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…

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