2 An Encounter

The sun was beating down from above. It was the first time Auga had set foot so deep into the city, so the startling amount people coupled with the intense summer heat was enough to make him dizzy. His feet felt like they were blistered and his legs groaned with each step.

The district was active and alive. Beggars and shopkeepers alike were calling out to people with fancy clothes and seemingly heavy pouches. A stench of piss and rot reeked from one corner while perfumes and the scent of good food wafted from the next.

Auga saw a bakery next to a corner shop and instinctively felt up his coin purse, reassured by its weight. He still had a small fortune left on him, enough to indulge in some dessert and rest his miserable earthly body at least until the sun left its apex, and so decided to step through the shop's doors.

Immediately he was greeted by the smell of cinnamon and citrus. Round tables were set up next to the windows, accompanied by small seats with leather cushions. The place was filled with clatter and idle chatter. Ahead in the glass casing was a neat line of a range of cookies and cupcakes with colorful frostings, and behind the counter a warm-looking woman gestured towards Auga. She had lines across her face that marked her Auga's superior by many years. "What will it be today?"

"Umm… I'll have one of these."

"One lemon cake. Sprinkles?"

"Yeah, sure."

"One lemon cake with sprinkles. Will that be all?"

Auga looked around the display then remembered that he was parched. "Something to drink." He waved his hand. "Anything cold will do."

"One lemon cake with sprinkles and cold tea… That comes to half a rand." Auga produced five copper coins from his purse and dropped them on the counter.

"Make yourself comfortable." The woman nodded towards a seat, turned around and disappeared into the kitchen.

***

The rest of the afternoon was spent toiling about the district's winding alleys. Once or twice Auga ran into some thugs, which were really just boys looking for trouble, but even children with knives can be dangerous if they come in large enough groups.

Out of wariness and a pinch of precaution Auga had decided to store his money in separate batches, keeping them in little pouches hidden across his clothing articles, so the majority of his coins were untouched. Still, a hefty third of what he had was lost.

Auga was now strolling through the market, stingy about his misfortunes. Some of the stalls were beginning to pack up for the day and close up shop. The streets were peaceful.

In the corner of his vision Auga could see a hooded figure passing by, shoving people left and right, gusts of wind trailing behind him. He swiftly pushed Auga aside hard enough to make him stagger.

'Hmph… what's his deal?!' It didn't take him long to realize that he had, in fact, just been picked. His coin pouch was absent from where it was usually strapped to. "Hey!" he shouted, and the figure bolted through the crowd.

Auga broke into a sprint after the thief. The cobbles under his boots were rough and uneven, but he had steady footwork and was soon within arm's reach from the thief. He reached out to grab the cape flapping in front of him…

… and missed. The figure in front of him darted to the left with cat-like agility. At that moment it hit him; Auga was far outmatched and soon, if this kept up, he was going to lose the thief. He ordered his legs to sprint and rushed after the culprit once again. Debris flew past his face as the thief caused chaos on the way, knocking over objects to lose the pursuer.

The once-peaceful district was now in chaos. Angry shopkeepers bellowed after the two runners, some mad enough to throw rocks and pebbles after them.

Auga's legs were roaring with pain now as his breath began to draw short. He bit his lips and forced his legs to carry on, while the thief slipped through crowds and jumped over obstacles like it was mere child's-play.

This was it; he had reached his limit now. The world began to blur as his vision faded, and with the last slivers of his consciousness he saw the figure in front of him steadily shrink until it was almost out of sight. Frustration burned in his chest, but the fatigue was overpowering and soon he was on his knees, fighting not to pass out…

A loud shout jostled Auga awake. He wasn't sure how much time had just passed. 'Did I faint…?' Looking around he realized that he was in an alley. He heard a group of voices shouting profanities, and before he knew it, his legs had already carried him to where they were coming from.

He peeked around a corner and stood paralyzed by the sight of fierce gang members huddled around a helpless girl.

They were old, with the youngest being a decade older than Auga. One of them, slender and wiry, held a wooden plank, drips of blood drying on its surface. His lips were twisted into a cruel grin, strands of ashen white hair scattered across his face.

"Kitty has a sneaky paw? Does kitty want to play?" he teased. "Where were you rushing off to in such a hurry, huh!?" He jerked his hand up as if to strike with the plank, but the girl didn't so much as flinch.

"For a thief, you're not so bright, are ya?" spoke a broad man leaning by the wall. His thick mustache was finely groomed, yet his eyes lacked the kindness of a gentleman. He spoke with a thick accent. "Recognize this mark, girl?"

Auga could make out a tattoo of a snake coiled around a dagger. Looking around, he realized all of the men had the same mark across their arms, though they varied by different details. Some had small stars underneath, some had two snakes instead of one.

"We make people disappear. We dispose of people like you snatch petty coins. That means," he walked over to the girl sprawled on the floor, his face cold, "little street puppies should steer clear if they value their life. At. All." The bear of a man kicked her twice, punctuating his final words with heavy blows to her chest. The girl went limp.

"Run into us again and you're rolling down the hill in a barrel full of horse piss." The wiry man laughed and spat on her face. The rest of the group turned to leave and eventually only her motionless body was left.

Auga stood there, his legs stuck in place, and after a second of hesitation he ran up to her. There were fresh cuts and bruises all across her arms and legs, and blood seeped through her tunic. Beside her on the ground was a torn-up cloak. This was the very same culprit Auga had been chasing just earlier. 'Ironic'.

He picked her up and carried her on his back. She was surprisingly light, even for her figure. He ran back through the dark alley and out into the streets. Twilight encompassed the sky, the moon hanging over their heads, intently watching the scene unfold.

***

The distant memories of childhood burned away as the fumes of fire scorched their nostrils.

The rush of emotion was overwhelming. Fear, panic, grief, anger. All fused into one terrible torrent of despair.

"Take your brother and leave through the garden hatch. Your mother and I will handle the rest. Make sure you run as far as you can, until your legs are very tired, got it?"

"O-okay."

"Good. We will be with you as soon as possible, so be a good girl and stay strong, okay?"

"Yes, dad."

"Now go!"

That night she ran. With her brother in her arms, she did as she was told. She ran until dawn, stopping a few times midway to heave from the sudden physical strain. Then she ran again.

The burden of looking after someone so frail and fragile eventually hardens the heart, like fire hardening clay. In this case, the flames of fate had calloused the soul of an innocent young girl.

For weeks they survived on left-over foods and trash, taking shelter in hollow trees and abandoned rooftops. Although times were hard, she still managed to persevere in the face of tragedy, but the lives of all beggars collectively worsened after the king's new "reforms", and the sudden influx of city guards that followed thereafter.

"It'll be okay, Sebastian. These people will take care of you. Better than me anyway."

Speaking more to herself than to her brother, she left the toddler on the doorstep with heavy tears flowing down her red cheeks.

"I can't stay with you. Remember what mother said?"

She gently caressed his brother's face, careful not to wake him up. Her vision became blurry.

"I'll come back someday; I'll promise you that. Goodbye. I love you…"

She knocked on the door and hid. An elderly man answered, looking around before picking up the child at his doorstep.

"Tsk tsk. Another poor fellow. Where did this one come from, hmm?"

And with that he shut the door behind him, taking in her brother to raise as one of his own. She stood, hidden behind a tree.

A silent minute passed.

Whoever passed by the tree would've been completely oblivious of the girl drowning in her sorrow. The bitter sobs were muffled by the rustling of the leaves, as the wind gently comforted her ailing mind…

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