Maze of men
During my time living amongst the Sontsu, I never did quite figure out how to actually pay for anything. But I'm pretty sure it involves a secret handshake, a code word, and a midnight ritual that can only be completed during a full solar eclipse.
Alain Ratata, Namgongian locksmith, 3515 AoG
Sontsu are generally acknowledged as the second-oldest ethnic group on Excilior (notwithstanding the Inqoan's mythical claims of their own supposedly-ancient origins). They dominate the southeastern quadrant of Isleprimoton, an area that has long been known as the Sontsu Peninsula. They trace their roots back to the earliest foundations of casterway society, when Achto Kivelia, in league with Ido Howrmander, kidnapped the First Mother's second-born daughter, Sorealia the Lost, and fled Auld Cervia for the wilderness of present-day Torholmaa.
SkinAlthough cross-cultural pairings can make it difficult to define a hard-and-fast phenotype of the Sontsu people, they generally share some striking traits that make them stand out amongst other cultures. The most obvious of these traits is skin color, with most Sontsu having a deep-blue complexion. This is not understood to be a genetic trait, as most of the freshwater sources across the Sontsu Peninsula are infamous for containing extremely-elevated levels of mercury. But many foreigners have come to believe that the Sontsu are simply a "blue people". The concentrations are so significant that even newborns (i.e., those born to mothers who have long lived on the Peninsula) display this stunning feature. Amongst their own people, there is a general belief that southern Sontsu hue more towards green, with the northern population (e.g., those hailing from lands closer to the Crucible Seia) being more-clearly "blue". The distinction between northern (so-called "blue") Sontsu, and southern (so-called, "green") inhabitants is a matter of some conjecture. Foreigners travelling into Sontsu lands for the first time frequently report that they are all of a similar hue (sometimes, their skin tone is more-generally described as teal). But native Sontsu (or those who have spent long periods living amongst them) usually insist that they can tell the difference between northerners and southerners merely by visually assessing their skin tone. Of course, since the Lumidari have conquered some of the northern territories bordering the Crucible Seia, they too have assumed blue-ish hues. So it can be dangerously naive to assume that someone is Sontsu merely by observing their skin color. It is perhaps an evolutionary adaptation that the Sontsu do not typically suffer any other side-effects of mercury "poisoning", other than the obvious change in their appearance. This adaptation has served to cement their legacy across the lands of the Sontsu Peninsula, because foreigners who try to establish long-term residence there typically experience debilitating health.
Hair"Full-blood" Sontsu always have pitch-black hair that is arrow-straight. Although they have no genetic proclivity toward long hair, Sontsu customs are rigid in dictating that both men and women never willingly cut their hair. Their long hair is not always evident, as local styles often lead them to gather-and-cover their hair. The means by which they bind/conceal their hair can vary wildly from nation-to-nation, and even from village-to-village. In some regions, it's common for them to don "turbans" (although the decoration of these turbans can make them seem as anything but). In other regions, they take great care to wrap and/or tie their locks, often in elaborate designs. Some areas are renowned for the colorful accoutrement that are woven into their hair - done so prodigiously that there is almost no visible sign of their natural coiffeur. For most Sonstu, allowing someone else to actually see their hair is an act of guarded intimacy.
MetabolismTrue Sonstu are infamous for their elevated metabolisms. To the casual observer, they often appear as "fidgety" or "busy-bodies". They view four hours of sleep as a long and restful slumber. It's not uncommon for a Sontsu person to embark on a "bender" where they may not sleep for two or three days at a time. This fosters the impression of their urban centers as "cities that do not sleep". During late night or early morning hours in Sontsu cities, the pace of city life will visually slow down... somewhat. But foreigners are frequently dismayed by the never-ending noise and bustle of Sontsu cities - even during the darkest hours when other cultures might well expect that all would be quiet. Many cognoscenti have postulated that this elevated metabolism also contributes to their shortened life spans. The average Sontsu expects to live little more than 50 years. Those who reach 70 are celebrated as figures of Methuselan stature.
For the Sontsu people, being "blown away" is not merely a figure of speech. It is a mortal danger.
Jaspinder Urpal, Chuitian bower, 3538 AoG
BuildPerhaps as a side effect of their impressive metabolisms, the Sontsu have almost no experience with obesity. Other cultures tend to characterize the Sontsu as skinny, or even, sickly. Outsiders sometimes (derisively) state that the silhouettes of Sontsu women are indistinguishable from Sontsu men. Although this is an overgeneralization, it's well-documented that all Sontsu - men and women alike - are typically far thinner than those of any other casterway ethnic group. But these cultural biases cut both ways. For the Sontsu frequently speak of all other casterways as fat. This also fosters prejudices amongst the Sontsu whereby they typically characterize their non-Sontsu compatriots as lazy.
Le, Yin, Eka, May, Sandar, Yee
Thurin, Huth, Nyan, Phylo, Thun
Wai, Zina, Thet, Herin, Linn
Myo, Hein, Arkar, Wai, Win, Soe, Min
Major language groups and dialects
Sontjen is the dominant language across all Sontsu nations. Most Sontsu maintain a basic understanding of Tallonari, but it is rarely used in day-to-day affairs. When they do attempt to speak Tallonari, most Tallonai and Elladorans complain that they can barely decipher the communication, for the Sontsu accent is considered to be especially thick and it wreaks havoc upon the common Tallonari phonemes.
KomonThe Sontsu rarely speak Komon and they often display overt disdain toward anyone doing so in their presence. Although Komon is seen by many casterways as a "universal" language, it is the only language commonly spoken by the Lumidari - and Sontsu/Lumidari relations rival those of the Inqoan/Elladoran for being the most violent and contentious on the planet. In the border regions of the northern Sontsu Peninsula, where the Lumidari maintain a tenuous hold on their contested kingdoms, carelessly speaking Komon in the "wrong" village is an effective means to secure one's own demise.
Unique LanguageBecause the Sontsu ultimately arose from Sorealia the Lost, who was herself of Tallonai descent, some have tried to trace Sontjen's roots to the Tallonari language. And there is certainly some degree of shared vocabulary and common root-words between both tongues. But Achto Kivelia and his colleague Ido Howrmander were direct arrivals via excilation and there are serious doubts as to whether they were ever fluent in Tallonari. Furthermore, Sontjen is, in many respects, so thoroughly unique from Tallonari that most modern cognoscenti presume that the languages do not stem from a common ancestor. Under this hypothesis, Achto, Ido, and perhaps the other male settlers who fled Auld Cervia already spoke Sontjen, or some ancient progenitor of the tongue.
Shared customary codes and values
Young Sheng has travelled to Valolaa to pay our taxes. I fear he will be Old Sheng when next we see him.
Shao Tien, Hetmaan messenger, 3261 AoG
Other casterways frequently refer to the Sontsu - and to all the societies of the Sontsu Peninsula - as the Maze of Men. This moniker has been earned by the Byzantine and mind-boggling complexity of Sontsu societal structures. No one outside their culture has managed to properly explain just why Sontsu societies are organized the way they are. Most neutral observers struggle to even define the myriad power structures and overlapping customs that drive nearly every aspect of Sontsu life. Even the Sontsu themselves will freely admit that their societies - and indeed, every facet of their daily interactions - are dictated by a Kafkaesque labyrinth of laws, rules, customs, rituals, and traditions that defy nearly all attempts at documentation. Sontsu merchants can scarcely complete a basic transaction without satisfying at least a half dozen "rules" and consulting with an intricate web of influence-peddlers. Sontsu trials routinely last years - and pass through nearly a dozen formal stages - before anyone is deemed to be "innocent" or "guilty". Diplomatic relations between Sontsu nations can easily require years of intense (yet intermittent) negotiations. Marriages are arranged over decades, and only after the careful oversight of many different institutions of religion, law, and fraternal organizations.
Convoluted OligarchyWhile Sontsu nations may be "ruled" or "governed" by a single monarch, this individual is rarely empowered to render any decision unilaterally. In fact, the power structures of most Sontsu nations are so convoluted that the so-called monarchs are more akin to "committee members" - and outsiders can rarely even identify the other members of these "shadow committees". There is little doubt that most Sontsu kings wouldn't even dare to issue dictates until they had offered tribute to dozens of other power brokers, and until they had gained broad consensus from hundreds of other societal luminaries.
Oddly EffectiveForeigners find these intricate (and opaque) rituals to be downright maddening. Many would-be ambassadors have thrown up their hands and abandoned all attempts to negotiate, claiming that no reasonable person could possibly expect to achieve anything in such a maze of unwritten rules and archaic rituals. But for all of the inefficiency that would seem to be inherent in Sontsu systems, neutral observers have been forced to concede that, at least for the Sontsu, the system still (somehow) manages to "work". Sales are (somehow) transacted. Marriages are (somehow) consummated. Public works are (somehow) built. Laws are (somehow) written. But for those who are not deeply-ensconced in the Sontsu system, it is nearly impossible to discern exactly how any of these bureaucratic miracles come to pass.
Average technological level
Through nearly four thousand years of cultural evolution, the Sontsu can certainly lay claim to a wide array of technological advancements. Some of these achievements were solely fostered amongst their own people, while others were the product of cross-cultural innovation. However, there are some technologies that are widely viewed outside their lands as being mostly-or-completely of Sontsu origin.
PoisonsCasterways regard the Sontsu with awe (and fear) in the arena of poison manufacture and delivery. While they can make no claim as to the invention of poisons in general, they seem to have elevated them to a near-artform. While other regions may boast a handful of common poisons, the Sontsu are known to have intimate knowledge of thousands of different toxins. Their cognoscenti (and, of course, their Agnoscio) can identify a great many natural toxins that originate across Sontsu lands or from within reach of Sontsu shores. But their expertise doesn't stop there. They can also combine their raw ingredients to concoct ever-deadlier forms. And once they've crafted a venom that is just right, they are masters at devising the most insidious delivery mechanisms.
ExplosivesTheir scholars are also well-versed in the fledgling arts of explosives. This has given them a particular expertise in the illicit trade of dethane refinement. But their cognoscenti (and, of course, their Agnoscio) have perhaps invested more time and effort into the quest for knowledge of explosives than any other culture or region.
TerroristsTheir eagerness to dabble in explosives research may lead off-world readers to assume that the Sontsu have developed effective firearms or canonry - but this would be an extreme exaggeration. For many technological reasons (e.g., the frustrating dearth of metal ore deposits), the Sontsu military-industrial establishment has rarely managed to leverage their explosives knowledge into any kind of weaponry that can effectively kill-or-maim more of the enemy's troops than the damage that ultimately boomerangs back upon their own forces. Nevertheless, Sontsu cognoscenti are often at the forefront of the search for new explosive materials and innovative ways to harness said materials. To their credit, the Sontsu have proven more adept than most with the simple concept that, in theory, nearly any fuel source can be deemed to be "explosive" if it can only be coaxed into burning (detonating) in a sufficiently-violent manner while also being constrained within a sufficiently-tiny space. But because they still struggle to harness these techniques into targeted, repeatable, and "safe" processes (for the individual who is wielding/delivering the explosive), Sontsu explosives are widely seen as instruments of terror. In other words, their bombs may not be practical when used against organized military forces, but they can certainly be wielded (to devastating effect) when the intention is merely to maim an unsuspecting target, or to detonate a town square full of hapless civilians.
PaperAmongst the learned, the Sontsu are well known for their development of a unique "paper" that is manufactured by compressing the fiber of the folsom grain with a sticky concoction brewed from the mustard cap. The resulting sheets are significantly thicker than traditional paper and they're described as having a rubbery texture. The product is known by the Sontjen word caoutchic, which translates to resilient. Although the heft of the product makes it ill-suited to the compilation of standard "books", the material is prized for its ability to accept a wide array of inks, its natural resistance to fire, and the fact that it is far sturdier than most other media. Whereas cognoscenti archives in other regions must be routinely re-copied every few centuries (to preserve the information after the original texts have, quite literally, disintegrated), records annotated on caoutchic can easily last for a millennium or more. If kept under proper conditions, some caoutchic archives have been known to withstand the ravages of more than two thousand years. Although the Sontsu have no particular monopoly on the manufacture of caoutchic, neither folsom grain nor mustard caps grow naturally outside the Sontsu Peninsula, so it is largely thought of as a Sonstu product. The resiliency of caoutchic, coupled with the prodigious history of the Sontsu people, means that cognoscenti from throughout Excilior routinely make pilgrimages to Sontsu lands to study the ancient archives housed in their klysters.
CamouflageThey have also pioneered some of the most advanced forms of camouflage known on Excilior. Leveraging some of the bizarre properties of mosses native to the Sontsu Peninsula (some of which the Sontsu themselves don't thoroughly understand), they have crafted a near-magical set of body paints that can respond to the body temperature and the metabolism of the wearer. After many years of intensive training, and while donning expertly-crafted body paints, Sontsu warriors are renowned (and feared) for their ability to actually control the hue and the pattern of their own dyes in real-time. Although it can be difficult to discern Sonstu legend from hard, verifiable fact, no one doubts the simple fact that a Sontsu ambush is tantamount to a swift death - the type where the victims don't even realize they've been surrounded until the blade has been sunk far into their internal organs.
Common Dress code
Traditional Sontsu fashion focuses on darker, richer colors and lush fabrics. Formal dress often features full-body covering, including longboots, headdresses, tights, and even gloves. These norms are far more common in urban areas, and amongst upper-class citizens. But even laborers are known to be somewhat more "covered" than their colleagues in other cultures. Owing to their fashion tastes, Sontsu dyes are prized for their luxuriant hues. These can include royal reds, purples, dark blues, and forest greens.
The mask does not hide who we are. It shields us from who you are.
Mikalis Kourou, Nilaslian Reaper, 1480 AoE
MasksForeigners always associated one primary clothing article with the Sontsu - masks. Although their mask-wearing can be exaggerated amongst other casterways, it is certainly true that a significant portion of urban Sontsu don at least some form of mask throughout much of their day. This custom is accentuated during formal affairs, but even layfolk frequently don masks during their daily activities. Although the style and decoration of these masks is incredibly varied, many of them lend an appearance that foreigners frequently classify as creepy or unsettling. When they are not wearing masks, Sontsu commonly augment their appearance with face paint.
JustificationsThere has never been a universal explanation attached to their mask-wearing custom. While other casterways often see the practice as baffling (or intimidating), querying the Sontsu directly typically yields a broad array of justifications. Some masks are worn for festivals and public observances, others have practical benefits, and still others are worn merely as an act of fashion or societal compliance. For most Sontsu, when they are asked why they wear their masks, the immediate retort is that they don't understand why other cultures do not wear masks. In the Sontsu way of thinking, wearing a mask is the "natural" state, and they are easily confused as to why other cultures do not feel the same compulsion.
Art & Architecture
Sontsu architecture is notable for its slavish devotion to intricate ornamentation. Even "common" buildings typically boast detailed carvings and a myriad of statuary. Perhaps as a reflection of their overly-complex social structures, Sontsu buildings are also infamous for layouts that foreigners find to be baffling - or even, nonsensical. The Sontsu prefer to carve up their buildings into a counterintuitive arrangement of tiny rooms - many of which seem to serve no purpose to the untrained eye. Visitors often describe Sontsu structures as labyrinthine and many foreign tales speak of becoming hopelessly lost in larger Sontsu buildings.
TheatreWith regard to daily artistic activities, they are world-renown for their prowess in theatre. Outside of the cognoscenti, the Sontsu rarely endeavor to write books or to trade in informal storytelling. Instead, they devote nearly all narrative efforts toward playwrighting. Even tiny, impoverished villages often have a building solely devoted to the production of plays. And some of their most cherished public figures are actors and playwrights. Not only are their plays generally renowned for their content, but they also go to great lengths to stage elaborate productions with massive set pieces and richly-detailed costumes.
Although it's impractical to ascribe any universal ideals to a people that number 19 million and span 15 different nations, there is one ideal that is ubiquitous amongst nearly all Sontsu: their deep-seated hatred for all things Lumidari. The Sontsu long controlled the entirety of the Sontsu Peninsula (and even ranged north of this region, into other lands of eastern Isleprimoton). But the rise (and expansion) of the Lumidari people ultimately led to repeated (and epically-bloody) clashes with the Sontsu across all of the Crucible Seia. Some of these clashes were so widespread as to qualify as outright genocide (on both sides).
Blood FeudCurrently, the Lumidari control all nations that border the Crucible Seia. And while there may not be any current open aggressions in the region, it is still seen as a virtual tinder box. The Sontsu generally view the entirety of the Sontsu Peninsula as being rightfully "theirs" and they view the presence of the Lumidari in "their" lands as a deep insult. Most neutral observers have come to assess any present peace between the two cultures as merely a temporary condition - and they presume that it is just a matter of time before another devastating cycle of war and destruction breaks out again.
If ever you are tempted to trust the Sontsu again, remind yourself that they are an entire people descended from runaways, kidnappers, and rapists.
Quintus Vindex, Guilian diplomat, 2122 AoR
Three figures dominate the annals of ancient Sontsu history: Achto Kivelia, Ido Howrmander, and Sorealia Polonosa (commonly known amongst other casterways as Sorealia the Lost). It was these three (along with a small party of settlers) who originally fled the embryonic civilization of Auld Cervia, establishing an entirely new civilization (and an entirely unique culture) in the theretofore unexplored wilderness of the Sontsu Peninsula. Just as all casterways in the east can theoretically trace their lineage back to Cervia Polonosa, and one of her eight daughters (with the obvious exception of those who arrive directly on the planet via excilation), all Sontsu can theoretically trace their lineage back to Sorealia the Lost.
National HeroesIt's vital to note that the Sontsu portrayal of these three individuals lies in stark contrast to their characterizations in non-Sontsu cultures. In Sontsu lore, Achto Kivelia is nothing short of a revolutionary national hero. He rejected the oppressive matriarchal regime being established by Cervia Polonosa and braved uncharted lands to establish a home for the new culture that would ultimately grow to become the Sontsu. Continuing this narrative, Ido Howrmander was a dashing young adventurer who fell hopelessly in love with Cervia's daughter, Sorealia. In a daring escape, the three fashioned a makeshift vessel and led a bold expeditionary party that ultimately came to land in present-day Torholmaa. And just as Cervia ultimately spearheaded the world's first true civilization, Achto, Ido, and Sorealia eventually founded the world's second great civilization.
Tragic CriminalsThe story is strikingly different as told by non-Sontsu historians. Most other cultures characterize Achto Kivelia as a brigand who had already been banished from Cervia Polonosa's fledgling city-state of Setrinano. After committing numerous petty crimes and clashing directly with Cervia, he seized upon the starstruck puppy love of Ido and Sorealia. Some accounts portray Ido as a willing accomplice in this plot. Others paint him as more of a stooge in Achto's plan. Regardless of Ido's true role, Achto managed to enlist a small band of sympathizers and, playing off Ido's-and-Sorealia's mutual affections, he managed to kidnap the young Sorealia. Once they had captured what was, at the time, the most valuable resource on the entire planet - a fertile woman - they fled westward to establish their own colony in uncharted lands. Against all odds (and after surviving numerous existential threats), the outlaw band of settlers managed (slowly, over the course of centuries) to eventually found the entire Sontsu culture. Curiously, the Achto-as-criminal narrative is even accepted in other cultures that call the western continent of Isleprimoton home (i.e., the Jontzu and the Lumidari).
Sontsu society is, and has always been, firmly patriarchal in nature. In fact, they are the first formally-patriarchal culture on Excilior, having been founded by Achto Kivelia, at least in part, as a direct rebellion against the matriarchal customs being established in Auld Cervia by the First Mother. And while there are many clear distinctions between the Sontsu and the other western cultures, their legacy of marginalizing women clearly influenced similar traditions that are present amongst the Jontzu and the Lumidari. As with any marginalized group, it would be overly simplistic to state that women hold no power in Sontsu society. But it is not a stretch to note that Sontsu women rarely hold any formal, recognized power. It is this patriarchal legacy that would ultimately paint a bright line between the matriarchal societies of the east and patriarchal cultures of the west.