Once the northern heartland of the Crimson Empire, Vacij is a kingdom in name only, its High King a monarch only in the sense that he or she is first among equals and casts the second vote in the election of the Sepulcher’s holy head.

In practice, Vacij is hundreds of smaller and practically independent principalities. These tend to take a few basic forms:

Petty Kingdoms
Many of the small states are ruled by nominal kings, and usually consist of only a few small cities or valleys. There are a large number of Dwarven-dominated kingdoms in the north of Vacij, as well as elven Dominates where elf retainers and functionaries have supplanted earlier rulers and attracted their kinfolk in numbers. The states of Goblin March are unique among the mainland kingdoms in being populated by and ruled by goblins, though nearly all are in thrall to or owe fealty to other states and are crippled by ruinous taxes and troop levies.

Many parts of Vacij are controlled by the Sepulcher directly, though the priests typically delegate the actual ruling to local functionaries who are, for all intents and purposes, nobles themselves. Sepulcherates vote earlier in the elections for High King, and exercise undue weight in the selection of the favored Vaciji candidate to head the Sepulcher. Sepulcherates are also exempt from the High King’s troop levies and taxes, which are controlled by the Sepulcher itself, though the prince-bishops are usually more than willing to place their troops at the High King’s disposal in emergencies.

Free States
During the great Vacij Rebellions, serf throughout the principalities rose up in revolt and demanded meaningful change. After defeating the High King’s troops at Bloody River, they were granted a number of concessions–serfdom was abolished throughout Vacij, and the largest areas in rebellion were allowed to organize themselves as the Free States provided they took a nominal oath of loyalty to the High King. In practice, though, serfdom was replaced with peonage and the Free States soon came under the domination of merchants and corrupt “elected” officials. Once seen as a beacon of freedom and hope, the Free States are often seen as anarchic and unpleasant.

Royal Cities
The largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Vacij have attained self-government, usually under a local prince or king but sometimes an elected city council. They tend to be highly influential commercially, but are very vulnerable to sieges, boycotts, and blockades due to their lack of any agricultural or pasture land.

The Isle of Vacij
Usually simply called “The Isle” or “The Island,” this is the small (and non-contiguous) amount of land controlled by the High King directly. As Vacij has no capital, the royal court instead traveling between fortified cities regularly, the Isle is only loosely connected with the High King, though the best troops and fortifications are usually found there, to give the High King a base of power in the event of a not-infrequent civil war or dynastic struggle.

In the words of the most recent High King of Vacij, Saksa VII the Scholar, “If not for the tendency for the Vaciji to unite in the face of an external threat, they would have been conquered long ago. If not for their tendency to turn on one another immediately afterwards, they would have been the conquerors long ago as well.”

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Pexate and Layyia, the “warring brothers” or “squabbling sisters,” were once both part of the great Crimson Empire. As imperial power crumbled, Pexate was the first to be abandoned, while Layyia was close to the imperial heartlands and remained loyal to the Emperor until the final collapse nearly a thousand years later. That lengthy separation led the two kingdoms, of otherwise similar size and climate, to take sharply divergent paths.

Guarded by the mountains that form its border with Layyia, Pexate developed an independent streak with a great deal of power concentrated in the hands of the nobility. In Layyia, however, the kings were much more successful at imposing their will on their nobles. Perhaps this was because of their (supposedly) direct descent from the last of the Crimson Emperors; in any event, Layyia remained secure under a number of strong kings until the Layyian Plague, which saw five monarchs in five years succumb, including the infamous “year of three kings” in which King Fraen V reigned for only 88 days.

The death of so many senior claimants to the throne, and plague’s privations elsewhere, kept the Layyians from interfering in the affairs of their neighbors for some time–they never attempted to invade during the ten years of Uxbridge’s Anarchy, for instance, nor did they attempt to end the Most Serene Republic of Pexate which followed. Rather than regional barons asserting their authority, the various dukes, marquesses, and earls of Layyia instead backed a variety of candidates to the throne in an ongoing hot-and-cold civil war.

Chroniclers have called these claimants the “Lights of Layyia,” often depicting them as candles in a candelabra. This was both because the claimants represented some of Layyia’s brightest stars, and because they had an unfortunate tendency to be snuffed out.

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Axtyn II, often called “The Last Great King of Pexate,” an appellation which has stuck despite Thurlford III’s many accomplishments, had a total of nine children–a fact he was very proud of, as it put him in the same league as his ancestor Eyon I.

Of the nine, three died young, leaving three sons and three daughters. Thurlford II, the youngest son of Axtyn’s second wife, became king on his father’s death at the age of three. His two elder brothers both died of misfortune, one of plague and another on campaign in the deserts of Naix. This left Axtyn’s daughters, the Three Sisters, all of whom married powerfully and well and became known for their adroit manipulations. Axtyn’s middle and favorite daughter married Uxbridge VI of Brae, the most powerful baron in the House of Owls, and her only son–also named Uxbridge–became baron in time as well.

Lord Uxbridge was known as a handsome, genial man who made personal friends easily and was most in his element when he was speaking to someone one-on-one. He was also brave and honorable to a fault, never failing to accompany his troops into battle and rarely, if ever, breaking his word once given. When Axtyn’s line failed, Uxbridge became a key aide to the new king, Axtyn’s younger brother Thurlford III, and Thurlford relied heavily on Uxbridge to keep the increasingly rowdy House of Owls in line.

However, it did not take a sage to see that Uxbridge’s eyes were on the throne. Thurlford was childless and increasingly distracted from the business of ruling by his need for a direct heir, and Uxbridge was already shaking hands with barons on the king’s behalf. Despite the fact that, historically, the kingship was not inheritable through the female line, Uxbridge nevertheless was in a position to advance his claim strongly. By the time his game of chess was complete, Uxbridge had married his only sibling to King Thurlford, had the support of a majority of the Owls, and had already guaranteed himself the position of regent for his nephew Eyon.

The Layyian Plague turned out to be the catalyst for Lord Uxbridge VII to become King Uxbridge I. Both the king and his wife succumbed–or, at least, that was the official story–and after a regency of only nine days, so too did young Eyon–again, according to the official story. Rumors that Eyon had survived and that Thurlford had been murdered persisted, but the House of Owls unanimously backed Uxbridge for the throne.

And, true to his word, he honored the promises that he had made: more autonomy for the barons, less royal interference in the day-to-day running of the country, and so on. To do otherwise would have cost him his support, but the following decade–Uxbridge’s Anarchy–would show that he had sacrificed perhaps too much in his pursuit of the throne.

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Thurlford III, King of Pexate, became king after his nephew Thurlford II died young. As regent for the boy, he was well-positioned to take the throne, but Thurlford was also the last male-line descendant of Axtyn II. A tough, practical statesman and general, Thurlford was a capable ruler but his reign wound up becoming consumed by the question of succession.

Thurlford’s first wife, Mirh of Layyia, was the daughter of King Fraen IV and many hoped that their union would hep bring-about the long hoped-for union between the “warring brothers” of Pexate and Layyia. Mirh’s early death in childbirth dashed those hopes, and her child was sickly as well. He would have been Thurlford IV, had he lived, but the child suffered from hydrocephalus and died at the age of eight, though his surviving letters show that he was an intelligent lad and full of promise.

Lady Lyx was married to Thurlford when he became king, and was therefore Queen of Layyia. They had met on the occasion of one of Thurlford’s campaigns against the orcs in the deserts of Naix, and she was a member of the disinherited by still powerful House Diuaj. However, their union was a childless one, and rumors soon began to spread that her mother had actually been an elf, leaving Queen Lyx herself as a mule and infertile. Scholars remain divided about this, but there is no denying that she failed to produce an heir or even to become pregnant.

Thurlford appealed to the Sepulcher, asking that the marriage be dissolved, but the canon law of the time required both parties to agree to a divorce, and Lady Lyx refused to grant one. Thurlford resolved to sire an heir regardless, and began courting a variety of ladies both in Pexate’s capital of Simnel and in the baronies as well–it is said that the Annex at Castle Aiov was built to be his love-nest with the baron’s daughter.

However, the barons’ power had been growing, and they saw the opportunity to flex their muscles. The House of Owls resoundingly rejected King Thurlford’s petition to have an heir of illegitimate birth succeed him, and the House of Sparrows agreed. The sudden death of Queen Lyx broke the logjam, though the barons’ whispers that she had been poisoned by her husband gained wide currency.

Seeking to shore up his support, Thurlford’s third wife was Lady Zann of Brae. She was not a well-known beauty like Lyx, nor was she an adroit politician like Mirh, but she was the sister of Baron Uxbridge VII of Brae, a cousin of the king and one of the most powerful members of the House of Owls. Uxbridge had long been Thurlford’s “fixer,” dealing with problems arising around Pexate with his brand of personal diplomacy–he was renowned for his warm, friendly manner, personal honor, and fine speaking voice. Queen Zann therefore came with a powerful ally attached.

It seemed that Thurlford finally had what he wanted; Zann was pregnant within a year and the king’s first legitimate offspring, Prince Eyon, was born soon after. But within a year, both Zann and Thurlford would be dead, and Pexate would be spiraling into chaos.

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The reigning King of Pexate, Axtyn II, and the reigning king of Layyia, Fraen IV, met at one of the relatively few mountain passes between their two nations to discuss the end of the war that had ravaged both kingdoms for ten years.

Seeking to impress his enemy, Fraen IV emptied his capitol of splendor and staged a military parade before the pass the like of which had never been seen before. Swordsmen, archers, and a line of gob camp-followers, cooks, and attendants that stretched a mile behind them. Each, from the mightiest marquis to the lowliest stablehand gob, was clad in glittering plate and mail that sparkled in the noonday sun.

For that has always been Layyia’s strength; its inestimable beauty and fine culture.

For his part, Axtyn II brought his best and most experienced troops, and as the Layyians paraded, he arranged them in a classic bull-horns pincer form upon the slopes. The men were bedraggled and dirty, everything they owned coated with campaign grime. Only the signal and unit flags were clean, for even the king himself wore unadorned armor with only a gold circlet and his personal standard betraying his rank.

When the two kings met, Axtyn II complimented his rival on his parade formation. Fraen IV, who had been hoping to witness an equal display from Pexate as a spectator, asked why there had been none, and commented upon the shabbiness of the men he saw.

The men were there to do dirty jobs, Axtyn claimed, and to attack for their king and their country if the need arose. He had always found it better to have a well-drilled if shabby army than a glistening and inexperienced one.

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Gob paused for a moment. “Gob presumes that the young master thinks Gob an expert on his people?”

“Of course,” Eyon said. “I hardly know anything about goblins in Pexate.”

“If the young master permits,” said Gob, “this one would like to ask: if Gob would like to know about the culture of the humans, would the young master know the answer?”

“I think so,” Eyon said. “What would you want to know?”

“What can the young master tell Gob about the people of Layyia to the east?”

“The Layyians?” Eyon said. “I can tell you the history of their kings, our wars with them, some of their best philosophers and poets…”

“What about the meaning behind their names? The heroes of their stories? Those of the common Layyians, not their kings.”

“We never got into that in my lessons,” said Eyon, embarrassed.

“Ah,” said Gob with a nod. “What about the lands of Naix to the south across the sea? They teem with a great array of humans among other. What can the young master tell Gob about their names, about their legends?”

“Well…I can tell you about the fall of the Crimson Empire, and how it-”

“The people, young master, not their emperors. What can you tell Gob about them?”

Eyon bit his lip. “Very little, I’m afraid.”

“Yet they are humans, are they not, just like the young master?” said Gob. “Surely, as a human, the young master knows the ways of his people.”

“Well, I know a lot about history and kings, and of course a great deal about the Pexian humans and Pexate,” said Eyon. “But the human Layyians and Naixxans…they’re different sorts altogether.”

“And yet the young master believes Gob to know about his people, as a whole, since all gobs are very similar–not nearly as diverse as the humans and their various nations,” Gob said. “This one is heartened by your confidence.”

Eyon cocked his head, confused. “Gob, are you…are you trying to tell me something?”

“Gob is quite certain that he doesn’t know what the young master is talking about,” he said. “If you will excuse Gob, the other master has finally fallen asleep, and the cut meat must be salted before it spoils.”

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Myn flinched at the sound of a gun firing. Matchlighter dropped his wheelock, holding a spreading red stain, a blossoming petunia, on his abdomen. A goblin behind him with a smoking arquebus kicked him over and collected the fallen hand gun.

“There’s that one’s order for him,” the goblin sniffed. “Come, fellows. Muolih awaits.” They disappeared into the hollow that, due to the oblique angle, Myn could not see.

After a few moments’ wait, Myn nodded at Tinain and Niwa and they moved out. The great hollow was, in fact, a cyclopean staircase, made of the same giant stones but set together in such a way as to form a surprisingly ordinary ascent. Through the door at their top, it was possible to see a columned hall but little else.

Matchlighter was still alive and gasping. Holding his gunshot wound, he was clawing his way up the steps one at a time, leaving behind him a trail of dark smeared blood. He looked up at Myn with fear in his eyes. “Help me,” he said.

“Tinny.” Myn nodded at the wounded goblin. “Help the man.”

Tinain looked at the wound carefully and whispered in Myn’s ear. “It is mortal,” he said. “If he does not bleed to death, the wound will rot him from within and he’ll take three days to die.”

Myn looked back at Matchlighter. “I can’t do anything for you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“To come this close…only to be cast down..by my own people,” Matchlighter wheezed. “A people I have given my everything to…protect…and nourish…”

“I wouldn’t take it to hard,” said Myn. “They’ve been through a lot. We all have.” She drew one of her wheelocks. “I can give you a shortcut to Muolih if you’d like.”

“No,” cried Matchlighter. “No. I will see the Spreading Darkness soon enough, once Lodii has had her parlay with him.”

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“Orngba Lobeclip lost the point of her ear when she was young, I’ve heard,” the orc said. “She was taken by traders who wanted to pass her off as a comely human to sell to the Gaizans, so they planned to clip her ears and smear her with clay. I’ve heard it said she took the ears of every last man in the caravan as recompense.”

“That ear is one more thing we lost to the Hamurabashers. When Riw Iax fell, they took her and tortured her until she agreed to submit to the Hamurabash.”

“Is that so,” said Myn. “I heard otherwise.”

“I have it on the word and authority of her great uncle, who would know. She took the ears of every last Hamurabasher when she escaped, and Nyirtirat take my tongue if that’s not the truth.”

“That ear, you know she lost it in a fight with a lion.”

“How many times did it get cut off?” cried Myn.

“Not cut. Bitten. The lion got the drop on her when she was in the foothills and even then all it could get was one eartip. She cut the ears off of its dead body and hunted down its cubs to do the same. That’s direct from her half-brother’s ex-wife.”

“You’ve heard about Orngba’s ear, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, it was cut off by slavers, or by Hamurabashers, or by a lion,” said Myn. “They must have been very careful sewing it back on aftwrwards.”

“No, no. She cut it off herself in a show of power. Her cousin’s son was there, even has a droplet of blood on his mail. Orngba said she’d take the ears of any orc who opposed her, and none did. But the offer still stands to this day.”

“Do you wish to know how I lost the upper part of my ear?” Orngba said.

“I’ve heard a…few theories,” said Myn. “But I’m sure none of them do justice to the truth.”

“One of the pariah dogs had a litter in the citadel, and one of the pups was the cutest, fluffiest little thing you have ever seen. I wanted him for my own, but proud Scatha Scarfurrow insisted that the dog was hers by right. We settled matters.”

“You fought over a dog?” said Myn.

“Not a dog,” said Orngba. “A puppy. He was cute and fluffy and we wanted him. Scatha took the tip of my ear; I took her head. I made the puppy its first dish out of her skull.”

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“You are not satisfied by General Lodii’s answer,” said Zaldi.

“She’s hiding something. Even Roir could see that,” said Myn, spitting an apple seed onto the ground. “I’m not going back home with my tail between my legs just because they threatened to kill me. I owe Eyon more than that.”

“Are you sure this is about the Legion and Lord Eyon?” said Zaldi. “You have asked about this Liat Raligaia at every turn.”

“Yes, who is Liat Raligaia?” said Tinain. “That’s a name from Pexate, isn’t it?”

“He stole something from me,” said Myn. “Something very precious. I intend to inquire about it in person, and I would have done it already if the Legion hadn’t taken him.”

“Lodii said he was a mercenary, working for financial gain, which that big orc didn’t like,” Zaldi added. “You don’t believe that either?”

“Let’s just say that if General Lodii told me the sky was blue, I’d still want to look up to see for myself.” Myn said.

“Tell me about this Goblin Legion,” Tinain said. “We have heard so many rumors here, for years, I scarcely know what’s true and what’s lies.”

“Lord Eyon came to control Pexate after the Battle of Huxton’s Bend,” said Zaldi. “I was there, and so was Myn, and Lodii. Half of Lord Eyon’s army was goblins when he defeated and captured King Uxbridge and the barons who were tugging on his puppet strings.”

“Yeah, so Eyon wanted things to be better for the gobs than they had been,” said Myn. “He’s tried a lot of stuff, like saying that the gobs can have names based on their town, and saying that they’re actually citizens of Pexate, which the barons were kind of wishy-washy on. The Legion was another one of his ideas.”

“Arming and training gobs to give them opportunities to better themselves, after they’d helped him win that battle?” Tinain said.

“And names,” said Zaldi. “Don’t forget the names. To most gobs, names are everything. And each of the 10,000 in the Goblin Legion has a name. When they fall, another gob may step in and claim their name by right.”

“It was a big risk,” said Myn. “everybody expected Eyon to name himself king, to add a token gob or two to his retinue, and then abandon them to their fate. The gobs expected that. But he insisted that their lot had to improve, and he fought hard against all sorts of people to create the Goblin Legion.”

“I do think he missed an opportunity to call it the Goblegion,” Zaldi laughed.

“Agreed,” said Tinain, joining her merriment.

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Myn and her cohorts were hustled through offices and richly decorated rooms, each of which was dark and barely occupied due to the suspension of trade and the blockade. The Lord Mayor’s office was directly behind a large stained glass window, broken into four planels that each represented a quarter of the city. When the watchmen opened the door, a heated discussion was already underway.

“…sheer madness! You know as well as I do that they won’t surrender a single prisoner, for they take none!” A tall elf with a full blonde beard was shouting, bent over the Lord Mayor’s desk.

“Pem Hsuabel from the Elf Quarter,” whispered Tinain.

“And this one reminds you, Pem, that any pause in the hostilities for parley can only benefit us!” Behind the massive, ornate desk of the Lord Mayor, the goblin holder of that office–Niynx Gavelpound, Tinain had called him–was seated. He looked well-fed compared to the denizens of the quarter, but had a lean face and a keen eye all the same.

“And what if it’s merely a ploy to lure us out to capture us?” A dwarf, dressed in an extremely fine gown, said from a nearby setee. “Those savage greenskins will use any advantage they can take, as we’ve plainly seen so far!” Her accent was thick and haughty enough to spread on fine toast.

“Who’s that?” Myn whispered.

“Dwarf Quarter council member,” Tinain said. “I forget her name.”

“Orza Callandelve,” said Zaldi. “Originally of the Layyain Callandelves, hence the accent.”

Myn looked at her companion. “How in the world did you know that?”

“She enjoys the Mud Pits,” said Zaldi. “Quite a bit.”

Ninyx the Lord Mayor was still talking: “What say you, Galba? This one can be overidden by a vote of three to one on such matters, and none knows the state of our city’s supplies better than House Barleyfurrow.

The fourth council member, an ill-looking human woman who was quite bald, sat quietly in the corner. “Gaiza has always relied on control of the sea, by those willing to trade with us, to withstand seiges,” she said in a voice hardly above a whisper. “With the new ships that the Goblin Legion has brought, not one ship in ten reaches our quays. Even with the Goblin Quarter sealed off, and the starvation rations I insisted upon at our last meeting, we wil not be able to feed our troops within a month.”

At this point, the Lord Mayor noticed Myn and the others. “Oh, this one sees that our official envoy has arrived,” he said. Rising from his chair he walked over to greet Myn, his fine outfit’s metal bits clanking together as he did so. “This one is dreadfully sorry that the mercenaries at the dock saw fit to place you in the Goblin Quarter and not bring you directly to this one’s office.”

Myn visibly swelled up pridefully at this talk. “Well, it’s a good thing you realized your mistake,” she said. “Myn the Mule is resourceful but the wild goblins of the Quarter still nearly had her killed.”

“You see?” cried Pem, the elf councilman. “I told you that the Gob Quarter is seething with synpathy for the Legion! It’s our soft underbelly!”

“Well, from what I saw, about as many goblins blame the Legion for what’s happened to them,” Myn said. “If you keep them starving like animals, though, that’s probably going to change sooner rather than later.”

“You impudent whelp!” Pem snapped. “Speaking that way to me! Do you think we did not fully consider all the ramifications of sealing the Gob Quarter in detail? That we wouldn’t have done so if we had any other choice?”

“Calm yourself, Pem,” said Orza, the dwarf councilwoman. “You needn’t treat every disagreement as a personal attack, you’ll wear yourself out.”

Ninyx waved them both aside. “So, Lady Myn Toansdottir, what news from Pexate? How soon can we expect reinforcements, and supplies?”

“Um…what?” said Myn.

“Reinforcements and supplies,” said the Lord Mayor. “How soon will they be arriving? We assumed you arrived in response to our request for aid.”

“Uhh…” Myn racked her brain trying to think about whether Lord Eyon had said anything about Gaiza asking for aid. “We…we never got any such message.”

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