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Chapter 2

====Seven Months Later====

Irian pulled on his leather gloves, welcoming the familiar texture against his skin.
He flexed the arches of his feet, feeling the wood beneath them.

It was a nice day on Hablin’s southern coast, in late spring. Nearby, Tarn watched the distant waves rise and fall.
The morning sun’s rays rippled in the water, reflecting an image of the cliffs that surrounded them.

Tarn sat cross legged on the opposite side of the pool from Irian, on the floating deck that formed the pool’s perimeter. Tarn stretched in the looming shadows of the cliffs.
“You really ought to come into the sunshine,” Irian remarked. “You need to bake that pasty bread dough of yours you call skin.”
“Well,” Tarn said as he stood up, “not all dough can stay in the oven as long as you can.”

Mr. Derkin turned a wheel near the water, lowering the lift to the bottom of the pool.
“Alrightee boys,” he said, a small smile appearing under his beard. “Open the feed Tarn.”

Tarn placed his hands on the large valve, and with a few turns, they heard the quiet sound of feed rushing into the pool.
Mr. Derkin readied his noose pole while Irian and Tarn readied their long staffs.

Irian caught sight of the first few gills. He watched Mr. Derkin’s expression, waiting for when he should assist him.

Several gills grabbed up handfuls of the coarse porridge feed. Irian caught sight of glimmering orange scales.

Moving swiftly, Mr. Derkin reached the noose pole in, cinched it tight, and began pulling the gill toward the lift. Irian watched carefully in case the other gills tried to intervene. They didn’t.

Mr. Derkin got the gill into the lift, then shut its gate.

Irian and Tarn set down their long staffs. Irian helped him raise the lift, while Tarn got some leather strips ready.

The water flowed off of the gill’s skin as the lift came above the water, revealing an older merboy.
The merboy held a neutral expression, not even breathing too deep. Above the waist, he was like any normal human, apart from his coarse threadbare shirt, and some faint slits in his neck.

Below the waist however, his body was very inhuman. Coated in orange scales, his tail narrowed towards a point, where two translucent fins grew.
It sat in silence as Tarn tied its wrists, letting Tarn move him without any resistance.

Irian slid his gloved hand under the middle part of the gill’s tail, placed his other hand under its back, and hefted it up.

“You got im’?” Mr. Derkin asked.
“Yep,” Irian answered.
“Right,” Mr. Derkin said, “Tarn, you come with me. We need to talk about some work you did repairing the fence.”

Irian heard Tarn moan slightly, and took the gill over to the scaling bowl. It was a shallow metal bowl, large enough for the gill to fit inside.

He put the gill’s wrists into the leather cuffs, then put the skinny end of its tail into another, just above the fins.

“Bite down,” Irian instructed, placing a dowel in the gill’s mouth. The gill spat it out.
“Okay,” Irian shrugged, “have it your way.”
The gill wore an expression that seemed to say “I’m no coward.”

Irian picked up his main knife and started scraping. As he got into a rhythm, the scales began to fall like iridescent rain, making a faint scratching sound as they slid to the center of the bowl.
Soon the sound became more continous, as more and more of the bare tail-skin was revealed.
Just like Tarn, the gills had pasty white skin, probably from lurking down in the water all the time.

All throughout his scaling, the gill didn’t react too much. Irian would occasionally glance up at the gill’s face, but other than the short period of time where he worked around the gill’s front fold, it barely even winced.
When moving to areas like near the fins, or near the fold, he swapped out his main knife for a more precise specialized one.

Irian worked his way around the gill’s fins, moving slower and more precise. Here was where the few smaller scales could be found, for use with intricate jewelry.

A metal or goldsmith might frame these scales into a necklace or a ring.
Orange was a less desired color though. It was one of the few scale colors that could be afforded by people like his family.

He began orienting the gill so that its back was facing up, and the gill moved instinctively into position so that Irian could scale the back of its tail.
He’d scaled this gill a handful of times now. It seemed to be playing a game with him, attempting to be stoic as possible.
Last time Irian had scaled him, Irian had made a few jokes in an attempt to get the gill’s face to flinch. The gill hadn’t flinched, but it had stiffened its upper lip.

Finally, Irian got off the last few scales he could, and considered the scaling finished.
He stood up for a moment to stretch out his legs, and wipe his sweating brow.

This was a pretty good scaling for him, taking just under an hour. He’d gotten much better, and now he barely missed any of the scales around the fins. Tarn would need a great deal of time though before Mr. Derkin let him scale on his own, but Irian was now rather adept at it.

Irian removed the gill’s hands from the cuffs, and rebound them. It glanced off in another direction, avoiding Irian’s gaze in an intentionally obvious way.

After reaching the pool, the gill quickly slid out of his hands, disappearing beneath the water.

After putting his tools away, Irian looked at his pocketwatch. He still had some time before lunch.

Irian began walking towards the bunkhouse that he and Tarn lived in, amid the sound of Mr. Derkin hammering tools at the forge.
The sound was cut off by Mr. Derkin cursing several deities.

Irian smirked as he heard the hammering start up again, and then walked into the bunkhouse.

He spied a stack of some mail on the table, and was invigorated to find a letter from his family, which he hastily cut open.

Once he began reading though, Irian’s cheerful attitude began to subside. As he read further, he sank lower, and lower into his chair, until he felt his skin shivering with goose pimples.

Nalrie’s condition was worsening. She needed more frequent doses of her medicine. After a late frost, their crops had suffered, and now his family was having to buy cheaper food to pay for his sister’s medicine.
They were on a precipice between being poor and being in poverty.

And he had bought a pocket watch.
He stared at the gleaming metal watch, feeling like the youthful idiot he was.

In the half year he’d been working for Mr. Derkin, he had tasted the allure of money for the first time in his life. He was ashamed how quickly he’d forgotten his parents’ warnings about temperance.
It had gone to his head.

He wasn’t even the kind of individual that needed a pocket watch. He’d thought it would attract the gaze of some pretty girls, but considering the contrast of the watch with his rough working clothes, that had been rather delusional.

He groaned, dropping the pocket watch and the letter in table’s drawer. He didn’t want to look at them.

Never had he needed to be responsible about such adult matters; not until he left to apprentice with Mr. Derkin. A part of him, despite the lack of money, longed for that simpler time, where he didn’t have to worry about making so many choices.

All he’d had to do was work on his family’s farm, working the land. But life taking care of their property had never been easy.

They had always lived under the shadow of potentially deadly crop failure.
His family had already experienced that when he’d been young, and it had taken his family from poor to poorer.
They had it so hard up at Lake Ginnay.

He gripped the top of his head in frustration.
So then, why did he dare to feel bad while his family was sacrificing so much? Why did he feel justified in buying anything other than basic food?

He didn’t deserve to express any discomfort when they were suffering so deeply.
Especially when his sister was in constant pain. And yet he - oh, he would complain about the struggles of trying to find girls to court him.
He was pathetic.

Getting up from his chair, Irian went to that most despised of activities known as lunch. A moment of levity for him normally, but today, a reminder of his excess.

Pausing for a moment as he walked out the door, he sighed, looking back at the table.
He latched the door, and locked his problems away.

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