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Society in Mogrethby Geoff Gander
A Day at the Arena
The air was stifling, and smelled of sour wine, salt, old leather, and cooked meat. Drugyr reclined uneasily on the cushions on Tuurash’s sheltered balcony next to his host, who seemed even more enormous than during the dwarf’s previous visit, if that was possible. Before him, and far below, lay the pristine sands of the Arena. Between him and that golden oval lay tier upon tier of stone benches, crammed with troglodytes and frogfolk on the lower levels, and occupied by lizard men – in slightly less cramped conditions – above them. Above and behind him, blocked from view by the gaudy canvas sheets that Tuurash used to shield himself and his guests from the sun, was a ring of empty stone thrones. Tuurash had told him that the highest level was reserved for the Great Kings, who had all vanished before the fall of Blackmoor. Although many thought the kings were all long dead, the thrones were kept meticulously clean, and unoccupied, in anticipation of their return.
In fact, were it not for the what happened in the Arena, Drugyr would have liked very much to study the great building in detail. Much had been destroyed in the Great Rain of Fire, and those things that had weathered the great tremors were often badly damaged. The Arena, aside from being slightly worn down by the elements, looked pretty much as it did when it was built more than 2,000 years previously – or so his host told him. Tuurash had been truthful on other matters, and the dwarf doubted this was any exception.
Drugyr’s reflections were interrupted by the blast of trumpets from below. At that sound, the loud buzz of more than 20,000 voices rose into a great cheer. At the far end of the arena, a pair bronze doors – each twice the height of a man - opened, revealing a long, dark tunnel stretching beneath the benches. From within emerged a squad of lizard man soldiers in lacquered armour bearing seven brightly coloured banners – the personal symbols of the sorcerer kings, Tuurash explained – followed by a larger line of troglodyte warriors, who in turn led an even longer procession of shackled, naked slaves.
“I truly wish the First would dispense with this pageantry,” growled an emaciated lizard man, whom Tuurash had introduced as Khalgoth of Theliir. “The mob is far too beastly to appreciate such fineries! Just give them their games and be done with it, I say.”
Tuurash chortled loudly. “Patience, my friend! The First is nothing, if not astute. He, or at least his advisors, understands very well what it takes to keep a crowd happy. The commoners need their diversions.”
“I understand well enough,” retorted Khalgoth, “but were the First to spend any time in Theliir, he would understand that soldiers are for battlefields! As we speak, the Taymoran monkeys-”
“You forget yourself, Fourth,” hissed Tuurash. “We are in Isshum, and his palace is nearby. Rest assured that he watches us.” Khalgoth bowed his head, straightened, and helped himself to a tiny handful of fried meat on a nearby silver platter.
“Drugyr,” said Tuurash, “please help yourself to this fine feast! We will be entertained all day, and this is but the first course!”
Drugyr looked at the huge spread of food beside him, which would have easily fed all of his mistress’s personal servants for the entire day. Yet, Tuurash, Khalgoth and the other robed lizard man – Mashgar of Ssugath, he thought – only picked at the offerings. In fact, that was something he had noticed at other functions he had attended in Isshum – lizard men, or at least the upper castes, held lavish feasts but ate sparingly. He mentioned this to his host.
“Ah,” said Tuurash as he sipped from a goblet, “you have noticed something of our affinity to the simple lizards of nature. We do not need to eat meals regularly, as warm-blooded folk must do. We digest our food slowly, and although we take great pleasure in eating, should we eat too much we become lethargic, as we do in cold temperatures. Any of us here could eat everything you see twice over, but then we would rest for days. Those of us in the upper castes cannot afford to be so vulnerable, so we respect our natures, while still demonstrating that we have stature. Thus, we only eat the tiniest amounts of each course, and leave the remainder in the streets afterwards for the lower classes to devour. And this they do, greedily, and afterwards they rest for days. I am not divulging anything in saying this is one of our weaknesses.”
Drugyr looked again at Tuurash’s formidable bulk. “But,” Tuurash added sheepishly, “there are times when indulgence is worth it. Not here, though.”
A loud roar arose from the mob below. Drugyr craned his neck to see what was happening. Already, the sand was stained red in many places – the first amusement usually involved getting the slaves to fight over a single weapon – but his attention was fixed on a large, two-legged lizard with enormous jaws, who had sprung out of the gate and devoured the nearest slave in two bites. The remaining men and women were fleeing in panic to the other end of the arena, as the crowd jeered.
“We’re in for a treat, mmmhmmm,” mumbled Mashgar, licking a sugar-coated insect on a stick. “I thought old Longtooth had died. It’s been, mmmm, a good 20 years since he was brought from the south. Good to see some quality entertainment. I may, mmmhmm, have to bet.”
“Save your money; he’s old, and the odds are long,” muttered Khalgoth.
“You’re just sore that you lost last time,” said Tuurash with a gurgling laugh. “A profitable day, that was. You bought me my newest pleasure barge, you know.”
“It seems that the crowds don’t think that beast is a bad bet,” added Drugyr. Down below, spectators were mobbing liveried troglodytes, thrusting small purses at them in exchange for slips of papyrus. On a balcony above the doors, a large wooden board had been erected, on which other troglodytes had written names. Numbers, written on wooden plaques, hung on hooks next to the names. Every so often, some of the plaques would be replaced by others, bearing different numbers. Tuurash had told him that the odds would change frequently during the day.
“Oh, look! The slaves are getting weapons now! This should be exciting,” exclaimed Tuurash. Some of the slaves – those who had been soldiers at one time, Drugyr guessed – were approaching the beast, spears in hand, in some semblance of a formation. The troglodytes by the betting board were already changing the odds. The crowd, likely those who had bet in favour of the beast, began shouting in anger.
The beast whipped its tail, bowling over a number of men. As it leaped for the nearest one, several spears sprouted along its flank, and it reared up, bellowing in agony. A woman ran up from behind, ducked between the animal’s legs, and jabbed her spear into its belly. The beast roared again and sideswiped her with its enormous head, grabbing her in passing. The crowd cheered as the creature shook its prey like a rag doll, and dropped her. She lay unmoving, as the sand around her turned crimson.
The other combatants regrouped while the beast gulped down its latest meal. “I hope Haskess raises the fallen,” grumbled Khalgoth, “These games do get a little dull after a while. There is only so much fear that can be instilled by wild beasts, no matter how horrific they may be.”
“I thought, mmhmm, I heard Isshkarath say something about the Champion making an appearance,” said Mashgar, still struggling with his insect on a stick. “He’s always good at beating the odds. I, mmhmm, remember one time-“
“The Champion died last year; they are searching for a replacement,” said Tuurash, gulping down more wine. “Where have you been?”
“Doing my research,” retorted Mashgar.
“If ‘research’ involves consorting with your own-” began Tuurash, his voice rising.
“No! No, honourable Second! I admit to having done it in the past, but no more! I believe I proved that we cannot recover the old blood in that manner,” replied Mashgar, bowing, in a supplicating voice.
Drugyr choked on his wine. He had heard whispered rumours that some of the sorcerer kings were seeking a means of becoming more like the vanished Great Kings, whose power, it was even more quietly whispered, was supposed to be far greater than even that of the First. It was called “recovering the old blood”, and he had heard that some of the sorcerer kings had committed acts that were blasphemous even by Mogreth’s standards. To hear proof of it turned his stomach. Tuurash looked at the dwarf intently for a second, before another chorus of shouts from below drew everyone’s attention back to the game.
Somehow the beast had actually been killed; although it had taken most of the remaining slaves with it. The once golden sands were now a reddish-brown muck in many places. The victors barely had time to catch their breaths before the doors opened again, and a mob of beastmen entered the arena, prodded by armed troglodyte soldiers. Once the doors closed, a number of swords and axes were tossed down to the newcomers.
Khalgoth leaned forward, peering intently at the scene. “We might finally get to see a decent melee,” he muttered.
“Ha! Look at how ferociously the beasts charge! I believe they may have been promised their freedom if they win. It’s not hard to motivate those creatures,” said Tuurash with a chuckle.
“Would they get it?” asked Drugyr, overcoming his disgust and eating something suspiciously crunchy.
Tuurash roared with laughter and the sound of clashing steel, and roars of approval from the audience, erupted from below. “Please excuse me, my dear friend, but although it is said that anyone sent to the Arena may win their freedom if they survive the day, none have ever succeeded. It is simply impossible. Many influential members of the upper caste wager a great deal on the games, and the appropriate monster or champion is always chosen to guarantee a decent payout. Certainly, the roster may change to give the slaves a fighting chance, and to create an aura of suspense to keep the audience guessing, but the ultimate outcome, to us, is never in doubt.”
“I believe two slaves actually did live out the day,” began Mashgar.
Tuurash cut him off with a gesture. “It is effectively impossible. Should any slaves be alive close to sundown, the fallen may simply be animated to finish them off. The audiences always love that.”
Drugyr turned his attention back to the game. The last of the human slaves had been cut down by the beastmen, now reduced in number. Judging by the roars of disapproval from the audience, a lot of spectators had not bet on that outcome. The newcomers’ joy over their victory was short-lived, however, as the doors had been opened to admit a pride of lions. The beastmen moved to meet their foes, but the ground had become so slick with gore that many lost their footing. The lions seemed to have no trouble, by comparison. Drugyr suspected that today’s games would end early, and that was something he would not regret.
Mogreth is one of the oldest nations of Brun during the time period in which this campaign setting is set. The First Empire was established prior to Thonia’s own rise to prominence, and it prospered until Blackmoor became the dominant power in the east. The Second Empire, which claims direct descent from the first, arose during the Great Rain of Fire, and expanded rapidly in the aftermath. The language, government structure, and social institutions from the time of the First Empire survive largely unchanged.
This lineage has instilled in the lizard men a strong sense of superiority. They were creating art and building cities – many of which are still in existence – before their neighbours had even risen above the Stone Age, let alone developed as peoples in their own right. As a result, the folk of Mogreth see other cultures as pale imitations of their own; and consequently, there is little or no need to change the way things are done, because they have always worked. The fact that young nations, such as Taymora, possess a cultural vigour that has been absent in Mogreth for centuries, is largely ignored.
Yet, beneath the veneer of contempt for the “younger races” is an awareness that the Second Empire lives in the shadow of its predecessor. The sorcerer kings are capable of many magical feats, but the archives state plainly that the long-vanished Great Kings were capable of far more. Much of Isshum, for example, was built by the Great Kings, and the city weathered the catastrophic changes wrought by the Great Rain of Fire largely unscathed; but the sorcerer kings have no knowledge of which spells were used in the construction. The greatest monuments and other accomplishments, in fact, date from the First Empire. Thus, the folk of Mogreth know that they are not as great as they once were.
This awareness has produced, in the upper caste at least, a strong desire to reclaim that former glory. The sorcerer kings spend much of their time researching ways to acquire some of the Great Kings’ power, while senior military officers urge an aggressive campaign, preferably against Taymora, to secure more land, slaves, and glory for the people. The middle and lower castes are equally aware of their empire’s faded glory, but their society’s rigid caste system does not allow them to do much about it. Instead, they pursue their crafts and, encouraged by their rulers, seek out diversions. So entertained, the lower classes will, their rulers hope, remain placidly obedient.
The Caste System
Mogreth’s society is caste-based along the lines of race, and it is effectively impossible for anyone to transcend those barriers imposed by the first sorcerer kings, centuries ago. Caste determines the jobs one can perform, where one can live, and what sort of punishment will be received for breaking the law. At the top are the seven sorcerer kings, upper caste lizard men who have mastered the sorcerous arts, and who have demonstrated their power. Within their ranks there is a distinct pecking order, with the First (who goes by no other name) leading them and acting as their unified voice to the world, down to the Seventh.
Below the sorcerer kings are the upper caste, comprised overwhelmingly of lizard men, most of whom enjoy lives of idle leisure. The more ambitious among them try to apprentice themselves to one of the sorcerer kings, in the hope of someday joining their exalted ranks; those without magical inclinations join the army, where they swiftly rise to the topmost ranks. For the rest, life is spent pursuing hobbies, studying, or acquiring wealth. Troglodytes who have faithfully served in a sorcerer king’s household may also find themselves in the upper caste, but this is exceedingly rare. More common are the frogfolk, who tend to pursue spiritual or scholarly vocations.
The middle caste is made up of lizard men who are not so wealthy, or who lack patrons, troglodytes, and frogfolk. There are unspoken gradations within this class. Lizard men work as bureaucrats, own businesses, rent out the land they own, serve as junior officers in the army, and develop their skills as artisans. Troglodytes run businesses and oversee estates for lizard men, and work as skilled master craftsmen in their own right. Frogfolk tend to enter the clergy or bureaucracy, or conduct research on behalf of others. This is the lowest cast that may own land in cities.
The lower caste is overwhelmingly comprised of troglodytes. These folk are Mogreth’s foot soldiers, they oversee its slaves, and they perform all of the menial labour for which slaves cannot be trusted. Some frogfolk are also in this caste – these are the empire’s sailors, but they are also found in the Issus River delta, where they fish, hunt insects, and gather herbs.
At the bottom of Mogreth’s social order are the slaves. As in many other realms, slaves may not own property, and live at the pleasure of their masters. Most slaves in Mogreth work on farms, toil in mines, and perform physical labour on large or dangerous construction sites – basically, anything for which the sorcerer kings would not want to risk troglodyte lives. As in other castes, however, there are tiers among the slaves. Elvish slaves are exceedingly rare (and expensive), and their magical talents make them highly desirable as subjects for the sorcerer kings’ experiments. As a consequence, they are rarely seen outside of a sorcerer king’s lair. Below the elves are humans, by far the majority of slaves, who are considered useful, reasonably intelligent beasts of burden who can be trusted to work in cities if supervised. At the bottom are the beastmen, considered less than animals, who are assigned the most dangerous and dirty jobs of all. Given their chaotic natures, beastmen are often considered more trouble than they are worth.
Daily Life in Mogreth
For most inhabitants of the Second Empire, daily life consists of following one’s profession, and spending whatever time remains with family or friends (within one’s caste, of course). With almost no social mobility to speak of in the lower classes, there is very little incentive for common labourers to work harder than necessary, or to show initiative. Moreover, the nature of work for the lower classes is often physically exhausting, leaving them with little energy to pursue whatever interests they might have.
The upper classes, eager to avoid social strife while retaining a firm grip on political power, provide numerous forms of entertainment to the commoners. Every Mogrethian settlement of town size or larger has its own arena where slaves and animals may be set against each other for the amusement of the masses – although all of these pale in comparison to the Great Arena of Isshum. Games take place daily in major population centres, and once or twice per week in the towns. In addition to the arenas, many larger settlements also stage mock battles, with the combatants using wooden weapons. Although these games do not have official approval, the upper classes generally turn a blind eye to the mayhem that occasionally erupts after a particularly violent match.
In addition to blood sports, the peoples of Mogreth are also entertained by storytellers, jugglers, contortionists, magicians, and musicians, many of whom travel throughout the empire with the financial help of upper class patrons. Some of them do this out of a simple desire to keep the lower classes entertained (and obedient), but a small number want to broaden the horizons of their underlings. In the larger settlements, as well, the upper classes give the generous table-leavings of their numerous feasts to the commoners.
Although there are many temples of the Faith in Mogreth, services are not as well attended as they were in previous centuries. The clergy has noted a certain “spiritual malaise” among the lower classes, and in response (and with the firm urging of the sorcerer kings) have livened up services in order to make them more enticing. Now, lesser servitors are occasionally summoned on the most holy days, and rebellious (or simply unwanted) slaves are sacrificed in ways thought long forgotten.
Members of the upper caste, for their part, pursue their individual hobbies as they see fit, and when they are not doing so, or performing whatever work might be required, they frequently attend social gatherings. Almost any event in one’s life is frequently used as an excuse to hold a lavish feast. The more guests invited, the more (and costlier) food served, the more outrageous the entertainment, the more important the host must be. Some gatherings involve orgies, drugs, or even forbidden practices such as inviting guests from the lower castes, consorting with slaves, or (in particularly secretive or rebellious cliques) venerating the Immortals. The sorcerer kings increasingly suspect that rebel factions within Mogrethian society either have sympathisers, or members, in the upper caste, and some of these functions are actually venues for plotting against the empire. They are correct in this assumption, but the deeply entrenched traditions safeguarding upper caste privacy have prevented them, as yet, from investigating more thoroughly.
In addition to costly parties, members of the upper caste also take in games at the arenas, but they exercise far more restraint, and keep themselves separate from the lower classes. This distance is also maintained at religious services – the upper caste sits in a separate area, and members are expected to attend regularly.