Everybody has their own starting point when it comes to worldbuilding. Ordinarily, mine is politics: I like to figure out what my nations are in broad strokes, figure out what types of government they have, what longstanding rivalries or alliances I’m working with, where cultures clash. I normally find that setting it up this way gives me the cleanest sense of the playing field, lets the back corner of my mind start constructing a plot within the confines of the world so that by the time I’m ready to pin down the finer details of Who and What and How, they’re running around a real world instead of some fluffy abstract dreamscape.
This time, to my surprise, I’ve found myself jumping straight into my second-favourite thing to make: religion.
Religion is incredibly important. It offers explanations about the mysterious pieces of how the world works, and it provides explanations for why it matters. Faith – in deities, in the laws of the physical universe, in reason, in the self – can be a powerful sources of strength. Understand what a people believes in, both as individuals and as a culture, and you can start to understand what they’ll be willing to fight and die for.
Which is important, since my basic starting premise is going to require a fair bit of dying.
If I want to have a society where Assassin is a job title you can proudly proclaim at a dinner party, then it has to be legal for them to kill whoever they happen to be paid to kill. Only allowing them to kill criminals or something would be one way to get around the whole issue altogether, but the feels like cheating to me. If an assassin can’t be hired to kill the king, he’s not really an assassin.
On the other hand, a world where it’s okay to try and kill the king has some problems. Since I don’t want to write a dystopia, it can’t just be legal for anyone to kill anyone. There still needs to be a concept of murder, or else it will be impossible to have anything even resembling order.
I’m sure there are a couple of different ways to approach this, how to distinguish between a legal assassination (of just about anyone, hired by anyone) and murder. All things considered, I’m pretty pleased with the one that I stumbled onto while walking back from lunch.
In the world I’m now shaping, killing isn’t the point here. An assassin isn’t just ending a life for money, that would be barbaric. Instead, assassins are highly-trained experts in not one field, but two. They’re skilled athletes, killing machines, but they’re also learned theologians dedicated to the service of the God of the Hunt. The Hunt is sacred, the domain of trained priests who know exactly what makes a good hunt and knows how to treat prey with the right amount of cunning and respect. Any other killing is not only inconvenient for the people on the receiving end, bit’s also blasphemy.
With that little distinction, I think I can build a functioning society. The citizens of wherever-we-are worship the god of the Hunt, and as a society have an understanding that to be killed as prey by a skilled hunter is a noble death. Murder would still be a problem, but we have reason to make murder a crime, while assassination is … up their with taxes and in-laws?
That on its own isn’t quite good enough, but it’s a start. Dying in service to your god is already better than just getting your throat slit in some back alley. Adding in a solid belief in an afterlife helps a bit, too. If you’re killed in the Hunt you don’t just die, you get to live eternally in Arahal’s Forest. Or something. That would be a major inconvenience to anyone who had actually planned to do something with the rest of their lives, but the knowledge that you’re going to be better place also helps take the sting out of it. If assassins are specifically trained to make death as quick and painless as possible, there are worse things than to be killed by one and sent on to paradise.
And perhaps a third contributing factor; I’ve always enjoyed the Greek pantheon, playing around with the idea of a wealth of deities with different personalities, strengths, domains. One of the things I liked best writing around the Greek gods was that it isn’t all clear lines; there are multiple gods of wilderness, of love, of communication, combat, sex. There are also multiple routes a soul can take after death.
So maybe Arahal’s perfect afterlife is reserved exclusively for hunters and the hunted – real hunters, mind, not murdering blasphemers. Or the hunters, the hunted, and those who live a perfect life of courage, cleverness, and compassion. If you’re a sinner, perhaps Arahal sends you back to live your next life as an animal so that you can cleanse yourself of whatever moral and personal failings were troubling you the last time round.
And if you die some unremarkable death, from disease or accident or old age? Perhaps instead of going either up or down you go sideways, to one of the Mirror Realms, where the goddess of magic and mirrors can use you for her own purposes for the duration of your next life.
There would be contention there, of course. Devout followers of the goddess would argue that her realms are awesome places, and some would consider them to be worse than Hell (reserved for people who sin so badly Arahal doesn’t think even a life as a beast can cleanse their souls?). And people from other city-states who don’t worship Arahal above all other gods would have their own ideas about life and death, and might not believe that his forest was the only worthy afterlife you can aspire to.
He might well have a rival deity, a goddess of peace, maybe, whose followers believe that if you live your life without violence you go to the Hall of Doves. Since most people who are about to be assassinated try to fight back, assassinating someone not only kills them, it deprives them of a chance to enter the Hall.
I’ll have to turn the implications over in my head for another couple of weeks, but hopefully by the end of October I’ll have something I can sink my teeth into!
And maybe now I’ll be able to start work on the politics!