SOMETIMES, AND WITHOUT MEANING TO, religious faith can eat itself by blurring the lines between divine desires and human humbuggery.
By which is meant, O Patient Reader, that while the Flickering Gods always have a clear idea as to what They want, Their followers can (and often do) convince themselves that their gods want what they want.
Case in point: the village of Everfaire, situated on the dividing-line between lands administered by the city-state of Pormaris and those overseen by neighboring Soharis. As is the case with border towns, especially those with attendant free-trade zones – and most especially, those within the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell – a diverse and shifting population is guaranteed: nobles, merchants, farmers, crafters, tradesfolk, all eager to sell or buy or work. Add the occasional interested outlander, or those who enjoy a change of cultural scenery, and it makes for quite the eclectic blend.
And who knows? Fortune may be lurking within.
In general, everyone got along splendidly. But as Prosatio Silban learned, matters sometimes became a bit complicated.
The cook’s galleywagon had just pulled into Everfaire and, as his coin-purse was nearly empty, he was looking forward to engaging someone with a commercial interest in his services. He nodded approvingly at the busily thronged marketplace, but instead of stopping there, he guided his dray-beast toward the local inn. First, a nice glass of blue duliac to slake my road-dusty thirst, he thought, hopping down from the driver’s bench and feeding his dray-beast a greasy and well-deserved fatberry-cake. With that vital deed out of the way, the cook briskly took the three steps up to the inn’s wide front patio. And who knows? Fortune may be lurking within.
As Prosatio Silban entered the crowded and bustling great-room he could hear, over the genial conversation and occasional laughter, angry and impassioned shouting. Its source was a trio of disputants at one large, round and central table – specifically, that table which, judging by the small and well-used bronze altar thereon, was reserved for enacting divinely sanctioned and hence ironclad legal agreements. By their bearing and dress, the cook marked the three as belonging to the land-owning Uulian nobility. All were clad in sharp-styled kneebreeches, tunics and long bejeweled vests, which garments differed only in their color-schemes: one wore the warm tones of decadent Pormaris; another, the cool hues of cosmopolitan Soharis; and the third, the earthy shades of distant and stony-hearted Tirinbar. The latter individual was the loudest; the other two were quietly raising conciliatory hands.
“It simply will not work!” the Tirinbar noble roared. “I will not be a party to religious insurrection and unorthodoxy!”
“I am not saying we must offer to one of the Six-Hundred and Three,” said the one from Soharis. “I am willing to acquiesce on this point, and not insist on including Atalhea, Guarantress of Satisfying Conclusions. But why can we not offer to another of the Ten: to Hopmon of the Ever Heavy Purse, say; or Maklun, Decider of Cases; or perhaps Porthunis, Overseer of the Still and the Roiling?”
“Yes, why not?” echoed his Pormaris companion. “The Waterlord is, after all, the most relevant.”
“Because it would be heresy, that’s why,” countered the Tirinbar noble. “There are only two important Flickering Gods. The other Eight – and most of all, Their bastard myriad offspring – are only children. We of Tirinbar do not offer to children.”
“Who are you?” the Tirinbar noble asked witheringly.
“Good m’Lords,” Prosatio Silban said in as affable a manner as possible. “I am lately arrived here and do not pretend to be familiar with your dispute. But perhaps a neutral ear may offer clarification and resolution? What seems to be the nature of your difficulty?”
“Who are you?” the Tirinbar noble asked witheringly.
“Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price,” came the reply. “The tending of hot skillets has amply prepared me for knowing when and where to apply heat – and when and where to remove it.”
The Pormaris and Soharis representatives nodded with crisp formality, and introduced themselves respectively as the Heirs Second Phytan and Sorvast. However, m’Lord Tarsrian, the Tirinbar noble, was unfazed. “And what do you know of the divine act of treaty-making?” he sniffed.
“More than you may think,” the cook said. “Serving a diverse clientele as I do, I am familiar with altar-fires and Who may be supplicated thereon. You of grim-shadowed Tirinbar hold only to the two seminal Flickering Gods: Galien, the All-Mother, and Angrim, the All-Limiter. As our beloved and holy Uulian Codex states, ‘Everything extant / Is but a dance / Between Life and Time.’
“Those of epicurean Pormaris are somewhat more eclectic. Although giving occasional lip service to all six-hundred-thirteen of our gods, they only offer on their pact-altars to the Lady of Life and Lord of Time and the Eight Subsequents. The residents of many-harbored Soharis are the Commonwell’s most theologically accommodating, perhaps due to their mercantile contact with Rimless Sea nations. Their High Sacreants have ruled that all of the Lambent Ones may be devotional beneficiaries of treaty-seeking Uulians.
“So here you are at an impasse,” he concluded. “In order to seal this accord, you must all share a meal and each offer a portion of it on the altar-fire to the most relevant god. Without knowing the particulars of your case, I cannot judge how serious is your disagreement. But do I have the gist?”
“You do,” said Phytan.
“Indeed,” said Sorvast.
“In essence, yes,” said Tarsrian, somewhat mollified. “It is a trade-contract we seek to seal. But you do not need to know the particulars, Master Cook, to tell us how you would proceed.”
Prosatio Silban nodded. “I do not wish to intrude on the privacy of three Heirs Second,” he said. “But to answer your question: I could only proceed with a knowledge of at least some of the particulars. What may seem obvious to one in the midst of a struggle may not be so to a disinterested observer, and vice-versa. Is it possible to discuss this matter with me, without compromising your necessary confidentiality?”
The three exchanged glances, and Sorvast spoke first. “We each raise revenue for our respective cities by charging a tariff on trade conducted along the River Reaching, which connects all three and their particular bodies of water: Soharis is on the wide Rimless Sea, Pormaris is an island surrounded by the ever-churning Teardrop Lake, and Tirinbar lays claim to the great and cold Inland Deep.”
“So what is your solution, Master Cook?”
“As the middle of the Three Cities, Pormaris has secured the greatest economic advantage,” said Phytan. “But our wealth has come at great cost to the communal goodwill upon which the Three Cities were founded. We would like to change that by offering our sisters free trade for any river-length traffic. And we would also like to settle this agreement here in Everfaire, in this inn where so many important deals have been struck throughout our shared history.”
“However, we have hit upon a snag,” said Tarsrian. “We cannot agree upon the one divine being who will witness our soon-to-be-celebrated treaty and confirm it into Uulian law. I will not swear by the name of any gods but Galien and Angrim, while they would like to be more … specific. So what is your solution, Master Cook?”
Prosatio Silban creased his brow for a length of heartbeats, looking at each Heir Second in turn, then took a breath and chose his words with care. “After considering each divine claimant with judgment and tact, my conclusion is this: The gentleman from Tirinbar has the most correct claim…”
“Aha! you see?” gloated Tarsrian.
“…but so do you others,” the cook finished.
“Yes, why?” asked Phytan and Sorvast.
“It comes down to a question of applied theology,” Prosatio Silban said. “According to our sacred Uulian Codex, what matters is the gods’ interaction, not their divine selves; Their ‘dance,’ as the Codex puts it, from which springs everything known. Whichever god you pledge by – Galien, Hopmon, even mighty Porthunis or lately-come Atalhea – is simply an aspect and mask for Their dance. In other words, the gods are verbs, not nouns. So choose whatever god fits your mutual fancy. The compact you seal will be equally valid – so long as it is done with good will and reciprocal respect.”
The others were silent for a moment, then Sorvast spoke up. “I yield to my brother from Tirinbar. My gods are my own – but our treaty must transcend such particularistic concerns.”
“I agree,” said Phytan. “Choose for us, my traditionalist sibling. I will not object.”
The Tirinbar noble looked at Prosatio Silban with undisguised awe. “How did you become so wise?” he asked.
The cook bowed. “In my line of work,” he said with a smile, “everything comes down to ensuring that if one flavor dominates, the others provide a counterpoint rather than a struggle. Thus let it be with you – and with all of us.”