“And you’re really good,” Meela groaned as she rubbed her jaw. “I fought a lot of people on the streets, and nobody has ever beat me twice.”
“I’m not surprised,” Alessandra replied, holding out a hand to help Meela up. “But street fighting is amateur league compared to fighting in a clan. Not that thieves generally need to fight much, but on the rare occasions we do, we want to make sure we win.
“I don’t know how you’re not the Master of this clan,” Meela said, envy and appreciation warring in her tone.
“That’s because you’ve never seen Bezzum fight,” Alessandra replied, her voice grim. “Believe me, as quickly as I beat you just now, Bezzum would destroy me even faster.” Meela’s eyes became big as saucers when she heard that, as if she didn’t quite believe what Alessandra was saying. Before she could respond, Alessandra said, “Why did you join a thief clan anyway? Someone as good at fighting as you are, I would have figured you’d be more interested in the mercenaries.”
“I thought about it, but I figured being a thief would be more of a challenge,” Meela said with a shrug. “I knew I’d be a good mercenary, but I wanted to do something to push myself.”
“I’m impressed,” Alessandra said, and she meant it. “You don’t see that kind of drive in the slums very often.”
“I guess,” Meela said with another shrug. “I must say, being a thief is even harder than I thought. I figured learning how to fight like a thief would be the easy part. The thief clans don’t exactly have a reputation for toughness.”
“Like I said, we try not to fight if we can avoid it,” Alessandra said, scanning the other sparring pairs to get a read on how they were doing, “but we want to make sure that if we have to fight, we can win. That’s why advancement is handled by duels. Out in the field is how we decide who’s a good thief, but a leader needs to be more than just a good thief. They need to be able to handle themselves in any situation.”
“The more I learn about being a thief, the more I know I made the right choice,” Meela said, sounding satisfied, “but I’m getting more and more confused about you. I’ve heard you’re a good thief, and you obviously can fight, so why were you stripped of your rank? Did you really get a bunch of people killed?”
“That is a story I’d rather not get into,” Alessandra said with a grimace. “Just…try to be on your best behavior. Try to pull the attitude on Bezzum that you just pulled on me, and you’ll be in my shoes before you know it. That’s if you don’t get kicked out of the clan entirely.”
“Yes, Teacher,” Meela said, bowing her head and looking abashed.
“Okay, that will do it for today!” Alessandra barked as the last pair of sparrers finished up. “Report to Neharo for your next class, and I will see you tomorrow!” She stood with her arms folded and her feet spread apart as she watched her students file out of the room. She especially watched Meela. This girl intrigued her, probably because she reminded her so much of herself. Hopefully Bezzum would take to Meela better than he’d taken to Alessandra, at least for Meela’s sake. Then again, it would be even better if Alessandra could turn Meela into an ally against Bezzum. There were possibilities there, if only Alessandra could exploit them.
The next day, Alessandra was summoned to Bezzum early in the morning, for the first time since her encounter with the demon. She rushed into Bezzum’s chambers as fast as she could, and found him lounging behind his desk, booted feet resting on top of it, familiar sneer fixed on his face. Her own face twisted into a matching sneer as she looked at him, until she realized what she was doing and forced herself to adopt a look of meek servility.
“That cracks me up every time,” Bezzum said in his grating voice, forcing Alessandra once again to put all of her effort into not letting the disgust and anger she felt show on her features. “You really think you’re fooling me with that fake meekness?”
“I am doing the best that I can, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, her voice faint with the strain of not growling at him.
“Whatever,” Bezzum said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve got a new job for you. Two nights from now. You’ll be joining Kraylea’s team as his lockpick. Your target is the North Vandeo Bank. Report to him for further instructions.”
“Yes, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, bowing her head. Bezzum eyed her for a moment, his sneer growing slowly more disgusted and more hateful.
“You really think you’re fooling me, don’t you?” he snarled.
“Excuse me, Clan Master?” Alessandra asked, startled.
“All this fake humility and using my proper title,” he said, standing up and stalking toward her. “You really think you’re convincing me that you’ve changed. Well, I’ve got news for you, chiela. It’s not working. I know you think you’ll be in my place someday, and I’m telling you right now, it will never happen. You’re not fit to be Clan Master. You’re not even fit to be in this clan. And I will destroy you, if it’s the last thing I do.” At this point, he was right in front of her, so close that she could feel his hot breath on her face, his eyes boring directly into hers. She was so stunned by this open display of hostility that she couldn’t bring herself to respond.
“Get out of my sight,” he spat suddenly, and she immediately did so, for fear of what she might have said if she’d opened her mouth at that moment.
To be continued…