The next morning, Orchid was still nowhere in sight, and Lotus gave her a sympathetic look and a shake of her head.
Immediately after breakfast, with more than a little fanfare, Eel picked search teams, supervised while they studied the drawings Mist had made, and sent them searching to various locations where the School had recently been.
He also made a production of assigning tasks and chores to everyone, and Mist noticed that the people who had seemed most scared or angry were given particularly engrossing tasks or sent hunting for the herbs. Although this might keep rumors down, Mist worried that it would also hamper her search. She tried to remember where he sent all the older children and teenagers.
“And what are you doing sitting around, Healer? Shouldn’t you be checking on Coral?”
Although she was full, Mist reached for the last bit of bread on her plate and took a bite. “I spoke with her before breakfast, I can be here until we’re sure no one has questions or wants to talk with me before doing a proper checkup.”
He dug furrows into the grass with his toes, but nodded.
Once his attention was focused on someone else, Mist felt a gentle tug at her wing, and turned. Cirrus and Frog stood there, where the spread of her wings shielded them from the Mayor’s view.
“We want to go home.” Cirrus said.
Mist smiled at them. “Have you seen Orchid?”
“Not since yesterday. We thought you sent her on an errand.”
Mist shook her head. “No, I’m afraid she’s mad at me.”
Frog smiled. “Orchid gets mad easy. But she doesn’t stay mad.”
“Can you find your way home without me?”
They both nodded. “Of course!” Frog said.
“We got there by ourselves when we found Coral, remember?”
“I certainly do. You did a good job.”
“We’re going now, if that’s ok.” Cirrus looked up at her.
“Yes, but stay together. Tell your parents where we are, ok?”
“Mm hmm!” Cirrus spoke while both nodded.
“And—if you see Orchid, would you tell her—” Mist paused, thinking. “Would you tell her I need her?”
With that they took off, and Mist watched them out of sight, wishing Orchid was with them.
“So, where’d you send your kids?” Eel was standing right over her shoulder.
“Those two aren’t mine. They miss their parents, and wanted to go home.”
“So, where exactly is your girl?”
“She took off yesterday.”
“You don’t seem very worried. You sure you didn’t send her off on some secret errand?”
Mist flew into the air and hovered just over his head. “How would you know how worried I am?”
“Well, we wouldn’t let kids that young” he waved toward the sky “go flying off without supervision.”
“Your kids can’t fly. It’s actually pretty safe up there, once a kid’s strong enough to fly distances. And it’s hard to get lost when you can see so far.”
He crossed his arms. “Hmm.”
Mist settled back to the ground. “Healers learn young that their patients don’t appreciate hearing about their personal worries. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel them as keenly as anyone else.” She turned her back on him and headed toward the water. “I’ll go check on Coral now.”
As she walked, Mist chided herself for rising to his baiting. However reluctant and suspicious, he was her patient. He was clearly suffering from the trauma of his childhood experience of that poor fireborn boy. She should be patient with him.
“Hello Healer Mist!” Lily called from the water, where she was playing with Minnow in the enlarged enclosure that held Coral.
Clearly, Mist scolded herself, she was too worried about Orchid if it led her to blow up at one patient and then almost walk past another. “Good morning, Lily!”
Coral was obviously feeling much better, and Mist cautioned her to rest. “Your sunburn is peeling; your skin is still fragile underneath.”
“I—I guess I am still a little tired. But Minnow wants to play!”
“It’s all right Coral, I can keep playing with him.” Lily smiled, and ducked back under the water with the infant.
Mist and Coral talked for a while, then Minnow swam to his mother, obviously looking for breast milk. “Do you think it’s safe?” Coral asked wistfully.
Mist looked at the eager boy’s face. “Can you express a little for me?”
Mist explained, and Coral squeezed some of her milk into a handy shell. Mist sniffed it suspiciously, and when it smelled good, tasted a bit from the tip of her finger. She could detect no taint of the poison. “I think it will be all right.”
She was rewarded by the look of joy on Coral’s face, and, shortly after, on Minnow’s. She turned to Lily, “Coral won’t need you for a little while. Can you show me where the other girls are foraging?”
“Sure. It’s on the next island over. Can you swim?”
Mist had hoped to talk to the girl while walking, but kept the smile on her face. “I can fly.”
Lily giggled. “Oh, of course. I’ll meet you there, by that tree.” She dove under the water.
Mist glanced back at Coral, who looked up briefly, “I’ll send for you if I need you.”
So Mist leapt into the air and followed. She landed on the beach only moments before Lily’s head popped out of the water. It was easy to forget how quickly lakeborns could swim, compared to landborns or her own remembered childish attempts to move in the water so long ago.
“They’re on the other side of the island.” Lily volunteered.
Mist nodded, wondering why Lily hadn’t simply asked to meet her there. It would be faster than walking.
The girl walked out of the water, skin gleaming wet in the sun. “If we walk around, we should arrive just as they finish picking the fruit that’s accessible without climbing.”
“Picking fruit’s not your favorite chore?”
“It’s OK. Playing with babies is definitely more fun.”
They walked down the beach in silence, Mist giving the girl time in case she wanted to bring up anything. Soon the curve of the island took them out of sight of the school’s encampment. Finally, she asked, “Do you think there’s a fireborn here?”
Lily laughed. “I think my Dad just doesn’t want us to go visit Squid in Rainbow Cove.”
“My Mom’s brother. The tattoo artist.”
“Squid—oh, for ink. I should have guessed! Dragon—I probably shouldn’t call him that yet, but the name fits him.”
“Dragon said your uncle the tattoo artist lives in Rainbow Cove.” Mist looked directly at the girl, who was about her height. “Why doesn’t your father want to visit him?”
“He thinks he might be fireborn.”
Remembering those bright, pale-colored tattoos on Starfish’s dark skin, Mist thought so too. “Is he fireborn?” she asked, casually.
The girl’s eyes flew to her face, measuring her nervously. Mist just kept walking, as if she was discussing nothing more stressful than the weather on a sunny day.
“Well, nobody ever told me he is.”
“But you think he is?”
Hesitantly, the girl nodded. “I’m pretty sure. And I think my Dad suspects. Certainly nobody at Rainbow Cove acted scared when someone said Nautilus might be coming in to get a new tattoo, last time we were there. Dad got news of an emergency back in town right after that, and we haven’t been back since.”
“So, are you scared about that?”
“Scared of Squid? Of course not! He’s better with kids than I am, and kids know if you’re creepy.”
Mist didn’t know if that was always true, but wasn’t about to argue that point right now. “What about you and your Mom? Fireborn talent usually runs in families you know.”
The girl gave her a look that Mist couldn’t interpret. “No. We’re ordinary.”
“Well, if you—if anyone you know turns out to be fireborn, and wants to apprentice somewhere that people won’t be afraid of them—I can arrange that. I could even escort them to Rainbow Cove, if they want to go somewhere that they know people.”
Lily laughed, a short bitter sound. “Maybe Dragon should pretend he’s fireborn, Then you’d take him to get his tattoo and everyone else around here would relax.”
Mist laughed, then turned more serious. “You should be careful, Lily. Most people in families with a fireborn get very sick if they take nofiera.”
Lily stood still. “So reacting to the nofiera doesn’t mean you’re fireborn?”
Mist sighed. “I’ve been saying that for days. It doesn’t even always mean you have a fireborn in your family.”
Lily nodded gravely. “I miss seeing my uncle. And his wife, and my cousins. You keep saying fireborns aren’t so scary, so why is my Dad scared?”
Mist considered. “Can you keep a secret?” she finally asked.
“Of course!” Lily sounded offended.
Mist stopped and sat in the sand, gesturing Lily to do the same. When the girl had settled in a spot where Mist could watch her reactions closely, she started. “When your Dad was a little boy, they had a fireborn scare in the town he was living in.”
“It’s—it’s not a pretty story.” Mist paused, choosing her words, “There was a fireborn boy in that town, a friend of your father’s. I don’t know all the details, but an adult found him doing something, and got scared and tied him up.”
“And then tried to beat him unconscious, to keep him from doing magic.”
The girl flinched. “I guess nofiera isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a fireborn.”
“No. The boy was scared, and untrained. He tried to stop the beating, but killed the man. And then he was killed.”
Mist nodded. “Your father told me, if there’s a fireborn child here, he wants me to get it safely out of town, and trained. But, fears learned in childhood are hard to break. And he feels very strongly about protecting everyone in town.”
“Well, that much is true for sure.”
Mist put her hand on the girl’s arm. “I take my healer’s oath very seriously. If there’s a fireborn here, child or adult, everyone’s health and well-being would be served by getting them out of town quickly. Secretly, if they want.”
“But what if they want to stay?”
“They could try coming back, once they’re trained, as an open fireborn, and try to change people’s attitudes. It wouldn’t be easy. But untrained?” Mist shook her head. “I don’t think your father will rest comfortably while he thinks there may be an untrained fireborn in town. Do you?”
Lily looked away, and picked an empty shell out of the sand. “You’re probably right.”
Mist watched the girl staring intently at the shell, and mentally added another name to her list of possible fireborns. Again, she could detect no hint of active use of fireborn talent—and again, that could only mean that the girl wasn’t using the talent right now. Well, she’d given her some things to think about.
“How’d you learn about my Dad’s childhood friend?”
“He told me, on the beach, after yelling at me for burning the nofiera that Coral had gathered.”
She smiled. “I—might have heard part of that conversation. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you told me the story.” Suddenly she tossed the shell down. “We should get moving. Hey—I bet you could pick fruits even Mud can’t reach!”
Mist stood. “I can. I—there’s one more thing I’d like to ask.”
The girl paused.
“Have you seen my daughter, Orchid?”
“Not—oh, not since shortly after we got here? Is she lost?”
Mist shook her head. “That girl’s never been lost. But she got mad at me and flew off, and I haven’t seen her since, not even for meals. She could have flown home, I suppose, but that’s not like her when I’ve got patients.”
“I’d be worried sick if Mud were missing, much less my own kid!”
“She’s older than Mud—she’s about your age. Windborns are nearly all short, and she’s on the smaller side. But yeah, I’m a little worried. If you see her, or hear where she went, would you let me know?”
Lily smiled. “Of course! We’ll ask the other girls while we help them pick the last fruit!”
Mist helped them with their task, watching Lily whisper to each of them in turn. But no one knew where Orchid had gone, and none asked for safe passage out of town.
The story continues here.
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