[Worldbuilding] The Country That Isn't

Or: a post in which CR infodumps worldbuilding at himself. I've gussied it up with context for the context, in hopes other people might understand, but you have been warned. Setting up my own Writefreely instance has given me an unfortunate amount of power.

This time, I'm using that power to ramble about...

Borali! A country that isn't technically a country; a guild that isn't technically a guild; a cult that is... absolutely a cult. It's the setting for my WIP novel Out With The Bathwater, and it's a weird, weird place—even by the standards of its own world.

Part of that weirdness is simple enough: Borali fills a unique geographical niche. It lies at the heart of a Pangaea-eqsue continent scarred by stretches of dangerous, impassible terrain. I won't expand on those right now; suffice to say they funnel international travelers along winding, circuituous routes. Passing from one country to the next would be a short trip... if only you could surmount a sheer cliff that grows taller as you scale it, or cross a volcanic gulf that hasn't cooled one degree in its centuries of existence. But you can't. You must take the long way. You must pass through Borali—one of the only places to avoid such ruin.

This freedom of movement is important for context. Now, let's rewind a little.

Two hundred years before OwtB, gods roamed the physical world. It was terrible. They created all that deadly terrain and committed countless other atrocities. During this era, the mountainous highlands and tropical lowlands that would become Borali avoided being torn apart—but did not avoid a divine plague. It devastated their population. The desperate, disparate peoples of that region came together to drive the gods out.

This process cemented two core fragments of the nascent “nation's” identity: anyone properly Borali is both antitheist and deeply germophobic, as points of pride. It also established the region as a hotbed for change, progress, and hope.

So: the gods removed themselves from the world. Mortal cultures knew this absence was tenuous. Subject to revision. The gods were gone, not dead.

Mortals also knew they could not tolerate another fifty years of divine ruin. They could not risk drawing the gods back to earth. And of all the things that evoke the gods' displeasure, conflict tops the list; why else would they have destroyed the lands caught between warring nations?

Mortals, therefore, found themselves grasping for safety. For a neutral territory to work things out among themselves. For a collaborative, international effort to sustain peace, to ward off the gods, and to re-establish normalcy across a shattered land. For a group, perhaps, dedicated to that safety.

That group came together less than a year after the gods left. Drawing members from across the globe, it branded itself the Servantry: a hardworking organization devoted to the service of mankind (and also fishpeople-kind, but that is beyond the scope of this post). Servants commit to giving selflessly, to ensuring the privacy and safety of all travelers, to thwarting espionage, and to maintaining peace.

Where better to house such an effort than centrally-located, god-loathing Borali?

Though the chosen land was not yet called Borali. In fact, it was not yet a single entity; it spanned several smaller territories. The Servantry and its contributing nations drew new borders to encompass the crucial region most at risk of being warred over. The resulting territory was dubbed Borali after a specific upland people.

Borali is explicitly neutral. Its residents are explicitly stateless. On paper, it is defined by an absence of politic; on paper, it is not a nation. It is a crop of mountains and equatorial forest where people happen to be born sometimes, and where thousands of “stateless” people live. On paper, it exists purely to serve the interests of all other nations.

In reality, it functions as a nation governed by an ever-more-tyrannical Servantry.

Over the centuries, the Servantry's self-aggrandizing martyrdom has begun to ring hollow. They are now the de facto governing body of this small but populous “neutral territory”.

Borali residents may be technically stateless, but in every meaningful way they're citizens of a guild-state. Anyone born in Borali becomes a potential recruit to the Servantry. Those who flourish there become socially, financially, and politically powerful, no matter what modest title they have been given; those who fail at “Servant” life are consigned to second-class citizenship.

Yet: the Servantry does remain obliged to its stated goal. It remains obliged to other nations. Yearly trade summits are held in its capital city; Servantry are beholden to keep international guests safe, ensure their privacy, and, well, to serve them. At these times, even high-ranking members submit to busywork and drudgery (which serves both to make them look humble to outsiders and to reinforce their own bloated notions of martyrdom).

Servantry are trained in almost every job under the sun. They are highly encouraged to seek out additional training beyond the mandatory core. “To discourage espionage,” visiting envoys are not permitted their own servants in public spaces. Everyone from footmen to barkeeps to laundresses, from jewellry appraisers to scribes to mediators, must be Servantry-provided.

The Servantry has, somewhat successfully, cast this as a luxurious experience. Visitors arrive in Borali and get pampered! They have everything taken care of before they even know they need it! Look, we'll even give your handmaid a break.

Despite the occasional crunch, high-ranking Servants wield immense domestic and international power. They have experience with and direct lines to the leaders of almost every other nation. The head of the Servantry (currently one Secretary Hillaith) is perhaps the most influential person alive.

Low-ranking Servants, on the other hand, live ascetic lives. Borali considers only two crimes worthy of the death penalty: espionage and god-summoning. The rules designed to prevent those crimes are prolific and oppressive; they were enumerated at Borali's founding, when the threat of the gods was omnipresent and things like espionage were of potentially cosmic consequence. Unlike their more well-off peers, low ranked Servants are permitted no flexibility with these archaic laws. Their training ground literally contains a guillotine to impress the consequence for disobedience (though, teenagers being as they are, “that's it, get to the 'tine!” has become a common joke).

The Servantry has even instituted a type of committed platonic relationship designed to foster compliance. When a youth exits training and is accepted as a Servant, they are matched with a culpar—short for “culpability partner”. A culpar is carefully chosen to be someone their partner will bond with and care about... because collective punishment is supposed to hurt.

Despite this unsettling origin, most people truly love their culpars. Culpardom is considered equal to, and sometimes more important than, marriage. (Marrying your culpar is not off the table, but is considered weird.) The number of crimes deemed serious enough to warrant punishing the perpetrator's culpar has been dialed down over the years; the practice has largely evolved into nothing more than a source of love and companionship, sourced within the insular society of the Servantry.

Largely evolved.

(I will probably write a full post some day about culpars and the state of love in Borali. It's a whole thing.)

Let me bring this post around to the real reason I have been prompted to write it. I've been half-following a series of ask prompts called WritingWonders over on Mastodon. The questions focus on the writing process and on WIPs; they often ask about main characters. Given how much my characters are shaped by their environment, that has made the prompts hard to answer without first giving some backstory on the Servantry.

Which I have now, um. Done.

And so. In the spirit of WritingWonders. Here is the relationship each POV character in my WIP has to the Servantry:

Sinorel and Valyn are both high-ranking members. They are also each others' culpars. Sinorel is the lead interpreter for a large language group; Valyn is a laundress, but has nonetheless attained high rank due to her relationship with Sinorel. Sinorel is rabidly patriotic and wants to become Secretary one day. Valyn appreciates the comforts of her position, but does not hold the same patriotic views.

Ifon is not a Servant or even a Borali resident. He lives just across the Cazh border. Hey, hold on, guy. Should you even be here? Pretty suspicious, if you ask me. Wait a minute, you don't even like the Servantry? My guy, I think you're in the wrong place.