Bonus Story: Small Talk

on March 2, 2008 in Other Tales

This story starts the first day of Welcome Weekend.

After checking in early Friday afternoon, Shiel the kobold carried her possessions up the stairs in two canvas duffel bags and a leather knapsack on her back.

She had human-style clothing in one of the bags, but she’d made a point to show up in traditional garments, including an open leather vest.

Though kobolds and their goblin kin were often lumped together with mammals, they lacked the essential defining trait of that group. This, coupled with their generally “monstrous” appearance relative to humanity, had led to all sorts of unpleasant rumors regarding their reproductive methods.

Shiel’s teachers and relatives had all suggested she cover herself up for the comfort of herself and others during the long coach trip from the Kurhalt Mountains, but she’d seen no reason to go out of her way to cushion human sensibilities.

The door to room 421 was already open. A goblin sat cross-legged on the floor, playing a wooden recorder. She was similar in stature to Shiel but with larger, floppier ears and a greenish tinged complexion, where Shiel’s was somewhat ruddy. Where Shiel was dressed in short leather pants and a vest, the goblin wore a dress. Shiel noted with some approval that the top was cut about halfway between navel and neck.

She waited in the doorway until her roommate glanced up.

“Hello!” the goblin said, putting the instrument down. “You must be Shile.”

“It’s actually pronounced ‘SHEE-uhl’,” Shiel said. “And you are Oru?”

“Yes,” Oru said. “Sorry. I’m still figuring out how to decipher names in Pax.”

“It’s alright,” Shiel said. “I’m sure you’ll be only the first of many to get it wrong.” She set her bags down on the child-sized bed and looked around the room, a little warily. “So… they’ve paired off the kobold and the goblin. Tell me, are you at all surprised?”

“Not really, no,” Oru said. “I mean, my room assignment letter said as much. Didn’t yours?”

“What I mean is, didn’t it strike you as a bit convenient?”

“It did, a bit,” Oru said. “I remember thinking it’ll be nice to have a few things in common with my roommate, and not be pestered by a lot of questions.”

“Do you know who’s in the room across the hall?” Shiel asked. “It’s the only other door on the floor with low doorknobs.”

“A couple of little gnomy things,” Oru said. “I thought about going over and introducing myself, but they looked half scared to death as it was. I didn’t want to frighten them.”

“So, you just take it for granted that your appearance would frighten them?” Shiel asked. “You don’t think they worry about other races being frightened by them?”

“I expect not,” Oru said, shrugging. “If I were a gnome, that would be pretty low on my list of worries.”

“Well, I don’t mean any offense,” Shiel said, “and certainly I’m not saying I wouldn’t care to room with you… but I’d be a little more impressed with this university’s commitment to diversity if they’d mixed the gnomes and the so-called ‘goblinoids’ instead of separating us out.”

“I think they must be kin,” Oru said. “They look alike to me.”

“Oru!” Shiel said. “That’s a terribly racist thing to say.”

“Well, they do,” Oru said. She yawned. “Ugh. Everybody told me to avoid naps or I’ll never get used to being awake during the day, but I don’t know if I’m going to make it much longer. I hope you don’t mind if I crash in a bit.”

“No, I’ll probably join you,” Shiel said. “It’s been a long journey.”

“You’re from out-of-province?” Oru asked. “Oh, dummy me… there are no mountains around here. My village is only about half a day away.”

“So close to a human city?” Shiel asked. “Doesn’t that get uncomfortable?”

“It makes it easier to get things like TVs,” Oru said. She beamed and pointed to a black wooden box, open one side, which sat on the corner of her desk. “It’s just a small one, secondhand, but it works fine.”

“Nice,” Shiel said. She’d never actually seen a television before, but she felt this was an appropriate response.

After the first floor meeting concluded that evening, Shiel and Oru returned to their shared room. They were both wide awake now.

“I don’t know what to make of it all,” Shiel said, shaking her head. “I didn’t know there’d be so much human blood in this dorm.”

“Earlier today you were all in favor of mixing and matching,” Oru said.

“I think we’ll get enough exposure to humans in our classes,” Shiel said. “I thought the idea of setting aside this hall was to provide a safe space.”

“You can’t feel safe if humans are around?”

“You heard that Kiersta,” Shiel said. “This school sanctions delving.”

“You can’t judge a whole race on the actions of a few bad adventurers,” Oru said. “Responsible delvers stick to ancient ruins and long-abandoned catacombs.”

“And if it turns out that some other intelligent race has moved into the ‘abandoned’ complex?”

“Have you ever been raided by humans?” Oru asked.

“Not me or my family personally, no,” Shiel said. “But others in our warren have been less fortunate. Life on some of the levels is pretty brutal.”

“Um, no offense… but…”

“But what?” Shiel asked.

“Isn’t life in the mines pretty brutal, anyway?” Oru asked.

“Well, it isn’t like our society’s perfect,” Shiel said. “But we don’t need a bunch of tall pinkskins swooping down and taking whatever we’ve managed to make.”

“How do you spell ‘requisitioned’?” Oru asked. The goblin was at her half-sized desk, writing a history essay. Now that classes had begun, she’d started wearing skirts and halter tops or blouses.

Shiel spelled the word for her. She’d also exchanged her traditional garb, for jeans and a t-shirt.

“Pax has too many letters,” Oru complained. “Twenty-seven. Gobol only has seventeen. Who needs a bunch of vowels mucking things up? It’s only more to write.”

“I think it’s one of the few things the humans have gotten right,” Shiel said. “It’s more… egalitarian.”

“What do vowels have to do with egalitarianism?” Oru asked. “I mean, besides the fact that ‘egalitarianism’ has a lot of vowels.”

“Well, think about how things work in Gobol,” Shiel said. “How do you work things out when you’re reading and you run into an unfamiliar word?”

“Well, I don’t run into many unfamiliar words,” Oru said. “But when I do, I usually ask my mother. Though, she isn’t here… but then, everything I’m reading these days is in Pax, so it works out in the end.”

“Fine, so imagine Pax had no vowels,” Shiel said. “If you were looking at a word like ‘kobold’ and it was just ‘k-b-l-d’, how would you know if it was ‘kobold’ or ‘cabled’ or ‘kibbled’ or ‘cobbled’?”

“Seems like it could be ‘cobbled’, anyway,” Oru said, frowning. “K-o-b-o-l-d. Why isn’t that like ‘kob… old’?”

“Right, but my point is, without the vowels, you wouldn’t even be able to narrow it down that far,” Shiel said. “You would have to learn the language word by word. A native speaker who’s taught to read and write from childhood might pick it up fairly easily, but things are a lot harder for somebody who’s an outsider of any kind. It’s easier to keep the knowledge of the language contained, to keep an air of mystery about it.”

“But that’s like Pax,” Oru said. “I mean, they’ve got about forty different ways to write out any sound. I keep getting marked down for spelling because I don’t know which one to use.”

“It’s not perfect,” Shiel said. “The humans have borrowed so many words from here and there that the rules can be a bit of a mess. But even if you can’t always spell everything, you can sound out most words even if you’ve never seen them written before. Learning those twenty-seven letters gives you a greater command of the language right off the bat than learning the seventeen letters of Gobol.”

“If you say so,” Oru said.

“Trust me, if you were trying to go from Pax to Gobol, you’d appreciate the difference,” Shiel said. “Of course, either one’s better than my language.”

“I thought Kobol and Gobol were pretty similar,” Oru said. “I mean, I can understand about half of what you say in it.”

“But I doubt you’d understand anything I wrote in it. See, every word’s a different symbol. Children lucky enough to be from lower level families learn the more common ones, but the only people who can keep up with all of them are the priests who spend their whole lives studying them.”

“You’re from the lower levels, then?”

“Upper lower levels, but, yes,” Shiel said. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford to come here otherwise.”

“See, goblin society’s not like that,” Oru said.

“It isn’t?” Shiel asked.

“No,” Oru said proudly. “We don’t divide ourselves into levels. I mean, we’ve got the chieftains and everything, but that’s it.”

“So, everybody in your village can afford a TV set and a college education?”

“Well, no,” Oru said. “But, I mean, anybody can work for those things.”

“And everybody who works towards them will achieve them?” Shiel asked.

“If they work hard enough, yes,” Oru said.

“I see,” Shiel said.

“What, you don’t believe me?” Oru said. “Our laws treat everybody the same. Okay, yes, some families have more money than others, but everybody has the same opportunities.”

“Look, how do you spell your name, in Gobol?” Shiel asked.

“Well, I don’t, strictly speaking,” Oru said. “A woman’s name always starts and ends with a vowel, like my mother’s name is Aru, and my sister’s name is Eru. There’s no way to write that in Gobol. They’d all just be ‘R’.”

“So how does your name get marked down?”

“‘Donu’s Foal’, would be the translation,” Oru said. “That’s my father’s name for me. We call that an ‘attachment name’… if I married, I’d take a new one from my husband.”

“Right,” Shiel said. “So if a goblin woman is mentioned in a story, or official records, or a history, or whatever, she’s always going to be referenced by her father or husband, some male relative.”

“Right,” Oru said, nodding. “What’s your point?”

“That’s one group the rules aren’t the same for. Women.”

“Well, you might as well say the rules aren’t the same for men,” Oru said. “Anyway, it’s like I said: there’s no other way to write our names.”

“And that doesn’t seem limiting to you?” Shiel asked.

“Well, I’ve never thought about it much,” Oru said. “But, what do you suggest we should do instead?”

“What if instead of ‘Oru’, your name was ‘Doru’?”

Oru laughed.

“Well, then I’d be a boy,” she said. “Anyway, are you going to tell me women are better off in your warren?”

“No, actually,” Shiel said. “I’d say we have it worse.”

“Well, then, don’t talk to me about goblin women.”

“I’m going downstairs,” Oru announced. “I’ll be back up in an hour or so.”

“Moeli again?” Shiel asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Why a hobgoblin?” Shiel asked. “Aren’t there a couple goblin boys over on the other side?”

“We’ve got a saying,” Oru said. “‘Once you go hob, you…’ well, it doesn’t really rhyme in this language. But hobgoblins have a reputation for being reliable where goblin boys are so flighty and immature, you know? Also, they can reach things on higher shelves.” She giggled. “And that’s to say nothing of the big, you know… ears.”

“And you don’t think you’d be happier with somebody more like you?” Shiel asked.

“Well, first off, who says another goblin would be ‘more like me’?” Oru asked. “I mean, if somebody acted like they knew you… knew what you were like… because they knew another kobold, you’d probably be offended.”

“That’s different,” Shiel said.

“Is it?” Oru asked. “You want every race to be appreciated. Well, I’m doing my part to appreciate hobgoblins.”

“And does Moeli appreciate goblins?”

“He does,” Oru said. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

“Who do you think you’ll vote for?” Oru asked Shiel on Friday morning, the day of the floor election.

“There’s a theory that secret ballots are essential to the democratic process,” Shiel said.

“I’m not asking to see your ballot, I’m asking who you think you’re going to vote for,” Oru said.

“Probably Mack,” Shiel said. “I’m a little conflicted. She seems a bit assimilated, you know? But humans seem to be genuinely afraid of her, and that could be a good thing for getting things done. Sooni at least looks less human, but she seems a bit useless.”

“I don’t know that Mack’s much better,” Oru said. “Sex games, naked in the hallway…”

“I know what you mean,” Shiel said. She sighed. “She made a big show the first weekend, but since then? I don’t know how somebody with such an… involved… personal life could be an effective advocate. I should have ran. I really should have.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Puddy talked me out of it,” Shiel said. “She said she’d be managing Mack’s campaign and meeting regularly with other residents to find out their concerns, but as far as I can tell she’s not even talking to Mack any more. I suppose I should know better than to listen to the promises of a dwarf-blooded human. Not that I’m racist…”

“Oh, no, of course not,” Oru said, rolling her eyes. “I suppose I’ll vote for Mack. They’re both a bit silly, but if you look at how Mack treats her golem friend…”

“I noticed that, too,” Shiel said. “It’s strata different from how Sooni acts towards her little war band. There’s potential there, at least, and a brain of some sort. I suppose if she gets elected, we can always put some pressure on her, make sure she keeps on track.”

“Sure,” Oru said. “You do that.”

“Don’t you care about the situation on campus?” Shiel asked.

“I do,” Oru said. “But I’m here for an education. Sometimes it seems like you’re only here to stir up trouble.”

“Trouble’s already stirred,” Shiel said. “I’m just pointing it out. What’s wrong with that?”

“Too much effort,” Oru said. “You should remember that whatever’s going on, we’ve only got to put up with it for four years and then we’re gone and somebody else can deal with it.”

“And you’re satisfied with that?”

“I’m not doing back flips,” Oru said. “I’d like some things to be different, but I’m not going to throw away a lot of my precious free time on a lost cause.”

“Really? So how are things going with Moeli?” Shiel asked.

“Does a thumb in the ear mean the same thing to kobolds that it means to goblins?”

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11 Responses to “Bonus Story: Small Talk”

  1. Gavin says:

    What the hell is the 27th letter of the alphabet?

    Current score: 0
  2. pedestrian says:

    Here I was thinking it was Pi!

    Current score: 0
  3. WsntHere says:

    Pi are round, cake are….

    Current score: 0
  4. Daniel says:

    The ampersand was often used as a letter, according to Wikipedia, but I believe Chris is correct that it’s ‘Kh’.

    Current score: 0
  5. Maryam says:

    I’ve been pronouncing it like he Arabic letter that we transliterate to kh. It kinda sounds like you’re hacking something up. This video has the pronunciation at the beginning.

    Current score: 2
  6. tijay says:

    Huh I guess I was pronouncing the name right without realising it

    Go me woo

    Current score: 0