Irian had known that coming to the coast was going to be a jarring experience. But he hadn't expected it to be this jarring.
The street thug looked up at him, his bottom on the ground and a bruise developing on his face.
Irian's own bruise stung, but he gritted his teeth against the pain.
"I ain't gonna let someone like you shove me around," he said to the thug.
"Why you stupid little idjit," the thug said as he got up. "I'm gonna punch you so hard your eyeballs ill' come out of your ears."
Irian punched at him again before he could get another word in.
This time the man caught his punch, and was about to counter-attack, when they were interrupted by a gunshot.
The thug immediately made a run for it, scampering away like the rat he was.
Irian turned to see a bearded man with a gun. He wore simple work clothes, but had a jacket on top of them, as though he was trying to pass his off his outfit as being more formal than it actually was.
"I've been lookin' for ya' boy," the man said.
"You... you have?" Irian asked hesitantly. Was he a lawman? He'd never seen a lawman that looked this rough. Usually they preferred to keep up a clean facade.
"Of course!" the man said with a toothy smile, "you're my new apprentice aint'chya?"
"Ohh, of course," Irian said. He tried his best not to look stupid.
The man - it was Mr. Derkin right? - slid his gun into a bag on his belt, and sized up Irian.
"I thought in my letter I told ya' to wait at the docks until noon," Mr. Derkin said.
"Well," Irian breathed deeply, "I had been sitting there for a while, and I was wondering if it'd slipped your mind -"
"You need to get yerself a watch boy," Mr. Derkin said. His face contorted slightly as he reached through his thoughts. "Irian?" Mr. Derkin questioned.
"Hmm." Mr. Derkin bent down, and pinched the glint of metal out of the sandy dirt.
"So this is what that thug was muggin' ya' for?" Mr. Derkin asked. "Three, four copper rellas?"
Irian sighed in embarrassment. "Yes."
"I think that both of you were fightin' over slim pickings."
"I was just about to grab something to eat," Irian said. "I haven't eaten since yesterday morning."
"Might of Toret's land Irian!" Mr. Derkin said, "I would've bought ya' a meal worth three times that much! How much did ya' think that was gonna get you?"
Irian exhaled. Letting any response out was gonna make him look like a fool.
Mr. Derkin straightened Irian up, brushing the dust off him. "At least you can punch. Unless of course, that street thug dropped on his bottom himself."
Irian smiled, rubbing his sore knuckles.
Mr. Derkin took him to an inn called The Prismatic Coast Inn. Mr. Derkin began orating about the history of the place, but walking inside, Irian was much more interested in the occupants of the inn rather than the inn itself.
He'd never seen so many girls before!
Younger girls, older girls, pretty girls, girls who would actually stoop to his standing...
And none of them knew about his brother, and the man's tougher physicality.
No competition. At least, not from anyone he'd feel bad about punching.
Not everything about coming here was bad.
And after sitting down to eat, he found the meal fantastic too - an elk steak with some sugar beets on the side, plus some biscuits.
Mr. Derkin let Irian enjoy his meal while he socialized with friends at other tables. If you could call shouting across the room socializing.
As Irian ate around the last piece of fat in his elk steak, Mr. Derkin spoke up.
"I hope you can work at this job as aggressively as you can work at that steak."
"I can," Irian replied as some juice dripped down his chin.
"Just because my sister-in-law is cousin to your mother, it doesn't mean any special -"
Irian finished chewing another piece of steak.
"Good," Mr. Derkin said.
Irian looked down at the remains of his meal. He seriously considered licking the juices on the plate.
"Irian, I know your family's in a difficult situation."
Irian looked up.
"I won't press the matter none," Mr. Derkin said, "but I want you to be'ware - this ain't goin' to be light work. I can't afford to treat my only helper softly. It'll be up to you to make sure your family's taken care of. Don't be cryin' when I take ya' to task."
"If I'm doin' things rightly," Mr. Derkin said, "you wont be just a worker. Your my apprentice, n' that means that you're gonna learn this master the skills of the job, not just treat it like humdrum labor."
"Understood," Irian responded.
"Toret Irian," Mr. Derkin said, "don't act like I'm chainin' ya' up! You'll be workin' hard, but that don't mean ya' have to be all sour about it."
Irian straightened up a smile. "I'll remember that sir."
After leaving the inn, they climbed into an empty wagon, and Mr. Derkin drove the single horse down a road off from the rest of the town.
As they approached the coastline, Irian caught sight of the crashing waves below.
The waves reminded him of a frothing cup of creamed chocolate.
And like creamed chocolate, it felt like the harsh waves were attacking the cliff, like the sugary liquid would attack one's tongue.
"Don't be too worried there," Mr. Derkin said.
"I'm not," Irian quickly answered.
"Aliya's been attacking that coastline for centuries, and Toret hasn't budged."
They began traveling down through straits of rock, narrow enough that there wasn't room for the wagon to turn around.
Finally, they came out onto the beach.
Irian wasn't usually one for being dramatic, but...
Seeing the seaside for the first time was really magnificent. Before, on the cliffs, he'd gotten just peek, but now he saw it in its full splendor.
In the stretch of sand before them, huge fins of rock rose up. It seemed, like Mr. Derkin had suggested, that Toret's very hands were bracing against the Aliya sea.
Covered in growths of algae, Toret seemed to have very dirty hands.
They came into a small cove, it's water penned in by metal gates and a weathered wall, built a good height above the water line.
"It's not too big for a scale farm," Mr. Derkin said as they got out of the wagon.
"Hey," Irian said, "If it brings in the rellas."
Mr. Derkin chuckled. "That it does, Irian. It certainly does. Just you wait, now that I have an apprentice, both of us will be making more rellas than we can count."
"That's gonna be easy for me," Irian laughed.
"It better not," Mr. Derkin laughed in twain. "You're the young one. You should at least be better at numberin' than me."
While Mr. Derkin took care of his horse, Irian walked through a gate into the scale farm proper.
It was a simple round-ish pool, ringed by a deck of boards floating on pontoons.
With the noon day sun staring right down into the cove, the contents of the pool were less obscured.
Irian gripped against the fibers of the rope, and dared to lean in for a closer look.
The glint of eyes stared back at him.
Startled, he shied away for a moment. He allowed his thumping heart to quiet.
He stared down into the pool once again.
There, he caught his first sight of merpeople. He couldn't make them out perfectly, but he could see their defining feature: rather than having human legs, their lower bodies were scale covered tails, resembling something more like a fish than a human.
He didn't scramble away like he did when he caught his first glimpse, but he still felt unsettled.
"Ah," Mr. Derkin said as he walked through the gate. "Seein' gills for the first time are we?"
"They ain't nothin' to be afraid of," Mr. Derkin said. He tossed Irian a long wooden staff, which Irian caught with both hands.
"Specially," Mr. Derkin said, "when you got one of these. If you can use one of these as well as you can punch, then none of em' should give you any trouble."
Irian tightened his grip against the grain of the wood, and glanced back at the pool for a moment.
He was going to hold this staff close.