So we have the Lowlands, not a political unity but a geographical area containing four feuding Ant city-states and a couple of Beetle cities, not to mention the detritus left over from the Days of Lore, Moth-kinden and Mantis-kinden clinging on in forests and on mountaintops.
The Lowlands is sandwiched between two traditional neighbours, and a third has recently turned up. This last is the most significant outside force, the titular Empire in Black and Gold, and will get its own section, but the elder cultures to the north and south deserve some explanation, as they will also have their part to play. In contrast, the city-states of the Atoll Coast to the west, and the nomads of the Dryclaw desert to the east have little to say for themselves. The Atoll Coast is far, and the cities there small, clinging to the coast and looking to each other and the sea. The presence of the Ant city-state of Tsen there discourages military exploration, and there is little trade or diplomatic contact. The recent innovation of flying machines has not yet quickened dialogue between the Lowlands and its eastern neighbours, although this must happen eventually. The Scorpions of the Dryclaw are by now an entirely derivative culture, in contrast. Continued raiding and trading with Helleron, Tark and the Spiderlands has tamed them, although they would never admit it. They have lost the independence and ferocity of their own eastern neighbours, and are instead a mere adjunct to the slave trade these days.
To the north of the Lowlands is the Dragonfly Commonweal, the largest single state known to exist, and the oldest. The Commonweal is more northerly and at a higher altitude than the Lowlands, and its climate is less temperate. The winters frequently bring snow, and the northern reaches are bracing even in the summer. During the Days of Lore there was frequent diplomatic traffic between the Moth-kinden and the Dragonflies, and a careful understanding of borders and the balance of power. However, even then, the Commonweal operated an isolationist foreign policy. When the Moths went to war with other powers of the Dark Ages, it was without aid from their neighbours, although perhaps such aid was never asked, the Moths being a proud people.
Since the revolution the Dragonflies have snubbed their southern neighbours, finding little in the technological uprising to interest them. As a people whose closely-held traditions are dominated and dictated by a faith in magic, the former slaves now dominating the Lowlands had nothing to offer save offensive ideas. Initially, at least, the Lowlanders were also unable to take to the air much, and the great Barrier Ridge, that relic of an age-old geological catastrophe, served to grant the Commonweal its desired security. Those Beetle-kinden merchants who did struggle their trading stock around the Ridge have found themselves politely turned around. The Commonweal has no interest in anything the Lowlands can produce, even less interest in the thought and society that produces it, values its own wares too highly to place them in the hands of barbarians, and in any event does not practice a cash economy. The peasantry deals entirely in barter, whilst the nobility deals in a kind of refined barter by promissory note, a currency that the Lowlanders are simply not good for.
The elegant Dragonfly-kinden form about half the citizens of the Commonweal, and all of its aristocracy, with the balance being mostly filled by Grasshopper-kinden peasantry. There are also substantial colonies of Mantis-kinden, whose outlook differs from the brooding, vengeful Lowlander breed to the extent that they have not had their age-old power and supremacy shattered by upstart slaves. A scattering of other kinden make up the mix, many of them not seen in more southern climes. The distant borders of the Commonweal are mostly the province of barbarians, at least as the Commonwealers tell it: to the north are the steppes, with nomadic tribes of various kinden, especially the Locusts who occasionally embark on one of their pointless rampages against their neighbours. To the east are various squabbling hill tribes, or so it was until very recently. The advent of the Empire has had a dramatic impact on the Commonweal’s decline.
The Commonweal is, and has been since records began, a feudal autocracy organised into numerous principalities. The sole and absolute ruler of this vast state (1) is the Monarch. Although the nobility as a whole is hereditary, the office of the Monarch is not. It is in fact not uncommon for a royal child to succeed a parent, but bloodline is not at least the ostensible reason for this. Succession is determined by a counsel of seers who select from the available children of nobility, offspring of the Monarch and of the various Princes Major. Whether this is a valid or incorruptible way of choosing an absolute ruler depends, of course, on what you think of the validity of magical divination.
The Monarch is the soul of the Commonweal. The Monarch’s word is absolute and binding, and when the Throne makes a promise, that promise must be kept no matter what. This has been a founding principle of the Commonweal and, when the winds of fate have inexplicable chosen a rash or foolish Monarch, it has contributed to the state’s gradual decline. It is not that the Monarch is infallible, merely that he or she must strive to be so. In the old days this apparently worked.
Beneath the Monarch there are the Princes Major, each with a principality to govern, and beneath them there are the Princes Minor, the lesser nobility, who in turn hold court for the headmen of the villages within their domains. This feudal system has lasted for centuries, and even though the cracks are now beginning to gape, something should be said for the philosophy that has allowed it to endure even this long. The Dragonfly ideology is not based on a divine right to rule (2) but on responsibility. A village headman is responsible for the welfare of a village: if things go wrong then he or she is, in essence, to blame. A Prince Minor is responsible for those headmen, the Prince Major to his subordinate princes, and the Monarch for the whole deal. Those in authority are entitled to respect, to tithes, to levy armies even, but only because they are supposed to use the power they wield solely for the good of those that grant it them. Dragonfly nobility lives simply and frugally by the standards of, say, the Spiderlands Aristoi, or even of a Helleron merchant-lord. When a prince or even a Monarch fails, especially if they are unable to make good on a public promice made, it is not unusual for suicide to be the result. (3)
In order to foster such cross-class bonds of mutual responsibility, the Dragonflies practice a curious system of “kin-obligates”. Children are fostered with other families, frequently of a different trade, social class and even in a different principality. The prince learns to live like a pauper, the herdsman knows the burdens of government. This tradition has allowed what is overall a cumbersome and fallible system to persist for many centuries without revolution or upheaval.
Of course, all social systems are at the mercy of human nature, and the Commonweal has not functioned as intended for centuries. Its decline has been almost too slow to recognise at the time, and by the time it was evident even to the Monarch the difficulties plaguing the great state were in all likelihood irreversible. There have been bad Monarchs, negligent Monarchs, Monarchs obsessed with their private interests. Princes must shift for themselves in such times, and some go astray. Princes who might have toed the line under a firm hand may indulge their bad natures or plot against their neighbours. Old injuries rise to the fore. Perhaps a prince dies without issue, a domain goes ungoverned. Banditry, always a festering problem in the Commonweal’s great and often wild spaces, rises up. Bandit lords set themselves up in the seats of princes, or princes descend to brigandage. All gradual, all over many years, but for a long time the Monarchs have been unable to regain ground lost to the ravages of entropy, and by now there are whole principalities where the servants of the throne are not safe, and only warlords rule. The Commonweal is slowly settling into the ashes of history.
It might seem that, given the great state’s geographical isolation and cultural stagnation, it would have little relevance to the Lowlanders, or any story involving them. The Empire has changed all that. After subduing the cities of Myna, Szar and Maynes, the Imperial armies faced a choice: go south, and invade the Lowlands, or go north and invade the Commonweal. On such questions, the future course of history hangs.
Of the Lowlands, the Empire knew only that the inhabitants were keen traders, and the city of Helleron was proving a good source of raw materials, finished goods and mechanical expertise. The Commonweal treated the Empire’s ambassadors with the same lofty disdain as it had always used to rebuff the Lowlander merchants. The Emperor of the time, Alvdan the First, made the logical choice, and the Imperial armies moved to the Commonweal’s borders.
It is possible that both sides engaged in serious underestimation before the conflict began. The Commonweal had no understanding of the Empire’s engineering expertise, and the Empire surely did not appreciate just how big the Commonweal was. The resulting war would last twelve years. The course of the war is best described as a single long, drawn-out retreat by Commonweal forces. The Monarch raised armies of thousands upon thousands of levies, bolstered by the well-trained retinues of princes and the Monarch’s own elite agents, known as the Mercers. The Imperial forces were outnumbered from the start, but incomparably better equipped, more uniformly well-trained and certainly more motivated. Despite a few notable Commonwealer successes, namely a number of high-profile assassinations and the almost total destruction of the Sixth Army by a Commonwealer surprise attack, the Commonweal forces were smashed at almost every turn. All they accomplished was, by sheer numbers and force of will, to slow the Empire’s advance to a gruelling crawl, year after year, making the invaders dread the start of each harsh Commonweal winter.
In the end, after twelve years of blood, a rebellion in the subject city of Maynes made it temporarily inconvenient for the Empire to continue its advance. In order to stabilise its gains the Empire offered terms to the Monarch, which the Dragonflies were in no position to refuse. Three entire principalities were signed over to the Empire in the Treaty of Pearl, an area comprising almost twenty percent of the Commonweal, and providing the Wasps with a perfect platform for further expansion.
Once the Maynes rebels had been put down, of course, the question of where to send the Imperials armies next was put to the Emperor, now Alvdan Second of that name. As the Wasp-kinden were possessed of considerable airpower, both mechanically and by their Art, it was proposed that the Barrier Ridge would be no impediment to a northward strike against the Commonweal, in which they would not even have to violate the borders drawn by the Treaty of Pearl. Of course, in order to put themselves in such a position they would have to secure the land south of the Commonweal, lands that the Imperial spies, the dreaded Rekef, had by now thoroughly itemised and infiltrated. It was mooted to Alvdan the Second that, before a second expedition against the Commonweal, the Lowlands were by now ripe to be brought into the Imperial fold. At the same time, and in the absence of any coherent response from the Monarch, the more forward-thinking Princes Major began to send agents south for the first time in centuries, in search of potential allies…
(1) Sole and absolute in theory, at least.
(2) As of course they have no belief in a divine, although their concept of a preordained fate comes close.
(3) What a thought – that one’s politicians are expected to pay a price for uncovered dishonesty! What strange, barbaric customs these insect-people have.