Borrowed from Someone Else
Varisians see everything as in a state of transition. The chrysalis of chaos, hardship, or maturity transforms caterpillars into butterflies, though some are born butterflies, and others forever remain worms. “Dance on the windsong, dance on the breeze. Soar to the clouds but smile on the trees,” goes the Varisian folk song. Children learn its message from the moment they are able to sing: Reach as high as you can, dance like the butterfly, but cherish your roots. Elders might seem somber and stolid, but they are the trees that supported your cocoon. Still, Varisians find it difficult to emulate anything as still and slow-growing as a tree. “Freedom!” they sing, and with freedom comes motion. From Cheliax to Ustalav, Varisians dance across the land whose name they bear and far beyond. They might settle for a time, for a week, a month, or even a season, earning their keep with songs and stories or the sweat of their brows—and, sometimes, with nimble fingers and loose morals. Soon, though, the wind tugs at their cloaks and they spin away in search of their next home. As some Varisians age, they search for a permanent home. Their bones ache from the years of dancing, and the comforts of a soft bed and a solid roof every night grow too strong to resist. A song still plays in their hearts, though, and melodies drift through their dreams. Too tired or too bitter to follow the haunting notes, they return to the still and quiet trees only to frown on the skies. “Climb to the palace, climb to a star. Lie down to sleep for you know who you are.” Varisians sing some of their oldest folksongs only at funerals, in voices to make the birds weep. In times past, Varisian seers led their people with visions of the future. They wandered the breadth of the land with joyous hearts, reveling in the freedom afforded by a secure future. Gifted oracles guaranteed that the Varisians followed their destiny and assured that one day each Varisian would ascend to the stars to frolic in Desna’s palace.
Varisians favor scarves of all sizes and colors, but some hold special significance. Most notable is the family scarf, or kapenia. Children receive their kapenia upon maturity; to own one is to be an adult. These long, heavy scarves display elegant and complicated embroidery that is incomprehensible to most outsiders. To Varisians, though, the scarves show family trees. By tracing the loops and whorls of a scarf, one can trace a person’s history, back through her mother and father, her siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents, as far back as the family has knowledge. Varisians wear their kapenia only on special occasions, such as weddings or funerals. Most choose to be buried with their kapenia, though some bequeath them to loved ones. It is extraordinarily rare for a Varisian to bequeath her kapenia to a non-Varisian, or even a Varisian not of her clan. Varisians wear sensible but colorful clothes during the workday. When performing, they dress in fancy gowns and heavily embroidered vests and trousers and wear excessive amounts of jewelry. Varisians believe that certain colors carry specific powers and choose their outfits to attract the right type of energy. Pink is the color of love, kindness, and courage. Red represents lust, long life, and inner strength. Orange is the color of happiness and resourcefulness, and adventuring Varisians often wear a touch of orange on their travels. Green enhances wisdom and self-control.
Turquoise represents physical strength and nonverbal communication, and most dancing costumes feature it. Blue is the color of health, youth, and beauty. Violet enhances intuition and divine inspiration, so most fortunetellers and seers wear violet scarves. Varisians love jewelry and favor gems over coins. Most pragmatically believe that worn wealth is harder to steal than wealth hidden out of sight in a tent or locked up in a box.
Seven-pointed stars are common and represent inner strength and magical prowess. Tattoos of butterflies, birds, or iridescent insect wings represent faith in Desna, talent in fortunetelling, and freedom. Feather wings or colored circles represent spirits and angelic beings; particular styles and colors sometimes symbolize particular ancestors or guardian spirits. Open flowers with many petals represent bountiful love, both romantic and familial, while closed buds represent love lost. Vines symbolize strong family ties and fertility. A variety of images represent art and entertainment: goblets, masks, ribbons, teardrops, and flames are the most common. Varisians often combine these images with a symbolic color to conjure precisely the right effect. Finally, traditional tattoos exist which represent particular schools of magic. No one knows why these elaborate lines of abstract tattoos persist in the Varisians’ cultural lore, but their use remains widespread
Varisians find travel exciting and fulfilling. Most children are born on the road and spend their whole lives moving from place to place. Few can name their birthplace. The composition of Varisian caravans varies wildly, but the most common contain four to eight large wagons and one small one, in which the fortuneteller travels. The caravan keeps two horses for each wagon, plus two or three for riding and in case one of the horses pulling a wagon sustains an injury. A herd of five to ten sheep or goats provides milk and sometimes trade goods for the caravan. A pack of dogs serves as herders and guardians. Solid wooden boxes topped with flexible willow “ribs” comprise a Varisian wagon. Canvas or oilcloth, stretched tightly over the ribs, protects the interiors from rain and snow, and Varisians often dye their wagon-tops bright colors. Most of the wagons contain boxed goods, trunks, barrels, and crates—not riders. The majority of the caravan walks, with only the ill, the very elderly, and the very young riding in the wagons. At night, the caravanners sleep under the open sky. If the caravan stops for more than a night, wagon-tops set on the ground make fine tents, and canvas tarpaulins protect the goods within the wagon boxes. In inclement weather, the travelers pitch tents or some sleep beneath and inside the wagons. When possible, a caravan makes stops at small towns along trade roads. There it trades sewing, sheep’s wool, trinkets, and carvings for dry goods and supplies. Varisians’ greatest passion (next to traveling) is performing, and they seek out towns both to resupply and to entertain. A good performance nets a caravan enough money to splurge on fancy fabrics, pretty jewels, and forged weapons. An excellent performance might garner gifts from the audience, such as baked goods, alcohol, or free lodging, while a poor performance leaves the caravan hungry and might get it run out of town. Not all settlements welcome Varisian caravans, as unscrupulous Varisians and the notorious Sczarni have left their mark in the form of tales of Varisian deceit. Many peasants view Varisians as little better than thieves, and shut their doors in the face of performers. Some settlements react with undisguised hostility, meeting Varisian caravans with violence. Varisians rarely stand and fight in such instances. Doing so nets them nothing, and most caravans are not bloodthirsty pillagers. Travelers and merchants sometimes ask to journey with Varisian caravans, on the principle of safety in numbers. Rarely does a traveler ask a second time, though—the Varisians’ whimsical nature and love of travel means they often have no destination in mind. They find speed irrelevant—the journey is the purpose. Thus, caravans often take meandering routes, following shortcuts or alternative routes based on shooting stars, the patterns of stones in a river, a peculiar whinny from a horse, and a hundred other signs that seem meaningless to outsiders. Other travelers sometimes refuse to associate with Varisian caravans, believing them to be bad luck. “A race as mysterious as the Varisians must hold many secrets,” they reason, “and not all of them benign.” Some travelers actually make a sign to ward off evil upon spotting a Varisian caravan. Though hardly efficient, travel with Varisians is generally comfortable and relaxed, as an experienced caravan knows the best fishing and trapping spots, how herds of animals move, and typical weather patterns. Caravans tend to stick to particular areas in particular seasons, although the guidance of a fortuneteller always trumps past experience. Varisians rarely settle down, and when they do, they form small, tightly-knit communities. These settled Varisians do not see themselves as owners of the land— such a concept is foreign to their culture—only as weary travelers unable or unwilling to continue the journey their brethren enjoy. Misunderstandings often occur between cultures who value land ownership and Varisian clans who inhabit a particular area.
Varisians believe in a peaceful afterlife full of joy and contentment in Desna’s palace. Even so, they receive news of a clan member’s death with sorrow. Funeral rites are private and solemn affairs; outsiders almost never get the opportunity to witness a Varisian funeral. Mourners sing laments in honor of the deceased and bury the body out in the open—at a crossroads, if possible, to represent the limitless roads available to the departed in the afterlife. The gravediggers bury the dead with trinkets, jewelry, ornaments, and other presents from the living. This is one reason why Varisian funerals are kept secret: to discourage grave robbing. Only Varisians know that their dead lie with valuables, and even the Sczarni would not dare disturb a Varisian grave. To do so would be to invite branding and exile. Four times a year, during the seasonal changes, Varisians honor their dead with a feast that lasts from sundown to sunrise. All night, the Varisians celebrate in a subdued manner, telling stories about the departed, singing mournful tales about lost loves, and reminding loved ones how special they are. At sunrise, the clan dances the Dawning Dance to welcome the new day and all the challenges the future brings. Rumor holds that some of the eldest and wisest Varisian fortunetellers possess the power to commune with the dead, and some clans believe all prophecies come from the benevolent spirits of their ancestors. Even among those without magical gifts, some elderly Varisians believe they can speak to their ancestors and receive guidance from them.
Greetings stranger, from a stranger! (A friendly greeting to an unknown person. Carries the implication that the speaker won’t ask personal questions of the other person and expects the same in return.)
Were you turned about at the crossroads? (You are not welcome here. A cold but nonthreatening way to tell a stranger to leave the camp.)
The trip is long; we shall shorten the road. (We will sing and tell stories to make the time pass quickly.)
I shall sing songs of your deeds. (A threat. The implication is the songs will honor the speaker’s opponent after his death. Also carries a sense of respect for the opponent.)
You can see most clearly on a starless night. (Flashy distractions and outward appearances can keep one from seeing the truth of things.)
Silver and gold are the same with eyes closed. (Unless you keep alert, opportunities will pass you by.)
Vyush'baro, the Cunning Wolf