The population of the Expanse Sector in the Par'tha Expanse is split into two basic socio-economic classes - the nobles and the common people. The ruling class, of course, is made up of the house nobles - who govern within their designated spheres. The common class includes the merchants, manufacturers, and service providers who keep the expanse economic engine running smoothly.
There are approximately 345 noble families residing in the Par'tha Expanse. Most of these families have been around in one form or another since the mid-Dynastic Era, though some have changed house affiliation over time as one house died and another was born.
While elsewhere in the galaxy the idea of universal suffrage and equality has long existed, in the Par'tha Expanse the philosophy has persisted over the millennia that the power of rule belongs by right to the well-born. Nobles and commoners alike subscribe to this point of view, and find it right and natural. Perhaps this attitude helps explain both why Par'tha Expanse citizens adjusted readily to the Valcarian Empire, and why Federation sociologist and diplomats have had difficulty in igniting the idea of freedom and equality throughout the Expanse.
The nobles of the Par'tha Expanse consider it subversive to seek power through popularity among the non-noble populace or by serving the selfish needs of the more needy, least educated, and least well-informed members of the nobility. Though there have been many popular and charismatic rulers over the centuries, few nobles have attempted to head a public uprising against the established noble class, and none successfully. Those who are thought to harbor populist sympathies are shunned, both by their peers and the lower classes.
All noble families are members of a particular house; a coalition of families which lay claim to certain territories and sector assets. House membership is accorded to those who are born into or marry into an established house family.
There are currently seven houses in the Par'tha Expanse. Larokon, Rettaan, and Tadere are greater houses, which means they command major factions in the Great Council. The upper families of the greater houses are the most powerful in the sector, and have connections not only throughout the sector, but often on neighbouring political homeworlds (like Romulus or Valcaria).
Lanaxa, Kerraron, Beruna, and Barahn are the lesser houses. They have less direct influence on the Great Council than the greater houses, but since the greater houses depend on them to provide the necessary votes to build commanding coalitions, they can often nudge events in directions favorable to themselves.
Each house conducts its internal affairs a bit differently, but all have certain similarities. Each house is governed by a High Lord (or Lady) and a privy council of advisers. The High Lord is appointed by the heads of each house family, and usually serves until he chooses to retire or dies (in some cases, either event might be hastened by house members anxious for another take at the reigns). The nobles eligible to the privy council come from the house's uppermost noble families, which make up perhaps ten percent of the house's noble class (most of these are lords).
The role of the privy council varies from house to house. In some houses, it is simply an advisory body with no power to enforce its decisions. In others, it is the real power behind the figurehead High Lord, who serves to rubber-stamp its decisions. In most cases the High Lord has a fair amount of leeway in formulating public policy, but rare is the High Lord who can run roughshod over the wishes of his privy council (which, after all, represents the interests of the most powerful families in the house). Those who do are usually replaced sooner or later.
Titles and Rank
Nobles are considered equal before the law, but some nobles are more equal than others. In fact, there are three different levels to the aristocracy - and three different corresponding titles (though all can be referred to as a Lord or Lady without fear of retribution):
- Baron. Barons or Baronesses (referred to as My Lord/Lady, or My Lord Baron/Lady Baroness) are the lowest class of nobility in the Par'tha Expanse. Commonly, barons own property and work in the house hierarchy, but seldom hold significant house assets (though they can). Many barons are actually rather poor, and must send their children out to find their own fortunes.
However, there is always hope to better one's station. For a high-born baron, the title is hereditary, and he or his descendants may someday through some great service to the house elevate his standing. Either that or make enough money to buy a high-ranking sponsor on the privy council who can make him an earl.
Other barons are commoners raised to nobility by an act of the house privy council. Such "petty barons" can hold house assets and marry high-born nobles, but cannot pass their titles on to their descendants.
- Earl. Earls or Countesses (referred to as My Lord/Lady) hail from the better families of the house which have long and honored histories. They often hold and run significant house assets, such as manufacturing plants, military armories, spy networks, agricultural combines, sea fisheries, and so forth. They also usually have a manor on their lands, and a small home on Oscion for use in capital season.
Earls inherit their titles. No commoner can ever be raised to become an earl, even if he has been a baron. However, the children of petty barons can become earls, if they themselves are raised to nobility.
- Duke. Dukes or Duchesses (referred to as Your Grace, or My Lord Duke/My Lady) are the masters of all they survey. They are of the most powerful families in the house, and hold the majority of house assets. The dukes run the show; they are appointed to command the house militias, make key economic decisions, run the major house businesses, and so on. The head of each noble house is given the title of Grand Duke (or Grand Duchess).
All dukes have spacious palaces on one or more of their house worlds, and often a palace on Oscion as well. There are no poor dukes.
Only earls can be raised to be dukes, and that happens very rarely (the dukes guard their exclusive enclosure very carefully). Obviously, commoners can never become dukes (except in House Rettaan - see below).
Though commoners who perform a great service for a house are sometimes made petty barons, new noble families are generally not admitted into a house. The registry of noble families has been static since the days of the Dynastic Era.
There are two exceptions to this rule. When a house dies or is absorbed, orphaned families from that house may petition to join other houses. This has not happened on a large scale in centuries, though several Kerraron families were absorbed by Rettaan and Barahn when several of its planets were stripped from it during the Valcarian purges.
The other exception concerns House Rettaan. Rettaan has in recent years begun offering hereditary membership to certain wealthy commoners for substantial financial contributions to the house coffers, and has even made some of them earls and full dukes. This radical move is viewed by the other houses as extremely scandalous and destabilizing, and Rettaan bears a stigma in some circles for its actions (which is nothing next to the stigma borne by the newly minted nobles, especially the aliens among them).
The Noble Code of Conduct
Honor is a peculiar thing in the Par'tha Expanse, where lying, murder, and blackmailing are regularly practiced by ladies and lords alike. However, observing a noble code of conduct is important, because if nobles do not hold themselves to a higher standard than commoners, there is nothing to separate them from the commoners other than mere money and an empty title. While each house has its own take on how members should conduct themselves in public, all agree on certain common denominators which make up an informal but extremely important code of conduct.
While lying is acceptable and even required in some situations, breaking one's word is tantamount to spitting on one's high lord. It brings dishonor and disgrace to the individual, his family, and his house. The word of a Par'tha noble is not given lightly, because he knows he will be held to it by very rigid social codes.
Those caught breaking their word publicly or privately given are ostracized by the nobles of every house at the very least, and often sent away to live in the Freeworlds Region for years. Youngsters are occasionally permitted to reenter society after a suitable period of time, but for nobles in their majority there are no second chances - once branded a word-breaker, a noble is forever tarnished.
Cheating and stealing are other unforgivable offenses, which are perversely considered more serious crimes than murder. Murder itself is frowned upon in noble circles, but viewed as a viable method of taking care of intractable obstacles. (Murder is of course illegal in Par'tha and Imperial courts, but you have to be charged with a crime to be persecuted, and nobles tend to cooperate in concealing their own messes.) The exception to this are patricide and fratricide, which are very serious offenses against the social order, and threaten the very fabric of noble society.
Naturally, there are scoundrels and blackguards among the nobility who engage in all manner of dark deeds, but even they are careful to hide their activities.
Because of the serious consequences of being found lacking in honor, questioning a noble's word is dangerous. Traditionally, the noble has two choices when faced with an insult; kill the offender (if a commoner), or challenge him to a duel (if a fellow noble).
The times have become more civilized in recent centuries, and commoners are no longer slain outright for insulting a lord or lady (roundly beaten perhaps, but not slain). Dueling was declared illegal by the Valcarian Empire when it held sway in the Expanse, but it still goes on - quietly and behind the scenes.
Duelist each chose a second, and agree on a suitably isolated place for the duel. Blasters (or phasers, or disruptors) are used in most duels - either set to stun or to kill depending on the seriousness of the offense and the houses involved.
Most house leaders pretend to be unaware that the tradition of dueling continues, though they had been obligated to investigate if the duelers became too obvious. Fortunately for all concerned, with the noble houses rebellion against the Valcarians, VIR law-enforcement isn't an issue anymore (unless the Valcarians win the war).
The Imperial Leash
When the Valcarian Empire first arrived on the scene and the Expanse succumbed to their military dominance, the Par'tha nobles had a relatively free hand in governing their domain, at least when compared to other Imperial sectors. The Emperor was content to allow the sector its independence for the time being, but he was not about to let the houses forget who had the ultimate power and authority.
In addition to the large Imperial fleets which roamed the sector, the Emperor had established a system to ensure the loyalty of the Par'tha houses and prevent the house leaders from becoming too entrenched in their power bases. Every two years, the extended family of each High Lord traveled to Valcaria to join the Imperial Court for a year, while the leader himself stayed in the sector to govern with his advisers. The families were "invited" to the Imperial center in a rolling rotation which ensured that each cluster of allied houses had at least one major family living on Bylprass at any given time.
Everyone pretended to treat this as a great honor, but everyone knew that the expatriate families were hostages to ensure the continued support and loyalty of the Par'tha Expanse. With their loved ones held hostage on Valcaria, few house leaders would have contemplated defying the Emperor or conspiring with anti-Valcarian factions.
The great migration of a household to and from Valcaria was an event accorded with great fanfare, and the tradition did have its beneficial side. By maintaining a constant presence at Imperial Court, the Par'tha nobles greatly increased their standing in the Valcarian Empire. In past generations, the Par'tha gentry were regarded by the empire elites as rather provincial and backward. In recent decades, however, the Par'tha nobles had become accepted as peers (though the occasional snub must be expected from time to time).
The constant exposure to the Valcarian Empire had also begun to have an effect in Par'tha society, especially among the more impressionable young nobles. Some have been looking down their noses at their own houses and preferring Valcaria to Oscion, their own capital. Others are becoming more open to Imperial High Culture, and its anti-alien philosophies.
With the onset of the Valcarian War in 2393, the rebellious Caraadians stopped traveling to the Valcarian empire. The noble houses have returned to the familiar and traditional House governments. Should they lose the war, however, the freedom to govern themselves granted by the Valcarians previously would most likely be taken from them, and they would be subjugated and enslaved.
To be well-born in the Par'tha sector is to be a cut above the rest. Even though equal to commoners by law, a nobleman or woman is nonetheless accorded honors and privileges rarely extended to others on a less formal and official level. Even barons can expect a certain level of respect and honor from commoners, though the real royal treatment is reserved for earls and dukes.
Nobles are accustomed to getting the red carpet treatment wherever they go in the sector. Nobles never have to wait in line - except behind a higher-ranking noble. They seldom make reservations at the exclusive restaurants they frequent, since even the most overbooked establishment bumps commoner guests off the reservation list to be able to seat a noble's entourage. By the same token, exclusive seating in stadiums, concert halls, and so on are never a problem.
Nobles are also, according to temperament and interest, often invited by various companies to try out complementary new products - everything from new racing air vehicles to new guardian rolfs, in the hopes that the noble will endorse it. This practice is frowned on by some nobles as being beneath one's dignity, but many younger nobles jump at the chance to play with the sectors newest toys.
The drawback to celebrity, of course, is that the more prominent nobles get little privacy when traveling. There is a special section of the newsnets media that do nothing but dog the heels of popular nobles, watching their every move, waiting for something newsworthy to happen (like duels, rivalries, love affairs, betrayals, and so on).
This becomes tiresome, especially for the more prominent nobles who get little privacy when traveling (having to elude the media when plotting is an unwelcome chore). Celebrity status is less of a problem for the lesser nobles, who can move about in relative obscurity when they wish - the media do not care what barons do unless the baron in question is a great warrior or has otherwise distinguished himself.
Young nobles - those in their late teens through late twenties - are not expected to do much other than attend school and spend whatever allowances their families allow them. The idea is that they are spending this time forming contacts and networks with other nobles that will make them more effective rulers later in life. The fun part for the young nobles is that they get to do this at parties, balls, sports events, and social clubs.
Clothing plays a significant role in noble society. It allows the young and ostentatious to parade about in extravagant clothing to display the wealth of their families and houses (mature nobles eschew such trappings, favoring the more somber traditional Caraadian robes and dresses). Young men and women dress in highly varied and colorful clothing, often a colorful mix of Valcarian and Caraadian fashions. Many form social clubs devoted to the pursuit of courtly fashion and cutting the proper image.
Life is not fun and games forever, unfortunately. Eventually, nobles have to settle down, get married, and find some aristocratic vocation. Nobles enter their majority at age 30, at which time they can vote, participate in sector affairs, inherit from their elders, and marry. Those wishing to marry at a younger age can get special permission from their grand dukes. Early marriage is fairly common, especially when the joining represents a political alliance between families or houses.
There are a number of acceptable career paths for nobles - the military, the arts and sciences, and house and government services. More common careers, especially those involving physical labor, are considered beneath a noble, and only a black sheep who does not value his reputation would consider becoming a freighter captain, programmer, or common laborer. Barons have a bit more flexibility than earls and dukes, but not much.
Those opting for military service can obtain a commission in one of the elite house regiments, or could attend one of the Imperial academies and move up the Imperial chain. With the onset of the war, the second option no longer exists. Nobles can become scientists, artists, and academians but only at the highest, most dignified levels - while being a gene-splicing specialist, a sculptor, or university professor is acceptable, being a family doctor, a tavern jazz musician, or basic education teacher is not.
Finally, a noble can take a job managing house assets. Many lords inherit jobs from their parents; if a mother runs a shipping company or an agricultural enterprise, her child is likely to take over when she retires, providing he is competent. Others can obtain desired jobs by cultivating a higher-up sponsor who will see they get good jobs. This is how most barons get work (especially the poorer ones).
Imperial service was also an attractive option, especially for those who thought the Expanse too provincial in the grand scheme of things. There were enough Par'tha nobles working in the upper realms of the Imperial infrastructure on Valcaria and other Imperial worlds that a young noble could get placed in a promising position with little difficulty. This has ceased to be an option.
The Common Citizens
The common citizens of the Expanse sector are in general quite supportive of noble rule. There have been several occasions in the past where segments of society have attempted to throw off the rule of the nobles, but civil unrest is extremely rare. This is because sufficient guards against revolt are woven into the fabric of Caraadian society, both from above and below.
From above, the network of councils and magistrates give nobles plenty of opportunities to productively channel their personal ambitions. The scenario of a vengeful noble denied some honor rallying the people to overthrow the system has yet to be realized. The current system sufficiently blunts such ambitions.
From below, the common people have their system of guilds, juries, boards, and local community governments which allows them to be heard and take part in the governing of the sector. While most of the sector's planets are claimed by the nobles, most day-to-day decisions affecting these planets are made by civil servants, most of whom are commoners (other are barons).
Civic festivals such as Tan Day, Expansion Week, and numerous lesser holidays observed by various houses are occasions of communal celebration which help unite the classes. Such government-sponsored holidays are heavy on pageantry and lavish displays of house might (including popular sporting events), as well as elaborate public feasts. Such activities generate goodwill toward the sponsoring houses, and, by extension, the entire system of government.
As a rule, common citizens seldom concern themselves with the intrigues and feuds of the houses. Life is complicated enough without making powerful enemies, and few commoners have the resources to protect themselves and their families from the displeasure of vindictive lords and ladies. Still, there is always the opportunity for ambitious commoners to enter the service of their respective houses, and those willing to risk the slings and arrows of inter-house intrigue can and do go far. It is more difficult for outsiders to enter house employment, but not impossible.
The body politic is not entirely homogeneous throughout the Expanse, of course. Each house has its own character and traditions, which tends to influence the culture of the worlds it rules. Citizens of Buqret (the Larokon capital), for example, tend to be a bit more insular and distrustful of outsiders than are citizens of Zalenaedere (the seat of House Rettaan).
Each house province is governed by house-appointed leaders and nobles, and individual settlements within the provinces are governed by community leaders, most of whom are common citizens. In the day-to-day affairs, the house nobles usually defer to the common government officials, reserving their energies for establishing overall house directives and sector policy. The Expanse itself is governed by the nobles through the Great Council, located on the sector capital of Oscion.
Most of the houses fear full absorption into the Valcarian Empire, which had weakened opposition to Larokon's dominance. Most house leaders felt it important to present a more or less united front to the Valcarians. Should the houses become absorbed in a lengthy battle for sector dominance, the Empire may well take the opportunity to play each camp against the others, and step in to take over when the various factions have exhausted themselves. This, more than anything else, keeps inter-house squabbles from getting too serious.
House Defense Forces
Because the Valcarian Empire can not be everywhere at once, it permits most of its subject planets to protect themselves militarily. The Par'tha Expanse was trusted (and factionalized) enough to be given permission to maintain somewhat larger domestic forces. Each house has its own fleet which patrols within its own province, and its own armies to protect its worlds. Collectively, the houses patrol and protect the entire Expanse. Unfortunately for the Valcarians, allowing too large of a fleet has allowed the Caraandians enough military might to stage a rebellion.
The strength of a house navy was regulated both by the sector government and the Valcarian Empire. The fleets existed primarily to provide civil rather than military protection, and only ten percent of a house navy was allowed be equipped with faster-than-light propulsion. This changed with the onset of the war. House navies were quickly retrofitted with FTL propulsion, and ship production increased.
House assets and nobles are protected by the House Guard, both within a house's province, and beyond. House Guard regiments are the only military assets allowed to travel outside the house province. Most guards are stationed within the house's province. Each world has its own law enforcement agencies; the House Guards enforce the will of the nobles.
Not surprisingly, there is a lot of rivalry (usually but not always friendly) between House Guard regiments of varying houses. Spies and partisans are commonly found in the ranks - who may answer to superiors in their own house, or handlers in other houses.
House Guard officers are primarily drawn from the house's pool of nobles, though many capable officers are commoners who came up through the ranks. Uniform regulations are relaxed a bit for nobles of more powerful house families, and they may supplement standard issue armor and equipment with their own special touches. It is not uncommon to see a House Guard officer wearing custom-made armor or carrying non-regulation weapons.