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The Soul Tax

     be not afraid.
    drink down the wine prepared for you.
With animal heat,
     spread your white seed among our women’s thighs.
These and other honors,
     we give to you,
Like the fruit given at our Ancestral shrines.
through your heart’s blood flowering,
     you will become a god.

--- Traditional hymn sung to Denayi sacrifices on their final night.

The chamber of my heart is darkening;
The lamp set therein gutters.
The soldiers have taken my only son,
For war or sacrifice, I do not know.
I cannot bear another.

--- "Mother’s Lament", traditional, northern continent, Rethi’s World

At irregular intervals, the Circle will levy a tax in human beings on one of its subject worlds. This tax is known as the Soul Tax, for many of those so taken are destined for sacrifice at the Pylon. Not every person Taxed ends up being sacrificed. A significant portion of each Tax enters the army, the Uukaptai, or the bureaucracy. Many high-ranking Denayi officers and governors began their careers in the Tax.

A request for a Tax begins with the Circle, either to fulfil the requirements of one or another branch of the government, or to refill Pylon, or to punish a wayward province. In ages past, the Circle would strip whole continents, even Worlds of their population. It might still do so today, in the event of a major war, but in times of peace, the Precepts of Ruthlessness dictate that the taxes be small, regular, and minimally destructive of provincial society. In general, the Circle aims for one Tax on each World, about every ten years.

The Circle prefers fit adolescent and young adult males, as they are hardy enough to survive the march to Denayi, are of soldiering age, and do not yet occupy an important place in the target society. Women and girls are less welcome; it is easier for the population to replenish itself in time of the next tax, if women are excluded. Nevertheless, it will accept women and girls of childbearing age, provided the World in question has sufficient population, and their sex does not prevent them from serving in the military or bureaucracy. The Circle will also accept a percentage of the old, the weak, or the poor and unproductive in a Tax; if they survive the march, they will undoubtedly be sacrificed, freeing up other candidates for more useful roles.

The Circle initiates a Soul Tax by giving the target World’s governor a quota and some idea of what proportion of the tax should be fit enough for military service. The Governor and his local administration then have wide latitude on how to raise the quota. Typically, the Tax falls heaviest on areas nearest the Word’s network of Gates, and on areas connected to them by road or sea. Urban areas, such as cities and towns, and their suburban farms give the bulk of a typical Tax. Rural areas, particularly those on continents unconnected by Gate, experience the least disruption.

Those running the tax typically draw first on the poor, the unprivileged, the landless and the young. Sometimes the local government will attempt to eradicate a minority or other powerless group by focusing the Tax on them. Circle policy discourages the destruction of any one people, but its wishes are not always enforced.

Nobility are officially exempt from the Tax in most instances. The wealthy and the privileged can usually avoid the Tax falling on their families through a fines, bribes and favors. Sometimes, those who cannot shield their sons from the Tax can still bribe the collectors to send them into the military or the Uukaptai. Inspectors, both local and Republican, attend the collection, and often screen promising candidates into cadres bound for one or another government service.

Once the local government has assembled its quota, the Uukaptai or the Republican Army oversee its transportation to Denayi City. The assembled Tax travels on foot. The travel is not intentionally brutal, but the march of so many people in such marginal conditions inevitably takes the toll. Often, marginal candidates die or must be abandoned along the way. Some medical treatment and transport exists, but only for those who seem promising for more than sacrifice.

Once the Tax arrives in Denayi, inspectors and representatives from the various branches of government sort the Tax into their fates. Depending on the purpose for which the Tax was levied, the fate of an "average" candidate can vary greatly. Sometimes, the need for souls is so pressing that all but the most promising are immediately fed to the Pylon. At others, the principal need was for soldiers, and all but the most unfit or unwell enter military service. In a typical peace-time Tax, about a half or two thirds of the candidates enter some form of service, and about a third are sacrificed.

Each department selects its own candidates, and any cadres assembled before departure are inspected again, in an attempt to remove the unsuitable who entered through bribery or influence. The Uukaptai look for strong, healthy and intelligent candidates in their early teens. They prefer to train candidates for several years; thus they are unlikely to accept any but the most exceptionally talented older youths. The regular army trains its troopers less; it prefers full grown and hardy young men who are already fit for combat. The bureaucracy, of course, looks for the clever or gifted; it conducts linguistic tests, and often prescreens its candidates at the local level, or encourages volunteers from educated families who would otherwise be unwilling to surrender their children with promises of money or safety for their children. They also look for exceptionally attractive young men and women to train as concubines and spies. Bribery and influence play a minimal part at this final stage, as the candidates themselves have little to offer save their bodies and souls, which are already claimed. Exceptions do occur; a relative might journey to the capitol with a bribe, or the candidate might sleep their way out of the sacrifice.

Those who do not make the cut for whatever reason are marked for sacrifice. The Circle encourages worship of ancestors and veneration of the Pylon, and the actual sacrifice is a religious ritual as well as a form of slaughter. The Circle’s priests perform ceremonies that honor the victims and celebrate their contribution to the state. Denayi religion holds that the sacrifices join the deified ancestors in watching over the living; thus, sacrifice is also an apotheosis, and the sacrifices receive the honor due future gods. The night before the sacrifice takes place, the victims partake of feasting, wine, and narcotics, and have sexual access to women of child-bearing age. Any children of such a union are supported by the state, and honored as "children of the ancestors." Sometimes the "night" of feasting and sex can last several days, if there are many victims to sacrifice. These practices have their practical side –after all they make the victims more docile and help replenish the population – but many Denayi nevertheless believe in them, Initiates and Uukaptai as much as peasants or priests.

The actual sacrifice takes place in a cavern beneath the Circle’s palace-complex. A Circle member or a specially-trained priest must ritually inscribe a symbol on the victim’s flesh, then anoint the Pylon with the blood, a process which irrevocably binds their soul to the Pylon. The victim is then killed before they manifest the powers of an Initiate. Usually, this happens without incident, but sometimes a sacrifice goes uncontrollably berserk with magical energy. The actual process of sacrifice can last hours or days, depending on the number of victims, and the queue of sacrifices often stretches for a mile or more along the river-side.

As the sacrifice continues, and often long after it is complete, the priests remove the victim’s remains for cremation on pyres. The Pylon’s chamber contains a large pit for temporary storage of corpses, and functionaries remove the bodies as they fill it. Blood from the pit drains out into the river Flavus, which runs red during a sacrifice. This red water, and the smoke from the pyres are both considered by the city’s inhabitants to partake of the ancestor’s powers. The former is often bottled as a relic, and the latter perfumed to make it more acceptable.