14 – 19

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The goddess began by buying them dinner.

“We won’t be eating at Mortimer’s place,” she confided while handing over coins at what she insisted was the best falafel stand on the Western coast, to the beaming satisfaction of its proprietor. “He overcharges horribly for everything but the liquor. Ordinarily I would never enter an establishment without buying something, but I cannot in good conscience support gouging, and Morty knows that. Besides, the joint has a cover charge, so he can suck it.”

“Uh…” Gabriel looked a little spellshocked, even as he accepted the folded flatbread full of meat and cheese she handed him. “This guy…sells food?”

“Oh, I didn’t mention it? Mortimer runs a nightclub. Well, owns and lives over it; he doesn’t actually manage the business himself these days. That’s the dream, isn’t it? Getting to the point where you can delegate all the work and let your business interests pay you to goof off.”

“Nothing for you tonight, Nell?” the falafel guy asked, all three of them having received theirs.

“Not this time, Apir,” she said, winking at him. “I’m watching my figure.”

“Well, I can’t blame you for that,” he replied with a broad grin. “I don’t mind watching it myself.”

“Say hi to your wife for me,” she said dryly, turning to go. “Come along, kids.”

Toby waited until they had proceeded out of earshot down the street before asking. “So, does that guy know you’re a…?”

“Of course he doesn’t know,” she snorted. “I could never get any business done if people knew.”

“Do you do a lot of business yourself?” Trissiny asked. “Most of the…well, your colleagues tend to be pretty hands-off.”

“Yeah, well, that’s their lookout. Me, I’ve gotta to stay in circulation. Nothing is more important than staying in circulation. Everything you see here is the work of mortal industry, kids. This suit?” She turned and extended her arm to show off its cut. “From Chevantre. Glassian tailoring in the styles I prefer has fallen a bit by the wayside the last few years, but Marcel is still my go-to guy, and will be so long as his eyesight holds out. The tie is Sheng silk, though the actual weaving was done in Puna Vashtar—Shengdu and Sheng-la have lots of natural resources but their industry was smashed in the war, and both states have gotten way too dependent on raw exports and neglected to rebuild. They’re heading for a worse depression than the Five Kingdoms if they don’t straighten up. Speaking of which, the cufflinks are Stavulheim gold. I actually don’t care for dwarven aesthetics, personally, but I’ve made it a point to support jewelers in the Kingdoms ever since the Narisian treaty. They need the help. This, now!” She produced her lighter again, flicking the switch and igniting the tiny blue arc of energy. “The actual mechanism is new, from a custom workshop in Calderaas. The place for the latest arcane gadgetry. It used to be an alchemic lighter; I had to buy something for it to justify keeping it around, but the thing itself has sentimental value. Was a gift from Boss Catseye; she stole it right out of the pocket of Lord Aristan Vasaar. Yeah, I buy everything I might want, I have business interests and at least one piece of real estate in every major city in the world. I stay in touch.”

“Amazing,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful of falafel. Aside from his manners, it wasn’t clear whether he meant the sandwich or the goddesses recitation. The food was really good.

“Why?” Trissiny asked simply. She was paying more attention to where she was walking, taking her falafel in small nibbles.

Nell turned her head to give them a serious look without slowing down. “I would never damage the value of currency by conjuring it. Nor the goods and services it can buy. All of those are the product of people’s effort, knowledge, care…their lives. Let me put it this way: you all know that every cult has a passage from its dogmas that is repeated so often as to become idiomatic. Almost a slogan, if you will. All systems are corrupt. All love is good. Justice for all, or for none.”

“Lot of ‘alls’ in there, now you mention it,” Gabriel observed.

She laughed, still facing ahead. “And have you heard the one most widely associated with Vernisites?”

Gabe glanced at the other two and shrugged helplessly. Trissiny just drew her eyebrows together in a quizzical frown.

“I mean no offense,” Toby answered after a pause, “but…that particular cult was never seen as very important to the people who trained me.”

“I would say it’s more that your ascetic faith is inherently contemptuous of money and those who work with it,” the goddess said, her voice fortunately amused. “Likewise Trissiny’s, albeit less so; people who raise and field armies damn well learn the value of money.”

“I have heard one idea several times, during my training with the Church,” Toby added. “It must flow?”

Verniselle spread her arms wide and threw her head back, shouting to the darkening sky. “It! Must! Flow!” All three paused in eating to look warily around, but they garnered only a few curious glances from other passersby. Ninkabi was a large city, and thus home to many a strange sight; an expensively-dressed woman gesticulating and chanting the code of a major faith apparently wasn’t worth too much interest. Nell carried merrily on, seemingly ignoring everything around her. “Money is nothing, kids. It has almost no material use! Bank notes are just paper and ink and security charms; even coinage is typically made from the metals that are too soft and heavy to do much with. No, money is not a thing unto itself, it is potential. It is nothing, but it could be anything! Any object, any material you might want to possess. Any activity you might want to have another person do for you. Money can be turned into any of those things, into virtually anything you can imagine. It is not matter, but concept. It is energy. And energy wants to flow! Whoop, hold that thought.”

The street along which they were walking bordered the canyon. The view was incredible, though somewhat obstructed by the chest-high stone wall and iron fence on top of that. Evidently the authorities in Ninkabi didn’t mean to take chances with their citizens’ safety. Along the other side of the street, though, were storefronts and free-standing stalls and carts. Now, their guide suddenly cut to the left, making a beeline for one of these, where she bought them all sweet spiced tea in disposable paper cups. Like the falafel, it was amazingly good. Apparently she really did know where to find all the best of everything in the city. Which made sense, given her claims.

“Do you know what the greatest sin in my faith is?” the goddess asked them as they resumed course. This time she’d bought four servings, and sipped at her own tea upon pausing.

“No, I don’t,” Trissiny replied after glancing at the others. “I do know that Eserites find Vernisites somewhat mystifying. It’s an iron rule in the Thieves’ Guild that you don’t run a job on a Vernisite bank unless an Underboss at the very least authorizes it. But…several people within the Guild told me that Vernisites actually like us. They always send gifts to the local chapter house after someone’s robbed them. Nobody could explain why.”

“That’s just willful obtuseness, you know,” Nell said merrily. “Eserites of all people would understand, if they could get over their perception of ‘money people’ as inherently evil. The greatest sin for Vernisites is hoarding. It must flow! Money is meant to be in circulation, to be active, to be keeping economies alive, enabling people to work, to live. And just like every cult, mine has a way of attracting people who have serious trouble with its core values. You know, the way some Avenists just want to stomp around giving people orders, justice be damned. Or how some Eserites are in it for the stealing, not for resisting power.” She glanced back at them again. “How ’bout you boys? You’ve seen the same in your own cults?”

“Vidians are supposed to be two-faced,” Gabriel said lightly.

“Omnism doesn’t have…as much of a problem with that,” Toby added. “It’s a faith that emphasizes a simple life, growing useful plants and sharing the fruit of one’s labor with those who need it. The worst sort of person who is intrinsically attracted to that is smug and self-righteous. Which is annoying, but mostly harmless.”

“Well, in my banks, that problem manifests as people who want money. Always more money; always longing to possess more and more stuff. Which is an innate misunderstanding of what money is, what it means, how it works, and how it should be used. We have doctrines to teach better ways, of course, but even so… All systems, as our Eserite friends like to remark, are corrupt. It’s tremendously helpful to have the Thieves’ Guild operating outside the law to administer a knockdown when one is needed. Otherwise, who would? Actual law enforcement is way too easy to influence, when you control the flow of money.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, seeming lost in thought.

“It must flow,” Gabriel murmured, also frowning pensively.

“It must flow,” Nell agreed gravely. “I’m constantly frustrated by the association of my cult with rich people in the minds of the general public. Almost nobody who’s not innately interested in trade looks into my faith, and far too many of those are exactly the kind of people I don’t want. In truth, the rich do not like my rules. Now, I realize most traditions apart from mine don’t hold charts and graphs in great esteem, but do you kids know what a bell curve is?”

“I’m going to clamber way out on a limb,” Gabriel said solemnly, “and guess that it is a curve…which is shaped like a bell.”

“Is he gonna sass every god of the Pantheon?” Trissiny muttered to Toby.

“That depends on whether we meet every god of the Pantheon,” he murmured back, smiling.

“He’s right, though!” Nell turned without slowing, walking backward and tracing an arch shape in the air with her finger. “A bell curve is a line graph describing a thing which progresses upward to a certain point, then after that point, back down in close to the same trajectory. In this case, the horizontal axis represents the amount of money a person has, while the vertical represents their health, happiness, satisfaction, and overall success in life. What do you make of that?”

Trissiny cocked her head, lowering the cup from which she’d been about to sip. “Wait… I might be misunderstanding, I wasn’t raised to think very much of money or possessions. It sounds like…you’re saying that after a certain point, having more money makes your life worse?”

“That is exactly what I’m saying,” Nell replied seriously, nodding at her and then turning back around to walk forward again. “It starts at the bottom left, with zeros on both axes: absolute, destitute poverty. None of your material needs are met, your very survival is uncertain from one day to the next, and you live in constant fear and stress. From there, obviously, as you gain more wealth, your quality of life increases…up to a point. The higher you climb on that arc, the smaller the overall benefit you get from every increase in your income. Until you crest the top, and getting more money just…stops…helping. And then comes the descent. You already have everything you need and more; beyond that point, the pursuit of more wealth is purely a neurosis, both the effect and the cause of a deep, underlying insecurity. You must constantly chase more money, more possessions, more power, more stuff, until it’s all you can do in life and the pursuit saps your very vitality. Until, at the bottom of the curve, there is just nothing inside you but that cold, meaningless, insatiable hunger. There’s nobody more miserable than a miser, kids. As miserable, perhaps, but not more.”

“Now, I don’t know about that, honestly,” Gabriel said. “Being poor is no fun at all, trust me.”

She peeked over her shoulder at them, expression inscrutable. “Hmm. None of you three grew up with much money, did you? But you two never felt the lack; everything you needed was provided for you. Gabriel, though. You know the sting of privation.”

“…a bit,” he admitted, his expression closing down.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Though still facing away from them, she sounded absolutely sincere. “Both because no child should have to live that way, and because that sets you up for dangerous habits in the future. Now you have power, and there are all kinds of ways you can turn that into wealth. Not all paladins are ascetic; more Hands of Salyrene than otherwise have lived like kings and queens.”

“And you think…that’s wrong,” Gabriel said skeptically.

“I think it is bad for you,” she replied. “The crest of that bell curve is nowhere near as high as most people think it ought to be. Nobody needs to be rich. What a person needs is comfort and security. They need to have their needs met, food and shelter and clothing, all that. They need to have fulfilling work and time away from that work to enjoy their lives. They need healthy relationships with other people, which you can’t really buy, though having things to share certainly helps. They need a few luxuries—and oh, yes, that is important, a person is not a machine that runs on fuel alone. People need pleasure like crops need fertilizer; they can technically exist and grow without it, but only as wan, scraggly things. Ultimately, though? People just need enough, not too much. Too much fertilizer buries crops, and too many possessions bury people.”

“Hmm.” Gabriel took a sip of his tea, having polished off his falafel before the others. “How…do you find the top of the bell curve, then?”

“Now that,” she said in a satisfied tone, “is one of the core goals of my religion. It’s all about knowing the value of money, which means knowing the value of life, and of goods and services. I could go into detail about the Vernisite codes, but let’s be honest: your eyes would glaze over within a minute.”

“I suspect that is accurate,” Gabriel agreed, ignoring his fellow paladins who were both nodding solemnly.

“The central rule of thumb that I think would guide you best, though,” Nell continued, “is this: do not own more things than you can appreciate.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

“It means that everything you possess, you should pause every time you see it, and take a moment to really feel the satisfaction and gratitude that it is yours. Own nothing that you take for granted.”

“Um.” Toby blinked. “I…may not have the best perspective on that, I was specifically taught to appreciate people and not things. But… I mean, just with the average quantity of stuff a person needs to get through life, that sounds like it could get exhausting.”

“You’d be surprised!” she said cheerfully. “For one thing, it makes for a slower pace of life—which is for the good both materially and spiritually. Anybody is healthier and better off when they take time to enjoy existing. But basic needs, if you stop and appreciate them for what they are, don’t distract you too much from the business of living; doing so just makes you happier. It’s the luxury items that start to get you. Valuable things, precious things, expensive things. Things that cause you to truly stop, to truly feel a sense of joy and pride in possessing them, if you bother to. There’s a limit to how much of that you can do in a day and still get anything done. The Rule of Appreciation not only ensures that you are gaining true fulfillment from your material possessions, more importantly it forces you to really consider what’s most valuable to you, and dispense with what isn’t. It stops you from squandering resources on junk that doesn’t actually contribute to your well-being. And speaking of junk, it’s time for dessert!”

They had come all the way to the end of this tier of the city; ahead, the plateau dropped off into the next level, a descent of nearly a hundred feet. Before that, broad staircases carved into the face of the rock descended back and forth in a series of turns and landings. Nell stopped before the stairs, though, and bought them pastries from a nearby cart run by a smiling dwarf woman. These were like nothing they had sampled before: thin sticks of deep-fried dough, generously coated with sugar which itself had been infused with citrus juice. Sweet, tangy, and crunchy, the treats were a perfect after-touch for the falafel and went beautifully with their spiced tea. They also served to keep all three paladins quiet while their guide led them down the steps and resumed her lecture.

“No offense to your religion, Toby, but there’s nothing wrong with owning nice things. There’s nothing wrong with valuing nice things. Having an emotional attachment to possessions is perfectly normal, and not unhealthy in and of itself. There is, however, something seriously wrong on many levels with owning a whole lot of expensive things that you don’t actually feel much regard for. Not only are they wasting space and not really contributing much to your quality of life, but excessive possessiveness is an example of hoarding.” Again she turned to walk backwards, which was downright terrifying as she was walking down stairs at the time, to give them a grim look. “And hoarding is the ultimate evil to the person who understands and values money. You do not need more than you need. Going out of your way to own more than you need is an outright affront to everyone around you. Money should not be gathering dust in a vault, nor should any of the things it can buy. Money wants to be used, to be appreciated—money wants to work. The job of money is to be out there in the world, paying people for their labor, providing resources to everyone. Money is the lifeblood of economies, sustaining societies, nations, civilizations. And what, my young friends, is the nature of blood?”

“It must flow,” all three of them chorused obediently, Gabriel spraying crumbs in the process.

“IT MUST FLOW!” Verniselle bellowed, startling a woman passing up the stairs the other way. They had reached the next landing down, and she turned to walk forward again down the next flight of steps. By now, it was fully dark, the path well-lit by fairy lamps and not much less crowded than it had been earlier. A city the size of Ninkabi never truly slept.

“If money were allowed to flow the way it wants to, there would be no poor and no rich. Nobody hoarding more resources than they need, and nobody going without their necessities. In any society that’s not actually in the process of collapsing due to unavoidable resource scarcity resulting from natural disaster, there is enough for everyone. And not just for everyone to survive, but to live lives of quality and satisfaction. The existence of poverty invariably means that some asshole is hoarding.”

Apparently they weren’t going all the way to the bottom of the stairs; at the next landing down, Nell turned into a large opening into the wall of the plateau itself, leading them back the way they had come but about four stories down. This underground passage was obviously a street, as well, fronted by shops and businesses and lit by fairy lamps. It was tall and broad enough that it did not feel claustrophobic, though in most cities it would have counted as little more than an alley. There definitely wasn’t room for horses or carriages, but then there didn’t need to be, considering that no such could have made it down the stairs.

She fell silent, finishing off her cooling tea, while they pressed deeper into the plateau’s heart, and the doors they passed became fewer, the chambers behind them apparently stretching more widely. The lights, too, were more scarce past a certain depth, attached to the arched roof of the tunnel rather than lamp posts along its walls. The place wasn’t growing rougher or poorer, though; if anything it seemed to get increasingly trendy deeper in. Shop signs glowed with arcane charms, and the people passing by were mostly young and expensively dressed.

“So,” Gabriel broke the thoughtful silence after a few minutes, “how would you enforce that, exactly?”

Nell heaved a sigh, hard enough to make her shoulders visibly shift in front of them. “An economist might have an answer for that question, Gabriel. And sure, most economists would have my idols on their desks. But there’s a reason I run a cult and not a consortium. I’m talking about values and virtues, not practicalities. The fact is, you can’t enforce those. It’s the disappointing reality of every religion. There is just no way to make people be kind, or peaceful, or just, or whatever it is that your faith values, and efforts to make them, well… That medicine is worse than the disease. And so, all too often, money doesn’t flow. People hoard and people starve, because people suck.”

“There’s the dwarven system,” Toby offered. “Ruda was talking about that during our downtime in Puna Dara. Apparently they have high taxes and the Kingdom itself makes sure everybody has everything they need…”

“Nnnnyehhh…” Though she was not facing them, the grimace on Verniselle’s face was audible. “I am not a fan of redistribution by fiat. Think about it: that’s basically where an entity—the government—seizes people’s hard-earned property for the crime of having earned property and decides who deserves it more. More often than otherwise that leads to worse injustices than it’s meant to correct. I tend to share Eserion’s view of systems like that. But, taxes and governments are necessary evils, because the alternatives are worse. Nothing enables hoarding by a powerful few like anarchy. So, yes. Societies have crowned heads, which collect taxes and provide services. It’s gotta be that way because people just won’t damn well behave unless compelled to. That doesn’t make it any less annoying. It’s a reluctant adaptation to necessity, not the way things ought to be.”

“I’m suddenly glad that Ruda and Teal aren’t here,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “You boys have missed some of the heated discussions we’ve had about economics and social justice in Clarke Tower.”

“How do you have heated discussions about economics?” Gabriel asked skeptically. “Even porridge is more exciting than that, and it’s supposed to be heated.”

“I would imagine,” Toby mused, “that if the discussion included hereditary royalty from a culture that prizes individual freedom, and the daughter of industrialists, that conversation could get pretty dicey, pretty quick.”

Trissiny sighed. “It’s even better when it includes two confused fairies trying to understand how economies work. I swear, Shaeine is the only reason nobody got punched that first semester.”

“I do like the Punaji,” Nell said lightly. “They have the right idea about a lot of things. I also like the Falconers—they pay their employees very well. That’s another of my most important rules. Well, anyway, I could lecture on this subject for hours and hours, but we’d better table it for now, kids. We have arrived!”

She had turned a sharp corner while speaking, into a smaller and narrower tunnel; the three of them slowed to read the enchanted sign above it, which glowed a sullen orange in the dimness, and named the establishment Second Chances.

This side tunnel terminated in an alcove in which was the actual entrance to the club, and it was immediately clear why the door was situated at the end of a corridor and not out on the street. For one thing, there was already a line of people—only five deep, at this early hour, but if it was a popular club that could stretch to really impair traffic out in the main avenue.

For another, the doorkeepers were demons.

Trissiny stiffened slightly as soon as they came close enough to see; both boys gave her sidelong looks, but she only slowed for a half-step, then resumed following the goddess’s pace without comment.

They were two, a man and a woman, both garbed in black clothes of a stylish cut and androgynous style. Their skin was pale, not like the pale flesh of elves or Stalweiss, but very much like marble: a grayish color, shot through with irregular veins of black, and with a glossy sheen of polished stone. Both were bald, with horns of the same material as their skin rising from the peak of their forehead, the woman’s long and swept backward over her skull while the man’s were shorter and stood almost perfectly upright. Their eyes were empty sockets, opening onto a flickering space within, as if each had a hollow skull containing a live infernal flame.

Verniselle led the way past the end of the line, to the vivid annoyance of those standing in it, but they were interrupted before anyone could complain. As the group drew closer, infernal magic surged around them, causing all three paladins to freeze in place; Trissiny and Toby reflexively threw up golden shields. Embedded in the walls, runes burst alight, casting an orange glow across the corridor. Immediately, the five people waiting to get into Second Chances scurried away, pressing themselves against the wall farthest from the new arrivals.

“Ah, ah, ah!” said the male demon loudly, wagging his finger at them. In speaking, he confirmed the impression of his eyes; his mouth opened onto emptiness lit by inner fire. “You know the rules, Nell. No clerics!”

“Oh, come on, you know me better than that,” she said, putting on a charming smile and sauntering forward. “When have I ever shown a lack of respect for the bossman? These aren’t clerics.” She leaned close and lowered her voice. “They’re paladins.”

Both demons turned to stare at the three, their eyes narrowing to fiery slits.

“This is one of those things you were talking about last time,” the woman said after a pause. “Something that’s never going to be technically illegal because it’s so damn unlikely nobody would bother outlawing it.”

“Yeah, well, you know why we have that rule,” the male said, clearly unimpressed. “I’m gonna go ahead an say it applies extra hard to paladins. They’re not coming in.”

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” she said soothingly, “I’ll vouch for them. These kids need to have a word with Morty, and they’re not gonna cause any trouble.”

“No clerics, and nobody sees the boss without an invitation,” he said flatly. “You’re outta luck, Nell.”

“Ah, but there is a higher rule,” she said solemnly, “one which applies in all places, in all situations: Go ask the boss himself. I guarantee he’ll want to see us.”

The demon was shaking his head before she finished. “Not happening—”

“Yeah, I’ll go get him,” his counterpart said, turning toward the door.

“Come on, Celeste!” the man snapped.

“You come on,” she retorted. “There’s three paladins in the world, Drake. You think the boss wouldn’t want to be informed when they all show up at the door with one of his friends? I’ll go get him. You!” She leveled a finger at Nell, who looked deliberately innocent. “Just hold your horses. No funny business until I’m back with Mr. Agasti’s word. I know your tricks.”

“You know some of ’em,” Nell said with a wink. “Don’t worry, I have no reason to get clever, here. Morty’ll understand.”

Celeste shook her head, but opened the door a crack and slipped inside.

Drake folded his arms, glaring sullenly at them; the five would-be clubbers were staring with wide eyes. All around them, infernal runes blazed a warning.

“Okay, so,” Gabriel said into the ensuing quiet. “What the hell?”

“Second Chances is one of the more exclusive clubs in the city,” Nell explained, turning back to them. “Heck, in the world. So, in case this doesn’t go without saying, once we’re allowed in you will kindly refrain from any smiting and purging you may be considering.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Trissiny said curtly. “But for your information, the sheer concentration of infernal magic around here has me rather on edge. Anything which jumps out at me suddenly is asking for whatever it gets.”

“They won’t,” Nell said in a wry tone. “They want to live.”

“A little late for that, isn’t it?” Trissiny retorted.

“Oh, the hell with this,” said Drake with a heavy sigh. “You! All of you, go on in. Go on, get outta here.”

The goddess and the paladins watched in silence while he ushered the five onlookers into the club, doubtless sparing them from a rash of annoying questions.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Gabriel asked, “but what kind of demon are you?”

“An annoyed one,” Drake replied. “Why, what kind are you?”

“Half-hethelax.”

Orange flames winked momentarily out as he blinked his eyes in surprise. “…that was a rhetorical question. I didn’t expect it to have an answer.”

“Yep, I get that a lot.”

“They’re revenants,” Trissiny said quietly.

Toby gave her a quizzical look. “I’m not familiar with those. I thought I’d learned as much demonology as you. Apparently not, though…”

“Revenants,” she said, eyes on Drake, “aren’t proper demons; they’re demonic undead. Specifically, mortal warlocks’ feeble attempts to reproduce the work of Prince Vanislaas. They are colloquially called the poor man’s incubi.”

“Or poor woman’s,” Gabriel intoned. “Or succubi. I mean, I presume.”

“Shut up, Gabe,” she snapped. “Their powers are considerably diminished compared to a real Vanislaad, but the basic process is the same: it begins with a damned soul. Except, to get one of those without going into Hell, you have to damn your own. Revenants are made in broadly the same way as talking swords. For a warlock to have one under their control is an automatic death sentence in the Tiraan Empire. In most countries!”

“Less automatic than you may have been led to believe,” Nell said with a placid smile. “Morty is great at finding loopholes.”

“Is this guy a warlock?” Trissiny demanded.

“He is a very good warlock,” the goddess replied, her smile broadening. “What’s more, he is a lawyer. Between the two skill sets, Morty has never met a rule he didn’t want to twist to his advantage. You’ll like him.”

Trissiny began massaging her temples.

“Don’t rush to judgment,” Nell said more soberly. “I wouldn’t bring you here without reason, you can trust that.”

“I’m trying,” Trissiny muttered. “Rushing to judgment is a problem I have, I know this. I am really trying. But this? This is not making it easy!”

Drake snorted loudly and leaned against the wall by the door.

Before anyone could respond to that, fortunately, the door opened again and his companion returned.

“That was really fast,” Drake said warily.

“Yeah.” Celeste nodded to Nell. “Apparently, your arrival isn’t a total surprise.”

“Ah, Morty,” Nell said, chuckling and shaking her head. “Never misses a trick!”

“Yeah, well, you can go on in,” the revenant said, stepping out of the door and clearing the way for them. “Boss isn’t exactly ready for visitors at the moment, but he said he will be soon enough. Meantime, you’re welcome to his hospitality. Everything’s on the house for you this evening.”

Drake’s head snapped around to stare incredulously at this pronouncement, but Nell just grinned and rubbed her hands together. “All right! That’s my boy. Welcome to your evening in hell, kids. C’mon, let’s hurry and get a good table.”

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45 thoughts on “14 – 19

  1. You know what? I actually really like Verniselle. I recognize that there’s almost certainly some misdirection going on here, but if I take what she says at mostly face value, I feel like she’s actually got a really good grasp on that thin line between idealism and cynicism. She knows what the problem is with the world, as far as her personal morality goes, and yet recognizes that best compromises are going to be necessary in the pursuit of eliminating that problem. Out of all the gods, I like her the best so far. Probably because, unprompted, she firmly decried the worst behavior I’m aware of from her cult.

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Who do you think was responsible for getting the beans to Tirass in order to open up a new line of trade and production for a region that was having issues with their crops and exports?

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I remember when my econs class was discussing budget surpluses and deficits… No surprises that Ruda and Teal would argue here.

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  3. Hehehe your soapbox is showing again.

    But that is your absolute right as an author and in my opinion at least it does not in any way detract from the quality of the story. While I disagree quite strongly with some of the point of view expressed, I’m not going to stop reading or call for you to burnt at the stake because of it. The world both the real one and the one in your universe would be very bland if everyone believed the exact same things.

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    1. There definitely tends to be some parts where it gets a little thick, I roll my eyes, and skip ahead to where the actual story is. It’s not all that terrible, but it still does diminish my personal reading experience.

      Probably my biggest issue with this series that’s been a constant for a long time is conflating smug sarcasm with cleverness. Especially characters that we’re told are smart, people treat them in-universe like they’re smart, but most of what we *see* them do seems poorly thought out. There were some times back when characters like Darling were first introduced that I got close to dropping it, but I mostly just skim their parts by now. The rest of the story is still pretty fun.

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      1. Each to their own I suppose. I love the dogma of each of the religions in this story. Darling is always enjoyable to read, and I would never skip parts of a story I’m reading.

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      2. Yeah, not gonna lie, I was really glad when Darling didn’t immediate take the story over for more than part of a chapter just now…never managed to put it in concrete words what exactly is so annoying about his character, but he’s just…honestly possibly my least favorite character in the whole serial? (From a narrative and “do I enjoy reading chapters focused on them PoV, not a moral or personal character PoV)

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      3. I can’t say I’ve ever really wanted to skim while reading TGaB, I actually like how philosophical ideas are worked into the narrative. I don’t always agree with how things are laid out, but I think provoking discussion is never a bad thing.

        I echo your sentiment about smug cleverness though. Darling taking more of a supporting role has really improved my enjoyment of the story. Mogal as well to a certain extent, but he shows up less by default so it isn’t as much of a problem. The minor humiliation he suffered under Ekoi didn’t hurt either, showing he wasn’t so all knowing was kind of cathartic.

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    2. To be honest, the soapboxes are some of my favorite parts of this story, especially in regards to the different dogmas of the Pantheon. Specifically, I enjoy them because so many of the soapboxes are mutually incompatible with each other, at least on the base level, but when taken by themselves, they construct a generally coherent world-view. It really is one of the most brilliant demonstrations of the principle of “everyone is a hero within their own story” that I’ve seen in literature.

      I can agree that the ‘smug-as-clever’ character can be rather grating, but one thing that I enjoy along with that is that many of those ‘smug-as-clever’ characters have had several follow-up moments where it is shown that they aren’t nearly as clever as they might think they are.

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      1. Thank you for this comment. Darling even got reprimanded and admitted to a mistake just in this chapter!

        To be fair, I too was quite cross with him for taking the sledgehammer to our young protagonists like he did! Theare thinking way beyond the situation now, they have matured however they are not yet at a level where they also consider all of the”global” implications of everything. It is kinda weird that there are no board of advisors following each of them and constantly helping grow their decision-making abilities and prevent them from causing catastrophes they didn’t want to cause. Or maybe their Gods who would have an interest in providing this service do not consider the fallout of the latest adventures a catastrophe? I confused the fuck out of mylself and shall leave now…

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      2. Agreed! They’re less soapboxes for the author and soapboxes for the characters, considering how many ways Tellwyrn’s filibusters clash wildly with those of every god, for example. And the Book 14 ones have been really interesting because they’re all exposition on the gods and their cults and doctrines, which are among the best parts of the worldbuilding in my opinion.

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      1. If I was going to start criticizing Verniselle’s stated philosophy, the first thing is its alarming, apparent disdain for public institutions. It has no firm provision for records, roads, museums, public education, public health, legal systems, and other kinds of common services and infrastructure beyond saying, “Governments are a necessary evil.” That’s a glaring oversight considering that money is a creation of governments to begin with, and how “flow” depends on those kinds of things to exist and continue. Further, many kinds of goods and services are most efficiently provided by monopolies, and others get manipulated into being run as monopolies, which is an important topic for any set of rules about wealth. In the real world monopolies tend to either end up held in common ownership/control of some kind, or instead become wealth-engine, private taxation schemes used to enrich the monopolists. Either way it works, monopolies tend to be problematic to a greater or lesser degree, and any economic doctrine which does not treat with the questions of both preventing and managing monopolies is severely lacking.

        The personal wealth and possession balancing idea which is the heart of the lecture has a lot to recommend it, but some issues as well. The idea that outside of particular, strongly positive-sum situations, greedy people cause others to be poor people by pursuing wealth… this idea is hardly new, or terribly controversial: Consider some two thousand year old dogma condemning the wealthy from a famous KJV quote in Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” That said, the possession minimalism guide can go a little too far when you consider how much space, tools and materials that artisans, technicians, and other professionals need to do their jobs. Also, the doctrine of personal appreciation seems to firmly miss the point of reserve stores of surplus goods, and how they can save lives during disasters, resource or service failures, and other failures of “flow” to provide what is needed to people. Reserves and emergency supplies are intended to be specifically appreciated in unusual circumstances, and not so much usual circumstances, but they can be useful and even vital for many people in many places.

        Overall, it strikes me that this philosophy so far seems every bit as prone to material boom and bust as laissez-faire capitalism, which is not a recommendation. It also has said nothing about the value of other people yet, or how to interact with them. Nothing was said yet about intangibles and semi-intangibles either, like knowledge, culture, truth, justice, and reputation.

        Some or all of these observations and criticisms may be obviated by the missing parts of the instruction/philosophy, but I don’t know which it addresses, and how well it does so.

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  4. I like Nell. She seems fun. Just shouting her cult’s saying to the night sky, buying treats for the teenagers, enthusiastically explaining economics to them. I bet she gets along with Eserion really well, because she really embodies his concept of not letting power go to your head.

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  5. Eserion, Elilial, Verniselle. This is the order of my top three favorite gods in the Bastard-verse, from 1 to 3 respectively.
    It was Eserion, Elilial, Napthene for the longest time, but Nell’s personality and intellect have won me over.

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  6. I honestly have no clue where to place Verniselle on a political compass. Moderate left with a slight libertarian tilt? I don’t particularly agree that so long as money is flowing everything will turn out well for poor folk. Even aside from market failures; economists know that higher income inequality tends to cause a lower velocity of money, but it’s not really clear if the causality runs the other way.

    On the other hand it is pretty clear her cult heavily discourages rent-seeking behavior (that is the accumulation of capital without the production of value or wealth), which almost certainty will help the economy broadly and poorer folk specifically, as it is generally their surplus that is captured by rent-seeking rich people. I’m kinda curious where capital gains and investment fall under her creed of “it must flow”, I suppose her cult runs banks so it’s clear they’re not totally opposed to the idea.

    A little pedantry, the “bell curve” concept you’re referring to is the utility curve of money which we generally think of as asymptotic due to diminishing marginal utility per unit of currency. Granted there are some people who think marginal utility actually gets negative at the extreme end instead of just reaching zero (creating something that looks kinda like a bell curve), and there’s all sorts of reasons that could be more true in the world of TGAB than in real life (Eserites causing a headache for rich people as one example). Actual bell curves are more probability distributions than functions that describe some sort of correlation/causation, unlike what Verniselle is describing here.

    Anyways, none of this is really a big deal. I just really liked this chapter and wanted to nerd out a bit.

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    1. To be fair, she’s describing the process to someone who couldn’t afford fancy education for most of his life and two people who were raised to avoid unnecessary expenditures. Odds are, none of them have the requisite background to understand the TRUE answer, so she simplified it for them.

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      1. Of course. Like I said it’s not really a big deal. The explanation fits from a Watsonian perspective (as you say) and also from a Doylist perspective, it’s probably not fun reading for most folk if Webb starts making the serial sound like an economics textbook.

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    2. I agree with your comment a lot, I too was confused about this use of a bell curve, it fits the description Verniselle but this claim .. Is just wrong. I have heard about studies pretty much proving that money correlates to “happiness” up to a point and then further money simply has no relevant statistical impact on it. I find myself wondering whether those studies looked at monthly income from work and/or monthly capital gains and/or capital itself. Anyway I think that’s pretty much agreed upon? Am I wrong?

      On a related note the gods are bastards, so they are not omniscient. She doesn’t have to be right about things. For a society anyone “hoarding” more than they can appreciate is indeed damaging the total sum of “happiness“ imo. Should just gift that stuff to people who are struggling and/or “deserving”.. Buuut I’m just opening my own soapbox atm xD this stuff is just so very interesting. 😀

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      1. I’m wondering if the money/happiness curve being actually a bell curve here is significant because of something like how languages on Tiraas’s planet develop circularly, which is very obviously untrue in real life—if it’s an effect that’s caused by transcension fields somehow, whether by deliberate intervention of the gods or by some mysterious mechanism like the way Shaath’s desmesne causes frontier stuff being popular to negatively affect the popularity of feminism. An alternative Watsonian explanation, maybe.

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    3. Maybe I can shed some light on that then. Anybody who has watched a hoarder in action knows that possessions/wealth carry duty, a burden of maintenance and even for mere possession in the form of what it costs to have space to keep it all in conditions that won’t degrade their stuff. The number of hours in a day to get use out of stuff is fixed, which means there is an upper bound, maximum amount of stuff a person can, themself, benefit from, but those burdens keep increasing as someone gets more wealth/stuff.

      Many societies and cultures in the real world overly privilege wealthy people hoarding by failing to adequately redistribute or dispose of inactive and poorly or extortionately managed/utilized assets. That said, even in such places having more brings stress and threats associated with it. This comes from risks of mismanagement, misuse and damage of the stuff, insurance, taxes, accountants, lawyers, security, servants, and people trying to beg, seize, manipulate them for, use their stuff, intentionally damage their stuff, or even just express bitterness and spite directly towards them in ways that are personally harmful to the possessors in question. Some of that “personally harmful to the possessors in question” category includes arguments over succession/wills, undesirable political intrigue, and other intrigue up to the point of assault, kidnapping, torture and murder that can destroy friendships, families and whole communities.

      In short, the marginal utility of wealth declines as one has more, *and also* the problems of wealth increase as one has more. This causes a decline in personal wellness and happiness past a certain point of wealth, as one suffers a greater dependence upon and risk from other people because of the wealth. Granted, different people and different external conditions may lead to wildly different individual optimum points, but I really don’t think, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” is a hard idea to grasp. Is it?

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  7. I’m actually only voting for things I support and are interesting.
    And really, wouldn’t divine economics just use prayer as currency? And if money functioned as prayer does; it’s an interesting thought experiment too long to analyze here…

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  8. I suspect the loophole Mortimer used is that the revenants agreed to the process beforehand – deciding they’d rather be quasi-undead employees in a nightclub than go to Hell.

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  9. I really love The Gods that show up in this series, especially the ones that are filled with pizazz like Verniselle here. I have to wonder whether they’re all maintaining a supernatural high for millenia from having worshipers focus on them so often, or perhaps if they only crank up the enthusiasm when they get to banter with wandering paladins.

    So many priests/thieves are happy and well-intentioned in a manner that seems to work, it makes me look at other fantasy media a little differently.

    The fact that bankers send gifts to the Thieves Guild every time they get robbed makes me chuckle a little.

    Most of The Gods seem to have a downside, a bastard nature, if you will excuse the saying. Nell’s been stunningly positive so far and I think we’re all waiting for the sinistral shoe to drop, as it were.

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  10. Verniselle just became my favorite god in the pantheon in a heartbeat. I love her she’s fantastic. I trust her with humanity’s interests much more than I do most of the other gods.

    The tidbit about Vernesellites giving gifts to the Eserites after a robbery is also especially brilliant.

    Lastly, on a personal level I don’t completely agree with everything she said, but on an issue where opinions about how things ought to be are very heavily rooted in morality, I have absolutely no reason to hold her views against her. I can very easily see myself listening eagerly to her explain her reasoning on this stuff, and even if it turns out I had some fundamental disagreement, I can’t possibly see the difference being something I’d get upset over.

    I’d especially love to hear her opinions on labor unions, investment returns, and capital gains. Unions in particular. I think her stance on enforced unified negotiations via unions and union dues would reveal a lot of the particulars of her religion.

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    1. There are vernisite banks, so I don’t think she has a huge problem with investment returns and capital gains. She seems to value practicality, equity/utilitarianism, and the flow of money, all of which can be done through finance. Although I guess the Vernisite banks could be more like a credit union than a bank, in that they aren’t run for profit. She’s almost certainly against excessive usury and/or risky financial plots that endanger the economic system as a whole.

      Fuck, now I really want to learn more about the role Verniselle/the Vernisite cult plays in the economy. I could see them as playing a pseudo regulatory role, or doing tons of social impact investing.

      As for unions? I don’t know she seems quite practical, or at least not an ideologue in anyway that would map super well to real world ideologies. I can’t imagine she’d be completely opposed to unions, but I can not remember any mentions of unions whatsoever.

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  11. Seemed odd that after describing it as the “best falafel stand”, she bought them something else entirely. “Flatbread with meat and cheese” doesn’t sound like falafel. Maybe Gabriel is allergic to chickpeas? 🙂

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    1. yeah, she got them gyros from the sounds of it. kinda like getting burgers from a “hot dog stand” , it happens.

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  12. Knowing that the IO were big nerds, i’m guessing that at least a few of them were well familiar with White Wolf, because the Gods are very much set up a touch like the Clans. Nice separate symbols, beliefs, and of course, CATCH PHRASES!

    Really looking forward to the bumperstickers and tshirts, Webb.

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  13. I rather like Verniselle’s character here, but am rather suspicious that she is bring a bit duplitious. Mostly I have trouble squaring her stated aversion to debaaing currency through conjuration with the existance of her boxes (those duplicating boxes of which we saw one being used by Tellwyrn to create her favorite candy). Unless maybe those are a test of character? Like, if you use them to create something you dont mean to cherish, it is an automatic smiting?

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  14. One potential flaw in Verniselle’s principles here is if somebody goes out of their way to acquire massive wealth, to the point of causing major economic damage, so they can construct some kind of horrendously expensive personal project, which they ARE able to appreciate regularly. It seems like her philosophy would see no problem with this.

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    1. I’m pretty sure any god that involved with the mortal world is capable of recognizing common sense outliers to their philosophy, and also wouldn’t see a reason to expound on those particular bits of common sense when they’re giving the My Religion 101 speech.

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    2. You talk about wealth, but Verniselle talked about money.

      I think those things are very different. Hoarding money is basicly useless, while owning other kinds of wealth is very different (businesses, loans, used real estate, etc.). Money is static, most wealth isn’t.

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  15. I like most of Nell’s approach to money. One of the most important lessons my parents taught me about money is roughly, “The goal isn’t to have more money/income. The goal is to have a higher quality of life.”

    Nell does have the same problem with most the gods in that fundamental aspects of their beliefs are merely opinions they held as mortals which have become “true” due to their involuntary diefication. Nell wasn’t an economist, she was a revolutionary with strong opinions about money. Now she that she is the god of economists her strong opinions have become fact. All of the gods are slowly being driven insane by their own powers and the beliefs of their followers. The only things that mitigates this is their paladins and each other. Working together the pantheon creates a successful world. Any society that was run solely by the faith of a single cultwould go down in flames or becomes regimented to the point of absurdity.

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  16. Two important things I learned in church: Money must flow! & You can’t save the world if you’re broke.

    I did not anticipate Verniselle to be such a great character. Frankly I expected I’d hate her, be she’s probably my favourite now.

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  17. The spice must flow!!!

    I was worried I wouldn’t like Verniselle up until now because she’s goddess of (ugh) money and I was suspicious that she would be the one (ugh) hoarding it all. I’m glad to see that she is not even boring, as one would expect from a goddess associated with accountants & such.

    I think this is my first comment on this story, so may I also add that this is the fucking best thing. Gods that actually interact with people are so often portrayed in a way that I don’t like because perfectly wonderful gods just CAN’T be done well – not often. In contrast, these are some Just People But I’ll Do You One Better gods and I love them all. Not just the gods, though; it’s great writing.

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