The first installment of Fireborn, Wings on His Fingers, is here.
There were voices Mist didn’t recognize, a lot of them, and she dragged her eyes open. The sun was only halfway up the sky, yet there were people everywhere. Several young men were starting to set up sun-shelters, while others were gathering nets from rafts already moored out in the lake. Mist looked over to see that several lakeborn children were talking with Orchid and the others. Orchid was shaking water off one wing and frowning at the dripping lakeborns.
A tall man stepped between her and Orchid. His natural color was silvery-pale, though his skin was tattooed with bright scales, pale in the center of his body and darker on the sides. The effect emphasized his height, and made him look thin and sinuous.
Mist sat up and yawned. Sitting, her head barely came to his knee.
The man stepped still closer, much closer than the polite wingspan away, almost dripping on her. He looked down at her, not bending at all. “I’m Eel. Are you the healer who rescued our Coral?”
Mist made herself sit still, relaxed. She resisted the temptation to rise to her feet and then her wings, to hover half a head higher than he could stand. He wouldn’t like it, but he would understand that response. He would also want to one-up her in some way in return, and she didn’t want a confrontation if she could avoid one.
So she pitched her voice low, quiet enough that he would have to strain to hear her, or bend himself for her. “Mayor Eel, you got here quickly.”
“Of course, of course. “ Mist guessed he could be heard on the far side of the lake. “Couldn’t leave one of our own all alone in the hands of a stranger! Not that I doubt your competence, ma’am, of course.”
Yeah, right. Mist sat tall, spread her wings wide, and said, more loudly, “Welcome to Spiny Cove, your honor.”
“Welcome to Sturgeon Town, healer.”
“Oh, does your town have no permanent home?” Mist looked up, raising her eyebrows. Only the smallest and poorest lakeborn towns did not have a permanent home.
“Of course we do!” The mayor looked affronted. His long toes dug into the sand, then flicked it aside, only to dig in again.
“Your school looks very prosperous.” Mist offered a compliment, always a wise thing to do when confronting a visiting dignitary—and there was no longer any doubt in her mind that this was a confrontation. At least she could offer an honest compliment, based on the finely painted sunscreens the young women were unfolding. “As Spiny Cove is well within the area of my usual rounds, please allow me to welcome Sturgeon School on behalf of Sunlit Aerie.”
The Mayor frowned. “Thank you, healer.” His voice wasn’t quite so loud.
“Mist.” She offered.
“Healer Mist. Of Sunlit Aerie.” He made an effort to smooth the frown off his face
“It’s a pleasure to welcome you, Mayor Eel, and Sturgeon School to the waters of Sunlit Aerie. I’m sure that Coral and her children will be more comfortable with familiar faces while she recuperates from her fall and her fever.”
He nodded. “Thank you for treating Coral.”
Mist stood up, smiling politely, knowing the smile looked friendly and effortless, because she had practiced it endlessly during her apprenticeship. “If you could excuse me for a moment, I want to check on her. Do you have someone with you who can act as a wet nurse?”
“Loricaria will be along soon. Her baby is about weaning age, and she let the girl swim along on her own as much as she wanted, and so, fell behind.” He frowned, as if he didn’t like it when people didn’t dive to his demands. No surprise that, Mist thought. “And my wife is checking on Coral as we speak, so she’s in good hands. “
“Is your wife a healer?” That could complicate Mist’s plans to keep the school in Spiny Cove until she’d figured out if they had a fireborn child in need of fostering.
Eel stiffened, apparently believing she was slighting his wife. “She’s quite competent for ordinary complaints, Healer.”
“I don’t doubt that. But Coral had a fever and a head injury, as well as sunburn and dehydration. Not an ordinary combination of ailments.” She curved her hand over her chest, briefly echoing the position for oath-taking. “ And I have a duty, your Honor.”
“Of course, of course. By all means. You tend to your duties, and I’ll tend to mine.” He nodded curtly and strode off toward the sun shelters, barking a complaint at one of the young men, causing him to pull a pole out of the ground and reseat it half a step closer to the water.
Mayor Eel’s wife turned out to be a young woman with dark blue skin and a merry smile, tattooed with fanciful, bright-colored fish swimming amongst stars and moons and comets. Mist wondered if her tattoo artist was fireborn because the colors all showed up so well on her dark skin. She introduced herself as Starfish. “It looks like you’ve been taking good care of our Coral.” Starfish rushed on, not giving Mist a chance to answer. “You mustn’t mind Eel, he acts like rather a grump, but he takes good care of us all. Being a good mayor is important to him.”
“I’m Mist. Good to meet you.”
The woman smiled and offered her hand, fingers cupped, and Mist pulled her fingers into a similar shape, reaching to join the backs of their hands briefly. It was more comfortable than trying to shake hands, when one person had sharp claws designed for grabbing tree limbs and the other had wide webbing between the fingers.
“Your tattoos are beautiful. Did someone in Sturgeon School do them?”
“Thank you. I’m very proud of them, and of the artist, who is my brother. He even gave me my very first tattoo—“ she pointed at a small starfish perched playfully on her elbow. The lines weren’t as sure and bright as the later tattoos, but it was clearly the work of an artist. “He was only 13 when he gave me this tattoo; my mother had a fit!” She laughed, and made a graceful movement. “But you’ll be wanting to check on Coral. I shouldn’t be distracting you.”
Coral was alone in the baby enclosure; Mist saw that a girl about Orchid’s age, who looked a lot like Starfish, was playing with the baby just under the water, in the shallows. Starfish walked over to watch them, staying near enough to offer assistance if needed and to hear their conversation, but distant enough to show proper respect.
Mist and Coral exchanged few words; Coral’s color was better, but she was very tired. Mist told her to sleep, then walked over to Starfish. “Is there someone who can sit with Coral while she sleeps? It would have to be someone you can rely on to watch her gills to make sure she is breathing. She’s probably safe now, she’s looking better than she was yesterday, and her fever is down, but I’d be happier if someone is there to wake her if she stops breathing.”
While she was talking, a young woman rose out of the water, a sleeping toddler netted against her chest. The child blinked sleepily as her neck rose out of the water, and she squirted a little fountain of water out her mouth as she shifted to breathing air, then settled back to sleep. The mother’s tattoos ranged from realistic catfish and land-cats to fanciful blends, with a large, cat-featured, winged dragon in the center of her chest.
“Of course—Oh, Loricaria! Good, I’m glad you’re here. Minnow is hungry and I don’t think Lily will be able to distract him much longer. But first, I’d like you to meet Healer Mist.” She turned back to Mist as Loricaria walked toward them, yawning. “Lori will watch her for now, though once the sunshades are set up I’ll send someone over so she can nap. We’ll make sure someone is available until you’re sure Coral is out of the rapids.”
It didn’t take long to explain what was needed, and get Loricaria settled in the enclosure with Coral. As soon as her baby, introduced as Daisy, was settled, Starfish tapped the surface of the water rhythmically, and Lily brought Minnow over. He seemed confused when Loricaria offered to feed him, but it didn’t take long for him to latch on eagerly.
Smiling, Mist looked up to see Mayor Eel standing down the beach a ways, staring at the ashes of her fire. He was frowning again, or perhaps, still.
Starfish looked over as well. “You had a fire last night?”
Mist nodded. She might as well get to the point; she didn’t want Eel badgering her patient. “Yes. Coral had been gathering nofiera. It’s a nasty poison. Contrary to popular belief, it makes even the least susceptible people stupid and awkward. I burned it. All.“
Starfish looked troubled. “Eel has been counting on that stuff.” Something in her tone of voice made Mist think she wasn’t comfortable with her husband’s decision to use it. “He will be very angry.”
“He can be angry, then. I’ve treated people after they take nofiera. Regular, ordinary people.” Mist’s voice was harsh; she was gripped by the memory of that town.
Starfish was obviously uncomfortable with the conversation. “He’s focused on protecting us.”
“So am I.”
Both women were silent for a moment, watching the tall man stir the ashes with his foot, then bend to sniff the remains. He glanced toward the water, then came striding toward them.
Mist said quietly, “Why don’t you go tell Lily that my daughter and her friends headed to some berry bushes, inland?”
Mist waved her wing to point toward the berry bushes, and to block the Mayor’s view of her face. “I think it might be easier if I had this conversation with the Mayor alone.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Then, louder, “Thank you, I’m sure my daughter would like to join the other girls.” Starfish turned and walked away, calling for Lily.
Mist turned toward the Mayor, and started walking calmly to meet him. She wished she could have Nautilus with her, or Sunlit Aerie’s Mayor. Or another healer. She felt very alone, and very small, but she couldn’t let that show.
“What did you burn there, Healer?”
“A poisonous weed.” Mist stopped a polite distance from the Mayor and stood straight, trying to look confident.
He stepped in close. “Really? I think it was my nofiera.”
“Your nofiera? It grew in Sunlit Aerie’s lands.” She folded her wings, letting them trail like an elegant cape.
“And was gathered by one of my people.” His toes were again digging into the sand, flicking it aside in tiny cascades.
Mist shook her head slightly, an understated negation. “It was not yours to gather, nor was it Coral’s.”
“But we need it!” His arms opened wide. If they were wings, he’d have knocked her over.
“To find the secret fireborn before someone gets hurt.”
“You think you have a secret fireborn?” She tried to sound merely curious.
“I know there is. And so does the whole school, and everyone’s swimming scared. And I won’t have it. Everyone will be tested. If we can’t find more here, then we will go somewhere else to do it.” He looked determined, and honestly concerned about his people.
If that was his motive, maybe Mist could talk him out of doing this. At least she had to try. “Have you ever seen a town where everyone took that stuff?”
His eyes twitched . “I’ve seen enough.”
“If you haven’t seen a whole town, then you have not seen enough. “
“And you have?”
“A trader called healers to a town, several days after someone dosed pretty much all the dishes for the midsummer festival. The first three to arrive called for help, there was too much for them to handle. People were drunk or sick for days, and wouldn’t admit it. They had stupid accidents. Little kids forgot how to fly, and broke wings and legs. People were burned because they stumbled into cooking fires. A woman went into labor and bled to death. “ Mist’s voice cracked, and she closed her eyes, but it didn’t block out the sights that town had seared into her memory.
Deliberately, she opened her eyes again, making eye contact with the Mayor. “And the ones who got really sick, whether from the nofiera or food poisoning or something else, were tied up and gagged. Some choked on their own vomit; one nearly died and his lungs were crippled. And after, they became outcast, fireborn or not. And the suspicion didn’t end, afterward. Not really. Because everyone got a little sick. The butcher who cut off his finger lost most of his business, his friends and family backed away from him, avoided him. They were afraid of him at the very time he needed their support the most.”
“Well, we have no windborn children, and we can be careful of those other things. We can do without cookfires.”
“And without hunting nets and baby enclosures?” Mist shook her head, emphatically. “Don’t do it, Mayor. Don’t do that to your people.”
“Well, then just what do you suggest, Healer? I won’t wait around until the fireborn kills someone, on purpose or by accident. And I’m not about to let things go until people start getting killed because somebody thinks they know who the fireborn is, or figures they can get rid of a rival by accusing them. “
“Fireborns don’t just kill people—”
“Fireborns do kill people. I personally saw a fireborn boy—he had been a friend of mine—kill the Sheriff, when I was young, rather than be arrested for what he was. He claimed afterward that he didn’t mean to, that he just meant to push the sheriff away so he could escape, but even if that was true, the sheriff was dead. “ He made the oath-gesture above his chest, “I’ll not allow that to happen in my town.”
Mist had heard of that incident; the boy had had no warning of his talent, and no training. Most likely he didn’t mean to even hurt the sheriff, who had him trussed up securely and was trying to beat him unconscious when he—died. After all, fireborns need to be awake to work magic. Shortly afterward, the boy was killed so he could not repeat the crime. She looked down, lost in her memory of that news reaching her while she and several friends were being trained to use the firesense. What fireborn would not use magic to fight back, if they were tied up and brutally beaten? What human would not use any means at their disposal to fight back?
Mayor Eel reached to touch her, very lightly, on the shoulder. “You see, Healer, it is necessary. If you want, you can stay, take the nofiera with us, and treat anyone who gets hurt. But with you or without you, I will take whatever steps are needed to protect my people.”
He strode off before Mist could reply.
The story continues here.
I have been enjoying publishing a chapter of this story about twice a week to date. This week's installment is a bit longer than usual, to thank you for your patience last week. However, I haven't been getting as much work done as I'd hoped on the companion novel to this work (working title: Shifter) or other stories for submission to traditional paying markets.
So, what I propose is that if you, my readers, collectively sponsor this at a rate of at least $10 per chapter, (the average chapter has been about 1000 words), I will continue to give you two installments a week. Double that and I'll do my best to go to three chapters a week.
In addition, sponsors get access to fiction set in this world, which no one else has seen yet, as well as my grattitude. The first sponsor thank-you post is already up, it's a piece of flash fiction showing a peek at the history of this world. Any new sponsors will be added to the filter as soon as I get your sponsorship. I know not everyone can afford to sponsor me in this dreadful economy, but I hope to hear from you regardless. I am very much looking forward to reading your responses to this chapter!