The thing about rancid weed was, it could not survive around more hardy plants.
With the other mers acting immovable towards his attitude, he couldn’t hold onto the extreme bitterness he’d felt right after they’d changed him. His glares were answered with straightened lips. His groans with slience. Now though, he couldn’t continue. He’d simply become worn out.
Unable to keep up his mental blockades against what he was experiencing, he was forced into a modest amount of acceptance. He now called the mers by their actual names. He stopped snapping at them at every opportunity. And now, he was being forced into one of his most frustrating adjustments yet.
“You’re swimming like you still have knees,” Cora said. “You need to move your tail–”
“Yeah yeah,” Irian said, “I know. Like a wave. Do I really need to worry about this now? Reef said we’ll get to where we’re going in an hour or so. I think I’ll manage fine.”
“But you kind of need to use your tail the whole time you’ve got it,” Scute said. He was the green tailed merboy.
“And moving around in small spaces requires a lot of flexibility,” Echo said, the purple tailed mermaid. “Don’t you want to stop swimming around so clumsily?”
“He’s going to be in a cell,” Reef grunted. “I don’t really care if he can swim or not.”
Irian shot a glare at Reef. The merboy, as usual, made no reaction.
Irian didn’t like that urchin. He wasn’t going to let Reef sling mud at him.
Irian choked back his restraint, and allowed his tail to move freely. Worse, he forced himself to think about moving it, and swimming in the undulating way they were telling him to. It was horribly bizarre. But he forced his mind to stomach it.
“Wow,” Cora said, “you’re actually doing it. Doesn’t that feel more natural?”
“No,” Irian said.
Liar, he thought.
“Really? I can’t imagine that what you were doing before felt natural.”
“It didn’t,” Irian said.
“And this feels worse?”
He hated when she trapped him in his words.
“Fine,” he relented. “This feels better.”
“Well it certainly appears so,” she replied. “You look a lot more relaxed.”
He sighed. Irian had never been good at hiding his feelings. She was right. It felt almost like he’d been walking, or swimming rather, with a limp before. Unfortunately, this now made his tail feel less out of place. He didn’t like that he was feeling accustomed to this. But it was just too tiring to resist.
What he could appreciate though, was the feeling of not having his hands bound. His wrists had started feeling a bit less raw.
He continued to wave his fins up and down. It annoyed his stubborn mind to admit it, but swimming now felt much easier. He also noticed that the rest of the mers were able to swim faster, which seemed to make them feel more relaxed.
Tarn however, had not talked to him much at all. Irian knew why. Irian knew that Tarn was afraid of him physically. And Irian didn’t blame him. The boy seemed like he’d never even wrestled someone before.
Because Irian now was making full use of his tail, he made an effort to distract himself. As they traveled further into the Aliya Sea, the plant life had become surprisingly colorful and diverse. It was an interesting contrast to the landscape, which was astonishingly flat. At least, compared to the rugged terrain of land.
On land, Irian was used to see plants and trees clinging to canyon walls and climbing up mountain foothills. Here, it seemed like nature had unfolded a picnic blanket filled with it’s greatest bounty.
And that abundance of life didn’t go unnoticed. For the first time since becoming a merboy, Irian began to see more merfolk. They swam over the seafloor in groups, scavenging resources from the plants.
Irian and their own group did not go unnoticed. The merfolk stared at them. Irian wouldn’t have thought it, but they were peculiar looking. The mers from the farm all wore threadbare shirts, while Irian and Tarn were wearing buttoned work shirts.
The merfolk they passed however, wore strange clothing that looked, accordingly, like it’d come from the sea. He wondered how they made it, especially when he saw a mermaid plying moss off of rock.
“What’s she doing?” Irian asked Cora, who was swimming just ahead of him.
“Oh, she’s gathering fiber moss. We use it for clothing.”
Taking a look at some merfolk pulling up rooted plants, he could see that most of their clothing did appear to have a hint of its origin.
“Ugh,” he said.
“What?” Cora asked.
“How can you wear that against your skin? Moss is so damp and dirty.”
“We clean it. We also live underwater. It doesn’t bother us. In fact, I’m looking forward to wearing new clothes, in comparison to these garbage sacks you make us wear.”
Irian held back a response. They may have ground him down into submission, but that didn’t mean they were going to get what they wanted in provoking him. He wasn’t the boy anymore who’d always give in to Sem’s teasing. Not that their words were anywhere near so light-hearted.
They began to pass even more merfolk around them, all scavenging for food.
“So,” Irian asked Cora, “are these merfolk impoverished or something?”
She shook her head, and not just to say no. She was expressing frustration.
“Such a human thing to say,” Cora said, looking ahead away from eye contact with him. “I’m sorry that I thought it would be nice that you stopped grumbling.”
“It was just a basic question.”
“It was an insulting one. This is how we obtain our food.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Irian said. “Don’t you have fields? Or pens of livestock?”
Now she looked at him. She gave him a confused look.
“Fields,” he repeated, “places where you plant crops to grow food.”
She stared blankly at him, and then turned her eyes forward again. Strange. He was both surprised and not surprised. He’d always pictured merfolk as wandering tribes, but the escaped mers had mentioned they were swimming to a city. And that would mean fields, wouldn’t it?
These were strange, but interesting thoughts. Irian had been separated from farming for more than half a year now, but his mind quickly hooked back onto it, even though these plants were nothing like what his family grew at Lake Ginnay.
While Irian was looking off to the side at some strange tubed plants encrusted on a rock, he caught a glimpse of something in the corner of his eye. There was the sight of an actual structure. Or, at least, something like a structure.
It was several lines of rope, strung through the water by some floating objects, and anchored by rocks planted in the sand. Two mermen, wearing some kind of armor floated in front of a gap in the makeshift fence.
As their group swam up to them, one of the guards stopped resting himself on his spear, and floated up into an attentive position.
“Signet,” the guard requested.
“We do not have any,” Reef answered.
The guard sighed. “Any merfolk who wish to enter Carved Cove must request proper entrance from a city representative living in another community, or -”
“My father is Atoll Wavecrest,” Reef interrupted. “if you let us through, then I’ll have my father send a courier with the common price, as well as additional -”
“Look friend,” the merman said, “even if your father is Wavecrest, I’m not going to let some....”
The merman looked over them, his eyes resting on the mers with descaled tails.
“I’m not going to let some... unknowns into the city and risk my position, all for the promise of unseen future money.”
“How about,” Scute said, “the promise of some visible money?”
To Irian’s surprise, the merboy pulled a handful of rellas out of the inside of his shirt, and offered them to the merman.
“That is indeed very visible,” the merman said. He accepted the rellas, and put them in a pouch. The merman swam aside, and the other merman followed. He looked younger and inexperienced, and seemed like he was following along with the other guard.
Once their group had swum through and a ways beyond, the mers gathered around Scute.
“You’ve been keeping some secrets,” Echo said.
“Ones that I want exposed,” Reef said with sterness.
Scute smirked, and folded up the bottom of his shirt. There was a pouch on the underside, and it had the shaped of coins pressing against it.
“You sneaky merboy,” Echo punched him lightly in the shoulder. “How long have you had that?”
“Since the last farm I was in,” Scute said. “Or I guess, I’m not in a farm, so it was the second-to-last farm I was in.
“I convinced the head scale farmer that one of the mermaids needed a new shirt - as he’d talk to us you know. Strange man. He also talked to a tree. Anyway, he, as usual, believed us, and gave me the shirt. We divided it up between us, and I made this nice little sack.”
“And I thought that you were just slightly pudgy,” Cora said.
Scute laughed. “I’d love to not be so skinny.”
“But,” Reef said, “the rellas.”
“Oh,” Scute said, “those? Well that scale farmer also was gullible enough to fall for a few wagers from time to time. I also convinced him that tossing rellas into the pool for the merfolk would bring him good luck.”
Amusingly, Irian realized who he was talking about. Fleming, who Mr. Derkin gambled with regularly, because Mr. Derkin could always beat him.
“I don’t get it,” Tarn said. His break in silence caught Irian off guard. “Why though? What do merfolk need rellas for?”
“Many mers will take it as payment,” Scute explained, “as we saw with my little demonstration. I was doing a bit of planning for the future if I ever escaped. Plus, I hoped that maybe I could run his scale farm into the ground financially.”
“And what happened?” Reef said, “he just sold you, and later Cora, and regained his money. They didn’t release you back to the sea. That supposed release law is a myth.”
“Well,” Scute said, “I’m sorry that you didn’t have a hobby in the farms Reef. It really did help pass the time.”
“My hobby is surviving,” Reef said. “Let’s go.”
Reef swam ahead, and the rest of them moved quickly to catch up. Irian began to let his mind stew over the anger that Reef obviously directed at him, but was caught off guard.
The ground suddenly disappeared beneath him, and he floated high in the air, over a cliff face. Irian gasped sharply in surprise. He heard laughing near him, and looked over to see Reef laughing for the first time Irian had seen, directed very obviously at his expense.
Reef swam confidently over the cliff’s edge, leading the rest of the group. It was just... so odd. They looked like strange flying fish. After steadying his breathing, Irian swam over the edge, being careful not to look at the ground below.
Before them, at the bottom of a deep depression, Irian could see a large community. It was... very strange, in many ways. He tried to place why.
Irian had never seen a city from above. He wasn’t sure what a place like Port Dialn would look like. All he had seen were woodcut maps of cities. Those were not detailed like this however. And the city... it wasn’t flat, if that made much sense. The buildings were not only multiple stories tall, but it seemed like there storied streets in addition to buildings.
It seemed like, while there had always been a natural depression here, further space had been taken out of the cliffs that surrounded the city on three sides. Buildings climbed up the cliff side, a strangely familiar sight. One side of the city rose higher than the others, and here Irian saw larger, more grand looking buildings.
The group followed Reef and Echo, swimming above the city towards these higher tiers of buildings. Eventually, they came to one. It was not on the highest tier of the city, but it was close. It was made of what looked like quarried stone, but as Irian looked closer, he saw that the designs in the stone, and the way that it supported the rest of the building seemed much to intricate to have been carved by hand.
In front of the estate they saw a few merfolk sitting on stone benches overlooking the city. The occupants of the benches turned around to see them.
A merman with a short beard slowly rose up, his jaw falling slowly open. He and a mermaid swam up to Reef and Echo, quickly embracing them.
“It’s been so... so... long,” the merman sobbed. He let go of his embrace. He saw Reef’s descaled tail, and the hardened expression on his face.
The merman began to weep. “And in the years that they stole away my children... they have scoured you of your innocence.”