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…