Oct 28, 2021 10:17 AM
Bell and Theo in Shadows of the Limelight
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"On the subject of intelligence, he has minor reports from several locations, updating our political assessments slightly. He summarizes it as 'no surprises'. The Zenith's movements are also updated, and she is not expected to be nearby for the next several months at least." Chellas holds its own grudges, especially at the top.

"Outside the explicit goals, he notes an innovation among the Scythians, an illustrati who has created a weekly printed broadsheet of news. She has received some notoriety for the endeavor, but he notes it for two particular qualities that recommend it to us: first, it encourages literacy and puts the printed word in the hands of the populace, as several councilors have noted they favor. Second, small memoirs of local people in very ill health are included, such that they might temporarily receive standing and so recover more quickly and safely from their diseases."

"I move to ask the city council to investigate feasibility of establishing a similar endeavor here in Myzathas."

"The captain anticipated this and has some preliminary notes. Additionally, I have here a collection of the broadsheet, primarily from the week in which he visited; he was interviewed and it contains an article about him among other topics."

"I agree with the motion but ask to table it until we have examined the broadsheet and heard the notes."

"Oh, taking all my fun! Very well, let's..."


After they'd read, and heard, he continued.

"Further notes on the subject of that visit. This was the same city in which the sparring incident occurred: he sought to secure the benefit to his standing of the interview, and considered good relations with the area more relevant than normal. Particularly, he notes the woman in question as of interest. I request to name her while reading the report."

"Seconded, proceed."

"This woman was previously known to us as Curator, the founder and proprietor of a library of some note, which contained some of the gathered material on antecedents. She now trades as Gazette, and devised both the idea of the paper of news and the medical benefits to it. She related to him that she thought the existence of a useful and entertaining written work, regularly occurring, would be salutary on encouraging literacy, in a way he thinks would be complementary to direct education. Gazette also expressed hope that it would have benefits toward funneling standing toward those whose deeds are beneficial, not merely memorable. On the basis of her clear talents for novel ideas, he suggests that rather than simply importing the innovation, we may wish to import the innovator, and sounded her out on the feasibility of such."

"I dislike the idea of offering gifts to illustrati, even useful ones."

"You dislike even employing illustrati, sir."

"Is that not the point of this Council?!"

"Councillors! I believe we all are familiar with that debate. Can we please avoid repeating it tonight?"

"So should I not object to this idea?"

"There will be adequate time to debate the merits well before we take action. There is no need for haste, I think we can all agree."

"...very well."

"The primary concession the captain notes Gazette would insist on is broad freedom to publish what she wishes. She notes the ordinary prohibition on bolstering villain's standing as obviously acceptable, and if we committed public funds to joint ventures she expressed being amenable, but her private ventures would not be a propaganda instrument and might even criticize us. This would be the principal drawback of bringing her on rather than creating our own."

"I repeat my objection."

"Noted. Continue the report."

"This was the final element of the report the captain indicated was of immediate interest. Shall we vote on censure?"

"Seconded. Any arguments?"


"Please tally your votes, councilors."

"We have here three votes for, nine against. Censure fails, but shall be raised at intermediate sessions for those now absent to express preferences if desired."

"Next business: Do we have a second for debate over the feasibility plan?"

"Yes." "And third."

"Good. Is the councilor from the trades district willing to speak?"

"I am. I estimate a minimal investigation would need two weeks and take about two hours per day for a team of three to five. For a thorough investigation, a month and possibly as much as two, and a group of five to six. Primarily investigating sourcing paper and how busy the local printers are, with the slowest portions evaluating creating new print shops for the enterprise."

"Do you have a guess at their estimate?"

"Printing presses are expensive. I believe we have about six full presses operating in Chellas, all but one within the capital. I don't know their slack time, but if we had less volume than four full-time presses, I would expect the fifth press to move elsewhere. It's likely we would need to fund a new press within the first six months even in ideal conditions. I can't speak to revenue from sales - did the captain note that?"

"Not in his report - I'll get an estimate within a few days." (Theo didn't like lies, even the polite ones where he pretended the councilor wasn't the same man as the captain. Half-truths were more bearable.)

"Please do. Overall I estimate it would be a substantial undertaking, on the same order of cost as... Well, to compare like with like, schooling for another hundred children per year. Possibly as much as five hundred students, if we need multiple presses and journeymen are scarce."

"Any remarks before we vote on the investigation?"


"Tally your votes, councillors."

"We have seven for, four against, one abstention. Ah, is the captain willing to speak on why he has abstained?"

"I am. I intend not to vote on measures stemming from my report unless the tiebreaker is required. I am sensitive to the significance of our illustrati suggesting matters to the council. My censure excepted, as I drew attention to the matter much more than honesty required and I feel that is adequate concession to principle."

The vocal anti-illustrati councilor sketched a polite nod.

"Any old business...?"


They tried the local one. University students were doing the writing, and this was, as expected, skew to what the audience was actually interested in reading. He did warn them.

He writes a letter to Gazette.

Dear Gazette,

As you can see from the other sheet I've included with the letter, the Council decided to start its own press. With about the results I predicted when we spoke. There's a small faction that doesn't even like the illustrati who work for them, who I had to fight a little to credit you in the first issue, but the politically involved class are discussing your name anyway. I started a betting pool going on how long this lasts before the students admit they aren't very good at it - most of the money is on three to six months. We'll see what the men in charge do after that, I suppose. Do they have the idiom about seeing sausages and laws get made over there?

I thought of one stipulation they'll probably insist on about what you can print. Not unmasking the Council. We try to keep it protected, but I think we mostly know that a dedicated investigator could manage to unmask them. You'd be in a position to break the whole thing if you publicized it, so they might even try to insist on 'no speculation'. Lower levels of government they won't be that strict, but they'll want to negotiate. I'd hope that's not a deal-breaker, but please write and tell me if it is.

I'm sure the newspaper's been doing well, so I'll give you my hope that it's been exceeding your expectations.

Best of luck,
Captain Tanner

The attached newspaper has an article about what it's purpose is, expressed rather grandiosely and academically, with a box crediting Ms. Gazette, a southern illustrati who also operates a library, for the invention of the idea. The rest is a mess - some arcane political philosophy squeezed next to an almanac-type entry and some actual news about university enrollment and trading negotiations with Abalon.

Dear Captain Tanner,

Perhaps the students will improve with practice! If they print their letters they can get more feedback, people love the chance at their name in the paper.

I have no interest in unmasking the Council per se. If they don't want to jump over buildings that's their prerogative. I would however be concerned with the possibility that I might discover their identities in the course of other investigation and find some independently newsworthy example of corruption or suchlike - the incentive must be greater, mustn't it, if one's collaborators need never have the ability to expose you? Which, naturally, I would not care to reward with greater fame, but which would certainly have to be reacted to in some way. What's the standard protocol for finding candidates unworthy of the office when you don't know which is who? What precisely is their issue with illustrati as a class, anyway?


She encloses another newspaper; it has, as mentioned, a letters page.

Dear Gazette,

The letters page is another of your good ideas! It may help them improve, though I am perhaps a bit cynical about their ability to learn this lesson. Still, I'll pass it on.

We haven't had major tests of what we do to bad actors in the Council, yet, so we don't have a formal process. The pool of people who know the members is bigger than the Council - I'm one, at least five of the three hundred who elect the Council voted for me. I've had someone come to me with accusations of mild nepotism and asked me to pass it on to people who might be Councilors. If we had, I don't know, treason accusations, I'd expect it to start the same but the Council to spread it internally to all of them and then pull in people outside their ranks to write a process down. There's a reason my 'quest' was looking for history - we're making this up as we go more than we're happy with.

The principal objection to illustrati - and I basically agree - is how pursuit of fame tends to warp everything leaders do. Our idiot king, our neighbor's idiot king, and their wars, made it a sore subject. The ones who have outright animosity usually have more; I couldn't say which specific illustrati-hater(s) are on the Council, but of the ones who congregate in political circles and give me trouble, most lost people in the war. Vidre, particularly, made her debut in violence toward the end of our second round of war, when Abalon thought we'd be soft targets. That's left quite a lot of bitterness to go around, especially since we're one of only a handful of countries to consider her a villain.

There's also a thread of thought that it's bad to have people divided into haves and have-nots, and particularly to have power, both abstract and personal, be divided that way. Your point about it not being zero-sum is true, but despite that caveat, I agree. Even as one of the winners in the system it galls me that most people's opinions are essentially irrelevant on the large scale, because they haven't achieved enough standing to be treated as a player rather than a piece - or as just part of the board. And most people don't ever have the chance to change that - even our war heroes almost all knew their domains before the wars. So there's a notion of trying to right the cosmic unfairness as much as we can.

Best Regards,



He goes and talks to the actual writers and printers, and shows them the letters page. Frame it as 'voice of the masses directly' and they insist quite earnestly that they'll publish it all. "You might not have room", he points out, but they seem undeterred. Well, it might work out.

Dear Captain Tanner,

I wasn't good at newspapering at first! I've changed the layout several times, had to learn some of the finer points of press operation by trial and error, and got better over time at writing, let alone managing a staff. Don't count the students out yet.

I think the problem with illustrati has less to do with the fundamental workings of fame and more to do with what sorts of things people find interesting, and I don't think there's any reason to think that that's an immovable trait. Combat is kind of the least creative application of illustrati powers, the most direct route from initial fame to ongoing fame accumulation. But there's no particular reason for that to be indefinitely the main way to accomplish renown. However many paper weapons Iskander draws for me I'm not planning to pick any fights, and I'm in a position to meaningfully shove fame around on my own recognizance and don't hold with the battle royale model. I think more people being able to read and having more reading material to choose from will reduce the extent to which spectacle draws disproportionate attention. The most popular article that ran two weeks ago was one about the winner of the cauliflower-growing contest.

If I ever scale up enough I'm considering having a domain testing service, but I don't think I have the readership yet. And I could screen people for it, so I'd test would-be healers and horse-breeders and not conquerers. I'm not a perfect lie detector, of course, but I think I'm better than nothing.


There is a clipping of the woodcut of the fellow with the prizewinning cauliflower.
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