Thursday, July 05, 2012

Creeping Hieroglyphs

After I wrote last night's letter and handed it off to the postbird, the innkeeper led me upstairs to a narrow stone room roughly the size of a coat closet, which I am sharing with an elderly tortoise.

At least, I'm fairly sure it's a tortoise. It hasn't actually come out of its shell yet. I'm certain there's something in there, though, if only because of the snoring.

Exhausted as I was, I collapsed into the heap of mismatched cushions that serves as a bed and fell asleep almost instantly. I dreamed that I had become a creature of living flame. Every time I tried to write a letter, the paper would burn up in my hands, and the words I'd written would speak themselves in the crackling of the flames.

I woke to find that I had left the curtains open last night and was now lying in direct sunlight. This explained the dream. Even early-morning sunlight is hot in the Desert. The room was far too hot to stay in at that point, so I left the tortoise shell to its nap and went out to look at the village. I'd only seen it in the dark last night.

Rikanta is a small town, perhaps two or three dozen houses, centered around an old sandstone castle. These are fairly common in this region. Like most of them, this one was built when the Locust Marauders were at their peak and had started making forays into the Golden Desert. You can still see the tooth marks in the stone. The Marauders are long gone, though, and the castle has been empty for nearly as long. It hasn't had an enemy to keep out in decades. The town's Chooser* lives in a house now, and the castle's few intact rooms are home only to sand-colored day bats and the occasional night wanderer. Swallows and potter wasps build neat clay nests under the crumbling battlements. The outer walls shrink just a little every year as people take the old, elegantly cut stone blocks to build new houses. They're not about to let good stone just sit around.

Most of Rikanta's buildings have a thick, chunky look as a result; they are small houses built with castle-sized blocks of stone. Many of the walls are thicker than the width of the doorways. As well as looking funny, this is actually a good design, keeping the houses cool during the day and warm during the night. There is very little that insulates as well as two feet of solid stone.

The architecture, however, wasn't the first thing I noticed in Rikanta. The town is overgrown with creeping hieroglyphs, a form of two-dimensional life adapted to live on dry stone. They look like letters, neatly painted in faded brown dye, a growth of random symbols that never quite resolve themselves into a readable alphabet. Their seeds are windborne and look like commas. The glyphs alarmed me at first - had the word-plague spread here from Arkit? Fortunately, a few townspeople assured me that the glyphs had been around for decades and had never shown any sign of interfering with the town's actual writing - though the appearance of the occasional Halsi character in the otherwise random symbols suggests that the two might be interbreeding.

Neat, geometric, and completely incomprehensible (though many linguists have tried), the glyphs apparently started at ground level and simply worked their way up. The popular theory in Rikanta is that they started on an old vase or pot buried in someone's basement. Craftsmen in several of the old Desert civilizations used creeping hieroglyphs as decoration, encouraging them to grow on pottery and carvings. No one is sure whether these craftsmen liked the nearly-legible patterns or if they were just too lazy to add their own decorations.

Wherever they came from, the glyphs have spread by now to nearly every (previously) unmarked surface in sight. They seem to fill the role that ivy or tambourine wisteria might in a wetter place. Lines of elegant symbols twist their way up stone blocks and wooden posts, along walls and across rooftops, curling around corners and tracing the most minute imperfections in any surface. On occasion, they will even spread to the skin of a person who sits too long in one place.

Mammals usually don't care; the glyphs are hidden beneath their fur, and being two-dimensional, cause no actual physical change. Some say that they even keep fleas and bedbugs away. The town's furless inhabitants are somewhat more likely to object. Many of the reptilian townspeople have rather dramatic scale patterns of their own, and they don't want to add a layer of meaningless symbols on top of them.

Fortunately, the glyphs can be killed by sufficiently heated debate. Inscripted people often go to the town hall, a stone building completely devoid of glyphs, and attend meetings of the elders' council for a dose of remedial bickering.

* Chooser is a position somewhere between mayor and magistrate; most towns of any size at all have a council of elders and a Chooser. The relationship between them is a complex one, and I don't fully understand it yet, but I suspect that the Chooser's job is to step in when the council finally becomes too exhausted to argue anymore.

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