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17. The Drowning Raven

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The shower was a blessing and a curse, soothing every ache while lighting them all aflame. I had nearly forgotten that I was covered in blood, as the bus trip had mostly been too dark to notice. Dacien had left me in the bathroom, assuming I’d want to clean up. I changed into a set of clean clothes, grasping onto the sink to look at myself in the mirror.

There were small gashes along my face: my lip was split at the center. One eye was definitely black and barely open – the other almost pristine. It was a lopsided sort of beating, but I wasn’t going to complain. I recalled the last time I’d seriously stared at myself in a mirror, almost another time. I was a different person, living a much different life, constantly on the move. I was serving other masters then. Now I served myself, and my child. Or that’s how it would be from here on in. I smiled despite myself, slightly proud of my accomplishment. I had survived, and I had created something better from the ashes of my former self.

When I emerged, clean and more awake, Dacien was in the main room, waiting for me. She got up with a smile as I moved towards her; she was glad to see I was feeling better. She looked over her shoulder slightly, and Jekt stepped out from behind her, a sort of foolish grin on his own face. He stepped past her to where I was frozen, my eyes locked on his.

I had only started to piece together what I’d say to him when we undoubtedly crossed paths again. I had gotten as far as a greeting when all ideas faded to black. I had loved him, in my own haphazard, relentless way. But he had a life beyond mine, a child that I’d never even considered possible. For a split second, I was annoyed with his deceit, until I realized that I never bothered to question him about his family history. I hadn’t bothered to ask, and he hasn’t bothered to tell me. People didn’t belong to Dacien as much as pledged their loyalty; as with Jekt, she allowed him to have his own life as long as she could continue hers. Once the flames of war died down, they could continue what they started long ago, but it would have to wait until then. It was a type of self-sacrifice you seldom see nowadays, with an innocent child at the center. Who had raised her these past three years? My mind was rampant with possibilities as I stood there, realizing that all the details didn’t matter past this moment.

“You’re looking…well.” His voice seemed to choke on itself. He realized how foolish he sounded suddenly, a hand reaching up to rub the back of his neck awkwardly. I laughed out loud, rushing forward to hug him. Dacien made no comment about the situation, and I took advantage of it.

“You jackass, I’ve missed you,” I muttered, grasping onto him tight. His body shook for a second at the initial impact, and again when I remembered the bruising all over the ribs. The abuse he’d taken…for me. The beating Dacien had put him through, to keep the secret hidden, to make everything appear authentic. I backed away instantly, feeling all the more foolish for causing him so much pain. Pain that he had willingly endured on my behalf.

“It’s alright Deac, I almost forgot myself. It’s mostly healed.”

I laughed despite myself, looking at the both of them. A rough pair, haggard and weary, but they seemed at peace together, their inner intensity calmed in each other’s presence.

“Tell me something, where do you hide a three year old for three years?”

Dacien laughed a little, kissing Jekt on the cheek.

“Anywhere and everywhere. Usually in plain sight. Any child born into this sort of crew becomes everyone’s child, thus everyone helped raise her. She’s been left in the custody of all manner of street demon, every sort of madman and murderer conceivable – and she’ll be better for it in the long run. Soon she’ll be our charge, and ours alone though.”

I nodded slowly, realizing how much sense it made. With so many people running around, willing to run errands for the boss, it was entirely possible. I almost felt like a fool for missing it sooner, but such was the state of things.

“Well what are we waiting for, I think we could all use a drink.”

Jekt’s mouth frowned slightly, looking at both of us worriedly.

“I don’t know about you two, but I intend to have a drink or three. It might be better if you two kept it to water for a few more months. Don’t worry, I can drink enough for the three of us.” He smiled wide, proud of his tolerance. Dacien shot him a daring glance.

“We’ll see about that.”

I was going to fight him on the decision, realizing how entirely positive he was on the issue. I hadn’t even thought twice of the abuse my body had been putting itself through, realizing that I was harboring another life that needed to be coddled and nurtured. Dacien seemed to admit the same thing, almost depressing in its truth; we were both in mother bear mode now. Our single purpose right now would be to protect our cubs while they grew inside, taking every precaution. Despite the stark reality check, I found myself just as eager to hit the bar anyway. There was more than just drinking at our old home, and some familiar faces might help the mood.

With a few more casual laughs to lighten things up, we left for the bar, hoping to bury all past debts and start from scratch. The war of the clans had ended, Dacien was the reigning Queen, and we were all at peace with our madness. There were no manic murderers loose on the streets anymore, no more random attacks, things had settled better than we could have ever perceived at the start.

There’s this theory about chess that I always respected, and slightly envied. They say that a top player, someone of unparalleled skill, can envision every move on the board before they happen. They can see every possibility, every variant, every outcome of the game after their first motion. Through that single decision, they can learn the outcome of the match. I like to think of Dacien Ransom as a gifted chess player. Years ago she set into motion a great series of wheels, involving everyone in the community. The war had burned over, her brother was murdered, a series of unspeakable events happened. People lived and died on her watch, but she never blinked, and never faltered. She always maintained control. It was only after this much time had passed, and countless people had died, that we realized that her goal along wasn’t power, but peace. She needed to control all the elements in order to bring them together.

The ends justify the means, or so she had convinced herself all these years that innocent blood spilt. Seeing the peace that had finally settled, begrudgingly, it all made sense now. She had set everything up from the start. She had her eye on the Queen from the start and had calculated every possible move to reach her. Now the true question was this:

Who would replace our Queen?

The streets never went without a Leader, there needed to be someone to call the shots and keep everyone in some sort of order. If she left to follow her fairy tale ending, someone would need to take control from there. I was curious, but I decided to just follow along, the oblivious observer, and let everything fall into place.

We reached the bar to find nothing changed. Bands still played, the less enlightened still flocked to them, and Irish still tended bar. She didn’t even look up as we entered, almost expectant of our coming. We sat at the bar in a row, as calm and collected as anyone would expect. She rolled her eyes to size me up slowly, recognizing my face, piecing together the memories.

“Didn’t I ban you from this place?”

Dacien shot her an accusatory glance. “Come now Irish, we’re all here to have a good time, let’s not go spoiling it.”

She shrugged slightly, setting a bottle down by Jekt and sliding us each a glass. “If you insist, Boss.”

The last word seemed to drown in resentment and anger, a sort of respectful nod to Dacien’s position and how ill-begotten it was. Dacien didn’t let it bother her in the slightest, smiling in return.

“You know you don’t have to call me that, I’d actually prefer if you didn’t. Come on, take a glass, we’re celebrating.”

Irish’s eyes settled back to me, the black-and-blue bruises all over my face. “Funny way to celebrate, you girls have. Seen better days have you Deacon?” She climbed over the bar in a bound, settling down on the stool next to me. She leaned over the edge for a clean glass. I nodded at her in response, running my fingertip around the top of the glass.

“You win some, you lose some. You seem to be doing alright Irish.”

She nodded in agreement, reaching to take the bottle from Jekt. “A lot less trouble without you lot running around, I tell you that. Took a bit to get people back after Dacien here shot up the joint. Which by the way, thanks.” She shot Dacien a vicious glance, which lasted only a second as she smiled around her glass. Dacien smiled in response.

“You know me Irish, can’t show up without some sort of fanfare. Besides, you know it was good for business. Everyone wanted to see the scene, somehow become part of the story.”

Irish shrugged. “True enough. Still wish you hadn’t broken so many glasses, it was murder cleaning that up.”

Dacien laughed and topped off Irish’s glass, glad to find at least a lukewarm reception. Jekt was quiet in his own corner, which was typical for him. It was always best to leave him to his thoughts.

“Aw, I’ll make it up to you somehow,” Dacien paused, the bottle in hand, staring into her empty glass, resting it on the counter. Irish watched her methodically, noticing that neither her nor I were drinking. She stored that fact away in her mind somewhere, resolving to make sense of it later.

“So what’s the occasion, Miss Ransom? You seldom ever grace me with your company anymore, so busy keeping your kingdom at peace.”

“Well, that’s the point of it. I’m leaving my kingdom.”

Irish had been leaning back on her stool until then, crashing back to the ground and swallowing her drink with a cough. “Excuse me?”

Dacien’s eyes gave away nothing. She showed nothing to any of us, staring ahead at the mirror behind the bar. In it, she could see the entire room, all the people carrying on casual conversations. I could envision those people diving under tables, scrambling for the door as shots rang out. I remembered vividly the bodies dropping as blood snaked its way across the floor. The confused look on my brother’s face. The pain and screaming. Dacien had been there too. She had orchestrated the scene. And it had been the final blow in her personal attack on me.

“It’s time someone else took over.”

Irish leaned over me to speak into Dacien, to keep attention to a minimum. “You can’t just leave, you know that. Nobody just retires, least no Ransom does. Your family doesn’t know what it means to quit, they don’t understand…”

Dacien cut in. “They didn’t understand. Past tense. They do now. Peace has been achieved, now I must merely leave it with someone capable of keeping it. Congratulations Irish.”

Irish poured another drink and downed half of it without thinking twice. She looked around the bar, her home, her haven, realizing what Dacien was offering her. Complete control of the street demons, restoring the balance of power to where it belonged; she tried to analyze Dacien’s words in her mind piece by piece.

“Do you realize what you’re saying here? What you’re leaving behind?”

Dacien nodded slowly. “It’s yours if you’ll take it. I’d trust it to nobody else.”

Irish laughed, long and hard at that. She was amazed at how far things had come, how distorted things had become along the way.

“All the people who have died in this war, between your side and mine. All the bodies we’re buried, the innocent lives lost…and once you’ve won, you want to hand it back to me? It’s just sort of funny how things work out.”

“It was always supposed to work that way. A lot of good people who weren’t supposed to die did, thus complicating things. A lot of people thought dead seem to endlessly return. I’m sorry for the cost Irish, but I’d hoped that you’d understand.”

Irish nodded, consenting to Dacien’s explanation. Yes, a lot of people had died, but they now had peace to show for it. And Dacien was returning it to the rightful keepers of it. Irish would accept, as she was destined to. After surviving everything else, she was the only one qualified to manage things efficiently and ruthlessly. Which was the way you had to run things.

And so the transition occurred simply – on a typical night at a familiar bar over a few drinks; two old enemies, now long time allies would forge the new order. And I had merely stood by as the witness to the accord. Should any accident befall Dacien or Jekt before their departure, I was the only one who would know this conversation had occurred. I was their witness to the testimony of both parties. Should any violence erupt, I was their security blanket. I was almost upset for being used in such a way, but realizing all that both players had done for me in their lives, I let go.

We passed a few more hours with Irish, talking about better days and tying up her time, until she left us to tend to customers. We had moved to a table by then to free up some bar space and draw less attention, as there were always watchers in the crowd. There were always third parties interested in your side of things, trying to find information they could sell or souls they could steal. One way or another, there was always more going on than you initially thought. And we liked to keep it that way.

Distraction is the greatest invention of mankind, and without such an amazing tool, we’d have nothing to hide our geniuses with.

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