Seymour de Winter patted his nephew once on the back and stood. “You,” he snapped, pointing at Fern. “Stay with him a moment while I find a safe place for this woman.” He jerked his head toward she who had found the remains. “If you aren’t here when I return, little thief, I swear I will pursue you unto the ends of the earth.”
She sat on the ground a few paces away from Cedric and studied him carefully. She took note of his trembling hands, which were fidgeting restlessly with a loose thread near the hem of his tunic. He looked up at her and met her gaze, and she could see the panic of nausea in his eyes. He looked to be on the verge of tears. She averted her eyes. She did not want to deal with this. If she had known how to comfort a distressed child, most likely she would have had offspring of her own by now. At least Cedric was old enough to understand that here was nothing she could do for him—had he been younger, this would have much more difficult. As it was, she could feel her own anxiety mounting.
It seemed as if an age had passed before the merman returned to them. Wordlessly, he scooped Cedric up as if the boy was a child of no more than five, and began to carry him down the road. De Winter was stronger than his slender frame would have appeared to make him. Once more, as if magnetically drawn after the detective, Fern followed.
After some time had elapsed, she became aware that the merman was humming something. His voice was soft and strangely gentle. She could scarcely hear him.
His tune trailed off. “Nearly there,” he murmured to Cedric, shifting the merboy’s weight from one shoulder to the other. “Seoc will be there to look after you, little fellow, if you don’t mind my leaving you again. You’ll be in good hands.”
“Provided he’s in the right mood,” Cedric mumbled.
“Don’t say that,” his uncle admonished. “His company is better than none.”
They rounded a corner and came upon another low, palm-thatched hut, nearly identical to all the others, except this one actually had a door in the doorway. Seymour rapped upon it loudly with his free hand. “Seoc, open up! It’s me.”
Fern heard the sound of a latch being drawn back, and then the door opened to reveal a short-statured, freckled-faced, dark-haired human male. He looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties. “What’s the problem?”
The man called Seoc had a heavy accent and, at the moment at least, a hoarse, sleepy voice. He was fully clothed, but looked as if he had slept in his garments, and had clearly just woken up.
“Cedric doesn’t feel well. Will you look after him a while?”
Seoc squinted his bloodshot eyes. “Why couldna he have waited ‘til afternoon ta get sick, eh?”
“Please, Seoc. For me?”
Unwilling to argue, Seoc sighed, cursing under his breath before stepping out of the way. “Oh, very weel, but ye’re goina owe me, Sey.”
De Winter carried the boy inside, but before he vanished through the doorway, Fern heard him say, “I always owe you, little fish.”
Seoc stayed at the door, glaring at Fern. “An’ who, might I ask, are you?”
“None of your business.”
A hint of a sour smile began to play at the corners of Seoc’s mouth. “Everythin’s my business, lassie. If you dinna like it, I suggest you stay out o’ mine. You could start by removing yerself from my presence, thank you. That or tell me yer name."
He ran his fingers through his wavy, brownish-black hair. "Fern. That's a nice name, if dull. My name is Seoc MacInnes--that's Seoc with an 'S', no' a 'J'. Why are you here, Fern?"
"Right, then. In that case, I shall na tell you why I am here. That's the rules o' the game. It's simple exchange, nice an' fair, one answer for another. So. How did you encounter Seymour?"
She shrugged. "We met last night, then I came across him this morning."
"Ah. So yer the thief he told me about."
"And how did you meet him?"
"He broke me out o' an asylum," he replied matter-of-factly.