Alicia paced the room in the Inn while Thomas ate, making a mental list of the siblings she had to kill.
Kyle, Brendon, Jordan, Johnathon, Elie, Michael, Benedette, Susie.
It was a pretty long list, but once those eight were out of the way, There would be nobody remaining in the family to oppose her…
Alicia put a hand on the empty dresser and sighed. With those eight people out of the way, there wouldn’t be anyone left in the family with a spine either. That would lead to a gradual loss of power like the Bergstroms.
She sighed and struck Benedette and Susie from the list, and resolved to push as many of her brothers out of the running as she could without killing them.
Except for Kyle.
The monster could kill his own family members without hesitation. There was no peaceful solution with him.
That was a long-term goal, though. In the meantime, she needed to keep Thomas safe. Just because Kyle was following her father’s wishes for now, didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill Thomas in a heartbeat if it was convenient.
How do you keep an eight-year-old penned up in one room the entire day while you’re off searching for your sibling’s weaknesses?
Short answer: you can’t.
“Wait here a moment,” Alicia said to Thomas, who was gobbling up a stew. He nodded without stopping.
She glided down the stairs and slipped into the stables, grabbing a bit of dirt on her fingers and heading back up, ignoring the lingering gaze on her hips from the men in the main room. She’d been conscious of them ever since they filled out, but at least at her home, people hadn’t stared at them.
She blushed, recalling rolling her hips at the young man in the alley. Why had she done that?
She had mustered all that courage to try her hand at being seductive, and he hadn’t even tried to help her! Weren’t men supposed to turn into slavering beasts willing to do whatever it took to earn her favor?
See if she ever tried that again.
No, you can’t stop because of one bad experience. The stares directed at her hips meant that there was some kind of draw there.
Alicia put a little roll in her step as she approached the stairs. Just before she took the first step, she glanced over her shoulder and nearly flinched at the hungry stares the men were giving her.
“I’m heading out soon, I don’t suppose one of you could show me where to buy a knife?”
“I’ll show you to Heath’s Knives, he’s got the best blades in the city!” one man said, standing.
“Fuck that noise, I’ll show you to my uncle’s place, and get you a deal!” a young man from the corner shouted, standing as well.
“Hell, I’ll buy you one myself, Lass.” An older fellow said from his seat.
“Just give me a minute,” Alicia said with a smile before turning and heading back up the stairs. At the top, she stopped, panting at the sheer intensity she’d been receiving. In the noble quarter, the attention directed toward her was hidden behind a veneer of civility, rather than animalistic hyper-focus. Her heart was hammering in her ears as she tried to calm down.
“This thing is dangerous,” She murmured, glancing behind her and sliding a hand over her hip, ignoring the shaking of her fingers as she caught her breath. That was probably just the adrenaline getting the better of her.
Looks like aunt Maggie was right. That boy not helping me in the alley was just a fluke. Probably a total coward.
Alicia took a deep breath and put her head on straight, dismissing the strange feelings with a gust of wind from her diaphragm. She had things to do today.
Alicia came back into the room, where Thomas was sliding off of his chair.
She knelt down and began smudging his face and clothes with the dirt from the stables. It smelled faintly of manure, but that was good. Made people less likely to recognize him.
“Thomas, I have a job for you today. It’s part of the game.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Make friends. I want you to go outside and make friends. Play with other kids your age. Wrestle. Get dirty. Learn to talk like they do. It’ll come in handy at some point, being able to pretend that you’re not a noble.”
“I can play!” he said, heading for the door.
“Ah, ah,” She said, grabbing him by the shirt and turning him around. “Remember, your name is Thomas Black, like the color of our hair. If you need to remember your last name, remember it’s the color of your hair. You are not a noble. You are the orphan brother of a young merchant girl named Brenna.”
“Okay,” Thomas said, angling to play outside.
“Wait.” Alicia said, exasperated. “Who are you?”
“Thomas Black, like my hair.”
“And who am I?”
“And what is your mission today?”
“Roughhouse and get into trouble.”
“Good enough.” Alicia said, kissing him on a non-smudged part of his forehead. “Have fun, stay with the other kids, meet me at the Inn around nightfall. Don’t let anyone separate you from the group. If they try, that means…”
“They’re working for the other side.” Thomas said.
“Exactly. Good job.” She stood and gave him a push. “Go have fun, and I expect you to be a complete ragamuffin when you get back to the Inn.”
“Yes sir.” Thomas said with a salute. “Ma’am.”
Once Thomas was gone, she headed down herself, allowing the first man who stood, one Misha Edwards, to show her to Heath’s Knives.
She had her own money, and she didn’t want the men with the hungry looks in their eyes to believe she owed them a great deal.
Misha tried to talk her ear off, going on and on about his business in sheep-herding, how he turned out no less than three thousand wool shirts in the last year alone. He also unsubtley tried to pry into her affairs, asking where she was from, why he hadn’t seen her around before, Etc, Etc.
By the time they reached the shop, she had had enough of it.
“Thank you for the directions, Misha, I’ll be able to handle it from here.”
Alicia saw a complex pattern of emotions play across his face, primarily disappointment with a hint of anger, ending when he nodded, his face returning to studied neutrality.
“Well, alright, let me know if you need help finding anything again.” He said with a fake smile that prickled the hairs on the back of her neck. He waved and headed back to the Inn while she stepped inside the shop.
The whole ordeal had been exciting, but also a bit unnerving.
Now she turned to something she was more comfortable with: Buying a shiv to take to the academy in case she had to fight off an attacker.
She was going to be late soon, so she flew past the hefty knives meant for a lifetime of hard work, and searched for a thin length of steel she could stab someone with one time.
“Looking for something specific, young lady?” The shopkeeper asked, watching her gaze scanning the knives over and over again.
“Yes, do you perhaps have something small with a stiletto blade a young woman could hide on her person to defend herself from attackers?”
The shopkeeper’s brown eyes widened, and he glanced around the room a moment, before walking up to the front and locking the door.
She watched him, a bit apprehensive as he wordlessly went back to the counter and motioned for her to join him behind it.
She walked around the counter and the shopkeeper bent down and opened a false panel in the lower rear of the wall, revealing a display of some dozen thin blades with narrow handles.
“Switchblades for personal defence, ma’am. Every one of them’s got an adamantium catching mechanism, so it’ll never fail to engage or snap back into its handle when you hit a rib.” He pointed a rough finger at the ones on the left.
“Simple steel on the left here, Mithril for light and durable, good for concealment, and on the right, a tempered Arcanite blade, guaranteed to take the other guy out of the fight.”
Beneath the blades were price tags, and Alicia was ashamed to admit she only had enough for the steel switchblade.
“The Arcanite blade is tempting,” She said, “but perhaps overkill. The second steel one, with the black and silver handle, will do perfectly.”
“Glad you chose the steel.” The man said, retrieving the blade she’d chosen. “If you had enough to buy the Arcanite on you, I’d have thought you were a plant.”
Minutes later Alicia arrived at the Academy, a gleaming marble palace dedicated to instructing the sons and daughters of the one hundred and four noble houses of the city.
She adjusted the blade bound to her left forearm and headed through the gates.
She couldn’t be seen as weak. Not showing up for school was a sign that they’d put her on the back foot, and there was no way she’d let that happen.
Besides, where else was she going to find opportunities to sway her sisters to her side and possibly murder Kyle in the bathroom?
Alicia put her head down and joined the stream of aristocratic students yawning as they filtered into the gigantic building.
She caught Kyle leering at her from a side hall, and ignored him. We’ll see who dies, bastard.
“I can’t believe you left the house in the middle of the night.” Her younger sister Mary said, swooping up beside her from behind, followed closely by her gaggle of fawning hens. “It’s like something out of a storybook. Albeit with less handsome young men.”
“I had Thomas with me,” Alicia said, trying to humor her vapid sister. “Does he count?”
Mary chortled, followed closely by her twittering idiots.
“Only in the strictest sense,” She said. “You know, Father is livid.”
“I sensed as much when he instructed Kyle to kill me.”
Mary stopped in her tracks, disrupting the flow of teen traffic through the halls.
“It’s true. I was outside the window when they blabbed about it.”
“That’s awful!” She squealed.
“It’s terrible, and it’s why you should support me rather than Kyle. He could kill any one of us and he wouldn’t bat an eye.”
“Kind of a reason not to support you, don’t you think?” Mary asked, struggling to catch up with Alicia’s ground-eating pace.
“Sure, if you want to spend the next fifty years of your life living in fear.”
“Look,” Alicia said, dialing down her request. “Can I at least get your word that if you have the opportunity to sell me out, that you won’t? Not until this whole thing shakes out.”
Mary considered a moment, her bodice heaving as she gave a sigh. “Alright, that I can do.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
The two of them went their separate ways, and Alicia settled in for the first class of the day, her mind awhirl with plans for how to isolate Kyle from his support. She didn’t even notice the unfamiliar student standing at the front of the class until the instructor cleared her throat and caught Alicia’s attention.
“We have here a new student.”
“Introduce yourself,” she said to the low-browed, thin-faced, bulbous-nosed coward of a commoner.
“Hello fellow teenage children.” He said with a self-deprecating smile that was actually kind of charming, in an ugly-yet-confident way.
“My name is Edward Bergstrom. You can Call me Ed if you like. I like spending my parent’s money, jockeying for social status among my peers, worrying about my body image, what I’ll be when I grow up, and talking about girls. Just like all the rest of you…normal teenage people.”
Alicia found herself smirking while the rest of the class looked on in shock as he made a mockery of the teenage condition.
“I am most certainly not an old soul in a child’s body who may or may not have done terrible things in a previous life and definitely not secretly running a criminal empire in my spare time.”
Ah, he’s a delusional idiot with eighth grade syndrome, Alicia thought, the smile disappearing like smoke.
“That being said, does anyone wanna buy some contraband?” He said, pulling a little box out of his pocket and almost opening it before the teacher swatted him on the back of the head. “Ow.”
“Go sit over there, Mr. Bergstrom.” Their instructor said, pointing at the empty seat beside Alicia as the entire class laughed at the young man’s antics.
No..no.nonononNO! Alicia screamed internally as the boy ambled over to sit beside her before blowing the teacher a kiss.
“Have we met?” he asked, glancing over at her.
“Pretty sure I’d recognize that ass anywh-“
Alicia’s fist sent Edward tumbling out of his chair, his skull impacting against the stone wall some five feet distant.
The silence in the classroom was complete.