The thief ran. The tiles were hot and hard against her bare feet but she ignored the pain. The cries coming from behind her were enough reason to push it out of her mind. But eventually she ran out of roof tops. Skidding to a halt, she bent at the waist, catching her breathe. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the soldiers scramble up the side of a house and land on the rooftops with her. They looked around, confused. But it lasted only for a moment. The captain's eyes connected with hers. She grinned. He snarled. With a roar he raced toward her, his men following close behind.

Sucking air into her lungs, she bent her knees and watched them surge forward. She waited and waited, hand draped protectively over the pouch at her belt. Soon the whites of the captain's rage-filled eyes were clear for her to see. And still she waited. The captain unsheathed his sword and she could feel the air shift with the movement. And still she waited. The captain swung his weapon in a deadly arc. It sliced through empty air. She dove onto her stomach and rolled down the slanted roof until she was a few feet below the mob of soldiers. With practiced hands she began to pull the tiles till rows of them started to slide free and fall onto the ground below. The captain started moving toward her but the tiles under his boots began to shake. He glanced down. They began to slide toward the edge and open air. In horror he tried to escape only to see that the surrounding tiles were moving right along with him. The screams of frightened soldiers told him the others were going down as well. Faster and faster they slid. The trip from the top of the roof to the edge only lasted a few seconds but he still had enough to find his enemy. She safely stood on unmoving tiles, smiling that evil smile. Hatred swelled within him.

He had a split second to act and she was too far away. But that didn't stop him from throwing his sword in her direction, in hopes that maybe it would skewer her. It fell, pathetically, directly in front of her and as he tipped into open air he watched her wrap her heinous hands around the hilt. He felt more hatred for her in those moments of free-fall, watching her hold his sword, than he ever had. But soon she was out of sight and the realization that he was falling hit him. As were his men. He could see them above and slightly to the right of him, arms and legs flailing, mouths screaming. He did not scream. He simply closed his eyes and gritted his teeth to the pain that would follow the crash onto the dirt road below. A crash that never happened. Instead it was replaced with a soft thump. Heat and squishy softness enveloped him. He sighed with relief.

Surely he was dead and he was happy that his men, good, honest men, would feel the soft warmth instead of pain, since they were surely dead too. He wished that their deaths could have been avoided. He regretted never getting his hands around that damned girl's throat. He really wished he hadn't died. He would miss his wife and children. But death was comfortable so at least there was that. For a moment he just laid there. Then the smell hit him like a kick in the chest.

He opened his eyes, gasping, and they immediately began to water. The blue sky spun overhead and the disgusted voices of his men, his still alive men, pierced his ears. He rushed to his feet and groaned when his boots sank deep into the mushy substance. He did not want to look down, left or right. He knew what he would find. The smell was enough to tell him that. But he looked anyway.

Sure enough, his men were wiping at the brown stains that now covered their once impeccable white and crimson uniforms, their skin, and their hair. They tried to exit the heap that they landed in but only succeeded in falling face first into it. He grimaced down at himself and saw that he was just as bad as them. Villagers were beginning to circle around and laugh at the foolish kingdom soldiers. He didn't blame them. Who wouldn't chuckle at the sight of ten or so grown men standing knee deep in some farmers manure cart? A farmer who, at the moment, was doubled over, holding onto his young son for support, as he laughed so hard tears streamed down his aged face.

He moved as quickly as he could, without falling, out of the cart and then helped his men out one by one. He inspected each one but other than being covered in the stinky muck they were unharmed. That was a blessing, at least. He growled at the thought of what that girl had caused. She had done it on purpose, that he knew. There was no doubt in his mind that she saw the cart and maneuvered his men and himself into a perfect position for what just happened. He had seen her bent over as a sign that she was winded when really she was simply waiting for them. And he had led his men into a trap out of his own eagerness. He was furious with himself. How many times had her and he danced this little dance? He should have known she wouldn't be out of breath by such a short chase. He acted like an idiot and got played for a fool. With these thoughts rolling through his head he glanced up at the rooftop where he had fallen. A face hung over the edge, grinning from ear to ear. He snarled at her. Out of habit he reached for his sword without breaking eye contact but felt only an empty scabbard. Hissing in frustration he remembered the sight of her hand wrapping around his sword's hilt. Her mouth moved and he knew she was laughing at him. Her arm appeared, waving his sword and she laughed even harder. He could almost see those terrible eyes of hers twinkling in humor.

He gritted his teeth in frustration before making a gesture in her direction and turning his back on her. Let her keep it. Obviously she had won today's match and he didn't deserve that fine weapon. He did feel slightly empty without its weight on his hip though. But he will learn to deal with it. Engulfed with his own thoughts he barely heard the gasp of the people around him, the warning cries of his men, and the swish of the air being sliced behind him. However, his body sensed the rising tension and danger in the air and acted out of years of training and experience. He hit the dirt without really realizing what it was he was doing. The sword stabbed into the ground only a foot away from his right ear. He watched the hilt tip from side to side in the aftershock of the impact. The area around him was dead silent.

He rolled onto his back, propped himself up onto his elbows and glared up at the rooftops. She stood now, her face lit up with her smile. He found himself smirking back at her.

"You missed!" His voice rang throughout the street and caused her to laugh again.

She blew him a kiss, bowed to the crowd, turned, and disappeared from sight.

He shook his head at her audacity and chuckled slightly. His men looked worried as they helped him to his feet.

"Are you alright, Captain?" His lieutenant's uneasy face appeared in his peripheral vision. Ignoring him, he bent and removed his sword from the ground. He rolled the hilt across his hands and checked it over for any damage. None could be found. Everyone was silent again as he did this. He slid it into the scabbard with a solid thunk and turned to face them.

"Am I alright?" He glared over his men. "I will never be alright while that menace runs free, terrorizing the kingdom. What a foolish question." He spun on his heel and started for the castle that loomed over the town. The lieutenant trotted to catch up with him.

"Excuse my boldness, Sir, but why are we not chasing her?" The captain glanced sideways at him and smirked again.

"If you would like to run around the town, covered in manure, chasing a ghost, you go right ahead. Don't blame me if she tricks you into a giant pot of piss or even finds a way to strip you naked and tie you up for everyone to see." The lieutenant shuddered at thought and the captain smiled at his discomfort. "That's what I thought." His large hand slapped onto the younger man's filthy shoulder. "Don't worry. We're not even close to giving up. She'll be back and we're ready. The plan has already been set into motion."

The lieutenant glanced up at him. "What are we going to do once we have her?"

"Don't you worry about that. When the time comes you just do as you're ordered and we will have that evil girl pinned down and sniveling for forgiveness. Then we'll see her punished, like she deserves." The captain chuckled at the thoughts running through his head. The lieutenant let the matter drop and they continued the walk back to the barracks in silence.

The girl watched them go from her hideaway on the rooftops above their head. She could not hear what they said but the way the captain smiled made her uncomfortable. He was planning something nasty, that much was clear. But the urge to beat the captain and his men at his own game battled with her discomfort and sense of self-preservation. She refused to allow them to get the better of her. Clearly she was smarter than them. Their faces when they realized they were in a pile of shit still made her laugh. Soon they drifted out of sight and she turned away from them gazing across the kingdom from her perch in the air.

Her gaze first hit the castle. How could it not? It was the largest thing around and the massive stone walls with the colorful banners flying the scarlet seal of the kingdom demanded attention. That, she knew, was where the untouchable money was. She didn't dare enter the walls that protected it from the town below long enough to steal anything good. Even she couldn't outrun that many soldiers. But still. Her mouth watered at the thought of all the gold, silver, and precious stones that sat, unloved, in the castle's treasury. Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

She then followed the cobblestone path from the castle's imposing iron gate with her eyes till she was studying a string of buildings that hugged the outer edge of the protective walls. She could almost sense that the houses had absorbed their owners' immense greed and their need to be as close to the royal family, and their money, as possible. The houses that were the closest were owned by old money. They had been passed down generation to generation, each successor more pompous than the last. Only a little ways away was houses that were slightly smaller. These were owned by new money. The people there were unsure of their standings and were struggling to fit in. Everyone else knew it and it created a look of scorn from old to new. After the new money was the Desperates. These people did not have the money or the heritage to fit into either of the other two groups. However, they were desperate to do so, hence the cute title. She smirked at the general direction of their houses. She hated the Desperates. They would do practically anything to move up in the world. The News and Olds would take advantage of this only to shut them out once the task was complete. And still they would obey. They were pathetic. She slid her eyes over each and every house that filled those few streets of actual wealth. Unlike the castle, these people were fair game.

She continued to trail her eyes along the road and watched as it slowly began to change from cobblestone to dirt the farther way from the money she went. The streets all moved south until they meshed together in a square of sorts where the laborers and tradesmen lived. These people were honest folk who work hard to make a living. Shops of blacksmiths, bakers, tanners, and other trades crowded the streets. Their houses were either next to, behind, or on top of their shops. They were never more than a stone's throw away. Each store was a family heirloom as was the trade. Everyone knew the families and what they did. Everything was too close together to not know. Carts crowded the streets, some selling items, some delivering supplies, and some, like the manure cart, were making their way out of the bustling town all together. Street urchins and beggars were scattered around the crowds that moved like a wave through the streets. They took what they could and begged for what they couldn't. Those who lived in the market place paid them no mind. It was the wealthy people who came down from time to time that handed out their money like it was leaves on a tree. Once they collected what they could they moved back to where they came, south of the markets.

She followed one skinny boy who had a fist full of stolen bread and a bruise on the cheek from the baker. He made his way through the crowd and popped out the other side. He continued along the southern road until he escaped the busy marketplace. The area he entered was covered in a gray fog. The roads that he walked on were cluttered with dead leaves and other decaying things. The houses here were barely standing, as were the people that she could spot. Those who found themselves here were usually without hope. Everyone referred to them, in secret, as the No Hopes. The beggars, the orphans, the widows, the sick, poor, and dying. They all have found their way there and seemed not to be able to find their way back out. It was a depressing sight for sure and she quickly looked farther south where the ground was more open and green.

The farmlands took up most of the space after the town. She could just make out a hand full of small houses and barns scattered throughout the fields. The farmers, be it for crops or animals, rarely came into town unless it was to sell. They had no care for the city folk just as city folk had no care for them. They lived in different worlds and they were happy with that.

To the east was harbor where the sea, from her point of view, laid spread out like a wide blue blanket. Ships bobbed on the surface and she could see the hustle and bustle of people going about their day like ants. They too had no real interest in the life in the city or in the farmlands. They were perfectly happy with their section of the kingdom.

She turned her head to the west and looked at the wide expansion of gray. The mines were in that direction, she knew, but she had never been there. She had never even met a miner. Sometimes she sees carts wheeled in with coal and other minerals but it is usually just sitting there, no people in sight. They were like a phantom, just out of eyesight. Past the mines was the forest. She knew there were also a couple mills and lumber yards out there but she has never seen them either. Sitting up high she realized just how little of the kingdom she actually knew.

A call from below drew her eyes down into an alley and she saw that a man had a crying girl by the arm. He was shaking her like a doll, making her head loll from side to side. Two frightened little boys cowered in the corner, watching and unable to do anything. She sighed heavily. "Forget the faraway places of the kingdom," she thought, "I'm better at doing things I know." She watched the man a moment longer but he still did not release the girl, who looked ready to pass out in fear. "And this is something I know," she concluded.

She dropped silently from her perch on the roof, landing in a crouch just a few feet behind the man. Lightly she rose to her full height, though it wasn't much, topping out at about 5'3''. With two fingers she tapped the man on the shoulder. He swung around, eyes bulging in anger, and screamed in her face, spittle flying from his fat lips, demanding what she wanted. She blinked once, her face a mask of indifference, glanced down at the whimpering girl, and punched the man in the eye. He reeled back and released the girl so he could cover his quickly swelling face. Without hesitating she landed a solid kick into his chest. He shot backwards and slammed into the wall of a house behind him. Before he could recover, she picked up a nearby crate and broke it across his head. He was out like a light.

With a sigh she dusted her hands off and straightened her cloak. She then turned to face the three terrified children behind her, staring as if she was going to eat them. Which she just might, depending on how they acted.

"So," she began slowly. "Are you going to tell me what happened or should I just raise an alarm and bring some soldiers down on you?" She really wasn't going to. She'd be in bigger trouble than these tiny pickpockets. But she held her threatening glare steady all the same. The older girl trembled slightly before visibly swallowing her fear and stepping forward, sheltering the two small boys. They gripped at the back of her tattered tunic, whimpering quietly. With a shrug she peeled them off and took a couple more steps forward, till she was only a foot away from her attackers frightening stare. She shuffled around in a hidden pocket at her waist and pulled out three measly coppers. Sighing in defeat she raised the money up to be taken. Which it never was.

"Keep it."

The voice was distant. She looked up in surprise and saw that her savior had turned her attention to the man on the ground.

"Three coppers? Three tiny coppers and you nearly shake the girl to death? And who knows what you would have done to the boys!" Rage was so thick in her voice that the girl took a step back, out of instinct. She watched as her savior slammed her bare foot down into the area between the passed out man's legs. Surely he would wake up from such pain. But he didn't as much as twitch. Without turning to look she yelled back to the three children, "Get out of here before someone comes looking for him. And make sure that next time you steal, you are not noticed. I might not be there to save you again." After a moment there was the rush of small feet across dusty ground then silence. They were gone.

With a sigh she bent down and peered at the face of the man who, at that moment, was drooling. She scoffed in disgust before examining him. His clothes were not of fine material but were tailored to look like they were. The embroidery around the edges looked impressive from a distance but up close she could see fringes coming unraveled and lumps in the sewing. Clearly these were not the clothes of the wealthy, but those who were trying to pose as one. Even his hands and face had signs of rough labor. They were not the milky hands of those who never lifted so much as a pen to write. But powder covered his skin, hiding most of the worst scars. She scoffed again because she was sure that she was face to face with a Desperate. Someone who wanted to look rich but was in fact poor enough that three coppers were so important he'd kill children for them. Right away she hated him. Rising gracefully to her feet, she kicked him one more time where it counts and shimmied her way up to the rooftops, leaving him in the alley where he belonged.

The sun was beginning to set in the kingdom by the time she had made it a good distance away from the revolting man. She knew that she had to return home before the bell tower rang eight times or she'd be dead for sure. Even now she could hear it as it rang out seven chimes. She had an hour. One hour to enjoy the beauty of the sunset so high above it all. Just one hour. She was going to make most of every minute. She eased herself down onto the chipped tiles of the house she presently stood on and watched the sun bask the buildings in a warm glow. Everything had a halo of gold. It made everything seem much less... real. More like it was all just a master's painting she was simply gazing at from a distance. It seemed untouchable and almost holy. It seemed dreamed up. But soon, too soon, that damned bell chimed to say a half hour had passed and she knew she must move on.

She heaved herself to her feet, took one more look at the golden buildings, and continued on her way. She crawled, climbed, and ran over shops and house, jumped over streets and alleys, and moved like a ghost across the roofs. No one even noticed her passing; it was that silent and stealthy. She prided herself in that. It had kept her alive more than once.

Within fifteen minutes she was passed the largest marketplace in the center of the town. Ten more minutes and she was streaking past smaller and smaller houses and shops, jumping over narrower and narrower streets. She passed fewer people. Three minutes later she was on the very edges of the market district and knew she was going to be late. One minute to go before eight and she had three more streets to cross before she was home. She picked up the pace and slid down a pipe with only seconds to spare in front of a small, leaning house that was tightly wedged between the neighboring homes. Light poured from the windows. She sighed in relief. However the clock rung eight before she could cross the thin street that ran before the house. She flinched as the chimes rolled over the town. Within a moment's hesitation she sprinted for the patchy front yard. She had one foot properly on the property when the door swung open and banged into the wall with so much force it shook in its frame. A shadow filled the doorway, blocking the light from the inside. Her heart thumped in her chest and her hands became clammy. She was going to die, that much was for certain.

There was a moment of silence as she stared at her second foot, still on the street. Sucking in a breath, she raised her foot and looked up. Waiting for a reaction. The form in the entryway remained motionless. She swung her hips. Still nothing. With some hesitation she stretched her foot out and dangled it above the grass. Not even a wiggle from the black blob. Tentatively she lowered her foot and her bare heel brushed a blade of grass. Within seconds she was on her back, half in the street half in the front yard. A wooden spoon clattered to the ground next to her. She could feel a bruise forming right between the eyes where she had been hit. Her mother always had an enviable throwing arm and surgeon-like precision.

She climbed to her feet, making sure to take the spoon with her. Like a whipped puppy she limped forward, making sure to seem as pathetic as possible. "Look at the ground, keep the shoulders slumped, and tremble the lip a little," she thought to herself. "Make a show of it. Make her feel bad."

She slinked past her mother who had shifted, allowing a small space between her body and the frame. When she felt the weight of her mother's gaze she made sure to rub her sore forehead and sniffle a little. Her foot was barely over the threshold when a warm hand clapped onto her shoulder. Tensing, she waited for whatever was coming. Seconds later she was wrapped in soft arms and her chin rested on a plump shoulder. Her body did not relax. It remained as rigid as a board, showing absolutely no softening. Her mother held her awkwardly a little longer, and then gave her back two firm pats before pushing her to arm's length.

Her hazel eyes traveled up and down her daughter, looking for any obvious injuries. There were none. She then felt along her daughter's face, shoulders, and arms for any swelling or bruises. There were none of those either. Silently, she praised the gods for keeping her girl safe for one more day. But she did not visibly show her relief. That would make her seem soft. She couldn't have that. Instead she pushed her farther into the hall and turned to shut the door with a solid thump. She didn't hear the footsteps. She never could. But she knew that once she turned around that girl would be gone. Still she hoped, when she faced that hallway again, that she would still be there. Just so she could really be sure she had come home in one piece. With a deep breath, she turned.

And was met with an empty hallway. She shook her head sadly and made her way down the hall, her fingers grazing over the bare, wooden walls. She passed an empty washroom. She would have to clean out the chamber pot soon. Fresh water was needed in the wash basin too. Especially now that her daughter was home. That girl always made a mess.

A crash from the kitchen followed by multiple voices, one of which was not at all happy, had her picking up her thin skirts and sprinting down the remainder of the hall. She rushed around the corner and skidded to a halt in front of a mass of bodies on the wooden floor. Food was scattered about and water spilled from an overturned cup. The door leading from the kitchen to the bedroom swung on its hinges. She squeezed her hands into fists and prepared herself to jump into the fray. Then a blonde head appeared from under a random arm. Sighing, she waited patiently for the tussle to end.

After a moment her daughter stood, face grim but eyes twinkling in hidden humor. Even she couldn't help but chuckle at the sight she made. A little girl, no older than seven, was wrapped around one leg. A boy who was slightly older, but not by much, hung off her like a monkey, limbs entangled around her neck and waist. Finally another little girl, the youngest of the three and the blonde head she had spotted earlier, was desperately clinging to her arm. The one around her leg cried. The one around her throat was shouting. The one on her arm sucked on her thumb. They clearly missed their big sister.

"Aki! Aki! Aki!" The two older children sobbed. "We missed you, Aki!" The youngest just nodded her head in agreement.

"I missed you little monsters too." She patted the boy's back comfortingly, her face softening into a small smile. "But you're going to have to let me go. I do have to eat."

"And get that junk off your face," her mother stated seriously. Aki turned her eyes toward her mother and instantly lost all emotion on her face. She simply nodded that she understood. Her mother sighed in defeat. "Back to bed. All of you." Cries of disappointment followed her orders. She did not give in. "No. Aki be here tomorrow. You can play with her then."

The boy looked up in hope. "Really, Aki? You'll be here in the morning?"

"Of course, love. I'll be right here when you wake up." She ruffled his hair a bit to emphasize her point.

"Promise?" Asked the older girl.

"Promise." Aki's smile resembled that of reassurance and guarantee but her mother saw the flicker of discomfort in her eyes. She knew her daughter hated promising something that she desperately didn't want to keep. But the steel set of her jaw showed that when she and the children woke up the next morning, Aki would not allow herself to let them down. However the children did not see these little twitches. Twitches that revealed the battle between her conscious and her need to run. They took her words at face value and scampered happily into the bedroom. Except for that little blonde head. She remained standing there, sucking her thumb. Aki dropped to her knees and cradled her free tiny hand between her own.

"The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you can wake up, little kitty." Her voice was soft and soothing but the child didn't blink. She simply stood there, sucking away. Aki opened her mouth to continue convincing the girl to move but instead got a mouthful of hair. Thin arms wrapped around her neck in a tight hug and a small head burrowed into her shoulder. Sighing she stood, lifting the child with her. She carried her gently through the door and into the dark bedroom beyond.

She placed her onto the small bed between her siblings, making sure to leave enough room for her mother. With one hand she removed the warm hold on her neck. With the other she tucked the child in, safe and sound. A butterfly kiss to each forehead ended the goodnights. After a moment of watching them sleep she turned and walked away. She hated seeing them crammed into that tiny, uncomfortable bed and refused to look longer than necessary. She shut the door behind her. All that was left to deal with was the cozy kitchen and the large woman standing inside it. However, that was not something she wanted to deal with right now.

Instead she bypassed her mother and entered the washroom in the hall. The basin was filled with fresh water. Her mother must have topped it off while she was tucking everyone in. She ignored the heavy footsteps coming her way. And the shadow that loomed over her shoulder. Instead she stared into the reflective surface of the water and saw her own image. A face that had black paste covering from nose to forehead in a masklike shape. Hair that was sticky with even more black paste. She hated her reflection. It was not her. Plus the gunk was heavy and thick. It weighed her down and made her itch. But she saw the necessity of it in that reflection as well. It hid who she was from the captain and the others. She saw the necessity, yes, but that didn't mean she wanted to wear it all the time. She desperately wanted it off.

"That amount of water isn't going to do anything. You need a bath." The voice rumbled from behind her. Ignoring that too, she sunk her hands into the water and prepared to bring some too her face. A hand slapped her wrist. Water splashed across the floor. "I said take a bath and that's what you're going to do. Now get in the kitchen and I'll get the tub." Without a word Aki reached for the water again only to get pulled out of the washroom all together. "In the kitchen. Now!" Her voice escalated in volume until Aki was afraid the children would wake up once again. But the bedroom remained silent. Seeing the fuming face of her mother she nodded and walked slowly into the kitchen.

Her mother shuffled to the corner of the kitchen where the tub rested, ready for use. It was made of solid wood that was stained a dark brown. The high back made a comfortable place to rest after a weary day. The deep interior allowed for maximum water capacity. Finely made, it was the one item that her frugal mother had splurged on. She demanded her children be clean and presentable in public. It was heavy but dragging it out was a labor of love for her. Though they might not think it, she wanted the very best for her children, starting with the best scrubbing.

She pulled it across the wooden floor to the other side of the room, near the fireplace. Next she got the fire breathing, boiling the large pot of water she had collected for just such an occasion. As the water heated she busied herself with collecting sweet soaps and fluffy towels. Soon all things were ready and there was nothing to do but wait. In silence.

Awkward silence.

Aki sat down at the hand carved table and absentmindedly followed a curve of grain with her finger. To pass the time she refamiliarized herself with the house, the kitchen, and her mother.

The house's structure seemed to slope downward, making the ceilings low, the walls sagging, and the floor slanted. Drafts floated through gaps in the wall that would freeze the air in the dead of winter. They also allowed in the unbearable heat of the peak of summer. However, this time of year, with summer right around the corner, it was a good balance. The windows were small and cracked, but well cleaned, thanks to her mother's watchful eye. The floors were stained and rough. The walls were cold and bare. All in all, the house was shabby.

Her eyes focused in on the space around her. The kitchen, even with all its structural downfalls, was clean, warm, and cozy. A fire burned bright in the stone fireplace, creating a comfortable atmosphere. A hand woven rug squished under her toes. The table filled most of the floor space, it being surrounded by mismatched chairs. Cupboards lined the back wall, providing space for cups, plates, food, and linens. Every surface was scrubbed, every object was in its place, and every crevice was shining. Little figurines made of random objects, created by tiny hands, decorated the window sill and made the spotless room look lived in. Though there was not much to work with, her mother was determined to make what she had work.

Her mother, at the moment, was cleaning the spilt food from the earlier tussle. The trash went out the window, into the alley behind the house. The dirty dishes went into a bucket to be washed later. As she reached into the cupboard to collect more food, Aki was able to truly scrutinize her. She was short but bulky. Her muscles bulged and her hands were permanently pink from scrubbing floors and washing clothes as a maid for an old money's household. Her brown hair was dull in both color and texture. It was loosely tied back, with limp strands dangling in her round face. Her eyes were the color of dirt. Not melted chocolate. Not warm coffee. Just dirt. Frozen dirt of the winter, without the twinkle of frost. They were cold and flat, hardened by years of struggling to get by. But even with their cold appearance, they were framed with creases, showing that at one time she had laughed. But it had to be before Aki was born. She rarely remembered her smiling, let alone laughing enough to create wrinkles. She was loud, violent, and short tempered. Not at all the image of a loving mother. However, a loving mother she was. The care of the younger ones was plenty evidence of that. Aki knew this but that changed nothing. She still felt extremely uncomfortable in her presence.

She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she didn't notice the plate of ham, cheese, and bread placed in front of her. That is, until her mother's demanding voice forced her back to reality.

"Eat quickly. The waters plenty hot enough and I'm not heating it up a second time if you let it cool." She sat down across from her and watched as she ate. Aki never raised her eyes. She didn't even squirm under the weight of her gaze. She simply ate, at her own pace, until every last piece of food was gone.

Then she stood, leaving her dishes, and walked toward the bath. Her mother's eyes followed her. Quickly she removed the pot from the flames. Steam rose up and almost choked her. She hastened to pour the water into the bath before undressing. At this point she no longer felt the weight of her mother's gaze. At least she got some privacy. That's what others would think. But Aki knew the truth. Her mother couldn't bear to look at her, so exposed. It showed the truth.

She removed her dusty cloak first. Her skin tight, solid black garments quickly followed suit, landing in a heap at her feet. She kicked them away. She lightly dusted herself off before stepping into the water. There was no point but she wanted to see if her mother would face her. Of course she wouldn't. Her fingers grazed over the cause of her mother's averted eyes. It didn't hurt but it tingled a little. The nerves weren't completely gone.

Her skin was a sun-kissed honey brown. It came from her foreign father who her mother never spoke about. It was smooth, without an adolescent blemish. It was firm, from running constantly. It glowed, according to the boys of the town. But it was marred. Under the clothes, where others couldn't see, it was forever scarred. A thin white line started at the base of her neck, wrapped around her shoulder blade, and looped across her spine to the other side of her back. It ended by wrapping around her waist, sliding up her hip bone, and slicing through her belly button. The scar wasn't grotesque. It wasn't bright red or even raised an ungodly amount. It was the slightest bump, no wider than her pinky fingernail. It only stood out because it was stark white against a golden brown backdrop. Her sister even once called it pretty, like some kind of strange decoration. No, it was not hard to look at. But her mother refused to look anyway. Which Aki hated her for, since it was her mother that created it.

Rage boiled up inside her but the adrenaline it created battled with her bone-deep weariness and lost. She shook her head, ignoring the angry thoughts, and instead sank deep into the hot water. Steam rose around her face once again. At first she couldn't see, couldn't breathe, but a breeze rolled in and pushed the fog away. Her mother stood by the now opened window and watched the alley beyond. Aki disregarded her. Taking a deep breath, she dunked her head under. Her eyes peeled open as her cheeks strained. Murky water swam around her hair. Black tendrils spun around the floating strands. She could feel the gunk on her face dissolving. She stayed down longer than necessary, watching the black water curl and sway around the clear water, until eventually it was all a dirty grey.

With burning lungs she burst from the depths of the bathtub like a whale, sucking in gulps of air. Her hair was plastered to her face and water streamed from her head, toward the muddy waters below. She reached up to work on her hair only to have large hands capture her head first.

For a moment she panicked. Her heart clenched and she felt her stomach push its way into her throat. Back pin straight she prepared to leap from the tub. Her dagger was hidden in the sleeve of her discarded clothes. Maybe she could make it before something bad happened. Maybe she could at least stand a chance and die fighting. Maybe. Or maybe nothing was wrong. When the fingers on her scalp began to massage her skin her face flushed in embarrassment. The smell of roses swarmed around her head. Suds began to form and she closed her eyes before they could drop into her face. Her heart was still thumping along like a jack rabbits and she was still tense, but for a different reason. Instead of fear of death, it was fear of being so close to her mother. She didn't expect for here to look at her while her scar was exposed, let alone come and wash her hair. She didn't want her this close. But her mother didn't stop. Or talk. Those fingers simply continued their motion, causing the fragrant bubbles to multiply. Soon her whole head was covered in them, as was her face and shoulders. The ones she could see were no longer white. Instead they swirled with slate grey, cloudy liquid. She sucked in a breath, ready to go back under, when the fingers stopped. Their pressure disappeared. She glanced up but did not see her mother's looming frame. Shoulders sloped in relief, she sighed.

"Thank the gods," she mumbled. That woman must have reached her limit. This was good because she was at hers. Her shoulders ached from being stiff for so long. She didn't realize how tired she was. Or at least until now. Eyes drooping, she started to sink lower into the cooling bath.

Ice cold water rained down onto her head and shoulders. Curses flew like daggers. It was so cold her skin hurt, tightening over her bones in objection. She struggled to get her feet beneath her but a hand slammed onto her shoulder, stopping her wriggling. Additional buckets of water drenched her before she grasped what happened. Soon the whole tub was on the verge of spilling over and whatever warmth that was left in it was swallowed by the arctic chill of the new water. She couldn't feel anything anymore.

Shivering in the bathtub she showed no resistance as a cool cloth, covered in sweet smelling slime, washed every inch of her body, from head to toe. She simply remained limp as her arms and legs were lifted, not fighting but not helping either. If her mother wanted to submerge her in an artic pond, so be it. She'll have to deal with a dead weight then. At least, that was the reasoning she gave herself. In reality she was simply too cold to retain any of her motor skills meaning even if she wanted to help out she couldn't.

Those hands lifted her by her arms and had her standing on numb feet. She wasn't sure how those stubs at the end of her legs actually supported her weight but she remained standing. For now anyway. More buckets of water were splashed over her, now squeaky clean, body. She couldn't feel the contact of the water on her skin. She really didn't care if she was rinsed or not. She just wanted to get warm again. Eventually the water stopped coming. She knew this because there was no more splattering onto the floor around her. A fluffy towel that was warmed by the fire wrapped around her and began to battle against the ice in her veins. Her mother's strong muscles strained as she lifted her daughter out of the water and placed her closer to the fireplace. She received no response.

Without speaking Aki rubbed her arms, causing circulation to begin to flow once again. She huddled closer to the fire, hunkered on her knees on the floor. Staring into the flames she tried with all her might to ignore her mother, who was cleaning the spilled water off the floor. Soon her body was covered in pins and needles. It hurt to get warm again but it was worth it. Her skin stiffened as it dried only to relax as it regained its normal body temperature. Eventually she was cozy, clean, and dry. She was comfortable. There was no point in being in the room any longer.

She rose to her feet when her mother turned from dumping buckets of filthy water out the window. Her mother opened her mouth to speak but Aki merely scooped up her clothes to be washed later and left the kitchen, turning her back on her red-faced mother. She wandered down the hallway and into the washroom where her small chest sat in the corner. It took too much space in the bedroom so they moved it in here as to give the children more room. She burrowed through it and pulled out a slightly looser black outfit than the one that was soiled in her hands.

"Akita." The voice was dripping with sorrow and regret. "Please, Akita. Turn around. Talk to me."

She merely dropped the towel, exposing her scar as an answer. She slipped on her clothes and tried to walk out the door, only to be stopped by her mother's grasping hand.

"Akita, I'm sorry. You know I really am sorry. How long will this go on? This hatred?"

There was a pause. Her mother's heart leapt in hope. Instead Akita dug through the heap of clothes in her arm, slipped her hand in a hidden pocket, and pulled out what had caused the pursuit earlier that day.

"Put this to good use. It was a pain in the ass to get a hold of." Cold metal pressed into her mother's hand, digging into her palm. She moved her hand to get a closer look at what glimmered against her skin. This allowed Akita to slip past and make her way toward the front door.

For a moment her mother ignored the distance and focused in on the item that had created what she could only assume was a dangerous and life-threatening chase. At first she was sure whatever it was wasn't worth it. That was until the heavy gold chain shimmered in the lamp light. She stretched the necklace out, dangling it above the ground. The solid gold chain was thick and wide. It supported a fat sapphire pendent surrounded twinkling diamonds and delicate weaves of silver. She twisted the chain, causing the pendent to spin and twirl, catching and throwing the light back onto the wall. It was hypnotizing. But she dragged her eyes away to watch her daughter's retreating back.


"Don't worry. I gave some small trinkets to some nearby houses. No one will notice if you sell that as well. You won't be in danger."

"I wish… I wish you didn't continue to do this."

Throughout the entire conversation Akita had not stopped her determined progress toward the door. However, once those words escaped her lips, Akita whipped around and glared at her from across the hall.

"You want me to stop? You want me, the person who got us out of the No Hopes, who sacrificed herself to try to make life better, while you were gods know where, to stop supporting this family?" The words were hot and angry, burning her throat as they flew out, carrying daggers. "I won't do that. I will not just stand by and take the chance that you might vanish again. I will not watch those children suffer anymore! I suffered enough for all three of them." She chocked on the last line, struggling to rein in her anger.

Her mother's face was drained of color and the hand holding the necklace trembled just a bit. Akita thought for sure she would cry and something in her relished in the idea of this woman's tears. It demanded them. She embraced that part of her. A cold smile spread across her face and her mother cringed.

"So no, 'mother.'" Sarcasm dripped from her lips. "I will not stop. I will continue to do what needs to be done to make sure they survive." With her speech finished she turned and opened the front door leading to the street, to freedom. She felt hollow with those hot and heavy worlds no longer burning inside her head. She stopped just before exiting the house.

"I'll be back by morning. Someone in this house has to keep their promises."

"…are you able to stop, even if you wanted to?"

The question caused her muscles to tighten and her back to go rigid. In response she stepped out and slammed the door behind her.