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Background Notes: Laughter Academy of the Magical Arts

5 Apr

Background Notes: Laughter Academy of the Magical Arts

More nonsense has been written about Laughter Academy, also known as Laughter School, than any of the other schools of magic within the Allied Lands.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given that it is the only school that refuses to accept male magicians as students (and senior teachers).  Rumours of everything from rampant lesbian orgies to forced gender transfigurations surround Laughter, all of which have very little basis in reality.  In truth, Laughter is very little different – apart from the female-only student body – from Whitehall or Mountaintop.

Politically, Laughter enjoys the same level of near-complete independence as Whitehall and Mountaintop.  The school does follow the White Council’s standard curriculum, wherever possible, with a handful of tiny modifications.  The majority of the tutors are accredited by the council well before they’re invited to join the staff.  However, it inspires somewhat mixed feelings within the White City.  Both aristocrats and magical families are often reluctant to send their daughters to the school, although for different reasons.  The former feel the school’s education will give their daughters ideas, and an unhealthy degree of independence; the latter believe Laughter isolates its students from the patronage networks that dominate magical society.  This does not, however, keep the school from having more applicants than it can handle.

The origins of the school – and particularly who built the twin castles – are lost somewhere in the mists of time. The officially-accepted story states that a powerful witch, the sister of a king, defeated a banshee-like creature that plagued the Howling Peaks and, in reward, was given the region as a personal fiefdom.  This witch, whose name has also been lost in time, went on to found Laughter, first as a retreat for her fellow women of magic and later as a full-fledged school.  The more dubious stories suggest the founder was, in fact, the banshee herself, who made a deal with the king for reasons of her own.  A final version of the story, told by the local men, speaks of a powerful and haughty witch who was bested by the kingdom’s prince and swore herself – and her sisters – to his service for the rest of time.  It is difficult to know, now, which version of the story is correct.  The only thing known for certain is that the Howling Peaks, and the town of Pendle, have effectively been ceded to Laughter Academy.  Those who do not care to live under a witch’s rule have no choice, but to leave.

Laughter Academy consists of four separate buildings, resting on the two highest peaks within the fiefdom.  The Keep – a sinister-looking castle – houses the school itself, as well as most of the teachers.  The Retreat provides accommodation for Sisters – see below – and other women, mainly magical or aristocratic, who wish to retire from the world.  The Guesthouse, positioned between the Keep and Pendle Town, houses male tutors and guests who, by law, are not allowed to be within the castle after dark.  The Redoubt – a ruined castle of uncertain purpose – dominates the other peak.  It is normally deserted, save for martial magic-style training sessions.  The girls claim the castle is haunted and make a habit of daring their fellow students to spend the night in the region.  This is officially discouraged, but – in practice – tolerated as long as it doesn’t get dangerous.

On the western side of the castle, a narrow road leads down to Pendle, a town resting within the valley.  Home to many former students – and merchants who make a living from selling to them – it is a peaceful place to live, even during the worst periods of unrest.  It is generally self-governing, although the headmistress has the right to step in if matters are deemed to be getting out of hand.  In recent years, the New Learning has spread to the town, bringing with it ideas and concepts from the outside world. 

On the eastern side, a rocky path leads down to the Silent Woods, a valley that cannot be reached save by passing through the school itself.  The hidden forest represents both a source of potions ingredients and a place for the girls to test themselves against nature.  Men are not barred from the woods, but their presence is strongly discouraged. 

By long-established custom – precisely who established the custom and why is hotly debated – the school is ruled by the headmistress, who is known as the Old Woman (this is more of a nickname than a formal title).  Her deputy, and presumed successor, is known as the Young Woman.  The Young Woman is elected by former students, who will generally confirm her as headmistress when the older woman retires or dies in office.  (If there is a challenge, by custom it has to be made before the succession has to be settled one way or the other.)  The Head Girl, elected by her fellows as they complete their fifth year, makes up the third of the triumvirate, but she doesn’t have the power to override the other two, merely make her opinions known. 

Below the triumvirate, there are the senior tutors, each of whom is a specialist in her subject and has a junior tutor to assist them.  The tutors have very little weight individually, but collectively can vote to override, suspend or outright expel the headmistress.  Some of these tutors are male, but they can never rise any higher than senior tutor and have a number of other restrictions placed on their behaviour.  It’s rare for any of them to last more than a handful of years. 

The student body is composed of young witches – the term is not seen as derogatory in Laughter, unlike the other schools – who come from all walks of life.  Students – Little Sisters – are considered equals once they walk through the doors, although it isn’t hard for students with powerful connections to establish themselves as leaders within the school.  The school does go to some effort to make everyone act as equals, from a deliberately bland uniform to a rotating system of chores that everyone, regardless of their birth, has to do.  There are no servants within the school, save for the cooks.  Their duties are shared amongst the junior students. 

There was one boy who studied at the school.  It didn’t work out.  It is flatly forbidden to bring a boy/man into the school without special permission and no male is allowed to remain in the school after dark.  Students have been expelled for trying to sneak their boyfriends into the school (although the horrific tales of what happened to those poor boys are largely exaggerated.) 

Junior students – years one to five – are expected to fetch and carry for the senior students, although there are consequences for any senior students who abuse this privilege.  Years two and above are allowed to elect their dorm heads; those who do well in the role are generally re-elected, although they know better than to take re-election for granted.  They also elect the Head Girl as they complete their fifth year, as well as the prefects.  Senior students have a lot more privileges, ranging from being allowed to stay up late to wearing their own clothes outside school hours, though they can lose them quickly if they misbehave.

The school uniform is universally regarded as ugly, although – after graduation – it becomes a badge of honour.  Junior girls wear grey: grey floor-length skirt, grey shirt, grey blazer.  Senior girls wear black, save for when they attend formal functions when they are allowed to wear aristocratic-style dressers.  (Students who enter as senior girls are expected to wear a grey blazer or shirt.)  Trousers are explicitly forbidden, outside sports and games.

The lessons themselves are not that different from Whitehall, although there’s more focus on politics, land management and other gaps in more customary (i.e. traditional) forms of female education.  (The school is noted for producing more healer candidates than any other.)  Outside classes, the girls are free to do what they like – within reason.  Senior girls are free to visit Pendle at will and many of them form relationships with boys from the town; junior girls are only allowed to visit on weekends, under supervision.

Unusually for a magic school, the students are taught to levitate – and fly – from a very early age.  The dangers inherent in any form of flying spell are noted, and there is usually at least one serious accident every year, but the school refuses to rethink its policy.  Indeed, it is often seen as something that sets Laughter apart from the rest.  The tutors do, however, maintain careful watch on the students, and any student caught trying to disrupt someone else’s spell is instantly expelled, without appeal. 

Upon graduation, either from the junior or senior school, a student is inducted into the Sisterhood, a quarrel (association) composed of former students.  The Sisterhood serves as a combination of Old Girls Network and political pressure group, which – given the number of magical patrons and aristocrats within its ranks – gives it a surprising amount of clout.  It rarely shows its hand openly, if only because the Sisterhood is structured to make action difficult without consensus, but is feared by many throughout the Allied Lands.  Sisters are expected to help other sisters, although they are also supposed to bear in mind the political consequences of their acts.  When Princess Joanna, daughter of King Edwin, married against her father’s will – to a rebel lord, no less – the Sisterhood helped her and her husband to safety, but refused to interfere further.  (The Elders reasoned that it would lead to a clash with the aristocracy, which would be a breach of the Convent.)  They have far fewer qualms about assisting common-born women.

What If I Gave a Graduation Speech (and No One Came)?

1 Apr

This started as a joke challenge – what would I say, if I was invited to speak?  And it probably ensures it never happens.  <grin>.  And if you want to write your own, why not?

[I step onto the stage to a handful of claps.  My ego deflates accordingly.  But I manage to put on a pompous tone anyway.]

May I start by saying that it is a great honour to be invited to speak at the University of [mumble]’s graduation ceremony?

I mean, I’m not that important.  And I’m not a graduate of the University of [mumble].  I’m quite flattered you thought of me, if only because I’m going to commit an unpardonable sin.  I’m going to tell you the truth.  Or part of it, at least.  And I’m going to start with a story you probably won’t find very funny at all. 

A few years back, there were a bunch of interns who decided they didn’t like the company’s dress code.  So what did they do?  They wrote and signed a petition!  All, but one of them put their name to the paper demanding a change.  And they got fired.

When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it.  Not that they got fired, but that they were stupid enough to write and forward the petition in the first place.  What sort of idiot thought his boss would be amused to receive a petition from the lowest of the low, from short-term employees who are rarely worth the money they were paid?  I couldn’t wrap my head around the level of stupidity – as I saw it – that led someone to think that writing such a petition could possibly be a good idea.

And then, slowly, I came to understand.

You students have spent the last few years in a very artificial environment.  Your professors have a very good incentive to keep you sweet.  And that is reflected in everything from their willingness to listen to petitions to bending over backwards to give you what you say you want, to disinviting some controversial guests while allowing others to stay.  You say you have paid for an education and that’s true – you have.  But many students – perhaps including yourselves – have acted in a way that prevents you from getting a good education.  You have grown used to a world where you can pressure academics into giving you good grades, without realising that the rules of the internal world simply do not apply outside it. 

The thing is, you’re paying for a service.  And you have only yourselves to blame if you fail to take advantage of it.

I get it.  I really do.  I hire editors and I don’t like it when they say entire sections and chapters and whatever need rewriting.  But it’s their job to tell me when they think something doesn’t work.  Sure, I could demand they praised me endlessly and so on, and I’m sure they’d be happy to flatter me in terms that would make a despot blush – it’s amazing what people will do if you offer money – but it wouldn’t be very useful.  What you get out of education depends, very much, on what you put into it.  If you listen to your professors, and learn to think critically, you’ll go far. If you spend your days coming up with excuses and swanning around with a sense of entitlement, while partying the nights away, you’ll crash and burn soon after graduating. 

Your professors are human.  Many of them will have spent their entire lives in academia, inside the artificial environment I mentioned.  They will not be used to being wrong – because, in the artificial environment, they will not be wrong.  They will be ignorant – sometimes – of their own ignorance.  The blind are trying to lead the blind.  The skills they have leant to survive academia will not always be applicable in the outside world.  Believe me, anything you hear from a university or college career advice centre should be taken with a massive grain of salt!

The day you enter the job market, the rules change.  No one, absolutely no one, will feel obliged to give you a job.  Your importance to the company will depend on what they need at any given time.  There will be rules you won’t understand, at least at first; instructions that will seen, dare I say, senseless or discriminatory.  And you will not have the standing to push back unless you prove yourself.  The interns who signed the petition did not even remotely have the standing to demand anything.  If they were important, they would not have been fired.  They might even have been able to request a change in the rules!

This has wider implications than you might realise.  I’d bet good money your professors know an awful lot of theory.  It’s really easy to come up with a brilliant theory, if one isn’t charged with putting it into practice.  Those of us who have to actually turn the theory into reality rapidly discover the real world is not so obliging.  The path from idea to reality can be a bumpy one.  And if you don’t understand how the world really works, you’re going to start walking down the road to hell.

People are not, by and large, utterly selfish.  But they are self-interested.  If you try to convince them to act against their own self-interest, as they see it, they’ll resist.  They’ll push back.  You may feel that they’re being selfish bleepers.  You may feel that they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, whatever-phobic.  They feel they’re protecting themselves against you.  They see you as the enemy.  And there’s a strong case they’re right.

The blunt truth is, you have been shielded from the realities of the world.  You have been coddled and cosseted, first by your parents and then by professors who are just a little bit scared of how you’ll react when they tell you no.  Many of you will have signed up to student loans without understanding they’ll become an anchor around your neck, dragging you down when you get a real job.  Others will have embraced the university lifestyle, a lifestyle that is no longer affordable once you leave campus.  And some of you will have an entirely warped view of how to get what you want. 

And many of you, I think, will come to realise that attitudes held by the deplorables become somewhat less deplorable when you’re one of them.

I’ll wrap this talk up by committing another unpardonable sin, bringing religion into the public arena.  God helps those who help themselves.  Many of you will find post-university life difficult, at first.  You’ll discover that experience counts more than degrees – and, if you’re anything like me, you won’t have any.  Work hard.  Do whatever you can to broaden your skills.  And don’t think you can bully your boss into giving you whatever you want.  That never ends well.

Thank you. 

[An angry mob advances on the stage.  I decide discretion is the better part of valour and run.]

Quick Update – and Cover Reveal

31 Mar

Hi, everyone

It’s been a maddening couple of weeks.  You never quite realise what you have until it’s gone – in this case, the freedom to walk around, send the kids to school, etc.  I’m not supposed to go out unless it’s really urgent – as I’m immunocompromised – so really I’ve been stuck inside for the last few days.  A sizable number of medical appointments that would have been important last month have now been cancelled.

On the plus side, I’ve completed 31 chapters of Cast Adrift and approved the cover for The Artful Apprentice.  It’s currently being edited, so I’m hoping to do the edits next week and then have it in your hands.  I’m going to write a short story next – Nanette’s Tale – that will fill in some of the blanks in Schooled in Magic, without – hopefully – throwing off the story too much if the next volume of Fantastic Schools is delayed. 

I hope you’re all keeping well.


SIM: The Spread of the New Learning

25 Mar

A couple of people insisted that the new technology introduced by Emily, the New Learning, had advanced and spread faster and further than it should have realistically done.  Obviously, there’s plenty of room for debate here, but there’s quite a few factors powering the New Learning that may not have been taken into account.

One – The Nameless World is not full of medieval morons.  The cities – and the city-states – attracted vast numbers of runaway serfs and peasants who were willing to work hard to build lives for themselves that didn’t include toiling in the field for minimum reward.  There was a reservoir of highly-intelligent people, many of whom became craftsmen, merchants and even accountants/scribes.  The guilds did try to keep certain items of knowledge to themselves, particularly the various forms of writing, but their system was always leaky.  Ironically, many of the people they deprived of learning had to stretch their muscles to keep up – if you are forced to remember thousands of characters, remembering 26 is a snap. 

Two – Emily’s innovations did not come from her mind.  She didn’t invent them.  She knew how to use a mature system consisting of 26 letters and 10 numbers (plus various signs and marks).  The system had already had most of the kinks worked out by the time she learnt to read <grin>.  She had no trouble, therefore, teaching the system to her friends; people who wanted to copy it had no trouble stealing the system and spreading it far and wide.  The local rulers couldn’t do anything to stop it before it was already too late. 

Three – Emily ‘designed’ items she could either remember how to make in rough form or reason out the basic principles.  These ideas were forwarded to the reservoir of highly-intelligent craftsmen – see point one – who took the concepts and worked hard to make them work.  Unlike the inventors in our world, who had no way to know if they were heading towards something workable or simply wasting their time, they knew – through Emily – that there was something waiting for them at the far end.  The early steam engines were leaky jokes, for example; they knew to keep working until they had far more effective systems.

And none of these inventions could be effectively copy-righted.  A smart apprentice could memorise the design, then go elsewhere and start churning them out for himself. 

Four – Emily ‘accidentally’ triggered off something of an arms race, when gunpowder was developed and the first basic gunpowder weapons were demonstrated.  Again, the inventors knew there was something to find if they worked hard to develop new weapons.  Kingdoms that refused to experiment with firearms knew they’d lose out, when their rivals developed firearms for themselves; city-states knew that failing to develop firearms might lead to destruction when the nearby monarchs declared war.  There was no hope of putting the genie back in the bottle – states that tried simply lost inventors to other states. 

The combination of the four factors sparked off a whirlwind of innovation, an endless series of competitions to devise the next great thing before it was rendered obsolete.  

Don’t make of this more than it is.  There are railways, but it will be years before the Allied Lands are linked together as comprehensively as Britain or Europe.  There are places that have not – yet – been touched by the New Learning.  The really interesting developments are yet to come. 

Updates – And Stuff

22 Mar

Hi, everyone

Bad news first – I attended a scan on Friday and it turns out I have gallstones.  This is, of course, a very galling development <groan>.  But at least I know the cause.  It could be a lot worse – I was afraid the cancer might be coming back.

Good news – I’ve just done the first set of edits for The Artful Apprentice, which is Schooled in Magic 19.  It should be on the way to the other editor right now, so hopefully it won’t be long before you can download it. 

I’ve also got a short story in When Valor Must Hold, set in an unexplored section of the Zero universe.  

Speaking of which, I’ve worked out the rough outline of The Family Name, a story that concludes Akin and Isabella’s storylines and sets the groundwork for the really big trilogy.  I’m planning to alternate between two POVs, which I’ve never tried before.  We’ll have to see how it works.  And I’ve sketched out an updated outline of Oathkeeper (SIM20). 

And tomorrow’s my birthday.  What a shame we can’t go out.

Edinburgh is eerie at the moment.  The schools are closed (except for key workers – my son’s school seems to keep changing its mind about having the kids tomorrow.)  The supermarket was depleted rather than emptied completely, but there were people on the streets and suchlike.  Sigh.  And I was treated to yet another display of why people hold the government bureaucrats in total contempt – the supermarket wouldn’t let me buy both baby-medicine and adult medicine, even though they were clearly for different people.  Limits on painkillers made very little sense before the crisis – seriously, I could just walk up the street and buy enough to do very real harm if I wanted – and even less now.  And then people wonder why no one takes the bureaucrats seriously.

But that’s something to consider at a later date.

I hope you’re all keeping well. 


Snippet – Cast Adrift

16 Mar

Hi, everyone

Cast Adrift is, in one sense, a new universe.  In another, it’s a reprise of a far earlier trilogy I wrote – When The Empire Falls – which I thought wasn’t worth the effort of rewriting when I started to break into writing.  The basic idea is that, 500 years or so ago, Earth was conquered by an alien empire and forcibly integrated into the galactic mainstream … an occupation that is now coming to an end, as the overlords simply can’t afford it.  (Think Roman Britain or British India rather than Vichy France or Vietnam.)  Earth is given its independence and cast out to do whatever it likes, unaware that there are predators waiting in the shadows …

You can find the original (very different plot) here –

Prologue I

Washington was burning.

The President of the United States gritted his teeth in helpless humiliation as Marine One skirted the edge of the disaster zone, heading remorselessly towards what remained of Andrews Air Force Base.  Giant pillars of eerie yellowish smoke rose from the ruined city, casting a sinister light over the countryside.  The haze was so thick he couldn’t see the heart of the city, although he knew it was nothing more than a blackened ruin.  The White House was gone.  The Pentagon was gone.  Congress and the Senate and everything else within five miles of the White House … all gone.

His stomach churned.  A day ago, he’d been the most powerful man in the world.  His country had been the most powerful country in the world.  He’d looked to a future of boundless optimism, a chance to make his legacy as one of the great presidents of his century … he’d even regretted, deep inside, that he wouldn’t face a crisis that would ensure his name was forever praised or damned.  The world had seemed safe and predicable …

… Until the aliens arrived.

The President still couldn’t believe it.  He’d been lucky – or unlucky – enough to be out of the city when the aliens had announced their presence, when they’d systematically wiped out the satellite network, dropped kinetic projectiles on most of the navy and, just to make it clear the planet had new masters, nuked Washington DC.  International communications had been shattered, practically effortlessly, but intelligence reports suggested the aliens had also nuked London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and five or six other cities.  Not knowing burned at him as much as anything else.  He’d grown far too used to having information permanently at his fingertips to make it easy to handle the fog of war.

And the nukes are gone, he thought.  It was brutally clear that the US nuclear deterrent was no more.  The ground-based missiles had been hammered from orbit, the nuclear-capable aircraft had been wiped out and the submarines were out of contact, presumed sunk.  What few missiles they’d been able to fire at the orbiting spacecraft had been swatted down so casually that it was clear the aliens were used to much faster missiles.  There’s no way we can hit back.

Marine One shuddered, again, as it started to descend.  The aliens hadn’t landed everywhere, if the reports were to be believed, but they’d dropped troops around Andrews AFB and set up defences.  The hastily-organised counterattack, drawing on a combination of soldiers, marines and national guardsmen, had been effortlessly smashed.  The President wanted to believe that armed civilians and the remnants of the military would be able to wear the aliens down, but the surviving joint chiefs had made it brutally clear that further resistance would be utterly futile.  The aliens controlled the high ground.  They could bombard humanity into submission, while remaining outside the range of humanity’s remaining weapons.  They’d shown a frightening – utterly terrifying – lack of concern for human casualties.  Millions of people had already died, all over the globe.  They could simply keep dropping nukes until the human race surrendered.

The President stared, feeling too numb to care as he saw the alien shapes orbiting over the airfield.  Alien fighters … he’d seen the reports.  The USAF had sent F-22s and F-35s against the alien craft, only to watch the jets casually blasted out of the sky.  There had been no survivors.  His eyes narrowed as he saw armoured shapes – armoured combat suits and small hovertanks – moving around the edge of the base.  The nearby civilian housing had been turned into rubble.  He thought he saw refugees heading south, trying to reach a safety that no longer existed.  The country was steadily sinking into chaos.  It had only been a day – a day, his mind screamed – and America was already damaged beyond repair.  He shuddered to think how long it would take to restore some semblance of normality …

His skin crawled as he saw the figures gathered by the runway.  No, things would never be normal again.  It wasn’t just a crisis, not any longer.  It was the new reality.  The human race had believed, truly believed, that it was alone in the universe.  The President had read the reports dismissing the very concept of alien life, insisting that even if aliens existed they’d never be able to reach Earth.  There had been no truth, he’d been told, in any of the UFO reports.  Grey-skinned aliens did not abduct humans for anal probing.  The witnesses were hoaxers, or drunk, or simply misunderstood what they saw.  Aliens simply did not exist.

And yet, they did.  The figures weren’t human.  They were … just wrong.

The helicopter touched down with a bump.  The President watched the crew spin down the rotors before they opened the hatch.  He wanted to draw a gun and open fire, he wanted to carry a nuke into the very heart of alien power … he knew, all too well, that it was impossible.  The aliens would shoot him down in seconds and go on to make their demands to his successor.  He wasn’t even sure who that was.  The Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives had both died in Washington.  There had been no reason to think the United States needed a designated survivor.  The Secret Service was working frantically to discover who was alive, let alone where they stood in the line of succession.  Too many government officials had been in Washington when the bomb fell.  They were missing, presumed dead.  The President had a nasty suspicion the aliens had planned it that way.

He stood, feeling his legs shake.  He’d made innumerable diplomatic visits, during the course of a long career, but this was different.  This was surrender.  The President’s heart wanted to fight to the last; the President’s head knew a prolonged conflict would end in the destruction of the human race.  He felt a wave of heat brush across his face as he clambered out of the helicopter.  The aliens watched him, silently.  He stared at them.  All, but one were concealed behind powered armour.

The unarmoured alien was … alien.  The President shivered.  The alien was slightly taller than himself, with reddish-orange skin, bulbous eyes and a mouth that was curved in something that looked like a faint sneer.  He – the President assumed the alien was a he – had no hair, no ears.  He wore a blank tunic that seemed completely unmarked.  He …

“Mr President,” the alien said.  His English was oddly-accented.  “Have you accepted our terms?”

At least they’re not making me wait, the President thought, savagely.  Damn them.

“Yes,” he said.  The shame of surrender washed down on him as the words hung in the air.  “We do.”

“Then we bid you welcome to the galactic community,” the alien said.  “Come.  We have much work to do.”

 Prologue II

No human had ever set foot within the council chambers.  No human ever would.  They were reserved for the Alphans and the Alphans alone, for the very highest of their species.  Even the servants were Alphans, a sign of wealth and power on a scale most sentient beings would have found unimaginable.  No aliens – not even the few races the Alphans considered their equals, or their servants – were ever invited into the chamber.  It was the very core of Alphan power.

Yasuke, Viceroy of Earth, took a deep breath as he stepped into the chamber.  The invitation would normally have been the very pinnacle of his career, a promise – in so many words – that the ruling elite respected and trusted him.  He had never had any doubt they cared for him – the core council cared for everyone – but respect and trust?  That had been denied, until his invitation to visit the elite in the seat of his power.  There was no greater honour for someone who hadn’t climbed to the very top of the ladder. 

There was no formal protocol for greeting the core councillors.  He bowed once, in salute, then looked around the chambers as the councillors studied him thoughtfully.  Massive holodisplays dominated the room, showing a mixture of views from the tower to live feeds from right across the empire.  A newscaster was babbling about something in tones of great excitement, as if the broadcast was live.  Yasuke knew better.  The news broadcasts would have been cleared through a dozen different committees before going live.  Events had probably already moved on.  He made a mental note to check the government network before he boarded his ship.  He’d need to know if something – anything – had happened that might change the core council’s policies before he could put them into practice.

He kept his face impassive as the live feed panned across a gleaming white tower.  The city was dominated by white towers, each one housing hundreds and thousands of Alphans from birth to death.  Their every need met by the government, they lived and died without ever making an impression on the universe.  Even now, even after the empire had come closer to defeat than ever before, the population seemed unmoved.  They didn’t realise – not yet – that they’d built their towers on sand.  They didn’t realise that the servile population was no longer content to be servile.  None of them even understood how close they stood to total disaster.

We built our empire on alien labour, Yasuke thought.  And now those aliens want a piece of the pie for themselves.

He turned his attention back to the councillors as the chairman called for attention.  There were nine in all, nine people who controlled the destiny of the entire empire.  They were wealthy and powerful beyond compare, yet – now – there were limits to their power.  It had always been true, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, but the vast majority of the population preferred to believe in the council’s omnipotence.   There were very few races that would have stood in the way, if the council decided it wanted something.  But now, the empire was tottering and the scavengers were gathering.  The war had smashed forever the perception of invincibility.  It had been won, but the cost had been far too high.

The chairman’s voice echoed in the silence.  “Viceroy.  You wished to speak to us about the humans.”

“Yes,” Yasuke said, flatly.  “The human problem is growing out of hand.”

He waited for the nod, then proceeded.  “Five hundred years ago, we invaded and occupied Earth.  We assimilated the humans into our empire.  Humans worked for us – work for us – on almost all of our worlds.  We trained them to fight for us, we taught them to use modern technology, we encouraged them to build up a sizable industrial base of their own.  They are no longer a first-stage race, if indeed they ever were.  There is a strong case to be made that, five hundred years ago, they were actually a second-stage race.”

“Absurd,” a councillor snapped.  “They had barely even reached their moon!”

Yasuke frowned, inwardly.  He’d spent much of his adult life on Earth, climbing until his word was law right across the Sol System, but he couldn’t say he truly understood his human subjects.  It baffled him that the humans, given rockets and surprisingly advanced computer technology, hadn’t settled their star system by the time the first explorer vessel popped out of the crossroads and advanced on Earth.  If they had, they would have qualified for a certain degree of respect.  They certainly wouldn’t have been summarily crushed and assimilated, weather they liked it or not.  Instead, they had been too primitive to offer meaningful resistance when the invasion force arrived.  Galactic Law was clear.  Primitives had no rights.

And yet, they’d been strikingly advanced in other ways.  Their computer technology had been second-stage, at the very least.  They’d envisaged uses for GalTech long before they’d realised they weren’t alone in the universe.  Their political systems and philosophical background had been astonishingly advanced, in some respects.  It was almost as if they’d started advancing to a post-scarcity level without truly being a post-scarcity society.  And then their development had come to a screeching halt.  The invasion had ensured they no longer controlled their world.

“The fact remains, honoured councillor, that the situation is getting out of hand,” Yasuke said, coolly.  “If you’ll permit me to elaborate …

“The humans have been growing restless over the last hundred years.  They increasingly see themselves as our partners, not our subjects.  They have been offended, massively, when we have moved to put them back in their box.  The rise of human political parties demanding equality, or even independence, is a direct result of our meddling.  And now, without them, we would have lost the war … and they know it.  Their demands for greater autonomy can no longer be denied.”

“Of course they can,” the councillor insisted.

“My staff believe the Humanity League will win a majority in the Sol Assembly, displaying the Empire Loyalists,” Yasuke stated.  “The Empire Loyalists themselves are demanding some form of reward for their loyalty.  If we fail to come through, their assemblymen may defect to the Humanity League.  That might well trigger an early election or a series of by-elections that will put power in the wrong hands.  And if that happens, honoured councillor, we will have the flat choice between agreeing to concede independence and risking a war that will rip the empire apart.”

A ripple of disbelief ran around the chamber.  Yasuke understood, better than he cared to admit.  The councillors might never have laid eyes on a human, even one of the uncounted millions who lived and worked on Capital itself.  They’d certainly never studied the human race.  Why should they?  There was no one on Capital who cared about human history, beyond a handful of dusty academics?  But Yasuke couldn’t allow himself the luxury of ignorance.  Human history was astonishingly violent.  The longer they managed to keep the lid on, the greater the explosion when they finally – inevitably – lost control.

“The Earth Defence Force is more powerful, I think, than you realise,” he said.  “The humans control most of the military installations within their system.  Titan Base is the only real exception and even that installation has a major human presence.  They might be able to liberate themselves, if they wished.  That’s not the real problem.  There are millions of humans scattered across our worlds.  What will they do when they see us move to crush their dreams of equality or independence?  We will find ourselves fighting a war on our homeworlds!”

“We have them under tight control,” another councillor said.  His skin was blotchy, suggesting he was starting the transition from male to female.  “Rig the election.”

“That’s no longer possible,” Yasuke said.  “They use exit polls to gauge the electorate’s views – and votes.  They’ve been strikingly accurate, over the last two decades.  They’d have good reason to think we rigged the election if there was a sizable discrepancy between their results and ours.  And that might trigger off the insurrection we hoped to avoid.”

“You paint a grim picture,” the chairman said.  “How do you propose we proceed?”

Yasuke took a breath.  They weren’t going to like what he had to say.  He didn’t like it himself.  But there was no choice.  The empire itself was at stake.  They had to make concessions now or risk an explosion that would destroy everything they’d built over the last ten thousand years.  And yet … they wouldn’t want to believe him.  They had good reasons not to want to believe him.

“I propose we start granting Earth, and the other human worlds, an increased level of autonomy,” he said.  “There will be a steady transfer of powers, and an acknowledgement of human equality on their homeworld, over the next two decades.  This will, hopefully, satisfy them without risking total collapse …”

“Out of the question,” the first councillor snapped.  “They’ll be passing judgement on us!”

Yasuke kept his face impassive, somehow.  The councillor’s corporation had run into trouble, forty years ago, when a human judge had ruled against them.  They’d honestly never realised that – technically – a human judge did have authority, if only because he’d studied and qualified on Capitol itself.  And they’d used their immense clout to not only override the judge’s decision, but insist that human judges were to have no authority over Alphans.  And that had turned the most intelligent and capable human lawyers into independence and equality activists.

“On their homeworld, quite probably,” Yasuke said.  “But if you treat them as Alphans, you should be fine.”

“And how do you know it will be fine?”  The councillor glared at Yasuke.  “What if this is just the beginning of a human takeover?  Or …”

The chairman held up a hand.  “I think we must consider the issue carefully,” he said.  “You ask us to fly in the face of all precedent.”

“Yes,” another councillor said.  “A committee must be appointed to consider all the ramifications!”

“With all due respect,” Yasuke said, “we don’t have time for a committee.”

“Really?”  The chairman didn’t sound convinced.  “How long do we have?”

“The elections are due in thirteen months,” Yasuke said.  The humans had a superstition about the number thirteen.  He didn’t believe it himself, naturally, but he had to admit it was an disquieting omen.  Thirteen months … the committee probably couldn’t come to any conclusions in less than thirteen years.  “That’s our deadline.  If the Humanity League wins, they will start pressuring us for immediate independence.  And then we will have to decide how far we’re willing to go to keep them in the fold.”

“We could lose the war,” the chairman said.

“Or weaken ourselves to the point one of the other third-stage races can overwhelm us,” Yasuke said.  “The Pashtali, for example.  They’ve already been fishing in troubled waters with the Vulteks.  It’s only a matter of time before they start supporting human rebels.  They could win the galaxy without firing a shot.”

The chairman silently canvassed his fellows.  “I believe we have no choice, but to proceed with your plan,” he said.  “If nothing else, it will allow us to limit the pace of change.”

“Unless something unpredicted happens,” Yasuke warned, tightly.  He knew better than to think they all supported the plan.  “Here, things change very slowly.  On Earth, the pace of change is a great deal quicker.”

But he knew, as he bowed his way to the exit, that they didn’t really believe him.

Chapter One

James Bond, Gammon System

Captain Thomas Anderson tried not to grimace as James Bond shuddered and groaned her way through the crossroads and back into realspace.  The modified freighter had passed through so many refits that hardly anything, save perhaps for the hull and some of her bulkheads, could be said to be truly original.  Her engineers had spliced components from a dozen different races into the ship, turning her into a patchwork mess that defied the best efforts of the certification board.  It was a minor miracle, outsiders had noted, that James Bond was even allowed to exist.  She should have been scrapped hundreds of years ago.

And we should probably work on that, Thomas thought.  The display blinked, then started to fill with a handful of icons.  Sooner or later, someone’s going to start wondering where we got the money to bribe the inspectors.

“I’m picking up a dozen contacts, Dad,” Lieutenant Wesley Anderson said.  Thomas’s son never looked up from his console.  “They’re heading in all directions!”

“I’m sure they are,” Thomas said, dryly.  There was much to be said for raising a family on the tramp freighter, rather than trusting them to the schools, but there were downsides too.  The crew knew what they were doing, but none of them were particularly professional.  “Are any of them close enough to prove a problem?”

“I don’t think so,” Wesley said.  “None of them are within weapons range.”

“Good,” Thomas said.  “Sarah, set course for the planet.  Best possible speed.”

Commander Sarah Anderson, his wife as well as his first officer, nodded curtly.  “Yes, sir,” she said.  A low shiver ran through the tramp freighter as her drives came online.  “We’ll be entering orbit in roughly eight hours.”

Thomas nodded.  “No hurry,” he said.  “We’ll be there when we’ll be there.”

He leaned back in his chair and brought up the live feed from the sensor suite.  The inspectors – if there had been any inspectors – would have raised their eyebrows if they’d seen the military-grade sensors concealed within a civilian chassis.  Anyone on the far side of the border would have been seriously concerned, assuming – correctly – that James Bond was a spy ship.  It would be more accurate, Thomas considered privately, to class his ship as an intelligence-gathering ship, but it would make no difference to anyone who caught them.  The ship and crew would never be seen again.

The system sat on the border between the Alphan Empire and the Vultek Hegemony, itself a semi-client state of the Pashtali Consortium.  Thomas didn’t pretend to understand the alien politics.  The Pashtali didn’t precisely rule the Vultek Hegemony, but – if the intelligence reports were accurate – they had enough influence to steer the Vulteks in whatever direction they preferred.  Thomas suspected that was bad news for the Alphans – and Earth.  The Second Lupine War had been incredibly costly.  The Alphans were in no state to fight another war with two interstellar powers.

He frowned as he watched the ships heading in and out of the system.  Gammon was technically independent, if only because the system was of limited value.  Too many crossroads to be easily secured, a barely-habitable planet without a single gas giant for HE3 … there was little in the system to interest any of the interstellar powers.  There were no intelligent inhabitants, nothing that might convince someone to take the system and keep everyone else out.  It was lawless, to all intents and purposes.  No one, not even the Vulteks, had bothered to stake a claim to the system.

And yet, there were more ships moving in and out of the system than he’d expected.  The dregs of the galaxy might have made the system their home, but … he shook his head as more and more data flowed into the datacores.  It was quite possible that the planet was seeing an influx of newcomers.  Refugees from the wars, religious migrants hoping to find a homeworld well away from any of the interstellar powers, mercenaries and smugglers conducting their business … it was someone else’s problem.  As far as anyone outside the crew, and the EDF were concerned, James Bond was a tramp freighter moving from one isolated system to another.  His superiors would assess the data he brought them and decide what, if anything, should be done about it.

He unbuckled himself and stood.  “Sarah, you have the bridge,” he said, calmly.  “I’m going to check on our supplies.”

His wife nodded, tightly.  “Have fun.”

Thomas concealed his amusement as he turned and stepped through the hatch.  James Bond was surprisingly large, for a tramp freighter, but most of her bulk was devoted to cargo.  The family itself lived in cramped accommodation, so cramped that he was uneasily aware that any dispute could blossom out of control very quickly.  It was only a matter of time before Wesley and his siblings decided they wanted to transfer to a different ship … something that might get awkward, if they joined the wrong crew.  He reminded himself, sharply, that Wesley was a grown man.  He was old enough to make his own mistakes.

And it isn’t as if you haven’t made your own mistakes, his thoughts mocked him.  You fucked up your life good and proper, when you were his age

He put the thought out of his head as he opened the hatch into the cargo hold and walked past the heavily-secured pallets.  The weapons were primitive, by Galactic standards, but they were very useful.  No one ever asked questions of gunrunners, in his experience; no one wanted to deter them from bringing more guns.  And while there were people who would look askance at a gunrunner, they might not realise there was something more to Thomas than a man who profited from war and someone else’s misery.  Better to have them look down on you for something, Thomas had always thought, than have them trying to get too close to you.

The intercom bleeped.  “Captain to the bridge!  Captain to the bridge!”

Thomas blinked as he hurried back through the hatch, slamming it firmly shut behind him.  Sarah – like the rest of the family – enjoyed command.  She wouldn’t call him to the bridge unless it was urgent.  His mind raced, trying to determine what had happened.  A distress call?  A systems failure?  James Bond was in better condition than she looked – and she looked alarmingly like a derelict from a bad horror flick – but something could easily have gone wrong.  And yet … he dismissed the thought.  The alarms would have sounded if something had failed spectacularly.

And if it failed so spectacularly that the alarms failed to sound, he told himself, we’d all be dead.

He stepped onto the bridge and retook the command chair.  “Report!”

“Unknown warship on approach vector,” Sarah said.  Her voice was very cold.  She’d never been comfortable with their work for the EDF, even though she’d grown up on a freighter herself.  The risk of death might have been a constant companion, but there were limits now she was a mother herself.  “She’ll be within weapons range in twenty minutes.”

Thomas nodded as he pulled up the sensor report.  The warship was a light cruiser, origin unknown.  That meant nothing, he reminded himself.  James Bond wasn’t the only ship that had passed through dozens of hands since she’d come off the slipway.  The Galactics had no qualms about selling their older and outdated ships to the younger races, who would do their level best to refit them with newer technology.  The ship angling towards them might have been refitted so extensively her original builders had been lost in the mists of time.  Or … she could just be a pirate ship.  Gammon played host to pirates and their fences too.

And if she was on a legitimate mission, she would have hailed us by now, he thought.  A chill ran down his spine.  We might be in some trouble.

“Send a standard greeting,” he ordered.  “If they don’t respond, send a wide-band distress call.”

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said.

Thomas forced himself to consider their options.  There weren’t many.  James Bond carried two plasma cannons … they might as well be peashooters, for all the damage they’d do to the enemy hull.  She could alter course and try to evade, perhaps even double back and retreat to the crossroads … no, that wasn’t going to work.  The warship would have no trouble running them down before they could jump into multispace.  They could prolong the chase, perhaps long enough to convince the enemy ship to go looking for easier prey, but it wouldn’t last very long.

“No response,” Sarah said.  “And they’re picking up speed.”

“Transmit the distress signal,” Thomas said.  “And then alter course to evade.”

He gritted his teeth.  Pirates … they had to be pirates.  And that meant … he hoped, grimly, they weren’t human pirates.  The crew might survive long enough to be ransomed if they were captured by non-humans.  Humans, on the other hand … Sarah and his daughters would be brutally raped to death.  Pirates were pathologically insane.  They’d kill the males, then torture the females to death.  Thomas thought cold thoughts about the ship’s self-destruct system.  It would be relatively simple to lure the pirate ship into point-blank range and deactivate the antimatter containment chambers.  The resulting explosion would destroy both ships.  It wasn’t ideal, but what was?

“They’re angling to remain on intercept course,” Sarah said.  “They’ll be within weapons range in ten minutes.”

“And no response to our distress call,” Thomas said, sourly.  He wasn’t surprised.  Gammon had no navy.  The Galactics didn’t bother to patrol the system.  And it was unlikely the mercenaries would drop everything to come to their aid.  Who cared about a tramp freighter in the middle of nowhere?  “Divert emergency power to the drives.”

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said, in a tone that told him she knew it was futile.  He knew it too.  There was no way they could do more than delay matters.  “I …”

She broke off as her console chimed.  “They’re hailing us.”

“Put it through,” Thomas ordered.

He tried not to show any reaction as a bird-like alien face materialised in front of him.  It wasn’t the first Vultek he’d seen, and he’d spent most of his life around non-humans, but the aliens always left him feeling a little uneasy.  It was the way they looked at him, he thought; it was the way they always looked as if they were considering when and where to pounce.

“This is Captain Anderson,” he said.  “I …”

“The Vultek Hegemony has assumed control over this system,” the alien said.  It spoke Galactic with a faint whistling accent.  “You have intruded upon our territory without permission.”

Thomas blinked.  The Vulteks hadn’t occupied Gammon … not as far as he knew.  Why would they bother?  And … they were risking a confrontation with the Alphans and at least two other powerful races.  And humanity, of course.  There were three human-dominated worlds bare days from Gammon, linked by the tangled thread of safe routes through multispace.  Interstellar powers that had been content to leave Gammon independent would be concerned, very concerned, if one power took control and drove everyone else out.  The Vulteks were risking a major conflict …

Unless they’ve decided the Alphans are too weak to push the issue, Thomas thought, coldly.  It was possible.  Everyone knew the Alphans had lost hundreds of their prized warcruisers during the war.  They could trash the Vulteks in a few days, if they massed their surviving ships, but at what cost?  They might just get away with it.

“We were unaware of any change in power,” he said, carefully.  “In any case, under the Convocations …”

The Vultek cut him off.  “You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded,” he said.  “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

Thomas forced himself to think.  The Vulteks were signatories to the standard interstellar conventions.  In theory, there shouldn’t be any trouble.  The ship would be searched, then returned to the crossroads or simply interned.  In practice … who knew?  The courts might take years to decide if James Bond was trespassing or not, particularly if one or more interstellar powers decided to dispute the Vultek claim to the system.  He shuddered as a deeper implication struck him.  If the Vulteks discovered the sensor suite, they’d realise the ship’s true nature.  And who knew what they’d do then?

Make us vanish, Thomas thought.  We dare not let them board us.

He glanced at the display, already knowing they were trapped.  They could neither outrun nor defeat their enemy.  And triggering the self-destruct might start a war.  The EDF – and the Alphans – wouldn’t know what had happened, but that wouldn’t stop the Vulteks from using the incident as an excuse for war.  And yet … he couldn’t let his ship fall into their hands either.

“In line with the Convocations, I cannot allow you to search my ship,” he said.  “However, as a gesture of good faith, we will return to the crossroads and …”

The display bleeped an alert.  “Missile separation,” Sarah said, quietly.  “They’re aiming to miss, but not by much.”

“You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded without further delay,” the Vultek said, coldly.  “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

So you said, Thomas thought.  His thoughts ran in circles.  Earth couldn’t push the issue.  It wasn’t clear if the Alphans would push the issue.  And there’s no way out.

He keyed his console, bringing up the limited destruct program.  The sensor suite could be reduced to dust with the push of a button, once he inserted his command codes.  In theory, there would be no proof that James Bond had ever been anything other than a simple tramp freighter.  In practice, he simply didn’t know.  The Vulteks might search the ship so thoroughly they turned up proof … if, of course, they didn’t simply destroy the ship in a bid to secure their new holdings.  And if they swept the datacore …

“We understand,” he said.  “We’ll deactivate our drives as ordered.”

“Good,” the alien said.  “And …”

Thomas glanced up as the proximity display flashed another alert.  A gravimetric distortion had appeared out of nowhere, a bare three kilometres from their position.  He let out a sigh of relief as the distortion became a crossroads, which opened to reveal a warcruiser.  The giant warship glided into realspace, its sensors already searching for targets.  The Vultek ship didn’t move, but Thomas liked to think he saw it jump.  Warcruisers were the most powerful warships in the known galaxy.  The Alphans would have no trouble blowing the Vultek ship out of space if they so much as looked at them funny.

“They’re ordering the Vulteks to leave,” Sarah said.  She let out a sound that was half-giggle, half-sob.  “That was really too close.”

Thomas nodded, watching as the Vulteks reversed course and headed straight for the nearest crossroads.  They didn’t have the technology to create their own, not yet.  The Alphans were the only race known to possess such technology, although Thomas wouldn’t have cared to bet the other Galactics didn’t have it.  The technology offered too many advantages to whoever held it. 

“Reverse course,” he ordered, firmly.  “We’ll pass through Gammon, then head home.”

Sarah gave him a sharp look.  “And you don’t think we should head home now?”

“I think we have weapons to sell,” Thomas said.  “And we need to know what’s happening on the surface.”

And see who’s really in control of the system, he thought, grimly.  He understood his wife’s point.  They’d pushed their luck dangerously close to the limits.  But they also needed to find out what was actually going on.  If the Vulteks landed a major ground force, digging them out might take a full-scale war.

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said.  They were going to have a screaming match as soon as they were alone.  Thomas was sure of it.  “We’ll enter orbit in five hours.”

“Keep monitoring local space,” Thomas ordered.  He didn’t relax  He wouldn’t until they had completed their mission and left the system safely behind.  “I want to know the moment the Vulteks show up again.”

He sucked in his breath.  The Vulteks weren’t stupid enough to pit an outdated light cruiser against a warcruiser, but they wouldn’t like being told to leave at gunpoint.  They might assemble their fleet, if they had a fleet within the system, and gamble the Alphans wouldn’t want to start another war.  Or try something, hoping their patrons would come to their aid if things got out of hand.  The crisis might have only just begun.

His eyes slipped to the display.  The warcruiser was moving ahead of then, gracefully displaying her power – and her masters’ resolve – to the entire system.  He felt a sudden stab of envy that surprised him with its intensity.  Humanity had advanced far in the last five hundred years, learning from its masters and even improving – in some respects – on their technology.  But they didn’t have anything to match the warcruiser.  The ship was so advanced that it she been designed for aesthetics, not practicality.  There was no way anyone could mistake her for a human ship.

Wesley had the same thought.  “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed.  He’d seen the recordings.  And read the secret files, the ones that officially didn’t exist.  The fact the EDF kept a wary eye on humanity’s masters, as well as its enemies, was a closely-guarded secret.  “But she also took five years from her builders laying down her spine to her crew activating the ship’s drives and deploying her for the first time.”

And if the Alphans hadn’t had us fighting by their side, he added silently, they might just have lost the last war.

SIM: The Blighted Lands

13 Mar

Background for a later book …

The Blighted Lands

Unlike the Allied Lands, the Blighted Lands have no formal existence.  The necromancers who rule the lands wage war on each other with a terrifying frequency, to the point that borders – insofar as they exist at all – shift so rapidly that it is different to parse out the true size of any single necromancer’s domains.  The landscape itself is mutable, depending on how much wild and/or tainted magic runs through the ground.  It is a dangerous region to visit even if one should not encounter a necromancer or his servants.  A person caught in a storm of magic might end up wishing he was dead.

The history of the Blighted Lands is not, in broad strokes at least, in dispute.  Prior to the Faerie Wars, the Blighted Lands were part of the Empire.  The names of long-gone kingdoms and city-states might have been forgotten over the years, but they existed.  The wars, however, smashed the pre-war order beyond repair.  The combination of wild magic, enemy intrusions and – eventually – the necromancers was simply too much to handle.  The lucky ones managed to flee.  The unlucky ones were killed, sacrificed or simply enslaved. 

Despite their shifting nature, certain things are beyond dispute.  The high-magic zones within the Blighted Lands, particularly the ones that play host to Faerie structures are far more dangerous than their northern counterparts.  Even necromancers tend to give the dangerous ruins a wide berth.  Storms of wild and tainted magic ravage the land, killing or transforming anyone unlucky enough to be caught in their grip.  The lower-magic zones play host to everything from giant monsters, warped and mutated by the magic storms, to orcish settlements and human villages.  The necromancers themselves tend to inhabit abandoned fortresses or cities, turning them into giant abattoirs.  Even the smarter necromancers, the ones capable of understanding that killing all their slaves means depriving themselves of future slaves, can become lost in their lust for power.  Most visitors to their lands never return.

Orcs are, as far as can be established, the most numerous race in the Blighted Lands.  Shambling parodies of humanity, created by the Faerie; orcish males are incredibly strong, incredibly fast and almost mind-numbingly stupid.  They are literally incapable of building a workable civilisation, if only because they fight each other for dominance.  The only thing that keeps them in line is power.  The necromancers have no trouble battering obedience into their heads (although even obedient orcs can’t follow complex orders, or indeed anything much more difficult than “charge”).  Orcish women are supposed to be smarter, but very rarely seen.  In theory, orcish women are grossly outnumbered by the males; in practice, despite the lopsided birthrate (ten males for every female), the high level of attrition amongst the male population keeps the gender balance remarkably even.

The human settlements within the Blighted Lands are nightmarish.  Necromancers don’t need anything beyond magic and life force, so they rarely bother to encourage farmers to grow crops or craftsmen to produce much of anything.  The settlements are more like plantations, with a goal of producing as many humans as possible.  The inhabitants are effectively slaves, forbidden from leaving and striking out on their own (although the dangers surrounding the settlements are often enough to keep the inhabitants in place without fences and chains).  Each settlement has a headman, who serves as liaison between the inhabitants and the local necromancer, and thugs, who serve as basic enforcers.  (They often have some magic, although never enough to threaten the necromancer.)  The arrangement is permanently unstable, if only because the necromancers are dangerously insane.  A headman can be killed at a moment’s notice, on a whim or if he angers his master (regardless of how well he serves).  Accordingly, none of the settlements are nice places to live … but some are worse than others.

The necromancers themselves have no formal structure.  They do not ally with each other, save for a handful of very rare alliances that don’t last beyond one partner seeing advantage in betraying the other.  Their society, such as it is, is ruled by force and force alone.  A newcomer who overthrows a necromancer and takes his place is, insofar as the rest of the necromancers are concerned, the legitimate ruler.  The smarter necromancers realise that fighting another necromancer is often dangerous – the loser will be dead, the winner will be so weakened that a third necromancer could jump him – but, given the nature of necromancy, it can be difficult to avoid a challenge.

The Blighted Lands do not have any formal relationships with outside powers, diplomatic or otherwise.  The necromancers simply do not have the long-term focus to try to build relationships, even if they wanted to.  There is very little trade between the Blighted Lands and the Allied Lands, almost all of it thoroughly illegal.  A handful of merchants do move back and forth, at severe risk of their lives (particularly if they’re caught trafficking in illicit substances or simply anger a necromancer).  Refugees are not unknown, but given the dangers of travel and the difficult terrain, rarely seen.