Dec 02, 2022 12:47 AM
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"Can't say I know your art history," says Marisa, playing with some coins. "Point out the best ones for me, so I know how to look cultured. Is that building all stone? Uh, wolves? I can think of a wolf youkai or two, they like triangular fang motifs usually. Not sure that you mean the animal, though."

Marisa gives Praem a casual wave as she goes off.

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The Carta member leads Praem through a maze of side streets and alleyways, many passing under and through other layered buildings, and arrives at a smaller, neat building with detailing in the bright white stone that seems to be popular for impressive architecture.

They enter through a small door set into one of two impressive iron bound doors, her escort nods at a receptionist or possibly guard who is sitting at a table near the door sorting through a pile of letters, and knocks on a side door off the moderately impressive main hall - lots of tapestries, embroidered cushions on long pews and so on, with a raised stage area containing an elaborately carved lecturn.


"The jewel of the collection is meant to be the portraits in the Butchers Gallery, especially the ones painted by the senator herself, but personally I've always preferred the cityscapes, especially Ilaria's - she came to us from Urizen, you know," replies Laria. "The Milestones exhibit is quite something, though, I'll give them that."

"Oh, sorry, wolves is a technical term," replies Tommaso. "Not really my field, you'd need to go to Temeschwar for the experts there, but essentially they're the things that go bump in the depths of the Varushkan woods. Responsive to hospitality, can't get you on the roads if they've been properly maintained, but makes the place rather perilous, especially at night."

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Praem looks around a bit at the architecture, nodding politely at the door-minder. Her blank gaze lingers for a moment on the correspondence, but it would be rude to pry.

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"Sounds like home, I live in some perilous woods. Humans actually getting eaten is rare these days, it was actually mostly before my time, but it's not exactly safe either. Yeah, lead the way, that all sounds good. Sounds like senators are the most important officials around here?"

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The side door opens; a lady in rich red and gold robes looks vaguely annoyed at them for a moment, then notices Praem is somewhat odd looking and puts on a much more open and welcoming expression.

"Thisss is Praem, she arrived on a flying ship into the harbour and wanted to talk comparative theology," explains Praem's escort.

"Oh! Welcome to the Night Market Church. Do come in, have a seat, would you like some wine and nibbles?"

The office is clearly a working room, there's a desk covered in various bits of paper, several high backed wooden chairs with red and gold cushions, mismatched cupboards. It still has lovely patterned wallpaper and a couple of portrait paintings in gilded frames.

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Laria leads Marisa through the grand entrance, nods to the attendant on duty at a front desk, and breezes past the guards on duty into a gallery with rich red wallpaper and many portraits in elaborate gilded frames, all labelled as Someone di Something di Something Else - often Sarvos - or Someone Something von Temeschwar, and 'Member of the Butcher's Guild' or 'Esteemed Patron of the Butcher's Guild'; sometimes it's 'of the Butcher's Bank' instead.

The portraits are all technically marvellous, although possibly a bit lacking in animation and character; they all kind of look the same, like there's an Approved Portrait Style for this gallery.

"Senators are second only to the Empress, if we had one; as it is, they're still squabbling, Lisabetta was a tough act to follow."

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"Good day and thank you for your hospitality." Praem sits on the best-positioned chair. "I am Praem Saye, titled Peregrine Bishop to the Unfamiliar Places of the Church of England, appointed by Her Majesty, Empress Victoria III. I have not travelled here in that official capacity. It is a position with irregular responsibilities." Her high, sing-song tone has the quality of a practiced recitation.

Praem sips some wine. Someone perceptive might notice it fizz slightly as it passes her lips.

"I have authority for diplomacy. But I am mainly here to learn." She pauses. "A priority. Are there hostile gods here? By any definition."

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Marisa flits from portrait to portrait, viewing them at various distances, continuing to talk. She tries to find patterns in the names, but not very hard; she knows how long it takes her to memorize things like this, and it's quite a bit longer than she's going to spend.

"Seems like the butchers are pretty important here! Guess it's their museum, right. Does the senate elect an Empress? Who appoints senators, does the local government do it? Sorry for the silly questions, government where I'm from is 'you get in a duel to resolve disputes, and if things get too out of hand Reimu comes and duels you and always wins'. Well, and the old treaty, and the new treaty, for the really powerful people. I've been picking it up as I travel!"

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"Bishop Serelina di Notturno di Sarvos, at your service.

There are no gods here, and as far as we are aware, the concept is incoherent everywhere; every now and again some powerful beings decide to attempt to set themselves up as gods, which rarely goes well for anyone involved.

Juno, thank you for bringing me this very interesting person, you can go now."

The other guild member, presumably Juno, bows sarcastically and leaves them to it, shutting the door behind them.

"I have sent Juno away because there are laws against incautious proselytization, which I wouldn't want you to fall afoul of while we have a private, fascinating conversation.

What do you know of the Way already, so that I don't bore you by repetition?"

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"The Butchers Bank - or, at least, Lorenzo La Volpe, in his capacity as the richest man in the Empire - sponsored this building, and an awful lot of other public works projects besides," replies Laria. "May he pass through the Labyrinth swiftly, or be propelled from it by his works, as I'm sure he intended.

The Senate is indeed responsible for electing an Empress; apparently last season's Throne vote was quite dramatic, one of the candidates died in the process, although they unfortunately didn't have the sense of style to elect her while they were at it.

The Dawnish used to have a big fight about their senators, but in general the Empire is not a fan of duelling that isn't entirely consensual, so our options are a little limited on that front; here, the owners of businesses get voting certificates they can fill in for the candidate of their choice, which is a little dull and sedate but does get the job done - and at least it's something people can trade, or 'lose', keeps it a little bit exciting. Every nation in the Empire is different in how it appoints its Senators, but essentially it's always some kind of popularity contest."

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"I am unfamiliar. Few inferences."

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"Sounds exciting, we don't usually have people die in duels, though I know one person who dies on purpose in them. It's a show of magic, doesn't really hurt more than a solid punch to get hit. Some people play rougher than others, but it's about the artistry and mastery really. And we've got treaties. They actually made me sign both! I'm just a human. Anyway, what's the Labyrinth? Can we see some more art?"

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"Okay. I don't normally teach introductory classes, so let me know if anything is especially unclear.

When a human dies, their soul goes to the Labyrinth - which is probably not really a 'place', but one of our Doctrines is that you can't actually really understand it unless you're already about to transcend it, so don't get too hung up on that, I suppose.

They stay in the Labyrinth for some amount of time, and are then reborn in a new body, without direct access to their previous memories.

We know things about this because we can unlock those memories - but only very partially, and only with a very expensive substance that it takes a considerable amount of the Empire's productive capabilities to produce. We call the substance 'true liao' and the unlocking a 'past life vision'.

Due to this ability, we have also managed to deduce some other things about how this works. There are fundamental drives in human nature - probably the nature of all sentients, but our research has been primarily on humans - that we call Virtues. Some of these Virtues help a soul move faster through the Labyrinth - we call those True Virtues. Our current list is Wisdom, Prosperity, Ambition, Courage, Vigilance, Pride and Loyalty, which is fairly stable but there have been changes in the past when new evidence has been presented.

Some individuals that should have gone very fast through the Labyrinth instead don't come back at all - but do have, uh, variously documented effects on the world after their death. We call these individuals Paragons, and say they have transcended the Labyrinth and gone beyond it. The documented effects are mostly visions, and also sometimes what we call 'miracles' - effects that are not explainable in other ways, often to do with auras but not always.

Auras are, I suppose, a side topic in religion - the refined vinum that doesn't become true liao creates a substance that's just called liao, which lets properly trained priests leave auras of a virtue on places, people, and things. Only humans can successfully take liao out of the people we've tried it on; orcs can't stomach it and reject it rather messily, heralds have a range of effects but none are the normal one. Humans, and possibly orcs although this is controversial, can also leave these auras just by getting into a mindset extremely aligned with the Virtue in question - this is one of the most usual forms of miracle - but it happens rarely enough to be called that.

Are you following so far? There are a lot of edge cases, the words for the Virtues are a little misleading in places and could generally do with detailed exposition, and I haven't really mentioned Exemplars or the religious laws yet, but that is the fundamental basis of our faith."

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"Yes, it's very illegal to murder someone in a duel even if they consented to it, although how much that is successfully enforced varies from place to place. Do you have better retrieval of past lives than us, or is something else odd going on with someone who can die repeatedly and still each time be a... consistent enough person that you recognise them?

The Labyrinth of Ages is where we go when we die; the soul loses access to its memories unless they're unlocked later, at great expense, but is reborn with the Virtues that you cultivated in your previous lives, and other general similarities.

Are you going to be looking for the Empire to sign treaties? Generally that would happen at Anvil, at one of the solstice or equinox gatherings.

Let's wander through the Roads gallery and get to Landscapes."

The Blood Red Roads gallery is a little monotonous - a lot of milestones and markers painted to look like the white stone, with names engraved and painted in red. Landscapes is much more varied and interesting, with everything from extremely abstract canvases to amazing hyper realistic paintings that must have taken an awfully long time to do by hand.

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Praem listens attentively.

"Some common ground with Buddhists. Some of those on our ship. They seek escape from rebirth." She pauses for a moment. "Not all beings are reborn in the same way, or at all. Have seen differences even among human lineages."

"What are the metaphysics of the others you mentioned? Heralds, orcs."

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"She was some noblewoman born centuries ago who drank an immortality elixir, she doesn't die die. She dies on purpose at the end of every spell, I think just so she can be reborn straight into the next one. A style thing, I guess. It's actually kinda hard to talk to dead spirits usually but they might remember their life, I think when someone's reborn the normal way they basically never remember anything. New brain and all."

She looks serious at the talk of treaty signing. "Realistically, the Admiral will want to sign something with your Empire before someone else who won't respect your sovereignty finds you. There's a lot of warlordism out there, and the Admiral wants to be at the vanguard of something other than that. My planet is a special case and some of the most powerful individuals signed a treaty with her as individuals, as well as some on behalf of various factions, that's the new treaty. It also incorporates the old treaty, which is like a dueling code for especially powerful youkai. I definitely didn't deserve to be on it, it's just that I come the closest to being able to win against Reimu, by which I mean I absolutely can't but I can lose with some dignity. The old treaty was around for long enough that the culture by now is entirely nonlethal, I can only think of three or four people who ever tried to kill me and they were all some kind of outsider."

The seriousness drops away at the landscape gallery. "Wow, this is great!"

She goes around from painting to painting, inspecting them from near and far. If there's any paintings of forests at night, she would especially appreciate those!

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"'Lineage' means something specific here, which I'm not sure is exactly what you mean by it," replies Serelina carefully, "and we are very sure that our variety, which is based on ancestry or contact with the magical Realms, has no effect on any of this. There are some that hold that it is an impediment to Virtue, but I have seen no evidence of this; I think some people just like to have an excuse to look down on other people.

Heralds are creatures of the Realms; some are not really separate individuals to begin with, some of them go back to their Realm when killed here, and some simply dissipate entirely. They don't have souls, as far as we can discern; they are purely of magic.

Orcs... orcs go to the Howling Abyss. They get one chance to jump across; if they succeed, they remain on the other side as an Ancestor, and the living orcs can hear the Ancestors that they have some attachment to, usually by blood, although possibly also by other means. The True Virtues also help them - the leap is based on their deeds in life, if they were great and inspiring enough, and the Virtues prompt us to action."

She seems somewhat uncomfortable with the fate of orcs - much more so than of heralds, which was delivered in a much more matter of fact, almost careless manner.

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"Oh! Like a Sovereign, then - they are ancient beings, once human, who carved out important parts of themselves in return for immortality, and haunt the forests of Varushka.

We have the means of accessing memories of past lives, although it's very expensive - perhaps you will be able to help us make it at greater scale, that would be quite something? We also have rituals for contacting the dead, although the longer they have been dead, the more perilous it is - if they've been reborn since, you generally get... something else... in fact, one of the candidates for Empress was eaten by one such monstrosity just this season!

The Senate can ratify treaties, although I think some provisions would require them to stop squabbling and appoint a Throne to confirm them. We have some ability to defend ourselves magically, but possibly not against a flotilla of flying boats that can... rain fire from the skies? Or simply drop rocks from very far up, I suppose that would be quite unpleasant?"

Cityscapes and pastoral farming scenes are clearly the most popular varieties of landscape in the gallery, with coastlines and sailing vessels out to sea as runners-up, but there are a couple of dark and deep woods, with glowing red or yellow eyes watching covetously from just off the road.

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"Some locality. Were my human friend to die here, she would likely find herself in the Labyrinth, if it accepts all human souls. If she died on her homeworld, she would await rebirth in the Netherworld there. Likely knows enough magic to return from there as a phantom. Were I to die here, I would leave the universe, not unlike heralds. Because I am not from here. Unless I joined the Saye dead."

She pauses. "Simplifying some. I am not exactly alive. Just visiting."

She pauses again, for a bit longer. "Is 'lineage' a technical term?"

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"Usually dead spirits are hanging around the Netherworld, or Hell, which are just places you can go, at least where I'm from. Well, there's a little magic involved. Trying to call back their souls seems like a bad idea, but it's not my field."

Marisa pauses her gawking at a painting to put on her serious face for a moment. "Dropping things is devastating, yeah. There's very large rocks available, or just small projectiles moving very fast. A big problem is that orbit is a completely unassailable position for a planet without orbital spaceflight. It's very hard to leave a planet, very easy to drop things onto one. No reason they even need to be as close as orbit. Maybe you have magic that can put things on very distant ships moving very quickly, which would help, or other really heavy-hitting powers. You're not near pirate clans, though. Well, you're not near anything, but closer to human admirals than pirate clans, which means defense satellites and a signed treaty are what you want, they might want to snap up a planet but they won't want to go to war with Admiral Hearn."

"I love this one," says Marisa, returning to look at a painting of some very spooky woods. "Reminds me of home. Just paint in my house over here. So are those spooky eyes supposed to be, uh, what did you call it, your version of youkai? Waiting to eat travellers, and all that?"

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"That sounds like what heralds are - not exactly alive, just visiting.

People here sometimes become ghosts, if they can't bear to leave the world yet for some reason - generally it's a mercy to move them on from that state, though, it's rarely pleasant. And sometimes things emerge from the Labyrinth, but they aren't usually individual souls without being reborn; it has its own creatures which make it their home - the ones that come out are... rarely pleasant, either. Generally quite dangerous, in fact.

'Lineage' is a technical term for us, yes - although it also still has its general meaning of 'blood ancestry'. Those who are touched by one of the magical Realms have changes on them - like Juno who brought you here, he's a naga, touched by the Night realm - and we call them 'lineaged'.

I'd be fascinated to hear what you know of your own afterlives; I don't think anyone could mistake it for proselytization, I am a Synod priest and am expected to be able to look after myself on that front a lot more than a random person on the street."

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"I expect with the right magic you could visit the Labyrinth, and certainly some cultures describe it as a 'hell' - the Faraden call it the howling wastes, and the Axou are so afraid of it they sometimes trap their souls in objects! I suppose that's what happens when you don't follow the True Virtues, you don't have a very good time of it.

I don't actually know how high up the limits of magic are; we can't affect the moon, I know that much, but people think that might be because it's made of White Granite or something rather than because it's out of reach. It does have some weird relationship with boundaries though, I'm not enough of a magician to know the details, but the lines on the map are somehow actually quite real, apparently - which is terribly awkward when it comes to conquering territories, it's a bit of an all or nothing job," replies Laria.

"Wolves," explains Tommaso, who has just caught up after having to pay for entry at the front desk. "And yes, if you leave the roads, then you are on the menu; the Varushkans have a lot of rules about hospitality and where you should be at night, for very good reasons. It's kind of fascinating really - other nations don't have anything like it, I've always wanted to see what happens if the Varushkans take a new territory that starts out perfectly normal, but Ossium isn't exactly a good test case - it's hard to tell if the woods are haunted because the Varushkans claimed it or because the Druj left it full of traps and... horrors.

I suppose Temeschwar still has it a bit, but it's not clear whether they would if they'd started League, rather than breaking away from the Varushkans later."

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"No shortage of claimants on the dead. Likely easier to interact with than physical bodies. Some mages can seize themselves. I work with a god that claims human souls for physical resurrection. Being legibly claimable is important. My god submits to theophagy to align with souls. Reincarnation likely second best fate. Annihilation surprisingly uncommon. Possibly easier to annihilate a god than a mortal."

"No paper copies of my academic work on me. Can print later. I wrote a monograph classifying types of god. One is shorthand for a powerful being with relevant metaphysics. One is beings who gain from worship. One is eternal uncaused beings. My allied god is the last type, but I am also, and I do not identify as a god."

"Likely you are correct to steer people away from claims by most gods." Her eyes seem to narrow, but at the same time, her blank facial expression does not seem to change. "They are irresponsible."

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"Huh, well, I didn't ask Sumiyoshi for a geological survey or anything. You have metaphysical borders, really? We used to, but then we got a planet, and it turns out huge amounts of physical space work just fine. Probably on or off planet counts as a border for you too?"

"I'd ask if your 'wolves' could be tamed, but that might rely on a lot of really specific things about our history, like nearly running out of humans such that eating us became a bad idea. I kinda don't like the sound of 'horrors' though! Does anyone ever talk to these things, or just get eaten?"

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"Yes, that lines up with what we know about souls - people regularly get into a panic about 'souls being destroyed', but every time anyone has looked into it, at worst they're trapped temporarily and once you solve the problem they go on just fine.

The closest thing to gods that actually exists here is the Eternals - you'd really want to talk to someone from the University to understand them in depth, but as far as I understand it, they're kind of like big magical phenomena that coalesce around a particular theme that resonates with their Realm - and often act kind of like people, and can be negotiated with for power and so on, but fundamentally they don't really know what a soul is and they get confused whenever they try to understand them.

If they could affect souls I have no doubt they would be highly irresponsible with them, yes.

Just a word of caution - you should probably avoid talking to people in general about afterlife interactions and deities. The social contract of the Empire is that the priests of the Synod discuss this kind of thing, and the person on the street doesn't have to worry about it; they might get sufficiently upset to try to have you arrested for a religious crime, which would be unfortunate."

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