The Dead Letter
Musings on the Xenology of Nations
From the pen of Zaduth-Jar, lecturer of Xenology, subdivision of Zoology,
division of Anatomy, school of Holosomatic Sarcaphigination, seventh discipline,
Academy of Sarcaphogi, Hall of Corundum and Ivory, Eighth Level, city of Bes-Tharal,
To his eminence, Al-Fath-Hunda'ath-Banezub-Hazraa, Celestial of the fourteen hundred and fifty-sixth ordinal, twelfth custodian of the sine of the root of the speculative fifth immaterial bipolar prime, and you'll forgive me if I leave aside your other titles as I'm sure I would mangle them anyway, Everchanging Hallway, Kumatru Academy, the Djinn Cities,
Greetings, old friend.
These are dangerous times, and I hope this letter finds you well. It is not altogether without risk for either of us that I send it, and yet my enthusiasm for your researches is so great, I could not restrain myself any longer. I have gambled that the renown of the message-bearer in both our lands will protect this poor epistle from unwanted eyes; and my gratitude to Theralda Glaivesforge for not merely bringing me your fascinating manuscript, but going so far as to bear this worthless epistle in return, is boundless. What right I, a minor academic in a suspect and disregarded field, devout coward, and miserable cook, have to the friendship of a Dwarven Heroine, is beyond my understanding. For that, and for our correspondence as well, I can only thank the Sleepless Fathers Below with incredulity.
Well, enough of that offal, and on to the flesh of the letter. I cannot tell you how honored I am that you not only sent me your manuscript, but translated it into (fluent!) Middle Keeper. Naturally the original would be beyond my ken, but I had feared to have to brush up on my Literary Dwarvish. What an odd treat to see our own lovely howls, barks and hisses in your calligraphic, curlicued hand. I am honored.
In another side note (I am growing doddering, and long to be embalmed, but as usual the honor passed me up this year), I truly sympathisize with what I take to be your o-so-subtle complaints at the lack of recognition of your peers. (You will forgive my bluntness as always!) I certainly have gnawed that bone enough! Ironic, of course, that our shared line of inquiry, which I take disgusts your Kumatru fellows by its corporeal grossness and transitory physicality, is regarded by my colleagues as impractical and ethereal philosophizing. "Gawking at the prancing pump-bloodies when there's burying to be done", as the saying goes. Just as your Kumatru Academy, with its inquiry into the physical world, is a bit suspicious to begin with, so is Holosomatic Sarcaphigination almost entirely out of fashion; even commoners -- from poisoners down to bricklayers -- are going in for embalming or fire burial these days. And while xenosarcophigination is a respectable trade (brings the gold in, anyway), a preoccupation with *living* members of other species has always been seen as suspect, and in the current political climate, well, heretical is no exaggeration. I'm sure *you* understand. Your request for *empirical* data from my work is, if I understand you floaters, as iconoclastic and radical in your terms, as it is brilliant.
But I've yipped enough like a restless pup. On to your lovely "bible of the nations" (if I may so abbreviate its, ahem, rather lengthy title).
I will try to keep the scalpel sharp, and direct my comments not to the excellent accuracy of the work, but to a few minor points where my experience differs, which you may wish to take into account.
While the one-eyes in these parts are consistently orange, I myself have seen several specimens of different hues on the cutting table during my apprenticeship in Bar-Thadarak. Maroon is not uncommon in that region, ochre is not unheard of, and in one case I viewed a lovely male, one of the great ones, who was a garish purple. He had particularly compelling intestines, smooth and translucent, like great tubes. (I must comment that you seem particularly preoccupied with the exterior features of the nations, whereas naturally the innards are more interesting to me, as well as the consistency, weight, and durability of the component materials, even though I am myself no Embalmer. I will restrict myself for the moment to commenting on exterior features, since that seems to be your interest). Woad seems universal. I cannot confirm myself that the Monoscopes of the far cold South are covered with thick white fur, but that is the rumor. They are reputed not to use woad nearly as much, and to be correspondingly more passive. I believe Cyclopes do not write, other than the tatoo and petroglyph arts, which in most cases, so I have heard, have more to do with the inherent visual and sensual qualities of the forms inscribed at the moment of inscription, and little to do with an abstract, formal code. (It was once put to me something like, "the meaning at the moment of writing and at the moment of seeing have nothing to do with one another. If they did, it would be a djinni lie." Your pardon.)
Eucharia, by the way, is technically illegal in lands which honor the so-called Keeper Code, but we rarely enforce the restriction. I actually observed an instance in a class on Somaphagy during my school years.
I thought it interesting that you attributed "anatomy" to the one-eyes -- I would have thought that more one of ours! And yet, of course, come to think of it, it is the study of the Body, after all.
I will remain largely silent on your own inscrutable species, my friend. I was interested to note that you list only male and female genders. At birth, certainly, I suppose; but perhaps I have misunderstood your social organization or concept of gender, but the importance of eunuchs in your society, as well as the Palini transformation, seems worthy of note. (If I offend by speaking of such matters, you will forgive a foolish old hound, I hope).
Excellent review. You neglect the critcal importance of the guilds and masterhalls in their social organization, I think; Theralda would be of more help than I on this point. To be frank, I find the endless politics between Heroes, Heroines, Guildmasters, Clan Patriarchs and so forth in her stories somewhat boring. You allude to the origin of their odd reproductive arrangement, but I have always found Fingle's brave but misguided attempt to recapture dwarven isogynofertility by consorting with Unmaking itself, and what it cost him and his people, to be the most fascinating part of the story.
Theralda attests that in far Utabo, across the Eastern sea, there is a different phenotype of dwarves, with ebony to bronze skin, generally white hair the texture of sheep's wool, and catlike eyes; other than the eyes they resemble shorter, stouter variants of some of the human tribes, and there being few elves in Utabo, supposedly they interbreed with humans. This is strange, given that Dwarves have no particular sympathy with the House of War, and indeed are natural allies of the Gargoyles; but then the same is true of their liaison with Elves, in that strictly speaking their House is closer to ours than to our Elven enemies. It is in the nature of the dwarven curse, I suppose, that they are thrown into relation with creatures physically similar to themselves, but ideologically in conflict. I am told there were several attempts, in the era of the Dwarven King Thedral, to interbreed with nymphs and dryads, in order to replace their dependence on the Seelie court with the more palatable and stable denizens of Nature; but these unions were not fertile. In any event, these Utaban Dwarves are masters in the working of iron, which art they are said to have originated, in precious stones, and in explosive powders, which they use in the inevitable wars that break out between their city-states and the aggressive human tribes to whom they are related by blood.
The very fact that Dwarves are capable of interbreeding with humans and elves is believed by some to be an aspect of the curse. Most of the Nations are incapable of fruitful unions across Houses, although Satyrs and Elves are believed to be capable of progeny, and then of course there are the Sompsychoi, now extinct but well preserved (there are several mummified here in Bes-Tharal), which have been proved indispuably on anatomic grounds to be admixtures of Djinni and Cyclopes, having three eyes, enormous frames, and intricate patterns of orange and blue upon their skins. What is not known is whether these were produced by a natural union, or whether they were the work of some insane Mage, possibly of Unmaking.
Misfits, under the right conditions, are believed to be capable of interbreeding with anything.
In Utabo there are also rumored to be Foxpeople, denizens of Nature like the Satyrs, who might be capable of offspring with Keepers...
~ Zaduth-Jar, Keeper of the Dead
Continue on to Part 2