The town of Joyous Garde appears suddenly, nestled amidst pastures in a hidden fold of the landscape, like a secret the hills are keeping from the world outside. Around it loops a high wall which divides the town proper from those who dwell in huts clustered around it at its feet: what is inside the wall is known as Gatewithin, the abode of all that is right and proper; outside is Gatewithout, where dirt, disease and death stalk.
Twice a year, at the summer and winter solstices, the people living in Gatewithin and Gatewithout switch places for one night, the only rule on those nights being that they may take nothing in or out of Gatewithin for the duration, whether coming or going beyond the walls. For some this is an opportunity for reflection; for most it is the opportunity for debauchery or the settling of old scores within the heady air of a night free from the usual shackles of custom and status.
The Swapping Nights, as they are known, may be intended to reflect the role of Fate in human life - Fate being the personal, capricious force which the people of the town worship as a God. The most frequent guise in which Fate appears in their religion is as the personification of sudden reversals of fortune, in which he has the visage of a two-faced, prancing green man with the horns of a stag. Yet the religion itself is characterised by great disagreement about the inevitability or alterability of Fate, and about what precisely is Fated and how that is known, and dozens of churches can be found in the town, each with its own zealously-promoted variant of the truth.
Joyous Garde is under the de facto rule of its burghers, who elect a town council and make what decisions are necessary save one, which is always made for them by ancient law: to give the town’s de jure rulers whatever they demand in taxes each autumn. These de jure rulers are the Nineyear family, an extended clan of cloud giants who own Joyous Garde and all the land around it for miles in all directions. Their tax demands vary at their whim, for they have genuine need of nothing which the town can offer, and the Nineyear family delight in abusing their privileges in malign and unpredictable ways. One year they may demand a virgin girl to burn alive and devour; the next they might require the entire contents of the warehouses of all the members of the brewer’s guild; the one after that they could simply ask for a bonnet each of strawberries - so as to make the population of the town anxious to find out what the demand is to be the following year when “the other shoe falls”. This unpredictability may, indeed, by the source of the townsfolks’ obsession with the vagaries of Fate. For the rest of the year, however, the giants ignore the town entirely.
The ancestral home of the Nineyears is Stuck Gates, a great castle hidden at the foot of a hill a few miles from Joyous Garde. It is so named because its main gates are permanently locked, only to be opened when an Emperor once again rules at Dolorous Garde (see page [x]). Stuck Gates sits in a vast forested estate, mostly comprising the Nineyears’ hunting grounds, dotted with overgrown ruins and monuments from an era in which the family were evidently more prosperous than they are now. Much of the estate is rarely visited if ever - the haunt of outlaws and fugitive creatures released for sport but never subsequently killed.