Chapter 11: The Matchmakers

The Great Houses of the Scarlet Dynasty, in addition to being the elite (and semi-divine) nobility of the Realm as well as extended families as prone to internal squabbling as any other, are also vast economic enterprises, controlling (in the name of the Empress, of course) vast estates and resources both on the Blessed Isle itself and in the Empire’s far-flung satrapies abroad. Each House has, over the centuries, developed its own areas of specializations or in some cases, acquired actual trade monopolies enforced by Imperial decree.

Houses Cathak, Sesus and Tepet have long been known as the warrior houses; in addition to their lands on the Isle and satrapies abroad, they support more Legions abroad than any of the others. Though Tepet’s fortunes (and numbers) have recently undergone a drastic reduction, the House is doing its best to rebuild its strength (through liberal adoption of non-Dynast Dragon-blooded “orphans” and vigorous pursuit of marriage contracts with other Houses). House Ledaal makes its fortunes through the control of several valuable port cities, such as Arjuf, and its satrapies abroad, mostly to the west. House Mnemon controls some of the wealthiest satrapies, and boasts many architects and builders in its ranks.  House Peleps controls the Imperial navy; its war galleys are feared throughout the Western and Inland Seas (and its smugglers can carry almost anything—for a price). House Nellens is a very mercantile House, though most of its trade partnerships are with the patrician families of the Isle—it also holds a very useful monopoly on the production of the distinctive purple dye used in robes for the Imperial bureaucracy.  House V’neef has long been known as the Imperial cupbearers—they produce the finest wines in the Realm—but they also control the Realm’s merchant fleet, in part to balance out the naval power of House Peleps. House Ragara is commonly known as the “Imperial Bank”—they have jade surpluses enough to lend to other Houses and foreign princes, but woe to those who cannot make their payments…  And House Cynis has for generations held one of the most profitable monopolies in the Realm; the authority to import slaves into the Blessed Isle (though only Dragon-blooded are legally permitted to own or lease slaves), for use as low-cost laborers at farms, construction, and mining operations, or as trained servants for Dynast households—and brothels.

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Interlude: Every Path Has Branches

Creation is old. Before the Scarlet Empress, before the founding of the Realm, in the half-forgotten First Age of the world, there was a vast empire, ruled by powerful Exalted beings who were chosen by the Gods of the Heavens—and the Dragon-blooded, Chosen of the Terrestrial Dragons, were but their soldiers. Now the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, The Chosen of Luna, and the Chosen of the Five Celestial Maidens are gone—or so the Dragon-blooded and the Immaculate Order teach. But in the First Age, they ruled over all mankind, and built astounding cities and palaces. They also created many incredible and wonderful artifacts, from ships that flew in the sky to fantastical weapons and magical toys, even massive suits of armor that moved by themselves.

Those ancient cities and manses are mostly ruins now, or built over again (as the Imperial City was built on the ruins of the Seat of Splendor, or the cities of Nexus and Chiarascuro were built on the foundations of other once-great cities in their own right). But stories persist, that sometimes one can still find those First Age wonders in the ruins of some long-forgotten manse or hidden tomb. The Scavenger Lands are dotted with ruins—though the most easily accessed sites were picked clean centuries ago.

Still, it only takes one good find—a few old relics, or just one if it’s still in working order—to make a lucky explorer into a Scavenger Lord, wealthy beyond one’s wildest dreams. That is, if the mere act of daring to enter a long-buried tomb, or explore a haunted ruin leagues from anywhere doesn’t kill you first. For the ancient sites guard their secrets well, and of those who boldly venture forth into the wilderness and dare to rob the buried treasure hordes—very few ever return.

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Chapter 10: Solitary Man

Throughout the long centuries of her life and reign, the Scarlet Empress never married, for (as it was said) no man was her equal. She did, however, take many consorts and lovers, and bore many children, almost all of whom grew up, were blessed by the Immaculate Dragons, and had many children of their own, forming ten of the eleven great Houses of the Scarlet Dynasty.

The eleventh great House, House Nellens, was not founded by one of those children, but by the only mortal consort the Empress ever took. House Nellens is comprised of his descendants, whom she chose to honor with status equal to that of her children Mnemon, Ragara, Sesus, Ledaal, Iselsi, Cynis, Tepet, Peleps, Cathak, and V’neef. Those descendants have cross-married into other Dynastic families from time to time (usually with the un-Exalted, seeking a future where being ‘merely’ mortal isn’t a handicap), and they have the fewest actual Dragon-blooded members of any of the Great Houses. House Nellens manages only a few small satrapies abroad, and has diverse business interests; their strongest political and business connections are with the mortal patrician families in Dynast society. They otherwise keep their collective heads down in Dynast politics, with no (apparent) interest in who ultimately might sit on the throne, other than to ensure their own family’s survival. They do not have a wing of their own in the Jade Palace, like the other, older Houses—instead, they have built their own manse in the western district of the Imperial City, that has rooms enough for most of the family who need to reside in the capital.

To actually be Dragon-blooded in House Nellens is a paradox—on the one hand, you’re an incredibly valuable and precious resource to be used to promote the welfare of the House, but on the other, you’re a bit of an odd duck and target of suspicion from the more numerous mortal members of the House, who know all too well what many of the other Dynastic Houses think of them.

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Chapter 9: Reflections on Summer Love

The level of education available to a child born in the Realm is heavily dependent on that child’s family background and social rank. Peasants and laborers may not even be literate, and know little about the world outside their village or city. The children of tradesmen and merchants may learn basic literacy and accounting, and the history of the Realm and the Immaculate Dragons from the monks at a local temple school. Upper-class merchants and the patricians may be able to send their children to schools similar to those attended by the children of Dynast Houses (if they can afford it).

Children of the Dynast Houses are educated from an early age, first at home by private tutors, whose task it is to prepare them for the rigorous entrance exams of the Realm’s premier primary schools. Primary schools are almost always boarding schools, and there a young Dynast is educated from age nine to fifteen, in a broad range of subjects from literature, history, geography, the Immaculate Philosophy, natural history, mathematics, athletics, martial arts, archery, horseback riding, etiquette and deportment, debate, calligraphy, music and arts, and any number of other things, depending on the school’s specialties and faculty. For those who are not blessed by the Dragons (usually in their early teens), this may be all the formal education they receive; after graduation, their families will determine what kind of future they have, based on what will most benefit the family.

For those who do Exalt, there are four equally competitive secondary schools that will set a young Dragon-blood on the path best suited for a notable career: the Cloister of Wisdom, that trains both future Immaculate monks and anyone pursuing greater enlightenment in the Immaculate Philosophy; the House of Bells, that trains the future officers and military strategists of the Legions; the Spiral Academy, that educates future government officials and bureaucrats; and the mysterious Heptagram, the Realm’s school for magic, alchemy, demonology, and divination.

For children of the Dynasty and Dragon-blooded teens attending one of the secondary academies, however, what they learn is not the only thing they carry with them into their adult lives. The friends and contacts they make during their school years may include their future spouse, fellow soldiers, professional contacts, research and business partners, traveling companions, lovers, close friends, and political allies (or rivals) for the rest of their lives.

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Chapter 8: Heartbroken Clouds

Only about a third of all Dragon-blooded die of natural causes, at the end of a very long lifespan. Those who die in the Realm are often given sumptuous funerals (particularly those who have lived a long time and had many accomplishments about which their families and supporters can boast in long, elaborate eulogies), their bodies burned or interred in their signature element (or that of their House if they are not actually Dragon-blooded). Those who die elsewhere, in battle (or from other less noble causes) are generally burned, along with the written prayers and eulogies of their comrades, and their ashes returned to their element. It is widely considered a very bad thing for anyone to die uncelebrated or un-mourned—everyone knows such a soul cannot move on to the next life and rebirth, and might literally come back to haunt those who should have so honored it, either in life or in death.

The custom of the Mourning Rites arose among closely-knit sworn circles of Dragon-blooded, whose loyalty to one another was so great that sometimes members who had sworn never to leave the bodies of their comrades behind were themselves killed in the process of trying to retrieve them. And so the Mourning Rite was instituted—where those unable to properly honor the bodies of their lost brothers and sisters could honor them with the ceremonial burning of a symbolic effigy and earnest prayers instead.

Such a symbolic memorial ritual can also mollify the spirit of one whose passing was less than peaceful, or for whom no proper funeral rites were performed, and thus might not only ease their passage into their next life—but also prevent their angry spirit rising as one of the hungry dead.

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Interlude: The Red Piss Potion

There is no Legion in all the Empire with as infamous a reputation as the Vermillion Legion—also known more colloquially as the “Red Piss” Legion. Over the decades, it has become the repository for all the drunk, disorderly, insubordinate, disgraced, and otherwise unwanted soldiers from every other Legion of the Realm. It also becomes the most likely posting for young Dragon-blooded officers who lack family connections, official sponsors, or sufficient jade to buy themselves a commission in a more prestigious (and less dangerous) posting. Still, being what they are, those of the Red Piss Legion who can adapt, fight and survive are some of the toughest and most seasoned soldiers the Legions can boast.

The Vermillion Legion is currently under the command of General Tepet Ejava, also known as the Roseblack, a brilliant military strategist and tactician. She is also rumored (at least by some, who may or may not actually know anything about it) to be one of the most favored candidates to take the Empress’ throne. Her ambition, intelligence, and talent are well known, and it is said her soldiers are fanatically loyal to her.  But as long as General Ejava is commanding her Legion in the distant wilds of the Threshold, she at least remains a long, long distance away from the throne, and (at least in theory) safe from the politics of the court.

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Chapter 7: The Eyes of the Dragon

To those whom they choose to Exalt, the five Elemental Dragons give very particular gifts, reflective of their natures—that of Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Wood—and the skills that best suit those natures. Though any given Dragon-blooded may study many subjects, master many skills, and learn many Essence-powered charms, those pertaining to their own element will always come easiest to their call.

Fire burns. Aspects of Fire are natural leaders and skilled warriors, athletic and charismatic, drawing others to their side like moths to a candle, burning brightly for all to see. Whatever they do, they do with fiery passion and great intensity.

Earth endures. Aspects of Earth are tough as mountains, solid and dependable, with a deep connection to the earth under their feet. They are makers and builders, devoted to their craft and those to whom they have given their loyalty, and once they have made up their minds, as stubborn as stone itself.

Water flows. Aspects of Water are as changeable as the sea, adaptable and flexible in their thinking; from bureaucracy to sorcery, martial arts, and even less than legal pursuits, they are skilled in finding solutions (sometimes unconventional ones) to whatever problems they face.

Wood lives. Aspects of Wood feel close ties to the natural world, both plants and animals. They relish life and living, seeking experiences of all kinds, drawn to healing, performance arts, sensual pursuits, and life in the wild outdoors.

And Air permeates. Aspects of Air are dreamers and visionaries, scholars, linguists, and occultists, who imagine great things and strive to bring them to pass. Quick-thinking and subtle of mind, their presence may be felt, but not always readily seen, until they explode with the full power of a storm.

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