On his way back to the farm from the post office, Irian expected he would feel at least a little relieved.
But he didn’t.
Mud began to coat the bottom of his sandals. He felt the pattering rain hit his back as he stared down at the ground.
He’d sold his pocket watch that morning, and put the money in a gunny sack with his other rellas. In several weeks, it would arrive at Lake Ginnay.
Despite doing this, it didn’t really feel like his burden was lifted.
Several weeks felt agonizingly slow. Even after, the money would run out.
And he’d been compelled to do it because of guilt. Not out of the kindness of his heart.
He felt weighed down with his inability to be responsible.
Irian had patched the hole in his ship this time, but he couldn’t keep patching. He needed to remove all the rotten wood and replace it, otherwise holes would continue to form.
It didn’t help his mood that it had been lightly raining for several minutes, and his clothing was becoming damp.
The mud was now working its way in-between his toes.
He acted as though he was a better person than Tarn. He acted, even though he was only two years older at eighteen, like Tarn was immature and that he - he was the wise, serious adult.
In his own way, Irian was no more of a man than Tarn was. He’d just become apt at denying his own personal weakness.
Tarn hated working, but Irian loved to waste the fruits of his work on meaningless things.
How much money had he wasted since coming to Port Dialn and the coast? How much could he have helped his family?
Even if he’d merely saved for his own future, that would have been sufficient.
But now he’d sacrificed those savings to pay for his sins.
As he walked through the farm’s gate, Irian saw Tarn silhouetted against the cloudy sunset. The two of them had stayed apart for the day, and it had helped to cool some of their tension.
Tarn stood at one of the sluice gates. He shivered as his hands gripped the valve, the now steady rain dripping from his arms.
“What’re you up to Tarn?” Irian asked, walking around the pool.
“Oh,” Tarn said, looking up, “We forgot to change the pool’s water yesterday, so I thought it would be a good idea to get that done.”
“Well... thanks for remembering,” Irian said.
He took a deep breath.
Irian walked closer, and placed his hand on Tarn’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry I let my temper get away from me yesterday. It was rude of me to embarrass you like that in public. I just... I let my anger take control, and that wasn’t right.”
Tarn wiped his wet hair out of his eyes.
“I accept your apology,” he said, “and I don’t hold anything against you.”
Tarn was quiet for a moment.
He was thinking about something.
Irian waited for him to speak.
“I’ll take care of this,” Tarn said, apparently tossing aside the thought, “you can get ready for bed.”
“Alright,” Irian said. He walked back toward the bunkhouse.
Irian felt like he should’ve stayed and helped - the gills should’ve been watched while Tarn brought in new water, but he felt like it would’ve been uncomfortable for both of them if he’d stood on by silently.
After going inside and sitting on his bed, Irian changed into dry clothing, then took off his shoes and rubbed the soreness out of his feet.
The post office was only a mile away from the farm.
He’d grown soft, not having to work as hard as on his family’s real farm.
He got in bed, and put out the oil lamp. He hoped that he would sleep better tonight, separated a bit from the painful torment of the night before.
A thought came to his mind.
He’d forgotten to remind Tarn to put the sluice key back; he was always forgetting.
Irian rolled over.
Tarn would remember. Probably. Maybe.
It’s not like Tarn would lose it if it was in his pocket.
Irian remembered once when Tarn had left it in the lock. They rain could make it come loose if he left it in there.
Irian groaned, and tore himself out of bed. He begrudgingly put his damp clothes back on, and then walked out the door.
He wouldn’t -
He couldn’t be...
Tarn was lifting gills out of the water, and helping them escape.
Irian ran over to Tarn, and Tarn flinched.
He’d realized he was caught.
“Tarn....” Irian uttered, mouth agape, “I... I can’t believe... how could you...”
Tarn stood up, and the gill he’d been holding slipped back into the pool.
“You’re stealing Mr. Derkin’s property...,” Irian accused.
“They’re people Irian,” Tarn said in an equally harsh tone. “They own themselves.”
“You’ll be arrested!” Irian exclaimed. “At the very least, you’ll face months in jail. At worst, you’ll be at the end of a rope! Don’t be an idiot. Don’t do this. You can still stop.”
“I don’t care if they’ve twisted the law to comfort their conscience,” Tarn spat. “I’m not going to let their rules keep me from being a good person.”
Irian stared down his fellow apprentice, and Tarn stared him down likewise.
The boy’s dusty blonde hair clung to his forehead from the rain.
Irian saw one of the long staffs on the deck.
He snatched it, and held it threateningly toward Tarn.
“Tarn,” Irian said, “I don’t care if you follow the law. I don’t care if you do what Mr. Derkin wants. But please. My family desperately needs the money I get here. Few jobs pay this well, and we need it to take care of my ailed little sister.”
Irian gripped the staff harder.
“I’m not going to let you condemn her to her sickness.”
Tarn jumped out of the way as Irian swung with the staff. Tarn dashed for the other one, and began to defend himself with it.
Their fighting was bad, since neither of them knew anything about fighting, and the staffs had become slick from the rain.
Irian figured though that if he kept going for Tarn’s knuckles, he could probably get him to drop the long staff.
Tarn tried a similar counterattack, and Irian tried to strike him in the side.
Unfortunately, the long staffs were not made for swinging. They were made for thrusting down into the water to deter the gills, and thus, were very hard to move rapidly.
Irian noticed that the gill from before had gotten out of the pool, and was dragging his way toward the drainage canal.
He ran toward the gill, and grabbed its arm, but Irian fell to the deck with the whack of Tarn’s staff.
The strike was a hard one, and it took a moment for Irian to regain his awareness.
Tarn had grabbed the gill, and was awkwardly lifting him over the fence to try to get him into the canal.
“Mr. Derkin!” Irian shouted above the falling rain. “Mr. Derkin! Tarn is helping the gills escape!”
Irian leaped up onto the netted fence, and grabbed around Tarn’s waist to keep him from getting the gill over.
The gill pitched over the top of the fence, and into the canal.
“Mr. Derkin!” Irian yelled again as he and Tarn grappled on the fence.
Irian jumped backward and fell down onto the deck, narrowly missing a thrust from Tarn’s staff.
Tarn vaulted over the fence and into the drainage canal.
Rushing as fast as he could, Irian followed after Tarn into the water.
The brisk water disoriented Irian for a moment, but then he began swimming as fast as he could after Tarn.
Four other gills were with Tarn.
He’d gotten four of them.
Irian lifted his head above the water, drawing a deep breath.
“Mr. Derkin! The gills are escaping! The gills are -”
A hand suddenly clamped over his mouth, and he struggled against the combined strength of Tarn and the gills.
He put up the best fight he could, but it was no match for their greater numbers.
Tarn and the escapees dragged him along with them.
Eventually, he felt himself being tossed in the waves of the ocean, and his captors carried him far from the shore.
The skies had darkened much more, and the rain continued to pepper him whenever he was above the water. With every passing minute Irian became more furious.
Finally, down the coast from the farm, they heaved him onto a rock, and let him speak.
“How could you Tarn!?” Irian fumed, “How could you just throw your life - and my life away?! They’ll suspect that I was your accomplice!”
His body burned hot and lividly. “If I have my way,” Irian said, “I’ll make sure that you’ll live out your life in a jailhouse!”
“Hmph,” one of the gills said. It was the orange-tailed merboy he’d scaled the other day. “He thinks we’re going to just let him go.”
Irian sucked in a ragged breath. “My family needed the money I was earning! Even if I don’t get arrested the moment I step on the shore, I’ll never find a job that gets me enough. I’ll never have enough for my family’s needs. Now my sister is going to die because of you!”
Tarn hung his head down low, sitting on a submerged part of the rock Irian was on.
The sheets of rain rippled in the wind, soaking them to the bone.
Irian’s chest heaved up and down. He waited.
“I’m sorry Irian,” Tarn said, “I... I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just... I just couldn’t watch the merfolk continue to go through this horrible, painful existence. You know how it feels to see your sister go through her pain, and not be able to eradicate her disease. But I could help the merfolk.”
He wiped his eyes of rain and tears. “And I wish I could’ve saved them all.”
“Even if you really do care about the gills,” Irian said, “they weren’t stricken with a disease like my sister. Her life hangs in the balance every, single day she doesn’t have good medicine.”
“I... I know,” Tarn said, “I... I almost went through with all this knowing how it would hurt your family. But I know that they rely on your help.”
Tarn was quiet for a moment.
“I saw the money you were sending them,” Tarn went on, “so I added my own money to the sack when you weren’t looking.”
Irian felt an inner chill rumble through him.
No, Tarn wouldn’t do something like that.
Irian’s insides twisted and churned. His emotions felt all mixed up.
“We need to get out of here,” one of the gills said. “Soon, they’ll send in boats to patrol the waters. They won’t take time to plan out their revenge.”
Tarn wheezed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save the rest of your friends.”
“Don’t worry yourself over it,” one of the mermaids said. “All the other merfolk were too cautious to join in on such a spur of the moment escape.”
“Yeah,” one of the merboys said. “It would’ve been difficult to help the young merkids anyway. If all of us had tried to escape, it could’ve gone much worse.”
“Good luck getting back to your people,” Tarn said to them. “I hope that you’ll be safe.”
One of the mermaids, the one that Irian had scaled the day before, grasped Tarn’s wrist.
“Tarn,” she said, “we can’t leave you to be arrested.” She glanced at Irian. “And we can’t leave him to help lead them to us.”
“Irian isn’t going to do that,” Tarn said with certainty.
Tarn looked to Irian for confirmation.
Irian maintained his disapproving expression.
Tarn didn’t get it. Even though Tarn had helped him, Irian’s family would still eventually run out of money.
Tarn’s confidence in him turned to disappointment.
“Irian,” he said, “it will accomplish nothing. The gills will be far out of reach. And you said it yourself, they’ll think you assisted in the escape.”
“I’ll make that risk,” Irian said with stubborn determination. “I need to take care of my family. Unlike you, I can’t run and hide from my problems.”
“Oh,” Tarn remarked, a scowl appearing on his face, “but you’ve been good at hiding from the suffering of the merpeople, haven’t you?”
Irian slapped his palm hard against Tarn’s cheek.
Tarn cried out, and the gills tore Irian away from him.
“You’re worse than Mr. Derkin sometimes!” Tarn yelled. “At least he doesn’t get pleasure from watching the mers suffer!”
“How dare you claim something you don’t even know!” Irian said. He curled his fingers into a fist.
“Oh I know it,” Tarn said while rubbing his sore cheek, “I’ve watched uncomfortably as you laughed when you hit one of them with your staff. I’ve heard you make jokes about them being little more than animals.”
Tarn’s own temper looked so hot that the water on his head looked like it might turn to steam.
The rain, accompanied by the wind and the ocean waves, were the only sounds in the air.
Irian clenched his jaw. He was not a monster. He had a job to do, and was it his fault if he wanted to lighten work with some joking around? He wasn’t serious about what he’d said.
But even so, the gills weren’t humans. They didn’t matter like his sister did.
“You don’t know the stress,” Irian said, “the fear, the pain that I go through every day, worrying about my family. You’ve had it easy. Your family are well off merchants. You don’t have to worry about them.”
Tarn couldn’t argue otherwise. Irian had caught him in something that was all too true.
“And,” Irian added, “imagine their disappointment, when they learn that their bright young son has gone mad and become a criminal.”
“I haven’t gone mad!” Tarn shouted. “If I’m speaking truthfully, it seems like I’m one of the few who’s sane around here!”
Irian was about to start wailing on his former friend, but the stupid gill from yesterday caught his wrist first.
The cursed gills held him tight, and this time it didn’t appear that they’d give him slack.
“Fine then Irian,” Tarn said. “Get out of here. Snitch on me, and get yourself hanged. I’m sure your parents would think you made the right choice.”
Irian struggled against the grip of his captors, but they wouldn’t budge.
“I know you don’t care what we say,” the gill holding his wrist said, “but Tarn is right. Put aside your anger for just one moment, and think clearly.”
She directed her gaze at Tarn. “That goes for you too.”
Irian huffed sharply through his nostrils, and grudgingly, relaxed his muscles. The gills still held on tight.
Tarn’s expression softened, and he let out a long exhale.
“I’m sorry Irian,” Tarn said. His expression softened. “I care about you. Otherwise I wouldn’t’ve given you that money. And as your friend, I just want to plead with you, that you can’t reveal yourself to the authorities. The laws around this are harsh - Mr. Derkin will not be merciful in a court to you either.”
Irian hung his head down.
“Stick with me,” Tarn said, “we’ll live off the land together while we wait for the heat to die down. I promise, I’ll find some way to help your sister.”
Irian made eye contact with Tarn again.
“They’ll still find us,” Irian said as he attempted to quiet his voice. “We’d need to escape to the border. I don’t think we could do it quickly enough. We’d have to steal horses - and I’m not going to engage in crime.”
The two of them sat there. The difficult circumstances hung over them, like the dark storm clouds above.
“Well,” one of the merboys said, “what if you didn’t stay on land?”
Irian glanced over at him.
“There’s enough motion in the waves that I think we could do it,” one of the mermaids said. “I think that there’s enough motion in the water here for us to change you into a merboy Tarn.”
Irian felt like he’d just been struck by lightning.
“You want to do what?” he exclaimed with wide eyes.
He struggled against their hold on him again. Still unsuccessful.
The mermaid frowned bashfully. “I know that it may not sound very pleasant to you Tarn, but given your options -”
“It is literally the worst possible one,” Irian interrupted.
Wow” the orange tailed merboy said. “You really hate us that much? You’d think Tarn would be better of going to the gallows?”
“No,” Irian refuted, “I just don’t... I just can’t...”
He looked down at one of their tails, draped over the rock.
Irian quivered, on top of his shivering from the cold. Either option was extremely distasteful. One could lead to death by execution; The other would mark the death of one’s humanity instead.
“I’ll do it,” Tarn said.
“Are you serious?” Irian asked. “Don’t be an idiot for the second time tonight.”
“But they’re right Irian,” Tarn rationalized. “They’ll put a bounty on our heads. All of Hablin will be after us. We may not even get so far as the jailhouse. Militias the country over will be pointing rifles in our direction. If you were to take on this change with me, then we’d be safe.”
Irian’s stomach lurched at the thought. “But Tarn,” Irian protested, “this is our humanity we’d be throwing away. This is any chance of a future on land we’d be giving up. We’d be forsaking our place as part of Toret’s people!
“Better to have a future in the water than a future in the grave,” Tarn said. “And even though I’m going to forgive you for what you’ve said so far, I’m going to hold to it - mers are just as human as we are, and I won’t stand for you to treat them like they’re anything less.”
Irian stared condescendingly at Tarn. He just... he just couldn’t believe how on a whim, Tarn was willing to give up any kind of worthwhile future.
A bright light cut through the dark and the rain.
It was a search lamp, and it was sweeping across the waves.
“Toret help us,” Tarn uttered. “We’re doomed. Your indecisiveness will be the death of us all.”
Irian and Tarn jumped into the water, and clung onto the rock.
They hid behind it as the light passed again.
Irian squeezed his eyes shut as he grappled his thoughts.
The bright glimmer of search lamps glowed through his eyelids.
It happened so quickly.
He heard the thundering sound, and then an instant later, Irian felt the bullet strike his shoulder.
Irian cried out, but the others muffled him.
He felt the pumping in his veins more strongly near his shoulder. The pain began to flare. He screamed against Tarn’s stifling hand.
His body became filled with an overwhelming urge to escape. The moment he tried, he felt his shoulder burn with pain.
He felt the warm blood around him in the water.
More gunshots fired near them.
The gills pulled him into the darkness of the waters. For a moment, his awareness heightened from his pained shoulder, but then it became subdued again.
Then he felt even the blinding light from the boat above begin to fade. The sensation of the water around him started slipping.
No... he... he wanted to escape...
The darkness swallowed him up.