Editor’s note: This is a transcription of a controversial speech given at the Spring Forum by her Grace Countess Limrẽ lu Rajir in 689M. Permission to record it and preserve it for posterity in the archives of the Royal University was graciously granted by her Grace, who kindly donated her notes and drafts to the Editor to ensure the accuracy of the manuscript. Related materials may be found in the same file catalog, in particular the profanity-laden rebuttals made on 48 Spring 689M by the honorable Baronne of Mõchalã and the estimable and prolific Cuedresã philosopher Savarin Satrocon, who of course has an entire section dedicated to her work in Aisle 4-13. Note that the transcript omits the jeering as well as the food-fight that broke out in the wake of the speech for the sake of brevity and relevance.
It is of course natural for any red-blooded Tãli to recoil at the mere thought of slavery. And indeed those who so thought thought themselves the mistresses of our noble race are every bit the wretched tyrants they were before our glorious Liberation. But we condemn in the same breath both of the Eastern peoples: Belad, alongside the hated Shan, we damn as slaveholders and exploiters.
In my years of business dealings with the Beladans, I was forced to confront a reality that is not so clean-cut, a reality I feel should be better understood by our noble and free people. Make no mistake: I speak not to excuse the vile crime of slavery, nor to endorse a corrupt Church that has twisted our Prophet’s words, but only to temper wild passions which I fear so often lead to undeserved hatred of the folk of the Mideast.
Belad practices slavery. This we claim, this they claim - but what is slavery? In Vau Shan, those named “slave” are branded upon the cheek so as to forever degrade them, stripped of all but the barest of rights under the law. A freewoman of the Shan may beat, exploit, and abuse a slave to the very brink of death and incur no penalty, least of all the disapproval of her peers. This was the condition of the Tãli peoples beneath the cursed Shan heel, and remains the condition of the elves and the unfortunates of Shan society. Yet if we cast our gaze northward, to the Riven Plains and the ethereal cities of Belad, do we find the same such treatment?
Indeed we do not. In Belad, if a freewoman treated her slave in the manner described above, she would be an outcast, reduced herself to slavery whether by the iron hand of the Conclave in Rosamár or by decree of a merciless Inquisitor. She would be shunned, perhaps even spat upon by her peers, should they discover her crimes - for indeed, cruelty to slaves is the greatest of all crimes in the Riven Plains. Even piracy is punished with less ferocity.
To one of the Tãli, this would seem an impossible contradiction. So it seemed to me when first I witnessed the vitriol with which the high folk of the Mideast condemned their neighbors to the South. “Do you not claim your slaves as your property?” I would ask, and always the answer came, “We do.” In fact, not until I spared a moment to speak with a slave — one of those whose fate we bemoan, and yet curiously so rarely seem to speak to — did I come to truly grasp the situation of slaves in Belad.
She was a young woman, bright-eyed and cheery. She did not bare the brand or the collar of one enslaved to a Shan, but a simple silver necklace, different only in color from the chain worn by her mistress. We spoke as she washed dishes, and she told me plainly what life for a Beladan slave is like. Certainly, she labors without pay for another — but, as she told me, the law is firm and unambiguous in how her labor may be compelled. No more than six hours a day may she be forced to labor, nor may she be forced to lay with her mistress nor suffer an unwanted touch, and in return she is guaranteed three full meals a day and a comfortable place to sleep at night. In amazement — frankly, somewhat dazed — I responded that she worked less than a proudly free Tãli.
“Why is there so much work to be done in Tãlaco?” she asked me with a puzzled laugh. A question which I remain to this day unable to satisfactorily answer.
To fully understand the role of slavery in Beladan life, one must grasp the economic structure of Belad. A frightfully boring subject, of course, but I prevail upon you to bear with me. Firstly, it must be understand that casual exchange of coin, which so dominates our transactions in the Motherland, is well-nigh unheard of in Belad. Its people carry no coin, and certainly no wallets. Wealth is found in the towering institutions of the Beladan financial sector, and nowhere else. When a Beladan wishes to frequent a restaurant, she does not pay in advance — indeed, she may not pay for a season, when the incomes and expenditures of a clan are tallied by prim and exacting bureaucrats of Clan Carendue or Clan Sorchasti, the major players in Beladan banking.
This is central to all of Beladan culture. There is no notion of individual finance. All wealth belongs to a clan, administered by its matriarch but owned by no one woman. Services are bought on credit or by contract, and settled at routine intervals. And by Beladan law, no contract with any service, be it a restaurant, a brothel, or simply a newspaper, may exclude a clan’s slaves from taking full advantage of that service. Indeed, the slave with whom I spoke regaled me with tales of her favorite brothel. It is a privilege, certainly; one that can be revoked as discipline, but this power, like all powers the Beladan freefolk have over their slaves, is tightly regulated. There is no central Watch in Belad tasked to uncover crimes and discipline their perpetrators, but the combined force of rival clans, meddling priests, and the ever-present and ever-feared Inquisition function as well as, to borrow the common vernacular, “a bunch of nosy coppers.”
Most peculiar among Belad’s customs is the role of the bedslave. No doubt you recoil as I did upon first hearing that word, recalling the rape and degradation of our proud people at the hands of the Shan barbarians so many years ago. Yet, the bedslaves to whom I spoke seemed quite content with their lot, many professing love for their mistresses, and all treated with tender affection. As may be becoming apparent, the folk of the Riven Plains have a perverse fondness for labelling their customs with the most repellent phrases one could possibly concoct. One quails to think what the Beladans must name their medicines.
The role of the bedslave is one tightly regulated by religious and lay law. In short, the bedslave receives many of the privileges of a domestic slave, save her freedom of movement, but can be compelled to perform no work. In exchange, their mistress is permitted to maintain a sexual relationship with them — but even in this context, a slave can be forced to do nothing against their will, save by threat of “demotion” — and that is how it is described — to a position where they are again expected to labor. By all appearances, bedslaves in Belad are pampered favorites of their mistresses, and a statistically significant number describe (with the usual demure giggles that seem to characterize the Beladan people as a whole) forcing their mistresses to their knees behind the closed curtains of her bedchamber.
We must confront the true picture of Beladan slavery: their “slaves” are not degraded, nor exploited, nor even especially unhappy — nor so subject to the whims of a capricious economy as even we nobles of the Tãli so often find ourselves. In what sense are they then slaves? That their so-called owners can compel them to servitude, within the limits of law? But how then do they differ from a peasant of Tãlaco, compelled by the coin of their employers, or by the threats of their land-liege?
And perhaps most importantly: can we imagine a scenario in which slavery in Belad could be abolished that would not dramatically worsen the lot of her slaves? Such a task is trivial in the South, where coin flows freely and the labor market overflows with freefolk and slaves alike. To be free of their mistresses would do little but improve their wretched lot. But in the Riven Plains, the very country would fall to ruin, and nobody would suffer more than the slaves.
In conclusion, I call upon my countryfolk to moderate their words when they speak of Belad. Reserve your hatred for those deserving of it: the Shan vampires who enslaved our race and to this day violate our borders to steal innocent elves from their homes in the Barrier Forest. And let us perhaps recognize that the freedom of Tãli is only the beginning: there is a long road left for us to travel.