Hundreds of years after the Phoenix Prince set out to unite the Vermilion Lands, and hundreds of years after his successors raised up their new capital, the City of Victory, the unthinkable happened. The City of Victory burned. A rebel army ransacked the imperial palace, an invading army hot on their heels. The Empire’s defenders were dead or scattered. What went wrong?
No one factor was to blame. Foreign invaders played a part, yes. So did the increasing weakness of the imperial government. So did sheer bad luck.
The empire rested on a basic contradiction — holding together so many peoples, over so great a distance, demanded that the imperial authorities loosen their grip. This left the empire a constitutional patchwork, ranging from territories under direct rule, through self-administering vassal kingdoms, to distant, loosely affiliated tributaries. Yet Vermilion power, in the first place, had arisen on the back of a strong, centralised government.
The early monarchs could walk this tightrope, assisted by the pegasus riders, the shared culture growing amongst the Empire’s educated subjects, and held in reserve, the threat of the imperial army. Not every ruler was as capable. Meanwhile, the Vermilions’ surviving neighbours were reorganising themselves along the early empire’s lines, replacing feudal levies and tribal horsemen with drilled, professional gunpowder armies.
These problems fed upon each other. As the borders came under increasing pressure, the imperial army needed ever more funds, and local auxiliaries became ever more important. In some provinces, taxes crept up; peasants sold their land; and emboldened landlords took local matters into their hands. Other provinces strengthened their militias, and wondered why they should look to the imperial garrisons for defence. And in the City of Victory, emperors began experimenting with selling offices, first in the bureaucracy, then the army, and finally, in the elite pegasus corps itself.
Into this tinderbox came sparks: famine, epidemic, and internal strife, as unpaid soldiers and couriers turned to banditry. With banditry morphing into rebellion, and foreign armies penetrating into the heart of the empire, things could seemingly grow no worse — until the emperor died without an heir.
One man stood poised to take the Vermilion Throne: Governor Kho, greatest of the magnates. If he had displayed a ruthless streak during his ascension, well, that was how great men were made. Before the Empire’s assembled dignitaries, Kho prepared to lift the crown — and a musket boomed. Fog condensed into the shape of a man. And before the audience’s astonished eyes, the long-dead founder of the empire – the Phoenix Prince – set the crown on his own head.
Together with the Prince were men and women of equal wonder: Artorius of Cairbrunn, the spirit soldier who had been fighting since ancient times; Tian Kizo, who had summoned them with the rarest of magics; and Kizo’s niece Tian Risa, shaper of Fog and designer of wondrous flying machines. Backing them were enough of the middle classes – urban professionals, frustrated by cronyism; talented but lowly-born officers, frustrated by defeat – to take control of the City of Victory.
The Revivalists promised they would reform law codes, modernise the academies, and appoint honest officials. They made a promising start – clearing the worst of the dead wood, chalking up early battlefield victories with the aid of Risa’s fledgling Sky Corps. Given time, it could have worked. The Empire could have been saved.
Time was what the Revivalists did not have. Had the general commanding the frontier armies not turned his coat, had the satraps committed more troops to the Revivalist cause, had the Empire’s institutions not been so decayed when the Revivalists took charge, Vermilion history might have been very different. Perhaps, had Kho taken the throne, Vermilion history might have been very different. Instead, the Vermilion Throne was hacked to bits. The Phoenix Prince was blasted back to the spirit realm. His would-be successors have torn the land apart.
One reed of hope remains: when the City of Victory fell, Tian Risa disappeared. And now, in caravanserais and around hearths, on the shores of the Sea of Lune and in the grasslands of the interior, strange stories are beginning to swirl. Clouds moving low and fast, faster than clouds should go, and surmounted by unfamiliar machines. A city in the sky, veiled by fog — or perhaps by Fog. Travellers mysteriously saved; marauders mysteriously wiped out. The superstitious whisper that the Sky Maiden, first-born child of the Vermilion God of Victory, has descended from heaven to shield the weak — and punish the wicked.
The God of Victory has fled. His Child, it would seem, has not.
This is the second draft of the fall of the Vermilion Empire. I’m reasonably happy with this version, although it remains subject to amendments (for plausibility, story reasons, etc).