The rest of the day was pretty quiet, which did not help Mist's mood any. She had lots of time to look for Orchid, and worry about her. The older boys had been sent off fishing, and when Mist tried following the directions Lotus gave her, she couldn’t see them from the air. Which either meant that they were deep underwater or had taken a typical teenage option--heading in the direction they wanted to, rather than the one their elders had chosen.
She flew here and there, helping people with tasks, answering questions, trying to calm fears. No one knew where Orchid was, and by the end of the day, she didn’t even have to ask. The grownups all volunteered that they hadn’t seen her, offering sympathy or scolding her that she shouldn’t let such a baby fly free. Patiently, she told each person that Orchid wasn’t as young as they thought, and assured them that Orchid wouldn’t get lost anywhere within two days’ flight of Sunlit Aerie, much less within Sunlit’s territory. And then she thanked them for their sympathy.
Coral was doing well; Minnow was fussy, so maybe it had been too soon for breastfeeding. Or maybe he just liked the taste of the milk substitute; he didn’t seem sleepy at all.
The boys came back with fish and clams and lobsters, and settled into the kitchen tent with the women, cleaning fish and snacking on fruit. Dragon was busy telling a tale about his adventures catching the lobsters; from the way the other boys were rolling their eyes, it was much-embellished. Mist settled down with another basket of koli, and asked Shark if he knew where Orchid had gone.
“I saw her flirting with Dragon yesterday. Then she took the grass we’d gathered and flew back here. Didn’t she make it?”
“Oh, so that’s why the bales of grass were sitting in front of this tent instead of where they belong.” Lotus aimed a playful hand at Shark’s head, missing by inches. “You boys got help for your work, and didn’t even tell the poor girl where to put the stuff.”
Shark ducked, grinning. “She was talking to Dragon, not to me!”
“And his name’s not Dragon. Not yet.”
“It would be if we’d gone to Rainbow Cove on schedule last year.”
Mist determined to ask Dragon about Orchid, as soon as he was finished with his story. But in the meantime, she looked at Lotus. “Do you go to Rainbow Cove every year?”
Lotus nodded. “We did, ever since Eel first started courting Starfish. He was quite smitten, you know. There was some fuss about it all, between the younger women. Unmarried mayors are generally considered quite a catch, and he’s certainly handsome.”
Although Mist had to acknowledge the Mayor had good bone structure, she did not find him handsome. But she refrained from sharing that thought. Instead she glanced at the younger women preparing the meal, who all nodded, some blushing.
“We went several times a year while he was courting her. My eldest, Blossom, married one of their weavers there, a gentle man named Spider.” Lotus smiled.
“So, what happened?”
Lotus shook her head. “I don’t know. Something happened that last trip.”
“Lily said there was some emergency back in town?”
“Yes. Eel said there was one. He bustled us all right out of there with no warning.” Lotus picked up some beans and walked over, sat next to Mist. “Healer, you know some things are best kept quiet.”
Lotus started snapping the beans and lowered her voice. “We got back to find two of Eel’s deputies arguing about something stupid. They made a huge deal of it, and it distracted people. But it wasn’t a real emergency. I never did hear of any real emergency that justified cutting off my visit with my new grandbaby.”
Mist gave her a measured look and popped another koli open. “People talk to you.”
“They do, don’t they?”
“And you never heard anything?”
“Well, the deputies were best friends again a month later. And Eel sent Skimmer swimming ahead of the school—not exactly the person you’d send to fix an emergency or an argument.”
“So, you think the argument was just a distraction.”
Lotus nodded. “I miss—I miss this elbow not hurting, Healer.”
“How long has it hurt?” Mist tried to follow the sudden change of topic naturally.
“Oh, about as long as that girl of yours has been alive, I’d guess. My mother had joint pain too.”
Mist wasn’t surprised to see the mayor’s muscular foot landing in the sand beside her. For the first time she noticed that his tattoos didn’t run only down his legs, but went over the ankles and down the feet, all the way to the small toes. Of course, those toes were usually buried in sand.
“Healer, have you found your girl?”
Mist cracked another koli open and looked up at him. “No, but thank you for asking, Mayor.”
“I’ll have my people watch for her.”
Of course he would. They were watching for Orchid already, so he had to present it as his idea. Still, Mist limited herself to a polite, “Thank you.” She reminded herself that the man had a daughter Orchid's age. That he honestly tried to take care of his people. But after his earlier private comment about her sending her daughter off on a secret errand, his public concern rang false in her mind. But maybe he had reconsidered. “I appreciate that, Mayor. Your people have all been very kind, despite their worries.”
The expression on his face warmed. “They’re good people, mostly. It’s an honor to lead them.” He smiled at the working women, and Mist noted several blushed. Then he stalked off.
Mist couldn’t help thinking he’d shown up to volunteer help when lots of his people were around so that it would maintain his image.
Dragon plopped down in the sand in front of her, knocking over the pile of koli shells. “Oh, sorry.” He started to pick them up, glancing over his shoulder to follow Eel’s progress as he walked down the beach. When Eel leaned over to discuss something with a man in the water, Dragon turned his attention back to Mist. “Orchid’s missing?”
“Well, she’s not here, anyway.”
Dragon blushed, deeply enough that she could see it despite his dark skin. “I was hoping to see her at dinner last night. You didn’t—you didn’t send her home?”
He was silent for a moment, obviously choosing his words. “Well, she was all for helping you, last time I saw her.” He grabbed a section of koli fruit. “And the mayor—well, he says fireborns are dangerous. I thought you might have sent her to safety.” He popped a section of koli into his mouth.
“No, fireborns aren’t as scary as all that.” Mist waited until she saw him swallow to ask the question that mattered most to her. “Do you know which way she went?”
“Huh? Oh, I thought she was trying to talk with all the kids. Tell us we could trust you.” He looked down, then stood up suddenly. “I thought she might just be avoiding me. “
“Avoiding you? Why?” Lotus glared at him.
“Well, I—I kind-of laughed at her.” He spread his hands. “I think all this fireborn stuff is nonsense, and I told her so.”
Mist nodded. “You could be right. It could just be hallucinations caused by one of the herbs I drew for the Mayor, or someone trying to stir up trouble.”
“Yeah, but—“ Dragon looked miserable.
Lotus smiled at him. “You can apologize when you see her again.”
Mist nodded. “If she’d been really mad at you, she wouldn’t have carried that grass back here for you.”
His face brightened. “She did do that, didn’t she? I—um, I’ll go look for her.” He headed off toward where some of the men were checking the ties on one of the large rafts.
Lotus patted Mist on the knee. “See? She’s not still angry with you. She probably just wants to prove herself to you.
“She doesn’t need to prove herself to me!”
“Ah, but at that age, kids need to prove themselves, no matter how much faith you have in them. It’s part of growing up.”
Mist nodded. That was so true. But knowing that didn’t make not knowing where Orchid had gone any easier. She looked across the beach to where Dragon was helping some of the men mend a raft, and wondered if he knew more than he was telling. He had seemed so awkward talking to her, but all teens were awkward on and off. “Lily mentioned Dragon to me,” she said.
“Oh?” Lotus waited patiently while Mist broke two more koli open.
“She said Dragon should pretend he was fireborn and have me take him to get his tattoos, and everything here would calm down.”
Lotus laughed. “He might do that, if he were welcome back after. But he wouldn’t be.”
Mist remembered some of her classmates, crying themselves to sleep for days, and again on holidays. At least Orchid would always be welcome at home, whether or not she had the talent. Then Mist shook her head—Orchid had no way to know that, yet. For the first time, Mist felt an urgent need to tell Orchid about that part of her family’s heritage. If only she had listened to her fireborn friends and told Orchid last year. She scanned the empty skies, hands idle on the bowl of un-shelled koli, and sighed heavily.
Lotus patted her on the knee. “We’re all watching for her.”
“I know. Thank you.” Mist settled back to the task at hand, her eyes still focused upward.
The story continues here.
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