Excerpt: Masters of Jade

THE SOUTH

Sweet smoke rises from censers and hookahs in the counting-temples of the South. As the caravan readies to depart, Guildsmen throng about in rich silks, currying their camels and packing talisman-embroidered saddlebags with furs and waterskins. Slaves haul water from the temple well; wagons brim with amphorae, while camels drink deep to bloat their humps for the long treks between sapphire oases. In the South, water is life.

The Southern Coast

Rivers and green hills mark the southern shores of the Inland Sea. Hot, dry summers and wet, mild winters provide ideal growing seasons for many crops. The people here are fervent agriculturalists: wheat is grown heavily, while hillside orchards produce olives, oranges, lemons, dates and figs. Vineyards turn out much of Creation’s wine. Slave plantations grow sugar cane, coffee beans and tobacco. Farmers devote whole valleys to opium poppies, and even swampland is put to use growing papyrus and wild rice.

Southern Society

Tradition and superstition are the watchwords of the South. The prospect of drought and famine demands rigid adherence to custom and abets the efforts of selfish, capricious Southern gods and elementals to gather mortal cults. Temples sprout like jeweled mushrooms among Southern cities, trading divine blessings for silver; workshops turn out amulets and talismans by the thousands to ward off malign spirits.

Resources such as fresh water, cropland and forests grow ever sparser as one travels inland, as do the settlements that spring up around them. Such havens are isolated and remote, making long-distance trade a matter of survival. Separation by unforgiving wastelands, hostile tribes and aggressive neighboring states calls for large, efficient, well-guarded caravans. This is where the Guild comes in.

Hierarchy and Slavery

Social inequality dominates the Southern Threshold. An elaborate caste system enthralls Varangia. Noble houses serve the autocrats of Paragon and Gem. Every adult citizen of the Lap spends thirty years in indentured servitude to the state. Slavery is so widespread among the coastal states that up to a third of a region’s population, from farmers and miners to artisans and domestics, may consist of chattel slaves. In many such states, not owning a slave serves as a mark of poverty. The Southern Guild profits hugely by importing slaves from elsewhere in the Threshold.

As one travels away from the agrarian coast, the nomadic tribes of desert and steppe also have castes and hierarchies, but prize bravery, self-sufficiency and stubbornness. They respond violently to oppression and, if subjugated, are prone to rebellion. The nomads also have a history of pursuing and retaliating against slaver caravans, making it preferable to capture entire tribes in one go when possible. Guild slavers experiment with various means to break tribesfolk’s spirits, from beatings and drugs to mutilation and torture of loved ones. None are more feared than Civren Ai, a renegade Sijanese funerist who employs the thaumaturgical Art of the Dead to bind and torment the ancestor spirits of the tribes he raids.

Another merchant prince, Rinata of Roaringale, sells black-armored troops to Southern petty tyrants as ‘living zombies’—soldiers that know neither fear nor pain, who obey orders even unto death. These are dream-eaten slaves purchased from the raksha, ingrained with subtle thaumaturgies and trained to follow simple commands conveyed by the beating of war drums. Though lacking skill and initiative, they conjure superstitious fear in their foes and possess unshakable morale, making them worth their price.

Matchmaking

Merchants find profit even in arranged marriages. In Varangia, Guild astrologers are paid to indicate that an arranged marriage is auspicious, while Guild alchemists in Zebremani assure spouses-to-be that they have a complementary balance of humors. Other merchant princes take a cut from the sale of attractive, genteel or well-trained young people from poor families as spouses for the rich—a process divided from slavery by the thinnest of lines. And some matchmakers deal with the supernatural, earning tidy profits and divine favor by arranging for wealthy mortals and forlorn gods alike to obtain god-blooded offspring.

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