Valdis up close

(Featured image in post by Veronica Weser.)

In Valdis, it’s said that knowledge is prized above all things. And indeed, there are several key factors that at least appear to support such a claim:

  • Valdis is home to many of the centers of knowledge in the world, such as the North Star Library, which is composed of over a hundred squat, chilly buildings that collectively house the largest collection of books in all of Raea. Because of Valdis’s snowy weather, the North Star Library has given the popular imagination the association cold with knowledge itself.
  • The Alchemist Guild of Valdis is paralleled only by the scientists of the Sunset nations. Valdis’s guild has pioneered many of the advances in chemistry and medicine and introduced many weaponized forms of alchemy to the world. These include strangling gases and metal-hating acids that can eat away armor in seconds.
  • Valdis has the so-called “Art Castles,” preserved ruins that are full of the masterworks of the dead.
  • Valdis build the astrophysical Starwatch Towers.
  • The people who live in Valdis’s Frostwoods have their own unique oral traditions that prize the preservation of knowledge.
  • Valdis has a town that’s actually called Lore, where waterproof-inked books spill out of stores onto the snowy streets.
  • Valdis contains the vast field of lightning rods near the frozen mountain ranges on its eastern border. This is the biggest research project by square mileage of any in the world.

Valdeans typically claim that the pursuit of knowledge is even enshrined in their civil systems. At least at first glance, this appears to be true. The head of the country’s democratic republic is called the Philosopher King, and his/her humble quarters lie next to the mammoth building that houses the Council, which is composed of 100 members. By representing different areas of Valdis, it is said that the council members actually represent entire schools of thought that are complete and consistent unto themselves. Both the executive branch (the Philosopher King and his/her cabinet) and the legislative branch (the Council) flank the Amphitheater, where regular citizens or Star Weal scholars or delegates of distant lands or anyone else can come forth and debate the head of the country or any of its representatives. Indeed, the Philosopher King is expected to present himself to debate anyone who will take the soapbox against him in the snow-laden Amphitheater, and tradition holds that he must do so several times a week. Philosopher Kings have been impeached for being weak at dialectical confrontation and intellectual combat.

Despite its reputation for prizing pure knowledge, Valdis has seen many wars, and many of its educational institutions are funded by the government, which has often pushed those institutions to create new military technologies. These include siege weapons and destructive uses of coalpure. There is an uneasy alliance between Valdis and Gallant to the south. Valdeans tend to look down on Gallant, and Gallants tend to think of Valdeans as pretentious (though Gallant often tries to lure the best minds of Valdis to move south). To underscore these cultural tensions, both legal and military battles have been fought over which country owns which part of the Sorrowfell mountains, where rich coalpure mines are often unearthed.

Throughout its history, Valdis has also come into conflict with Aurora to the northwest and with the The People’s Republic of Obsidia to the northeast. These conflicts tend to arise during times of economic upheaval and have often been about access to sea routes, key stretches of land, and natural resources. Many such battles have occurred over a vast frozen sea called the Lady of Winter. Like Dalewind Pass to the south, the Lady of Winter has been the site of many wars involving the country of knowledge.

My most helpful creative writing “rule”

The aesthetic contract

For many writers that I’ve worked with and certainly for me, the most helpful “rule” of creative writing is this: be true to the aesthetic contract you set up with your reader. You can create any contract you wish and put in any clauses at all. Your aesthetic contract might simply be, “This is a romance novel that inherits all of the genre’s conventions regarding character, plot, theme, and so on.” Such contracts imply their own ideal readers. If the reader “signs” the contract, that means he is ready to engage with your fictional world on its own terms. He is willing to do the work required to become your implied reader. If, on the other hand, the reader says something like, “I hate all romance novels–they’re sappy and dumb,” then he isn’t part of your audience anyway, and you don’t have to warp your art to meet whatever his demands might be. You don’t have to write to his gaze.

Of course, almost no novel actually comes out and explicitly states its contract. It might even be impossible to state the entirety of a contract since it’s made up of infinite clauses (e.g. those related to cultural context). Instead, art creates such contracts almost entirely through implication, through choices regarding language, character, theme, plot, voice, subject matter, and so on. The opening of Harry Potter deals with wizards and witches roaming the streets of London, all of them celebrating some mysterious event. The language is geared towards middle grade students. There is a wry humor in the portrayal of Vernon Dursley’s anger. Such an opening creates the aesthetic contract by setting up expectations in the reader: “This is going to be a children’s novel with magic and a lot of humor.” Those who say that Harry Potter is unworthy because it is “too simplistic for adults” have failed to sign the aesthetic contract that it forms. Their criticisms are the intellectual equivalent of being angry at a painting for not singing for the viewer.

Consider what happens if you break the aesthetic contract. Let’s start with a dramatic example. Since we’ve mentioned Harry Potter, imagine if at some point the Death Eaters came to a magical battle armed with AK-47’s and grenades. I’m not saying genre-mixups are outside of the purview of art (far from it), but I am saying that after heavily and consistently implying a children’s audience, introducing such thoroughly adult, war-zone-appropriate elements would be a betrayal of the aesthetic contract and therefore of the reader. A less dramatic example from the everyday: you turn on a podcast expecting pure comedy and then hear someone’s tragic life story. It might be beautifully told, and you might be glad that such a brave account exists in the world, but you also didn’t want to sign that particular kind of aesthetic contract at that moment. You probably feel jarred rather than immersed in a beautiful story.

To further illustrate, your aesthetic contract might be something like, “This novel will be a soundscape of language, full of Irish slang and references to classical antiquity, and it will change not just style but also POV and linguistic pattern every single chapter or sometimes even every sentence,” meaning that it’s a rough spin-off of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In terms of artistic quality, this is perfectly fine. Such a contract can be well within your power to create, and if you execute your artwork/your writing consistently with such a contract, there will be ideal readers out there who appreciate it. Keep in mind, however, that in terms of commercial appeal, aesthetic contracts that are far removed from most readers’ expectations can prove to be a barrier for you in terms of getting your work out there. This is the subject of an entirely different post.

Almost 10 years ago, while I was teaching creative writing at NYU, Goldwater Hospital, and elsewhere, I noticed that a lot of craft pointers and “rules” in the world of creative writing don’t really help with a first draft. They might prove useful to framing craft issues during a late draft, but they mostly get in the way when you’re actually sitting at your desk, filling up a blank screen or page. But the notion of a consistently executed aesthetic contract is one of the few “rules” that doesn’t do this, at least not for me. It actually guides me even while I’m in the grip of the Muses. I think I’ll save how it does this for me for another post.

The Stardowns

The Stardowns is a large expanse of unclaimed, unsettled prairie. Shooting stars arc across its sky without surcease, dozens to hundreds at a time. It borders Gallant to the north, Ravel to the west, Genji to the east, and the mysterious, bone-white forest of the Feylands to the south. Though its very center may have a great concentration of coalpure, no one is excavating it anymore. The biological weapon known as vivi mortis, unleashed by the Sunset Nations at Dalewind Pass, has made its mark here. Animals afflicted with what many call a “curse” have mysteriously congregated in this land, as if compelled to come. And it’s too difficult to justify the cost of dealing with them. It would be unusual to meet anyone in the Stardowns.

However, a Knight of the One named Ser Amala Hawkwood has led a buildup of Gallant’s forces in these lands. (“Ser” is Gallant’s gender-neutral form of “sir.”) She has long suspected that the Warlord Venice Cabral of the Sunset Nations wants to use the Stardowns as a “backdoor” into Gallant. For an entire year, Ser Hawkwood failed to get support for such a buildup, especially because it could heighten tensions with Gallant’s allies to the south. But Venice Cabral is known as a brilliant strategist, and Ser Hawkwood was able to convince the Court that he could indeed find some way to safely transport a large force across the Stardowns without detection. For her efforts, the Court forced the crown to give Ser Hawkwood command of a reconnaissance force of troops and the use of Tower Arcadia, a run-down watchtower in the Stardowns.

Ser Hawkwood is known not merely as a great warrior with her sword and shield but also as an effective commander. She sleeps out in the field alongside the troops. She pulls more guard and patrol duty than her soldiers. She allows the quarters inside Tower Arcadia to be used by those beneath her in the chain of command. She eats only after her troops have eaten, and she takes point when going into danger. What’s more, she does all of this while maintaining discipline with a disarming sense of warmth and humor. Such habits have inspired such an intense degree of loyalty among soldiers that the Crown has found it necessary to constantly change Ser Hawkwood’s command post out of fear she might inspire such a vast following of troops that she could attempt a coup. Those who know Ser Hawkwood say such a fear is completely unfounded and that the Knight of the One is a warrior-scholar who respects the core concepts behind the civilian control of a military power.

Much to the Crown’s dismay, Ser Hawkwood has transformed Tower Arcadia into a full-blown military installation. No longer a mere old watchtower, it is now a fort in all but name. She is convinced that Venice Cabral will stage an all-out assault on Gallant from the direction of the Stardowns, and she is constantly writing to the Crown and Court to send more troops. She has also requested that scholars be sent to Tower Arcadia to oversee research into vivi mortis, the biological affliction that Venice Cabral and his Sunbreakers unleashed at the Battle of Dalewind Pass.

The Stardowns happens to be one of the major settings for my novel, The Crossroads. Because I live in the Stardowns so much in my imagination, I found myself writing music about it. If I had a piano on those rolling hills and plains, I’d play this:

Ravel up close

Ravel is full of contradictions. As the technological center of Raea, it’s a place of machinery, engineering, and steam works. But it’s also considered a Mecca of spiritual agnosticism and is home to the Sisters of the Sacred Dark, who hold the unknown to be holy. Ravel’s capitol is widely considered a place of entrepreneurship with its many businesses built on copyrights and patents. And yet it’s also known as the city of love, with its many waterfalls adding to that summertime sense of romance in the air. Though Ravel is one of the three major countries making up the Heartlands (along with Gallant and Valdis), it is culturally distinct with its emphasis on technological advancement. The most common stereotype of a Ravelian is that of a true romantic.

The capitol of Ravel is the destination for thousands of aqueducts spiderwebbed throughout the Sorrowfells, bringing snowmelt to this city nestled amidst mountains. Right on Ravel’s western border are the vast lands that belong to the six Sunset Nation tribes, which is the birthplace of science and to this day still the most scientifically advanced union in all of Raea. While some tribes of the Sunset Nations are engaged in war with Ravel (the subject of another post), others engage in extensive trade. This comes with a sharing of cultures and knowledge, and many of Ravel’s cutting-edge innovations in communications, steam work robotics, and computing machines are based on Sunset Nation breakthroughs.

Ravel. Please forgive the crude, hand-drawn map.

In addition to the benefits that come with sharing a border with the Sunset Nations, Ravel also manages to be so innovative by enforcing strict laws to protect intellectual property. Entrepreneurial enterprises are heavily taxed for patents they aren’t actively developing, and businesses that don’t hire from the country’s citizenry can be stripped of what the courts deem to be “communal” intellectual property rights. Some see these measures as protective of innovation and the country’s economy. But others point to them as the reason why Ravel’s homeless population is the highest of any of the Heartland’s major cities. Again, there are contradictions in Ravel’s reputation: on the one hand, the romantic city of waterfalls and advancement…on the other hand, a place of widespread poverty.

This is an image of a prairie rover, a steam robot built by Melinda Rylan of Ravel. It is the kind of invention that Ravel is known for. While working on contract with Gallant’s armed forces, Rylan built these robots to seek and capture rodents afflicted with vivi mortis. Heartlanders believe that this mysterious and horrible disease is the result of a powerful biological weapon developed by the Sunbreaker tribe of the Sunset Nations. The agent that causes vivi mortis was deployed during the infamous Battle of Dalewind Pass.

Steampunk model built by Veronica Weser. I drew inspiration from her work when coming up with the prairie rovers in The Crossroads.

Each prairie rover is the size of a dog, with four L-shaped legs, crab-like pincering claws, and bright flashlights on their cyclops heads. Each is equipped with a glass tube in its belly; this is where they put small rodents afflicted with vivi mortis. Researchers use them to safely collect specimens and study them, often in one of the tower outposts on Gallant’s borderlands.

The Sisters of the Sacred Dark

Since it’s part of the Heartlands, there is no denying that the Divinian Way (described a bit here) has heavily influenced Ravel’s culture. But a hardline agnosticism is also popular in the country, one that is often combined with a humanistic approach to sciences. Those who do profess a belief in God are often deists who conceive of a Great Clockmaker who has stepped away from His own creation. If He interferes, it’s more to wind the system back up than to rearrange all of its parts. These cultural cross currents are especially seen in a sect like the Sisters of the Sacred Dark.

The Sisters of the Sacred Dark protect ancient artifacts from the Age of Eden (before even the time of Victoria Divine), and they make a pilgrimage to Ravel’s capitol whenever a new prime minister is elected to lead the country. While prime ministers appoint their own cabinet members, the Sisters of the Sacred Dark are supposed to form a continuous chain of advisors for all elected officials, generation after generation. Their knowledge of the classical antiquity and current events is vast, and they are warrior nuns.

A Sister of the Sacred Dark. Artwork by Marlen Gonzalez.

The Medusa and the Prophet

The Story of the Medusa and the Prophet

It is said that a thousand years ago, a child named Ko Irasu was born in a ramshackle tugboat making its way down the Specklar River through the heart of what was then called Gelaiden and what is now called Genji. Ko was born among fish heads, trade animals, and fishermen. His mother was the wife of a working man who’d bought passage for the two of them with his fishing skill. She bore the child inside a small shack on the tugboat. Several people arrived in canoes to this boat because they’d all had a shared dream telling them to follow mysterious upriver currents until they were led to a place on the water where an important birth was to take place. These strangers, all amazed that they’d traveled upriver for days on a strange reverse current, arrived bearing gifts and showered them upon the family and the baby. The mother named the child Ko Irasu. There was a tremendous haul of fish that day.

But the joy of the occasion was short lived. The Imperator of the day had recently ordered all newborn sons to be put to the sword because he’d received a prophecy from his youngest daughter that a child boy born unto that generation would rise up and end his rule. The daughter, Michi, was only six years old, but she often went into painful trances and spoke a strange, dark poetry whose words infallibly came true. So for months now, imperial soldiers and the sly Gaiden had gone forth to slay the newborn sons of any family they could find. And indeed, it was only months later that soldiers learned of the amazing birth on the tugboat.

They took strider ships (squat, hot-air-balloon-lined war vessels designed for the rocky and dangerous white waters of rivers) to find this hidden son and slay him. They arrived at the tugboat and declared that any child under the age of two must be handed over to them. Two Gaiden were with them, and the scriptures speak of them as dead-eyed men who courted the shadow of death and who lived in extreme ways and were destined for extreme ends. They carried their swords like slivers of moon, and it was clear that there could be no success in resistance.

But Ko Irasu’s mother had made plans for just such an event. She’d fashioned a small boat out of reeds and caulk and put her child in it and, as her husband distracted the soldiers with his diplomatic talk, sent the child down the river. The tiny crib-boat was painted the color of the river and, when closed, looked like nothing more than small driftwood. It was further coated with a sticky substance that attracted the fireflies that are numerous in Genji to this day. This way, the fireflies would feed on the basket at night. By the time the soldiers came to search the ship, the mother had already floated little Ko Irasu down the river in the tiny vessel. The soldiers found nothing and left in anger.

Later that night, Ko’s silver-tongued father convinced the captain of the tugboat to go down the river, away from where the fish were concentrated. They all looked for driftwood covered in an abundance of fireflies. And before midnight, they found him, little Ko Irasu, calmly rocking in his crib boat, delighted at the glowing blue and red and orange fireflies all around him, which he gently caught in his hands.

Close up of Genji. Alas, I’m no professional mapmaker, so it’s a crude drawing.

As Ko grew into a man, his mother passed on to him her cleverness, and his father passed on his fishing skills and persuasiveness. Ko became a great orator and led a life of the mind, reading at great stretches while fishing, visiting the Gelaiden Scroll Houses of the day, and conducting intellectual warfare in the most scholarly Tea Rooms frequented by the young, the philosophical, and the fever-brained. But it is said that Ko was dissatisfied with his life. He lived in comfort and felt he wasn’t making a mark on the world. In his meditations, he felt an urge to leave home and find his destiny far away from his family.

Both of his parents fought bitterly to keep him home. His father said he would only let Ko go if he walked on hot coals. To his horror, his son did exactly that. His mother tried everything from setting Ko up with the most popular girl in the town to even encouraging a gambling habit in him, but he resisted all of these temptations. Finally, after months of this resistance from his family, he left home with their reluctant, hard-earned blessings. He was a traveller bearing nothing more than his pack and staff.

What follows is a decade of lost tales. It seems that no one knows what Ko did during this time of wandering the world and of learning. But we do know that when he was in his thirties, he returned to Gelaiden saying he’d attained Empyria, a state of complete dissolution in the waters of the divine, and that he was here to spread knowledge of how to achieve this same state. He declared that this state of the soul was open to everyone–a distinct break from the religious tradition of the day, which said only the elect (i.e. royals and scholars) could hope to achieve Empyria. He bore a white cloak and the same staff, but now it was gnarled and wizened. The people put him to many tests to see if he really was a prophet who’d achieved Empyria, like walking through the swamps of Genji without getting a single smudge on his snow white cloak. He passed all such trials. He also told many parables and performed a variety of miracles, culminating in raising the dead.

One of his most famous parables was his response to a wanderer’s disarmingly simple question: “Is there a God?” He said, “If a woman gives birth to a child, how do we treat it? Do we cast the child out, or do we raise it with love and justice? As the child grows into a man, how do we treat it? Inflict harms upon it, or show it the love and light in the world? As the child sets off from home, how do we treat it? Squander his potential, or give him the best of our wisdom and send him thus armed unto the world? Whether the child has a father, whether the father is present, whether the particular nature of the father is good or not: None of these have any bearing on how we raise the child.”

Scholars have debated the meaning of this parable, but the most widely accepted interpretation is to say that Ko meant the child to symbolize the world and the father to stand for God. Whether God exists, whether He is present, whether He is an angry or forgiving God: none of this matters in terms of how one behaves towards the world/the child. According to the Way of the Prophet, one must still show the world love, do well by it, and shape it for the better. Because of this, people who follow this path often do not speak on the nature of God or the gods, saying that the divine is, at least to a large degree, inscrutable.

Ko’s other tales and feats are many and for another time. But what is interesting to note now is that Michi’s prophecy came true. When Ko arrived in Galaiden after his long absence, his equality-for-all teachings tapped into an oppressed populist sentiment in the people at the time. The Imperator of Gelaiden had been brutal in his rule, and the serfs, peasant classes, and tenant farmers (the latter common in Genji even now) had been at the mercy of frightened feudal lords, who had to squeeze taxes out of their subjects and conscript them into the army to appease the Imperator. Ko’s oratorical skill, his tactical brilliance, his enriched, wisdom-wrought parables sparked the blaze of revolt among the downtrodden. And the downtrodden were many. Soon, Ko became an enemy of the empire, and the Imperator hunted him for years.

Sketch of Michi by Marlen Gonzalez.

During this time, the Imperator dispatched his own daughter, Michi, to find this supposed prophet. She had become a relied-upon sage and foreseer of the court. She’d predicted every major piece of good fortune and disaster that her father the Imperator had ever faced, from the assassination of his eldest son to the particular marriage partner for her middle sister to the terrible Drought of Locusts that crippled the empire for years. She was given the greatest and most deadly of the royal Murasa to seize this prophet stirring up trouble in the countryside. She herself was a Murasa warrior by then, and considered a witch (a term that does not come with the negative connotations it does in the Heartlands, which includes Gallant). Whether she used her supernatural abilities or her knowledge of the wilderness, she led herself and her twelve legendary Murasa straight to Ko. But when she found him, he was protecting a crowd from a tyrannical lord’s soldiers, who were trying to seize their crops. With his words alone, Ko made them stay their blades and leave. Michi spoke to this man, and within time, they fell in love. Michi turned against her father the Imperator. The Murasa were likewise moved by Ko’s teachings and joined him, becoming the disciples of the Prophet. Some of their accounts of his life are collected in the Prophet’s Way, a tome that has served as the holy text and scripture for the Genji religion for 1,000 years.

(As an interesting aside, one of the Murasa was actually a peasant Gaiden in disguise, but he became accepted among the Murasa and is often called the Black Sheep Disciple. His gospel/account of the Prophet is the most emotional of all of them.)

Ko, Michi, and the disciples’ exploits throughout all of Gelaiden is another long tale, one that could fill an entire volume. Ko and Michi had many children, whose descendants are said to make up House Yamashita today. To make a very long tale short, Michi was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Imperator’s temple on an island. Ko was brought before the masses he’d helped inspire to contest the rule of the Imperator. Before all of them, on the assembled steps of the Great Imperator’s Palace, the Imperator asked the Prophet: “Are you the son of God?” to which the Prophet responded, “We are all the sons of God.” The crowd exploded in righteous fury. The Imperator’s executioner then beheaded Ko, a disastrous miscalculation that led to an excessively bloody uprising that very day. The Imperator’s body was torn apart by peoples’ bare hands, and the pieces were paraded through the streets. His rule was broken, and the feudal lords reasserted their strength when they rebuilt the empire around five Great Houses. That new system is in place to this day.

(Another aside: It is said that if only the people had followed Ko’s teachings of peace, they would’ve brought about the full vision of what Ko wanted for his country a thousand years ago. Those who follow the Way of the Prophet often say that what is currently in place in Genji is a shadow of what it could have been.)

When Ko was killed, it is said that Michi somehow knew from her temple prison and flew into a despair-fueled rage. The Prophet’s Way says that her extreme sorrow warped her body into that of a half snake, half woman and gave her terrible powers. She killed all of her captors and pulled down parts of her prison, but she did not leave the island. Anyone who approached was slain. Only the Murasa disciples were accepted in her presence. It is believed that when he was killed, Michi somehow attained immortal life or Empyrea. She is now known as the Medusa, and her descendants alone can enter her temple and receive the prophecies that she still can deliver.

Genji up close


Genji is a feared world power that dominates the southern portion of Raea. Someone from our own world would probably see it as a cross between a medieval Venice and a feudal Japan…except crisscrossed with railroads, swift river boats, and stonelace bridges made by expert artisans. Much of Genji is either farmland or wetland, and the crops grown are quite diverse because this part of Raea occupies several biomes and climate zones. The country’s army is considered the most loyal and skilled in the world, and its Murasa warriors are the greatest of swordsmen, rivaled only by Knights of the One.

A man of Genji. Artwork by Veronica Weser.

Political power in the country is shared among the Imperator and the five Great Houses, along with the so-called sixth “unspoken house.” Most people in the country are a member of one of these Great Houses, usually due to blood, profession, or simple geographical location. The heads of these houses are supposed to represent the interests of their members, and they provide a check on the political power of the Imperator. These branches of Genji’s government tend to have enough competing interests to form a stable system of checks and balances. Because each house represents a different slice of Genji society, scholars tend to classify Genji as a representative democracy.

The Great Houses

House Kosan: Of all the Great Houses, this one has the largest military force, composed of nearly 35,000 full-time lances, an equal number of non-combat personnel, 15,000 reserve members, and as many as 1,200 Murasa warriors (by far the most of any house). What’s more, those Murasa warriors are considered the best of any house, the creme de la creme of Genji’s finest fighters. Many other countries, including Gallant, send their warriors to Genji to train with the famed House Kosan masters. But despite all of this, House Kosan is the least hawkish of all. They routinely vote against armed conflict, and instead of emphasizing the warrior arts among its nobility and general membership, it emphasizes administration, logistics, and management skills.

House Kosan’s sign: a torchflower on a black backdrop.

House Isamo: is the wealthiest of the Great Houses, and they are largely responsible for collecting taxes for the Imperator’s treasury and tolls on the country’s bridges and waterways. They are the architects of the country’s banking system, which is widely considered a work of genius, and they are often the impetus for Genji’s strict market regulations. They ensured that financial crime could be prosecuted in a way reminiscent of charges of academic plagiarism: without regard for intent. They also worked to cap foreign companies’ market shares and to revert foreign-held land back to native citizens after a six-year period. House Isamo’s investments sprawl across much of Raea, and the banks they founded help drive the country’s economy.

House Isamo’s sign: a mother-of-pearl, iridescent sun.

House Gawata: Because they practice the adoption of foreigners into their house, and because they treat them as equals after they join, House Gawata is the most diverse of the Great Houses and the one most open to outsiders from other lands. They are often nicknamed the “Joyous House” for their raucous festivities and exuberant parties that blend together different cultural traditions. House Gawata is also the biggest producer of goods. They work the most farmland, mines, and forests, and they collect the most steel ore from the country’s many rivers and tributaries. Look at any granary, silo, stockpile, or quarry in Genji, and you’ll probably see House Gawata’s sigil, though House Isamo’s seal is on most of their shipments to other countries.

House Gawata’s sign: graceful rabbits running across a moonlit field. 

House Suzunu: is the oldest, most elite of the houses, and their political influence is vast. Their royal members and leadership are charismatic, and they tend to enjoy the most popularity with Genji’s people regardless of house. Indeed, House Suzunu has produced the most Imperators, who must win a general election. They control much of the country’s press and are influencers in the world of art, and many of Genji’s celebrities are from House Suzunu. Though this house has a reputation for generosity and evenhandedness, their political opponents are more likely to describe their leadership as cutthroat and devious. 

House Suzunu’s sign: the centipede.

House Yamashita: is the smallest of the houses, but their members are said to be descendants of the Prophet and his wife, the Medusa. What’s more, many of those who adhere to the Way of the Prophet, which is Genji’s most widespread religion, believe that the Prophet’s wife is reborn in House Yamashita every generation. This holy figure serves as the country’s oracle, and she visits the Medusa Temple every year to return with a prophecy. Though critics often claim that this house uses its religious prominence for financial and political gain, many people believe that the Prophet still guides the country through House Yamashita. It should be noted that recent leadership has especially pushed for a heavier involvement with finance and politics, and that the most recently appointed Medusa Reborn has gone missing.

House Yamashita’s sign: twin snakes representing the Prophet and Medusa.

The sixth, “unspoken house”

House Zeven: is the outcast house and not an official part of the Imperator’s court. But its power is such that pretending it’s not on a par with one of the Great Houses is delusional. Instead of noble Murasa warriors, House Zeven cultivates a vast network of Gaiden assassins and spies. Most Gaiden are considered honorless and have a reputation for cruelty, but their skill and utility cannot be denied. Unfortunately, most Gaiden are recruited from groups who are “houseless”–that is, ones who don’t have the privilege of being part of any of the Great Houses, and so almost invariably suffer great economic hardships. In general, Gaiden candidates have few other opportunities in Genji’s sometimes rigid society, and House Zeven often is the only one who will welcome them. The Gaiden’s fabled cruelty arises from deplorable personal decisions, but they are also the result of the pressures of an especially harsh world. One of House Zeven’s aspirations is to marry a son or daughter to an Imperator and gain legitimacy through the union.

House Zeven’s sign: a battle-scarred firefly, half-lit.

The Way of the Prophet

It is difficult to summarize any religion in a handful of sentences, but one of the basic tenants of almost all versions of the Prophet’s Way is to balance the example set by the Medusa and her husband the Prophet. Over a thousand years ago, the Medusa lived a witch-warrior’s life and sought to overthrow oppression through the sword. She emphasized confronting the ills of the world. The Prophet, on the other hand, taught the way of the open palm, a lifestyle of kindness and peace. His life is an example of peaceful opposition that toppled the last of the absolute Imperators. Because merely categorizing the Medusa as a chthonic warrior witch and the Prophet as a peaceable diplomat is a gross oversimplification, it is best to examine the story of their lives.

Gallant up close

Gallant is the crossroads of the world. Its people are a mix of dozens of bloodlines and cultures from across Raea, and they typically speak 5 or more languages. In part because their lands are rich in coalpure, and in part because the Sorrowfell mountains force most major trade routes through their lands, they are Raea’s richest country and its mightiest military power. Their religion emphasizes knighthood and following the example set by Victoria Divine, a messianic and warlike figure who unified the heartlands with her Round Table 2,000 years ago.

When you ride to the capitol city of Gallant, you’ll hear the city before you see it. The titanic, coalpure pistons ringing the city drive into and out of the earth day and night, sending a rumbling all around. Coalpure ash will alight upon your shoulders before you’re within a mile of the metropolis. And flanking its intimidating front entrance are knights in shining armor, each blazed with the upside-down sword and crown of thorns of Victoria Divine, and all of them backed by phalanxes of soldiers with harquebus rifles. Within the city walls, you have everything from the wealthy Wagon District with its flurries of financial activity and its stock exchange, to the Wall District with its tent city populated with the city’s most vulnerable–many of them poor or, in some cases, newly arrived as refugees from the Peoples’ Republic of Obisida.

Because it is so syncretic, it is difficult to describe the culture and people of Gallant. Nearly any generalization would be false. “Melting pot” would be an understatement. If you walked down the streets of the capitol, your senses would be awash in the music of numerous different languages, and you’d quickly realize that there are few combinations of eye color, hair texture, skin tone, and facial feature that would stand out as unusual in the crowd. One particular person might have the slipstream eyes of the Genji, the height of the Aurorans, the sharply tapered nose of the Valdeans, and the imperial features that can arise from a joining of so many lands. But then yet another citizen might have the reddish cast of skin hue and violet eyes typical of some Obsidian immigrants, and yet the facial features of Ravelians or even those of the Sunset Tribal Nations.

A Gallant, by Veronica Weser. The uniform and red armband indicate that she is an officer and healer in the Armed Forces of Gallant. You can see the upside-down sword and crown of thorns that represent both the Divinian Way religion and the country’s Armed Forces.

One workable distinction might be to say that the upper and upwardly mobile classes of Gallant tend to carry themselves with a knightly demeanor. Perhaps it is adaptive for this comparatively privileged segment of society to adhere to notions of courtly honor, justice, and virtue. Many of those from more disenfranchised groups, however, often express a jadedness with such high-brow notions. The irony is that Victoria Divine herself emphasized equality before the eyes of God and helped found a nation based that principle. And yet Gallant struggles with this founding principle and its actual existence, just as it experiences a tug-of-war between its remarkably egalitarian culture and its thirst for imperialism and economic conquest.

Of course, Gallant is the home of one of the most lauded institutions in popular imagination: the Knights of the One. Knights of the One (short for Knights of the One True God) are considered among the greatest warriors of Raea, and their renown both on the battlefield and in courtly circles is difficult to overstate. Becoming a knight requires a long apprenticeship–sometimes as long as ten years–as a squire and then more years spent proving one’s self in tourneys and in battle. But becoming a Knight of the One requires yet another equally long period of apprenticeship, one that emphasizes scholarly achievement and practical leadership roles. Few can balance both the “book smarts” and the “street smarts” that this demands. The trial to become a full-fledged Knight of the One is said to be an arduous one, and though the particulars aren’t supposed to be public knowledge, enough secrets about it have leaked for people to know that it involves a triumvirate of combat, academic, and tactical challenges. But once a candidate passes these trials, the general of Gallant’s Armed Forces bequeathes to this new Knight of the One a fabled artifact from the age of Victoria Divine, along with an Auroran-forged sword made specifically for Knights of the One.

For those who believe in such things, it is said that a Knight of the One can extend her soul into her weapon and armor, making it stronger than anything that can be forged and somehow inflecting it with her very personality. Of course, such superstitions are often discounted.

The Knights of the One as an institution don’t come without controversy. Human-rights advocates criticize how they can take on the role of judge, jury, and executioner in any of Gallant’s borderlands during a time of war. For such critics, definitions like “borderland” and “time of war” are disturbingly fluid, and giving Knights of the One so much power goes against the country’s core principles. It also threatens the delicate balance of the country’s civil and military institutions. Because the Knights of the One are in some ways extensions of the crown and the Armed Forces, they provide by proxy arguably too much power to the executive and military arms of the government. Finally, because Knights of the One are considered lower nobility, ascending to their ranks requires land ownership, not to mention putting up with no guaranteed pay for years at a stretch. Critics say this discriminates against those who cannot take on such economic burdens, accumulate such wealth, or invest so much time, especially when passing the final trials are far from guaranteed. For those who are financially responsible for others, such as elderly family members or children, this career path is often unrealistic, and they tend to opt to become one of Gallant’s well-paid soldiers or knights. Many argue that the requirements for becoming a Knight of the One undermine the principle of meritocracy that they supposedly stand for.

In future posts, I plan to cover more about the weaponry of the Knights of the One, their combat roles versus those of military officers, and how their political lives form complicated cross-currents with the interests of the crown, the judiciary, and the legislative branch of Gallant.

The world of Raea

I’d love to introduce you to the world of Raea, a place I’ve been visiting in my imagination for almost twenty years now. Not only have I written many stories and songs about this place, but I’ve had the opportunity to share it with many of my friends. Dozens of people have created characters in Raea and have played out epic stories there through a tabletop RPG. So in many ways, I don’t feel like I created Raea. Instead, I feel like I’m a park ranger who knows his way around. I wouldn’t be surprised to run into others who know many parts of it better than I do.

A crude map of Raea (I’m not a visual artist, so please bear with me):

Rough map of Raea

I used the admittedly childlike convention of triangles for mountains, green swirls for forests, arches for hills, yellow dots for deserts, and light blue shading for bodies of water. The circled stars are capitols, black dots are towns/cities, and red dots are points of interest. The major land trade routes are in orange, and the major water trade routes are in dark blue. I left out many details, like country borders and smaller settlements, so that the map wouldn’t get too cluttered.

Whenever I create a map, I start with geography first. As discussed in Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs, and Steel, geography plays a heavy hand in the balance of power among peoples and nations–at least over long expanses of time (the short run becomes infinitely harder to predict). From there, I try my best to reason out what the weather patterns probably are based on latitudes, figure out where the natural resources are located, and then figure out where humans would most likely settle based on those factors. The process of world-building snowballs from there.

But the process isn’t entirely “bottom up” (in this case, from the land and its resources up to the civilizations built upon it). There is also a “top down” approach, one that takes into account what works well for stories. This particular map has gone through many variations based on what inspired and moved people during collaborative, improvised tabletop RPG sessions. If you aren’t familiar with what this means, think Dungeons and Dragons or the opening of Stranger Things, but using a game design of my own that is targeted to this world. Such tabletop RPGs are the contemporary equivalent of Homeric storytelling, but with a very interactive audience. In Raea’s case, certain maps lent themselves to tales that both explored the human condition (such a serious umbrella term!) and were just fun. The core characteristics of those maps kept returning, iteration after iteration.