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…

Chapter 1, Part 3

“Oh, good,” Torea said as soon as she Alessandra, “you’re back. Bezzum’s been in a tizzy ever since you left. Didn’t think you were coming back this time.” Torea was sitting at a desk, going over some reports or some other sort of paperwork.

“Bezzum doesn’t ever think I’m coming back,” Alessandra muttered. Torea gave her a smirk that was also somehow sympathetic.

“I think you underestimate how much Bezzum values your skills,” Torea said.

“Oh, come on, Torea,” Alessandra replied, rolling her eyes. “Bezzum hates me!”

“I didn’t deny that,” Torea said, her smirk widening, “but he doesn’t have to like you to appreciate your abilities as a thief.”

“He’s got a strange way of showing it,” Alessandra muttered sullenly. Torea shook her head.

“Go on with you,” she said with a slight chuckle. Alessandra saluted again, and pushed through the door into Bezzum’s bedchamber. Bezzum was lounging in a large armchair with his legs crossed, gazing at her with a sneer on his face as she walked into the room. He was a thin man, almost scrawny, with a fringe of graying brown hair around his head, and a long, pointed nose that almost made him look like a rat. He eyed her up and down as she saluted, and shook his head derisively.

“So, the golden child comes back to us,” he sneered. “What have you got for me?” In response, she took the leather pouch out of her pocket and tossed it to him. He snatched it deftly out of the air, and emptied out its contents into his hand. Inside were several large, perfectly cut gemstones. Vadacar Lozech was a small-time merchant, but his goods were no less high quality for the size of his operation. A glint appeared in Bezzum’s eyes as he gazed at them, and a small smile crossed his lips.

“Not bad,” he allowed. “For the first time, I almost think you’re worth having around.”

“Why, Bezzum,” Alessandra said, unable to restrain herself, “that almost sounded like praise!” The smile disappeared from Bezzum’s face immediately, and he leapt out of his chair. Alessandra was tall for a woman, but Bezzum was tall for a man, and he towered over her. Alessandra immediately regretted saying anything as he advanced, glowering down at her.

“Don’t get above yourself, girl,” he spat, “or you’ll be back on the street before you can blink, with every mercenary clan in Niharo District searching for you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Alessandra said in what she hoped was a defiant tone. A nasty smile flickered across Bezzum’s face and then was gone.

“Wouldn’t I?” He turned and stalked over to his desk. “Do you really think a small bag of gemstones makes you indispensable?”

“What about Hali? And Torea?”

“Ha!” Bezzum scoffed. “Torea may like you, but she knows where the power lies. She does what I tell her. She won’t be happy if I tell her to toss you out on your ear, but she’ll do it. And as for Hali?” He snorted in derision. “She’ll be all to happy to see you gone once I tell her you were gonna betray her to Clan Inzovar.”

“You wouldn’t,” Alessandra said again, and this time there was definitely a touch of fear in her voice. Bezzum laughed, a mocking laugh that cut Alessandra to the bone.

“Don’t press me, girl, or you’ll find out exactly just what it is I ‘wouldn’t’ do,” he sneered. “Now get out of my sight.” Alessandra decided that not pressing him was a good idea, and she fled. She didn’t get very far, though, because Torea was standing in the outer room with her arms folded, blocking the exit.

“You heard all that?” Alessandra asked quietly, not quite looking at her.

“I did,” Torea replied in a level tone, “and you’d better not mess with him anymore, because even though I like you, he’s right. If he orders you out of the clan, then you’re out, and there’s nothing I’ll do to stop him.” Alessandra winced, and looked down at her feet.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. Torea laughed, a rich, hearty laugh, and Alessandra was so startled she looked up at her.

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to, child,” Torea said with a smile. “And Bezzum wouldn’t ever accept an apology from you. So don’t worry about it. Just don’t let it happen again.”

“Of course, Clan Leader,” Alessandra replied, saluting and bowing her head. “I won’t.” Torea studied her for a moment, and then she nodded and moved aside so that Alessandra could pass, which she did swiftly. Alessandra liked Torea, and she knew that Torea liked her, but that didn’t mean that Torea was somebody she could trifle with. Bezzum was the Clan Master of Clan Mekoval, but Torea was the one who truly ruled the clan.

Alessandra felt the knots in her back loosen slightly as she entered her quarters and locked the door behind her. Here, in the safety of her own room, she could actually relax. Even around Halidasa and Torea, two people she liked and respected, she could never really lower her guard. Hali might be an effervescent ball of sunshine and happiness, but she was also part of a thief clan, and that meant she wouldn’t hesitate to stab Alessandra in the back if she thought it would help her get ahead. Alessandra wouldn’t be the first rival Hali had dispatched in such a way. That was the way of things in a thief clan. Alessandra herself had eliminated more than a few former members with a knife in the dark.

And as for Torea, Alessandra had no doubts that she would make good on her threat if she thought Alessandra wasn’t pulling her weight. Being put out on the street might not seem like that big of a deal, but there wasn’t any quicker way to wind up dead in a gutter in the slums of Serotopolis than being without the protection of a clan. Death might come for her at any moment in the halls of Clan Mekoval’s clanhouse, but it would definitely come for her almost immediately if the mercenary clans had her description and knew that she was clanless. Whatever happened, she needed to stay in Clan Mekoval. It was her home, her family, and her best and only chance of living a long life.

To be continued…

Chapter 1, Part 2

After about half an hour in the sewers, she finally made it to the exit she was looking for. She climbed the ladder, emerging in a small, smelly alleyway between two towering buildings. A smirk crossed her face as she replaced the manhole cover. The smell of home, she thought to herself sardonically. This particular alleyway was only about two blocks from her clan house. Once she reached it, she could let her guard down. Slightly. She didn’t really even trust the other members of her clan, but she trusted them more than anyone else. Everyone else, she didn’t trust at all.

She strolled down the street leading to the clan house, managing to look perfectly casual while simultaneously looking in every direction at once. This territory was firmly controlled by her clan, but that didn’t mean there weren’t spies from other clans in the area. A moment of weakness could be too tempting for a member of a rival clan to pass up, even if they were surrounded by her clanmates. For that matter, a moment of weakness might be too tempting for a member of her clan to pass up. Jockeying for rank was a daily occurrence in the clans, and a knife in the dark was a perfect way to eliminate a rival.

Nodding to the lookout, she passed through the checkpoint just outside the clan house and slipped through the door. The clan house was a nondescript five story building that looked like any other apartment building in the slums of Serotopolis. Gray and somewhat disheveled, it was the only place that had ever felt like home to Alessandra. Considering that before she lived there, she’d lived on the streets, and before that she’d lived in the House of Vagrants, that wasn’t saying much, but she felt a sense of pride nonetheless.

“How’d it go?” asked a squeaky voice, coming from a room off the main hallway as she passed through. Alessandra turned to see Halidasa Mekoval emerge from her room. Halidasa looked a little bit like a mouse, which was fitting, because she sounded a little bit like one too. Fifteen years old, she looked like she was barely twelve, with short, brown hair and brown eyes that looked too big for her narrow face.

“It went great, as always,” Alessandra said with a grin, pulling a small leather bag out of her coat pocket and bouncing it on her palm. Alessandra herself was tall, although not as tall as the guards who’d been chasing her tonight thought, slender without being skinny, with short, spiky red hair, bright green eyes, and a mass of freckles.

“Oh man,” Halidasa squealed, her big brown eyes practically shining with delight, “Bezzum’s gonna be so impressed!”

“Yeah, I doubt it,” Alessandra scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Bezzum’s never impressed by anything I do.” Bezzum was the boss of Clan Mekoval, and although he had taken Alessandra in and made her a member of the clan, he really didn’t like her. Alessandra liked to think that it was because he was jealous of her.

“No, he really will be impressed this time,” Halidasa gushed. “I just know it!”

“Hali, how in the world do you maintain such a disgusting level of optimism?” Alessandra asked, somehow managing to sneer affectionately.

“I dunno,” Halidasa replied with a shrug. “I just do!” Alessandra snorted and gave her friend a pat on the back as she walked by. She liked to think of Halidasa as her special friend, but truth be told, everybody in Clan Mekoval loved Halidasa. She wasn’t a great thief, although she was competent. Her greatest asset, though, was her sheer joy. She was the only truly happy person Alessandra had ever met. Happiness was a commodity that was in short supply in Serotopolis, and that meant that Halidasa was a rare treasure. Maybe Alessandra’s cynicism and skepticism about everything should have meant that she found Halidasa obnoxious. After all, Hali’s outlook on life was the polar opposite on just about everything, compared to Alessandra’s. But instead, Alessandra found her…refreshing.

She could remember the day that Hali was taken into the clan like it was yesterday, but in reality it had been over five years. Hali had been just another scrawny little kid freshly kicked out of the House of Vagrants and looking for a place to live. Bezzum had been reluctant to take her in, because the clan house had been pretty full at the time, but his closest advisor at the time, a grizzled old thief named Ardolfon, had seen her potential and convinced Bezzum to make her an initiate. It had been one of Ardolfon’s best decisions, and one of his last, because he’d been caught by the Edgevon mercenary clan a few weeks later, and that was the end of him. Bezzum was ready to kick Halidasa out of the clan after Ardolfon’s death, but the rest of the clan members were already attached to her, and in a rare moment of unity, unanimously told Bezzum in no uncertain terms that they would kick him out if he tried to remove Hali.

In the end, even Bezzum came around, and now Halidasa was one of the only people he liked. He would sooner throw himself out of the clan now than throw her out. Which, as it turned out, was Alessandra’s saving grace. Unlike Halidasa, Alessandra was one of the people Bezzum liked the least, but she was also one of the people whom Halidasa liked the most, and so Bezzum couldn’t kick Alessandra out of the clan without upsetting his favorite person. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that Bezzum stopped going out of his way to make Alessandra’s life miserable.

Alessandra finally made it up to the third floor, where Bezzum had his rooms. Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the door, and waited.

“Come in,” said a woman’s voice after a few moments. Alessandra pushed the door open, and saluted, bringing her right arm across her body touching her fist to her chest, as soon as she saw the person waiting in the next room. Torea was a tall, stately woman with short, dark, curly hair, deep brown skin, and piercing brown eyes. She was Bezzum’s second-in-command, and the only person aside from Halidasa that he liked and respected. Torea was Alessandra’s other saving grace, because Torea was the person who had brought Alessandra into the clan, and had been her protector and patron ever since.

To be continued…

Chapter 1, Part 1

Alessandra Mekoval was running for her life, which meant that this night was just a typical night for her. Serotopolis was a dangerous city even in the best of times, and these were far from the best of times. Not to mention that running for your life was just another part of the job when you were a thief like Alessandra.

She grinned as she leapt over a traffic barrier onto a busy highway, and she laughed as a massive semorjo had to swerve to avoid hitting her, crashing into a smaller denarja. A second denarja smashed into the first one from behind, and as Alessandra leaped over the barrier on the far side of the highway and dropped down onto the causeway below, she could hear even more smashing sounds, causing the grin on her face to grow wider. Hopefully she’d started a huge chain reaction of wrecked vehicles, which would likely put a stop to her pursuers. She didn’t stop running, though. She wouldn’t stop until she was completely certain that they’d given up chasing her.

She raced down the causeway, running parallel to the massive stone bridge above her. She wasn’t worried about running out of breath, or about her pursuers catching up to her. She could run faster and farther than anyone in her clan, including Mikaelo, who had once outrun a sevendejo, and she was certain that there weren’t any of those after her tonight anyway. No, tonight’s heist had been small-time, just a fat merchant and his guards who thought they chase down a single girl on foot, get the goods back, and keep the Circle of Elders out of their hair. A sneer crossed Alessandra’s as she thought about the Circle of Elders. A sneer tinged with delight. There was nothing better than being a thief in a city where the government were the biggest thieves of all. Few merchants would bother calling the Elder Guard to help them track down a thief, because if the Elder Guard found stolen property, they kept it for themselves.

Alessandra ducked into a small hole in the stone wall that led down to the sewers. There was no way the merchant would follow her down here, but the same unfortunately couldn’t be said about his guards. She would have been surprised if the guards had seen her slip down here, but she didn’t slow down. Not yet. A few more twists and turns to make extra sure that they had no idea where she was, and then she could proceed at a more leisurely pace. But not relax. Never relax. The Circle of Elders might not take an interest in petty larceny, but the mercenary clans certainly did not appreciate being made fools of. If the guards failed to find her, they would report the failure to their clan, and the clan would be on the lookout for a tall girl with dark skin, blue eyes and long brown hair. They would never find her, because she would cease to exist after tonight, but it was never a good idea for a thief to let her guard down.

She wound her way through the tunnels underneath Serotopolis, taking seemingly random turns, even doubling back a couple of times to really make sure that no one was on her tail. After about fifteen minutes of this, seeing and hearing no signs that anyone was after her, she finally slackened her pace. Grinning mischievously to herself, she stripped the wig off and flung it on the ground. If the merchant’s guards managed to track her this far, they would quickly realize that the description they had was useless. Which wouldn’t surprise them. The mercenary clans knew how this game was played. They would beat her to death if they ever laid hands on her, but they knew as well as anyone how unlikely that was. Few thieves were ever caught in Serotopolis. The mercenary clans existed more as a deterrent than as an actual police force. The only true police force was the Elder Guard, and they only protected the interests of the Circle.

Of course, there was also the Order of Sunaru, but they had bigger problems to worry about than thieves. If the Order ever decided to stamp out crime in Serotopolis, crime would cease to exist in the city. Not just because the Order was that effective, but because they were held in such high esteem, that even the most hardened criminal would devote himself to the straight and narrow if a member of the Order of Sunaru told him to. But that would never happen. After all, the Order had much bigger problems to worry about.

Or so Alessandra had always been told. Just shy of her eighteenth birthday, Alessandra Mekoval had been born and raised on the streets of Serotopolis. She had no idea who her parents were. She suspected they were dead, but she didn’t know, and she didn’t care. Very few of her friends knew who their parents were. That was just the way of things in the slums of Serotopolis. Alessandra had never stopped to consider that things might be different. Parents weren’t ever something she had given much consideration to. The only reason she knew she had parents was that she knew how procreation worked. Someday she would probably have a kid, and very likely she would dump that kid at the House of Vagrants, where she had been dumped as a baby, and then never give it a second thought. That was just the way of things in Serotopolis. It never occurred to Alessandra that things could be different, or should be different. In any case, she had grown up on the streets, scrounging for food, finding a clan to join, fighting for every scrap of recognition she’d ever gotten, viewing the Circle of Elders with contempt and the Order of Sunaru with something akin to worship, just like everybody else in the slums. That is, when she thought about them at all. For most people living in the slums, the Order and the Circle were so far distant as to practically be myths. All she knew about the Order of Sunaru was that they were the champions of those who lived in the slums, protectors of all that was good and true and pure and noble. That was what everybody said, anyway. Alessandra didn’t know if that was true, and nor did she particularly care.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 29

Belfamor Hemetal was still fuming by the time he got back to his manor on the Rock. Actually, still fuming implied that he had been fuming from the start. In reality, in the beginning he had been absolutely frothing with rage, and had only slowly cooled down on the long trip back to Medradi. Cooled down being a relative term. He had held it all in, of course. He had no intention of sitting back and allowing Emelien Fanas to sit on the Imperial Throne, and if he wanted to be the Emperor, he needed to act like the Emperor, and the Emperor did not go around throwing temper tantrums. But, oh, how he wanted to!

He’d had a small army with him on Trisitania, to block any attempts by Fanas to arrest him, and it had taken all of his self-control to not just unleash them on the Senate once the result was announced. It had been so very tempting, but he was wise enough to know that murdering the entire Senate was not the way to endear himself to the population of the Empire. Not to mention the attempt would likely have failed. It wasn’t as if his troops were the only soldiers in that theater.

Storming into the main entryway of his manor, he stopped short when he realized his wife was standing midway up the grand staircase, with her arms folded, obviously waiting for him. He glared at her coldly, but she just gazed back at him calmly. “I heard the news,” she said.

“And?” he snarled.

“And I’m sorry,” she replied, still perfectly calm. He stared at her for a moment, a sneer on his lips.

“It doesn’t matter,” he finally said, in a cold voice. “I will be Emperor. Fanas will fall.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Shala replied, unfazed by his harsh tone. “You shouldn’t do this. You swore an oath to Valador that you would accept the will of the Senate if they elected Fanas to replace him.”

“VALADOR IS DEAD!” Belfamor roared. “I don’t care what that crazy old man wanted me to do! Emelien Fanas cannot rule the Empire! I won’t allow it!” There was a fevered light in his eyes now, and he was breathing heavily. Despite these signs of derangement, Shala was unfazed, still eyeing him coolly and calmly. For a long time, they stood like that, staring at each other, one looking like a wild beast, the other looking like a marble statue. Finally, Shala turned away and began walking up the staircase.

“Very well,” she said over her shoulder. “If you are committed to this course of action, then so be it. House Votalin pledges you its support.” And then she reached the top of the stairs, turned a corner, and was gone, leaving Belfamor standing by himself in the entryway, looking slightly stunned. As he stood there, he couldn’t quite explain the feeling that had bloomed in his heart when Shala had told him that she would support his bid for the Throne. After a few minutes of pondering, he realized what the feeling was. Relief. He couldn’t quite explain why Shala supporting him would cause him to feel relief. Of course House Votalin would support House Hemetal! Why would it even be in question? And yet, for a moment, standing there with his wife looking down at him, he had thought that she would refuse to support him, and even stranger, he had the strange feeling that losing her support would cost him any chance of winning the Throne. Why that would be, Belfamor couldn’t say. Votalin was a much smaller and weaker house than Hemetal. He didn’t need Votalin’s support to win the Throne. But for some reason, he felt like he did. He couldn’t explain it.

***

Shala managed to maintain her composure until she returned to her study, but as soon as the door slid shut behind her, she slumped down into a chair and let out a long, slow breath. She felt like she was going to cry, but she refused to allow her composure to deteriorate that greatly. There was no question the man she had married was gone. Something had broken between them just now, maybe the last thread that connected them, and whatever had happened to Belfamor, whatever was wrong with him, he was no longer the hopeful, brave, idealistic man she had fallen in love with. That man had been replaced with a spiteful, suspicious, and cruel man who, frankly, scared her. There was no good reason for her to support his bid for the Throne, and so many reasons for her to stop him. And she could stop him. One message, and almost all of House Hemetal’s wealth would belong to House Votalin. Without his house’s vast wealth, there was no way that Belfamor would be able to sustain the forces needed to wage war against Emelien Fanas.

She just couldn’t do it, though. She didn’t even have a reason, but when it came down to it, she just couldn’t betray him. The fact that he was willing to throw away the oath he had sworn to Emperor Valador was proof that he was beyond redemption, but it still wasn’t enough for her to pull the trigger. What did she have to live for if her husband was no longer her husband? She had reconciled with her father at the very end of his life, but that was cold comfort now that he was dead. She had a son, but ever since he had betrayed her, she had been unable to make herself feel anything but indifference toward him. If Belfamor was lost to her, then she had nothing left.

Maybe it was foolish. She didn’t want to rely on another person for her happiness, but what else was there? She’d fought so hard to escape the hell her father had created for her, and now it seemed like all of that fighting had been for nothing. Why even bother fighting, when life was just going to destroy everything you were fighting for in the end? But even though she didn’t know what to do, she wasn’t ready to give up. She would keep fighting, because it was all she knew how to do.

The End