“What does that mean?” somebody asked.
“Can it save our crops?” another shouted.
“That means magic is back!” the girl in the floofy skirts cried.
A murmur swept across the room. I felt my panic rising.
“It’s not magic!” I said over the babble, my voice sounding squeaky to my own ears. “It’s something new! It doesn’t do anything that magic could do.”
The feverish babble died down into a dull uncertainty, and people stared at me.
I swallowed. What is wrong with Yaika, always wanting to be the center of attention?
“When magic died, a new system replaced it,” I said carefully. I was not going to explain my role in that. When Elehel had told a crowd that she’d personally killed lucklines in order to make sunstream, three people she’d known her entire life had tried to kill her. It hadn’t helped that the blood system had still been in force then. “Magic is gone. But fireweaving now exists. And it doesn’t take an oath to use it.”
Another murmur swept across the crowd. My heart pounded faster and faster. I couldn’t tell how they felt about this.
“Is that where the burnflowers come from?” somebody asked.
My heart skipped a beat. “Yes!” I cried in relief.
“What are burnflowers?” someone asked a neighbor.
“They’re those things that burst into fire when they bloom,” the neighbor told them.
“Ohhhh. We rip those things out.”
“Well, you shouldn’t. They keep the soil warm. We’ve been able to extend our greenberries’ growing season.”
The first person’s eyebrows rose. “Really?”
“Burnflowers are connected to fireweaving,” I said loudly, so my voice would carry. “The more you keep them around, the faster fireweaving will grow in your area. If you want to be able to use it, plant a bunch of burnflowers, and fireweaving will grow. Unlike magic, fireweaving is growing stronger, so you’ll be able to use more and more of it.”
That caused a murmur of excitement.
“Then magicians will be able to do magic again?” a man asked, his eyes lighting up.
“No,” I said, struggling to keep from yelling. Hadn’t he been listening to me? “But you can use fireweaving. Anyone can use fireweaving. It doesn’t take an oath.”
“So what good is it for, anyway?” a woman demanded.
I swallowed. That was the difficult question. Even I didn’t know. The system would have to be experimented with before it became obvious what it could do for society.
“Well, it can . . . control fire . . .” I said weakly.
“Can it extend the growing season of plants, like the burnflowers do?” someone near the front asked.
“Yes,” I said in relief. “It can do anything burnflowers can do. It would just have to be supervised.”
“Can it make fires use less fuel?” a woman near the wall demanded.
“If you’re willing to make it less hot, yes. It can also make fires hotter and consume fuel faster. My grandmother uses it for cooking.”
Well, I might have been exaggerating it a bit there. So far, Grandmother and I had only tried using it for cooking once. But it had worked out well.
“I think her grandmother’s the one who’s really good at cooking,” a boy near the front whispered loudly to a friend. “The one who makes those tonna pastries.”
“Oh, those are really good,” the other boy said, licking his lips wistfully.
“Can it keep rooms warm?” a man near the back shouted.
“Absolutely,” I said. “In fact, you wouldn’t even need a fireplace. You could keep a smokeless fire by telling the flames what not to burn.”
I was particularly proud of that detail. I’d only figured it out last week. It seemed to be possible to fireproof only small bits of things.
This seemed to sail over their heads, but the questions kept on coming.
“Can you turn on or off the flame?”
“How did you do that where you held it?”
“Why aren’t your clothes scorched?”
“Can you un-scorch clothing?”
“Where did those burnflowers come from?”
“Can I grow burnflowers without seeds?”
“What kind of oath do you need to do it?”
I answered all these questions the best that I could, though I was starting to get a little impatient.
“No, but groverweed will turn into them.”
“I already told you, you don’t need one.”
“Show us how to do it,” someone challenged.
I stopped and swallowed. The man near the front who had said that had heavy brows and looked older than my father. His glare reminded me of Donnan, a vassal who lived on our land. That man was always quick to challenge anything.
“Okay,” I said, holding out my hand. It was already fireproofed — I habitually kept myself fireproofed all the time now, even in my sleep, which wasn’t difficult.
Gasps lit around the room as a small flame appeared, hovering above my hand. Most of them had already seen me throw the wad of flame into the fireplace, but somehow, this seemed to impress them more.
A girl in purple skirts with worn grey spots stepped forward, and poked her finger at it gingerly. She yelped, jumping back.
“You have to fireproof your finger first,” I said. How dumb could you be? “It’s really very simple. You just reach out and pull a shield over yourself.”
I saw several people reach out and make confused motions, trying to imitate my gesture, but not actually accomplishing it.
Great. I’d run into this problem with Yaika, too. She’d had trouble grasping the basic concept. It was like trying to explain how to use status to somebody who’d never seen it before.
“Think about a fireproof shield,” I said slowly, remembering how I’d finally made Yaika grasp it. “Something you know never catches fire. Picture it in your mind. Then imagine pulling it over yourself.”
A lot of people tried to gesture again, and I saw a few fireproof shields appear. Apparently ordinary people couldn’t see them, since nobody in my family had ever been able to tell if one was there, but I could.
“Good,” I said encouragingly. “Fireproofing is the most basic part of fireweaving. It’s the easiest thing. My grandparents got it right away.”
“Your grandparents can fireweave?” a small boy from the front said.
“Well, I’ve taught them how to fireproof,” I said.
I’d tried to teach Grandmother what to do to control the temperature of the flame, but she’d seemed to have some mental block against it. I hadn’t tried with anyone else yet except Yaika, who had left quickly after she’d figured out how to make different colors, because she’d insisted the Ruler would want to know whatever she learned as soon as she learned it.
I supposed her loyalty to the Ruler was admirable, but I personally found it quite annoying and inconvenient.
“How do I make fire appear?” a man near the side called out.
I noted that he hadn’t even made a fireproofing shield yet.
“I’m not sure how to explain that,” I hedged. No matter what, Yaika had not been able to do any more than manipulate a fire that was already there. She’d had to use touchsticks to light her practice candles and a snuffer to put them out. “I think creating fires might be one of the harder things to learn.”
I closed my hand, and the dancing wisp disappeared.
“How do you make them disappear?” another man asked from the middle of the room.
“I’m not sure how to explain that, either,” I said.
I glanced to the side and noticed Hurik pushing through the crowd to get near my side. He reached me, wedging past two girls in fluffy petal-like skirts.
“Burnflower seeds have high value,” he announced to the crowd. “A price hasn’t been decided, but there’s going to be a mathematician’s conference about it next week. Once the price is fixed, you can wait for the groverweed on your land to turn to burnflowers, or you can come and buy some seeds. We have a large supply and are happy to sell some to whoever wants them.”
I gaped at my brother.
“We have gifted some to our neighbors, so you can ask them how well they have been working,” Hurik went on firmly. “Raneh will also be willing to give fireweaving lessons to up to five apprentices at a time. Those interested can come to the Freshgrown land to apply. We will keep a waiting list, and Raneh will choose who she wishes to teach. Anyone who learns is welcome to teach anyone else they wish. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a place to be.”
He seized my arm firmly and started guiding me towards the front door.
“Hurik, what are you doing?” I hissed, as he shoved me through the crowd. His elbows brooked no nonsense, and his stride allowed no delay. “We can’t charge people for burnflowers! And I’m not ready to teach lessons!”
“Too late,” Hurik said through clenched teeth. “We need to get out of here, now.”
He pushed the latch of the front door, winced as the cold wind blew into our faces, and then quickly spun around and swept a deep bow to the crowd behind us. “May your cold season be filled with warmth and plenty,” he said formally. Then he pushed me outside with him.
People flooded out after us as we reached our carriage.
“Can we get burnflower seeds from you now?” a woman called, holding up her thick burrun skirts to keep the hem from getting wet in the snow.
“Can you show us that fireproofing again?” a man asked, hurrying after her.
Hurik tugged the lever to uncollapse the carriage. It seemed to have frosted shut.
“I can fix that,” I said, reaching out my hands.
Hurik grabbed my arm. “Don’t you dare. You make this red-hot, and we’ll never get out of here.”
“I don’t have to make it red-hot,” I said, offended.
“Yeah, but you don’t have enough control yet to be certain you won’t,” he retorted, pushing at the lever with his whole strength until it lunged forward, sending him sprawling, and the top part of the carriage flopped up.
“Is your land growing more food again?” a little boy asked at my elbow.
“Can we, um, can we do what you did?” a little girl asked, holding out her hands. Adorable black curls framed soulful eyes on her face.
“Can I get onto your waiting list now?” a girl shouted from the doorway.
Hurik mounted up into the carriage and reached his hand down to me. He pulled me up unceremoniously, slamming the door on my hem and not stopping to fix it.
“You’ll be welcome to come to the Freshgrown land for further questions anytime in the next few weeks!” Hurik called to them. “Now, please excuse us! We have somewhere to be!”
He shoved the lever behind him back, and the carriage lurched to life. The people around us reluctantly backed away.
Our carriage wheels slid across the frost-covered road until they bumped into the grooves, and then we trundled forward at much better speed.
We reached the end of the road in silence, stopped the carriage, got out, and pushed it around the corner with some difficulty. The bottom of my skirts got wet while I straightened the back wheels, which initially didn’t want to cooperate. Then we climbed back up, shut the door, and Hurik started the motor again.
“Why did we have to go so quickly?” I asked, as the carriage puttered along the frost-covered road.
“It’s a mathematician’s job to keep order, Raneh. You were about to cause chaos back there. If you’re going to start teaching people, that’s good, but you need to do it in an organized way.”
“It wasn’t disorganized,” I protested.
“Oh, yeah?” Hurik asked. “You’re going to teach people how to control fire, Raneh. What happened the first time Yaika succeeded in doing so?”
“It broke loose and destroyed two of the crates we were working on,” I said.
“Uh huh. Now imagine a room full of two hundred people, most of which were probably not fireproofed, suddenly trying it out all at once for the first time.”
A trickle of sweat collected on the back of my neck. I seized my fireproofed skirt, nervously running flame along the sodden hem to dry it out. Steam rose in tiny trickles.
“We’re going home,” Hurik said firmly. “And try not to cause any catastrophes, would you?”