After the Mayor stalked off, Mist strolled, still outwardly calm, back to the water. Coral was sleeping, Minnow was still eating, and Loricaria was floating with only her head out of the water, chatting with a young man who was likewise floating, and who clearly had eyes only for her. Before she got close enough to hear their words, Loricaria whistled *all’s well*, so Mist waved and walked on.
She wondered how much contact with the rest of the world Sturgeon Town had; earlier she had assumed Mayor Eel didn’t know how very rude he was being by windborn standards. Loricaria’s casual use of the whistle-language argued that her Mayor wasn’t likely that ignorant.
The young women were pulling the painted canvas over the last of the frames the young men had set up. It depicted brightly-colored tropical fish, with a bright red crab reaching playfully for the long trailing tail of a fish that Mist suspected was fanciful, rather than real. They were having difficulty moving the canvas over the pole that the Mayor had insisted be moved, but after a brief glance his way, the young woman on that corner just grimaced and pushed the pole inward.
Being the reason for their difficulty, Mist moved on. In the sun shelter closest to the trees, where the beach was partially shaded, she found the older women chopping vegetables.
“Where’s Mud?” A portly woman, with larger-than-life flowers tattooed over her, looked around, koli fruit in her hands.
“I think she’s off with my daughter.” Mist answered, offering her curled hand. “I’m Mist, my daughter and her friends found Coral and called me to help her.”
“Oh, the healer. Good to meet you.” The woman smiled brightly, reaching to touch hands briefly, her webbing keeping the fruits safely in hand. “I’m Lotus.” The other women chimed in with their names, and Mist tried to link each name to the woman’s tattoos in her memory.
Lotus smiled. “I hate to ask, you’re a Healer, and our guest and all, but—“
“The only easy way to open koli fruit is with claws! Of course I’ll help. And technically, you are all guests of Sunlit Aerie, here.” Mist sat on one of the barrels by the table.
“But the Mayor said—“ The young woman with circle tattoos (Ripple?) looked up.
Lotus placed the koli in front of Mist. “We had quite a swim to get here. The Mayor doubtless didn’t realize that this is part of Sunlit Aerie’s township.”
Mist noted the skeptical looks of several of the women, but no one said anything further. “My daughter loves koli, though it’s not ripe here yet.” Carefully, she placed her claws along the fault-line of the hard, purplish rind, and squeezed, popping it into three neat sections and exposing the fragrant pink fruit inside.
“We got it from a trader—the one who told us that Coral needed us.” Lotus reached for one of the sections. “Oh, that’s pretty. Mud can’t open them like that!”
“Mud’s hands are still too small.” Mist laughed. “Not everyone her age can open them, you know. She must be very strong.
“Oh, that girl doesn’t give up, if there’s something she wants. We found that she can open the koli when she snuck into the stores for a midnight snack.” Ripple.
Lotus smiled. “It got her a new chore.”
Mist kept cracking open the fruit
“As if it did any good—she’s proud to be the one to open all the koli, I don’t think she learned a thing from it.” This from a woman with bright blue fish tattooed on her pale, cream-colored skin. Mist couldn’t remember her name.
Lotus put the opened koli sections into a bowl, and placed more whole fruits on the table. “She’s learning responsibility, and other cooking tasks as well. She’s a good helper. I don’t mind if it’s the chance to lick the koli juice from her fingers that draws her here. She’s young yet.”
The blue-fish woman frowned, but the other women nodded. They started talking about the other children of the town. Mist had been about to ask about the secret fireborn, but thought better of it. The talent most often surfaced in a child either before or during puberty. She stopped focusing on the grownups’ names, and concentrated on the gossip about the children, hoping for a clue.
There was Lily, who she’d met already. “Like a shadow of her mother” Ripple had said. “Too responsible for a girl of 9.”
The blue-fish woman nodded. “She’s so quiet.”
Little wonder, Mist thought, with Eel for a father. She’d seen other Mayors’ children try to fade into the background, uncomfortable with attention. And Mist couldn’t imagine Eel would be easy on Lily if she misbehaved where anyone could see her.
“Not at all like Fin and Pebble! They could talk up a storm!”
“Fin’s good at foraging; very responsible about being in the sun. And Pebble, well, she’s mischievous, but tags along with Fin everywhere. She’ll learn.”
The woman with fanciful blue and white waves tattooed on her chest like lace blushed proudly. “They’re good girls.”
The women fell silent as two young boys came up, one lugging a huge cauldron and the other two buckets of water. “Shark, and Current, thank you.” Lotus stood and helped the boys get the cauldron onto the framework hanging over a hastily-dug fire pit. “If you could gather some wood, I want to get the fire going and cook some of these vegetables in the oil before adding the water to the pot.”
The boys nodded and ran off towards the woods.
“So, Surf, has Fin stopped acting all awkward around Shark?”
“I saw them talking the other day.” Ripple added chopped onions to the pile of vegetables in front of Lotus.
Surf smiled. “They talked, a little, but then he brought her some oysters and that was the end of that. She blurted a thank you, but ever since, if she sees him anywhere nearby she swims off.” She shook her head. “But her eyes still follow him when he’s busy with the other boys. I hope he gets interested in someone else. Fin is too little, yet, for boys!”
Lotus laughed. “You didn’t think you were too little, at her age.”
“So I know what I’m speaking about!”
The boys came back, a taller boy trailing behind them. Shark, easily identifiable by his single tattoo, was slim and handsome. Current had dark blue skin, with subtle purple ripples emphasizing his broad shoulders. The tattoos looked good, but were not nearly as bright as Starfish’s. Current looked only a little older than Orchid; boys that age usually preferred bold designs, which reminded Mist of her resolve to check out Starfish’s brother. “Is the artist that did Starfish’s tattoos part of Sturgeon School?”
“I wish!” The tall boy spoke up. His skin was a deep brown, and he had no tattoos. “He lives way south of here, in Rainbow Bay. I’ve been saving up to pay him for my first tattoo; we were supposed to be swimming that way so Lily could get tattooed by him—he’s her uncle.”
“Yeah, but the Mayor has us traveling north instead.” Current dug his toes into the ground, and kicked some sand aside, in a gesture that reminded Mist of Eel.
“Thank you, Walnut, Current, Shark,” Lotus waved to a bare spot, a few feet from the firepit. “You can put the wood here, and we’ll need another load or two.”
Current and Shark ran off again, the tall boy remained. “I’ll lay the fire, Granny, if that’s OK.”
Lotus nodded, and the boy came up to Mist. “Thank you for healing my big sister. I’m Dragon, or will be, as soon as the Mayor gives up on chasing imaginary fireborns and I can get my name-tattoo.”
Mist managed not to react to his chosen name. Most of the stories named dragons fire-creatures—could he be the fireborn? She smiled. “You’re welcome. There really are fireborns, you know. I’ve worked with fireborn healers.”
“I’d like to hear about that. The Mayor talks as if they’re all born killers. But I’d better get that fire started for Granny right now.”
Mist watched carefully, with all her senses, as he laid a fire and struck sparks into tinder. Fireborns were drawn to fire, youngsters new to their talent found touching it with the firesense almost iresistable. But if he was fireborn, he was hiding it well.
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