Usbeck’s Visit, Part I
Usbeck had travelled far on his journey out of the desert and the steppe, and had finally reached after many months a strange and fabulous land teeming with people and wealthy beyond imagining. He found in this land two rival tribes, who feared and loathed the other with such an intensity as Usbeck had never seen. Family vendettas in his own country had been more civil and restrained, but here the curses, the blood-oaths and the threats curdled his blood.
They waved their coloured banners, one red, one blue, as standards to prepare their forces for battle, and with the joy of a mob of children being offered candy the followers on either side charged forward under these banners to crush the foe and reduce him to humiliation. But the strange thing that Usbeck noticed was that only a few from each side ever did battle at any one time, while most remained motionless, except to cheer on their champions from the sideline. When he asked why this, a young man explained that there were only a few contests that were allowed to be serious and violent in each battle. It was much more fair this way. It ensured that those who had wielded power corruptly in the past would escape most of the consequences and those who gained power in opposition to their corruption would be forced to strike deals with the corrupt. Usbeck could see the advantages of this, and began asking how he could join in this richly rewarding enterprise. It was then explained to him that you could not simply join in, but had to be groomed over many years of tedious service before the tribal elders would allow you to compete in the battles. Usbeck was discouraged by this, but decided to visit the camp of each tribe to see if this was indeed true and perhaps to learn more of the strange customs of the people he had encountered here.
First he visited the tribe with the red banner, as they seemed to him the far more fearsome and powerful of the two. They currently possessed the trophy of victory, a dessicated cow skull with red and black ribbons tied to its horns, and seemed supremely confident of themselves. There was, he was told, another tribe somewhere else that was unbelievably dangerous and had to be combated at all costs; there was no question that the red tribe had to remain in control, or else the entire country would be reduced to chattel slavery, her cities burned to the ground and all of the cattle driven away by the victorious conquerors. The red tribe seemed assured that the sheer rightness of their cause would carry the day. Consequently, they were unconcerned that they had no weapons, and no plan except to point at the other side and laugh. Usbeck thought this was a very strange way of going about winning a battle, but he assumed that this was a native custom and did not presume to speak against it. He was more curious about the large structure near the center of their camp, and he asked one of the leaders of the tribe what it was.
“That is where we keep our supporters until we need them.” It appeared to be a dank and collapsing dungeon, the sort that Usbeck had seen in his country many times, and he could hear the piteous cries for help from the imprisoned. Usbeck was unsure of what to make of this, so he asked, simply enough, “Why would you imprison your supporters?”
“It’s good for them! It keeps their minds focused on the only thing that matters–winning the battle. We have kept this cow skull for so long that we cannot dare to part with it. We have no idea who we are without it. It is our totem and our god.”
Usbeck was impressed at the religious piety of these people, and wanted to learn more about their customs. The leader, a strange, twitchy man who spoke in broken phrases (surely a mark that he had been touched by the gods) told him that the very spirit of the tribe was bound up in maintaining the dungeon Usbeck had just seen. If the dungeon were ever to be opened to let out more than a few at a time, or should it ever collapse all together, there would never be any hope of winning the future battles. The trick to keeping the people in the dungeon, he told Usbeck, was to convince them that they needed to stay in the dungeon for their own protection from the horrible, demonic blue tribe. It was necessary to tell them that they lived inside a fortress, not in a dank cell, and their chains were there to keep them from wandering off and becoming lost in the wilderness (there were stories of dangerous and wild men who lived in the forest who spoke of unseemly things called a ‘constitution’ and ‘the republic’, but everyone knew they were insane). Usbeck had a hard time believing people would be so stupid, but the leader contradicted him, “No, it’s true, they believe it every time! We usually march by the prison with cymbals and start making strange growling noises and occasionally shout something about the gods, and they are completely convinced.” Usbeck was amazed at the wisdom of this leader, but he asked if he could see the inside of the dungeon for himself. The leader was an amiable man, and agreed. He led Usbeck into the dungeon personally…