Life in Shallot

21 Dec

I wrote this as a piece of background material for the Zero universe.   How does it sound?

Life In Shallota

Although the city of Shallot is strikingly multiracial, it is actually quite monocultural. There is very little variation amongst the long-term residents and even newcomers to the city rapidly pick up and adapt to its social norms. Despite this – and the rule of the Great Houses – Shallot is also a place where an intelligent and capable man can rise high, even without a blood connection to the ruling class. Indeed, being a ‘new man’ – i.e. someone who came from nothing and became a wealthy or powerful personage – is regarded as a badge of honour. A ‘new man’ will find himself invited to marry into the Great Houses or, if he is very lucky, will have the chance to found a House of his own.

With two exceptions, Shallot does not draw lines between people. Women have the same rights as men, more or less; they have the right to save money, own property, sign contracts, seek redress through the courts, etc. The first is the simple fact that the highest places in the city are reserved for native children – although the child of a ‘new man’ might win a seat on Magus Court – thus ensuring that public policy remains firmly in the hands of the locals. The second is a quiet, but pervasive discrimination against people who cannot state their family lines back at least five generations. Family is very important in Shallot and people who lack a family often suffer for it. (Even bastardry carries no stigma, if the child knows his or her father.) This accounts for the problems faced by the children sired by Hangchowese sailors, very few of whom know anything about their father’s family. They tend to slip into the underclass because it’s hard for them (and their descendents) to marry well.

Shallot was originally founded in the middle era of the Thousand-Year Empire, a port city on the northern edge of the Inner Sea. It’s proximity to the Gap allowed it to become a hub for trading, even as the iron ships of the empire explored the coastlines of Minima and probed westwards towards the Saragossa Archipelago. (It isn’t actually certain if the empire discovered the Saragossa Archipelago or had any contacts with Hangchow, although it is certainly technically possible.) It grew into a centre of magic and trade before the Thousand-Year Empire collapsed into civil war, allowing the original City Fathers to keep the city safe despite the predations of various warlords and raiding factions. When the Kingdom of Tintagel formed out of the remainder of the state, the city allied with the king in exchange for a specific degree of autonomy from the king’s rule. The slow stabilisation of Maxima and North Minima allowed the city to become a new trading hub, although it was centuries before the old trading links were re-established.

The government of Shallot is probably best described as a mess, a result of the emergency measures used to save the city after the Thousand-Year Empire collapsed into civil war. The Great Houses appoint representatives to the city’s council, as do the guilds; a handful of representatives are also elected by the moneyed and propertied classes. Most laws are hashed out in private council first, then presented to the overall court. (In theory, Shallot is subject to the king; in practice, Shallot goes its own way.) Below Magus Court, the various guilds have considerable authority over their members, but no guild is exclusive.

Shallot is policed by the City Guard, who are armed and trained by the Great Houses. (The Great Houses also posses armsmen of their own.) The city also plays host to a number of Kingsmen, the king’s personal knights. The Kingsmen are responsible for investigating serious crimes (including the kidnapping in The Zero Curse) and maintaining the peace. However, given the rivalries between the Great Houses, it is generally agreed that the only thing really keeping the peace is a grim understanding that an all-out House War will be utterly devastating.

Shallot is effectively divided into three sections: North Shallot, South Shallot and Water Shallot, the latter being a large island and port city with a thriving naval trade. North Shallot is the richest part of the city, home to merchants and traders as well as sorcerers, alchemists and enchanters; South Shallot is poorer, although also home to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy and Eupalinos Institute of Higher Learning. The three sections are separated by the Shallot River, which runs south through Shallot and into the sea.

Magic runs strong in Shallot, with even the merest citizens having access to a considerable number of spells. Much education is focused around magic, even for those who have no intention of treating magic as a career. Indeed, those who cannot cast spells are known as Zeros, a step down from the lowest recorded level (magicians are ranked from one to ten) and ruthlessly mocked, even though limited (or no) magic wouldn’t be a handicap outside the city. The Great Houses are keen to invite commoner magicians to marry into them, simply to keep the blood strong. Visitors to the city are well-advised to memorise ways to indicate that they are human, in the event of a practical joker casting a spell and transfiguring them into a frog. (Turning someone into an animal that cannot signal – a slug, for example – is illegal.)

Shallot is particularly known for both its ships – Shallot sends ships around the globe, ranging from short trips to nearby ports to year-long voyages to Hangchow – and for its forgers, who craft Devices of Power. The latter, in particular, have made the city wealthy. A skilled forger – or potions master, or charms master – can make his fortune with a few years of hard work. Like everywhere else, Shallot has hundreds of forgers and artisans trying to duplicate the secret behind Objects of Power, although – so far – only one person has ever cracked the puzzle.

There are two general ways to know something about a denizen of Shallot. The first lies in their clothing, which is often a mark of their social status. Wealth and power is indicated by the materials used to make the clothes – silk, for example, is extremely expensive and worn only by the very wealthy – while family ties are marked by specific colours and suchlike. (A family’s retainers will wear its colours, a family’s clients will wear its arms.) A ‘new man’ will often adopt a flashy style of dress which is at variance with the more sober outfits of the established families, although this isn’t seen as a bad thing (it is when done by the established families). Poorer people use cheaper materials, but tend to mimic the styles of their betters; children are dressed in miniature versions of adult clothes.

The second lies in the way they wear their hair. An underage boy (i.e. one who has not been declared a man) will wear his hair short, then draw it up into an elaborate hairstyle (or wear a regency-style wig) upon reaching adulthood. An underage girl (i.e. one who has not yet had her Season) will braid her hair, then let it hang down when she reaches adulthood. Upon marrying, she will wear her hair up and keep it that way. A homosexual man will grow his hair long; a lesbian woman will cut her hair short. There’s no stigma attached to open homosexuality, but wearing the wrong hairstyle is sometimes seen as criminal. Indeed, it is considered a form of false advertising.

Family is extremely important in Shallot and it is rare, indeed, for anyone to go against their family in a major way. (It is possible to be disowned, but even that is rare.) The Great Houses are actually webs of interconnecting families, tied together by a single bloodline; lesser family (i.e. ones some distance from the core family) are expected to support the core, rather than strike out on their own. In exchange for loyalty, most families allow a certain degree of democracy, with the heads of each subfamily getting a say in family affairs. A family is headed by a Patriarch or Matriarch, who holds the title for life, but he or she is subject to the family council. Children (which includes boys who have not been declared adults and girls who haven’t had their Season) have no vote.

Multiple births – twins, triplets, etc – are regarded as a sign the children will be magically powerful. It isn’t actually clear if this is true, although the majority of aristocratic births are twins or triplets. Accordingly most magicians use potions to try to encourage multiple births, with varying degrees of success.

By law, all children in Shallot have to receive a basic education, which generally takes place between eight and twelve. The aristocracy (and their retainers) generally home-school their children, given them a comprehensive magical education as well as skills (older languages and suchlike) which are rarely taught to the poorer classes. Commoner children normally attend primary schools, which are free. Particularly smart children are often offered the chance to win scholarships and go to Jude’s (for magic) or Eupalinos (everything else).

At twelve, children either go to secondary school or straight into apprenticeships of varying degrees of formality. Parents who wish to send their children to secondary school have to pay (academic achievement comes second) or win a scholarship. As both Jude’s and Eupalinos serve as places to meet and get to know the future leaders of society, it isn’t uncommon for parents to go into debt to make sure their children can attend. The friendships and patron-client networks forged in school can go on for life. In the case of an apprenticeship, children generally trade service for instruction in a useful trade. It isn’t uncommon for an alchemist apprentice, for example, to rise high even without formal education at Jude’s.

When a child is deemed to have reached adulthood (normally, somewhere between eighteen and twenty, although a child can be declared adult at sixteen or as late as twenty-five) they undergo a ceremony. Boys – men, now – normally have a private chat with their father, which often includes discussion of any family secrets and other matters before they don their first wig. Aristocratic girls are generally presented at Court before the king (or his representative) for a formal dance, then they can wear their hair down and be courted as adults. (Courting a girl who has not had her Season is regarded as extremely sinful regardless of the girl’s physical age.) Commoner girls generally have a private party, then wear their hair down too.

It is unusual for anyone to be denied adulthood past twenty-five. When it happens, it is generally assumed that there is something wrong with the child (i.e. some kind of mental problem) or the parents. However, it is rare for anyone on the outside to intervene. (A child might be emancipated if younger, but almost always with an appointed guardian.)

Courting is a process that generally involves both sets of parents, although some particularly brave or foolhardy couples will make the arrangements on their own. Parents can and do arrange marriages for their children, but the children have the final say; a parent can suggest a martial partner, but not force one on their children. Marriages are signed by a contract, then considered unbreakable unless the couple decide to separate. This is rare and almost always causes problems, particularly if there are children. (There are no problems when widows or widowers want to remarry.)

Marriages amongst the aristocracy generally take place between twenty and thirty, with the mother taking time off from her career to have children and then picking up again when the children are born. (Aristocratic women often work from home or hire nannies to take care of the kids.) It is quite unusual to have one’s first marriage past thirty, although it has been known to happen. Generally, wives are encouraged to have children first – while they’re young – and then return to their careers.

Some of the Great Houses engage in betrothals of their children, as a sign they are serious about a long-term alliance. These arrangements don’t always last when the children come of age, as they are often not disposed to go through with the marriage. It is generally believed that the alliance will still hold together, as both families have had a chance to get used to being allies even without the marriage.

Inheritance is a complicated issue. The vast majority of a family’s possessions are entailed, passed down from Patriarch to Patriarch. However, it is difficult to determine in advance just who will be the next Patriarch. The family council makes the final choice, after considering all the possible options (technically, any family adult can become Patriarch.) Some families have specific rules – House Rubén only has Patriarchs, for example – while others are far more open. Possessions that are not entailed – money the parents earned on their own, for example – are normally shared amongst their biological children. Occasionally, someone may ask for their inheritance early, taking the money at the price of being excluded from any future division of property.

As of Year 1993 (the dating system counts from the day the Thousand-Year Empire was formally established), the two most powerful Great Houses are House Aguirre and House Rubén. Other significant houses include Alidade, Bolingbroke, Fitzwilliam and McDonald.

The forerunners of House Aguirre were native to Saltesh, a kingdom on the other side of the Great Minima Desert. Already powerful magicians, they were ripe for recruitment when the Thousand-Year Empire circumvented the desert and pushed into Saltesh, accepting a subordinate position within the empire in exchange for education in ‘modern’ magic. The core of the family moved to the Eternal City, where they realised that they were unlikely to be able to wield significant power simply because of the sheer multitude of other (well-established) families. Accordingly, they moved to Shallot when the city was opened for trade and became one of the founding families when the city became independent, establishing a patronage network that bolsters their already-strong magic.

House Aguirre is known for its black skin, dark eyes and strong magic. However, the Heirs Primus (the children of the Patriarch) are regarded as problematic. Triplets; one is cruel, one is lazy and one appears to have no magic at all …

House Rubén has a fair claim to being the oldest family in Shallot, with roots that lead all the way back to the early days of the Thousand-Year Empire. Indeed, the current House Rubén is actually an offshoot of the original; unlike House Aguirre, House Rubén chose to move a small branch of the family to Shallot rather than relocate the entire family. (Uncharitable observers suggest that the offshoot was led by the family disgrace, who was ordered out of the Eternal City to keep him from embarrassing the remainder of the family.) It therefore took them decades to accept that the main body of the family had died in the Eternal City, by which point their rivals had established themselves firmly within the body politic. Since then, House Rubén has slowly – but surely – battled to gain the prominence it feels it deserves. The birth of two children – one a skilled magician, the other a skilled forger – seems to promise a new era for the family …

11 Responses to “Life in Shallot”

  1. David K Matthewson December 21, 2017 at 12:39 pm #


    • George Phillies December 21, 2017 at 11:53 pm #

      As always, well done, Chris! And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours.

  2. William Ameling December 21, 2017 at 6:51 pm #

    So will we see a betrothal between the two houses between Cat and Akin?

    I see one particularly interesting possibility based on the on info we just got: maybe the repaired sword at the end of book 2 came from the main family branch at the capital of the Thousand Year Empire, that could explain why no one in Shallot knew who the damaged sword belonged to before it was repaired.

    • Ann December 21, 2017 at 11:38 pm #

      In the books it appears there was another factor important in marital connections – magical strength and competence. A weakness in either could be bad within the great families.
      Lack of competence at even domestic magics could involve cost for alternatives (devices of power, mechanical/chemical/thermodynamic devices, etc).

    • chrishanger December 26, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

      It’s a possibility


  3. sam57l0 December 22, 2017 at 1:25 am #

    Complications can clearly abound!

  4. sam57l0 December 22, 2017 at 1:39 am #

    I looked thru your books on Amazon, but none seemed to have anything to do with Shallot. What did I miss?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard December 22, 2017 at 3:49 am #

      Check out The Zero Blessing by Chris. It’s set in Shallott. 😉

      • sam57l0 December 24, 2017 at 5:55 pm #


  5. Dani December 22, 2017 at 2:40 am #

    Minima and Maxima?

  6. William Ameling December 25, 2017 at 10:53 pm #

    I think that Cat and Akin might be agreeable to a betrothal, the problem is their fathers, particularly Akin’s father, but he might see it as gaining more than Cat’s father gains. But many people might see it as a way of strengthening the City and Kingdom against external rivals and enemies. Cat would also see it as a way of protecting herself from her sisters. Akin could see it as a way of strengthening his position as heir to his father. The biggest loser is Akin’s sister. Although Cat’s sisters might not like it either (on the other hand, Cat can weaken either of them relative to the other with their father, if they cause her too much trouble). I am not sure if Cat could be considered as heir to her father since she has no magic, even through she is presently unique as a forger.

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