With a barely-sheathed fury, Lev watched the skyscraper across the street. Priam Tower, a silver monolith. Their logo, an ancient Greek helmet on a dark backdrop, was built along the side in gold and platinum. Fifty-seven floors and two hundred metres of concrete and rapacity, costing about three hundred million dollars to build.
Unremarkable, Lev thought. Zaytsev Tower is at least twice as big.
It had been a long time since he last came to Minerva’s business district. Actually, it’d been a long time since he went anywhere that didn’t have gunshots in the distance. The people that were passing him on the street were normal. Plain. Not criminals. Somehow that made him more uncomfortable.
Perhaps it was being outside without his lion mask. It felt naked. Vulnerable. Here, he wasn’t the Black Lion. He was Lev Zaytsev, and that came with more restrictions than being a wanted vigilante.
“You feel like crap, don’t you?”
Lev turned to see a girl, clad in a long overcoat that ran to her ankles. A wide-brimmed hat obscured her hair and a pair of sunglasses, her eyes. It was a decent disguise, though only for passing strangers. She spoke like Priscilla, walked like Priscilla, had her mannerisms in every motion.
“I feel fine,” said Lev.
“That face you make. I reckon that’s how you look when you shit.”
She mimicked his brooding, albeit with more exaggerated vigour.
“I do not make that expression when I shit.”
“Then what expression do you make?”
“I don’t…oh forget it.” Without a mask, he was free to scratch at an itch on his face– one of the few joys of being Lev Zaytsev. “Let’s get you back to Quill before he gets mad.”
“Lev,” she said. “You can talk to me, you know. In fact, I’m the only one you can talk to.”
“I have nothing to talk about.”
“I just watched you stare at Priam Tower for like ten minutes.” Priscilla followed close behind him as they walked through the city centre. “You think your Dad killed your best friend.”
“No. He’s not a murderer. It could’ve been someone under him. It could’ve been anyone in Zaytsev or Priam.”
“You remember how my Dad tried to kill me? Yeah, the Venn diagram for billionaires and psychopaths is just one circle.”
“Your father was an asshole.”
“And yours isn’t? What do you tell him every time you leave to fight in a gang war?”
“He has the most important job in the city. He doesn’t have the time to concern himself with how I spend my free time.”
She coughed into her fist, and a noise sounding suspiciously like ‘bullshit’ escaped from her mouth.
Lev sighed. “Please keep your patricidal urges to yourself.”
A few seconds passed and Priscilla’s footsteps halted. Lev looked over his head. The girl had stopped in front of an ice cream shop, peering at the myriad of colours behind the glass. “Lev, buy me a scoop.”
“Buy your own.”
“Quill doesn’t give me an allowance. Said that he’s already ‘allowing’ me to live and eat under his roof.”
“For the better.” He shifted his footing as if to walk away. “Ice cream has too much sugar.”
“Remember how you traumatised me for life letting Astri point her gun at me? Or when you tried to kill me last time we sparred?”
Lev stopped, then pivoted on his heel. “Are you trying to guilt me?”
Priscilla collapsed onto the concrete, one hand flicked daintily over her forehead. “Oh, the misery!” she wailed. “To suffer such abuse and neglect! Not yet old enough for a woman, nor young enough for a girl: as a squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple!”
A few passersby were shooting him glances; surprisingly less than he expected. It seemed that for a metropolis like Minerva, even the epitome of theatre could barely disturb its daily humdrum.
His quick steps devoured the space between them. He dragged her by the arm to the counter. “Order,” he said sternly.
“I’ll have the Rainbow Moo-Moo Sunrise,” said Priscilla, barely stifling a laugh.
“Anything for you, sir?” asked the waitress.
Lev peered across the trays of flavours. He was looking for chocolate. Or vanilla. Or any flavour he could recognise. Instead, there was Rocky Clementine Dream and Sunny Galaxy Pink. “Can I, uh, have that one.”
“Which one, sir?”
“The brown one over there.”
“Sir, there’s a lot of brown ones. Can you tell me which one?”
“Uhh.” Try as he might, Lev Zaytsev, the prodigal son, could not, in good faith, order a Cocoa Flutter Dream. “Can I just have a coffee?”
The waitress, a teenager with a faceful of grease, said, “One Rainbow Moo-Moo Sunrise and one coffee. Feel free to take a table, we’ll bring your order in a sec.”
The duo took a table against the wall. In this position, Priscilla had an eye on the counter while Lev had a full view of the open entrance. It was a spot close to the TV on the wall, showing news about another crime.
“Earlier today, DEA officers raided another drug lab in downtown Minerva,” said the Anchor, on the verge of yawning. “The lab was suspected to be manufacturing Madrid, but chemical reports have shown that the substance was actually heroin, cut with baking soda, caffeine, and purple food dye. Newly instated police commissioner Quinn Caldera refuses to comment on the latest drug bust.”
While Lev kept an eye on the broadcast, Priscilla bounced her head from shoulder to shoulder, her legs swinging under the table. It had been some time since she was allowed to go around the city, and even a simple scoop of ice cream had become a treat.
When the anchor started the next story, Priscilla’s eyes widened and she snapped back to watch the screen.
“In other news, it has been sixty days since Marinton Industry heiress, Priscilla Marinton, was last seen alive.” An old photo of Priscilla appeared, still in her uniform. “Priscilla was last seen outside Saint Bernadine High School. She was reported missing after she did not return home that afternoon. Two days later, her father, Robert Marinton, received a ransom note via mail, demanding fifteen million dollars for her release.”
Lev’s eyes flew to her. Her outfit was thorough enough to disguise her appearance, but did nothing to hide her expression; frozen between dread and wrath. It only deepened when Robert Marinton came on screen.
“I sent them the money. Anything for my little girl,” he whimpered into the microphone. It sounded genuine enough to fool the reporter, but not Lev, and definitely not his daughter. “But I heard nothing back. To this day, I heard nothing back.”
“If the kidnappers are watching,” said the reporter. “What would you say to them?”
He looked into the camera. “I can pay more. Twice as much, ten times as much. They can have my life savings if that’s what it takes. I won’t press charges. Please, I just want my baby girl back.”
“And if Priscilla is watching?”
Robert’s lips drew back in habitual disgust, the same as when he spoke to the King. It lasted only a moment. “Sweetheart. I’ll find you. Daddy will find you. Daddy will bring you home. I promise.”
Priscilla was bright red, jaws clenched as if to stop herself from screaming. Seeing that, Lev waved to the parlour’s waitress. “Can you switch the channel, please? We’re trying to relax over here.”
The waitress rolled her eyes and held up the remote. The TV changed to a sitcom. Lev wasn’t sure if the canned laughter was helping.
“I’m going to fucking destroy him,” muttered Priscilla, breathless. “Fucking tear him apart. Piece of shit. Worthless bastard.”
“Is it worth it?”
“Hell do you mean ‘is it worth it?’”
“He’s a terrible man, no doubt. But you’re out of his reach now. You’re free.”
Priscilla leaned in close. “I don’t care what it costs or how long it’ll take. This is what I want.”
“You do this, you can’t come back.”
“If you think this, why help me train?”
“I won’t stop you. I just think you still have a whole life ahead of you.”
“And you don’t?” she protested. “How many competitions have you won? How many prizes? I didn’t spend a day in cello class without hearing people gush about you. Yet you’re running around at night in a lion costume, beating up drug dealers. All for your friend.”
“Not just my friend.” The urge to speak more of him pulled at Lev, as if each opportunity missed meant he was more forgotten. More gone. But those memories pricked in his throat, and Lev resisted. “I know I’ve thrown away my life.”
“So why tell me not to?”
“So you don’t end up like me.”
Priscilla, vexed, opened her mouth to argue, caught Lev’s expression, and closed it with a snap. She started again, “This is important to me. You’re looking out for me, I get it. I’m thankful. But I have to do this. I can’t live with myself if I don’t.”
Lev hesitated a moment, watching those sharp hazel eyes. Soulless, her father had said. Like the eyes of fish. More than wishing for her death, and more than lying about it to a camera, this was the worst thing Robert Marinton had ever done. To have looked into her eyes and decided they were anything but beautifully resolute.
Before he could speak, an oily hand reached between them and placed a cup and saucer in front of him. Then, a plateful of pink ice cream in front of Priscilla. Instantly, her eyes lit up and she was just a girl again. Patricide and disowned daughters were nightmares of the past, and the present was mouthfuls of fragrant strawberries and sweet bubblegum.
“By the way.” She had a smear of pink on her cheek. “You ever thought about hiding yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“Even when I wasn’t on every missing poster, I never tried to look like Priscilla Marinton. Outside of school, I’d wear sunglasses and flowy clothes. I was always trying to hide myself. But you’re always…you. You never think about wearing a disguise or something?”
“Priscilla,” Lev began. He glanced out at the busy street, then back to her and shrugged. “This is my disguise.”
Priscilla tilted her head.
It’s better that she doesn’t understand, Lev thought. As she went back to her ice cream, he dropped his gaze, staring down at his coffee. In that wood-brown reflection, his eyes looked murky and depthless.
The day had turned to twilight, and the air smelt of chlorine and ash. If the odour was this pungent, even outside in the breeze, Quill couldn’t imagine what the inside of the building was like.
He laid back against the concrete, a coin pressed inside his palm. He held it up to the light, what little of it that pierced the mist, and studied its engravings. The head of a fox on the verge of a sly grin, frozen in copper. Around it were the words ‘ALEA IACTA ECT.’ The die is cast.
It had been a gift from Astri, the day they founded Vulpes. She had it made months before and it was supposed to be his Christmas present, but so soon after Jet’s betrayal, she thought it’d mean more to him getting it early. She was right, of course, as she often was.
At the time, Vulpes was technically just the two of them so he didn’t feel right calling it the ‘founding.’ Yet, Astri insisted.
Quill flipped the coin. The same fox with the same words– identical sides of one coin.
So no matter the bet, Astri had said. You’ll always win.
It was a great gift, probably his favourite ever, but he never did toss it, always choosing to use common quarters or the like.
I don’t need to make my own luck, he told her. I’ve got enough as it is.
He took his eyes off the coin for a second to check if someone had left the building. When he looked back, his hand was empty and there was a shadow over him.
Quill smiled. “Been a while since I last took it out.”
Arc balanced the coin on the back of her hand, rolling it up her arm, then back down again, into her palm. From there, she shook her wrist and the coin spun. She held it out to him, a blur of silver.
“Shit was so much easier when Jet was in charge,” he sighed. “He’d handle all this logistics crap and I’d go beat up the Dreadskins or whatever.”
Her free hand patted her head, then raised high above. She was trying to tell him something. Long? No, tall. MP.
“MP’s doing enough as is. I’d let him do everything if I could, but he said I needed to get on the ground and shovel some shit once in a while.”
Arc wiggled her fingers and drew them around her eye. Fire. Burnt.
“I don’t know. Now that Astri’s out of action, Jet’s the oldest friend I have. Made me nostalgic.”
Quill watched the coin begin to slow until finally, it tipped. “Actually, Jet was there when we first met, right?”
“Jet was the one who scouted you,” he reminisced. “Two escapees from Banland. Kids no less. Jet was actually on the fence about it. He thought you guys would be too wild. Hard to control. Obviously, he was right, but I insisted. I told him I’d rather take my chances with the feral children than half the punks in Minerva.
“But shit, you did not make it easy,” Quill laughed. “Took us days to track you down and even then, you had to put up a fight.”
He touched the scar that arched from his lip to his cheek. “Does this count as a kiss? I mean, it was mouth to mouth, right?”
Arc’s hand flashed, and the coin shot out from her fingers. It struck him in the exact spot Khan had stabbed, where there was still soft pink scarring. He knew that if she wanted, she could have punctured his eye. A few years ago, she would’ve.
The King’s gaze caught on something bright and he peered back to the building. Someone had stepped out, clad in a yellow hazmat suit. Quill waved at him, and after a blink of confusion, the man waved back.
“Finally,” said Quill. He pocketed the coin and extended his hand to Arc. “Pretty please?”
She scowled and shook her head.
“C’mon, I’m injured here. Don’t be a drag.”
Arc rolled her eyes, gripped Quill’s wrist, and tugged him up to his feet. The man in yellow was approaching them. He pulled down the hood of his suit and lowered his gas mask. He took one deep breath, nose upturned, and spoke.
“Air never felt so good,” said Vein.
“Just wait till we get out of Mist Town,” said Quill. “Get some real air. You’ll never want to leave again.”
“Mist Town air is good enough for me. Reminds me of home.”
“Alright, I won’t beat around the bush any longer.” Vein reached into the suit’s pocket and pulled out a tiny ziplock bag. Inside was a fine powder, as unassuming as flour or sand, save for its distinct purple colour. That specific shade, lighter than lavender yet darker than wine, could not be imitated. It could not be faked, forged, or mimicked, and beyond all: it could not be mistaken.
“You.” Quill had the most childlike, bursting grin. “Are. Pablo. Fucking. Escobar!”
“Brilliant Chang is more accurate.” Vein pressed the bag into the King’s hand. “Khan didn’t leave any notes or instructions, but I managed to get an invoice for all the base chemicals he used. That, along with the equipment left in the lab, was enough of a jumping-off point. From there, it was a lot of trial and error with proportions and heating times. That tiny bag’s worth was all I could manage. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Are you kidding? This is amazing!”
“The purity level is only 65%. Khan’s had batches up to 95%, even 99%.”
“And you’ll get there. I have complete faith.” Quill held him by the shoulder. “You are a genius, V.”
Vein averted his eyes, face reddening, and mumbled, “Thank you.”
Quill turned back and cupped a hand to his chin. “Alright, that’s step one dealt with. Now we deal with step two: distribution.”
“Wait, I think it is still too early for that. The manufacturing process is not streamlined for mass production.”
“By the time negotiations finish, you will. Who knows how long it’ll take some of these assholes to budge.”
“Would it not be easy?” Vein pulled on the suit’s zipper. Madrid is the most desirable commodity in the city. Any gang would be willing to work with us.”
“Any gang would. But not just any gang has easy access to every hot spot in Minerva.” The King dialled something on his phone and put it to his ear. “We need another Crown.”
As he waited for his call to go through, he found himself fidgeting with Astri’s coin again. Quill repeated its words under his breath, rolling the silver across his knuckles. The die is cast.