Irian laid back in his chair, frowning at Tarn, who sat at the other side of the table. The careless boy had his feet propped up on the table, reading a book as they waited for their food.
The Prismatic Coast Inn was very packed today. Several ships must’ve come into port.
Irian despised waiting. It left him alone to his thoughts. He had to be doing something. In this case, it was worse, because all he could think about was a coughing and starving Nalrie, crying as they forced her to take cheap medicine.
The cheap stuff they sometimes forced into her was little more than glorified chalk.
But without his help, his family couldn’t afford any better. He knew how much it would cost him to help his family with these additional costs. He was already helping them get edible food on the table.
Yet here he was, eating at the inn, when he could get cheaper food at the market.
A familiar face showed up to the table with two dishes of food.
“Off,” Jade commanded Tarn as she set down his food.
Tarn hastily slung his feet under the table.
“Busy?” Irian asked.
“We’ve had worse,” she said, setting down Irian’s plate. “At least these sailors won’t be here for long.”
Tarn opened his book on the table, and started trying to read while he ate.
Irian raised a slice of toast topped with buttered eggs. He paused, realizing that Jade was staring at him.
“What?” he asked.
“Something’s up,” she said, “I know it.”
“Yes,” Irian said dryly, “the sun. It’s almost noon.”
“No,” she said, “you usually get pork or something.”
“I’m feeling sentimental for a taste of home”
“Plus,” Jade said, “you didn’t give some superfluous greeting when you came in. Plus you had your hands shoved in your pockets the whole walk to your table.”
“Well,” Irian said, “my business ain’t a concern of yours.”
“Alright,” Jade said, raising her hands up defensively. “I don’t have time to be your mama.”
She walked off to serve more customers.
Tarn still had his face in the book, and was chewing loudly at the same time.
“Can there really be something so interesting about that book,” Irian asked, “that it keeps a man from eating a meal like an civilized being?”
“Yes,” Tarn said, without removing his eyes from the page. “I’m reading a book by this scientist who’s been studying gills for several years. He’s got some very interesting ideas.”
“What could be so interesting about gills?” Irian asked as he ate a chunk of bread.
“Lots of things,” Tarn said, finally making eye contact. “This scientist has been studying things like their social structures, and their ability to make things. He’s observed that gills very commonly are skilled enough to do things like weave clothes from just weeds growing at the bottom of their pools.”
“Fascinating,” Irian said sarcastically.
“Yeah, I know right!” Tarn said. “I’ve read several of his books, and I really think I want to do what he’s doing. There’s so much that we don’t know about merpeople. I want to clear away some of that ignorance.”
“Why would it help us to know more?” Irian said. He swallowed some food. “Scale farming is growing more and more productive with every year. We really should be researching new technologies to make it more efficient.”
“Well,” Tarn said, “I guess it’s so we can have a better connection to this interesting race. I mean....”
He hesitated. A timid expression was on his face. “Maybe,” Tarn said, “maybe the way we’re scale farming isn’t exactly... moral.”
Irian nearly coughed up some eggs.
“Uh, I mean,” Tarn tried to recover, “perhaps there are ways that we can improve the conditions of mers. Because... because it might increase how often we can scale them?”
“Well Mr. Scientist,” Irian said. “I think that we’re treating the gills well. Out in the sea, they have to flee from dangerous creatures, and we give them ample food.”
In a rare moment for Tarn, he actually raised his temper.
“Yes,” he said with a frown, “we protect them. Just like how you protect a criminal by jailing them.
“They’re undersea pirates,” Irian changed stance. “They sink ships, then steal the goods for themselves. They’re worse than pirates. Pirates will spare lives - they will not.
“It’s good for them,” he went on, “what we’re doing. We’re keeping them out of our trading corridors, and we’re giving them a stable food source.”
“Food? That’s not food. That’s nutritious dirt. It barely deserves to be called chunky porridge.”
“Tarn,” Irian warned, “you better be careful. Mr. Derkin already doesn’t have the best mind toward you. You’re going to lose your job.”
“Yes, Irian,” Tarn said, “because I know you’ll make sure he likes you. Sucking up to those in abundance is obviously far more important than being a just person.”
Irian got up from the table and slammed some rellas down next to his plate.
The metal ring made Tarn jump.
“I’m sick of your laziness,” Irian complained. “I’m sick of your constant annoyance, and I’m sick of your over-fascination with the gills. I’m not going to pay for your food next time. And I’m definitely not going to take blame for your mistakes anymore.”
Irian stormed away from the table and out of the inn, ignoring curious glances. He wondered if he’d caused a scene. If he had, the kid needed it.
Tarn was a reckless fool that didn’t think about the effort those around him were putting in.
All the while he was like a young calf, happily drinking as much milk as he could get, while being entirely useless, and not being mature enough to help.
Irian walked through town with his hands shoved in his pockets, his boots crunching against the soil beneath.
He missed the days before Tarn came.
The weather was nice and clear today, but all he could feel was anger and frustration.
He hated this feeling. The day had started just fine. He should’ve learned better by now.
Fate would never allow him to be happy for long.