The Spiderlands’ relationship to its Lowlander neighbours has always been a complicated one. For a start, few Lowlanders really understand either the extent of the Spiderlands or how it works. To the Lowlanders, the Spiderlands is exemplified in the cities of Seldies, Everis and, further south, Siennis, that sit at the south-east corner of the Lowlands. In these cities a Lowlander can see the Spider-kinden in their hedonistic splendour, their flaunted wealth and power.
To the Spiders themselves these cities are very much the provinces, the shallow end of the rich tapestry that is their domain. These cities exist to reap the trade of the silk road that runs north to them along them between the edge of the Dryclaw desert and the sea. The bulk of the Spiderlands is on that sea’s far shore, and the bulk of the inhabitants are not Spider-kinden at all.
A word here should be said about the state of ocean navigation. The Lowlanders are in the main not natural seagoers, and a direct passage across to the ports of the Spiderlands is made prohibitively difficult by a lack of skill, inadequate tools of navigation and the savage storms that sweep the sea’s interior (known to mariners as “the Lash”). Whilst the Spiderlands sailors are happier on the water they have more difficulty with storms, having few engined craft to assist them, and their navigational equipment is even more primitive. Shipping in these waters almost always stays within sight of the coast to keep its course and avoid the worst weather. So it is that the avenue of trade and communication between the Lowlands and their southern neighbours shrinks to the Silk Road, and the sea lane that mirrors it.
Lowlanders have traditionally made little headway into the Spiderlands. It is more usual for Spider traders to travel north than for Beetles to sail south. The Spiderlands are extremely complex, and putting a foot wrong could lead to the foreigner falling foul of the savage politics of the Spider families, and so those who are too intrepid in their explorations seldom return to give much account of themselves.
The Spiderlands proper are composed of a large number of semi-independent city-states, referred to as satrapies, some of which are primarily populated by Spiders, but the majority of which are of other kinden governed by a Spider overclass. Spider-kinden have a tendency, when they assume the governance of a place, to make the existing inhabitants, be they never so grand, realise that they have been at best middle-class all these years, and that the true ruling class has simply been biding its time before moving into residence. Spiders are so practiced at giving off an air of superiority that, after only a generation or two, an entire city population will find itself unthinkingly accepting their newly subordinate position, and the families and institutions that were once pre-eminent when the city was free now fight each other for the privilege of fawning to the Aristoi.
The Aristoi are the great Spider families, the ruling class. There are plenty of Spiders who are no better off, or often considerably worse off, than the average Satrapy citizen, but when most people think of Spider-kinden it is the Aristoi they see in their minds’ eye. Unlike the Commonweal the Spiderlands has no central authority, indeed it is arguable that there is no actual political entity that the label “Spiderlands” could be pinned on (1). Whether a family is Aristoi or not is a matter of degree rather than bloodline, and the boundaries shift continually. A family is Aristoi if it can maintain its power and wealth and social position in the face of the other Aristoi. It is quite possible for a more lowly family to gain some advantage in trade or diplomacy and become one of the elite, and in that case they would have earned the title (2). Similarly there is a gradient of power and influence within the Aristoi social class, from the truly great families that have major holdings in a dozen cities to clans that might have a solid presence in only one. It is always possible for a family to lose Aristoi status, and in the vicious political games that Spiders are so partial to this is not an uncommon event at all.
The structure of an Aristoi house descends from its highest-ranking female member, usually the eldest, although infighting for control of a family’s destiny is not unknown or even unusual. Spiders are strongly matriarchal, however, and although their menfolk can serve their families in many ways, leadership is not one of them. Below the matriarch there is a complex, and fluid, hierarchy of other family members, with thinkers and manipulators generally outranking those with a preference for action. All family members of any real standing will maintain a cadre, a small band of reasonably loyal and skilled henchmen to take care of family and personal business, and the family as a whole will have retainers such as entertainers, servants, a house guard, craftsmen and the like. Beyond this there will be agents, in their home cities, in other cities, in the world at large, and there will be occasional hirelings, guest artists or novelties, honoured guests (3), ambassadors and so forth. A good-sized Aristoi household is a populous and lively place to visit.
From a certain point of view the satrapies themselves, with their dozens of different kinden, are unaffected by their Spider overlords. The Spiders do not impose their culture upon their subjects (4), interfere with their trades or customs or rule them directly in any way. Instead the families’ main contact is with whatever individual, bloodline or group ruled the city prior to the Spiders’ arrival. Although some satrapy cities have been taken by armed conquest, Spiders usually arrange matters so that they are called on for aid, invited in to stop civil strife, or similarly peaceably allowed to assume the reins of power with a minimum of disruption. Once they are installed the former rulers of the city find that they are at the whim of mercurial and divided overlords. The hegemony of most satrapies, therefore, forms a curious bottleneck where the original structure converges on what is now the governor or satrap, and then expands into a loose coterie of representatives (5) from every Aristoi house that has an interest in the city. The demands that the coterie makes of the governor are specific and relatively few, mostly for taxes, and occasionally for a levy of fighting men. The governor therefore becomes extremely unpopular with the people, whereas on balance the people at large tend to be obscurely proud of their Aristoi. It is also worth noting that, in a satrapy city, no merchant, artist or artisan is ever likely to improve his lot beyond a certain point without Spider patronage, either from the Aristoi or from some well-placed local family. It is not a concerted campaign to maintain control, simply that once the Spider-kinden are in place, their opinions, fashions and favour tend to cloak the city in an invisible but irresistible aura of patronage, nepotism, favouritism and bribery.
The only part of Spider culture that they cannot help imposing on their subjects is slavery. No other kinden, not even the Wasps, is so habitually reliant on slaves. Slavery as a custom is not uncommon in any event, but those few satrapies that formerly shunned it found the tradition imposed on them quite forcefully, and those that spoke out against it generally relegated to the status of property, rather than person. To a Spider, especially an Aristoi, slaves are part of the proper lifestyle, and Spiders without slaves are pitied and looked down on. Paid servants are all very well, but ownership and control are important components of Spider-kinden social currency. Those who abhor slavery, such as the Beetles of Collegium, are often dismayed to find that a slave of the Aristoi generally lives a happier and more comfortable life than a freeman anywhere else. Indeed, as the appearance of servitors reflects on the affluence of masters, it is generally impossible to tell, by dress or manner, whether a Spider’s followers are slaves or free. To further complicate matters, there are often senior figures in Aristoi and other Spider households who take a positive pride in their chains, as it makes them closer to the family than mere hirelings.
The principle occupation for Spiders of any station is plotting the downfall of other Spiders. Amongst the Aristoi and those families a new notches below this is known as the Dance, and forms a central tenet of Spider culture. There are no rules to the Dance. At the same time there are an inordinate number of unwritten customs and expectations, and clumsy dancers are apt to fall. The Dance allows Aristoi families to jostle for power and wealth, but similarly, power and wealth are simply the means by which the Dance is furthered, ways of keeping score. It is at once ritualised, sophisticated, deadly and highly serious. The Dance has started wars between satrapies, cast families down, ennobled paupers, furthered art and burned palaces.
Those families that lose out in the Dance, whether they are Aristoi participants, or simply those luckless enough to be used and discarded in a greater scheme, are likely to find themselves in dire straits. For a Spider it is a bitter thing to be impoverished and helpless, and yet every satrapy city has its population of the fallen: beggars, whores, con artists and petty criminals, always scheming and swindling for a chance to get back what they have lost, or what they imagine they once had. They jockey for place amongst the city’s native poor, its gangs and its criminals, always hoping that someone of note will see them and pick them out as being useful. Patronage is the only way out of the mire, but Spiders have long memories and tend to keep an eye on any old enemy yet living, be they never so ruined and wretched.
With this salutary lesson it is not surprising that many individuals and whole families find that they would rather relocate to less trying regions than risk penury and destruction. The cities of Seldis and Siennis (6) await, as a reasonably comfortable waypoint on the road to oblivion, and afford the inhabitants to chance to laugh at the quaint Lowlanders and their foolish ways. If it becomes too hot in these most northern reaches of the Spiderlands then there are always the Lowlander cities themselves, where any two-coin Spider conwoman can remake herself as a princess, or perhaps the lakeside city of Solarno, virtually a retirement home for Aristoi where the same old games can be played on a tiny provincial scale before the warm waters of the Exalsee. It is small wonder that every Lowlands city has a population of Spiders, and that Spider-kinden exiles can even be found in the Commonweal or the Empire. They are their own worst enemies.
A final word is required on the Spider attitude to Aptitude. Spiders are universally Inapt. Machinery, all the trappings of the new technology, baffle them as much as they do the Moth-kinden mystics. However, many of the satrapy kinden are Apt, and there are always those funny Lowlanders. Unlike Moths, Spiders have no particular aversion to machines. Machines make life easier, after all, and they’re all for that. An artificer may find himself as feted and celebrated as a new musician or artist (7), touring the Aristoi parties to demonstrate his inventions to a wondering audience, just as a stage magician might tour the parlours of politely disbelieving Beetle magnates in Helleron. Also unlike the Moths, the Spiders were never heavily reliant on magical power for their dominance, preferring the more subtle, but as it turns out more durable, reins of social control, at which they have always excelled. Spider magic has slowly waned, in the centuries since the Collegium revolution, and they have steadily become more reliant on the users of machines, but as they have always been a culture built on controlling and manipulating the lower orders, this has made no real difference to the way that the Spiders live their lives.
(1) And yet, under threat, the various Aristoi families can achieve a remarkable unity of purpose. The unifying principle of the Spiderlands is, honestly, the elitism of its ruling class, that closes ranks brutally to brush off the ambitions both of lesser kinden, and of lesser Spiders.
(2) Especially so, as the genuine Aristoi would have tried to keep them down at every turn. If they can survive that, then the newcomers truly deserve the appellation.
(3) Members of other Aristoi houses who are not quite being held hostage
(4) With one exception, see below
(5) Almost all male, because female Spiders have better things to do with their lives. For a Spider-kinden woman to be deputised to a coterie is a grievous mark of shame.
(6) Everis, or Everis-on-the-Isle, is a different story, and a unique Spider accomplishment, being a walled and highly defensible naval fortress. It serves to protect Spider shipping from the Ant galleys out of Kes, or from Mantis longships.
(7) Until they start to grow wearisome, of course.