The Society of Rhas Cayerne
As a land that places a lot of emphasis and importance on oaths and honor, it is no surprise that the Rhas Cayerne system of government can often be confusing to outsiders. Because a person’s station is determined by their oaths, it is theoretically possible for any person to be found in any position, so long as some sort of oath or agreement binds them there. In practice, however, most of the time Rhas Cayerne functions like any other feudal society – with strict hierarchies and inheritances passing more or less from parent to child, nephew, or adopted scion. Though a peasant can theoretically rule over vast swaths of land through favorable oaths and agreements, in practice such exceptions have occurred only a handful of times in Rhas Cayerne history.
Broadly speaking, most people in Rhas Cayerne are one of the following:
Queen is the highest position attainable in Rhas Cayerne society. Technically “Sovereign” would be the gender-neutral term, though it’s an academic point as there has only ever been one – Queen Liloka, the culture hero of the Rhas Cayerne people. The Queen has authority over all the islands; she swore oaths with each of them and erected monuments to commemorate this, and she also swears to Heaven, powerful oaths with the moon and the stars. It is technically possible for there to be another Sovereign; the law does not forbid it, but it would be difficult, as it would require the recognition of all major clans and all major islands, all of whom must swear fealty, in addition to oaths made with Heaven – and no mortal man or woman in Rhas Cayerne has been able to gain the attention of Heaven, much less its favor.
Prince (sometimes called Jarl)
Prince is the highest title used in modern Rhas Cayerne, with the Sovereign Prince being the first among equals. The Sovereign Prince holds the throne of the Queen, though does not claim her authority – such a person can merely invoke the right to summon the other Princes to make agreements among them. A Prince commands the various Lairds, and by extension their land, though in principle their power networks are loosely knit, and they are distant from much day-to-day activity save in their cities. Outsiders often find that the Princes in practice rule over very little but city-states, with tribute being paid by neighboring, more-or-less independent Lairds. Rhas Cayerne citizens consider this comparison absurd; after all, the Lairds have sworn a proper oath of vassalage. The fact that the oath sometimes entails little but “stay off my back and I’ll keep sending grain” is irrelevant.
A thane is a vassal of the Prince with some special favor or responsibility, such as the head of his armies, the holder of his treasury or the head tax-collector. Thanes are “first among equals” among the lairds, able to invoke the Prince’s authority though not formally outranking his other vassals. Since many thanes, especially those who serve lazy or irresponsible princes, de facto run the day-to-day business, stories are rife with jealous thanes usurping their masters. Since they are also commonly tax collectors, they are often vilified by peasants. Thanes thus make convenient scapegoats when something goes wrong, so while commanding a lot of respect and authority, the position is also a dangerous one.
Lairds are the backbone of Rhas Cayerne nobility, the glue between the Princes and the common folk. Technically, a laird is simply anyone with vassals from outside his own clan, that is to say, anyone to whom another clan swears fealty. As such, a wealthy farmer who has an oath of obedience from two neighboring clans could call himself “laird”, although it’s rare to do so without also being able to back up the claim with military might. Lairds run the gamut from mighty rulers with hundreds of soldiers to petty nobles with a handful of good steel and a few able-bodied men. Most of Rhas Cayerne is organized so that a Laird is the regional high authority; the most important person whose name peasants know and the one they turn to for assistance in times of famine or war.
A knight is a vassal of a laird who commands military power. He or she has sworn an oath to serve the laird in combat; both by commanding his forces and by personally drawing steel when necessary. Knights are almost always the heads of their own clans, or at least high-ranking members thereof, but have a stronger tie to their laird than other members (since no wise ruler wants to afford the commander of his soldiers too much autonomy). Because of this split loyalty, they are often the subject of Rhas Cayerne tragedies, doomed heroes forced to choose between their master’s command and their family’s well being.
A clansman (or clanswoman) is a member of an important clan, typically the one of a laird. As a family member of a person of importance, they hold great sway among the population, though mostly through connection or wealth. Almost all Rhashaan are sworn to a clan or other, so technically all men are “clansmen” – the usage of it as someone importance comes from the phrase “I am a clansman of so-and-so”.
Headman or Freeman
A headman, freeman, goodwife, chief, or a number of other terms simply describes the leader of any one individual clan. The actual titles used vary widely, because clans are tight-knit families; typically people don’t think of them in terms other than “grandmother” or “uncle Angus”. When outsiders speak with the clan, they ask to speak with its “head” or “leader”, which can be almost any senior member. A headman or freeman swears fealty to a Laird. While he may have serfs and peasants from other clans working his land, he extracts no oaths of fealty and cannot outright command them – though since he owns the land they work on, it makes little difference in practice.
A housecarl is the commoner’s equivalent of a knight, and indeed, all knights are housecarls – just of someone more important. A housecarl is entrusted with running business of the household, keeping order, punishing wrongdoers and defending the stead from thieves and wolves. Among the rich, it might be a man with a helmet and a spear, possibly even a suit of chain. Poor families seldom have a housecarl – they have so little business to administrate that there’s little reason for it.
Peasant or Commoner
This broad class describes “everyone else”. They live their lives as most peasants do, living hand to mouth and working the fields, fishing, or cutting wood. Most of them have simple, everyday oaths to listen to their headmen and obey their families’ wishes.
Outsiders of Rhas Cayerne
Not everyone falls neatly under the categories above. There are ways of escaping the feudal system, both legitimate and illegitimate ones. Below are covered some of those people who live outside the hierarchies of Rhas Cayerne.
Oathbinders, or Oathkeepers, are the “clergy” of Rhas Cayerne. They have no families; they may not own land. Instead, they administer the oaths and promises that keep society functioning, acting at once as monks, judges, sages and teachers. Many live their entire lives in one community, others wander, seeking to right injustices and serve the oaths of the world. They have no community save for the Circle, an informal network with its own terms, pass-phrases, and greetings, and together keep the vast record of Rhas Cayerne law. Outlanders are sometimes surprised at how libertine many oathbinders seem – they have no obligations to be chaste, vegetarian, or even sober, in stark contrast to the monks of many other nations. This is because oathbinders swear very few oaths of their own. They are doomed to be free, to judge each and every choice they make on an individual basis.
Briste-Slea (the Broken Steel)
Briste-Slea are a special class of Rhas Cayerne citizenry. A briste-slea casts aside all former oaths and honor to set out on some specific task, binding themselves with a single promise to do what is right. Such a person has no family, and lives only for their ideal. If they have devoted themselves to upkeeping some specific oath, they are sometimes simply called “The Oathsworn”, and are believed to possess supernatural power as a result of their devotion. Briste-Slea are both heroes and bogeymen in Rhas Cayerne, feared and revered in equal amounts.
Oathbreakers are those who have broken some serious oath. Small transgressions can be forgiven with penance; if a man cheats on his wife, he’s not at once cast out, but is given chance to pay reprimands. If a man kills his wife, though, or shows her great disrespect, then he is branded an oathbreaker. Such a person is marked by an oathbinder and banished; they are bound by no promises, protected by no law. Anyone may kill or enslave him, and indeed, slavery may often be a mercy for such an unfortunate soul. It is possible for a banished man to return to the folds of society, but almost unheard of, for it requires him to be sworn into a clan despite the mark on his face and the enmity of his old kin.
Slaves or thralls
Slavery is uncommon in Rhas Cayerne. In practice, of course, the lowliest serfs have little choice but to obey the ones who own their land, and have usually even promised to do so. The key difference lies in that slaves are not protected by any oath. A man may not kill or maim his serfs; he has sworn an oath with them, after all. Similarly, a serf who is allowed to starve can seek an oathbinder and complain that his master is unjust. Slaves, by contrast, are protected by no such promises. A master may beat, imprison or starve his slaves without reprimand, and there is little the slave can do. Most Rhas Cayerne citizens consider slavery deeply immoral as a result, for it breeds irresponsibility. However, it is considered well and good to enslave banished men and criminals; indeed, it’s even seen as a mercy, as it affords the poor wretch some shelter and safety. Foreigners are sometimes enslaved as well, with the reasoning that they have no oaths to protect them – though the oathbinders frown at this, reasoning that at least the poor strangers should have a chance to be “sworn in” to proper society, now that they’re on Rhas Cayerne soil. If they refuse to take any oaths, however, they are considered fair game.
The wandering Sendayi swear no oaths to the land or to any lairds, but to the sea and the sky and their own witch mothers. Itinerant bards and vagabonds may have oaths to their fellows and traveling-companions, or to their dogs, or to the very spirits of the road. Though these are weak oaths, that offer little protection, they are enough to consider such people to be in good standing. To be landless is better than to be clanless. People pity them and suspect them, but are generally glad to welcome their curative potions or exciting news from faraway places. That said, they are also often glad and relieved to be rid of the strangers when they leave.
Bastard children, being born “outside” of a proper oath, are considered unlucky. They have not inherited a protective oath from their parents, and as infants naturally cannot swear on their own. As children they are therefore distrusted. They attract monsters; they bend towards evil. As soon as they reach adulthood they may swear the same oaths as their legitimate brothers and sisters, and theoretically have the same rights as them. Unfortunately, their ill treatment as children tends to leave many sullen and displeased with their family, and a disproportionate amount of them quarrel with their kin and break their oaths as a result. Rhas Cayerne people simply consider this confirmation that bastards are inherently untrustworthy. That said, a bastard who keeps his oaths and acts with honor may one day become laird or even Prince, so long as he can overcome the prejudice leveraged against him.