THE WESTERN EXPANSION
Rather than persecute or judge the remaining nobles, the new emperor declared an armistice to the war and a pardon for all parties involved. Publicly, the nobles were commanded only to set aside their differences and work together to rebuild what had been lost. Privately, however, the emperor’s advisors were plotting to make certain that this emperor’s reign would be more peaceful and robust than the last. The emperor, too, was concerned—he had seen his father murdered, his “loyal” subjects turning on him like a rabid dog on its master.
The noble families and merchant leaders most complicit in the beginning and continuance of the war were closely monitored for further signs of dissension. Such spying would eventually attract their attention, however, and the court knew that a permanent—or at least long-term—solution must be found soon. Thus, with this in mind, a plan was hatched to remove the more dangerous elements of society while enriching the empire as a whole.
In the past, the few explorers to travel beyond the Corundum Mountains in the west had returned with tales of glorious riches, including the rare and prized crystals for which the mountains were named, gems necessary in the construction of items of magical power. The west was known to be home to only uncivilized tribes of the barbaric Ko’Manna, unclaimed by any imperial force or family. It was decided that an ideal solution to social pressures at home, including the flagging economy, was to open the western lands for settlement.
An imperial decree was issued: any man could journey west and claim land, and so long as he paid taxes on that land appropriately and on time, it would remain his possession. Since in the empire itself, only nobles could truly own land, the idea of property ownership sparked the minds of many commoners.
As well, any landowner that could pay taxes of a certain amount for a period of no less than ten years would garner a noble title for himself, to be passed along his family line. Merchants and ambitious commoners alike virtually drooled at the thought of gaining a noble title, earning recognition and greater social standing for themselves and their families. Nobles also paid close attention to this decree—it threatened their power in a way that demanded they retain a presence in the west, a presence that would strain their resources and diminish their prominence in imperial affairs.
Those nobles and merchants deemed most “dangerous” by the imperial court were strongly hinted to that maintaining western holdings would ingratiate them to the emperor—and that not doing so would bring down trouble upon them. Caught in a bind, the most troublesome elements of the empire were undercut tremendously with virtually no effort on the emperor’s part.
The western migration attracted folk from all walks of life: commoners seeking a better existence, nobles hoping to increase their holdings, merchants looking for respect and power as well as wealth, and criminals following their livelihood. Tens of thousands of them streamed across the passes, accompanied by an imperial legion to safeguard the construction of a new city. This city would be the official imperial capital of the region, a place where the emperor’s handpicked representative would ostensibly oversee the new provinces. Due to the vagaries surrounding its inception, this city would come to be called Cenotaph.
The western migration relieved many of the stresses of the day, but more were coming.
THE EMPIRE TODAY
The modern Marikuhlian Empire is like an oak tree infested with worms: strong on the outside, but corrupt and weak in the interior. The noble families, their numbers significantly smaller due to the Succession War, hold less power than even a century ago, and the emperor has largely become a figurehead for the council of advisors and delegates that once were his court. The power of the merchant families is great, but so is that of the vast and varied crime syndicates. Indeed, so many merchants deal in the illicit, and so many crime families in the legitimate, that it has become hard to tell the two apart in many cases.
The average commoner has enough to eat to stay alive and keep clothes on their backs, but little besides. Public education is lacking, and public services virtually nonexistent for the poor. Almost everything is based around one’s ability to pay—taxes to the nobles, money for goods to the merchants, more to the crime families for protection, and only a small amount set aside for the earner. The traditional way of serf and master has been left behind, but few rights or protections have arisen for the common folk.
The little power left to the imperial family is largely from its connections to powerful mage-priests, demon-worshipping sorcerers who have long served the emperor and his kin. Their hunger for corundum continues to be a major expense for the imperial family, while the dregs of the supplies are then resold to the lesser noble families for their own court sorcerers to utilize.
The noble families divide their time between their Marikuhlian concerns, where all of their political power and much of their economic wealth is located, and their baronial interests, where there remains much opportunity for advancement for the bold and the lucky. This keeps their attention divided, allowing the merchant class to frequently run roughshod over them and permitting the imperial court to further undercut their political ambitions.
Common folk, greatly emancipated from their lowly social status of a century ago, frequently abandon their lives to travel west. Many die in the journey, and still more find the western lands impossible to adapt to. Still, they try, seeking a better life beyond the horizon. Those who remain behind do their best to survive and adapt in a bad situation, especially now that the possibility of social advancement exists. Most never rise above their position of birth, however.
The empire is far from dying, but it is sick. This sickness could, given time and allowed to continue unabated, spell disaster for the old empire of Marikuhl. Hope remains, but it is as narrow as the edge of a sword.
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