The islands are all but waterless, a desert of crumbling limestone dotted with ancient fortifications and populated mostly by caterpillars and prickly pears. The local peasants, notorious for their stinginess, jealously guard every inch of their land with drystone walls intricate as jigsaw puzzles, prone to collapsing in any of the hundred and one Named Breezes that plague the coasts during the stormy season. Painted jackals stalk the hinterlands, and swashbuckling Porcupine Men are said to have established smuggler's camps along the outer beaches. The largest landholder is the House of Thumb and Kidney. Its slaves - fed exclusively on cactus juice, which tastes like a mixture of bitter orange and cigarette butts - toil in the blazing sun under the salt-coated lashes of obese overseers, when they're not pulling oars in the fetid depths of the triremes. The islands are located in almost the exact geographical centre of the Captured Sea, a natural crossroads for trade. The grand harbour of Għadam Tax-Xedaq (the only city worth mentioning) is home to merchants of a thousand nations, from eastern Snailcatchers selling dye, alphabets and cedarwood to western Tarshishans selling apples and raw orichalcum. This trade is a vital source of both income and nutrition. Żaqqi banquets are legendary, and the houses compete greedily with each other for delicacies from every corner of the globe. One is advised, however, to keep an eye out for poisons, which are designed to induce vomiting and rapid weight-loss as much as death.
The other great Żaqqi pastime is fortune-telling. Any aristocrat worth their fat keeps on hand a haruspex, whose job is to interpret the entrails of any living creature they can get their hands on. Obesity is again considered valuable here, and the great saltwater hippos which wallow among the island's shallow reefs are renowned for the accuracy of the omens hidden in their guts. Human beings can also be used, of course, if they're fat enough. There are very few whales in the Captured Sea, and only once in history have a crew ventured into the waters beyond the Titan's Pillar to harpoon a leviathan from the River that Girdles the Earth and drag it back, still living, for the soothsayers to get at before it started to rot. Nobody knows what they found, however, as it was considered too shocking to make public and imprisoned for good in the library of the House of Palm and Sinus.
Other methods of prognostication include studying the patterns of holes in leaves eaten by caterpillars, listening to stomach gurgles (which are believed to be the voices of the dead), casting sparrow-bones, scattering grain before sacred roosters and looking at the movement of the planets. The so-called "wretched oracles" of the northern isles are children who've had maggots introduced into small holes cut in their skulls, murmuring increasingly-incoherent auguries over the six months or so it takes for the insects to devour their brains. This practice is disdained in the more civilised south.
A list of island delicacies, by no means comprehensive:
- Songbirds drowned in cactus liqueur
- Caterpillars fattened on nettles, the aim being to see how fat you can get it before it metamorphoses
- Boiled ostrich embryo, still in the shell
- Dormice fed exclusively on pomegranate seeds, frightened to death, roasted and glazed with honey
- Baked starfish
- Flamingo tongues fried in butter
- Sea anemone soup, a clear glutinous broth flavoured ever so slightly with ginger
- Goat uterus packed with live starlings
- The livers of thirteen different animals, mashed into a thick paste and spread on figs
- Tortoises dropped by specially-trained falcons into vats of boiling brine
- Elephant ears, said to lose their flavour if the elephant they're taken from dies
- Scorpions dusted with paprika
- Ape cheese
- Giant oysters, the size of two fists together yet disturbingly easy to swallow whole
- Pitcher plants served raw with their prey half-digested inside them