World Building: On the Founding of the Aionian Empire

The following is a summary from The Aionian Empire: A History, by Feas Mayoros, Court Historian to Imperator Konstantian IV. The full text of that book has been lost, though fragments (including this one) are found in Marike Stratenes’ Chronicles.

For a thousand years after the fall of the Old Ones, the continent of Aridikhos was in turmoil. Everywhere one looked there was violence and bloodshed, civil war and chaos. Within a decade there were none of the Old Ones left, their bloodlines scattered and diluted almost beyond recall.

At last, however, in desert lands of what is now the west of Haranshar, a child was born in the city of Pasargadakh, the mountaintop fortress-city of Kavash, the last of a long line of priest-kings. He sent his son, who would come to be known as Xharyush, to safety with his father-in-law before his own death at the hands of several rebellious princes. When the young prince learned of his legacy, he set out on a quest for vengeance that led him to not only kill his father’s murderers but also set him on a path of conquest that would end with the entire continent of Aridikos under his possession.

For another thousand years the Haransharin held sway over the entire continent, from the lands that are now known as the Western Duchies of the Imperium to the plains and mountains of the east. Admittedly, the east was always more firmly under the control of the shahs and their satraps than the west, but it was undeniable that even those barbarian men living in the north owed their allegiance to the shah in Tysfan.

Along with the political domination, the Haransharin overlords brought their powerful faith known as Ormazhdism, which they enforced with a brutal efficiency wherever they could. Fire temples were erected from one corner of the west to the other and, when the populace resisted, they were often given to the flames.

It remained a troubling inconvenience for the shahs that the three regions of the west that were hidden behind mountains–what we now know as the Northern Kingdoms, the Western Duchies, and the Peninsula–remained stubbornly resistant to their attempts to enforce at least a measure of political and cultural hegemony. The shahs, particularly those that preceded the unfortunate Artashuar X (the reigning shah during the secession), had decided to invest their financial resources elsewhere. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that the rebellion started in the Peninsula, particularly in the city of Alusium and in the feuding city-states of Helleneia. The Shahs in Tysfan would have cause to regret that they had let these troublesome territories have so much control over their own affairs.

The seeds for the rebellion were actually sewn in the academies of the city-states of Helleneia, where a school of philosophy began emerge that argued that the material world was hopelessly and irretrievably corrupted. Though this began as a mere philosophy, it very quickly morphed into a religious doctrine, since a religion, particularly one so at odds with the dominant Ormazhdian Faith. Politics and religion are always intertwined with one another.

According to these new thinkers, there were two opposed forces that governed the cosmos. On the one side was the Name, two essences–one male and one female–conjoined in eternity. Theirs was the essence of pure spirit, and in the tenets laid down by the coalescing faith, they were to be associated with the purer elements of fire and air and, especially, of the mysterious fifth element of aether. On the other side was the creature known as the Demiurge, the monstrous, twisted creator god who had fashioned the physical cosmos from the corrupted elements of water and earth, using his own share of aether to endow with a terrible vitality.

Unsurprisingly, the Archons of many of these city-states (for so the rulers were called), saw in this new faith a means of establishing independence from their Haransharin overlords. Likewise, did the Imperator of Alusium, the strongest power in the Peninsula, declare his support for this nascent faith. As such things go, it didn’t take long for the True Faith–as it now proclaimed itself–to begin to organize itself into a Universal Church. It was decided that each city-state and the cities of Alusium, Millani, and Enniccio would be granted a Prefect, bringing the total number to 13, a number that continues to this day.

Immediately thereafter, however, fights and disagreements began to break out, since it was not at all clear who would now lead this growing coalition, and indeed whether the other countries of the west would join them. At last, it was agreed that Honorius of House Aelius (the Imperator of Alusium) and Eurydike of House Paiolos (Archon of the city-state of Athenais) would lead. With these two formidable personalities in charge, it was only a matter of time before the rebellion began to spread outwards, as first the rich grainlands (now known as the Central Duchies) joined and then everyone else did as well. Soon it had even spread to the lands of Korray.

In these years, the satraps were thrown down, the fire temples destroyed or converted into churches, and the people flocked to this new faith that promised them an escape from the world through an attaining of the ecstasy of the spirit. The shah responded with brutal absolutely brutal repression, sending army after army to bring these rebellious provinces back under the suzerainty of Tysfan. However, the territories were too far-flung, the armies of Haranshar too stretched out, for their efforts to be successful. Still, the death toll on both sides was tremendous.

At last, after almost a decade of war, the Aionian Empire was founded. Honorius and Eurydike were crowned by one of the Prefects, Koriana, in the new Citadel of the Universal Church, which was itself located in the newly-founded city of Aïonis. Also in attendance were all of the numerous members of the new Royal Family, as well as representatives from every corner of the new Aionian Empire. In those days, the territory of that new entity encompassed even vast parts of Korray, though subsequent events would prove that those territories would gain their own independence.

For its part, the city was a truly magnificent structure. It was comprised of two parts: the Mount, upon which are located the numerous palaces belonging to the Imperator, the extended members of the Royal family, the various dukes, counts, and other nobles, the Academy of the Alchemists’ Guild, and religious authorities, as well as the Citadel and the Prefectal Palace; and, spreading out on both sides the rest of the City. Within a few years it had become one of the two greatest cities in the world, rivaled only by Tysfan in terms of size, influence, and wealth.

As has been recorded elsewhere, in those days the Art of Binding was still practiced everywhere in the Empire, and indeed it was used to construct the great land walls that surrounded the city, as well as all of the major buildings just described. The same was true of all of the other major cities of the Empire. Even after Binding was suppressed, its influence was still felt from one end to the other.

Though Haranshar finally had to accept defeat, for the entire thousand years of its existence the Empire has had to fend off attacks from the east, these two titans locked in eternal conflict, with Korray in between. And so things remain, to this very day…

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World Building: On the Steppes

Far to the east in Haranshar there are the steppes, arguably the most inhospitable and dangerous of the four xhusts. While the deserts of the west are known for their arid climate and unruly natives, the steppes are known for their sweeping grasslands, the vast herds of bison, horse, and deer, and the fiercely independent clans.

Fortunately for the rest of Haranshar, the steppes are separated from the rest of the continent by a mountain chain that has rendered it difficult (and often impossible) for even the most ambitious of chiefs to launch an all-out invasion or conquest. Known simply as the Spine, these are some of the most inhospitable mountains on the entire continent of Aridikh, with peaks thrusting up to a mile into the sky.

The Shah’s writ runs only thinly here, and indeed there is only one of the Great Clans that has taken it upon itself to attempt to force any sort of adherence to the governance of Haranshar, and even that was a relatively recent development, having been undertaken at the same time that Tysfan was built and the rule of Haranshar consolidated. Up until that point, the steppes had been a part of the vast eastern empire largely as a matter of form, since their obedience was mostly in the form of tribute. This would typically take the form of horses, and to this day many of the finest herds to be found in Haranshar can trace their roots to the steppes.

As with the similarly tribal Korrayin, the tribes of the steppes are in an almost constant state of war and conflict. In the time before they were brought under the official jurisdiction of Haranshar, there were times when a Great Chief would emerge from his fellows to command the loyalty of everyone else, but those times are now nothing more than a distant memory, a shadow that is related around the campfires. Still, there exists in the heart of every member of the tribes–whether eagle, hawk, lion, or stallion–the belief that one day they will be able to reclaim their lost heritage and restore the power that has been lost.

While chattel slavery is forbidden by both sacred and common law throughout Haranshar, that does not pertain to those living on the steppes, where it is common practice to seize slaves from opposing tribes. However, under the conditions by which the tribes were incorporated into the rule of greater Haranshar, they are forbidden from taking slaves from anyone other than the tribes themselves. Needless to say, this has been the source of significant consternation for those living in these later days, and there are many who wish to see a return to the era when the weak westerners cowered behind their city walls as the titanic wave of mounted tribesman plundered their lands.

There are at least seven great tribes that have organized themselves, each adopting the name of one of the sacred animals: Eagle, Fox, Wolf, Hawk, Stallion, and Bison. The tribes are constantly feuding with one another, forming and fragmenting alliances depending on the circumstances in any given moment. It is generally accepted that no alliance between any given tribes is only as secure as the men who comprise it and, given the ambition and warrior spirit that seems endemic to their culture, they usually do not last very long.

If there is one thing that unites the tribes, it is their awe of and reverence for the shamans who dwell in the lands by the sea. These men (and a few women), are understood to have a closer relationship to the blood-soaked gods than the common run of mortal. They do not write any of their lore down, and so any information that those in the western regions of Haranshar (or the Imperium, for that matter) are able to solidly identify has come from those few souls brave enough to hazard a journey into the these lands. One such was an explorer from the Peninsula, known to history as Josepe Azules, though since so much of his account comes from his last days–when he was stricken by a fever–it is hard to say how much of it can be considered reliable.

According to Azules, those destined to become shamans are plucked from their parents while still babies, taken over the mountains, and raised among the shamans in the caves above the beaches (which are of black sand). They are then inducted into the Sacred Mysteries, the intricacies of which remain unclear to even the most well-traveled scholar. What we do know is that their rites typically involve blood sacrifice, and every year they choose a man from among the Tribes to fulfill the role of the Sacred King. This man is then sacrificed, along with his ceremonial steed, to show the gods that the tribes have maintained their faith. The shamans are also the guardians of the old prophecies of the tribes, which proclaim that a Sacred King will one day emerge to take ownership of a nameless object, whose presence is known but whose exact nature remains a subject of some dispute among the learned scholars of the west.

It is unclear to those living in the west whether the shamans were originally ethnically distinct from the rest of the tribes or whether they sprang organically out of the tribes in their need for religious leaders. Whichever it is, however, there is no question that they now appear to be almost as different from their fellows as the men of the tribes are from the rest of the Haransharin. Though they have yet to play a significant role in the workings of the wider world, there are rumblings that that may be about to change.

As the events of the novels will make clear, there will come a day when the tribes will become a force to be reckoned with, for both the Shah in his mighty city of Tysfan and for those even further west.

Dark days lie ahead.

Character Sketch: Childerick

Childerick Merovais is the foremost duke in the Imperium. His bloodlines are impeccable, and for many of the Great Houses his claim to the throne is greater than that of the current Imperator Talinissia, whose mother was a foreigner. His own mother was the younger sister of Talinissia’s father, and while relations were always cordial between the siblings, the same could never be said of their children.

He was born roughly a three years before Talinissia, and when it was in doubt whether her father would produce an heir, there was much discussion among the Great Houses whether the aging Imperator would declare that his sister’s son would inherit. Precocious for his age, the young Childerick had picked up on those possibilities, aided and abetted by his mother, who was very ambitious for her son’s future. When, at last, the aging Imperator produced not one but two heirs, it appeared that these ambitions would come to naught.

When Talinissia’s brother rebelled against her (roughly ten years before the begin of the events of the novel), Childerick stayed strategically neutral. It was only when the rebel had come to the very gates of Ainonis itself and had rendered himself vulnerable that he led his forces at a breakneck pace and fell upon his rear. This allowed Talinissia’s forces to ride out from the city and catch the rebellious prince and utterly destroy his army.

Despite Childerick’s pivotal role in the salvation of her throne (or perhaps because of it), Talinissia has never entirely trusted her cousin. She has known him since he was a child, and she knows all too well the dark humours that haunt the recesses of his mind. He once had a servant thrown out of a window in a fit of pique, and in another instance he stabbed a secretary in the eye with a pen for an imagined slight. However, she is also well-aware of his closeness to the throne in terms of inheritance, and so she has deliberately attempted to shut him out of politics.

As a result of all of these dynastic complexities and ambiguities, Childerick has spent his entire life stewing in bitterness. From his point of view, he was passed over twice, once when his uncle gave the throne to his (possibly illegitimate) daughter and again when she refused to acknowledge him her heir after he saved her from utter oblivion at the hands of her brother. Having been denied his rightful place, he holds Talinissia in nothing but contempt, and is in general not shy about making his feelings as public as possible.

From his youth Childerick was groomed for leadership, especially since he was his parents’ only child. Though the noticed his cruel streak, he was also seen as brilliant and was left in no illusions about his abilities. However, it was also recognized that he was incurably lazy, and that it took a great deal to motivate him to do even the barest amount of his school work. His tutors despaired of him, but none were foolish enough to reprimand him, both for fear of his own wrath and the reprisal from his parents, who would hear no ill said of their son, no matter how well-deserved it might be.

As a result of this spoiled upbringing, Childerick has grown into great power but is also prone to self-indulgence and, occasionally, truly terrifying fits of rage. When he slips into one of these fits, even his children know that the wiser course of action is to leave him alone and wait for it to pass.

From his marriage to Zenosia–herself a well-blooded descendent of at least fourteen Imperators–he has three children. His eldest is his heir Cuthbert, followed by Frederika (without a doubt the brains of the family) and Guillame. The latter has already been promised to the Church and is, arguably, the most normal of all of the children. Cuthbert takes after his father in temperament, though his father’s laziness has here been coupled with a cruelty devoid of the leavening influence of a sharp wit and cunning mind. He has just enough wit to serve the father’s purpose, but not enough to be a truly contributing memory of the family. Thus, there is no question that it is Frederika who is the apple of her father’s eye, and he entrusts most of his important affairs to her.

In recent year, Childerick has largely stayed out of the inner circle of Imperial politics, preferring to hole up in his vast estates. He has been aided in this effort by his chief ally and assistant, Count Pepin. Because Childerick is his liege-lord, Pepin has always accepted his subordinate position, and it is his subservience that has allowed him to survive the service of one of the most capricious nobleman in the Imperium. Despite his divorcement from the affairs of the Imperator, Childerick has still managed to quietly suborn many nobles and Prefects to his cause, and it is well-known that the Deacons of his own duchy support his cause and have even taken to deferring to his wishes in all matters.

At the start of The Heretic’s War, he has once again moved back to his palace in Aionis, for he senses that there is a great deal of unrest in the Imperium of which he can take advantage. His ultimate hope is to unseat his cousin and rival Talinissia and claim the throne for his own. Beside him, Pepin encourages him in these machinations, for the wily count sees in his liege an opportunity to both further his own political ambitions and, just as if not more importantly, fortify his alliance with Holy Church. Between the two of them, they pose the gravest threat to Talinissia’s throne since her brother sought to overthrow her.

It remains to be seen what new alliances will be brokered between the Duke, the Count, and the many starving nobles and clerics all seeking advancement in the Imperium.

World Building: “The Song of Princes” and the Fall of Old Korray

The following is an extract from Alexias Korenas’ A History of the Korrayin People, Their Customs, and Legends. Compiled roughly 200 years ago, it remains the definitive work on the Korrayin people.

Among the Korrayin, there is no tale more sacred nor terrifying than the Fall of Old Korray. It is related in full in an epic text known as the Song of Princes, and while no complete copy has survived to be investigated by either Imperial or Haransharin authorities (that we know of), enough pieces have been recovered that we can relate the events that took place in at least some detail.

It is said that Old Korray was a land such as had never been seen since the dawn of the world. Larger by far than the distant Middle Kingdom, more lush and verdant than the continent upon which the Anukathi dwell, and far more civilized than any culture in Aridikh, Old Korray was the envy of the world. Indeed, dignitaries from the world’s powers came to the court of their High King–the Melkh, as they called him–to offer their alliances, their daughters, and their riches. Old Korray was, then, the center of the world, the axis around which the other great powers of the world revolved.

The first sign that all was not well began, the Song asserts, when the 29th king of the Uzurite House, Shavid, died in a tragic accident, leaving his numerous sons to squabble over the inheritance. Four of them quickly rose to the top: Kilab, Ethream, Elishua, and Avnon. They at first attempted to divide the kingdom among them, but it was inevitable that they should start to feud among themselves, each seeking to reclaim all of the patrimony for himself. Soon all of Old Korray was torn apart by war.

That war was arguably the most terrible event the world had seen, not to be rivaled until the civil war that brought down the reign of the Old Ones here on Aridikh. There were many great and terrible deeds committed by all sides during those dreadful years, but the end result was that Old Korray was soon an irreparably fragmented kingdom. No House, no matter how small, was able to avoid being pulled into the orbit of one of the Princes. Nor, for that matter, was the royal family, whose ranks were decimated as assassinations and battles flourished.

In the seventh year of the conflict, so the chronicle tells us, the Darkness fell. Perhaps, had the Korrayin not been involved in a feckless war with one another, they might have been able to resist the tide that swept them away, but as it was it took each army one by one. Finally, pushed to the sea, the four brothers–the last of their House–decided to set aside their feuding for the good of their people (a bit too little, too late, it must be said). They commandeered the great ships at the harbour city of Kivala and set sail with their followers. It is hard to say now how many perished as the Darkness overtook Korray, but it is clear from the Song that far more were left behind than were able to be taken in the ships. Truly, it was a dark day, and it haunts the Korrayin to this day.

Some speculate that it was an invading army from either the Middle Kingdom or the Old Ones of Aridikh that were responsible for the collapse of that mighty kingdom and the flight of the Korrayin. It is possible that such a strong attack might have been transformed by the myths and legends of a people into an abstract concept. However, it would have taken a truly mighty army to overcome the Korrayin, even divided as they were.

In my own professional opinion as a trained historian, it is far more likely to have been some sort of natural disaster. The lands to the west, what little we know of them, are reputed to be extraordinarily volatile, and so it seems to me likely that a great volcanic eruption is the source of the myth of the Darkness.

It is also unclear just how much time the Exiles spent on the seas, but it was probably no more than a matter of months. They soon spotted land, and when they came ashore they found a continent almost as prosperous as their own: Aridikh. They landed in the north of what is now Haranshar, very near the border of what is currently called Korray. They quickly found, however, that the mountains just to the west (what we now call the Mountains of Korray) were more hospitable for them, and they began their colonization efforts there. Some few, however, did move southward into the desert regions of Haranshar, where they remain to day.

Thus, as uncertain as many of the facts are surrounding the fall of Old Korray, it is certain that the incursion of the Korrayin onto Aridikh triggered the titanic series of conflicts that brought about the demise of the Old Ones. They landed in their great boat -and immediately set about marrying and conquering the various kings and queens of the Old Ones. Some of these had already established contacts with the Korrayin in their own country, and so the solidification of such alliances was only natural. Of course, by the time of the landing, the first cracks in the Hegemony of the Old Ones had already begun to show, so it was to be expected that a sudden influx of new peoples would exacerbate existing conflicts. And so it proved. Within a generation the Old Ones were mostly gone, and it would not be until the rise of Karyush the Great that the continent of Aridikh would once more find unity.

Since the subsequent history of the Korrayin is recounted elsewhere, I shall end by noting that the priests of Korray, regardless of what faith they follow, continue to hold the Song out as a warning and a promise. An entire body of prophecy has also sprung up, proclaiming that one day a Meschach, a saviour, will arise to unite them and lead them to conquer the continent of Aridikh, restoring them to the greatness that was once theirs.

Such things are, of course, laughable, considering how divided the Korrayin remain and how few of them there are compared to either the Imperials to the west or the Haransharin to their east. Still, one cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to those myths.

But since such things are better left to the Alchemists and their stargazing, I shall end this part of my chronicle here.

World Building (17): On Tysfan

The mightiest city in the world, home to almost a million souls, the great Tysfan has been the capital of Haranshar for almost three centuries. It is accounted one of the most beautiful and graceful cities in the world, a true marvel. The airs there are sweet and fresh, the gardens as verdant as anyone could wish, and the streets are marvelously clean. It is thus a fitting capital for the greatest superpower on the continent.

It was founded by the powerful Shah Kavastar, who wished, after a century of almost constant strife and the rise of over a dozen different shahs, to restore stability to a nation that seemed on the brink of collapse. While the site he chose was not in the center of the vast domains that he ruled–something that caused his advisers to fret–it was nevertheless a symbolic gesture. By situating Tysfan in the rough middle region of the continent of Aridikh as a whole, he hoped to send the message that he was determined to bring the rebellious lands of the Imperium under the control of Haranshar once more.

Though he did not succeed, his imperial patronage ensured that the city grew quickly, and within the first twenty years of its existence it had utterly overtaken any of the other cities in Haranshar. And, though those in the Imperium would be loathe to say it, it has also become recognized in the West as the chief seat of learning, one of the few places where a substantial number of texts from the period after the dominance of the Old Ones can be found.

The city is formed roughly of a grid, given that the Shah had been inspired by the very regular and orderly cities he had heard described by a certain adventurer who had made his way to the island of the Anukathi. It is also well-drained, and has led the way in ensuring that all buildings in the city possess indoor plumbing. As a result, disease is relatively uncommon, except in the poorer districts, and even the poorest of the city are guaranteed a daily dole of bread, and there are other measures in the city that keep them peaceful (for the most part).

There are three architectural wonders that set the city apart from others in Haranshar (and indeed from any other cities in the continent). One is, of course, the great palace of the Shah, which rears above the flat city. With its soaring arches, its walls studded with jewels, and its great dome, it is truly a wonder of the world. No other noble family is allowed to have a palace that outshines that of the Shah, and if any leader attempts to do so, they are instantly sentenced to death and a tenth of their total wealth is appropriated by the crown (in addition to the offending building).

The Great Fire Temple of Ormazdh is one of the city’s other architectural wonders. Those who visit it report being overcome with the power of the spirit that is present there, as if the great god himself had stepped into the midst of lived reality. Though it is not the holiest site for the faith–that honour belongs to another fire temple in the north–it is nevertheless the bureaucratic center of the vast Ormazdh priesthood and the seat of its foremost rulers.

The third major location in the city of the Great Library. It is here that the most ancient wisdom from ages past is stored. No location in the Imperium, even in the vaunted Peninsula, can compare to its holdings. There are books here that have been forgotten almost everywhere else in the world, including a few precious pages that date from the time of the Old Ones themselves (though, so far, they remain largely untranslated). Even sages from the Imperium are known to travel to partake in the great holdings of the Library.

The city serves as the ceremonial, political, and religious center of the entire empire, and it is the responsibility of the various great families in the realms to send representatives at least once a year.

Tysfan is notable for two other features. The first is a prominent community of Yeshurites, who are a mixture of Korrayin and others who have converted to the faith. This group is responsible for the collection of the great books of that faith, and this community of elders is acknowledged as the spiritually superior to anything in Korray (though that is hotly disputed by some). The other is a community of those who call themselves the Church of the East but are roundly and heatedly condemned by those in the West as nothing more than the worst sorts of heretics. They are seen by many in Haranshar as a potential source of unrest, as well as a potential weapon against those in the West.

This city will prove crucial in the great battles to come.

World Building (16): The Xhusts of Haranshar

Haranshar is a vast realm. In terms of size, it’s roughly the size of Asia, though perhaps slightly smaller. As a result, it encompasses a wide range of cultures, religions, and peoples, though they all obey theoretical allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith.

The administrative heart of this mighty empire is the xhust of Hamarkahn, which takes up most of the western part of Haranshar. It is here, on the banks of the River Fagrish, that the great city of the shahs has grown up, splendid Tysphan (sometimes spelled Tysfan or Tysvan by those in the west). It was founded by the mighty Shah Kavastar, roughly 300 years before the time of the novel. It is without question the largest city on the continent of Aridikh, and it is also the most cosmopolitan. Almost all of the great religions of the world can be found there, as well as libraries, gardens, hospitals, and academies.

This xhust is also the location of Kheldylon, one of the jewels of the entire land of Haranshar, fabled for its magnificent gardens (the origins of which are said to lie in the reign of the Old Ones). To the north of this province is located Karshasp, one of the great fire temples of the Ormazdhites.

To the north and east is the xhust of Shakastan. It is a tundra-like landscape, though there are also several mountain ranges, which are the haunt of some of the fiercest warriors of Haranshar. There are relatively few major cities in the district, though Maraakh is one such. It is the home of one of the great families of the empire, who rule it as their own fief. The region is also known or its vast mineral wealth, which renders it both a very valuable commodity for Haranshar, as well as a possible source of trouble should any of their rulers decide to rebel. It is also, paradoxically, the site where it is believed that the great prophet Varagh received the illuminating word of Ormazdh.

The southern reaches comprise Pishapur, the highlands that are the traditional home of the reigning Haransharin. It is here that centuries ago, this seemingly disunited and fractious people united under their leader Xharyush and swept both east and west to conquer all before them. Within less than a decade, the entire continent would recognize his suzerainty. As a result, this province has frequently been paid more attention by the Shahs, and they have founded several major cities here.

The far eastern xhust is the wildest part of Haranshar, as well as the part that has least seen the power of the Shah. Only one of the Nine Great Clans hails from this region, and even their writ is restricted to the western edges of the district. The rest is a vast grassland inhabited by feuding tribes and chieftains. Though they supposedly have sworn allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith, the reality is very different, as most of them follow their own chieftains and worship their own gods. They are notoriously bloodthirsty and willing to attack any who come to their territory.

A vast mountain range separates the steppes and the desert from the relatively rich coastlands that are inhabited by a very strange people. No one knows much about them, and they have only rarely sent ambassadors or representatives to the court of the Shah. It is known, however, that they guard, fiercely, a treasure, though it is not known what it is.

Technically, the kingdom of Ashkum is administered as part of this far eastern xhust, but the reality is that the rule of the Haransharin there is quite tenuous. In fact, it was only within the last fifty years that they were forced to officially swear obeisance. Even now, their powerful ruler the Kidakaia foments rebellion, aiming to bring her people out from under the yoke of bondage and into a new era.

At the time that the novels are set, the Nine Great Families of Haranshar–not all of whom are pure Haransharin–have begun to foment rebellion and anger in the xhusts. The generals are restless, and the people are yearning for something more. It just might be that a young renegade cleric from the Imperium will be the spark to the tinder.

World Building (15): The Duchy of Ioliérs

Historically, the Duchy of Ioliérs has existed in a somewhat contentious relationship with its neighbors to the west over the Pireña. There are a few territories that straddle this natural boundary that both countries lay claim to, and there have been a few border wars that have escalated to the point that the Imperators have had to intervene.

Economically, the duchy is known for its wines and for its mines (located in the mountains). A cluster of blood-red grapes are in fact the sigil of the current reigning ducal House d’Vais.

The duchy is the site of several significant cathedrals and other holy sites in the history of the True Faith, and the Church’s presence is particularly strong here. However, the Deacons of this region have also been known to indulge in some practices and beliefs that dance along the edge of heresy, and for this reason the Council of Prelates has kept a very close eye on them. The universities, however, have been responsible for some of the most learned interpretations of the holy books, as well as significant discoveries in terms of philosophy, science, and agriculture.

As was the case with many of the other duchies, there once existed a powerful local nobility and people, known as the Rikarians, a largely-tribal people who had resisted the efforts of their Haransharin overlords to keep them in line. They largely continued to worship their own deities. While there had been some contact between these people and the powerful duchy of Alusium in the south (which even before the uprising that led to the forming of the Imperium had been exerting influence), for the most part they remained stubbornly out of tune with the rest of the other countries that would become the Imperium.

When the first Imperators solidified their power in the region by marrying their daughter Irene to one of the many local dynasties, she served as a bridge between the hybridized Alusine/Helleneian culture of her parents and the local culture of the Rikarians. So beloved was she that she would become almost a goddess among the common people and, despite the strict ban of the increasingly powerful Church on the veneration of anyone who was not formally recognized as a saint, she has remained a pervasive presence to this day.

The fusion of these two cultural traditions, combined with the relative peace and prosperity of the region, has given birth to a place where beauty, love, and the arts are the highest aspirations. For the Rikarians, despite their quarrels with one another, possessed a poetic soul, and their tales were filled with stories of chivalry, courtly romance, and the sweet things of life. This melded easily with the deliberate (and sometimes) cold approach to such things favoured by the newly-arrived Helleneian and Alusine noble class. The rash of intermarriages that occurred, not just among the upper classes but throughout the culture, ensured that within a few generations the process was largely complete.

The current Duchess of Ioliérs is one Blanche d’Vais. As one of the blood royal, she claims a seat on the highest tear of the Senate of Nobles. She has so far proven to be one of Talinissia’s more supportive allies in the Senate, though in recent years she has withdrawn to her own estates in her duchy to be with her grandchildren. She has five children, three sons and two daughters. (She maintains a very large network of spies and informants in both the capital and elsewhere, however). Her heir is Lord Imael, who has so far shown that he is content to rule his domains and not interfere with Imperial matters more than necessary.

Blanche d’Vais is also well known for her support of the Academy in Aionis as well as the one located in her own capital of Viente, and she has long been rumoured to be particularly enamoured of the more arcane branches of knowledge that are typically considered out of bounds for one of her station. In the more sinister whisperings, she is even supposed to have engaged in the forbidden dark arts of blood sacrifice, particularly as these might grant her the youth that seems to be slipping away from her (at the time of the events of the series she is nearly 70).

In terms of historical analogues in our own world, Ioliérs is similar to the courts of Navarre and of the courts of love in Aquitaine.

World Building (14): On Aspaña

The dukedom of Aspaña is known as one of the primary agricultural regions of the Imperium. A variety of grains are grown here, including wheat, barley, and rye, as well as more exotic products such as oranges, lemons, and peaches. The pomegranate is the official sigil of the current House, Trasteceré. There are also a number of gold mines located in the eastern regions (along the mountains known as the Pireña) as well as several veins of precious iron ore. The steel produced in this region is acknowledged as some of the finest in the Imperium (and indeed on the continent of Aridikh itself). The duchy is also renowned for its horse-flesh, and the stables of the various noble families are filled with thousands of steeds. The Dukes are thus some of the wealthiest landowners and most powerful of the Great Houses.

The current Duke is one Ferdinand IV who, through his marriage to his third cousin Leonara, managed to bring together two rival claims for the dukedom. As a result, they also brought stability to a very disturbed part of the Imperium. There were some whispers of the consequences of this union, especially since there was significant unrest among both of their adherents, as well as among the Yishurim, a prominent minority and frequently subject to exploitation and abuse from the powerful True Faith majority.

The two nobles have become quite renowned for their devotion to the True Faith, and the churches and universities in their domains have become the envy of the rest of the Imperium. Outside of Aïonis and the cities on the Peninsula, no one has a better collection of the foundational texts of the Imperium than Aspaña. There are even some texts in the great Library at Tholeto that can be found nowhere else.

In addition to Tholeto (the capital), there are seven other cities that form the primary administrative districts of the duchy. They are: Nadrith, Falona, Bhaleshia, Avietha, Sagrosa, Gorvotha, and Zeville. They are ruled by both secular and spiritual authorities. There are a total of three Archdeacons in the duchy (archdeacon being a step down from the Prefects, who are the ultimate authority in the Church).

The history of Aspaña reaches back into the darkest days before the founding of the Imperium. After the destructive war of the Old Ones that brought the entire continent to a nadir, there were many wandering tribes that struggled to make some semblance of order out of the chaos and death. The Valariks were the tribe that eventually carved out a state that roughly corresponds to the present Aspaña.

Once the Imperium was founded, Nestoria, the third daughter of the first two Imperators, went westward and married into one of the chief families among the Valariks. From that union was born the current ducal house, along with its numerous subsidiaries and cadet branches.

It is important to note that, periodically, heresies will bubble up in this most devout of duchies. Indeed, some of the most pernicious of heretical movements have found a home here, due in no small part to the historic tendency of the Valarik people to subscribe to the Iorian Heresy, which proclaimed that the Name was solely female rather than a duality.

There have also been a number of damaging feuds within the ducal family, which has led to several pronounced periods of unrest. The duchy also has contentious relationships with its neighbours, and its meddling in the affairs of Busquel has been particularly resented. Ferdinand and Leonara have also begun positioning their eldest daughter to marry the son of the current duke of Porçal.

Recent events have suggested that the two nobles might be angling for a more prominent part in the rule of the Imperium. While they have long been devout and devoted supporters of Talinissia, they have always had a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing, and like all of the ducal families of the Imperium they have a longstanding yearning for the throne. They are one of the few of the Great Houses that has not yet been able to seize it.

In fact, there are even some rumours that the Duke and Duchess have established contacts with certain Prefects of the Church, particularly a young man who hails from the district outside of Tholeto. It remains to be seen what fruits will come of this dynastic wrangling.

World Building (13): The Anukathi

West of the continent of Aridikh (on which the Imperium, Korray, and Haranshar) are located, lies the great landmass known as Shumeru. This vast land is home to the people known as the Anukathi, who from time immemorial have haunted the imaginations of those living on the continent to the east.

There are many legends surrounding this mysterious people, but truth, as so often, is stranger than fiction. They are the progeny of renegade elohim who, when the various worlds were united as one, broke the law of the Name and lay with human women. When the One World was shattered by the cataclysmic clash between the Name and the Demiurge, the Anukathi were likewise scattered across dozens of worlds.

More often than not, they did not survive their encounters with their mortal cousins. It has been the good fortune of the Anukathi of this world that they have managed to maintain a presence on their continent and that the mortals who live there have largely been subservient to their wishes. As a result, they have been able to build a truly splendid and beautiful civilization, one that is the rival of any.

In large part, this is because they have been able to leverage the Art of Binding to reinforce their great architectural works with the daimons that provide the strength of aethyr, the purest and most powerful element. Given that they are, in essence, avowed enemies of the Name and all of their creations (including the daimons and the elohim), this should come as no surprise.

The Anukathi are tall and often slight of build, with coppery skin and black hair. Their eyes typically appear in some shade of green, though it is not unheard of for those in the purest bloodlines to have either brown or blue eyes. Though they are light, they are fearsome fighters, and before the establishment of the United Kingdom, they were prone to bloody wars between rival principalities and city-states.

There are roughly three castes in Anukathi society, with the priests at the top, the warriors and nobles in the middle, and the laborers and craftsmen at the bottom. The Anukathi are great admirers of tradition and stability, and thus this stratified society tends to not be very flexible. With very few exceptions, individuals are bound to stay within the caste into which they are born. While this is by nature restrictive, it means that, for several centuries, the Anukathi have enjoyed a particularly pronounced period of political and social flourishing.

They are ruled over by the High Queen Y’Narra, who rules from atop her zithurat. The other great houses of the Anukathi also remain ensconced in their zithurats, where they rule over their clients and over their districts. The Anukathi tend to be very urban-oriented, though there are numerous large estates scattered across the continent, most of which are in the hands of the great lords and landowners.

The High Queen is also the leader of the state (and only) religion, which worships the person of the Great Goddess, Ishatath, who is understood to be the font of all that is ordered, beautiful, and good in the material world. The Anukathi see the world beyond the flesh as one of frightening despair, and it is for this reason that they take every care not to succumb to wounds or fighting. Given that their elohim blood has gifted them with immortality, they are almost impervious to any kind of illness, though there is a possibility that they might be susceptible to diseases born from the continent from Aridikh. For this reason, and because of their innate distrust of mortals, any trading on their shores is strictly monitored, controlled, and disciplined.

Some native mortals can be found on the continent, though they occupy a largely subaltern position. However, the Anukathi are renowned for their sense of justice and fairness, and slavery as such is forbidden by their most sacred laws. Thus, almost every mortal is held in a form of serfdom. While they are technically free, their economic circumstances are such that they are bound to the land and to the lord.

As the events of the novel will demonstrate, there are deep currents at work in the land of the Anukathi, and it may be that their Queen has a greater destiny ahead of her than anyone thought possible.

Character Sketch: Talinissia

To understand Talinissia, it is important to understand her complicated family history. Her father Kleophanes IV was a tremendously successful Imperator, bringing order and stability to a realm that had been faced with a number of internal and external challenges during the reign of the previous Imperators. The Imperium had suffered a number of military setbacks against the Korrayin, and under the reign of Ioannes had seen the final one of the border forts abandoned. Meanwhile, the kings of the northern realms grew dangerously close to seceding from the Imperium altogether.

As a result of his history of shrewd diplomacy and effective war-making, it came as a surprise (and an unpleasant one) to many when Kleophanes proposed to marry the daughter of the Kidakaia of Eshkum, a rebellious kingdom in the southeast of Haranshar. The move was a shrewd one on his part, as it sowed the seeds of discord in the Imperium.

As a result of her mother’s ancestry, Talinissia has been known behind her back as Talinissia the Black, a sly dig on the part of the nobles of the Imperium to distance themselves from her rule. Indeed, her skin color sets her apart from many in her realms, and while her father never treated her differently, she couldn’t help but be aware of her difference from the majority of her subjects.

Kleophanes and his wife had 15 happy years, but she was stricken down by an outbreak of the plague that occurred. Kleophanes, seeing the need for another heir, took as his wife Gertrude of the duchy of Dūrken, who gave birth to his son, Gaius. Gertrude, as a member of the ducal house, also had Imperial Blood, and so there were many who saw in Gaius a purer heir than Talinissia.

Indeed, it was the restive nature of her nobility that allowed her younger brother Gaius to begin plotting against her. When she called for a full meeting of the Senate to officially grant her the offices and styles that were, according to tradition, her due as the heir to her father, there was no small amount of discontent and even a few nobles who outright refused to do so. This gave her brother the excuse he needed, and he led a revolt that soon involved both many tribes of the Korrayin but also Haranshar itself.

The war was a relatively short one as such things go, but it was bloody for all of that. Once the revolt collapsed and Gaius was taken into custody, Talinissia was forced to execute her brother. She was then granted the honors and titles she had been denied. Despite her victory, memories of that rebellion continue to haunt her even now, a decade after her brother’s death. She is regularly visited by visions of him, both alive and dead. And she struggles to fill the shoes of her larger-than-life father, as well as Dominika, the formidable Imperator of the past, known as The Deathless by subsequent historians.

Talinissia has formed a number of important alliances, but her most important and influential adviser is the Prefect Eulicia. The two share many characteristics, and each of them sees in the other an avenue to power. For Talinissia, the Prefect is one of the few people in the entire Imperium whom she can trust. In all of the ornate ritual that governs the court–the eunuchs, the ladies-in-waiting–Talinissia often feels as if she is losing part of herself, but Eulicia is always there.

However, there are others who are circling the throne, waiting for her to show the slightest sign of weakness. The people are still restive, especially since the freedoms they had earned as a result of the Plague have begun to be chipped away. Furthermore, many of the Great Houses are angling to take the throne for themselves, chief among them Duke Childerick, who still feels the bite of being passed over after the death of Gaius. Subsequent events will show that he is willing to do anything to gain the throne he believes is his.

However, Talinissia has also begun to be tormented by visions of a bleak future, one in which the armies of Haranshar once again bring all that they have against the Imperium. As the events of the novel will show, she does not want to go to war with the vast empire to the east, but she does want to make sure that the Imperium remains safe. She takes her duty as the Imperator very seriously, and she will do whatever it takes to make sure that it does not fall.

No matter what it takes.