Starfish came by in the middle of the afternoon to let Mist know her husband had called a meeting to receive her healer’s advice, after dinner. “He thinks there’ll be fewer rumors if everyone can listen to your report,” she added. When Mist nodded, she added, “I’m sorry, I have got to get things organized. Do you need anything?”
“No, half the people who come in to talk ask that.”
“That’s one of the things I loved about Sturgeon, when I first married Eel. Everyone is so hospitable.”
After her visit, Mist was left alone for a little while, as people prepared dinner and finished up daytime chores. It was a relief. People were really upset, and very scared, even if they mostly acted reasonable under their Mayor’s stern eye. And what they knew about fireborns was simply amazing for both its lack of accuracy and its sheer unrelieved negativity. Oh, none of it was really new to Mist, but the last time she’d heard so many misconceptions in one place was in a class she’d been required to take before being certified as a fireborn healer.
She used the time to consider what she’d learned. She had no idea which young person might be fireborn, if, in fact, any of them were. Certainly, none of them had crept into the tent to confide in her, which would have been the easiest solution.
At the very least, she needed more time, time to get to know people and gather more information, and time to at least try to teach them not to be so afraid. She set her thoughts to what else might have caused the various things she’d heard about, and tried to plan what she could say that would buy her that time.
While she was still thinking, the big woman with the playful fish tattoos stormed into the shelter. Ripple followed, looking anxious.
“Can I help you?” Mist looked up at her.
“I need the Mayor. I know who the fireborn is.”
“I don’t have time for this. Where’s the Mayor?”
Firefly came in. “The Mayor is apparently busy, out fishing with the young men.”
Mist stood up on the barrel she had been sitting on. “Ladies!”
The three stopped and looked at her.
“Mayor Eel asked me to look into this fireborn question.”
The angry woman frowned. “We don’t need you if we know who the fireborn is.”
Firefly put her hands on her hips, fists balled tightly. “Joy, we do not know who the fireborn is.”
Ripple backed away, out of the sunshade.
Joy waved her arms, hands wide. “Of course, you would try to protect him.”
“You’re just being irrational because you don’t want to admit your daughter isn’t a child any more.”
“That’s enough!” Mist let her frustration and irritation show in her voice, but for once, found herself completely ignored.
“Your young man has bewitched my little girl. She wouldn’t even talk to him last week, and now she has eyes for nothing else. It’s not natural—”
“Joy!” Lotus came into the sunshade. “Firefly. The whole lakeside can hear you. You are showing disrespect to the healer that the Mayor asked to help us, and to your children. Teenagers embarrass so easily.” Ripple followed behind her like a shadow, but stopped just inside the sunshade.
“That’s enough, Joy. You’ll get to speak your piece. And you, too, Firefly. “
The two women glared at each other, but remained quiet.
“Now, let’s all sit down. Ripple tells me the two of you were practically punching each other when that windborn girl delivered some of the basket grass to the wrong spot. Shame on you, behaving that way, especially in front of children! That’s not a good example to set.”
Joy looked down. “We didn’t know the girl—“
“Well, you never do know when kids will happen by, do you? But to hear Ripple tell the story, it’s a good thing she did, or this healer would be patching you two up, instead of just listening to your bad manners.”
Joy glared at Lotus. “Maybe I deserve a scolding, but I’m not going to let you distract me from what’s important. I’m not having some fireborn terror seducing my girl—“
“My son is not fireborn! And it’s your girl doing the seducing!”
“How old are these children?” Mist asked.
The other four women all answered at once, so all Mist was sure of was that both were teenagers.
“Wait—one at a time. Lotus, you know everyone, right? How old are they?
“Skimmer, the boy, is 15. And Willow is 13, and has had her monthlies for more than a year.”
“Although I know it’s hard on parents, young people of that age fall in and out of love rather precipitously, and often seem to choose” Mist spread her skinny hands, though she doubted the gesture looked dramatic to people used to large, webbed hands. She was trying to think of the right word to use, and was pretty sure that saying ‘lovers’ would escalate things. “friends that seem designed to scare or infuriate their parents.”
Joy dug her fingers into the sand she was sitting on. “But—“
“I’m not saying that this, this tendency of teenagers proves that they are not fireborn. It’s my understanding that fireborn youths are like all other human teenagers in the tendency to form crushes on each other. I’m just saying that a teenager getting a crush on a young man she disliked last week is, well, a perfectly normal occurrence.”
“Are you saying a fireborn couldn’t bewitch a teenage girl?” Joy demanded
“No. I have heard of some fireborns who could catch a youth’s eyes, dazzle him or her into getting a crush on them—or, for that matter, on someone else. You, for example, if you were a fireborn with that talent—“
“How dare you!” Joy started to rise to her feet, and Lotus reached over and put a hand on her arm.
“She wasn’t accusing you, Joy. Healer, why don’t you use me for your example?”
“Ok. If Lotus here were a fireborn with that talent, she could make Willow have a crush on herself—“
Ripple tried to smother a giggle.
Or she could make Willow have a crush on whoever seemed appropriate. Ripple, for instance, or old Toad.”
Ripple lost all composure. “Willow can’t stand me, and Toad, Well Toad could be her grandfather!”
“Exactly. Also, Joy, a fireborn-caused crush lasts no longer than a natural one, and very few fireborns, even fully trained ones, can do that at all.”
“But how can we be sure?”
“If you want, when Coral is all better, and this matter is settled, I can take Willow to be examined by a fireborn healer.”
“You want me to deliberately expose her to a fireborn’s magic?” Joy gaped at her.
Mist sighed. “You did ask how we could be certain.”
Lotus touched her arm again. “Joy, you asked, and the Healer gave you freely of her expertise. It’s not her fault you don’t like the answer.”
Joy looked down, and clenched sand in her hand, hard enough that her webbings bulged. “Sorry, Healer.”
“No offense, Joy. My little girl is going to be old enough to start flirting with boys soon, and I don’t feel at all ready for it.” Mist paused a moment. “But it’s not just your girl I need to worry about here, it’s the whole town. Skimmer included. Now that you’ve made that accusation at the top of your lungs, people are going to be looking at him funny for a very long time. So I have to ask, you and his mother too—is there anything besides teenage romance that might support that theory?”
“My son is not—“
“Firefly, there’s no shame in being fireborn. Some say the fireborns are called by the Gods, to protect all the forms. If your son is fireborn, he might apprentice with Nautilus himself!”
The woman’s eyes got round. “Nautilus?”
Mist nodded. “I’ve met him. He seems to specialize in apprentices from towns afraid of fireborns. He says he understands what they’ve been through.”
There was a moment of silence. When Firefly spoke again, she seemed less tense. “That would be a wonder. But I’ve never seen him do anything odd or magical, unless you count charming girls with his big smile and acrobatic stunts.
Ripple nodded. “He is a handsome young man.”
Joy frowned. “I still want him tested with nofiera. I’ll be bringing this up with Eel.”
Firefly glared at her. “As the healer pointed out, your words have probably made the whole town afraid of my son. Don’t think I won’t be bringing that up with the Mayor. “
Mist didn’t envy the Mayor. “Ladies, now that I’ve asked about Skimmer, it wouldn’t be fair not to ask about Willow, and the rest of the young people in town. Have any of you seen any reason to suspect any of them of being fireborn?”
They shook their heads, and continued to glare at each other.
Lotus stood up. “I’m sure you all have better things to be doing right now than bothering the Healer. But be certain that the Mayor will be talking with you later.”
They stood up.
“Joy, Firefly,” Mist stood up as well, though that meant that even Ripple towered over her. “Thank you for talking with me. If you think of anything else, I’ll be here.”
Firefly and Joy touched the backs of their hands to Mist’s hand and filed out, much more quietly than they had arrived. Ripple followed.
Lotus offered her hand as well, and they touched, but Mist leaned in close, and said quietly. “You seem to be the informal Grandma to just about everyone—I’d appreciate it if you’d let the kids and teenagers know, if they have anything to tell me, or if they need help, I’m available. And I’ll do what I can to help them. Healer’s word.”
“They should know that already, but yes, I’ll tell them.”
“And—if they’re afraid to come to me directly, they can trust Orchid too.”
“Even if she flings words at you and disappears into the sky?”
Mist’s concern about Orchid flared again, but she only smiled wryly, “She’s getting to that age where kids always seem appalled and embarrassed by their parents. But I’d trust her with my life.”
Lotus smiled. “Now, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Mist doesn't know what her daughter is up to, but you can read all about it: Seeking Skimmer
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