“Where’s Flor?” Yero asked as he saw Chroma and Klyra approaching. He didn’t seem to mind being interrupted. His soldiers immediately began talking and milling about as Yero turned to face the Cambians.
“Strict militarism, I see,” Chroma muttered to Klyra before addressing Yero. “She’s higher up in the tree, gathering information for us. Klyra and I still climb like toddlers, you see.” And Flor’s horrible at lying to your face, so we sent her away.
Yero pursed his lips but nodded. “Just so long as she doesn’t wander off on her own. I don’t want to have another rescue mission when the Greens could attack at any moment.”
“Yes, that sounds very concerning,” Chroma mused. “You haven’t found Yim yet?”
Yero shook his head. “We’re organizing search parties right now. She’s evaded us for weeks already. She could be anywhere.”
“How long do you think Klima will be less secure?” Chroma snuck in the question. “I’m not exactly able to flee quickly if the Greens do get here.”
“You’ll be safe here,” Yero assured her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “The first search parties won’t return until lunch, but I will still be here to protect you. And I’m sure every Kliman in this tree would gladly help you climb to higher branches in case of an emergency.”
“Every Kliman, eh?” Chroma thought of the merchants who had already made two attempts on their lives. How convenient it would be for the Cambians getting in their way to die during an attack. “Well, thank you, Yero. You’re very kind.”
“You’re welcome. Is that all?”
“One more question, actually: where do the merchants normally stay during the daytime?”
Yero pointed at a cluster of platforms hanging suspiciously close to the council’s meeting place. “There are always a couple of merchants inside the guild—guarding tar, advising the council, selling tar to buyers. Most are off collecting tar, however.”
“When will they be back?”
Yero shrugged. “They make trips back and forth most of the day.”
“Ah, I see. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” With that, Yero turned back to his soldiers, organizing Yim’s “rescue.”
Chroma pulled Klyra aside, a ways up a branch away from the firepit. “Ok, I think we need to wait until after lunch to do this.”
“It’ll take us that long to climb up there,” Klyra mused, glancing at the council’s meeting platform above.
“Right. We’ll have plenty of time to get into position and observe their movements. I’ll loiter outside the council’s meeting place and see what the dynamic is there. You keep an eye on the merchants. Got it?”
“You do have a plan for distracting them?”
“I’m trying to decide between about five right now. I’ll make the other four backups.”
Chroma smiled. “Good luck.”
It did take an extraordinary amount of time to reach the higher branches of the tree. Chroma and Klyra took separate routes to allay suspicion as to why Flor would go running off on her own. Once Chroma had reached her chosen perch by the council’s platform, she sat there for a few moments, panting and hoping that the Klimans weren’t watching her and thinking that she was crazy. After ensuring that her spot was out of earshot of any families—most of whom were either making some craft in their home (often with Building Tar) or out for the day—she looked around. There was an empty family platform on a branch to her right, which she decided to move to for a better view of the tar merchants’ guild. The council’s platform itself was obscured by thick curtains of flowering vines and giant leaves, purposely draped over for secrecy. Chroma couldn’t hear any noise coming from inside, at least not over the sound of distant animals and the noise of everyday human life. Irritated by the lack of audible conversation, she made her way over to the family mat and sat down amid the pots, beds, and children’s toys.
Out of the corner of her eye, Chroma noticed the scientist from before, Laim, climbing up the tree in her general direction. She tried desperately to not make eye contact, but he was evidently intent on keeping her company. There were dark circles around his eyes, which seemed too tired to match the smile of his lips.
“Hello, sir,” Chroma greeted him.
“Do you remember me?” he chuckled. “You don’t need to call me ‘sir.’ ”
“Laim, then. The scientist from yesterday’s show.”
Laim nodded, sitting on the mat in front of her. “I never got the opportunity to thank your friend for defending me yesterday. It didn’t do much, the council still scolded me afterwards.” He pointed at the graying rims of his eyes. “But it’s the thought that counts.”
When Chroma only nodded politely in response, not wanting him around but also not wanting to be rude, he continued, “I suppose this all must be new to you. The concept of humans destroying their home. Why, you’ve only been here less than a day.”
Chroma took one last look at the platform to her right that held Klyra talking to a merchant waiting outside of another leaf-vine-tapestry-fortified platform. She met Laim’s eyes and quickly contributed, “Well, we do have something similar on Cambia. Before, we were good at conserving our resources, always sustainable, even during wartime. But now that we have approaching enemies, and we’re desperate to find allies and refuges and technology…well, we chopped down all our trees for the wood to build our ships.”
Laim’s eyes grew wide, glancing at the jungle around him.
“Cambia was never this heavily forested,” Chroma assured him. “But still, only some forests remain, and if we have to build ships to evacuate…” If the Scouts fail, she added mentally.
“Well, our problems would be solved if we could destroy some of the trees,” Laim commented, glancing around. He sounded partly like he was joking, but his tone was bitter nonetheless.
“What do you mean? Don’t the trees absorb the fumes?”
“Yes and no. Different plants absorb different substances, because they simply need different things. The building seaweed absorbs its energy, its fumes, and we release them when we burn them.” Laim grabbed a stray leaf that had fallen from the thick, earth-shadowing canopy above. “But the trees absorb differently. See the veins on their leaves? They don’t match the veins of seaweed. Different webs catch different flies, after all. They can absorb some of the fumes, but not all of them.” He chuckled. “Even those who listen to me don’t understand that, even if they see the fumes. They don’t understand that the building seaweed drinks up something the trees can’t. So the canopy just traps it below the sky.”
Chroma had to pull her curious gaze away from the canopy above to see over Laim’s shoulder: Klyra was happily chatting with two merchants now, who were regarding her intently.
“Distracting” as in “OUT OF SIGHT OF THE COUNCIL,” Chroma fumed internally, saying nothing.
Laim sighed. “If only people would listen to science.”
“People listen to personal gain more,” Chroma consoled him in the only way she could think of: by declaring a cynical ultimatum on humanity. She would do something that would actually help him later today, but for now she merely wanted him gone. She could see a councilwoman leaving the platform. Her eyes snapped over to the merchants’ platform, but both Klyra and the two guards were gone. Chroma furrowed her brow.
“I think that’s my queue to leave,” Laim whispered hurriedly, moving past Chroma to descend on a rope ladder to a lower branch. It obviously wasn’t a coincidence he was avoiding the councilwoman.
Chroma watched the councilwoman descend. Once she decided that the woman wasn’t coming back and no other councilmembers were leaving the group, she craned her neck every which way to try and spot Klyra and the merchant guards. Her eyes widened instinctively when she noticed them leaving on a rope bridge out of the town. Klyra was happily speaking and leading the way. Chroma bit her lip, knowing that they would be long gone by the time she even descended a branch or two by herself.
Klyra, I hope you know what you’re doing.