Khun Aguero Agnis is a disappointment.
Aguero is a disappointment to his family, and his race - first and foremost, he is the bastard son of Lord Khun Edahn, ruler of Marundo, home of shark-tailed merfolk like himself. He may be a prince, but royalty means nothing when your people want you dead for your heinous crimes.
What heinous crimes, you ask, what could Aguero have possibly done which was so wrong?
The answer is simple: he made a deal with the devil, and in doing so, he betrayed his own blood.
He'd loved Maria - his half-sister, beautiful, powerful, kind Maria. She made him happier than anything else, but she'd always been happier talking about the landlings, always longing to live in the world above the waves, instead of battling her fellow sisters and other women for the 'privilege' to join the Princesses, the all-female warriors of the sea king, Zahard. All merfolk were capable of growing legs, but only under the light of the full moon so they could mate, and return to the waves after the deed had been done. Aguero didn't really see why, but Maria wanted to have legs, forever. The Khun family motto was to never trust a soul, only yourself, but Maria had trusted him with her secrets. At the time, Aguero hadn't had anything to hide, and he'd been all too happy to pretend his beloved half-sister didn't have a little grotto of a cave with gadgets and gizmos aplenty, statues of whosits and whatsits galore. Aguero wanted to see her wordy landling thingamabobs? She had too many, and was all too happy to pull her younger brother into learning the landling language with her.
When the time came, he'd been all too willing to sacrifice anything for her - all too willing to make her happy, no matter the cost, even if it meant he had to let her go and break his own heart.
He'd found a sea witch, an octopus mermaid shunned for her magic, who was willing to use her abilities to turn Maria's tail into a pair of legs, to change Maria's life forever. There was one problem with that - the witch had demanded a life for a life.
For Aguero to give one sister legs, he had to sacrifice the life of another sister.
The witch told him he didn't have to kill the sister himself, merely pass her over as part of a bargaining chip, a trade. Your father has too many children, the witch hissed, surely he will not miss one daughter. What was he to do? Maschenny was a Princess who could knock him out cold with a flick of a tail, his second favorite sister after Maria. He wasn't familiar with his other half-sisters, but he knew their mothers were powerful, much stronger than his own. The witch's demand had left Aguero no choice but to kidnap his own full-blood sister and offer her to the sea witch.
The sea witch had accepted.
Maria had been given legs instantly, and Aguero had no choice but to swim her to land, to leave his blood sister to her fate. A fate that he had decided for her. He would have felt no guilt, if only he hadn't had a sense of smell as strong as a shark's. He could smell the blood three miles away, taste it on his tongue, see the blood painted over his webbed fingers and stained under his nails when he closed his eyes. The onslaught of guilt would've weighed him down, down to the bottom of the ocean where the anglers were, but he had an oily liver that kept him buoyant.
Khun Edahn had many daughters, sired from different mermaids, and Aguero's mother was no more than a concubine. Surely neither mermaid would be missed?
Oh, how wrong he was.
It was his cousin Kiseia who had noticed first. Kiseia was the daughter of Aguero's mother's sister, an Agnis by birth and a Khun by adoption. Aguero's mother had taken Kiseia in when Kiseia's mother was captured by mer hunters, who existed for the sole purpose of murdering merfolk and selling their scales. Kiseia's mother had never been seen again. The younger mermaid had become fast friends with Aguero's older sister, and Kiseia was a variable Aguero had completely forgotten about, much to his own disappointment.
Kiseia had seen how Aguero swam back to the palace alone, how neither sister was to be seen.
She'd connected the dots and tattled on him instantly to his mother, who then told Lord Edahn.
"I never want to see you again," Kiseia hissed at him as a guard shuttled Aguero out of the outer gates of their coral palace. Her face was twisted in an expression of disgust, betrayal and cold fury. "Show your face here again, Aguero, and I'll kill you myself." She snarled his name like he was an oil spill on clear water. "Goodbye, cousin dearest."
What hurt most was the disappointment. The disappointment on his mother's face, the look of how could you do this, Aguero? The disappointment marring his father's features, the way he looked at his schemer son like you could've been great one day, Aguero. Edahn's wife had looked down on him, distasteful, wondering how a Khun could possibly betray his own.
Aguero swam away from Marundo, leaving everything he had ever known behind. His newfound freedom was a prison made of water.
Rak of the Wraithraiser tribe was his first friend. Unlike Aguero, who had human features from the torso up and shark from the waist down, Rak was reptilian, a turtle-hunting monster of a creature resembling the dinosaurs that roamed their prehistoric waters. They had met when the gator had mistaken the merman for a turtle and tried to hunt him down with a spear clutched in a claw.
They're nothing alike, but they found a strange kinship in each other. They are both outcasts - Aguero is a murderer, a discarded prince; Rak is a nomad with the mind of a hunter, who cannot settle in one place for a long time.
Over the years, two became three, three to four, four to five. Their merry band of misfits had expanded to include Shibisu, a purple tang who had run away from his home in Nettai; Anaak, a green-skinned mermaid who had scaly legs instead of a scaly tail and fought anybody who brought it up with high pitched screeches and powerful kicks; Androssi, a former landling who had sacrificed her humanity to King Zahard and became a siren so she wouldn't fall victim to a watery grave.
Being the biggest and the oldest, Rak likes to call himself the leader, and that's what the bandits who had crossed their path believe - fear the great Rak of the Wraithraisers, fearless hunter, powerful leader of a cast-out group of mers with both brains and brawn in equal quantity. The rest of their group know better. Aguero is the true mastermind, the one who keeps them all alive and under the radar. They all have their dark pasts, all of them hiding secrets that they aren't quite ready to tell. They respected each other enough not to pry, even Rak, who was forever unflinchingly straightforward and unafraid to voice his opinions.
Nobody asked questions when Aguero flinches away from octopus merfolk, nobody asks why Aguero is always swimming towards the surface, searching for something, searching for someone, destined never to find what he is looking for.
One day, Aguero finds a boy.
This boy is incredibly ordinary, with dark hair and skin kissed by the sun, like the mers from Mureun, the city of the shallows. He looks young, probably the same age as Aguero, perhaps a little older. There is nothing special about this boy, not how Aguero and his newfound family are special.
There are two problems - he is a landling, and he is unconscious, sinking through the waves into the darkness of the abyss at a rapid pace.
Aguero knows well enough that the landlings belong above the surface, that they are meant to fill their lungs with air that doesn't need to be carefully filtered through water. He looks up, spots a boat drifting aimlessly on the surface. The landling must've fallen overboard. He knows that it would be the death of him if this unconscious landling boy finds out about their kind - the mer hunters exist for a reason, after all. Aguero knows how much he is worth among the landlings - he is not trying to be vain, but he is a beautiful merman specimen, with his unmarred shark tail and perfect balance between masculinity and femininity. He has heard of stories about mers who had gotten captured by hunters under the full moonlight, their bodies used like common whores, then had been thrown away like garbage. Aguero knows that would be his fate if he were to be captured.
Still, he makes the decision to rescue the boy from his fate.
"What are you doing, Blue Turtle?" Rak bellows when Aguero hooks his arms under the landling boy's armpits, tail flipping from side to side and powering them towards the surface. "Black Turtle is probably dead already."
Aguero can feel a pulse beating under skin, faint but present. "He's alive," he answers Rak with clipped clicks. They've spent enough time with each other to learn their respective languages: Rak with his loud bellows, roars and screeches; Aguero with his ear-piercing clicks and grunts. Aguero has always been good with languages, but learning to speak the Wraithraiser tongue is no easy feat. "Get his boat, follow me."
"You will be the death of us all, Turtle." Both of their languages are harsh to the sound, but Rak's words are equally harsh, though not entirely unkind. The gator never admits, but he worries for his team, and he makes sure they are all happy and well fed.
Aguero slows, letting the tide carry him, his charge and the little boat onto the beach. The boat slides onto the shore, snags on a rock. "He will never know."
Rak stays in the water, submerged but still watching Aguero wriggle his way up to the beach, fins glinting under the sun like landling glitter on sandpaper.
The merman huffs and puffs when he is beyond the reach of the waves. He's too used to being underwater - he's not like Anaak and Androssi, who can use their legs on land, who have landling heritage. On land, his tail renders his lower half useless, and his arms are weak against the force of gravity. He coughs wetly, spitting water onto the sand. It takes a while for him to get used to the pure air on land.
The landling's eyes are still closed, lips parted. Salt is beginning to dry on his skin, on his lashes, crusted in his hair. Aguero checks his pulse again. He's still alive, but he won't be for much longer if the merman doesn't refill his lungs with air.
With a grunt of a swear, Aguero pushes himself up until he is sitting next to the boy. His hand wander down the landling's chest until he finds the breastbone, and he pushes down, hard.
The landling's eyes fly open, and Aguero barely has time to move before the boy is jolting forward and emptying the content of his lungs into the sand like Aguero had been doing just a few moments ago.
Aguero can do nothing but watch as the boy hurls, coughing and choking on salty sea water until he's dry heaving. He gasps for air, and Aguero's lungs burn in sympathy. The air here is too pure, but perhaps he could get used to it in time. It feels strange, how he must close his gills, take in air with his nose and his mouth. The boy lays back down onto the sand, presses a hand against his chest and gulps in air until his breathing grows steady.
Only now does he notice Aguero staring down at in all his blue-haired, bare-chested, shark-finned glory. "Who are you?" His voice is raspy, throat scratched hoarse with salt.
"It doesn't matter," Aguero murmurs softly. He remembers some of the landling words - Maria had taught him them, both of them squinting at crystallized landling scrolls, shaping their mouths around strange words. When Androssi had first joined them, she had been constantly switching between the language of the landlings and that of the mers. It had taken her a few years to adapt to speaking completely in mer, but even then she had never truly forgotten her mother tongue.
Aguero lowers a finger to the boy's face, pulling his eyelids down until they cover his eyes. Absentmindedly, he brushes the salt off the boy's eyelashes with a gentle touch. The landling is too weak to react, blind and feeble as he reaches towards the merman.
"Sleep," Aguero repeats, equally soft. Now, he's using that singsong quality the sirens use to entice and enchant landlings to do their bidding. The merman waits until the landling boy's breathing evens out, eyeballs still behind their lids.
The waves sweep onto the shore, coming to collect the merman prince. Aguero lets the sea pull him back into its depths, leaving the landling behind on the sand.