“High school dropout. Discharged Police Cadet. Rejected marines applicant. Physical description: Asian male, lean build, hair dyed with streaks of light blue.” Smith lowered the sheet. “And a blue butterfly tattoo on his left arm.”
Lev nodded. “That’s him.”
Smith put down the document. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
“He’s not dead.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You don’t know that he is!”
“Mr Zaytsev,” said Smith, his glasses catching the setting sun. “There is more evidence for one than the other.”
“I know he’s alive. I know it.”
“Please don’t base an argument on something as lofty as a hunch. It’s shameful on the Zaytsev name.”
Lev’s hand blurred. Papers and pens went flying, clearing the oak desk. Smith didn’t flinch.
“Don’t talk to me about the Zaytsev name.” Lev was on his feet, hunched over the undisturbed lawyer, his fingers digging into the desk.
Smith pressed his palms together, his eyes half-closed. “I think it’s time to accept reality, Mr Zaytsev. Put this behind you and move on with your life. Let Sehyun’s family have some closure.”
“He has no family.” Lev fell back into his chair. He leaned forward, his forehead resting on his hands. “I’m the only one he has left.”
Smith bent down to pick up one of the scattered letters on the floor. “It’s true that you’re the only one Mr Seok mentioned in his will.”
He placed the letter in front of Lev. “He requested his estate and belongings to be sold and the remainder of his wealth to be donated to the orphanage in which he was raised. For you, Mr Zatsev, he left this sealed letter.”
Lev’s eyes widened. “What’s inside?”
“A handwritten message from Sehyun. His last words.”
Sehyun’s final words. He clawed for the envelope, holding close the last remnants of his memory. There was a warmth to it. A phantom of his senses, he knew that: the letter was probably left under the sun or close to the heater. Still, after weeks of chasing his echo, to finally hold something solid and real was like giving coal to a dying ember.
Yet his hands would not move. After this letter, what was left? An emptiness fell over him.
“He can tell me these words himself,” said Lev. He laid the letter back on the desk and left. The door fell gently behind him.
Corsac Casino was a monument to avarice, but not in the same way as Vegas. It was not a tower that kissed the clouds, where gold flowed freely like water and dreams turned to reality. Where Vegas was the embodiment of all extremes, good and evil, Corsac held no such facade. Here, nobody won, not even the King. And they all loved it.
Lev walked through the VIP area wearing the same outfit as always, lion mask and all. There was no point dressing up if he wasn’t there to sip Martinis and play roulette. He was meeting Khan, and that meant wearing something blood wouldn’t stain.
The VIP room was empty, save for one person. He sat at a poker table, sipping tea from a porcelain cup.
“Salutations, Black Lion,” said the man. He was of Asian descent, hair cleanly shaven underneath his raised hood. “Please, sit with me.”
“He’ll be here soon, I assure you.”
Lev scanned the room again, then sat. When the man raised his teapot for him, Lev shook his head. “No tea.”
“How rude of me.” He set down the teapot. “I haven’t introduced myself yet. Everyone calls me Vein. It’s a pleasure.”
Streaks of steam danced around his face. His etiquette was proper: from the way his fingers hugged the cup, down to the precise motion as he brought it to his lips. “I wish to take this chance to apologise.”
“The circumstances of our first meeting,” he explained. “At the hospital.”
Lev remembered the cold touch of a blade against his neck, though he couldn’t remember the faces.
“It was rude of us,” Vein continued. “And for that, I apologise on behalf of my gang.”
Setting the teacup aside, Vein lowered his head. Lev raised an eyebrow; this wasn’t quite what he expected from a member of Vulpes.
“May I speak bluntly?” asked Vein, sitting up. “Many in Vulpes are...confused.”
“They dislike me.”
“Concerned, perhaps, is the word I would use,” said Vein. Like Quill, he was hard to read but where Quill hid his thoughts behind a vulpine smile, Vein hid his behind a detached stare. “Your intruding on the Auction, as well as the events following, has had a ripple effect between the seven Crowns. In many respects, this growing tension between Vulpes and Veragreen is your doing, regardless of the fact that Quill supports you.”
When Vein paused to sip his tea, Lev said, “I didn’t mean to get involved in the Crowns’ politics.”
The porcelain clinked softly against the table. “Another reason for concern is because you are Nabi’s...protégé?”
“In a sense.”
“I’m sure you can understand why the mystery of the Black Lion has become such an amusing topic of discussion. Adding to that is the mystery of why Astri had thrown her support behind you. To the point where she may have very well given up her life for you.”
Why? He pondered on the question. Astri had said he reminded her of someone she couldn’t help. Khan. The realisation came to him in a flash. All along, he was the person she mentioned the night they fought Pierce.
Lev drew his lips into a thin line, not letting realisation seep into his voice. “I’m not entirely sure what she saw in me. Whatever the reason…”
He forced himself to bow. It was an unfamiliar motion, but it was the least he could do for her. “I’m thankful for all she did to help me.”
“Please, raise your head.” With both hands, Vein took the cup and teapot off the table. “There is something else for which I must apologise.”
Something else? The air turned cold. Lev put a hand on his knife sheath.
“I have done my utmost to prevent this, but in the end, there’s only so much one can do when she is like this.” Vein closed his eyes. “Please don’t take out your knife– “
Lev leapt back. His chair split in two. No, it was torn in two. The wood’s edges were jagged and rough, as if snapped apart within an animal’s jaws.
“–It will not be necessary.”
A girl squatted on the table. She wore a heavy winter coat that was too big for her, with a fur hood over her head. Paired with a scarf, her face was almost completely covered.
“What is this?” Lev’s words turned to fog. He drew his weapon, but the girl was faster. Her hand flashed and his knife fell to the floor, her own knife beside it.
Vein hadn’t moved. “As I mentioned, your knife will not be necessary.”
The girl signed something to him. Vein translated, “Arc said to take off your jacket.”
Arc removed her coat and scarf, which was actually a bandanna. Now in a tank top, it was clear she was young. Younger than him at least, but her body was no less toned. Her face was contorted in a scowl, teeth bared and eyes gleaming crimson.
She left her knife on the table and raised her fists.
“She wants a fight,” said Lev.
Arc signed again. Vein corrected, “a proper fight. She’s a little old-fashioned.”
“Fine.” Lev threw off his jacket and knives, matching her stance. She was a head shorter and at least a few weight classes lighter. No, she’s a member of Vulpes. That was reason enough to be cautious.
Pain struck his chest. Lev staggered back. Arc had one foot out and withdrew it slowly, as if spelling out for him what happened.
Lev changed his footing and rushed in, jabbing hard. She dropped down, letting his punch fly over her head, before thrusting her knee upwards. It sank deep into his stomach. Immediately, she pulled back, swerved, and ripped into his side with a kick. At least, he thought it was a kick. By the time he had moved away, she had already switched forms.
It surprised him how much the hit stung. She had the strength of somebody twice her size and she knew it too, smirking at his shock.
Arc leapt at him, her body spinning in midair. His elbow blocked the kick, yet it still sent him off balance. He rooted himself and the moment her toes touched the ground, she bounced off them. Lev felt the wind brush past. He turned, lifting both arms this time. So much momentum in so little time. Lev tumbled across the ground before snapping back into stance, his back now pressed against the wall.
He glanced over to Vein, still sipping tea in his seat. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Tea soothes the soul,” said Vein. “Please don’t take your eyes off her.”
Her quick steps ate up the space between them. Lev parried a punch, directing it into the wall where it left a clean hole through the wood and metal. He sidestepped and her next strike made another hole.
Arc edged closer, raising her knee. Another knee to the stomach? Lev pressed his hands against each other on his torso, palm facing out, ready to catch her boot when it came. For a moment it seemed that he had predicted her next attack. Her leg was moving upwards until she twisted her hip, her kick’s trajectory changing in an instant. Pain flowered down his neck, and he found himself on the floor.
Lev coughed, gasping for breath. Even with the adrenaline, pain was shooting through his body. Arc, on the other hand, was bouncing from step to step, her eyes burning for more. She gestured at him.
Is that all you’ve got? it said. Get up.
Arc’s grin was wide as she watched Lev stagger up. She made another gesture: you get the first move.
Lev tackled her, catching her around the hip. There was a satisfying bolt of panic across her face as he tightened his grip and lifted. Then, with all his weight, he slammed her into the ground. He felt her body tense, tugging and squirming like a fish out of water. She bashed his mask over and over again to no avail.
Lev sneered and lifted again, prepared to slam her a second time. Her legs clamped around him. They were her anchor as she raised her elbow high and crushed down at his neck– the same part she had kicked.
Lev flinched, his face scrunched. She struck the spot twice more, doubling the pain each time until he dropped her. Arc bent down and swept her leg out. Balance disappeared under him, his head cracking against the floor.
“You should stay down,” said Vein.
Lev wiped his mouth. “Did she say that?”
“No, that one’s mine.”
“Keep it to yourself then.” Lev clutched the side of a sofa for support and stood. Arc made no sign, her hands by her side and her eyes closed. Was she hesitant?
“C’mon!” he challenged. “You want some catharsis, don’t you?”
His hands were shivering, not from fear but the cold. The temperature was plummeting.
He should have known better; Arc’s hands turned white, a layer of frost spreading down from her knuckles until ice sheathed both forearms. When she exhaled, her breath became mist.
A Metahuman. Lev edged back while Arc readied herself. In her initial stances, her fists almost covered her face. Now, she lowered them down to her chin. It was Astri’s stance. The ice gauntlets only made the resemblance stronger.
Her eyes shot open and she ripped into him. Wherever she punched, his skin glued to her ice and each time she pulled back, the skin tore from its muscle, blood spraying.
He tried to dash away, but her foot pinned over his, nailing it to the ground. His spur of cowardice cost him several blows to the chest, emptying him of breath. His arms were covered in flayed patches of muscle; was it even worth it to block anymore?
Arc raised a fist high, the white now dyed red.
They both looked at the voice’s source. Quill stood by the doorway, his casual wear replaced with a cheap suit. He still wore his beanie.
Vein stood up straight, almost dropping his teacup. “Boss.”
Lev sighed. He was embarrassed at his sense of relief, feeling like a boy who needed his brother to fight his bully for him.
But Arc didn’t stop. Her fist speared him across the jaw, knocking him down. She was on top of him, feral, one punch after another, connecting with his face. His mask dented, then came off entirely. He covered himself just as Quill pried her back.
“Arc, for god’s sake!” The King wrapped himself around one arm while Vein grabbed the other. Even then, they were barely holding her back. She screamed and kicked, spit flying out. There were a few times Lev thought she would manage to throw them over her shoulder.
“Arc, I said stop!” Quill yelled. “It’s not his fault!”
In her struggles, the light caught her reddened cheeks. She was crying.
It took more than a minute for her to calm down, and another for Quill to trust her enough to let go. She yanked her other arm from Vein and rubbed her eyes dry, the ice on her skin melting. At last, she got off, grabbing her coat and scarf on the way out.
“Wait!” Lev coughed. His lungs burnt just saying that word. He picked up his mask and clicked it back into place.
Arc pivoted on her heel, fuming.
“No no no, this fight is over,” said Quill. “And Arc, stand down.”
“You call that a fight?” Lev forced himself to snicker, though his voice was too shaken to keep a convincing bravado. He clawed at a nearby chair, gripping it while he dragged his legs up, one after the other. He managed to get his body upright. “I barely felt that.”
“Stop provoking her.” Quill glanced at Vein. “Take Arc away. Stop her from getting into more trouble.”
“As you wish.” Vein made his way to Arc and whispered something. She threw Lev one last scowl before storming off, Vein at her heels.
Quill helped Lev onto a chair. He collapsed into it, his finely combed hair battered and ruffled, strands poking out in every direction.
“I’m sorry about that,” said the King. “Arc is one of my enforcers, but she can be hard to handle sometimes.
“Is everyone in Vulpes like that?”
Lev slipped one arm through his jacket sleeve. “I meant do they feel the same way about me?”
“They just lost someone. There’ll always be a bad gut reaction. I’m sure they’ll come around quickly.”
“You sound confident.”
“Astri saw something in you. I saw something in you. They will too.”
“That’s the long answer anyway.” Quill glanced at the entrance of the VIP room. The doors swung open and there was the familiar glint of rusted paint. “Short answer? They blame someone else more than they blame you.”
Khan adjusted his bowtie, one hand around a suitcase. Behind him, Lev caught a glimpse of Vynn before the doors closed. “Ah, Quill. How’s it going?”
“Welcome to the VIP suite.” Quill turned around, arm wide to gesture around the room, only to find holes in the wall, and blood smeared on the floor. “I promise it, uh, usually looks better than this.”
“I think it gives the place character. Reminds us where we came from,” laughed Khan. He looked at Lev. “And the Black Lion. It’s been a little while.”
Lev made no effort to reply. It took enough willpower to not throw himself at the Warlord.
The three of them sat around the blackjack table,Quill at the dealer’s end. He pulled two cards from the cardholder and slid them to Khan. For himself, he laid another pair, one face down.
“I’m sorry, Lion,” said Quill. “I can’t let you play.”
“That’s fine.” Lev folded his arms over the table. “I can just watch.”
Khan opened up his suitcase, revealing a set of chips, each row a different colour. He took out a handful, piled them beside his cards, and tapped the table twice. “Let’s get straight into business. I don’t mean for this to take long. I want Pierce back.”
Quill dealt him another card. “As expected.”
“Tell me the truth and you will have him back,” said Lev. “Where is Nabi?”
“Nabi is dead,” said Khan, as if it was an obvious question.
“Then where is his body?”
“In the Minerva river.”
“I don’t make notes of where I dump bodies.” Khan lit a cigarette as Quill moved a set of chips his way. “I did it quickly.”
“Pierce said you disposed of it alone,” Lev recalled. “Why do it by yourself? Was there something you didn’t want people to see?”
Khan’s expression softened at the mention of Pierce’s name. It only lasted a moment. “I did it alone because it was my responsibility.”
“You needed it for your conscience or something?”
“Something like that.” He tapped twice. Another card.
“And yet you cut off his arm and put it for auction in front of hundreds. Sounds to me like you just wanted the prestige.”
“Is that so? Then let me tell you what I think.” Khan lifted the mask up and drew in a breath of his cigarette. “I think you’re just a grieving kid in denial. I get it, I really do. You wish so desperately for there to be something else, some hope, some sort of answer. Closure. Where there is none, you start looking between the lines, at clues that never existed. This is my bit of advice: take off that damn mask, go home, and never come back. There’s more to life than one person.”
The words fell like daggers, sharp and cold. Lev leaned in. “Not to mine.”
Khan broke into a cackle and his gaze flicked to Quill, as a snake would its prey. He pushed the remainder of his chips forward.
Quill slid him a new pair. Six of spades and eight of hearts.
“It’s strange.” Khan knocked twice. “I’m not skilled and I’m not lucky either.”
The King drew another card. “Then what are you?”
“Prepared.” Wisps of smoke escaped Khan’s lips. “I’m not going to bother convincing the Lion. Whatever I say, he’s too far gone to believe. So, I’m going to make you a proposition, o’ King of the Crowns. You have twenty-four hours to return Pierce to me.”
His tone shifted.
“If you don’t,” said the Warlord, his voice filling the room. “Vulpes and Veragreen are at war. I assure you, I will do the same thing I did with Astraea to the rest of your gang. I will send Poseidon after them, and have him hunt them down, one by one. Dibs will die. Arc will die. Vein will die. I will lay a bloody path to you with their corpses.”
Khan pressed his cigarette butt on the table, leaving a burn mark on the fine wood. “So who would you rather choose? Your own gang or Nabi’s fanboy?”
If Quill heard the threats, he didn’t show it. He held the card between two fingers and threw it, letting it slide perfectly beside Khan’s pair. King of Hearts. A bust.
With one of his own cards, Quill flipped over the other. Ace and King, both Spades. “A Blackjack.”
“That’s my loss.” Khan let Quill take his pile of chips. All but one. He flipped the last chip in his palm like a coin. “I’ll keep this one as a souvenir. When the time comes, I will bury you with it, as a reminder of your choice. The traitor King.”
He pocketed the chip and made his leave. The doors slammed close behind him. For a long time afterwards, Quill sat silent, letting slip his calm facade. There was a look on his face that Lev had never seen before. Fear? Or was it anger?
“Listen,” Quill uttered finally. He held up the King of Spades. “I’m going to give him Pierce.”