386: Repeating History

on June 8, 2009 in Book 14

In Which Mackenzie Fails To Recognize Sooni’s Motivations

Maliko was looking way too pleased with herself about something when she and Sooni arrived for logic class… I reflexively cringed, thinking that anything that made her happy couldn’t be anything good. Then I realized that compared to Mercy and various demonic presences, Maliko wasn’t that scary.

Also, the smug sneer faltered a little bit when she saw my face… I wondered what kind of response she’d been expecting. Mild confusion apparently wasn’t it.

Sooni put her stuff down neatly on her desk and then came swishing back to talk to me, as she so often did… she looked so very pleased with herself that I felt a resurgence of dread. Maybe Maliko’s seeming disappointment had been premature.

“Hello, Sooni,” I said,

“Hello, Miss Mackenzie,” she said, beaming. “You know… the Veil Ball is tonight.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“I understand it is a masquerade,” she said.


“I was wondering if you had a costume prepared for it.”

Oh, here we go, I thought. It was obvious that she’d decided that I had to go to the party with her and she’s come up with some ridiculous, borderline festishy outfit she expects me to wear.

“Actually… um… I’m going with Ian, and he’s working on a costume for me,” I said, bracing myself for the temper tantrum.

“Oh, I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “I put the finishing touches on mine this morning and thought I would see if you needed any help with alterations or anything for yours. Are you going as Annie?”

“Uh… actually, I thought about doing a Mecknights costume, but I wasn’t sure how to do it,” I said.

“Oh. Well, you should have asked me,” she said, but she sounded hardly even reproachful. “I would have been happy to help you.”

“Uh huh,” I said, still not at all sure where she was going with this… was she going to ask me a favor?

“I guess I’ll see you at the dance!” she said as the professor came into the room. She turned and hurried back to her desk, where the whipping of her fox tail and forth caused the girl behind her to scoot way back.

“Settle down,” the professor said in response to the legs of the chair squeaking against the tiles. “Now, will everybody who looked up the extra credit questions please pass them forward and we’ll be moving on.”

Extra credit questions? What extra credit questions? Maliko threw a glance over her shoulder at me as she handed a paper forward, and I dimly remembered having been in a momentary panic after the last class, when I’d realized I’d missed a good deal of the lecture. Maliko had tried to taunt me by telling me I’d missed hearing about a huge, grade-critical assignment… well, I’d showed her by forgetting all about it.

Two wrongs might not make a right, but under certain circumstances two absentmindednesses could.

On the other hand, though, I had missed out on some extra credit. Even if Maliko hadn’t manage to drive me into a blind panic for the past two days, I’d still managed to screw myself a bit. I paid close attention throughout the remainder of the period, even though it wasn’t particularly interesting material… we were just dealing with conditional statements, and the inverses, converses, and contrapositives thereof. It was important to have a firm grasp on those things when dealing with certain kinds of magic… and more particularly certain kinds of beings… but it didn’t have a lot of direct application for an enchanter.

Unless I was going to put a lot of limiting effects on my work, I probably wouldn’t use it that much, and the essence of applied enchantment was making things that were useful, not bound up by a lot of arbitrary conditions. The bottom line was that there just wasn’t much of a market for televisions that only worked if a thrice-married virgin laid a golden egg in a month with seven Sundays, or whatever. In olden times, being able to sort your way through those kinds of riddles had been an important skill for enchanters, because almost nobody had the kind of power and understanding you needed to make a truly permanent enchantment, so they’d done the best they could.

When class ended, I reminded myself that Ian had told me to look at the name of the history building. I knew of at least one current professor who was a Smith, in the delving program, but it was such a common name there was no reason to think he was any relation to the one who the building was named for. But if he wasn’t, why had Ian thought I’d find the name significant?

I started to get irritated with him, that he hadn’t just told me what he was getting at… but not so irritated that I forgot to look. Almost that irritated, but not quite. I stopped at the last moment before walking underneath the arch and looked up. In the moment before the person behind me slammed into my back and pushed me forward, I read the name: Ian H. Smith Hall.


“Learn how to walk,” the girl who’d shoved into me said, blowing past me as I started forward again.

Either Ian just thought it was really super neat that a building had the same first name as he did, or there was a story there.

I kind of wondered if Hart was going to say something about Steff’s continued absence, but he didn’t… he just jumped right into the lesson.

“Last time we were talking about the goblin situation, in the wetlands north of Ravenport,” he said. “The first direct contact between the Empire and goblinoids, and it seemed to be going great: the locals went nuts over relatively cheap trinkets and common foodstuffs that they’d never seen before, and the envoys of the Unnamable One were making all kinds of impressive diplomatic breakthroughs. Of course, the whole thing was predicated on the kind of misconceptions that we outlined on Wednesday…”

“What kind of misconceptions?” Ms. La Belle asked. I heard Ms. Carter swearing not quite under her breath.

“The ones we went over last class,” Hart said.

“But what do you mean, ‘the kind of misconceptions’?”

“Misunderstandings about how goblin society is arranged, confusion about the level of political organization, a tendency to draw inferences from the very unrelated orcish society…”

“No, I remember all that… but what kind of misconceptions were they?” Ms. La Belle asked.

“Chocolate,” Hart said. “The breaking point came when, in order to secure the driest route for the emperor’s new highway, they ‘purchased’ the land being occupied by several disparate family groups from an unrelated goblin village they had established good relations with. Some people say that goblins had no concept of property before humans came. That’s probably not quite true, but they certainly didn’t have this kind of commerce, where land changes hands based on the movement of metal coins and papers. What happened from the point of view of the empire’s allies is their friends offered to evict some of their enemies from the region and pay them for it, and that seemed like a good deal. Those whose land had been ‘sold’ had no say in the deal, and probably weren’t even aware of it until the legionnaires showed up to evict them… and that was the end of any peace between humans and goblins in the region of Ravenport. Two more legions had to be sent south to defend the colony, with its valuable diamond mines… a small but significant weakening of the imperial forces in the north.”

“Wait, that doesn’t make any sense,” La Belle said. “Chocolate misconceptions?”

“Now, in the northern colonies, the settlers on what was then the western frontier had already had their own clashes with goblins, and in some cases they had even learned how to get along peacefully,” Hart said. “The dwarves of the Westering Lands had also been dealing with goblins… they weren’t fond of each other, but at the very least the dwarves were a potential source of information for relatively new arrivals. The Empire’s experience with dwarves back in the motherlands was that they were politically neutral unless threatened… the conventional wisdom was that the only way to get a military alliance with them was to hope your enemies got stupid and attacked them first. So, the official position was to avoid, avoid, avoid. If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed a possible option that the empire had overlooked, a bit of leverage they had that they could have used to gain favorable relations with the dwarves. Can anybody guess what that is?”

A few people raised their hands, including myself and Ms. Carter. Hart called on me.

“Diamonds,” I said. “Ravenport’s not near any dwarven kingdoms, so they probably didn’t even know about the deposits.”

“That is correct,” Hart said. “And the mines of Ravenport are some of the richest diamond mines in the Westering Lands. The dwarves in the north and the west mine iron and precious metals extensively, but they’ve always had to trade for most of their precious stones. Before humans established a transoceanic trade, this meant using treacherous trade routes through the northern ice reaches or with underground kingdoms, with frequent interference from kobolds. Selling diamonds to the dwarves… or even selling a share in the mines outright… would have been a very canny move for the empire. Would anybody care to speculate about why the Unnamable Emperor wouldn’t have explored that option?”

“He didn’t like dwarves?” La Belle said, without waiting to be called on.

“Astonishingly enough, that’s almost correct… the emperor might not have had any particular antipathy towards dwarves, but he was accustomed to signing trade agreements that were more like treaties, where smaller groups agreed to become his subjects, de facto or otherwise, in exchange for his beneficence. He did not like to deal with other races who could deal with him from a position of strength, who would not cede their own rights in exchange for the comfort and security of the Pax, who could not be assimilated into the empire. He would not deal with dwarven kings as kings, and he knew better than to expect them to deal with him as anything else. What else? Ms. Carter?”

“He was keeping with his policy of exporting all the wealth from the colonies,” she said. “Or importing it, from his point of view. But he wasn’t viewing the situation in the Westering Lands as being an actual economy so much as one big extended workhouse where citizens of the empire could toil for his benefit.”

“Ouch. Are you writing a pamphlet, Ms. Carter? I almost hate to tell you we already won that war,” Hart said. “But, yes, essentially. The output of the Ravenport mines was already accounted for in the emperor’s plans… whether he even considered the option of dealing with the dwarves and rejected it, or it never even crossed his mind, we don’t know.”

“Then why are we talking about it?” La Belle asked.

“Because, Ms. La Belle, to understand why things ended up the way they did, it can be instructive to look at how they might have gone instead,” Hart said. “There has been some interesting supposition about how differently things might have turned out if he had made that decision… the colonists had been trading with the dwarves on a limited basis from the beginning, but they wouldn’t have been able to match his offer. It’s doubtful that Magisterion could have won as many dwarves to his cause if the emperor was careful to spread the wealth around equally. The legions wouldn’t have been as hard-pressed in dealing with the goblins. The dwarves might have viewed any uprising that interfered with the diamond trade as a hostile action against themselves. It’s hard to imagine the revolution going the way it did, under those circumstances.”

The brief exploration of alternate history interested me on the usual geeky level, but the whole thing actually piqued my interest in another way… it was, as Hart had said, hard to imagine the old empire losing control of the colonies if they hadn’t so badly misjudged the situation with the races that were native to the area. The Unnamable Emperor probably could have mistreated his own people all he’d wanted if he’d sounded out the dwarves a little better, or sent people who displayed a little more intellectual curiosity about the funny green people in the south… really, there was no benefit to not doing a little homework when it came to those sorts of things.

Was it just laziness? Or xenophobia?

Goblins could certainly come off as creepy to mammalian races… though it was probably mutual… and dwarven secrecy had to be off-putting to someone who was trying to make up their own mind about how far to trust them. But were those things any kind of real excuse for someone who was trying to oversee an ocean-straddling empire made of many cultures and multiple races? Did “creepiness” really explain a bunch of career politicians and tacticians botching things so badly?

Or maybe the underlying lesson wasn’t one about racial tolerance at all… maybe it had just been the same arrogance that had made the emperor think the human colonists would just roll over for him, too.

Or maybe it was both… maybe it took that kind of arrogance to look at a continent populated with diverse peoples and think you could treat it as a blank slate, with only the people you’d placed there yourself counting for anything.

“Ms. Mackenzie, I’m losing you again, aren’t I?” Hart said. “Or have you been overcome with some kind of brilliant revelation?”

“I… I was just thinking about what you said,” I said.

“About the rum excise?”

“Um… before that,” I said. “About the dwarves and the goblins.”

“I’m all ears,” he said.

“I… um… there’s no benefit in ignoring another race that’s living somewhere you have interests,” I said.

“Yes, that was kind of the point.”

“Well, no, you were talking about all the benefits the emperor could have gained from dealing with the dwarves,” I said. “What I’m saying is that not only did he ignore those, but he did it for nothing… there was no rational benefit to ignoring them, there was no rational benefit to not taking the time to figure out the goblins, especially when the imperial legions started out on good terms with them. Their road north wasn’t going to be finished any time soon no matter what they did, so they had every opportunity to learn about the goblin culture, to sit down and ask the goblins about their culture, but they didn’t. It’s senseless… stupid and senseless.”

“Everybody write that down,” Hart said. “Humans did something stupid and senseless.”

“How man S-es are in ‘senseless’?” La Belle asked.

“Just the one, but it gets reused,” Hart said. “In all seriousness, though, you’re right, Ms. Mackenzie: it was downright boneheaded. It was one in a series of boneheaded moves that the empire made at its peak. This might seem counterintuitive, but there’s a reason the peak of any civilization is the peak, and it’s not because of the build up that comes before it… it’s the sharp decline that happens afterwards. Of course, no world power got to be where it is by being stupid… but once it gets there, it’s big enough and powerful enough that it can survive a few mistakes. This almost always results in making more mistakes. Why not? The first few weren’t so terrible. The damage from them may not even show up as damage immediately, but they start to stack up, and sooner or later the effects are going to be felt… the emperor might have been able to quash the rebellion with the help of the dwarves and with cooperation from the goblins, but the rebellion was a historical inevitability long before that point, because of his earlier missteps in dealing with the provincials… missteps that were still ongoing even as the open revolt spread. Which brings us back to the rum excise, which was an attempt to levy funds to suppress the northern rebellion by further taxes on the island holdings…”

I tried not to get too lost in the chain of thought as the class went on, but it was hard for me not to see the mistakes of the Unnamable Emperor being repeated in modern society, at both personal and institutional levels. The IRM in general and Magisterius University in particular both prided themselves on being racially inclusive, but in both cases the actual level of inclusiveness was very dependent on the other races’ willingness to assimilate in certain ways and to stay in their places in others. We were all thrown into the same holding area, even though we didn’t necessarily have any more in common than the old world orcs had with goblins.

It was stupid and senseless… and it wasn’t a huge stretch to imagine it ending as badly for the university as the policies of the emperor had ended for the old empire.

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7 Responses to “386: Repeating History”

  1. pedestrian says:

    I suspect the La Belle clan is even more inbred then my neighbors.

    Current score: 2
  2. Leon Bullock says:

    Once again, Hart comes out with a great response.

    “How man S-es are in ‘senseless’?” La Belle asked.

    “Just the one, but it gets reused,” Hart said.

    This one had me laughing out loud.

    Current score: 9
    • capybroa says:

      These two never disappoint.

      Current score: 4
    • Taleshunter says:

      I’m more in favor of the “Chocolate misconceptions”

      Current score: 1
  3. Pamela says:

    I think Mack needs to start doing what I used to do when I came across a thought triggering a potential tangent. I would write it down with a star so I knew I wanted to think about it later (or look it up in some cases).

    Current score: 6
  4. MentalBlank says:

    “No, I remember all that… but what kind of misconceptions were they?” Ms. La Belle asked.


    I love these interactions XD

    Current score: 6
  5. Maesenko says:

    That last major paragraph of Mackenzie’s sounds like a wonderful term paper or even a nice piece of thesis work.

    Current score: 5