156: The Rights Of Man

on February 12, 2008 in 06: A Period of Conflict

In Which Revolutionary Ideas Are Discussed

Steff clutched my wrist with her hand on the way to history, and she led the way down the hall at a faster pace than I could comfortably match with my stride. Her nails dug into me.

Something had definitely changed with her. It wasn’t just that she was in a good mood… she’d been in a good mood most of the time I’d known her, and she hadn’t been like this.

The E.R.H. classroom was an older style one, with long desks running half the length of the room and wide benches bolted to the floor. Steff guided me towards the end of one, sitting down and then pulling me onto her lap.

“Not during class,” I said, wriggling off her. I was a little bit annoyed that she didn’t seem to remember I’d put interfering with schooling on my personal black list.

“Just until it begins,” Steff protested, trying to pull me back.

I caught a whiff of something as I pulled away, something very faint, but sweetly sour and strangely familiar. My mind flashed on Puddy, who used her one-sixty-fourth dwarven ancestry to legally excuse her habit of drinking nothing but chardonnay, which she bought by the crate.

“Steff, have you been drinking?” I asked, though I knew the answer. The smell was distinct.

“You know I’m not supposed to,” Steff said. She laughed.

“I do, and so do you,” I said. “Steff, Viktor’s worried about you. I think you should listen to him.”

“I think you should let me worry about him,” Steff said. “And he should let me worry about me. I’ve got everything under control.”

“We’ll talk about this later,” I said as the professor entered from a side door at the front of the room.

I was almost positive it was wine that Steff had been drinking, and not some other drink. The smell of Puddy’s breath was lodged permanently in my brain, and Steff‘s smelled almost identical. I could not claim to be an expert on alcohol, but I’d never imagined wine to be among the “hard stuff.” I mean, the Universal Temple still used actual wine with the intoxication properties untouched for its sacraments. My otherwise abstemious grandmother enjoyed a glass of red wine every now and again. Puddy’s behavior might have been explained by her constant overindulgence or just her overall personality, but first Barley and now Steff had now acted remarkably similar under its influence.

Barley had doubtlessly moved onto other things after that first time she’d violently came onto me, but at that point, all she’d had was Puddy’s wine.

“Good evening, class,” the professor said. He was a relatively good-looking man, I thought. A little bit on the hefty side, maybe. His hair was a little bit gray but his face seemed young and strong. His eyes swept the room until he spotted Steff and me. “Today, we’re welcoming a couple refugees rescued from the slooooowly sinking ship that is the I.M.S. Einhorn. For those of you just joining us, I am Professor Aaron Hart. It is my sincere hope that you will find the material we present here a bit more challenging and the instruction less so. Miss Mackenzie, please stick around and see me after class.”

Great… was I going to have trouble with another teacher now? At least his opening remarks made it seem unlikely he’d be sympathetic to Professor Ariadne’s version of events, whatever that was.

I didn’t bother correcting him on my preferred form of address. At the start of the year, I’d tried with varying success to get my teachers to refer to me using the human standard of honorific and last name rather than first, but now that I was so widely “out” as non-human it seemed kind of pointless.

“We’ve spent the past two weeks covering the Provincial Period,” the professor continued, “from the discovery and initial settling of the Westering Lands, up to the earliest events which led to the revolution. You have been assigned no grade for the section test on Friday, but you will need to get copies of my lecture notes, and read them, both for the comprehensive exams later and so that you will understand the context in which later events occur.”

Steff had taken a piece of paper out of her backpack. She wrote on it, “It’ll be hard for you to talk when I’m choking you with my cock.” and pushed it towards me. I pushed it back.

“Today, we begin what is commonly known as the Revolutionary Period,” Hart said. “Our focus for now remains in the Phalan Province, and specifically the township of Phale, whose deep harbor made it the natural entry point to the colonies for both manufactured goods and the Imperial Legion. The date is 7th Militia 312… Astera 7th, -9 ME, by our current calendar. The ship Tradewinds has just anchored in Phale Harbor. On board are two men who will become very important for all those living in the Western Provinces: Adon Magnus, called Magisterion, and Phillip Bell, called Phillip Bell.”

Steff turned away a bit in her seat and began scribbling furiously on her paper. I assumed she was drawing rather than writing, but I didn’t try to see.

“The former was a dangerously charismatic ex-centurion being turned out to a particularly distant pasture with the sinecure post of adjunct proconsul,” Hart continued, “and the latter was the nephew of a remote cousin of the Unnamable Emperor who had just been appointed Legatus over Phalan. Bell might have held his post for a few years of relative luxury before returning to greater rewards back in the Mother Isles, had he not been carrying a pouch containing several scrolls containing imperial edicts which would prove to be wildly unpopular. Can anybody tell me what the most important one of these was?”

I raised my hand, as did several other people.

“Miss Mackenzie?”

I hadn’t actually expected to be called on. The professor’s expression was neutral, but his eyes were fixed upon me, hawk-like.

“The… uh… Coin Act?” I said, with less certainty than I should have. I knew it was the Coin Act. This was high school stuff. I hoped the entire class wasn’t going to be a re-hash.

“The Coin Act,” he echoed. “Coinage in those days was much the same as it is now: to facilitate commerce, precious metals were divided into discrete units of an agreed-upon weight. The earliest coins were generally only issued by monarchial governments who stood as guarantors of the coins’ purity, but as sophisticated magic became more common, it became both harder to prevent perfect but unauthorized copies and easier to detect adulterated metal.

“The focus of coinage laws shifted then, from trying to control who could make coins to regulating how they were produced, standardizing size, shape, and material, but allowing anybody to produce them. Back around 7th Militia 312, it did not matter whether a coin was pressed from the emperor’s dies, cast by a silversmith, or transfigured by a wizard… it was accepted as tender throughout the empire on the value of its metal.

“The Coin Act was meant to change that, at least for the distant Western Provinces. The loot from the Dwarf and Goblin Wars had impressed the Unnamable One, and he was determined that none of it should remain in the Provinces, or flow in trade outside the boundaries of the empire. The Coin Act was the first step in systematically criminalizing the possession of gold and silver in the Western Provinces. It decreed that the only lawful currency in those territories would be special coins, made from more base metals, issued only by the provincial government. Question, Ms. Carter?”

He said this last to a red-headed girl in the front row, who hadn’t even raised her hand.

“Yeah… how could they possibly enforce that kind of law?” she asked.

“With appalling viciousness,” the professor answered. “These coins were no harder to duplicate than the standard ones. In fact, due to the inherent difficulty of magically creating gold and silver, the junk coins were easier to reproduce… they could often be conjured out of thin air. With no way to prevent unauthorized duplication, the enforcement portion of the edict focused on punitive measures. For men of standing whose positions would have protected them from most mundane kinds of legal consequences had they remained in the old world, the penalties for violating the Coin Act were ruinous. For everybody else, they were fatal. The goal was to make people so afraid of being caught making unauthorized copies that they wouldn’t dare try.”

“But how did they catch anybody at it?” the Carter girl asked.

“Some people were caught in the act,” Hart said. “Others were turned in. As you might imagine, evidentiary standards were lax, even for the time. The crackdown on illicit duplication was only one aspect of enforcement, however. With the Coin Act’s passage, new edicts were issued, banning the use of devices for detecting the purity of gold and silver. This was meant to make it impossible for commerce to be done with the old coinage, but Provincial merchants adapted. They revived older, more primitive methods for testing metals, techniques they learned from their dwarven allies, involving weights and scales. Such ‘scientific’ tests could be very easily fooled by magic, but the provincials learned from the example of their government and dealt harshly with any transgressor they discovered.”

He paused and looked around the room. The rest of the class seemed to perk up, as if they anticipated something.

“A goldsmith named Edwin Golden, who was found to have used weightening charms on his gold coins, was punished by vigilantes who force-fed him a potion of fire resistance, and then a cauldron of molten gold before nailing him to the wall of his shop. He died in agony as the gold solidified in his stomach or the potion wore off before it cooled, depending upon the account. Broadsides were distributed showing a drawing of him pinned to the wall, with golden tears streaming down his face for dramatic effect.”

Okay, that hadn’t been covered in high school.

“Fucking sweet,” Steff whispered. “That is… so… hot.”

“The ultimate answer to Ms. Carter’s question, though, is that ultimately the Coin Act was unenforceable. It was never officially repealed, but the so-called Mercy Act was passed seven years later, leading to the waiver of all penalties. In theory, you could still be caught and convicted of violating the Coin Act, and even sentenced, but that sentence could not be carried out,” Hart said. “So the Unnamable Emperor could maintain the delusion of control. His dream of stripping the provincials of all their gold and silver was never realized, but the Coin Act had real and lasting consequences. Let’s hear some of them. Ms. La Belle?”

A girl with long curly hair the same shade of strawberry-blonde as Puddy’s looked down at her book for a few moments before answering, “Um… the provincials didn’t like it?”

“No, they did not,” Hart agreed. “Mr. Marks?”

“The Emperor increased the garrisons in the provinces?” he answered.

“Correct,” Hart said. “What else… Miss Mackenzie?”

“The emperor banned magic weapons from the provinces,” I said. “At least, for civilian commoners.”

“Yes!” Hart said. “Exactly. To be more precise, the nobility were allowed to keep their heirloom weapons and wear them to social functions, but they could not be carried accessibly on the open street or used for their intended function. It was the resulting outcry which led to the increased legion presence, ostensibly to guarantee the safety of the now-disarmed populace.”

Steff slipped her paper back in front of me. She’d drawn an incredibly detailed and realistic picture of me, lying on my stomach with my legs bent back around and the ankles tied to my wrists. Even though there could not have been any doubt, she’d written the word “YOU” with an arrow pointing at the picture.

I stared at it for several seconds, utterly absorbed by the detail… the look of horror on my pencil-drawn face… until I realized Hart was talking and I wasn’t listening.

I wrote a single word and circled it for emphasis: basement. My safe word. I’d never used it before. I’d never had to, but my grades were important, this class was interesting, and I couldn’t afford to be on another teacher’s shit list, especially now that the deadline for dropping classes safely was passed.

Steff withdrew the paper and crumpled it up. I cringed at the sound. I hadn’t meant for her to actually destroy the picture, just put it away for a more appropriate time.

“I want you all to think about what it must have been like to live in the Western Provinces at that time,” Hart was saying, when I started paying attention again. “Most previous imperial expansion had happened when the empire moved into lands already settled by tribes of humans. No matter how violent and bloody the initial conquest was, the ‘barbarians’ often took to the imperial way of living quite nicely, and in their thirst for the fruits of civilization they became everything that model citizens were supposed to be.

“‘Every barbarian wants to be an imperial, but no imperial wants to be a barbarian’ was the saying, and these assimilated peoples had always been afforded the same rights and privileges of any other imperial citizen. The Westering Lands, on the other hand, had no human inhabitants when they were discovered, and so were settled by colonists from the established provinces, mostly within the Mother Isles themselves.

“Imagine being a colonist from the Mother Isles–maybe even from the Mother City itself–who has voluntarily transplanted his life, his family, and his business to this new world, to help settle the land ‘for the good of the empire’, and then finding out that for your pains you’re being denied the basic human rights that even the descendants of conquered barbarians possess. Imagine how frustrating that would be.”

The phrase “human rights” jumped out at me. Of course, the old empire had been pretty monolithically human. Historically, the phrase wasn’t completely inaccurate. Still, it grated on me in a way I don’t think it would have before. Human rights… rights inherent to humans.

“Miss Mackenzie, what are you thinking?”

The question caught me off-guard. I guess my distaste must have shown on my face. I swallowed and gathered my thoughts, trying to figure out how to frame my objection in a way that would be relevant to the class.

“The… provincials… were frustrated because they were being treated like non-humans,” I said, finally.

“A bit louder, if you please.”

“The provincials were frustrated because they were being treated like non-humans,” I repeated.

“Yes. Excellent! That is a wonderful insight into the historical mindset,” Hart said. “By law, only humans could become citizens without a special act of the emperor. The rights traditionally given to citizens were thus tied up with humanity. Jumping ahead a bit, the Coin Act, the Legion Act, and the other related imperial edicts were collectively referred to as ‘The Inhuman Acts’ and the revolutionaries’ famous Statement of Intent listed ‘intentional deprivation of humanity’ among the offenses committed by the Unnamable Emperor. The Imperial Republic to come would recognize certain rights for non-humans from the beginning, but that came from necessity, not principle… it was the new government’s proven willingness to honor trade agreements with the dwarves that cemented that important alliance.”

He wasn’t sugarcoating things, but I thought he’d missed the point a bit. I didn’t feel like disrupting class on my first day to make a political point, though.

“Today, most rights we enjoy are not tied explicitly to race or even citizenship, but are understood as the universal rights of free people,” Hart said. “To understand the provincial point of view, it’s necessary to imagine a different time…”

I listened to the rest of the lecture with interest, but my mind kept coming back to the concepts of “human rights” and “universal rights.” How much had things actually changed? I was called “it” and a “thing” even by some of my fellow Harlowites, but to some people on campus, “non-human” might as well have been the same thing as non-person.

The controversial doctrine of “human blood, human soul” was often dragged up in support of equal rights for those of mixed descent, but it was founded on a chauvinistic assumption that any level of human ancestry was important.

I liked how Professor Hart managed his class, though. As he laid out the essential points he meant to cover, he kept stopping to ask the class to try to imagine how things must have felt. He encouraged the class to ask questions and share their thoughts, and by the end of the period it had gone from a lecture to an open discussion on how we would have reacted to the Inhuman Acts, with the professor mentioning actual historical parallels to students’ responses.

It was interesting, but I stayed out of it. I wasn’t human to begin with, and I could feel the unspoken hostility and unwarranted assumptions underlying many of the thoughts being voiced. Each time the word “human” was voiced, I shrank into myself a little bit more, and found myself pressing up against Steff for comfort and protection. She leaned into me, making appreciative noises under her breath.

“I think it was wrong because I don’t think humans should have to be treated like that,” Ms. La Belle said near the end of the class. It seemed like her slight resemblance to Puddy was only skin deep… Puddy reveled in her token non-humanity. “Like they’re not even human, you know?”

“You’ve certainly put yourself into the provincial mindset,” Hart said. “Anybody else?”

“I think it’s more a matter of humanity being the framework the provincials had for understanding their rights,” Carter said. “I don’t think we can assign motives to them.”

“What do you mean by that, ‘assigning motives’?” Hart asked.

“I mean, I don’t think we should assume they were bigoted,” Carter said. “They weren’t making some kind of bold new stand, they were fighting for their rights that they were already supposed to be entitled to. I mean, if somebody says like, ‘All humans get cake.’ and you’re human and don’t get any, I think you can be legitimately upset that you weren’t given what you were promised. They weren’t guilty of excluding non-humans, because non-humans were already excluded from the system. When they set up their own system, they tried to fix that.”

“To some extent, yes, but I think you touched on a key point there,” Hart said. “Being given what you’re promised. The provincials felt betrayed. It’s not that the emperor had never passed burdensome laws before. It’s not that citizens had never had their rights restricted before. What made this different… what bred the resistance that led to rebellion… was the sense of being cheated, of being ripped off. They were lured overseas with promises of ‘cake’, as you put it, only to get there and discover it was a lie.”

He glanced up at the timepiece at the back of the wall right before the bell sounded.

“We’ll pick this up Wednesday. Please read the personal accounts from chapter three, on legion quartering,” he said. He turned his gaze to me. “Miss Mackenzie… stick around.”

I nodded. Steff turned my head to face her and gave me a lingering kiss on the lips, sticking her tongue in my mouth and then biting my lower lip.

“I’ll be waiting,” she breathed as she pulled away.

Hart hadn’t told me to come up to his desk, so I stayed on the bench while people filed past me and the room emptied. When the rest of the class had left, he came up to me.

“How does your friend like to be called?” he asked.

“What?” I asked.

“What is the preferred form of address?” he asked, and I realized he was asking me about Steff. “If I hadn’t seen you coming in together, I would have asked directly, but I assumed you would know and that might save some embarrassment.”

“Oh,” I said. “Um… she says she doesn’t care, but Miss Steff is probably most appropriate.”

“Miss Steff,” he said, nodding. “Got it. Incidentally, if you know anybody else who’s still in elven history and would like to get out, let them know they can talk to me about facilitating a late transfer.”

“Um, okay,” I said.

“And, if you would tell Miss Steff to not fuck around in my class, you’ll be doing both her and me a favor,” he said.

The word “fuck” from the mouth of a teacher–a proper professor, not a fighting coach–caught me by surprise, and I didn’t know how to respond.

“That’s all,” Hart said with a curt nod. I picked up my things and left.

I didn’t know what to make of the instructor, but it had been an interesting class.


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15 Responses to “156: The Rights Of Man”

  1. BMeph says:

    Aw, man…

    even in fantastic history, the cake is a lie!

    Current score: 10
    • Brenda says:

      I know the cake is a lie, and actually recognized it this time through… but I only know that from having seen other references to it on the internet!

      Current score: 0
      • Adam Barnes says:

        The Portal games. A sadist AI made humans run tests,similarly to how we do to white mice, and it used the reward of cake to give them drive to do so. the words “The cake is a lie” is scribbled on the walls here and thereto show the machine is lying

        Current score: 1
        • nobody says:

          I had to check the release date to be sure I caught a reference.
          Never played Portal and still caught the reference immediately, that shows how common it is.

          Current score: 1
  2. Kate says:

    =D The cake is a lie!!!! <3

    Current score: 1
  3. pedestrian says:

    What!?! If there is no cake at the end of this maze for us 99%’s.
    There will at least be pie in the sky when we die! Right! Right?!?

    Current score: 0
  4. MackSffrs says:

    Awesome, only this author could so naturally make “the cake is a lie” political.

    Current score: 4
  5. Psi-Ko says:

    Let them eat cake.

    Current score: 4
  6. Anthony says:

    YeYeah, the cake thing was cute, but how many people noticed the way AE equated the Stamp Act with the unenforceable insanities of modern copyright law in the digital age? Very cleverly done!

    Current score: 7
  7. Daezed says:

    4th time through, and I think professor Hart remains one of my favorite of an amazing set of instructors. I’ve had teachers like Hart, and Bohd, and Callahan, and Acantha (I think that was her name!), and…. They make all the difference sometimes, while you’re in school. I wish more teachers were like them, and less like Einhorn, which is all too prevalent a teacher-type.

    I very, very badly wish I could be attending this class! 😀

    And
    I still think some of these world-building chapters are among my favorites, even so many years later!!

    Current score: 6
  8. Erm says:

    On re-reading, this struck me again:

    the inherent difficulty of magically creating gold and silver

    Got me wondering if the great value of gold and silver is caused by their scarcity due to being hard to create magically… or the difficulty of creating them magically is caused by them being valuable, and the universal laws operating on a no-free-lunch principle.

    Current score: 6
    • Anon says:

      I’d guess that the second option is closer… All magic is guided by the caster’s intent, the caster’s will, and it seems the caster’s beliefs to some extent. If you *know* absolutely that gold is valuable, that gold is hard to get, that gold is something you really have to work for, then anything you did to effortlessly conjure up gold just wouldn’t work. Because you knew from the start that what you were doing is impossible.

      If I’m right, then it should be perfectly easy to conjure gold, if and only if the person doing the conjuring didn’t consider it to be worth anything and didn’t know the ‘rule’ about it being unconjurable.

      This is of course almost untestable, as you would need to find an accomplished conjurer who didn’t know the basic things everybody knows about conjuring, and then convince them to waste their time and energy making something worthless and easily obtained (without telling them the real reason, as explaining the experiment would probably render them incapable of supporting your theory).

      Yeah, I can see how people would have become convinced that science doesn’t work, if so many questions would fall back to mechanical effects with psychological bases.

      Current score: 3
  9. capybroa says:

    “His eyes swept the room until he spotted Steff and me. ‘Today, we’re welcoming a couple refugees rescued from the slooooowly sinking ship that is the I.M.S. Einhorn.'”

    Oh, shiiiIT! I’m loving this dude already.

    I was strongly tempted to skim the substance of the lecture itself and I’m sincerely glad that I didn’t. I love how the wider world is slowly unfolding out around our cast, even as the characters are so absorbed in their day-to-day lives and, erm, “interactions.” We’re only a couple weeks into the school year; I can’t imagine how much we will have learned by the end of the semester, to say nothing of the end of the year.

    Current score: 6
  10. Lunchbox says:

    @Erm
    It’s explained somewhere along the line that the value of gold and silver are directly affected by their difficulty in magical creation.
    I believe (but don’t quote me) that the difficulty in creating them magically is directly influenced by the initial scarcity of gold and silver.

    Current score: 4
  11. MentalBlank says:

    I love Hart’s style. I had a lecturer once that was similar for a psychology class.

    Current score: 0