Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Western Baronies: The Rise and Fall of Imperialism

IMPERIALISM ASCENDANT

After a century of peace, followed by a decade of war, Marikuhl had transformed from a carefree frontier nation into a mighty world-threatening empire[1]. The aid offered to the emperor by the Ordo Astra Lyceum had its terrible price paid—during the war and after. One hundred years of human sacrifice also changed the character of the empire. Its leadership became significantly more jaded, more inured to horror and compromise. Though the war had been won, demon worship forever became embedded as a constant in the Marikuhlian nobility and public consciousness[2].

The War of Vengeance left a deep and abiding mark on the Marikuhlian persona, making the people more conscious of war and the nobility more aware of the potential of military force. The necessities of military action over the decade of the war forged the Marikuhlian Empire into a militant and rigid hierarchy, one in which military service was the highest goal a commoner could achieve and in which nobles were expected to be generals.

Quelling the remaining rebellions in Ovidium and exacting tribute from the defeated took the better part of a century, during which Marikuhl grew fat and strong on the labors of those who would have been their masters. Finally, after the end of the century of repayment to the demon-god of the Atlantean Ocean, Marikuhl extracted its interests from Ovidium and turned its attention to home. The society there was unlike the one that had existed before the war—more politically charged, more militant, crueler. Demon worship was as common as the following of the gods from the Old World.

Over the following centuries[3], Marikuhl solidified its hold upon the eastern half of Galatea, ignoring the largely desolate lands beyond the Corundum Mountains in the west. At the same time, the Marikuhlians, expanding for the first time in over two hundred years, drew the attention of forces both to the north and south of their empire.

To the north, a savage and clannish people called the Asatru[4] had ceased warring with one another and began turning their gaze outward. The Asatru had once been a seafaring people, descendants of an ancient colony long forgotten by the empire that spawned it, but their livelihood had been destroyed by the Marikuhlian pact with the demon-god of the ocean. The storms that prevented the Ovidians from crossing the ocean also prevented the Asatru from fishing. Starvation decimated their numbers, and it took them long generations to repopulate. Finally, their numbers strong once more, they rebuilt their mighty ocean fleet and began preying on Marikuhlian trading ships and Ovidian tribute vessels.

South of Marikuhl, lay an empire with a history spanning many centuries, the land of Teotihuacal[5]. The Marikuhlians knew of a distant land populated by strange folk, but only during the expansion period did they actually have cause to encounter them. Where demon worship was an accepted, if somewhat distasteful, part of life in Marikuhl, in Teotihuacal it was the norm. Frequent and public blood sacrifices and daily bloodsports were the accepted order in Teotihuacal, all under the fanatical rule of a group of god-kings—arcanists drawing immense power from their demonic patrons. As imperial lands encroached upon their ancestral lands, Marikuhlian citizens began to disappear from their homes, victims of Teotihuacal raiding parties.

Both of these problems would occupy Marikuhlian public consciousness and the military’s attention for the next two centuries.


TROUBLED TIMES

While vanquished, Ovidium was far from content with its lot. Many of the countries that had stood aside in the War of Vengeance came to regret their actions, feeling that if they had aided their former enemies, then perhaps they could have beaten back the colonials[6]. Now that Marikuhl had demonstrated its power and quelled its rivals, they feared, the day would come when Marikuhl’s expansionism would lead them to conquer the rest of the continent. The continuing Marikuhlian presence in the neighboring nations did little to allay their fears on this matter, and the noted continuance of demon worship in Marikuhl only made matters tenser.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a leader of one minor nation began forging secret alliances with neighboring leaders, seeking to build a coalition to stand against Marikuhlian ambition when the time came. The rumors of a gathering army were reported to Marikuhlian spies almost immediately. Before the War of Vengeance, such a rumor would have been greeted with cautious concern, and right after the war, it would have been met with humorous disdain. In the centuries since the war, however, the Marikuhlian leadership had grown paranoid of threats and greedy for resources—an unstable combination even at the best of times.

Based on these rumors, the military was mobilized and prepared for battle against once-harmless Ovidian countries. Even the battle-hardened soldiers of Marikuhl showed pause, however, when they found that their opponents were militarily weak and hardly a threat at all. Even the basic mutual defense agreements made by the Ovidians fell apart under the hammer of Marikuhlian force, and nation after nation fell in stunning fashion.

Desperate to save their people, a group of Ovidian sorcerers turned to dark patrons for aid in much the same way that the Marikuhlians had done so long before. This time, however, they did not simply seek to delay the invading force, as had the Marikuhlians, but to utterly destroy it. Such magic exacted a higher price than they were truly prepared to pay, however. While the demon-god summoned up by the Ovidians wiped out nine-tenths of the Marikuhlian invasion force, the population of their entire nation was consumed, to the last man, woman, and child.

The few remaining soldiers returned to their commanders, beaten and broken by the sights they had seen during the demon-haunted night thereafter called “the Scourging.” Faced with a crippling shortage of manpower and a possible mutiny if they chose to remain, the leaders of the army chose to limp back to Marikuhl, skeleton crews manning the ships that once held hundreds. While the nobility publicly mourned their losses, privately they fumed over those losses. With the army diminished their previous stranglehold on power was loosened, perhaps fatally.

The people did not take this opportunity to rebel, as their leaders had feared, but only stoked their anger against the Ovidians. Their faith in their noble ruling class was harmed, however, and the common Marikuhlians gained a deep distrust of their leaders. This distrust, and the weakness of the noble families, allowed a burgeoning merchant class to rise from the commoners, gaining power and influence in areas of daily life that had once been the sole province of the noble class[7].

Where nobles could once simply order their commoners to perform labors in exchange for a portion the food they themselves had grown by virtue of controlling a large military force, the losses in the Scourging War made such simplicity impossible. Now, those that had money could gain greater service than nobles, who were forced by necessity to themselves offer payment for things once theirs for free. As a corollary of this fact, merchants—who were expert at producing goods or moving them around in such a way as to generate profit—could make money more efficiently than nobles—whose sole skill, generally, was rulership[8].

The noble families gradually grew weaker as the merchant class strengthened, their control over the non-military aspects of Marikuhlian life slipping dramatically. Within a decade of the losses suffered during the Scourging, many merchants were living as well as their betters had done; within two, many merchants were the de facto rulers of their regions and provinces, governing through the regulation of trade while the nobles were too weak to stop them.


THE SUCCESSION WAR

The Succession War of half a century ago initially started as a conflict over the rights of individual noble families as compared to the inclusive powers of the imperial court[9]. Over the last decade, the imperial family and the emperor’s court had been placing more power directly in their own hands, circumventing the traditional checks and balances of provincial control by passing sweeping laws that affected all territories equally.

The initial thrust of these laws were actually designed to hamper the power of the merchant class, now that the empire’s army was back up to strength and the reigning emperor strong enough personally to envision their defeat. With the merchants thus hampered, however, trade slowed and stagnated, making goods more expensive locally and regionally, as well as damaging the remaining trade interests of many noble families.

Those nobles that had adapted to life under a strong economic system resented the trade law changes, while those that had not done so were too poor to truly benefit from them. The new taxes greatly benefited the emperor’s family and those families that had gained his favor, but few others saw profit from the alteration.

As the emperor’s court grew richer and more decadent, the rest of the nation suffered in poverty. Many merchants continued to trade goods under cover of night, turning to smuggling and racketeering to make their profits. Crime rates soared as even normal people were forced to turn to crime to support themselves. The nobles, ever struggling for dominance, entered the contest as well, bringing finesse and skill to the tables of the underworld.

The war was truly happening in the shadows and dark corners of the land for months before it was officially declared. When a minor noble family was implicated in the death of a merchant family leader ostensibly under the protection of a major noble family, the two groups went to war. Such a thing had never been done in the empire before, and all too quickly, now that the traditional means of settling grudges had been passed by, old hates and rivalries came to the fore. Within a month, most of the noble families were at war with one or more of their fellows.

The imperial family struggled to remain above it all, impartial and beyond reproach. Fear of the imperial legions and remaining respect for the emperor’s line kept the noble families from acting against the emperor directly, but they stayed deaf to repeated pleas to end the conflict.

Five years passed with the empire locked in a nearly constant state of warfare. Entire noble lines were extinguished in the conflict, and the common people suffered greatly. Starvation became a real concern in many provinces, as well as increased bandit activity, the commonality of criminal syndicates, and the rapaciousness of the army. In battles, few distinctions were made against military or civilian targets, and the citizens of rival provinces were often seen as little more than spoils by an invading force. The war raged on, no end in sight.

In the fifth year of the Succession War, a battle spilled over into imperial territory, and a legion responded to the encroachment with lethal force. Both enemy commanders turned on the interlopers, and the legion was destroyed, nearly to a man. When the dust settled, the emperor decreed both families at fault and commanded that they be eliminated. Rather than wait for the command to be fulfilled, one of the families—no one is quite sure which—had the emperor assassinated. Now truly leaderless, the empire collectively drew its breath in horror.

For over six hundred years, the line of the emperors had been sacrosanct, untouchable. Now, an emperor had been murdered by those that called him liege. The other noble families rallied around his death as a point of honor, setting aside differences to destroy both families—for in their eyes, both had been to blame. When the dust settled, and those two families had been eliminated, a truce was brokered with the new emperor, oaths were renewed, and the nobles looked out upon their folly and wept.


Notes:

[1] Much like America did after World War I. Admittedly, the timeline here isn't a direct analogue to American history, but it's a fantasy setting, so I've got some leeway.

[2] If one were politically minded, one could interpret this as America's increasing willingness to compromise its founding principles in the face of expedience.

[3] I leave this time vague here, but I believe I later establish the overall amount of time that Marikuhl has been around, so it's possible to extrapolate it from that.

[4] Yes, Vikings. Everything is better with Vikings. Especially if they're stand-ins for Canadians. =3

[5] Also, Aztecs. I tried my best to depict the neighboring cultures as not actually worse than Marikuhl, just a different kind of corrupt. This isn't a personal commentary on Canadians and Mexicans so much as it is a way to build up the Old West's mythology into a coherent sense of otherness. In the milieu of the Old West, all "foreigners" are dangerous; at least the natives have some sort of nobility amidst their savagery.

[6] This really is the sort of regret that France's nobility felt in aiding America's revolution when their own people rose up against them a few years later. Other colonial powers would look back on the American and French revolutions as the beginning of the end of the colonial age, though Britain would continue expanding well into the 20th century.

[7] The rise of the middle class is a necessary step toward the settlement of the west.

[8] This is intended to be a direct comparison to the decline of samurai power at the end of the Tokugawa Period, leading into the Meiji Restoration.

[9] Yes, it's the American Civil War.

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