The Metropolitan Museum of Qymmos was an immense building, taking up almost four city blocks, though it was divided into quadrants with walking streets going between them and arched bridges between the upper floors, so in some sense, it felt like it was four connected buildings rather than one. Qymmos was the god of Sets, of Categorization and Identification, and Isra wondered whether they’d had some argument in the construction of the building. The clerics of Qymmos typically preferred for things to be what they called the central example of its category, the chair that was the most like a chair, the apple that was most like an apple. The museum, by contrast, seemed to be the only thing of its type in the entire world. Perhaps that was how they justified it.
They had a brief ‘drinking breakfast’ at a cafe outside the museum, with a thick drink of various beans for Isra — chocolate and coffee with cream — while Verity had a drink that was mostly fruit.
“Excited?” asked Verity.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” said Isra. “You’ve said that the collections are … extensive.”
“The goal of this particular museum is to have one of everything,” said Verity.
“Seems an impossible goal,” said Isra. She sipped her drink. She was going to have to spend some money on chocolate before they left Dondrian, given that it wasn’t available in Pucklechurch. The same went for coffee, though she was less certain about that. Apparently it took a decent amount of training and work to brew it, a process she wasn’t sure she could replicate herself. She also wasn’t sure that it would taste as good without the chocolate and cream.
“The dungeons make it extremely difficult,” said Verity. “Every time you go in, you can pull out a new plant or animal, or a new piece of equipment that the world has never seen before, even if it’s useless. Their ambition is to catalog the ‘living world’.”
“An impossible distinction,” said Isra, shaking her head. “So much comes from the dungeons. This is why I don’t like Qymmos.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” said Verity.
They were both returned to their normal selves, having given back the shoes, dresses, and jewelry from the night before. It had felt like they were under a spell, one which was now at least partially broken, the pieces of that spell feeling like they were still floating around them. They had danced together for quite some time, clumsily on Isra’s part and slower than the music suggested. Once Isra had some basic understanding of the dances, they had moved together, drawing closer with each successive song. Isra had gotten the touch that she had craved, and it had seemed as though it was just the two of them amongst the mass of people.
And then they had left the dance floor and walked home. The energy had begun to dissipate by the time they reached the house, especially given the unexpected duel, and Isra was feeling drained from the opera. She was up so late past her bedtime, and unused to strong drink.
“Do you disfavor a god?” asked Isra.
“I don’t disfavor a god,” said Verity. “But if you’re talking about an ideology of a god … perhaps Bixzotl.”
Isra frowned, then remembered what Alfric’s mother had said about frowning and deliberately lightened her expression. “Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Verity. “God of Copies, God of Repetition, maybe? Especially in music, repetition is reckoned to be the mother of learning. Bixzotl is God of Sameness, God of Conformity, those are the things that I don’t like. It’s not every sermon, but I’ve sat through a few that are about patterns of our lives, the repetition of the seasons, cycles, things like that. Whenever they get to the part where it’s applicable to our lives, they’re talking about how it’s okay if the days blend together, that it’s fine if you’re not unique, all these things that are probably okay for other people, but are definitely not okay for me.”
“You … don’t want to be ordinary?” asked Isra.
“I don’t want to conform, no,” said Verity. “And frankly, I’m not ordinary.”
Isra nodded. “I’m not ordinary either.”
Verity gave her a warm smile.
When they were finished with their drinks, they went into the wing that contained fauna: the divisions they’d decided upon were flora, fauna, materials, and history. This categorization created some obvious problems for them, so from Isra’s understanding of what Verity said, they’d given each of the wings a name, the better to obfuscate the reality that their categorization scheme was running into all the problems that any categorization scheme ran into. This wing was the Bellius wing.
Isra’s preemptive quibbles died in her throat as soon as they were through the doors. The main lobby contained a dragon with its wings spread wide.
It was an immense creature, made more so by the wings which stretched out wide beneath the windowed dome of the lobby. The room seemed to be built specifically to accommodate the dragon, or perhaps it had been posed within the limits the room created. The wingspan had to be nearly two hundred feet from tip to tip, and the wings themselves were folded in just slightly, constraining it. Those tips stopped five feet from the wall, just below the third floor of the room, where there was a place to walk around, presumably to see the dragon from a higher level.
The dragon itself was stooped low, and almost gave an impression of looking down at anyone who came in. Its scales varied in color, but most were a shade of red. The smallest of those scales was the size of Alfric’s shield, and they showed striations and defects up close, each telling their own story of growth.
Around the base of each of the dragon’s feet there were plaques, diagrams, and other exhibits, all of them related to dragons in one way or another.
Isra looked closely at the eyes. There were six of them in total, two large ones and four small ones, all of them so large that she felt she might have been able to swim in them. This was all some kind of taxidermy, or less likely, illusion, but if not for the fact that it was perfectly still, and the way she had no feeling for it, she might have believed it was alive. She had seen stuffed animals before — there was a deer head hung at the Fig and Gristle — but these dragon eyes had a shine to them, a gleaming wetness which, when she pushed out with her senses, was some kind of expertly applied lacquer or resin.
“I didn’t realize they got this big,” said Isra. She had moved, mostly to get a better look at it, and Verity had been following behind, looking quite pleased.
“It’s impressive,” said Verity, with her normal reserve.
Isra turned to her. “It’s wondrous.” She gestured up to the dragon. “Do you not see it?”
“It doesn’t take my breath away anymore,” said Verity. “I’ve been here three or four times though.”
Isra looked up at the dragon. They were standing under one of the wings, with the light coming in from the windows of the dome being blotted out. “If I could, I would come here every day to see this.”
“It is shocking,” said Verity, looking up. “I wouldn’t deny that.”
“What would we do, if such a thing attacked?” asked Isra.
“Here,” said Verity, pointing to the exhibits around the dragon’s feet. “I think there’s some information.”
They must have spent a half hour with Isra simply reading about dragons. There were other people milling about, but Isra paid them little attention, and Verity was quite polite about how much time Isra felt compelled to spend with her eyes glued to the words. Verity read alongside Isra, humming under her breath and seemingly unaware that she was doing it. There was no magic in it, but it nevertheless gave Isra a warm feeling.
The dragon had come to the museum one hundred and fifty years ago, having been found dead, draped across the countryside. It had been moved at great expense, then reconstructed at great expense, with this wing of the building having been extensively modified to house the dragon. It was the only example of its kind in the world, because wherever dragons went to hide away, that seemed to be where they died. Among the exhibits at the dragon’s feet, there were a large number of drawings of dragons, which came in different shapes and sizes, and Isra looked at them, but they didn’t stir anything in her in the same way that the dragon did. There were fragments of a dragon shell, and a recreation of one. There was a ‘baby’ dragon, with a visible hole through its still-soft scales, killed by a human early on in its life.
Mostly, there was a lot of writing and speculation, and Isra read it all, circling all four of the dragon’s feet.
There was some mention of demiplanes, as part of the exhibit which went over the question of what happened to dragons as they aged. Clearly the dragons were going somewhere, given that a corpse would be immediately visible, the bones incredibly slow to decay. There was speculation that they dove down into the oceans where they might hold their breath, that they flew beyond the Barrier Storms, that they somehow escaped the pull of the world and settled on one of the moons. The demiplanes were given as a Kiromon belief, but only briefly gone over, with less in the way of discussion than Isra might have expected. The earlier argument between Alfric and Mizuki wasn’t resolved.
“Sorry I’m taking so long,” said Isra. “I know there’s more of the museum to explore.”
“It’s fine,” smiled Verity. “Take your time. I wouldn’t have thought of you as someone interested in dragons.”
“Why?” asked Isra.
“I suppose I don’t know,” said Verity. “They’re very popular with young boys, which might be a part of it. I imagine that Alfric went through a phase when he was terribly interested in dragons, these grand, wild creatures that are barely ever seen.”
“They’re not wild,” said isra. She pointed at the plaque. “They’re supposed to be quite intelligent.” She wondered what they actually meant. The Overguard family dog, Emperor, was so far the smartest animal she’d ever encountered, and she wondered whether a dragon would give her the same feeling.
“Intelligence can go with wildness,” said Verity. “Dragons are untameable, completely free. I really do see the appeal in it.”
“You said boys, not girls?” asked Isra.
“I did,” said Verity, shrugging. “I’m sure there were plenty of girls who were interested in dragons, but it was very much a boy thing.”
“And what did girls have?” asked Isra. This was the sort of thing that she often found quite irritating, hidden rules that didn’t seem to make much sense, and which couldn’t be guessed at from knowing other things.
“Dolls, mostly,” said Verity. “But I’m given to believe that those roles applied more to the upper class, rather than the lower.”
Isra nodded. “And when you say … class?”
“Um,” said Verity. “Whether or not you come from wealth. Though it’s actually more complicated than that, because there are all kinds of things that get wrapped up in it, and — it’s very complicated, and I’m not really sure that I understand it fully.”
“Your family has a great deal of money,” said Isra. “Like Alfric’s.”
“Yes,” said Verity. “Though … not like Alfric, which is one of the reasons that I think it’s complicated. They have quite a bit of wealth, but they have far less of the trappings, and quite a bit less of the etiquette, at least from what I’ve seen. They’re not cultured in the way that I would expect. Which is to say nothing against them, obviously.”
“Is it bad to not know etiquette?” asked Isra. She didn’t know etiquette, and wasn’t entirely sure what etiquette was.
“Well,” said Verity. “It is, in certain circles.”
Isra looked up at the dragon. It all seemed so pointless, in the face of a creature like this. “And Mizuki?”
“Well, her family is from Kiromo, and I expect they do things differently there,” said Verity. “But her grandfather seemed to have quite a bit of wealth, and she inherited a house. That’s what I was saying about how wealth is only a part of it.”
“I see,” said Isra. “It’s Qymmos nonsense.”
Verity laughed. “I suppose it is. But it’s a useful sort of nonsense, at least some of the time, being able to make groupings of things and people. The same sort of discussion happens ad nauseum in music as people try to come to agreements about what the sets actually are. And of course, the clerics of Qymmos tend to just complicate things, and often disagree with each other, or have their debates about the debates, rather than the original subject matter. It’s sometimes a wonder that they can accomplish anything.”
They eventually left the room with the preserved dragon, moving to a long hallway, one of several on the ground floor. There were more hallways, stacked on top of each other, and there was a suggested ‘flow’ to it all, a path that would take you all the way through the whole building — or quarter building, depending upon what it was considered.
The long hall began with the domesticated animals, which seemed a bit odd to Isra. She looked for a plaque or some kind of explanation for it, but there was none. It was only domesticated animals down the length of the hall, a few of them alive, living in what seemed to be tanks, but most of them preserved. As with the dragon, the preservation was imperfect, but likely much more noticeable to Isra than to anyone else.
They stopped at an exhibit, ‘Variations on the Pig’, which had more than fifty pigs in varying shapes and sizes, each with their own plaque — but above them, on the wall, there was some explanation of the central thrust of it.
Pigs were unambiguously not dungeon creatures, but once they had been domesticated, and spread among the human populations, things that were close to pigs began to be pulled from the dungeons in much greater numbers than when there were only wild boars. Some of these were extracted for breeding as a form of speculation, and others developed naturally through variation in breeding stock over time, or possibly domestication of different initial breeds. Once there was something called “the pig” that had great prominence in human society, it was natural that there would be hundreds, thousands, of variations on the pig. Beyond that, “pig” was known to the entads, and entads would key off that word, with a specific definition that might or might not be a ‘true’ definition by someone else’s accounting.
There was a quite long section on which definitions the Metropolitan Museum of Qymmos had used for things that might have come from dungeons. For them to include a pig, or any other animal, it needed to have not just a breeding pair, and not just a stable population, but some actual significant import in the world. That, in turn, needed careful definition, which was the manner of Qymmos.
“For someone who doesn’t seem to like Qymmos, you’re reading an awful lot of plaques and descriptive material,” said Verity.
“That’s the point of the museum, isn’t it?” asked Isra.
“Yes,” said Verity. “But most people don’t read everything. If you did that, you’d be here all day.”
“We’re intending to be here all day,” said Isra. “Aren’t we?”
“Well, yes, if that’s what you’d like, with a break for lunch, perhaps,” said Verity. She fidgeted with her dress, smoothing it out. “I was just thinking that perhaps you were drawn to the question, if not to the answer.”
“The question?” asked Isra.
Verity pointed to the opposite wall, where it said, “What is a Pig?”
Isra pondered that — not the question of what a pig was, which seemed like a silly question, but the question of whether such questions tugged at her in some weird way, above and beyond what other people thought of them.
The obvious answer was that the village of Pucklechurch had been full of mysterious rules — and still was, even if discovering she was a druid had made sense of quite a bit of it, along with a few lessons from her new ‘family’. That struggle against the unknown hadn’t been everpresent, given that she’d spent most of her time in the woods, but it had left deep marks.
She wasn’t sure whether the obvious answer was true though, it was just easy and present, ready to give out, if she wanted to.
Verity was still being quite patient, standing next to Isra with hands folded. “I think that most people, if you asked them what a pig was, wouldn’t care. The distinction between things that are pigs and things that aren’t pigs is meaningless. And if it’s a conversation that gets very technical, that’s even worse, isn’t it? For most people, anyway.”
“What would a technical conversation even be?” asked Isra. “Are there pig experts somewhere?”
“There are an enormous number of clerics of Qymmos around,” said Verity. “We could find one pretty easily, if you wanted to talk to them?”
“I don’t really like their categories,” said Isra. “Their need for it.”
“Well, we wouldn’t be talking about the sets themselves, we’d be talking about the construction of sets in the abstract,” said Verity. “That seems like it would be a good use of our time, doesn’t it?”
“To get in a fight with a cleric of Qymmos?” asked Isra. Verity laughed.
“Forgive me if I’m wrong,” said Verity. “But your understanding of Qymmos and his clerics comes mostly from reading, doesn’t it? Holy books and a bit of fiction? That is, you haven’t listened to the sermons, or spoken to a cleric, right?”
“I haven’t,” said Isra. “You’re saying that they’re not the same? The holy book, gifted by the god, and the belief in the god as practiced?”
“It’s the same for all the gods,” said Verity. “You’ve heard Hannah talk about it, how the clergy ends up with their own canon that’s outside of what the books dictate, or even what their powers imply or allow for.”
“If you’d like for us to talk to a cleric, we can,” said Isra. “It might be illuminating.”
They walked through the exhibits, keeping their eyes out for a cleric. They had seen a few of them already, but there were apparently none in the Hall of Domesticated Animals. The lizzos took up quite a bit of space, and they passed multicolored sheep, the so-called ‘dyed’ sheep that gave different colors of wool, and various magical creatures which created products used in various ways. Many of them were, apparently, finicky creatures, like a sheep that ate only a very specific kind of grass and would drop dead if the temperature was above a mild mid-summer’s day. In exchange, these creatures gave cloth that was mildly self-cleaning, or kept a person warm in winter, or meat that when eaten could heal most gut wounds, which were notoriously difficult to treat. There was more magic to the world than Isra had ever imagined, but most of it was quite specialized or expensive, which came, in part, from the delicacy of some of the animals.
They passed through more of the hall, looking at the various animals in all of their splendor. Isra was most interested in the living animals, of which there were precious few, because those she had a sense for. The ones that were stuffed and taxidermied she was much more fuzzy on, their death having robbed her of the ability to get instinctual knowledge. In some sense, she’d been reduced to Verity’s level.
At the end of the hall they turned, heading back toward the dragon along a different path.
This brought them to the fowls, including all the ducks, geese, chickens, and things of that nature, along with all of their eggs and a variety of feathers. Eventually they did see a cleric of Qymmos, who was looking through the exhibit on eggs with a frown on her face.
“Excuse me,” said Verity. “Are you available to field a question?”
“Of course,” nodded the woman. “That’s why we’re here.” She was short, with grey hair but an unwrinkled face aside from some crow’s feet. Isra hoped that she would age as gracefully as that. She had seen too many animals grow old, and while humans lived long, they were consigned to the same fate. The curator had the same darker skin that Isra had, which seemed to be more common in Dondrian.
“Why do things get put into these categories?” asked Isra.
“Oh,” said the woman, blinking. “Well. That is a very big question, and one without any satisfying answers, I’m afraid.” She looked out at the displays, frowning in thought. “I’m not in charge of policy, but while the official policy of the museum is that we’d like to have one of everything, there are a number of complicating factors involved, one being that we have limited space, and another being that one of the purposes of the museum is entertainment and education. The exhibits are created with an eye towards enlightening people about the nature of the world, and to adhere to a strict categorization scheme would interfere with that.”
Isra frowned. “So it’s not in accordance with type?” she asked.
“Well,” said the cleric. “It is, to the extent we’re able. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a cleric of Qymmos that wouldn’t allow that it sometimes make more sense, from a human perspective, to use different schemes in different places.” She pointed at the eggs. “Here we have eggs of all domesticated species, grouped together this way because we want to say something in particular about eggs and their role in human culture and domestication.” She looked down the hall and frowned. “With other creatures, we put the eggs with them, if we have them, or models if we don’t, in service of showing the lifecycle. That naturally puts the eggs away from other eggs though, and so there are competing categories at play, either showing the animal with the entirety of its lifecycle, or showing a piece of that lifecycle that generalizes between animals.” She shrugged. “A lot of it comes down to the whims of the department directors.”
“You say that as a cleric of Qymmos?” asked Isra.
The cleric blinked again. “Yes?” she asked. “If the question is one of theology, it’s well-accepted that any strict system of categorization will function poorly in the real world. It would be simple for us to split the entirety of the museum into strict categories, but that would leave things that are similar to each other on opposite sides of the place.” She gestured again at the eggs. “Here, we show a category of things, domesticated eggs, where in a strict category of creatures, they would be separated from each other.”
“So you use different categories depending on the circumstance,” said Isra.
“Yes,” nodded the cleric. “Goodness, it’s been some time since I’ve done theology, I apologize if I’m a bit rusty.”
“But you do maintain that these categories are real?” asked Isra.
“Oh, not at all,” said the cleric, blinking again. Isra didn’t take all the blinking as a good sign. “That is, the criteria for inclusion within a category can be well-defined if you understand what all the candidate members are, but that doesn’t make the category more valid or true than any other category.” She seemed to be slipping more toward jargon, but that might have been because the question demanded it.
Isra felt herself frowning and tried to ease her face a bit to be less severe. “That’s not what the Qymr Mos says.”
The cleric frowned. “Well,” she said. “You mean in the second section?”
“It’s … controversial.” She looked around, as though trying to find someone to help her out. “I’m sorry, my strict theology is a bit rusty.” Isra waited. Verity seemed somewhat amused. “There are, yes, ‘natural’ categories, clusters that arise naturally from given definitional boundaries. It’s a thorny theological issue though.”
“Qymmos says one thing, and the clergy say another,” said Isra.
“N-no,” said the cleric. “That is, Qymmos had a particular perspective, and clerics cultivate it in order to access the power of Qymmos, but the view of the world as presented in the holy text is — it’s not something that all clerics agree with. Sorry, I have business elsewhere.”
She hurried off, and Isra watched her go.
Verity smiled. “I feel like the clerics here are trained mostly to answer questions about the exhibits.”
“It seemed like a basic question,” said Isra.
“It was, perhaps, the way you were talking,” said Verity. “No soft tones, brooking no argument.”
“Sorry,” said Isra.
“Well I don’t mind,” said Verity. “I like that about you, that hard edge, the way that you look like you’re willing to throw down with someone, whether that’s dealing with a merchant or a casual conversation with a curator.”
“I’m not sure I like it about myself,” said Isra.
“No?” asked Verity. She seemed a bit saddened by that.
“No,” said Isra. The spell of the night before felt even more broken.
She had been wrong about people, wrong about why they lied or whether they lied, and with the true context, most of what had made her angry or sad was simply a misunderstanding. Her approach to negotiating with merchants in particular had been founded on the belief that they were universally liars and cheats who would say blatantly untrue things in order to get a better price. If this wasn’t true, then she thought too harshly of them, and dealt with them using too sour of a disposition, even if it did seem to get her good prices.
“Well,” said Verity, clearing her throat. “Shall we continue? At the rate we’re going, we’ll see no more than half the wing today.”
They went through the museum, sometimes talking, other times not, slowly and steadily, since Isra didn’t really see the point in going to a museum if you were just going to nod at things you found interesting rather than examining and learning about them. Quite a few people did seem to have this approach to museum-going though, especially those with small children, and others who seemed to treat the museum like an indoor walking course.
Verity showed quite a bit of patience, and read along with Isra, not seeming to mind that it was taking so long, or that Isra was reading almost every bit of writing there was to see along the corridor.
It was all giving her ideas of what she might do with her own collection at home. But beneath that, she was entertaining questions of Qymmos, and why he, in particular, tugged at her so much.