It was still light when Starfish and Lotus came for her, both looking grim. Starfish picked her up like a child and walked into the water with her. The water was shockingly cold—a measure of how sick she was, for a healthy windborn’s metabolism was up to night-flying in the winter. You had to eat more in winter—Mist’s stomach spasmed weakly, and she resolutely tried to focus on the present.
Lotus was scrubbing her with soap and rags to get the drying vomit out of her fur. Under the splashing, Starfish murmured, “I don’t know if you are fireborn or not, but Eel is convinced you are. And he’s leaping mad, as much at himself for being taken in by you as at you for lying to him. I’d get you out of here if I could, but I’m not nearly strong enough to tow you anywhere safe before Eel or his men could catch up.”
“’S all right.” Mist was alarmed at how weak her voice was. “Cold.”
Starfish, who was still holding her shook her head. “You feel all right to me.”
Mist mumbled. “Windborn.”
Lotus nodded. “Of course you’re windborn.”
But Starflower understood. “Windborns are warmer than Lakeborns. She’s right—she’s chilled.”
“Let me get this last bit of mess off, and then we’ll get her to the hot sand and dry her off.”
Eel came over while they were pouring warm sand over her and then brushing it off, to warm and dry her. “I told you to bring her to the sunshade so I could talk with her. Why are you cleaning her up?”
“Do you really want a delegation from her town to show up and find that she’s sick and we’re letting her rot in her own vomit? We are in their territory, after all.” Starfish spoke softly.
Lotus stood to look Eel in the eye. “And what if she is? That’s not a crime.”
“It is in my town.”
“As your wife pointed out, we are in her town’s territory. Their rules have precedence.” She nudged Mist with a hand, making it look rougher than it actually was. “Healer, is it illegal to be a fireborn here?”
“Fireborns are legal.” Mist did her best to sound certain, but her voice was weak.
“See? If one of her friends flies down to check on her, and she’s being treated badly, they could call their sheriff in to arrest any of us. I don’t think that’s what you want.”
“No, of course not. I just want to protect my people.”
Mist noted that even talking to his wife and Lotus, who acted as grandmother to most of the town, it was ‘his people’, and not ‘our people’. But then her thoughts wandered to the warm sand. She reached to scoop some toward her, pour it on her cold legs as Lotus had been doing, but it fell through her long, skinny fingers. Of course. No webbing. She shouldn’t be disappointed.
Lotus bent and started scooping huge, generous handfuls of the sun-warmed sand over her back. “So let us do what’s needed to protect the people of Sturgeon.”
Eel frowned, but nodded. “Be back by sundown. Silt is back from foraging. We’re drawing lots.”
“Lots?” Mist had meant to keep quiet. “What lots?”
But Eel had already left, his long stride taking him out of any comfortable range for conversation, if not out of earshot.
Starflower and Lotus looked grimly at each other, but did not answer her. They just kept pouring warm sand over her and brushing it off until none turned damp. Then Starflower carried her to the central fire, tied her hands and feet gently together, and covered her with a cloth. “Try to keep quiet,” was all she said.
People streamed in, looking worried or excited or just curious, and sat. There was no food passed around, though there was a large pot on the fire, giving off a harsh herbal scent, but unlike the cup Eel had forced into her, not thick enough to hide the nofiera from Mist’s nose. For the first time, she wondered what else he had dosed her with. Had he meant her to be sick regardless? He had drunk from it—hadn’t he? Or had he just pretended?
“People of Sturgeon.” Eel’s voice interrupted her, and she couldn’t catch the memory she’d been following, she was swept back into the present. “As many of you know, I have been tested by taking nofiera, as have many of my men. This evening, I tested the healer who has been trying to convince us fireborns are not dangerous. She failed. She is fireborn.”
There were suddenly a lot of voices murmuring, but one stronger voice spoke up. It was one of the boys—Cirrus? Shark? Mist couldn’t be sure.
“—been saying that it’s not only fireborns that get sick—”
“Well, that’s what a fireborn would say, isn’t it? But even if it’s true, do we want to risk keeping someone who might be a fireborn among us?”
“No!” Dozens of voices, overlapping, angry, afraid. But the sentiment was clear.
“Toss her into the lake!” Mist should know that voice, she’d talked to the man a number of times.
Lotus stood. “You want to have her people hunting us down? Sit down, all of you. She’s weak as a baby. Even if she’s a fireborn, she can’t hurt anyone right now.”
The voices didn’t stop, and Mist started to shiver again. She was tied and too sick to fly, in the middle of a group of people who suddenly hated her.
“Sit down, I say. The Mayor has more he wants to say.”
That got people settling down, but didn’t reduce Mist’s panic.
“I would rather do this at home, but,” he paused and looked out at the gathered people, a look of love and concern, “I’ve heard a double-handful of accusations today alone, and stopped nearly half that many fights. It’s time we had facts instead of rumors, for everyone’s sake.”
Mist saw people nodding, and it made her dizzy.
“The healer told us all tales of people hurt when a whole town was tested all at once. I was horrified at those stories; I’m not willing to do that to my people.”
Was the mayor finally letting go of his fear?
“So today everyone who has not yet been tested will draw a pebble from this bag.” He held up a heavy cloth bag. “And their families will watch over them, keep them safe from stupid accidents. And care for them if they are fireborn and get sick, so no one can accuse us of inhumanity.”
More nodding from the crowd.
The mayor continued, “People who hold white pebbles will be tested this week. People who hold black pebbles next week.
“And the fireborns?” Another angry voice, from somewhere beyond the fire.
“Regular people get sick too.” Mist mumbled. She hadn’t meant to talk, but her voice was so weak, no one noticed her over Eel’s powerful voice.
“The people who get sick, fireborn or not,” he rolled his eyes, “will be forever banished from Sturgeon. We will leave them here with the healer once everyone is tested.”
There was more murmuring, some fearful tones, but mostly approval. “We’ll know. Finally we’ll know.”
Mist remembered her own childhood, the constant stress of not knowing if she and her friends would be fireborn. Who would be able to travel from city to city in the blink of an eye? Who would reach into the fire and not get burnt? Who would heal terrible injuries in hours or minutes instead of weeks and months? Who would predict storms and fires and earthquakes? And who would be stuck, with just the abilities of their birth form, to life a normal life?
Though sometimes they saw it a different way—who among them could go out and just live, without the responsibility of being gifted. And without the need to choose to be openly fireborn, with all the problems and prejudice that entailed, or to keep it forever secret and lie to all who knew you about who you were?
Eel was walking around, holding the bag out to each person in turn. Mist saw Starfish take a stone. After Eel walked on, she peeked at it, and paled. Mist remembered that her brother was the tattoo artist, the one Mist was so sure was fireborn. Starfish would probably get sick. Hadn’t she believed Eel would test her too? Or didn’t she know that families of fireborns usually got sick?
Of course, if Starfish’s brother was fireborn, what was she doing with Eel? And why hadn’t she at least sent her daughter out of harm’s way when this fireborn scare had started?
But Mist had seen so many people who acted foolishly out of love, trusting a batterer or drunkard to stop no matter how many times he broke that promise, believing a man wouldn’t—couldn’t hurt his own child. It was human nature to trust those you loved, she’s set too many broken bones that could have been prevented to believe otherwise.
Then people were opening their hands to reveal their stone, and drinking, or not, from the Mayor’s cup. Starfish opened her hand to show a black pebble, and she gasped, eyes wide. Lily also showed a black stone. Eel passed them by. Starfish quietly dropped her stone to the sand, and it rolled, white and shiny, to rest by Mist’s blanket.
There was a game Mist had played, as a child. It was popular in the town she grew up in, where the different players each had small, round stones in different colors, black, brown, white, and red. This looked like one of those playing pieces, lost carelessly.
There was a commotion at the far end of the sun-shelter. The members of one family had each drawn just one color of stone; Eel made them draw again, so some would be available to care for the others.
Further down the circle, another family offered a handful of white stones, and reached into the bag for a new draw without protest.
Then there was an uncomfortable silence, while people wait to see who gets sick. No one in this batch got as suddenly and violently sick as Mist had, but a small boy started wailing and holding his stomach only a few minutes after Eel finished. His mother started keening, as if the boy had died. When even Eel’s command and Lotus’s encouragement couldn’t make her comfort the child, Starfish took the child from her and laid him down near Mist.
When a family’s drugged members were all cheerfully drunk or peacefully sleepy, Eel sent them to camp in one of the other sun shelters. The sick ones stayed where he could keep an eye on them. Mist closed her eyes and she drifted, from bidding her parents goodbye when she was heavy with child to the other parents she’d had to speak with when their children were sick or dead.
Her eyes opened and she saw the little boy, throwing up into a pot. Lily was crooning to him. The boy was about Mud’s age. Suddenly, Mist was worried about Mud, and Coral and the baby, Minnow. But her thoughts drifted, and she was a child again, watching minnows with human faces play happily in the water. She slept for a time, then.
It was very dark indeed when she woke again, hearing a whispered argument. “Go. Please.”
“I’m not leaving you here alone!”
“Someone’s got to stay here and take care of people. You go, tell the Healer’s people she needs them.”
“How can I find them?”
“Find anyone! Or even go to your uncle.”
The directions were simple, Mist thought, but her mouth didn’t move.
“You go. You swim faster than I do.”
“I’m not leaving him. I—hush—“ Starfish shifted some pots. “Thank you, Lily, for washing these. Now go.” She emphasized the word. “Get some sleep.”
As if the command were for her, Mist felt herself losing coherence, falling into a darkness that was more than just night. Eel said something, but though his voice was close, she couldn’t make it out.
And then she was dreaming again, an endless flight to find her people and tell them—something. Something urgent.
The story continues here.
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