzum studied her for a few more moments, and then he stood up and began pacing back and forth across the room, with his hands clasped behind his back.

“The answer is that I’ve been looking for the perfect job for you,” he said. “You are angry because you feel I’m wasting your talents. I’ll be honest, you have some right to be angry. You are a talented thief, and I have not taken full advantage of those talents.” He paused for a moment, and looked at Alessandra, as if gauging her reaction. For her part, Alessandra was stunned, but she tried not to let it show. Bezzum, admitting that he wasn’t giving her jobs that she deserved? It was as if the world had turned upside down, and suddenly the thief clans were running Serotopolis, and the Council of Elders was living in the slums.

“To be blunt, I haven’t given you more difficult jobs because I didn’t think you had the temperament to pull them off,” Bezzum continued. “You may have the skill to be one of the best thieves in Serotopolis, but you’re arrogant and hot-headed, so I’ve deliberately held you back, hoping that time might give you a chance to grow up a little.” He paused again, and Alessandra definitely felt she was back on more familiar territory now. Arrogant and hot-headed? There was only one arrogant person in this room, and it wasn’t her! She tried very hard not to let her feelings show on her face, but Bezzum smirked and continued pacing as if he knew very well what she was thinking.

“So far, that strategy has failed,” he said. “So I’m taking a different approach. You’ve been waiting for a chance to prove yourself? Fine. You can have it. Tomorrow night, I’m sending a team to rob the Vanmorzen manor. You’re in charge.”

This time, Alessandra could not contain her feelings. Her jaw dropped in shock, and it took her a moment to realize that her mouth was hanging open. She closed it with a snap, but her eyes still felt like they were as wide as dinner plates. “The Vanmorzen manor? Really?”

To be continued…

Chapter 2, Part 2

“I think that’s probably for the best,” he said.

“How can you say that!” Alessandra snapped. “You’re just as frustrated with how he’s running things as I am! How can you just sit there and let him get away with it?”

“Easy, Alessa,” Mikaelo said soothingly, using the nickname he’d used for her ever since she joined the clan. “I’m not saying that I want to just sit here and let him get away with things, but if we’re going to make a change, we have to be smart about how we do it.” Mikaelo’s soothing voice seemed to suck all the fight out of her, and she slumped back against the couch and sighed deeply.

“I know,” she said dejectedly. “It’s just so frustrating to have to keep taking that man’s crap!”

“It is,” Mikaelo agreed, “but he’s the best thief in the clan, no question, and until one of us gains the skills to challenge him, we’re just going to have to live with it.”

“So that’s what you wanted to talk to me about?” Alessandra asked, still slumped against the back of the couch. “You just wanted to warn me to chill out?”

“Well, yeah,” Mikaelo admitted. “You are kind of a hothead, after all.”

“What do you mean!” Alessandra shouted, leaning forward suddenly. Mikaelo flinched back from her, and she grinned. “Gotcha,” she said with a wink. Mikaelo rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, I guess you did,” he said sarcastically. Alessandra just grinned more widely.

“I should probably go take care of my disguise,” she said.

“I suppose,” Mikaelo replied, frowning. He looked like he was deep in thought, his eyes staring at something far away that no one else could see. Alessandra stifled a sigh. This was something that Mikaelo did often, and there was no getting through to him when he zoned out like this. She stood up and turned to walk away.

“Alessa,” he called, when she was just about to turn the corner. She looked back at him, and he said, “Just promise me you’ll be careful.”

“Oh, Mikaelo,” she said, flashing a smile, “I’m always careful. Don’t you know that already?” Mikaelo rolled his eyes again, and Alessandra laughed and walked away.

She made her way to the disguise storage room, so she could turn in her wig and her contacts. Technically, she should have done that as soon as she turned over the proceeds of her heist to Bezzum, but she’d been so deep in thought after that confrontation that she’d forgotten. The disguise room was guarded by a weaselly little man named Haazko.

“‘Bout time you showed up,” he snarled as she approached. “I happen to know you’ve been back for over an hour.”

“Well, this wig just looks so good on me, I couldn’t bear to give it up,” Alessandra said with a wink.

“Yeah, well, them wigs ain’t here to make you look pretty, little girl,” Haazko retorted, putting an emphasis on the word ‘little’, which Alessandra found ironic considering she was a good six inches taller than him.

“I know, I know,” Alessandra sighed. “I’m just teasing you, little man.” Haazko’s expression didn’t change, but Alessandra could tell he was amused anyway. They had always had this sort of relationship, where she teased him and he pretended he was aggravated by it. She took off the wig and handed it over to him, and then popped the contacts out of her eyes and handed those over as well.

“Everything looks like it’s in good order,” Haazko said as he inspected it.

“Well, of course,” Alessandra replied teasingly. “It’s me, isn’t it?” Haazko just rolled his eyes.

“Okay, you’re all set,” he said. “Now get outta here, would ya?” Alessandra grinned at him, and then turned and made her way back to her quarters. On her way there, she stopped in a bathroom and washed the makeup off her face. That was a pleasant experience, as the makeup had been on so long that it was starting to sting. She enjoyed disguising herself to go on jobs, but it was always nice to look like herself again. Taking a long look at her face in the mirror, she smiled. She liked the way her face looked, with her freckles, her twinkling green eyes, and her short, spiky red hair. She enjoyed being herself. She was strong, she was skilled, she was confident. Now she just needed the position in her clan that was worthy of her strength and her skills.

Her smile faded a little at that thought, but then she remembered what Mikaelo had said to her, and he was right. They needed to be patient. The time was coming when she would be able to challenge Bezzum and seize control of the clan. She just needed to be patient, and wait for the right opportunity. It wouldn’t do any good for her to strike too soon, and lose. The perfect moment was coming, and she would be ready for it.

***

The next few days passed fairly uneventfully for Alessandra. Being a thief wasn’t always about running around stealing things and getting chased by guards. There were plenty of mundane chores to be done around the clan house as well. Cleaning, cooking, maintenance and other tasks like this always needed to be done, and every member of the clan took their turn doing these things. Even Bezzum, although he seemed to get out of chore duty more often than any else. All the more reason Alessandra wanted his job. She hated doing chores. Especially cooking, which was what she was doing four days after her heist at Vadacar Lozech’s jewelry shop.

“I just love your stew today, Alessa!” piped Halidasa as she brought her bowl up for a second helping at lunchtime.

“Hali, it’s the same stew we have every day,” Alessandra replied with fond exasperation. “Everyone here makes it the same exact way. Even you!”

“I know,” Halidasa said with a shrug, “but there’s something special about it when you make it!

To be continued…

Chapter 2, Part 1

Alessandra plopped down on her bed as soon as she locked the door. Her quarters were modest, just like those of every other member of Clan Mekoval. She had a bed that was just barely large enough for her to lay down in comfortably, a dresser that held all of her clothes, and a table and chair. The table held a few books, and there were a few more on top of the dresser. She usually liked to read for a little bit after a job, give herself a chance to wind down a little bit, but tonight she had too much on her mind to even consider reading. She was tempted to just go to bed, as it was already late, but her mind was racing too much for that activity too. Besides, she needed to wash the makeup off her face before she went to bed, because otherwise it would sting something fierce. But she didn’t want to be around other people at the moment, and there was always at least one other person in the bathroom. So instead she just sat on the end of her bed and thought.

It grated on her that Bezzum had it in for her so badly. The clan was her whole life. All she wanted out of life was to rise through the ranks and eventually become Clan Master herself. That was the goal of every clan member in all of Serotopolis. Obviously, not everyone would be able to fulfill that dream, but Alessandra knew that she was talented enough to make it. But as long as Bezzum held a grudge against her, she was always going to be held back. She deserved to be a higher rank than she was, but no matter how hard she tried, Bezzum refused to promote her to her rightful rank. She was tempted to challenge him to a duel and seize control of the clan by force, but as good as she was, there was little doubt in her mind that Bezzum was better.

All she could think of to do was to just keep pushing herself, getting better and better so that either Bezzum would be forced to acknowledge that she was a master thief, or she would be good enough that she could challenge him to a duel and kill him. Admittedly, the latter option would be preferable. Years of being held back by Bezzum had built up a great deal of resentment in her towards him, and she had to admit that it would be extremely satisfying to shove a dagger in his gut. But maybe she wouldn’t feel quite so resentful toward him if he actually acknowledged her skills.

There was a knock on her door, and she scowled slightly. It was pretty rare for one clan member to attempt to enter another member’s quarters. Trust was thin on the ground in an organization where killing a rival was a perfectly acceptable means of advancement, and allowing someone into your personal space, without any allies around, was almost asking them to attempt to murder you. Knowing that, apartment doors were always locked in the clan house, using the best locks possible (after all, cheap locks were pretty useless in a building full of thieves), and it was customary to knock and give fair warning if you needed to get into someone’s room. Forcing your way into a clan member’s room was punishable by expulsion, but only if you got caught.

“Who is it?” Alessandra called, a hint of wariness in her voice.

“Mikaelo,” came the response. The scowl faded from Alessandra’s face, but she didn’t rush to open the door. If there was anyone in the clan she trusted, aside from Halidasa, it was Mikaelo, but even at that, he had never tried to come into her room before.

“What do you want?” she called out.

“I just wanted to talk to you,” he replied. “You don’t need to let me in, but can you at least come out and walk with me?” She hesitated for a moment, then she pulled open the door and slipped out, pulling the door closed behind her. Mikaelo was shorter than her, and wiry, with messy brown hair, dark skin, and deep brown eyes that perpetually looked as if their owner knew a joke that nobody else did. He was a couple of years older than her, and in a similar situation. One of the best thieves in Clan Mekoval, he held a position lower than he deserved because of Bezzum’s animosity. Someday, when Alessandra was Clan Master, Mikaelo would be her Clan Leader.

“So,” Alessandra began, “what’s so important?”

“That’s a nice look for you,” Mikaelo replied, smirking at her wig and makeup.

“Isn’t it, though?” Alessandra replied, fluffing her long, brown hair with a grin. Mikaelo chuckled appreciatively, but then his smile disappeared.

“Will you walk with me?” he asked.

“Of course,” Alessandra replied, somewhat taken aback by this uncharacteristic seriousness. They walked down the narrow hallway together, and Mikaelo was silent for a few minutes. Alessandra watched him out of the corner of her eye as they walked. The mischievous twinkle that normally graced Mikaelo’s dark eyes was gone at the moment. Alessandra couldn’t remember him ever looking so somber.

Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. “Are you going to tell me what this all about?” she blurted out. Mikaelo looked over at her, a small, surprised grin appearing on his face.

“Yes,” he said slowly. “I’m just trying to find the right words.” He was silent again for a few moments, while Alessandra tried very hard to not demand again that he start talking. Finally, they reached a small lounge area that was unoccupied, and he sat down in large, worn recliner. Alessandra sat down across from him, on the left side of a patched, but still comfortable, couch. “So,” he began, “I heard about your confrontation with Bezzum.”

“It wasn’t much of a confrontation,” Alessandra muttered grumpily. Mikaelo smiled slightly.

To be continued…