They walked side by side, hand in hand, among the creaking groans of the makeshift town around them. The two certainly stood out; the cleanliness of the Realm had taken effect on them. All around, the dilapidated buildings made from rotting timber and sheets of metal all seemed so alien and yet so familiar. It was a world they no longer knew and yet knew as well as their own existence.
Attia’s hand clutched tighter around Keiro’s. Her hooded head was down and her eyes were lowered to the rusted floors of the Prison. There were few words spoken between them, but there was a mutual comfort between each other’s presence. Attia lowered her eye lids and rested her head upon Keiro’s closer shoulder. Drowsiness began creeping upon her.
The town streets were empty save for two drunken men laughing and chatting with each other, seated at the side of the road ahead. The stillness was no surprise, considering the decently late hour.
Suddenly, a loud shaking of something metallic was heard to Attia’s right. In a quick turn of the head, she looked to see what the source of the sound was.
There in the dark alley next to her was a girl. She was standing upon her toes and had her right arm reaching down into a metal can full of trash. The girl was young, only eight years of age at most. She wore tattered brown rags that had black stains, and a red sash around her waist. Her skin was a beautiful bronze color, the same shade as Attia, and her hair came in long black waves down to the small of her back. They looked so similar, in fact, that Attia was convinced she had origins from the same wing as her, where dark skin and hair were common traits. The only thing different was her pair of magnificently bright blue eyes, which quickly looked up at the two with unfaltering fear.
Attia let go of Keiro’s hand and walked closer to the girl. “Hello,” she began in a peaceful voice, not wanting to frighten the girl more.
But the girl pulled her arm out of the trash can and took a few cautious steps back into the shadows. With her arm now free and out in plain view, Attia’s stomach became uneasy. She gazed upon the newly exposed limb. It was entirely brass, from the tip of the nail on her middle finger, all the way up to where shoulder met collar. Bars criss-crossed to form the elegant shape, and with every movement the arm took, rows of gleaming gears whirled in a synchronized dance. The girl was a halfman.
Attia bit her lip and gazed a bit longer in silence, but then continued speaking in her gentle tone. “Don’t be afraid, please. Come closer. I won’t hurt you.”
The small girl decided to obey, and she took a few hesitant steps towards the taller look-alike.
“Who are you? What’s your name?” Attia asked.
The girl began with a whimper. “Mm. My name is Tahira.”
She smiled and nodded her head, now crouching down to a height where their eyes were leveled. “That’s a very pretty name. Mine is Attia. My friend over there is Keiro.”
Tahira looked up at Keiro with her large eyes. She said nothing, but fear obviously built inside her when gazing up at the tall intimidating man.
“Where’s your family?” Attia asked, interrupting Tahira’s focus on Keiro.
But the girl only shook her head. “I don’t have one,” she said.
“So then where do you live?” Attia tilted her head, trying to remain casual in her curiosity and concern.
Tahira turned and looked over her shoulder. In the distance of the alley, far back in the darker shadows, the shape of a fort made from torn rags and sticks was just barely visible. Tahira then turned and looked once again into Attia’s aching eyes.
Immediately, Attia rose up onto her feet and cupped her hands over her mouth, battling fiercely against the wet warmth that threatened her eyes. She then turned and walked back to Keiro, looking sternly into his eyes. “Let’s take her with us to the tavern,” she whispered. It was much more a demand rather than a suggestion.
“That’s another mouth to feed, Attia...” Keiro whispered back.
“We’re plenty well off!” she roared in a hush as she furiously slammed her fists against his chest.
Keiro grunted, then looked back at the small girl with a sigh. “Well...” he began. But before he could continue, Attia was looking up at him with bigger eyes that sparkled with the beginnings of tears. There was no such thing as saying “no” to Attia when she used her puppy eyes against him. It was a battle tactic of hers that always won. Always. But he at least never satisfied her with oozing emotion or adoration. No, he had that much dignity at least. So he only let out a defeated groan, then lowered his head and nodded. “Alright, sure.”
Attia’s back was soon towards him again, and once more she was crouched down in front of the girl named Tahira.
“How would you like to spend the night with me and Keiro? We’re getting a room at the tavern. It will be warm, and there will be food, and it will be super fun. What do you say?”
But surprisingly, the girl rejected the offer. She shook her head and took more cautious steps backwards, away from Attia. “No... I don’t know you two,” she whimpered. The girl was fearful towards strangers who offered to take her into taverns for the night. She was wise.
Attia began trembling, still fighting back tears. She wanted to help this girl, Tahira, so much, but she couldn’t force her help upon her either. She didn’t know what more to say.
Suddenly Keiro stepped forward and whispered to Attia, "I'll take care of this."
Closer to Tahira he walked, and then pulled out an object from under his crimson coat. Bending down, he held it out, handle forward, for Tahira to take. It was a sheathed blade about as long as her forearm. Larger than a simple hand knife, but not nearly as large as a sword. It was the perfect size for a child.
Tahira looked up at him again with scared eyes, and when she failed to take the blade from him, he said, “go on. It’s yours now. This way, if either of us tries to hurt you, you can hurt us back. You can defend yourself. Yeah?”
The child waited, then finally decided to take the weapon from Keiro’s hands. She stared at it, admiring the intricacy of the carved leather. Then she looked at him again, now with less dread than before, and carefully tied the blade by its sheath onto the red sash that was around her waist.
“Will you come to the tavern with us now, Tahira? You need food and warmth and shelter.” Attia spoke encouragingly.
Tahira then returned her blue gaze to Attia, and after a few moments of consideration, nodded her head.
The tavern was close, and so the walk was short. Upon entering the building, Attia moved her cloak's hood off of her head. Keiro walked in a new confident strut as if he owned the place, and forward he led his two companions to the long bar in the back, where a few solemn men drank their beverages in silence.
“Good evening, Flora! I’m glad to see this place still up and running!” Keiro leaned forward and rested his elbow upon the bar, offering a large crooked smirk.
The older bartender never looked up to see Keiro. She was busy cleaning out a foggy glass mug with a rag, but she smiled anyways. She probably recognized his voice.
“Keiro! You haven’t been here in ages. I was afraid you had finally gotten yourself killed, ya know.” She now looked up at the smirking blonde man with a giggle.
“No. Not yet, not yet," he chuckled along. He then reached into a pocket under his coat and pulled out a black velvet pouch as large as his fist. Dropping it onto the bar, he explained, “I need a room for the night. Your finest one.”
He didn't say please. Keiro never says please.
The bartender, Flora, then reached forward and took the pouch. Opening it, she gazed with wide eyes at the magnificent sum of gleaming gold coins inside.
“You never fail to surprise me, Keiro,” she mumbled. She then tore her gaze from the coins and glanced at the two girls standing behind him. “Is the room only for you, or...?”
In response, Keiro shook his head. “No. It’s also for her,” he snaked an arm around Attia’s waist and pulled her closer to his side, “and this new friend we found.” He then lowered his gaze to Tahira and gave her a ghost of a smile.
Flora also looked upon Tahira, but with harsh eyes and a scowling frown.
“No can do, Keiro. We don’t serve halfmen.” Her voice was now less hospitable than before, and edged with the faintest disgust.
Tahira’s face changed to reflect sorrow, but lacked any trace of surprise.
“Well, what a shame...” he started, but before Attia could turn to him and shout don’t you dare, he reached forward and snatched the pouch from Flora’s grasp. He then tugged the strings around the opening to close it, and tossed it up into the air. “Looks like I’ll have to find someplace else to stay, then.”
With a massively sly smirk, he juggled the pouch through the air. The bag moved from hand to hand, and in the dim light of the tavern, the fingernail on his right forefinger seemed to shine with the ever so slight gleam of metal. Tahira watched in fascination.
It was a bluff, and a risky one, considering that there were no other taverns nearby for miles. If they didn’t get a room here, they would have to camp in the vastness beyond the town. But Keiro was foolish in his arrogance, and made that risk anyways.
“Y-you mean... you-?” Flora stuttered.
“That’s right, honey.” Keiro then playfully winked at the dumbfounded bartender, earning a gaze of disapproval from Attia. “But who wants the money of a halfman? Ugh, gross. Let’s go, girls.”
With that, Keiro turned to lead his two companions away. But he was soon stopped when Flora called out, “wait!”
Keiro turned his head and looked over his shoulder at the flustered bartender.
“Um... I suppose... I can make an exception for you and your friends. You know, since you’ve always been such a good customer.”
Keiro’s smirk returned, and he chimed with an ever sarcastic chuckle, "oh how generous of you."
Of course it wasn’t for the gold or anything. Of course.
The room was fabulously sized for any tavern in the Prison. There was enough space for a large bed, a rug before a fireplace, and a round table in the corner complete with two chairs. Tahira gazed in pure amazement at the room around her. Of course it amounted to little in comparison to the Realm, but she had never been in the Realm, and so to her this room was a grand spectacle. She had never seen anything like it before in her life.
“Wow...” she whispered.
“Nice, huh?” Keiro grinned with his hands on his hips.
But Attia only rolled her eyes and patted his shoulder. “Yeah, yeah. You did good, we know.”
Attia then walked across the room and opened a door on the other end. “A decent wash room," she announced with a grin.
Tahira instantly leaped and scurried to Attia’s side. She stood gazing into the wash room and all its amenities as she thought about finally being clean. She thought about having soft skin and light smooth hair. It caused her to tremble with excitement.
Attia noticed and smiled at the small girl with complete adoration. “Do you want to take a bath with me?” She offered.
Tahira looked up at Attia, and after a while finally nodded her head.
“Good! Then it’s bath hour for the girls.” Attia turned and looked intently at Keiro.
Taking the hint, Keiro crossed his arms over his chest and shrugged. “Alright, I’ll go downstairs and get us some dinner to eat.” And with a nod of his head, he passed the room's main door and was gone.
Attia led Tahira into the wash room and locked the door behind them. “Just in case he comes back,” she explained. Of course, it was more for Tahira's comfort rather than their safety. Attia knew there was very little either of them had to fear from Keiro, but the small girl's sense of security was more important to her.
Attia then went to the tub and turned the two knobs, causing hot water to pour from its brass pipes. After that, she fully disrobed herself, then carefully helped Tahira disrobe as well.
After undressing, the two were soon seated together in the hot water of the bathtub. Despite her small stature, Attia still had to cross her legs to fit them in the tiny space. There between her two legs was seated Tahira, whose face lit up to a massive grin once her skin touched water.
Attia giggled more at the pure bliss radiating off of the girl. "Is it nice?" she asked.
Tahira's pair of stunning blue eyes looked up at Attia and her head nodded enthusiastically.
"Good, I'm glad."
The two spent the next few minutes in content silence, savoring the delicious comfort of the clean steaming water. Tahira occasionally patted her hands on the surface, laughing with entertainment at the ripples that formed around her fingers.
"Is it okay if I wash your hair for you?" Attia finally asked. She wasn't sure just how far Tahira's trust extended, and she wanted to be sure before making any unannounced contact.
After considering the question, Tahira nodded her head once more, granting permission for Attia to touch her hair. With that, Attia then pooled some water in her palms and poured it ever so delicately over Tahira's head. Droplets of water cascaded down her face, earning a few happy laughs from the girl. Attia laughed along while her hands massaged water into Tahira's scalp and stroked water through her hair. Bit by bit the soot and grease of the Prison washed off of her and swirled in the water around them.
"Is Keiro really a halfman too?" Tahira suddenly asked, ending her long streak of silence.
"Yeah, he is. But don't talk about it with him. He's a big baby and will throw a tantrum if you bring it up."
"How is he rich then? I've never seen a rich halfman before."
"Well," Attia began, "we live Outside now, and he was able to get a good job because he's friends with the King."
Tahira's eyes immediately flew wide with wonder. "The King? He's friends with King Giles?"
Attia was impressed. "You know the King's name, that's good. Yeah, he's friends with King Giles. Actually, they're best friends. They're so close, they call each other 'brothers.' Can you believe that?"
Just then, Attia could practically hear the thoughts click and connect like puzzles through the smart girl's head. "So then... If Keiro is 'brothers' with the King, does that make him sort of like a prince?"
"Yeah, I guess so. But he's not like most princes. So unromantic. He knows absolutely nothing about the heart of a maiden."
"I heard that!" A familiar voice roared from the other side of the door. Keiro must have returned to their lodge.
Attia and Tahira laughed with each other, then Attia leaned over the edge of the tub and stuck her tongue out towards the door. Keiro was blind to the insulting gesture, but regardless, it still prompted the two girls to laugh even more together.
The bath ended shortly later, when the girls were finally fully washed.
Keiro must have heard the tub's knobs squeak, and the water begin to drain. Knowing that the bath was over, he called out, "I bought a new set of clothes for the girl. They're hanging on the doorknob."
Attia climbed out of the tub first and took one of the many towels folded aside. She scrubbed it through her short dark hair, then wrapped it around her torso before helping Tahira out of the tub.
"I'll go get the clothes, okay?" she said while grabbing another towel and wrapping it around the girl. "You stay here and dry yourself off more."
Tahira nodded, and Attia then turned and left the wash room. Immediately upon passing the door, a loud whistle sounded out from Keiro, who was seated at the table in the corner of the room.
Attia's cheeks burned bright pink at the flirtation. "Shut up..." she mumbled through pouting lips.
"Hey," he shrugged, "it's not my fault you look great. But there's this ugly strip of fabric blocking some of my view. You might want to take care of that."
But instead of removing the towel, she only glared at the blonde and held it tighter around her. "Watch it. There's a kid here, you know."
He threw his head back and let out a groan to display his annoyance.
Ignoring him, Attia turned her attention to the clothes hanging from the doorknob and smiled gently upon seeing them. The outfit included a small sleeveless dress colored a dark faded green. To cover the arms there was a thick brown wool cardigan, and to cover the legs there was a pair of tight black leggings. On the floor beside the door was placed a pair of small dark brown boots.
Swiftly taking the clothes, she returned to the wash room. Seeing the small Tahira bundled up in the large towel that covered her entirely, minus her face and hands, Attia couldn't help but giggle.
"Hey, Look what I got!" Attia then held up the layers of new clothes, immediately prompting a happy squeal from the girl. With a few bounces and hobbles, Tahira made her way to Attia. Her excitement to finally wear the clean new outfit was impossible to go unnoticed.
After adorning the clothes, it was easy to see that the dress and boots were just a size or two too big. Attia fixed this by taking the red fabric that was around Tahira's waist earlier, and tying it there once again. She also took her own brown dress and tore off one of the sleeves, then tore that sleeve in half. After shoving the two loose strips of fabric into the toes of the boots, there was now the perfect amount of room for Tahira's feet. Attia then put on her own single-sleeved brown dress before leading Tahira out of the wash room.
When he saw them both, Keiro let out another crooked smile. It was the same kind of smile that smirked and beamed his usual cockiness, but also radiated a charm intended to bring joy to others. "Wow, look at you! You look so nice!"
Tahira shyly smiled at the compliment and took Attia's hand in her own. "Really?" she quietly asked.
"Are you kidding?" Keiro's hands were now on his hips. "You look better than half the noble kids out in the Realm!"
Tahira's cheeks flushed and she looked away with a bigger smile on her face. "I hope I can go there one day..." she sighed.
Attia and Keiro looked at each other as silence came between them. For a few moments neither of them knew what to say. Neither even knew what to think. But this was soon ended when Attia hummed. "I'm sure you will. But hey, it looks like Keiro got us something to eat!"
Attia led Tahira to the table and grinned at the two platters of salmon and bread. One empty platter, which was probably cleared earlier by Keiro, was shoved to the side.
Tahira gasped and quickly climbed onto one of the seats. Taking a fork in her left organic hand, she instantly began slicing the fish up and devouring it bite by bite, occasionally stopping to pick a small bone out from her mouth.
The rest of the evening melted away into a calm passing of small activities. While Attia and Tahira ate, Keiro took his turn in the wash room. He sang while he bathed, entertaining the two girls and occasionally earning a few laughs from them. When they finished eating, Tahira sat on the bed beside Attia and let her style her hair into a long braid. Keiro shortly later left the wash room, cleaned and dressed in his black pants and white blouse. He saw Tahira's hair neatly braided, and was offered by the two girls a similar style. He was reluctant, but ultimately agreed to have his long golden locks braided as well. After a few rounds of a hybrid game mixed between hide and seek and tag, the three finally decided to climb into the room's bed and get some sleep.
Taking the place between Attia and Keiro, Tahira almost instantly fell into slumber. She slept soundlessly with no disturbances, and all through the night a small happy smile remained upon her face.
Attia and Keiro woke early the next morning. Carefully climbing out of bed, they decided it would be best to let the girl sleep a little more while they dressed and packed their things. Keiro went downstairs to purchase breakfast for all of them, and by the time he had returned, Tahira was awake and having her hair brushed by Attia.
"Are we not staying here another night...?" the girl asked while Keiro made his way to the table and put the platters down.
"Nope, we need to keep moving," Keiro answered.
When he provided no further explanation, Attia decided to provide it herself. "When I was younger, my village was raided and torn apart. I decided to come back when I heard there were a few survivors living in the Western Wing. I came to see for myself who survived. That's where we're heading."
"Oh..." Tahira said softly.
"And I already spent all the money I brought for this trip. From now on, we'll have to camp," Keiro added.
Tahira looked down and turned her right hand over to watch the brass shine at different angles. "Hmm. You both were so nice to me. I'm going to miss you."
Attia met Keiro's gaze with the same ache she had when they first found the girl, and before Keiro could say anything, Attia quickly replied, "you don't need to miss us. You can come with us if you want."
Keiro's jaw nearly dropped at the sudden weighty offer. One night with the child in a tavern room was tolerable, but weeks through the brutal wilderness of the Prison? Keiro could already feel a headache coming on. He would have to share their only tent (which he had been particularly excited to enjoy only with Attia) he would have to ration their food supply into thirds rather than halves, and he would have to be on guard to protect an extra life at all times.
But the girl's eyes grew wide and her lips parted to let out an amazed gasp. "Really?" her tiny voice asked for reassurance. She grinned hugely at Attia, and then at Keiro. Her eyes sparkled and shone with more joy and emotion than he had ever seen in his life, and in that moment, Keiro felt every last feeling of uncertainty or dread leave his existence. Seeing the girl so happy and so eager to stay by them, he now considered that maybe, just maybe, he wanted her to stay by them too.
Suddenly, his thoughts shifted from what he would have to do during their journey, to what he would get to do. Maybe he would get to teach the girl, who was already enthusiastic about her new blade, some proper combat skills. Maybe he would finally get to tell his amazing tales of his adventures through the Prison to an awe-struck listener. Maybe he would get to teach the few deceptive magic tricks he had learned from Rix to an apprentice of his own. They were all such wonderful thoughts that welled up inside him and brought him new feelings of endearment.
The two big eyes continued sparkling at him, never tearing away, and he fully understood then that he was attached to the adorable young girl. He wanted her to come on their adventure, he wanted to share his knowledge and experiences with her, and he wanted to protect her.
But of course he wouldn't allow himself to openly display it. "Well, I guess you can come if you really want to."
Tahira immediately leaped up and hugged her arms tightly around him, thanking him over and over again for letting her stay with them.
And so the three set off on their journey through the vastness of the Prison. Through icy mountains and warm valleys they went, but their route took them mostly through many twisted copper forests.
They traveled by day and camped by night. During light hours, Tahira would enjoy teachings about blade combat from Keiro, and would enjoy small rounds of hide and seek with Attia. But her favorite pass time was listening to the stories the both of them had to tell. They told stories about their miraculous adventures with the legendary inmate named Finn. They told stories about the dangers the two faced alongside each other (her face turned particularly pale at the story of the chaingang they encountered in the Ice Wing) and they told stories of how they had faced the almighty tyrant Incarceron himself.
The dark hours were a far less carefree time to experience. The girl would always sleep in the tent while the two adults would take turns keeping watch between breaks of rest. Incarceron was gone, yes, but his hellish creations still lurked in the shadows.
One early evening the three had the displeasure of encountering one such creation: an only half organic wolf with three heads. It had noticed the campfire lit by Attia and, in hopes of gaining a meal, attacked the three humans. Tahira was quickly rushed into the tent by Attia before the two adults seized their swords and fought from both sides against the wolf. The wolf's three heads sneered and growled as it leaped around, dodging the swipes and thrusts of its opponents. Finally, when its focus was turned onto the blonde man, Attia lunged forward and sliced her sword across the back of its middle neck. Immediately the creature fell, whimpering and yelping in its new pain. Attia refused to make the final blow and steal the creature's life, and so Keiro did so himself. After the wolf was dead, he skinned off its pelt and took whatever organic flesh there was on the steel skeleton. That night the wolf was cooked and eaten, and the pelt was washed to be later used as a blanket.
However, most other nights were calm. One such night Attia decided to stay awake during Keiro's look-out session. She sat herself on his lap before the campfire and stared off into the darkness of the forest. She was silent and in thought, but the two were still tender in their exchanges of small affections. Eventually, between tiny kisses that dusted her lips, she finally decided to share what had been occupying her thoughts.
"I really like Tahira," she sighed.
Keiro hummed in agreement before kissing her left cheek.
"And, you know, she really likes us."
Keiro's hum this time was softer as his kisses began trailing down to under her jaw.
"... She looks like us."
Before his kisses reached her neck, Keiro froze upon realization where Attia was going with the topic. He lifted his head and met her gaze.
"She looks like you," he partially agreed.
"There are also some traits she shares with you."
Keiro sarcastically smiled. "Oh, right. How could I forget?" He then raised his right hand to show off the gleam of the metal nail upon his forefinger.
But Attia was unamused and only pouted. "That's not what I meant! I was talking about her eyes, idiot."
At the insult, Keiro rewarded Attia's pout with one of his own. "Oh you wound me!"
"Well, yeah. You're right. She does have my eyes. I guess that means she's lucky, huh?"
With a few bounces of his eyebrows, Keiro leaned forward to steal another kiss from Attia's lips. But he was stopped when she raised her hand to cover his mouth.
"Keiro," Attia began, this time with a tone that brought much more sincerity into the conversation, "I'm serious. I think I want us to adopt her."
Keiro nearly gasped as his blue eyes flew wide open at the statement. "What?! Are you kidding?"
"No! We're all she has. She needs us, and she makes me so happy. I've also seen the way you treat her. You adore her too, I can tell!"
Keiro huffed and looked away, not wanting to show his embarrassment. Of course Attia had been able to see past the cover he put up. She always was.
"Come on! Please? Our manor is plenty big enough, we have the money to provide for her, we love her, and she loves us. So why not? What's the problem?"
Keiro's eyes remained averted, and for a while he said nothing. But his silence ended when he mumbled, "I guess you're right..."
"So then we'll adopt her?" Attia's voice raised with hope.
But Keiro only sighed. "I don't know. I've never liked kids at all."
"But you like her."
"... Yeah. I like her. She's quiet and smart- adventurous too."
"Then let's adopt her!"
"Let me think about it, alright?"
But Attia was far from satisfied. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared defiantly at him. "I won't leave without her."
Great. Now she was putting her foot down. Keiro knew if he continued opposing her, it would be full-fledged war from this point on.
"Attia, listen..." he started, but soon found himself incapable of finishing as her glare continued digging fiercely into him. "Ugh... Fine, we'll adopt her," he finally agreed.
Immediately her thin arms flew tight around his neck, and his cooperation was soon rewarded with a plethora of happy cheers and passionate kisses all over his face and throat. From his own lips grew a wide smile. No matter how much he wouldn't allow himself to admit it, he too was excited at the choice they had just made.
The two did not inform Tahira about their decision the next morning, nor any of the following mornings. Neither of them quite knew how to bring the news to her, and they figured it would come when the time was right. So they pressed on, continuing their journey as they had before.
One day, approximately two weeks after their departure from the tavern, they arrived at their destination: the farthest end of the Western Wing. It was a hot wing with no trees or mountains to provide shade from the Prison's heated lights. By a small lake was an even smaller camp, set up with tents and huts. Upon seeing the camp, Attia instantly dropped her bags and ran forward. One particular girl, who was carrying a basket full of different animal carcasses, was taken off guard by Attia's sudden leap onto her. The basket fell and the two girls span in their circling embrace.
"Attia?! Is that really you?" Keiro heard the girl shout.
He picked up the bags Attia dropped, and approached the reunited friends. Tahira walked quietly by his side. When the friend finally looked up from Attia's shoulder at the tall blonde, her hazel eyes widened.
"Woah... who's this?"
Attia pulled back from her hug around her friend and turned to also look at Keiro. "This... This is Ke-"
But before she could finish introducing him, three more of her old friends were already swarmed around him, admiring his biceps and golden ponytail.
"Heh," Keiro smirked, "looks like they already like me."
Keiro could never refuse being the center of attention in a swarm of girls. That would never change. Attia would be lying if she said it didn't bother her.
But she said nothing about it and only cleared her throat. Instantly the girls turned to her and gave the handsome man some space.
"Oh, is he your sweetheart?" one of them asked.
Attia nervously smiled. "His name is Keiro, and actually, we-"
"We're engaged," he interrupted.
The girls immediately gasped and swarmed around Attia instead, excited by this news.
"And when did this little one happen?" an older middle-aged lady suddenly asked when she joined in on the reunion and noticed the small child at Keiro's side.
Tahira blushed at the new attention and hid herself more behind Keiro, but she wasn't fast enough. The other girls saw her and immediately roared in adoring cheers and laughs.
"Aaw look at her!"
"She's so cute!"
"I just want to pinch her cheeks!"
"What's her name?!"
"U-um, Tahira," Attia answered.
Growing more comfortable with the people around her, Tahira decided to move ever so slightly back into view. Her large eyes looked around at the eyes staring back at her. It was all overwhelming, but she still felt some safety while hiding behind Keiro.
"Aww, Attia! She looks just like you!"
"But she has his eyes, oh my goodness!"
"You guys make such cute babies."
At these comments, Attia's face grew to a glowing scarlet red. Oh great Sapphique above, they thought Tahira was hers and Keiro's. Embarrassment rushed over her and seized any ability she once had to speak words.
"Actually, she's not ours," Keiro calmly explained, obviously less affected by the assumptions.
One of the girls looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. "Really?" she asked.
"Yeah." Keiro nodded. "We found her without a family or home up by the Northern Gate."
"What? Are you kidding?"
"Why would anyone abandon such a sweet girl?"
Then, as if to answer the wonders, Tahira stepped into full view, revealing her mechanical brass arm.
Everyone instantly went silent. Intense eyes stared at her, and the uneasy atmosphere suddenly frightened her. She hid once again behind Keiro, clutching tightly onto his crimson coat.
Keiro's hand went to rest on the handle of his sword. With eyes suddenly cold as ice, he glared at the silent people standing around. Speak one bad word, or come any closer, and I'll slice you all to shreds, his unspoken thoughts threatened.
At first Attia did not understand why everyone was so tense, but then realization sank in as her thoughts trailed to her old life in the village. She remembered the last few months she lived among her people, before her home was raided. She remembered the one delivered baby who was a halfman, and how her people decided to kill him. Halfmen were cursed, they believed. Killing them was the merciful thing to do, for the life of a halfman was doomed to be filled with nothing but misery, as well as bring misery to those around them. She once had even shared their same views. "Such things can't be allowed to live." She remembered saying those words as if it were yesterday, and the regret began boiling ruthlessly in her stomach. She realized now that maybe her people would not have the same change of heart that she had. She realized the danger she had brought upon Keiro and Tahira by bringing them both here.
"Wait! No!" She instantly rushed forward to stand in front of Keiro and shield him. "Don't hurt them!"
Surprised expressions then appeared all among the people. "You mean the boy is a halfman too?"
Hating the reminder, Keiro sneered and clutched tighter around his sword. He was ready to attack at any moment.
Attia swallowed hard as sweat began prickling her forehead. "Yes. But don't hurt them, please!"
"Listen to the girl!" a shaky old voice sounded out from beyond the growing crowd.
Suddenly an older woman stepped forward to stand face-to-face with Attia. She was elderly and withered, bent and visibly weak, but her eyes sparkled with as much wisdom as any soul could possess.
"Oh, Neisha," Attia sighed with utter relief.
"Attia, my little flower. I'm so happy to see you alive and well." The woman smiled and stepped forward to take Attia's hands in her own. "We were all so afraid you had perished in the attack. When no one could find you, so many hearts ached."
Attia returned the smile and bent down to plant a loving kiss upon the woman's forehead.
"Fear not, my child," Neisha continued, "no one will harm your loved ones. Our people have seen more than enough death and destruction. We aim to see no more."
Attia visibly relaxed at the woman's words, but Keiro's hand remained steadily on the handle of his sword, and Tahira's hands remained clutched onto his coat.
The three were then quickly led to the largest hut of the camp. There in a grand circle everyone sat to enjoy dinner together. Only when they were seated, and everyone seemed to forget that their two guests were halfmen, did Keiro remove his grasp on his sword. However, he still sat Tahira between himself and Attia, having every intention to keep her safe.
But there was little to worry about. The remainder of the evening was merry and festive, filled with joy and laughter. The had even ordered extra food to be served in celebration of the return of their beloved Attia, and the arrival of the two guests. Attia spoke happily with her people, catching up with everyone individually. Once the atmosphere lightened up, Keiro joined in on conversations as well. He told his own stories and jokes, and, despite his occasional arrogant comments, got along fine with a majority of the people. The village elder he had met earlier, named Neisha, was particularly interested in hearing about what he felt for her precious Attia. Of course he didn't share all the details and kept a large fraction of his feelings to himself, for he never was and never would be a very sentimental person, but he shared just enough to flatter Attia and entertain the woman.
When the food was finally served, Keiro saw there was a variety of many different meats: mostly birds, but a few land mammals and small rodents. It all looked so appetizing and made his mouth water. He greedily reached forward to serve himself, but was stopped when Attia grabbed his shoulder and spoke.
"How about I make your plate for you?" she offered. After seeing the confused look on Keiro's face, she explained, "you don't know which sauces go well with which meats and vegetables."
And so Keiro let Attia fill his plate and serve him, and she did the same for Tahira. After doing so, she then served herself.
Tahira ate quickly, devouring every last scrap and drop with utmost hunger and appreciation. Attia ate slower, but without pausing. She slowly savored the delicious flavors of her home that she had not tasted in so many years, taking in each bite to its fullest. Keiro, however, after taking his first bite from the lamb, refused to continue. The flavor was intense, and the spices matched the fiery heat of the air around them. His nose dripped while his ears turned red and his tongue blazed.
Quickly turning to Attia, he cried, "do they have any beer?"
"Beer?" Attia snorted. "This isn't the north. Beer isn't exactly common here. They probably only have milk and water."
Keiro could practically feel his soul drop with dread. No beer? How was he supposed to calm his mouth now?
The people around laughed with amusement, but in their empathy brought a glass of goat milk for the man. Quickly he drank it down, letting the cool creaminess soothe his tastebuds. When he finished emptying the glass, he let out a gasp of relief, put the glass down, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"At least you tried," Attia hummed before quickly pecking his cheek.
Keiro let out a grunt and looked away as his cheeks turned pink with shame. It was humiliating how he had let himself be defeated by only one meal, no matter how spicy. In attempts to help repair his own dignity, he told himself it was hardly a fair battle. He wasn't prepared. He had grown up enjoying the meats, breads, and beer of the north-eastern wings.
But suddenly his thoughts were interrupted when he heard Tahira's tiny voice say, "uh Keiro? Are you gonna finish that?"
Looking down at the girl, and then at his still full plate, Keiro decided to shake his head and ask, "no, why? Do you want it?"
Tahira nodded, and so Keiro then granted her with the rest of his meal. Watching the petite child easily devour the meal he had struggled so much to take one bite from only added to his humiliation.
After dinner, it was time for everyone to retire. Attia and Keiro set up their own tent, and there the three slept together. Tahira slept in the middle, as usual, and this night Keiro had his arm draped across the two girls in a protective manner. They slept without sheets and only their nightwear, for the air around them granted more than enough warmth.
The next morning Attia was the first to awake. She quickly put on her tattered brown dress, and Keiro woke to the sound of her packing up her things.
With a grunt he sat up. "We're already leaving today...?" He asked drowsily.
Attia nodded. "I got what I came for. I found my old family and saw for myself who had survived. I got my closure. Now it's time to care for my new family." She turned her gaze to the sleeping child, and spoke in a quieter voice. "I want to go back and show Tahira her new home."
With a crooked smile, Keiro leaned forward and laid a kiss upon Attia's lips.
After everyone was awake, washed, fed, and packed, the three said their goodbyes and set off once again through the Prison. They left the way they came, taking another two weeks or so to return to the Northern Gate.
When they arrived there, neither Attia nor Keiro had yet told Tahira their decision to adopt her as their daughter. As they walked through the familiar town, an uneasy tenseness swept over the child, and when they approached the street which was connected to the same alley she had once called home, this tenseness suddenly erupted. Clutching tighter onto the two adults' hands, her blue eyes pooled and overflowed with massive tears. Her nose scrunched up, and her mouth opened to let out loud wails of agony.
Immediately gasping and dropping down onto her knees before the girl, Attia hugged her and whispered into her ear, "no, don't cry. Please don't cry. You're not going back there, you're not."
But the girl didn't seem to hear the whispers, or be swayed by them, because she still continued crying hysterically into Attia's shoulder.
"Tahira," Keiro finally spoke, "we've decided to adopt you."
When she heard these words, her cries instantly ceased. Looking up at Keiro with amazed eyes, she whispered, "really?"
"You mean I'm going to be-?"
"That's right," Attia pulled away to smile at Tahira with small tears in her own eyes, "you're going to be our little girl. We're going to be a family, we're going to love you, and you're going to see so many new places and meet so many new people."
"What do you say, kid?" Keiro asked. "Are you alright with that?"
Tahira watched Keiro, then Attia. Before she could answer, she was suddenly crying once again. But this time, rather than her lips curved into a frown, she was grinning widely. Never in her life had she ever felt so happy. She hugged Attia back and furiously nodded her head. Yes, she would be their daughter.
Keiro then lifted the child up and sat her on his broad shoulders. Together the three walked through the gate, into the natural golden sunshine of Outside.