The skraylings are a sentient (or, if you prefer, sapient) species which evolved on the American continent from an arboreal omnivore of the family Procyonidae (which includes raccoons and kinkajous). They are found along the eastern seaboard of what we call North America, and in scattered communities throughout South America. Whilst each community is independent, a group of islands in the Caribbean commonly known as The Seven Cities is their heartland.
Skraylings are more-or-less human in shape and appearance, having evolved in convergence with Homo sapiens at around the same time. Thus they walk upright—though their legs are a little shorter in proportion to their torso than a human—and are mostly hairless. Like the majority of procyonids they are plantigrade, that is, they walk on their whole foot, like humans, not just their toes (like cats and dogs). Their fingernails and toenails are thick and greyish in colour, like a dog’s claws. They have hairless vestigial tails, about 5cm (2in) long, and thus find it uncomfortable to sit down on their backsides as a human would; hence they tend to kneel or crouch.
They have greyish skin and black hair, and their eyes range from golden yellow to a rich sherry brown. Like cats, dogs and indeed most other non-primate mammals, they are red-green colourblind. They are a sexually dimorphic species, that is, the males and females are physically quite distinct.
Females are taller and more stocky in build than the males, and their head hair generally does not grow more than a few centimetres in length. Their canine teeth are slightly more pronounced than those of humans, but small compared to those of males (see below).
Males are shorter and more gracile, and their head hair grows down to their shoulders and sometimes beyond, but they do not develop facial hair like human males. Their head hair develops white streaks during adolescence and the same patterning extends to the skin of the face, which is blotched pink and grey in a symmetrical pattern. They also have pronounced canine teeth despite their omnivorous diet.
Because the differences between the sexes are in many ways the opposite of those in humans, this causes a lot of confusion in both species!
(Note: all the skraylings who have visited Europe so far are from the north-eastern coast; it is not known if other distinct races of skraylings are found further south.)
There are many different skrayling cultures, but one thing they have in common is that males and females typically live apart, with the females living in settled communities whilst the males form nomadic bands. Female communities are thus responsible for most of the agriculture, technology and academic study, whilst males are traders, entertainers and hunter-gatherers.
Because of their colourblindness, the colour blue is emotionally and culturally significant, playing a similar role to the colour red in many human societies. Blue minerals such as lapis lazuli, cobalt and turquoise are prized above gold, and only high-status skraylings may wear blue clothing. In Vinland, adult males tattoo their faces to enhance their skin patterns and also braid their hair and thread it with beads. The number, colour and material indicates role and status. As with clothing, the wearing of blue beads is a sign of rank.
Whilst the sexes live separately, they come together for the annual breeding season at events that are somewhat like the ancient Olympic games, combining sporting contests with music, drama and dancing. The performers are all male, the audience female, and during the festival the females choose mates from amongst the competitors.
Each female chooses only one mate per festival, but an individual may have many different mates during one lifetime. When a male is chosen, he gives his mate a necklace of beads bearing his clanmarks. This necklace is passed down to their child, ensuring that the father can identify his sons and claim them at a later date. Children are raised by their mothers for the first few years; when the boys are old enough, their fathers take them into their nomadic bands.
Because matings are temporary, many skraylings take a heart-mate (lifetime companion) from amongst their own sex. This often involves a sexual relationship, but may simply be a deep and abiding friendship.
Another unusual feature of skrayling gender expression is that male Outspeakers (linguists who specialise as negotiators, ambassadors and the like) present as female: they have their fangs removed shortly after their adult teeth come through, they do not undergo facial tattooing, and they dye and cut their hair to look more like women. They are not necessarily transsexual, however; their social identity is female, but their personal identity may be either sex. (Gender identity amongst skraylings is complicated, for reasons covered in the separate page on magic.)
Skraylings do not make much use of mechanical devices but have developed their knowledge of chemistry and ceramics far beyond that of Europe. They can make a variety of toughened glass and earthenware materials, and have developed chemical mixtures for lighting, heating and cooling. These latter devices are probably the best-known of their “magicks” in Europe, as the skraylings use glass globes filled with lightwater (a chemoluminescent liquid that fluoresces in contact with oxygen) to light their ships and homes.
Their chemical skills also extend to the identification and distillation of plant pharmaceuticals. These are used for both medicinal and recreational purposes, the latter particularly through a plant called qoheetsakhan (possibly related to the Mexican herb zacatechichi), which is burned as a type of psychoactive incense.
Skraylings have other knowledge and abilities often described as magic, but these deserve a separate article.
As in our world, the humans inhabiting the Americas speak a huge range of languages in many different families. The skraylings have fewer languages, since they travel widely and have a more cohesive culture, and their vocabulary includes a number of loan words from their human neighbours, particularly foodstuffs and technologies that were developed by humans and later adopted by the skraylings.
There are three skrayling languages encountered in the Night’s Masque books:
- Vinlandic – the everyday language of the skrayling merchants
- Aiyalura – a much more ancient tongue
- Tradetalk – an English-based pidgin used for communication with humans
I give a short non-technical description of each one below, with links to further details for those who are interested. These descriptions include pronunciation guides where appropriate; however as I mentioned in a blog post back in 2011, I deliberately designed these languages to be fairly easy for an Anglophone reader to read and pronounce, rather than to show off my linguistic skills!
As noted on my page about the skraylings, the two sexes live apart for most of the year, and they also speak different languages. Young skraylings grow up speaking their mother’s language, but when the boys join their fathers’ clan they have to learn a new language. Male languages are also spoken across a wider area than female ones, since their speakers travel a lot and interact more directly with other clans. The two sexes understand one another’s languages well enough, but apart from a few linguistic specialists (called Outspeakers) they prefer to speak their own language when talking together.
Vinlandic is a male language spoken along the northeastern coast of North America, from New England up into Canada. Since it is a second language for all its speakers I decided it needed to be simple and easy to learn, with no fancy syntax or morphology. I also decided it would lack labial sounds (p, b and m) because displaying their enlarged canines is an important aspect of male skrayling body language and thus sounds that involve closing the lips would be avoided. Instead it has a lot of sibillant, throaty and trilling sounds, so that to the Elizabethans it sounds more like an animal growling than proper speech!
Most of the skrayling character names in Night’s Masque are Vinlandic: Kiiren, Sekhaarhjarret, Erishen, Ruviq, Hennaq, Tanijeel.
Aiyalura is a female language and hence seldom encountered in the Night’s Masque books. Like Vinlandic it is not the mother tongue of any extant settlement; however this is because it is the ancestor of a group of present-day female languages spoken in the same region as Vinlandic. It thus occupies a place similar to Latin in skrayling culture, being used for academic and record-keeping purposes.
With Aiyalura, my main aim was to make it contrast well enough with Vinlandic for readers to have a chance of guessing it was a different language. Hence it has lots of vowels (some of which are distinguished with accents) and is very multisyllabic, giving it a melodic quality that contrasts with the guttural sound of Vinlandic.
An example of Aiyalura: Icorrowe amayi’a. Dë sasayíhami onapama.
Tradetalk is a pidgin that developed out of the reluctance of Vinlandic traders to speak standard English because its prevalence of labial sounds (see above). It therefore uses a limited English vocabulary chosen to avoid these sounds. For example, the Tradetalk word for “man, male skrayling” is fellah, whilst “woman, female skrayling” is she-fellah.