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Oct 01, 2020 3:46 PM
Abras Ashkevron at the start of the book 3 timeline (A Song for Two Voices)
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A junior priest is hanging around and comes out to greet him. "Can I help you?" 

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"Hello. I'm interested in learning more about gods and theology and I'm looking for books on it."

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"Oh!" The priest sounds kind of excited by this. "Any particular emphasis - particular gods, regional religious practices, historical religious practices, accounts of miracles...?" 

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"Particular gods and accounts of miracles would be good. I'm try to understand, hm, what gods are and how they act in the world."

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"Ooh, theoretical studies! Not many people are interested in that. Come in, you can look at our library - we have the most books of any temple in the Kingdom, you know, and I have an index of all the books we don't have, but I can request they be sent from the temples that do..." Bouncing a little, the young priest ushers him past a curtain and down a hallway. 

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Abras follows with a little smile. This is a better reception than he had anticipated getting.

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The priest points him at some histories of peoples following a specific god; they have books both on the Shin'a'in and on Karse, as well as what's apparently a very rare book on some place called the Haighlei Empire, it was imported all the way from Acabarrin on the southern coast, over two thousand miles. (The priest seems very proud of this even though it presumably wasn't his personal doing.)

There's also a thousand-year-old treatise by a scholar called Albarion, which according to the priest is the most thorough known theoretical explanation of the gods' metaphysical properties. 

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Abras thanks the priest and sits down to read all of the abovestarting with the treatise by Albarion and then the histories in order of increasing geographical remoteness.

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Claims about gods, according to Albarion:

The gods are very large, powerful multiplanar beings. Because They are so much bigger, They perceive reality very differently from how mortals do, and also act on the world in very different ways. They are believed to have much more direct access to what mortals call Foresight. This is likely why They have a reputation for acting subtly, and for communicating cryptically when They do it at all, sending vague visions. When priests speak directly to their god, which is rare, generally they have only hazy memories of it afterward; sometimes they remember that a conversation happened, but nothing of it except the conclusion. They seem to vary somewhat on this axis. Some gods intervene more flashily than others, or speak to Their worshippers more. 

They can perform miracles, but it is believed not to be free for Them; it costs some kind of unknown resource. They can possess mortals, demonstrably, and work magic through them, but this is believed to be practical only for mortals who worship Them. Some of the greatest miracles ever documented were after the Cataclysm, when the Star-Eyed Goddess rendered the damaged lands of the Dhorisha Plains habitable, and granted the Tayledras powerful, unheard-of-before magic, in exchange for a binding pact with both of them to serve Her. 

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That seems to match what Leareth had to say about coincidences. Also, interacting directly with gods sounds very unpleasant. He's curious about the details of the pact between the Star-Eyed and the Tayledras; that seems to have worked out much better than he would expect from people making a promise on behalf of their descendants. It sounds like Foresight would help with that sort of thing, either by being able to tell the Tayledras would consider it a good deal for centuries to come, or less pleasantly by being able to somehow steer them into it. Probably Moondance and Starwind would know more, there. Now, what about Vkandis and Karse?

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The book he was given is one that his guide here claimed was a 'fairly neutral account', rather than one written by a priest of Vkandis in Karse, with the implicit claim that such a work would be more biased. 

Karse was founded before Valdemar was; the initial population was of semi-nomadic herders and shepherds, and it's believed that Vkandis guided their travels to the newly-clean lands that now make up Karse's core territory. They settled in the city now called Sunhame, and it's claimed Vkandis used a flashy miracle to indicate the right place - a fire that kindled itself on the Winter Solstice and burned for a fortnight despite lack of fuel, during a bitter winter. A temple was built at that location. Vkandis also, for the first century or so while Karse was still very small and consisted of peoples used to nomadic life, nominated leaders via obvious miracles; eventually the country settled into their current system, a hereditary monarchy and aristocracy plus a separate priesthood, the High Priest choosing a successor but awaiting confirmation or disapproval of their choice from Vkandis. Despite all the divine confirmations, Karse has had a rockier history than Valdemar of succession crises in both the monarchy and the priesthood. There are two historical occasions where it's claimed that corrupt leaders were publicly set on fire. 

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It's interesting that more direct intervention doesn't lead to more stable results. He can think of a lot of possible reasons for that--less efficient use of mysterious god-resources, Valdemar having more or more powerful gods involved (since the first king supposedly prayed to all of them), Companions just being a really good system, Vkandis prioritizing other things above "no succession crises"--but it's not clear how to distinguish between them. Also, there has got to be a better way for a god to prevent or remove corrupt officials than setting them on fire, at least most of the time, but he guesses that the more subtle cases wouldn't make it into the history books.

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The book does not really venture an opinion on the efficacy of Vkandis' strategy, though it does mention the contrast with the apparently much less hands-on gods in neighbouring kingdoms; even the Star-Eyed Goddess is less direct. Vkandis is also documented as sending visions or prophecies to His priests more often than with other churches. 

There's an off-hand, single line mention that Iftel, with its shield-wall, is believed to also be Vkandis' territory. 

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Oh, yeah, he forgot about Iftel. Odd that two countries ruled by the same God would have such different policies for interacting with the world. Maybe he'll read more about that later. In the meantime, he's got this book on the Haighlei.

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The Haighlei Empire is a large one, a league of six subcomponent nations, stretching all the way down the far western coast (on the other side of the Pelagirs, apparently) to the southern end of the continent, mostly separated from inland by a steep range of mountains. They're a major naval power, trading with the rest of the continent mostly via Acabarrin in the far south. 

They're incredibly averse to change. Their society is rigidly governed by protocols and, relative to the rest of the world, has barely changed over millennia. This seems to be something their gods encourage. One of their traditions is the Eclipse Ceremony; approximately every twenty years, at a solar eclipse, is the only time any changes to their civilization can be voted through.

Their culture also has stronger control and regulation over Gifts than anywhere else in the known world. All children above age six are tested regularly for mage-gift, and those found to be Gifted - it sounds like they have a way to determine which Gifts will awaken versus remain in potential when children are still quite young - are taken away from their families to be trained as priests. Any judged not to have the virtue and temperament required for the priesthood have their Gifts burned out and are sent home in disgrace. Mind-Gifts are even more controlled; their use is banned entirely except for some variant of Truth Spell. 

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That sounds . . . well, really unpleasant, honestly. Regulating Gifts so they can't be used to harm people makes sense, but there's such a thing as going too far, and never changing their culture or their technology is just bizzare. And he can't even tell himself that presumably it works for them or they would have stopped, because their gods don't want them to. Even if the gods are encouraging them to be unchanging because they think it's the best way to be, various other gods seem to disagree on disagree on that.

Abras returns the books and thanks the priest, and asks while he's here if they have a copy of Seldasen on ethics.

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They do! 

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Then he's going to read that too! He doesn't quite believe it's possible to get an explanation of ethics as clear and complete as his other treatise on tactics, but even something vaguely close would be pretty great.

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Seldasen on ethics gives a number of intriguing examples of ethical dilemmas, often in the vein of 'is it worth sacrificing one person to save many' or 'is it worth behaving in an unvirtuous way if the virtue, for example honesty, would directly cause harm.' 

Seldasen tends to present both sides of every argument, fairly neutrally, though sometimes it's obvious what his personal position is. He's in favour of honesty and other virtues as valuable norms, legible to the citizens of Valdemar who need to put their trust in Heralds, but he's not fanatic about it and recognizes that there are tradeoffs. 

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It's good when he can tell what Seldasen's position is, because the alternative is not being able to tell. Though Seldasen does also seem to be genuinely uncertain, sometimes, but remarkably clear even then. It's very useful that he talks about the ways things are different for Heralds, how what one Herald does can have consequences for all of them and how this can change what the right thing to do is. Which is terrifying, of course, because it raises the stakes, but having it pointed out with examples of how to react to it helps.

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The next time they're all having dinner together in Savil's suite, Savil's student Sandra (Lissandra, but she started shortening it on her second day in Haven) asks if Abras would like to do alchemy with her sometime. 

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Shy little smile. "I'd like that, if you wouldn't mind teaching me."

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Sandra bounces a bit. "I think it'd be really neat! There are some bits you can do with magic and you'd be so helpful for it, you're way stronger than I am." She seems matter-of-fact about it and not especially jealous, maybe because she's never faced the issues Abras does with control. 

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"That does sound neat." Abras is a little envious of Sandra's total lack of control problems but mostly in a way where he admires her skills. He can drop by her workroom whenever they're both available.

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Sandra's workroom is kind of a disaster, her notes and materials are splayed out across every surface, but she seems to have no trouble finding things. "Neat! All right, what do you want to study? I've been trying to figure out how fire works." 

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