Navigating the blackish branches of the Shadow Tree was like navigating a construction site on a mountain side. The branches were never level, never predictable, and certainly not evenly spaced out. After a minute of Chroma and Klyra desperately crawling across a thin, steep branch on their hands and knees, with onlookers giggling shamelessly at them, Miefe decided to take them a more circuitous route that took them across much wider, level branches. It was much more like walking across the log bridge at the beginning of the forest, with the occasionally added bonus of hanging vines, watercup vines, a home mat to walk over (privacy was obviously not at a premium), or rope ladders leading up to a higher branch.
Finally, they came to a particularly bumpy branch where several seat-like crevices had been hollowed out, and they sat alongside Miefe. They weren’t too far from the leaf-shrouded platform where the council was meeting, and the soldiers could be seen heading out from the central fire pit in the crook of the tree below to the right.
“I guess this is your version of chairs, eh?” Klyra asked Miefe.
“What is a chair?”
“Never mind. You have seats hollowed out in the trunk?”
“Oh, yes, this is where we keep our sick and injured.”
Chroma took her hands away from where they had been resting on the seat, deciding instead to keep her hands in her lap.
Within a few minutes, a woman was standing on a particularly large, taught platform in plain view of their seats, addressing them and the crowd of locals that had gathered around. “People of Klima, it is my honor to welcome our Cambian visitors and friends!” she announced.
A round of cheering broke out, and men and women dressed in billowing pink costumes assumed the platform that had become a sort of stage. The platform shook and swung with their arrival, but they seemed nonplussed.
“The feast is almost ready, but for now please enjoy a dance normally performed only on Star Day!”
While Chroma and Klyra were wondering what holiday Star Day was, the children of the tree broke out into joyful screams, and the dancers in pink began their elegant movements, most of which included standing and spinning on the ball of one foot, leaping over each other, and men lifting women up to spin them in the air, throw them up, and catch them again. All still over that hundred foot drop.
“Why would they call their holiday Star Day?” Chroma asked suspiciously.
“That is an excellent question,” Klyra responded. “The stars are gone here, too, right? They have the same legends of them we have?”
“Oh, yes,” Miefe answered for her. “The stars in the sky used to form the shapes of strange animals from strange lands, many of which have long died out. We celebrate Star Day to remember the creatures that no longer walk among us, but for the children it normally just means dressing up as extinct beasts.”
“But how do you know what animals the stars used to form, or what they look like?”
“Oh, we still have maps of the stars left over from our ancestors. I could show you sometime.”
“Maps of the stars…” Chroma and Klyra glanced at each other.
“We would be delighted.” Chroma smiled.
Amidst it all two men came to sit on either side of the Cambians and Miefe, so that five of the six seats on that bough had been taken up. The two men wore loose-fitting, black robes and laurels made of seashells. Around the width of their heads, the shells were exclusively tellina shells, pure white in the back and slowly fading into hues of pink and purple as they approached the temples. But at the forehead, there was a sort of headpiece, with the main attraction being a large, reddish scallop shell flanked by two small, auger snail shells of varying colors.
“Who has access to shells here?” Klyra whispered suggestively in Chroma’s ear.
Chroma nodded. “I didn’t expect the tar merchants to wear black,” she said loudly to the merchant sitting to her right. The man’s hair was down to his shoulders, and not tied back in a bun.
“And why is that, Princess Chroma Sona?”
“Black symbolizes death in our culture.”
“What a strange culture! When someone dies, they are red or gray. Black is the color of tar, the color of wealth.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met…”
“Ah, my name is Zunnel, a simple tar merchant and nothing more.”
“Is ‘simple tar merchant’ an oxymoron?” Klyra whispered to Chroma, who elbowed her in the ribs — gently, but only because she wasn’t looking forward tossing her translator over a hundred-foot drop.
“I was more in the line of wondering how you knew my name. Or what a princess is.”
“Ah, we were just speaking with the council. They filled us in on your arrival.”
“I see. You’re close to the council members?”
“Of course! They buy tar all the time to help with projects like giant stages.” Zunnel indicated to where the dancers were still going. Now, some man sitting in the center of the platform was playing a stringed, wooden instrument with a smaller rod made of string and a stick. Dancers gracefully leapt over him without a care.
“Have they ever fallen?” Chroma asked.
“Well, obviously not the ones we’re watching right now,” Klyra commented, which was greeted with another elbow from Chroma.
“It occasionally happens, and it’s a big concern,” Zunnel admitted. “Which is why we keep building sturdier platforms. All the creations you see around you wouldn’t be possible without tar. The strings on that man’s bow would come undone, the banners would fall apart, and that platform would have a chance of breaking, with the dancers on it.”
Chroma met his words with silence, and continued watching the show.
The next thing they knew, the dancers were bowing, adults were clapping, and young children were carrying bowls of stew out to Klimans all over the tree. Dozens of skillful, grinning young faces, overjoyed by simply being helpful. Many of them raced each other to see who could deliver the most wooden bowls to the various homes on a bough. Many children even intercepted the recipients of the meal by giving bowls to the residents of a platform that dangled between two branches, stealing the opportunity of the children on the other branch from delivering the food. Chroma chuckled as she watched.
A young boy balancing four bowls on his arms — one in each hand and two hovering between his arms like the platforms around them, fearlessly scampered up the thick, black bough to reach them. He beamed with pride as he held out a bowl for Zunnel to take, and then grinned sheepishly as he delicately offered one to Chroma.
“Hello,” Chroma greeted the little boy in his tidy, loose, yellowish costume. These kids weren’t all dressed up earlier. Must be for our sake, she mused.
The little boy didn’t respond, but instead leaped behind and past her as quickly as possible to avoid the social interaction. He hurriedly shoved a bowl at Klyra and then another at Miefe next to her. He sprinted back at a startling speed towards the fire pit.
“I see you made a friend,” Zunnel commented.
“I see your children tend to be shy.”
“It’s only one boy. Personalities vary.”
Meanwhile, Klyra had tasted her stew. “Hmm, tastes just like chicken.”
“Like what?” Miefe inquired.
“Nevermi —” Klyra began to say, but she interrupted herself with a gag. She started coughing and fanning herself with her own hand, panting. Her eyes were visibly watering.
“I take it it’s spicy,” Chroma prompted.
Klyra was nodding, still desperately fanning herself despite curious glances from their three neighbors.
“Pretty common in warm climates. Helps preserve food where they have no ice, salt, or vinegar,” Chroma considered, spooning at her soup curiously.
“You could have told me before.”
The boy was returning now, delayed behind a slow-walking man in a bright orange tunic. His face looked young, but his chin-length hair was graying. There were dark circles under his eyes, but he smiled kindly at them as he walked by to sit on the other side of the second merchant, farthest away from Zunnel. He began mumbling under his breath. The little boy handed him and the second merchant their bowls, but the new man didn’t eat.
The boy glanced back at the fire pit and then to the merchant he was next to. After a moment of hesitation, he tapped the merchant on the shoulder. The merchant started a bit, but then set his bowl down to see what the child wanted.
“Excuse me, sir,” the child said shyly. “Could I have some tar?”
The merchant seemed surprised. “What do you need it for?”
“I’ve been wanting to learn to play that instrument for the Star Day Dance, but the player says he’ll only teach me if I can make my own.”
“Where are your parents? I’m sure we could work something out with them.”
“I already asked them, sir. They said we can’t afford any right now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry but I can’t give you tar unless you trade for it,” the merchant replied, seeming genuinely sorry. “But I’ll be happy to get you some once your parents come across better times.”
“But the player says he’s returning to his town in a few days.”
“I’m really sorry but my hands are tied. The guild trades all of its tar as one, and I can’t break the oath without everything going to chaos. Perhaps a friend of yours could loan you some?”
“Oh, wait, hold on,” Klyra interrupted, her mouth finally healed enough to have stopped panting. She was still wiping sweat away from her face, though luckily her short hair didn’t cling to her skin. She was twisting around, checking inside the various pockets of her enormous yellow coat, which she was still wearing for some ungodly reason in this heat. “I’ve got some tar.”
“Where did you get tar?” Chroma demanded, exasperated.
“From the caves, of course, where else?” Klyra finally removed her hand from a pocket, revealing a small leather pouch whose sides were crusted with a gray, sticky substance, mostly around the opening. “There, take as much as you want, but you have to promise me to bring the pouch back.”
The little boy gasped behind a huge smile, and took the leather pouch with wide eyes, as if he had just come across some magical item. Chroma smiled a bit at that, remembering her own excitement when her uncle had brought home foreign trinkets for her from his voyages. How nice it would be to get excited so easily again…
“That’s Bat Tar,” the merchant hissed, glaring at Klyra as the little boy ran back towards the crook of the tree.
“Yep! I hear it’s cheaper, safer, and has less impact on the forest.”
The merchant snorted angrily. “Don’t buy into such nonsense. The idiots lying about —”
“Relax, relax,” Zunnel told his friend. “They’re new here, they’re practically children. We’ll tell them after the entertainment is over.”
“Actually,” the man sitting beside the second merchant interrupted — Miefe was still eagerly scarfing down his stew. The man in orange had stopped muttering to himself and was now holding up an apologetic finger as he butted into the conversation. “The impact of Building Tar on the jungle is a serious issue.”
Zunnel looked murderous, but said nothing. He didn’t need to: the man was silent a moment later. “You’ll hear about it in my presentation,” he mumbled.
“Presentation?” Chroma grinned.
As if on cue, the announcer woman from before took the stage again and introduced a hefty woman whose steps caused the platform to creak and shutter as much as the dancers had, her weight augmented by the layers upon layers of colorful, mismatched feathers that she wore. Chroma and Klyra knew this couldn’t possibly be another dance, so their interest was piqued.
“That’s one of our most versatile singers,” Miefe bragged. “There are many different forms of song here, and she knows all of them. So you get to hear all of them!”
When the singer first opened her mouth, Chroma and Klyra were surprised to find that uncanny birdsong came out. As the woman went through the songs of different birds, she touched to where their feathers were kept in her enormous, draping dress. Around the end of her song, she sped up, switching between different calls as if the birds were having a conversation with each other. The children in the audience were going wild, and Klyra’s face was completed covered in the signs of joy: lips pulled back in a smile, eyes opened ever so slightly more, wrinkled around the sides of her eyes, brows up in shock.
The audience clapped as she finished her birdsong, and then things changed entirely. The noises coming out of her mouth now formed human words, but it would either like she was permanently yawning or wailing in grief. The audience appeared to be losing interest as her tones grew higher and higher. Chroma and Klyra shifted uncomfortably as the singer reached a pitch so high that they could barely contain their grimaces. Finally, the woman held a note so high and echoing that all other sounds in the jungle stopped. Klyra gasped as she heard a the sound of glass shattering from within one of the pockets of her great yellow coat.
The woman finished, taking a bow as the audience erupted in applause — the Cambians weren’t sure if they were applause of awe or of relief. Chroma watched as Klyra untied the drawstring to her pocket and stuck her hand inside. She recoiled immediately, shaking her hand in pain and closing the drawstring again. Chroma saw that a few flecks of blood coated her index finger.
“Her voice broke the glass!” Klyra hissed as the singer began yet another type of song.
“Wow, she must have really hit that resonance frequency. Wait, why was there glass in your coat?”
“It was a fancy case for my deck of cards…”
“Why do you need a deck of cards?”
“Hey, you never know…” Klyra trailed off. But then she gasped, staring behind Chroma down the tree branch. “Flor!”
Three people were walking towards them: Flor, clad in pink, loose, gossamer-like clothes that seemed perfectly suited to the climate; a bald-shaven little girl bearing a bowl of food for her; and a nearly-bald soldier escorting her back. Unlike Chroma and Klyra, however, Flor didn’t seem to need any help traversing the branches. She strode barefoot across the bough, hands at her side, as if she were walking across a wooden deck. She made a small smile of greeting as she approached, heading right towards the Cambians, but the tar merchants and Miefe immediately stood to intercept her:
“Ah, this is the famous Flor Rosa!”
“So good to see that you’re safe!”
“You must have been so afraid —”
“My name is Zunnel, merchant of —”
“Please do come and have a seat, the food is still warm —”
Chroma and Klyra tried their best to stand and greet Flor, as well, but the confusion of six people in a very small portion of branch, all trying to speak with or introduce different people, pulling Flor steadily towards a seat while shoving a bowl of food into her hands, made that a bit difficult. Before the Cambians could exchange a single word, Flor was plopped down beside them on the branch in the seat that had been Miefe’s, a bowl in her hand, the merchants taking the closest seats, leaving Miefe to sit at the very end, out of hearing range.
“Flor! Are you ok? Are you hurt?” Chroma inquired. Klyra, meanwhile, was pulling a few small leather pouches out of her jacket. She paused when Flor said she was unharmed.
“I’m fine, really. I’ll tell you guys all about it later.”
“Oh, we’re allowed to talk during the dances and such…” Chroma informed her.
“No, really, for now it’s best if I just eat and fill you in later.”
Chroma hadn’t spent much time with Flor before she’d been captured. Her brown eyes were insistent, almost pleading, and Chroma couldn’t recall if they were normally that way…or maybe it was just that she’d never seen Flor when she wasn’t angry. Flor’s eyes met Chroma’s, and even though Chroma’s brow was knitted with confusion, she nodded in agreement.
“What are you waiting for?” the merchant to their left asked the man who had been practicing his presentation. “You’re on next — get down there!”
The man gasped, trying his best to dust off his orange outfit and straighten his back as he sprinted down towards the ladder leading to the platform. The singer was bowing to her last round of applause, mostly from adults this time. The moment her feet had left the platform, the announcer returned to the stage.
“I am happy to announce that the third Cambian representative, navigator Flor Rosa, has returned to us, safe and sound!”
The crowd cheered and whistled loudly. Flor shyly waved at them, her eyes some mixture of exhaustion and relief. As soon as possible, she continued eating her stew delicately and slowly, the spiciness apparently not affecting her.
Before the announcer had even introduced him, the man who had been sitting with them climbed down onto the platform from the rope ladder and waved tentatively at the crowd. The announcer recovered quickly and cleared her throat. “I present to you: Laim, one of the newest and brightest young scientists from Second Klima.”
“Second Klima?” Flor inquired.
“They have more than one city,” Klyra filled in. “This capital is Klima, but since they’re all Klimans, they just number the rest, I assume in order of settlement.”
“Nice deduction,” Chroma congratulated her.
Flor blinked. “You came to that conclusion?”
Before they could respond, the clapping had died down and Laim began speak. “Klimans, Klima council, I beg a moment of your time. As you all know, and as some of you may willfully not believe, the jungle is cooking itself alive. Our healing herbs are dying, we find our traps empty and our hunters empty-handed, and our supply of Building Tar is quickly dwindling.”
The crowd was breaking into pockets of loud conversation. The Cambians could sense the tension in the air.
“All wrong, by the way,” Zunnel whispered in Chroma’s ear.
“The part that’s hard to accept is that Building Tar itself is responsible for these things. Some scientists have been silenced or bribed to say otherwise, but the facts are facts. I know that Bat Tar is equally as controversial, and while it would be useful, many people have become used to shutting that idea down. That’s why my team and I have come up with a new source of building materials that is not Bat Tar, will never run out, and does not have any of the adverse effects of Building Tar, even while it’s just as strong.”
The crowd’s murmurs were dying down slightly, out of interest.
“We call our invention, sticky strips!” Laim reached behind his back and tugged hard, but whatever it was he was trying to produce, it didn’t budge from where it was. He yanked on it a couple more times until it finally came loose, and he thrust it out for the crowd to see, displaying it with both hands. It was a grayish, blackish ball the size of his palm, with an entire portion coated in the fabric from his orange clothing.
“This ball can be rolled out into sticky strips that you entwine around ropes to hold them secure. No Building Tar needed to make this, no negative consequences!”
There were tentative applause from the audience, which died down very quickly.
“I’ll now open the floor to questions —” Like a clap of thunder, the crowd roared to life as everyone began asking questions and spitting insults. Laim tried to calm the audience by raising his hands, but it didn’t become effective until the announcer took the stage and whistled loudly enough to be heard over the crowd, both index fingers in her mouth.
“Please,” the announcer huffed. “Raise your hands.”
Compared to the number of voices from before, fewer hands went up. But still a lot. Laim bit his lip.
“Do you have this tradition in Cambia?” Zunnel inquired politely to Chroma. She turned to see that his right hand was raised.
“Yes. Whoever wants to speak raises their hands and the presenter picks who he wants to speak with.”
Zunnel chuckled amiably as Laim began answering a councilmember’s question about the legitimacy of Building Tar’s effects on their surroundings. “Close, but not quite. You see, whoever wants to speak raises their hand…and then the presenter answers in order of rank.”
Chroma nodded, eyes a little wider as she glanced between Laim, the council, and Zunnel. “Quite a system. And all dictated by hair length.”
“And here I thought the Klimans were more democratic than we are back home,” Flor muttered under her breath. She and Chroma didn’t look at each other, though they both stared off into the distance.
“I don’t know why you’re complaining, Flor,” Klyra commented. “You’ve got the longest hair out of the three of us.”
Flor didn’t dignify that with a response.
“…obviously creating this ruse of ‘toxins’ in Building Tar without any reliable proof,” Zerfa was saying to Laim from out of sight, supposedly from where the council was sitting a bit further up in the tree.
“There is plenty of reliable proof, councilwoman Zerfa. That’s why the scientific community agrees on the damaging effects —”
“But they don’t all agree.”
“They do, but some are simply bought off or silenced by…those with stakes in the matter.”
“You accuse the tar guild, one of the most accomplished and helpful guilds Klima has ever seen, of corruption. When none of them see the negative effects of Building Tar, after being exposed to it on a daily basis, and only some of your scientists do?”
“Councilwoman, the scientific community has no riches with which to bribe merchants, but the opposite is true.”
“So you admit that there’s corruption within your own group? That this is all a ruse on your part to reap the profits of tearing construction away from the tar merchants who have helped us so much? I find it highly suspicious that you would be out of a job if Building Tar turned out to be perfectly safe.”
“Councilwoman, scientists do not act as one: we scrutinize each other and gain fame by tearing each other down. The corrupted scientists are being torn down, but the scientists who find that Building Tar is dangerous aren’t because everyone has looked at their research and found that it’s legitimate. We’ve been finding that it is legitimate since long before any of us started inventing alternatives, and since long before any of us dedicated our entire area of study to this. The tar merchants act as one, and they would be out of a job if Building Tar wasn’t safe. And with all due respect councilwoman Zerfa, I am not a stupid man: I am perfectly capable of finding another job. In fact, if I were only interested in wealth, I wouldn’t have become a scientist in the first place: I would have become a tar merchant.”
“You tell ‘em,” Flor whispered.
Zunnel glanced at her before clearing his throat loudly. “Councilwoman Zerfa, if I may.”
“You may, Zunnel.”
“Laim, I don’t mean to be rude, but this is by far the worst attempt at personal gain I’ve ever seen from a scientist.”
“Don’t interrupt higher ranks. I don’t say that because you underhandedly try to brainwash our guests by interrupting what was otherwise a marvelous ceremony. I say that because, even if everything you said was true, your invention is a sham.”
“You want me to ask what you mean.” Laim said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll bite, but only because I get to prove you wrong instead of keeping the audience in doubt: why do you think my invention is a sham?”
“I’ve already heard scientists from Second Klima talk about these sticky strips before, and I noted that one of the resources used to make it is panther cartilage. Did it ever occur to any of your scientists how we obtain panther cartilage? We catch them with intricate and costly nets that wear out quite easily — nets that don’t work without building materials. So unless you want to use all your sticky strips to simply make nets to make more sticky strips — oh, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that there are very few panthers in this jungle, and you would drive them to extinction — then I suggest you stop wasting our time, frightening our people, and undermining our economic structure for your own personal benefit.”
Laim was stunned, barely seeming to register as all the hands in the audience were let down, all questions seemingly resolved with Zunnel’s short speech. A few children started booing him, and Laim scurried off stage, unfortunately having to run over boughs containing angered onlookers as he fled.
“Poor guy,” Chroma whispered so quietly that only she could hear.
“People of Klima!” Flor’s voice announced from below them. Klyra and Chroma jerked their heads around to see that Flor had left her seat, so quietly that no one had noticed. Klyra, a disbelieving grin across her face, turned her eyes back to the stage excitedly; Chroma gripped her forehead with her fingers and shielded her eyes, groaning.
Flor appeared on the performance platform a moment later, her balance impeccable and fearless over the steep drop. Her expression was worried as she passionately addressed the crowd, “Laim’s invention may be more effort than its worth, but your world really is in danger. At least he’s trying to look for a solution!”
Zunnel and his partner exchanged glances while Klyra, Chroma, and Miefe watched in shock. Zunnel’s eyes were narrowed in the same fashion as they had been when Laim had first revealed what his presentation would be about. He held up his left index finger and slid his right index finger across it horizontally: a cutting motion.
The other merchant nodded, turned, and waved to get the attention of someone else below them.
“You used to respect these scientists — depended on them for better raft design and healing. The only thing that tainted that reputation were the tar merchants. They’re rich and clinging to their power because they know they can’t profit off of Bat Tar!”
“Flor Rosa,” Zerfa interrupted from among the councilmembers sitting on a gigantic, green platform several branches above the central cooking pit. “I personally work with many of the merchants Laim has accused —”
“Don’t you all know that the merchants are paying off your councilmembers?” Flor screamed at the crowd. A moment of silence ensued, during which even Klyra gasped with concern, her subtle joy at the chaos turning to subtle horror.
“Flor Rosa,” Zerfa repeated, undaunted. “You are unfamiliar with our customs. Perhaps you heard some lies while you were among the Greens, but this is talk of treason.”
Before Flor could respond, the platform she stood on shook and rattled, tilting towards the crowd, first slowly, then rapidly. Flor scrambled her feet for a grip, and when that failed fell to her hands and knees and desperately held onto the mesh as the platform began to sway dangerously. One of the ropes that had been supporting the platform from a higher branch dangled uselessly above the hundred foot drop.
Panic ensued as Klimans all rushed toward the platform to help her, even those from the opposite side of the tree. But the people who had been right next to the rope ladder (which was possibly the only thing holding the platform as sturdily as it was) were the ones to get there and help her back to safety first.
Klyra and Chroma were gawking as the scene unfolded.
“That certainly would have killed me…” Chroma mumbled to herself. Klyra only huffed in response.
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Featured image from James Lee at Pexels.com