Chapter 12, Part 5

“Indeed,” said Shalor. “You were there when she died, were you not? She touched you, and then soon after you discovered that you had supernatural powers, correct?”

“Y-yes,” Alessandra stammered. “That’s right.”

“Those powers were Ilimay’s, and she passed them to you right before she died,” Shalor said. He paused for a moment, and smiled benignly at the confusion on Alessandra’s face. “It’s a lot to take in, I’m sure. Allow me to explain.” He stood up and began pacing back and forth across the room with his arms clasped behind his back as if he were lecturing. “Soon after the barrier was erected, the mages of the Order of Sunaru realized that they needed to do something to keep the order from dying out. With the rest of the world sealed off to them, it would be difficult for them to replenish their ranks as older members died off, so they needed to devise a way to ensure that the knowledge and power that they had amassed wouldn’t die off.” He paused for a moment, and eyed Alessandra closely to see how she was reacting to his words.

“They solved this problem by crafting a way for each member to pass on their powers and their memories to a successor,” he continued. “Each member of the Order took on an apprentice, and as they approached death, they passed on their memories to their apprentice, and that apprentice took on an apprentice, and so on, and so forth.” He paused again, waiting for Alessandra to respond.

“But…I don’t have any of Ilimay’s memories,” Alessandra said, confused.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Shalor replied with a frown. “Apprentices train for years in order to get fully in sync with their master’s thoughts and feelings, in order to prepare themselves to receive their master’s memories. In a situation like yours, without having had that extensive training, the memories remain locked in the recipient’s subconscious until they can be retrieved.”

“And…what if I don’t want to retrieve those memories?” Alessandra asked hesitantly.

“I’m afraid you don’t have any choice in the matter,” Shalor replied airily, his tone contrasted by the glint of steel in his eyes. “The memories of a Sunaran mage are too valuable to risk being lost. You must join us.”

“I…see,” Alessandra said pensively.

“I realize this is a lot to take in,” Shalor said in a comforting voice, “and I would prefer to keep the threats to a minimum. Instead, I would rather make a positive case for your cooperation. After all, it’s not as if you don’t get anything out of this. You will become – in fact, you already are – a member of the Order of Sunaru.”

For a moment, it was as if the entire world had frozen solid. Alessandra was so stunned that she couldn’t even react. Nothing in her wildest dreams had ever prepared her for the words that had just come out of Shalor’s mouth.

“A…what?” she said in a barely audible whisper. A knowing smile appeared on Shalor’s face.

“I remember how this feels,” he said. “One of my predecessors was in the same situation as you, a slum-dweller who just happened to be nearby when a mage died unexpectedly. I can vividly remember the shock and the joy I felt in the moment when I realized that I was going to join this hallowed order. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before or after.”

Alessandra’s mind was still frozen. Ever since she’d joined the Mekoval Clan, her greatest ambition had been to rise to the rank of Clan Master. Before that, living in the House of Vagrants, her greatest ambition had been to survive long enough to get out and join a clan. Even getting out of the slums and living in the city proper was a laughably impossible dream. For her, and for all slum-dwellers, the Order of Sunaru were like gods, benevolent, but unfathomably distant. For someone like her to actually join their ranks was…unthinkable. Hence, her inability to form any coherent thoughts about what she had just heard.

“I…that’s a lot to take in,” she finally said, somewhat lamely, and Shalor laughed, a deep, rich laugh that was so full of joy it finally broke through Alessandra’s frozen mind, and she couldn’t help but join in.

“That is the greatest understatement I have ever heard,” he said. “Come on, I want to give you a tour of the Avaroth.” He stood up and offered her his hand. She stared at it, confused and a little suspicious. “You’re supposed to take it so that I can help you up,” he said helpfully. Alessandra blushed and took his hand.

The door of Alessandra’s room slid open automatically as they approached it, and as soon as they walked through, Alessandra gasped in amazement. Alessandra was familiar with the exterior of the Avaroth, since it was the tallest building in the city and could be seen from just about everywhere inside the barrier, although she’d never seen it up close. It was an extraordinarily beautiful structure on the outside, tall and silver and ornate, but the exterior did not even remotely prepare Alessandra for her first view of the interior.

The very center of the Avaroth was dominated by an open space that extended the entire height of the building, from floor to ceiling. This open area was dominated by a massive statue depicting a figure that Alessandra did not recognize. Each level of the building was arranged in a circle, with rooms ringing the outside of the building, and across from each room was a balcony that overlooked the large central area. The effect was open and airy and beautiful, and it was the most amazing thing Alessandra had ever seen. In fact, over the course of her life, Alessandra would see many beautiful and terrible things, but her first glimpse of the interior of the Avaroth would always rank near the top of the list of the most incredible things she had ever seen.

To be continued…

Chapter 12, Part 4

“Hardly the reason why we were here,” the other man said scornfully. He was medium height, with black skin, close-cropped black hair, and a short beard. “Now the Storm Corps is aware that we know about the Receptor. They’re going to move it somewhere even more secure now.”

“Then we will find it again, Earva,” said the second woman fiercely. She was tall, even taller than Shalor, with olive skin, and long dark hair pulled into a braid that went down to her knees. “Everything hinges on that device.”

“Yes, well, perhaps we should not be talking about such things in present company, Havor,” Shalor said with a meaningful glance at the second woman. He turned back to Alessandra and bowed deeply. “Forgive my rudeness, and allow me to introduce myself. I am Shalor Berevay, sindunar of the Order of Sunaru. These are my companions, Mayla Farigold, Earva Landamor, and Havor Kingresa.”

“Ah, yes,” Alessandra said, trying desperately to hide her nervousness at meeting four members of the Order of Sunaru. “I-it was l-lovely to meet you all, b-but I really m-must be going.”

“Not so fast, my lady,” Shalor said, sweeping one hand out and flashing another winning smile. “You have not even told us your name!”

“O-oh, w-well,” Alessandra stammered, backing up slowly. “M-my name. Of c-course. That w-would b-be…,” and as she trailed off, Mayla scoffed.

“It’s obvious she doesn’t want to tell us her name, Shalor,” she said, tossing her head in a gesture of contempt. “And I can guess why. She’s a thief!”

“Of course she is,” Shalor said, and while his tone was still pleasant, it took on a hint of a dangerous edge as he continued. “Why else would she be here? This place is the most tempting target a slum-dweller could imagine!” He began walking slowly toward Alessandra, and his smile grew even more beautiful as he approached. “There are plenty of riches here, and I would not begrudge any slum-dweller who wished to partake of them. But what I want to know, is why a slum-dweller would be after the Receptor, of all things.”

Alessandra froze. Two deep-seated desires were warring within her. The first was her desire to keep herself and her clan secret from any authority, even the Order of Sunaru. The second was the deeply ingrained feelings of awe and reverence that any slum-dweller had for members of the Order of Sunaru. So part of her wanted to tell them everything, and part of her, somewhat irrationally, believed that bad things would happen if the Order discovered that she had inherited the power of one of their members. So she stared up at Shalor with wide eyes and kept her mouth shut, mostly because she had no idea what to say.

“You do not wish to speak,” Shalor said. “I understand. I suspect you have no idea what the Receptor is, and you do not wish to reveal your ignorance. You probably heard that a fantastically valuable object was being held here, under heavy guard, and your thieving desires got the best of you. Perfectly reasonable. Therefore, allow me to give you some friendly advice.” He paused, and then stepped closer to her and looked her directly in the eyes. “Forget about the Receptor. Forget you ever even heard the name. Go back to stealing from petty merchants, and keep your nose out of Order business. Understood?” For a moment he paused, waiting for Alessandra’s response, and then his eyes widened and he gasped. “Ilimay?” he exclaimed.

There was a moment of confusion as gasps of surprise came out of the mouths of the Shalor’s companions, and before Alessandra had any idea what was going on, Shalor had placed one of his hands on her forehead, and then all was darkness.

***

When she came to, the first thought in Alessandra’s head was that she’d died and gone to paradise. She had never seen a room that was so clean in her whole life. Every surface was perfectly spotless, and every place that the light touched gleamed like the purest braeka she’d ever seen. Every surface was white, brighter and clearer than any white Alessandra had ever seen before.

The second thought was panic. For a moment, she was convinced that she was suspended in mid-air. She flailed around for a bit, and then she immediately calmed down, as she realized that she was laying in a bed. It’s just that it was so much more comfortable than anything else she’d ever laid on, that it was like laying on nothing at all.

“I assure you that you are in no danger,” said a voice suddenly. Alessandra leaped out of the bed into a ready stance, and saw Shalor sitting in a chair across the room, with his legs crossed and a faint smile playing on his lips.

“Funny how when I tell you that you’re in no danger, you act like you’re about to be attacked,” he said.

“Sorry,” Alessandra mumbled, her cheeks growing hot. She slumped back onto the bed and eyed Shalor warily. “Instinct, I guess. In the slums, one learns to be on alert at all times. Those who don’t learn this, don’t last long.”

“I am sorry to hear it,” Shalor said gravely, his smile disappearing. “We have done far too little to help those who live on the outskirts of the city. Hopefully someday that will change.”

“Well, you’re busy,” Alessandra muttered, not quite meeting Shalor’s eyes. “Fighting demons and whatnot.”

“Indeed,” Shalor replied. He was silent for a moment, studying her, and then he said, “I apologize for the way I brought you here. It was rather rude of me to knock you unconscious without any warning, but I couldn’t risk the possibility that you would try to flee. We’ve been looking for you for some time, you see.”

“Oh?” Alessandra said, still not meeting his eyes.

“Yes,” Shalor replied, leaning forward intently. “You are the successor to Ilimay Ladron.”

“I am?” Alessandra asked.

To be continued…

Chapter 12, Part 3

She was completely visible.

“It’s hard for me to believe that an agent of the Order of Sunaru would fall for such basic tricks,” the commander gloated as he strutted forward. There was no glimmer of recognition on his face, which meant at least one thing was going right. Despite her abilities, Alessandra had still taken the precaution of disguising herself, so she looked nothing like she had the first time she’d broken into the manor. She had not wanted to risk the Storm Corps tracing her back to the Clan Mekoval if she’d been caught. “Perhaps our traps are better than I thought.”

Alessandra stayed silent. She didn’t know if the commander would recognize her voice, but she didn’t want to take the risk. She didn’t have any plans to stick around have a chat with this guy anyway. Tensing her muscles, she prepared to charge at the commander and his men, but as soon as she did so, he smiled and shook his head.

“You needn’t bother,” he said in a cocky voice. “This hallway is equipped with a magic-dampening field. Your powers are quite useless here.” A feeling of horror gripped Alessandra’s heart as he said this. She attempted to teleport away, something she hadn’t tried until now since she wasn’t sure she could carry the box with her, but nothing happened. It wasn’t even as if her powers had failed. It felt like she didn’t have any powers at all.

“Now, put the box on the floor, and then put your hands up, and back away slowly,” the commander said. Alessandra hesitated for a moment, and then she decided to comply. The jig was up now. If her powers really were neutralized, then she was definitely no match for ten inoval soldiers. Then again, she realized as she started to bend over and put the box on the ground, the commander was still acting as if she were a threat. Thinking quickly, she decided to gamble.

“And what will you do if I don’t?” Alessandra asked, making her voice huskier than usual in an attempt to disguise it.

“You are in no position to negotiate here,” the commander said with a sneer, but Alessandra could tell there was a hint of worry in his voice.

“Okay,” Alessandra said with a shrug, and then suddenly she raised the box over head and made like she was going to smash it into the ground.

“Wait!” the commander screamed, flinging out a hand as if to catch the box before it hit the ground. Alessandra froze, and then she slowly brought the box down again, a smile creeping across her lips.

“So, it seems we’re at an impasse,” Alessandra said.

“So it seems,” the commander said with a grimace.

“How shall we resolve this, then?” Alessandra asked.

“How about you put the box down, and then we’ll let you leave?” the commander said hopefully.

“I don’t think so,” Alessandra said, shaking her head. “Instead, I am going to take this box with me, and you and your men can follow me at a distance. Once I get outside, I will leave the box in the alley across from the manor’s front door, and you can retrieve it there.”

“That’s not going to work either,” the commander said, shaking his head in turn. “As soon as you leave this hallway, you’ll be able to use your powers again, and you’ll disappear with the box in tow. I’d rather kill you now and risk you destroying the box then let you leave here with it.”

“Guess I’ll just have to destroy it then,” Alessandra said with a shrug, and once again she raised the box over her head to smash it into the ground, but as she did so, several things happened at once.

The first thing that happened was that her powers returned. Even though she hadn’t noticed when she lost them, she definitely noticed when they returned. It was like a rush of energy swept into her body and she could suddenly do anything. The second thing that happened was two pairs of figures crashed into the inoval soldiers on either side of the hallway. And the third thing that happened was that someone crashed into Alessandra before she could react to what was going on, knocking her to the ground.

As she fell, the box flew out of her hands and went skidding across the floor. She immediately threw off the person who had tackled her, who turned out to be the Storm Corps commander. As soon as he hit the ground, he scampered across the hallway toward the box, wrenched it open, and put on a ring that was inside. As soon as he did so, he disappeared in a flash of purple and green light. Alessandra’s mouth dropped open, but before she could react further, she became aware of somebody standing over her. Immediately she scrambled to her feet and sized up the man standing in front of her.

The first thing she noticed was that he was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes on. Alessandra wasn’t generally one to get twitterpated over a pretty face, but she had to admit that this man took her breath away. He had long, wavy brown hair, dark, brown eyes, and a face that looked like it had been carved by a master sculptor. He was tall and muscular, and was wearing the same black, sleeveless bodysuit trimmed with gold that she had seen Ilimay Ladron wear.

“Looks like we got here in the nick of time,” the man said with a winning smile, and Alessandra suddenly became aware of three other figures wearing black bodysuits. One was male, and the other two were female.

“More like too late, Shalor,” one of the women said with a grimace. She was short, with pale skin and long, straight blond hair. “I saw Commander Valgosz escape with the Receptor. This whole raid was a bust.”

“Not a complete bust, Mayla,” Shalor said with a shrug. “We managed to save this young woman from the attentions of the Storm Corps. I would say that was a deed worth doing.”

To be continued…

Chapter 12, Part 2

A few minutes later, she was standing at the gates of the manor. Nobody could see her, but if they could, they would have seen her gazing up at the manor pensively. She reached out a hand toward the gate, but instead of touching it, her hand passed right through. Nothing happened. The guards standing on either side of her didn’t so much as twitch. With a grin, she passed through the gates and went on her way toward the building.

Just as she’d told Torea, she didn’t expect any kind of complications with this job. She was like a ghost, literally. No one could see her, touch her, hear her, or even smell her. She had masked herself from every sense, and in a very real way, it was as if she didn’t exist. There was no reason to think that anybody would have any idea that she was ever there. But she still felt the need to be cautious. As cavalier as she’d been to Torea about the thought of something happening to her, she knew how important it was that she stay alive. Clan Masters died in challenges all the time, but that meant that a new Clan Master took their place right away. Every time a Clan Master died on a job, their clan was thrown into chaos. The last thing Alessandra wanted was for that to happen to Clan Mekoval.

She made her way up the path to the front door of the manor, and then passed through it as if it was air. She had learned a few things in the months since she’d attempted to teleport through the door of Bezzum’s study. The trick was not in trying to teleport through something. Alessandra had done some experiments, and as far as she could tell, there was no way to teleport while invisible and stay invisible. Instead, she had to impose her will on the thing she was trying to pass through. Somehow, she had figured out that if she simply wanted something to be permeable, it was. Actually, it wasn’t even as if she had figured it out. It was more as if she had remembered it.

The entryway of the manor was empty, and not just of people. There were no decorations, no furniture, just a big, empty hall with two large staircases on either side. It didn’t look like anyone lived there at all, and this was more evidence for Alessandra’s view that the Vanmorzens didn’t exist, and that the manor was just a front for some sort of Storm Corps operation. Alessandra quickly walked up the stairs and began making her way toward the vault on the third floor.

As she went, she noticed that the hallways were just as devoid of any sort of decoration as the entryway. Cursing herself for not noticing this fact the first time she was there, she hurried along to the vault. There were no guards in sight anywhere, which also struck Alessandra as suspicious. Surely they couldn’t be preparing an ambush this time, could they?

As she moved through the hallways, she heard the sound of a mekuvise being fired off. She paused for a moment, listening, but she didn’t hear a second. Something suspcious was going on outside, but it wasn’t mercenary or Storm Corps reinforcements. She thought for a second, and then she decided to keep moving forward.

Alessandra turned the corner to the hallway which led to the vault, and stopped. There was a lumoss surrounding the entire hallway. She hesitated for a moment, and then stepped through it, confident that the abilities which masked her from human senses would also mask her from the lumoss.

That turned out be a mistake.

Immediately an alarm began blaring. Alessandra looked around, startled, and then she looked at herself. She was still invisible, so stepping through the lumoss hadn’t nullified her abilities, but somehow the lumoss had detected her. Clearly, she didn’t know enough about how these powers worked, but there was no time to worry about that at the moment. She ran forward, toward the vault door, and attempted to pass through it. That gave her a second shock.

She couldn’t do it.

No matter how hard she tried to impose her will on the door, it wouldn’t shift. It wasn’t as if her abilities were failing. The door itself seemed to be resisting somehow. Deep inside her chest, a feeling of panic began to bubble up, but she tightly clamped it back down. She’d come this far. She couldn’t back down now. She needed what was in that velisite box. The door would just have to be opened the old fashioned way.

Fortunately, she’d brought a set of lockpicking tools. She’d actually debated leaving them behind, because she’d assumed that she would just be able to phase through the vault door, but in the end she’d decided to bring them, just in case. Good thing she did. The lock on the vault was a tough one, but far from the toughest Alessandra had ever encountered. The alarm blaring in her ears did add an element of pressure that she wasn’t quite used to, but it still took her very little time to defeat the lock and get the door open.

As soon as the vault door swung open, she rushed into the vault, grabbed the box off of its pedestal, turned around, and rushed back out of the vault again. She turned to run back down the hallway she had come from, but there were five Storm Corps soldiers standing there. Turning around, she began to move down the other way, but there were five Storm Corps soldiers standing at the other end of the hallway as well. She decided that she would just have to slip by them, and then a voice rang out.

“Stop where you are, drop the box, and put your hands up!” the voice yelled. Alessandra recognized it as the voice of the same Storm Corps commander who had caught her last time she was in the Vanmorzen manor. He’s just guessing, she thought to herself. He can’t possibly see me. And then she had her third shock.

To be continued…

Chapter 12, Part 1

Alessandra stood on the roof of a building with her arms crossed, gazing across at the Vanmorzen manor in the distance. Torea was crouched down next to her, her gaze focused on the same thing. It was the first time Alessandra had laid eyes on the manor since her disastrous job there, and she was surprised at how little the sight affected her. She had expected to be flooded with vivid memories of Ahlen, Veloran, Nieshata and Breska, but instead she felt…nothing. It was just another building, just another target to be robbed. Except that it wasn’t. She couldn’t let herself forget that.

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Torea said, as Alessandra crouched down next to her.

“As does Meela, and Meachen, and Vegora,” replied Alessandra, her gaze fixated on the manor.

“Generally, when all four Clan Leaders agree about something, it’s a good idea for the Clan Master to listen,” Torea said gravely.

“I have listened,” Alessandra said. “It will be fine. The worst thing that will happen is that I die. Nobody else will be at risk. If that happens, you will chose another Clan Master, and life will go on.”

“And what if the Storm Corps traces the box back to us?” Torea asked. “Meela’s right. If the full force of the Elder Guard comes down on us, we won’t survive.”

“That won’t happen,” Alessandra said firmly.

“How can you be so sure?” Torea demanded. Alessandra sighed and turned to her.

“Look, you know about my speed and my strength, right? Well, I have other abilities you don’t know about, too. I can turn invisible, and even mask myself so people can’t see me or touch me. I can also teleport. Trust me when I say that, no matter how strong inoval armored soldiers are, or how many there are, they won’t see me.”

“That explains how you were able to get into the clanhouse without being seen the day you challenged Bezzum,” Torea muttered. “But how is that even possible?” she asked in a louder voice. “You suddenly being much faster and stronger is plausible, if highly unlikely. But how can you make yourself invisible?”

“I promise I’ll explain it to you someday, Torea, but it’s a long story, and we don’t have time.” She turned back to staring at the manor. “Now, you’re certain you remember all the details of the plan?”

“Alessandra,” Torea said in a flat voice, “you’ve got to be kidding me. This is the simplest plan I’ve ever been a part of. How could I not remember?”

“Humor me, Torea,” Alessandra replied, not looking away from the manor. Torea rolled her eyes and sighed.

“I will wait on the roof of Inskara Building and watch the exterior of the manor,” she recited in a bored voice. “If I see any unusual activity outside, I will fire off one mekuvise. If I see extra troops entering the manor, I will fire off two mekuvise. That’s it.”

“Not quite,” Alessandra said disapprovingly, turning to look at Torea again. “You’re missing the most important part.” Torea gave her a highly unamused look.

“Once I have given a signal, if needed, I will withdraw and return to the clanhouse,” she said, her voice even more flat and unimpressed than before. “Under no circumstances will I attempt to enter the manor.”

“That’s it,” Alessandra said with a satisfied smile.

“You know, not everyone is as stubborn as you are,” Torea said.

“I’m not going to risk losing you over this job,” Alessandra replied. “I know that I’m doing this to stroke my own ego. I’m not stupid. I will not put anyone at risk aside from myself. I want to make absolutely sure that you and everyone else who is helping me with this job is perfectly safe.”

“And how do you think I feel, watching you put yourself at risk in order to pursue this…this…vanity project!” Torea shot back. “Dammit, Alessandra, you’re important, even if you don’t think you are. You’ve only been Clan Master for two months, and I can already tell that you’re a much better Clan Master than Bezzum ever was, plus you’re likable! You’ve changed the opinions of virtually everybody in the clan. You’ve gone from being the one that everybody hates to the one that everybody loves, practically overnight! You are an amazing person, and we would all be much poorer if anything happens to you.”

Alessandra blushed, and it took her a moment to gather her thoughts and respond. “Are you trying to make me cry?” she said in a husky voice, and she smiled as she said it.

“No, I’m trying to make you think,” Torea said firmly. “You’re not putting the clan first right now. You’re putting yourself first, and you know that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Even for Clan Masters.”

Alessandra was silent for a moment again, and then she said with a sigh, “I know that. But I have to do this. I know it’s dumb. I know it’s a bad idea. But I have to. I’ll never truly believe in myself until I know I can pull this off.”

Torea took a deep breath and started rubbing her temples. “Can you promise me one thing?” she asked.

“What?”

“Will you promise that if you come back from this job alive, that you’ll never do anything like this again? Because if you don’t promise, I might have to challenge you, even though I know I won’t survive.”

Alessandra stared at for a moment, and then she nodded. “Yes. I promise. I will never put myself ahead of the good of the clan ever again. After today.”

Torea stared off into the distance for a minute, and then she sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Go do this thing. Get it over with. And make sure you come back to us.” Alessandra grinned, then she made herself invisible and leaped off the building that she and Torea were standing on.

To be continued…

Chapter 11, Part 5

“So? Gonna tell me what that was all about?” Meela said with a grin.

“Nope,” Alessandra replied, sitting back down behind her desk. “How about you? Are you going to tell me what’s going on between you and Migdoral?”

“What? Nothing’s going on between me and Migdoral!” Meela exclaimed in a tone that was a little too indignant to be innocent.

“Uh huh,” Alessandra said with a knowing smile.

“Whatever,” Meela said, not meeting Alessandra’s eyes. She began rifling furiously through the folder full of papers that she’d brought in with her, and Alessandra chuckled.

“All right,” she said. “You obviously have more you want to talk about then just telling me that Mikaelo returned. What’s up?”

“Oh, just general status updates,” Meela replied, pulling a few papers out of her folder and laying them on Alessandra’s desk.

“Hmmm,” Alessandra mused as she looked over the papers. “Yeah, this all looks in order to me.” She flipped through the pages for a few more minutes. “Zansker’s team isn’t back yet?”

“Not yet,” Meela said with a slight frown.

“They were supposed to be back last night,” Alessandra muttered. Meela remained silent. “Well, let me know when you hear anything,” Alessandra said, handing the papers back to Meela. “Is that really all you wanted? These status updates could have waited until morning.”

“You’re right,” Meela frowned. “To be honest, I’m not sure that your Vanmorzen manor job is a good idea.”

“I see,” Alessandra replied flatly. “And why is that?”

“I think you’re obsessed. I think you’re trying to prove to yourself that you’re the best, when you don’t need to, and I think you’re putting your own pride before the good of the clan.”

“How do you figure?” Alessandra asked quietly.

“Oh, come on,” Meela said, exasperated. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. You’re obviously the best thief in this clan. You destroyed Bezzum and Ilnorat in the arena, and you’ve brought in more booty in the past two months than Bezzum ever could have dreamed of in the same amount of time. Nobody questions your rule. Everybody respects you. There is no reason for you to do this.”

“Are you finished?” Alessandra shot back.

“No, I’m not,” Meela said calmly. “You don’t even know what’s in that vault. I’m not convinced Bezzum knew what was in it either. Sure, it’s valuable. It must be if it’s being guarded by the Storm Corps. But do you really want to bring the Storm Corps down on our heads? You may be able to get past them and steal that box, but do you think you’ll be able to defend the clanhouse if they decide to come get their box back?” There was silence for a moment when she finished speaking, and then she said, “Now I’m done.”

“I see,” Alessandra said. Her eyes flashed for a moment, and she puffed up for a moment, and then she deflated and sighed deeply. “Maybe you’re right,” she said, “but I still need to do this.”

“Why?” Meela demanded. “When everything is going perfectly for you, and for the people who care about you, why risk it all on this nonsense?”

“Because I lost something that night,” Alessandra replied. “I’ve always been confident. I still am. Some people would even call me arrogant, and that’s probably fair. But that night I failed, miserably. I need to prove to myself that it was a fluke. I need to know that I really am as good as I think I am.” There was a long silence after this, as Alessandra and Meela stared each other down.

“I’m never going to convince you, am I?” Meela finally said, her sigh matching Alessandra’s.

“You could always challenge me,” Alessandra said with a shrug and a small twinkle in her eye.

“Your death is one of the things I’m trying to avoid,” Meela said, rolling her eyes. “Besides, I’ve seen you in action. I know there’s no way I could beat you.”

“You’re right,” Alessandra said simply.

“Anyway, I’ve said my piece. If nothing else, when everything comes crashing down, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’.”

“Believe me, Meela, if this does end up in disaster, the last thing I’ll be worried about is your smugness.”

“So,” Meela said as she laced her hands behind her head and leaned back in her chair, “when are you going to do this?”

“Tomorrow night,” Alessandra replied. “I’ve poured over these plans long enough. It’s either going to work or it isn’t. I need to stop worrying about variables I can’t control.”

“Good idea,” Meela said with a grimace. “If you’re going to do this thing, might as well get it over with.”

“It’ll be worth it,” Alessandra said firmly. “I promise.”

“I don’t know how you think you can make that promise, but I’m still gonna hold you to it,” Meela said, standing up. As she did so, she yawned and stretched. “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. I’m going to bed.”

“I’m gonna stay up for awhile,” Alessandra said. “Get some work done.”

“Fine by me,” Meela said with a shrug. “I ain’t your mother.” She started walking toward the door, but Alessandra spoke before she reached it.

“Meela,” she said, and Meela stopped. “Do you…do you remember your mother?”

“That’s a weird question,” Meela said, confused. “Of course not. My mother dumped me at the House of Vagrants, just like you and everyone else in this hellhole. Just like I’ll do with my kids, if I ever have any.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Alessandra murmured.

“Why do you ask?” Meela said with a quizzical look.

“No reason,” Alessandra replied, shaking her head. “Good night, Meela.” Meela nodded, and left.

Why did I ask that? Alessandra thought. She shook her head again, and looked down at the papers on her desk. What are parents like? What would it be like to be one? For the third time, she shook her head, and dismissed those thoughts from her mind. She had work to do.

To be continued…

 

Chapter 11, Part 4

“Well,” Mikaelo began, and then he stopped. He opened his mouth again, stopped, and then turned away from her partially. Alessandra was fascinated. Mikaelo was always calm, cool and collected. She had never seen him flustered before, ever.

“Mikaelo,” she said, “are you blushing?”

“I…um…well…no! Of course not!” Mikaelo stammered. “Well, uh…okay, fine, I guess I am.” Alessandra stood up from her desk and a coy smile appeared on her face.

“Mikaelo?” she said. “What is going on?”

“Alessa, I…well, I like you. A lot. And…well…,” he trailed off.

“Mikaelo, I like you too,” Alessandra said, and then she kissed him. Mikaelo’s eyes widened in shock, and he stiffened, but then quickly he relaxed and wrapped his arms around her. They stood like that for quite a while, arms wrapped around each other and lips pressed together. Finally, Mikaelo pulled away and took a deep breath, while still keeping his arms wrapped around her.

“Wow, I…I wasn’t expecting that,” Mikaelo said.

“You really are a dunce, aren’t you?” Alessandra said fondly. “How could you not know that I felt the same way?”

“Hey now,” Mikaelo said, pretending to look offended. “That’s really not fair. You’ve been so busy with Clan Master business that we’ve barely said two words to each other in the past two months. Plus, there was the whole business with me physically throwing you out of the clan…”

“Mikaelo, I’ve told you again and again, I’m not mad at you about that,” Alessandra said in a tone that mixed fondness with exasperation. “You were doing your duty. I would have done the same thing if our positions were swapped.”

“I know, I know,” Mikaelo sighed. “That’s doesn’t meant I don’t feel terrible about it.”

“As you should!” Alessandra cried, and then she laughed. “But it’s all over and done with now, and really, things turned out for the best!”

“I suppose they did,” Mikaelo said with a sigh.

“Uh oh,” Alessandra frowned. “What’s wrong now?”

“I mean…well…I was a little disappointed when you didn’t make me a Clan Leader,” Mikaelo said, slightly sheepishly. This time it was Alessandra’s turn to sigh.

“I know,” she said, letting go of him and turning away. “You were one of only three people I considered, believe me. I came so close to picking you. But I didn’t want people to think I was favoring my friends. Everybody knows that we’re close.”

“I understand,” Mikaelo said. “I’m not mad. I just…well, I just thought it meant that you were still bitter about what happened.”

“What? No!” Alessandra exclaimed, whipping around to face him again. “Please, stop thinking about that Mikaelo. I tell you, it’s over, it’s done, and I’ve forgiven you completely. In fact, you never did anything that required forgiveness.”

“Okay,” he said softly, and then smiled at her look of disapproval. “Okay!” he said in a cheerier voice. “It’s over. It’s done. I’ve forgotten all about it. What were we talking about again?” She rolled her eyes at this, and he grinned. Almost immediately, it disappeared though, and was replaced with a somber look.

“Oh no,” Alessandra said. “I know that look. That’s your ‘deep-in-thought’ look.”

“Yeah,” Mikaelo said absently, and then he shook his head and focused on her.

“Alessa, do you…do you ever think about Kriesaio?” he asked.

“What? All the time!” Alessandra replied, startled. “But why bring him up now?”

“I loved him, you know,” Mikaelo said, not quite meeting her eyes. “He was like a mentor to me. He was my best friend, taught me almost everything I know.” He paused for a moment, and then turned away from her. “But I hated him too.”

“What? You hated him? Why?” Alessandra asked, shocked and puzzled.

“Because I loved you,” Mikaelo said simply. Alessandra stared at him for a moment, still puzzled, and then it clicked.

“You were jealous,” she said softly, and Mikaelo nodded. “But why bring this up now?”

“Guilty conscience, I guess?” Mikaelo said with a shrug. “I was devastated when Kriesaio died. But I was also happy. Because it meant I finally had a chance with you.”

“It’s not your fault he died,” Alessandra said quietly.

“I suppose not,” Mikaelo said with another shrug, still not looking at Alessandra. “But maybe I could have done more to convince him not to challenge Bezzum. I mean, the thought definitely crossed my mind that you would be available if he died.”

“But you didn’t give him the idea, did you?” Alessandra said, her voice soft but dangerous.

“No!” Mikaelo exclaimed. “Of course not! I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t want him to die! I just…well, I could see the advantages if he did.”

“I see,” Alessandra said, and then she was silent for awhile. Mikaelo still didn’t look at her, and after a minute or two he spoke again.

“You’re not…mad at me…are you?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“No,” Alessandra said after a moment, and she shook her head. “No, you can’t help feeling the way you feel. And I don’t think you could have talked him out of it. I tried my hardest, but he was convinced he could win. I don’t know that you would have had any luck.”

“You’re probably right,” Mikaelo said with a deep sigh. He and Alessandra were silent again after that, but the silence only lasted a few moments before it was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Alessandra said, and the door opened to admit Meela. “Ah, you decided to knock this time! I see you’re learning some manners.”

“Well, I didn’t want to walk in on anything,” Meela replied with a roguish wink.

“Not to worry, Clan Leader,” Mikaelo said with a salute. “I was just leaving.” He turned to Alessandra and saluted her as well. “Thank you for the discussion, Clan Master. It was most enlightening.” Alessandra nodded in response, and Mikaelo left, closing the door behind him.

To be continued…