Chapter 4, Part 3

“Yeah,” Mikaelo replied with a pensive frown. Alessandra just stared at him blankly for a few more moments, and then she shook her head again and walked away.

It took her a few minutes to get back to her room. She was so deep in thought that she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going, and she kept taking wrong turns. On the surface, she looked perfectly calm. Maybe even a little too calm. Inside, she was seething with hatred. Everything that had happened last night was Bezzum’s fault, she was one hundred percent convinced of that. The only ones who had known about her job had been Bezzum and the Clan Leaders, and out of those five, Bezzum was the only one who had a grudge against her. The Storm Corps had known someone was going to hit the Vanmorzen manor, and that meant Bezzum had tipped them off. Unfortunately, she couldn’t prove it.

In a way, it didn’t really matter if Alessandra could prove Bezzum’s betrayal or not. Clan law allowed any member of the clan to challenge any other member to a duel to the death, and if the lower-ranked member killed the higher-ranked member, he or she gained that rank. So Alessandra could challenge Bezzum to a duel, kill him, and then she’d have her revenge, and she’d become the new Clan Master. The only problem with that plan was that there was no way Alessandra could beat Bezzum in a duel.

Alessandra had had a friend once, a young man named Kriesaio. Kriesaio and Alessandra had been very close, partially because they shared in Bezzum’s animosity. About six months ago, Kriesaio had finally had it with being held back because Bezzum didn’t like him, so he challenged Bezzum to a duel. Alessandra had tried to talk Kriesaio out of it, but he hadn’t listened to her. The duel had lasted less than two minutes. Bezzum had decimated Kriesaio, wounding him several times, and then finishing him off only when Kriesaio was too weak to fight back at all. Kriesaio didn’t even land a single blow against Bezzum.

Kriesaio’s fate was a cautionary tale for Alessandra, because Alessandra and Kriesaio had been evenly matched. Almost every time they had sparred, they’d fought to a stalemate. Occasionally, Alessandra had beaten Kriesaio, and occasionally, Kriesaio had beaten Alessandra. Of course, Alessandra’s skills had improved since Kriesaio’s death, but not nearly enough to beat Bezzum. Alessandra would have loved to step into the dueling ring with Bezzum, but only if she was reasonably confident that she could beat him. At that moment, Alessandra was perfectly confident that the only possible result of such a confrontation would be her swift death.

***

The next several weeks were torture for Alessandra. Being busted down to the lowest rank in the clan meant that she was the butt of all manner of jokes and taunting by the other members of the clan. She was relegated to the most menial of tasks at all times, which meant lots of chore duty, especially cooking. She’d known this was coming the moment the Clan Leaders had convinced Bezzum to demote her rather than exile her, and she vastly preferred this treatment to being dead in an alley somewhere. But that didn’t make it any easier.

The only two people who still treated her decently were Halidasa and Mikaelo. She wasn’t surprised by Halidasa, as it just wasn’t in her personality to be cruel to anyone, but she was a little surprised by Mikaelo. It was customary in the clans for a demoted member to be shamed. If Mikaelo had been the one to be demoted, Alessandra wouldn’t have thought twice about mocking him like everyone else. Maybe it was just because Mikaelo had been there, and he knew more or less what had gone down. Or maybe it was something else.

Alessandra didn’t have much time to think about Mikaelo, though, because most of her time was spent with chores. Not only was she being given the most demeaning and unimportant tasks, but she was being given twice as many of them as anyone else. Some days Alessandra spent so much time in the mess hall that she was too exhausted even to shower before she went to bed. She missed being out in the field desperately, and she was beginning to wonder if Bezzum was ever going to give her another chance to go on a job. If nothing else, this experience was only stoking the fires of her hatred of Bezzum. Every moment she spent dishing up stew in the mess hall was another moment spent contemplating ways of extracting vengeance.

On one occasion, she was spooning some stew into someone’s dish, while ignoring his sneer by imagining chopping Bezzum’s fingers off one by one, when Bezzum himself came into the mess hall. Alessandra hadn’t seen him at all since the day he’d stripped her of her rank (he usually ate in his own quarters), so when she laid eyes on Bezzum, she was so distracted that she dumped soup all over the hand of the man in front of her.

“Argh!” he screamed, jerking his hand back from the hot stew. “You bleeding jacopist!” He brought up his hand to slap her across the face, but her instincts kicked in, and she grabbed the man’s hand inches from her face and bent it backward painfully. He snarled, and tried to punch her with the other hand, but she was too quick for him, and grabbed that arm by the wrist. Then she clutched the first hand tighter, and he winced in pain.

“Don’t you dare touch me, chiela,” she hissed, but before she could say or do anything else, Bezzum was by the man’s side.

“What in the abyss is going on here?” he demanded, but there was delight in his eyes as he glared at her.

“Apologies, Clan Master,” Alessandra tried to say meekly, but she could tell it was ruined by the hatred burning in her eyes. She let go of the man she was holding, and he pulled away from her, massaging his hand and glaring.

To be continued…

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