A question of culture, p.1
A Question of Culture, p.1Ashe Thurman
A Question of Culture
Copyright 2015 Ashe Thurman
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Table of Contents
A Question of Culture
When the gates first opened on Latolan some eight hundred years ago, the only thing the first explorers found were the drunken ruins of a civilization at least a thousand years dead. Since then, The District has taken advantage of the relative neutrality to make the world the home of its headquarters and most of its government funded projects. The only major settlement is Tomar, a single, 80 mile wide city-state containing a number of prestigious universities and private schools, The Grand Tomar Library, and the main hall of several technical and magical guilds. The kaleidoscopic native population is joined by the seasonal residents of Starlight Vale, off-world wealth and nobility with the disposable income and inclination to keep a second estate in the lush hills and meadow-lands set aside on one edge of the city proper just for that purpose.
Apart from a smattering of tiny outposts and individual homesteads peppered haphazardly across the backroads–so referred to for the impression of ancient roads and ruins that must have at one point criss-crossed a mighty nation–much of Latolan remains unmapped and unsettled. This is not for lack of trying, but voyages into virgin territory return more bodies than answers.
A Question of Culture
“Rasheed, they need signatures on this paperwork going around. Can you run this over to Social Sciences next door?” the director asked hurriedly, half shoving the stack of papers into my hands.
“The Thessaloniki building, right?”
“Still don’t have it all memorized? There’s only seven buildings,” she admonished me lightly. She couldn’t be as harsh on me as she was on the trainees. I might have only been a part of the Grand Tomar Library a year, but I had done my time in the stacks at other equally prestigious institutions.
“Just double checking. Anything else?” I started to walk backward away from her slowly.
She shook her head, and I turned to go.
“Oh,” she said quietly, and I turned back, “I think Thresh is back, so...just...mind yourself if you run into him.”
I nodded that I understood and started back on my journey, an excited skip in my step. Thresh was well-known in intellectual circles, especially among library and university staffs.
On paper, he was an anthropologist.
In reality, he once managed to find a 2000-year-old statuette in the back of a wyvern nest while the creature was still taking up residence in it. Rumor was he had spent the last spring and summer with a small team on a privately financed expedition, one too foolhardy for the government or any major institution to officially back. What kind of stories had he returned with?
I ran through my mental image of him one more time. I had gotten the impression that he wasn’t human, but etiquette and a surprising lack of a printed portrait anywhere kept me from confirming directly. Still, I was sure he was some kind of rugged mountain man. Maybe he had a beard. Tall, he had to be tall, needing to stoop over in those ancient ruins. Though I knew that would make his job more difficult, it was an essential aspect of his image. For all my excitement, though, I had been warned that he was the sort to hide his arrogance with intellect, to trade navigating nuanced social interactions for pedantic objectivism.
Having worked at a magic-craft university, I was used to scholarly magicians and the like, so I was filled with optimism as I rounded the top step that would lead me onto the floor where the Social Science Desk was.
I got my first look at him, sitting behind the circular desk, sifting through a card catalog drawer.
Well, he was certainly tall.
“Er, hi, Mister Thresh? Some papers from the Physical Science Reference Department need a signature.”
He didn’t look up. His three fingered hands started flipping even faster through the cards, the ends of his claws making little clacking sounds as they passed each other.
“It’s Gor Thresh,” he clicked at me after a moment.
“Excuse me?” I felt my hands shaking with uncertain nervousness as he turned beady black eyes on me.
“In Unified Karket, the Trenglate language of trade, we use non-gendered, age-centric honorifics. So, ‘Gor Thresh’ if you’d like to be correct.”
Right. Trenglates. I had a vague recollection of seeing a few during an off-world school trip as a child, but this was the first time I had ever actually met and talked with one. They didn’t really mingle.
“Or, well, I suppose I do have several advanced degrees from human and elf universities, so Scholar Thresh is equally accurate. Whichever you choose is acceptable. But, go on. How can I help you?” As he straightened, I could see the impression of rows of overlapping plates shift under his sweater vest and stiff collared shirt. His movements were quick, yet wobbly, and he looked up at me with his chin skewed sideways and jutting out. It was a very challenging look, as though he were waiting for me to second guess him. It seemed he was scaled from head to toe like a lizard with softer, tan plates covering the top half of his triangular, weasel-like head.
“Not, like a lizard,” he said as I was thinking it. “I’m mammalian. Now, how can I help you?” He was a little more insistent, now.
I held the papers out in front of me with both hands, and he took them. His hands weren’t plated, but they were rough like horsehide and the tips of his claws scraped me gently. His eyes shifted over the documents. There was a twitching flash of what I guessed might be a smile.
“Excellent. I’ll pass it along to the Director. Now, a query,” and he fixed his eyes on me. “Are you newly employed here?”
“Then come around the desk, please.”
I quickly did so, a little bit scared of what would happen if I didn’t. He motioned to a chair, and I took it. He slid the drawer of cards toward me.
“I’ve been away just long enough that I missed the transition from the High Carolean Repository System to this Modified Dewey-Cutter Expansive...thing.”
“A hundred years late, but yeah.” Thresh flickered a smile again.
“Elves don’t like change. Now, if you could give me a quick overview, I would be most delighted, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your normal duties.”
“Oh, no, I have the time.”
A quick lesson on Cutter tables and our new number-based cataloging system turned into him offering to take me to lunch. The administrative building looked out on a shady little promenade that was lined with a number of stores and boutiques. Among them was a bistro that was a frequent lunch hangout for library staff and employees from the nearby government offices. I had been there a number of times of course, and I was silently relieved when he suggested it. He ate normal food, at least.
“Yes, I eat ‘normal’ food,” he said quietly as the waiter whisked away with our sandwich orders. He sipped his coffee stiffly (two creams, no sugar).
“Are you telepathic?” I asked. Telepaths did this kind of thing all the time, and it was incredibly annoying.
“Trenglates totally lack the ability to perform magic. We’re magic void by nature. Your kind simply tends to think the same sorts of things when meeting one of my kind for the first time. You’re very predictable.” Of course, to my private embarrassment, I remembered that I already held that information somewhere in the back of my head. One of those things
“Sorry.” Thresh seemed unfazed by my half-hearted apology. “So, er, did anything particularly interesting happen on your last procurement?”
Thresh waved his hand vaguely.
“I met a human woman who was choosing to present as male for reasons other than dysphoria or personal preference.”
“Oh.That’s...less exciting than I expected.”
“Really?” And he leaned forward, making a v-shape with his arms on the table and tenting his fingers in front of his chin. “She bound her breasts and wore pieces of very structured clothing that she admitted didn’t fit her right because it was made for average male skeletal and fat proportions. Her human masculine posturing also led to unnecessary escalation of physical conflict as a way to overcompensate for what she perceived as her natural human feminine tendencies. And, in her own words, she only did these things because she didn’t want to appear as a target while traveling through the backroads. And she wasn’t physically weak by any means. A scrapper-I’d suppose you’d call it-who didn’t back down easily but knew when she was outpaced. Fairly well-suited to her lifestyle overall. However, this young woman was so ensconced in a specific sexual-social narrative, she felt she had to physically alter herself via
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