Chapter 4:

The roaches will eat their own.

UnCrowned


Lev struck the bound man across the jaw. “Where’s Nabi?”Bookmark here

Pierce toppled back against the bars of his wooden cage. Lev pulled him back, only to pummel him again, this time in the stomach.Bookmark here

“Where’s Nabi?!” he repeated.Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

He had not spoken a word since he got in.Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

“Your boss profits off addiction.”Bookmark here

The prisoner breathed in through his nose, then exhaled slowly. “You know which Crown handled drugs before Veragreen?”Bookmark here

Lev stared at him, waiting for an answer. He would allow Pierce to ramble, but not incite him with a response. Bookmark here

“Their name doesn’t matter,” said Pierce. “But they let the poison spread all over the city. Places it shouldn’t go: hospitals, rehabs– “Bookmark here

He lifted his sleeve, revealing a red vein that ran up his arm, accompanied by tiny scars. “Schoolyards.”Bookmark here

“So now you repay him by making others suffer the same way,” said Lev.Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

“You can’t justify fixing evil with more evil.”Bookmark here

“Then what would you say Nabi did? He killed dozens for every one that deserved it.”Bookmark here

Lev rose so fast, his chair was knocked back. The bars creaked and bent, threatening to snap as he clutched them. “Liar!”Bookmark here

Pierce did not move. “You can ask Astri if you want. She’ll tell you what I’m saying is true.”Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

Lev released the bars, sighing. He picked up his chair and returned to it.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Lev drew one knee to his chest and wrapped his arms around it as he listened.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Finally, their eyes met again.Bookmark here

“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.” Bookmark here

“Then– “Bookmark here

“–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.”Bookmark here

Lev stood and turned away. “This conversation is over.” Bookmark here

“You’re only making this harder on yourself.” Bookmark here

He was already walking up the staircase.Bookmark here

Pierce got as close as his cage would allow. “Denial gets you nowhere. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to accept it.”Bookmark here

He put his hand on the doorknob and turned.Bookmark here

“Wait!” There was a newfound panic in Pierce’s voice. Lev froze. “If you see Khan, can you tell him something for me?”Bookmark here

He stood still, the door ajar. Pierce took it as permission to finish.Bookmark here

“Tell him I am dead.”Bookmark here

Lev threw the door closed behind him. Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

“How’d it go?” Her lips curved up when she saw him. Bookmark here

“He was useless. If I want to know where Sehyun is, I’ll have to get to Khan.”Bookmark here

“That’ll be hard without a plan.”Bookmark here

“He has something I want.” Lev pointed to the locked basement leading to Pierce. “And I have something he wants.”Bookmark here

“A ransom.”Bookmark here

“A hostage exchange,” Lev corrected. Bookmark here

“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. Bookmark here

“By the way,” she started as they walked down the empty road. “Do you know you’re famous now?”Bookmark here

“Famous how?”Bookmark here

“Veragreen put a bounty on you. Half a million dead, one million alive.”Bookmark here

“Is that high?”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“For how much?” he asked.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Fifty million. He flushed red under his mask. To think he was so proud of one million. Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

Astri’s face lit up. “Oh! Actually, there was another person who used to have a fifty million bounty.”Bookmark here

“Seriously?”Bookmark here

“Yep. The Crowns withdrew it a long time ago. I was still a recruit when they put it up.”Bookmark here

Lev looked at her. “Who was it?”Bookmark here

Astri pulled her goggles down, their lens flashing solid white under the lamplight. She smiled. “We’re going to meet him.”Bookmark here

                                                                                ❖
Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

Quill rolled a coin along his knuckles as he nodded along.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“I’ve heard.” The coin disappeared into Quill’s palm. “How long ago was this?”Bookmark here

“They took her Friday afternoon.”Bookmark here

“Two days after the auction. I can send someone to get her back. I can give you justice.”Bookmark here

“No.” What little shine Mr Marinton’s eyes once carried had vanished like a candle flame being snuffed. “I want you to kill her.”Bookmark here

At the other side of the bar, Lev almost choked on his coffee. Quill’s expression remained unchanged, save for raising an eyebrow. Bookmark here

Mr Marinton coughed again. “Scotch.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Thank you,” Quill mouthed. He turned back to his guest. “Mr Marinton, I must have misheard.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Lev wasn’t sure if Quill heard that slight. If he did, he disguised it very well. “So you think your wife has…?”Bookmark here

“Without question.”Bookmark here

The coin reappeared between Quill’s fingers. “Did you tell anyone else?”Bookmark here

“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!”Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

Quill leaned forward and pocketed his coin. He put his hands together. “And you want my people to kill her. A child.”Bookmark here

“A stranger,” he corrected. “It will be an act of mercy. A fitting one at that: the roaches will eat their own.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Hey,” Astri whispered. She offered a napkin. “You alright? You don’t have to stay.”Bookmark here

“I’m fine.” Lev dabbed the napkin on his thumb. He returned to the conversation, watching a smirk spread over Mr Marinton’s face.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Does he come often?” asked Lev, as soon as the businessman left.Bookmark here

“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– “Bookmark here

“–Marinton industries,” he finished. The biggest tech company in the state. Ironically, also the biggest euphemism. “I know him.”Bookmark here

“I thought he’d never leave.” Quill walked up to the counter, massaging his neck. “Can I grab a beer, Astri?”Bookmark here

He turned to Lev. “So, you’re the Black Lion that has Veragreen in a frenzy.”Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

“What do you want?”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Lev blinked. “I’m sorry?”Bookmark here

“The wooden cage you put Pierce in and the barber’s shop it’s under. They’re mine and they cost rent.”Bookmark here

“I...right. Of course. Give me the details and I will wire you the money.”Bookmark here

“Sorry, we don’t accept cash. Or credit. Or really money at all.” He sipped his drink. “We do accept favours though.”Bookmark here

“Favours.” The word was sharp. “You want me to kill Priscilla Marinton.”Bookmark here

“No, that part is Astri’s job. We just want you there for support, in case anything goes wrong.”Bookmark here

“You want me to be an accessory to murder. The murder of a little girl.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“You were what?”Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

Lev let himself consider it for a second. He needed Pierce if he was to get anything out of Khan. “What if I refuse?”Bookmark here

“Oh, you won’t.”Bookmark here

“Arrogant,” he said coldly.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“Why five? There are seven Crowns.” Six, not counting Vulpes.Bookmark here

Quill’s face glimmered. “Veragreen’s the kidnappers.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“They’ve been getting bolder,” the king carried on. “Pushing out of their territory, breaking convention. This is just the latest thing.”Bookmark here

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?”Bookmark here

He chucked it at Lev, who caught it in his palm.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

Lev ran his finger over the rim of the coin.Bookmark here

“Tails, you become my bitch. You join Vulpes and you abandon Nabi. You fight for me and you’ll do as I say. ”Bookmark here

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. Bookmark here

“You don’t have to keep going.” Lev threw the coin back to Quill. “The deal’s fine.” Bookmark here

This is for Sehyun, he reminded himself. Whatever it takes. It was his mantra. His oath. Bookmark here

“I’ll do it.”Bookmark here

Bookmarked
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