Friday, 16 August 2019

EZRA

The second in a series of city posts, begun with Nahemot.

For adherents of the New Temple faith, Nahemot is the most holy of cities: it was the site of his birth, and today houses his tomb. But the city that bears his name, Ezra, is home to far more of his followers, struggling to make his centuries old ideology in a changing world.

It is a fortified city with a strong military tradition. It stands at the crossroads of two major trade routes. It was once known as the city of 100 names. To foreigners it is known only as the city of noise, for it is a city without written language. To its inhabitants it has only one name, and that name is EZRA.

Egyptian Memphis Reconstruction - Ersatz Ezra


FIRST LOOK

The whiteness of it is blinding, especially on the southernmost side, where the albido effect has led to many a tired navigator ploughing his vessel into the whitewashed walls. They rise up to almost one hundred feet in places, even on the sides of the city facing the Inoko river.



Next comes the murmour: an almost melodic hum at the very edge of audibilty, like a flock of birds mixed with the cascade of a waterfall. It never goes away, but visitors oscillate between conscious and unconscious awareness in a way that is quite maddening.

Trade vessels from the south and southeast are shepherded in through the watergate, smaller vessels through the market gates. Two roads lead in to the northeast and east by land, and a small natural harbour serves as ingress and egress to vessels trading downriver, with Tethis and Mudruk beyond.

Once the walls are breached, visitors become aware of the smell of roasting meats. Is it... pork? It becomes impossible to locate: vendors typically sell stew and bread due to the high price of charcoal. Just where is it coming from?

Whatever manner by which you enter the city, a guard will have noticed you and your vessel, relaying a thorough description in a sing-song southern dialect that sounds like the language of the Thranes but not quite. The song is repeated over and over, with regular updates and additions: the  murmour fades, and the cacophony has begun.


ILLITERATE BUREAUCRACY

Once this was called Thon, a bastion of a serpent-worshipping cult that revelled in blood and magic. Thre centuries ago, the armies of the New Temple,led by the hero Ezra, liberated Thon from its tyrannical overlords and set about destroying every temple, library and written record they could lay their hands on. The long-oppressed populace joined the riots with equal fervour, and the situation spiralled out of control. Even when Ezra's soldiers had restored some semblance of the rule of law, Ezra was challenged by the complexity of ruling such a large city, and realised that the bureaucracy he and his allies had destroyed had been integral to the management if the metropolis.

Advised by his closest ally, known to historians only as the sage, Ezra established a new form of bureaucracy based upon song and poetry. Acolytes of what had once been the temples of music and poetry were inducted into the new faith (after their former bosses had been burned at the stake) and instructed to keep meticulous oral records of the cities finances, principally the sale and exchange of wheat and rice, in what is known as the song of grain.

Initially successful, the slow recovery of agriculture as the Kyrans brought the war of the mages to a close gradually made the system more and more complex. The memorious powers of the acolytes were pushed to the very limit, and so it became essential to grow the priesthood until it reached its current status: nearly half of Ezra's populace are ordained priests of the New Temple, but only a handful lead services. The vast majority are engaged in the endless repetition of births, marriages, deaths, land deeds, grain prices, book-keeping... there's even a whole temple devoted entirely to reciting the organisational structure and hierarchy of the priesthood itself.


SEAHORSES

Prior to the Kyran conquest of Ezra, the symbol of the temple of music was the seahorse, despite being hundreds of miles from the Crystal Seas. It was believed (correctly) that the small part of the brain resembling a seahorse is the seat of memory, and so the creature was venerated by poets and musicians as imbuing them with the power to recall the lyrics and melodies they performed.


To this day, the veneration takes a slightly unusual form, in that senior priests eat seahorses on the seventh day of the week. They command a high price, as do hippopotamuses and other creatures believed to be aquatic horses, no matter how tenuous the visual resemblance to the anatomical hippocampus.


MARTYRS AND FALSE MARTYRS

The New Temple grew out of the culture and traditions of the Kyran people, cousins of the Jehemen and Thranes who wandered the western desert long after their cousins became sedentary. Consequently, they maintain strong martial traditions, which has grown into a sect of the New Temple easily identified by the glistening bronze scales they where over their white robes. These holy warriors defend the city against the unclean, and each night pray the following day will bring them a martyr's death.

According to the Faithful, there is no afterlife but annihilation, which is itself reward for the endurance of a lifetime of struggle. Indeed, annihilation is preferred to damnation or rebirth, which is said to befall non-believers who do not die by fire.

The exception to this rule is in martyrdom: it is said that there is a heaven beyond Malkut, where dwells the Eternal One, and that at his table are seated the truest and most honourable heroes of our age, who live on in order to inspire humankind to greatness. Only those who sacrifice their lives for the greater good are afforded eternal salvation.

Inevitably, this would lead to all sorts of reckless behaviour and unnecessary violence were it not for a mitigating factor: the belief that false martyrdom is the worst sin of all. Those who throw down their life in order to achieve martyrdom (no matter how much good they achieve in doing so) are considered untouchable, even by the demonic Lord of the Dead, Belphegor, and their soul is believed to dwell in the realms of the Forgotten Gods, the demonic entities worshipped by the Unfaithful and diabolists.

Any warrior dying in battle or in service is given a posthumous trial by the priesthood, of which four verdicts are possible: false martyr, misguided, mundane, and martyr. The former and latter are rare indeed and their meaning already explained: it is the verdicts of "mundane" and "misguided" that merit further analysis. "Mundane" suggests that while the defendant died with honour, their death was within the ordinary bounds of their duty. An example would be a solder slain in combat, or a guardsmen cut down by a criminal. "Misguided" covers behaviour which was reckless and intended to be heroic, but was not motivated by a desire to die and therefore not considered false martyrdom. An example would be a soldier taking on a superior foe due to their own delusions, rather than a belief that this would increase the likelihood of them dying.


FORBIDDEN CITY

Non-Kyrans (or non-believers, technically) may not pass beyond the city's second wall. Merchants must remain on their boats, and traders arriving by land congregate in the enclosed market to the city's northeast. Here travellers may sample local cuisine and wine, and are invited to observe the morning and evening services at the small temple of worship. If they wish to stay overnight, they may camp in the grounds with permission (it is not easy to obtain).

To travel further requires skullduggery or conversion  to the faith of the New Temple i.e. they must take the waters, which is a ritual similar to baptism, and also a symbolic offering of one's personal property (the supplicant has it returned to them at the end of the service, though they do not know this. If there is any hint that the supplicant has non-human blood running in their veins, they will not be admitted, and may even be forced to flee. Otherwise the faith is welcoming to all people.

The Faithful always wear white. As with Nahemot, this has created an enormous laundry industry, though is rarely noticed by visitors as the constant singing of bureaucrats is so idiosyncratic. The faithful are admitted through the inner gates without question: it's really as simple as putting on white robes and knowing a few phrases in the local tongue.


CENTRAL SPIRE

The inner city is dominated by the highest temple of all (both literally and figuratively), simply known as the tower. It is a conical pyramid rising nearly one hundred feet above the city. Here, the Matriarch of the city of Ezra receives the songs of her subordinates, delivers sermons to the faithful from the ultimate pulpit, and plots against the Patriarch of Nahemot, whom she believes is weak and insipid, especially given the steady rise of Thranes in the Holy City.

The Matriarch, like all senior priests of Ezra, is enormously overweight, to the point of being practically immobile. Her role is so demanding she rarely the opportunity to leave her chamber, and is attended by a retinue of servants to ensure her needs are met without her work being interrupted. She is unusually old for one of her station: the pressures of work and sedentary nature of the priesthood often entails death in one's forties (which, it must be said, as enabled an otherwise stagnant society to achieve some dynamism), yet the Matriarch endures into her fiftieth year. It is asserted to be a demonstration of her piety, and a sign that she is favoured by the Eternal One.

Beneath the  tower - and widely believed to mirror its size and shape - are the catacombs of Belphegor. The priests of the Lord of the Dead, acolytes the only demon cult tolerated by the New Temple, manage the cities  sewerage, refuse and funerary arrangements. Here also the faithful are interred in the temple's extensive catacombs. Unlike Nahemot, the Matriarch's power ensures that the bodies of the dead do not rise again, much as the Belphegorians would wish it.


THE FIRE PITS

The New Temple is a religion of mercy and forgiveness, but for the irredeemable death by fire is the only mercy they are shown. Those considered irredeemable are witches (any practitioner of magic), apostates, and non-humans. By tradition such transgressors were burned at the stake as both example and to be purified: with their sinful flesh removed, their soul could conveniently be shepherded by Belphegor into the void. For the Faithful, annihilation is a reward all can expect in the afterlife. However, such is the scale of the immolation program, it has become practical to burn everyone at the same time, in the daily ritual of the fire pit.

The fires burn from dawn until dusk, whereupon the priests of Belphegor gather the ashes in an evening ritual, and wash the stones of the pits clean with the waters of the Inoko. The smell of burned flesh disappears less easily, and lingers over Ezra eternally. It is as ubiquitous as the never-ending song of its bureaucrats, and, like them, is something to which only a native-born can ever truly become accustomed.

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