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Akaalekirth was dreaming, and it was an unexpectedly pleasant dream; not at all like her dreams while she was living in the city. For the most part she hadn't dreamed at all since she came to the rainforest, so she wandered the dreamscape with curiosity, and a little detachment, and wondered when the shadows would come.
They didn't, or rather, when they did, they were only confused images of her past, easily brushed away by a wingtip that Akaalekirth found herself holding. It was a bird wing, at first, then a butterfly wing, a whole one, not like her clan tattoo, and suddenly a lizard-creature was trying to wake her.
Lereterli was shaking her. "Akaa..."
"What do you want, lizard?" Akaalekirth asked when she had come all the way awake, stumbling out of the dream like a poorly handled stick-puppet. Lereterli giggled -- she had loved finding out that her name was a kind of desert lizard, and they had made it a joke between them.
"We're going to go harvest a bread tree," Lereterli said with excitement. "Will you come with us?"
The way that the Fuchsia Clan scheduled their time was still very strange and mysterious to Akaalekirth. They didn't order things by hours and bells and no one was ever late, only welcome in their own time. As long as enough work was completed and the rules of the clan obeyed, it didn't matter when she went to bed, or woke, or where she was at given times. She suspected that refusing to help with anything would be met with little tolerance, but the few requests that had been made for her labor had been just that: requests.
"Aren't bread trees endangered?" she asked, a little horrified by the idea, as she pulled the rope sandals that Rreisali had given her onto her feet. She had learned about bread trees in first form, in cautionary tales about over-harvesting and contamination. Once the staple of the isolated Mayaloi people, the trees had been devastated in the famine at the end of the twelfth century, first weakened by invasive bugs and changing weather patterns, then harvested nearly to extinction in the hungry times that followed.
"Not anymore, silly," Lereterli said dismissively. "And it's not like we're taking a whole forest of them -- one tree will feed us all for tendays."
It was odd the way Lereterli, who was so much younger and completely unlettered, seemed to know so much more than Akaalekirth did. The history and mathematics and art that Akaalekirth had so carefully learned all seemed very useless here, while practical skills like sewing and cooking and climbing were so much more important, and Akaalekirth didn't know any of it.
So she clamped her mouth down around any further protest she might have given and climbed down the long, swaying ladder from the tree platform home to the wild forest floor.
Rreisali and her husband, Orlano, were waiting with other clanmembers at the root of the big central tree, holding coils of ropes and a collection of sharp axes -- noticeable scratches where Empire identification marks should be. Akaalekirth almost apologized for keeping them waiting, but they didn't seem to mind, smiling easily at her and swinging into a walk without hurry when she was ready.
The forest still frightened her -- with it's endlessly tall trees, and the way sunlight only rarely seemed to reach the dark-soiled floor. Everything grew riotously -- in only the few tendays that Akaalekirth had been here, she had watched a tiny green sprout strangle out a larger plant and spread devious tendrils towards another, and a colony of ants had eaten a tree stump down to sawdust overnight. Akaalekirth still shuddered to think about them eating the very trees their platforms swayed in.
They walked further than Akaalekirth had gone since she first fled to the strange and lovely Rainbow Rainforest, and she was just beginning to wonder if she should ask for a break when they finally stopped.
The trees they stopped at seemed as tall as the home trees, but less impressively broad at the base, with no branches showing at all as far as Akaalekirth could peer up at them through the dense canopy. She sank gratefully to the ground with Lereterli. The younger girl, she was grateful to find, seemed as winded as she was. They shared a small canteen of water while the adults wandered around choosing a tree.
"Have you thought about what animal we should get tattooed?" she asked Lereterli, a little shyly. The girl's invitation to become a sister by oath had been a surprise, but a nice one.
"Maybe a lizard?" Lereterli giggled. There were certainly plenty of colorful ones to choose from -- Akaalekirth still could not always keep from shrieking when she found one in her bed or shoes, even though nothing in the rainforest was poisonous, and the little lizards were too small to draw blood.
"You already have one of those," Akaalekirth reminded her, poking at the green lines encircling her bellybutton.
"We're supposed to choose something simple, because I'm just a kid and it might grow funny," Lereterli said thoughtfully. "But I don't care. I think I want something really bright." She poked at the broken butterfly tattoo on Akaalekirth's shoulder, the akaalekirj she had been re-named for. The touch no longer hurt, and Akaalekirth didn't startle at it.
Akaalekirth could not decide what finally brought the adults to their decision about the breadtree -- the one they finally chose looked the same as all the other trees around it to her, but she could hear bits of conversation about space and health and seeds that made her think it wasn't just superstition leading their decision. There were so many ways that the Purists she was living with now didn't match what she'd been taught about them. For starters, they didn't eat human flesh!
There was a flurry of activity, and Lereterli got up with Akaalekirth. "We can't help with the felling," she said. "We'll help later."
"I want to watch it," Akaalekirth said, and they went to a place that Lereterli declared was safe, near other trees they could run behind if the falling tree got out of control.
The clansmen roped the tree, stringing it into a one-sided web of connections, and winched them tight while Orlana and one of the other strong men went to work with axes. Akaalekirth watched in wide eyes as the tree came down with a tremendous crack that shook the ground like an earthquake. She automatically looked nervously around for monitors to come and put a stop to their illegal work, but remembered that they were miles and miles inside the rainforest, far away from any city. A cheer went up, and she and Lereterli swarmed forward with the others to go to work.
The bread tree was long enough for all of them to work on together, and Lereterli showed Akaalekirth how to use a sharp tool (too sharp for children! Akaalekirth's Empire-trained mind protested at first) to peel back the tough bark all along the tree and scoop out the loose fiber from the center of the tree. They stuffed it all in bags, and Akaalekirth recognized it. Rreisali had been baking bread from such sacks for the last several tendays, and Akaalekirth had assumed it was only coarse flour. This was wetter, but had the same nutty smell.
"We have to dry it," Lereterli explained. "It lays out on the platform for a couple of days before you can store it, and we can't harvest it at all during the rainy season. It will make you sick if it rots!"
They hollowed the tree in a few hours, leaving a strange bendy husk of a trunk and generating bags and bags of the pale food. Craftsmen tackled the husk, shaving it into strong, flexible planks that Akaalekirth recognized from the construction of dividers on the platforms. Even the leaves were harvested -- brilliant green on one side and purple on the other, each one almost the size of Lereterli. They would be boiled for dye, the younger girl explained. "But they turn yellow," she said. "I don't know why."
That, at least, Akaalekirth could say something about. "Dyes often are different colors than their source material," she said, remembering the lecture. "It's a chemical reaction that happens with heat and other things that you add."
Lereterli didn't look as impressed as Akaalekirth had hoped.
They made two trips, hauling the heavy bags back to the platform and tying them to the hoist mechanism to be hauled to the top. By the end of their second trip, Akaalekirth was drenched in sweat.
"It's hard work," Lereterli agreed, looking every bit as tired. "But it's worth it. The trees give us lots of things that we need. Come on, let's go swim before supper."
Without asking permission from any adult, they walked to the the little natural pool that they often bathed in. They didn't bother with clothing, and though she was shy about it at first, Akaalekirth found it didn't bother her for long because Lereterli was clearly so undisturbed by it. It helped that her bruises were finally gone.
"Maybe a bird," Lereterli suggested, when they got back to talking about their tattoo. "Or a snake."
Akaalekirth shuddered. "Not a snake," she insisted. She definitely hadn't gotten used to the snakes. "Something more... useful."
"A squatty goose?" Lereterli teased, and Akaalekirth laughed and shook her wet head.
That night, Akaalekirth enjoyed the tart bread with new appreciation. Every available surface of the platform was spread with fragrant drying bread tree pulp.
"What about a bread tree?" she asked Lereterli abruptly.
"What about it?" Lereterli asked, carefully walking around a drying pile of the fiber with two cups of juice.
"As a tattoo," Akaalekirth explained, taking one of the cups. "It's useful, it's colorful. We could put them on our legs, and it could grow right along with you."
Lereterli considered, then broke into a grin. "Yes," she agreed. "With bright green and purple leaves up to my knees. Let's go get Iffarir to put them on right now!"
Akaalekirth groaned. "Oh, no," she said. "My muscles hurt too much to climb down -- I don't need the pain of another new tattoo, too."
"Baby," Lereterli scoffed, but she sat down gently next to Akaalekirth and put her arm around the older girl. "I'm so glad you'll be my sister," she said happily. "Thank you."
Looking around at the bounty of their harvest and thinking about all of the things she'd gained -- things as simple as being able to set her own schedule and sit comfortably without clothing in front of someone else - Akaalekirth rather thought she ought to be the one doing the thanking, but she couldn't bring herself to say it, heart too full for the moment.