Telling the Story that Wants to be Told

Image: Nong V on Unsplash

A few hours ago, we finished a new novella in the Passionate Pantheon universe. When we set out to write, we had an idea of the story we wanted to tell, which we expected to be somewhere between 3,500 words and 3,700 words long.

The first draft of the novella weighs in at 40,133 words.

It’s safe to say we overshot the mark a bit…and 40,133 words is after we deleted 3,039 words of sex that we felt didn’t add to the plot or the world. In other words, the deleted sex scenes alone are nearly as long as the entire story we’d planned to tell. (If you’re very good, we might share those snippets with you!)

So what happened?

When we wrote Divine Burdens, we introduced a character named Ortin, who we describe in a single sentence as having a scar. People in the City can sculpt their bodies however they want (subject only to the constraints of physics and biology), and any injury that doesn’t instantaneously kill you outright can be fixed without fuss by spending the evening in a medical pod, so scars are very rare, bordering on non-existent. Divine Burdens doesn’t explain why Ortin has a scar, but we, the authors, know how he got it and why he keeps it.  As we’ve talked about before, we know our characters very well, and we’ve had hours-long conversations that become a sentence or two in one of the books.

So we set out to tell the story of how Ortin got his scar. As it turns out, sometimes the story you want to tell isn’t the story that wants to be told. We discovered whilst writing a short story about Ortin’s scar that the interesting part of the story, the most significant to him as a character, isn’t how he got it, or even why he kept it, but rather what that says about him, the impact those events had on him, and his relationship with the people around him. (Spoiler: It’s a lot. He only appears for a few paragraphs in Divine Burdens, but he’s a complex character and his relationships are even more complex.)

As writers, we have quite different ways of approaching the blank page. Eunice is what George RR Martin calls an “architect” and some other writers call a “planner”—she sits down and constructs the world of the story, building each part of it before the first word is written. Franklin is what GRRM calls a “gardener” and other folks call a “pantser”—he creates some characters, sets them loose in the world, and sees what happens. It’s the difference between planned writing vs discovery writing, a “let’s decide what happens” approach vs a “let’s see what happens” approach to the empty word processing file.

You might think this clash of styles would make writing together hard. We have nearly diametrically opposed ways to think about the mechanics of storytelling! Yet, paradoxically, that might be precisely what lets us write together so well.

Eunice builds the world and setting of the Passionate Pantheon with meticulous care. She’s drawn sketches of the City, spent countless hours working out the mechanics of the rituals in the various temples, even devised the hierarchies of the priests and priestesses and how their social interactions work.

Franklin drops characters into this crafted environment and lets them loose, then watches to see what they’ll do. It’s a process of discovery: What happens when this character appears in this world? Given these goals, desires, and motivations, what will the character do?

The stories we write together are constructed both top-down and bottom-up. We both put a huge amount of care into the world—we know how the language spoken in the City evolved (even though we don’t know it ourselves—neither of us are conlangers!), how the first colonists arrived on the planet (technically, they’re second generation colonists, but that’s a story for another day), how the generators that feed the voracious energy needs of the City work (those on-demand molecular assemblers require prodigious amounts of energy!), even how the Blessings do their magic in the brains of the folks who use them. None of these details are part of the novels, because the stories we want to tell are, ultimately, about people, not technology. But we know. We need to know, for consistency.

That rich, detailed world lets us set characters free. The fact that we know so much about the world means we aren’t trying to create both the world and the characters at the same time. That gives us the freedom to explore what Terry Pratchett calls “L-Space,” that abstract space where every potential story exists. And every so often, we discover that the story we think we want to tell…isn’t actually the story that needs to be told. The characters tell us who they are, and we find the parts of their story that make up a book.

We don’t write the way most co-authors write. Every set of co-authors has their own style of working together, of course, but frequently what you’ll see is something like what Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett did in Good Omens: they’ll lay out the plot, and then each go off and write a chapter, then come together to merge the bits into a whole. Of course, in order to do this, you need to figure out your plot first. This is, we suspect, part of why pantsers are typically less likely to co-author—it must be very frustrating to co-author if your writing partner comes back a week later saying “I know you’re already writing the next chapter, but it turns out this chapter I’ve just written actually totally changes the way the plot works because the characters disagreed with what we’d decided to do.” Or, alternatively, “I know you do discovery writing, but you need to write what we agreed, no matter what the characters are trying to tell you, because we already decided the plot.”

For us, this really isn’t an issue. We will often write in the same file at the same time (right now, as we work on this essay, Franklin’s cursor is seven lines away from Eunice’s cursor in the Google doc where we’re composing this!), but generally speaking, the world, the gods, and the social structures are Eunice, the characters are Franklin. The plots are some hybrid mashup of us both. We start with a high-level, bird’s-eye overview of the story as we want to tell it, decide who our characters are, and then place them in the world. And occasionally, they make choices that surprise us.

We live on opposite sides of the globe, but the miracle of videoconferencing and Google Docs means that matters not at all; functionally, when we write, we might as well be in the same room together. (It helps that Eunice is a real nightowl, given that London is an inconvenient eight hours ahead of Portland.)

A key ingredient to the way we work together is trust. Not just trust that we have similar ideas about what the world looks like and how it works, though that’s part of it. (We do have remarkably similar ways of viewing the stories, to the point where we consistently bring up a point that the other person was just about to mention.) The major factor, however, is trust that if one of us comes up with an idea and the other says “no, I don’t think that really works,” that’s okay. Our first instinct is always to say “Ok, let’s change that,” and ask questions after, not “you need to persuade me before I agree to change anything.” That small difference, that level of trust, makes a huge difference to the feeling of safety we built together and the confidence you need to be able to co-write.

We also trust our characters. They will do things that surprise us. They will let us know what story they want to tell. The stories don’t always end up the way we planned them…which is precisely why it’s so important that we both understand the world and the society so well. The world is a living thing, and the characters have as much freedom of action in that world as real people have in the real world.

We’ve had a character in The Hallowed Covenant break up with a long-term partner. That wasn’t part of the plan, and it took us both by surprise, but then when we looked back and saw the trajectory those characters were on, we both realized that, actually, it was inevitable. But we didn’t plan for it to happen; the characters told us it happened.

That’s part of the magic of creating in this world. The characters feel vivid and real, independent of each of us. They all have stories to tell. We have a list (in Google Docs, of course) of minor characters from the novels whose lives we want to return to, whose stories we want to learn more about. The backstory of Arjeniza, a very minor character in the upcoming novel Unyielding Devotion, is complex, poignant, and a bit heartbreaking. She damaged herself in the pursuit of service to her chosen god many years before the events in Unyielding Devotion, and that informs her interaction with the protagonist in a subtle way that isn’t at all obvious in the novel.

It’s a good story, and one we want to tell. Or perhaps, one she wants us to tell.

Conversely, there’s another character in the same book, Jakalva, who has such an impact on the book that Eunice compared her to a stone tossed into a still pond: the book is about the ripples. The entire novel is, in a sense, her story, even though she barely appears in it. The novel explores how she affects the lives of the protagonists, even the ones she scarcely crosses paths with. She is old, enigmatic, powerful, and has a very, very interesting history. We would love to write her story…but she won’t let us. We tentatively tried exploring her, but she is so private that she practically skywrote Do Not Touch across our attempts, and we have to accept that. She just doesn’t want anyone to know her.

The novels changed as we wrote them—structurally, narratively, thematically. The first two novels, The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens, are structurally simple: we’re presenting an entirely new world, after all, and there’s only so much we can show of that world without overloading the reader. They work to establish a foundation, and set the “tick tock” pattern of Utopian-themed and dark-themed stories.

The third book, due out later this year, builds on that foundation; it’s both structurally and narratively more complex, with much more intricate relationships and characters. The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, is even more complex still…and the most important character in the novel, the one who shapes the decisions of all the protagonists, is barely present in it. It’s also the first Passionate Pantheon novel with a nonlinear timeline.

We knew the first two books would likely be the most straightforward, but we didn’t explicitly set out to write a nonlinear story with Unyielding Devotion or to write a novel in The Hallowed Covenant about seven friends whose lives intersect in ways that sends all of them off on a different trajectory. We created a high-level overview of the landscape, and then let the river flow through it, establishing its own twists and turns as it did.

Funny thing about rivers: the landscape may shape the way the water flows, but the water also reshapes the landscape.

We have had to make peace with the idea that there will always be more stories we want to tell in the Passionate Pantheon universe than we will ever be able to tell. We set out some months back to start writing short stories in the universe, just to set free some of the ideas that are in our heads, which is what we’d planned to do for Ortin’s story. The reason he has a scar is interesting, we think…but it turns out that the effect the experiences that gave him the scar had on him and the people around him, not the way he got the scar, is the story that wanted to be told. What else could we do but buckle in for the ride?

And since we don’t intend to stop writing together any time soon, hopefully you’re up for following us on this ride. Trust us, sometimes we’re as surprised by what comes out as you are. But then, that’s the fun of co-authoring—you never really know what will come out at the other end. But then, what’s life without a few surprises?

What Is Degradation?

Image by Bianca Berg, Unsplash

In a flash, Marel lunged at Lija. Her stick blurred through the air to strike Lija hard in her ribs. She let out a cry of pain, even as she whirled to grab it. She tucked the end of the stick under her arm and charged at Marel, driving her backward. Marel stumbled and went down heavily on her back.

Someone grabbed Lija from behind. She kicked. Her foot hit something gratifyingly soft. She heard an equally gratifying cry. Then two more people had her, a man and the pale-skinned woman. Marel wrenched the stick from Lija’s grasp. The man to Lija’s left hit her in a flying tackle, hard. Lija went down, buried beneath three bodies. 

Lija exploded into a fury of fists and feet. The short, pale woman atop her—Janli, judging by the sound of her cry—flew backward. Lija squirmed free of the two anonymous men. She had almost regained her feet when someone tackled her again. She fell face-first to the ground. Marel stood over her and used the forked stick to press Lija’s face into the dirt. “Stay down!”

Lija flailed helplessly, the dirt cool and damp against her face. She heard a chuckle behind her. Someone—she couldn’t see who—pulled up her skirt. Marel held her face to the ground with her stick while one of the men lifted her hips and shoved himself into her. Lija cried out in impotent fury. She grabbed for Marel’s legs. Marel stayed safely out of reach.

The man took her from behind in fast, rough strokes. Lija came a moment before he did, in a shuddering orgasm so intense it left her lightheaded and breathless. He roared as he spent himself in her.

Marel held her down until the last twitches of his orgasm faded. He slumped sideways. She kept Lija there, pinning her face against the ground, while another man took his place. Lija let out a cry of shock when his hard shaft thrust into her. She grabbed for Marel again.

“Help me hold her,” Marel said.

Faraie and Janli each grabbed one of Lija’s wrists. They pulled her arms out to her side and held her against the dirt. Lija felt her breasts press into the soft, damp earth. She howled with rage. Faraie laughed triumphantly.

—from Book Two, Divine Burdens

The second book in the Passionate Pantheon series, Divine Burdens, is now out in the wild, flittering free through the world. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking for an author to pass a book into other hands; it’s hard not to look at it and say “oh, but maybe I could have done it better!” Books are perhaps a bit like children that way. They hold a little piece of you and carry it to further shores, for good or ill.

Divine Burdens is the first even-numbered book in the series, a ‘tock’ in the tick-tock cycle of upbeat, happy Utopias and dark erotic horror. It’s not an easy read, and it’s not intended to be. We set out to explore ways the happy post-scarcity Utopia of The Brazen Altar might be twisted into something much darker.

One reader, Christine Gilbert, seems to think we hit the mark:

“So, I finished Divine Burdens. And I think I identified why it took me so long to finish it. It’s a deeply uncomfortable book. I think it’s more uncomfortable for readers who really enjoy their own rape and non-consent fantasies, yet place a high emphasis on consent in actual practice. Essentially I had to keep putting the book down in order to think about my own self and reactions and reconcile them in my own head. This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that forced me to do that sort of self-examination that I did NOT find ultimately annoying or preachy or otherwise frustrating. So overall, the two of you have produced something really remarkable here.”

High praise indeed for porn.

There’s a lot of sex in Divine Burdens, and we do mean a lot. And much of that sex is, yes, deeply uncomfortable (sometimes uncomfortably hot as well, we hope). The first part of the novel follows a character named Lija, a top athlete—one of the best the City has to offer—who spends nine months competing with the City’s other best athletes for the honor of being Sacrifice to the god called the Hunt. During her time as Sacrifice, she will spend three days being pursued without sleep through a vast forest by Hunters seeking to overpower her by force so they can use her body for their own pleasure.

Deeply uncomfortable stuff. 

During the Hunt, Lija endures painful, violating experiences at the hands of the Hunters, some of whom have modified their bodies to make her experience that much more intense. Since only one who has previously been a Hunter can compete for the position of Sacrifice, she knows exactly what she is signing up for—she has engaged in the same activities from the other side.

And she competes for this position, with other people equally ferociously determined to be that Sacrifice who will be stalked through the forest. 

In conversations about sex, particularly about non-traditional forms of sex such as BDSM and even sex work (although let’s be honest, there’s no form of sex that hasn’t existed since long before our modern definition of ‘traditional’), people will frequently use the word ‘degrading.’ Bondage is degrading. Commercial sex is degrading. Kink is degrading. Oral sex is degrading (yes, there are people who say this). Anal sex is degrading. And on and on.

But here’s the thing:

There is, we would argue, no such thing as a sex act that is inherently degrading. Degradation is always, always contextual. Anyone who’s been part of the kink scene knows that one person’s “degrading” is another person’s really fun Friday evening. In some cases, the “degradation” is the fun.

Degradation is contextual.

This nuance is missing from a lot of contemporary real-world conversations about sex. Those who oppose certain kinds of sex (and often favor laws that would prevent anyone from engaging in those kinds of sex—think kink, sex work, porn, anal, and so on) will often say the kind of sex they don’t like is “degrading,” as if that settles it. 

But what does ‘degrading’ even mean? Frequently, people call something “degrading” when they actually mean disgusting—that is, it creates a repellent emotion—without seeming to be aware that “disgusting” is merely a subjective personal opinion. (Franklin finds eggplant, what Brits call aubergine, disgusting. Eunice has the same opinion about cucumber. That’s not a reason for anyone else not to eat it. The world would rapidly run out of food options if everything that anyone had ever found disgusting was taken off the table. Starvation does not seem like the better option.)

The dictionary defines “degrading” as “causing a loss of self-respect; humiliating.” Leaving aside the fact that many people in the BDSM scene find it hot to be humiliated, under the right circumstances and with the right partners (see, even that is contextual!), this seems to be the core of what a lot of folks mean when they call something degrading.

But what causes loss of self-respect for one person doesn’t necessarily for another, and what causes loss of self-respect in one context doesn’t necessarily in another. Consider the difference in the way many people think of “Michelin star restaurant chef” versus “burger-flipper”—and yet, some junior chefs in some very expensive restaurants are constantly, deliberately, humiliated by their head chefs, whilst some people working in fast food enjoy the environment. Again, context, including environment, is important.

Think about the most ‘normal,’ ordinary, plain-vanilla sex you can imagine: heterosexual missionary PIV intercourse, for example. Is that degrading? When it’s consensual, no. If it’s not consensual, yes. The context, not the activity, is what matters.

Are the things that happen to Lija in the forest degrading? She is pursued, frightened and exhausted and incoherent, for days. Her pursuers force themselves on her, and if she is not able to fight them off, satisfy their lusts in graphic and uncomfortable ways.

Yet she fought, hard, for this—against a number of opponents who fought equally hard to be there. And the ones who lose this competition are emotionally crushed. (We’ll be exploring that more in book six; stay tuned!)

Why? What’s in it for her? Why would anyone want any of this?

Ideas about sex are complex, and informed both by our own tastes and by the attitudes of the society around us. Society tells us, often with considerable pressure, what forms of sex are acceptable and what forms aren’t (typically this can vary by your status, and in some cases it can be actively self-contradictory). Sometimes—often, in fact—it’s possible to internalize those ideas so strongly that we literally cannot imagine it’s possible to feel any other way.

The society of the City is not like society in the real world. Sacrifices to the Hunt are venerated. They’re recognized as the best of the best—the strongest, the most skilled, the most capable athletes the City has to offer. Only those who have already proven themself the most proficient are considered able to take up the most extreme form of worship. 

And the thing is, veneration of non-sexual activities that might in a different context be ‘degrading’ isn’t unusual, even in the real world. People are often venerated for enduring physically violating, uncomfortable, even dangerous things…and sometimes are willing to risk death for it. (We talked in an essay on post-scarcity horror about how the citizens of Lija’s City would be utterly appalled by the grotesquery of the boxing industry. And we think a strong argument can be made that the sport of boxing—or many others, for that matter—can be more abhorrent than what happens to Lija, if you see sex and violence as equally primal, visceral activities.)

The society we live in is deeply uncomfortable with sex, which means using sex to illustrate these ideas is deeply uncomfortable. That’s part of the point; that’s why we write the even-numbered books the way we do.

We aren’t saying that Lija endures degradation to win the admiration and kudos of the City, though. That’s not it at all. The point we’re making is much deeper: For Lija, what happens to her in the forest is not degrading. She would not in any way characterize her experiences as degradation. Just the opposite: for her, they are an act of ecstatic religious worship.

Throughout history, deeply religious people have endured all kinds of things that might be considered degrading by outsiders in their quest for religious expression: self-flagellation, scarification, starvation, self-crucifixion (warning: link contains graphic images). Even the annual ritual in which the Pope washes other people’s feet on Holy Thursday—in a different context, this might be degrading; in this context, it’s considered a showing of piety and humility.

None of this is seen as degradation by those who do it—just the opposite, in fact. If you take the reflexive reaction many of us have been taught to feel about sex out of the equation, some of these activities are, we would argue, actually much more intense than what Lija experiences. Certainly the isolation alone would make it so. Lija, at least, has the support and admiration (and oftentimes envy) of the entirety of her society and community to encourage her in her worship.

And, let’s be honest: there are people in the BDSM scene right now who would, if their safety were 100% assured, volunteer to be in Lija’s place in a heartbeat, even with no religious element to the Hunt at all. Absolute safety changes what people are willing to consent to.

Hell, there are people in the real world who would sign up even without a guarantee of absolute safety. But that does illustrate an important point: Lija knows, absolutely knows the way you know that you exist at all, that she will not be permanently harmed by being Sacrifice to the Hunt. Anything, short of instantaneous death by destruction of the brain, is totally fixable—and without even a scar or extended healing time. She knows that, as uncomfortable as the experience is, she will be okay. That matters. Context is everything.

Degradation is contextual. Recognizing that is important, we feel, to nuanced, ethical conversations about sex.

An unconventional panel on tentacles!

Last week, Nobilis Reed, the tentacle erotica author and host of the Nobilis Erotica podcast, invited us to do a convention-style panel on the many wonders of tentacle sex. (In the Before Times, back when the world wasn’t ravaged by a global plague, people would go to these things called “conventions.” Those days are now a dim and distant memory, but why not have a panel…without a convention?)

In this sadly brief but unexpectedly far-ranging conversation, we talked tentacular AI gods, the care and feeding of pet tentacle monsters, and the morphological differences of different species of tentacle monsters. We even threw in a reference to the Iain Banks Culture novels.

Have a listen below!

On the subject of tentacles, we’ve also been playing about with the WOMBO Dream AI image generation software, which spits out some pretty peculiar (and sometimes suggestively, if horrifically, fleshy) images if you feed it with tentacle-related prompts.

Let us be the first to welcome our tentacle-generating AI artist overlords…

The City at night

Image: Rene Böhmer

The City at night is a particularly beautiful place—and also, to our Western urban eyes, probably quite alien. Compared to Western cities in the real world, the City inverts the use of space and light. In the real world, we illuminate spaces at night. If you stood at the edge of the atmosphere and looked down at a real world city at night, you would see a glimmering net of lights stretched across every corner. From orbit around the planet of the Passionate Pantheon, this is not what you’d see. The City illuminates not streets or walkways, but people. Every glimmer and twinkle represents a person, an individual going about life. Clusters of light move and shift as people gather and then disperse.

This isn’t just a different way to think about illumination, it’s a different way to think about space—about the distinction between public and private, about how people are expected to use space, about how space is controlled, even about what is and is not acceptable access to space, and for whom. In our real world, access is often dependent on your status — the more power and privilege you have, the more spaces you can access, and the more you live your life in the light. Light is, and always has been, symbolic of existence, of acknowledgement.

They reached a pathway, paved with smooth brown stone that was entirely clear of snow. As the darkness grew, a tiny flying dronelight zipped down from overhead, its light switching on as it approached. It glided just above their heads, lighting their way.

They walked for a time, following the meandering path through a series of small parks. At one point, they passed three people sitting on top of a large marble cube in the corner of a tiny triangular cluster of trees. A woman sat nude on one of her lover’s laps, impaled on his erection. The other figure kissed the back of her neck while he caressed her breast with one hand.

She waved languidly to them as they walked passed. “Hi! Would you like to join us?”

Terlyn looked at Donvin. He shrugged.

“No thanks,” Terlyn said. “Maybe next time.”

“Okay…oh!” the woman said. She moaned, her face buried in her lover’s neck. Ice crystals glittered in her hair.

They continued on, the enormous ziggurat of the temple of the Sun God behind them, the great towers of the housing district at the outer edge of the City before them. Eventually, they reached a float tube that ascended to the stacked tracks of the high-speed transport system overhead. The dronelight zipped away.

Hand in hand, they stepped into the illuminated float tube. After a brief moment of vertigo, they ascended in weightlessness to the first track, three stories above the ground. Another track ran parallel to it three stories above, and another above that, all following the curve of the City’s outer edge.

The transparent tunnel of the transit system was warm and dry. Through its curved walls, they could see the City spread out like a vast jewel, glimmering in the gathering darkness. The rows of great black towers glowed with warm yellow light through tens of thousands of windows. Tiny dronelights bobbed and weaved, illuminating the way for the people who walked the meandering paths below.

—From Book One, The Brazen Altar

The Cities at night are, like an empty stage, invitingly dark places. There are no street lights, no architectural lighting system. Aside from the lights from the windows of living towers and other buildings, and the shimmering, glowing tracks of the transportation network, darkness is allowed to take the City. Lighting is provided by tiny dronelights that fly above people, lighting the way as they wander about at night, and departing with dawn or when the people enter a lighted space. Light is not connected to the space; it’s connected to the people. Where people are not, there’s no need for light.

In fact, there’s a beauty to unlit spaces. Unlit spaces are a blank canvas, a place upon which to explore new forms of artistic expression.

There’s something almost fanatical about the City’s approach to beauty, as you might expect from modern-day fey. The people of the City don’t really have what we would call a survival drive, because they never have to fight for their survival. Survival in the City is almost effortless; there is no fear of death, no struggle to stay alive. The people of the City, even in the darker novels, live lives far more comfortable than ours, as we’ve talked about before.

In place of a drive for survival, citizens of the City are driven toward beauty. Beauty is expansive; it fills every available niche. The dronelights that flit about the City are not identical manufactured commodities. Every one of the tens of thousands of dronelights is unique. Every one is beautiful, and all of them have their own designs: mythological creatures with iridescent scales, tiny floating airships, birds with delicate metal feathers, golden insects with stained-glass wings, sinuous flying serpents, tiny clockwork machines with spinning gears—every dronelight is different.

And yet, you almost never see those details; they leave the skies during the day, and at night you can only see their light as you look upwards into their steady glow. Each one is beautiful because everything in the City is beautiful. Beauty is its own purpose—it need not serve an additional function. 

In the real world, darkness is an inconvenience, a hindrance, an obstacle to be dispelled by street lights. Often it is even a danger, with the light an unceasing, fearful talisman against the treacherous things that go bump where we cannot see. We blind ourselves with light as a defense against that unknown and menacing gloom.

In the City, darkness is a canvas for creating beauty. You’ll see glowing flowers, for example, that stand out against the backdrop of night, specifically engineered for their beauty:

They spent hours wandering aimlessly along the grassy spaces between the ring of towers and the Temple District. Lanissae smiled often and chatted easily. She paused at the edge of a path of white hexagonal tiles near a small bubbling fountain to pluck a light pink, six-petaled flower with a yellow and black pattern in its center. “Legend says this particular species accompanied us all the way from humanity’s ancestral home in the time of Darkness. Isn’t that amazing? We think of our ancient ancestors as savages, but even they valued beauty enough to bring these along when they reached for the stars.” She knelt in the soft earth at the edge of the path and stroked a small plant with dark green leaves. “This will send up flowers as the sun sets that glow with their own light. The flowers drop off at sunrise, and new ones appear again at sunset.”

“Did that also come from our ancestral home?”

Lanissae shook her head. “No. The gods created this one. It didn’t evolve naturally. You won’t find these anywhere outside a City.” She rose and tucked the flower into her dress. “In the City you’ll find a mix of natives, plants we brought with us when we settled this place, and plants designed by the gods, or by people working with the gods. Out in the Wastelands, you see mostly natives, though there are a handful of plants we brought here that have adapted and spread.”

—From Book Four, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions

Citizens of the City aren’t afraid of the dark. Darkness isn’t a place that hides terror, as it is for people of the real world; it’s a backdrop, a place for expressions of the creative urge. A fear that is not reinforced, or is consistently undermined, throughout childhood will over time lose its power. To be taught that light and dark are fundamentally just different textures of the same space is to be given the freedom and permission to explore both equally. Family groups model that lack of fear, and the drive towards beauty, for their children over decades and generations.

The use of light can be a tacit indicator of what is and is not permitted. In the real world, the difference between illuminated and unlit spaces can communicate where you are and are not permitted to go. Illuminating a space gives permission for people to use that space at night; unlit spaces are spaces where you’re expected not to be. And certain types of illumination—window displays, display cases, and so on—indicate a ‘look but no touch’ rule. They lay out space you are permitted and expected to admire from afar, but not permitted to actually enter or interact with.

The City turns that idea upside down. By opting out of the decision of which spaces to light (and, therefore which spaces to leave unlit and inaccessible), the City also makes no decision about what you can and can’t see, what you can and can’t access—the choice of where the light goes is up to you. By illuminating the people and not the space, the City is implicitly suggesting that people are permitted to be anywhere they choose to go. The City follows, not leads, that choice. All space in the City, with the exception of places that people have claimed as their living quarters (and even that is complex; in the City, nobody ‘owns’ their living space, and people can and do choose to move with some regularity!) is community space. Every park and garden, all the Temple grounds, all the woodlands between living towers and Temple District, all are available all the time to anyone who lives in the City. Wherever you choose to go, the dronelight will accompany you to light your way.

The way a society treats space tells you something about the permissible use of that space. In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we explore a new way to think about light because we explore a new way to think about space. The City chooses not to illuminate itself the way cities in the real world do, and that reveals something about how the City thinks about public and private space.

Yes, part of it is also the City’s ferocious drive toward beauty, and its exploration of the ways darkness can be used as a backdrop to create—or admire, in the case of the stars and the moons—things of beauty. Contrast can enhance and embellish, it can highlight beauty that would otherwise be missed. But a lot of it is the fact that the City doesn’t differentiate between the public and the private in the way it thinks about open spaces, and that’s reflected in the way the City thinks about light.

Even at night, the City is a place of beauty and wonder. Maybe especially at night.

Monogamy as an Artifact of Scarcity

Image: Franklin Veaux

If you’ve read any of the Passionate Pantheon books, you’ve probably noticed that monogamy is not really a significant part of the City’s social structure. In fact, the concept of monogamy as a norm doesn’t really exist in the City; the idea that partnerships should be sexually exclusive (at least the way we think of exclusivity) is something that would leave the characters in the Passionate Pantheon scratching their heads. Imagine if someone told you, out of the blue, that you should only ever eat food in front of one person, and never in the presence of anyone else, and this was self-evidently the only morally correct stance—that’s about what sexual exclusivity as a social norm would seem like to the residents of the City.

So why is monogamy not part of the expected social fabric of the City?

The obvious, Doylist answer is “we’re the authors and we are not monogamous so we wrote the stories to fit our own relationship models.” But there’s more to it than that. Every part of the society in the Passionate Pantheon books is carefully considered—nothing is arbitrary. And we think a compelling case can be made for the idea that monogamy as a social institution is inherently linked to scarcity, and unlikely to be part of a deliberately designed post-scarcity society.

Before we get into that, we aren’t saying there’s no such thing as a monogamous person in the City, of course. In the fourth novel, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotion, we meet a character named Jakalva who is canonically sexually and romantically exclusive to one person.

“What do you want?”

“What do you mean?” Kaytin blinked owlishly at Jakalva. “Do you mean what do I want from you?”

“No, I mean in general. What motivates you? What do you want your life to look like?”

They sat on a stone bench in a small sheltered nook where a slow-moving stream made a sharp bend. A utility drone floated just over Jakalva’s head. Behind them, a tree spread broad branches to the sky. Thin lines of violet light pulsed along its bark. A lanky woman with skin the color of brass sprawled on a small raft that drifted along the stream, watching a holographic video projected from a terminal. Days after her party, Jakalva had asked Kaytin to meet her, but now their conversation left Kaytin confused.

“I want to understand people. I want to know why everyone seems to know the rules but I don’t. I want to stop saying and doing the wrong thing.”

“No.” Jakalva shook her head. Her hair, trussed up in a series of narrow braids that fell to her waist, shimmered in the light. “Those are means to an end, not the end itself. Dig deeper. Why do you want those things?”

“I don’t know. I guess…” Kaytin scrunched up her face. “I guess I want to stop saying and doing the wrong things because I want people to like me.”

“That’s more like it,” Jakalva said. “What you want is connection. You feel like you don’t have it because you don’t understand the dance people do to get it. But it’s not the dance that’s the thing, it’s the connection the dance brings.”

“Why does that matter?”

“There are things we all want, and things we’re all afraid of. The dance exists because we want to move toward the things we want but away from the things we’re afraid of. If you want connection, that makes you vulnerable to rejection. So the dance, then, is a way to offer connection without demanding it from others, or exposing yourself to the risk of rejection.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When you realize that other people are not so different from you and that they also have things they want and things they’re afraid of, you’ll come closer to understanding.”

“Oh.” Kaytin stared out across the sparkling water. “What do you want?” she said. “Connection?”

“No,” Jakalva said. “I only need one person in my life. That’s enough for me. When I have that, I stop needing it from others.”

“Do you have a person?”


“You never talk about it.”

“No. We share a home. We’ve been together for…oh, I don’t even know. Longer than most of the people who come to my parties have been alive, I expect. We exchanged private names more than a hundred and eighty years ago.” She smiled to herself. “It doesn’t seem like that long. Time flies.”

In her case, Jakalva’s sexual exclusivity includes choosing not to engage in religious worship via the medium of orgasm-oriented activities. This is unusual in the City, although fortunately there is no social stigma attached to unusual choices. Jakalva receives no negative consequence from her preference. Most people who considered themselves monogamous would categorise ritualized, religious group sex differently from social sex for pleasure or personal connection, and therefore it doesn’t really count. This is what makes it possible for even self-identified monogamous people to be fully connected into the religious life of the City and the temples without any impact on their personal relationships. The society of the City rests on a foundation of worship of AI gods through ritualized group sex, yet in spite of that, there are monogamous and even asexual characters, and some of them have risen to high levels within the City’s social hierarchy. In Divine Burdens, we meet two characters, Tatian and High Priest Jevin, who are canonically ace (although those terms are never used).

A lot of folks fuss about whether monogamy is “natural” for people or whether we “naturally” gravitate toward plurality in our sex lives, as if this tells us anything about how we should behave. This is the wrong question. In reality, a tendency toward exclusive or inclusive sexual relationships in different people is just part of ordinary human variability. Some people naturally seek connection with only one person; some seek connection with many people; some, under certain circumstances and contexts, can probably be happy and fulfilled with either.

You see some of that variability in the City. From a social perspective, the City has no expectation of monogamy. You can, like Jakalva, be monogamous if you choose, but there’s no pressure to limit your sexual connections to just one partner, and in fact the social expectation is that you probably won’t. Monogamous people in the City are unusual.

Why? To answer that, let’s look at where monogamy comes from.

For a long time, anthropologists adopted a ‘child-rearing’ model of monogamy in humans, arguing that because human infants are born so weak and require years before they are able to care for themselves, investment by both parents in helping to care for our young led to the adoption of monogamy.

This hypothesis ignores evidence that many nomadic, non-agrarian societies don’t appear to be monogamous, and that entire social groups can cooperatively raise children just as effectively as two parents. (In fact, the idealised nuclear family model is surprisingly new, only decades old, and hasn’t been the social norm for most of humanity’s existence. Historically, we see communal raising of children across multiple cultures, usually in the context of large, multigenerational, extended families living together.)

A more modern hypothesis, based on mathematical modeling of different reproductive strategies, suggests that monogamous mating behavior is more likely based on mate-guarding and female scarcity. This hypothesis suggests monogamy is intrinsically linked to scarcity.

The anthropological record seems to suggest that monogamy really took off with the Agrarian Revolution, when individuals began accumulating wealth for the first time. One of the key factors driving the adoption of monogamy was the idea of primogeniture— men who accumulated wealth desiring to pass it along to their male children. It’s significantly easier to determine who birthed a child, since a woman is generally present for the entire time, whilst men can’t know (in the era before paternity tests, at least) that the child was their blood unless they controlled access to the woman. So men began engaging in mate-guarding behaviors, largely to prevent having their estate pass to an heir not related to them by blood. Women became, in effect, a means by which men produced male heirs. (This is why throughout history, social penalties for women who stray have tended to be much more severe than for men who stray—something that still exists in the “men with lots of sexual partners are studs, women with lots of sexual partners are sluts” double standard so common today.)

But what happens when you have a society where there’s no privation, no concept of financial value (sentimental value is significantly more important), and anything anyone desires can be called forth from a Provider at will? (The closest thing to the concept of ‘personal property’ in the City is gifted representations of expended labor; in many ways, the culture of the City is a gifting culture—perhaps we’ll write about that soon!)

And what happens when child-rearing is seen as a group commitment, a responsibility chosen and shared by intentional family and AI drones?

Mate-guarding becomes a lot less likely when you have no wealth to pass down to your children, and technology has rendered bloodlines irrelevant to family ties. (Of course, mate-guarding behavior can also emerge from jealousy and possessiveness, but the prevalence and expression of those feelings through mate-guarding is a cultural phenomenon, largely  determined by the socially sanctioned ways you are expected to demonstrate emotional commitment within your culture. Perhaps we’ll write about that, too!) Inheritance doesn’t matter if you have nothing to pass down, and no particularly compelling reason to pass it down to people related to you by blood.

In such a society, would monogamy be a cultural value? We think the likely answer is ‘no.’ The factors that gave rise to monogamy as a social norm simply don’t exist in the City.

And for most residents of the City, sex is not strongly connected to having children. The people of the City have voluntary control over their fertility; accidental pregnancy is literally impossible. Residents have very long lives—hundreds of years, typically—and choose to have children only rarely, and only within conscious, intentional family groups that invariably include at least three adults (typically around 6 or 7 adults, sometimes as big as a dozen adults caring for one child). So the normal mating strategies anthropologists talk about when they discuss reproductive game theory in social species just don’t apply.

Our technology changed our reproductive strategies during the Agrarian Revolution. It seems plausible that new technologies, especially in the bioengineering field, combined with the resultant development of a post-scarcity society, would do the same again.

Commitment and the Relationship Escalator

Image: John T

In our last essay about life in the City, we talked about how having an extended lifespan and almost total physical safety all the time might change ideas about risk, making physical risk seem much less important than emotional risk. (In fact, this is an important theme in the fourth novel, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions, due out in 2023).

Partly because of this, as well as some of their norms around consent, the people in the City have a very different idea about what relationships look like. There’s no Standard Model, no template of what a relationship “should” be…in short, no “relationship escalator,” with its expectations about the steps a relationship progresses through meeting, dating, living together, marriage, kids, and death. In our real world, to step off that path, that escalator, is to be forced to return to the start and to have ‘wasted’ all that time — a concept that probably keeps more people in their relationships than you would expect. Sunk cost fallacy shows up everywhere, it seems…

Relationships in the City are all bespoke. They may involve two people or more than two people. They may be explicitly intended to be an indefinite commitment, renewed each time the designated duration draws near to an end, or more free-form. They may or may not be solemnized or publically acknowledged by a commitment ceremony, and those that are, may have any kind of ceremony that suits the people involved (though there are some common templates, as we explore in the third novel, The Hallowed Covenant). They may or may not be intended to include rearing a child or children.

Part of this flexibility is the post-scarcity setting; there is no need for a socially recognized way to handle joint finances or other resources if there’s no such thing as money! Instead, such ceremonies are purely social and emotional.

“Today we celebrate a cleansing,” Sayi said. “Tashaka and Sendi call upon the Keeper to wipe away all past transgressions so they may join together 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 past transgressions against one another, so they may be washed clean by the Keeper. Let each transgression 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 transgressions 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 Book Three, The Hallowed Covenant

This flexibility, too, means that ‘comet’ relationships are likely quite common in the City: relationships where people come together for a brief period, celebrate one another, then part ways for a time, each treasuring the memories of the other until life and circumstances draw them together once again. When you live for centuries, a break of a few years or even a decade is less significant. Of course, in such a society there would be no label to indicate that this type of relationship is special or unusual or different from the expected norm — it’s merely a description of one more type of relationship out of many.

This absence of a Standard Model of relationships plays out in nearly every aspect of City life. In the City, most (though not all!) citizens live in great massive towers, each one a cluster of community spaces, recreational spaces, and living areas, where they can be as close to others or as independent of others as they choose. They can have as much community as suits them, with no pressure or obligation to engage in any way they don’t choose to—in that way, the City, despite its high density living, is actually more friendly to introverts than the real world! (Plus the lack of requirement to be around people at work, of course — if you don’t have an obligation to work in order to survive, that is one fewer environment where you might expect to be in enforced ongoing contact with people you didn’t choose to be close to. In fact, that sounds like a great idea for another blog post!)

There’s no expectation that people in a relationship—even a stable, committed, long-standing union—must live together. In fact, in a post-scarcity world where your living circumstances can be literally anything you imagine and moving is a simple as saying “I want to be over here now, please have the drones make it happen,” the idea of ‘living together’ in the sense we in the real world think of it doesn’t quite fit. Characters might think of themselves as ‘living together’ if they share adjoining apartments, and can make or remove the wall between as suits their mood at the moment. Equally, they might think of themselves as ‘living together’ if they both live in a family group, sharing a common space which is set up around their child, in addition to their own private apartments. (This is something we will be exploring further in the fifth novel, as a matter of fact.) Or they might live together in a way that would be very familiar to us, sharing every intimate space down to their bed.

And should you want something else, anything else, that too is available.

Terlyn made her home in a tiny crystal box near an outcropping of rock. A small waterfall flowed over the rock into a little pond. The house was a simple rectangle whose transparent sides and roof were made of glass, nestled beneath a large pergola of wood. In the summer, lush vines covered in tiny purple flowers grew over the pergola. Today, the wood slats were bare. Small tufts of snow lay scattered across the roof.

The door opened at Terlyn’s approach. Inside, the house was just a single room, as spare as it was outside. Terlyn’s home contained nothing other than a large round bed surrounded by a low wood wall open on one side; a wood desk and chair; a low stone wall that partly concealed the necessary facilities; and of course, the opaque black rectangle of the Provider. Beneath her feet, wide planks of hardwood formed a floor that didn’t reach all the way to the glass walls. A garden lined three of the four walls, lush with clusters of small flowering bushes growing from a flat expanse of short grass. Tiny creeping vines decorated with fingernail-sized flowers in gold, red, blue, and violet snaked along the grass, sending hesitant tendrils toward the wood floor.

Terlyn flopped onto the bed. “Walls opaque,” she said. The glass walls turned frosted white. She left the ceiling transparent, so she could gaze at the clear blue sky.

—From Book One, The Brazen Altar

In the real world, the ideas about what a relationship ought to look like, including the notion that people in a ‘serious’ relationship must live together, have the weight of tremendous social expectation behind them. So much so that we often forget these ideals—Mom and Dad sharing a home with Rover and 2.4 children—are in truth quite new, relics of American post-WWII social transformation, not the deep historical traditions many folks believe. (For most of recorded Western civilization, extended multi-generational families, not nuclear families, were the norm.) Even the normalisation of marrying for romantic love, rather than merely as a joining of two family fortunes, is significantly more recent than you might expect!

So what does it mean to live in a society where emotional risk is (relatively more) difficult, there isn’t a commonly accepted model of what a relationship is supposed to look like, and even your living arrangements are as flexible and bespoke as you want them to be?

A person from the real world transported to the City might struggle to interpret relationships there. Without the typical markers we understand to say ‘yes, this is a real relationship,’ things might seem chaotic, anarchistic, confusing. Unsettling, even. How do you know if you’re in a real relationship? How do you know what’s expected of you? How do you know who else might be in relationships? Is a particular individual exclusively committed, or are you allowed to approach them? How do you know what the limits are?

The answer is, you talk about it. The society of the City, even in the dark even-numbered books of erotic horror, prizes consent and autonomy in ways the real world doesn’t, and that means you talk about everything: your needs, your expectations, what you want your romantic life to look like, the expected duration of your relationship.

This is a double-edged sword. (Or rather, triple-edged.) On the one hand, you’re not stamped into assembly-line, cookie-cutter relationships regardless of whether they (or you!) fit or not. On the other hand, you’re living in a society where vulnerability feels more scary than spending three days running through a forest terrified out of your mind, your body available to anyone able to catch you and overpower you, and the only way to be in relationships is to be vulnerable. And on the third hand (hey, you can have as many hands as you like in the City, subject only to the laws of physics and biology!), you are responsible for deciding what you want. Relationships aren’t pre-configured; you have to figure out what you need, then advocate for that, without society doing the heavy lifting for you.

Your life, your choice. You figure it out.

Thankfully, of course, you have a lot of time to do that. You probably haven’t taken your first adult name and moved into your adult life until your 30s or 40s, and from there you have a life that’s basically as long as you want it to be—centuries, typically; many centuries, if you like. You have plenty of time to practice using your words.

And you have a lot to choose from. There is no expectation of monogamy in the City; in fact, social expectations of monogamy may be an artifact of scarcity (yes, we have plans to write about that at some point!). Want a monogamous relationship? Totally cool, as long as your partner is on board. A plural relationship? If that’s your jam, fill your boots! Light, shallow relationships that only touch at the periphery of your life, or deeply entwined relationships that allow you to share everything with a lover for centuries? You can have that. No relationship at all? Nobody in the City will ever, ever ask you when you’re going to settle down, get married, and have kids.

At the end of the day, you’re the one who chooses (in collaboration with your partner(s) of choice, naturally). Nobody will try to make those choices for you.

For many of us in the real world (including both of us!), that sounds fantastically liberating. For others, that probably sounds terrifying. There’s safety in knowing what’s expected of you, what commitment looks like to you and the people around you. Sometimes it can even be a timesaver, assuming you’re lucky enough to have found a partner who exactly matches your relationship style in all the important ways. Of course, you might well think you’ve found such a partner, and then discover many years into the relationship that actually, their attitude toward children is rather different from yours. That’s the danger of not discussing your needs and wants, alas.

And in the real world, many people value themselves with respect to their lovers by how effectively they provide for those they love—which is all but meaningless in a post-scarcity society where nobody has to rely on anyone else for the resources they need to survive. Without that, how might such people know they’re good partners?

Point is, in the City, you can’t go into a relationship holding expectations about what it will look like—or what other people expect, either from you or to offer you. You’re given a toolkit (and arguably one much better than people in the real world receive; the fifth novel will go into child-rearing, childhood drones, and how children are equipped to navigate the City. Every child is uniquely prepared, over many, many years, to be able to function in civic life in a way that most suits their needs and desires, and even children have far more autonomy in the City than a lot of people in the real world), but you’re expected to use it to first figure out what you need, and then negotiate with those you love to build a relationship exactly suited to you.

Perhaps that’s fitting. In a place where everything can be manufactured at will by nanotech assemblers, everything is bespoke. Perhaps it’s somewhat contradictory, given the effortlessness of design and manufacturing, that craftsmanship is built into the City on a very deep level. (Or maybe it’s just very human.) When your very environment and every item you touch is not mass produced, why allow your relationships to be mass produced? Why not apply that same idea of uniqueness to arguably the most important aspect of your life—your relationships?

Physical Risk, Emotional Risk

Image: Nick Fewings

Divine Burdens is out! You can now find it on Amazon (five days after publication, Divine Burdens is still on the site, touch wood, even though they banned the much less edgy utopian scifi that was The Brazen Altar—giant corporations gonna corp, amirite? Welcome to capitalism, I guess).

As we were discussing Divine Burdens, an interesting conversation on the topic of risk developed and we couldn’t help but share with you!

One of the main characters in Divine Burdens is a woman named Lija, a worshipper of the god called the Hunt. She’s a top athlete, one of the five best athletes in the City, and spends nine months competing with other top athletes for the coveted role of Sacrifice to the Hunt. As Sacrifice, she will spend three days without sleep or rest being chased down by Hunters through a constantly-shifting forest, her body available as a prize to anyone who manages to catch her and physically overpower her. She is both religious object and most honored worshipper in one. 

Divine Burdens is, as we’ve mentioned a time or three before, erotic horror. Lija’s experiences during the Hunt are…well, let’s be politic and call them ‘intense.’ The Sacrifice is given a Blessing that makes her terrified out of her mind and unable to rest, then set loose for wave after wave of Hunters to pursue her.

In the City, this is a high honor, and every single one of the athletes competing for the position is incredibly skilled, competitive, and strong. They all go through extensive, enormously intense training, some of which might quickly break the spirit of a person without access to the speedy healing offered by a medical pod.

Given that, you might be forgiven for assuming that the people who compete for Sacrifice to the Hunt would be utterly fearless. And in a sense, they are.

Lija lay on her back, holding Tatian tightly. She wrapped her legs around Tatian’s hips. They stared at each other for a moment, face to face.

“I almost wish you would win the competition,” Tatian said. “I might enjoy that a lot.”

“Are you conceding?”

Tatian laughed. “Oh, no. There’s no way you’re beating me.” She planted a knee on the platform and wrenched herself violently, twisting herself around in Lija’s grasp. Then she placed both feet on the ground and pushed, sliding them both backward along the platform. It tilted. Tatian twisted sideways. They both rolled toward the edge of the platform, which tilted more and more rapidly until it dumped them off the edge. They fell, still locked in a tight embrace.

Lija cursed. They hit the ground. The world filled with stars. Lija’s grip slackened for a second. That was all Tatian needed. She wrenched herself free and was on her feet again, racing for the stairs.

Lija dragged herself upright. She set out after Tatian, who was already nearly to the top. Tatian trotted out to the center of the platform. The line resumed its sweep.

Lija climbed the stairs, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She stepped out onto the platform. Tatian stepped to the side. It tilted. Lija wavered.

“You’re stronger than me,” Tatian said. “You might even be faster than me. I can still beat you. The winner isn’t always the fastest or the strongest. The winner is the person who’s willing to do what the other one isn’t.”

From Book Two, Divine Burdens

Lija and her fellow athletes are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to win. They’re the best, most competitive, most aggressive elite candidates the City has to offer. Broken bones during the competition? Eh, it happens, hop in a medpod. Just part of the price of being the best. Pain, discomfort, stretching past the normal limits of endurance? It’s how you show you’re the best. They casually accept a degree of physical pain that even the most hardcore extreme sports enthusiasts in our world would not voluntarily agree to (and we plan to discuss that more in a future blog post).

After breakfast, High Priest Henlith and Amakoli rose. “Today,” Henlith said, “we learn who will become this year’s Sacrifice to the Hunt.” A cheer ran through the Hall. 

Brin leaned forward to whisper in Lija’s ear, “I know who I think it should be!” Tatian glowered.

“The Sacrifice represents the strongest of us, the fiercest, the most capable,” Amakoli said. “Many people compete, but only one can be the best. Today, we find out who that is.”

Savine, standing behind Tatian, fixed her gaze on Lija. Two eyes floated in black emptiness. Lija shivered.

“Tonight, this hall will be filled with celebration,” Henlith said. “Let’s go find out who it will be for.”

From Book Two, Divine Burdens

Those who don’t succeed in becoming the Sacrifice in any particular year often become Hunters instead, chasing the Sacrifice through the forest, ravishing her once they catch her. These elite Hunters are also top athletes, people who have trained alongside the Sacrifice—possibly for years—who know how the Sacrifice thinks, who know how to track, who know intimately the layout of the forest that serves as the arena for the Hunt and the playground for the god they all worship.

The Sacrifice, in other words, is in for an…interesting time.

In the real world, signing up for something like this might seem so risky as to be quite bonkers. No, not quite bonkers, very bonkers. In the world of the Passionate Pantheon, the citizens of the City have a very different approach to risk than people in the real world—an approach that comes from living their entire lives knowing that the gods and the AIs always, always have their backs, that nothing can hurt them past the ability of a couple of hours in a medical pod to fix, that their limits and boundaries will never be violated, that nothing bad will happen to them.

Nothing physically bad, that is.

In the Passionate Pantheon, physical risk is treated very differently indeed than it is in the real world, thanks to their culture, their technology, and the omnipresent AI gods and drones.

Emotional risk, on the other hand…

Emotional risk in the City is a whole ‘nother beast. Partly because of the difference in contrast, of course; when you have almost nothing to fear from physical risk, emotional risk feels scarier, perhaps. And practice with assessing risk makes it easier over time to accurately judge, after all, and they get much less practice.

More than that, though, when you spend your life in the same city, a place of only a few million people, and you routinely live for centuries, the fact is, people who you hurt or who hurt you might continue to be part of your community for hundreds of years. This changes the society, and the social contract around vulnerability…something we explore in-depth in the third book, The Hallowed Covenant, and the fourth book, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions.

What does this mean for Lija and other characters we meet in the first two books?  That stark contrast between physical and emotional risk means characters will routinely, even eagerly, agree to do physically intense—even overwhelming—things (like compete to be Sacrifice to the Hunt) that would be unthinkable in the real world…but emotional risk and vulnerability that are part of our ordinary daily lives become incredibly difficult for them.

 “This might be the biggest bedroom I’ve ever seen,” Brin said. She snuggled up to Lija’s side. “You could host a party in here.”

“The thought’s occurred to me,” Lija said. “It used to be even bigger. I did make one change.”

“What’s that?”

“I had the room divided in half.” She took Brin’s hand again and led her into a second bedroom, appointed much the same as the first but without the tapestry on the ceiling. This room had a couch at the foot of the bed. Beside the couch sat a claw-footed nightstand of tiger-striped wood with a Provider set in its center.

“What’s this room for?” Brin said.

“Well, I was kind of hoping, that is, if you didn’t have any other…I mean, if you don’t mind, I thought that maybe, I don’t know, you and Savine could, well, I mean, once Savine’s finished her term as my bondslave, because, you know, she doesn’t have a choice right now, but you do, if you wanted to—oh, I’m making a hash of this.” Lija rolled her eyes and ran an impatient hand through her hair. “How would you feel about moving in here with me? You and Savine. If you want to, I mean.”

Brin hugged Lija fiercely. 

“Oof! Is that a yes or a no?”

Brin laughed. “I will consider your proposal.” She grinned at Lija’s expression. “That’s a yes.”

“Whew!” Lija said. “That was awkward. This doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep with you every night! I still like sleeping on my own. And—”

“Hush.” Brin kissed her to silence her.

From Book Two, Divine Burdens

In the real world, we have a common expectation of the way relationships are “supposed” to progress. You meet, you date, things get serious, you move in together, you get married (in some societies it’s the other way around—you get married, then you move in together), you have kids, you die. A lot of folks refer to this as the “relationship escalator.” It’s a sort of path society slots you into, which you can’t step off without tumbling all the way to the beginning again (hence ‘escalator’), and it guides your expectations about what a relationship looks like and what trajectory it takes.

In the City, there isn’t a relationship template. Relationships come in a whole colorful tapestry of different forms, with no two relationships looking alike. There are lots of reasons for that—in fact, watch this space, we’re planning a whole essay on this topic!—but the lack of a relationship template means you need to be more emotionally vulnerable, to be willing to ask for what you want without leaning on the Standard Model of what a relationship looks like…but that emotional vulnerability is harder for them than it is for us. And without a relationship template to draw upon, emotional vulnerability itself becomes attached to a lot more risk, and navigating that risk is something citizens of the City do quite differently. (You’ll see some ways that manifests, and what happens during a breakup, in the third novel.) 

(As an aside, for many people in the real world—especially those socialised as women who mostly seek heterosexual relationships—physical and emotional risk are intrinsically bound together. There is very rarely an occasion for emotional risk without the physical, and many experiences of physical harm come with emotional betrayal. So the separation isn’t always as neat and tidy as we’re laying it out here, but the point is, in general, people in the City approach these kinds of risks in ways that aren’t like what happens in the real world.)

The people in the City are, in many ways, extremely emotionally healthy—much healthier on average than we in the real world are, with our weird associations and assumptions around intrinsic value and resources and human rights—though they do have some weaknesses. One of these is grief. Grief and bereavement, especially when it’s unexpected, is something the citizens of the City have a lot of trouble with (and that’s one of the themes in the fourth novel!). People of the City are generally secure-attached, they communicate directly (the way consent is structured in the City encourages direct, usually verbal, communication and clear boundaries), and they have that bedrock sense of safety and security that comes from knowing that your childhood drone, and later the whole of the City itself, is always watching over you protectively…plus of course they live in a post-scarcity society, so they’ll never want for anything like food or shelter.

But they aren’t superhuman. They do feel rejection painfully, even excruciatingly, (though the things they interpret as rejection are different…perhaps that will be a blog post of its own!). They do get their hearts broken, and when you live for as long as they do, heartbreak is on a completely different scale. So they are, perhaps reasonably, more hesitant, more guarded maybe, around emotional intimacy.

When they offer it, they offer it all the way—the fourth novel has some lovely examples!—but it’s not as easy as it is for us, with our shorter lives and our acute awareness of physical risk on top of the emotional risk of relating to others.

At the end of the day, the reasons they do the things they do—the reason Lija and her fellow competitors are willing to fight so hard for the honor of experiencing a ritual that to us would be both intensely painful and extremely horrific, yet become incredibly flustered at the thought of inviting a lover to move in—is the way the society of the City views risk. It’s so radically different from how we in the real world look at it that we, as the authors and creators of this world, aren’t even sure we’ve fully explored the implications! Maybe in the future, we should revisit this topic?

Some musings on consent, part 4

Image: Drew Hays

We’ve already talked quite a lot about consent in the Passionate Pantheon universe (check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series), but there’s always so much more to talk about! It’s a topic that is both expansive and nuanced, and we use the Passionate Pantheon novels to examine consent from a lot of different angles.

One of the differences between consent in the Passionate Pantheon (especially in the darker even-numbered novels) and consent in the real world is that consent in the real world is often assumed to be open-ended, unless it is explicitly revoked—this is the way most romantic relationships, including marriage, work—whereas in the City, consent once given often cannot be revoked, but it is never open-ended in duration. So in the Passionate Pantheon, if you consent to an activity, you’re in it for the ride. You generally can’t change your mind halfway through. However, consent is always given on a case by case basis; consent to an activity today is never assumed to mean you’re willing to do it again tomorrow! Nor that you might be willing to do other similar activities that you hadn’t given consent for. Nor that you might be willing to do that activity with anyone else.

We got to talking about this a couple of weeks ago, and Eunice observed that consent in the Passionate Pantheon works the way some non-kinky people in the real world assume that BDSM works. Sometimes, when people who are unfamiliar with kink watch a BDSM scene (or a Hollywood mock-up of one — and yes, mockery is a deliberately chosen description!) from the outside, they can come away with some strange ideas about how it works. For example, many get the idea that if you consent to be submissive once, that’s it. You’re now A Submissive, the end, and you’ve given up the right to revoke consent from that point on. You’ve signed the contract, as they might say in a certain extremely unrealistic book and movie franchise based on Twilight fanfiction.

In the BDSM community, we know this isn’t how it works (or at least, it shouldn’t be—humans being what they are, we wouldn’t want to be that definitive!). One of the hallmarks of BDSM is that consent is always ongoing. Even in so-called Master/slave relationships, which are built on the idea that the master “owns” the slave, the slave is, in reality, free to leave at any time. Master/slave relationships are a kind of fantasy about total control—yes, even for those who insist it’s not a fantasy! Maybe particularly a fantasy for them, in fact—and the people in such relationships can (and do) choose to end them. There is no way to enforce such a relationship if one party wants to end it without some almost-verging-on-highly illegal actions.

And those are rather less common than religious fundamentalist evangelicals would have you believe, especially in comparison to some of their own activities.

The society of the City is built on a strong foundation of consent. With very few exceptions, consent is baked into the social fabric to a degree that would seem quite strange to us in the real world. Even a person who consistently commits offenses against others is not involuntarily incarcerated against their will. There is no such thing as a prison in the Passionate Pantheon. Rehabilitation is short and intense, invariably taking less than a day, then reparation is done in the community. A person who absolutely cannot exist without harming others may be given a choice to have their brain changed so that their need to harm others is removed (though again, this is never done unless the person agrees to it), or simply excluded from the City. Even this choice would be at the end of a long series of attempts to prevent any damage to others without infringing on the individual’s own freedom of choice. Each person’s right to choose ends when it negatively impacts others, of course, but that doesn’t mean that their ability to choose isn’t important. This is a foundational tenet, maybe only behind the importance of keeping your promises (we’ll come back to that in a bit).

But… (and of course there is a but…)

In the City, it is typically the case that once you’ve agreed to do something, your ability to revoke consent is taken away from you…and this is considered normal and acceptable. Your consent is always, always limited in duration—one activity, one party, one day, whatever—but once you’ve agreed, you may not be able to change your mind. In fact, your subjective experience might deliberately be distorted so that you’re not capable of changing your mind.

Enrilik gestured to one of the nude figures, a tall, curvy woman with long yellow hair. The woman stood spreadeagle at one of the frames, legs apart, arms above her head. Enrilik fastened the straps around her body, then closed the manacles around her wrists. “Kaytin, this is Nayar. Nayar, meet Kaytin.”

“Pleased to meet you!” the woman said. “I’ve heard so much about you. When I found out Jakalva was hosting a party in your honor, I had to be here.” She tugged at the manacles that bound her wrists. “Can you make those a little tighter? Jakalva says I’m in for a terrifying night. It wouldn’t do for me to get loose in my panic.”

Enrilik adjusted the manacles. “Is that better?”

Nayar tugged at them again. “Much better, thank you.” Kaytin knelt to bind her ankles to the lower corners of the frame. “Will you be accepting my hospitality later, when I am confused and frightened?” Nayar said.

Kaytin straightened with a grin. “Maybe. That sounds fun.”

From Book 4, tentatively titled Unwavering Devotions

Citizens of the City are okay with that, in part because of the absolute bedrock sense of safety that comes with growing up in their society. They know, as surely as you know that if you drop something it will fall, that the AI gods and the drones are watching. They know that the gods and drones will intervene if something goes wrong. They know they will not be damaged, physically or mentally, at least not in any way that can’t easily be fixed just by hopping into a medical pod for a short time. They know the boundaries around the thing they’ve consented to will be enforced with absolute, unyielding precision. (We talk about this cast-iron sense of safety in more depth in Part 1 of this series.)

Consent works this way in the City because, while consent is one of the foundational principles of the society of the City, so is the idea that a promise once made can never, ever be broken (I said we’d get back to this point!). As we’ve mentioned previously, in this sense, the people of the City are kind of like science-fiction Fey.

Promises are the deepest, most foundational magic that exists. It’s the bond that makes living in a society bearable, for you and those around you. The idea that you are beholden to others is what drove the ability to create a social contract when we developed as a species, and what greater magic could possibly exist?

They were joined a few moments later by a tall, slim woman with light brown skin and short black hair that looked decidedly tousled. She wore a simple yellow wrap tied loosely around her waist. She walked quietly, as though trying to evade notice, her gray eyes downcast.

“Cleric Penril,” she said, in a voice so soft Avia had to strain to hear it. “I…I need to talk to you.”

The woman—Tessia, Avia guessed, from the sound of her voice—sat, eyes still downcast. Silence descended on the room, broken only by the soft sigh of a light breeze through the open windows. Penril seemed content to wait for her to speak first. She seemed in no hurry to do so. The moment stretched. Avia fought down the urge to break the silence.

Eventually, Tessia spoke. “Last night, I made a promise.”

“You did,” Penril said, his voice even.

“I…I don’t think…it wasn’t what I…I don’t know if…” A tear ran down her cheek. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

Penril nodded. “New experiences often aren’t.”

“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 would provide for us, and in exchange, we would 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.”

“But I—”

“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 Book 3, The Hallowed Covenant

So the idea that consent once given can’t be withdrawn is perhaps much less frightening to them than it is to us, because consent is a promise, not to be broken, and they know that whatever it is they’ve agreed to has a fixed, usually short, duration. The end is always visible from the beginning. Tessia weeps because she is so disappointed in herself, so full of shame that she has broken a promise, but she is not terrified. She doesn’t fear being harmed or forever  judged, or a pariah for not being able to fulfil a promise.

Even in the case where you accept a punishment (and in all but one City you must both consent to, and actively ask for, punishment, and accept that the punishment is fair and just, for it to be given), the punishment too is limited in duration and impacts on your future. If you fail to accept punishment for hurting others, it won’t be forced on you, though the drones and the AIs will seek to protect others from you in the future. Only if that is impossible will you face exile.

And in the society of the City, once the thing you’ve consented to is over, it’s over. Including punishments. There’s no assumptions about who you are or what you are afterward; if you agree to be someone’s bondslave, when the term has ended, you are absolute equals again. There’s no lingering sense that that person has any further claim to power over you whatsoever due to that previous bondslavery. If you are punished, once that punishment is complete the stain of that guilt is entirely wiped clean, with no lingering stigma.

The ways we explore consent in the Passionate Pantheon universe might be uncomfortable to some people. They’re supposed to be. Hot, yes; sexy, we hope—but also uncomfortable, because we use these novels to ask “what if?” questions that hold a mirror up to some of the more uncomfortable parts of the real world.

We have a little suspicion, though, that the way we play with irrevocable consent, especially in the second and fourth books, may, perhaps non-intuitively, make kinky people more uncomfortable than people who aren’t into BDSM.

People (especially female-identified people in heterosexual relationships) in ordinary non-kinky relationships might already be accustomed to the notion that a lot of people believe that once you’ve said yes to something, you can’t stop. Many women have had the experience of feeling they can’t say ‘no’ once they’ve said ‘yes.’ They are often considered, sometimes even told explicitly, that they are selfish if they withdraw consent. That they are possibly even damaging their partner if they stop in the middle of sexual activity. That’s both horrifying and untrue, but it’s also an inevitable consequence of the way our society looks at sex and sexual agency. (We’re not saying only women have this experience, of course, though it’s probably more familiar to female-identified people than male-identified people. The real world doesn’t do a good job of promoting sexual agency for women.) 

And whilst this approach to irrevocable consent might be perfectly reasonable and acceptable in a fictional society where every single individual is both a lot more free of coercion (there’s no such thing as survival sex in the post-scarcity culture of the Passionate Pantheon) and significantly more confident of their physical safety, those two elements aren’t, and can’t be, true in our real world. And yet this belief that consent is a promise that is unforgivable to break somehow still exists in reality, and probably is far more wide-spread than most people would like to acknowledge.

Kinksters, on the other hand, are—at least in theory; the reality is outside the scope of this essay, but let’s just say that theory and practice should be the same, but humans aren’t known for being able to always perfectly practice what they preach, and kinksters are no different—inculcated in a culture that teaches consent must always be explicit, exists only in the moment, and can always be withdrawn. Withdrawing consent is the whole function of safewords!

So perhaps unexpectedly, it’s the people most accustomed to playing with consent who might find the even-numbered novels the most uncomfortable, especially if it makes them horny too. It goes utterly against what they’ve been taught is the ‘better’ style of consent, better than the way mainstream society does it, a more conscientious style that they aim for and idealise. And in our real world, we approve of that. We encourage that, in fact. But the real world is not the world of the Passionate Pantheon, and the circumstances that exist in the real world would be considered intrinsically antithetical to true consent from the point of view of the residents of the City anyway.

We hope the readers will find the scenes we paint arousing, hopefully a little thought-provoking, but we also hope they’ll be at least a little disturbing. The even-numbered novels are erotic horror, after all. And what’s the point of horror if it doesn’t make you look at the world around you and feel just a bit unsettled at the similarities?

This Light Becomes My Art 3/3

Chapter 3 of 3

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

The storm gradually subsided. The lights flowing across the shield dome faded to a steady scintillation, then to an occasional flicker, and were gone. Far beneath the shield, Donvin sat beside Terlyn, lost in conversation while the party disappeared to somewhere else. The glow of the drink hummed through him. He sank into Terlyn’s shy smile, the swirling effervescence whenever their bodies touched.

A small drone studded with tiny gemstones flitted by to whisk away their empty glasses. Another drone unobtrusively slid fresh drinks in their place. Donvin and Terlyn sipped their replenished drinks as they talked for long hours, each entranced by the other. The horizon glowed with the promise of dawn when Kalaian appeared at Donvin’s shoulder. She perched gracefully on the arm of the sofa, fingers running through Donvin’s hair. The gem at her throat glowed a steady red. “There you are! I wondered where you’d got off to. I seem to recall we have an unfinished conversation to attend to.”

Donvin shook himself, realizing for the first time that the park had somehow emptied of nearly all the guests. Drones darted about carrying off furniture. The luminous flowers on the low hedge wall had already faded in the light of the approaching morning. Softly glowing petals fell in mounds at the feet of the hedges. The statues, too, had lost some of their glow with the oncoming sun.

“I, um, wow, I—” Donvin stammered.

Kalaian’s necklace burned brighter. She grinned impishly at him. “Preoccupied with your new friend?” She turned to Terlyn. “Terlyn, yes? I’ve seen you around in the Garden a few times, but I don’t think we’ve ever been introduced. Seems a bit strange that we should only meet after I leave the Quickener to start my service to the Lady.”

Terlyn inclined her head. “You host a lovely party.”

“Thank you. You seem to be enjoying Donvin’s hospitality.”

Heat touched Terlyn’s face. “I suppose I wasn’t very present, was I? I was supposed to mingle. I didn’t realize how late it had gotten…” Her voice trailed off.

Kalaian chuckled. “I understand completely. Donvin can be quite charming. Distracting, even.” She slid her hands over his shoulders. 

“Um, if you two have things to talk about—”

The light at Kalaian’s throat blazed. “Oh, I’m sure Donvin won’t mind if our…conversation waits a bit longer.” She gave him a coquettish wink. “These sorts of conversations can be so much more satisfying when they’re given plenty of time and patience, isn’t that right?” She placed a small kiss on Donvin’s cheek. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to intrude on your conversation, unless perhaps you care to join ours?”

Terlyn blinked rapidly. “I, um, thank you, but I think we were just wrapping up. I didn’t realize we’d talked so long.”

Kalaian slipped onto Donvin’s lap. The butterflies fluttered around her head for a moment before dissolving into sprays of speckled light. “Donvin is lovely that way. His conversations can extend for hours. He does enjoy a nice leisurely…talk.” She draped an arm across her shoulder. Flowers bloomed along her side, the petals breaking free to flutter away as butterflies.

“Yes, well, if you’re finished teasing us,” Donvin said, sliding an arm about her waist.

“Is that what I’m doing?” Kalaian assumed an expression of pious innocence. “That doesn’t sound like me.” She leaned forward with a mischievous grin. “I thought I was doing the opposite of teasing. A three-way conversation sounds like fun!” The gem flared bright.

“Oh!” Terlyn said. “Oh, I, no, that, um…” She looked around. “It’s much later than I realized! I should be off. To bed. Um. Alone, I mean.” She bolted upright. Kalaian rose gracefully from Donvin’s lap. “Thank you for your hospitality,” Terlyn said.

“You’re welcome,” Kalaian said. “I’m pleased you attended, and I hope to see you again in the future.” They both bowed. Terlyn fled down the path between the rows of graceful statues, now completely quiescent, their luminous radiance faded to nothing.

Kalaian slipped into the space Terlyn had just vacated. “Did I come at a bad time? You seemed like you might be ready for a deeper conversation with her.”

“Hmm? No! I…we were just talking. Nothing impetuous at all.”

“Really?” Kalaian leaned back. “Who are you, and why do you look like Donvin?”

Donvin chuckled. “Not every conversation needs to end with—”

“Ecstasy?” Kalaian interjected, face once more a study of devout innocence. “I’ve heard that. I seem to recall we need to conclude our conversation on just that very subject.” Her fingers brushed Donvin’s lips. “So, what do you have to say?”

“Come here and let me tell you.” Their lips met. The kiss endured, extending for a timeless eternity.

When at last it ended, Kalaian chuckled, a low, throaty sound. Her necklace burned with fiery radiance. “You make a compelling argument.” She slipped her hands into his robe, spreading her palms across his chest. “Allow me to retort.”

“Please do.”

They kissed again, longer this time. Kalaian’s tongue fluttered against Donvin’s lips, light as a feather. Donvin caressed her shoulders. The butterflies scrambled away from his hands, a burst of colour swirling across her back. She purred and pressed herself against him.

Presently, she stood and offered Donvin her hand. “Perhaps we should continue this conversation somewhere more suitable?”

Hand in hand, they walked down the pathway toward the nearest pod terminal. Butterflies fluttered in her wake. Behind them, a swarm of tiny glittering things poured from the Provider. The statues collapsed and dissolved into the waving grass.

Two weeks later, Donvin sat at a small table in an open courtyard, basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun, mug of tea in hand. A noisy, laughing crowd of people in the red and black kilts of worshippers of the Wild flowed around him, chasing and teasing one another as they played a rowdy game of Capture the Turtle. Donvin caught a quick glimpse from the corner of his eye of a short figure, bronze skin, green hair. In a blink, the group was gone.

He smiled to himself as a momentary memory floated through his mind. Then, with a shrug, he reached out to Terlyn.

Her voice materialized in his head. Hi! I wasn’t expecting to hear from you again.

I just happened to be thinking of you, he sent back. Am I intruding?

No! Not at all! I, um…I enjoyed meeting you.

So did I, he sent. I’d love to continue our conversation. Not that way! he added hastily.

No? Am I not your type?

It’s not that! Donvin’s fingers curled around his mug and he brought it to his lips for a bracing sip. I didn’t mean—I just—hey! You’re getting me flustered on purpose, aren’t you?

If I say I am, would you like that?

Donvin snorted aloud. I was just thinking, I’d love to spend some time with you again, whenever you’re available.

I’m not doing anything right now. What are you doing?

Meeting you, I hope.

Terminal station by the Garden?

I’ll be there!

Less than half an hour later, Donvin stood at the base of a float tube. Above him, an ornate marble temple hovered silently in the air, the grand banquet painted across the base flowing and moving as he watched.

Terlyn drifted weightlessly down the tube, angelic in the draped folds of the long dress that floated around her. The impressionistic leaves and vines decorating the dress glowed in the sunlight. Two large, translucent panels attached at her wrists billowed in the float field, giving Donvin an impression of wings. She alighted gently at the base of the tube. “Hi!”

Donvin bowed low. “Good afternoon, Terlyn of the Quickener.”

She returned his bow. “Good afternoon, Donvin of the Lady.” She straightened, laughing. “I’m glad you called.”

“Whew!” Donvin said. “That’s a relief. This might be rather awkward otherwise.” He grinned impishly.

“What would you like to do?”

“Get to know you a little better. We’re near the Garden. You could show me around if you like.”

Terlyn sighed and shook her head. “I’d rather not. Two of my mothers are there right now.”

“Is that bad?”

“No, it’s not bad, it’s just…it’s complicated. People in my family group are kind of, well…it’s more or less assumed we’ll worship the Quickener.”

“And that doesn’t appeal to you?”

“It’s not that! It’s just…I want it to be real, you know? Something I truly want to do. When you’re from the Everessa family group, it can be hard to separate what you want to do from what the name expects of you.” She blinked. “Never mind. Anyway.”

“I suppose I was the one to reach out to you, so…” He thought for a moment. “A friend of mine is doing a performance at the Temple of the Lady. Interested?”

“Sure! Why not?”

They walked across the Temple District toward the fantastical, surreal Temple of the Lady, with its grand arches and swooping curves that seemed to defy geometry. Paths tiled in stone radiated out from the entrance through a large park in front of the Temple like spokes on a wheel, lined with a mixture of still and shifting, transforming sculptures. Small streams filled with glittering fish threaded through the park, their edges lined with carefully designed flowers in a glorious variety of colors. Three people in gauzy purple clothes assembled sections of an enormous contraption of some sort made of a frame of tubular steel stretched with colorful taut fabric, while a fourth sat in a small rounded depression atop it. As Donvin and Terlyn watched, it caught the breeze and catapulted into the sky on long silvery cords. The people on the ground whooped and cheered.

They passed through the high, arched entryway, its stones covered in engraved calligraphy inlaid with platinum, into the dizzying space beyond. Vast columns of light gray marble supported an elaborate ceiling decorated with vivid frescoes in an array of colors showing dancing figures trailing long ribbons, faces suffused with joy.

“Have you worshipped the Lady long?” Terlyn said.

Donvin shrugged. “Maybe a hundred and twenty years, I guess? Perhaps a bit longer. This way!”

He led her down the hallway into a large circular chamber with a domed roof, where a handful of people gathered with eager expressions. Light streamed from curved windows at the base of the dome. Brilliant designs spiraled up the walls, elaborate calligraphy telling the story of the first Avatar of the Lady designing this very temple. Drones flitted here and there, arranging soft cushions around a ring of small float-field generators beneath the dome. A long, curved frame hung from the ceiling, strung with a dense bundle of fine threads that spooled from reels around the dome’s edge. “What’s going on?” Terlyn said.

Donvin grinned. “You’ll see.” He seated himself and gestured for her to sit beside him.

The drones finished setting out the cushions. More people filtered in, claiming clusters of cushions around the room. A delta-winged drone decorated with bands of gleaming colored glass swooped down to offer them drinks. Donvin and Terlyn each plucked a glass from the tray it carried.

Slowly, the windows grew more opaque. As the room dimmed, the bundle of threads began to glow, each individual strand radiating rainbow light into the chamber. A murmur ran through the audience.

A door opened in the far wall to admit a small, lissome woman standing barely as tall as Donvin’s shoulder. She wore no clothing. Fine fur covered her body, rippling with brilliant iridescent patterns in vivid colors: orange, yellow, blue, violet, and green. Four long, slender, jointed appendages extended from her back, each covered with a hard shell of glossy black, faint iridescence playing across them like a thin film of oil on water. Each was tipped with a small, bright red hook.

The room grew quiet. She looked gravely at the audience through large eyes of luminous violet. “I am Avatar Arashnäi of the Lady,” she said in a soft, euphonic voice, “and I thank you for witnessing my art.”

Terlyn leaned in close. “You didn’t tell me your friend was Avatar!”

“I knew her before her Dance of Sacrifice.”

Arashnäi leaped gracefully into the float field. The dense skein of threads began to move through the frame. One of the appendages on her back whipped out to hook a thin strand of scarlet thread. It vibrated with a soft chime that filled the chamber.

Silently, the loom came to life. The threads fed down from the ceiling through the top of the frame. A mechanical puck shuttled back and forth near its base. Avatar Arashnäi looped and soared, lifting and plucking the glowing strands with hands, feet, and hooks. Every thread she touched sang out with its own bright, clear sound. Poignant music filled the air, drawn from the threads as Arashnäi flitted about. A colorful patterned tapestry emerged from the loom as Arashnäi played her haunting music.

Donvin and Terlyn sat in breathless wonder, captivated by Arashnäi’s dance. The dance blended seamlessly with the music she drew from the glowing lines and the tapestry they created, until it became impossible to tell which was the more expressive: Arashnäi’s form twisting gracefully through the air, the iridescent colors that flowed like a living thing over her body as she moved, the rich, beautiful music she called forth from the glowing strands, or the luxurious designs woven into the long tapestry that coiled from her giant loom. Terlyn leaned against Donvin, spellbound.

The music and the dance went on and on, each an indivisible part of the other, until with a few final deft twists the thread ran out. The glow faded from the long tapestry. The float field gently lowered Arashnäi to the ground. She bowed and, without a word, left through the door she’d come in through. A utility drone rolled the tapestry up and followed behind.

The spell gradually lifted. The audience stirred. Voices filled the space. Terlyn took a breath for the first time in what seemed like an age. “That was extraordinary!” 

“Yes. I can’t wait to see Avatar Arashnäi’s masterwork.”

“You mean that wasn’t it?” Terlyn said.

“Oh, no. That was just one voice. The fabric she wove contains an impression of the music she just created. What we saw is a single voice in a symphony she is assembling. When she’s finished with each voice, she will take all the pieces she’s woven and play them all together the evening before the next Dance of Sacrifice.”

“Wow.” Terlyn slipped her hand in Donvin’s. Hand in hand, they left the Temple of the Lady and emerged blinking into the sun. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Showing me some small part of why you worship the Lady. That was exquisite.”

“You’re welcome.”

They wandered the Temple District for a time, still holding hands, until at last their meandering path took them to a pod terminal. Terlyn stopped at the edge of the float tube. “I have to go. This has been a wonderful day.”

“Can I see you again?”

“Yes.” Terlyn squeezed his hand. Her eyes shone. “I look forward to learning more about you, Donvin of the Lady.”

This Light Becomes My Art 2/3

Chapter 2 of 3

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

Hand in hand, Donvin and Kalaian walked to the shimmering archway. Butterflies twirled and dipped in Kalaian’s wake. The setting sun stretched fingers of orange light across the sky. Clusters of small glowing flowers peeked out from the hedges outlining the park, casting a gentle green glow. Golden rivers of light flared and twisted overhead as they directed the rain away from the City. Donvin’s swooping statues gleamed with faint luminescence, lighting the path. The scalloped pools shone with an internal light, red and purple and green and gold rippling through the surface of the water. Behind them, a last swarm of glittering gnats smoothed away the place where they’d coupled, the drone’s helpful pillow collapsing and vanishing in a sharp blue flare.

A dronelight shaped like a slender bird with narrow, forward-swept wings escorted a slim, sleek figure, pale skin decorated with loops and whorls of fine gold chain. Long, fluttering ribbons of brightly-colored silk crossed their chest, arms, hips, and legs, fluttering in a non-existent breeze, growing wider as they streamed behind them. “Maryalah!” Kalaian exclaimed. “Thank you for coming. Donvin, this is Priestess Maryalah, my sponsor. Maryalah, this is my…um, friend Donvin.”

Maryalah bowed. “My pleasure.” To Kalaian, they said, “What a gorgeous tattoo! How lovely!” Kalaian blushed and bowed. “Grand High Priest Astlyn sends his welcome. He has asked me to extend his regrets that he will be unable to attend. This is for you.” They presented Kalaian with a dazzling, multifaceted red gem on a fine chain. “The greater your joy, the brighter it will glow.”

Kalaian bowed again. “Thank you!” She fastened the chain around her neck. Immediately, the gemstone shone with a deep red light. Subtle shapes danced within it. The butterflies that flowed across her skin, confused by the chain, fluttered in circles for a moment before they found a path around the necklace, across her breast to her shoulder.

More guests approached, accompanied by bobbing dronelights. The dronelights dimmed as they came near, allowing the soft light of the flowers and statues and the rippling radiance from the pools to take over. Kalaian greeted each guest with a bow. Donvin recognized many priests, priestesses, and worshippers of the Lady. She introduced him to a scattered handful of other people, some worshippers of the Quickener, others her personal friends.

The sun settled behind the rim of the world, sending long streamers of shadow through the City. Golden light snaked across the shield dome, sending faint ripples scurrying across the grass. A dronelight shaped like a long ship, its square sail fluttering in the breeze, escorted two figures to the arch, where tiny gleaming flowers grew in profusion from the thin hanging vines. The figure in the lead, resplendent in a dress of green and teal that covered one arm and half her body but left one arm and one breast bare, moved with an effortless regal grace that radiated calm confidence. A complex assortment of narrow metal bands barely restrained her lush tangle of thick black hair. A shorter woman followed in her wake, bronze-skinned and green-eyed, wearing a simple tunic and pants the same emerald as her hair.

Kalaian’s face broke out in a broad grin. The pendant on her necklace glowed. “High Priestess Neveah! Thank you so much for coming!”

Neveah embraced her. “Where else would I be? I am sorry you’re leaving us, but I wish you well on your journey with the Lady.” She turned to the woman behind her. “Allow me to introduce my daughter Terlyn.”

Kalaian bowed. “This is my friend Donvin of the Lady.” She elbowed Donvin, who stood entranced, mouth hanging open.

“Ah! I’ve heard so much about you,” Neveah said. “I understand you’re the one responsible for luring Kalaian away from us.”

“Well, err, not exactly as such,” Donvin stammered. “I just, that is, yes, I suppose I did, didn’t I?”

Neveah chuckled. “May she bring joy to her service of the Lady.” She bowed low to Kalaian. “I look forward to sampling whatever delights you’ve created for us.”

“The pools contain a mild Blessing that facilitates connection,” Kalaian said. “You’ll find a variety of wines on the table. Those in the blue glasses contain the same Blessing. Please let me know if I can make you more comfortable.”

“Thank you.” Her eyes traveled up and down Kalaian’s form. “I will.”

When Neveah and Terlyn had passed, Kalaian chuckled in Donvin’s ear. “See something you like?” she cooed.


Kalaian giggled and took Donvin’s hand. “Come get wet with me!” She led Donvin to the central pool, large enough for a dozen people, surrounded by smaller pools just big enough for two or three. The water shimmered invitingly, red and gold. Kalaian unfastened Donvin’s shirt and ran her hands over his chest. She leaned close enough her lips almost brushed his skin. “Are you still feeling impertinent?” she murmured.

“Impetuous, even.”

“Good.” She unfastened his pants and let them fall. Her eyes flicked downward. “Oh, you certainly are!” Hand in his, she stepped into the pool. He followed her down. They slid between a novice he knew vaguely from worship of the Lady and a woman he’d never seen before.

The warm water loosened his muscles. A faint, pleasant scent, slightly spicy, rose from the steaming water. Donvin inhaled deeply. He closed his eyes and settled back. His skin tingled where Kalaian held his hand. The woman seated on his other side shifted slightly. His body buzzed delightfully at every point of contact between them.

“Hi! I’m Rashillia,” she said in a dreamy voice. “I don’t know you.”

“Donvin.” As the water worked his magic, he found himself drawn into her teal eyes. Ripples of light played over her dark skin.

“Would you like to touch me, Donvin?” she said, her voice slow and languid.

“Mm, yes please.”

She took his hand in hers, fingertips playing lightly over his palm. Electric currents ran up and down his arm. “I think hands are so sensual, don’t you?” she murmured, voice soft, languorous. She placed his hand on her cheek. “Would you like to kiss me?”

Donvin floated toward her. Eddies of pleasure shimmered up and down his back when their lips met. He was aware in some far-off corner of his mind of Kalaian kissing the person beside her, then Donvin fell down, down, down, into the glow of Rashillia’s eyes. She kissed him with a gentle delicacy that made his heart hammer.

Eventually, she rose with effortless grace. Water streamed from her body. She helped Donvin from the pool, her touch sending shivers through him. A small utility drone shaped like a flattened torus with tiny wings driven by spinning gears held out towels in long, silver-inscribed metal arms. Rashillia dried him gently with the soft towel. He shuddered at her caress.

She took his hand and led him to a long, soft couch that hovered silently just above the grass. On the way, she selected a glass from the stone table with its Providers. She drew him down beside her. Arm linked through his, she brought the glass to her lips. A tiny shudder, barely perceptible, traveled down her body when she swallowed. “Would you like some?” she said.


She lifted the glass to his lips. When he swallowed, a gentle radiant heat spread within him. His focus narrowed until all that existed was her skin against his, the light that danced in her eyes, the low throaty chuckle as she kissed the side of his neck. She pressed him onto his back and stretched out atop him, body soft against him.

Donvin wrapped his arms around her. The sounds of the party faded to a background murmur, distant and unimportant. He and Rashillia kissed, gently, her lips barely grazing his. He felt acute awareness of everywhere they touched: her fingers stroking the side of his face, her breath on his skin, her body pressed close to his. “Do you want me?” she breathed.

“Yes,” Donvin breathed.

Without haste, she lowered herself onto him, taking him inside her. Donvin ran his hands up her back. She buried her face in his neck with a sigh. He stared up at the sky, lost in the tinsel chaos of the rain against the shield dome. Rippling streamers of light snaked across the sky. Rashillia rocked her hips, each slow, subtle motion igniting ripples of pleasure across his skin like the golden light above.

Gradually, Rashillia slowed, until at last they lay together unmoving for a long moment that stretched out to eternity, simply basking in the feel of one another. “You are delightful,” she said. Whorling eddies danced over Donvin’s body. She ran her fingers through his hair. “Thank you for sharing this moment with me.” She placed a gentle kiss on his lips, so softly it stole his breath away, then rose and vanished into the party.

Donvin lay on his back for a long time, relishing the hum in his skin and the silent spectacle overhead. Presently he rose, summoned a black robe edged in red and a glittering amber drink from the Provider, and wandered through the party. All around him, people chatted, or basked in the pools, or had leisurely sex. A lean, graceful man with white hair and deep indigo skin spun long metal rods with balls of fire at their ends.

Through a momentary gap in the crowd, he spotted Kalaian reclining on a low couch, head back, eyes closed. A lithe, muscular man sat beside her, exploring her body with his hands. Another man with golden hair and golden skin knelt on the grass, face buried between her open legs. As he pleasured her, he stroked the first man’s rigid erection with patient care. The gem at Kalaian’s throat blazed with light. Phantasmal butterflies rose in a spiral above her. Her fingers twined through her kneeling lover’s hair. Music filled the air.

Eventually, Donvin’s wandering feet carried him to a far corner of the space, where a row of shield generators cast a faint haze that enclosed a collection of couches and chairs, arranged in several circles. He felt the faint whisper of the shield as he stepped through. The music faded to a barely audible murmur.

“Hi! Donvin, is it? You’re Novice Kalaian’s friend?”

Donvin looked around. “Hi!” he said to the woman reclining on a small couch, a soft pillow tucked behind her head. “Terlyn, right?”

Terlyn looked him up and down. “I’m impressed. Do you remember the names of everyone you’ve met tonight? It’s quite a large party.”

“Well, perhaps not everyone,” Donvin said.

“Then I’m flattered.” She moved aside to make room beside her. “Sit with me?”

“Sure!” Donvin seated himself beside her and sipped his drink. A pleasant haze settled around him. “Are you enjoying the party so far?”

“Truth be told, I’m not one for parties,” Terlyn confessed. “One of my mothers thinks I should get out more, so here I am.”

Donvin nodded. “I know what you mean. Being around crowds can get tiring after a while.”

Terlyn gazed out into the bustle beyond the faint shield, where a tall, nude man with blue skin decorated with bold scarlet designs walked past one of Donvin’s luminous statues. He sported outsized breasts, an erection larger than Donvin’s forearm decorated with the same jagged scarlet lines, and a long tail that ended in a spike. “He must worship the Lady,” she said. “I’ve never really understood her worshippers.”

“Hey, now!” Donvin said with mock hurt.

“No offense intended,” Terlyn said. She glanced at him slyly from the corner of her eye. “Or maybe a little bit. You did steal Kalaian away from us, after all.”

“You worship the Quickener, then?”

“I do. Most of the people in my family group do.”

“House Everessa?”

“I see our reputation precedes us. Again.” Some complex emotion flitted across her face and was gone, leaving no trace. She smiled at him and ran quick light fingertips over his arm. “Get me something to drink?”

“There’s a Provider right next to you.”

“I know.”

“What would you like?”

“Surprise me. It’s no fun asking the gods to surprise you, because they already know you better than you know yourself. I want you to surprise me.” Her fingertips touched the back of his hand, light and quick. “It’s the least you can do, for entrancing one of our worshippers into service to the Lady.”

“If I get you a drink, will all my sins be forgiven?” Light sparkled in Donvin’s eye.

“I don’t know all of your sins. Tell me of them when you’ve brought me a drink and we’ll see.”

“Ah, it’s to be that kind of night, is it? Perhaps I’ll bring one for myself as well.” Donvin drained his glass and rose. “I’ll be right back!”

Terlyn leaned back and looked up at him through half-lidded eyes. “The moments will seem like days until you return.”

Donvin stepped through the shield into the noise of the party. Music washed around him. He went to the table, where a utility drone with an astonishing profusion of multi-jointed arms had set out an array of wine glasses in a complex, colorful pattern. He hesitated for a moment and chose two blue glasses of exquisitely cut crystal, then returned to the sanctuary enclosed by the shield. Behind him, the drone deftly rearranged the glasses, filling in the spaces left by the ones he’d taken.

Terlyn beamed up at him. She accepted one of the glasses and patted the cushion beside her. Donvin sank down, almost but not quite touching her. “Thank you,” she said demurely.

“Don’t you want to ask what I got you?”

“Did you get yourself the same thing?”


“Then no.” Terlyn drained half her glass. “Mm, this is lovely.” She leaned toward him. “Now, Donvin of the Lady, tell me of your sins.”