Orchid watched for hours, until the sun started getting low in the sky. Her stomach growled at her, and she launched into the air. She might as well look for some fruit trees while she waited.
It wasn’t hard to find some peaches, but those just made her feel hungrier. Just a bit inland were some nut trees. She ate quickly, cracking the nuts open expertly and letting the shells fall through the leaves toward the ground. Finally, feeling better, she launched back into the air, looking back toward Spiny Cove, the pouch she was wearing full of nuts.
“Oh no!” A fishing party was swimming just under the water, only a few minutes’ swim from the school, and she recognized the Mayor’s tattoos even from this distance.
She sped up, working hard to catch up with them. When she was close, she dove downward, taking advantage of the extra speed that gave her to get above them.
“Hey, Skimmer!” she called.
They kept swimming.
“Hey!” she called more loudly. No response. She could stick a foot into the water, try to tap someone’s shoulder, but she hated flying wet, and she couldn’t swim if she got too far into it. But what else could she do?
The pouch banged again against her thigh. Nuts! Of course! She winged higher and reached her feet up to the pouch, squeezing a nut out the top with one foot and catching it with the other. She lobbed it downward and missed.
Ten nuts later, one of the trailing young men surfaced. He had pale blue skin, but his tattoos were hidden in the water. Orchid had no clue what his name was. “Are you throwing rocks at us, girl?
“No–just nuts. I was trying to get your attention!”
“Why didn’t you just slap the surface of the water?” His voice was really low, and Orchid was sure she hadn’t met him. She thought he was probably a little older than the teenagers she’d met.
“Like this.” He spread his webbed hand wide and slapped the water. It made a satisfying noise. “It’s even louder underwater.”
Orchid held out one skinny foot.
“Oh, never mind!” The man glared at her. “What do you want, child?”
“I’m looking for Skimmer.” She tried to decide what to tell this rude man.
“He’s not here.”
“What? Is he OK?”
“You sweet on him, child?” He emphasized the word child, made it sound nasty.
“What?” Orchid was outraged, but then it occurred to her that if she let him keep thinking that, she didn’t have to explain why she wanted Skimmer. “None of your business. Where is he?”
“Mayor Eel sent him foraging.”
“For–herbs. And vegetables.”
Orchid wondered about the odd pause in his words, but figured she could find out what Skimmer was really up to once she found him. “Where?”
“On some islands to the east.” He smirked. “He only left us an hour or so ago. If you hurry, maybe you can catch up with him before dark. If you’re aiming to be all alone with him.”
Orchid was liking this guy less and less. She considered telling him Lotus wanted Skimmer, but then he might go after Skimmer himself. “Which islands?”
“They’re named after flowers.”
She nodded. “I know them. They’re pretty.” She flew off without thanking him or bidding him a courteous goodbye. Her mother would have scolded if she’d seen that, but then, she didn’t think he would have acted like that in front of a real grownup, much less a healer.
She thought about the islands as she flew. Daisy was rocky, and Baby’s Breath wasn’t properly one island at all, but dozens of little islets, from boulder-size to the size of a house. There might be caves in the water there that could welcome a lakeborn, but nothing she could get to. Carnation was more likely; it had a large, sandy beach with a nice firepit and enough trees that there was usually enough deadwood and fallen branches to make a fire.
She remembered Skimmer going back for extra helpings of fish. She was pretty sure she’d find him by the firepit. At least she hoped so, and that he’d caught plenty of fish. Along the way, she stopped for more nuts and peaches.
It was starting to get dark when she got near enough to Carnation to see it in the distance. She smiled. She could already see the campfire.
Orchid flew down, away from the fire to avoid blowing ashes and embers around. She dropped the peaches from a few inches above the sand, then landed next to them. Then she walked toward the fire, the peaches and most of the nuts from her pouch cradled visibly in one wing. “Skimmer—I got your name right, didn’t I?” The fish smelled wonderful, and Orchid’s stomach rumbled.
“Who—oh, it’s one of the little windborn girls!” He looked up from the fish he was already eating. There were seven more fish impaled on sticks angled over the fire.
He didn’t even remember her name. And she was here to rescue this idiot? “Orchid. Is that fish you’re cooking? I brought peaches and nuts. I thought we could share.”
“Um, sure.” He looked confused, so Orchid handed him two peaches and piled about half the nuts next to him. She moved to the other side of the fire, sat down, and grabbed a fish.
For a little while, they ate, the only sounds the pop and sizzle of the fire, and the cracking of nuts. Orchid noticed that Skimmer wasn’t very good at that, but figured he didn’t need help from a little girl. Except that he did, of course.
With most of the fish and all of the peaches eaten Skimmer leaned back to look at her. “So, what brings you way out here?”
“I was looking for you.”
“For me? What for?”
“When I left, Joy was looking for Mayor Eel to tell him you’re the fireborn.”
“That I—” He looked away from her, and started fiddling with the rope wound around his waist. “Joy said I’m fireborn?”
Orchid sat very still. He looked so nervous, she didn’t want to startle him, though he was much larger than her. “She said you bewitched her daughter.”
He laughed. “She would say that.” He unwound the rope, and started playing with it, looping it in one hand. “And you—you came out here all alone to what? Save me?” He stood up, and started walking back and forth, still keeping his face down, so she couldn’t read his expression.
“There’s no telling what Eel would do if he captured a fireborn! Or even someone he just thought was the fireborn.”
He walked behind her. “Is that so?”
Orchid stood up. “Look, I came to tell you you’re in danger—”
His voice came from right behind her. “Oh, I appreciate it, all right.” Skimmer grabbed her with both hands, pinching one shoulder hard and pulling her other wrist backward.
“Ow!” Orchid tried to pull away, but he was too strong. She twisted to try to kick him, and he threw her to the ground, and soon had her tightly tied, hand and foot.
“What did you do that for?” Orchid twisted until she could get her claws firmly on the rope. It would take time, but she could cut it. She let herself slump down, letting all her anger and frustration show.
Skimmer smiled. “I’m no fireborn. I’m one of the people Eel tested, his secret deputies.” He leaned over and picked up one of her remaining nuts, cracked it awkwardly open. “You must be fireborn yourself, to come swimming—or flying—to try to save some stranger whose girlfriend’s mother made a stupid accusation.” He ate the nut, then picked up another one. “So yeah, thank you for coming. Eel will be very happy with me when I bring you in.” He ate that nut too, then rubbed his thigh where one of her feet had landed. His hand came away bloody, and he looked down.
One of her toe claws had sliced right through one of his tattoos, cutting the pretty insect’s head off. Skimmer’s good mood vanished.
He picked her up and dumped her roughly on the ground, near a tree, and tied her to it. “You cut me! For that, I’ll drug you before I haul you back there with me. Just as soon as I harvest the nofiera on this island.” He kicked her legs, several times. “Just so you’ll have bruises to match the one you gave me,” and stalked off.
Orchid reached her fingers for the rope, but the way he’d thrown her down and tied her to the tree, she couldn’t reach it any more.
She could reach it, she hoped, if she twisted and wiggled enough. She was both strong and agile. She had to believe she could reach it. But she would have to wait until he was far enough away to not notice what she was up to.
She hoped he would go into the water to sleep, but he didn’t. He gathered some vines from near the campfire and set to plaiting more rope. Then he settled down only a few feet away, warning her that he slept light.
She would have to wait until he went to harvest the nofiera, and hope it was well inland. And in the meantime, all she could think about was how stupid she’d been. Nobody even knew where she’d gone. Well, except Dragon, but he only knew she’d gone looking for Skimmer.
No, there was nothing to do but wait and think, and hope she could get herself out of this mess.
Tears spilled out of her eyes. In the best of circumstances, Orchid hated waiting. But this was more awful than anything she’d ever imagined.
The story continues here.
As always, I can be convinced to publish the next chapter before next week.
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