Chapter 7, Part 5

Before she knew it, she was turning a corner and arriving at the rendezvous point behind the bank. The others were already there, lounging against a wall, and Fihal was with them, standing next to Kraylea and talking in his ear in a low voice. The rest of them were scattered around the block, so that someone observing them wouldn’t know that they were part of a group.

As soon as Kraylea saw Alessandra, he gave a sign and relocated to a nearby alley, where the rest of the team joined him. Once they were all gathered in the alley, Kraylea began speaking.

“Change of plans,” he said. “Security on the back doors is tighter than we expected, so going in that way is out.”

“What are we going to do then?” Shiena asked.

“We’re still gonna set up a distraction, only this time we’re going to hit both back doors. Fergen and Fihal are going to set off a smoke bomb on the left door, and act like they’re trying to get in that way. While that’s going on, me and Sharae are going to attack the right door. But that’s just going to be a distraction too. The real infiltration is going to be Alessandra and Shiena going in through a third floor window.”

“Ugh, why do I have to go with her?” Shiena said in a disgusted voice.

“Because I said so, that’s why!” Kraylea snapped. Shiena recoiled, looking hurt, but that expression only appeared on her face for a moment, before she gave Kraylea a simpering smile that made Alessandra want to retch.

“Once you two are in, you’ll make your way to security and disable it,” Kraylea continued. “Once that’s done, the rest of us will pretend that we’re retreating, and then we’ll circle around and come in through the windows in the alley.”

“How are we going to get onto the third floor?” Alessandra asked.

“See that building there?” Fihal asked, pointing towards the building next door to the bank. “That’s an apartment building. Apartment number 304 is vacant, and has windows that face the bank. Get in there, and get across to the bank.”

“The apartment building must have security,” Alessandra protested.

“Back door is unguarded,” Fihal replied. “There’s a nerfota on the door, but that shouldn’t be anything Shiena can’t handle.”

“Alright, let’s do this,” Kraylea said. “Ladies, get moving. Signal once you’re in the apartment.” Alessandra and Shiena nodded, and began strolling toward the apartment building. They went through the narrow alley separating the bank and the apartment building and made their way to the back door.

Once they reached it, they found that Fihal was right. There were no guards in sight, but there was a panel next to the door with numbered buttons and a red light. Shiena promptly popped the cover off the panel, exposing a mess of multicolored wires. She rearranged a couple of the wires, which made the light turn green and the door pop open, and then she replaced the panel. Quickly and quietly, the two women passed through the door and made their way up to the third floor.

They soon found a door marked with number 304, and Alessandra immediately got to work picking the lock. It was a fairly simple lock, and within moments the door was swinging open. The apartment was indeed vacant, completely lacking in any furnishings and coated with a thin layer of dust. They crept through the apartment towards the window, opened it, and gave Kraylea and the others the signal to let them know they were in.

“There’s a lumoss on the window over there,” Alessandra whispered to Shiena.

“There would have to be,” Shiena whispered back, irritated. She pulled out her violan, a device that shot out a hook attached to a strong rope, aimed at the wall near the opposite window, fired, and then cut the rope off and tied it to the windowsill. As soon as she was sure that it was tight, she began climbing across. Alessandra did the same with her violan and began climbing after her.

Once Alessandra reached the window, Shiena had already disarmed the lumoss, which was a sort of metal ring around the outside of the window that would sense if anyone passed through the window and would sound an alarm. With the lumoss disarmed, Alessandra was able to easily break the lock and open the window. Quickly and quietly, she slipped inside and dropped to the ground. She moved to the side to allow Shiena to enter, and took a quick look around. They were in a small, empty office, with carpeted floors and a single wooden desk. The office was, despite being small, quite richly decorated, and Alessandra thought that they could have made a nice haul just from robbing this one room.

Shiena and Alessandra slipped across the office, and peeked through the window in the door to see if there were any guards outside. There were none that they could see, so they opened the door quietly and slipped through it.

“Security room is on the second floor,” Shiena whispered, and Alessandra nodded. They crept through the halls, making sure to keep a sharp eye out for patrolling guards. After a few minutes, they made their way down to the second floor and found themselves just outside the security room. There were two mercenaries standing guard outside of the room, big, hulking men with swords on their hips and cudgels in their hands. Shiena glanced at Alessandra and motioned to the guard on the left. Alessandra nodded and drew her long knife out from its sheath. She also pulled out a small rock, and tossed it down the hallway to the left.

“Hey, did you hear that?” the guard on the left said as the rock clattered against the wall.

“Better go check it out,” the other guard grunted. The first guard nodded, and trundled down the hallway to investigate. As soon as he was out of the second guard’s sight, Shiena burst out of the shadows and had slammed her knife into the second guard’s neck before he had a chance to make any noise. Once he was down, Alessandra raced down the hallway after the first guard and slit his throat from behind.

To be continued…

Chapter 7, Part 4

She gritted her teeth and handed her papers to the guard waiting at the gate. He glanced over them briefly, and then looked up at her. She stared impassively back at him, just another tired commuter anxious to get home after a long day of work.

“Name?” the guard said in a bored voice.

“Nietasha Volemare,” Alessandra replied, using the name that was on her papers.

“Occupation?”

“I’m a records clerk at Veshamil Industries.”

“And you live in Vandeo District?”

“Yes, sir.”

The guard looked over her papers one more time, and then he handed them back to her and waved her through. Stifling a sigh of relief, she walked through the gate and into the crowded station. Weaving through the throng, she made her way through the station and out into the busy street. Evening was falling, but Serotopolis never truly went to sleep. Vandeo District was primarily residential, but there were a number of commercial enterprises there as well, especially near the border with Ashcraz. Well-dressed people and others who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the slums walked along the sidewalks bordering the busy road outside the station. Stores selling an almost unimaginable variety of goods stretched as far as Alessandra could see. Any of them would have made a tempting target if she had been alone, but tonight, she had a bigger job ahead of her.

She hurried down the street with her head down, just another overworked clerk rushing to get home to get some rest before another long day at the office. She dodged and weaved her way through the crowded sidewalk with ease, because, as crowded as it was, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the average walkway in the slums. After a few minutes, she reached her destination, a small park wedged in between two apartment buildings. Kraylea, Sharae and Shiena were already there. Sharae was leaning against the wall surrounding the park with her arms folded, while Kraylea and Shiena were sitting on a bench, making out.

“Good, you’re here,” Sharae said as soon as she saw Alessandra. “Now, we just need Fergen to arrive.”

“What about Fihal?” Alessandra asked with a slight frown.

“Fihal’s going to meet us at the bank,” Sharae said, glancing at Kraylea and Shiena with a slightly disgusted look on her face. “He had some last minute preparations to make.” She shook her head slightly as she watched the intense kissing going on, and then turned to look back to the street.

“I never figured you for the jealous type,” Alessandra said in a low voice, leaning against the wall next to Sharae and folding her arms as well.

“It’s not that,” Sharae said, frowning slightly. “Kraylea can slobber all over whoever he wants. Doesn’t bother me. I just wish he’d show a little more…discretion about when and where he does it.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Alessandra muttered. She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “We might have a problem. The Elder Guard was checking papers at the semorjo station.”

“Yeah? So?” Sharae said, still pointedly not looking in Kraylea’s direction.

“So what if it has something to do with us?”

“Why would it? If the Elder Guard thought were up to something, they never would have let us pass their checkpoint. The Elder Guard isn’t exactly subtle.”

“But don’t you think-” Alessandra began, but Sharae cut her off.

“Look, I understand if you’re a little skittish after what happened at the Vanmorzen manor,” she said, “but you need to put those doubts behind you. A thief needs to be bold. If there’s a good reason to abort the mission, we’ll abort it. But we can’t be jumping at shadows, or we’ll never accomplish anything.” Alessandra was silent for a moment, but before she could say anything else, Sharae spoke again, “I can tell you’re dissatisfied. Maybe this will cheer you up. Fihal’s doing reconnaissance on the bank right now. If there’s any extra security on the bank, he’ll see it, and then we can talk about aborting the mission. But we have no reason to think right now that extra security at the semorjo station has anything to do with us.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Alessandra sighed.

Before she could say anything else, Fergen strolled into the park, with her hands stuffed in her pockets and whistling a merry tune. She snorted as soon as she saw Kraylea and Shiena, and then made her way over to Sharae and Alessandra.

“What are we waiting for?” she asked, leaning against the wall next to Sharae and folding her arms across her chest.

“You,” Sharae said pointedly, pushing away from the wall and strolling over to Kraylea. “Kray! It’s time!”

“Well, let’s do this then,” he said as he extricated himself from Shiena. “Split up!” he ordered. “We’ll meet on Vadoray Street, behind the bank.” He immediately began heading for the nearby street, and Shiena went off in a different direction. Alessandra picked a third direction and began walking toward the bank.

Even though she was on a job, she couldn’t help but look around at all the sights there were to see in Vandeo District. It was far from the nicest district in the city, but it was still much nicer than the slums. Most of the buildings were new and shiny, but there were a few that were clearly hundreds of years old or even older, and even the old buildings were clean and well-maintained. There was no garbage on the streets, and the people hurrying along the sidewalks were clean and well-dressed.

She knew there was no way she would ever be able to live among these people, but it was kind of fun to dream. The highest thing she could ever aspire to was to be Clan Master. And she would indeed be Clan Master someday. But even a Clan Master was still just a slum dweller. Part of Alessandra wanted more. But she stuffed that part of her back down, because there was just no way it could ever happen.

To be continued…

 

Chapter 7, Part 3

“I apologize,” she said, with a bow that she hoped was deep enough to hide the dismay on her face. “Please forgive my indiscretion.” She stayed in that position, bent nearly in half, waiting for Fergen’s response. Fergen was silent for a long time, long enough that Alessandra’s back began to hurt slightly from being bent over. Finally, Fergen let out a deep sigh.

“Oh, knock it off,” she said, and she didn’t sound angry anymore, just resigned. “All this bowing and scraping doesn’t look good on you.” Alessandra straightened up, and as soon as she did so, Fergen said, “Ask your question.”

“Of course,” Alessandra replied briskly. “I just have always been curious, with your strength and your skill, why you have never challenged Bezzum for control of the clan.”

“I like my current level of stress,” Fergen said with a snort. “Besides, how often does the Clan Master get to go out in the field? I need to be out there, cracking skulls and breaking legs. I’d go crazy if I had to be cooped up in the clan house all the time.”

“I see,” Alessandra said. “Thank you for taking the time to answer me.” She turned to walk away, but Fergen stopped her with a big hand on her shoulder.

“Hold on,” Fergen said sternly. “I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I’m not as dumb as everyone thinks I am either. I see what game you’re playing here, and if you’re looking for an ally from me, you can forget about it. I like Bezzum, and I’m perfectly satisfied with his leadership. And I happen to think he’s right about you. You’re a maverick, too concerned about your own glory and not enough about the good of the clan. You wouldn’t find me as Clan Master to be any more conducive to your ambitions than Bezzum is.”

“Of course,” Alessandra said with another bow. “Thank you for the warning.” Fergen smiled wryly at her, and shook her head.

“You’re not gonna give up, are you?” she said, and then held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I don’t really care what you have to say. Just…watch your back, yeah?” She looked deep into Alessandra’s eyes for a moment, as if looking for something, and then shook her head again and turned to walk away.

***

The next evening, Alessandra was riding in a semorjo on her way across the city to link up with the rest of her team near the bank. The massive vehicle was packed with people on their way back home after work. Most of them were sitting, but there weren’t enough seats on the semorjo to accommodate everyone onboard, so quite a few were standing. Alessandra was one of them. Slum dwellers weren’t allowed on the city semorjos, so she didn’t want to do anything to draw attention to herself. Anyone who had a seat was liable to be confronted by someone who wanted them to give it up. Someone who was standing was less likely to be pestered.

Alessandra watched the huge buildings crawl by as the semorjo creeped through the heavy traffic. She was currently in the Ashcraz District, one of the districts closest to the city center, and thus one of the wealthiest districts in the city. Of course, none of the people riding the semorjo lived in the Ashcraz District. People who were rich enough to live in Ashcraz didn’t ride the semorjo. Most of them had sevendejos, or even mescoras. Alessandra wondered sometimes what it would be like to fly in a mescora, but only the very richest people in the city could afford to own one. No matter how rich a thief clan got, owning a mescora was beyond their capabilities, if only because an unauthorized mescora would certainly be noticed by the Circle of Elders.

The glittering lights and towering buildings of this district fascinated Alessandra, but she did her best to not just stare out the window of the semorjo like an idiot. No one who rode this route regularly would be fascinated by the sights of the city. The glitz and glamour of downtown Serotopolis would be old hat to the people who actually lived here. Still, it wouldn’t hurt anything for her to just look, and imagine what it would be like to live outside the slums.

It was a futile dream, though. No one ever left the slums, not permanently. The Elder Guard might be lax about enforcing the laws that kept slum dwellers from entering the city proper, but they certainly weren’t lax about enforcing the laws that kept slum dwellers from living in the city. Alessandra had certainly heard of slum dwellers who had managed to get forged papers allowing them to take up residence in the city, but it was incredibly rare, and they were always caught. The punishment for possession of such forged papers was to be thrown into Mokatal Fortress and never heard from again. Alessandra might fantasize about living in Ashcraz District, but that was a risk even she wasn’t willing to take.

An announcement over the semorjo’s intercom, telling the passengers that they were about to pull into Vandeo Station, interrupted her thoughts. Vandeo Station was on the boundary between Ashcraz District and North Vandeo District, and, more importantly, it was only a few blocks from North Vandeo Bank. This was where Alessandra was going to get off. A few minutes after the announcement, the semorjo slowly ground to a halt, and a number of passengers, Alessandra included, moved toward the exits.

As soon as she hopped off the semorjo and began making her way toward the station, she got a nasty shock. Two Elder Guards were standing by the entrance to the station, and they were checking everyone’s papers before they could enter the station. Alessandra had papers, but they were fake, of course, and she had never had to test them in a situation like this before. She immediately began thinking that Kraylea should call the job off. If the Elder Guard were checking papers at a semorjo station, wasn’t that a good indication that they were onto Clan Mekoval’s plans?

To be continued…

Chapter 7, Part 2

“Here’s the layout of the bank,” Kraylea grunted after a moment, slamming a large, rolled-up piece of paper on the table and rolling it out. “The main entrance is here, and there’s two rear entrances, here, and here. Fihal, I want you to plan a distraction at this rear entrance.”

“And, the rest of you will slip in the other entrance while the guards are distracted,” Fihal replied, sounding bored.

“That’s what the mercenaries will think,” Kraylea said with a grin, “but we’ll have a surprise for them. Sharae, you and Miss Sexy Ass will go in the other entrance, and then retreat as soon as you encounter the first sign of resistance. The mercenaries will think they’ve successfully repelled our attempt on the bank, and that’s when we’ll hit the first entrance in force.

“Interesting plan,” Sharae said thoughtfully. Alessandra thought it sounded like a needlessly complicated plan, but she didn’t say anything. She wasn’t here to contribute. She was only here to follow orders, and if she tried to do anything else, the others would put her back in her place faster than she could blink. So, as much as it galled her to take orders from others (and to be called Miss Sexy Ass), she kept her mouth shut. But inside she was seething.

“Once we’re inside,” Kraylea continued, “we’ll need to access the security wing and shut down the main security system. That’s located here. Sugar Plum,” he said, winking at Shiena, “that’ll be your job.”

“I’ll take care of it, Honey Bear,” Shiena said in a syrupy voice that made Alessandra want to gag.

“Sweet Cheeks,” Kraylea continued, addressing Alessandra, who just barely managed to refrain from snarling at him, “once security is down, you, me, Fergen and Sharae will proceed to the vault where we will load up on money, while Shiena and Fihal will stay in main security and make sure no one turns the system back on. Then we hightail it outta there and get lost in the slums. Pretty simple, yeah?”

“Hey, did I miss anything?” a deep, female voice asked suddenly. Everyone turned, and saw Fergen coming into the room. Fergen was almost as big as Kraylea, and much more muscular. Alessandra had no idea what color her hair was, as she made a point of shaving her head regularly, although her eyebrows were blonde, so it was probably a good bet that the rest of her hair was as well. Fergen was one of the most fascinating people Alessandra had ever met. She was good-natured and always had a smile on her face. Unlike most people in the clan, she always went out of her way to help others out, and always had a positive attitude. In fact, she had always reminded Alessandra a lot of Halidasa. She was also extremely good at killing, and enjoyed it immensely. In fact, Alessandra had heard a rumor that Fergen had killed more people than the rest of the clan put together. Having seen her in action once, Alessandra was inclined to believe it.

“Yeah, just the entire meeting,” Fihal said, rolling his eyes.

“Ah, good,” Fergen smirked. “I hate meetings.”

“It would be nice if you knew what you were supposed to do,” Kraylea said dryly.

“Am I doing anything different than I usually do?” Fergen asked, raising one eyebrow and putting her fists on her hips.

“Nah, of course not,” Kraylea replied with a grin. “I know what you’re good at.”

“Yeah, you and every mercenary clan in this bleeding city,” Fergen said with a snort. “Well, if we’re done here, I’m gonna go back to training.”

“Whatever,” Kraylea said, waving a hand dismissively and turning away from her to Shiena. “Get outta here.” Fergen snorted again and left the room.

An idea occurred to Alessandra suddenly. “Team Leader, may I have permission to leave?” she asked in her meekest voice.

“Only if I can watch your ass jiggle on your way out,” Kraylea chortled, ignoring the venomous look that Shiena was giving him. Taking that for a yes, Alessandra bowed her head and then darted after Fergen. She found her just down the hall from the meeting room.

“Fergen, may I speak with you for a moment?” Alessandra asked. Fergen stopped, and then slowly turned to face her, a look of undisguised contempt on her face.

“Give me one reason,” she said in a quiet, dangerous voice, “why I shouldn’t crush your skull with my bare hands right now.”

“Apologies,” Alessandra said deferentially, bowing low, “but I had a quick question I wanted to ask you.” Fergen was silent for a moment, rubbing her chin while she gazed at Alessandra like she might gaze at a particularly disgusting bug that she was about to crush under her boot.

“You might be fooling the Clan Leaders with that humble act, but you’re not fooling Bezzum, and you’re definitely not fooling me,” Fergen sneered. “You think you’re the best thief that’s ever graced the halls of this clan, and you don’t give a crap about the lives of your clanmates. Well, let me tell you something: you’re a mediocre thief and a terrible person, and I, for one, will not shed a single tear once Bezzum finally kicks your sorry butt out of here.”

Alessandra was shocked. She knew that her clanmates were angry at her for her failure at the Vanmorzen manor, but she’d had no idea how deep their animosity ran. She’d never truly believed that she would get kicked out of the clan, but now, for the first time, the thought that it was a very real possibility occurred to her. Fergen was one of the kindest people in the clan, the kindest, aside from Halidasa. If Fergen felt that way about her, what were other people thinking? She’d always believed that she’d recover from her failure and continue her inevitable rise to Clan Master, but Fergen’s attitude made her wonder if that was really as likely as she’d thought.

To be continued…

Chapter 7, Part 1

Alessandra was awoken out of a dreamless, fitful sleep by the sound of someone banging forcefully on her door. She sat up suddenly, in a daze, and then leaped out of her bed and rushed to the door.

“Who is it?” she yelled, exasperated.

“Kraylea!” a deep male voice yelled back. “Open up!” Alessandra forced down a scowl, unlocked the door, and opened it a crack.

“What is it?” she hissed.

“You’re not gonna invite me in?” asked Kraylea with a smirk on his face. He was a large man with thick, bushy hair, a round, beardless face, and skin as dark as Torea’s. He had his arms folded across his broad chest, and was eyeing Alessandra up and down appreciatively. Alessandra was suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was only wearing a tank top and shorts, and was glad that she had only opened the door a crack. She wasn’t a prude by any stretch, and she normally didn’t mind men looking at her, but Kraylea had made it clear in the past that he wanted to do much more than look, and he wasn’t averse to taking what he wanted by force.

“No, Kraylea, I’m not,” Alessandra said with a sigh. “Are you here for a reason, or are you just trying to pester me?”

“Hey, you better not take that tone with me,” Kraylea replied, continuing to smirk. “One more false step and Bezzum’s gonna boot your sexy ass outta here faster than you can blink. So you better treat me with respect, or I’ll give Bezzum the excuse he’s looking for.”

“Fine, Team Leader,” Alessandra said with a heavy sigh. “What is it that you require of me?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Kraylea said, chortling. Alessandra rolled her eyes, and he laughed harder. “Nah, it’s cool. I’m having a briefing in fifteen minutes, and I need you there. Don’t bother to change.” Alessandra slammed the door in his face with an exasperated groan, and she could hear him laughing outside even harder. She shook her head, and then picked out the least-revealing clothes she owned and put them on. Then she opened the door again and was relieved to find that Kraylea wasn’t there anymore. Not that she wasn’t going to have to deal with him again at the briefing, but even a few minutes of not having to put up with his leers was better than nothing.

Unfortunately, that blessed respite only lasted as long as it took Alessandra to walk to the briefing room. When she arrived, Kraylea was lounging in a large couch with his legs crossed and his arms spread out across the back of the couch. His familiar insolent smirk was firmly fixed on his face, and his eyes bored into Alessandra’s as soon as she walked into the room. She pointedly ignored him, and plopped down into a worn-down recliner as far away from Kraylea as she could get.

Fortunately, they weren’t alone in the room. Sitting about halfway between Alessandra and Kraylea was Fihal, a skinny young man with a shock of blond hair that was shaved on the sides. He was also lounging on a couch, but his pose was considerably less insolent than Kraylea’s. He was Kraylea’s decoyer, and Alessandra didn’t know him well. Another person in the room was Sharae, a stocky woman with a deep scar down one side of her face and skin even darker than Kraylea’s. Her hairstyle mirrored Fihal’s except that it was bright pink. She was Kraylea’s second. Despite her closeness with Kraylea, Alessandra had always gotten along well with her, at least until Alessandra’s recent disgrace.

Just as Alessandra had finished taking stock of the occupants of the room, another person came in. This was Shiena, Kraylea’s bypasser. She was of average build, with olive-colored skin and black hair that swooped off to one side and hung over one of her eyes. She scowled at Alessandra as soon as they made eye contact, and made her way over to sit at Kraylea’s side.

“Hey, there’s my little sugar plum,” Kraylea said as soon as he saw her.

“Hey, baby,” Shiena said in a smoky voice, snuggling up next to him. They immediately began making out. Alessandra rolled her eyes and tried to ignore them. Fihal watched them intently with a bemused smirk on his face, but Sharae scowled at them stonily. Alessandra wondered what that was all about. As far as she knew, Sharae and Kraylea’s relationship had always been strictly business. Was she jealous of Kraylea’s latest conquest?

“Kray!” Sharae finally barked after the make out session had been going on for what seemed like an excessively long time.

“Yeah, yeah, keep your pants on, Sharae,” Kraylea said as soon as he disengaged himself from Shiena. Shiena shot Sharae a murderous glance, which bounced off Sharae like a rubber ball hitting the pavement. “Where’s Fergen?”

“I guess she’s not here yet,” Fihal said with an insolent grin.

“I figured that, chiela,” Kraylea said, rolling his eyes. “She better get here soon, cause I ain’t holding this meeting for her.”

“She’ll be here,” Sharae said calmly.

“Yeah, well, she better be,” Kraylea muttered. “Ah, well, we might as well get started. We’re gonna hit the North Vandeo Bank. Pull as many bars of mandyium and braeka outta there as we can get.”

“Ugh, does it have to be the North Vandeo Bank?” Fihal said with a theatrical sigh. “Can’t it be South Vandeo? Or Mercater Central? North Vandeo’s on the other side of the city!”

“It’s North Vandeo cause I said it’s North Vandeo!” Kraylea bellowed suddenly. “Now shut up and listen!” Fihal’s grin slipped a little, but it was back almost immediately. No one else’s expression changed. Everyone who knew Kraylea knew he was like this. Most of the time he would act all genial and suave, and then sometimes, out of nowhere, he would explode. That was part of the reason Alessandra was wary of his advances. He seemed charming on the surface, but there was an undercurrent of menace and violence in his personality that was always threatening to burst out.

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 4

“And you’re really good,” Meela groaned as she rubbed her jaw. “I fought a lot of people on the streets, and nobody has ever beat me twice.”

“I’m not surprised,” Alessandra replied, holding out a hand to help Meela up. “But street fighting is amateur league compared to fighting in a clan. Not that thieves generally need to fight much, but on the rare occasions we do, we want to make sure we win.

“I don’t know how you’re not the Master of this clan,” Meela said, envy and appreciation warring in her tone.

“That’s because you’ve never seen Bezzum fight,” Alessandra replied, her voice grim. “Believe me, as quickly as I beat you just now, Bezzum would destroy me even faster.” Meela’s eyes became big as saucers when she heard that, as if she didn’t quite believe what Alessandra was saying. Before she could respond, Alessandra said, “Why did you join a thief clan anyway? Someone as good at fighting as you are, I would have figured you’d be more interested in the mercenaries.”

“I thought about it, but I figured being a thief would be more of a challenge,” Meela said with a shrug. “I knew I’d be a good mercenary, but I wanted to do something to push myself.”

“I’m impressed,” Alessandra said, and she meant it. “You don’t see that kind of drive in the slums very often.”

“I guess,” Meela said with another shrug. “I must say, being a thief is even harder than I thought. I figured learning how to fight like a thief would be the easy part. The thief clans don’t exactly have a reputation for toughness.”

“Like I said, we try not to fight if we can avoid it,” Alessandra said, scanning the other sparring pairs to get a read on how they were doing, “but we want to make sure that if we have to fight, we can win. That’s why advancement is handled by duels. Out in the field is how we decide who’s a good thief, but a leader needs to be more than just a good thief. They need to be able to handle themselves in any situation.”

“The more I learn about being a thief, the more I know I made the right choice,” Meela said, sounding satisfied, “but I’m getting more and more confused about you. I’ve heard you’re a good thief, and you obviously can fight, so why were you stripped of your rank? Did you really get a bunch of people killed?”

“That is a story I’d rather not get into,” Alessandra said with a grimace. “Just…try to be on your best behavior. Try to pull the attitude on Bezzum that you just pulled on me, and you’ll be in my shoes before you know it. That’s if you don’t get kicked out of the clan entirely.”

“Yes, Teacher,” Meela said, bowing her head and looking abashed.

“Okay, that will do it for today!” Alessandra barked as the last pair of sparrers finished up. “Report to Neharo for your next class, and I will see you tomorrow!” She stood with her arms folded and her feet spread apart as she watched her students file out of the room. She especially watched Meela. This girl intrigued her, probably because she reminded her so much of herself. Hopefully Bezzum would take to Meela better than he’d taken to Alessandra, at least for Meela’s sake. Then again, it would be even better if Alessandra could turn Meela into an ally against Bezzum. There were possibilities there, if only Alessandra could exploit them.

***

The next day, Alessandra was summoned to Bezzum early in the morning, for the first time since her encounter with the demon. She rushed into Bezzum’s chambers as fast as she could, and found him lounging behind his desk, booted feet resting on top of it, familiar sneer fixed on his face. Her own face twisted into a matching sneer as she looked at him, until she realized what she was doing and forced herself to adopt a look of meek servility.

“That cracks me up every time,” Bezzum said in his grating voice, forcing Alessandra once again to put all of her effort into not letting the disgust and anger she felt show on her features. “You really think you’re fooling me with that fake meekness?”

“I am doing the best that I can, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, her voice faint with the strain of not growling at him.

“Whatever,” Bezzum said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve got a new job for you. Two nights from now. You’ll be joining Kraylea’s team as his lockpick. Your target is the North Vandeo Bank. Report to him for further instructions.”

“Yes, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, bowing her head. Bezzum eyed her for a moment, his sneer growing slowly more disgusted and more hateful.

“You really think you’re fooling me, don’t you?” he snarled.

“Excuse me, Clan Master?” Alessandra asked, startled.

“All this fake humility and using my proper title,” he said, standing up and stalking toward her. “You really think you’re convincing me that you’ve changed. Well, I’ve got news for you, chiela. It’s not working. I know you think you’ll be in my place someday, and I’m telling you right now, it will never happen. You’re not fit to be Clan Master. You’re not even fit to be in this clan. And I will destroy you, if it’s the last thing I do.” At this point, he was right in front of her, so close that she could feel his hot breath on her face, his eyes boring directly into hers. She was so stunned by this open display of hostility that she couldn’t bring herself to respond.

“Get out of my sight,” he spat suddenly, and she immediately did so, for fear of what she might have said if she’d opened her mouth at that moment.

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 3

“No, no, no!” she barked at one girl whose technique was particularly sloppy. “Your form is all wrong! Try it again, and do it right this time!” The girl, whose name was Ivea, shrunk back from the harshness of Alessandra’s tone, and immediately began running through the exercise that she and the other recruits had been ordered to do.

Alessandra stalked back and forth in front of the line of recruits, eyeing their work, shouting out criticisms here and there. There were about a dozen boys and girls in the room, ranging in age from 11 to 15. Most of them stared at Alessandra with a mixture of fear and awe on their faces, because despite her disgraced status, she still was one of the most talented thieves in the clan, and the new recruits had heard stories of her exploits. There was one girl, however, who stared at Alessandra with undisguised contempt and half-heartedly worked through the exercise she was supposed to be doing.

“You!” Alessandra barked suddenly at this girl. “What’s your name?”

“Meela,” the girl sneered. She was tall, almost as tall as Alessandra. Her head was shaved, except for black bangs that hung down just above her eyes.

“Well, Meela, when I teach a class, I expect my students to follow my instructions,” Alessandra snapped.

“Why should I listen to you?” Meela retorted, folding her arms across her chest defiantly. “I know all about you. You’re the lowest ranked thief in this clan because you screwed up and got a bunch of your clanmates killed. I don’t know why you didn’t get kicked out.”

Alessandra glared at her for a moment, and then beckoned her forward. Meela rolled her eyes and sauntered away from the line of students and stood right in front of Alessandra.

“You and me are going to give the class a demonstration,” Alessandra said in a too-sweet voice, smiling toothily. “Defend yourself!” And with no more warning than that, Alessandra began raining punches and kicks upon her young antagonist.

Meela was quick, and had good reflexes, but that applied to Alessandra as well. Meela, unlike Alessandra, was untrained, and no match for someone with Alessandra’s experience and knowledge. Meela managed to block Alessandra’s first punch, but before she could retaliate, a second blow hit, and then a third, and they just kept coming, and it was all Meela could do to keep Alessandra from landing a blow. After a few seconds, she slipped, and Alessandra slammed a fist into Meela’s stomach. As soon as Meela doubled over from the blow, Alessandra swiftly kicked her in the head, knocking her backwards onto the floor.

“That is why you should listen to me,” Alessandra said, as Meela laid on the floor moaning and clutching her stomach and head, “because I know what I’m doing, and you don’t.” She turned from Meela and faced her class. “Exercise 6, now!” she barked, ignoring the groans coming from the incapacitated Meela.

She stalked around the training room, glaring at her students intently, occasionally yelling at someone who was doing something wrong, even more occasionally offering a terse compliment to someone who was doing something exceptionally right. After a few minutes, Meela recovered sufficiently to resume her place in line, and began running through the exercise, trying very hard to avoid Alessandra’s gaze. Alessandra was pleased to note that Meela was running the exercise perfectly, although her face was beet red and she still looked away from Alessandra anytime Alessandra glanced over at her.

“Okay!” Alessandra yelled suddenly, clapping her hands for emphasis. “I want all of you to pair off and spar. Standard rules apply!” Standard rules meant that there were no rules, except that you had to refrain from killing or maiming your partner. Anyone who failed to adhere to this rule was summarily exiled from the clan. Clan leaders wanted their recruits to learn how to fight on the streets of Serotopolis, not killing and crippling each other.

“Teacher,” Alessandra heard a voice say meekly. She looked over and saw that it was Meela. “There are an odd number of students.”

“Thinking of revenge?” Alessandra asked with a wry grin.

“No, Teacher,” Meela replied, a sickly look on her face, “but I am eager to learn. I apologize for my rudeness earlier. I should have known that what may or may not have happened to you in the field should have no bearing on your ability to pass on your expertise.”

“Now I know how Bezzum feels when I act meek to him,” Alessandra muttered under her breath.

“What was that, Teacher?” Meela asked, confused.

“Nothing!” Alessandra barked. “If you would like to spar with me again, so be it, but I warn you, I won’t go easy on you this time either.”

“I would not want you to,” Meela replied in a firm voice.

Alessandra looked around the room to make sure everyone had found a partner, and then she bellowed, “Begin!”

This time it was Meela who took her by surprise. Alessandra just barely had time to block Meela’s incoming fist, and for a few moments, she was somewhat shocked to find herself on the defensive. Gradually, she overcame her surprise, though, and for a short time, it seemed as if the two of them were fairly evenly matched. They were trading blows back and forth, neither one of them managing to land a hit, but each of them giving as good as they got.

Then Alessandra received a greater shock. Meela feinted like she was going to hit Alessandra on the right, but then, quick as a vieja, slammed her right fist into Alessandra’s left side. Alessandra grunted in surprise, but quickly recovered. Before Meela could take advantage of her successful blow, Alessandra smashed her foot into Meela’s hip, staggering her, and then hit her with a hard uppercut that knocked her flat on her back.

“You’re a quick learner,” Alessandra said in an impressed voice, standing over Meela with her feet spread apart and her fists on her hips.

To be continued…