A Light in Darkness
Cultural Level 7 (Medieval)
A wise prince will seek means by which his subjects will always and in every possible condition have need of his government, and then they will always be faithful to him.
— Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Nova Vaasa is one of the larger Core domains running along the coast of the Nocturnal Sea in the east. The terrain is rocky and steep along the western Balinoks smoothing out to a vast grassy plateau dotted with occasional rocky outcroppings as it slopes to the east. Aside from trees along the rivers, wood is fairly scarce and generally unsuitable for construction due to its softness and rapid decomposition. Much of the land is devoted to farming and the vast herds of Nova Vaasan horses for which the realm is famous.
The weather here is temperate all year round allowing for three to four crops of wheat, oat and rye. Low stone walls border to rocky farms that cover the land like a patchwork quilt. Despite the domain’s relative youth, many of the walls are in disrepair. Abandoned roofless stone huts in circles mark the habitats of families long forgotten. Tombs of a civilization long lost dot the bluffs in the northern part of the domain.
The city of Kantora, near the center of the domain, is one of the largest in the entire Core (rivaling Falkovia’s great city of Lekar). Most of the residents, however, are peasants living in squalor after losing their lands to unreasonable taxes. The center of learning and commerce in the domain is the city of Egertus where merchant caravans from Falkovnia and beyond enter the realm. Though half the size of Kantora it is home to some of the finest boarding schools, colleges and medical institutions in the Core. The Clinic of the Mentally Distressed is a premier institution of this nature despite the recent disappearance of its lead doctor and most of his staff.
Save for the westernmost regions, Nova Vaasa is dominated by a lack of features. Large, grassy flatland is broken by similarly monotonous farmland tended by joyless peasants surrounding the rivers rushing toward the Nocturnal Sea. This dry, flat plain is known as the Vaasi Plateau, or Vaasimark, and it both defines and limits life and culture in Nova Vaasa. Most storms break along the Balinoks to the west or the Mountains of Misery to the north, resulting in an arid climate that tends to keep the grass short and dry. Continuous grazing by both wild and ranch raised Vaasi horses contributes to this tendency.
Though subtle, there are differences from region to region across the plateau. Different strains of Vaasi grass have different characteristics, and one strain or another often dominates large swaths of the Plateau. The Plateau can be roughly divided into six smaller plains, each with its own name and its own cosmetic individuality.
The northwestern plains, north of the Borchava River and west of the Dnar, are known as the Elendighedmark, or Plains of Misery (due to their proximity to the mountains of the same name). Despite the grim title, this is a very fertile region. When the domain of Markovia was replaced by the Shadow Rift, taking a chunk of the Balinoks with it, a greater amount of rainfall made its way into Nova Vaasa in this region. The result is a long lush field of grasses growing waist-high when not disturbed.
The northeastern-most region, north of the Sydligdnar and east of the Dnar, is known as Ehrendton. The family Ehrend, vassals to the Bolshniks and Counts of Ehrendton, give the region its name. These grasses are short, thin and a yellow-green in color naturally. Large patches of the grasses here are afflicted with a strange fungus that turns them a sickly white. Folktales abound about how this dødmandgraes (“dead man’s grass”) grows only over unmarked graves.
South of the Borchava River and the Vaughn Dnar and west of the Prince’s Road is the King’s Plain, or Kesjermark. The Kesjermark earns its name for two reason, one historical and one cosmetic. Nova Vaasan history tells that the conqueror-king Højplads first marched into Nova Vaasa across that plain in the morning, made camp in the afternoon, and won the first bloody battle for this land in the evening. The plain certainly has a regal bearing, thanks to the wide fields of vingraes, a short golden grass with royal purple seeds. The Kesjermark is often known by an alternate name, “Højplad’s Carpet.”
West of the Kesjermark, between the Sydligdnar and the Ivlis, is the Dommark, the Plain of Judgment. This is the hottest and least forgiving part of the plateau. Between the rivers and the farmlands almost no water can be found, and the grasses are short, dry and brown. In large patches the grass gives way entirely to a desert of dirt and stone. A peculiar strain of grass known as knivgrae manages to thrive here, warding off the Vaamgaaer horse herds with its cruelly sharp blades.
Between the Ivlis and the Saniset rivers, the Vaasi Plateau is known as the Tordenmark, or the Thundering Plain. The Tordenmark is dominated by hestgraes, a knee-high grass with seeds of rich brown and bright white.
The southermost stretch of the Vaasi Plateau, containing those lands south of the Saniset River, commonly known as the Pommel, is home to the longest strain of grass. This havgraes grows as high as a man’s chest, and the galloping horse herds trample the sun-yellowed stalks into long broken trails. Walking through the havgraes is a risky proposition; one is unlikely to spot a venomous snake or a crouching plains cat until it is too late.
The Vaasi Plateau, while the most prominent element of the landscape, is challenged in importance by the rivers, the source of life and center of civilization in Nova Vaasa. Farmlands stretch for miles on either side of each of the Vaasi Rivers. The grasses beside the rivers have been plowed or burned away and short stone walls erected to separate fields. The peasants who work these farms like in squat, round hovels of stone, with thatch roofs made from the longer plains grasses. They’re a grim, stone-faced lot, fielding rich harvests from the soil only to see most of it taken as taxes by the nearest noble lord. Some few of these peasants own the fields they work, but most have been forced to sell them to the nobles to make up for shortfalls in lean years. These unfortunates end up working the land they used to own as “tenant farmers,” though “serfs” would be a more apt description. Just beyond the farms are horse ranches, each owned by a noble or wealthy merchant. Because of the threat of theft or raids, workers on these ranches are always armed and aggressive toward strangers.
As hard and tiring as the lot of the farmers is, they live in a virtual paradise when compared to the hell endured by those living in Nova Vaasa’s cities. Given the wide expanse of the Vaasi plains, it comes as a surprise that Nova Vaasan cities are very cramped. Buildings stand oppressively close together, streets surprisingly narrow, and virtually no escape is possible from the crowds. The density of the population combines with poverty to create nightmarish scenes of urban squalor. Throngs of beggars line nearly every street and alley, ditches are piled with refuse and corpses bloated with disease or bloodied wounds. Urban buildings are usually constructed of reddish beige brick and built on granite foundations. Windows are unusually small, almost resembling arrow slits at times. Shingled roofs are brown or golden yellow. Wooden doors are rare and a sign of great wealth.
Away from the suffocating cities or life-giving rivers, relatively few people live on the Vaasi Plateau. Attempts have been made in the past to settle the more remote regions of the plains, as desperate peasants driven by the strict laws and harsh taxes of princes past and present sought homes further from their yoke. Crumbling stone ruins are all that remain to mark most of these efforts. Why these “pioneers” thought they could yield a sustainable harvest from the rocky arid plains where so many others have failed is a mystery, but the ruins now dotting the landscape speak for themselves.
Some communities do manage to persist, or even thrive, in the middle of the plains, but those that do are usually centered on a freshwater spring, or several such springs, which can be found emerging from caves here and there along the Plateau. Most of these springs are by now occupied by settlers, bandits or plains cats. Plains settlements are necessarily as heavily fortified as they can be, for they are favored targets of bandits, who eagerly take advantage of the absence of law. Ironically, the more successful plains communities must eventually call on the Prince and his lords for protection as the bandit attacks increase in size and frequency.
Bodies of Water
The aforementioned rivers flow into Nova Vaasa from nine major sources. The Vaught Dnar flows from Lake Kronov in Tepest into Nova Vaasa, after which the Trished River joins it from the Mountains of Misery in Darkon. From the Vaesen Foothils, the rugged wooded hills bordering the Shadow Rift, come the Borchava and Little Borchava rivers. These rivers flow briskly and somewhat eerily, oblivious to the fact that their headwaters vanished along with the Markovian Balinoks almost 11 years ago. The Little Borchava eventually flows into its larger sibling, which turns northeast to join the Vaughn Dnar. The Vaughn Dnar then continues east until it passes north of Kantora. At that point, the Dnar River, flowing south from Darkon, joins with it, and the combined river is thereafter known as the Sydligdnar, or South Dnar.
The Sydlignar flows east and empties into the Nocturnal Sea, creating a deepening gorge known as Katsmund Canyon as it goes. The Sydligdnar is the deepest and broadest of the Vaasi Rivers, wide enough to accommodate small ships, though the swiftness of its flow can make for difficult navigating. Despite the risks, vessels row up and down the Sydligdnar regularly, trading goods between Kantora and Egertus, and even small sailing ships from the Nocturnal Sea can sometimes be found far upriver. Larger ships load and unload their cargoes on Guldstrand Beach, just south of the canyon’s mouth, using Gedfod horses to carry their goods up and down the rocky trails to Egertus.
The Volgis River also has its phantom source in the Shadow Rift, flowing through the Vaesen Foothills and dividing the Dyrskov in twain. It flows southeast, coming very close to the border of Barovia, where it is subsumed by the Ivlis flowing down from the Balinoks. The Ivlis flows past Bergovitsa, assimilating the flow of the Ulvand, which runs northeast through the Borderwood from further south in the Balinoks. The gorge created by the Ivlis as it drifts into the Nocturnal Sea is called Sorrokke Canyon. Large, jagged spears of rock block the mouth of Storrokke Canyon, preventing any entrance from the sea, but the Ivlis is too narrow and twisting to make sailing feasible regardless.
In Nova Vaasa’s far south, the Saniset emerges from Hazlan, just north of the forest the Nova Vaasans call the Skyggeskov, gently making its way into the sea. Further south, a river known as the East Musarde emerges from the Mists and cuts across the Pommel. As its name suggests, locals believe this to be a continuation of the Musarde, which disappears into the Mists south of Hazlan.
Besides the rivers, the only major bodies of water in Nova Vaasa are the Three Sisters, a trio of lakes northwest of where the Ivlis and Volgis rivers meet. The Three Sisters are named for a Nova Vaasan myth telling of the first three daughters of the first man and woman created by the Lawgiver. The largest and northernmost of the lakes is Lake Nielsine, after the eldest of the sisters, the first woman to tame and ride a horse. The second largest and westernmost of the lakes is Lake Jensine, after the middle sister, the first woman to successfully grow crops in the soil. The smallest and southernmost of the lakes is Lake Vibeke, after the youngest sister, who was the first woman killed and devoured by a plains cat.
Nova Vaasa’s three major forests are the Dyrskov (“Beastwood”), the Graenseskov (“Borderwood”), and the Skyggeskov (“Shadowwood”). Each of the forests could only be considered “major” by Nova Vaasan standards, of course; none if particularly large. The Dyrskov, in northwestern Nova Vaasa, grows on the edge of the Shadow Rift; the Graenseskov, in central soutwestern Nova Vaasa, spills over the border of Barovia; and the Skyggeskov, in south-southwestern Nova Vaasa, straddles the border with Hazlan and recedes into the Mists.
The Dyrskov covers most of the southern Vaesen Foothills and has long had an evil reputation. Before the Grand Conjunction, the Dyrskov spilled out of the untamed wilderness of Markovia and into Nova Vaasa like an unchecked infection. Slavering, unnatural beasts whispered to be much worse than any plains cat roamed beneath its dark, thick canopy, and those who wandered too close were not likely to have a chance to retreat. With Markovia gone, whatever font was the source of these foul monstrosities appears to have been stopped, and the Nova Vaasans are daring to harvest timber from the Dyrskov, which provides the only trees in Nova Vaasa with wood suitable for lumber. Still, the Dyrskov is not completely safe. The proximity of the Shadow Rift is disconcerting, and sortvingebute (“black fairies”) are rumored to beguile lumberjacks and carry them off into the Rift. Tales of other sinister creatures in Dyrskov abound; the creature most often sighted is the Centaur, said to be a ragged, bony horse with a man’s head and a human arm sprouting obscenely from either side of its neck. Any time a half-eaten animal carcass is discovered by lumberjacks in the Dyrskov the Centaur recieves the blame, and the night-fires in the camps are built a little larger.
The Graenseskov spills out from the shadow of the Hills of Bleak Vistas in Barovia, called the Howling Hills by Nova Vaasans. The name is apt, as the Graenseskov is the most wolf-infested of Nova Vaasa’s forests, and the wolves here are larger and more aggressive than elsewhere, perhaps the result of interbreeding with Barovian wolves. The Nova Vaasans have as little to do with these woods as possible; the vampires and werewolves reputed to roam Barovia at night are said to dwell in the Graenseskov as well. Since timber cut from the Graenseskov’s trees rots quickly, few reasons exist for the Vaasi to brave its rumored dangers.
The Skyggeskov, despite its somewhat sinister name, is not as feared as the other two forests. Because of its closeness to both the Saniset and the trade route into Hazlan, Nova Vaasans have a better familiarity with it and its contents than they do the other forests. The Skyggeskov is home to wolves, but they are more typical of Vaasi wolves, preferring to avoid humans rather than attack them. Bandits and plains cats are known to wander into the Skyggeskov, though, so it would be ill advised to let one’s guard down even here.
A few smaller forests are scattered on the Vaasi Plateau, each usually less than a mile square. Such forests include the Misbande Forest, in the eastern shadow of the Koshka Bluffs; the Briarweed Forest, roughly halfway between Kantora and Egertus, south of the East Timori Road; and the Abentaage Forest, a few miles north of Arbora. Small forests such as these serve as havens for wolves and for men with the demeanor of wolves. Bandit’s camp in these areas, riding forth at night to raid poorly defended farmlands and homesteads. Most of these bandits lead short, desperate lives, but some have been quite successful and become notorious, even celebrated. Among the most infamous are Dagfinn the Burner, who puts the fields he raids and the peasants who work them to the torch; the Tatters Man, known for tying strips of his victims’ clothing to his lances and barding; and the Blood-Cat, believed to be a Vistani outcast by the name of Chezna, who has become particularly feared of late. Her outlaw band, active for almost thirty years, used to operate out of the Briarweed Forest, but a raid by a large group of adventurers under the employ of Prince Othmar forced them out of the hideaway. Since then, the Blood-Cat has kept constantly on the move, striking vulnerable caravans with increasing ferocity and abandon. The few surviving witnesses to her attacks describe her as a bone-thin woman is Vistani clothing, riding a night black stallion. She is also described as having wild hair “as thick and red as blood,” as one mutilated survivor put it. Red hair is unknown among the dark-locked Vistani, and this anomaly has served to enhance the Blood-Cat’s legend and give rise to her chilling sobriquet.
Hills and Bluffs
Just as the forests of Nova Vaasa are concentrated in the west, so are the hills and mesas. The Balinoks and Mountains of Misery make swift, sloping descents as they give way to the Vaasi Plateau, and the resulting foothills are steep and rugged. The foothills of the former Markovian Balinoks are known, as mentioned above, as the Vaesen Foothills, while the foothills of the Barovian Balinoks are named the Howling Hills. The foothills of the Mountain of Misery are identified as the Forgotten Hills. The origin of the name is lost, making it ironically appropriate. It may have been a reference to the unusual changes Darkon wreaks on the memories of those who visit it from elsewhere, or it may be a memorial to the shattered land of Arak.
Not far from the foothills are the Stony Bluffs, three large granite mesas that provide most of Nova Vaasa’s building materials. The Koshka Bluffs are a pair of smooth stone hills south of Liara, each one 1,000 feet tall at its summit, standing side by side with a canyon between them. Quarrying of the Koshka Bluffs has revealed numerous rooms and passages within, and many curiosities and antiquities have been found buried inside. Some suggest that he Koshka “Bluffs” were in fact once giant monuments or tombs built by some fallen civilization. After workers there began vanishing or going mad in 741 BC, Sir Tristen Hiregaard greatly restricted the quarrying of the bluffs and has forbidden the removal of any of their treasures. Even in its currently limited fashion, quarrying the Koshka Bluffs has not proven to be without risk. Plains cats often make dens of the crevices and caves of the canyon, and jermlaines have made a home of the Bluffs’ interiors.
The other bluffs lack the colorful history of the Koshka Bluffs. The Altid Bluffs stand imposingly between the Dyrskov and the Three Sisters, with Blacktower Heights, the castle of the Vistins, immediately to their east. Standing 2,000 feet tall, they offer an imposing view to any with the skill and determination to scale them; there were once stairways carved into the granite walls, but they have long since worn away into uselessness. Those who do scale the bluffs find abandoned forventetaarn, or watchtowers, facing to the south and west. These were supposedly ordered built by Højplads after his conquest of the land, to watch for invasions from the two most likely directions. The watchtowers have not been manned for centuries. Some say that the last watchmen remain at their posts, undying and ever vigilant.
The Hvile Bluffs lie just south of where the Ulvand flows into the Ivlis, northeast of the Borderwood. The Rivtoffs quarry the Hviles, carving out stone for the walls of their farmlands and for Bergovitsa to the northwest. Hville means “resting,” and indeed the weathered bluffs do have a vague drowsy quality to them. Ironic, then, that the plains around the Hviles were the site of some of the fiercest, bloodiest fighting of the Bucking Epoch, so much so that it is still sometimes known as the Blodmark. Perhaps hvile has come to mean a different sort of repose. Superstitious Nova Vaasans claim that the spirits of the dead still linger here, fighting and dying on the blades of remembered foes.
Roads and Trading Routes
Four major roads cross the Vaasi Plateau, each a busy trade route. The Old Svalich Road, which connect Nova Vaasa to Barovia and the lands beyond, terminates just south of Bergovitsa. Nova Vaasan merchants traveling the Old Svalich Road always go heavily armed, perhaps more so than the danger of the crossing actually warrants. Having traveled through Barovia and felt the chill of its air and the thickness of its shadows, I can well understand the desire to gird oneself against imagined horrors.
Bergovitsa is one terminus of two other major roads, the Prince’s Road stretching north to Kantora and the Vaere Bang Road connecting to Arbora. Each of these roads crosses miles of lonely plain, and bandit attacks are common on each. To help protect against this threat, each of the Five Great Families offers a contingent of their household guard for service as handelkonduktørs, or Trade Guards. Trade Guards can be hired as protection for merchant trains, but the fees for this service are steep. Many merchants turn to mercenaries of questionable experience and repute instead, hoping to maintain a reasonable profit on their trading.
The East Timori Road, which conncts Egertus, Kantora and Liara before continuing northwest into Tepest, was once of much greater importance to the Nova Vaasans than it is today, providing quick access to the west for merchants in northern Nova Vaasa. The Shadow Rift has put a stop to that. The East Timor remains important for trade within Nova Vaasa, but for now it is a shadow of what it was.
Nova Vaasa’s last major trading route is its newest; the Nocturnal Sea itself. Nova Vaasa’s coast is sometimes known as the Fortress Coast, and with good reason. The plateau drops off suddenly as it approaches the sea, and the sheer cliffs look from a distance like impregnable stone walls. Rocky beaches con be found here and there up the coast, but sailing to them can be dangerous, as spears of rock lurk treacherously beneath the waters. The most popular ports are Guldstrand Beach, near the mouth of the Sydligdnar River, and Lysening Beach, a few miles north of Arbora.
The dominant plant species in Nova Vaasa are the aforementioned grasses, which cover the plateau form north to south. Besides the grasses, the Vaasi Plateau is home to numerous varieties of wildflower, including aster, spurge, bellflowers, dandelions, sunflowers, morning glories and so on in a seemingly endless parade. These flowers fare poorly during Nova Vaasa’s brief but harsh freezing winters, but they always return in the mild spring to sprinkle color on the plateau once more. A variety of shrubs and bushes cover the landscape as well, and in the drier regions cacti thrive. The Vaasi catspaw is a particularly dangerous cactus, as it secretes paralytic venom from its spines. This venom is not fatal by itself, but plains cats are thought to frequent patches of catspaw in hopes of catching a helpless meal. The cats themselves are immune to the effects of this poison.
Nova Vaasa has its own strains of oak, fir and pine trees, all of which have a habit of rotting quickly if cut down. Thus, native trees are seldom sought for their lumber, with most of those being found in the Dyrskov.
Any discussion of Vaasi fauna must begin with the horse. The quality and diversity of the horses in Nova Vaasa are astounding. Nova Vaasans have a saying: “The Lawgiver meant for Nova Vaasans to ride, and he provided a horse for each of us.” Though most Nova Vaasans are not wealthy enough to actually own a horse, this saying has the ring of truth.
The average Vaasi horse is deep black in coat and mane and tall at the shoulder, usually 16 to 18 hands, but distinct breeds among the horses vary from this description. Vaasi horses can be divided into five major bloodlines; jernryge, rødbuge, vindhåre, gedfode and vaamgaaere.
Jernryge (“iron-backs”) mainly range in the Pommel and are the largest of the Vaasi horse breeds. Considered the strongest horses in the Core, they also tend to be relatively docile and thus are suited mainly as draft horses and pack animals. Jernryge are taller and broader than other Vaasi horses, usually standing between 17 and 21 hands and weighing 2,000 pounds or more. They have thick feathering on their fetlocks, and their coloring is typical of Vaasi horses.
Rødbuge (“red-bellies”) are most often found in Ehrendton and the Elendighedmark. Strong, intelligent, spirited and radiating a noble beauty, they make superior warhorses and cavalry mounts. Many who speak of Vaasi horses are thinking of the rødbuges. The Rødbuges do not get their name from their fiery spirits alone; they have a distinctive reddish splotches on their chests and barrels. Røodbuges with unusually large or red splotches command higher prices at the market. Particularly prized specimens have entirely red chests and barrels. Rødbuges usually stand between 16 and 19 hands.
Vindhåre (“wind-manes”) run across the Tordenmark and are famous for their speed. They are most famous for their speed. They are the most popular horses for racing and are favored mounts for wealthy nobles despite their notorious ill temper. Vindhårs often have white markings on their manes. A few are closer to blue roan than black. They are average in size for a Vaasi horse.
Gedfode (“goat-foots”) are the smallest breed, but also the surest of foot, and some swear they are the smartest and most loyal of the Vaasi horses. Though not as swift as the vindhårs, many riders insist gedfode make better mounts. They are found in the rocky western parts of the Kesjermark and the Elendighedmark. The Vistani in Nova Vassa prefer the gedfode for their own mounts and pack animals. Gedfode stand from 13 to 15 hands.
Finally, vaamgaaere (“heat-walkers”) range across the Dommark. A rough, rugged breed, they have proven unpopular in the Core since they lack the beauty of the other Vaasi horses, but they are nearly tireless, can go long distances without food or water, and are little bothered by extreme temperatures. Merchants from G’Henna or the Amber Wastes who manage to find their way through the Mistways have paid handsome sums for the vaamgaaere. Vaamgaaere are colored in a unique reverse bay pattern, with a black body and brown socks, manes, and tails.
While the horse is the cornerstone of Vaasi pride, the plains cat crouches at the center of Vaasi fears. Plains cats are large felines, superficially similar to panthers in appearance. They tend to be taller at the shoulder than panthers, however, and they have a far thicker musculature. Besides their fur, which is almost uniformly midnight black, their most distinctive feature is their bobbed tails. Male plains cats can be distinguished from females by their ears; the males have white tufts of fur on their ears that the females lack.
Plains cats are almost completely uniform in coloration. Besides the white tufts on the ears of males, they lack stripes or patches of any color. Only as a cat ages will its pelt start to change color, fading through silvery gray to an eventual white. Plains cats rarely reach such advanced age, and those that do are highly valued by trappers for their rare coloration. Very rarely, a plains cat with dark red fur will be born in a litter. These “blood-cats” are rumored to be larger and stronger than their kin, and some say they can hypnotize prey with their golden eyes, fade into invisibility or even imitate human speech.
Plains cats prefer to lair in caves by day, emerging to stalk the grasslands at night, when they blend into the darkness. A plains cat shadows its prey silently with amazing patience, waiting for a moment when it appears distracted or unprepared, at which point the cat pounces with a yowl that sounds unsettlingly like a human scream. A plains cat’s leap can carry it an astonishing 30 feet. Needless to say, prey that is fallen upon by a 200-pound cat is not likely to rise quickly, and the cat ends things hurriedly, biting and wrenching at the neck while raking the back or belly with its claws. Plains cats live and hunt alone, save for mother cats accompanying their litters. They generally avoid human settlements, but exceptions are not unknown. A child on a farm or rural settlement being ambushed is not as rare as one would hope. Even the cities have been known to suffer the occasion attack.
Snakes are another significant threat to a traveler in the Vaasi wilderness. In fact, snakes are probably a greater danger overall than the cats, as there are so many more of them. Most are harmless or nearly so, but it is a narrow majority. The most common serpent is the Vaasi garter snake, more frequently known as the underboot, a name that should give a sense of how widespread they are. About 18 inches long when fully grown, the underboot is non-venomous and dangerous only to insects and very small rodents. Other harmless snakes include the kingsnake, which is immune to the venom of other snakes and hunts them voraciously; the bluffsnake, so called because of its ability to imitate the distinctive rattle of more dangerous snakes; and the whipsnake, which is as long and thin as its name implies.
More dangerous snakes abound. Nova Vaasa is home to many diamond backs and sidewinders, both of which use rattles to warn off attackers. Unique to Nova Vaasa, the ironwhip, which appears at a glance to be a harmless whipsnake, is in fact quite venomous; a single bite is severely debilitating and multiple bites can be fatal. The goldenhood, a cobra with scales in black and yellow stripes, is easily the most deadly. A bite from a goldenhood can kill a horse in minutes.
After the above, animal life in Nova Vaasa becomes more mundane. Small timid wolves roam wooded areas, while jackrabbits, groundhogs and numerous lizards like on the grassy plains. Avian life is typical of climate.
Nova Vaasans tell tales of many sinister creatures stalking the prairie. Herds of nightmares are said to run across the plateau at night, their fiery manes lighting the darkness around them. Catching a glimpse of them is supposed to herald death or misfortune for the viewer or her loved ones. Another specter of the night is the hestdrikker (“horse-drinker”). These fey creatures are rumored to stalk horse ranches at night, drawing blood from the horses and leaking them ill and dying.
Creditable stories of rampaging werewolves and wereboars striking farms and ranches, leaving unmistakable carnage behind them. Fortunately, these lycanthrope attacks are rare. Swarms of jermlaines live in tunnel complexes within the bluffs or beneath the plateau. They sometimes emerge to hunt when their usual diet of snakes and rodents proves insufficient, but fear of the plains cats usually keeps them hidden. Finally come the doedridere, undead horsemen who silently roam the Vaasi Plateau. Doedridere are thought to be the restless corpses of men and horses who died of thirst or exposure on the plains. Tormented by their lonely, prolonged deaths, man and horse rise again, bonded forever in undeath, to wander the plains forever. The doedridere crave living company, but they are surrounded by auras of such fearful melancholy that no living thing can long stand to be near them. It is best to avoid them, for those with whom they stop to converse will not be allowed to leave.
Nova Vaasans have many other tales of spectral or malicious horse creatures. Niksiee pose as beautiful horses, coaxing fools onto their backs after which they charge into the nearest river or lake and drown the unfortunate rider. Skarphove are a rumored breed of cunning, flesh-eating horses whose hooves have blade-sharp edges and whose manes and tails are like tangled wire. Hestskaere are goblin-like creatures that slit open the bellies of sleeping stallions and climb inside, driving the horse mad and directing it in all manner of mayhem. Strangely, the Nova Vaasans tell few horror stories involving cat-like creatures. Perhaps the reality of the plains cats is frightening enough.
Nova Vaasa is believed to have joined the Core in 682 BC. In Barovia, this is the first mention of trading with “the horselords to the east.” Nova Vaasan history records this date as the Second Judgment. The skies over Nova Vaasa darkened, the earth shook and a terrifyingly loud thunder echoed through the air. Nova Vaasans claim that their homeland was wrenched from its proper world into a hell, with “howling fear to the west, stone death to the north, shapeless nightmares to the east and nothing but ominous swirling to the south.”
The Church claims the Second Judgment was the work of the Lawgiver, done as punishment for the pride and materialism of the people of Nova Vaasa. Given that Nova Vaasa has remained a land of aristocrats and traders, it would appear that the lesson was not taken. In fact, while the first decades in the Core were full of fear and uncertainty, as the Nova Vaasans found themselves with inhospitable neighbors such as the Arak and the Nightmare Lands, they quickly adapted and even began to thrive once more.
The most significant event within Nova Vaasa since the second Judgment has been the rise to power of Prince Othmar Bolshnik. Othmar has held the title since 729 BC, almost 30 years, giving him the tightest grip on power in Nova Vaasa since its founding. Othmar has proven to be a harsh taskmaster, imposing tax after tax on his subjects and ruthlessly punishing all dissent. The noble lords grow rich under his rule, and Othmar grows richer year, but the lot of commoners, as ever, worsens by the year.
A second event worthy of attention has been the rise of another individual to power of a different sort. In 717, long before Prince Othmar’s reign commenced, a religious movement began in Nova Vaasa. Calling themselves the Claws of Sehkmaa and claiming to be priests of an ancient cat god, the Claws seemingly dedicated themselves to easing the plight of the poor and disenfranchised in Nova Vaasa. Normally, the Church of the Lawgiver would move quickly to stamp out any such “idolatry,” but for some reason the Claws of Sehkmaa were left in peace. The Claws became powerful, wealthy and respected and their high priest, who called himself Malken, became a figure of awe and reverence, though he was never seen.
Sir Tristen Hiregaard, at that time Captain of the Kantora City Guard, soon uncovered the sinister truth behind the Claws of Sehkmaa. They were not priests at all, but were in truth a widespread criminal organization. Some of their illicit activities included extortion, theft, smuggling, bookmaking, kidnapping and even poisonings. Malken himself ruled at the center of this criminal web, and Sir Tristen made it his mission to oppose Malken and bring him to justice. By the end of the year, he had largely succeeded. The Claws were broken, the worship of Sehkmaa outlawed, and Malken himself was believed killed by Sir Tristen’s own hand.
Recently, however, the name Malken is once more whispered in the streets of Kantora, Liara and Bergovitsa. A new crimelord has apparently risen in Nova Vaasa, bearing the name of the old. Unfortunately Sir Tristen is too aged to combat this fresh (or returned) menace, and few enough others have displayed an interest in trying. Some even whisper that Prince Othmar is in league with this new Malken, receiving a cut from Nova Vaasa’s illicit economy just as he does from the legitimate.
Lastly, there is the force or person known as the Signature Killer. Though it may seem an odd thing to document in the history of a realm, the Signature Killer has perhaps done more to shape life in the cities of Nova Vaasa in the last seventy years than any prince or would-be crime master could claim. Striking mostly in Liara in recent years, but also in Kantora and rarely in Bergovitsa, a madman has been intermittently stalking the women of the lower classes, killing and mutilating them and leaving the remains behind for the city guard along with crudely scrawled taunts. Murders of this sort are an unfortunate fact of urban life, but for a string of such killings to stretch over such a long period of time without ending in the perpetrator’s capture, suicide or natural death is decidedly unusual.
Fortunately, the killings have slowed since they first began in 682 BC, to about one, and sometimes two, a year. Still, that leaves the killer with over 100 murders to his name. The unlikely duration of the killing spree has led to the speculation that there may in fact be a cult of murderers at work, killing women as an act of obscene sacrifice. Others whisper that the killer is a vampire using mutilation to hide his feedings or a disembodied spirit driving others to murder to satisfy its dark cravings, or that he is any of a thousand other creatures of the night. Satisfactory answers and explanations have proven impossible to come by, and so the murders and the fear continue.
Nova Vaasans are strictly divided along economic lines. The wealthy aristocracy holds all the power, while the impoverished peasantry provides the labor. One might look to the Church of the Lawgiver as the third pillar of Nova Vaasan society, but the clergy are all aristocrats, and the actions and teachings of the Church serve primarily to support the interests of the nobles. Instead of forming a third pillar, the Church instead serves as a foundation of the first.
Given the vast separation between the wealthy and poor, most aspects of their culture and lifestyle must be twice examined, as what holds true for one side may have no reflection on the other.
Nova Vaasan are a rough, rugged people well suited to a life on the plains. They are of average height and have wide hips and thick limbs. Their facial features are particularly distinctive, tending toward angular chins, prominent cheekbones, wide, full-lipped mouths and short, somewhat flattened noses and wide nostrils. It is a common joke in Barovia and Tepest that the Nova Vaasans look rather like the horses they tend, a comment that inevitably leads to crude speculations about Nova Vaasan ancestry. The slightly bow-legged swagger of the Nova Vaasans is a frequent target for mockery as well. Nova Vaasans are little concerned by these insults, as comparisons to horses bother them not at all, and they take no shame in the gait that marks them as experienced riders.
Nova Vaasan skin tends to be fair and ruddy, though Nova Vaasan with pale olive or sallow complexions are not unusual. However, ever lighter-skinned Nova Vaasans are often tanned from long hours working the fields or riding the plains. Eyes are almost always dark green or gray, with the occasional dark brown or black, with light brown or dirty blond hair being found as well. Women grow their hair exceptionally long, often past the waist, and young girls work these tresses into two long braids. Men generally prefer to keep their hair cut just below the shoulder, although some noblemen grow their hair much longer and tie it back into a tail. All men, noble or poor, grow long mustaches and use wax to shape them into stiff and sometimes elaborate curls. A Nova Vaasan proverb holds that “a man without a mustache is like a horse without a tail.” Given that, it should come as no surprise that men seek to cut short or even shave the mustaches of their enemies to shame them. Nova Vaasan men do not grow beards, as they would only distract from their glorious mustaches.
Nova Vaasan clothing, predictably, varies greatly between the social classes. Commoners’ clothing is drab, practical and of poor quality. The clothing of the poor is never dyed, and predominantly dirty or light brown. Brown is preferred as it helps to hide the stains of the dirt fields or the smears of urban squalor. Men wear long, homespun shirts, with sleeves rolled up, and sometimes add thin leather vests as a second layer. Trousers are of heavy cotton, tied off with a belt of rope or, rarely, cheap leather. Women wear cotton blouses and culettes, and plain, unadorned kerchiefs cover their heads. Commoners in the cities usually go barefoot or wear cloth wrappings around their feet; few own boots, and those that do never wear them for fear of being robbed. Boots are more common in the field, but only marginally.
In contrast, aristocratic vestments are brightly colored and cared for meticulously. Males wear ostentatious riding breeches that flare from waist to knee and tighten from knee to ankle; they also don thick, finely tailored coats over shirts of thin cotton or imported silk. Both the coats and shirts are trimmed with lace. Tall black riding boots and brightly colored, intricately embroidered kerchiefs round out the typical ensemble, with older men often adding felt caps. Particularly wealthy noblemen wear garments trimmed in plains cat fur and necklaces made from the cat’s teeth and claws. Noblewomen wear velvet riding skirts, billowing blouses and black boots. They favor long, thin scarves trimmed with bells and coins. Gold bracelets and earrings are the most popular pieces of jewelry among the women. Men and women prefer rich shades of red, blue and purple, though any bright color might be found, save green, which is worn only in mourning. Men prefer striped patterns, while women favor swirls and spirals.
Needless to say, the predominant language among Nova Vaasans is Vaasi. Nova Vaasans insist that their dialect of Vaasi is purer than those of Kartakass, Hazlan or Valachan, and none care enough to argue. Nova Vaasans take pride in their language, and by law it is the only language that may be used in legal proclamations and historical records. The Church of the Lawgiver has similar laws, requiring all religious recitations and holy scripts be in Vaasi.
While Vaasi is the official language of Nova Vaasa, it is far from the only tongue spoken there. Commerce brings merchants from all across the Core to Nova Vaasa. Balok and Darkonese are the next most commonly heard human tongues, while the Gnomish and Halfling tongues can be heard in the few small neighborhoods and communities dominated by those small folk. Still, anyone planning to spend any significant amount of time in Nova Vaasa had best be prepared to learn at least a smattering of Vaasi.
Lifestyle & Education
An odd duality seems to exist in the minds of Nova Vaasans, expressed in many aspects of their culture and daily habits. The aristocrats, for instance, speak reverently about the responsibility of a noble to his people and master to his servants, and the importance of personal honor and chivalry. The commoners talk of duty to one’s superiors, the sanctity of Law and Order, the primacy of the community. In both cases, these appear to be sincere, deeply held beliefs.
Yet Nova Vaasa is a land where the aristocracy taxes the peasantry into abject poverty, beating and imprisoning those who cannot afford to pay. A noble has the legal right to strike a commoner for the crime of insolence, and few think twice about exercising it. Many in the peasantry, meanwhile, throw themselves into every vice with abandon, steal from their neighbors and stare daggers into the back of every aristocrat who passes by. In short, a wide gulf stretches between the professed values of the Nova Vaasans and the lives they actually lead. Suggest this to a Nova Vaasan, however, and you will meet a stone wall of denial.
This gulf seems to go beyond mere self-delusion. Nor does it seem to be a simple weakness of will. From my observations, average Nova Vaasans often appear to take a savage joy in the opportunity to flout traditional mores. They act is if the true purpose of their values was not to promote the health and security of the community and the individual, but instead to give their dark side something to rebel against. Only the threat of temporal punishment (among the peasants), the fear of public humiliation or censure (among the aristocrats), and the promise of eternal damnation by the Lawgiver (for everyone) hold matters in check. Ever those powerful disincentives do little to stem the corruption and decay in the oppressively crowded cities.
A cauldron of repressed anger – or perhaps hunger – quietly churns in the hearts of the people. By day, even in the blighted press of the cities, I could hardly escape the townsfolk’s posturing about honor, duty and responsibility, yet by night the ferocity and abandon with which they pursued such vices as gambling, prostitution and beast-baiting took me aback. The nobles would have others believe that only the commoners find refuge in such filth, and they have done a fair job convincing themselves of that same myth, yet many fine black boots and well-tailored gloves can be spotted amid the noisy masses of carousers and vice-seekers.
Regardless, the truth remains that life in Nova Vaasa is grim, hard and ugly. In the fields and farmlands of the noble families, the lords do as they see fit, with little chance of recrimination or retaliation. Fortunate peasants serve under a lord such as Sir Tristen Hiregaard, who is merely as severe as the law requires, but most lords are not so restrained. The average family labors are not so restrained. The average family labors hard from dawn to dusk, for fear of not meeting the nobles’ exorbitant demands, and then returns home at night to nurse their resentments in sullen silence. They do whatever they can to avoid the attention of the aristocrats and their guards, even if that means doing nearly nothing at all outside of work. Those who do feel secure enough to seek diversions play games such as horseshoes, rope-skipping, top-spinning and draughts. Devotions to the Lawgiver are a daily observation, often done in a spirit of avoiding consequence rather than genuine reverence.
In the cities, poverty is even more rampant than in the fields, but ironically the urban peasants have much greater freedom to pursue their personal interests and entertainment. There are too many people to be adequately policed, and the only noble with official power over the cities is the Prince himself, who generally has larger matters to concern himself with than the temperance of the underclass. Thus, in the cities Vice has been crowned Prince, and he rules with a trembling fist in a wine-stained glove. By day the peasants eke out a living however they can, be it via pretty crafts, unskilled manual labor or the provision of cheap services. At night they spend their earnings in a whirlwind of self-gratification. Gambling is by far the vice of choice, with bets placed on games of skill and chance, races of horses or dogs, caged combats between beasts and even men. The consumption of alcohol and narcotics is not far behind in popularity; opium from Hazlan is a particularly valued commodity. Amidst this storm of iniquity, violent crime flourishes. Robberies, assaults, rapes, murders… each are daily occurrences.
Perhaps only in the remote settlements is Nova Vaasan life led in something approaching peace and balance. No Nova Vaasan is beyond the yoke of one of the noble families, but they do not bother to exert much influence in those communities far from their castles. So long as taxes are paid on time and shows of loyalty made, distant communities are mostly left to their own devices. The resulting life is still hard, but far less grim and only occasionally ugly. These communities are generally tight knit, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. They tend to distrust strangers and fear disruptions to their way of life.
The aristocrats, living in luxury’s lap and almost entirely free from legal restrictions, live largely as they please. Their lifestyles are paid for by the labors of the commoners, and while this arrangement frees them from responsibilities, it also leads to a fair amount of boredom and restlessness. A few loose traditions are in place to give young aristocrats some direction. Eldest sons are expected to learn the stewardship of holdings, while eldest daughters are expected to learn the management of the household and to prepare themselves for marriage. Second sons are expected to train for military pursuit or civil service, while second daughters choose between marriage and the Church. Subsequent children are largely left to their own devices. These are only traditions, however, and deviance from these patterns is a common as adherence.
One thing all aristocrats are expected to master, regardless of sex or birth order, is horsemanship. All nobles own at least one horse, and often many more, and numerous sports and games are played on horseback. Races, hurdles, tilts and even jousts and melee are common and results heavily wagered upon. There are a number of unique Vaasi horse sports as well. In pøollo, teams attempt to use long-handled mallets to knock a thick leather ball through an opposing goal. Riders playing hestberøre try to snatch gauzy streamers from their opponents’ saddles while losing as few of their own as possible, and in klæbegribe riders take turns attempting to pull short stakes from the ground at a gallop without falling from their horses.
A middle class is slowly emerging as shrewd traders, landowners and criminals are able to gather enough wealth to elevate their status and exert influence over those in the peasantry. A few particularly successful farmers, for example, have bought the farms and lands adjoining theirs and employed the former owners as hands and workers, while particularly skilled artisans in the cities have parlayed their talents into successful and profitable businesses. This middle class is currently small and thinly spread, however, and in the eyes of the aristocrats they are still peasants, only with larger tax revenues to provide. A few merchants are trying to remedy this situation, increasing their political power by forming guilds and trading companies, but these efforts have yet to effect any real change.
Marriage among commoners is rarely a romantic occasion. Prospective partners are chosen for responsibility, fertility and a lack of overt querulousness. Marriage among peasants is in many ways a transaction, a mutual agreement that long-term partnership could prove mutually advantageous. This cynical perspective is undoubtedly the result of the hardship the peasantry must endure; most simply cannot afford to make life decisions based on something as intangible as love or attraction. Peasants do not rush into marriage, usually marrying in their twenties or early thirties.
Aristocrats have more freedom to marry for romance, as their economic security is virtually assured. The only restrictions they face involve inter-family marriages; none of the great families want to see any fraction of their holdings going to another through patrilineal inheritance. Thus most noble marriages are between distant cousins. The richest and most powerful of the nobles will often arrange their children’s marriages, rather than risking their honor or possessions. No noble, regardless of feelings or attraction, would stoop to marry a commoner; the embarrassment would simply be too great, and the Church frowns heavily upon that sort of class intermixing.
The Nova Vaasan diet is well varied when it comes to breads and vegetables, and much more uniform when it comes to meats and dairy. Pork, chicken and fish are the staples, supplemented with variety of breads, fruits, roots and greens. Popular dishes include spiced pork sausages called kilbaasa_; meat-stuffed cabbage rolls (_golaabki) or eggs; pirogi, pockets of dough stuffed with anything from meats and cheese to fruits and vegetables; and a variety of meat and vegetable stews, such as “rider’s stew” (of which there are many variations, usually including pork or sausage). Pancakes topped with jams made from apples, pears or peaches are the favored desserts.
Art in Nova Vaasa is not nearly as developed or beloved a pursuit as it is in western lands. The peasants have no time for art, and the aristocrats rarely have the inclination. Still, the Nova Vaasans are not entirely without artistic traditions. The highest Nova Vaasan art form is the epic poem.
The Church of the Lawgiver has driven the growth of most other art forms. The Church has long traditions of architecture, sculpting and music. Hymns and choral pieces dedicated to the Lawgiver are the most prevalent forms of musical expression in Nova Vaasa, followed by drinking songs. Instrumental pieces are centered on horns and percussion.
Education in Nova Vasa ranges from informal to non-existent. Peasants are too concerned about teaching their children practical skills such as farming or stone working to spend time imparting more academic matters. Literacy among commoners is almost unknown. Aristocrats hire private tutors for their children or send them to study in the west. A university stands in Kantora, but it is small and not particularly popular or well regarded. The Church of the Lawgiver provides education to its clergy, teaching them how to read and write and other necessary skills, but otherwise focuses on theological teaching of dubious value.
Attitudes Toward Magic
Nova Vaasans have developed deeply rooted distrust of arcane magic. Anecdotal evidence indicates they were far more accepting of it in the distant past, but the Second Judgment changed that. Their early years in the Core were spent with a chaotic wasteland called the Nightmare Lands on their eastern border, where the Nocturnal Sea is today. The terrain of the Nightmare Lands shifted constantly, and travelers there reported encountering horrific creatures born of their deepest fears. Fortunately, the Nightmare Lands vanished in the wake of the Grand Conjunction. Few folk profess to remember the Nightmare Lands today, but they still seem subconsciously to associate arcane magic with the chaos and instability of that wasteland, and they want no part of it. The Church of the Lawgiver in Nova Vaasa has banned the practice of arcane magic as blasphemy, claiming that its spread was one reason the Lawgiver handed down the Judgment. Suspected practitioners are frequently imprisoned.
Divine magic is accepted if and only if it flows from the Lawgiver. When the Church of the Lawgiver deigns to admit the existence of other gods, it places them in subordinate roles, labeling them as servants of the Lawgiver and essentially powerless in their own right. Both Ezra and Hala, for example, are officially codified as the Lawgiver’s concubines. Therefore, according to Church dogma, any cleric performing miracles in the name of a god other than the Lawgiver must be a liar and a heretic, drawing his magic from arcane or even demonic sources. Imprisonment is the kindest fate a “heretic” can hope for, so servants of other gods would be wise not to call attention to themselves with flashy displays of divine power.
The Church of the Lawgiver is the state church of Nova Vaasa and the only religion with a significant presence. The Church is the true glue holding together Nova Vaasan society. Its teachings about law, obedience, and the divine right of rule are ingrained into every citizen at a young age, and without this stabilizing dogma the underclass would assuredly rise against the aristocracy that oppresses it. Church attendance is not legally mandated, but significant social pressure encourages it, and those seen as impious are ostracized and avoided. Given the Church’s significance bout within Nova Vaasa and without, it warrants a full article of its own.
Church of the Lawgiver
Although technically a principality, Nova Vaasans often refer to their realm as a kingdom. This is a legacy of the great conquer-king Højplads, whom the Church of the Lawgiver has elevated to sainted status. Højplads is seen as the realm’s Eternal King under the Lawgiver’s mandate, with the prince being merely the realm’s stewards in his material absence. Unsurprisingly, individual princes have sometimes dissenting viewpoints.
By tradition, Højplad’s authority as Eternal King is recognized in a number of symbolic ways. The Storsortstenstol (“Great Blackstone Throne”) in the Prince’s palace has traditionally been left empty, with the Prince sitting instead at the head chair of the Council Table. The Whip of Right and the Rod of Might, the traditional symbols of Nova Vaasan kingship, have likewise traditionally been left unused except in rare ceremonial occasions. Proclamations are made “in the name of the Eternal King, by the will of the Lawgiver.”
Few could question that Othmar views himself as the realm’s king in fact if not in name, and no prince in Nova Vaasa’s history has dared to openly usurp so much of the Eternal King’s symbolic authority. Othmar was not the first prince to refuse to surrender his stewardship of the realm after five years, but no prince ever reigned as long as he has, and he grows boulder with each successive year. Nine years into his reign, all portraits and sculptures he commissioned began depicting him wielding the Whip of Right and Rod of Might. Fourteen years into his reign, he commanded that coins be minted with his likeness rather than the traditional seals of the great families. Five years ago, he took to sitting in the Great Blackstone Throne. This act nearly provoked a revolt by the Rivtoff and Vistin families, but pressure by the other three families, and a decree from the Himmelsk Naeve legitimizing Othmar’s actions, calmed the dissent. Rumor has it that Othmar has nearly proclaimed himself King on several occasions, only to be talked out of it each time by his advisors. Still, the pattern of his reign suggests that it is only a matter of time and when that time comes the resulting unrest may not be so easily defused.
As previously noted, rulership of Nova Vaasa is traditionally rotated between the patriarchs of the Five Great Families, in what is called the Ordained Cycle of Stewardship. Taking the title Prince of Nova Vaasa, tho chosen patriarch rules for a term of five years, upon which the title is transferred to the next patriarch in line. The cycle occurs in this order: Bolshnik, Rivtoff, Vistin, Hiregaard, Chekiv and then back to Bolshnik once more. This would appear to be an inherently unstable arrangement. Though it was intended to create unity and a sense of kinship among the Five Families, men being what they are, one would expect resentment and internecine power-struggles. Remarkably, the scheme actually worked, with few hurdles, for centuries. I suspect the stabilizing influence of the Church of the Lawgiver was the invisible hand holding the realm together.
Obviously, affairs of state have stopped proceeding according to this plan. Othmar reigned as prince for 28 years and thereby became the first Prince to maintain the title for a full Cycle. Were the Ordained Cycle still being observed, power would rightfully be in Bolshnik hands, but only until the end of this year, after which Rivtoff would traditionally assume power. As the year continues, renewed pressure is mounting from the Rivtoffs and Vistins for Othmar to step down and let the Cycle resume, but Othmar shows no signs of being moved to acquiesce. It appears that the current state of government will persist for the foreseeable future.
The tradition of the Ordained Cycle left Nova Vaasa with a strong aristocracy by necessity. Each of the Five Families has significant power within their region of the principality, powers that are retained whether the patriarch of the family currently holds the title of Prince or not. Most importantly, each family has the right to tax those living within their sphere of influence. Of course, much of this income must in turn be given as taxes to the Prince, but any revenue that exceeds royal taxes is the families’ to keep. The families therefore attempt to pass as much of these taxes as they can onto their subjects, bleeding them dry in order to fill their own coffers. Only the Hiregaards are notably more lenient in this regard, and that family’s fortunes have been diminishing for decades.
Besides the right of taxation, the Five Families also have the right to maintain standing military and to conscript citizens into these household guards in times of war or rebellion. Conscription is a rarely exercised power in modern times, though occasionally a family will gather together and arm a group of peasants to assist in hunting down bandits. The families also have broad judicial powers over their lands, with the right to arrest and punish lawbreakers, though the Prince has the right to reverse these decisions. In practice he almost never bothers, so the Families enforce the law with near absolute freedom. The families have other broad executive powers within their lands; they are almost autonomous states.
Technically, the five largest settlements are each under the direct control of the Prince. The Prince appoints the mayors of each city, and they respond directly to him. In practice, though, much of the power in each city lies in the hands of the nearest Great Family, as the mayors are almost always chosen from their ranks. For instance, the Mayor of Kantora has almost always been from a branch of the Bolshnik family, and the Hiregaards have long provided the Mayors of Liara. Power in Bergovitsa is hotly contested between the Rivtoffs and Vistins, with mayors often selected form either or neither; this struggle is the source of much of the bad blood between the two families. The smaller settlements, Egertus and Arbora, are even more thoroughly controlled by nearby families: the Bolshniks govern Egertus with a free hand, and Arbora is almost entirely the domain of the Chekivs.
Settlements that exist outside the nobles’ immediate sphere of influence have their own weak governments, with mayor or council of elders making decisions and enforcing the laws. These civic governments stay in place only as long as the nobles permit, so they are careful to govern in a fashion that will not draw undue attention.
The Council of Lords deserves a brief mention. This small body is meant to advise the Prince. Traditionally, it consists of twelve members: the four Dukes; the mayors of Kantora, Liara, Bergovitsa, Arbora and Egertus; and three other luminaries chosen at the will of the Prince. The twelve member council convenes annually in Kantora to discuss the state of the realm and suggest policy to the Prince. The weight given to the Council’s recommendations has waxed and waned over the years. Currently, under Othmar’s reign, they are virtually ignored and each year nearly half the council neglects to attend the meeting. The three “extra” council members are currently Poul Ehrend, Count of Ehrendton; Lord Rangvold Alriik, Othmar’s spymaster; and Mathias Bolshnik, the aerkebiskop of Kantora.
It should surprise no one to learn that the Nova Vaasan economy is centered on the horse. Vaasi horses are renowned for their strength, speed and intelligence, and are highly desired as riding horses, warhorses and status symbols among the wealthy all across the Core. Since there is no shortage of horses on the Vaasi Plateau, the Nova Vaasans are all too willing to share their most valuable resource with others, at a tidy profit of course.
Nova Vaasan law states that any male Vaasi horse sold to a foreigner must first be gelded; the
Nova Vaasans are very protective of their monopoly. This condition has made the outside
demand for Vaasi stallions very high, both to horse breeders and to soldiers or noblemen who desire more spirited mounts. The high prices these stallions command has accelerated the growth of the black market for Vaasi steeds.
The Vistani in Nova Vaasa have a unique part to play in the horse trade. While Nova Vaasan horse trainers are often highly skilled, the best of them pales in comparison to the better Vistani trainers, and the Nova Vaasans grudgingly realize this fact. Thus, the Vistani are permitted to take and raise horses from the Vaasi Plateau, the only foreigners so privileged. This privilege comes with a restriction, however: the Vistani, by law, are permitted to sell horses of Vaasi bloodlines only to Nova Vaasan merchants. Under this arrangement, then, the Vistani pull horses from the plains, raise them, train them, and then sell them in Nova Vaasan markets for princely sums. Though much of this revenue must be paid to excisemen as the Vistani leave the market, they still reap a fair profit from the transactions. The merchants then sell
these Vistani-trained horses at even higher prices to nobles both inside and outside the domain. Since noblemen usually despise the Vistani as thieves and beggars and are loath to deal with them directly, having Nova Vaasan merchant middlemen benefits both sides greatly. Though
undoubtedly some Vistani caravans flout these laws, most choose to obey them rather than risk
souring a profitable situation. In fact, at least one Equaar caravan, the Twin Waters, stays almost exclusively within Nova Vaasa, rolling through a slow circuit of the land while gathering and selling horses.
Besides the horses themselves, byproducts of the horse have also become important elements of the Nova Vaasan economy. Horses that are too old or infirm to be sold, bred or worked are slaughtered, and their constituent parts are sold toward various ends. Some such parts, such as horsehair, can be regularly harvested from healthy animals. Horsehair is dyed and woven into baskets, bridles, ropes and similar items. Horsemeat is sold as food for the hounds of the rich or the children of the poor. Horse hooves are valuable to chymists for the creation of adhesives. Organs such as the heart, liver, eyes and testicles are powdered and sold as medicines or aphrodisiacs to the gullible or as spell components to the wise. Horse dung is gathered and sold as fertilizer at markets up and down the four rivers. But it is the hide of the horse that presents the most opportunity. Nova Vaasan leatherwork is among the most prized in the Core,both for the quality of the horsehide leather itself and the skill of the Nova Vaasan artisans. Saddles, boots, gloves, jackets and other goods made from Vaasi leather can be found in lands throughout the Core. In the western realms, pistol holsters and scabbards made from Vaasi horsehide have become de rigueur.
It will perhaps be more surprising to discover that the feared Vaasi predator, the plains cat, is also a significant element of Nova Vaasan commerce. The pelt of the plains cat is actually quite soft and fine, and garments trimmed with plains cat fur fetch handsome sums. The silver and white fur of an aged plains cat is even more in demand, but none is as valued as the fur of the blood cat. The claws and fangs of the plains cats are prized by Nova Vaasan noblemen as pieces of bracelets or necklaces, and this cultural fashion trend is catching on in adjacent lands such as Darkon and Barovia. Ear tufts are valued as lucky charms, while powdered organs are even more valued than those of horses.
From an agricultural standpoint, Nova Vaasa is quite wealthy, with wide expanses of farmland along the banks of the realms three major rivers. Grains, especially wheat, barley, oats and rye, make up the majority of the crop, but a variety of other foodstuffs are grown as well. Orchards of apples account for most of the fruit produce, followed by pears, peaches and plums, though local plums have slowly fallen out of favor with the import of more flavorful Barovian varieties. Cabbages, potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, turnips and beans make up the majority of their roots and vegetables. Nova Vaasa also has rich yields of fiber crops, including
hemp, flax and kenaf, which contribute to the burgeoning textiles and paper industries.
Livestock consists mostly of chickens and hogs, with sheep and cattle being relatively scarce; the Nova Vaasans are reluctant to take ranging space from their horses. The Nova Vaasans instead import most of their red meats and cheeses from Darkon and Tepest. This is all supplemented with steady fishing of cod, herring and mackerel in the Nocturnal Sea, and smaller catches of pike, trout and bass from the Three Sisters.
Granite is the most prevalent mineral resource, quarried from the rock bluffs in the southwest. It is likewise the most-used building material. Demand very nearly meets the supply and thus little ends up as export. Besides granite, the few minerals found in quantity include amber, gathered from river beds; limestone, gypsum and chalk, found in the same rock mesas as the granite; and salt, mined from deposits in the foothills of the Mountains of Misery or harvested on the shores of the Nocturnal Sea.
Despite the wealth of its resources, Nova Vaasa is by no means a self-sufficient kingdom. Vaasi
timber is of dismally poor quality and sparse quantity. Thus imports from Barovia, Tepest and Darkon are vital, more so now than ever with the growth of the Nova Vaasan navy. Metal resources are also scarce. The foothills around Bergovitsa and Liara yield small amounts of iron and copper ore, far too little to meet the kingdoms demands. Imports from Barovia, Borca and Darkon make up the shortfall.
Nova Vaasan coinage is becoming an increasingly common sight in lands throughout the eastern
Core, and merchants and townsfolk will usually accept it in even exchange with few reservations. The gold piece is known as the bridle; the heads side shows a horse head in profile, looking to the observers left. The silver piece, the spur, shows a riders boot, with the toe pointed to the observers right. The copper piece, the horseshoe, shows exactly that, a horseshoe with the open end pointed downward. The tails sides feature two common designs, one for those minted before Othmars reign and one for those after. Before Othmar, each coin bore the crests of each of the five great families, arranged in a pentagonal design. By Othmars command, coins now bear his likeness. He is shown seated on a throne, head turned to the
observers right. In his left hand he holds a whip, and in his right hand a rod, the two traditional symbols of Vaasi kingship. Because the older coins are melted and repressed when taken as taxes, Othmars coins have become far more common.
Nova Vaasa has regular contact with other lands. Merchants travel to and fro by all available routes, and young Nova Vaasan aristocrats often garner their education abroad. There are few civilized parts of the Core where a Nova Vaasan is nowhere to be found, and thus many relationships have been established and opinions formed of other lands.
Barovia: Barovia is viewed mainly as a stepping stone to the riches of the west. While demand for Barovian timber, spirits and metals does exist, trading for them unfortunately involves dealing with Barovians, something that few Nova Vaasan merchants savor. Barovians remind Nova Vaasan traders of the lower classes they avoid at home, with the additional unpleasantness of superstitious atheism thrown in. The secularism of the average Barovian greatly bothers most Nova Vaasans who encounter it, and the few religions that do have a foothold in Barovia bother them even more. The Cult of the Morninglord is seen as particularly pernicious; its message of temporal hope for the downtrodden is as opposite to the dogma of the Lawgiver as anything could be.
Darkon/Necropolis: Though the ties between Nova Vaasa and Darkon were only recently forged, Darkon has already become one of Nova Vaasas most respected neighbors and the latest focus of its mercantile pursuits. When the lands of the Core shifted in the wake of the Great Upheaval, the Mountains of Misery no longer barred all traffic between the two lands. Nova Vaasans were eager to take advantage of this new opportunity for trade, and it has paid handsome dividends on both sides.
Hazlan: Nova Vaasans arent quite sure what to make of the Hazlani. The commonalties of language and religion would seem likely to draw the two peoples together, but the Hazlani culture is too alien to be easily overlooked. Indeed, the few similarities between the two cultures appear only to accentuate the differences. The Himmelsk Naeve would like nothing more than to increase unity between the two realms, which would increase the Churchs influence, but despite his efforts it seems unlikely that the two lands will ever become more than uncomfortable neighbors and lukewarm trading partners.
The Nocturnal Sea: Egertus and Arbora were wealthy ports before the Mists rose, and the disappearance of the sea had left them as shadows of their former wealth. When the Nightmare Lands vanished after the Great Upheaval, the sea reappeared, but the mists did not recede. Intrepid Nova Vaasan mariners boldly attempted to sail and chart the enshrouded waters, with few successes and many tragedies. When the mists finally did recedeand reveal the waters of the Nocturnal Sea, it was seen as a miraculous blessing, a reward from the Lawgiver for the good faith and service of His people. Though neither port is anywhere close to as powerful as they once had been, each has begun to boom with the return of marine commerce. Egertus carries on a brisk trade with Nevuchar Springs on Darkons coast and with the island of Liffe to the northeast, while Arbora does the same with Graben Island.
Though the Nocturnal Sea is treacherous and turbulent, Nova Vaasans continue to view it with a certain fondness, their own special gift from the Lawgiver. There is no shortage of volunteers for trading vessels or for the Nova Vaasan Navy, and the Nova Vaasan reputation for riding the waves is slowly growing to match their reputation for riding the plains.
Tepest: Tepest is something of a thorn in the side of Nova Vaasan merchants, who are always seeking to increase their trading opportunities with the western lands. The wild and fey creatures of the untamed Tepestani forests make for a perilous journey for merchant caravans. In an effort to improve matters, Nova Vaasans would like to see the East Timori road extended north into Keening, with the hopes of eventually meeting the Darkonian Strigos Road and thereby hastening the completion of the trade route.
The Tepestani themselves are considered barely worthy of notice, as they have little interest in fine horseflesh. Their pagan zealotry does little to help. It is mainly the vast stores of Tepestani timber that keep Nova Vaasan merchants coming back. What other barter occurs is usually of an agricultural bent.
Sites of Interest
Arboras townsfolk refer to it as "the far corner of the world," a statement not made without a certain element of pride. The origins of that description are not hard to discern. Arbora is the southernmost settlement of note in the Core, and the most physically isolated as well, save perhaps for those at sea. Not only do the Mists surround Arbora and nearby lands on three sides, but it is distant from most large population centers. The closest major settlement to Arbora is Sly-Var in Hazlan, and while relations between the two towns are cordial, cultural differences keep them from drawing too close. Because of this relative isolation, Arborans have developed a very independent, self-sufficient attitude and prefer to make their own way as much as possible.
Physical isolation has resulted in political isolation as well. Prince Othmar Bolshnik, like many princes before him, cares nothing for the region so long as his taxes arrive. Thus the Arborans have felt relatively little of the burden of centralized authority since 728 BC, the last year a Chekiv sat the throne. The current Duke Chekiv dutifully collects Othmars taxes and supports his decrees, but exercises little of his own initiative.
A feeling of danger simmers in all of Nova Vaasas cities, thanks to the widespread crime and general discontent, but Bergovitsa has an extra element of chaos added to that already explosive mix. The Rivtoffs and the Vistins have long vied for influence over the city, and this struggle for power and status has boiled over into the streets. Of course, one rarely sees the aristocrats themselves suffering for it. Instead, gangs of thugs, hired by one of the noble families, harass and assault innocent commoners or merchants whose only fault is that they in some way represent (or are thought to represent) the interests of the rival family. It is not unheard of to witness a craftsman in a tannery owned by the Vistins dragged into the street and beaten by Rivtoff henchmen, who cared not at all that their attack had witnesses. No one moves to call the watch, and they would likely not have responded anyway. Many suspect that the watch has been instructed to take no notice of these incidents. The Bergovitsa city watch is subject to the commands of Mayor Araam Tavolys, a cousin of the Bolshniks, and it would not be surprising to learn that Prince Othmar has commanded that the conflict be allowed to continue. It certainly helps to keep the two families distracted from other concerns.
Bergovitsa is an important waystation in the trade between Kantora and the west, and as a result is the most cosmopolitan of Nova Vaasas cities. Most of the Cores languages can be heard spoken in Bergovitsas markets and goods of all styles and descriptions found in its shops. Though many come to Bergovitsa from other lands to trade, few end up deciding to stay. Bergovitsa is as dismal as the rest of Nova Vaasas cities, and it makes a far better place to visit than to lay roots. The result is steady traffic in and out of the gates, as caravans arrive, sell their goods, buy replacements and leave in short order.
Places of interest in Bergovitsa include the Crimson Citadel Fane, a walled religious community on the northern edge of the city and the seat of Pave Lod Ragnaar; the Travelers Market, Bergovitsas bustling commercial center, in the western part of the city; and the Ansgar Museum, the former home of the ancient poet converted into a shrine to his life and work. The Aveners District, in northeastern Bergovitsa, is probably best avoided despite its popularity. It is the site of the greatest horse races in Nova Vaasa, but crime is rampant. There are also recent reports of a "shambling mud-monster" stalking the District at night, attacking those who stumble across it. No verifiable deaths or injuries have been attributed to this mud-man, so it is likely an urban myth sprung from the other, very real dangers to be found in the Aveners District.
Kantora strikes visitors as either an awe-inspiring example of urban splendor or a horrific morass of urban decay — perhaps both at once. The city changes dramatically as one passes from the heavily patrolled, meticulously kept aristocratic and government districts into the boroughs of the paupers and tradesmen. Where the presence of the city watch is felt, Kantora is safe, clean and at times even beautiful, but this is a very small section of the city, and those who clearly do not "belong" in these areas will quickly find themselves ejected or arrested. The rest of the city is largely left to fend for itself, and living conditions there are among the worst in the cities of the Core.
Running east-west through the middle of Kantora is the High Road, dividing the city in two. At the center of the High Road and Kantora is the Princes Palace, the ceremonial seat of Nova Vaasas government. It is readily apparent that the Palace was constructed with grandeur and opulence in mind rather than practicality. The Palace is a breathtaking sight, tall, proud and sprawling, but its fortifications are woeful. The outer wall is thin and short, the gates too wide, and the towers placed cosmetically rather than strategically. Were Nova Vaasa invaded, the Princes Palace would surely be abandoned as indefensible. For that matter, the Princes Palace is nearly abandoned in any case. Prince Othmar stays here when he has business in the city, but he prefers to rule from Stonegard, leaving only a detachment of guardsmen and a handful of stewards to occupy the palace.
The palace may be the physical center of Kantora, but the Horse District is its true heart. Covering the southwestern quarter of the city, the Horse District is dominated by the Great Corral, a wide, open-air market where horse ranchers and trainers display their wares. Here, and here alone, the Vistani are kings, proudly displaying their magnificent and expertly trained steeds to a throng of clamoring merchants and traders. In the north is the River Quarter, another bustling trade district, but with a much less savory reputation. The Merchants Quarter, in the southeast, is less prosperous than its name would suggest. It is dominated by struggling shops and unemployed laborers, and beggars line every street.
On the eastern edge of the city is the Mausoleum of the Elect, a walled tomb where those princes who have died while in office are interred. The Church of the Lawgiver holds that princes who die or are killed during their terms are chosen by the Lawgiver, elected to reign beside him in the Iron Paradise, and those so blessed are laid to rest in the Mausoleum, a high honor. Of course, the Church has reversed itself on this point when politically convenient, declaring that specific princes, the unpopular or liberal, were actually struck down by the Lawgiver to remove them from office and barring them from the Mausoleum. Princes who commit suicide, such as the late Prince Romir Hiregaard, are also denied honored rest.
Though Egertus is high above the Guldstrand, with the looming cliffs of the Fortress Coast separating them, the beach has become the most vital part of the town, for it is here that merchant ships from the Nocturnal Sea dock to unload their cargo. On the opposite side of the Sydligdnar is the Skibbygger Beach, which has become the center for shipbuilding in Nova Vaasa.
Nova Vaasans claim that Egertus was once a city nearly as large as Bergovitsa and Liara, and that it was the greatest port of the Old Vaasan Empire. Tragically, the Judgment laid waste to the city, in a manner that is not entirely clear. Some say that large parts of Egertus simply disappeared when the Mists rose, just as the sea the Egertusians once sailed vanished. Others say that the Judgment physically shook the city, causing buildings to collapse and crushing people beneath them. Egertus was further diminished by a mass exodus, as peasants fled first the looming curtains of mist and later the chaotic madness of the Nightmare Lands. This rapid population decline has produced some positive results on the village. Though its structures are as densely placed as those of any Nova Vaasan settlement, the population density is much lower, and thus Egertus is actually a relatively clean, unblighted town. With the appearance of the Nocturnal Sea, though, there has been a flood of immigration, as Nova Vaasans seek to take advantage of this new source of opportunity. In the near future, Egertus will likely become as filthy and crowded as its sister settlements.
In the recent past, Egertus was little more than an appendage of Kantora, sending most of its resources west to satisfy the needs of the bloated city. That situation has begun to reverse, as huge quantities of hemp, flax and imported timber are sent to Egertus to aid in the growth of the Nova Vaasan Navy and satisfy the needs of maritime traders. The increased importance of the town has given Egertusians an inflated sense of pride, and they tend to be quite condescending toward visitors and immigrants.
Other than the aforementioned beaches, few destinations are of particular interest in Egertus. The only building of intellectual importance was the Clinic of the Mentally Distressed, which was founded by the famous Dr. Gregorian Illhousen. The Clinic served as a hospital and sanitarium for the mentally ill and was one of the most celebrated of those institutions in the Core, rivaled only by the Asylum for the Mentally Disturbed off the coast of Lamordia. Dr. Illhousen was particularly respected for his innovative research into the nature of dreams and how they impact mental health. Strangely, the inhabitants of the Clinic, both patients and physicians, disappeared without explanation in 749 BC, leaving the Clinic abandoned.
Prince Othmar ordered an investigation, as one of the missing patients was his elder brother Talgaard. Talgaard had suffered from severe mental illnesses for most of his life, but in 720 BC they took a violent turn. He began stealing away from Stonegard on stormy nights and strangling innocents with a garrote of barbed wire. The Kantora “Strangler” killed dozens of people over the next six years before being captured and institutionalized, becoming one of the Clinics very first patients. He was still undergoing treatment when the disappearances occurred. Despite a long search by both the town watch and watchmen from Kantora, no trace of Dr. Illhousen, Talgaard, or any of the other missing residents was ever found. The whereabouts of Nova Vaasas greatest native scientist remain unknown.
In 695 BC, a Nova Vaasan knight by the name of Sir Armand Rivtoff, better known as Armand Ironhand, wrote the famous saga The Beast of Ehrendton, a fanciful embellishment of his efforts to root out a would-be bandit king calling himself the Black Duke ten years earlier. In the novel, the Black Duke is cast as a literal demon from the pits of Hell, intent on conquering first Nova Vaasa and then the rest of the known world. Though Ironhands prose is unpolished and at times awkward, the winged, whip wielding Duke makes for a memorable antagonist, and the events depicted are impressively disturbing in places. It has been suggested that The Beast of Ehrendton was actually meant as a political commentary, with the Black Duke representing the Church of the Lawgiver; the imagery of the whip is particularly intriguing when viewed in this light. I am skeptical, however, as Ironhand foregoes many opportunities to develop the metaphor, and I expect he had no greater ambition than telling a tragic horror story.
Sir Armands popular tale made Ehrendton one of the better-known regions of Nova Vaasa, an honor it most assuredly does not deserve. The previously referenced rebellion of the Black Duke and his Brotherhood of the Whip, culminating in the razing of the village of Drataan, is the only event in living memory worthy of mention. Drataan was once Ehrendtons largest settlement; that questionable honor now falls to Haaldam, a hamlet of perhaps 200 peasants. It is said that the screams of the dying can still be heard echoing in the ruins of Drataan. The Ehrend family governs Ehrendton in the name of the Bolshniks.
The Ehrends are a small branch of the Bolshniks, created when a second son was granted the lands that now comprise Ehrendton in order to stave off a struggle for succession. As Counts of Ehrendton, the Ehrends have a great deal of latitude in its governance, but little enough is there to make it a power worth exercising.
Liara could almost be counted as two cities, so dramatically does it change as day fades into night. During daytime hours, Liara is the safest and calmest of Nova Vaasas cities, no doubt thanks to the intervention of Sir Tristen Hiregaard. The mayor of Liara, Ulf Tryggaar, is a distant cousin of Tristens and by all evidence is firmly under his influence. Through Tristens intercession, the Liara city watch has been well trained, well equipped, and as cleansed of corruption as could reasonably be expected. Thanks to their dutiful patrolling and integrity, the incidence of open crime on the streets of Liara is significantly lower than that of Bergovitsa… during the day.
After dark, the mood of the city changes. For decades the Liarans have been living in anxious fear of the Signature Killer that stalks their nighttime streets. In defiance of that fear, many Liarans have become aggressively exuberant, almost manic, in their pursuit of the nights illicit diversions. The fear still crouches within them, though, and can be heard in the hard edge of their laughter and seen in eyes that stay cold while their faces leer. Inevitably, the fear breaks free in some of them, in a flurry of anger and violence. The powerful Liaran underworld, controlled by the mysterious Malken, adds kindling to the fire. It is unwise to walk the nighttime streets of Liara unless one intends to find trouble, or be found by it.
It is perhaps fitting that each of Liaras two most significant structures embodies one side of the dichotomy. The Passeslot, a strong, squat fortress of stone, is the barracks and training grounds of the city watch, complete with an armory and stable. By day it rings with the sound of wood and steel as those watchmen not on patrol run through practice drills. By night, it is much quieter, though it never sleeps entirely. Watchmen walk the walls at all hours, hoping that all those who left on patrol at sunset will return at sunrise.
The dark twin of the Passeslot is the Staggering Stallion, the center of nighttime activity in Liara. A large brick building with a deceptively plain exterior, the Staggering Stallion offers its patrons the opportunity to quench thirsts of all kinds. Other than the obligatory spirits, most of which are brought in from Barovia and Borca, the Staggering Stallion provides opiates, prostitutes, gaming and beast baiting. None of these distasteful activities is actually illegal in Nova Vaasa, but the delights offered by the Staggering Stallion do much to increase the violence and danger of Liara. The Staggering Stallion is owned and operated by Canute Dorisz, an insincerely jolly fat man of questionable hygienic competence. It is widely believed that Dorisz is merely the public face of the Staggering Stallion and that most of its profits find their way into Malkens pockets.
Nova Vaasan characters may be of any class. When developing a character social standing should be considered. The official religion of Nova Vaasa is the Lawgiver.
Realm Magic Rating
Due to the squalor and misery of the population, the magic rating of Nova Vaasa is only a 2.