Chapter 37: Water Flower

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One wrinkled woman with white hair braided into an intricate bun and squinted bluish-green eyes stepped forward, bones trembling. "It has been many years since I heard that phrase." Even her voice was wrinkled.

The gentle rushing of the water seemed to boom in the hush that followed her statement. I held my breath, waiting for everything to go wrong.

Then the mountain came alive. Before I knew what was happening, several children had pelted into the water, grabbed my hands, and pulled me to the other side of the stream, and people of all ages had swarmed around me.

A tall man produced two plucked plants that looked kind of like my hazelnut blossoms.

Jack sucked in a breath beside me. "Water flowers," he said with hushed awe. "Just like Mum always told me."

"What are they?"

"Flowers with water inside. Drinking from them makes a person one with the mountain."

"One with the-"

Most of the crowd around us had quieted, and now laughed. The man before us revealed startlingly white teeth in a smile. He stood with hands held out to us, a flower resting on each palm. "Yes. That is correct. These are water flowers. Though they are also called honeysuckle." His eyes were twinkling.

"Does it really make you one with the mountain?" Jack asked, nearly quivering in his enthusiasm.

The man winked. "Guess you'll just have to see."

That was all the invitation Jack needed. He grabbed his flower and put the long strands of twisted petal into his mouth. Before this moment, I hadn't been aware that someone could suck on something solemnly. I quirked my eyebrow at him.

"Magical," he said reverently.

The crowd liked that. "Now you," said the man.

I looked at my flower. "You're telling me that water is somehow in that?"

The man laughed, but gave no other answer. The old woman had by this point made her way to us. She watched us with interest, but a different kind than the crowd. I couldn't quite make out what was different. The crowd was excited. And curious. She. . . watched intently. Looking for something in us?

I looked around at all the expectant faces, picked up the flower by a single petal, and feeling completely ridiculous, put the top part in my mouth.

It tasted vaguely sweet, and felt rubbery, despite looking so delicate. It might have looked beautiful, but it wasn't very practical. I only got a few swallows of liquid before it was dry. I lowered the honeysuckle.

An exultant cheer rose and I smiled feebly. Jack drank in their excitement like rays of sunshine. I shook my head. What had we gotten ourselves into?

"Come," said the older woman, gesturing the way she had come, and the crowd parted. "Today you eat at our table."

Jack turned to follow her, but I tried to stop him with my eyes. What if it's a trap?! But either I was terrible at communicating things silently, or Jack was terrible at interpreting silent pleas.

With no alternative, I followed.

From the way everyone nodded at the woman as she passed them, I gathered she must be important here, but could find no other proof or reason why. Back home, our watches were a symbol of status. It only took one look to see how someone fit into our society. Yet, I saw no outward mark of superiority.

Jack turned to me, obviously bursting with excitement. His dreams were literally coming true.

I hoped mine weren't true. Somehow, despite everything happening around me, I couldn't get last night's dream out of my head. The magician had said that my father traded me away for some water. Some water that could heal my mother. It couldn't be true! Could it? My father had never told me what he'd traded. What if that was because it was too horrible to admit to?

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