She ran toward the sound. She did not know why. It seemed to be a reflex, an instinct—but that made no sense: if it had been instinct, it would have told her to run away, not towards.
The scream had come from somewhere downhill, near the edge of the desert. It was easier to pinpoint the exact location once she had drawn nearer, for a crowd of people had gathered there, milling about one particular mud hut. She could see from afar the easily-recognizable, tall, thin form of Seymour de Winter gracefully cutting his way through the swarm of humanity. This alone slowed her pace, for she did not really want to encounter him again. Something about the merman annoyed her at the most basic of levels. Still, even his presence was not enough to counter her curiosity. The thief slipped silently into the throng, winding her way to the front while attracting as little notice as was possible.
There was a middle-aged woman seated on an upturned bucket in front of the dwelling, trembling and sobbing, her face buried in a handkerchief. It was evidently she who had screamed. The merman detective was crouching next to her, a large, webbed hand on her shoulder. His nephew, Cedric, stood back a few paces, shifting awkwardly from foot to flipper-like foot.
The detective exchanged a few words with the woman, their voices too quiet for Fern to understand, then stood up. “Clear out,” he barked at the crowd. “This is no’ a drama staged for public entertainment! Go, an’ keep yer snouts in yer own bleedin’ business!” He waved his hands at them to encourage them away. “Shift yerselves!”
Fern noted that the merman’s South Brysail accent was more evident when he was irritated. His voice seemed to become higher as well.
Grudgingly, the audience began to wander slowly away. Fern acted as if she was following them, but slipped away behind an outbuilding and remained behind. She needed to know what had occurred here.
“Cedric,” the merman ordered when the crowds had departed, “keep an eye on the witness. Make sure she has everything she needs. I’m going in to have a look.”
Fern watched around the corner of her hiding place as the merman entered the mud hut. He had to duck to fit through the doorway. After about three minutes, he reemerged, his expression grim.
“Uncle, may I see?” Cedric requested.
“I’m not sure it’s fit for your eyes, little fellow.”
Cedric stiffened his expression, trying to appear more mature than he was. “But, Uncle, the whole reason you brought me with you was so that I could learn the trade, wasn’t it? So shouldn’t I be allowed to see? So I can learn?”
The adult merman looked resigned. “I suppose. If you think you can handle it, then by all means, go ahead. Just…be prepared. It’s rather gory.”
The merboy trotted toward the entrance, but he hesitated for a brief moment before slipping inside. His uncle glanced worriedly after him before returning to the woman on the upturned bucket in the yard.