The dominion of the Moth-kinden before the revolution was mostly referred to by its masters as “ours”, but by the other old Inapt powers as the Shadowlands or the Darklands after the Moths’ nocturnal habits. After their fall, and the rise of the Beetle and Ant-kinden free city-states, the term “the Lowlands” began to be used for all the lands that the Moths had once claimed.
The “low” of the Lowlands was in relation to its northern neighbour, the slowly-disintegrating Commonweal, whose southern border was and is a vast fault-line running for hundreds of miles roughly east-west, from the Atoll Coast as far as the Tharen Mountains and the forest of the Darakyon (1). As recently as fifty years ago a party of scholars from Collegium made the difficult journey to the relatively uncultivated lands south of the fault to view the high, stratified cliffs that had been brokered as a border between the Moth and Dragonfly territories. Drilling and digging satisfied them that the bands of rock beneath their feet were the very bands reproduced in the highest reaches of the Barrier Ridge. At some point in the incalculably distant past, some colossal shudder of the earth had sent the entire Lowlands slipping down, or raised the Commonweal up, forming the fault and ensuring that the divided land would never be whole again, not to mention probably sending an area of land of the same size again slumping into the sea. This time of catastrophe, which must have come close to seeing the end of human occupation within a thousand miles of the fault, was reckoned to predate even the Moth-kinden records, although the Moths would neither confirm or deny it. In conclusion, the scholars said, no recollection or myth exists that echoes this ancient disaster (3).
The Lowlands, the distinct region defined between the Barrier Ridge and the sea, is of a dry, warm climate. Where the weather and the lie of the land allow it, there are discreet areas of forest, some of them very large, and the Mantis-kinden that dwell there claim that their domains were once much greater in the Days of Lore, but they are prone to exaggerate the scope of their own grandeur. Certainly the logging activities of the Apt races, as they moved inexorably into a semi-industrial age, have made resented inroads into such forests as remain.
Where the earth is bare of trees, the natural landscape is one of scrubby, low vegetation, tough shrubs and bushes with spiny leaves, yellowing grass and lots of dust. The land is often broken up where water courses through it, making a badlands of little gullies and canyons, the latter sometimes choked by stunted vegetation. Summers are hot and dry, with rain coming mostly in the spring and autumn, and then not plentifully. Winters are mild, and it is a matter of record if even a little snow is seen.
Civilisation, or that version of it that currently holds sway in the Lowlands, spread from the city of Collegium (formerly Pathis) swiftly, and five of the six main Apt city-states were essentially in place from the beginning: Collegium and its four Ant-kinden neighbours.
It is worth taking a moment to consider the very early history of Collegium, Pathis as it was then. That history is lost to those who now walk those city streets, but speculative academics have wondered why the Lowlands was given over to the Ants, at that time, save for one colony of Beetles. Whilst most scholars simply assume that this is how things have always been, a few dissenting voices wonder if the Moths, finding the dull, dutiful Ants to be insufficiently stimulating company, had somehow bought or brought in a more lively-minded subject race for their leisure-city, and if so, from where…?
Of the Ant city-states, after the yoke of the magicians had been thrown off each of these cities turned suspicious eyes on the other three. The Lowlands, that had once been unified under the gloom-coloured wing of the Moths, fragmented into its current political patchwork. Those Moths who still cared enough about their lost power nodded knowingly and told each other that this is what happens when you let the slaves run the world.
Collegium itself owes its survival to that mutual suspicion. The early Beetles retained no monopoly on their crossbows, and they would not have been able to stave off an assault by the militaristic Ant-kinden. Had any of their neighbours tried their hand, however, more Ant armies would have set out within the tenday (4) to oppose the action, and so Collegium remained self-governing by default. This neutrality in the affairs of the Ants gave the city an unexpected power for, despite their xenophobia, their mutual loathing of their own kind, should that kind bear a different-coloured skin, the Ants still needed to trade, to gathering intelligence, and to learn more of the rapidly evolving engineering that the Beetles had pioneered. Collegium became their go-between, and Ant students attended the Great College to learn something other than warfare from Beetle masters. For their part, the Beetles of Collegium were still very much in the same stage of fierce philosophical idealism that had led them to reject slavery, and they took their responsibilities seriously. Conclaves of well-intentioned academics began trying to educate the Ants in the ways of peaceful co-existence. This work would nor bear fruit for centuries, but the dedication of those academics would, in some small way, eventually pay off when, only a generation ago, the Sarnesh Ants abandoned slavery as the price of a permanent alliance with Collegium. (5)
Around a generation after the revolution, Beetle merchant-venturers travelling north-east found spectacularly rich iron and mineral deposits in the Tharen Mountains, just at a time when the new technology was crying out for raw materials. The mining camps that formed there soon became a town, and then a major manufacturing centre, as the venturesome Beetles realised that they would only retain control over their finds if they started to use them on site, rather than simply shipping the ore back to Collegium. This new city was named Helleron, and within a century it had become the industrial powerhouse of the Lowlands, using every trick of artifice and engineering to produce goods quicker and cheaper than everywhere else, until most of the Ant-kinden started buying in extra weapons and armour from the Beetles, because it spared their manpower and saved them money. Money was another achievement of Helleron, and the Helleron mint still makes gold Centrals (“Central Mint of Helleron” is stamped on the reverse) and silver Standards (a standard fraction of a Central, and traditionally the price of an Ant-kinden shortsword from the Helleron workshops.) Each city produces its own small change, ceramic wheels that are broken into wedge-shaped fragments called “bits”, and the bits from one city are not good currency elsewhere. Travellers change up into Helleron coin at the city gates (exchange rate depending on where and who you are), with the resulting handful of worthless chips generally given to beggars, or greasing the palms of the guards.
The political stalemate in the Lowlands, that was so profitable and useful to the Beetles, continued unchanged for several centuries. The four Ant cities remained at loggerheads, each generation picking the scab off the old wounds. Every so often one city would conceive of some advantage and pitch up outside the walls of another, only to be beaten back, or forced to retreat when another army was sighted on route for their own. The city of Vek controlled access to the distant cities of the Atoll Coast (6), and the island city of Kes held most of the southern coast and the best access to the Spiderlands by sea. Tark sat close enough to the Silk Road to become rich from Spider trade, and Sarn sat close enough to Collegium to develop a stronger trading relationship with the Beetles than the others.
The Lowlands was able to develop without much intercession from beyond its borders. To the north the Commonweal had been falling apart since before the revolution, slowly being consumed by rebellious princes and bandit-chieftains. To the east there was the Dryclaw desert, and whilst marauding bands of Scorpion-kinden might make life difficult for their neighbours, there was never any chance of a major incursion there. To the south and the west there was the sea. The Silk Road to the Spiderlands was long, and the Spiders themselves viewed the emerging cities of the Lowlands as a crude backwater of no real interest: being Inapt themselves the Spiders could not predict how the new mechanistic sciences would change the world. To the north and east, where the Dryclaw left off into more arid scrubland, a scattering of small cities and a lot of savage hill tribes. The Beetles did travel this way from the start, trading and teaching and founding new cities, but the road was difficult, and the merchant-lords of Helleron always looked inwards, towards the rest of the Lowlands, viewing the cities to the east, Myna and Szar and Maynes, as of little real value. (7). Of course, nobody foresaw at the time that those squabbling, barbaric hill tribes would one day be united by a man who would coin the title “Emperor”. The Lowlands’ insular mindset, its firm belief that, as the cradle of civilisation, the world should come to its door rather than the other way round, allowed the Wasp-kinden to unify, to conquer their neighbours, to put even close cousins like the Soldier Beetles of Myna in chains, and all without any outcry being raised. Until, of course, the Black and Gold colours were brought even to the Lowlands’ very borders.
(1) There is no getting away from fantasy fiction names. The trick is not to mention more than two in a sentence, and ideally only one if you can get away with it. The number of times I’ve picked up a new book in the shop and read the blurb on the back to see something like “Vloscodd, Prince of Hnaarf, has long sought the Voopsrod of Quango, for only the rod can prevent Ipsum, Falxlord of Loobroomdin (2)…” and the brain, battered by such inanity, turns off. I’ve had sight of the back-text for Empire, and there is one name therein, just one name. It should be possible to give the gist of a book’s flavour or story without getting out the scrabble board. But for now I’ll have to sprinkle this entry with a few place names because, frankly, it is a geography lesson.
(2) Gene Wolfe, in his admirable Sun novels, had a very clever twist on fantasy names, titles and the like. At first his writing seems dense with neologisms, sometimes almost opaque with unfamiliar terms which are never explained. The joke is that none of the words he uses are new. They are all real words, used correctly. Mr Wolfe expects his readers to keep up with him on the hunt, and the chase is rewarding in itself thereby.
(3) They were wrong, as one son of Collegium would eventually discover…
(4) The Apt races, being of a logical mindset, tended to decimalise pretty much anything they got their hands on. Before the revolution the Inapt races relied on a complex calendar of irregular intervals and festivals that their slaves could not remotely comprehend.
(5) The result was a lightning Vekken assault and siege on Collegium which the Beetles staved off, by ingenuity and bloody-mindedness, for long enough that the relief force from Sarn was able to put the Vekken to flight. The Ants of Vek would feel very keenly what they felt as a defeat by an inferior kinden, the peaceful and scholarly Beetles, and would not forget it. Even now they nurse their hatred of Collegium as much as they do their loathing of other Ants, if not more.
(6) The Atoll Coast was never the Moths’ domain, and the large tracts of inhospitable land separating those cities, clinging as they are between ocean and desert, even from Vek has ensured that very little traffic goes on between them and the Lowlands proper. The presence on the coast of another Ant city-state has prevented Vek from exercising its territorial inclinations in that direction.
(7) These lands had also been part of the Moth’s domain, but the Moths themselves had never felt comfortable here. Many centuries before the revolution they had wrested these lands from a great evil, or at least a great rival, the ill-favoured Mosquito-kinden, with their blood-magic and their hungers. Although the Mosquito-people were supposedly exterminated to the very last, the Moth-kinden never quite believed it, and even before the revolution they had been relinquishing their hold on these places, abandoning them to their fate. It seems likely, though, that a lot of the Beetles now living in this region can trace their ancestry back to slaves imported by the Moths from Collegium, rather than to the later adventurers from Helleron. Similarly, the Soldier Beetle folk of Myna, who are of a kinden that exhibits traits of both Ants and Beetles, are reckoned to be the stabilised result of Moth-kinden underlings becoming acquainted with the local Ants of nearby Maynes. One scholar has hypothesised that the initial inhabitants were an all-male workforce brought in by the Moths to rebuild the city.