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Updated: March 28, 2:48 p.m.
Once a year, the members of the Moorage Council of Vargas throw the entire city into madness for three days. This is the Salt Festival.
Each member of the Moorage Council is responsible for some portion of the city, centered on a particular shrine. These shrines are attended to with great care (or not-such-great care, depending on the character of the Council member responsible) throughout the year, and revered for their ability to bring good fortune to their neighborhoods.
The shrines are elaborate wooden structures about the size of a large stagecoach, mostly dressed up to look like Imperial temples with tiled roofs, banners, statues and all sorts of accoutrements and attachments. They’re painted gaudily and often done up with caricatures of local personalities, gold plating and other attention-getting decorations. Each is said to be the home of a local spirit that keeps the neighborhood prosperous and safe. They are housed in large buildings (or caverns, as Vargas is entirely underground), where local folks often come to beg for favours or offers thanks for blessings.
But once a year, the shrines are brought out for the Salt Festival, and the “big race”.
The big race is the highlight of the Salt Festival, and takes place on the last day of the holiday. For the two previous days, each neighborhood prepares their shrine and their race team for the grueling event ahead. In many neighborhoods, “preparing” also means spying on the other neighborhoods and sabotaging their efforts. Things get nasty in this race.
The neighborhoods also throw themselves into preparing the race course. The race passes through every neighborhood (multiple times), and each neighborhood tries to outdo the other in lining the course with decorations, hazards, and entertainment.
The race begins from each neighborhood simultaneously — guns sound throughout the city to mark the starting of the big race.
Each massive shrine is hoisted up onto the shoulders of a dozen or more volunteers, who then stagger along the race course, passing through every part of the city on their way to the harbour. The race is so designed so that shrines end up travelling alongside each other at times, and at times end up trying to force their way through intersections in differing directions simultaneously. The huge wooden structures crash into each other and teeter crazily as the race proceeds.
Of course, spilling one’s shrine to the ground is a terrible humiliation, so the race teams are accompanied by spotters and supporters to pitch in if things get unstable. These bands of fired-up youths typically end up brawling with their counterparts from the other neighborhoods, and the violence and mayhem is all just part of the fun.
Pirates firing off their pistols, ninjas leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and the occasional dinosaur getting carried away in the action is all business as usual during the Salt Festival race.
The race winds down to the one beach on the harbour, where the shrines are carried right into the water (made of wood, they float. Usually) and pushed out to float anchored a spears’-cast from shore. On the float waits whichever Council member won last year (the Salt King or Queen), protected by two hand-picked bodyguards. Race teams have to crash their shrine into the float, then clamber on board and get past the bodyguards to tackle the Salt Monarch.
The whole affair is pretty hard on the shrines, the race teams, the Salt Monarch and pretty much the whole city, so running it once a year is considered sufficient. But people have a whole pile of fun, and for visitors to Vargas, it’s a sight to see.