Chapter 12, Part 1

Alessandra stood on the roof of a building with her arms crossed, gazing across at the Vanmorzen manor in the distance. Torea was crouched down next to her, her gaze focused on the same thing. It was the first time Alessandra had laid eyes on the manor since her disastrous job there, and she was surprised at how little the sight affected her. She had expected to be flooded with vivid memories of Ahlen, Veloran, Nieshata and Breska, but instead she felt…nothing. It was just another building, just another target to be robbed. Except that it wasn’t. She couldn’t let herself forget that.

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Torea said, as Alessandra crouched down next to her.

“As does Meela, and Meachen, and Vegora,” replied Alessandra, her gaze fixated on the manor.

“Generally, when all four Clan Leaders agree about something, it’s a good idea for the Clan Master to listen,” Torea said gravely.

“I have listened,” Alessandra said. “It will be fine. The worst thing that will happen is that I die. Nobody else will be at risk. If that happens, you will chose another Clan Master, and life will go on.”

“And what if the Storm Corps traces the box back to us?” Torea asked. “Meela’s right. If the full force of the Elder Guard comes down on us, we won’t survive.”

“That won’t happen,” Alessandra said firmly.

“How can you be so sure?” Torea demanded. Alessandra sighed and turned to her.

“Look, you know about my speed and my strength, right? Well, I have other abilities you don’t know about, too. I can turn invisible, and even mask myself so people can’t see me or touch me. I can also teleport. Trust me when I say that, no matter how strong inoval armored soldiers are, or how many there are, they won’t see me.”

“That explains how you were able to get into the clanhouse without being seen the day you challenged Bezzum,” Torea muttered. “But how is that even possible?” she asked in a louder voice. “You suddenly being much faster and stronger is plausible, if highly unlikely. But how can you make yourself invisible?”

“I promise I’ll explain it to you someday, Torea, but it’s a long story, and we don’t have time.” She turned back to staring at the manor. “Now, you’re certain you remember all the details of the plan?”

“Alessandra,” Torea said in a flat voice, “you’ve got to be kidding me. This is the simplest plan I’ve ever been a part of. How could I not remember?”

“Humor me, Torea,” Alessandra replied, not looking away from the manor. Torea rolled her eyes and sighed.

“I will wait on the roof of Inskara Building and watch the exterior of the manor,” she recited in a bored voice. “If I see any unusual activity outside, I will fire off one mekuvise. If I see extra troops entering the manor, I will fire off two mekuvise. That’s it.”

“Not quite,” Alessandra said disapprovingly, turning to look at Torea again. “You’re missing the most important part.” Torea gave her a highly unamused look.

“Once I have given a signal, if needed, I will withdraw and return to the clanhouse,” she said, her voice even more flat and unimpressed than before. “Under no circumstances will I attempt to enter the manor.”

“That’s it,” Alessandra said with a satisfied smile.

“You know, not everyone is as stubborn as you are,” Torea said.

“I’m not going to risk losing you over this job,” Alessandra replied. “I know that I’m doing this to stroke my own ego. I’m not stupid. I will not put anyone at risk aside from myself. I want to make absolutely sure that you and everyone else who is helping me with this job is perfectly safe.”

“And how do you think I feel, watching you put yourself at risk in order to pursue this…this…vanity project!” Torea shot back. “Dammit, Alessandra, you’re important, even if you don’t think you are. You’ve only been Clan Master for two months, and I can already tell that you’re a much better Clan Master than Bezzum ever was, plus you’re likable! You’ve changed the opinions of virtually everybody in the clan. You’ve gone from being the one that everybody hates to the one that everybody loves, practically overnight! You are an amazing person, and we would all be much poorer if anything happens to you.”

Alessandra blushed, and it took her a moment to gather her thoughts and respond. “Are you trying to make me cry?” she said in a husky voice, and she smiled as she said it.

“No, I’m trying to make you think,” Torea said firmly. “You’re not putting the clan first right now. You’re putting yourself first, and you know that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Even for Clan Masters.”

Alessandra was silent for a moment again, and then she said with a sigh, “I know that. But I have to do this. I know it’s dumb. I know it’s a bad idea. But I have to. I’ll never truly believe in myself until I know I can pull this off.”

Torea took a deep breath and started rubbing her temples. “Can you promise me one thing?” she asked.

“What?”

“Will you promise that if you come back from this job alive, that you’ll never do anything like this again? Because if you don’t promise, I might have to challenge you, even though I know I won’t survive.”

Alessandra stared at for a moment, and then she nodded. “Yes. I promise. I will never put myself ahead of the good of the clan ever again. After today.”

Torea stared off into the distance for a minute, and then she sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Go do this thing. Get it over with. And make sure you come back to us.” Alessandra grinned, then she made herself invisible and leaped off the building that she and Torea were standing on.

To be continued…

Chapter 11, Part 5

“So? Gonna tell me what that was all about?” Meela said with a grin.

“Nope,” Alessandra replied, sitting back down behind her desk. “How about you? Are you going to tell me what’s going on between you and Migdoral?”

“What? Nothing’s going on between me and Migdoral!” Meela exclaimed in a tone that was a little too indignant to be innocent.

“Uh huh,” Alessandra said with a knowing smile.

“Whatever,” Meela said, not meeting Alessandra’s eyes. She began rifling furiously through the folder full of papers that she’d brought in with her, and Alessandra chuckled.

“All right,” she said. “You obviously have more you want to talk about then just telling me that Mikaelo returned. What’s up?”

“Oh, just general status updates,” Meela replied, pulling a few papers out of her folder and laying them on Alessandra’s desk.

“Hmmm,” Alessandra mused as she looked over the papers. “Yeah, this all looks in order to me.” She flipped through the pages for a few more minutes. “Zansker’s team isn’t back yet?”

“Not yet,” Meela said with a slight frown.

“They were supposed to be back last night,” Alessandra muttered. Meela remained silent. “Well, let me know when you hear anything,” Alessandra said, handing the papers back to Meela. “Is that really all you wanted? These status updates could have waited until morning.”

“You’re right,” Meela frowned. “To be honest, I’m not sure that your Vanmorzen manor job is a good idea.”

“I see,” Alessandra replied flatly. “And why is that?”

“I think you’re obsessed. I think you’re trying to prove to yourself that you’re the best, when you don’t need to, and I think you’re putting your own pride before the good of the clan.”

“How do you figure?” Alessandra asked quietly.

“Oh, come on,” Meela said, exasperated. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. You’re obviously the best thief in this clan. You destroyed Bezzum and Ilnorat in the arena, and you’ve brought in more booty in the past two months than Bezzum ever could have dreamed of in the same amount of time. Nobody questions your rule. Everybody respects you. There is no reason for you to do this.”

“Are you finished?” Alessandra shot back.

“No, I’m not,” Meela said calmly. “You don’t even know what’s in that vault. I’m not convinced Bezzum knew what was in it either. Sure, it’s valuable. It must be if it’s being guarded by the Storm Corps. But do you really want to bring the Storm Corps down on our heads? You may be able to get past them and steal that box, but do you think you’ll be able to defend the clanhouse if they decide to come get their box back?” There was silence for a moment when she finished speaking, and then she said, “Now I’m done.”

“I see,” Alessandra said. Her eyes flashed for a moment, and she puffed up for a moment, and then she deflated and sighed deeply. “Maybe you’re right,” she said, “but I still need to do this.”

“Why?” Meela demanded. “When everything is going perfectly for you, and for the people who care about you, why risk it all on this nonsense?”

“Because I lost something that night,” Alessandra replied. “I’ve always been confident. I still am. Some people would even call me arrogant, and that’s probably fair. But that night I failed, miserably. I need to prove to myself that it was a fluke. I need to know that I really am as good as I think I am.” There was a long silence after this, as Alessandra and Meela stared each other down.

“I’m never going to convince you, am I?” Meela finally said, her sigh matching Alessandra’s.

“You could always challenge me,” Alessandra said with a shrug and a small twinkle in her eye.

“Your death is one of the things I’m trying to avoid,” Meela said, rolling her eyes. “Besides, I’ve seen you in action. I know there’s no way I could beat you.”

“You’re right,” Alessandra said simply.

“Anyway, I’ve said my piece. If nothing else, when everything comes crashing down, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’.”

“Believe me, Meela, if this does end up in disaster, the last thing I’ll be worried about is your smugness.”

“So,” Meela said as she laced her hands behind her head and leaned back in her chair, “when are you going to do this?”

“Tomorrow night,” Alessandra replied. “I’ve poured over these plans long enough. It’s either going to work or it isn’t. I need to stop worrying about variables I can’t control.”

“Good idea,” Meela said with a grimace. “If you’re going to do this thing, might as well get it over with.”

“It’ll be worth it,” Alessandra said firmly. “I promise.”

“I don’t know how you think you can make that promise, but I’m still gonna hold you to it,” Meela said, standing up. As she did so, she yawned and stretched. “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. I’m going to bed.”

“I’m gonna stay up for awhile,” Alessandra said. “Get some work done.”

“Fine by me,” Meela said with a shrug. “I ain’t your mother.” She started walking toward the door, but Alessandra spoke before she reached it.

“Meela,” she said, and Meela stopped. “Do you…do you remember your mother?”

“That’s a weird question,” Meela said, confused. “Of course not. My mother dumped me at the House of Vagrants, just like you and everyone else in this hellhole. Just like I’ll do with my kids, if I ever have any.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Alessandra murmured.

“Why do you ask?” Meela said with a quizzical look.

“No reason,” Alessandra replied, shaking her head. “Good night, Meela.” Meela nodded, and left.

Why did I ask that? Alessandra thought. She shook her head again, and looked down at the papers on her desk. What are parents like? What would it be like to be one? For the third time, she shook her head, and dismissed those thoughts from her mind. She had work to do.

To be continued…

 

Chapter 11, Part 4

“Well,” Mikaelo began, and then he stopped. He opened his mouth again, stopped, and then turned away from her partially. Alessandra was fascinated. Mikaelo was always calm, cool and collected. She had never seen him flustered before, ever.

“Mikaelo,” she said, “are you blushing?”

“I…um…well…no! Of course not!” Mikaelo stammered. “Well, uh…okay, fine, I guess I am.” Alessandra stood up from her desk and a coy smile appeared on her face.

“Mikaelo?” she said. “What is going on?”

“Alessa, I…well, I like you. A lot. And…well…,” he trailed off.

“Mikaelo, I like you too,” Alessandra said, and then she kissed him. Mikaelo’s eyes widened in shock, and he stiffened, but then quickly he relaxed and wrapped his arms around her. They stood like that for quite a while, arms wrapped around each other and lips pressed together. Finally, Mikaelo pulled away and took a deep breath, while still keeping his arms wrapped around her.

“Wow, I…I wasn’t expecting that,” Mikaelo said.

“You really are a dunce, aren’t you?” Alessandra said fondly. “How could you not know that I felt the same way?”

“Hey now,” Mikaelo said, pretending to look offended. “That’s really not fair. You’ve been so busy with Clan Master business that we’ve barely said two words to each other in the past two months. Plus, there was the whole business with me physically throwing you out of the clan…”

“Mikaelo, I’ve told you again and again, I’m not mad at you about that,” Alessandra said in a tone that mixed fondness with exasperation. “You were doing your duty. I would have done the same thing if our positions were swapped.”

“I know, I know,” Mikaelo sighed. “That’s doesn’t meant I don’t feel terrible about it.”

“As you should!” Alessandra cried, and then she laughed. “But it’s all over and done with now, and really, things turned out for the best!”

“I suppose they did,” Mikaelo said with a sigh.

“Uh oh,” Alessandra frowned. “What’s wrong now?”

“I mean…well…I was a little disappointed when you didn’t make me a Clan Leader,” Mikaelo said, slightly sheepishly. This time it was Alessandra’s turn to sigh.

“I know,” she said, letting go of him and turning away. “You were one of only three people I considered, believe me. I came so close to picking you. But I didn’t want people to think I was favoring my friends. Everybody knows that we’re close.”

“I understand,” Mikaelo said. “I’m not mad. I just…well, I just thought it meant that you were still bitter about what happened.”

“What? No!” Alessandra exclaimed, whipping around to face him again. “Please, stop thinking about that Mikaelo. I tell you, it’s over, it’s done, and I’ve forgiven you completely. In fact, you never did anything that required forgiveness.”

“Okay,” he said softly, and then smiled at her look of disapproval. “Okay!” he said in a cheerier voice. “It’s over. It’s done. I’ve forgotten all about it. What were we talking about again?” She rolled her eyes at this, and he grinned. Almost immediately, it disappeared though, and was replaced with a somber look.

“Oh no,” Alessandra said. “I know that look. That’s your ‘deep-in-thought’ look.”

“Yeah,” Mikaelo said absently, and then he shook his head and focused on her.

“Alessa, do you…do you ever think about Kriesaio?” he asked.

“What? All the time!” Alessandra replied, startled. “But why bring him up now?”

“I loved him, you know,” Mikaelo said, not quite meeting her eyes. “He was like a mentor to me. He was my best friend, taught me almost everything I know.” He paused for a moment, and then turned away from her. “But I hated him too.”

“What? You hated him? Why?” Alessandra asked, shocked and puzzled.

“Because I loved you,” Mikaelo said simply. Alessandra stared at him for a moment, still puzzled, and then it clicked.

“You were jealous,” she said softly, and Mikaelo nodded. “But why bring this up now?”

“Guilty conscience, I guess?” Mikaelo said with a shrug. “I was devastated when Kriesaio died. But I was also happy. Because it meant I finally had a chance with you.”

“It’s not your fault he died,” Alessandra said quietly.

“I suppose not,” Mikaelo said with another shrug, still not looking at Alessandra. “But maybe I could have done more to convince him not to challenge Bezzum. I mean, the thought definitely crossed my mind that you would be available if he died.”

“But you didn’t give him the idea, did you?” Alessandra said, her voice soft but dangerous.

“No!” Mikaelo exclaimed. “Of course not! I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t want him to die! I just…well, I could see the advantages if he did.”

“I see,” Alessandra said, and then she was silent for awhile. Mikaelo still didn’t look at her, and after a minute or two he spoke again.

“You’re not…mad at me…are you?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“No,” Alessandra said after a moment, and she shook her head. “No, you can’t help feeling the way you feel. And I don’t think you could have talked him out of it. I tried my hardest, but he was convinced he could win. I don’t know that you would have had any luck.”

“You’re probably right,” Mikaelo said with a deep sigh. He and Alessandra were silent again after that, but the silence only lasted a few moments before it was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Alessandra said, and the door opened to admit Meela. “Ah, you decided to knock this time! I see you’re learning some manners.”

“Well, I didn’t want to walk in on anything,” Meela replied with a roguish wink.

“Not to worry, Clan Leader,” Mikaelo said with a salute. “I was just leaving.” He turned to Alessandra and saluted her as well. “Thank you for the discussion, Clan Master. It was most enlightening.” Alessandra nodded in response, and Mikaelo left, closing the door behind him.

To be continued…

Chapter 11, Part 3

No sooner had she finished speaking than there was a knock on the door. “Come in!” she called. The door opened, and Mikaelo entered, carrying a large sack, followed by two of his team members, also carrying large sacks. “Things went well, I presume?”

“Very,” Mikaelo grinned, as he plopped his sack right on the middle of Alessandra’s desk.

“Any troubles?” Alessandra asked, as she opened the sack and began examining the jewels inside.

“Not a soul knew we were there,” Mikaelo said confidently. Even though Alessandra hadn’t felt comfortable making Mikaelo a Clan Leader, she had felt as if she needed to do something to thank him for his support, so she had made him a Team Leader. He and his team had quickly distinguished themselves as one of the most productive teams in the clan, which further bolstered Alessandra’s reputation as a good Clan Master.

“Nor will they, until the next time they count the jewels in the vault,” said one of Mikaelo’s team members, a dark-haired young man with a scar down one side of his face. His name was Nieorath. “We were like ghosts.”

“Too bad,” said the other member of Mikaelo’s team who had accompanied him into Alessandra’s study. This was none other than Fergen, former member of Kraylea’s team. Alessandra had not returned Kraylea to his position as a Team Leader, even though it had been somewhat unfair for him to have been demoted in the first place. Kraylea had been a decent Team Leader, but Alessandra didn’t quite trust him, and she was content to leave him in his place as a grunt.

Fergen, on the other hand, was another who Alessandra believed was destined for greater things. She would have made a good Clan Leader, as she was strong, loyal, and smart, but Alessandra wasn’t quite sure that she trusted her that much. Plus, she did have a tendency to be lazy. Not on a job, when it counted, but Alessandra had quickly learned that giving Fergen important chores around the clanhouse was a mistake. The chores that Fergen excelled at were ones that didn’t have to be done in a timely manner. That, and training recruits in fighting skills. She loved doing that.

“What a boring job,” Fergen grunted as she dumped her sack of treasure on the table. “I miss being on Kraylea’s team. We got into fights all time back then.”

“Yeah, well, you’re supposed to be a thief, not a brawler,” Meela said dryly. “If you like beating people up so badly, why aren’t you a mercenary?”

“Cause I was scrawny when I was a kid,” Fergen said with a snort. “Besides, the mercenary clans don’t like taking girls. Think they’re wimps.”

“Obviously they’ve never met you,” Alessandra said, arching an eyebrow.

“Well, that just makes it more fun to kill ‘em,” Fergen replied, cracking her knuckles loudly. “Besides, it’s easier to kill people when you’re a thief. When you’re a mercenary, your enemies are always trying to hide from you. When you’re a thief, your enemies are all out in the open. Makes things much easier.”

“I’ll never understand your mindset, Fergen,” said Meela, shaking her head, “but I’m sure glad you’re in our clan.”

“I’m glad she’s on my team!” Mikaelo interjected. “Unlike her, I prefer missions that are as quiet as a whisper, but things don’t always go smoothly, and she’s great to have around whenever that happens.”

“Hey, just point me in the right direction and let me go,” Fergen said with a grin. “I’ll take out anybody in my path.”

“You’re a pretty good bypasser too,” Mikaelo added.

“You’re kidding, right?” Fergen said dryly.

“Not at all!” Mikaelo exclaimed. “You’re the one who got us into the vault, after all.”

“Mikaelo, I smashed the lock with my fist,” Fergen replied, her tone even drier than before. “That’s hardly the mark of a good bypasser.”

“You did a better job than Nieorath here,” Mikaelo chuckled.

“Hey, that was the most complex lock I’ve ever seen,” Nieorath said defensively. “How was I supposed to know it was also the most fragile?”

“Most fragile, my ass!” Fergen shouted. “These fists can crush anything! Like your face!”

“Okay, okay, calm down,” said Meela, standing up and making a calming gesture with her hands. “Fergen, nobody doubts the potency of your fists. Nieorath, just be glad the lock was bypassed. And Mikaelo, good job tonight.”

“Thanks, Clan Leader,” Mikaelo said, saluting.

“Go get some rest, everyone,” Meela said in dismissal. Fergen and Nieorath saluted immediately and left, but Mikaelo hesitated.

“Actually, Clan Leader, may I speak to the Clan Master in private for a moment?” he asked. Meela looked at Alessandra with one eyebrow raised in question, and Alessandra nodded.

“Very well,” Meela said to Mikaelo. “Clan Master, I still have something else I need to discuss with you, so I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. If that’s alright with you?” Alessandra nodded again, and Meela saluted and left.

“What is it, Mikaelo?” Alessandra said.

“Two things, actually,” Mikaelo replied. “First of all, Nieorath really is a terrible bypasser. I didn’t want to put him on the spot right in front of everybody, but that lock really wasn’t that difficult. I could have bypassed it, and that’s not even my specialty.”

“I see,” Alessandra said. “So what do you think I should do?”

“I think he’d be a good decoyer,” Mikaelo replied. “I already have a good decoyer, but maybe you can assign him to a team that doesn’t have one and see what happens.”

“I’ll look over the team rosters and see what I can do,” Alessandra said. “You’ll need a new bypasser, though.”

“Don’t worry about,” Mikaelo shrugged. “I’m a decent bypasser, and my second is even better. We’ll manage for now. If worst comes to worst, I’ll just have Fergen smash all the security consoles.”

“You do know that that usually won’t work, right?” Alessandra said dryly.

“Yeah, yeah,” Mikaelo smiled.

“So what’s the other thing?” Alessandra asked.

To be continued…