“War is stupid,” Dean liked to say, his head buried in his book. It was more of an attempt to look smart than anything else. “Bloodshed between nations, between people. It’s disgusting.”
“Don’t you need it sometimes?” Sehyun asked. Lev never knew if he was actually stating his opinion or if he just liked playing devil’s advocate.
It was the first day of Spring and they were fifteen. That was how most days were back then: skipping class to laze around somewhere, chatting about everything yet also nothing. Most of the time it was just the two of them but sometimes Dean came along. Lev still aced every test and so long as he kept it up, none of his teachers complained. The same couldn’t be said for Sehyun.
“It’s never necessary,” said Dean. “Not for one life, not for a thousand. No one is worth more than another, regardless of whose side they’re on.”
“What, so a stranger’s life is worth just as much as my friends’ or family’s?”
“But they’re only strangers to you. They have their own friends and family, right? What makes it any different?”
“Because my friends are mine.”
Lev put down his sheet music to watch. He loved that look on Sehyun’s face, that strange passion when he was deep in thought, brow furrowed and hand to his chin. He was unabashed in his opinion, right or wrong. His lips were faster than his mind and always loose with honesty.
“There isn’t a right answer.” Dean’s eyes peeked out from behind his book. “Whatever you choose, you’re wrong. To take from another is tantamount to evil. That’s the nature of life.”
“I don’t care about strangers,” said Sehyun casually. “At the end of the day, my friends are my friends and strangers are still strangers. If my friends die, I’m sad. If a stranger died, I would feel nothing.”
It was a child’s answer.
Dean’s face was red. “You’re being naive. Everyone has their own lives, same as yours. Every single person: their own hopes, their own dreams, and the same for the people who cared about them. Just because you don’t feel bad, doesn’t mean nobody else will.”
“If someone takes from me, they will pay. It’s as easy as that.”
“Do you even know how many more people you’d hurt by doing that?”
Sehyun shrugged. “Not my problem.”
Lev paced down the hallway as the doctor tried her best to keep up.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed. “But I think it’s best if you don’t see her right now.”
He continued, not even batting an eye.
“Please, you really shouldn't!”
There. Room Eighteen. He thrust the door open and eyes around the room darted to him. It was dim, save for the window that guided light to the foot of the bed. Wires and tubes ran down her arms, linking her to the machines nearby. She laid there silently, the sheets pressed around her form as if casting her body in marble, frozen in time.
“I’m sorry, Quill,” said the doctor behind him. She peered over his shoulder to look at the King. “I’ll take him away right now.”
Quill shook his head. “Leave him.”
The doctor paused, then slipped away. Lev moved forward, the eyes still locked on him.
Quill leaned forward on the chair, his usual half-grin nowhere to be seen, his hands clenched tight as he spoke. “It’s my fault.”
“Yes! Yes, it is!” His voice cut harder than he meant it to. “Did you know it was a trap?!”
“Of course not.”
“Why didn’t you know?! How could you not see it coming?!
Quill’s face had gone pale. The others tensed, blades slipping against their sheaths, barely audible. The air grew strained. Lev should have stopped then, he knew that, but he just couldn’t: the words came tumbling from his lips like an open dam.
“You sit on your ass, combing through your money and flipping your coins! You talk like you know it all! Gut feeling this, lucky that, it’s all bullshit! Where was all that luck when it mattered, huh? Why didn’t help arrive sooner? You think because you’re the King, you can just send your soldiers to their deaths!”
Lev stepped towards him, one hand outstretched. “None of this would have happened if you– “
He halted. There was a knife by his throat and an axehead at his chest. The edge of a sword brushed against his back; another rested on his reaching arm, just hard enough to break the skin. Everyone stood, save for the King, their Cerafex trained on his body, ready to carve into him.
Lev held his breath, the knifepoint kissing his Adam's apple.
Quill waved his hand and the weapons were withdrawn. Everyone returned to their spots as if nothing happened.
Lev let out the breath he was holding and gripped his mask. It now itched against his skin, its texture turning to sandpaper. His nails dug into the material.
Damn it. His mind twisted from thought and thought. He could imagine the trident going through Astri’s chest, her mouth gaping, blood pouring out. The grotesque look on her face, the shock in her eyes. It was an empty feeling.
Quill got up from his chair, carrying his best attempt at a smile. It was a skillful disguise, but Lev had seen a thousand fakes and recognised it immediately.
“Let’s talk somewhere quiet,” said the King.
Picking himself up, Lev followed Quill out of the hospital room. The sanctuary itself was actually quite small, no bigger than a few rooms. One for surgery, one for storage, and the rest for the patients.
They stopped in the lounge, alone. Quill pointed to the two vending machines by the wall. “You want anything? My treat.”
Lev said nothing.
Quill thumbed a coin in and checked his pockets. “Can you lend me a quarter?”
“Can you lend me a quarter? I’ll pay you back.”
“You’re the coin guy. You don’t carry spares?”
“I just carry the one to flip with and I already put it in.”
Lev patted down his own pockets. “Nothing on me.”
Quill sighed and dropped to his knees. He leaned down, sticking a hand underneath the machine. The King of the Crowns, leader of the strongest gang, looking for quarters under the vending machine. What an image.
“Got one!” He stood, dusting himself off. He held up the coin. “Lucky, lucky.”
Lev watched him press it in, punching the code for his drink. “What is this about?”
“I thought we could come to an understanding.” The machine hummed as one of the cans fell. “Khan got in contact with me earlier.”
Lev’s heart jumped. “What did he say?”
“He wanted to meet me to discuss something.”
Quill picked up his soda and drank. “He was vague, but I’m guessing it’s about Pierce’s release. He wants you to be there too.”
Lev remembered Khan’s voice the night he defeated Pierce. The desperation, the panic. From Lev’s experience, anger follows soon after. “He wants to kill me.”
“Yes, but not at the meeting.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“It’ll be happening at Corsac Casino,” said Quill. “On Vulpes turf, with my security team. Nobody’s getting killed. I want this to be a diplomatic talk.”
“Diplomatic?” Three prongs, skewering her through the torso, her eyes dead holes in grey flesh. “After what he did to her, you want to be diplomatic with him?”
“I want to hear him out.”
“Why aren’t you more angry about this?”
“I’m angrier than you can imagine.” He hung the can by its rim. “But she made me promise her something.”
Quill leaned back against the vending machine. “She made me promise I wouldn’t kill Khan, no matter what happened.”
Lev raised an eyebrow. “Astri did?”
“You don’t know about this, but they were married.”
His eyes went wide. Astri and Khan?
“Must’ve been five or so years ago when they tied the knot. Wasn’t official, of course. Nothing this side of Minerva ever is. But as far as the Crowns go, it was as official as you could get.”
“For as long as it lasted, it was some fairy tale shit,” he continued. “Too good for streets as dirty as ours. At least, I think we all hoped that. Did you know she joked about having me be the Godfather?”
“To her daughter.”
Her daughter. How old was Astri? Why did she never tell him any of this? No, he thought. What right did he have to know? He was always more stranger than friend.
“Where is she now?” he asked.
Quill stood there for some time, staring across the lounge at a blank wall. “I think that’s when it started. When it all started going wrong. I wonder sometimes if their ancestors screwed over some ancient forest spirit and got their entire bloodline cursed, because frankly, that’s about the best explanation I have.”
“Amber was stillborn,” he finally said, arms falling to his sides. He turned back to Lev. “A lot of shit happened after that. Only a month later, Khan’s brother died from an overdose. I think that was the final straw. Khan swore revenge on the Crown that sold him the drugs and a week later, he burned them to the ground. Veragreen took their place.”
“I don’t get it,” said Lev. “He took down one Kingpin only to become one himself? And that doesn’t explain why he wants to kill Astri.”
“I’m not going to pretend I understand, but Astri did walk away.”
“Everything. When Khan needed her the most, she left.” The King straightened himself, shaking his can. Empty. “We can talk more about old stories next time. For now, the meeting is set for next week. Are you coming?”
The goal is Sehyun, Lev reminded himself. Not Astri. To find Sehyun, he needed the information from Khan. Everything else was unimportant. “Will you honour our deal?”
“I’m a man of my word.”
“Even if I didn’t kill Priscilla?” Lev doubted. “I’ve caused more trouble than I’ve solved.”
“A man doesn’t throw the dice and then quibble with the roll.”
“Then I’ll be there,” he said. “And what about Priscilla? What’s going to happen to her?”
“We’re taking it one step at a time. Obviously, she can’t go anywhere now that her face is all over the news.”
“What about her father?”
Quill massaged his forehead. “Don’t remind me. I’ll have to figure out a way to deal with him.”
He nudged his head to the corridor. Lev walked out with him.
“For now, go home. Get a bit of rest,” said Quill. “I’m sure you’ll find me when you need me.”
Home. That was a word he hadn’t thought about in a while.
“Welcome back, Master Zaytsev.” Anna took his coat from him as he entered the mansion. “How was the art gallery?”
“Fantastic.” Lev kept his hand on the duffel bag that held his Black Lion outfit. It had become routine at that point. “Bosch’s works never fail to impress me.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Shall I change the bandaging on your arm?”
He shook his head and made for the dressing room. He ran a hand past the racks of suits, pulling out a random one. An Italian brand. Usually, he could gush about all its fine details: double vent, felted undercollar, even the specific numbers of buttons it had. Yet, all he could think of was Sehyun and Astri. How Khan hurt them, the pained expression in their dulling eyes.
“What’s for dinner?” Lev asked, lifting a folded dress shirt from the drawer.
“Potage to start, roast lamb for the main course, and some coffee afterwards.”
Lev took off his t-shirt and stared at his bare chest in the mirror. The scars were still there, drawn across his torso. He hadn’t had the chance to thoroughly examine them, but they seemed to be healing well. The raw patches were healed over with fresh skin, although they were still jagged and bumpy. Of course, they would never fully disappear. “And for dessert?”
“No dessert tonight,” said Anna. “Your father said he would be joining us for dinner.”
Lev whipped around. “What?”
“The vacation was cut short.”
He swore under his breath. “Anna, get me the cufflinks. And switch this suit for the new one.”
Lev faced the mirror, buttoning his shirt and fixing his hair. “You should’ve told me earlier. There’s not enough time to style.”
“Actually, there was something else that should be brought to your attention.”
“What is it?”
“The court has ruled that Mr Seok is deceased in absentia,” she said.
His comb caught in a patch of hair.
“His lawyer has asked that you be there for the reading of his will in two days,” Anna continued. “Seeing as he had no living kin, you are requested to organise the funeral.”
Lev slapped across the desk. Makeup and hair products went flying off. “I told them a thousand times!”
Anna flinched. “Master Zaytsev?”
“A thousand damn times, I told them Sehyun’s alive!” He stormed out of the dressing room. “But the police don't give a shit and the lawyers don’t give a shit! They just want to scrape it under the carpet so nobody will realise how incompetent they are!
“Master Zaytsev.” Anna chased him. “Please calm down.”
“I’ll talk to them. I’ll tell them to get their heads out of the– “
“Lev,” a voice interrupted. Lev glanced up.
Mikhail Zaytsev towered over his son. A man of fifty, though he looked twenty years younger. His face, an eternal scowl, held firm.
“Mr Zaytsev.” Anna bowed. “We weren’t expecting you this early.”
“We took an advance flight.” He handed his coat to another servant. “There was something urgent to come back to.”
“The…” Lev swallowed. “The funeral?”
“What funeral? No, I heard that the Marinton daughter was kidnapped. I’m going to help advise Robert’s board while he grieves.”
Why would his father care about what’s happening with Sehyun? Lev kicked himself for asking such a dumb question. And Robert Marinton grieving? Really?
“Anna, please tell the driver to head for Marinton Tower. I’ll be ready in a minute. Two at most.” Mikhail redid his tie as he walked up the stairs, all the while a handful of servants and assistants followed him. “Jonathan, set a reminder for thirty minutes, I need to call the finance office. Mary, I need you to update my itinerary for tomorrow. Reschedule the meeting with Mr Newport.”
Lev followed at the very back. “Father?”
In his walk-in closet, one assistant replaced his suit as another clicked his cufflinks into place. Mikhail was speaking German on his phone.
“Father,” Lev repeated, a little louder.
Mikhail made an annoyed grunt and pulled back his phone. “What is it, Lev?”
Lev coughed into his fist, straightening himself. “I was told you’d be staying for dinner tonight.”
Olga dropped her luggage behind them. “Dad and I already ate on the way back.”
His sister’s brown hair was a touch lighter than his and since the last time he saw her, she had changed the styling. She sneered, “We got drive-through and ate in the car.”
“I got you a souvenir too,” said Olga, their father returning to his call.
“I don’t want it,” Lev replied.
“You can be dark and moody another time.” She handed him a wooden totem, thick and stern. “It’s called a tiki.”
“I thought you and father went to Hawaii.”
“We did.” She grimaced. “Great, what is it now?”
“They call it Ki’i in Hawaii,” he explained. “The Māori call it a Tiki.”
“From New Zealand.”
Olga shrugged. “Whatever.”
“It’s not whatever.” His souvenir stared back with an angry face. “They come from the same roots, but– ”
“I don’t need a lecture.” Olga flicked her fingers at him. “Jesus, maybe I’ll just not get you anything next time.”
She peered at her father from the doorway. “Dad, can I go to Jackie’s tomorrow?”
Mikhail ended his call. “Bring Jonathan with you, honey, and don’t stay past dark. You heard what happened with Priscilla. Good-for-nothing criminals and addicts. Why have a police force at all if they’re going to be so useless?”
His children stepped out of the way as he passed. Down the stairs, more servants were already waiting for him. He said nothing as he left.
Olga stretched her arms, yawning. “Dad’s worrying too much again. Did you know Priscilla sleeps in class? And she barely does her homework.”
You never do your homework either. Lev stared out the window at his father’s car in the driveway, its headlights piercing like a lighthouse through the rolling darkness.
“Well, I’m off. Have fun brooding by yourself.” She stuck her tongue out before she left. Once, that little taunt drove him crazy. Now, it just felt childish and he felt embarrassed for ever letting it get to him.
Finally, after the car sunk in the distance, Lev ripped his gaze away from the window. Only Anna was there with him.
“Tell the chef I want dessert,” he told her.
The mansion soon returned to silence, with only Anna or the occasional servant stopping by to keep Lev company. Eventually, they too faded away to some obscure room in the hall or left for their own homes.
It should’ve felt routine. After all, that was how every day ended. Yet, as he sat down to eat, Lev couldn’t help but remember the way Astri spoke. Loud, for sure, but also warm. She was like Sehyun in that way. Sitting there in the grand hall, his dinner growing cold, Lev Zaytsev was reminded of just how big the dining room table was.