It’s the first thing he hears when he comes into this world, pink-skinned and pink-gummed and dripping with pink fluids.
A midwife holds him against the soft glow of an aqualamp and waits for tender eyelids to peel open. When they finally do, her smile withers away. Two syllables drip from her mouth like acid. It’s only once she presses him into her mother’s embrace, as if she can’t bear touching his flesh any longer, does he hear his own name. It should be the first thing he hears, and it’s too late.
His mother’s tears stream down her face onto his. They don’t taste anything like joy.
It’s what Mama lets him know he is, in between warnings not to leave their little seaside hut and quiet reassurances that Papa isn’t around for a good reason. He’s older now. Old enough to know that it’s something to do with his eyes. They stare back at him from Mama’s handheld mirror, burrowing into the reaches of his soul. The left one, inkwell-black, a tiny version of Mama’s. The right one, bright amber, like a chunk of solidified resin embedded in his skull. Not like Mama at all. Not like the kind-faced woman that stops by twice a week to offer an assortment of live crabs from her trap. And definitely not like the other children kicking seashells at each other on the sand outside, the ones that he wants more than anything to call out to but knows Mama will smack him for if he tries.
Later that evening, Mama stirs the juiciest claws into a stew of tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, mainland spices and crab broth. She even garnishes it with a twisting ribbon of olive oil, yet he keeps his head down on the dinner mat, tracing infinity symbols into his meal using a spoon.
“Aretas, eat your dinner before it gets cold.”
As far as Aretas is concerned, it’s always been cold. “Mama… what does Papa look like?”
It’s not the first time Mama reaches over from across the mat to hit him, but it’s the first time she does it with this much intent. He’s left sprawled on the floor, stunned into silence while pain blooms hot and angry across his right cheek.
Later that night, after his tears have dried, Aretas dreams of a man with thick shoulders, pearls for teeth and grinning amber eyes.
Aretas reaches for the man.
Two syllables to widen the already-gaping fissure in his heart every time they’re hurled his way.
At first, the other children wave him over, and their smiles are so bright, so genuine that he thinks Mama must’ve been talking out of her arse this entire time. Then Aretas learns the hard way that you’re only a monster if the world decides you are.
The nice ones keep their distance, as if he has blood fever or some other contagion. The rest of them he will be thankful for in the years to come for showing him how cruel the world can be at such a young age. He comes home with a split lip and a fresh purple bruise humming with pain just under his right eye. Mama is so overcome with sorrow that she can’t bring herself to hit him for sneaking out of the house when she’d been away selling seashell bracelets.
Instead, she ties him to a chair and leaves him without food and water for a day. When she returns, she hauls a huge oval mirror into the room and rests it against the wall he’s facing.
“Aretas, my son, what do you see?”
His throat is so barren it takes all his strength to croak out a response. “It’s my reflection, Mama.”
Mama leaves the room, then returns a few heartbeats later with a flagon that smells of mint water. “You may drink when you get the answer right. I’ll ask again, Aretas. What do you see?”
He forces himself to look. To really look at his reflection. Swollen, purple, pathetic. But those eyes. The sight of those eyes hurts more than anything. He knows what the right answer is, what truth Mama wants him to taste on his tongue.
And he can’t bring himself to say it.
Another day goes by. The flagon sits on a desk just out of reach.
His head throbs. Phlegm collects in his throat. The rope eats away at the flesh of his wrists. And still that one amber eye grins at him.
“Well? What do you see, Aretas?”
A boy, he wants to say. I’m just a boy, Mama. Can’t you see?
Mama leaves Aretas for one more day. His spirit caves in. He uses the dregs of his strength to push out two syllables. Acid on his tongue.
Mama unties him with a smile.
That’s how Rahat acknowledges Aretas when he takes him on as an apprentice. The only difference is that the bearded fisherman says it matter-of-factly, as if it’s just another aspect to consider, like Aretas’ broad shoulders and strong jawline. Now that he’s older and wiser, Mama reluctantly lets him brave the world to find work, especially since she’s too weak to get out of bed these days.
Rahat’s left eye is a drop of treacle, like Aretas’, but his right eye is grey as ash. It gleams like polished steel when he grins.
“I was brought into this world by the seed of a nobleman, believe it or not,” says Rahat as he takes the little sailboat out across a ruffled blanket of blue while Aretas sits quietly and listens. “When he retired, the Empire gifted him a plot of land in a Florysene rice paddy for his twenty-three years of service. You know what the women are like in Florys. Grey eyes and luscious caramel thighs. He… promoted one of the farmers, let’s just say, and allowed her to live in the manse with him. I’m somewhere between the third and eighteenth they made together. Didn’t want a single one to taint his name, so he’d ship us back here as soon as we’d pop out from between Mother’s legs. I only know as much about him as word on the street will allow. As for my poor mother… I don’t know a thing. I don’t even know if she made it out in one piece.”
Aretas is silent for a few heartbeats. The waves hum a wistful rhythm into his ears. “I never saw my father either.”
“Pay it no mind, lad. Those that don’t care for you aren’t worth caring for.”
While the sun is still casting its orange gaze over the sea, Aretas peers over the gunwale and studies the eyes staring back from a mirror that stretches from one horizon to another. Gregale. That’s the name of the realm his father is from. A cluster of blustery isles ruled by the equally stormy Warrin dynasty. Half of Aretas is missing, and it’s somewhere in Gregale, lost among an ocean of amber eyes. The other half is here in Magna Fa’ur, in a little seaside hut that houses a giant oval mirror. It’s why he’s this close to snapping, his soul stretched taut between two different realms. He looks away when memories of chafed wrists and a dry throat bubble to the surface.
“I could’ve been happy,” murmurs Aretas.
“And I could’ve been a nobleman,” scoffs Rahat. “Now stop acting funny and hand me my spear. We’re almost there.”
As the sky darkens, the ocean does the opposite. Rahat ties down the sails while Aretas watches the water below burst into a crescendo of color. Little pinpricks of light swarm just under the sea’s surface, bathing the hull of the boat in a gentle pink hue.
“This is stardust,” Aretas realizes.
“A bastard with brains,” remarks Rahat. “According to Madreza scholars, they’re tiny living things, with a soul and all. I suppose that’s why stardust eventually stops glowing when you seal it inside an aqualamp with no food and air.”
A second realization hits Aretas. “If there’s stardust, does that mean we’re in a Risk Zone?”
“That means, lad, you should quit the know-it-all observations and start gathering before a ravager sniffs us out.”
Aretas does as he’d been instructed to do before setting foot on deck. He grabs a stick with a basket tied to the far end—like a gigantic soup ladle—and begins scooping up morsels of luminous seawater. He deposits them in an open cask on deck, careful not to spill too much.
“Three casks’ worth,” reminds Rahat as he stands by the gunwale, spear poised to strike, “or neither of us are eating tonight.”
Aretas’ arms are sore and wilted by the time the third cask is halfway filled. That’s when a bestial shriek pierces the air.
“Back to the Trenches you go!” calls Rahat as he plunges his spear into a sinuous green shape draped over the gunwale. Blood sprays out of the ravager’s muscular neck, painting the deck a rich crimson. It snaps at Rahat with limber jaws before he shoves it, with a grunt, back into the water.
“Um, there’s more coming, sir,” says Aretas as he points to a pair of ridge-shaped, blood-red fins cutting through the ocean’s surface towards them.
“Let them come,” declares Rahat with a silvery glint in his eye. “We’re monsters as much as they are. It’s a fair fight!”
Aretas watches the fisherman dispatch the ravagers with slack-jawed amazement. His heart beats out a frantic, staccato rhythm, equal parts fear and excitement.
He realizes there and then that, for the past fifteen years, he’s never truly lived.
That’s what the lightsmith calls Aretas and Rahat whenever they deliver casks of stardust to her. Her job is to fill little glass containers with glowing sea water and sell them off as a portable light source—aqualamps—while Aretas and Rahat risk their arses to only get a miniscule percentage of the earnings. She doesn’t have to spell it out for them to know it’s because of their mismatched eyes.
But it’s okay because nowadays Aretas can look at himself without clenching his teeth against the pain. He and Rahat are sitting in their secluded corner at The Olive & Caper, draining mugs of sweet mead after Aretas’ first ravager kill. His eyes stare back at him from the pale-blonde pool in his mug, and they’ve never shone brighter. He studies the sheen in Rahat’s silver eye as he recounts how he lost his left index finger between the curved fangs of a frilled serpent. The bearded fisherman has never been particularly good-looking, but when he smiles, none of that matters.
A deathly silence falls across the inn. Three burly figures—two women and a man, all with broad shoulders and scars crisscrossing their muscles—appear beside the table, cutting off any escape.
“Two little bastards sharing a drink,” sings one of them.
“For no one else can stand their stink
Two little bastards sharing a bed
For no one else will give ‘em head
Two little bastards sharing a grave
For neither learnt not to misbehave!”
A thick, callused palm opens in front of Rahat. “Pay up, or we’ll open your guts and find out what bastards eat for breakfast.” One of the women unsheathes the axe gleaming at her hip.
“What if I don’t feel like it?” asks Rahat as he casually takes a sip.
Only for his mug to get knocked out of his hands. He sighs in annoyance.
The woman with the axe wrenches him out of his seat by the scruff of his shirt. “We aren’t taking shit from the likes of you. If you think you can sit down on our turf and—”
She yelps and drops Rahat when Aretas flings the contents of his mug into her eyes. Aretas climbs onto the table and tackles the woman to the floor, using her momentary disorientation to spirit the axe out of her grasp and press the bladed edge against her throat.
“I kill sea monsters for a living,” says Aretas as a crimson dewdrop traces the woman’s quivering neck. “We both do. You lot are just smallfry.”
The other tormentors get the message and back off, their crude remarks laced with fear. All five of them end up scurrying out of the inn when an Imperial patrol notices the commotion and threatens to make a few arrests.
Rahat slaps Aretas on the back with a hearty chuckle. “You’re crazy, you know that? Best decision I ever bloody made, taking you on as an apprentice.”
Aretas blushes. “Thank you, sir.”
He stares at his reflection in the silvery blade of the axe in his hand, and watches a drop of blood trickle down his right eye.
That’s what’s written on the wall of the alley just above Rahat’s body. Each crudely drawn letter sheds a crimson tear to pool on the floor. Aretas crouches beside the fisherman’s naked body, and sheds tears of his own. Rahat’s thighs are covered with red hand prints and his nut-brown flesh is streaked with blood and… other fluids. Aretas finds him like this after he doesn’t show up at the wharf where their little sailboat is moored.
Later that day, Aretas wraps his mentor in cloth and sets him down on the deck of their boat. There’s no room on land for a bastard’s grave, so he sails out to the edge of a Risk Zone and gives him a kiss on the forehead. Aretas lets the waves take him, so he can be with the other monsters.
That evening, Aretas comes face to face with himself in a shop window, illuminated by the soft hue of an aqualamp. He swings his fist at himself with all his might. He doesn’t notice the shards of glass embedded in his fingers until the next day.
That’s what Mama reminds him he is on her deathbed, right as she slips into the next life, which is probably a lot better than this one.
That’s what the winds chant as they lash at his face. Rahat had always told Aretas never to go fishing in a storm, yet here he is anyway.
We’re already dealing with monsters coming from below, he’d say with a glint in his eye. Only a lunatic would try to fight the ones coming from above at the same time!
And only a lunatic would fight something that can’t be destroyed, thinks Aretas. Tears well in his eyes and mingle with the rain. He closes them and savors the song of oblivion echoing in his ears.
Except oblivion sounds like… a little girl?
Aretas sees her then: a speck of color bobbing in the frothing waves. Despite everything, he steers towards her and hauls her tiny body, blue and shuddering, onto the deck.
It’s only after he defies the elements and goes back to shore does she cough the water out and blink to life.
And it’s only in the comfort of his little seaside hut that Aretas sees her beautiful mismatched eyes.
That’s what she is, and yet there’s so much life in those eyes. Aretas doesn’t ask her what had led to her being stranded out at sea in the middle of a storm. He thinks he knows the answer, anyway, judging by the way she shudders on the dining mat even though she’s warm and dry.
Aretas places a bowl of crab stew in her tiny hands. Mama’s recipe. She takes small, tentative bites. She’s fixated on her reflection in the huge oval mirror, the one Mama had brought home one day. The one that has a huge crack in it because Aretas couldn’t stand the sight of himself. The one that Aretas also couldn’t bring himself to throw away, because Mama had been right all along.
Aretas sits next to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Tatali,” she murmurs.
A Gregali name. Gregale, where dark eyes aren’t welcome. Where Aretas’ father is from. Her amber eye is on the left side, unlike his.
“What do you see, Tatali?” asks Aretas.
Tatali is silent for a few heartbeats. Her reflection splinters just like the cobweb of cracks in the mirror.
“It’s just my reflection,” she says. “It’s me.”
The ice in Aretas’ heart melts. “Yes. That’s the right answer.”