After a bit of wandering, Fern found a public well and drank her fill. The lukewarm water had a slight mineral flavor, but it was not overwhelming, and she scarcely noticed it. Having finished with it, she returned the drawing bucket to its station and turned back in the direction from which she had come. She had espied a nice-looking date palm under which she could spend the night.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Fern stopped and turned around, searching for the speaker. But while there were several people nearby, none of them were looking at her and most were engrossed in loud conversations with others.
She did. There was a slim figure crouching precariously on the roof of a nearby mud hut, casting a partial silhouette in the moonlight. As she watched, he scrambled to the edge of the roof and hopped nimbly down beside her.
“Who are you to tell me where I can be?” she demanded, regarding the boy with narrowed eyes. He couldn’t have been more than twelve years of age, judging by the pitch of his voice, but he was tall. He could have almost passed for human; however, his greenish skin and pointed ears gave him away.
“Cedric Markason. That’s who I am.”
This clearly did not answer her question, so she glared at him. “I meant, what gives you the authority to meddle in other people’s business, merboy?”
Cedric shrugged. “My uncle says it’s dangerous to be alone in this town right now. There’ve been some strange things happening here.”
“Oh? And then why are you alone? Why don’t you take your own advice?”
“Because he isn’t alone.”
She whirled around at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. Another tall, slender creature was standing there, slouching lazily against a wall and picking dirt out from under his claw-like fingernails. This one was an adult, and though he appeared young, his obsidian hair was beginning to turn prematurely grey. A variety of piercings glittered in his pointed ears, and a hummingbird-shaped cloak pin glinted over his collarbone.
“Where did you come from?”
He grinned slyly at her, flashing two rows of perfectly white, almost shark-like teeth. “I’ve been here all along, m’dear. Name’s Seymour de Winter, private detective.”
She reared backward a step in reaction to the title.
De Winter let out a bark of laughter. “Never fear, little thief, I have no agenda against you. But, as my nephew so eloquently put it, you shouldn’t be here—thief or innocent, man or woman, no matter how much cinnamon you bathe in as camouflage—" (here he paused and winked a luminous green eye at her). "It’s all the same to whatever it is that’s out there. You should most certainly not sleep outside.”
Fern had begun to walk away, but something in the tone of the merman’s voice stopped her. “What do you mean, ‘whatever it is that’s out there’?”
His expression, which had been mildly amused, went serious. After a moment's hesitation, he closed his eyes, opened them again, and spoke in a low voice. “I don’t know what it is, but it is there. Lurking in the desert. Creeping into town in the wee hours of the morning. Hunting its next meal. I’ll admit, I’m not terribly eager to meet it, but…if that’s what the job entails, that I must do.”