The South

Sands of Cruelty

The South is a harsh land, with gentle seasons and more habitable places few and far between—and fewer yet as one approaches the endless burning deserts that mark the barrier to the Elemental Pole of Fire. Beyond the arable coastal strip, the landscape swiftly becomes dry and barren—a cruel and unforgiving region frequently matched by its people. The folk of the cities and farmlands are no less tough-minded, despite their kinder surroundings. The brutality of the barren lands has left its mark on the entire region, and outlanders would do well to remember that.

Near the sea, the climate blends slowly into tropical forest in the east, and rain is frequent. Further south, the olive trees and grass give way to scrub and nimbleweeds, then to ravines scoured by flash floods, and then to sand and stone outcroppings and scarce oases. The Southeast is predominantly grasslands, rising to jungle as one approaches the East proper, and hyenas and tyrant lizards roam the plains where the natives herd their cattle and make war on each other’s tribal nations.

The South thrives on trade, especially the lucrative commerce in gemstones, firedust, drugs and slaves, which centers in the cities of Gem, Paragon and Chiaroscuro. These metropolises, the three largest cities in the South, each support a million or more residents, nearly all of whom depend in some way on trade for their livelihood. They are supported by the brutally oppressed farming underclass beyond their walls, which grows the food for the cities and also produces sugar, tobacco, silk, cotton and marijuana for export. Farther south are nomadic tribes that feud and steal from one another to survive, traveling from oasis to oasis on horses or camels or stranger beasts. Beyond them lie the burning sands where gems and firedust blow on the wind.

When the First Age ended, many of the glorious cities in the South fell or were destroyed, as the great magics that protected them from drought and sandstorms failed or the Dragon-Blooded clashed with the remaining Solars. The invasions of the Fair Folk around the time of the Great Contagion was more destructive still, as the Fair Folk had no need for mortal comforts or food. When arable land was devastated or oases blasted and supplies destroyed, there was no way for the mortals who had dwelt there to repair the damage. League by league, the habitable parts of the South shrank, and the desert rose to take what was left. The desert tribes swelled as they absorbed desperate refugees as either slaves or full tribesmen. The cities that were still standing became dictatorships or acquired strange new rulers as they struggled to retain their power and fend off invaders.

The average Southerner is dark-skinned, with blond, black or red hair. Many of them wear their hair as short as possible, with shaven heads and well-trimmed beards being the rule in the wilderness. Carefully styled hair is the norm among the wealthy in the cities, and a long beard is a sign of self-deprivation—and usually holiness and madness. Those who can afford it wear silk, and the rest wear cotton. Only the poorest nomad wears wool, and wearing leather is considered an invitation to bad luck. Southerners tend to be extremely superstitious, taking great stock in signs and portents, and any Southerner can calculate his own horoscope. They usually make many small sacrifices daily, to ancestors, to lucky spirits, to the patron of their city or tribe and so on. Family structure is patriarchal, and marriage is a contractual affair of great legal complexity.

Deep in the Southern desert dwell the nomadic tribes, traveling between oases on horses or camels. Each tribe has its own customs, though one law is understood by all: Fouling an oasis or poisoning its waters is punishable by death. Some of the tribes in the farthest South have interbred with Wyld barbarians, and they go veiled when they ride near other tribes so as not to show their deformities and poxes. In the shadowlands of the South, such as the Arroyo of the Ebon Veil, ghosts and the undead ride the paths that they took when they were still living, the odor of their rotting flesh carried before them on the desert winds.

Far to the west of the other city-states, on the other side of the Fire Mountains from An-Teng, sits the Lap. The Lap gains its name from its location: The mountain itself is carved into the shape of a hermit meditating in a cross-legged posture, and the city lies in its “lap.” It is an agricultural center, producing mainly maize and squash, and it exports a large part of its grain harvest to the Blessed Isle. The Lap is a tributary of the Realm, ruled by an elected council of elders. The proximity of the forces of the Deathlord known as the First and Forsaken Lion (forces that riddle the Fire Mountains like maggots in an aging corpse) does nothing to comfort the Lap or the Realm.

To the south—indeed, the furthest south of the three biggest cities of the South—lies Gem, a center for the mining trade, which is ruled by Rankar VII, the hereditary Despot. Rankar maintains a royal monopoly on all trade in gemstones. In this city, all carvers, appraisers and sellers of gemstones are royal slaves, and all business in gemstones must be conducted through them. Anyone attempting to buy or sell stones privately is fined, enslaved or executed, depending on the offender’s status and the value of the stones involved. The city lies far enough south to be largely free of domination by the Realm. It is currently engaged in a bitter trade war with the more northerly city-state of Paragon, which has recently been expanding its own gem-mining operations.

Gem itself is built into the side of an extinct volcano. While this protects it from direct sunlight for much of the year, it cannot block the sweltering heat in the height of summer. Therefore, the entire city sleeps during the peak daylight hours and rises again at sunset. Lava tubes have been transformed into subterranean streets, markets and luxurious apartments for the rich; the poor swelter in crowded tenements. The most famous market in Gem is its celebrated sunken bazaar, open day and night, lit by locally mined orange and yellow glowstones and large mirrors. The market is constantly packed with merchants and traders, and it houses the true heart of Gem, the pavilions of the Despot’s jewel merchants. Situated under vast canopies of bright translucent silk, the Despot’s merchant-slaves buy and sell precious stones from throughout the South. They even offer such rarities as yasal crystal, all five colors of jade, and the rare dream opal, which can record the dreams of any sleeper it touches.

While the gemstone monopoly has made the Despot fantastically rich, the city’s noble houses subsist on less plentiful sources of wealth. Each house has been granted a monopoly on a certain popular good or service. The Arbani family controls the local manufacture of firewands. The House of Sahlak controls the city’s dream parlors and brothels. House Iblan dominates the gold and silver trade. The Circla family runs the gladiatorial arena and training facilities. Trasti House runs the gambling houses and the public banks.

Besides precious stones, Gem is also the site of the largest mercenary hiring market in the South. The Despot is eager for ready access to the mercenary troops he uses to maintain power, and he strongly supports this commerce in soldiers-for-hire. Now that the trade war with Paragon is worsening, he is hiring yet more and rumor says that he is considering both freeing the city’s gladiators and discreetly hiring Exalted.

Eastward, on the shore of the Inland Sea, lies the well-ordered city-state of Paragon. Paragon was built on the ruins of a destroyed First Realm metropolis and is ruled by an ageless god-king known as the Perfect. His rule is absolute, and he is worshiped and obeyed by all Paragon’s citizens, on pain of an agonizing death. The city itself is laid out on a strict grid, with the Perfect’s palace at the exact center. It is orderly but stark, built of shining white marble and green-black basalt, and all but a few of the people wear dull, muted shades. Only the Perfect and his magistrate-nobles are permitted to wear gold or cloth of bright colors.

All commoners in Paragon, and every newcomer who becomes a citizen, must undergo the ritual of subservience, where they grasp the Perfect’s royal scepter and swear allegiance to the throne. Everyone who takes the oath of loyalty receives a mark on his or her palm—an eye-shaped sigil blazoned in softly glowing scarlet ink—which remains visible for the rest of the individual’s life. Not only does this sorcery allow the Perfect to see through the eyes and hear through the ears of any citizen wherever he or she may be, but it also forces the citizen to obey the oath of loyalty or die in agony. All commoners must swear to obey all commands issued by the Perfect or his magistrates; never to attempt to harm the magistrates, the nobles or the Perfect; and to abide by all the laws of the city. Citizens may petition to leave Paragon, and are allowed to do so, but the oath still binds them.

Paragon is firmly allied with the Realm, as the immortal Perfect values stability and wishes to avoid disruption or change. He maintains few ties with ordinary human rulers, but he is jealous of Gem’s wealth and views Chiaroscuro’s Tri-Khan and the Varang nobles with disdain. He particularly distrusts the Celestial Exalted, and any Solar Exalted discovered within the bounds of Paragon will be brought to the Paragon and forced to swear loyalty. Citizenship is given freely to all who ask, but the city itself is quiet and lacks joy, with the Perfect’s subjects living under a rule of constant fear.

Further east, in the fertile coastal belt along the Inland Sea is Chiaroscuro, the largest and oldest city in the South. During the First Age, it was the South’s largest and most prosperous port. It was built entirely of magically crafted glass, with brilliantly colored towers of more than two dozen stories looking down on vermilion glass streets. Now, almost all of its magnificent towers lie in ruins, rubble fills many streets, and mundane caravans (rather than floating magical carriages) travel down the three great crimson roads that lead to the city. But the First Age breakwaters of blue glass still protect the harbor, dozens of ships leave and dock every day, and nearly a million people live in and around the city. Amid the ruined splendor of the First Age, tens of thousands come to seek their fortune, and the city is a trade hub for the entire South.

The old center of the city is the wealthiest portion of modern Chiaroscuro. It suffered the least destruction, and most buildings there contain at least some habitable portions. Many residents also live in the enormous new city, built on the outskirts and in the ruined parts of the original. The city’s poorest denizens survive in ragged hovels cobbled together from the shining glass rubble of the ruins. The large foreigners’ quarter is a vast sea of tents and impermanent structures, where some come to trade, and others to seek work. Many join the endless stream of caravans and trading expeditions that regularly depart Chiaroscuro for all corners of the South.

Chiaroscuro is ruled by the Tri-Khan, the hereditary leader of the nomadic Delzahn nomads who first resettled the city after the end of the First Age. Delzahn tribesmen make up more than a quarter of the local population, and Delzahn rule remains unquestioned in Chiaroscuro for the moment. The Tri-Khan plays the Dragon-Blooded Great Houses against each other in order to maintain Chiaroscuro’s independence, and he has close ties with the Guild as well.

Currently Chiaroscuro is an open city, where anyone may come to buy or sell whatever she wishes. Taxes and tariffs are kept equitable by the fact that each merchant or ship captain can chose which tax collector to pay her fees to, resulting in bargaining and moderate taxation. Celestial Exalted are publicly forbidden to enter the city. In practice, as long as they keep themselves intelligently hidden or prove themselves of value to the Tri-Khan, they will not be overly restricted. Discreet folks of all natures, from spirits and outcastes to even the Fair Folk, are welcome to settle in Chiaroscuro.

To the southeast, amid fertile river valleys, lies the fourth major power in the South, the Varang City-States. They rule a narrow strip from the shore of the Inland Sea to the farthest reaches of the South, and they control the overland trade between the Far South and the Southeast. Each of the seven major Varangian cities has a population between 50,000 and 250,000. While individually smaller than their rivals, the Varang Confederacy as a whole is as wealthy and populous as the larger Southern metropolises. The exceptionally fertile plain on which the cities lie, combined with the vast mineral wealth of the South, make Varang and its capital city, Yane, a favored nexus for trade. Varang is allied with the Realm, which helps it maintain its independence in the South.

The Varangian calendar is the most accurate and complex in the Threshold. Its astrology, mixing solar, lunar and stellar cycles, is similarly advanced. These two disciplines determine the status in life of virtually every Varangian citizen. Enormous clock towers toll the hours in every city, wealthy citizens carry ornate spring-driven pocket watches, and local astrologers use intricate horoscopes to determine the caste and subcaste of almost every individual born in the region. An individual’s place in society depends on the castes of her parents and the exact hour and minute of her birth. Each hour is given to a specific set of professions, but the caste of a person’s parents and the order of birth decide where that person falls in the profession’s hierarchy.

The Varangians believe that knowing and accepting one’s place in the world allows each individual to perfect his inner nature. To prevent social awkwardness and promote harmony, citizens have an elaborate dress code that allows precise identification of a person’s social status. Fortunately, most Varangians are forgiving of foreigners’ mistakes in recognizing such distinctions. Yet foreigners often disturb proper Varang citizens by the fact that they can and do wear anything and do anything. Varang cities are also laid out to illustrate fundamental principles of cosmological order, and Varang buildings proclaim their function with brightly colored paint or trim rather than signs. Visitors can always hire guides.

Foreigners, those born at an uncertain time (or to an uncertain caste), and other outcasts have a very special role in Varangian society. While generally scorned, or at best tolerated, they can be hired to perform tasks that cross caste boundaries or that right-thinking Varangians would find reprehensible. Such tasks can involve assassination, theft, spying and other forms of crime. Known Varangian outcasts may wear only shades of gray or black and cannot legally hold any proper caste job.

Two weeks to the east of the Varang city of Talt, in the foothills of the Summer mountain range and the veldt below, lies the warlike nation of Harborhead. It is allied with the Realm but constantly feuds with the Varang City-States and is about to launch a war against them. Harborhead is also attempting to expand southeastward and has recently launched a series of prolonged campaigns against nearby jungle tribes.

Besides the normal trophies of land and cattle, the Harborhead armies take their defeated enemies as slaves, and these slaves make up almost a quarter of Harborhead’s population. Only criminals or battle captives and their children can be lawfully enslaved, but a constant stream of them goes to the slave markets in the capital city of Kirighast—and from there to the Realm or across the South and East. In the cities, slaves are the servants of the wealthy and middle classes. On the vast farmsteads and cattle ranches, they perform all the necessary menial tasks.

This practice frees the people of Harborhead to train for war, and every native learns from childhood how to use weapons and to fight. While both men and women can join the armies, the Royal Guard is an all-female elite military force that accepts only the strongest, fastest and fiercest young virgins in Harborhead. Any young woman who meets the Guard’s exacting physical standards may join, but she must swear to neither marry nor take lovers outside the Guard while she is a member. For the duration of their service, Guardswomen are considered the sacred brides of Ahlat, Southern God of War and Cattle. Breaking their vow of chastity with anyone outside the Royal Guard is punishable by death. The Guardswomen act as the king’s special shock troops, train ceaselessly and drink the blood of their enemies.

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The South

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