Midst is a tiny islet in the center of the universe, halfway between the Fold and the Un. Despite (or because) of its position, its residents have done quite well for themselves. Sometimes people's mouths flip upside down in the dead of night, and sometimes monsters skulk out of the wilderness, but on the whole Stationary Hill is quite a lovely little mining town. They even have a cabaret.
Then the enforcers of the Trust touch down, and that status quo is gone.
Lark is a hunter who lives in the red wastes outside the town, selling monster skins and telling fortunes, and she does her level best to be left alone. The locals are afraid of her, and rightly so.
Phineas Thatch is an earnest young man who, through grit and determination, risen high within the interplanetary Trust. He is now the Adsecla to the Prime Consector of the Trust, but he is not a free man. Despite his valor, despite his courage, he is still in debt to the Trust.
Moc Weepe is the cunning manager of the Black Candle Cabaret, the grandest (and only) feature in the night life of Stationary Hill. Best not to ask about the cause his surreal alabaster skin. Certainly best not to ask about some of his...business practices, some of which might make certain people very angry indeed. When the Trust arrives in Stationary Hill, he is the first to see the opportunity—and the danger.
Then there is the Trust. It's a bit like a government, a bit like a religion, and quite a lot like a great galactic bank. Status and wealth are based on Valor. You can earn valor with good deeds and hard work, but the exchange rate is hard to pin down. Every Trustee has an abacus with their Valor beads on full display. As a rule, new Trustees start out in debt. If you leave the Trust without zeroing out your account, the Trust will track you down.
Episodes of this series provide examples of:
- Advice Backfire: Spahr tells Phineas that he's going to lose his job if he keeps showing weakness. Phineas takes it to heart.
- Blackmail Backfire: In hindsight, threatening Weepe was a bad plan.
- Decadent Court: the Trust's aristocrats aren't cruel, but they're oblivious to the lives of the less Valorous. They have so many Valor beads that they've had to get creative about wearing them: Loxley's entire dress is made of Valor.
- Eldritch Location: The universe is not as we know it. The Fold is an endless sea of microorganisms, or something like them, and it apparently reacts violently to light. Far more people live in the Unfold, which is filled with mica dust but otherwise is far more habitable. Midst is remarkable for floating right between the two.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Even Spahr is appalled when Phineas finally breaks down and nearly beats Guthrie to death in his desperation to get him to talk. It's not the violence that bothers him: it's the desperation in Phineas' eyes.
- For Want of a Nail: Assuming the narrators can be trusted, if Weepe hadn't bumped into the nice old lady at the post office, everything would have been fine.
- Indentured Servitude: Until you break even with the Trust, you belong to them. People can easily be trapped in debt for life for circumstances beyond their control. As a result, the hopelessly indebted sometimes try to breach contract and flee—but if they do, they're hunted by the law until the day they die.
- Lemony Narrator: Midst has three of them. They snip at each other, wax eloquent on the lives of background characters, and cheerfully assure the listener that both Fuse and Weepe are screwed.
- Moving the Goalposts: Phineas learns that saving a hostage is, somehow, not Valorous enough to eliminate his debt. It's heavily implied that this is how the Trust usually operates. Breaking even by merit is something that takes a lifetime, when it's possible at all.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Lark admitting that she cares about the kid, Weepe showing guilt, Phineas' explosion of rage.
- Sink-or-Swim Mentor: The Consector warns Phineas that he's going to get kicked out of the company unless he can demonstrate more confidence and a greater willingness to take charge. He offers his sympathy, but is explicitly banned from doing anything to help. Phineas does exactly what he's told, with disastrous enough results that even Spahr is appalled.
- Transformation Horror: Bad things happen if you run out of lightbulbs in Midst. It's the reason why Moc Weepe's skin and eyes are alabastar-white. It's also why Fuse's mouth is upside-down. Tongue on the top, roof of the mouth on the bottom, and so forth. (The narrators assure us that it's gross.)
- Undisclosed Funds: It's never specified exactly how much Valor Moc Weepe receives when he creates his account, but it's the single largest payment that the Notary's ever handed out, and the machine runs out of beads halfway through. He's last seen carrying his new abacus back home in a sack. He's so richly rewarded, in fact, that he isn't even happy about the size of the reward: he's terrified.
- Vast Bureaucracy: the Trust is one. The Notaries are halfway between clerks and priests.
- Weird Currency: You can get more Valor just by walking the neighbor's dog, as long as your local Notary knows about it. Of course, that also means the worth of your good deed depends on who you know, when you joined the Trust, and the stock value of Valor on that day.
- Weird Weather: Midst is wracked by "tearrors", when the Fold kicks up a storm, and unleashes monsters and random mutations on the inhabitants. They have weather almanacs to predict when they'll kick up. Sometimes they're even accurate.