It might seem that the Beetle-kinden of the Lowlands are the only force for progress and Aptitude in the world, set against a tapestry of the ignorant and the superstitious: Moths, Dragonflies, Mantids and Spiders being dragged kicking and screaming into the world post-revolution.
If only. The Lowlanders are not alone. Although the overthrow of the Moths at Pathis was the first spark, the wildfire scorched across the world, to places far beyond the knowledge of the Beetles of newly-named Collegium.
Ant- and Bee-kinden also profited from the unsurging of technological advancement that the Beetles had begun, but their use of it was far less innovative, more limited. The Ants were and are a militaristic breed, but their main adversaries have always been other Ant-kinden city-states. Rather than leading to an evolutionary spiralling of war-machinery, it has resulted in something of a stagnation. Ants prefer to rely on what they know, and most of all on their mind-linking Art, and what advances they make are specifically geared towards assisting, or defeating, the way in which they themselves fight. Bee-kinden, of whom there are few in the Lowlands, are an industrious but retiring people, fond of making things simply but well, hard-working, and without that great drive that has thrown the Beetles into the forefront of history. The one Bee-kinden at greatness came a little over a century ago with the Vesseret protectorates, to the north and east of the Lowlands. However, before Vesseret could quite establish itself as the enlightened and powerful state it had the potential to be, it met another emergent kinden: the Wasps.
At the time of the revolution the Wasp-kinden lived as a collection of feuding tribes, each with its little hill fort and its list of grievances, brawling and stealing each others’ women. Their lands had been ungoverned for a long time, since their original, bloody-minded masters had been smashed by the Moth-kinden, and they had little to offer outsiders. Any visitor there, in the first few centuries after the Beetle uprising, would have found little potential in them.
However, the Wasps were Apt, and slowly they began adopting and adapting such pieces of the new engineering that came their way, and thinking about the wider world, until there came a man amongst them who decided to do something about it. This man was Alvric, and he spent his life making war on his own kind. Through brutal war, worse diplomacy, and strategic genius, and through his peddling of a grand vision for his people, before his death he was an Emperor with almost the entire Wasp nation beneath his banner, and that banner was black and gold. About then the Wasp-kinden met the emerging state of Vesseret and its protectorates, and the last years of Alvric’s reign were spent in bitter war with this, their first great enemy. Alvric lived to see the Bee-kinden of Vesseret brought down, their royal family butchered, their cities enslaved. He died a happy man.
His son was Alvdan, and he continued the good work. The Bees of Vesseret had been skilled artificers. The Wasps learned many things from them. Their conquests came rapidly, individual cities falling to them one by one, taken by military force or surrendering at the very threat. It was Alvdan who brought the Wasp armies to the very doorstep of the Lowlands, and who turned aside to inflict war of a scale never before seen on the Commonweal, a war that he saw six years of before he died, apparently of natural causes. His son, of the same name, is cut from the same cloth, and it is his writ that musters the immense armies of the Empire to march on the divided and unsuspecting Lowlands.
The threat posed by the Empire, the reason the Empire is a greater power than any seen before, is a composite of many things. First, they are Apt, and able to organise themselves to a greater degree than any of the old powers, such as their victims of the Commonweal. This also gives them an advantage of materiel: the army that invaded the lands of the Dragonflies had automotives, siege engines and even flying machines, and if these were crude by Collegium standards, they showed a rate of learning and progression from the Wasps’ barbaric beginnings that puts the Lowlanders to shame. Secondly, the Wasps can fly, and fly well, both in machines, on their beasts and by their Art. Their armies can move far more swiftly than the creeping Ants, and are vastly more mobile on the field. Finally, they have a ferocious drive and belief in their own destiny, their superiority to other kinden, that means that they are unlikely to ever say, ‘enough.
The Empire is founded on that racial bigotry. Wasp men are warriors, all of them. Every one of them has a military rank and training, even the artificers, the merchants of their Consortium, the slavers and the spies. The menial work, not fit for warriors, is done by slaves. The Empire is a voracious consumer of slaves of all kinden.
The hierarchy of the Empire is still developing. The Emperor’s authority is absolute, and he keeps a council of advisors, both Wasps and educated slaves, whose identity changes frequently. There is no obvious next step, and the swift progress of the Wasp state is leading to a byzantine political structure. In absolute truth the three generals of the Rekef, the Wasp secret service, are effectively next in authority, but their power is shadowy and only semi-official. Below them is a scrum composed of: Army generals, magnates of the Consortium and the heads of major families (1) (). These individuals jostle for the Emperor’s attention, although not too much of it, as the summary execution of anyone save perhaps a Rekef general is always a possibility. Just below this level come the local governors, whose status varies with their city, and who are almost always colonels in the army, usually seconded out after a victorious military history.
Below this untidiness there is the rigid order of the army, rank by rank down to the least soldiers. Even the most wretched Wasp, the most wretched Wasp freeman, can hold his head high, however, for below them come the lesser kinden. Because of the manner of their joining the Empire, and their particular usefulness, Beetle and Fly-kinden are allowed a begrudged kind of second-class citizenship, just below a true Wasp and just above an Auxillian. Auxillians are conscript soldiers from the subject kinden, with ranks of their own. They pad out the Imperial armies, providing specialist troops or simple expendable footsoldiers.
After this there are slaves. Most are of the subject-kinden, but there are many Wasp-kinden slaves, mostly women but some men. Some are criminals, other debtors. Most slaves, however, are from the subject peoples. A subject kinden living in his or her own city is not quite a slave, merely a subject of the Empire. Beyond their cities, unless they have papers and are on proper Imperial business (or at least have a Wasp to speak for them), they are either slaves, or fair game for slavers. About half the foreign slaves in the Empire are taken from the subject cities, either criminals or simply to full quota. The other half are prisoners of war. Slaves are property without rights.
Wasp debt laws are very strict, and can result in an insolvent debtor ending up in slavery along with his family. Some debtors have been known to sell their own wives and children to settle their debts.
A Beetle scholar in Helleron once remarked that the Wasps were an unnatural kinden who could not last: the example of their beasts was that the women were superior, and yet Wasp-kinden women are without rights, nothing more than the property of their menfolk. He died, that scholar, quite soon afterwards, and the Wasps have outlived him despite his predictions. (2)
Wasp men are expected to have families. A household will generally consist of a wife, whatever children she has borne, servants if the family is at least moderately well off, and slaves. Even poor Wasp families have enough slaves to do the menial work. More affluent families will have slave entertainers, tutors, clerks and the like. In many families the man of the house is away for the majority of the time, coming home only to look over his estate and impregnate his wife. Wasp men are frequently philanderers, and sleeping with slave girls is acceptable behaviour (although another man’s wife is not). Women are expected to be faithful, of course. Women in the Empire are not slaves, but are considered the wards of either their father or their husband, own no property and have no say. However there are various ways in which a Wasp woman can be something more than just property.
Firstly, many women run their husband’s estates while he is away, if there is no male Wasp available to do it (such as a brother or uncle of the absentee). As stewards they can effectively manage the finances and business of the property, and given that the man may be off for years at a time on campaign this allows a considerable degree of freedom.
Secondly, it sometimes happens that a woman is widowed without any man being in an obvious position to step in to take over her late husband’s affairs. Usually her husband’s family will do this, but if he has none then she remains holding the property in trust, until her (male) children are grown or until another suitor comes calling. Wasp law holds that no woman has a right to refuse a suit that her guardian accepts, but a propertied widow without a guardian is a difficult point in law. Usually it is the local governor that has final say, and if there are multiple suitors then a clever woman can wield considerable power backed by the inheritance that she controls.
Thirdly, there is the rare Wasp who recognises kindred qualities in his mate. Some women act as their husband’s agent in a kind of equal partnership, travelling, trading and acting as emissary on his behalf. This is rare, but represents the best chance a woman has to wield genuine influence. People will court her because of her husband’s power.
Finally, of course, there is simple unofficial influence. However patriarchal the society, men will not get it all their own way, and women will still have some sway over the men in their lives, whether their husbands or lovers. Women with powerful husbands become important figures simply because they have their husbands’ ears, and so they can hold a kind of unofficial court, and receive all manner of gifts and favours. The women in the highest level of society are looking enviously at the Spiderlands, now, seeing how their counterparts live there, and a tradition of female intrigue is slowly arising within high-born Wasp culture.
(1) not a nobility, as such – well-bred Wasps are referred to as being of “good family” and this manifests in power, wealth, property and influence. In another six or seven generations it will be an aristocracy, no doubt.
(2) Beetle-kinden tend to operate a slightly patriarchal bias: women must generally work harder to get as far as a man on the same footing. The scholar would have pointed out, had he lived long enough, that of their insects it is the male who tends to be larger and more prominent.