The first community of the unruled lands were startling. Sean was expecting something that looked like a smaller version of Teroceanican. It was not. For one there were no true stone houses. The homes looked like smaller, less well-engineered versions of the Cupola. Seaweed and various underwater plants were twisted together to form walls that were draped over frames of whalebone.
The mer-folk here looked fiercer but they didn’t have the same healthy glow to them as those at the city. They had pinched looks to their faces and hard, hard eyes. They didn’t look very happy per say to see the members of the circuit but they came out of their homes to greet them.
One of them, a larger merman holding a spear headed the group. He spoke and even Sean, unfamiliar with the language, knew that his tone was harsh.
“Translate?” Sean asked Rakcigion quietly.
“He’s greeting us. He is pleased that the justice of the sovereign of Teroceanican has finally arrived.”
Gethain spoke in response.
“Gethain says that we are pleased to be here.” There was a pause and then his father continued translating as the conversation progressed. “Gethain asks if there are any disputes requiring the justice of the sovereign. Karlenae, that’s the de facto leader of this community, says that there are no disputes because all the disputes have already occurred.” His father stiffens abruptly at Karlenae’s next words.
“He says that they have a dead body and a missing one. They chased after the missing one because they believed that he was responsible for the murder but they have not been able to catch him. They do not expect justice but they hope that if we ever see the murderer, we will see that justice is done. They have kept the body for us, preserved, so that we may examine it. The crime occurred two weeks ago.”
Karlenae turned and led the way to a little structure just outside the village. Sean went with the rest of the circuit, conscious of the strange looks he was getting but opting to ignore them for now. The entire circuit was grim and Sean sensed that they had slid into their professional skins. He endeavored to copy them.
Karlenae gestured them inside the structure and Gethain went in, followed by Extinrel and Cabrako. Rakcigion unwound the rope from his wrist, handed the loose end to Sean and then spoke to Karlenae. The native merman replied and gestured off to the distance. Rakcigion gave Sean a quick apologetic glance and both he and Caniciat went of in the direction that Karlenae pointed.
“They are going to follow the route that the murderer took when he escaped,” Zacklani told him softly. “Jenaicra and I are going to speak to his family and friends. Do you want to come?”
“No,” Argan said, “He stays with me and Fassleti.” Zacklani nodded and then he and Jenaicra took back off to the village.
“So, what are we doing?” Sean asked as the other two mermen disappeared.
“We,” replied Argan, “are going ranging,”
“We’re going to circle the area,” replied Fassleti, “to see if there is anything else unusual. Often little communities do have disputes that should probably be resolved and they don’t say.”
“Why? Is it because they don’t want you meddling with them too much?” Sean asked.
“Yes,” Argan replied.
“So why not leave them alone?” Sean asked.
“Because those little things can explode into a full-blown murder,” Fassleti said, “And then it definitely becomes our problem.”
“Ahh,” said Sean but he still felt uneasy.
“We don’t delve into their every problem, child,” Argan said after a moment. “Only the ones that look like it will expand very badly. For example, if it is well known that two mers hate each other and they’re having a dispute, then we’ll step in. Family feud? No. We’ll leave that alone.”
Sean shrugged though he did feel a little better. “I hope you guys don’t mind that I’ll have to walk.
“I’ll pull you,” Argan said. “Though there are times I will want you to walk.”
“Okay,” Sean said. He handed Argan the other end of the rope and soon the three of them were heading to the outskirts of the village. Once there, they started swimming around the entire village in ever widening circles.
On their fourth rotation, what looked like a teenage mermaid flagged them down from behind a rock. She looked bored, sitting on the sand inspecting her claws. When they approached, she waved at two of the homes behind her and rattled off something.
“What?” Sean asked Fassleti in an aside.
“She says they’re always fighting. Have been for some time now. She thinks we should investigate.” He paused. “One of the men is her father.”
Argan spoke to her a little and then they were heading towards the two houses.
“Serenti says that her father is the same but that their neighbor has been acting very aggressive over the last few months,” Argan explained to him. “She says that her father is also getting very annoyed. She says he had been looking very suspiciously at their neighbor. She expressed some concern that there would be another dead body. Whether it was their neighbor or her father, she didn’t say.”
“Okay so is murder actually common or not around here?” Sean said frowning.
“Not particularly,” Argan replied. “They are usually focused on hunting enough food and keeping their homes intact. Of course, living so roughly leaves people frustrated and they do have arguments. But usually they don’t escalate to murder and the arguments that are close to it, we usually stop before it does.”
“So, when she says that she is concerned about someone dying, it’s a big deal,” Sean said.
“No,” Fassleti said, “Not if she’s young and prone to being dramatic. What is intriguing is the fact that she said that their neighbor has not been himself for some time, enough so that her father is getting worried.”
“Ahh,” said Sean. “What makes one of the merfolk not act like themselves?”
“Typical things,” Argan replied. “People in trouble, people being blackmailed, people getting themselves tangled up in the wrong crowd. People taking drugs.”
“There’s underwater drugs?” Sean said startled.
“Of course,” said Fassleti, “But they aren’t half as nice as the drugs I hear humans have on land.”
“Our drugs aren’t nice,” Sean felt compelled to point out.
“Oh, I know,” Fassleti gave him a smile that was all teeth.
“So, all these underwater drugs are strictly illegal I’m guessing,” Sean said.
“Where there are laws,” Argan pointed out. “Where there are not, well, let’s just say we’re not usually worried about sellers of these substances. Most of the times they’re hooked on them and they die soon.”
“That’s…convenient,” Sean said, frowning. “I think.”
The two mermen gave him slinky smiles full of teeth and then they were at the two houses Serenti had pointed out to them. Argan gave back Sean the rope and then proceeded to the first house.
“That is Serenti’s house,” Fassleti told Sean.
Argan called out and after a moment the hanging fronds that served as a door were brushed aside and a merman emerged. He was, to Sean’s admittedly unpracticed eyes, older than any of the circuit. There wasn’t really much to go on. As Sean was starting to realize, merfolk rarely looked old, at least going by any human markers. There was no gray for instance, streaked among the dark brown hair of Serenti’s father. There were however, tiny lines at the corners of his eyes. His very bearing was graver and…more practiced, more experienced. It made you feel like he’d seen a lot, done a lot, survived more and that, more than anything, made Sean think he was older.
“And what does the justice of the sovereign of Teroceanican want with me?” asked Serenti’s father, folding his arms across his chest.
Fassleti quietly translated the conversation for Sean.
“We have come to offer our services,” Argan replied, “Should you have need of them.”
There was a pause and then Serenti’s father frowned. “You have spoken with my daughter.”
“Daughter?” Argan asked, looking truly surprised. “I was unaware you had a child. No, we are merely seeking to ensure such shocking brutality does not occur in your home again.”
Serenti’s father frowned. “You refer to the murder. There will be no murder from me.”
“And against you?” Argan asked.
Serenti’s father started to reply, cocked his head at Sean and then switched to English so that Sean could follow.
“That I do not know,” he said. There was a moment where the two mers had a quiet square off and finally Serenti’s father relented. “There is a neighbor,” he gestured to the home closest to his, “He has become fractious of late.”
“In what way?” Argan asked.
“He argues,” Serenti’s father said. “for everything. He will spear a fish I’ve tracked for a click. He will spoil my hunts of he can. If my daughter were to venture too close to his home while she swims, he will threaten her. If anyone swims over his home, no matter how far above him they are, he will threaten them. If I’ve speared two fish and he is in the area, one will be gone by the time I’ve retrieved my spear. I’ve confronted him, how could I not? But he always denies his actions. He accuses me of trying to get rid of him. He acts paranoid.” Serenti’s father frowned. “It likes me not. He was not this way. Far from it. It is strange and a strange that I dislike.” He pressed his lips together, something dark flickering over his face for a moment.
“Dislike how?” Fassleti enters the conversation for the first time.
Serenti’s father looks at him. “I do not know. My…” he struggles for a moment and finally spits the word out in mer-speak. “gakineh is alive when he is near.”
“Gakineh?” Sean asks, almost coughing as he tries to replicate the sound.
Fassleti frowns lightly. “It is difficult to translate to your speech. It is not quite a human thing. Predatory instinct I suppose. Hackles would be another word. Experience has some bearing in the connotation.”
“Sixth sense?” Sean asked.
“Perhaps,” Fassleti allowed. “But not so…nebulous. Perhaps in time you would develop it. It is something more to be experienced than to be explained.”
“How alive?” Argan asks.
“Enough,” the other mer replies, eyes definitely darkening. “I will not harm him but if he attacks me, I will not hesitate to defend myself.”
“Noted,” Argan said.
“Be careful if you speak to him,” Serenti’s father said, “Strange things seem to be occurring in our waters.”
Argan and Fassleti didn’t so much as glance at each other but Sean knew they had communicated somehow.
“Once more,” Fassleti said, “Strange how?”
“Strange as a murder that should not have happened,” Serenti’s father said. “Ocknian is dead. They say Narmik killed him. But Ocknian is older, bigger and far more experienced. He fought in wars in the service of Teraelanthonis. Narmik is but a child to him. He has never truly fought. To have killed Ocknian, to have escaped unscathed, or at least well enough not to die soon…. that is strange.”
Argan nodded. “Thank you for your time.” He added something else in mer-speak and then they were moving towards the home of the purportedly troublesome mer.
Argan repeated his call but no one answered. He went to the house and brushed aside the fronds but there was no one inside.
“Probably hunting,” Argan said. He paused thoughtfully and then said. “We rejoin Gethain. I want to see Ocknian’s body.” He held out his hand for the rope and Sean handed it to him. “And then I want to see where Narmik lived.”