226: Scarce Principles

on May 29, 2008 in Book 8

In Which Mackenzie Is Blessed

After that grim conversation, it felt like I’d used up a lot of the calm, centered feeling my early morning relaxation had engendered in me. The last thing I wanted to do was go to class and try to focus on a lecture with my head full of worries about Steff… and worries about myself, actually. Nobody but Viktor knew exactly what he had in store for me.

Still, I liked my thaumatology class, I’d missed a bunch of classes already, and it would be hypocritical of me not to go after telling Steff off for trying to get me to ditch classes with her before. Also, even if Steff couldn’t see her education as a path to a future career, my degree featured heavily in my life plans.

“Ah! Welcome back, Miss Mackenzie,” Professor Goldman called as I was making my way to the seat. “There was a quiz on Friday, which you may choose to make up, or you may use your remaining free pass on it. Since you weren’t here Wednesday, I wouldn’t make you take it today… just get the notes from somebody and then see me during my office hours any time this week.”

“Thank you,” I said, nodding. I would definitely take him up on that. There was no sense blowing my free one hundred percent on a regular quiz this early in the semester. I might actually need it later.

I could also tell him about my prefered form of address. I didn’t really feel like shouting it out in the lecture hall. Not with a teacher I liked and respected.

“This week, we’re going to be talking about a couple of rules called the Principles of Balance,” Goldman said, beginning his lecture. “Well, three rules. It’s a very modern sort of couple.” He paused for laughter that didn’t really come. “But before we get too far into that, we need to take a moment to talk about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive. A lot of people don’t really grasp this, and they come out of classes like this one knowing the rules and theories but not actually knowing their proper application.

“The point is easiest to illustrate with an example. Imagine you’re a big, strong, fierce warrior type—imagine hard—living in a small village and one of the villagers looks at you and says, ‘Nobody in this village can defeat you.’ That proclamation is descriptive. There is nobody in the village, at that point in time, who is able to defeat you. With me so far?”

He paused and looked around the room to see if his words were sinking in.

“Ah! The blank stare, the universally recognized symbol for ‘yes’,” he said. “Now, on the other hand, if the skies should part and a divinity should come to earth and say, ‘I, a divinity, proclaim that from this day forward, nobody in this village can defeat you,’ that is prescriptive. The same words: ‘Nobody in this village can defeat you.’ Different meaning. You don’t have to be a divine being to make that sort of proclamation… but it helps. The death curse of a dwarven king, faerie folk gathered in sufficient numbers… well, this is actually getting a bit off topic. My point in illuminating the difference between prescriptive and descriptive is to emphasize that the ‘rules’ under discussion are descriptive in nature… at least, most of the time. Got it? Blank stare. Good.”

He went to the board and scrawled the word “Scarcity” on it, with two slanted lines beneath it pointing to “General” and “Relative.”

“The first Principle of Balance, which we will be discussing today, is called the Principle of Scarcity,” he said. “Though, this one principle actually comprises two related ideas: General Scarcity and Relative Scarcity. General Scarcity is fairly simple: it’s easier to ‘magic up’ a rock than a diamond, or copper than silver or gold. This is mostly a descriptive observation. There are usually reasons why the rarer, more valuable substances are more difficult to acquire through magic. If you don’t care what kind of rock you’re getting, it’s pretty easy to make or get a hold of one through mystic means. If you’re looking for something specific, it gets more complicated and harder… especially if you want something like flawless quartz or strong granite. By the time you work your way up to decent quality diamonds, you’re almost better off mining the suckers. Similarly, silver and gold are both more mystically potent and elementally complex than copper, so of course they’re more difficult to manage. That, ladies and gentlemen, is General Scarcity.

“For Relative Scarcity, let’s use the example of water. Logically, it’s not a particularly scarce substance. It’s one of the four fundamental elements of the world, after all. So, let’s use the example of creating water to illustrate Relative Scarcity. Of course, ‘create’ is imprecise. You can conjure water from another location. You can invoke water that is present in other matter. You can summon water from the plane of such. You can transmute another substance into water. There’s probably other things you could do, but those are the most obvious.

“Now, let’s imagine two different wizards with sufficiently broad repertoires that they could each manage all of those feats and more. One lives on a houseboat in the middle of a giant lake, and the other lives in a sandstone hut in the middle of an arid desert.

“If the lake-dwelling wizard, for some reason, felt the need to conjure up a bucket of water, his spell wouldn’t have to go far to find it. If he wanted to invoke water out of the air, there’s plenty to go around. If he wants to summon it, the elemental affinity of the place will work strongly in his favor. Likewise if he’s going to start transmuting things: many objects in the environment will be sufficiently ‘watery’ to begin with to make this difficult task slightly easier.

“On the other hand, our friend in the desert is not so fortunate. His conjuration attempt is likely to fail unless he spends considerable time and energy maintaining the spell so it can locate some water in the first place. If he tries to invoke water from the air or the ground, he’ll have to push harder to gather up the minute quantities of water present. The affinities would be against summoning water, and transmuting something as un-watery as desert sand into water would be complex and time consuming.

“The practical effect of this should be obvious: those who have lots of water to begin with can get more by magic. Those who don’t, can’t. However, I have to stress again: descriptive, not prescriptive. If you give our floating friend a not-particularly-watery rock and ask him to invoke water from it, he’ll not have any easier a time doing that than the hermit in the hut… and if the hermit happens to spy a cloud floating overhead and decides to call rain from it, no heavenly force will intervene and go ‘Oops, sorry. No water magic in the desert.’ It’s the difficulty of finding an opportunity for water-making in the desert that the principle describes.”

The Principle of Scarcity was particularly interesting to me because of Dee’s talk about the harshness of life in the underlands. She’d first commented on the comparative ‘bounty’ of the surface during Two’s little dinner party, and her mention of the luxury of bathing sort of dovetailed with the professor’s example. The subterranean caverns and passageways which the underground elves roamed were a desert of sorts. With food and water hard to come by in the first place, magic would not be a cure-all.

It really wasn’t that surprising that Dee’s people were so devoutly religious, under the circumstances. Divine magic had its own inscrutable limitations, but apart from matters like sanctity, I don’t think they had as much to do with the immediate environment. During the early years of their exile beneath the ground, divine magic had probably been the only thing keeping the race alive many times.

While I mused on that, the professor was moving on to other examples of the Principle of Scarcity and its ramifications. It was, he mentioned, one of the reasons why experiments in using cheaper materials to mint money were doomed to fail… a subject that had been touched on in my history class. Gold was valuable in and of itself and was hard to produce by any means. A piece of junk metal with a picture of a king or emperor on it was just junk, and no harder to reproduce than any other scrap.

“There is a school of thought,” he said, “that if you had a completely non-magical society, you could use anything as money, even pieces of paper that would either represent a certain amount of gold or would simply have a set value by government fiat. As long as the design was complex enough to make copying by hand impossible, your ‘money’ could be treated as a valuable commodity in and of itself. I see you shaking your heads out there.”

Indeed, there was a lot of mumbled disagreement and incredulous looks around the room. I understood why… it was a ridiculous idea. Even if it couldn’t be duplicated, why would people accept scraps of paper in place of actual gold?

“It’s really not that far-fetched an idea,” the professor insisted. “Right now, a large amount of our ‘money’ exists as marks in a ledger book or in the form of promisory notes with a magically-verifiable seal or signature on them. That’s to say nothing of charged cards. Metalless money is all over the place. The only thing that stops it from being completely ubiquitous is the ubiquity of magic… magic and the Principle of Scarcity.”

He had some points, though I didn’t think it necessarily followed that people would accept these things outright as a replacement for gold instead of just a proxy for it, but since it was a hypothetical aside it didn’t bother me that much.

All in all, it was an interesting class, as always. He probably could have just stood up and said, “These are the Principles of Balance, and these are their definitions. They’ll be on the test.” There were probably teachers who did just that. He spent an entire class going through variations on one principle to make sure we actually understood it.

Steff didn’t join us for lunch, just as she’d sort of hinted. Neither did Two. I was worried, but Amaranth told me her class was having a party. The presentation she’d mentioned was apparently part of it.

“When did she say that?” I asked her as we headed over to the student union.

“While we were decorating yesterday,” Amaranth said. “We talked about a lot of things, actually.” She shook her head sadly. “Do you know, she told me she doesn’t care if she never has sex again. Can you imagine?”

“Given her history? I think I can,” I said.

“Oh, look, it’s Dee!” Amaranth said, waving at the cloaked figure waiting in the shade of the overhang in front of the union. “I guess she’s joining us again. That’s nice.”

It was hard to tell if Dee felt any embarrassment over the breakfast conversation, even once we got inside and she lowered her cowl. Her face was pretty impassive.

“It still feels odd, not blessing my food before I eat it,” she remarked once we’d all sat down with our trays.

“You could always say a quick prayer over it before coming back to the table,” Amaranth said.

“That strikes me an ideal prelude to an unfortunate accident,” Dee said. “I think I shall simply continue to adjust. I believe this is one of the blessings of the college environment: it allows us to experience new situations which we would not otherwise be likely to encounter. If my background makes me doubly blessed in this regard, I shall simply accept it.”

“I think you’re right,” I said.

“Oh?” Dee said.

“If new experiences weren’t a blessing, I wouldn’t find them so painful,” I said.

Dee almost smiled at this. Apparently, more open and expressive Dee was here to stay. Since she was in a good mood, and Steff wasn’t around to sidetrack the discussion, I decided to confirm what I thought I’d worked out that morning, and maybe get a little more context for it.

“Um, is it okay if I ask a question?” I said. “About what you said at breakfast?”

“So long as you are respectful and it does not directly involve my childhood eating habits, I do not mind,” Dee said.

“The Dehsah you mentioned… is that the same…”

“Dehsah is both my former nursemaid and my current lover, yes,” Dee said.

“Like I was saying before, I think it’s wonderful that you were able to parlay that sort of close relationship you must have had as a child into an even closer one when you became an adult,” Amaranth said.

“I would be inclined to agree,” Dee said.

“But… doesn’t anybody find that weird?” I asked. “I mean, is that kind of thing common in your culture?”

“The age difference does not mean as much in elven society,” Dee said. “If I were to show you an image of my mother and my great-great grandmother without their hoods, I doubt you would be able to tell which is which. With births sometimes spaced out over decades or centuries, the concept of ‘generations’ as something that has meaning across family lines does not exist.”

“Okay, I guess that makes sense,” I said. I thought about asking how old Dehsah was, but I figured that would be rude.

“Though my studies and temple duties often kept us apart for several shifts at a time, I cannot remember a time in my life when I was separated from Dehsah for this long,” Dee said. “I wonder if…”

“What?” Amaranth prompted when Dee trailed off.

Dee shook her head.

“It is nothing,” she said. “An idle speculation into the unknowable motivations of my goddess. In any event, I worry for my pretty Dehsah. I have other lovers… an other lover… but he is much more self-sufficient. Darek is like a hardy fungus, taking hold wherever he lands and thriving in any environment.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could have brought them with you?” Amaranth asked.

“They both have duties,” Dee said. “Darek especially. He’s in the house guard, and on track to the bottom of the pillar of command. We expect him to be chosen as captain in the next few cycles. Even if it were possible for him to take an extended leave now, it would not be prudent. He hand-picked my escorts to the surface, though.”

“That’s sweet,” Amaranth asked. “And Dehsah?”

“Dehsah was not made for arduous journeys,” Dee said. “The risks would be too great to be allowed.”

“What does she do?

“For the past two thousand some cycles, Dehsah’s reared the children of my family line,” Dee said. “In between and before that… various duties.”

“Two thousand?” I repeated.

“I told you, age differences are not as important,” Dee said.

“Yeah, and if you meant like where one person’s six hundred and the other’s eight hundred, I’d agree,” I said. “But, over a thousand years old and hooking up with a thirty-year-old?”

“Baby…” Amaranth said warningly.

“The only respect in which our ages are relevant is that we are both adults,” Dee said. “And that is all the more I will say on the subject.”

“That’s all anyone will say on the subject,” Amaranth said.

“Sorry,” I said. “It just… it’s weird to me. I mean, if she’s been like a servant or whatever for so long, don’t you worry that she might just be using you? Or that other people might think that?”

“I would say the fact that Dehsah occupied her former position without complaint for so long is a strong indicator that no such motive exists,” Dee said. “My mother’s consort, Durilla, expressed such a concern early on in our relationship, but others, with more receptive mental gifts, have confirmed that her suspicions are groundless. Not that this stops her from pestering my mother and the matriarch with… I apologize. I should not be subjecting you to my family squabbles.”

“That’s okay,” Amaranth said. “It’s interesting. We’re all living so close together but we all know so little about each other, really. It’s nice to see the person under the hood sometimes.”

“Indeed,” Dee said.

After lunch, I had just enough time to tell Amaranth that Viktor had set the time for my punishment and receive a few vague reassurances and a reminder of her love before she had to run and get ready for her next class. I, on the other hand, didn’t have anything to do until after three.

It was going to be a long afternoon.

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3 Responses to “226: Scarce Principles”

  1. pedestrian says:

    “If new experiences weren’t a blessing, I wouldn’t find them so painful,” I said.

    A painfully learned truism for all of us, Mackenzie.

    Current score: 13
  2. Anthony says:

    I was groaning over the “charged cards” thing, until I saw “the bottom of the pillar of command”. Now I’m groaning over both. 😛

    Current score: 4
    • Anon says:

      That second one isn’t a pun, it’s a perfectly logical adaptation of the phrase to having developed within a different culture. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than pasting american vernacular over every “alien” culture like most lazy writer do.

      Current score: 3