Sigilism pt1: Overview

For my coming novella I wanted to try my hand at a story quite different from the Honor’s Path series. This comes with a shift to a setting that is inspired by a combination of Feudal France and the Byzantine Empire. It also means that I’ve decided to try my hand at writing a story with magic. Not going for high fantasy here, so don’t expect mages slinging absurdly powerful spells.


Sigilism is the art of inscribing runes. Done properly the runes act as a focus for magic abilities. Medallions with these runes upon them are called “Sigils”, both because they resemble the stamps nobility use in official correspondence and because they are believed to “seal” the magic within the medallion itself. These Sigils can be of any size, however because there is no need to make them particularly large they are typically small enough to wear—an important consideration since it allows the user to keep it on hand.

Currently the only way to gain a Sigil is to petition for one from the Imperial Library, which has been given this duty by the Emperor himself. This petition requires a sizable monetary donation to even be considered, and takes into account the petitioner’s family ties and standing in the empire. This effectively restricts the ownership of Sigils to noble families and a few especially wealthy merchants who have a proven record of supporting the Emperor. Occasionally they have also been granted as an award to those who have done the empire a great service, although this is especially rare as it requires a direct intervention by the emperor.

This obviously means that the majority of sigils are in the hands of wealthier noble houses. Nobility that have seen their fortunes in decline, common citizens, and the growing merchant class are almost entirely excluded. In addition to this, even those who are wealthy enough to repeatedly make petitions for new sigils will see most of their requests denied. While there are actions that can be taken to increase the likelihood that a petition will be granted (such as returning an older sigil as part of a request for a replacement) the system is largely designed to ensure that the magic remains rare, keeping access to it under Imperial control.


Protecting the Secret of Sigilism

Following an attempt by dissident elements to create their own sigils (which led to a bloody war and triggered several disasters), the Imperial Library founded the Inquisition to prevent such heresies in the future. Their charter grants them authority access to everywhere in the empire except the imperial residences, and to imprison anyone except for the Emperor’s immediate family in the pursuit of those who would attempt a repeat of the tragedy.

Those who join the Inquisition are all senior members of the Imperial Library who have been specifically screened for their loyalty—only the most zealous of the empire’s supporters are permitted. Because their powers to investigate are effectively unlimited, and they are imbued with the right to mete out summary justice as they see fit, this is a powerful posting which has the ability to topple even powerful noble families. Most do their best to avoid the Inquisition’s notice, however ambitious individuals are often willing to help an Inquisitor in the hopes of being rewarded. This is especially dangerous, however, as most Inquisitors expect to be assisted as a matter of course for the good of the empire. To do otherwise carries the taint of heresy.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the power the Inquisition wields it is a remarkably small organization within the Imperial Library. No more than nine members exist at any given time. That said, they have the authority to command any troops within the empire, so in the event that they do require additional manpower it is almost always readily available.


The Foundational Principles

While the Inquisition has thus far been remarkably successful in its goal of preventing the spread of information about how Sigilism works, some amount necessarily needed to be allowed simply because the Empire does allow those it deems worth to posses a sigil. Thus the focus has been on preventing the knowledge of how the Imperial Library makes a sigil from spreading. Despite this, the more foundational principles behind the magic are not considered state secrets, and thus it is permissible for those outside the library to learn them (although anyone without a sigil who does so is sure to raise a few eyebrows).

These principles are said to be the foundation on which Sigilism is built, acting as a guide for what the magic can do and what it needs to do it. Anything pertaining to the actual creation of a sigil is deemed both too complicated and too sensitive for public release, however these three principles are enough to inform a petitioner about what they can reasonably expect.

The three Foundational Principles will be expanded upon later, however in brief they are:

  1. Harmony: Sigils are significantly weaker when their powers do not work in harmony toward a common end.
  2. Proximity: Sigils require physical contact with their bearer to function. Similarly, the magic can affect closer targets more strongly.
  3. Disbursement: Sigils require a payment of silver at the time of casting, which is “burned” to fuel the spell.