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…

Chapter 11, Part 3

No sooner had she finished speaking than there was a knock on the door. “Come in!” she called. The door opened, and Mikaelo entered, carrying a large sack, followed by two of his team members, also carrying large sacks. “Things went well, I presume?”

“Very,” Mikaelo grinned, as he plopped his sack right on the middle of Alessandra’s desk.

“Any troubles?” Alessandra asked, as she opened the sack and began examining the jewels inside.

“Not a soul knew we were there,” Mikaelo said confidently. Even though Alessandra hadn’t felt comfortable making Mikaelo a Clan Leader, she had felt as if she needed to do something to thank him for his support, so she had made him a Team Leader. He and his team had quickly distinguished themselves as one of the most productive teams in the clan, which further bolstered Alessandra’s reputation as a good Clan Master.

“Nor will they, until the next time they count the jewels in the vault,” said one of Mikaelo’s team members, a dark-haired young man with a scar down one side of his face. His name was Nieorath. “We were like ghosts.”

“Too bad,” said the other member of Mikaelo’s team who had accompanied him into Alessandra’s study. This was none other than Fergen, former member of Kraylea’s team. Alessandra had not returned Kraylea to his position as a Team Leader, even though it had been somewhat unfair for him to have been demoted in the first place. Kraylea had been a decent Team Leader, but Alessandra didn’t quite trust him, and she was content to leave him in his place as a grunt.

Fergen, on the other hand, was another who Alessandra believed was destined for greater things. She would have made a good Clan Leader, as she was strong, loyal, and smart, but Alessandra wasn’t quite sure that she trusted her that much. Plus, she did have a tendency to be lazy. Not on a job, when it counted, but Alessandra had quickly learned that giving Fergen important chores around the clanhouse was a mistake. The chores that Fergen excelled at were ones that didn’t have to be done in a timely manner. That, and training recruits in fighting skills. She loved doing that.

“What a boring job,” Fergen grunted as she dumped her sack of treasure on the table. “I miss being on Kraylea’s team. We got into fights all time back then.”

“Yeah, well, you’re supposed to be a thief, not a brawler,” Meela said dryly. “If you like beating people up so badly, why aren’t you a mercenary?”

“Cause I was scrawny when I was a kid,” Fergen said with a snort. “Besides, the mercenary clans don’t like taking girls. Think they’re wimps.”

“Obviously they’ve never met you,” Alessandra said, arching an eyebrow.

“Well, that just makes it more fun to kill ‘em,” Fergen replied, cracking her knuckles loudly. “Besides, it’s easier to kill people when you’re a thief. When you’re a mercenary, your enemies are always trying to hide from you. When you’re a thief, your enemies are all out in the open. Makes things much easier.”

“I’ll never understand your mindset, Fergen,” said Meela, shaking her head, “but I’m sure glad you’re in our clan.”

“I’m glad she’s on my team!” Mikaelo interjected. “Unlike her, I prefer missions that are as quiet as a whisper, but things don’t always go smoothly, and she’s great to have around whenever that happens.”

“Hey, just point me in the right direction and let me go,” Fergen said with a grin. “I’ll take out anybody in my path.”

“You’re a pretty good bypasser too,” Mikaelo added.

“You’re kidding, right?” Fergen said dryly.

“Not at all!” Mikaelo exclaimed. “You’re the one who got us into the vault, after all.”

“Mikaelo, I smashed the lock with my fist,” Fergen replied, her tone even drier than before. “That’s hardly the mark of a good bypasser.”

“You did a better job than Nieorath here,” Mikaelo chuckled.

“Hey, that was the most complex lock I’ve ever seen,” Nieorath said defensively. “How was I supposed to know it was also the most fragile?”

“Most fragile, my ass!” Fergen shouted. “These fists can crush anything! Like your face!”

“Okay, okay, calm down,” said Meela, standing up and making a calming gesture with her hands. “Fergen, nobody doubts the potency of your fists. Nieorath, just be glad the lock was bypassed. And Mikaelo, good job tonight.”

“Thanks, Clan Leader,” Mikaelo said, saluting.

“Go get some rest, everyone,” Meela said in dismissal. Fergen and Nieorath saluted immediately and left, but Mikaelo hesitated.

“Actually, Clan Leader, may I speak to the Clan Master in private for a moment?” he asked. Meela looked at Alessandra with one eyebrow raised in question, and Alessandra nodded.

“Very well,” Meela said to Mikaelo. “Clan Master, I still have something else I need to discuss with you, so I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. If that’s alright with you?” Alessandra nodded again, and Meela saluted and left.

“What is it, Mikaelo?” Alessandra said.

“Two things, actually,” Mikaelo replied. “First of all, Nieorath really is a terrible bypasser. I didn’t want to put him on the spot right in front of everybody, but that lock really wasn’t that difficult. I could have bypassed it, and that’s not even my specialty.”

“I see,” Alessandra said. “So what do you think I should do?”

“I think he’d be a good decoyer,” Mikaelo replied. “I already have a good decoyer, but maybe you can assign him to a team that doesn’t have one and see what happens.”

“I’ll look over the team rosters and see what I can do,” Alessandra said. “You’ll need a new bypasser, though.”

“Don’t worry about,” Mikaelo shrugged. “I’m a decent bypasser, and my second is even better. We’ll manage for now. If worst comes to worst, I’ll just have Fergen smash all the security consoles.”

“You do know that that usually won’t work, right?” Alessandra said dryly.

“Yeah, yeah,” Mikaelo smiled.

“So what’s the other thing?” Alessandra asked.

To be continued…

Chapter 11, Part 2

Thus, she found herself sitting at her desk late one night, going over her plans to infiltrate the Vanmorzen manor once again. The plan was simple. Basically, she was planning to sneak into the manor alone. The deaths of her clanmates still weighed on her heavily, and she had no intention of leading any more members of Clan Mekoval to their deaths, especially at the Vanmorzen manor. She was planning to bring four teammates, but their roles were going to be simply to observe the outside of the manor and signal her if any reinforcements were sent in. She would be the only one to actually enter the manor, and with her speed, strength, and ability to turn invisible, she reasoned that even the Storm Corps would be no match for her.

It was a simple plan, but still she worked on it, and still she worried. This would be the greatest test of her skill as a thief. If she failed, it would probably mean her death, or at least her imprisonment in Mokotal Fortress. If she survived, she would be shamed, and her leadership in the clan would be greatly diminished. She needed to succeed this time. She needed to prove to everyone, not least herself, that she really was the best thief in the city.

She didn’t notice at first when the door opened and the newest Clan Leader entered. She was so engrossed in her work that the Clan Leader made it almost to her desk before Alessandra realized that she was there.

“Good thing I’m not coming here to kill you,” Meela said with a laugh in response to Alessandra’s jump.

“Good thing I have subordinates who know how to knock,” Alessandra said with a growl, but she softened the harshness of her response slightly with a smile.

“I didn’t think Clan Leaders needed to knock,” Meela replied, settling down in the chair opposite Alessandra’s desk.

“Yeah, yeah,” Alessandra said. Picking a Clan Leader to replace Ilnorat had been easier than Alessandra had imagined. She knew she needed to pick someone she could trust, and the only three people she trusted in the clan were Mikaelo, Halidasa, and Meela. Mikaelo was out because everyone in the clan knew how close she was to him, and they would accuse her of favoritism, and that left Halidasa and Meela. Alessandra came very close to choosing Halidasa, because she didn’t know Meela very well, but ultimately she decided that Halidasa just didn’t have the temperament to be a leader. In addition, Halidasa had been acting quite distant from Alessandra ever since Bezzum’s death, and Alessandra didn’t want to have to deal with a Clan Leader who she had tension with. So that left Meela.

Alessandra had had some reservations about choosing Meela, considering Meela’s inexperience. After all, Meela had only been made a full member of the clan during Alessandra’s exile, so that meant she’d gone from being an apprentice to a Clan Leader in the space of a couple of weeks. The other Clan Leaders had been concerned that she was too young, and had voiced their objections loudly. Even Torea had tried to convince Alessandra to pick someone else. And Alessandra did consider choosing someone else for a short time, but in the end, her gut told her that Meela would be a great Clan Leader, and she decided to go with her gut. So far, her gut had been proven right.

Even though Alessandra’s one encounter with Meela had been during the training class Alessandra had taught right before her exile, Meela had made an impression on her that Alessandra had been pleased to discover over the past two months was accurate. Alessandra had wanted a Clan Leader who was skilled, strong, not afraid to speak her mind, but also not one who would put up her heels and dig in when proven wrong. Alessandra’s brief experience with Meela had led her to believe that Meela was all of those things, and she had been correct. Meela was a capable leader who said what she thought, fought for what she believed was right, but was not afraid to admit she was wrong. Even the other Clan Leaders respected her after a very short time, despite resisting her appointment.

“Are you still working on the Vanmorzen manor plan?” Meela asked, stretching her legs out in front of her and crossing them at her heels.

“Yes, I’m still working on the Vanmorzen manor plan,” Alessandra said with a sigh

“What more could there possibly be to do? I’ve never seen a simpler plan,” Meela said. “Are you reworking it so that you’re not taking on all the risk?”

“No!” Alessandra said vehemently. “I am not going to let anyone else die at the Vanmorzen manor. If I fail there again, at least no one else will pay for my mistakes.”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Meela said, putting up her hands as if to ward off a blow. “But seriously, what are you waiting for? Why even bother with a plan? With your speed and your strength, even the Storm Corps won’t have a chance against you.”

“I don’t want to be overconfident,” Alessandra said. “I was far too overconfident last time, and my team paid for it. I won’t have a repeat of that.”

“Your team died because Bezzum set an ambush for you,” Meela said with a sigh. “Everyone knows that now. The Storm Corps knew you were coming last time. They won’t this time.”

“Maybe,” Alessandra replied. “I can’t know that. Maybe there are other spies in the clan. In any case, there’s no reason for me to risk anyone but myself, so I’m not going to.”

“You’re probably right,” Meela said, and then shrugged. “Well, that’s not what I came here for. Mikaelo’s back.”

“Oh, good,” Alessandra said, sitting up straighter. “Did you tell him to come up here?”

“He’s on his way. Got a pretty good haul too, by the looks of it.”

“Excellent. I’m glad to hear it.”

To be continued…

Chapter 11, Part 1

Alessandra would always look back on the next couple of months as some of the happiest days of her life. Becoming Clan Master had been her dream from the moment she set foot in the Clan Mekoval clanhouse, and having attained that dream, she found that it was every bit as wonderful and satisfying as she’d always expected it to be. At first, she found being Clan Master to be more boring and full of more drudgery than she’d originally expected, but thanks to Torea’s guidance, she quickly found that she had a knack for planning strategy and figuring which clan members should go on which jobs, and which jobs were worth pursuing and which weren’t, and other aspects of running the clan that she’d never thought about before. Even so, if that was all there was to being Clan Master, she would have longed for the days when she was just a grunt. Fortunately for her, part of being Clan Master of a thief clan meant constantly proving that she was the best thief in the clan, so she still got to go out on jobs, only now she got to choose which jobs she went on. As she’d never led a job before (aside from her ill-fated Vanmorzen manor job), she deferred to the Team Leaders at first, but after a few jobs, she felt confident enough to lead a team herself, and she found that, as long as nobody knew about the job ahead of time and planned an ambush, she actually was a very good leader. And with the skills she’d gained from Ilimay Ladron, she was easily the best thief in the clan now.

There was very little that got Alessandra down after she became Clan Master. Despite the general dislike her clanmates had felt for her under Bezzum’s rule, the ease with which she had dispatched Bezzum convinced most people in the clan that she deserved to be the Master. The only holdout was the Clan Leader Ilnorat. For about a week, she had been a thorn in Alessandra’s side, constantly challenging her decisions and belittling her. Finally, with tacit encouragement from Alessandra, Torea convinced Ilnorat to challenge Alessandra, and Alessandra took the opportunity to solidify her rule even more firmly by decimating Ilnorat in just a few seconds. Anyone who was unconvinced that she was really the strongest after seeing her beat Bezzum had all their doubts answered by watching her take care of Ilnorat even more efficiently.

Yes, things were going even better than Alessandra had ever hoped. Occasionally, she thought about the little card that Ilimay had given her, and she wondered if it was worth making the trip to the Avaroth with it, but she always rejected that thought. She had everything she’d always wanted. What could the Order of Sunaru give her now that she didn’t already have? In fact, she was more than a little worried that they would take away the powers that Ilimay had given her, so every time she thought about the card, she immediately tucked that thought into the back of her mind and forgot about it.

There was one thought that wouldn’t go away, however. One little thing that remained to cloud her joy at achieving everything she’d ever wanted to accomplish. The Vanmorzen manor. What was in that box in the Vanmorzen manor? Why was the Storm Corps guarding it? Years later, she would remember her obsession with that box and wonder what her life would have been like if she’d just forgotten about it. But, eighteen years old and blessed with more power than she’d ever imagined, there was no way she was going to forget about it. Her failure at the Vanmorzen manor hung over, and somehow she knew that she would never truly believe that she was the best thief in the Mekoval clan until she’d stolen that little box. She had to do it, to prove to herself and to everyone in the clan that she was the absolute best.

And so, little by little, a plan began to take shape in her head. A plan to succeed where she had once failed. She would successfully break into the Vanmorzen family vault, and she would steal that little box made of velisite wood, and this time nobody in her clan would die.

It took about two months for her to fully work out her plan. Part of the reason for the delay was that she was still getting used to the ins and outs of being the Clan Master, but the main reason was that she was trying to get as much information about the Vanmorzen manor as she could. Learning what Bezzum had known about the manor was a frustrating exercise in futility. Alessandra was convinced that there was some connection between Bezzum and the Storm Corps, but she was unable to find any record of it in his papers. Nor had he told Torea anything about what he knew, either about the Storm Corps, or the Vanmorzen manor, or the contents of the velisite box.

Finding out anything about the Vanmorzen family was equally aggravating. Public records indicated that they were the richest family in the city who weren’t a member of the Circle of Elders. The patriarch of the family was Vizik Vanmorzen. He had a wife, Nishitay, and two children, Vedik and Vemira. And that was it. That was literally all the information Clan Mekoval’s agents could uncover about the Vanmorzens. Either they were extremely secretive, or they didn’t actually exist, except on paper. In fact, Alessandra began to suspect that the latter was true, and that the Vanmorzens were a front for some sort of secret Storm Corps operation. In retrospect, that hunch should have convinced her to stay away from the Vanmorzen manor entirely, but arrogance and naivete blinded her and made her want to break into the manor even more. Like all slum dwellers in Serotopolis, she despised the Circle of Elders and everyone connected with them. None of the clans had ever successfully challenged the Circle, and if Clan Mekoval could be the first under her leadership, that would just solidify her status as the best thief in the clan, and maybe even the whole city.

To be continued…

Chapter 10, Part 5

“I…I don’t know!” Ilnorat stammered. “This just…doesn’t make any sense!”

“Allow me to shed some light on the situation,” Alessandra said in a soft, dangerous voice, placing herself in between Torea and Ilnorat and crossing her arms across her chest. “How I killed Bezzum is irrelevant. The important thing for you to remember, is that I did kill him, and I did it with ease. If you have a problem with me being Clan Master, you are welcome to challenge me, and I will gladly destroy you. Otherwise, get used to the fact that I am now the Clan Master.”

“I…,” Ilnorat began, and swallowed hard. “Yes. Of course, Clan Master. Forgive my indiscretion.” Alessandra stared at her coldly for a few moments, and then she suddenly smiled warmly.

“I understand this is an unusual situation,” she said. “I’m kind of having a hard time believing it myself. I know a lot of people in this clan don’t like me, and I don’t expect people to fall in love with me immediately just because I’m the Clan Master now. But I do hope you, and everyone else who dislikes me, will give me a fair chance to do a good job.”

“Of course, Clan Master,” Ilnorat said, bowing her head. “I will do my best.” She turned and followed Meachen out the door, and Vegora followed after both of them, nodding to Alessandra in respect as he left.

“You handled that well,” Torea said in an impressed tone as soon as the door closed.

“I’ve never lacked for confidence, Torea,” Alessandra said, settling down in the chair behind what used to be Bezzum’s desk. “Now I’ve got the power to back that confidence up.”

“So it would seem,” Torea said, rubbing her chin. She looked as if she were going to say more, but Alessandra cut her off.

“I know, Torea,” she said, holding up one hand. “You want to know what happened. I will tell you…someday. But for right now, I need you to tell me how to be Clan Master.”

“I’m glad you’re willing to take my advice,” Torea said, smiling. “I have to admit, the first thing I thought, once I got over the shock of seeing you kill Bezzum, was that you were going to want to charge in headfirst and completely change everything here. You’ve always been more than a little stubborn.”

“And that stubbornness has served me well, wouldn’t you say?” Alessandra asked, spreading her hands wide. “But this is what I’ve wanted my whole life, and I’m not about to screw it up by being stubborn. I know Bezzum ran this clan well. As much as I hated him, I have no intention of fixing what isn’t broken.”

“I’m very glad to hear it, Clan Master,” Torea said, bowing her head. “Well, shall we get to work?”

“One thing, first,” Alessandra said. “I know you and Bezzum were…close, and I just want you to know that I had no intention of hurting you, and I’m sorry if his death grieves you.” Torea studied Alessandra for a few moments, her lips pursed.

“May I be honest, Clan Master?” Torea said, and Alessandra nodded. “Bezzum was a miserable bastard, and I’m glad he’s dead.” Alessandra’s eyes widened in shock at these words, and Torea laughed. “Surprised? You shouldn’t be. You saw the truth of who Bezzum was better than most of the people in this clan. I did as well, but that’s only because I worked side by side with him for many years.”

“But…but…you slept with him! I thought…”

“Occupational hazard,” Torea said with a shrug. “Bezzum didn’t exactly trust his Clan Leaders, but he trusted me more than the others, because it’s hard to keep secrets from a woman who shares your bed.” Alessandra stared at Torea, dumbfounded, and then all of sudden she burst out laughing.

“Torea, you conniving wench!” she exclaimed. “I never had any idea! I could never understand how you got along so well with that gutter slime, and now I finally find out that you didn’t! You are truly a master of deceit!”

“Goes along with the job, usually,” Torea said with a shrug. “If I had been too open about my feelings toward Bezzum, you would have liked me more, but I would have been sidelined by Bezzum, if not exiled. Conversely, if I acted like I was completely on Bezzum’s side, that would have increased my power and standing, but you wouldn’t have trusted me at all. It was a delicate balancing act.”

“Why even care about whether I trusted you or not?” Alessandra asked. “I’m just a nobody. Or at least I was, until today.”

“I’ve always seen potential in you, Alessandra,” Torea said intently. “I knew you had it in you to be Clan Master someday. Granted, I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but I knew it would happen.”

“That’s…that’s pretty high praise,” Alessandra said, taken aback. “I kind of wish I’d known that, especially when you were dragging me through the halls to physically throw me out of the building.” Torea blushed slightly, but she continued to meet Alessandra’s gaze.

“You know I was just doing what I had to do,” she said firmly. “I explained why I had to go along with exiling you at the time, and I stand by those reasons. I had a plan in place to overthrow Bezzum and replace him, eventually. I was hopeful that you would stay alive long enough for me to become Clan Master and then find you and end your exile. But I guess those plans are irrelevant now.”

“I feel a little bad about that,” Alessandra said with a slight shrug. “You would have made a great Clan Master, Torea. But I have no intention of swapping places with you.”

“Nor should you,” Torea replied. “You earned your place, as it should be. Now enough of this. We need to get some work done, and then you need food and some rest. Let’s get to it.”

To be continued…

Chapter 10, Part 4

Immediately, she stepped back to avoid the spray of blood from his neck, and with a twist of a wrist she pulled the other dagger out of his gut and let his body fall to the ground. As it fell, she bent down and cleaned the blood off of her daggers by wiping them on Bezzum’s shirt. She was conscious of the fact that there was total silence in the arena as she did so, but she ignored it for the moment. All she wanted right then was to savor the fact that Bezzum had died at her hands.

Finally, she stood up and surveyed the crowd in the arena. There was a look of total shock on every face. Every eye that looked at her was round in astonishment. She turned around slowly and made eye contact with every single person surrounding her, and as she did so, she was confident. They knew. They knew that she was the best, that she deserved to be the Master of Clan Mekoval. Finally, she had what she’d spent her whole life chasing.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few seconds, Vegora stepped forward, and grasped her wrist to lift it up in the air. “Behold, the new Master of Clan Mekoval!” he yelled in his thin, reedy voice. He looked as stunned as everyone else in the arena, but his voice was strong and clear as he called out. There was no response, but as if the sound of Vegora’s voice were a charm that broke the magic spell enthralling the room, the silence disappeared, replaced with the sound of muttering as the members of Clan Mekoval began to discuss what had just happened.

“We should go up to, er, your study,” Torea said, stepping forward. “Give everyone a chance to process what just happened.” Alessandra nodded. Part of her wanted to gloat, to rub it in everyone’s faces how wrong they’d been about her, but she knew that was not how she wanted to kick off her tenure as the Clan Master. She needed these people, needed them to, if not like her, at least respect her, and bragging about how she was the greatest probably wasn’t the best way to accomplish that.

Torea led the way up to what used to be Bezzum’s study. Alessandra allowed her, even though she obviously knew the way. It’s my study now, Alessandra thought in a daze. She wasn’t sure why she was dazed. Maybe just because the thing she’d wanted for so long, the thing she’d thought had been taken away from her forever not that long ago, that thing was finally hers. She was the Clan Master of Clan Mekoval. Even though there had been no doubt about the outcome of her challenge, thanks to the new powers she’d obtained from Ilimay Ladron, she still couldn’t quite believe it was real. Just an hour ago she’d been an exile from her clan, and now she was its Master.

Torea, Vegora, Alessandra, and the other two Clan Leaders, Meachen and Ilnorat, entered the study, and as they entered, Torea turned to Alessandra. “I can’t believe that what just happened is real,” she said. “How did you do it? How did you beat Bezzum? You’ve been in exile for three weeks. By all rights, you should be weaker than you’ve ever been. And you did something that I’m certain none of us Clan Leaders could have done. How?” Alessandra smiled a small, secretive smile.

“I think I’d prefer to keep that a secret for now,” she said mysteriously. “In the meantime, I’m sure there’s work to be done. I’ve been out of the loop for three weeks. I have no idea who’s out on jobs or what’s being planned or anything.”

“We’ll prepare a report for you as soon as possible,” Vegora said. “Until then, I can tell you that there are only two teams out right now, Hesikal’s team and Zenmor’s team. Bezzum was planning to send out Niechao’s team tomorrow night, but of course it’s now up to you whether that job goes ahead or not.”

“Show me the writeup for that job, and I’ll make a decision as soon as possible,” Alessandra said, and then she yawned. “I could use a bowl of stew and a nap in a real bed.”

“I can imagine,” Torea said, and then she smiled. “I’ll have somebody clean out your quarters and bring you up some stew.” She turned to the other Clan Leaders. “I think it’s probably best if we leave the Clan Master to get used to her new study for a little while. I’ll bring her up to speed about the clan’s situation.”

“I think that sounds good, Torea,” Vegora said, nodding. “Meachen, Ilnorat, what about you?”

Meachen was a short, bluff, bald man with a thin beard and no mustache. He made up for his lack of stature by being thickly muscled, but despite being short and stout, he was one of the quickest and quietest thieves in the clan. He nodded as soon as Vegora spoke and turned to leave immediately.

Ilnorat was not so agreeable, however. She was a tall, thin woman with olive skin and close-cropped black hair. She had several small scars criss-crossing her face, including one near her mouth that gave her a permanent scowl. This was appropriate, as it suited her personality perfectly. Of all the Clan Leaders, she had always been the one who liked Alessandra the least.

“I’m not ready to just accept this child as our Clan Master and be done with it,” she said in a petulant tone. “We all know that Bezzum was more skilled than her! There is no way she should have been able to kill him, and so easily! Aren’t we going to investigate this? Are we going to just let her usurp a position she doesn’t deserve without a whisper of protest?”

“What is there to investigate?” Torea said wearily. “The rules governing this sort of thing are pretty simple, as you well know. She challenged him. He accepted. She killed him in full view of the entire clan. Are you accusing her of cheating somehow? How would that even work? There are no rules in the arena!”

To be continued…