Saturday, July 31, 2010

Western Baronies: Imperial Culture

IMPERIAL CULTURE

The Empire of Marikuhl is a despotic imperialist aristocracy, corrupted by the acquisition of too much power too quickly without the application of restraint or mercy. Recent years have twisted the empire even further, sharply dividing the nation’s interests between the demands of the nobility and the necessities of the economy. Still, at its heart, the empire was founded on a principle of freedom from distant masters and loyalty to the emperor. These concerns are still in the hearts of the average person as well as many nobles.

The primary facet of culture and daily life in the empire is obedience to the emperor, and by proxy to his immediate servants, the noble class. This obedience is shown by the common folk primarily by leading lives of quiet anonymity. Nobles have much more expected from them, and are consequently granted both broader powers over commoners and greater responsibilities to their superiors. The emperor himself is seen as both the most powerful individual in the empire, and the one with the greatest responsibility to its safety and continuance.

No one in the empire truly owns property, save the emperor himself. All land is owned by the emperor personally, and noble families pay taxes to the imperial treasury for the right to develop the land granted to them. Only a handful of times throughout history have a major noble family failed to pay taxes, and each time tragedy resulted. These ownership laws are enforced by the loyalty of the people to their ruler, as well as by virtue of the emperor having the largest standing army in the empire. Noble families other than the emperor’s are restricted on the size of their military forces, but the emperor’s legions are staffed with soldiers drawn from all across the empire.

Most commoners live lives of little note, usually as laborers, farmers, or other types of unskilled work, living on property allowed to them by their noble masters and paying rent for the privilege. Some are given the opportunity to serve in the Marikuhlian military as grunts and cannon fodder, called conscripti, positions that actually hold some level of respect and accomplishment for the common folk. Career soldiers often come from family lines of the same, and many conscripti are as skilled at the arts of war as any noble. Conscripti from long lines with distinguished records are sometimes adopted or married into noble lines, making the military occupation even more attractive to the downtrodden masses.

A development of the last couple of centuries is the rise of an unofficial “merchant class,” commoners with money enough to virtually own their own property and employ other commoners in their businesses. These merchants frequently form guilds, unions, and other forms of organizations to regulate prices in their area, monitor new businesses, and safeguard their interests from outside merchants and the noble class. The recent Succession War has left merchants and nobles deeply distrustful of one another, despite the fact that they must work together to keep society functioning.

The nobility of Marikuhl is divided into two categories: major noble families, and minor noble families. Major families are those lines descended from the twenty-one original rulers of the Marikuhlian colonies, though five of those lines are now extinct, leaving sixteen great families, including the imperial family. Minor families are nobility instituted since the inception of the empire to aid in the bureaucracy of imperial life, govern regions in a major family’s territory, or raised up from virtuous and worthy commoners. The creation of a minor family is a significant event, and each major family has only a handful of minor families serving it.


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The average citizen of Marikuhl has few rights other than to bring grievances before his ruling family’s magistrates, which guards only against crimes committed by other commoners. Nobles are largely immune to prosecution under the law, except crimes committed against other nobles. Such crimes are arbitrated by the noble’s superiors, if committed against a member of the same family, or an imperial magistrate for inter-family struggles. Crimes against an imperial representative are always dealt with by an imperial magistrate, and often by a group of several working together.

Punishments for crimes are typically swift and without reprieve. Marikuhlians do not believe in prisons as a method of social correction, so most punishments tend to be immediate in nature. Minor crimes are dealt with by fines, forced labor, or forfeiture of possessions, while severe crimes are typically punished by maiming or execution.

Nobles can sometimes escape punishment in criminal cases by accepting exile to the Western Baronies, while imprisonment is frequently reserved as a necessity for individuals too useful to kill but too dangerous to allow freedom. Commoners cannot opt to be exiled, though many, when faced with the possibility of death or maiming, will abandon their lives, take their meager possessions, and flee west. These poor souls often change their names and live out their days in fear of being discovered. Especially dangerous escapees sometimes warrant the attention of a magistrate, or the posting of a bounty.


TECHNOLOGY

The empire is one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. With their emphasis on military development, the quality of steel has been drastically increased in recent centuries. By the same token, the production of rare-metal items, such as from adamantine and mithril, is commonplace in the empire for those wealthy enough to afford it. The Marikuhlian skill in metalworking has also allowed the construction of more stable and durable objects that utilize metal in their construction secondarily, such as wagons, barrels, and so on.

One of the great innovations of the western migration was the development of a type of covered wagon that could act as both storage and living accommodation over long journeys. This wagon has also acted as a prototype for the new carriages designed for long hauls between the empire and the baronies, creating a significantly more comfortable traveling environment for passengers and messengers. These covered carriages, sometimes called “stages” for their shape, are also more defensible, a necessity with the prominence of the Ko’Manna raiders.

Artificers have long worked with ways to turn the black powder used in fireworks into a viable weapon, but the grain size of the substance makes such use impossible, even in large-scale weapons. The battlefields of the modern day are largely the province of armored knights, given aid and backup by legions of archers, with foot soldiers and armored infantry acting as storm troops and cannon fodder. Siege weapons are common as well, especially the trebuchet and catapult. Foot soldiers are often given crossbows to use in need, though longbows are the obvious weapon for true archery units. Horse archers are utilized as hit-and-run troops by many armies, to great success.

The power of steam has been harnessed in small ways, most of which are impractical for normal people, but artificers keep up with the developments in the hope of creating useful devices from the bulky engines. The lack of anything hotter-burning than wood has largely stymied this development, though alchemists have shown some success in substituting wood with chemical fuels.

The influx of corundum into the empire has increased the crafting of items of mystical power in recent years, though such creations are still extraordinarily rare. The energies empowering the crystal are still drawn from the chaotic power of the universe, making the use of any magical item an exercise in both caution and wonder.


FOREIGN RELATIONS

In many ways, the foreign policy of the empire reflects the worst things about it. Truthfully, most of the empire’s vices can be directly traced to its history of aggression and distrust toward foreign powers, especially those of the Old World. Marikuhl was originally a peaceful, agrarian nation, provincial in the extreme, until the War of Vengeance changed the nation’s character forever. From that point on, the Marikuhlians were no longer happily complacent in their own freedoms—outside powers would be made to respect their authority.

Many of the events of the centuries following the War of Vengeance are dealt with above, but specific considerations should be noted in the Marikuhlian dealings with foreign powers. Specifically, there are no official relations with the Old World any longer. The demon summoned during the Revenge remains in Ovidium, unable to pursue its destined enemies across the ocean, but forever preventing them from returning to the Old World.

Any Marikuhlian that sets foot on Ovidian soil is immediately aware of the demon’s presence—and that it is aware of them. From that moment forward, the demon will relentlessly hunt down the intruder, incapable of resting until the “invader” is dead. So long as even one Marikuhlian draws breath, it will never be freed from its duty, and no Marikuhlian in the Old World will be able to rest easy.

The demon requires time and energy to find its target, thankfully, making short sojourns onto the continent possible. The many islands surrounding the mainland are not protected by the demon, making them feasible locations for diplomatic envoys and small military bases. Small groups and individuals are also harder for the demon to find than large groups (such as military columns). The military control of Marikuhl over Ovidium was effectively broken by the Revenge, however, and all modern Ovidians are aware of the fact.

Marikuhl has done little to build bridges with its former parent nations. The mutual losses suffered by both regions mean almost nothing to the despotic government, while the Ovidians openly flaunt their immunity to Marikuhl’s superior military by offering highly imbalanced trade and harboring pirates and privateers. Had the Marikuhlians the power to remove the offending nations entirely, they would likely do so, but for now their rage is impotent and turned inward.

While the imperial court is aware of continents other than Ovidium, the general consensus about such places is that they are irrelevant and unimportant. They are too distant for regular trade, or even regular contact, and the continents of Galatea and Ovidium present more than enough challenges without seeking out new ones. Even much of Galatea remains unexplored, more than seven centuries after it was first settled by the Old World.

The known peoples of Galatea besides the Marikuhlians are also something of a mystery to the arrogant empire. To the north lies the lands of the Asatru, a tribal seafaring people only recently united under a single banner. As pirates and raiders, the Asatru are interested in the Marikuhlians only as targets for their predations, and the Asatru represent an enemy that the Marikuhlian navy can sharpen its teeth on. The south is the home of the Teotihuacal, an expansive empire at least as old as Marikuhl and perhaps older that is even more blatant in its worship of demonic forces. The “gods” of the Teotihuacal pantheon are little more than bloodthirsty demons that demand almost daily human sacrifice. The empire would gladly destroy the southern folk, except for the considerations of distance and poor terrain. As well, some whisper, the empire fears the power of the southerners’ demon-gods.


CLOTHING AND APPEARANCE

As the hodgepodge descendants of almost two dozen different cultures brought together by a common government, the Marikuhlian people are extremely varied in skin, hair, and eye tones. Their builds range the gamut from tall to short, from wiry to broad. Few commonalities about their general appearance can be made, not even that they dress similarly. With the provincial differences in local fashion, and the combination of a burgeoning middle class with the older upper class, the fashions among the elite of Marikuhl change almost as quickly as the seasons.

A few things stay in fashion from year to year, at least among the common folk. Most Marikuhlian commoners, both male and female, tend to wear trousers, loose shirts, and sandals. In the colder climes of the north, full shoes are worn rather than sandals, and the whole outfit is topped off with a heavy cloak or long parka. A common affectation among male commoners is to wear a vest decorated with the local colors, whether provincial to show national pride or the colors of the local noble family to show loyalty. Many commoners will also wear cheap jewelry, typically earrings or bracelets, which have been passed down through the family for generations.

Until about a century and a half ago, hair length was a requisite for women to show off their cultural status—the longer the hair, the greater the status. Only the oldest and most conservative nobles enforce this tradition, however, and women of all stations have begun to wear their hair at any length. Shorter than neck-length is still considered somewhat scandalous for noblewomen to wear, and many women of common birth hesitate to let their hair grow much past their shoulders.

Men of noble birth frequently wear their hair long, tied up into topknots at formal affairs or when holding court. A few younger nobles have begun wearing their long hair in loose braids or ponytails to flaunt tradition, but long hair is still seen as very important for a nobleman’s image. Older noblemen sometimes wear exquisitely crafted wigs in late age to conceal their impending baldness. Commoners, merchants included, typically wear their hair short as a matter of practicality—long hair gets in the way of honest work by commoners, while the merchant class is still struggling to create its own independent identity.

The most recent widespread fashion statements include long dresses for noblewomen, typically brightly colored and patterned, and tightly form-fitting. Such dresses are typically clasped at the shoulder with high necks, though a few have a high collar in the back with a swooping V-neck in the front. Noblemen’s fashion currently includes the addition of a long overcoat in place of the more traditional mantle or cloak.

A common aspect of cultural distinction in Marikuhlian society is the wearing of weapons. Traditionally, commoners have been forbidden from the bearing of arms, save in the direct defense of the nation or at the order of a noble. Such restrictions have only rarely applied to the carrying of tools that can be used as weapons (such as cutting knives, wood axes, and threshing flails), but the wielding of swords, spears, and bows has long been the province of the nobility and their favored servants.

The carrying of a sword is an important part of the Marikuhlian aristocracy’s heritage, and many such swords have been passed down through generations until they acquire names and legacies unto themselves. The most common weapons wielded by Marikuhlian nobles are the longsword, a favored weapon of military families, the rapier, popular among lines noted for their skill at dueling, and the bastard sword, so named because of its popularity among the minor families that invented it. Many female nobles carry weapons as well, though their short swords and daggers are more often for show than for usage. In Marikuhlian society, carrying a sword is a sign that you are ready and willing to use it, and duels for honor among the nobility still happen fairly often.

The burgeoning merchant class still technically belongs to the ranks of the commoners, making the wielding of weapons for self-defense somewhat problematic. To circumvent the issue, merchant typically only carry daggers on their persons, but surround themselves with guards and retainers trained in the use of “peasant weapons,” such as clubs, hammers, knives, sickles, slings, bolas, nets, and so on. For those merchants that seek to emulate their betters, a few have coerced their local governments to pass laws permitting the carrying of weapons for a license fee. These “armed merchants” will often use the privilege to carry a short sword as well as a crossbow, though sometimes a merchant will become truly skilled enough to wear a larger sword openly.

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