In The Hallowed Covenant, the third novel in the Passionate Pantheon series, we took a deep dive into the philosophy of the City by looking deeper at the lives of its residents. The Hallowed Covenant explores themes of atonement, commitment, and celebration, and spend a lot more time outside the various temples than we did with The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens. (The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, goes even further in this direction, spending time with characters who don’t occupy any special position of high rank in the City and aren’t Sacrifices to their chosen gods at all.)
One of the ideas that engaged us whilst writing The Hallowed Covenant is notion of
“commitment.” The City is a society where sex is integrated into almost every part of social life, nearly as casual as a handshake (for us, that is—you’ll notice residents of the City rarely shake hands, or even touch, on first meeting…there’s a reason for that, which might be a good topic for a future essay!). In such a society, what does commitment even mean?
In the real world, we’re so conditioned to see sex and commitment as part of the same tangled hairball that there are people who will argue, with absolutely genuine conviction, that commitment is not possible without sexual exclusivity. So how does the City think about commitment? What does commitment even look like? How is it celebrated and experienced?
“Today we celebrate a cleansing,” Sayi said. “Tashaka and Sendi call upon the Keeper to wipe away all past wrongs so they may join in union with a clean slate.” The air around her vibrated with her words, carrying them to every corner of the enormous hall. The flowing motes of light swirled in a vast whirlpool above the stage. “I call upon Tashaka and Sendi to write down all their transgressions against one another, so they may be washed clean by the Keeper. Let each be erased as if it never happened.”
Tashaka and Sendi dipped pens into the ink pots and wrote on long strips of pale pink silk. As they finished each strip, they handed it to a veiled Confessor, who rolled it up and placed it in the censer. Dense blue smoke rose from within. Sayi could not help noticing Sendi prepared several more ribbons than Tashaka.
When they finished, Sayi said, “Let those closest to Tashaka and Sendi now do the same, so that they move forward in friendship unsullied by the misdeeds of the past. Allow me to accept the weight of all your sins.”
The people seated behind the balustrade came forward. Tashaka and Sendi stood beside Sayi while their friends wrote on narrow strips of silk. A Confessor took each strip reverentially and placed it in the censer to be burned. Thick smoke twisted in the air.
—from The Hallowed Covenant
Commitment exists in the City, of course. For as long as we are recognizably human, with a desire for human love and human intimacy, it will likely continue to exist. Tying commitment to sexual exclusivity is neither necessary nor inevitable; commitment is what happens when you resolve to bind some part of your life with that of another, journeying forward together as partners, united in a common purpose: helping one another navigate life together.
This is just as true in the City as it is in the real world. The people of the City commit to one another in a vast number of ways, tailored to their individual needs and tastes. A public ceremony of commitment is, whatever society it takes place in, a declaration before the people around you: this is a person I choose (or, in some societies, was chosen for me); this is someone who means something to me.
The ceremony we see in The Hallowed Covenant begins with a ritual cleansing, a symbolic wiping away of lingering hurts over past transgressions, to allow those committing to one another to move forward unencumbered by the weight of past wrongs. (This theme of transgression, atonement, and forgiveness is central to The Hallowed Covenant; we wanted to explore what these ideas mean in a society with no codified laws or system of justice. We return to them again in Unyielding Devotion, one of the “dark” books, where they take on a very different form.)
In The Hallowed Covenant, we see a commitment ceremony that centers on ritual cleansing of the past—but it’s important to understand that this wiping away of past transgressions does not mean pretending that the past never happened. It can be easy to imagine a partner as a tabula rasa, the past as an empty book: nothing they did before matters; none of it is real. That’s a naïve, potentially even dangerous, idea, because you cannot love someone you do not know, and you cannot know someone without knowing their past. (Which is not to say, of course, that anyone owes you their past.)
The wiping away of the past, then, is about forgiving without forgetting. It’s about acknowledging the person you’re committing to, in all their glorious imperfection and in all their history, while also letting go of those last lingering remnants of the small hurts we inevitably inflict on one another. Tashaka and Sendi, the characters celebrating a commitment in The Hallowed Covenant, record their transgressions to be burned, but that doesn’t mean those transgressions never occurred!
In the City, a commitment ceremony does not, of course, mean you have to stop having sex with everyone else, and indeed Tashaka and Sendi, after their visit to the Confessory, also visit a House of the Blesser to partake of its delights (well, relatively speaking; those who serve the Blesser must endure 9-hour-long orgasms…something that sounds wonderful to non-kinky folks, but if you’ve played at all with forced orgasms, we can see you cringing and covering your nethers from here).
Which is not to say nobody ever forsakes all others. In the City, every relationship is bespoke. In the fourth book, Unyielding Devotion, we meet Jakalva, who is committed to a partner who is her only lover, even though she hosts extravagant parties legendary even in the City for the extraordinary sex that takes place at them. Having only a single lover is an eccentricity, something outside the social norm, but it does happen.
When your template for commitment isn’t solely based on the requirement of sexual exclusivity, that lets you focus on what commitment really means. You can argue that the laser focus on sex that defines many real-world ideas about commitment causes people to forget other forms of commitment: the commitment to building a life together, to helping each other grow towards the best possible versions of themselves, to being there through turbulent waters. Taking sex—or any other form of assumed expectations—out of the equation allows more deliberate attention to the other things that matter.
But perhaps this is typical of the City, to expand things beyond sex. In the real world, when we talk about “consent,” we usually mean sexual consent; residents of the City tend to apply ideas of consent, autonomy, and agency far beyond sex, which is why, for example, the people in the City would never ask a child to hug someone they don’t want to hug, something that happens in the real world all too often.
The point here is that commitment doesn’t look like just one thing. The City has no rulebook for what a committed relationship must look like. The residents live lives adapted to their needs, rather than adapting themselves to traditions. The City empowers people to make commitments that work for them and express the values they wish to express, but it does not dictate what those relationships must look like.
That doesn’t mean there’s no social contract in the City, of course. One of the strongest ideas in the City, and one we explore at length in The Hallowed Covenant, is the idea that a promise is sacred, and a promise once given can never be broken:
“What I mean is…” Her voice trailed off. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “The thing is…”
Tessia twisted her fingers together. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.” Her voice was nearly inaudible.
“I see.” Penril sat back with his arms folded in front of him, lips pressed in a tight line of disapproval. “You made a promise not only to me, but to the gods themselves. This is a serious matter.”
“I know!” Tessia wailed. “I can’t do service, I just can’t!”
Penril sighed. “When we created the first gods,” he said, “we struck a pact. The gods agreed to provide for us, and in exchange, we agreed to worship them. Central to this covenant is the idea that a promise is a sacred thing. Nobody, human or god, may break a promise once given. To do so is to tear at the foundation of our society.”
“I’m not finished!” Penril thundered. “If we cannot count on one another to keep our promises, the bonds that tie us to each other in mutual cooperation fail. All of society crumbles. A promise, whether to a person or to a god, is a bond. If you break that bond, what place do you have among civilized people?”
Tessia wept, wracking sobs that shook her slender frame. “I know!” she said. “I can’t—I just—I didn’t know! I thought I could do it! I’m sorry!”
Penril’s gaze held steady. “You have made a promise to the Blesser and to me. You made your promise in the presence of Avia in her role as Vessel of the Blesser. Keeping your promise is not optional. I will expect you to be here half an hour before sundown in four days’ time, prepared to serve the Blesser.”
—from The Hallowed Covenant
There is a social contract, but it’s not about tradition for tradition’s sake. If a traditional way of forming a relationship or expressing commitment (or even having sex, as we see with the character Sirchia in the second book, Divine Burdens, and the character Kaytin in the fourth book, Unyielding Devotion) doesn’t work for you, the City will find a place where you can be happy and fulfilled without harming others (well, sort of).
The social contract of the City is about those things that allow people to function in a cohesive society together while still seeking their own path to fulfillment, even if that path isn’t like that of other people. The City draws the line between individual autonomy and social responsibility quite differently from the way societies in the real world do, and is much less willing to sacrifice autonomy for conformity, consistency, or security. And even in its few absolute rules, the City places limitations. A promise, for example, cannot be infinite in duration. “I promise I will always be with you” is not a promise the City would require you to keep; a commitment may be for a certain time, at which point it may be broken or renewed, but when you can easily live for six hundred years, there must be provision for the fact that people grow and change…a commitment must leave room for the reality that you might not be the person in four hundred years that you are right now.
This approach to commitment helps people to find and focus on what matters most to them. Which is, we think, not a bad way to run a society.
Pre-orders for the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open soon! This novel will also be available in audiobook form, narrated by the fantastic Francesca Peregrine.
We will also be doing another live-stream event soon! We haven’t set a date, but the last one was a blast (and ran for more than six hours), so we’re looking forward to it. Watch this space!