The Smert Desert, Surrounding Al Zhuro

 

No one lived in the Great Smert Desert for many years, save the nomadic centaur herds, though travelers have occasionally found strange ruins in the burning wastes. Not many travelers go looking, however. The temperatures are high enough to fry eggs on a rock by mid-morning, and it is all too easy to die. Yet there is a culture which thrives here: this hostile desert has a monumental oasis in its heart. This is Al Zhuro, the home of the symbiotic Bothare and Kitik people for the last six years. In ancient days it was the center of a mighty empire. Fallen for a thousand years, Al Zhuro is rising once again. Working together, Bothare and Kitik work to heal the wounds of their long exile, build trading connections, and become a great people once again.
If you enter Al Zhuro, you enter a place of long memory, ancient tales and careful customs. Read a little about them below.

The Al Zhuroni People

Note From The Authors: the Bothare culture is inspired and informed by the Berber culture of Morocco, the art of Southern India, and especially by the Roma and Romani peoples. We have done our best to do extensive research and have used many ideas from these very real and vibrant cultures in our work on Parmeshen, but please note as readers that this is a fantasy and we've adapted or invented many things in the creation of the culture. We hope to hold up only a mirror to the real world that will help people to see what needs to change in our own. At the bottom of the page please see a list of links that will let the reader, if they're so inclined, learn about the cultures in our own world from which we drew inspiration. Please read some of these pages. These peoples deserve your time and your respect.

 

The culture of Al Zhuro combines the needs and abilities of two symbiotic races, the Kitik and the Bothare. The Kitik are the native sentient race of the Smert. Distantly related to cuttlefish, they are shapeshifters who can take many forms. Their partners are the desert-adapted human race called the Bothare. This dual-species people is ancient, their roots lost in time and legend.  Their storied homeland, Al Zhuro, is an oasis ten miles wide and twenty miles long in the heart of the Smert desert. There the Al Zhuroni folk keep their greatest treasures: their wise elders, their children, and the centralized knowledge resivoir and mediator of their communication network known as the Zhuro Chroi (Soul of the City). But since their homeland is not rich in resources, most adults focus on portable trades and prefer to travel rather than living sedendary lives, returning to Al Zhuro regularly but travelling for work.  In older times this was less of a choice than a necessity: if they settled in any numbers in the days before the rediscovery of Al Zhuro, they were soon driven out of many countries. Only the North Isles, Hytec and Euland give them welcome. In many places they're treated as public nusiances. In Elluthia they're treated as vermin. Understandably, they perfer to keep moving.
Known to outsiders as Travelers, they are known for their abilities in entertainment, their knack for finding food even in the most desolate places, for their cunning and for their secrecy. The Bothare are often pejoratively called 'bothies' after the word 'bothy', a word for a temporary shack build by vagrants. The Bothare hate this slur and its implications that they are dirty and incompetent. The kitik are pejoratively called 'slimies' and are often called monsters and devils by those who believe that kitik eat children. Since kitik can't easily digest mammalian meat, this is both an insult and nonsense.
The Al Zhuroni people pride themselves on their personal cleanliness and their immaculate travelling homes.

Their name for themselves as a whole means 'Of Al Zhuro'. The names for the two species translate as 'Children of Boti', and 'Children of Kiti' their name for the Lord of the Sun and the Lady Moon, divine twins in their mythology. As children of the Sun and Moon, they carry their founding spirits' gifts and must abide by certian laws they believe the Sun, Moon and their younger sister the Earth taught the people.

Exports And Trade

Al Zhuro is rising to prominence as the trading hub of the continent: a safe place where all traders can pass goods, buy and sell. Al Zhuro has strict laws against the bondage of sentient creatures and cruelty to any living thing, but beyond that the Al Zhuroni are generally lenient trading partners. It's also known that the Bothare can see falsehood and the Kitik can sense falsehood in the mind, so deals struck in Al Zhuro are sure to be fair. The roads the folk of Al Zhuro have created and maintained in the last half decade have made the terrible Smert Desert passable for travel and trade.
The Al Zhuroni are trained in specific trades as young people, but when their own works aren't wanted in an area they fall back on a handful of common skills:


Merchanting- By buying what is cheap in each area and selling what is expensive, the Bothare can make a good living. An especially lucrative trade is the sale of Kelisha root, an extremely effective birth-control herb that they gather in the desert at the center of the continent. This root is, however, banned by some religions and dangerous to carry in these areas. 
Currently, what really sells is their botaniki technology, which consists of domes and plates that can transform sunlight into electricity. This technology is rapidly replacing coal and kerosene use throughout the world.

Some individuals and families travel consistent routes for specific trades, which they call the Spice Roads, the Cloth Roads, the Medicine Roads and so forth. The Bothare also act as an informal international mail delivery service for the contacts who build a relationship with them: they often act as couriers for friends in the North Isles, for example.

Harvest Work- You can work a circular path around the continent with the seasons by bringing in winter wheat in Oura in January,  followed by spring crops in Raou, corn and apple work in Burnithak, cabbage, wheat work in Amova, tea harvesting in the North Isles, apple and root harvesting in Amova again and root work in Burnithak, which will get you back to the South by winter. It is a regular source of employment.

Entertaining-Music, dancing and mind-reading tricks are perennial sources of pocket money.

Horse Trading and Selling- The Bothare will never sell outsiders their own dreys, the beautiful palominos they breed with unusual intellegence and never need to bridle. But they will happily train and sell other horse breeds for other peoples.

 

 

Abilities

The folk of Al Zhuro are endowed with a number of gifts, both biological and technological

The Bothare

The Bothare have three great gifts, which they call by the names of the Light, the Change, and The Song. The first two gifts grow out of a biological adaptation of their eyes that has given them the ability to see bioelectrical fields, much as robins, jays and other birds can. They see this pattern as a light around a living body, changing its patterns and levels with emotions. This gives the Bothare a special ability to understand the emotional states of those around them, a great survival trait when interacting with people outside their own culture. They call these people 'gadje', a word that means 'one who cannot see'. In recent years, the language is changing, and 'gadje' is mostly used as a pejorative. Progressive Al Zhuroni use the term 'kidrahae', a term meaning 'cousin' in a very general way, as a polite term for outsiders. The change is a push for better relations, based in their religious belief that God and Their four children created all living things. This makes all entities, in effect, distant cousins. The Al Zhuroni now reserve 'gadje' as a term for the arrogant and the foolish outsider.

In the past, the culture perfected the study of electromagnitisim  and the ability to manipulate these fields down to the atomic level. This ability has been channeled into the ability to 'Change'. Once one of the Bothare has studied an animal and memorized its electromagnetic patterns, they can replicate that pattern in their own atomic structure; they become the animal they studied.

At one time in the distant past, the Bothare worked in tandem with the Kitik and funneled this electromagnetic ability into a very particular technology. Though the memory of how it was created is only now being rediscovered, the technology is self-replacating, and survives to the present. At three weeks of age, each Bothare child is given a heartstone, created by supplying the stone of one of their parents with cobalt, white sand, silver, charcol, lodestone powder and copper. The device absorbs these elements, grows red hot, and splits into two perfect hemispheres of glass, each the right size to fit in the palm of a hand. The new stone is placed on the child's forehead. The Bothare believe this is when the child becomes truly one of them. At that moment, the heartstone reads and maps the electromagnetic patterns of the child's brain, and can show those patterns to any other heartstone and its holder. This creates, in efffect, a short-range telepathic connection stretching a few miles in all directions. This is a great ability and has helped to keep the Bothare safe through the ages, but there is one danger; the heartstone becomes an extension of the holder's mind, and, if destroyed, can severely damage the brain of the victim. Bothare whose heartstones are destroyed die or go mad. 
A much greater example of this technology created the Zhuro Chroi, a central modulator and signal booster for all electromatic signals in the network of kitik minds and Bothare heartstones. Through the Zhuro Chroi (Soul of the City) and resonating towers being put up throughout the world, this network is slowly spreading across Atla. 

Kitik 

The three gifts of the Kitik reflect the gifts of their human counterparts. The Sense, the Song and the Change connect them to one another and to their human partners, though their gifts work slightly differently.

Bodies-Kitik bodies are built in concentric circles of tissue. A thick layer of integumental tissue filled with stacked chromatic cells covers their bodies: think of these cells like a game of jenga. When sent a neural signal the chromatic stacks slide out the right layer of cells to reflect a specific wavelength of light, changing the kitik's coloration. In their relaxed state these cells revert to tidy stacks which reflect all colors, creating the silvery appearance of most kitik. The integument covers several thin layers of heavily innervated muscle tissue in which every single muscle cell has its own nerve, which allows for the amazing control required in mimicry. Once a Kitik has been allowed to study, it can mimic the appearance of any object for a time. This silver skin and the mercury-based blood inside them also acts as a heat defense, reflecting the blazing desert sun and keeping Kitik comfortable at temperatures hot enough to fry eggs on a stone. Kitik breathe through their skin and need a quarter of the water that a human requires.At the very core of a kitik body is the ichor reservoir attached to millions of microscopic tubes that passively pump blood with every muscular movement, keeping the kitik constantly oxygenated and all systems working. This is the perfect body in a desert enviroment, but Kitik suffer in colder climes.
Minds- Under the integument and muscles of a kitik is a thick layer of neural tissue with specific areas of sillica and quartz buildup. A kitik can push bioelectric signals through these resonating crystals and through the air, until the signals impact the watery substrates of living creatures and set off their neural synapses. Kitik are, in effect, telepathic. When a signal amplifying device is available, this signal can be boosted for up to a thousand miles. Their native form of communication is through these signals, though they are extremely quick to learn vocal language.
Kitik minds are specifically geared to the recognition and understanding of patterns, and this makes them extremely skilled in any area with rules: games, language, law, math and science are areas where they excel. They struggle in chaotic enviroments, and will sometimes freeze in place until they've understood something, which can be unnerving to those unfamiliar with it. Rest assured, when a kitik does come to an answer, it'll be the best possible solution.

Laws And Language

The Al Zhuroni keep a strict set of spiritual and physical laws of purity, which helps keep them healthy and safe. They often shorten these into short aphorisims, which are explained below

*Phral, Mara, Marhime*
There are three states of existance in the eyes of the Al Zhuroni; Phral, which translates as 'balanced'. It's a state of physical vitality, and since the Al Zhuroni see everyhting as having a spiritual element, everything from a person's soul to an apple can be described in one of these three states. To be phral is to be wholesome. To keep the state, the Al Zhuroni wash five times a day and wipe down their utencils and the surfaces of their wagons twice a day with a mixture of witch hazel, clove and neem oils.
Mara translates as 'dirty' and implies a nebulous state of something in need of a wash or an adjustment. This is usually used to refer to food; mara foods require more preperation to be considered fit for consumption and should not touch anything but a specific knife, pot and cutting board. These foods include potentially toxic foods such as marsh marigold, acorns, and poultry.
Marhime implies a deeper, more endemic wrongness and implies 'contagious'.  In food, this includes mammal meat and especially blood, which must be drained and dumped away from camp when game is caught and cleaned. Marhime food is always boiled. In individuals, 'marhime' means that the person is unrepentantly breaking with the balance of life; they are most usually banished from the company of their own people or, if they are gadje, scrupulously avoided.


*Your Silence Protects Your People*
The Al Zhuroni are taught from infancy that it's a crime to tell outsiders about their attributes; this means that while much superstition has grown up around them and much of that derogatory, they always have a few secret weapons in times of danger. The Kitik, in particular, were seen by outsiders as eaters of naughty children and monsters that trapped the foolish, and in the days before the rise of Al Zhuro they went to great lengths to hide their species.

*Water Must Touch Fire*
The Al Zhuroni will not drink water that has not been boiled.

*You Shall Not Bow Your Head*
The Al Zhuroni see humiliation, fear and rage as a loss of free will and a sin against life. They can appear almost arrogant in their pride to outsiders, because they will not be forced to bow (IE back down or act obsequiously)

 

*The Balance Must Be Made*

The Al Zhuroni believe that there is a balance to the universe, and that all things have a proper balance. This is the basis of their system of justice. Punishment is a non-issue; a wrong doer must make the balace. For example, if a man caused another man to be unable to work for a day, he owes that man a day's wages. This takes on philosophical dimensions, as the Al Zhuroni see all things as forms of value, including pride. Humiliating someone else incurs a debt as much as causing physical harm would. 
Since law systems outside their home are often arbitrary across countries and discriminatory towards the Al Zhuroni, they usually ignore local law in favor of their own code. This, as you can imagine, causes issues regularly.
The Al Zhuroni are also kept cohesive by their telepathic communication and their language, fochail, which shapes both the way they interact and the way they think. For example, the language has only a few gendered words, but a multitude of words for the level of closeness to another person and many words for emotional states. 

 

Organization


The Al Zhuroni organize themselves along very egalatarian lines. They're formed into twenty seven clans of roughly  three to five hundred members, each nominally led by a 'baro' or keeper. These clans are extremely porus and are more a way of  making sure people know who to take issues to than anything. The usual travelling band is a group of two or three families of assorted clans called a Tserta, a word based on the word for tent, because they pitch their tents together. If the group has a wagon, it's used as the communal storage, cooking area and sleeping quarters for the children of the group.
At the completion of an apprenticeship in a trade,  an  Al Zhuroni youth is marked with a tattoo on either shoulder: their clan on their left shoulder and their profession on their right. ( Kitik cannot be tattooed, but an elder teaches them how to manifest their tattoos in a reliable manner.) At this age their name also chages; they shed the names of their parents and take a professional name, so that a child who had been called Tashi Kamat La Vilo, Tashi Kamat's daughter from Vilo clan, will now be Tashi Dromadano La Vilo, Tashi who watches the roads for Vilo clan. They're then  expected to leave their family tserta and travel with many different groups, keeping knowledge in circulation and finding the place that fits them best. This happens between sixteen and eighteen for Bothare youth, and between four and six years of age for Kitik, who physically and intellectually mature very fast. (The emotional maturity takes a bit longer)
There is no sexual differentiation between male and female members of the Bothare; they see keeping one subset of their people from knowing skills as dangerous to the whole, and as shape-shifters they treat shape as less important than character. Kitik gender is not comparable to human, but they often choose a homanid form somewhere along the gender spectrum of humanity, mimicing features they find attractive in childhood until they have a 'default' appearance they enjoy.
Every individual is expected to know how to fight, how to survive alone in an emergency, and how to do their craft to the best of their ability. Their language has few gendered pronouns. This cultural trait would probably be impossible among the human members without kelisha, a root they gather on the edges of the Smert desert and distill into a very effective birth control tonic for humans and other mammalian species. 

To help with long-distance communication out of range of their telepathic network, the Al Zhuroni teach their children a pictograph code that can be chalked, carved, scratched or painted wherever it's needed to impart important details. This is the patrin, and contains both practical and spiritual significance. 

 


Legends
The Al Zhuroni belief system is based around a series of interconnected legends.
 

Creation

In the beginning of all things, God had four children,  and They sang, and in the song They named Their children. Marhaman, eldest and greatest, Boti golden glowing, Kiti silver shining, Atlati spark of life. And Their children danced when They sang, and the steps of their dance set the paths of the stars and the turn of the earth and the pattern of the world. And God was glad.
 

Together, the Children of God began to make living things. Each made creatures after their own nature. Marhaman made things that ran like perfect clockwork; ants and bees, sharks and snakes and lizards. Boti created things full of passion and joy; flowers that splash color across the world, the fox who is so bright a red and the lion that runs so well. Kiti made things of cunning and wit; the cat and the owl, the plants that hold secret medicines, the witty raven, the coyote and the jackal who sing to her silver disk in the night.  And Atlati made the tall trees that shelter, the lovely deer and the horse that works so hard, the grass and the grain and the fruits that feed all creatures.

It’s said that in those days, Marhaman took each thing that his siblings made and wove it into the pattern of the world. He wanted the world to be a perfect place, never changing, never decaying. But his brother Boti said that was no good, because if nothing changed, nothing could grow. Marhaman did not see his brother's point. He thought only of maintaining his perfect, unchanging order.

 Boti pressed his brother. He had an idea for creatures that could dream and think as they did. They’d have new ideas, he told his brother, and make the world glorious with them.

Marhaman did not approve. He hated the destruction of his good order that might come of too many minds meddling. Again and again, he made his arguments for a world where all things were unchanging, perfect in their patterns.He was oldest,and thought he knew best, and as they talked that bitter pride darkened his heart. 

The talk became an argument. Kiti and Atlati stood with their younger brother, because they wanted to see these new children who could dream. God Themself said that They would like to see Boti try it, and gave Their blessing. But Marhaman refused. And the longer they argued, the more proud and bitter Marhaman was, until he was in such a rage that he struck his own brother, and Boti bled.

That was the moment when everything changed. It was the first act of hatred the world had seen.

And Boti took a handful of earth, let his bright blood drip onto it, and made the first creature with imagination. 

Seeing this, Marhaman turned his back on his family and walked away. He declared himself O Beng. The word means 'opponent' in your language, for he had become the opponent of his siblings and his parent. And God cried.

Since that first day of strife, O Beng has set to breaking whatever good thing his family makes, and he endlessly tries to reduce all beings to instinct and take away the free will his brother and sisters gave them. When a person acts from senseless rage, from thoughtless fear or greed, when he degrades another, he gives up his free will and does the work of O Beng. To do those things is to be marhime.

So now the tale is told.

 

Light

When O Beng had betrayed his family and began to work against them, he was very good at undoing the order he'd once made, creating disorder, disease and rot. His siblings were constantly wary of him, and the three of them took turns standing guard. One night, Atlati was taking her turn while her brother and sister did their work, and O Beng made himself into a bird and sang her to sleep. While she slept and the world was unguarded, O Beng set about his mischief. He planted terror and hate in the hearts of all living creatures like the seeds of weeds, set poisons in even the clearest water, made mushrooms that were poisonous in the shape of those that were good, and created things made to mock the form of  good life; the wild pig and the vampire, the hailstorm and the ice storm, the weasel and the wolverine, the wasp and the leech.  He might have done much worse, but Boti came running, and there was battle in heavan and on earth. It took Kiti, Boti and Atlati together to run O Beng off.

After that, it was decided that there must be a constant guard against the evil and the dark. So Kiti took a handful of her brother's light and rubbed it into a handful of her sister's seeds, and walked up into the sky, scattering them far and wide, and where they fell a glowing white flower bloomed. Since that day, the flowers have bloomed in the night sky, guiding and guarding us all. And so the tale is told.

 

Glory And Shame

In the beginning of the world, my people were born to the Sun, and we were given a green valley in a golden land, rich and ripe and alive. But we were lonely children. In the night, one lonely child sat by a pool under a moon as round as a ripe persimmion, and sighed. "I wish I were not alone," they said.

And the Lady Moon took pity on her brother's child. So, from her shadows and light and the reflection of her moonlight on water, she made the first of her own children to sit beside the Child of the Sun. The Children of the Moon were our mirrors and our balance, the moonlight to our sunlight. They were beautiful, and they were never lonely, for they shared a Song. Each of them could listen to every other across hundreds of miles, singing in their hearts.

The Children of the Sun longed for the Song, wept for it and wished for it. And Boti took pity on his children. He went to his sister and said, 'let us give my children their own way to sing with yours'. So he reached inside himself, and brought out a perfect gem of amber, tall as a man and as wide. Within it Kiti placed brimming handfuls of her light and her soul-song, until it beat like a heart.  From this, they broke a thousand tiny chips, each as perfect a gem as its mother, each shining. One of these was given to each Child of the Sun, and they could hear one another and the Children of the Moon in their hearts and were joyous.  Together, they placed the gem in the center of the valley, and around it they built the greatest of all cities, a song of gold and spice made real. In the center of this great City lay the gem, and they called it the Soul of the City, 'Zhuro Chroi'. From this City, my people ruled the golden lands. 

It was a time of glory. For two thousand years, we were kings. 

But as darkness follows day, so shadows crept in. 

 

 

In time, we grew all too proud, haughty in our mastery and our might. In the minds of the Children of the Sun grew a terrible pride. In the hearts of the Children of the Moon there grew shells so thick that they were like stone.And we forgot the laws of balance.We turned away from what was pure, and the land that had once fed us now shrank under our arrogance and our demands.

There was a great man among us then, and he saw the madness that had come over us. He pleaded with his people, but he was not heeded.

 In desperation, he stole the Zhuro Chroi and ran with it away, hiding it far and far from all eyes. He called on God to hide it until the people had learned the error of their ways.

Without its Soul, the Song fell silent. Without the Song, the Children of the Moon lost their way and wandered, we know not where. Without the Children of the Moon, the Children of the Sun were lost.  We scattered like dust before the wind, scattered from that place where the sun shone gold. On that day, God wept.

 

And to this day we wander, and will wander until we are cleansed of our sins, 

and the Zhuro Chroi is found once more...

 

Further Reading

As we said, we were inspired by several cultures that deserve a great deal more than a passing mention. Below are links to several good resources.

I, Roma- An Interview With Ian Hancock, Roma Ambassador
 

The Romani Archives And Documentation Center

What's In A Name? Romani are not 'gypsies'

Roma Proud-musings on Roma life from one who's lived it

Amazigh, The Free People: Who Are The Berber Tribe? 

The Berber Of Morocco

The Culture And Arts Of Morocco