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In the Crescian society, on alternate Earth, the nobles take to settling disputes with mutual assassination.

The unspoken rule is that assassinations must be carried out directly by the nobles themselves. Should a noble be ‘caught’ in the assassination process, they will be executed, upping the stakes of the game. The preferred way to carry out this sport are indirect ways like poisoning, while direct bloodshed is frowned upon.

Due to how the Crescians have been poisoning and assassinating one another for centuries, they have developed an advanced understanding of chemistry and the biology of the human body. As such, not only has the field of poisoning advanced greatly, the law and crime investigations in the world are also quite developed. All existing Noble families train the Nobles in the skills of assassination, and take personal pride in conducting assassinations that the law cannot resolve.

Crescians Nobles are, by nature, very devious, but are very prideful and conscious of their honor, and their status as Nobles. Because of this, most Nobles adhere to the unspoken rule of personally carrying out assassinations, because if an agent is tasked with the assassination and is traced back to the Noble, the Noble and his family would be branded as cowards and suffer humiliation and a drop in status worse than death. Their entire family would also risk losing their Noble status.


A problem for this society is a general lack of mutual trust, as they're so used to mutual poisoning and assassinations. This lack of trust influences how nobles romantically court each other, as a lapse in judgement can lead to a painful death.

To solve this conundrum, the Crescians have created 'The Rite of Winter', which is a solemn ritual with implications in either spirituality, and/or in law, to be carried out whenever a couple decides to mutually start the courtship.

The Rite is to be carried out/renewed every period of time, and is effective for the next period, until either the time is up or the marriage, 'The Rite of Summer', is conducted.

My question is, what format should the Rite of Winter have, so that by completing it, the couple can have some sense of security and trust for the period of their courtship?

The more unlikely it is for the couple to betray one another, the better the answer. Also, it is important if the Rite can allow the couple to develop trust in one another, and/or explore their compatibility.


Note that we use Artistic License: Poisons, hand-waved by how the Crescians have been poisoning each other for centuries.

Tidbit: the reason for the name, Rite of Winter, is due to how the couple starts the relationship cold, and needs to warm up the relationship until it is warm/hot, leading to the Rite of Summer. The Rite of Fall can be seen as the divorce, and the Rite of Spring, is the name of the renewal ceremony for the Rite of Winter, with each renewal still being called the Rite of Spring.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Dec 3 '19 at 1:33
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Renewed poisoning

Or another way of saying Mutually Assured Destruction. What the ritual does is both members of the couple personally poison a bottle of wine at the start of the ritual with a secret poison on their choosing. At the ritual, each partner drinks the other's poisoned wine. Unfortunately, there's no poison that is really long-term enough for a courtship process, so a different method is used - renewed poisoning.

At the start of each day, or perhaps at each agreed date if you can find a poison slow enough, the couple exchanges wines again. This time, the glass contains two things - an antidote for the first poison, and a new second poison. Thus, the process can be continued ad infinitum, and should either member break it off without agreement, it would lead to the death of both involved. In other words, any betrayal guarantees the traitor's death. And, on the day of the wedding, it's just the antidotes. (Presumably.) This seems a rather elegant and thematic solution, and as a bonus, it would heavily incentivize both parties to stay loyal to their partner.

Divorce in this stage would be a messy affair, but that's typically the case with these kinds of high-stakes marriages anyways, and someone dropping dead of poison after a divorce squarely puts the blame on the ex-fiance.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that poisons with effective antidotes tend to be fast-acting nerve agents, and more than a few minutes delay between poisoning and antidote is likely to be fatal. Slower-acting poisons tend not to have antidotes, since they are typically things like heavy metals, which are very difficult to extract from the human body once ingested. Once you add the symptoms of poisoning by whatever means, that leads to a miserable existence. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 29 '19 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ @montywild the question has no reality-check or science-based or hard-science. Therefore an answer could rely on worldbuilding fiat, "there are year-long acting poisons with antidotes in this world". I have another thing to comment about this answer, I'll post separate comments. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Nov 29 '19 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ However elegant I might think this answer is, it is too naive to be used. Who guarantees that the next bottle of wine contains the antidote for the "unkonwn poison" the person imbibbed previously? The person you don't trust that gave it to you the first time around. There's no guarantee I'm giving the person the antidote. The question is actually about a secure exchange of data, and this protocol fails. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Nov 29 '19 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Mindwin What guarantees the antidote is the fact that if it isn't there, you're dead. Remember, each antidote comes with a different poison attached. There's nothing stopping either party from not placing the antidote and killing both of them, but under this system, your partner's death would guarantee your own, unless you knew exactly what poison that person used. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Nov 29 '19 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ How about: instead of exchanging wines, both parties drink the same bottle of wine. On each agreed upon date, they both put their poison in as well as the antidote for last time's poison (or only the poison, if it's the first time). There can't be any situation where one defects without killing themselves too, since they both consume the same substances, barring complications like allergies and individual responses to the substances involved. $\endgroup$ – Cassiterite Nov 30 '19 at 15:59
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Personally I see this as the wrong way around.

Courtship isn't about trust. It's about proving yourself. Personally both sides should be trying to quietly kill the other because if the other isn't skilled enough to avoid assassination attempts, they aren't worthy to marry. What kind of parent would they be if they missed a simple poison in their wine?

Think Mr and Mrs Smith

The trust part comes in when they are married. The rule is both partners get buried together. Death do us part doesn't apply. If one dies and the partner flees, it brings great dishonor on the family and the family is tasked with hunting them down and burying them.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer, it’s definitely a new perspective! $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 29 '19 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ Ooh, I'm picking up a Gomez and Morticia Addams vibe here. They're always secretly trying to kill eachother while at the same time they're one of the most passionate couples on film. Spicy. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Nov 29 '19 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer, but it can end up causing strife and chaos, with all the couples plotting against each other. Perhaps this could be used as the original Rite, or in special circumstances where there are many suitors (whoever survives gets the recognition!), but it may cause too much chaos for the Crescian society as a whole (it's messed up enough as it is). $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 29 '19 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ I love the idea that couples get buried together. That part could be combined with some of the other answers! $\endgroup$ – Malcolm Nov 29 '19 at 20:20
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One conventional approach would be to exchange hostages. If a member of family A and a member of family B wish to be married, a different member of family A goes to live with family B for the length of the engagement, and vice versa. If the couple makes it to the wedding night without poisoning or stabbing each other, the hostages go home and nothing more is said of the arrangement. On the other hand, if one of the betrothed kills the other, their family member could be imprisoned or killed, depending on the circumstances.

During the engagement, the hostages are treated as part of the host family - boarded in a manner fitting their station, educated (young hostages were most common, since they wouldn't have any other responsibilities that might interfere), given social, political, and even military opportunities. For a member of a small, weak, relatively poor family, this could be a real bargain except for the whole maybe dying thing.

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  • $\begingroup$ So exchange hostages whenever people start dating? A bit clunky, but it works. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 28 '19 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Enthus3d Not necessarily when they start dating (assuming that they date at all, in the modern sense) but when they get serious enough about the relationship to let their guard down. And they might not feel the need if their families are allies or otherwise on close terms. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Nov 28 '19 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ good point, so it only offers a period of time to gain trust when they’re ready to be more serious. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 28 '19 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Enthus3d, the important factor is that we're not talking Romeo and Juliet here, traditionally marriages between aristocratic families are arranged to give maximum benefit to both clans, the actual couple involved don't really get a say in the matter. Exchanging hostages as part of negotiations makes perfect sense. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 30 '19 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Perhaps, although the Rite isn’t to be performed just for arranged marriages, but all relationships $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 30 '19 at 16:46
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Clockwork Heart Contraptions

Your society reminds me a lot of Geidi Prime from the Dune franchise. I am reminded of the "Heart plugs" in David Lynch's version of Dune that were installed to ensure loyalty from subordinates in Geidi Prime.

At the beginning of the rite, the parties exchange a contraption, made from a family-employed locksmith, that is surgically added to the heart. If after a year has expired and the device is not deactivated using the right key, it plunges a blade into the victim's heart, killing them instantly. It's dark and morbid, but for a society so focussed around death, it's fitting.

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  • $\begingroup$ It is, after all, the Rite of Winter, a bit of cruelty being involved in it is ok. This is a good answer that involves more than just poisons, and also adds in the element of attempting to break the locks. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 29 '19 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ There could even be an element of society entirely centred around the artform of heartlock design, and heartlocksmiths or even nobles would need to learn the craft in order to survive. It would be an arms war in itself. $\endgroup$ – Archerj Nov 29 '19 at 14:12
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It's going to have to be a sort of marriage-light. The courtship and time of betrothal has always been a sort of practice for the actual marriage. So lets split up by whether or not spouses would kill each other:

Spouses are NOT to kill each other.

Spouses should also be charged with protecting each other from poison. Having your potential be poisoned would be as bad as letting your spouse get poisoned. Depending on the exact functionality of honor, this would also mean that any prospective couple would announce their courtship. A potential for side-stories opens up, because jealous romantic rivals could consider this the moment to start killing off the competition.

Another way of enforcement could be that every noble makes his own, personal poison, the results of which are both a non-traceable way of bragging (I did it, and nobody can prove it!), and they'd have their own antidote. Part of the Rite of Winter would be exchanging doses of the antidote. This requires a high honor percentage, as otherwise they'd ask the poison of a sibling.

Side benefit of personalized poisons would be that if you can make it's effects spectacular, it'd give you even more prestige. Of course, this requires the authorities to also play the game, and not use the poisons in their murder investigations, or for them to be virtually untraceable.

Please note that this poison/antidote idea benefits from quite a bit of Artistic License: Biology. While it might sound sort of realistic, it really isn't.

Spouses are to kill each other.

Then perhaps so should people courting.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please don't claim that poisons have effective trivial antidotes. Of the poisons that do have antidotes, administering the antidote unnecessarily can make the recipient very sick , or could be fatal. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 29 '19 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Better like this? $\endgroup$ – Gloweye Nov 29 '19 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ I like the mention of artistic license, I certainly wouldn’t want to have a story use real poisoning techniques. The mention of protecting each other from rivals is nice as well, it can always add some drama to the process of the rite. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 29 '19 at 13:02
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Secure two-way wine exchange.

The answer by @Halfthawed is elegant but fails because there's no trust that the antidote will be present in the next wine bottle.

We can model the wine exchange as a two-way secure exchange of data. For that, we need a trusted and verified protocol that will guarantee that the antidote is present in the next bottle of wine.

Therefore, we will base this answer on the following assumptions:

  1. The world has a infinite variety of poisons that a) have antidotes and b) are harmless until X amount of time passes.
  2. The antidotes can be crafted from several basic, known materials, and other known exotic materials, but the combinations are infinite. It takes, in average, way more than X amount of time to figure out the antidote.
  3. Once the specific material for a poison is known, the antidote can be made with haste.
  4. Most basic, known materials are incompatible. So a poison made with Purple Verbenna can be tested for Purple Verbenna.
  5. A person afflicted by a particular poison can detect without fail and absolute accuracy other doses of the same poison.
  6. A poison that reacts with a sample of its anditode creates a visible, known effect. The sample is large enough to test but small enough to not cure the victim.
  7. Poison samples can be kept for a long period of time. These can be marked and later consumed without losing their potency.

Therefore, the spouses drink their wine, as per @Halfthawed's answer, but they only drink half the bottle and keep the other half safe. On the next exchange, they take the previous bottle, a sample of the next bottle, and do three checks.

  1. Before exchanging, they disclose the ingredient of their poison to each other, and they test that the information is true.
  2. They test that their "previous bottle" is indeed the poison they are currently inflicted with.
  3. They test that the sample they have is the antidote for the previous poison.

After both tests pass, they exchange the "next bottle" and drink.

This answer was modeled on key exchange protocols.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you really want a secure exchange - you would need third pary. I.e. poisons and antidodes test on some other person(s). But it still would not work if poison based on some alergy or DNA. $\endgroup$ – ksbes Nov 29 '19 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ Good suggestion on using poisons like a security protocol $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 29 '19 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ A bit too complex on a day to day basis, no ? $\endgroup$ – MakorDal Nov 29 '19 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @makordal it is a rite for a wedding. Since it ha winter in the name, it probably happens once a year only. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Nov 29 '19 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ Cool for a ceremony ! How does that ensure day to day survival ? $\endgroup$ – MakorDal Nov 29 '19 at 15:40
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Marriage is not about love, but about alliance.
If you kill your spouse, you break the alliance and your family is in for a harsh, personal vendetta, instead of the generic, endemic low level permanent war of assassins.

Of course, other will try to imply you, in case your spouse die an untimely death. But that's just part of the general politic game. Everyone count with that. A properly devastated spouse that works in the interest of the departed's family and with the them to find the culprit might overcome the problem. Even if the one found guilty is ultimately a scapegoat.

So :
- Spouses have an interest in each other well being (through family interest)
- Some might try to involve a spouse to get at the family behind. Or even kill a child to attack it's spouse family
- Some will find loophole with the system, but it imply trusting the deceased's family.

It gives a lot of opportunity for political play both ways, but also some strong incentive not to kill your spouse.

The Rite of Winter would be contract signature with disclosure of both spouses modus operandi in closed letters. (To allow identification if one of them was to die)
The Rite of Spring is mostly a private affair for couples and a few select "friends and family". Same as for the Rite of Summer, breaking the truce this day means bad (ugly) luck to come.
The Rite of Summer is the marriage itself. It is usually a day of truce for everyone invited. Breaking this rule means that your next wedding ceremony might be bloodier than expected.
The Rite of Fall is the divorce. Often, it ends with a dual suicide, to prevent consequences for both family, as leaves fall from the trees.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good points, so the Rite’s importance is grounded in diplomacy $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 29 '19 at 15:44
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Nothing More

Also known as Blood is thicker than Water.

Noble marriages in the past were not too dissimilar, if you think about it. Sure, our nobles didn't use poison as a sport, but there was quite a bit of backstabbing regardless. The key point was appearance of reliability: your reputation as a noble, and the standing of your house, is intrinsically tied to your ability at protecting -- and thus being supported by -- the other members of your house, aka your family, as it is taken as measure of how well you can support your allies. There is no benefit in allying yourself with a house who cannot even protect its own interests.

Entering an official courtship, through the Rite of Winter, means that the potential partner is now an honorary member of your house -- and vice versa. If your partner dies, whatever the reason, it tarnishes your reputation, as well as being taken as a sign of weakness:

  • You are less likely to find another willing partner; especially if the murder was never elucidated. The other nobles are not fool, after all.
  • Your house, especially if this happens regularly, is much less likely to find willing partners for its members. For the same reason.
  • In the end, this means that your house may become more and more isolated, and when allies are in short supply, the end draws near.

And once the Rite of Summer is concluded, both and your partner are officially members of both houses -- though your children will only belong to one. Thus the same rules apply, and the death of your partner is a sign of weakness on your part, and thus your houses.

The only difference between the Rite of Winter and the Rite of Summer is that you can end the engagement at any time -- though it may lead to some animosity from the other house -- while marriage is until death.

This is it. Nothing else is really necessary. This is not even a matter of honor; just applied critical thinking from others.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe ‘Nothing’ is not a good way to describe it, this is still a sort of system based on their pride, binding these families together. Good answer :) $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 30 '19 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Enthus3d: I'll add one more word. I think that your setting is interesting enough that nothing more is needed; and any addition would likely dilute/weaken it. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Nov 30 '19 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, now I understand a bit better. I can include this as part of the world for sure, the pride and reputation itself should definitely be an important part of the Rite, as you have pointed out. I just think it may not necessarily be enough on it’s own to cement ties between factions with lots of bad blood, so there needed to be a stronger reason to be tied together $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 30 '19 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Enthus3d: Oh it may not... I could definitely see a house "sacrificing" a member after years of success. A well-executed con, after all, is one where your target cannot even fathom that they are the target. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Nov 30 '19 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ indeed, it’s regrettable that none of the answers here could ever guarantee a complete lack of betrayal, but that is love after all. We can only give it a chance, knowing the dangers. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Nov 30 '19 at 19:18

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