The last rope bridge sloped downward, but not enough to bring it all the way to the forest floor. Instead, it sloped downward just enough to rest among the branches of a tree as wide as it was tall. The diameter from the northernmost to the southernmost leaves must have matched that of a small town. The massive tree formed an expansive clearing beneath it, holding back competing trees and blocking sunlight to the plants below.
Between its boughs, countless meshes of planks and organic matter formed platforms where people lounged, worked, and played. The central crook of the tree was in sight, and had been partially hollowed out and lined with stones to form a large fire pit, above with hung a collection of spits as long as a hull of the Gladiator.
The color orange was everywhere: in the watercups that grew along the branches of the tree; in the paint coating the wood and various wooden bowls, toys, and instruments of Klima; in every single person’s clothing; and in the large banners hanging from the side of each bridge leading to the town.
“This is Klima?” Chroma gasped. “I’d seen sketches of it, but this is…enormous.”
Every tree bough must have held up to a dozen platforms, each housing a family. Beds were often hammocks swinging lazily over the hundred-foot drop. Beneath the branches, each of which were the thickness of an entire tree back on Cambia, hardy ropes and rope ladders were being lowered a dozen feet down to build even more platforms hanging from the tree.
Two were already finished, their fresh orange coating of dye and paint hosting surprisingly beautiful blotches and spots of black tar at every important point of load-bearing. Several more were under construction, their workers hanging fearlessly from the rope ladders to secure the pre-made mats of wood, thatch, and twigs.
“Oh, I was going to say ‘small,’” Klyra admitted. Chroma elbowed her in the upper arm.
“This is our root,” Zerfa told them. “There are some other trees of this kind, which are what we use for housing. I assume you use a different species for housing?”
“Um, technically we use trees for housing, yes,” Chroma told her. “But for us really any kind will do.”
“Really? These here are the only trees that have lived as long as the island itself. While the other trees in this forest live long, they do not live long enough. Maybe four generations. When they fall, there is a war among the plants of the forest to take their place in the sun.”
“Light is in high demand for the trees,” Miefe explained. “But the Living Trees are sometimes called Shadow Trees. Nothing grows beneath them. They are as constant as the mountains, sturdy as rocks.”
People in the town were beginning to glance their way. The construction of new hanging mats had stopped entirely, and the workers were ascending to the branches.
The Klimas escorting them waved to some of their friends and began herding Chroma and Klyra across the bridge, whose second half was decorated with orange dyes and paints. Both girls leaned over each edge of the bridge to catch sight of the banners. The one on the left was stained with black dye and tar to create the jagged silhouette of some sort of lizard, ferociously rearing its maw and sticking out a forked tongue. Its legs featured prominent claws, and the spine of its curving body was dotted with knife-like spindles. Orange spots had been left untouched inside its body, apparently representing a spotted pattern. The banner on the left was a deep crimson color, with green dye in the undeniable shape of a human skull in the center. The eyes of the skull were left red, and lines of watery red appeared to drip from them.
“Hmm.” Chroma pulled away from the left edge of the bridge. Her brow was furrowed, but her eyes were bright with suspicion. “Why have banners if you’re the only inhabitants of the island?”
“We’re not anymore,” Yero said simply.
“What? The banners are for us?” Klyra asked cheerfully.
Chroma shook her head and pointed to an identical copy of the green-skull banner on another bridge to their right. “The banners are for the Greens.”
Most of the Klimans were near-bald, like the guards escorting them. Older people seemed to have hair at least at chin-length, often braided or tied back in a bun or ponytail of some kind. Children were always bald. But a group of men and women collected at the end of the bridge as the entourage arrived, and all of them had hair at least shoulder-length: the council.
“Are these the Cambians?” one councilman directed his question at Zerfa and Miefe.
“Yes, we are,” Klyra intercepted quickly.
All of the council gawked at her. One councilwoman even exclaimed, “She speaks!”
A wry smile was playing at Klyra’s lips, but she was trying her best to hide it.
“You’re enjoying this a lot more than you should,” Chroma pointed out.
‘“Should’ is a relative term,” Klyra answered. “Hello, Kliman Council,” Klyra greeted them with a small bow. “My name is Klyra Rubia, translator — er, the person who learned your language — of the First Contact team.”
“My name is Princess Chroma Sona,” Chroma introduced herself again. “Leader of the First Contact team, diplomat to Klima, and second in line to the Cambian throne.”
“So the myths are true,” the same councilwoman as before spoke up. “Monarchies are real.”
“Very real,” Klyra mumbled.
“Klima still tells stories of when the stars were still in the sky?” Chroma inquired politely.
“Oh, yes,” Zerfa answered. “Yero, you may go. Organize a small raiding party to get the Cambian girl. We’ll discuss whether or not to take action in finding Yim Del.”
“Vlozd, Bomt, go to the northeast post and relieve half the men there. Have them meet me at the fire pit as soon as possible.” The soldiers were gone within seconds.
“Take note that all the soldiers appear to be men,” Chroma whispered to Klyra. “Council’s gender equal. Keep an eye out for who raises the children or maintains the…homes.”
“Oh, good catch. Gee, their gender roles are almost like Clan—”
“Cambians, we’ve been preparing for your arrival,” a councilman with hair as long as Zerfa’s greeted them. He was one of the only people apparently undaunted by the magical talking foreigners. “Plenty of food and entertainment will be at your disposal while you get settled. Zerfa, what’s this about finding a girl? What’s this about Yim Del?”
“We can discuss it with the rest of the council in private,” Zerfa replied. “Miefe, please help the Cambians to their spots. They have the dexterity of small infants, and we don’t want them falling out of the tree.” Zerfa began pushing her way through the gathered council members and then through the crowd of Klimans that had formed another rough semicircle in the crooks and boughs of the trees around them. The council began following her. No member besides the man who had greeted them had hair as long as hers.
“Wait, we would like to be included in the council meeting!” Chroma called after her.
The council members gave her odd glances, but didn’t respond.
“Council meetings are very private,” Miefe explained. “Please, Princess and…was it Klyra?”
“You’re close enough.”
“Yes, Cambians, please just relax and follow me. We’ve been working hard on the celebration ever since the Tar Merchants spotted whales out at sea. We’ll have your friend back in no time. We’ll handle everything.”
Chroma hesitated, glanced at the disappearing figures of the council members, and nodded. Miefe grinned. “Right this way.”
“So hospitable,” Klyra commented.
“Much more than the previous Cambians got,” Chroma whispered back.
“I guess they were prepared this time?”
“Or more interested in forming an alliance this time,” Chroma responded, glancing again at the red and green banner.
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Featured image from Max Pixel