Lev struck the bound man across the jaw. “Where’s Nabi?”
Pierce toppled back against the bars of his wooden cage. Lev pulled him back, only to pummel him again, this time in the stomach.
“Where’s Nabi?!” he repeated.
Pierce groaned, dry heaving as he clutched himself. He gripped the bars for support. Lev watched his face for fear or anguish, even rage. Nothing. Pierce only lowered himself onto his bench.
He had not spoken a word since he got in.
Defeated, Lev stepped out and slammed the cage shut behind him. He collapsed onto his chair, also wooden. “Your loyalty is wasted on someone like Khan.”
Pierce’s gaze lifted to touch his. “I disagree.” After so long, all it took was the mention of the Warlord to loosen his lips.
“Your boss profits off addiction.”
The prisoner breathed in through his nose, then exhaled slowly. “You know which Crown handled drugs before Veragreen?”
Lev stared at him, waiting for an answer. He would allow Pierce to ramble, but not incite him with a response.
“Their name doesn’t matter,” said Pierce. “But they let the poison spread all over the city. Places it shouldn’t go: hospitals, rehabs– “
He lifted his sleeve, revealing a red vein that ran up his arm, accompanied by tiny scars. “Schoolyards.”
“So now you repay him by making others suffer the same way,” said Lev.
Pierce shook his head. “Khan is controlling it. You can’t stop the drug trade, but you can keep it contained. Keep it away from places it shouldn’t be. Hands it shouldn’t touch.”
“You can’t justify fixing evil with more evil.”
“Then what would you say Nabi did? He killed dozens for every one that deserved it.”
Lev rose so fast, his chair was knocked back. The bars creaked and bent, threatening to snap as he clutched them. “Liar!”
Pierce did not move. “You can ask Astri if you want. She’ll tell you what I’m saying is true.”
Lev stood there for a long time, hands glued to the cage. He was silent and turned in his thoughts. He never remembered Sehyun as a peaceful man, no. The scars and faded bruises upon Lev’s body were a constant reminder of that, yet they weren’t inflicted out of violence but discipline.
Better to be hurt now with planks and plastic, Sehyun once told him, striking him in the shoulder with a bo staff. Than later with steel and lead.
When they trained together, Sehyun’s hands were calloused and hit like a bullet against flesh. Afterwards, when they pressed on him with ice to ease his pain, they were warm and gentle, afraid to touch him as if he was glass. Those hands could never kill.
Lev released the bars, sighing. He picked up his chair and returned to it.
“I must’ve been sixteen.” Pierce leaned his head back against the cell. There was nothing to see except a wooden ceiling. “Or even fifteen. That was the first time. By the year after, I’ve done everything under the sun. Heroin, speed, a little coke. Honestly, I would’ve died on the streets if Khan didn’t come along.”
“He paid to keep me in the best rehab, far away from Minerva,” he continued. “Even offered to put me back in school. Or give me a decent job. All that, and he wanted nothing in return. Of course, I wasn’t even eighteen yet, so instead, I tied my bedsheets into a rope and ran away.”
Lev drew one knee to his chest and wrapped his arms around it as he listened.
“When he found me again, I was sleeping behind a dumpster somewhere. He didn’t yell or beat me. No, he dragged my ass to some shack in the middle of nowhere and handcuffed me to a bed. He told me I’d be staying there until I finished detoxing.”
“That was a different sort of hell,” Pierce chuckled to himself. “I was vomiting everything, screaming my head off, scratching myself so hard I bled. Through it all, Khan was there with me. Every step of the way.”
Pierce paused. He rubbed at the base of his thumb idly as he tried to find the words to continue. While Lev waited, he realised his curiosity was growing. What happened next, he found himself wanting to ask. His hatred returned though and he said nothing.
“He asked me again if I wanted to go back to school or get a job,” said Pierce. He grinned. “I told him ‘screw that.’ I wanted to be like him.”
Finally, their eyes met again.
“Khan fought Nabi alone,” Pierce admitted. “And he disposed of the body alone. Nobody knows what happened to it, or where it is. Not even the lieutenants.”
“–But we have seen the corpse.” Pierce squashed Lev’s hope as quickly as he had birthed it. “From afar, albeit, but we saw it. I’m sorry, but Nabi is dead.”
Lev stood and turned away. “This conversation is over.”
“You’re only making this harder on yourself.”
He was already walking up the staircase.
Pierce got as close as his cage would allow. “Denial gets you nowhere. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to accept it.”
He put his hand on the doorknob and turned.
“Wait!” There was a newfound panic in Pierce’s voice. Lev froze. “If you see Khan, can you tell him something for me?”
He stood still, the door ajar. Pierce took it as permission to finish.
“Tell him I am dead.”
Lev threw the door closed behind him.
Outside, Astri was waiting, arms crossed. They were alone amongst the remnants of what used to be a barbershop. The mirrors were all shattered, their cracks stained black with soot. The chairs were eaten by rust and the floorboards all but gone. The only splash of colour was the green graffiti across the wall, illegible; probably something rude.
“How’d it go?” Her lips curved up when she saw him.
“He was useless. If I want to know where Sehyun is, I’ll have to get to Khan.”
“That’ll be hard without a plan.”
“He has something I want.” Lev pointed to the locked basement leading to Pierce. “And I have something he wants.”
“A hostage exchange,” Lev corrected.
“Right.” Astri gestured that they were leaving. The barbershop only had a jagged gap where a door used to be. When they passed through, the moon had been chipped down to a sliver between the clouds.
“By the way,” she started as they walked down the empty road. “Do you know you’re famous now?”
“Veragreen put a bounty on you. Half a million dead, one million alive.”
“Is that high?”
“Pretty damn high,” she said. Lev couldn’t help but feel a hint of satisfaction at that. “It’s pretty rare for any of the Crowns to put bounties on anyone. Last time they did it was for Nabi.”
“For how much?” he asked.
“All Seven Crowns had to pool their money together.” Astri led him to her motorcycle, parked under a streetlight. She kicked in its stand. “Fifty million, dead or alive.”
Fifty million. He flushed red under his mask. To think he was so proud of one million.
There was a dread in realising just how deeply people wanted Nabi dead, but Lev also felt a strange pride glow in him. Sehyun did this. Sehyun forged a legacy for himself, with nothing but his will and his wits.
Astri’s face lit up. “Oh! Actually, there was another person who used to have a fifty million bounty.”
“Yep. The Crowns withdrew it a long time ago. I was still a recruit when they put it up.”
Lev looked at her. “Who was it?”
Astri pulled her goggles down, their lens flashing solid white under the lamplight. She smiled. “We’re going to meet him.”
“People tell me I am a hardworking man. I don’t wish to sound conceited, but I am. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was born with a spade in my hand and I grew up shovelling shit. After I was done shovelling shit, I was selling vegetables and then after that, I was laying bricks. Then, I was back to shovelling shit. I didn’t smoke nor drink. I saved every damn penny and I climbed my way here, one inch at a time, with my bagful of Lincolns and these bare hands.”
Mr Marinton coughed into a handkerchief before speaking again. “Fifteen years ago, I met a woman. We were happy together, and fifteen years ago, I proposed to her. The next year, she became pregnant and the year after, she gave birth to my child. We named her Priscilla, after my grandmother.”
Quill rolled a coin along his knuckles as he nodded along.
“I am a god-fearing man.” Mr Marinton removed his glasses. He was clean-shaven, although the sides of his head were well into greying. “And yet the heavens have seen fit to punish me. They’re asking for fifteen million, but they told me her corpse would be for free.”
“I’ve heard.” The coin disappeared into Quill’s palm. “How long ago was this?”
“They took her Friday afternoon.”
“Two days after the auction. I can send someone to get her back. I can give you justice.”
“No.” What little shine Mr Marinton’s eyes once carried had vanished like a candle flame being snuffed. “I want you to kill her.”
At the other side of the bar, Lev almost choked on his coffee. Quill’s expression remained unchanged, save for raising an eyebrow.
Mr Marinton coughed again. “Scotch.”
Quill looked back to Astri. Wordless, she went behind the counter and poured the drink, dropping in two ice cubes before bringing it to the table.
“Thank you,” Quill mouthed. He turned back to his guest. “Mr Marinton, I must have misheard.”
“For generations, my family have had brown eyes. Hazel, like an autumn field in the sunset. We used to say: Marinton eyes are dark, but they gleam the brightest.” He paused to sip from his glass. “But Priscilla...those weren’t Marinton eyes. Her eyes were dirty. Soulless, like the eyes of fish. Eyes like yours, my good king.”
Lev wasn’t sure if Quill heard that slight. If he did, he disguised it very well. “So you think your wife has…?”
The coin reappeared between Quill’s fingers. “Did you tell anyone else?”
“I am a man with a reputation. Can you imagine what others would say if they find that Priscilla is not of my blood? How would I be expected to show my face again? For fourteen years, I’ve put on a fake smile and pretended that thing was my daughter. To let it crawl around, carrying my name. The name I raised from the mud with my blood and sweat!”
He downed his glass and shook it at Astri. “Well, she can keep it. She can pretend she’s one of us all she wants. That thing can have my name, but I swear by God, she will not have my fortune. No, she will not get a single cent more from me.”
Quill leaned forward and pocketed his coin. He put his hands together. “And you want my people to kill her. A child.”
“A stranger,” he corrected. “It will be an act of mercy. A fitting one at that: the roaches will eat their own.”
The cup cracked in Lev’s hands, shards jutting out to leave a small gash on his thumb. A string of red, flowing to the centre of his palm.
“Hey,” Astri whispered. She offered a napkin. “You alright? You don’t have to stay.”
“I’m fine.” Lev dabbed the napkin on his thumb. He returned to the conversation, watching a smirk spread over Mr Marinton’s face.
“I want it to look like an accident,” he said, putting on his suit jacket. “Make it look like a turf war or something. And make it quick; she deserves that much.”
Both men stood up, but neither reached for a handshake. It was something unspoken. A taboo. Quill might have been king, but to Mr Marinton, the King of the Crowns held little more respect than the king of rats.
“Does he come often?” asked Lev, as soon as the businessman left.
“Only when he needs someone else to dirty their hands.” Astri took his glass to the sink. “You recognise him? That’s Robert Marinton. CEO of– “
“–Marinton industries,” he finished. The biggest tech company in the state. Ironically, also the biggest euphemism. “I know him.”
“I thought he’d never leave.” Quill walked up to the counter, massaging his neck. “Can I grab a beer, Astri?”
He turned to Lev. “So, you’re the Black Lion that has Veragreen in a frenzy.”
And you are King of the Crowns. Leader of Vulpes, the strongest gang. Quill didn’t quite live up to his epithet. Old clothes, cheap earrings, and dirty blonde hair. In place of a crown, he wore a grey beanie. The only regal part of him was the way he spoke and carried himself: confidence so palpable it seeped into everyone he talked to. However, that was as much the trait of a king as it was a fox’s.
Quill’s mouth twisted wryly. There was a faint scar that extended from one side of his lips, arched so that it always seemed like he was smiling. “Beating Pierce isn’t easy. I have to say I’m pretty impressed.”
“What do you want?”
“Right to the point. I like that,” said Quill, picking up the beer Astri gave him. “Well, basically here’s the gist: I need you to pay rent.”
Lev blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“The wooden cage you put Pierce in and the barber’s shop it’s under. They’re mine and they cost rent.”
“I...right. Of course. Give me the details and I will wire you the money.”
“Sorry, we don’t accept cash. Or credit. Or really money at all.” He sipped his drink. “We do accept favours though.”
“Favours.” The word was sharp. “You want me to kill Priscilla Marinton.”
“No, that part is Astri’s job. We just want you there for support, in case anything goes wrong.”
“You want me to be an accessory to murder. The murder of a little girl.”
“She’s fourteen,” said Astri, taking out another beer for herself. “I wouldn’t call that little. When I was fourteen, I was sleeping on park benches and fighting racoons for scraps.”
“You were what?”
Quill cut in, “I’m just trying to make a deal with you. An alliance of sorts. I don’t think it’s too much to ask. I’ll have men guarding Pierce on the regular. I’ll arrange your meeting with Khan. I’ll even offer a degree of protection.”
Lev let himself consider it for a second. He needed Pierce if he was to get anything out of Khan. “What if I refuse?”
“Oh, you won’t.”
“Arrogant,” he said coldly.
“It’s just a gut feeling. I’m usually lucky about these sorts of guesses,” said Quill. “Men like Marinton– if they want someone dead, they’re dead. Even if I had declined, there are five other Crowns he could have gone to. Four of them would’ve said yes.”
“Why five? There are seven Crowns.” Six, not counting Vulpes.
Quill’s face glimmered. “Veragreen’s the kidnappers.”
The name cut him like a knife. That familiar anger returned. Quill knew exactly what he was doing: he had already laid the bait and now, he was just pulling in the line.
“They’ve been getting bolder,” the king carried on. “Pushing out of their territory, breaking convention. This is just the latest thing.”
Quill’s hand snapped. One moment, his fingers were empty. Next, there was a coin between two of them. “Or if you’re still on the fence, how about we make this into something a little more interesting?”
He chucked it at Lev, who caught it in his palm.
“Heads, I become your bitch. You can keep Pierce for as long as you want. You can use my kingdom, my soldiers, however you please. Your goals become my goals.”
Lev ran his finger over the rim of the coin.
“Tails, you become my bitch. You join Vulpes and you abandon Nabi. You fight for me and you’ll do as I say. ”
Lev watched him with narrowed eyes; was he joking? No, he said it solemnly. The silver of the coin was old and worn. A veteran of a thousand flips and a thousand wagers won.
“You don’t have to keep going.” Lev threw the coin back to Quill. “The deal’s fine.”
This is for Sehyun, he reminded himself. Whatever it takes. It was his mantra. His oath.
“I’ll do it.”