“You’re a real special kind of asshole, Khan, you know that?”
“That means a lot coming from you.”
“If you ask me, I reckon you should stick to what you’re good at.” Vynn shook a bag of pink powder at the screen. “Keep making Madrid. Child trafficking isn’t a good look on you.”
“This isn’t child trafficking.”
“Of course, let me tell the police that.” He made a high pitched voice. “No officer, that isn’t a tied up fourteen year old in the back of the van.”
Vynn chuckled to himself. “I’m not judging you, mate. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone'’ and all that, but let’s not pretend this is something it isn’t.”
Khan stared back at him. It was hard to tell what he was thinking behind that mask. “The Black Lion will be dead by the end of all this.”
“And the Honeybadger?”
He paused. “We’ll see.”
We’ll see. He said it plainly, but there was a hint of rage shading his voice.
Vynn brushed his hair back with a comb. “You seem sure it’ll be them.”
“I could be wrong, but it’s my best guess.”
“You’re putting a lot of money on a guess. I’m sure your advisors aren’t happy with you pulling a Quill.”
“I don’t know how Zek does it in Brontes, but in Veragreen, we don’t abandon our own. Not that you would understand.”
Vynn laughed at the insult. It was clear his reputation preceded him. “No no, I get it. I’m not going to complain about getting paid. My concern is Poseidon. I didn’t think you’d go so far as to hire him too. You trying to go bankrupt or something?"
Khan lifted his mask, just enough to breathe in his cigarette. Smoke escaped his scarred lips. “He’s worth every cent.”
The Warlord stood, tapping out ash offscreen. “That’s all. Go check in on the girl.”
“Veragreen’s more than just Pierce now.” Vynn brushed back a final strand of hair. “A lot of people are relying on you. Remember that.”
The monitor turned black.
Guess it’s none of my business. He left the office in the back and returned to the main warehouse. Lys sat by the van, still eating her cake.
Wait, no it’s her second cake. There were bits of cream on her nose, her cheek, and her dinosaur beanie. How she managed to get it up there, he had no idea.
Vynn pulled out a ring of keys. “Car keys, closet keys, bedroom keys, fridge keys...back-up fridge keys...Ah! My other car keys.”
He twisted it in, and the van door clicked. He banged three times. “I’m coming in, okay?”
Vynn counted to ten in his mind. At ten, he lifted the door.
Priscilla Marinton sat wrapped in blankets and pillows. It was well lit, a jug of water was right within reach, and she had a stack of books to keep her entertained. She wasn’t tied up either. For being a hostage, it was one of the more comfortable stays he’d seen.
“You doing alright, princess?” Vynn asked.
“Eat shit and die, you son of a bitch.” She threw a pillow at him. He let it land, hoping it’d make her feel better. “Asshole! Shithead!”
“I was just asking if you were comfy,” Vynn sighed. “Work with me here.”
“Screw you and your fairy-ass accent!” She threw another pillow. This time it hurt. “This isn’t my first kidnapping. You better watch yourself, else I beat you and your slut Queen.”
“You were kidnapped before this?”
“By the triad. Locked me up in a damn shipping container.” She tilted her neck. A pink scar stretched all the way down. “They gave me this."
“Oh, that is sick!” Vynn stepped in for a look. Priscilla tensed up when he got close, but as he stared, she angled the scar under the light. The details lit up: the mushy pink of the wound, the mangled skin around it.
“That is awesome,” said Vynn.
“Isn’t it?” Priscilla ran a finger down it. It flexed strangely when she touched it. “Father said it was unsightly.”
“Your old man’s a bloody idiot. That looks cool as hell.”
She kept her finger on the scar. Her eyes darted to his belt, from one rapier to the other, then to Lys just outside. “Have you heard from him?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m just the delivery man. I’m sure your dad’s been negotiating though.”
“He won’t pay.” She tugged her knees to her chest. “I’m no good as a hostage.”
You’re not a hostage, you’re bait. Vynn played around with the thought of saying that. Ultimately, he gave a boring reply. “Of course he’ll pay. You’re his daughter. That means something.”
“Not to him.” Priscilla sneered. There was a note of desperation in her laugh. “The last time I was kidnapped, my father told me he should have never paid the ransom. He said he should’ve let me die. He called me an ungrateful bitch.”
“That’s a shame, innit? Guess that means I can’t pay my rent this week.”
Vynn watched her face for a hint of amusement but she was completely still. Sighing, he kicked away some of the pillows, making himself some space next to the girl. He shifted his cap. “My dad was a very religious man. Very religious. A lot more than just praying before dinner and Church on Sundays. He thought he was some sort of ‘new-age prophet.’ You can imagine he thought it was a sign or something when my mum got pregnant with twins.”
Vynn stuck a cigarette between his lips. He immediately took it out when he remembered Priscilla was beside him. “My dad thought it was some divine message that he was having twins. Some sign that he was in God’s favour.”
She watched him intently as he talked.
“But life has its sense of humour,” he continued. “My brother’s lungs collapsed as soon as he took his first breath. Dead, before his first minute on Earth. My mum died from blood loss pretty soon after. But me? Seven pounds eight. Healthiest baby the midwife’s ever seen. I was the only one who left the delivery room; blood on my hands before I ever opened my eyes.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” said Priscilla softly.
“Doesn’t change anything. Not in dad’s eyes. He called me Devil’s Spawn. Said I was Satan pretending to be his son. At first, he had his friends, priests and exorcists, come to ‘show me the way of God.’ When that didn’t work, he just beat me. Forced me to pray for hours on end.”
There was a long silence. He was waiting for Priscilla to break it.
“What happened next?” she asked.
Vynn stood, grinning. “I earned my nickname.”
Vynn pulled a razor blade out from his sleeve. It glistened a sickly orange under the light as he laid it on her palm. He closed her hand, his fingers wrapped tightly over hers. Two orphans, united in their sin. “Maybe you should earn yours.”
Lev reached to pull down Priscilla’s blindfold. He stopped himself halfway. What was the point? What would he say to her?
His hands fell to his sides. She would be gone soon. If she had to die, spending her last moments in darkness was better than spending them waiting for an inevitability.
It’s better this way, Lev told himself. He turned away, complacent with his decision when a sharp pain shot through him. A burning pain; one so hot, the blood that sprayed out felt cold by comparison.
He felt the pain strike again, this time in the opposite direction. Metal, pulled out of flesh. Lev spun around. Hazel eyes glared back, dull and wet. Priscilla shook, hands clasped tight around a bloodied knife– the knife he dropped.
Her hands were not tied. Her blindfold and gag were on the ground. She had sat there, all through the chaos of the chase, waiting for this moment.
Lev slipped back, the roof too low to stand fully. Priscilla readied her weapon again and swung with all her strength. But she had never killed before; she knew neither the skill nor the conviction. Her blade only grazed him.
He hooked her outreached wrist and yanked. In one motion, he smacked her against the floor of the van, pinning her down. The knife flew from her grasp.
“Get off me!” Priscilla struggled. She threw her fists at him; less punching and more flailing. “You piece of crap!”
Lev caught a punch and forced her arm still. “Calm down, I’m here to save you,” he lied.
“Bullshit!” Priscilla spat on his mask. She tipped her chin and screamed, her voice hoarse. Lev moved on top of her, pressing a knee over her other arm and gagging her with his palm. Her squirming grew less violent as he slowly let his full weight onto her.
Then he took off his mask.
Her eyes went wide. He waited for her struggles to stop before letting her speak.
“Zaytsev?” She gasped for air. “Lev Zaytsev?”
Lev lifted himself, one limb at a time. He checked if she would run and when she didn’t, let her free. She only stared at him, bewildered, as he put the mask back on.
The girl with the dinosaur hat was still unconscious. Lev carried her onto the road and removed the gun from her holster. He pointed it at Priscilla. “Get in the front seat.”
She was motionless. Lev aimed to the sky, firing once. The sound jolted her awake and she began inching her way over.
His muzzle followed her until she was seated. Only then did he get in the driver’s seat himself. Thankfully, the keys were still there. The van gave a low hum when he turned them. He kept one hand on the wheel and the other on his gun, still tracking Priscilla with his gaze.
He drove like that, reversing the van and going back the way they came. The road stretched only as far as the headlights would allow. The streets were quiet now, the few people that were about having long left. Around this part of the city, most knew to mind their own business and stay away from trouble. It was second nature to them. Gunshots and corpses became as mundane as grocery trips and ice cream trucks.
Lev waited for Priscilla to speak first.
“This is all a dream.” The breath rasped in her throat.
“You have no idea how much I want that to be the case.”
“This is all a dream,” Priscilla repeated. “I was watching your concert. That’s why you’re here.”
Lev kept his gaze on the road but he could hear her shiver in her seat. “What was I playing?”
“How the hell would I know? Something depressing for the hundredth damn time.” She forced herself to laugh. It came out choking. “Why can’t you play something happy for once?”
He remembered the blue butterfly. “I’ve forgotten how.”
“Prodigies don’t just forget music.”
Lev had no reply for that. The road was starting to look familiar. They were close.
“My father made me learn the cello,” said Priscilla. “Because of you. Be like the Zaytsev son, he said. Look at him. He is everything.”
“What grade were you?” It was a stupid question. He had nothing better to say.
It took her a second to remember. “Six.”
“Disappointing. I had a diploma when I was your age.”
“I just don’t like anything about the cello. It’s dumb. It’s just noise.”
“You’re not meant to like the cello. It’s all muscle memory. You play one note, and then the next, and you keep going until you finish.”
“So you don’t like it,” said Priscilla.
“Then why play it?”
“To be the best,” said Lev. The words were not his.
Priscilla sneered. “Maybe you’re not a genius. That’s why you’re working with gangsters.”
Lev thought of her father. His terrible smile, the way he talked down to Quill. Was that how I looked? He felt a pang of guilt. “There’s a lot worse out there than gangsters.”
“You sound like one of them. All you’re missing is a mohawk and some tattoos.” He heard her swallow and her hand moved to her face, as if to wipe away tears. “You’re sure this is a dream, right?”
The van came to a stop. A figure stood in the headlights, her blue hair black against the light and her skin pale. She was hunched over, breathless and battered. Her shadow cast wide across the pavement– a mangled shape.
No words were necessary. She was Death, they both knew, infinite and absolute.
“All a dream,” Priscilla whispered. She pressed back in her seat, desperately hoping she could sink into it.
She looked to him.
“I’ll give you money.”
“Your father disowned you.”
Priscilla clenched the seatbelt until her knuckles were white. “I’ll work. I’ll pay it off. Please.”
Astri was approaching them. Priscilla gripped a razor blade in her tiny hands, arms outstretched. She shook as she held it. Against Astri, it was like a lighter to a flamethrower.
“If you attack her, she shoots,” said Lev. “If you run, she shoots.”
“Then what do I do?”
He breathed in. The words came to him naturally, as if he had always known them. “Wait here.”
Lev got out of the van. Astri gave a tired smile and waved at him, her arm dry with splatters of blood. “You got her. Good job, kid.”
“What happened to the man?”
“Vynn’s not a problem anymore.” Astri gripped the van door and threw it open. Priscilla was sobbing openly. “I don’t know if you believe me, but I really am sorry about all this.”
“Astri,” he said. “We need to talk.”
“We can talk later.” She drew her pistol. “You should look away.”
Lev pressed his gun into her back. He thought she would flinch but Astri was still, almost as if he wasn’t there. “Give me your phone.”
Priscilla’s eyes flashed to him.
“Are we really doing this?” asked Astri, pulling her pistol back.
She passed it to him. It was a flip phone, almost completely covered in stickers. The parts that weren’t had pastel pink underneath. “Have you thought this through?”
“Plenty,” said Lev, thumbing through the contacts. “Which one’s Quill?”
“Just call him.”
Lev gripped the phone tight to keep his fingers from shaking. He waited for his heartbeat to stop ringing in his ear, then pressed call. Seconds later, a voice greeted him.
“Hey, what’s up.”
“It’s me,” said Lev.
“Hey hey. How’s it hanging?”
No turning back now. “I’m not letting her die. Not by my hand, not by Astri’s, not by anyone’s. No one needs to have blood on their hands.”
“I see.” He didn’t sound surprised. “Did something happen?”
“I had a change of mind. That’s all.”
“Is Astri okay?”
“She’s fine. I just borrowed her phone.”
“I’m guessing you have her at gunpoint.”
“Is that another gut feeling?”
“No,” said the king. “You called me on the ‘Big Q’ line. That’s only for when Astri is compromised.”
Lev glared at Astri. She still had her back to him.
“Being lucky is good. Being prepared is better,” said Quill. “Now, what are you going to do about Pierce? A deal’s a deal and I’ve got a reputation for keeping my word.”
“You do. That’s why I want the coin flip.”
Astri jerked her head back. “Don’t.”
“Been a long time since anybody asked for the coin,” said Quill. “Honestly, I almost offer it for the theatrics now.”
“Spin it, Quill. Heads, I work for you and the girl dies. Tails, the deal continues but she lives.”
There was laughing on the other end. A dry laugh. The snicker of a fox. Lev could imagine it across his face, the silver tumbling along his knuckles. There was a clink of metal against wood. “Alright. Let’s do this.”
Metal crossed the air with a hollow noise. It dropped back on wood, spinning. Lev waited for the sound to cease. Both Priscilla and Astri were staring at him, quiet.
The coin slowed, then stopped. Quill shifted in his chair.
Lev held his breath. Quill’s laugh came again, slicing through the silence. “It’s your win, Black Lion. The girl lives.”
Lev met Priscilla’s eyes. He nodded and she clutched her chest, breathing in. A weight was lifted off their shoulders.
“For god’s sake, Quill,” Astri sighed.
“A man doesn’t throw the dice and then quibble with the roll,” said Quill. “Tell Astri that.”
Lev lowered the phone. “Quill said a man doesn’t throw the dice– “
“–and then quibble with roll, yeah I know. I know.” Astri shook her head, gesturing for the phone back. He gave it to her. “It doesn’t matter. We have bigger things to worry about now.”
Astri pointed to the middle seat with her gun. “Move along, princess.”
Priscilla did as she was told, satisfied to take servitude over death. Astri moved to the driver’s seat. “C’mon kid, we have to go.”
“Back to Quill?” Lev asked, getting in the van. Priscilla sat between them.
“No, Veragreen’s blocked all the roads.”
“They knew we were coming.” Astri started the vehicle. “The chase was just to lure us in.”
From down the road, where no streetlamp stood, they could hear engines revving up. Dozens upon dozens of them, a rushing roar. A thousand headlights stared back.
Astri changed gears. She tied her hair back in a hasty bun. “Strap in.”