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The Irredentist

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Aug. 28th, 2012 | 3:19

A tale of the Gentle Art of Compromise. Selah.

In the City of Rigid Splendours, in a garden of the Palace of Ritual Delights (which used to belong to an Emperor), there stands a tall grey box like a sentry box, with its door tightly shut. The master of the Palace (and indeed of the City) is, as they say, lord of all he surveys, except for that box, in which there is a prisoner. Despite appearances, the unfortunate inside is not a prisoner of the box; he is the prisoner of a name —




The Emperor of Infinite Might was unhappy. He was a good man, a conscientious man, though not a patch on some of his predecessors considered merely as an Emperor. And since he was good and conscientious, he was unhappy because his people were unhappy. Being possessed of Infinite Might, he ought to have been able to banish his people’s unhappiness with a wave of his imperial sceptre. The trouble was that he could not begin to imagine how to do it. There seemed no logical connexion between the movements of a sceptre and the emotional state of the populace. But it would not do to take half measures. He might pour out gold from the Imperial Treasury, he might bid his functionaries go out into the towns and the fields and relieve the people’s distress; but some would be relieved more than others, and some might not be relieved at all. Then those who were not relieved would become envious, and they would cry, ‘What sort of Emperor helps only some of his people, when he has Infinite Might and could help them all if he chose?’ So the Emperor did nothing.

One day, while the Emperor was still chewing over this subtle difficulty, a man in peasant rags came to the doorstep of the Palace of Ritual Delights. This was not unusual, sadly, for the unhappiness of the people had attained such extremes; but where most men in peasant rags came to the doorstep with begging bowls, this one came with a document. The sight of a lettered man in such poverty moved the doorman to pity, or at least to a healthy suspicion, so he brought the man to the Emperor at once.

The Emperor of Infinite Might did not stand upon ceremony. Indeed he did not stand at all, but remained firmly seated upon his throne, and inquired bluntly: ‘Who are you, and what is that document?’

‘I am only the humble Sin, Your Serenity,’ said the ragged man; ‘but this document is greater than I am, for it is the Voice of the People.’

‘Is it now? Then give us that, and let us see what the Voice of the People has to say.’

The humble Sin handed over the paper, and since the Emperor showed no sign of reading it on the spot, he set out to explain it himself. ‘Your Serenity, I am deputed to speak for the Tribesmen of the Northern Climes, who are sundered in speech from your other peoples and cannot speak for themselves.’

‘I thought you had a Northern sound about you,’ said the Emperor. ‘What brings you so far, over the Mountains of Inclement Winter and all?’

‘Your Serenity, it is a mission of the utmost delicacy and importance. Your Serenity is the Emperor of Infinite Might and I am only the humble Sin, but it falls to me to bring your Imperial attention to the plight of your Northern people. They are unhappy, Your Serenity.’

‘Are they now,’ said the Emperor. It was not a question.

‘They are,’ said the humble Sin. ‘And since it has not pleased Your Serenity to relieve their unhappiness with a wave of your sceptre, I am sent to ask leave so that they may relieve it themselves.’

‘And how is this miracle to be accomplished?’

‘By Your Serenity’s Imperial seal applied to that document,’ said the humble Sin. ‘It is a charter for the Tribesmen of the Northern Climes, granting them’ — he paused portentously — ‘an Autonomous Commune.’

‘A what?’

‘A thing by which they can govern their own affairs; or at least, have them governed by a man worthy of trust, who speaks their language and knows their troubles.’

The Emperor frowned. ‘That sounds like treason.’

‘It would be so, Your Serenity, if we dared to take such a step without permission. But — we ask for your seal.’

‘And this will relieve the Northern people’s troubles, will it?’

‘Your Serenity, it cannot but. It is a truth known to all the most up-to-date political theorists, that a people can be best ruled by one of their own kind, speaking their own language.’

The Emperor of Infinite Might spent a considerable time in silent thought. It was just possible that there was something to this so-called truth. On the other hand, to give up so much of his authority might seem a sign of weakness. On the other hand, it would lessen his own difficulties; he might just be able to set the rest of his Empire in some kind of order, if those dratted Northmen were thrown back on their own resources. On the other hand, waving his sceptre was not likely to help a smaller Empire any more than a larger one. On the other hand, it was entirely possible that the Northmen would make a pig’s breakfast of their autonomy, and the rest of the people would be profoundly glad to escape such a fate — which would make them more loyal to their Emperor. On the other hand —

The humble Sin waved a diffident hand in front of the Emperor’s face. ‘Your Serenity?’

‘Don’t wave at me,’ the Emperor snapped. ‘What will you do if I refuse?’

I, Your Serenity? Nothing. But some of my countrymen, in the extremity of their distress, might take it upon themselves —’

‘Yes, yes, I see. We can’t have people taking it upon themselves, can we?’

‘No, Your Serenity.’

‘Still, it is a very large boon to ask.’

‘Your Serenity is the soul of generosity.’

‘Generosity! You might as well cut off my arm.’

‘You would not wish to appear unreasonable.’

‘In fact, I ought to set my cavalry on the lot of you.’

‘That would be unpleasant.’

That was true; and an Emperor of Infinite Might must not risk his reputation on a battle. He might not win; and if he lost, what price Infinite Might? No, he had to keep up appearances. Those dratted Northerners had given more trouble than they were worth. It might just be inevitable that they should go their own way.

If you want to pass yourself off as an Emperor of Infinite Might, it helps to have the inevitable on your side.

‘Very well,’ said the Emperor. ‘You shall have your Autonomous Commune. But on one condition: that nothing I grant, now or hereafter, shall in any way impair my Imperial office, or detract from my Infinite Might as touching my own domains.’

‘Your Serenity, no act of man or God shall deprive you of it.’




So the Autonomous Commune came into being: a self-governing society of free and equal people, all under the absolute rule of the humble Sin. Seven years went by while the Tribesmen got the hang of the new system. Some of them needed a good deal of persuading before they quite understood that freedom means doing exactly as you are told. When all that was pleasantly settled, the humble Sin came once more to the doorstep of the Palace. This time he was dressed in the plain grey uniform of an officer of the Commune; but once again he bore a document. He was duly conveyed into the presence.

‘Your Mightiness,’ he said — for the etiquette of the Court had been altered, to lay stress upon the fact that the Emperor really still was one of Infinite Might. ‘I have come to ask another boon on behalf of my people.’

‘What, don’t they like being an Autonomous Commune?’

‘Your Mightiness, it pleases them well. But it seems that there was some imprecision in the drawing of the borders. As this map shows, only those Tribesmen living north of the Mountains of Inclement Winter were included in the Commune. The mountain people are divided, brother from brother, father from son, mother from — you get the idea. They have a grievance, Your Mightiness. I have come to ask that all the Tribesmen, even those south of the Mountains, be given their rightful place in the Commune.’

‘Along with their lands, I suppose,’ said the Emperor drily.

‘That would be best, Your Mightiness.’

‘And if I refuse?’

‘Then some might take it upon themselves —’

‘We can’t have people taking it upon themselves.’

‘No, Your Mightiness.’

‘Still, it’s a considerable concession.’

‘Your Mightiness is the exemplar of understanding.’

‘Understanding! You might as well cut off my arm.’

‘You would not wish to appear unreasonable.’

‘In fact, I ought to abolish your Commune altogether.’

‘That would be unpleasant.’

That was true; and an Emperor of Infinite Might must not go back on his word. He might seem to have changed his mind; and if he could be forced to do that, what price Infinite Might? No, he had to keep up appearances —

‘Very well,’ said the Emperor. ‘Of course, nothing in this grant shall impair my Imperial office or detract from my Infinite Might —’

‘Of course not, Your Mightiness,’ said the humble Sin.




Five more years passed, and again came the humble Sin with a document. He had added a chain of office to his plain grey uniform, and awarded himself the Medal of Communal Merit, First Class. He was duly brought before the Emperor once more.

‘Your Extreme Puissance,’ he said, ‘it is not right that my people should have no access to the sea.’

‘They have leave to send barges down my rivers and waggons down my roads, the same as any of my subjects.’

‘But it is cumbersome, and impedes their prosperity. Crossing the border is a difficult business.’ This was true enough. The customs officers of the Autonomous Commune were both numerous and rapacious; which was hardly the Emperor’s fault, but the humble Sin could not be expected to mention that. ‘So I have come to ask another boon.’

‘I’d have thought your people had got all the boons they could stand.’

‘All they ask,’ said the humble Sin, ‘is a corridor through Imperial territory to the sea, and the Port of Exotic Trades at the end of it. It would greatly convenience them, Your Extreme Puissance.’

‘And greatly inconvenience me, by dividing my Empire in two.’

‘Your Extreme Puissance is the epitome of forbearance.’

‘Forbearance! You might as well cut off my arm.’

‘You would not wish to appear unreasonable.’

‘In fact, I ought to forbid you to use my ports at all.’

‘That would be unpleasant.’

That was true; and an Emperor of Infinite Might must not set out to do things beyond his power. For if some things were beyond his power, what price Infinite Might? No, he had to keep up appearances —

‘Very well,’ said the Emperor. ‘Of course, nothing in this grant. . . .’




Three years later, the humble Sin came back for the territories west of the corridor.

Two years after that, for a Rectification of Frontiers.

A year and a half, and he wanted a share of the City of Rigid Splendours itself. Most of his trade flowed down the River of Ineffable Bliss, right through the city itself, and it was irksome to pay the tolls (and bribe his own customs men).

Another year, and he required the use of part of the Palace grounds.

Six more months, and the Commune needed the Dome of Ineffable Glory and some of the Imperial apartments.

Each time, the humble Sin grew more splendid, more self-assured, and (so the Emperor noticed) not a little fatter. But each time he repeated the litany:

‘If you do not, my people might take it upon themselves —’

‘Your Divine Magnificence is the embodiment of good judgement.’

‘You would not wish to appear unreasonable.’

‘That would be unpleasant.’

And each time the Emperor of Infinite Might gave in, for after all, it would not do to break with precedent. And to do the humble Sin justice, he had never made any attempt to deprive the Emperor of his titles or his Infinite Might, such as it was; and he always made sure that everything was done in the Emperor’s name and with the Emperor’s acquiescence. Appearances were kept up, always.




In the City of Rigid Splendours, in a garden of the Palace of Ritual Delights (which used to belong to the Emperor), there stands a tall grey box, right beside the garden path. The Emperor of Infinite Might is, as they say, lord of all he surveys, as long as he keeps the door tightly shut. The box is just big enough for him to stand up in, though not big enough to let him sit down; so he takes his sleep standing, when he can get it. Twice a day a little wooden flap in the door is opened, and the Emperor is fed through a narrow iron grille. Once a day his chamber pot is removed. But within the bounds of that box, he still has Infinite Might, and no act of man or God may deprive him of it.

The humble Sin wears more silks and jewels than any Emperor, though out of consideration for his Autonomous Commune, he does not wave a sceptre. He has grown so fat that he has to be carried on a litter wherever he goes; particularly on walks through the Palace gardens, to which he is greatly devoted.

Just the other day, the humble Sin discovered that he had grown too fat to fit in the path at all, and he was mightily distressed. The path is going to be widened, and the box will have to be made six inches narrower. So tomorrow, they are going to cut off the Emperor’s arm.

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Comments {1}

Wendy S. Delmater

On so many levels

from: safewrite
date: Aug. 28th, 2012 19:36 (UTC)
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This reminds me of the perils of incrementalism. Or the Palestinian/Israeli "peace" process. Or slowly boiling a frog.

Were you thinking at all of "Sir Farmer Giles of Ham"?

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