“I trust the arrangements are suitible?”
“Yes, of course…I don’t mean to complain, but I’m curious: why can’t we just sleep on those platforms there?” Chroma inquired to Miefe as they walked back across the bridge to the main tree. There were plenty of unoccupied platforms hanging from the tree.
“Ahahahaha… Wait, you’re serious?” Miefe stared at her, looking concerned.
“Why not? They look exactly the same.”
“That’s an action platform, not a resting platform!”
“But I mean we’re physically capable of sleeping on it, and it looks about as comfortable as the others. What’s the hold up?”
“It was made for action, not rest. Play, not sleep.”
“Right, yes I understand that, but what part of it is different? Do you make it differently?”
“No. But it was intended for performances.”
“Ok yes but does somebody else own it or…? You know what? Never mind. The tree crook is lovely.” Chroma added to herself, “I’ll just find someone else to explain.”
Miefe happily walked on ahead of Chroma to meet up with Klyra, Flor, and Zunnel at the firepit. The tree’s drier, dead wood had been scraped away, and the remaining wood had been lined with stones to prevent the fire from catching and escaping.
“Now I do have to wonder,” Zunnel was saying as Miefe and Chroma approached. “Why on earth would you think such a ludicrous thing, Klyra? Flor, I can see she’s been with the Greens for some time, but you’ve had the least contact with them and their ideas.”
“Well, Yim, the girl who brought us here…” Klyra started to say before she caught Chroma shaking her head slightly.
“Yim? Yim Del? She’s alive?” Zunnel gasped.
“Yes…living wild in the jungle.”
“I see… Her parents used to work the guild’s herb garden.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. It was terrible for everyone when they passed, but us especially. We were very close. That being said, it’s generally bad to learn your science from little girls (living wild in the jungle) who have recently gone through trauma.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Klyra nodded happily. Flor said nothing.
“You can’t give that platter away!” Miefe shouted suddenly at the cook. “That’s for our guests!” He was referring to a large wooden platter that the cook had been about to hand over to an expectant-looking couple. The platter was stacked with a watery mixture of fruits and veggies, ranging from green to all the colors of the rainbow. “How else are they going to play Spice?”
“No, no, no that’s ok,” Klyra told Miefe, placing a hand on his arm to calm him. “We weren’t really looking forward to playing the spice game.”
Miefe blinked at her.
“I don’t mind playing.” Flor shrugged. “And it would be rude to reject a gift.” She didn’t appear phased or injured by her near-death experience at all.
“I’d love to try the game…” Chroma said hesitantly,as she saw Klyra faintly shaking her head in her directly. Won’t we be able to just set the platter aside, anyways? she thought.
“Excellent! You know the rules, I expect?”
“The cook went over them,” Klyra thanked him, clearly irritated and hiding it. She accepted the platter, anyways, but when she stumbled with it, unable to watch her feet on the uneven bark, Flor had to take it from her.
As they walked across the bridge to their sleeping quarters, Chroma told Klyra, “We could play it without you, you know.”
“But now we don’t have any other food,” Klyra hissed.
“We can’t just eat this?”
“The spice game is played with every fruit on that platter,” Klyra sighed. “Apparently there are these small peppers that grow in the woods here, and about half of them are spicy. But no one knows which ones are or aren’t. So they put a pepper in each of these things, and on their turn, each player eats one and waits to see if they got a spicy one.”
“It’s a roulette,” Flor explained over her shoulder.
“That’s so cool!” Chroma grinned. She stopped when she saw Klyra’s expression. “I mean, oh that sounds so inconvenient.”
They reached the crook of the tree where they would be sleeping. Three stacks of blankets had been laid down in a circle around a tiny, makeshift firepit stacked with dry leaves and founded on a thick layer of stones. A rope swing hung from a branch high above, and Flor set the platter inside.
“The swing’s just for spinning. You spin the platter on your turn, hold the platter once it loses momentum, and then eat a fruit that’s right in front of you.”
“What happens if you get a spicy one?” Chroma prompted as they each took a seat. The platter was hovering around shoulder-level (if she maintained good posture). “Do you get a point? Do you lose?”
“You lose your dignity,” Klyra huffed.
“So your friends just get to laugh at your reaction?” Chroma summarized. “Sounds like a fun game.”
“Then why don’t you start?” Klyra offered acidically.
Chroma held one edge of the tray and spun it lightly counter-clockwise. When the swing had twisted as far as it would go and threatened to spin back the direction it had come, Chroma thrust her hand out to grab it. She scanned the available fruits now in front of her and picked a plump purple one.
“I think the idea is that when you pick a bigger one, you’re less likely to bite off the whole pepper,” Flor told her. “And the game gets steadily spicier as we dwindle down to the small ones.”
“You seem surprisingly fine, Flor,” Chroma commented, “for having nearly died twice in one day.” She took the largest bite of the purple fruit as possible. Her face twisted in pleasure at the peachy taste, quickly turning to curiosity and then to panic. She held a hand to her mouth, as if about to spit something out, but ended up swallowing (both the food and large gulps of air).
“First pain point of the night,” Klyra commented, reaching out to spin the tray herself. She shoved it as hard as possible, and it missed Flor’s unflinching face by inches as the swing rocked back and forth. When it slowed, Klyra chose another large purple one. She hesitantly bit into it, inspected the area she’d bitten, and then held up a thumb, grinning.
Flor, meanwhile, was staring at the dead fire pit. “Once,” she said softly.
“What?” Klyra inquired while Chroma was still recovering from her bite.
“I nearly died once.”
“I think Chroma was counting being kidnapped by the Greens.”
“That’s just it,” Flor admitted, meeting her eyes. “They didn’t try to kill me: they’re the good guys.”
Chroma and Klyra exchanged glances.
“The Greens didn’t try to hurt me, or even hold me for ransom. What that scientist was saying earlier about the toxins from the Building Tar? He was right. That’s what the Greens are fighting against.”
“Oh, we know,” Klyra interrupted.
“We know,” Chroma coughed. “Yim told us. The little girl who brought us here.”
Flor blinked. She smiled as she spun the tray for herself, picking up the tiniest green fruit she could spot. When she didn’t react to the taste, the others weren’t sure if it was from getting lucky or the sheer virility of her taste-buds. “Good, then we’re on the same page. We help the Greens overthrow the government from the inside.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Chroma said. “Slow down a little there. We’re not leading a revolution.”
Flor immediately scowled at her, and Chroma did her best to ignore her and spin the tray again. “Why not? So your privileged family can get another exotic lap dog to worship you?”
“That’s not what I mean,” Chroma said, picking up a large blue fruit. Before she took a bite, she responded, “Our job is to form an alliance with the council and then be on our way.” She took the bite to hide her expression while Flor responded, but immediately regretted it once she tasted the spice.
“It’s the same thing, Chroma! There would just be a different government in charge. Besides, if we help them take over they’ll definitely ally with us!”
Klyra grabbed the tray to spin as she pointed out, “We’d also get a definite ally if we helped the Kliman council get rid of the Greens.”
Flor shot her a dirty look.
“What? It’s true. I’m just saying that your last point is inconvincing.”
“There won’t be a people to ally with if we don’t get rid of this Building Tar!”
Klyra began to chew happily, having avoided a hot pepper yet again. She pushed the fruit into her cheeks so she could reply, “There’s more ways to do that than open rebellion. I don’t like the Greens’ style of kidnapping and killing people. Seems counterproductive to protection and peace.”
“And you don’t think it’s suspicious that as soon as I started telling the people of Klima the truth, the platform gave way beneath me? After several rounds of dancers had already used it with no difficulty?”
Chroma and Klyra exchanged glances.
Flor continued, “Maybe you haven’t seen what I’ve seen or heard what I heard, but trust me when I say that the Greens aren’t the only ones being violent.”
“She’s right,” said a familiar voice from a branch above.
The three girls jumped as Yim descended from a branch above. They hadn’t seen her in the extreme darkness that was overtaking the world. Fem Dizga was nowhere to be found.
“Yim!” Chroma greeted her. “How long have you been listening?”
“Not too long.”
“Where’s Fem? Is he alright?”
“Oh, Skyblinds hunt at sunset. They can’t stay out too late into the night because it gets too cold.”
“It gets cold here?” Klyra murmured.
“That’s the downside of being an ectotherm,” Yim shrugged. “You don’t have to eat as much, but you’re more vulnerable to hot and cold.”
“Ectotherm? That’s quite a big word for your age,” Chroma said. “You said your parents were scientists, right?”
“Yes, and that’s what I meant when I said Flor was right,” Yim admitted, sitting down on the blankets next to Chroma. “The Greens aren’t the only ones hurting people. The tar merchants killed my family.”
Chroma and Klyra exchanged another wide-eyed glance as Flor nodded her head solemnly.
“My parents were the merchants’ healers,” Yim began. “The healing herbs stopped growing as much, and my parents tried finding out why. It was the fumes from the tar. They tried to tell everyone our medicine would all disappear, but the merchants told everyone they were crazy. That went on for awhile until…”
The Cambians thought Yim had stopped from emotional pain until she stood suddenly and leapt into the cover of the tree.
“Yim? Yim, what’s—” Flor paused when they all heard a rustling coming from the bridge to the village. The Housing Tree twinkled with the lights of a few still-lit fires, but the bridge itself was shadowed completely.
“It sounds like someone’s cross—” Klyra started before she grunted and fell over, nearly hitting the fire. A man draped in black cloth covering everything but his eyes stood over her, barely noticeable even in the light of the fire.
The man grabbed Klyra by the collar of her coat and lifted her clear off the tree’s base, turning her dangling body towards the village. Klyra grabbed onto her coat to keep herself from choking. Chroma and Flor leapt to their feet.
“I wouldn’t move, if I were you,” the man said in a raspy voice.
Chroma and Flor paused when they realized why: the man was dangling Klyra over the edge of the tree.
“Do you know why we stay in the trees, little girl?”
“Lovely view of the sunset?” Klyra croaked, her brow furrowed as her face turned red.
“Because of the wild dogs that prowl the forest floor. That’s why we need building tar—because if our platforms aren’t strong enough, well…” The man grunted a bit as he shook Klyra back and forth. Trinkets in her numerous pockets rattled around noisily. “You’re new here, so let this be your last warning: never interfere with merchant business.”
The man turned to throw Klyra back onto the fire, her head banging against the platter and scattering the fruit. Flor and Chroma stooped to help her. The man was already gone.
“Is that blood on your collar?” Chroma gasped, setting a hand down on Klyra’s coat. “Ow!”
“Oh, he just cut his hand on the broken glass from earlier,” Klyra panted, sitting up straight now that the girls had moved her away from the fire. The heat hadn’t seemed to penetrate her coat, but she was shaking. “You know, now I really don’t want to side with the Greens.”
“You’re giving in?” Flor gasped, disgustedly pulling away from the translator.
“The Klimans have strength in numbers. It would be a lot easier…”
“We need to fight for these people!”
“We’d be fighting against these people, Flor! We’ve heard them speak and everyone sides with the merchants—”
“Enough!” Chroma barked. The others turned to look at her. She breathed to give herself time to think. “We’re going to make a decision in the morning, and we’re going to make a smart decision.” She held up a hand before either girl could protest. “I think a night to get our strength back and calm down is something we can all agree upon. If you can’t, think of it as time to hone your arguments.”
Klyra and Flor nodded, though neither of them looked happy. As they cleaned up the spilled tray and fire pit, Flor muttered something about Orca privilege.
Even if one of them is right, I can’t make it sound like I’m giving into her, Chroma knew. If I’m going to be a leader, I need to act like it was my decision…or at least that I have the final word.