Chapter 20:

Wearing a mane does not make one a lion.


The first thing Lev noticed was the hip-hop music, blasting at a volume only the deaf could stand. He traced it to its source, an ancient boombox– the sort where the speakers jolted and shook to the beat of the song. Pages of a book were draped over it. Homer’s Iliad, Lev read. Bookmark here

“I hope you keep your end of the deal, Quill,” said the Black Lion. Bookmark here

“Have I ever gone bad on a deal we’ve made?”Bookmark here

“No, but I’d prefer you to be more upfront about it. No more games and little witty jokes.”Bookmark here

They stepped into the auto shop, and Quill had to shout to be heard. “They’re the Xanthus Riders! Been part of the Crowns since the OG days, and I mean real OG! They were there when Zenith and Maldoche were shanking each other up the ass, and they’ll probably be here when the national guard burns down Minerva!”Bookmark here

Cars at every stage of life were inside. Some were nothing but metal frames with wheels and others were strapped to the brim with add-ons and modifications. The most popular service, though, seemed to be paint jobs. It was rarer to see a plain white car amongst the various oranges and pinks. Lev could even spot a lowrider in a distinct Veragreen lime, the gang symbol– a stylised bundle of mushrooms – ironed to the side door. Its owner probably wasn’t coming back. Bookmark here

“So their Warlord’s been around since you were a recruit?” shouted Lev.Bookmark here

“The previous one. They got a new Warlord a few years back.”Bookmark here

Deep in the back of the garage, there was a pair of baggy pants, sticking out from underneath an old corvette, illuminated in intervals by the spark and hiss of a welding tool. They were held off the ground by a skateboard, with dark blue sneakers on either side, tapping along to the music. Bookmark here

“Xander!” Quill yelled. When he got no response, he yelled again. After a last failed attempt, the King gave the legs a light kick. Bookmark here

The sparks stopped and the skateboard slid forwards, pushing a stalwart man into view. The Warlord stood, one hand still around his welding tool. He pushed a pair of googles through long dreadlocks, his eyes shifting from Quill to Lev, then back to Quill. Finally, he turned the music off. Bookmark here

“Who’s that Achaean there, so stark and grand?” Xander mused. He stomped his foot down, knocking the skateboard into his hand. “Many others afield are much taller, true, but I have never set eyes on one so regal, so majestic. That man must be king.”Bookmark here

“How are you, Xander?” asked Quill. “Doing well for yourself from the look of things.”Bookmark here

“I was doing well. Y’know. Business partners with Minerva’s biggest drug lord. Then things went straight to shit; not that you’d know anything about it.” Xander gestured to the sofa. Lev noticed the accent in his voice. “I’ll grab us some beer. We’ll talk business.”Bookmark here

The two of them sat down while Xander reached for a mini-fridge nearby. Bookmark here

“I heard about Astri,” he said. There was the clink of glass bottles. “I’m real sorry that happened. Any idea if she’ll wake up?”Bookmark here

Quill sighed. “Anybody’s guess. Even if she does, Polka says she’ll have trouble walking, if she even can.”Bookmark here

“At that point, I’d rather they just pulled the life support. It’s death either way in a profession like ours.”Bookmark here

Xander passed the duo their beer, cold and wet. It wasn’t until Lev held the bottle that he realised just how hot the garage was. Bookmark here

“Astri was an old friend of mine,” Xander explained to Lev. Bookmark here

“Is,” Quill corrected.Bookmark here

“Is an old friend of mine. She was with us long before she was with Zenith or Vulpes.”Bookmark here

“Is there a reason she left?” asked Lev.Bookmark here

“Probably got poached. A shame. A bit after Vulpes was formed, our old leader asked her to come back. See, he was planning to step down. He nominated her as the next Warlord.” Bookmark here

“And she turned it down?”Bookmark here

“She did.” He sipped his drink. “The responsibility was too much for her. She ran away. Abandoned us the same way she abandoned Khan.”Bookmark here

“Xander.” Quill’s tone was sharp. Bookmark here

“This is my turf, Fox. I didn’t wish that fate on her but I won’t lie through my teeth in my own home.”Bookmark here

“Then let’s skip the small talk and get right down to business.”Bookmark here

“Agreed.”Bookmark here

Quill chucked something onto the table between them. Xander leaned forward to pick it up, shaking it in front of his eyes. A bag of Madrid. He reached into the bag and rubbed some of the powder between his fingers, smelt them, then licked it off. He paused, pondering.Bookmark here

“Khan kept the recipe close to his chest,” said Quill. “But Vein managed to crack it.”Bookmark here

“He didn’t.” Xander tossed the bag back, spilling some of the drug across the table. “Khan’s was much better. Much purer.”Bookmark here

“It was his first try. A little more time and it’ll be just as good as Khan’s.”Bookmark here

“How much more time? A day? A week?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know,” the King admitted. Bookmark here

“A month? A year?”Bookmark here

“It’s an investment, Xander. We need your routes.”Bookmark here

“A huge investment on a shitty first batch.”Bookmark here

“You think the junkies will notice? Nobody could’ve done better.”Bookmark here

“Khan could’ve done better.”Bookmark here

“Khan’s dead.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, and thanks to who?” The Warlord took a long swig of his beer. He wiped his mouth and continued. “I know how much Astri means to you. I get it. I have people I love too, but when you’re in our profession, you don’t have the luxury of holding grudges. You didn’t think for a second what the fallout would be if you destroyed Veragreen. You didn’t ask any of us for permission.”Bookmark here

Xander stabbed his finger at Quill. “You were reckless, and now all of us have to deal with this shit because of you.”Bookmark here

Quill frowned in a way Lev had rarely seen before. It meant Xander was right. Bookmark here

“That was in the past,” defended the King. Bookmark here

“Is it? Who’s to say you won’t kill me if I look at you funny? Maybe you’ll take over my business too.”Bookmark here

“I’m offering you a good deal. The best deal. A bigger cut than Khan ever gave you.”Bookmark here

“Unlike you, Fox– ” Xander slammed the bottle down hard. “Not every Crown is a slave to greed.”Bookmark here

Quill’s lips thinned until they were only a sour line. “Minerva needs Madrid. If it’s not you, another Crown will help me sell it.”Bookmark here

“Then so be it.”Bookmark here

“Think carefully on this, Xander. Don’t let your emotions cripple your future.”Bookmark here

“Like yours have?” The Warlord stood and moved back towards the car he was working on. “I’d say good luck, but you have plenty, don’t you?”Bookmark here

The return of the welding’s flash and fizz was more poignant than any goodbye, and the King, for all his faults and sins, knew when he was not welcome. As he walked away, he gestured at Lev to follow.Bookmark here

“Alright, that’s one down,” said Quill as soon as they were outside. “Onto the next one.”Bookmark here

“And my deal?” asked Lev.Bookmark here

“You’ll get your end when we’re done. That was the agreement.”Bookmark here

“I need to know you haven’t forgotten.”Bookmark here

Quill sighed. “You ever think about taking a vacation? You couldn’t have gone to Hawaii or something after tearing Veragreen down? Or is storming Priam Tower your idea of a holiday?”Bookmark here

“I need to find Nabi.”Bookmark here

“I’ll get you an entire squad after we’re done,” he relented.Bookmark here

“I don’t need a whole squad, Quill, I’m asking for your hacker.”Bookmark here

“He prefers ‘information broker.’ And don’t worry, you’ll get him plus change.” The King put his phone to his ear. “Now let’s hope the next Crown’s more reasonable.”Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Mora took his hand, harsh and calloused, and guided it between her thighs. He caressed where tender skin parted, where it was hot and weeping, felt resistance, and hesitated to go further. He was gentle. Almost shy, with the face of a man but the expression of a boy. Those fingers were trained to pull the trigger of a gun. Hold the hilt of a knife. They were strangers to a woman’s warmth. Bookmark here

“Go on,” said Mora. “Put them in.”Bookmark here

He paused again, nodded, and pushed. The skin gave way easily. Painlessly. It had been years since putting something in had hurt, but Mora made it a point to pretend it did. She set her jaws, squeezing her eyes until he slipped inside and she could feel his heat. Bookmark here

“I’m sorry,” he said. For a moment, his hold threatened to loosen.Bookmark here

“No.” She gripped his wrist before he could pull it out. “It’s okay. It’s better when it hurts a bit.”Bookmark here

Mora released him and he continued, gently dragging his fingers in and out. Each repeat of the motion gave him a little more confidence, and he started going deeper and with more vigour. Bookmark here

She made sounds of pleasure, little moans and murmurs, all thoroughly rehearsed. Most women tried to exaggerate, often to the point of disbelief, but Mora liked to focus on the details. Scrunched up sheets in balled fists, the subtle arch of her torso. Her mauve hair, just slightly matted with sweat, flung across the velvet pillow. Her–Bookmark here

“Stop it.” His fingers disappeared. Bookmark here

She sat up. “Did I do something wrong?”Bookmark here

“You’re faking it.”Bookmark here

Mora laughed. “I’m sorry. This was supposed to feel good for you, not me. Let’s skip the foreplay.”Bookmark here

She reached for his manhood, prepared to take it between her lips until he moved away. Bookmark here

“Why do you do this?” he asked. “It’s clearly not for pleasure.”Bookmark here

“Quick money.”Bookmark here

“You’re madam of the Radiance. Of half the brothels in Minerva. You don’t need to get your own hands dirty.”Bookmark here

“You’re paying by the hour. Do you really want to waste it talking?”Bookmark here

He smiled. “By all means.”Bookmark here

Mora leaned back onto the headboard, pinching a cigarette and lighter from the nightstand. She drew in a long drag while her client watched patiently. Under the dim pink light, he wasn’t bad looking. “This is all I’m used to. All I know.”Bookmark here

“How did you come to run the Radiance?”Bookmark here

“I was the best at what I do.”Bookmark here

“So you don’t do it because you like it.”Bookmark here

Mora blew smoke into his face. He didn’t flinch. “I do it to remind myself. That this is where I’d be if I wasn’t the bitch I am. I got this far because of how dirty I got my hands and I’m not going to pretend they’re clean just because I have the luxury to.”Bookmark here

The client picked the cigarette from her fingers and drew a puff himself. His smoke was a pink hue in the lamplight. “And here I thought you wanted to hear my little secrets after I’m drunk and satisfied.”Bookmark here

“A fringe benefit. But you’re not the type to just let something slip.”Bookmark here

They passed the cigarette back and forth. “Can I ask another question?”Bookmark here

“It’s your money.”Bookmark here

“The flowers.”Bookmark here

Mora couldn’t help but laugh. It was always about the flowers. It was the Radiance’s calling card. Their symbol. The walls and stairs were always bursting with pink Ovlenches, and around every corner, there was a vase overflowing with them. Their signature sweet scent hung densely inside the brothel, where no amount of perfume was ever enough to mask it. Bookmark here

The flowers were so famous, other brothels around the city would put up their own variations. It was a crude attempt to trick customers, but Mora never minded. In the end, wearing a mane does not make one a lion, and no amount of gold and silk can hide mediocrity. Bookmark here

“What about them?” she inquired. Bookmark here

“Well, what are they?” He gestured at a pot of it with the end of the cigarette. “Ovlenches are only ever blue. No florist in the country has pink ones. And that smell, too. I thought Ovlenches were scentless.”Bookmark here

“Who cares. At the end of the day, it’s just a gimmick. The flowers get the customers in, my whores get them to stay.”Bookmark here

“If you haven’t noticed, I have a bit of a fascination with things most people see as useless. For example, paying Minerva’s most expensive prostitute to share a smoke with me.”Bookmark here

“That’s not your ‘fascination’, that’s just you being a fucking idiot.”Bookmark here

Mora was about to continue when the doors juddered. Two knocks, barely audible. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be needed elsewhere, but they wouldn’t disturb her while she was with a customer unless it was an emergency. Bookmark here

“I’m sorry, it’ll only take a second,” she said. Bookmark here

She struggled to throw on a dressing gown, almost limping across the carpet, and opened the door a fraction of an inch. Neon light spilled in. Bookmark here

Chelsea stood outside, curly blonde hair to her waist and wearing velvet so thin, it was barely clothing. “Mora,” she said, breathless. “It’s Isabel.”Bookmark here

Mora cursed under her breath, stepping out without another word. She rushed down the dark oak hallway, turning the corner at a potted Ovlenche bush. The floorboards hummed along to the faint beat of electronic music from the first floor, though she could barely hear it over her own thoughts.Bookmark here

Isabel, she cursed. Why did it have to be Isabel? Everyone told her she shouldn’t pick up more strays. That they were cutting too much into profits. That it was too dangerous for them. She had argued they were safer with her than anywhere else in the city, but if something happened to Isabel, it was as if the city was arguing back. Bookmark here

At the end of the hallway, a man stood in front of the last door. He was dressed in a black suit that fit too perfectly to be storebought. Bookmark here

“Get out of the way.” Her voice was low, but it could not be mistaken for fear. Bookmark here

“My employer offered double,” said the guard. Bookmark here

“She’s not for sale.”Bookmark here

“This is a fucking whorehouse,” he sneered. “Everything is for sale.”Bookmark here

Her hand blurred. All he saw was a streak of red and black, and a heartbeat later, scorching pain. He fell to his knees, the stench around him of searing meat and burnt fabric. There was a hole in his stomach, but no blood. The wound was already cauterized, melted flesh moulded over the organs like frosting spread over cake. Bookmark here

“My fucking whorehouse,” said Mora. She thrust open the door. Bookmark here

Isabel was on the bed, cheeks wet. A man was sitting on top of her, ready to unbutton his shirt when Mora stomped in. His mouth opened, suddenly afraid. She seized him by his fat neck, the muscles of her arm flexing, and his words choked in his throat. The walls shook as he was slammed into them. Bookmark here

“Amanda said it was…agreed,” he managed to get out. A flimsy defense from a guilty man. It was a sound like suffocating fish.Bookmark here

On her free hand, her finger turned charcoal black, crackling with lines of red like flowing magma. Immediately, the entire room was warmer. She moved it closer and the man’s struggles grew fiercer. When it touched his cheek, there was a satisfying sizzle, the sound of frying bacon. It smelt like it too. Bookmark here

“Please, please, please!” he bawled. His tears only made the sizzling sound crisper. Bookmark here

She dug into his flesh, carving a thick line. By the time she was done, the scarring had already begun. Bookmark here

Mora leaned in close. “Leave before I do this to your cock next.”Bookmark here

The moment she released him, he ran out crying, hands on his unbuckled trousers. She imagined the sort of excuses he’d give to his wife at home. If she was a sheltered socialite, she might even believe him, but if he ever stepped foot in this part of Minerva again, no one could mistake the brand burnt into him. Bookmark here

“Isabel,” Mora whispered, pressing a kiss to the girl’s temple.Bookmark here

“Jefa.” Her voice was raw but still lovely. Still unbroken. Minerva had not beaten the hope out of her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”Bookmark here

Mora’s hand cupped her face and her knuckles brushed her cheek. “Don’t apologise. I won’t allow it. It’s not your fault and it never will be.”Bookmark here

She brought the girl into a tight embrace, her tears staining the satin gown. “It’s the fault of this fucked up world, and you have done so well to not let it crush you.”Bookmark here

Mora turned back. Chelsea was at the doorway, hands clamped over her mouth. Bookmark here

“Get dressed and then take her to her room,” the Madam ordered. “Give her a bath, something warm to drink, then have the doctor check on her.”Bookmark here

“What about Amanda?”Bookmark here

Amanda was one of her lieutenants and an old friend. That was only worth a second more’s hesitation. “Tell her she has until sunrise to leave Minerva.”Bookmark here

Chelsea looked as if she wanted to protest, but she only nodded and took Isabel’s hand. The girl snapped back at first. She didn’t want to leave Mora, even if just for a few hours. Despite that, after a deep breath, she relented. She was in the lingering years of adolescence, but already more sensible than those twice her age. Bookmark here

Mora watched them all the way to the top of the stairs. There would be a patrol of enforcers there on the fourth floor; the best the Radiance had to offer. Yet, she couldn’t shake the pit in her stomach. Something felt off, like hair in her mouth that she can’t spit out. Bookmark here

She’s safe now, Mora reminded herself. They were out of sight. She’s safe. Bookmark here

A voice came from below, smooth and sly. “That’s the girl from the auction, right?”Bookmark here

Mora massaged her brow. The city was really intent on pissing her off today. Without turning, she called out, “Why the fuck are you here?”Bookmark here

“Veragreen’s auction. The one with Nabi’s arm.”Bookmark here

She leaned over the mezzanine. On the floor below, Quill grinned at her. Or maybe that was just his scar. She could never tell. Bookmark here

“How’d you get in here?” Mora moved towards the stairwell leading down. “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”Bookmark here

“Oh please. I’ve still got some tricks left.” He mimed shuffling a pack of cards. “Pick a card, any card.”Bookmark here

“I’m not in the mood, asshole. Talk or get the hell out.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry, that was my plan.”Bookmark here

Mora came down the stairs. It was only halfway through that she noticed the King wasn’t alone. Someone stood by the pillar, next to a flowered vase; one of the few spots in the brothel where the lights did not reach. She could barely make out the shape of his face. No, mask. There were only three lunatics in Minerva running around with masks and two of them were dead. Bookmark here

Quill extended his hand, something in the centre of his palm. On closer inspection, it was a bagful of powder. Mora felt its weight and lifted it against a nearby lamp. The powder gleamed bright and shifted through every shade of purple. Bookmark here

“Where did you get this?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Vein cracked the recipe. We can get it into mass production in under a month.”Bookmark here

“You came here to brag or do you have something to say?”Bookmark here

“We can manage production, but we don’t have the spread for distribution.” Quill glanced around. “The Radiance does. You do.”Bookmark here

“Xander said no?”Bookmark here

“Xander’s issues are personal.”Bookmark here

Mora snickered. “You mean he didn’t want to suck your dick.”Bookmark here

“I guess he didn’t.” Quill’s grin was so punchable. “But you would, for a lot of money. I mean that both figuratively and– “Bookmark here

“You finish that sentence,” she cut in. “You will walk out of here with a face worse than Jet’s.”Bookmark here

He shrugged. “I was going to say respectfully. The point is, working together can get us both rich.”Bookmark here

“I’m just gonna be honest, Quill: you piss me the hell off and frankly the idea of partnering with you makes me want to vomit.”Bookmark here

“Fair. But if you only do business with people you like, you’d be a very poor woman.”Bookmark here

“You forget I’m one of the Crowns. That gives me some leeway when it comes to picking and choosing.”Bookmark here

Quill’s verdant eyes glinted. “And the kids?”Bookmark here

Her skin flared. Mora hated him. She hated the way he spoke, the way he wore his beanie, his talent show magician act. Everything from his shit job at King to his choice of drink. But above all, she hated how he always knew what buttons to press. Bookmark here

“A sizable portion of Radiance’s profits go towards girl’s homes across the city, not to mention the ones you personally save. There’s not a single woman under this roof that you have not helped in one way or another.”Bookmark here

She averted his gaze. “Who’s sucking who’s dick now?”Bookmark here

“You know I’m right. You’re dealing with the symptoms of the problem. With the money you make from this deal, you can get it at the roots.”Bookmark here

Mora folded her arms and let herself imagine it. The King was right. There were thousands of girls like Isabel and if she could help them, who cares about what Quill drinks? Bookmark here

Quill always looked as if he could peer into her soul, know exactly what she was thinking and when to sweeten the pot more. “How about this as a bonus: the man that ran out before. The one who tried to touch your girl. His name is Julian Carter. He’s a board member at Priam Industries.”Bookmark here

“What are you trying to say?”Bookmark here

“That I can do more than scar his face. You want to ruin his life? I can get you info to blackmail with. I can get him fired, ruin his reputation. I can do all those things and much, much worse.”Bookmark here

“I don’t…” That short pause, that moment of doubt, was his victory. She knew it, and that meant he must know it too. “I have a client waiting for me.”Bookmark here

“Must be a special man or woman if they’re having a one-on-one with the madam herself.” Quill gestured at the Black Lion and he moved out of the shadow. “I’ll leave you to think on this. If your answer’s yes, you know where to find me.”Bookmark here

“I guess you won’t need my people to escort you.”Bookmark here

“Oh, you guessed right. I know my way out.”Bookmark here

And just like that, as sudden as they had arrived, they left. The King came and went as he pleased; that was his right as the most powerful man in Minerva. Bookmark here

If there’s a god, she prayed, please make Quill trip on a pebble outside and crack his head against the sidewalk.Bookmark here

Despite that, after everything, Mora couldn’t just ignore what he said. You’re dealing with the symptoms of the problem. You can get it at the roots. His words were a fox, stalking her evermore, long after his physical form had left. Bookmark here

When she returned to her client, she half-expected he had left already. Instead, he was sat at the edge of the bed, a fresh cigarette in hand. Bookmark here

“Busy day?” he greeted.Bookmark here

Mora untied her gown. “You don’t know the half of it.”Bookmark here

“You know, I think it’s a wonderful coincidence that the King came today and at this time. It’s been a while since we’ve had three Crowns in the same place.”Bookmark here

“It’s nothing but trouble.”Bookmark here

“What did he want?”Bookmark here

“He wanted to make a deal.” She collapsed onto him, her skin against his. “He’s got Madrid, he just needs someone to help get it out there.”Bookmark here

The orange tip of his cigarette brightened. “He already owns most of the city’s gambling parlours. Now he wants the drug trade too.”Bookmark here

“It’s a good offer. I can do a lot with the money.”Bookmark here

“But a man like Quill?”Bookmark here

“I know. But it’s either me or another Crown, and another Crown would waste that money. My hand’s being forced.”Bookmark here

Zek reached over and caressed the warm curve of her cheek. She felt his breath close on her shoulder. “What if I said you had another option.”Bookmark here

“You want the throne for yourself.”Bookmark here

“I want the throne for whoever’s best suited for it. Xander’s too stubborn, Scarecrow’s too old. If there was a better option I would go for it, but as it stands, I’m the best choice.”Bookmark here

Their foreheads touched. “And what about me?”Bookmark here

“Too virtuous.”Bookmark here

She giggled. At least he was honest. “Why do you even want the throne? Cages and coffins. That’s the only fate for those who sat in it.”Bookmark here

“But they sat. If that’s the price, then it is a cheap one.”Bookmark here

Mora placed a hand on his chest and laid him down into the sheets. She bit at his ear, down the span of his neck. He swelled under the sensation, breathing heavier. Bookmark here

“I heard him mention Priam Industries,” Zek continued. “He made a point of it. Of offering to get you information.”Bookmark here

“So some Corpo owes him a gambling debt.”Bookmark here

“Other companies, yes, but not Priam. I checked.”Bookmark here

“What’s your point?”Bookmark here

“The Fox doesn’t waste resources. He squeezes them for all they’re worth. He’ll get two birds with one stone, then claim the second as generosity. I think–”Bookmark here

Mora pinned a finger to his lips. “Can we please not talk about him anymore.”Bookmark here

“I’m sorry,” he said when his gag lifted. Bookmark here

“There must be something else you’d rather talk about.”Bookmark here

She moved for another kiss and this time, he moved to meet it. His mouth parted, and there was the taste of smoke. He pressed into her, one hand around her breast. The desire, the lust, the instinct; all of it was starting to come to him now. Even the bitter ash began to taste sweet under her tongue.Bookmark here

They parted to breathe. “You didn’t tell me about the flowers,” he said.Bookmark here

“Oh, Zek.” His name was so soft to say. Her curls brushed over his chest. “The colour’s painted on and the scent is just perfume.”Bookmark here

He closed his eyes, satisfied. “I know.”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.