Mist concealed the Calakmil as the Summer Empire Traveling Players approached. As they drew nearer, trees began to delineate themselves, dark and ragged against the fog. And something else appeared: a band of white demarcating ordinary grassland from the vast forest.
“Someone will meet us at the Wall?” Idris asked dubiously.
“Yes.” Izel consulted her letter again. “It says we’ll be guided to our destination from there.”
“Hard to imagine there’s a proper theater in there.”
“Our full payment awaits there regardless. It can’t be worse than Masul, right?”
She took the lead and the rest of company urged their nervous horses on behind her.
The Wall showed its age plainly. Along the base, roots punched through the cracks between the huge limestone blocks, while vines snaked down from the top. Still, nothing more exotic than a lily grew on this side of the Wall, as if the Calakmil was restraining itself out of politeness.
Which, given the stories, was entirely possible.
Two towering white trees, at least three hundred feet tall, stood where a gate would have been in an ordinary wall. Their pale branches arced across the entrance, shading it with their glossy, plate-sized leaves.
“Titantrees,” Jada explained from her seat on the players’ wagon. “It’s believed they grow so large because they house the souls of the Calakmil’s inhabitants after death.”
“So their afterlife is being trapped in a tree?” Sakae raised an eyebrow. She was their ingenue, young and opinionated, and prone to expressing those opinions unkindly when she was nervous. “Sounds uncomfortable.”
“Some respect, Sakae,” Jada said. “Would you speak thus about the Empire’s gods?”
Izel raised a hand. “Someone’s coming.”
Just beyond the titantrees, sunlight broke through the canopy in dancing shafts, but beyond that, the leaf-strewn path itself was shadowed.
“I don’t see any – ”
With a croak that startled them all, a large pink jungle frog hopped into the center of the path. It croaked again, then took off with long leaps deeper into the misty jungle.
Izel and Idris exchanged looks.
“Well,” she said, “the letter didn’t specify a human guide.”
“We are not following a frog.”
“It’s the Calakmil! We’re lucky our guide is something recognizable.” She started her horse forward.
“A frog is not a guide! I don’t care how much money –”
But the pink frog had stopped at the bend to wait for them. Izel waved to it and it proceeded onwards. Behind her, Idris heaved an aggravated sigh and clicked his reins.
She kept her eyes on the frog as she rode, even though they were surrounded by trees and vines and fragrant flowers that even they, who’d traveled the whole of the Empire, had never seen before. The mist dissipated as the sun climbed. Still the frog led them on.
They finally stopped at a broad circle of ten titantrees, much taller than the two guarding the Wall. Their curving white branches soared high above a soft, grassy clearing, in the center of which sat a stack of gold coins: the rest of their payment.
“Is this…our stage?” muttered Balam.
As if to answer him, the frog settled on a knobby root.
Izel dismounted. “Let’s set up.”
They opened the wagon, placed their props, and began to dress. The frog waited patiently.
“Where’s our audience?” Sakae hissed as she finished her makeup.
Izel nodded at the frog. “I think he’s it.”
“This is insane!”
“We’ve been paid to perform here, and we will,” she said firmly.
No one – and nothing – else had arrived by the time Idris began the opening monologue. Izel fidgeted with one of the coins to remind herself that this was a paid performance like any other, that there was nothing strange or concerning about being brought into the heart of a neglected magical jungle to perform a romantic drama to an audience of one frog.
Not strange at all.
It was a good performance, all things considered. Sakae had a shaky start, but Balam supported her well, and Jada had Izel and the stagehands stifling giggles as Balam’s narcissistic mother.
Idris delivered the conclusion. The actors bowed at the silent frog. Izel peeked around the wagon, waiting.
The frog looked up.
High overhead, the titantree boughs began to wave. There was no wind, and no creatures visible to disturb them…
Jada understood first. “Bow again,” she hissed, gripping her costars’ hands. They bowed and the trees rustled more, their leaves whistling.
“Well done, players,” Izel murmured, and she took her bow.