He is ten when he decides to kill his father.
Nathaniel watches his mother die in a haze of smoke, blood pooling around her. He watches her eyes go flat. The light leaves and then it’s just a thing on the ground and not his mother. Not the woman that tried to save him.
“You are my son,” Nathan says. He kneels. There is a cigar in his left hand; it smells terrible. “My son.”
Nathaniel looks through his father. Through his eyes. He looks into the future and knows what he will do.
He decides two years will be enough.
He is eleven, and he learns.
Lola presses a knife into his palm and her smile is amused. Slick. She grins like poison. “You think you can hit me? Don’t even try.”
He could say he wasn’t thinking about killing her, but that would be a lie. He is, now.
Nathaniel trains. He trains until his body is sore and his limbs are lead, and then he trains some more. He learns how to take a knife—Lola enjoys that lesson too much—and a hundred ways to give one. He learns how to use the world around him, because he is thin and small and there’s not enough strength in him, yet.
“You are my son. You will stand,” Nathan says. He kicks Nathaniel over with the toe of his weighted boot.
Nathaniel rolls. His teeth are bared silently; he has to hold back the pain. He is bruised in so many places, but his father does not care. Nathan has one use for Nathaniel. He has need of a son. Nathaniel is his legacy; his pawn, in a game that’s gone on for years. Nathaniel is the wolf cub.
Someone should have told Nathan that cubs don’t stay in the pack. They leave and form their own. Except Nathan isn’t going to let Nathaniel leave, and Nathaniel won’t stay with his father.
There is something coming. Something Nathan can’t stop.
It will end with his death.
The thing about wolves is that they work with ravens.
Tetsuji calls Nathan to him with a familiar refrain. This is tradition. Ten years have passed and it is time to renew the vow.
Nathaniel goes. It is his place, now. He is silent and unbent, despite the scars that emerge from beneath the white ensemble he wears. White shirt, white pants, white shoes. He thinks he must make an amusing sight, standing before the all-black Moriyamas.
He does not see the boy he remembers, from two years ago. The different one.
He does see Riko.
Time hasn’t done anything but sharpen him. Riko is all sharp, from his dark eyes to his distasteful expression. Nathaniel ignores him. Riko is a child.
Tetsuji and Nathan exchange their pleasantries. Through it all, Nathaniel gauges the interaction. He sees, even if he is not meant to see. He sees the way Tetsuji gives Nathan passing notice and the way Nathan tries to stare him down with size alone. This is not an even partnership. It is a bomb waiting to detonate.
When Tetsuji stands before him, Nathaniel opens his mouth and speaks in Japanese. “It is an honor, Lord Moriyama. May the wind carry you above your enemies.”
He’s not certain it’s a good choice until he sees the spark in Tetsuji’s eyes and the way he evaluates Nathaniel. He has learned a truth that Nathaniel has given. A shared secret.
Of course, Nathan is furious. Not that he says so.
But Nathaniel knows he will pay dearly, later. For now, Nathaniel simply takes his place by his father and listens to the conversation.
Midway through, Tetsuji decides to test him.
“Riko is in need of a change. Perhaps you would play a match against him?”
“I would be honored.”
Tetsuji lifts his glass to his mouth and pauses. “We do not have a uniform for you.”
“I have been taught not to dirty that which is not mine,” Nathaniel says. Tetsuji evaluates—the words, the white that Nathaniel wears, the situation—and then he nods.
Nathaniel takes the court in his white ensemble. Things change, when he steps onto it.
He has not been taught the way the Ravens have. He knows full well that he cannot rely on training to get him through. What Nathaniel does know is that Riko is a child, in every sense of the word. He is sharp and petty and one well-placed word could undo him. All Nathaniel has to do is push and push at the same spot, until he has what he wants.
Nathaniel might not be able to fly, but he can run. He’s the fastest person he knows.
Riko is swift. His smirk and his stare are bold. He fears nothing on the court; he has been taught to fear nothing.
But Nathaniel fears everything. He has lived his entire life with that fear. It drives him to look over his shoulder not once, not twice, but three times. It drives him to sleep in corners, only for a short time, and to reteach himself how to breathe in the mornings.
The fear is not his center. He knows it, but it does not know him—because there is something more important than the fear.
Nathaniel knows that this is his only chance. Without the proof of his performance, he will never escape. He will only always be running.
He can’t do that.
So, Nathaniel takes all that Riko gives and eggs him on. The first half of their skirmish is simple; Riko pushes. He wins every time because he is simply better. But Nathaniel notices all the moves, and he starts to push back. The second half is all him—all pointed shots not meant to hit the goal, but meant to trip Riko. Riko has to dodge the ball and then round on Nathaniel, and the last-minute changes in pace irritate him.
When Nathaniel is close enough, he murmurs, “This is the future king? You are more pigeon than raven.”
Riko snaps. His anger comes out in full force and his racquet swings at Nathaniel. It hits his face and he tastes the coppery tang of blood for a moment.
Riko is immediately on his knees. The bow does nothing to assuage the aura of fury that surrounds him.
Nathaniel and Riko are summoned before the game is over. As it stands, Nathaniel would have had to make five goals to catch up. He thinks he could have, given the proper words.
“That was improper,” Tetsuji says. He turns from Nathaniel to Riko. The backhanded slap he strikes Riko with echoes in the room. Nathaniel notes the moment of shock and the rising tear in Riko’s eye.
The crack rings long after the moment passes.
“Children can be temperamental,” Nathaniel says. He keeps his voice even and devoid of any emotion, even if he feels a flicker of fire in his chest.
Riko turns to glare, but Tetsuji catches his chin in one hand. He doesn’t look at Riko; his eyes are still on Nathaniel. Still dark and unreadable. “Perhaps. They also believe they are more powerful than they are.”
“Perhaps,” Nathaniel says. He switches to Japanese, both because Nathan is not close enough to hear and because he needs his words to hit home. “Yet if you stand under a plum tree and fruit falls into your hand, it does not matter what anyone thinks. The fruit is yours.”
“Perhaps,” Tetsuji echoes. Soft. Dangerous.
But not necessarily warning.
Nathaniel retreats for the evening. The meeting wears on and then he leaves, with his father dark and quiet.
There will be hell waiting, when they arrive home. But it doesn’t matter. There is a ripe plum just within Nathaniel’s grasp, and it is about to fall into his waiting hand.
Kevin hears snatches of it. Never enough—he is always kept away, or busy. But he hears.
Their Butcher is in danger.
The mantle has always been one that Kevin is wary of. He has met the man. The Butcher is efficient and he is cruel. Some say he was once a father. Kevin doesn't know. He knows only routine and pain and laughter.
He wonders what would happen, if Riko became the Lord of the castle. Kevin thinks he’d probably rather die.
Nathaniel is thirteen—one year past killing his father—and someone challenges him.
He walks into his home to find people waiting. Most of them, he knows—the brothers that are his security, Lola, a handful of others. He is aware of just how close this is to a council meeting. It makes him want to laugh.
Instead, he walks past them and into the kitchen. “You have something for me, if you are here,” he says. Then, softly, “Or you should not be here.”
He waits. Lets it stretch.
The others finally come into the kitchen. There is irritation on one man’s face—Bruno, he thinks—and Nathaniel does laugh. It only makes Bruno angrier.
“This legacy does not belong in the hands of a child.”
Nathaniel fills his glass with orange juice. He is still in his running clothes. “I agree. You will never head the family.”
Bruno snarls. Nathaniel ducks out of the way of the incoming knife. He hears the whoosh by his ear and slides his foot a little to the right.
He notices no one else comes to fight.
Whatever crime the Wesninski family is involved in, they have their rules. A fight is man-to-man. The only things involved are blades and strength.
Nathaniel has never been strong.
He is fast, though. He is fast enough to dodge and then he downs the juice in one go while Bruno whirls around to attack again. Nathaniel takes the empty glass and slams it against Bruno’s temple. When Nathaniel hears a pained growl, he ducks under Bruno’s arm and shatters the glass on the counter. He takes a glass shard and holds it to the man’s neck.
He does not have to use strength to subdue Bruno. All he needs is the glass, patience, and the audience that watches them.
“You are a liability to this family,” Nathaniel says. He is quiet. The audience tenses, holds their breath, leans in.
This is it.
The thing about butchers is, they get dirty. Their line of work is the end of the line. The beginning. All things end and begin with the blade—life, and what comes after.
Nathaniel thinks there’s something poetic about how the first man he butchered is one that attacked him in the kitchen.
Most of it isn’t loud. Nathaniel has learned well. He takes the man’s life—his vein—in a swift move. Nathaniel maneuvers the body to the sink, where the blood trickles down the man’s neck and into the stainless steel. The smell is thick. Nathaniel watches for a moment and remembers.
“Cleaners,” Nathaniel says, idle. He muses over the glass shards on the counter. “Are there any further objections?”
He is met with silence. Silence, and the way Lola’s gaze and smile are tighter. She is next, he thinks. Not now—maybe not even this year—but she will come for him.
He will be more than ready.
Nathaniel takes great pains to keep his business apart from the Moriyamas. Where Nathan was bound, Nathaniel is not. The Wesninski name—the Butcher’s role—is not what it once was.
Not that Nathaniel is free. He is very aware of just how he must be; just how many things could go wrong. One misstep, and the Moriyama family could come down on him.
Nathaniel spends his first four years reordering his empire. He cuts back the unnecessary—the thugs in big cities, the webs in smaller ones. He pares down his foot soldiers to the thinnest numbers.
Thinnest, but most effective.
Under his careful hand, Nathaniel’s web of influence changes. Nathan’s legacy of terror and menace morphs into something much quieter—a network of hidden agents with unimportant names and faces. Nathaniel sends the everyman to each crossroads, to be his eyes and ears. He organizes his players in big cities but small bars, to do their business with travelers that will never remember or tell.
Nathaniel’s kingdom is the shadow to the Moriyamas’ sun. He likes it that way.
Andrew is aware that something is going to happen. He is not sure what, and he does not care. Not much, at least.
He cares enough about how much more difficult it will make his duty. His promise.
Kevin fidgets and Wymack looks tired. The rest of the team know something is up. Even Seth doesn’t speak, but the displeased line of his mouth is set firmly in place.
“I think I might know someone who can help us,” Kevin says.
Dan speaks first. “At what cost?”
Kevin moves words around his mouth like marbles. Andrew barely gives him a sideways glance. Whatever this is, he hasn’t heard about it. Not yet, at least. It makes him irritated—gets under his skin—but he doesn’t resent it. He can’t.
“There’s—he’s not the same, I don’t think,” Kevin starts to say. Andrew feels his irritation mount an inch. Kevin corrects himself. “The person I’m talking about—I met him, once.”
“Another you,” Andrew says. Light, but warning. This is not going to end well. “That’s no help.”
“No. He’s not like me.”
Even worse, Andrew doesn’t say. Kevin, he knows how to deal with. Someone new—someone with motivations and a web of people—is not possible. Especially if they could separate him from Kevin.
That’s all that matters, either way. He has a promise to keep.
“Do we know this person?” Allison asks. She says it like she doesn’t care, but she’s stretching a hairband between her fingers with increasingly agitated movements.
“I don’t know. Have you ever heard of the Butcher of Baltimore?”
The collective inhale is sharp. Renee looks to Andrew, eyes narrowed. Did you know? No, he says back, with just a tilt of his head.
They all know the Butcher. Of course, they do. No matter what level of what crime they all left, they know. There’s no way not to know the name.
There’s no way to avoid the news reports. The way some of their childhoods were marked by warnings not to play outside too late, and others were marked by whispers of rivals being slaughtered in the night.
Bloody corpses and efficient death.
Andrew is tempted to hit Kevin in the head. He is tempted to grab him by the throat and ask what the fuck he is trying to do. How he thinks he can stand toe-to-toe with a man—one about the same age as Tetsuji—and hold his ground.
How he would bring Andrew and the others into that kind of environment.
“This is going to be hard,” Wymack says carefully. “Which is why I’m going.”
The arguments practically explode. Andrew sits back while they unfold. Dan—because she sees Wymack as her father—is the loudest. Matt is right beside her. Even Renee is cautious about the idea.
Andrew waits for a lull. He waits for Wymack to speak again.
“Kevin and Andrew will come with me. As long as we have someone that will be missed—me—there won’t be issues. Kevin knows the guy. We’ll be quick. The rest of you will stay here, because I’m not risking the entire team on a chance.”
“You are,” Andrew says. “Not bringing them will not change anything. This is a risk you are going to take, and there will be no escaping the consequences.”
Kevin and Wymack don’t say anything. They know he’s right.
Nathaniel receives the very respectful request through one of his people. Dinah, in Columbia. She passes it on via her runner and then Bella comes to his office.
Bella is nice. Probably too nice for the Wesninskis, but she tries very hard to be hard. Nathaniel appreciates her too much to throw her out.
And she would take a knife for him.
“Someone is looking for you.”
“Someone,” Nathaniel repeats. He knows, somehow, by the pit in his stomach.
Bella shifts on her feet. Her fingers trace the hilt of the dagger strapped to her thigh, as if there’s a physical threat she can just stick a knife into. “The wayward Raven.”
Nathaniel traces letters onto his desk. P, S, U. Foxes. He can’t say he didn’t watch.
There has always been a distant resentfulness to Nathaniel’s watching. He thinks, sometimes, that Kevin could have been him. That if his mother were not dead—if he were strong enough to run—he might have been the same. That if he had chosen escape over finality, Exy over peace, he could have been Kevin.
He is not Kevin.
“Let’s extend an invitation,” Nathaniel says slowly. Bella inhales slowly. Her shoulder set in place, rigid.
“Have Dinah give it to Roland.”
“That might compromise her.”
“Maybe. But they’ll come.”
Bella hesitates. He can see the warring instincts in her face—her desire to protect the family and her determination to follow orders—before there is nothing. She is a clean slate.
Too clean. Like a surface scrubbed of death.
“I’ll do it.”
Andrew goes for more drinks. When he does, Roland’s tray has an envelope on it. Andrew presses his lips together and carries everything back to the table.
Kevin sees the envelope. The little flower on the seam, blood-red and swirling with the whorls of a thumbprint. It blooms still, as if freshly placed. Kevin reaches for it and then aborts, his hand going to a drink, instead.
Andrew waits for Kevin to down a drink and then he speaks. “We’re going.”
Kevin doesn’t argue. Nicky and Aaron don’t, either. They go back to the house and Andrew takes one of the knives at his arm and flicks the envelope open. After he checks it, he passes it to Kevin.
He does not care what Kevin’s reaction is. He cares what comes next.
After a moment, Kevin slides the letter to Andrew. He looks somewhere else—maybe into the past he can’t fucking let go of, or into the future he thinks he doesn’t have.