The earliest inhabitants of the region of Sensuka were water worshippers. They looked upon the clouds as constituting the genitals of the Great Divine Water Being, from which all waters originally sprang forth. It was water’s floating, condensed form that was thought to constitute the initial state from which the eternal hydrologic cycle—the prerequisite of all life—was first set in motion. Furthermore, the chaotic, ever-shifting clouds were viewed as the crucible in which individual clusters of water particles were assigned the particular shapes they would later manifest on Earth. Once they had been implanted in the ground through the life-giving rains, these waters would then re-emerge from the earth in a multiplicity of solid, animate forms. This process was thought to constitute the origins of all living things, including human beings.
This ancient belief in the role of clouds in determining human destiny lives on in Sensuka in the modern practice of cloud divination—the foretelling of future events through the observation of the shape, movement, colour, and position of clouds in the sky. (Also known as nephomancy, cloud divination is not to be confused with the wholly unrelated and notoriously inaccurate practice of meteorology.)
Owing to the number of variables involved, cloud divination is one of the most difficult of the prophetic arts. It is consequently the exclusive purview of a caste of specially trained priests. Though their “readings” of clouds can theoretically be carried out from any vantage point, there are certain sites that are held to be especially propitious to this purpose. In Sensuka, official cloud prophecies are always obtained from the cloud temple atop the hill of Marikora, at the city’s northwestern limits. The actual viewing of clouds takes place on a raised circular platform at the front of the temple, overlooking the Bay of Rilito. At an appointed time each day, a temple priest will take a seat at the centre of the platform. He will remain there for a period of up to several hours, dictating all significant observations to a scribe sitting beside him. These nephomantic annotations are then brought to the other temple priests, who set about properly interpreting them.
Because cloud divination relies on so much specialized labour, its use tends to be reserved to the imperial authorities and the very wealthy. For ordinary Sensukans, who will never profit from its prognostications, it appears to be just the general idea of the practice that is found to be oddly soothing. When, in the midst of all the day’s fretting and rushing about, people happen to look up at the clouds, and for a brief moment become aware once more of the marvelous, otherworldly spectacle that forms the backdrop of our lives, it serves as a reminder that the real game is elsewhere, that, ultimately, it’s all out of our hands. This month’s earnings, the coming harvest, the people our children grow up to be, the way our heart breaks, the hour of our death: Everything has already been determined; it is already written up there somewhere, in the tumbling battlements of the cumulonimbi or the rippled dunes of the altostratus. Our fates are sealed; there is no point in worrying about anything too much.