Some more Empire backstory
The slaves found their voice.
This was five hundred and thirty-seven years before the main action in Empire (1), and we know this because the main action in Empire takes place in the year 537. The slaves had never had a calendar, while they lived under the boot of their masters. Their masters’ calendar was incomprehensible to them. The same year, to the old, sorcerous races, is the 53rd Year of the Locust, but the rules by which that Locust succeeded the 18th Year of the Flea are opaque to those that cast off their shackles. A look at a magician’s almanac would reveal nothing of sense to the former slaves, and in this can be seen, in microcosm, the conceptual divide ;that changed the world.
At some time before that year of revolution, that year zero of the new calendar, the slaves began to improve their lot, and improve the lot of their masters, too. They had lived under the yoke for centures, millennia, doing everything the same way as their ancestors. They farmed, they smithed, they built, and all of it with simple tools and traditions handed down through the generations. Their masters, concerned with more otherworldly matters, let them get on with it, intervening only when their needs were not tended to.
The story of the revolution is the story of the Lowlands, although its echoes were felt across the world. The Lowlands, as they are now known, were once the domain of the Moth-kinden, who ruled over a subject population of Beetle- and Ant-kinden slaves with the aid of their Mantis warrior servants. Although the Moth-kinden preferred the cold altitudes of the mountains for their homes, they established a city named Pathis as a coastal retreat, and shipped in a population of Beetles to serve them there. In Pathis, after so many years of quiet, something happened.
It was not the great, sudden, violent overthrow that popular history records. These things do not work in such ways. It would have started simply and peacefully, and the masters would have had no idea that they were observing their doom when they saw the new toys of their workers. Perhaps it was a new way of grinding wheat by harnessing the river or the wind. Perhaps it was a new way of drawing water by means of a screw, or ; of lifting loads by pulley and counterweight. It made the lives of the slaves easier and it made them more efficient servants, and so none of the magician-lords were alarmed. Their ability to scry the future, much vaunted amongst their kind, had a blind spot where progress was concerned. They had their minds on higher matters, they would say, but the truth is that their magical divinations saw none of it. Moreover, and more crucially, their minds encompassed none of it. The principles that their industrious servants utilised to achieve these advances were as baffling to them as their magic was to those same servants. The divide between the haves and the have-nots was widening, but in such a way that those who had done without were finding ways to compensate. Steadily, and then rapidly, the slave races were becoming ingenious, and none more so than the bustling Beetles of Pathis. Pathis was a place of some luxury, in those days, and even the servants lived relatively easy lives. They had time, that the labouring peasantry did not, to think about the world and how it worked.
The key moment came when the toiling underclass realised that their new tool of emancipation, the fruits of their labours, truly belonged to them. Their masters could not comprehend it, could not use it. Lock a chest as crudely as you liked, and you denied its contents to the masters, or at least those that did not wish to crack open the container to learn its contents. Refuse to operate the mill, and the masters could puzzle over the gears until winter came, without ever seeing the smallest piece of it, and by now they were dependant on the increased supply of bread those mills brought in. The slaves began to realise the power of supply and demand.
Relations between the masters and their servants went downhill, we can be sure. Records from the days immediately before the revolution are not plentiful in either camp, but no doubt there were some Moths who wanted to order in the Mantis-kinden, to enact a cull that would break the back of the new pride their slaves had grown. Others, for they were a philosophical race, would have spoken against that, perhaps they had even become fond of their slaves and their mysterious toys.
What popular history records, though, as the spark of the revolution, is the invention of a new weapon. Nowadays the less-educated, and some that should know better, would say that the crossbow was all the revolution was about, disregarding all those decades of less martial innovation. Still, the crossbow tipped the balance.
The weapons of the old regime were the sword, the spear, the bow and the claw. The Mantis-kinden were swift and deadly, an unholy terror to any slave that had displeased his masters. They were never many, though, even in their prime. However, when all the slaves could muster were shortswords and work-hammers and slings, that did not matter. A single Mantis-kinden of moderate skill could butcher a score of ill-trained peasants without breaking into a sweat. A Weaponsmaster could do the same without getting a drop of blood on herself.
Longbows are a skilled warrior’s weapon. Longbows take constant practice, focused strength, a steady hand and a good eye. Even the shortbows that the Moth-kinden favoured required expertise, and of course none of the slaves would be allowed the chance to acquire such skills.
The crossbows that the Beetle-kinden invented struck nearly as hard as the longbow, and at close to the same range, although they were horribly slow to load. Their lesser advantage was that they were quicker and easier to make. Without poetry or elegance in their crafting or use, they were the weapon for the masses, and the masses took to them with a sudden fervour. Their greater advantage was that anyone could use them with a minimum of training, anyone except the masters. The old races, the races that had leant on magic and never understood the new principles of force and stress and moving parts, could not ever understand even the simple crossbow. The mental block was complete. They could pick it up, and they could even pull the trigger if carefully coached, but they were as likely to hit a friend as an enemy, and as for reloading…
The Moth-kinden and their followers were driven from Pathis by the Beetle-kinden, and their control over the Lowlands collapsed almost overnight. City after city cast them out, the Ant-kinden taking readily to the Beetles’ new weapon, and defeating warbands and even armies of Mantis-kinden in the field by using their mind-linking Art to coordinate their battle. The old warfare of individual duel and mobile skirmish gave way to the Ant way: solid blocks of infantry, shields and swords and ranks of crossbows. In a staggeringly short time, there was nothing left of the great Moth-kinden rule but a couple of mountaintop communities, and a few forest holds of the Mantids.
The rest of the world changed less catastrophically, but as if that first revolution in Pathis had broken some fundamental natural law, the rot set in everywhere. The old Dominion of Khanaphes, far to the east, had already fallen into ruin; the Dragonfly Commonweal closed its borders and began to lose control of its own principalities to anarchy and brigandage; the Spider-kinden retained a hold on their lands, but their rule became less and less reliant on magic, and more on simple persuasion and manipulation. It was the dawn of a new age.
In Pathis, the Beetles took stock, and began to construct themselves a new state from first principles. Their first maxim (2) was that there would never again be a slave within their walls. Their second maxim was that they would, at least, retain some of the trappings of their fled masters, most specifically the great academy of learning that had been completed only a few years before the revolution. They called it the Great College, and they renamed their newly-freed city Collegium.
Just under five and a half centuries later it would be Collegium, with its high ideals and beliefs, that would begin to resist the encroaches of the Wasp Empire, as Empire in Black and Gold begins to tell.
And magic? Standing in the ruins of their masters’ fall, with the Moths fled and gone and the bright sun beating down, the slaves looked at one another as if to say, What was stopping us doing this, all that time? Freedom brought an end to fear, and the old magic had always fed on fear and doubt and darkness. The Beetles and Ants recalled the ways that their former overlords had cowed them, and called them tricks, and called themselves gullible for falling for it. Magic was a fiction, they said, and if the Moths still believed in it, more fool them. Machines were the future, not a bogus rule of charlatans and conmen living off the toil of the honest. So it was that the great dark magics of the Moths, of all the elder kinden, fell from the pages of the new histories and, in these enlightened times, nobody believes a word of it (3).
(1) ; ; A note for the pedants: chapter 1 takes place in the year 520, the balance of the book takes place in 537.
(2) ; ; And one not followed by their fellow former slaves such as the Ant-kinden, who continued to enslave one another with glee for centuries.
(3) ; ; ;After Douglas Adams, of course.