She fell silent, and the two women stared at each other for a few moments, Alessandra with fire in her eyes, and Torea with sadness and pity in hers. Finally, Torea looked away and shook her head.
“If that’s your decision, then so be it,” she said. A small, sad chuckle escaped from her lips. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now anyway. You challenged, he accepted, and there’s no way around that. If you tried to leave the clanhouse now, I would have to kill you.”
“You would have to try and kill me, you mean,” Alessandra replied, her eyes still smoldering. “Don’t underestimate me, Clan Leader. I have no intention of dying today.” And with that, she spun on her heel and stormed out of the room, leaving Torea alone with her grief.
A few seconds later, she turned a corner and ran into Mikaelo. “Alessa!” he gasped. “It’s true! You really are here!”
“Yes, I am here, and before you ask, yes, I did challenge Bezzum,” Alessandra said.
“Moi tuval, Alessa,” Mikaelo swore. “What in the abyss are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that I’d rather die than face another minute of exile,” Alessandra replied calmly. “You have no idea what it was like.”
“I don’t, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but Alessa…,” he trailed off helplessly, and then he whispered, “I don’t want you to die.”
“Trust me, Mikaelo, I don’t want to die either,” Alessandra responded. “I learned a few things during my exile. You might be surprised at how this challenge turns out.”
“Are…are you sure that exile didn’t…mess up your mind…or anything?” he asked.
“Look, you’re going to just have to trust me,” Alessandra said, exasperated. “Besides, what does it matter to you if I die? I was an exile. You were never going to see me again anyway.”
“Well…I had…plans,” Mikaelo said lamely.
“You had plans,” Alessandra replied, her voice flat.
“Well…yeah!” Mikaelo said. “I mean, Bezzum’s not gonna be Clan Master forever, and I thought…maybe…when we was gone, I could convince whoever took his place to revoke your exile,” he finished with a little shrug. Alessandra stared at him flatly, her hands on her hips.
“Well, whatever,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “It doesn’t matter now. I’m here, my exile is over, and I’ve challenged Bezzum. You know as well as I do that a challenge can’t be withdrawn once it’s accepted. If I tried to back out now, you’d kill me, right?” Mikaelo hesitated for a moment, and Alessandra got right in his face. “Right?” she asked insistently.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Mikaelo sputtered, backing away hastily. “The good of the clan always comes before that of the individual. I know that. But…Alessa, you have no idea how hard it was to have to bar you from the clan house.”
“Oh, I have no idea how hard it was,” she said flatly, and then she screamed, “I have no idea how hard it was? Let me tell you something,” but he never found out what she was going to tell him, because they were interrupted by Halidasa.
“Um, Alessa?” she said diffidently. “The Clan Leaders told me to tell you that it’s time.”
“Fine,” she said, ignoring Mikaelo. “Let’s go.”
Halidasa and Alessandra made their way through the halls of the Mekoval clanhouse to the arena. Halidasa was uncharacteristically silent as they walked, but Alessandra wasn’t really in the mood to talk, so she didn’t press Halidasa at all. Instead, she focused on her anger toward Mikaelo. How dare he presume to lecture her on how hard life had been for him over the past few weeks? She was the one who’d been living in hovels, stealing just enough to survive. She was the one who had fled from roving mercenaries, and was apparently being chased by demons. All he’d had to do was keep her from reentering the clanhouse after she’d been thrown out! What a hard life that was!
She was so wrapped up in her fuming that it took her a moment to realize that Halidasa had stopped. Turning, she asked, “Hali? What’s up?”
Halidasa was silent for a moment, and then she shook her head and said, “I…I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around what’s happening here. You’ve…always been one of my best friends, and I…I…I don’t want you to die.” Alessandra was stunned for a moment, and then she smiled.
“Oh, Hali, you’re such a sweetheart,” she said. “Trust me, I don’t want to die either. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this challenge.”
“But that’s just it, Alessa!” Halidasa wailed. “I don’t want Bezzum to die either! I know you hate him, and I know he hates you, but he’s always been good to me! He’s been like…he’s been like the father I never had, and I don’t want either of you to die!”
Now Alessandra was truly stunned. She’d known that Halidasa and Bezzum were close, but for her to think of him as a father? She was having a difficult time processing that little bit of information. A father? Who even cared about having a father? Nobody in the slums had a father, at least not one who took care of them the way fathers in the city took care of their children. Alessandra didn’t know who her father was any more than Halidasa did, and that had never bothered her, but apparently it did bother Halidasa.
“Hali,” she said quietly, “I don’t know what you expect me to do. I can’t back out of this challenge now, and even if I could, it would just mean a return to exile. I can’t go back to that life, Hali. I won’t. You don’t know what it was like.”
“I know, Alessa,” Halidasa said, sniffling. “I know the rules. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.”
No, Alessandra thought with a frown, I suppose it doesn’t. She turned and began walking down the hall toward the arena again, and now her anger had been replaced by…confusion.
To be continued…