For my new friends and readers, Fireborn starts here.
Over the next day, people started returning from the searches Eel had sent them on, mostly empty-handed. One surly man had a couple of samples of herbs that were so clearly different from the drawings she had made that even the children laughed at him. This did not improve his disposition, but after he was introduced as Crab, Mist had to guess that, perhaps, nothing would.
Still, she listened to his report, and all the others, treating each obviously half-hearted member of Eel’s search parties with careful respect.
It was becoming clear that she would not be able to convince anyone that accidental ingestion of odd herbs had caused the disturbances. Never mind that Eel’s chosen messengers seemed universally disdainful of the idea that something so boring might have affected their people, leaving Mist still concerned that they might have been exposed to one or more of those herbs. But she couldn’t openly question the competence or honesty of Eel's supporters.
And even the observation that no one had seen anything odd since two or three days before the school had come to Spiny Cove was not reassuring people.
People stopped coming to Mist to hear her stories of benevolent fireborns, and instead, she heard them whispering, only to have them fall silent when she drew near. Had all of her reassurances been nothing more than stories—a few days’ entertainment—to them?
Lotus sat with her at dinnertime. When people had passed from intense eating to nibbling and chatting, she leaned close and murmured softly, “Have you seen my Walnut?”
“Walnut—oh, Dragon.” Mist shook her head. “Not since yesterday before dinner.”
Lotus didn’t even scold her for using his adult name. “He’s not one to miss dinner. And now he’s missed two of them, and all the meals and potential snacks in between.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been so worried about Orchid that I didn’t notice.”
“No need to apologize. I’m amazed at how well you’ve been keeping track of who’s who when you just met all of us a few days ago.” Lotus sighed. “But people are starting to whisper that since the weird things have stopped, and he’s gone, that he must be the fireborn—or one of them.”
“One of them?” Those were not words Mist was expecting, or wanting to hear.
“One of them. People are now imagining we might have three, or five, or a double-handful of secret fireborns. And they’re blaming every bit of good or bad luck in the last year on them.”
Mist felt a wave of exhaustion wash over her. She’d devoted days to this town, days trying to undo their fear and panic, all the while trying to quiet her own fears for her missing daughter. To say nothing of the background fear for herself, a secret fireborn in a whole town of fireborn-haters. How could she possibly keep this up?
But after what Eel had said about her daughter, how could she leave, without knowing where Orchid was? Orchid could show up, looking for her, at any moment. If Mist left now, she felt certain that Eel would try to harm Orchid, if he could get his hands on her. He was too full of fear to see her leaving as anything but an admission of guilt.
Lotus set a hand on hers, comfortingly, then passed her some un-shelled koli. “These are the last of them, I’m afraid. If that trader drops by in the next day or two as he planned, and if he has any left, we’ll have to get some more.”
“Thank you.” Mist said automatically. She cracked one open, ate a section and passed the other sections on. Somehow she wasn’t hungry any more. She started simply shelling the koli, passing the sections on to whoever wanted one, her professional smile pasted on her face. She resolved to take a short flight “to stretch her wings” after dinner, and find someplace secluded enough to let her contact Nautilus again. She was ready to beg for help, both with this task and to find someone to seek out her daughter. Orchid didn’t stay mad this long—or at least, not mad enough to resist checking up on her.
A large foot landed in the sand beside her. The scale pattern running down the legs to the ankles was no surprise to Mist. Since he’d asked her where her daughter went, Eel had rarely been out of sight.
Mist nodded respectfully, but did not get up.
“Healer, could I have a word with you?”
“Certainly.” Mist stayed seated, cracking open another koli.
“I’d like to talk somewhere quieter.”
Although conversation had totally stopped, Mist nodded and stood. Mud appeared from somewhere, and took over the koli-shelling, stuffing the all of the first fruit into her mouth before starting to share sections with other people.
Eel led Mist away from the sun-shelters, walking fast. When they came to the spit of sand where they’d spoken the first day, he started to pace. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, about the nofiera.”
“I hope you’re giving up on that plan.” Mist saw a log under an overhanging tree, and sat down, hoping that the shade would tempt him to sit too.
He walked back and forth, then squatted in the sand in front of her, a prettily-carved wooden cup in his hand. “My people are starting to imagine there are many fireborns among them. And they’re scared. I don’t like the way they’re starting to talk. And I don’t want any innocent in my town hurt if people panic.”
“You are a powerful leader. If you stopped acting afraid of fireborns, so would they.”
He laughed. “I don’t have that kind of power over my people’s minds. And fireborns are dangerous. But you’ll be glad to know I’ve been listening to you. I believe some of your words, at least, are wise.”
“I’ve decided that testing everyone at the same time is a bad idea. You convinced me of that.” He came to sit beside her. “There are many dangerous things that we use every day.” He took a sip from the cup and passed it to her companionably.
The liquid in the cup was brown, and had a strong, unpleasant scent of many herbs. Mist wasn’t sure what was in the cup. “But you still want to test people?”
“Of course. It’s necessary.”
“And then what?”
“Anyone identified as a fireborn must leave.”
Mist sighed. “I told you that nofiera does not identify fireborns. Many people with no fireborn talent at all get really sick from that poison. Are you going to send away everyone who gets sick?”
He nodded, then waved toward her hand, “You aren’t sharing my drink.”
Mist pretended to sniff it, and let her nose wrinkle. “No offense, but I don’t think I’d like it.” She handed it back to him. Suddenly, she wished she’d accidentally spilled it instead.
“Try it. It’s my mother’s recipe.” He tilted it toward her mouth, not letting go of the cup, this time.
“No, thank you.” She tensed, suddenly wanting to leap away from him into the air, but realized there was no room to get airborn under the tree she’d chosen.
He leaned over, suddenly wrapping his long arm around her and gripping her wing painfully in the elbow joint. “I need you to drink this. It’s nothing personal, but the safety of my people is at stake.”
Suddenly there was another man behind her, burly, with light blue skin. He pinned her wings against his chest and the Mayor shifted his grip, forcing her mouth open.
She kicked him in the groin, to no apparent effect. Perhaps she hadn’t kicked the right spot. Or the tail provided more protection than she thought. He grabbed her foot with one hand, forcing her legs together, then held them down with long, very strong toes. Then he forced the liquid into her.
She spluttered and coughed as much as she could back out of her mouth, but she was already starting to feel nauseous and disoriented.
When the cup was empty, he stepped back, but the blue-skinned man was still holding her firmly.
“Assaulting a healer isn’t wise, you know.”
“Oh, but I didn’t do that. I took steps to make sure my people aren’t harmed by a secret fireborn. We’ll just sit here and talk a while, while I see if you get sick or not. If you don’t, you can help me watch over my people when I test them.”
“I’ll get sick, all right. But that doesn’t mean I’m fireborn.”
“Well, that’s just what a fireborn would say, isn’t it?”
“What I’ve been telling you is the truth! Nofiera is a poison, and it affects everyone. Not just fireborns.”
“Then why do some people just feel a little drunk, while others puke their guts out and moan for days?”
“You might as well ask why some people break out in hives when they touch blue ivy, and others don’t. People are different.” Mist closed her eyes, and fought the urge to heave.
He watched quietly for a while, then leaned in toward her. “I wondered, with all your bright words about fireborn healers, about knowing Nautilus, and all. But I really didn’t suspect you until you sent your daughter off on some secret mission, and then tried to make me think my own people were untrustworthy.”
“I didn’t—” Mist closed her mouth, trying to look less sick than she was, trying to keep her wits about her despite the drug.
“Don’t worry.” He leaned in toward her, “We’ll find the girl, and I’m sure she’ll be willing to tell us what she knows.”
Mist couldn’t hold it in any longer, and puked in his face.
He wiped his mouth angrily. “You’re going to regret that.”
“You fed me that stuff!” It was his own fault, but Mist couldn’t even articulate that well.
He didn’t bother to respond to her words. “Tie her up, Crab, while I wash this mess off of me. Then we can go eat dinner. We can question her later, when her stomach’s empty.”
At the word dinner, her stomach spasmed again. Still heaving, she was dropped to the sand. She tried to get to her feet, and spread her wings so she could take off, but it was hard to even get upright. Her sense of down kept shifting, and reluctantly she concluded that if she tried to fly right now, she might fly right into the ground. Soon, her hands were tied behind her, to one part of the stump she’d been sitting on, and her feet to the other end. They didn’t even take the time to wash the vomit off of her. The only blessing was they didn’t gag her.
No, she thought groggily, that’s not right. The biggest blessing was that Orchid was mad at her, and had flown off somewhere, and was safe from Eel.
She held tight to that thought, to the image of Orchid flying safe, high above the trees and water, and far from Eel’s influence.
The story continues here.
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