The next thing Alessandra knew, she was face down on what felt like the bottom of an alley. With a groan, she pushed herself up and opened her eyes slowly, only to discover that was exactly where she was. As she sat back against a nearby wall to try and orient herself, she heard a familiar voice.
“Oh, thank the Order!” it said. “I wasn’t sure you were ever going to wake up!”
“Mikaelo?” Alessandra asked, her voice cracking.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“What happened?” she asked, leaning her head back against the wall and closing her eyes.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” Mikaelo said grimly. “I got out of the manor like you ordered, and I took position on a roof across the street. A few minutes later, I saw a Shock Corps trooper carry you out of the manor and dump you in this alley. As soon as he was gone, I came down to you, bandaged your head, and waited for you to wake up. I thought about carrying you back to the clan house, but I wasn’t sure I could evade the mercenary clans while carrying you, and I didn’t know if moving you was a good idea anyway.”
“I see,” Alessandra said quietly, and then she fell silent, keeping her eyes shut. Now that she was conscious, the enormity of what had just happened hit her. Breska, Ahlen, Nieshata, Veloran…they were all dead. Worse, they had died under her command. She should have pulled out of the manor as soon as she realized it was a trap. Instead, she’d been arrogant, and assumed that they could still pull off the job even though it was compromised. And because of her arrogance, four of her clanmates were dead.
“The others,” Mikaelo said softly, “They didn’t make it, did they?” Alessandra just closed her eyes tighter and shook her head. She heard Mikaelo sigh, and then plop down on the ground next to her. “I’m sorry, Alessa.” They sat there, in that alley, for a few minutes, too distraught to do or say anything.
Finally, Mikaelo stood up. “We need to get back, Alessa,” he said. “We need to tell Bezzum what happened here.”
“I know,” whispered Alessandra. There was silence for a moment, and then Mikaelo crouched down next to her.
“Hey,” he said, “it’s gonna be okay.”
“Is it?” Alessandra asked, her voice heavy with grief and dread. “Four of our clanmates are dead, and we’re not even returning with the item we were commanded to retrieve. How can there be any possibility that I won’t be thrown out of the clan?”
“How can they throw you out for this?” Mikaelo asked. “There’s no way you could have known that the Shock Corps would be guarding the manor. Why would they be? What could possibly be in that chest that would be so valuable?”
“Like that matters,” Alessandra scoffed. “Bezzum knew this would happen. He had to! He knows what’s in that chest, and I’ll bet you anything he knows that the Elder Guard would be guarding it. And, they knew we were coming! Who could have tipped them off other than Bezzum?”
“Why…?” Mikealo began, and then trailed off.
“You know why,” Alessandra said levelly. “To get rid of me.” The two of them were silent for a moment, and the Alessandra slowly pulled herself to her feet. “Let’s go,” she said.
“You’re still going back?” Mikaelo asked.
“I am,” Alessandra said, her tone determined. “I’m not going to give Bezzum the satisfaction of slinking away quietly. I’m going to look him in the eyes and make him see what he’s done to me.” With that, she set off, moving slowly but steadily toward the Mekoval clanhouse, Mikaelo following close behind.
The lookouts at the Mekoval clanhouse greeted Alessandra and Mikaelo with frowns as they entered, but didn’t say anything. Alessandra was only too happy to respond in kind. She was dreading this encounter with Bezzum, but she was also determined to go out on her own terms. Even if Bezzum did throw her out of the clan, he was not going to humiliate her.
They stopped as soon as they reached the third floor, because Torea and another Clan Leader, Vegora, were standing there talking. As soon as they saw Alessandra and Mikaelo, they stopped their conversation and turned toward them.
“So,” Torea said in a low voice, and paused. “Just the two of you, and you appear to have no loot. I’m going to assume that things did not go well.”
“They did not, Clan Leader,” Alessandra said simply.
“Explain,” Vegora demanded. He was a short, wiry, clean-shaven man with leathery skin, white hair, and a raspy voice, but despite his age, he was still tougher and faster than most members of Clan Mekoval. Which was why he was a Clan Leader, and not dead in a gutter.
“The Storm Corps was waiting for us,” Alessandra said in a level voice. “They knew we would be there.” Torea and Vegora exchanged looks.
“The rest of your team is dead, I assume,” Vegora rasped. “How did you two survive?”
“I sent Mikaelo out of the manor early, because I suspected a trap,” Alessandra replied. “The Storm Corps never found him. Me, they spared, so that I could tell my boss not to mess with the Vanmorzens.” Torea and Vegora exchanged another look.
“Go make your report to Bezzum,” Torea said. “Vegora and I will discuss this with the other Clan Leaders.” Alessandra and Mikaelo saluted, and continued down the hallway.
They knocked on the door to Bezzum’s chambers, and heard his voice calling them in. Once inside, they saw him sitting behind his desk in the outer chamber, with his booted feet up on the desk, sharpening his nails with a dagger. He had a nasty grin on his face, as if he knew exactly what Alessandra was going to report, and he couldn’t wait to hear it. They saluted immediately, and stood at attention, waiting for Bezzum to speak first.
To be continued…