The two hulls of the boat shakily ground to a halt on the shell-littered, gravely shore. Flor’s sandals landed on the uneven pile a moment later as she strained to bring the Gladiator further inland.
Chroma and Klyra hopped down from the back to help push from behind, the salty water up to their knees, then their ankles, and then only gurgling beneath the pebbles. Chroma stared ahead at the towering, gray-and-blue mountains ringing the island. In fact, the shore they were standing on appeared to be merely an extension of the round-topped mountains. Rain clouds were rising and breaking around the bend, many parts of the clouds making it over the top to let loose on the inside of the large bowl.
When they had all pushed the ship far enough from the water, settling it inside a semicircle of boulders to shelter it, Chroma glanced back at the water. Barely visible on the horizon was the pod of orcas, disappearing into the noon sky.
“So, to the Cloud Crest?” Klyra prompted, coming to stand beside Chroma. Her bright yellow rain jacket remained on her shoulders; Chroma wore a light traveling cloak, whereas Flor hadn’t added anything to her silky, gossamer-thin garments.
Chroma looked down and noticed that Klyra was holding her Tulu Thelt underneath her right arm. “I guess since we have everything with us already.”
Crunching footsteps behind them signaled that Flor was already trekking counter-clockwise around the island, toward the lowest mountains where the clouds were cresting. Chroma sighed and hurried to walk alongside her. Klyra followed behind more slowly.
“So, what’s the briefing on this place, again?” Klyra prompted.
“You didn’t read the briefing?” Chroma asked, not looking particularly surprised.
“You didn’t study all the discovered islands?” Flor interjected, unamused.
“Yes, I did and no, I didn’t, respectively,” Klyra told them. “I’d just like a reminder on Klima in particular. I remember they’re science-oriented, and have some weird treehouse architecture.”
“Yes, the famous Weird Treehouse Architects of Klima,” Flor commented.
“We’ve made contact with them twice so far,” Chroma added. “They refused our offer to learn how to sail, so it’s the most unexplored of the discovered islands. Yes, science-oriented. Yes, they’re well-integrated with the rainforest. Their government is representational and egalitarian, their medicine is advanced, and their language is undocumented.”
“Not for long,” Klyra promised.
“That’s the spirit,” Chroma praised, a small smile of relief appearing on her lips. “And you remember the Cloud Crest?”
“Hard to forget the reason there’s a jungle inside a giant mountain-bowl,” Klyra answered.
Within minutes, they’d reached the base of the Cloud Crest, where the ground was bathed in shadow and a small stream flowed down to the sea. A ravine of waterfalls had begun to form, bordered with vegetation as dense as the ground itself. Along the edges, where sunlight still touched the flowing rainwater, a hundred rainbows formed in the spray of a hundred miniature waterfalls. Flor immediately leapt upon the stair-like structure of weathered boulders overgrown with moss and sprinkled with the remains of fallen trees. With catlike skill, she began to clamber up the shadowy, black, gray, rainbow, and green trail, the clear, light flow of water dragging at her sandals.
Chroma hurriedly scrambled up after her. Klyra tested the water and recoiled. “That’s so cold!”
Flor continued climbing, but Chroma glanced back. Her hands and feet were submerged in the shallow running water, but she spared a hand to wave at Klyra. “It’ll be fine! Very few of the travelers from before fell.”
“Well that’s reassuring,” Klyra commented, shifting her heavy jacket and potted plant gingerly and setting a sandaled foot down on a large, relatively shallow rock. “Isn’t it slippery?”
“Not really. Just keep four point of contact on the rocks at all times,” Chroma said, immediately retracting the arm she’d been using to wave to Klyra.
“Hard to do that with her Thelt,” Flor commented. She was sitting at a dry spot atop a small waterfall a few meters up. The thick brush clawed at her back, so she held onto the ledge with white knuckles.
“Don’t go too far ahead,” Chroma warned her. “I can hear you fine now, but we need to be able to communicate.”
“I know that,” Flor answered, irritated.
Suddenly, a hand appeared behind her head and covered her mouth with a green cloth. Flor struggled as she was roughly pulled into the bushes behind her.
“Flor!” Chroma and Klyra exclaimed simultaneously.
Chroma lunged up towards the area where Flor had disappeared, but her footing slipped, and a moment later she plunged into a small pool of water two meters below. When she resurfaced, gasping for air and pulling herself away from the waterfall behind her, men were coming out of the thick brush just above her. Their green tunics were scratched and ridden with twigs, leaves, and mud; their skin was plastered with various shades of green body paint; and they all held long hunting knives at their sides. Flor wasn’t anywhere in sight, and she wasn’t yelling out for help.
“Klyra! Translate!” Chroma yelled over her shoulder, swimming to the middle of the pond and not taking her eyes off of her assailants. “KLYRA?”
Chroma pulled her eyes away from the men for a moment to see Klyra running away from the base of the falls, kicking up sand behind her.
“KLYRA!” Chroma roared hoarsely as a splash sounded nearby. She jumped back against the edge of the pool, eyes wide. Her brows had been high with fear, but now gave way to knitted confusion as the man who had just entered the water splashed past her to clamber out of the other side of the pool, to her right. A few other men were glancing around in confusion, and their eyes darted toward the sky as they heard a sharp kaw. One man yelled and pointed a finger at the silhouetted shape of a bird abovehead.
Chroma turned her head to the left at the sound of a human hiss. A shirtless child was crouching in the brush behind the men, and waved at her to come.
When the bird once against swooped down to bat at the heads of the men, some of whom were ducking into the brush, and some of whom were waving their knives at the air, Chroma made a dash for the bushes, first hauling herself out of the water and then clambering over to the child as quickly as she could.
The child turned around and dove into the foliage as Chroma frantically followed. The shouting behind them faded almost instantly as Chroma followed the child’s path through the growth, slightly uphill. Finally, between the brown and green brushes snagging at her body and hair, they came to a grove overtaken by the shade of the canopy of a single large tree. The ground was flatter, and Chroma had no trouble sprinting after the child as it deftly leapt between the gray, low-hanging branches to reach the safety of the bows. Chroma clambered up with ease and then held still as the child covered her mouth with a single, tan hand.
Mere moments later, the men came tramping through the area. They paused at the clearing, but continued on their way, hunting. Chroma visibly relaxed.
The child opened its mouth and began to speak, but Chroma stared at it blankly. “Um…”
The child stopped once it realized its efforts were futile. It began climbing out of the tree, and Chroma followed it more slowly. The child led Chroma back through their foliage path towards the beach, where they found Klyra waiting at the base of the falls.
Chroma narrowed her eyes and sped up to reach Klyra before the child did.
“There you are!” Klyra exclaimed. She was holding out a small, shallow wooden cup with some sort of colored liquid in it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Chroma demanded.
“Translating,” Klyra answered, motioning for them to come down. “Here, have the native kid spit in this tea for a second.”
“You ran away!” Chroma yelled back down, not budging.
“To make my translation tea,” Klyra shot back. “But it’s not going to work if a native speaker doesn’t spit it in. Now get down here so we can show the kid how it’s done.”
Chroma paused, eyeing both Klyra’s defiant expression and the wooden cup in her hands. She sighed, and then motioned for the child to follow her on the slow trek down.
Klyra bent down and held out the cup of liquid for the child to see, and then spat in it. She then held it up to the child’s face. The kid seemed to be questioning her sanity.
“Chroma, spit in the cup,” Klyra insisted. “Show her how it’s done.”
Chroma rolled her eyes, but then bent down and spat in the tea. She motioned from the child to the cup invitingly.
Hesitantly, the child leaned forward and spat in the cup, eyes shifting between Klyra and Chroma uncertainly.
Once the spit was in, Klyra retracted the bowl and swirled it about, mixing in the saliva until it was completely homogenous with the rest of the mixture. Then she pressed the cup to her lips and drank half. She held out the rest for Chroma, who took it and drank most of the rest.
“Testing, testing — one, two, three,” Klyra said.
The little girl jumped back a good two feet, eyes widened at Klyra in shock.
“How exactly does this work?” Chroma inquired. “Do we get her to drink it, too?”
“You can speak?” the little girl hissed in disbelief.
“No need. We’re already speaking her language,” Klyra replied.
Chroma glanced between the little girl and her friend with astonished eyes. “What? That’s it? We just drink tea and can speak her language now?”
“Yep! Now you see why your parents wanted me to come along,” Klyra responded. “Sorry if I scared you by running off, but I didn’t think we’d run into anyone this quickly. I didn’t have my tea at the ready yet.”
“That’s incredible!” Chroma exclaimed. “Why do we even bother with other translators when we have this?”
“Oh, well, we can speak to people, but understanding each other is really only half of what we need from a linguist.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, knowing how to communicate with someone is fine, but you really need an outside look in the language to get a good grip on customs, idioms, mindsets, register, what’s insulting and what’s not. Really a lot of things that still need documenting. You never really understand a language until you haven’t understood it.”
Chroma stared at Klyra blankly.
“Excuse me,” the little girl said shyly. “Who are you? Why can you speak our language?”
Chroma knelt down on one knee, smiling softly at the child. “We’re from Cambia. My name is Princess Chroma Sona, and this is my translator, Klyra Rubia. We can speak to you because of her.
“Where we come from, every person has two powers. Normally, that’s one from your mom and one from your dad. But sometimes a power changes slightly in a new generation. Klyra can make us understand each other with her power, see? We can understand…” Chroma blinked in confusion. “What is your language called?”
“What do you mean?” the girl asked.
“Ah, see there’s one thing that gets lost when your translation is too good,” Klyra interrupted, coming to sit beside Chroma. “I bet I know what’s going on: their language doesn’t have a name because it’s the only language they’ve ever known. They haven’t got other languages to compare it to: you either speak or you don’t.”
Chroma straightened her back. “Like us before we learned to sail.”
“Precisely,” Klyra answered. “The Klimans don’t think we speak another language: they think we can’t speak at all.”
The little girl still seemed confused, but she joined the others in sitting down. “My name is Yim Del.”
“Yim Del?” Chroma repeated. “Nice to meet you.”
A shadow passed over head, and Yim Del held up one arm, elbow slightly bent. Within less than a moment, a feathery, black lump had landed on Yim Del’s arm, clutching it tightly.
Chroma and Klyra fell back in astonishment. The creature was very clearly not a bird, but some kind of flying reptile. Its limbs were short and gaunt, with little more than a layer of skin covering up five claws. A long, thin tail lightly covered in feathers helped it keep its balance on Yimdel’s arm, as its forelimbs were tucked into its sides, leathery flaps of skin connecting them to its torso. Its face was extremely reptilian, with a flat head like a lizard’s. Its eyes were small and shrunken into its head.
“This is Femdizga,” Yimdel explained, stroking the creature’s head with two forefingers. The thing pressed its head closer into her palm. “He’s a Skyblind.”
“A Skyblind?” Chroma repeated curiously, stretching out a palm for the animal to sniff. It obliged and didn’t seem afraid of Chroma, so she set to work stroking its head in the same manner Yimdel had. “Interesting.”
“Would you like to pet him?” Yimdel offered Klyra.
“I think I’m good,” Klyra replied. “Besides, we have a teammate to rescue.”
Yimdel frowned. “It’ll be hard to get your friend back from the Greens. But they may trade you for her.
Without being prompted Yimdel continued, “The Greens are new. We Klimans used to all be together, until you came.”
Klyra and Chroma exchanged worried glances.
“When I was little, we were told to never go beyond the mountains: it wasn’t allowed, but we also didn’t know how. Then, your people came and showed us how to do it. And it was safe. When we explored the beach, we found Build Weed. Build Tar is stronger than anything and let us build lots of homes and keep away the jungle creatures, but to make it we have to burn it, and that makes fumes. The fumes are bad, and they can’t leave past the mountains — it’s like water in a bowl. We know this, but we do it anyway. The Greens want to stop it and use Skyblind Tar instead because it’s natural and we don’t need to burn it.”
“So…the Greens are good guys?” Chroma prompted.
Yimdel shook her head. “Everyone knows that Build Tar is bad, but the merchants who make it are rich and give everyone stuff. So no one listens. The Greens got frustrated, and now they attack people. They’re criminals. They destroy things build with Build Tar. And they kidnap people for trade.”
“But why would they attack us?” Chroma asked. “We’re not a part of this. We’re absolutely willing to listen.”
“Because you came here to make an alliance with the Kliman Council, right?”
“So what do you think they’ll ask for in return?”
Chroma took a deep breath and glanced at Klyra. “They’ll want us to destroy the Greens.”
α α α
Featured image from Vittorio Staffoloni at Pexels.com