Friday, August 16, 2013

The King is Dead: This Grim, Unpleasant Land


Malleus is a large island with a land mass of approximately 175,000 square miles.  It is surrounded by hundreds of smaller islands that hug its cliffs and coasts, including the subject island nation of Clavus.  The continent of Incus – home to a baker’s dozen of competing nations – lies to the east. 

(Malleus itself looks suspiciously like Great Britain if somebody laid modern Germany over where England is supposed to be, while Clavus looks suspiciously like a sideways Ireland and Incus looks like somebody cut Germany out of Europe and shoved France backwards to fill in the space.)

Approaching Malleus from Incus across the Mallean Channel first takes you past the Kaiser Island and the Claws, a group of deceptively pleasant-looking islands with broad beaches on their southern sides and steep cliffs on the north.  The beaches, however, are only the most visible part of dangerous shoals that fuel the local industry of wrecking.  The inhabitants of Kaiser Island and the Claws are roundly despised by sailors of all nations who accuse them of using black magic to pull in unwary vessels and blame the Clawfolk’s wall-eyed look on mating with fish.

As one reaches Malleus proper, one first beholds the gleaming heights of the Pale Cliffs of Port Dour.  The town offers a safe and excellent harbor and passengers with little luggage might wish to disembark to take the mail coach to Hammerstadt as the River Mürrisch is not navigable to ocean-going vessels.  Those involved in the business of the Glorious Revolt will find allies among the smugglers of the town, but the young and beautiful should be careful of the panderers who work the inns and taverns, hunting for fresh virgins to offer the vampires.

Of course, panderers also work the dockside taverns of Hammerstadt, but the hustle and bustle of industry there means that they are far easier to dispose of – a sharp crack to the head from a hammer or belaying pin and a leech’s pimp becomes just another anonymous body in the pounding flow of the River Hammer.  (While the river has lost much of the thundering force it is born with at the triple waterfalls that give it its name by the time it reaches Hammerstadt, it is still swifter and more deadly than the Thames.)  The docks of Hammerstadt are an exotic maze to newcomers, filled with people from all over the world: black-skinned Südlich, red-skinned Cruthin from the Colonies, and yellow-skinned Orientals mix amongst the Occidental sailors and merchants from all over Incus.  Iron collars cover the Südlich sailors’ throats; there are no vampires south of the Middle Sea and they will not suffer themselves to be taken by the dead.

Hammerstadt is the capitol and greatest city of Malleus; here one finds the cyclopean cathedrals of Saint Kerioth and Westenmeister where the bishops preach the all-consuming power of death, the Diet where those vampires who take an interest in politics gather to play with lives of millions, the grim edifice of Hammerturm where political prisoners are tortured, and the palaces of the king and his sons whose candlelit halls are filled with the laughter and sighs from masques and orgies.  Naturally, the capitol is the playground of the aristocracy, dead and not-yet-dead alike, so it is filled with nocturnal delights – bordellos, coffee houses, night-blooming gardens, parks, and salons – and the hundreds of thousands of mortals needed to provide those pleasures.  Here those gallant adventurers  who dare to bait the tiger in its lair send coded messages with decks of cards and seduce the seducers to discover their secrets.

Beyond the city lies the Pale, the broad swath of largely deforested (and therefore lighter-colored) countryside where the farms of the nation lay.  Running in a ragged crescent from northeast of Hammerstadt to southwest of the city, it is filled with scores of small villages answerable to absentee vampire barons and counts.  Actual government of the villages falls to local squires – landed gentry trapped uncomfortably between the commoners and the nobles – who anxiously await the capricious arrivals of their masters, not knowing if this time the vampires will take their blood tax from the villagers or demand it from the squires’ own children.  With their greater wealth and opportunities for education, the squires form the backbone of the philosophical and scientific secret societies.

To be continued…

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