Of all the sounds that Tamaki Amajiki was afraid of, night noises were the worst.
Night had howled in the city. Strange thuds and shrieks and squeals had stolen in through the closed windows and echoed up the stairs. The rattle of carts as they passed his home had shaken him out of sleep. The sounds of drunks braying in the street had sent him cowering under the crisp white sheets covering his four-poster bed. He had been terrified of the night and all it contained. That fear had lessened when his parents sent him away.
But only just.
The sound of a clatter rose above the quiet roar of the ocean, startling Tamaki awake. On the pallets across the room the other acolytes — much older boys, nearly men — were snoring away. Maybe the sound had been their unpleasant snorts and gargling. It had to be that. He was just overreacting. Everything was fine, he was safe and—
Then it happened again. Something falling, maybe in the kitchens?
He could wake up the others. They would search out the source of the sound. But that would require talking to them, something that, even after Tamaki’s several weeks at the temple, was much more terrifying than night noises.
After another clatter, he lifted himself out of bed. He was dressed only in a sleeping tunic and underclothing, fitting for the balmy seaside weather. To dress further would require crossing the room past the sleeping boys, possibly waking them. They would ask what he wanted and why he was wandering at such an hour. And Tamaki would have nothing to say because the words would have already turned to dust in his mouth.
He made his way to the door and opened it softly. It squealed quietly on its hinges but the boys did not stir, even as he shut it behind him. There was no moon and the hallway was completely black. Lifting his hand, Tamaki felt his skin twist and roll as four small bug-shaped manifestations emerged from his fingertips and started to glow. Getting to the point where they could do so had been a challenge. The fireflies had tasted absolutely horrible. When one burst its luminescence had smeared across his lips and stayed there for hours. The older boys had teased him, gently, but it had been mortifying all the same. Now, seeing the results, Tamaki could almost forget his embarrassment.
His fingers lit the hallway as he padded slowly towards the kitchens. The noises were less frequent now, but they had not stopped. It sounded as though someone was going through the food stores. In that case, he needn’t worry so much. The temple’s priest was known to have an appetite and to sleepwalk. “Call me Fat,” he’d said kindly to Tamaki the day he had arrived. Tamaki had not yet called him anything, but maybe someday he would.
For now, he decided, he would lead the priest back to his sleeping chamber.
His sister had walked in her sleep. Tamaki had often led her back to her bed, telling her all his deepest secrets since she couldn’t hear what he had to say. She had been easy to talk to even when she was awake. They’d been inseparable until she’d been married off and he was sent away.
She was the only remnant of his old life that he missed.
The door opened soundlessly and Tamaki crept inside. It was possible that the priest had fallen asleep on the floor — he’d been discovered like that more than once. But the telltale outline of his gigantic body was missing. Tamaki took a few more steps, rounding the counter that stood between the entrance and the food stores.
He did not see the sleeping form of the priest on the other side.
Caught in the faint luminescence from his fingers was a boy with black eyes and golden hair that glowed green in the firefly light. His eyes were fathomless, dark even in the darkness, but his face was covered in smears of gravy and venison from the pie he had stolen. He was also naked, which was baffling, but Tamaki was too stunned to show much concern over that.
The boy looked at his trembling outstretched hand, and if there had been any whites in his eyes, they probably would have been crossing. As it was, his lips pursed, then opened, then pursed again as though he were considering something very important.
“Are you a spirit?” he asked in a whisper that was louder than Tamaki’s speaking voice. “You gotta be, I’ve never met a person who can glow before!”
“It’s my… it’s my Inheritance,” Tamaki responded for reasons he couldn’t really comprehend. His voice sounded like a knife on a whetstone and he wanted to inhale the words and take them back.
But the boy just grinned at him with a wide, gap-toothed smile. “Wow, glowin’ fingers! Here’s mine!” He put his arm through the pie, only… really through it. Nothing was touching, no smashed crust or smeared potatoes. His hand passed straight through like there was nothing there at all.
“It’s a thief’s Inheritance,” the boy stuffed his mouth with pie and spoke while he was chewing, “least that’s what everybody says. Can’t go to jail or anything. Just walk right out. People don’t like it much. But it’s good for getting food!”
Tamaki’s mouth hung open. “I’m… going to call the priest,” he whispered.
“I’ll just run through the wall!” the boy laughed, a rich warm bubbling sound, then took another bite of the pie. “Don’t you wanna talk for a bit? Are there any other kids here?”
He shook his head.
“Which question were you answerin’? Haven’t had anybody to talk to since my pa got sick and…” his face scrunched up and his voice went quiet, “well… I’ve just been by myself for awhile.”
A silence fell between them. The boy had stopped eating, and he just sat there. The light from Tamaki’s fingers caught on his visible ribs. He seemed like he should be bigger, chunky even. But he was wasting away.
“There’s… there’s no one,” Tamaki whispered. “Just grown-ups.”
“So talk to me!” the boy patted the floor next to him. “M’name’s Mirio! What’s yours?”
“Tama… Tamaki,” he said to his feet. Mirio reached out and grabbed his ankle with gravy-coated fingers.
“C’mon! Sit with me! Are you gonna be a priest when you grow up?” He let go of Tamaki’s ankle and thumped his chest, “I’m gonna be a hero!”
The priest found them the next morning, asleep in a pile, faces covered with gravy. It was his booming laugh that woke them up. Mirio took one look at the man and began running as fast as he could towards the wall. But the floor was covered in the remnants of the pie and he slipped, his body falling straight through the floor so the only thing visible was his feet. The priest grabbed them and pulled until he was holding the squirming boy upside down.
“Got a family, kid?” the priest looked at him sideways. Mirio did not stop squirming. His face was scrunched up in concentration, and Tamaki thought he was probably trying to change his feet so the priest’s hands went through them. But if his Inheritance was anything like Tamaki’s, that probably meant it didn’t work so well when he most needed it to.
Tamaki tugged at the priest’s robes and shook his head. But there was a lot of fabric and a lot of priest and his gesture went unnoticed.
“He doesn’t,” he said as loudly as he could. Which was not very loud.
Throwing back his head, the priest laughed even louder than he had when he found them. “Well, little thief, if you managed to get our Tamaki here to talk, I think you’ve already earned your keep and then some. Whaddya say about some breakfast?”
“I say yes!” Mirio said, still upside down.
“Promise you’re not gonna run off?”
“Yep!” Mirio said like someone who was maybe not going to keep that promise.
“Promise you’ll put on some clothes?” the priest let go of one of Mirio’s feet and reached out for his hand. Swinging back and forth, Mirio reached forward. With their hands clasped, the priest spun him around and sat him down on the floor.
“Sure!” Mirio’s greasy hair was standing on end from his time upside-down, “My clothes are just outside! They don’t move through things with me. It’s kinda embarrassing, but I got used to it.”
“Go get em,” the priest tipped his head. “Tamaki’ll show you the real door, right?”
Tamaki nodded, expecting Mirio to follow him. Instead the boy ran straight through the wall. Tamaki gaped, then turned bright red as he realized he was still in his underclothing. He dashed down the hall, his room blessedly empty as the older boys were doing their chores. Throwing on his robes he ran to the door, just to find Mirio, dressed in rags that barely counted as clothing. He wasn’t wearing any shoes at all.
“Are we gonna have eggs?” he asked hopefully.
Mirio babbled incessantly as the priest prepared breakfast. He asked Tamaki question after question, leaving little space in-between them to answer. When the three of them were finally seated around the table, Tamaki’s head felt completely turned around.
It wasn’t an altogether bad feeling.
“The Night’s Eye needs a boy,” the priest said, inhaling a fried egg and spearing some of the morning’s catch on a fork. “To run errands and clean up and whatever else it is that seers need. He’s strict, but he’ll feed you and get you some better clothes. I dunno what you’re used to, but we’re pretty tight knit in this village. Kinda like a family, so if you steal from him we’ll—”
“I’ll do my best!” Mirio punched the air, knocking over his cup of milk when he bumped into the table. He frantically tried to save it, using his hand to push the milk into a little stream that dribbled from the table into the cup. The priest told him over and over that he could just get more, they had a whole cow, but he didn’t listen. Watching him triumphantly drink up the spilled milk and splinters, Tamaki wondered what going hungry felt like.
“Tamaki, clean up these dishes,” the priest said. “It’ll be good practice. Mirio, c’mon. Let’s get you to town.”
They left the room like a landslide, the front door of the temple slamming closed behind them. Tamaki stood with a bellyful of octopus and a table full of plates, forks, and cups. The older boys were running errands in town, and Mirio and the priest were gone, so he was alone. Taking a deep breath he pulled at his fingers from the inside out, feeling the octopus tentacles growing and reaching away from him. The air hit their suckers and suddenly his mind was full of tastes and sensations that he barely understood.
He took a long, deep breath to calm down the wave of new information, then reached out to the table. The cups were easy; they just had to be grasped. He collected all three forks and a spatula with one tentacle, holding them together like a bouquet of flowers. The plates were more challenging, but after a few false starts they were each wedged and wrapped securely. Their eggs had been cooked in a cast iron pan, and he picked that up by the handle with ease.
Walking was difficult. He needed to be quite strong to hold out the tentacles while they were carrying things, and he wasn’t yet. To keep them close to his body, he held them over his head instead. In the process he accidentally dumped a leftover splash of milk into his hair. With careful step after careful step, he made his way to the sink. There were two free tentacles and he used them to work the water pump, mixing in flakes of soap.
Lowering everything but the pan into the water at the same time, he began to wash. It took seconds to clean a plate, rinse it and then dry it, passing it from tentacle to tentacle. They talked to each other somehow, knowing where the other was and handing off the tiny forks and small cups with ease. In thirty seconds he was finished, draining the water and turning around to put away the plates.
Mirio was standing behind him, his jaw hanging open.
“Thought you had glowy fingers.”
Tamaki dropped a plate. It shattered on the floor, the clay shards scattering everywhere.
“I…” his breath started to speed up. This was too much, Mirio had seen him and he had probably looked ridiculous, clumsy and unbalanced and he’d just dropped a plate. His hands were still tentacles and they looked disgusting. He was disgusting. A monster. He sat down what he’d washed and retracted his tentacles. They weren’t going fast enough but his breath was going faster and—
A hand landed heavy on his shoulder and squeezed, hard. Everything slowed down until all he could feel was rough fingers pressing through the light fabric of his summer robe.
“That was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life! Like… a dance!”
His eyes shot up, caught in the fathomless darkness in Mirio’s stare. In the light he could see that there was a half moon of blue on the bottom of each eye. It was the same color as the butterflies that hatched near the sea cliffs and floated lazily on the sea breeze.
“I’m gonna meet this seer and he’s gonna let me stay, and then you and me? We’re gonna be best friends.”
Mirio’s grin shone like the sun. It took Tamaki’s breath away.
“Yes,” he whispered.