“I... I still am in shock at this,” Reef and Echo’s father said. “Both in the good fortune of your escape... and in the horrible misfortune you experienced.”
They sat at a stone table, in a kind of dining hall in the Wavecrest’s home. The Wavecrest’s were apparently readying a meal.
“We are alright,” Reef said.
“No you’re not,” their father said. “Your tail is proof enough for that.”
“We’re sorry that we cannot get a healer for you,” their mother said. “Finding channelers effective at healing is becoming difficult these days.”
“I’ll survive,” Reef said.
“I just... I feel so much grief for what you’ve experienced. And for your companions.”
“Father,” Reef said, “there’s something you need to know.”
Irian felt a chill as Reef pointed at him.
“Him,” Reef said. He then pointed at Tarn. “And him. They are not deserving of your grief.”
“They are not merfolk. They are humans. Human scale farmers.”
Reef’s parents were caught off guard, and to Irian’s dismay, actually looked repulsed at the revelation.
“I have been scaled many times over these three years,” Reef said, “but the human with the brown hair is the one who did it this past time.”
Shock faded from his father’s face, and was replaced with confusion, and anger.
“Why... why are they here?” he asked.
“Tarn was the means of our escape,” Cora said. “Irian tried to stop him. But while escaping, we were attacked, and we changed them into merfolk to save them.”
“No,” Reef said, “we brought them here to imprison them, and see that they face justice for their crimes. And I don’t want them sitting at this table.”
Irian shivered, but fought to maintain an unwavered expression. Tarn however, was not so strong.
“Please,” Tarn said, desperation in his eyes, “we don’t mean any harm. I was the reason why these merfolk were able to escape.”
“Just because you had a change of heart recently,” Reef said, “doesn’t mean that you are cleared of your past wrongs. We should have left both of you to fend for yourselves.”
Irian winced, and glanced at the bandage covering his bullet wound.
“And you,” Reef glared at him now, “you have no defense. You tried to keep us from escaping.” He looked to Cora. “Helping them was incredibly foolish. Showing them mercy is not something they deserve.”
“Reef,” his father said, “you have been through a great deal. And you have reason to be angry. However, I wish to hear what they wish to say for themselves.”
Tarn visibly shook, and swallowed before speaking. “I can’t remove the things that I have done. I... I did scale several merfolk, ones that didn’t want to join in the escape.
“I watched the suffering of innocent creatures, and it took me far too long to act. But I did choose to act. And I’m going to do all I can to act differently.”
Reef’s father made no visible reaction. He didn’t say anything either. Then he directed his attention to Irian. Irian waited, again for him to say anything, but no, they were going to try to make him uncomfortable. They wanted him to make the first move.
“I have scaled merfolk,” he said. “I’ve scaled all of these four who escaped. I did not do it because I found pleasure in it, but because I simply needed the money. My family barely gets by, and they need all that I could spare.”
Not that you were willing to spare much, he thought to himself. He forced away the thought. “My sister has a serious illness, and the money I brought them was all that kept her alive.”
He nearly let his tongue slip, and let himself complain that they had now endangered his sister’s life by kidnapping him. But even he wasn’t that stupid.
“I did it because I had to,” he said. “And now that I can’t do it, I have no reason to harm any of you.”
Now that one was hard to say. He really wanted to at least rough up Reef a bit. The rest of the escaped mers hadn’t done him much good either. They’d all been part of his kidnapping, especially Tarn, and Cora had cursed him to be a merboy.
“Interesting,” Reef’s father said. “very interesting. Each gives a carefully crafted speech, but each has a different intent.”
He looked straight at Irian.
“If you had not been taken by them, but left to your own devices, would you have continued to scale farm.”
Irian wasn’t one to mince his words.
“Would you if you were placed back on land now?”
Irian grunted, and folded his arms. “Tarn and the others have made me appear to be a criminal. Returning to scale farming would be stupid.”
“Yet you desire to go back to land.”
“Yes,” Irian said. “I’m obviously going to avoid the coast. I’ll go to my family further inland. I want to see... I want to see my sister.”
Toret’s peaks, he needed to hold himself together. The last thing he needed was to start sobbing about Nalrie.
“Father,” Reef said, “you can see who they are. They clearly need to be sent to prison.”
“Reef,” his father said, his voice calmer than his son’s, “you are acting as though they are hardened criminals. Even...”
“Irian,” Irian said quietly.
“Even with this boy Irian, I do not see that imprisoning him will accomplish much. Besides, we do not have room in the prison to give to them, when the space is needed for those who are more dangerous.”
“You used to actually care about this Atoll Wavecrest!” Reef yelled. “You used to actually care about bringing humans to justice.”
“Sit down Reef,” his father ordered. “I’m not going to argue about this.”
Servants came into the room carrying food, and set it on the table. Irian recognized the main part of the meal as some kind of crab, joined with many different types of underwater vegetables.
“For just a moment,” Atoll sighed, “I would like to celebrate your safe return. All of you need to have an actual meal.”
“I’ll go without,” Reef swam up from his place on the bench, “if I have to eat with them at the table.”
Atoll looked down, pinching the bridge of his nose. His wife whispered something to him.
“Seat the humans outside,” he said. He then looked squarely at his son. “But bring them food as well.”
Reef gave Irian a vicious glare as he swam past him, and followed the servants. He couldn’t see behind him, but he could feel that stare following him out of the room.
Irian and Tarn followed the servants to an outdoor eating area, where they placed down platters of similar food. Having another battle between his anger and his body, Irian couldn’t ignore his hunger. He was pleasantly surprised. The food was much better than what the mers had given him in the past few days. Somehow, the food was cooked.
“I’m actually glad that he sent us outside,” Tarn said.
Irian looked up at him, surprised that he was talking to him.
“I don’t know if I’d say I’m glad about anything,” Irian said.
“They aren’t sending us to prison, and they gave us food.”
“And then what?” Irian said. “We’re still trapped underwater, we’re still half-fish, and we’re separated from our families.”
“Well maybe,” Tarn said, “they’d be more willing to help you if you weren’t so anxious to pick a fight with them.”
“They - and you, picked a fight with me first,” Irian said. He breathed shakily, his anger brimming.
“You keep talking like you were the one in the right,” Tarn said, looking equally mad. “But just because you’re taking care of your family doesn’t justify harming the merfolk. The ends don’t justify the means.”
“Why couldn’t you have just let me go?” Irian shouted.
“It was because,” Tarn said, “you wouldn’t stop complaining! And you’re acting like I had control over the situation. I just lit the explosive, I didn’t control what it did. It was Cora who made you a merboy. All I wanted to do was stop treating thinking individuals like they were animals!”
Irian launched himself up into the water. He was sick of -
Tarn punched him first.
Irian flew backwards through the water. Tarn had hit him in the chest, and it aggravated his shoulder badly. He bit back the pain. The wound was on his left shoulder. Not the one he needed.
Irian swam quickly back to Tarn. Tarn didn’t seem to want to hit him again, but that gave Irian the opening to strike him in the stomach. Tarn let out a slight squeal.
Despite Tarn struggling, Irian got his arms up around Tarn’s shoulders to try to wrestle him to -
Irian let go, his shoulder burning in pain. He clutched it with his right hand, squinting his eyes tight for a moment till it subsided.
“Irian,” Tarn frowned back at him, “this is stupid. The fact is, we’re merfolk now, and trying to punch me, or Cora, or even Reef is not going to get you back to your family.”
Irian breathed deeply, and slowly. He looked down at his blue tail, his fins gliding back and forth. “Toret help me,” Irian said, “I hate it when you use logic.”
“You hate it because that’s not how you think,” Tarn said. “Ignoring everything else, if you keep on doing what you have been, you’re just going to make things worse for yourself.”
Irian hissed through his teeth. “Augh! Why did this have to happen to me! Why did I have to get out of bed? Why.... just why does Toret hate me!”
Irian felt his face moving as though he was crying. He hated that Aliya’s realm had stolen even that from him.
Tarn pulled Irian back down to the table. Irian looked back down at the remaining food at the table.
“I’m sorry that I’ve put you through this Irian,” Tarn said. “I wanted to help the merfolk. I didn’t think that you were going to try to stop me, much less that we’d end up here.”
“Really. You really thought you’d get away with getting every single mer out of the farm.”
“I wanted to try,” Tarn said. “I just... imagine how it would feel if you were in their place. We’ve both had our tails for a few days now.”
Irian look down at it, right as he felt a stinging sensation near the end of his tail.
Tarn held up a blue scale, and then placed it on the table’s stone surface.
Irian picked it up. He looked at the slight shine that came off it.
“I still can’t believe that these are part of my body,” he said.
“But it hurt didn’t it?” Tarn said. “Imagine feeling that over your whole body. Imagine the feeling of nakedness and shame they must feel.”
“Tarn,” Irian said, “all of you just don’t understand. I know that it hurt them. I even tried my best to not cause them unneeded pain -”
“All of their pain was unneeded,” Tarn said.
“Let me finish,” Irian scolded. “If I could have gotten the money my family needed -”
“Irian,” Tarn interrupted again, ”you don’t seem to understand. Yes, you’re family is important, but you’re using it to rationalize that what you did was bad. You’re denying the fact that you hurt them.”
Irian tried to steer their debate back to what he was going to say earlier, but held back. “Fine. It was wrong of me to scale those mers. I caused them suffering. I acted lightly about it. I made unpleasant jokes. I acted like there wasn’t anything wrong with what I was doing. I acted like... the merfolk were meant for this.”
Irian felt more tears coming out as he held his face in his hands. He really, really did not like thinking about this. When he eventually looked back up, he saw that Tarn’s disdainful expression was gone, and had become more neutral.
“Now,” Tarn said, “tell that to them.”
“Embarrassing?” Tarn asked in confusion. “I... your stupid pride...”
“What?” Irian said. “My family has never been...”
“Irian,” Tarn said, “this has nothing to do with money or material possessions. You don’t want to give in. You don’t want to look weak. You want them to bow down to you. And that’s the problem. You’re treating life like it’s a children’s game of mountain fort, that you can be the only one standing at the top.”
“I’ve never been the one on top Tarn,” Irian said. “I’ve.... I’ve never been the one on top.”
“Well join the rest of us,” Tarn said. “I prefer games that don’t get you shoved off a rock, then you fall on your back and feel pain for years afterward.”
“Sounds like someone is just bad at playing mountain fort.”
A slight smile came to Tarn’s face. “The thing is Irian, you’re holding a grudge. It makes you miserable, and it makes everyone else miserable. Choke down your pride, and get through awkwardly apologizing, and it’ll make everyone feel better. At very least, it’ll make you feel better.”
Irian sat silently. He could hear the flowing of the ocean currents around him. He turned in place, and extended his tail down the bench.
He really, really didn’t want to just accept this. But Tarn was right.
“I’ll be kinder to them,” Irian said.
“It would be easier if you just apologized,” Tarn said. “A real apology. Not whatever rationalization you spouted for Reef’s father.”
Irian sighed, and put a slice of some grilled vegetable in his mouth.
The rancid weed was dead.