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The Raven King: Chapter 15

Neil woke to the sound of movement in the other room. Despite the late night, the Foxes were up and about by mid-morning. Today was the day the team cleared out for winter break, and most of them had long enough flights to sleep on. Allison, Renee, and Dan were flying out to Bismarck together around lunch time and would split up after they landed. Two hours after they were in the air the rest of the Foxes would be en route to LaGuardia.

Neil had passed Matt’s invitation along the week before exams and let Nicky do most of the work from there. Nicky’s original plans to go to Germany for Christmas derailed when Andrew got committed. He didn’t want to get that far away from Aaron. Unfortunately Erik couldn’t take enough time off to come to the States. That meant Matt was Nicky’s only chance for a fun holiday.

None of the so-called monsters of the team were sure why Matt was being nice to them, but Nicky was too excited to spend New Year’s in Times Square to really care. Wymack claimed to be happier than Nicky was about the arrangement, since their absence meant he could finally have some peace and quiet. Aaron had to get permission from his lawyer to leave the state, but they’d settled that easily enough.

How Neil was supposed to tell any of them his plans had changed, he didn’t know. There was no way he could tell them the truth. None of them would let him go through with it. It was a small miracle Kevin was going along with this. Kevin knew more than any of them what Riko was capable of, so he knew what was waiting for Neil in West Virginia. Maybe he trusted Neil to hold his ground; more likely he knew what Riko would do to the Foxes if Neil refused. Neil didn’t know and didn’t care so long as Kevin kept his mouth shut.

Neil pushed his blankets aside and sat up. He lifted his pillow to get his phone but hesitated at the sight of Andrew’s armbands. Nicky’s voice in the other room jarred him from his thoughts. Neil dropped his pillow again, then realized he had a way out. He grabbed his phone, flipped it open, and put it to his ear. When Nicky pushed the bedroom door open without knocking, Neil struck up a conversation with no one at all.

‘Yes, I saw it,’ Neil said, glancing at Nicky to acknowledge his entrance.

Nicky had his mouth open on a greeting but went quiet when he realized Neil was on the phone. Instead of leaving, Nicky got comfortable against the doorframe to wait him out. Neil had counted on Nicky’s curiosity. In the months since they first handed Neil this phone they’d never once seen him make a call on it. Neil signaled to Nicky that he was almost finished and half-turned away.

‘What did you expect? You waited this long to figure it out. By now I’ve already made other plans. I—’ Neil cut himself off, listened a moment, and bulled on. ‘But how long have you known he was coming? You could have said something. I don’t know. I said I don’t know. I’d have to—’ Neil scrubbed a hand across his eyes as if the entire conversation was exhausting to deal with. ‘Okay. Goodbye.’

He clicked his phone shut and dropped it off to one side.

For a minute, silence reigned. Then Nicky came into the bedroom and closed the door behind him. Neil sagged back against the wall as Nicky climbed halfway up the ladder to his bunk. Nicky folded his arms across Neil’s pillow and stared at Neil.

‘Everything okay there?’ Nicky asked.

‘I’m fine.’

Nicky just looked at him. ‘We’ve known each other forever by now. At some point you’re going to have to stop lying to my face. That didn’t sound fine and you don’t look fine. So what’s really going on?’

‘My uncle’s flying to Arizona for Christmas,’ Neil said.

‘Good thing? Bad thing?’

‘Both?’ Neil shrugged against the wall. ‘He’s a good guy, but he’s usually smart enough to avoid my parents. I haven’t seen him in years, and he’s never come over on a holiday. Something must be up. I just don’t know what. I don’t know if…’ Neil trailed off and gestured helplessly. ‘I promised myself I’d never go home again, but.’

‘But you want to see him again,’ Nicky concluded.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Neil said. ‘I told Andrew I’d stay with Kevin.’

‘But Kevin’s going to be with us,’ Nicky said, ‘and we’re going to be with Matt and Matt’s mom. The four of us can keep an eye on him if you need some time with your family. You need money for a ticket?’

‘I already have one,’ Neil said, and held up his folded itinerary. ‘Mom emailed it to me a couple days ago. I just didn’t want to deal with it before the banquet.’

‘You’re hopeless,’ Nicky said. ‘If you want to go, go. You’ve done more than enough for us this semester, Neil. At some point you’ve got to think about yourself. Watch,’ he said when Neil shook his head. ‘I’m going to go tell the others, and they’ll all tell you to go home. You’ll see.’

‘But—’ Neil said, but Nicky was already gone.

Neil swallowed the rest of his argument. It wasn’t a fight he wanted or needed to win, anyway. For a moment he pitied Nicky for being so gullible, but Neil took no satisfaction in what he’d just done. He unfolded the itinerary and studied it with a sinking feeling in his stomach. In two hours he’d be on a flight to Charleston, West Virginia, and he wasn’t scheduled to come back until the night of New Year’s Eve. That was two weeks alone with the Ravens.

The suite door banged as Nicky went back to his room to consult with Aaron and Kevin. When Matt walked into the bedroom a couple seconds later Neil was expecting him.

‘What are we going to do with you?’ Matt asked.

‘Sorry,’ Neil said.

‘What for?’ Matt waved that off. ‘When’s your flight?’

‘Eleven-ten, if I go.’

‘You’re going. I’ll give you a lift to the airport.’

Neil grimaced at him but got out of bed at last. He wasn’t hungry but he made himself eat some instant oatmeal and toast. Nicky returned to say he’d told all of the Foxes what was going on. Apparently they all wanted Neil on that plane. Neil nodded and said nothing, and Nicky left him in peace to get ready.

Neil showered and dug his duffel bag out of the bottom drawer of his dresser. He had it half-packed when he realized the bag was too small. For eight years he’d never owned more than what could fit in a carry-on. In the past half-year here his possessions had doubled in number. Even when his bag was full there were things in his drawers. Neil was at once confused and heartened, and he pressed a hand to his folded shirts. It was proof he was coming back, something he hadn’t had since he was a child.

The quiet tap of a footstep warned him he wasn’t alone, and Neil looked up at Kevin.

‘Can I give you something to take with you?’ Neil asked. ‘Will you promise to keep it safe? I don’t want to leave it here, but I can’t bring it with me.’ When Kevin nodded, Neil unlocked his safe and pulled his binder out. It took everything he had in him to hand it to Kevin. Even when Kevin took hold of it, Neil held fast to one end. ‘Don’t open it.’

‘I don’t want to know,’ Kevin said.

Neil let go, and Kevin tucked it under one arm. Neil pushed his safe closed and put it back where it belonged.

‘Neil,’ Kevin said when Neil got to his feet.

‘I’m coming back,’ Neil said, more for his sake than Kevin’s. ‘You promised you’d finish this year with me. I’m holding you to that.’

He slung his bag over his shoulder and slipped past Kevin out of the room. Matt was unplugging all of his electronics when the strikers showed up.

‘Ready?’ Matt asked.

‘Yes,’ Neil lied.

Matt grabbed his keys and they left. They stopped by the girls’ room first, where Neil was subjected to holiday hugs and well-wishes. Aaron settled for a nod when they checked in with the cousins next, but Nicky gave Neil a bone-popping squeeze.

‘You packed your charger, right?’ Nicky asked. ‘I expect you to text me everyday.’

‘I packed it,’ Neil said, but he doubted Riko would let him use his phone.

He left Kevin with the others to finish getting ready and followed Matt down to the truck. There was room at Neil’s feet for his bag. Matt turned the key in the ignition and cut his radio off a half-second too late to save Neil’s eardrums. Neil tried not to feel ill when the campus disappeared behind them but didn’t quite succeed.

‘When’s your return flight?’ Matt asked.

‘New Year’s,’ Neil said, ‘but I might come back early, depending on how things go.’

‘You bail early enough you should come join us,’ Matt said. ‘Mom can have your ticket changed.’

‘Thank you,’ Neil said. ‘I’ll let you know.’

Matt left him at the curb at Upstate Regional Airport. Neil watched him slide back into traffic, then turned to face the entrance. It was dizzying being here again. He and his mother never went through the same airport twice. He tightened his grip on his bag and went through the sliding glass doors.

The airport was busy this summer, but this close to Christmas it was downright chaos inside. Neil let himself get lost in the hubbub. He was just another face in the crowd, anonymous and unimportant. His airline had self-service check-in, so Neil scanned the barcode printed on his itinerary. His ticket and boarding pass popped out the slot at the bottom, and Neil headed for the security checkpoint. His bag made it through the scanners before he did. Neil toed into his shoes on the other side, grabbed his bag, and headed for his gate.

Most of the seats were taken, so Neil stood against a pillar to wait. He watched the crowd so he wouldn’t watch the clock blinking at his gate. He’d half-expected to see more classmates here, but maybe they’d high-tailed it out of town yesterday. The airport was a sea of unfamiliar faces. Neil was alone.

He’d been around the Foxes for so long he’d forgotten what it was like to have breathing space. He should have been grateful to have a couple moments by himself before this nightmare started, but Neil was left feeling out of sorts. He buried his hand in his pocket and wrapped his fingers around his phone. If he flipped it open, his call history would still only show one name, but his message box was so full it emptied itself out on a semi-regular basis. He thought about reading through them for courage, but he couldn’t make himself do it.

The gate attendant’s voice on the overhead speakers startled him from his thoughts. ‘Passengers for flight 12 to Charleston, we will begin boarding soon. Please report to gate D23 and wait to be called.’

Neil’s seat was right behind the business-class section. He had the window seat, much to his displeasure, but the space under the seat in front of him was just big enough for his bag. He pushed the duffel into place with his shoes and tried not to feel trapped by his seatmate. Attendants squeezed up and down the aisles, trying to get everyone settled as quickly as possible.

When everyone was finally seated and the overhead compartments were snapped shut, the attendants launched into a spiel about safety. Neil glanced at the emergency exit door but wasn’t as tempted as he thought he might be.

Facing Riko like this went against everything his mother taught him. He’d been raised to run, to sacrifice everything and everyone to ensure his own survival. His mother had never given him ground to stand on. Maybe that was why he hadn’t been strong enough to save her in the end. A jumble of lies had nothing to fight for. But Neil Josten was a Fox. Andrew called this home; Nicky called him family. Neil wasn’t going to lose any of it. If two weeks with Riko was the price to keep his team safe, Neil would pay it.

Somehow those thoughts made the flight easier. Neil even managed to doze through part of it, but he woke when they landed.

Jean was waiting for him in Arrivals. He watched Neil’s approach with a cool look on his face, and there was an edge in his voice when he said, ‘You shouldn’t have come here.’

‘Let’s go,’ Neil said.

The ride was silent, but the first sight of Castle Evermore had Neil’s blood humming in recognition. Evermore looked more like a monument than a stadium, and its jet-black paint job made it even more imposing. It was half-again as big as the Foxhole Court. Neil doubted the Ravens could fill every seat at every game, but the US Court likely sold out within hours of posting their matches. Neil could only imagine what game nights sounded like inside.

Jean stopped at a gate and reached out his window to type in a code. The gate swung open with a quiet squeal and Jean drove into the barricaded parking lot. A line of cars was already parked at the curb. Neil wished he was surprised that they were all identical. Even the custom license plates were only a couple digits off from each other. Neil stared hard at them until he thought he figured out the sequence. The EA had to be Edgar Allan, and the numbers following were class years and jersey numbers.

‘This isn’t a team,’ Neil said. ‘It’s a cult.’

‘Get out,’ Jean said, and parked in the open spot his teammates left for him.

Neil grabbed his bag and climbed out. Jean walked him to the door and put in another numbered password. The light over the keypad flashed green, so Jean tugged open the door. Instead of going in, he looked back at Neil.

‘Take a look at the sky. You won’t see it again until you leave.’

‘I’ve seen it,’ Neil said.

Jean’s smile mocked that bit of defiance and he gestured for Neil to precede him. The door had opened to a stairwell going down. Everything was painted black. The only light and color was a red tube of light down the middle of the ceiling. It wasn’t quite bright enough. When Jean slammed the door behind them Neil almost tripped down the stairs. He put a hand to the wall for balance and slowed down. At his back, Jean didn’t rush him.

He counted steps, wanting to know how deep they were going, and made it to twenty-six before the stairs dead-ended at another door. Jean reached past him to put in a third password, and Neil stepped into the Ravens’ living quarters.

‘Welcome to the Nest,’ Jean said.

‘Cult,’ Neil said again.

Jean ignored that and took him on a tour. This space was originally built to house visiting teams, but Coach Moriyama gave it to his Ravens instead. If the Ravens weren’t in class or on the court, they were supposed to be down here. At first glance, it wasn’t a bad setup. The Nest was spacious and well-stocked. Neil passed two full-sized kitchens, a lounge complete with a bar and pool table, and three dens with TVs. A long hall connected the social quarters to a weights room, and another hall took them to the dormitory.

A sign on the wall indicated Black Hall was to the left and Red Hall to the right. Neil looked both ways but honestly couldn’t tell them apart. It wasn’t worth asking about, so he followed Jean into Black. All of the bedroom doors were open, so Neil peeked in as they passed. The bedrooms were almost as big as the suite Neil shared with Matt and each one was outfitted with only two beds.

The Nest had the potential to be everything a college athlete could want—except for the low ceilings and the dark decor. Color was fleeting, and usually showed up only in shades of red. Everything else was black, from the furniture to the sheets to the towels draped over desk chairs to dry. The shadows were sucking the air out of the room and Neil was suddenly keenly aware of the weight of the stadium overhead. Neil wasn’t claustrophobic, but he thought two weeks down here might change that.

‘Here,’ Jean said, and motioned for Neil to follow him into the last room. ‘This is where you will be staying. You should be in Red with the rest of us, but the master has made a special allowance. He knows you require Riko’s personal attention.’

‘I’m not rooming with that sociopath.’

‘If only you had a say in the matter.’

‘Whose place am I taking?’ Neil asked, because both sides of the room were already decorated.

Jean stopped by one of the nightstands and gestured for Neil to come closer. ‘Look and see.’

Neil moved up alongside him and regretted it almost immediately. Postcards of faraway cities both foreign and domestic were taped to the walls. Beneath each one were scraps of paper. Kevin’s now-familiar scrawl listed dates and explanations for the travels. Most of them were games. Some indicated photo shoots and interviews. Books lined the shelves built into the headboard and Neil knew from skimming the spines they were Kevin’s. Kevin was majoring in history for reasons Neil couldn’t understand; these dry titles were the sorts of things he would find fascinating.

It gave Neil chills to see his space preserved like this. It was like Kevin had gone out on an errand, not that he’d transferred to another team entirely.

‘Riko’s in denial,’ Neil said. ‘Someone should tell him Kevin isn’t coming back.’

‘You don’t know anything,’ Jean said. ‘Put your things down and let’s go.’

Jean didn’t wait for him but left. Neil dropped his duffel on Kevin’s bed, spared a wary glance for Riko’s side of the room, and caught up with Jean down the hall. A flight of stairs took them up one floor to the Ravens’ locker room. Jean didn’t give Neil time to look around but pushed him through a back door into the inner court. They came out right near the Home benches.

It was the Sunday before Christmas and the Ravens were on the court in full gear. Two line-ups were playing a rather brutal scrimmage while the remaining nine Ravens watched. Heads turned as Jean stepped up alongside the armored nine, and the Ravens looked past Jean at Neil. Their expressions ranged from cold disinterest to open hostility. Neil wasn’t expecting a warm welcome, so he kept his attention on the court.

It wasn’t long before a buzzer sounded and called an end to the match. Riko’s team won by a three-point margin. The two line-ups met at half-court to critique each other’s performances. The subs joined them to share what they’d noticed from the outside. The huddle lasted a good fifteen minutes, but finally the Ravens clacked sticks and filed off the court.

Riko pulled his helmet off as he stepped through the court door. ‘Luke, close down the scoreboard. Martin, get the lights. I have a guest to tend to, so take an early lunch. The master will be by shortly to check progress, so have your papers ready for him. Afternoon practice will start at the usual time.’

The Ravens moved like a black river around Jean and Neil. Riko stopped in front of Neil to consider him, but summarily dismissed him in favor of Jean. ‘Show him his things. I will deal with him when I am showered.’

Jean inclined his head and held the door for Riko. Riko went one way, so Jean and Neil went another. Jean brought Neil into the changing room and opened an oversized locker on the end. Neil obediently looked inside. The locker was packed with Raven gear. It wasn’t until Jean shoved the jersey at him that Neil understood, because the name emblazoned on the back was JOSTEN.

‘I’m only here for two weeks,’ Neil said. ‘Why did he have those printed?’

‘Do not play stupid,’ Jean said. ‘Kevin would have told you by now that you are transferring this summer.’

‘He mentioned it. I told him I wouldn’t do it. Didn’t he pass that along?’ Neil tossed the jersey off to one side.

Jean snatched it from the air before it could hit the ground and flicked a livid look at him. ‘Try not to get us both killed on your first day, you ignorant child.’

‘Us?’ Neil asked.

‘Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you,’ Jean said, thrusting the jersey at him again. Neil refused to take it, so Jean caught hold of his coat with his free hand and yanked Neil close. ‘You lost the right to be an individual when you stepped into the Nest. The consequences of your actions are no longer yours alone to bear. Ravens operate on a pair-based system, which means from now until you leave I am the only ally you have.

‘My success is your success,’ Jean said. ‘Your failure is my failure. You are to go nowhere unless I am with you. If you break this rule we will bother suffer greatly for it. Do you understand? They want us to fail. They want to take starting line-up from me. I will not let you jeopardize my rank.’

‘I have some bad news for you,’ Neil said. ‘I can’t outscore Raven strikers.’

‘It is not them you need to outplay,’ Jean said. ‘You are not a striker anymore. You never should have been one in the first place. The master is moving you to defense where you belong. He will want to know why you abandoned your position. I hope you have a good explanation for him.’

‘It wasn’t my idea,’ Neil said. ‘Coach Hernandez had a full defense line. It was offense or nothing at all and I just wanted to play.’

Neil told Hernandez he’d never touched a racquet before because he couldn’t give Hernandez the names of his past coaches and teams. When Neil was recruited to the Millport Dingoes, though, it wasn’t his eight-year absence from Exy that made him so clumsy on the court. It was that Neil played little leagues as a backliner. He’d had to learn the game all over again from scratch. In the beginning Neil hated it, because he figured strikers were glory-hounds who sought the spotlight. As Neil got more comfortable with the position, though, he fell in love.

‘It was a bad idea,’ Jean said. ‘Now you have to unlearn all of your bad habits. Now try on your gear so we know it fits.’

‘Not in front of you,’ Neil said.

‘That modesty will be the first thing we break you of,’ Jean said. ‘There is no room for privacy in the Nest.’

‘I can’t believe you put up with this,’ Neil said. ‘At least Kevin ran. What’s your excuse?’

‘I am a Moreau,’ Jean said, as if Neil was being stupid on purpose. ‘My family has belonged to the Moriyamas since before they came to the United States. There is nowhere else for me to go, just as there is no place for you but here. Kevin is not like us; he is valuable but he is not property in the same sense. He escaped because he had family to run to.’

‘Andrew?’ Neil guessed.

‘I said family, you hard-of-hearing imbecile,’ Jean said. ‘His father. Your coach.’

It took a moment to sink in. When it clicked Neil recoiled from Jean in shock. ‘What?’

He knew, logically, that Kevin had to have a father. Kayleigh Day hadn’t gotten herself pregnant, after all. But she’d never given up the name of Kevin’s father, no matter how hard the press pushed. If the rumors were right that space was blank on Kevin’s birth certificate. She’d named Tetsuji her son’s godfather, though, which was how Kevin ended up at Evermore after Kayleigh died.

‘You’re lying,’ Neil said.

‘Why else would Kevin run to such a dreadful team?’

‘But he never—and Coach hasn’t—’

‘Figures he’s still too much of a coward to say anything about it.’ Jean gave a derisive flick of his hand. ‘If you don’t believe me, look for yourself. The last time I saw his mother’s letter it was tucked inside one of those boring books of his. He’s read it so many times he might have worn the words off the pages by now, but it is worth a shot.’

‘If he knew, why did he stay?’ Neil demanded. ‘He should have gone to Coach when his mother died.’

‘We found out only a few years ago,’ Jean said. ‘We found the letter in the master’s house purely by accident. Kevin stole it, but he never intended to act on the discovery. He knew going meant losing all of this. It wasn’t worth it.’ Jean gestured around at the locker room. ‘Once he lost this, of course, there was no reason to stay.’

‘You are all insane,’ Neil said.

‘Says the runaway who joined a Class I team,’ Jean said. ‘Says the man who came here today when he should have run. You are no better than the rest of us. Now are you going to try on your gear or am I going to have to force it on you?’

Neil thought about it, then took the jersey. Jean folded his arms over his chest and took a couple steps back. Neil turned the jersey over in his hands to look at his name. The white letters were surrounded by a faint red outline. The number beneath it wasn’t his.

‘I can’t even keep my ten?’ Neil asked.

‘Unimportant Ravens wear double-digits,’ Jean said. ‘Riko’s inner circle does not. This number suits you better. Did you know? In Japanese, ‘four’ and ‘death’ sound the same. It is appropriate that the Butcher’s son should wear this number.’

Neil shook his head but gave up arguing. He dropped the jersey in his locker again, steeled his nerves, and undid the buttons on his coat. He yanked the zipper undone next and shrugged out of his coat. He peeled his shirt over his head next and pretended not to notice the intent look Jean raked across his scarred front. Neil toed out of his shoes, pushed them out of his way with a foot, and yanked his jeans off. He put the Raven uniform on piece by piece as fast as he could. It fit him better than he expected it to, but Neil felt choked by it.

‘Good,’ Jean said. ‘Now put it back. You won’t need it until afternoon practice.’

Neil stripped it all off and put it back. He’d just fastened the last button on his coat when the door opened. Neil had his back to it, but he didn’t miss the way Jean blanched. Neil looked back to see Tetsuji and Riko in the doorway. Tetsuji had brought an ornate walking cane with him. Neil had never seen him with it before and hoped that meant Tetsuji was suffering some sort of injury or illness.

Riko let his uncle enter the room first and locked the door behind them. Neil spared a moment to wonder who installed locks on a changing room door, but he pushed that thought away as quick as he could. He couldn’t afford to be distracted when facing this man.

Tetsuji crossed the room to stand before him. ‘Nathaniel Wesninski,’ he said, like he found every syllable wanting. ‘Kneel.’

Neil hid his hands in his pockets so he could clench them into fists. ‘No.’

He thought Jean said his name, but it was barely louder than a breath of air. Neil didn’t look back at him. He didn’t think it was his imagination that Riko took a half-step back to put more space between himself and his uncle. A man who could keep even Riko in line wasn’t a man to challenge so carelessly, but Neil had no choice.

‘You will kneel,’ Tetsuji said.

Neil had a feeling he was going to regret this for the rest of his very short life, but he smiled and said, ‘Make me.’

He saw the cane come up, but it was too fast for him to dodge. It caught him in the face across his cheek and the side of his mouth. Neil stumbled under the force of the blow and crashed into the lockers. He didn’t feel it; he couldn’t feel anything but the fire eating through his skull. A sour flash across his tongue might have been blood but Neil’s mouth was too numb for him to be sure. He brought a hand up instinctively to check his skull for fractures, but Tetsuji’s cane caught him in the ribs next. Then his shoulder, and his arm, until Neil had no choice but to ball up and protect himself.

Tetsuji didn’t stop beating him until he finally passed out.

The Ravens’ afternoon practice ran for four hours, and Neil was in no shape for any of it. He’d been unconscious through the two hours the Ravens took for lunch; he only woke when Jean dumped a pitcher of icy water over his head. Neil was too delirious and sore to get changed out, so Jean had to force most of the gear onto him. Neil struggled, but Jean dug cruel fingers into Neil’s fresh bruises to stop him. Jean had to haul Neil up to the court. It wasn’t until Jean shoved a racquet into his hands that Neil truly realized that yes, he was expected to play.

They put him on as a backliner, and Neil failed spectacularly. He hadn’t played defense in almost nine years and he was in too bad of shape to keep up with Riko. Every time Riko made it past him, Riko hit Neil with his racquet. Exy armor was meant to guard against fast-moving balls and body-checks, not malicious blows from heavy racquets. By an hour into practice Neil was stumbling over his own feet.

Every time Neil fell, though, Jean was there to pull him off the ground. Jean had nothing to say to Neil about his poor performance, neither encouragement nor harsh words. Maybe he didn’t have the breath for it anymore. They were in this together, just like Jean warned Neil. Every time the other team scored they were both punished.

The rest of the Ravens were completely unsympathetic, even toward one of their own. This was how the team worked, and they accepted it unquestioningly. These five years might be a vicious nightmare, but world fame and seven-digit salaries waited for them on the other side of the graduation stage. They’d be set for the rest of their lives. As far as the Ravens were concerned, it was a worthwhile trade.

Because of their pathetic performance, Jean and Neil were tasked with shutting the court down afterward. That meant sweeping and polishing the court floor, then straightening up the mess the Ravens made of the locker room. By the time they were finally able to shower Neil could barely move. He didn’t even care that the Ravens’ shower room lacked stalls. He knelt on the tiled floor under the spray and let the heat ease some of the pain from his shattered body. Neil flexed his swollen fingers to make sure they were in working order. They moved, but he couldn’t feel them.

‘You should have run,’ Jean said, too exhausted and sore to be hateful anymore.

‘I grew up on pain,’ Neil said. ‘Two weeks of this won’t mean a thing.’

‘Three,’ Jean said.

Neil looked at him. ‘I only agreed to two. I’m leaving on New Year’s Eve.’

Jean closed his eyes and tilted his head further under the spray. ‘You ignorant child. This is the Ravens’ Nest. We go by our time, not yours. We run on sixteen-hour days. You’ll see.’

Neil was too tired to deal with his dramatics, so he focused on washing up. He dressed in the loosest clothes he’d packed and trailed Jean to the kitchen. He barely tasted any of the food he put in his mouth, but he needed his strength. Jean put their plates in the dishwasher and brought Neil to Black Hall.

Riko was waiting for them in their bedroom. Neil didn’t see him until he was already inside, and by then it was too late. Jean locked the door behind him and leaned against it. Neil considered fighting him, but he didn’t have the energy and there was nowhere to go. He went to his bed like he didn’t care he was trapped in here with them and sat on the edge of the mattress. He looked at the books and thought of Kayleigh’s letter, thought of Jean and Kevin putting up with this day after day, year after year.

Riko got up from his bed, and Neil looked at him. Riko was smiling, and the look made Neil sick to his stomach. His father had looked at him with loathing and fury. He’d never looked like this, like Neil’s blood would be the highlight of his day. The Butcher was a vicious killer with a hair-trigger temper, but he thrived on death and fear, not pain and submission.

‘Keep away from me,’ Neil said.

Riko pulled a switchblade from his pocket and flicked it open. ‘I thought you weren’t afraid of my knives, Nathaniel. Was that a lie to make yourself feel better?’

Riko sat sideways on the mattress beside Neil. He looked at Neil like he was imagining skinning Neil alive and feeding Neil the bloody scraps. His expression said he was getting off on the fantasy. Neil didn’t flinch when Riko put the tip of the blade to Neil’s lips, but it was a near thing. Jean moved up alongside them, but Neil didn’t dare take his eyes off Riko to look at him.

‘I am going to love hurting you,’ Riko said, ‘like I loved hurting Kevin.’

‘You are one seriously fucked-up individual,’ Neil said.

Riko slipped the knife into Neil’s mouth and pushed, hard enough to break the skin at the corner of Neil’s mouth but not deep enough to do any real damage. ‘Shut up and lie down,’ Riko said. ‘We don’t have a lot of time, and I promised the master to have you in line before night practice.’

‘I hate you,’ Neil said around the blade.

‘Lie down,’ Riko said again, ‘and put your hands on the headboard.’

Neil stretched out on his back and reached over his head. Jean caught his hands to guide them to the right place. Neil felt wood under his fingertips and grabbed hold. Jean let go of him only to snap cold metal over his wrists. Neil tried to look but the knife in his mouth wouldn’t let him move. Riko felt him tense, though, and withdrew his blade. Neil looked up and regretted it immediately. Metal cuffs locked his hands to the headboard. He yanked his arms as hard as he could, nearly skinning his wrists in the effort, but the headboard didn’t even creak.

‘Who is your King, Nathaniel?’ Riko asked.

Neil spat in his face.

Riko froze, then slowly reached up to touch the glob on his cheek. He eyed his slick fingers for a moment, needing to see the mess to believe it, and then seized Neil’s face in an iron grip. He pried Neil’s mouth open and spat in it. A hand over Neil’s mouth kept him from coughing it back up. Jean climbed onto the bed and sat on his legs before Neil could knee Riko in the back. Riko pressed the knife to Neil’s chest and slipped the edge under his skin.

‘I’m going to make this as terrible as I know how,’ Riko promised him. ‘When it’s too much for you, don’t hesitate to cry.’


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