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Ierendi - The First Familiesby Rodger Burns
To the outside world, Ierendi presents itself as a friendly, laid-back kingdom, that cheerfully opens its borders to curious visitors and even goes so far as to invite foreigners to compete for royal titles. It's a happy-go-lucky, carefree place lacking in threat, and full of opportunity.
The actual truth of the matter is a great deal more complex. As a fairly weak collection of islands, without the trading prowess of Minrothad or Darokin or the military might of the Empire of Thyatis, Ierendi is in the difficult situation of having to find some way to defend their independence and sovereignty without antagonising or appearing to threaten their neighbours. The approach that's gradually evolved over the centuries is a shadow government - the First Families.
As befits their less-than-official status, the First Families are governed more by custom and unwritten mores than explicit doctrine or law. They work quietly but ruthlessly to ensure that the essential infrastructure and institutions of Ierendi remain under their sole control, warding off conquest by outsiders with the unspoken promise to smash the entire works before any surrender or occupation. They have no official status in Ierendi, and little recognition or prestige... which is exactly the way they like it, able to work unobserved to build up their strength and weed out the weak and unfit.
A total of seven Families currently operate in Ierendi, though in the past there have been more or fewer - out of necessity, the Families have always been able to adapt to meet the needs of the moment. Adoptions of capable individuals and alliances between bloodlines mean that a modern 'Family' is often related only by history and tradition, not by ancestry; some Families have been destroyed in political infighting or had their powerbase eroded by progress, while others have been created or sprung up on their own to take advantage of new opportunities. The current set of Families seems stable, for the moment... though in the Ierendian climate, 'for the moment' may not last very long.
Foremost among the First Families may be the MYKELIOS, who for more than two hundred years have managed the shipyards and ports of the cities of Ierendi. Though capable in their efforts, the Mykelios are not very well-liked; much of their past dominance has been due to heavy-handed "Nice ship ya got here, shame to see anything happen to it..." comments accompanied by prominent flaunting of lit torches, and even today they frequently use 'contraband seizures' and 'renegade pirate attacks' as excuses to seize wealth from foreigners who even the other Families would prefer not to get on the bad side of. For all their ruthlessness, though, the Mykelios are capable; they keep a solid cadre of trained soldiery on hand to enforce their interests, insure that every harbour pilot and shipwright in the islands is loyal to Ierendi, and are perhaps more willing than any other Family to adopt capable and efficient outsiders into their ranks.
If the Mykelios family has any rivals for leadership in the shadow government of Ierendi, it is among the traders of the KORITHAI. These shrewd and subtle planners are one of the oldest of the Families, having kept their status and authority over the marketplaces and warehouses of the islands for more than three hundred and fifty years. Such longevity has come at a cost, however - much of what the Korithai control has been achieved only through the good graces of Minrothadder and Darokinian merchant-princes. The Korithai argue that such give-and-take is necessary to insure that Ierendi's neighbours know how much they have to lose in the event of hostilities breaking out. The family's rivals, meanwhile, sometimes mutter of collusion with foreigners... or worse. Whatever the cause, though, the Korithai do help to insure that foreign trade is strong, and generally to the advantage of Ierendi - everything from handling coinage to prevent counterfeiting and debasing of currency, to blocking smuggling of ancient treasures or dangerous magical items, to providing a sympathetic alternative to the greed of the Mykelios.
Straddling the line between the Mykelios and the Korithai is the adaptable SAMNIOS family. Originally a clan that established itself around mining interests in the inland mountains, the Samnios seemed almost in danger of extinction a century ago, when the best veins of ore all ran dry within the space of a single decade and their purchasers began turning to foreign trade to get their supplies. Adversity bred perversity, however, and the Samnios quickly moved into a position of control over the weaponsmiths and artisans of Ierendi, providing guidance and coercion directly rather than at one remove. As suppliers of the tools that the other Families need to carry out their own tasks, the Samnios may not be the most powerful faction within Ierendi, but no one dares offend them lightly. They repay this trust by walking a careful balance in Family politics, never offending any rival too greatly or encouraging others to form an alliance against them. This leads to a fairly reactionary and conservative stance on policy, except in one area - attitudes towards demihumans. The Samnios are extremely distrustful of nonhuman immigrants - dwarves especially, with their celebrated talents in mining and smithcraft, but elves and gnomes almost equally so. Any prominent visitor of any of these races to the Ierendi islands is likely to receive a visit from the Samnios, seeking to insure that their guest's stay will not be a prolonged one.
The example of the Samnios family might be well taken by the NESTERON, a once-proud family that has seen its role steadily declining in the past two generations. A family that has long maintained prisons, forced-labour camps and similar locations within the islands - and thus exercised a great deal of control over enforcement of laws and regulations - the Nesteron have had to watch as social forces erode their power base. Reform-minded interests among the Families decry Nesteron-run prisons as primitive and brutal, instruments of capricious injustice and likely to agitate Ierendi's neighbours, and oppose the Nesteron politically as a result. The more traditional and conservative members of the Families who might otherwise support the Nesteron, meanwhile, are often perfectly happy to carry out their own measures to enforce laws, such as beatings, seizure of property, exile or even death sentences - and so see little interest in supporting the Nesteron. More than one young member of the Family has advanced ideas in which the Nesteron might shore up their failing power base or shift their area of influence, but none of these have been seriously considered. As the Nesteron become less and less relevant, the likelihood that one or more of these ideas will be considered increases; the question, though, is whether this will be done before it is too late for the Nesteron.
Among those that might not wish to see the Nesteron prosper are the cold-minded patriarchs of the THEOSION. Bureaucrats and relentless managers of all manners of civil service among the cities of Ierendi, the Theosion involve themselves with the making of laws and the discharging of all the petty tasks needed to keep a civilised nation going from day to day. What makes the Theosion unusual among the families is the way in which they discharge their responsibilities - while their services are guaranteed to all, prompt and efficient execution of those services is more negotiable. The Family trades preferential treatment and similar kindnesses for favours from their neighbours, dealing with a pragmatism that bodes well to insure their continued survival - assuming all goes well in Ierendi's future.
Also active in governmental works is the SELEUCUS family. Nominally a clan of diplomats and arbitrators, the Seleucus are also notably the most comfortable with the arcane and divine arts among the Families. Such abilities are nominally only used to insure fast and secure communications, and to defend notables from undue influence from foreigners. Rumours constantly swirl, though, of more extensive use of magic by the Seleucus scions, and the family is willing to adopt even foreign-born priests and mages into its midst. To date, no family has yet dared demand an investigation into such practices, but whether this grace will last remains to be seen.
The last, and newest, of the seven Families are the ALIXANDROS. Their position is new and somewhat uncertain, and tied to a dark history. Two generations ago, the Alixandros had been one of the larger Families in the islands, controlling much of Ierendi's food supply through ownership of its coastal farmlands and fisheries. The Alixandros became too powerful, arrogant and unreliable for its peers' sake, though, and in a period of carefully-hushed over strife was brought down from power. Most thought that the entirety of the Family had been eliminated completely... until just a few years ago, when a small but capable group of cousins emerged, claiming to be heirs of the old Alixandros patriarch, and fast-talked their way into management of the royal Games held yearly to choose Ierendi's figurehead king as well as other entertainments. Since that time, their position has been precarious, but growing in power; the other Families are aware that the new Alixandros could cause riots and unrest within the capital city, or threaten the legitimacy of their figureheads, and so don't seek to make any rash moves against the newcomers. It isn't yet clear whether the power base adopted by the Alixandros will allow them to prosper, or merely make them a target for their Family's old enemies. To date, though, most watchers seem disinterested in taking sides.