The primary system of governance in Kantvarld is administration through the Royal Houses. The genesis of the Royal Houses was during the Willowpeak War, when the armies of Terrainia formed themselves up and it became clear that some kind of leadership was required. These "kin guard" then held fortifications after the conclusion of the war, and over time became the kings that are seen today.
The Lives of Nobility
Nobility by definition means belonging to a Royal House. If you are expelled from a Royal House, you are no longer a noble, and this happens from time to time, depending on what rules are present within the House in question. While the nobles are in many ways constrained by their allegiances, the benefits of belonging to a Royal House are many. The primary benefit of belonging to a Royal House is money, for the Royal Houses are many times more wealthy than most merchants. This comes in part from a tax which is placed upon all those who work within the domain of the Royal House. In theory, this tax is paid by the citizens for the service of both protection and administration rendered. In practice, the tax is not voluntary, and those who attempt to avoid it are relentlessly punished.
When no war presents itself, the life of the average noble consists of rich food, elaborate clothing, deal-making, and intrigue. In the summers, fairs are where men and women test their proficiency at swordplay and archery, attend plays and mummer's shows, sing songs, and play music. For the title-holders, peacetime is marked by wandering their holdings, ensuring that taxes are being paid, keeping up the system of vassals, alliances, and defensive arrangements, and keeping the House together and healthy through arranged marriages, punishments, and expulsions.
In person, nobles usually attempt to be circumspect in what they say and clever at the expense of being concise. One of the defining features of nobility their focus on appearance. Absent the backdrop of the estates, the only way to tell a noble from a commoner is their clothing, mannerisms, and ability to follow protocols. As a consequence, the nobles are highly conscious of fitting in, and this is part of why keep mostly to themselves, only talking to those "below" them when there is a need to engage in direct administration.
Structure of the Royal Houses
There are two parts to each House; titles and lineage.
Simply defined by descent from a common ancestor, typically the founder of the House.
The titles are slightly more complicated, and are grants from the head of a House for dominion over a land within the domain of the superior title. Not every member of a Royal House has a title, but every House needs at least one title; a House which loses its last title is no longer royal, by the so-called Mutual Laws of the collective Royal Houses of Kantvarld.
|Emperor||Empress||An emperor or empress rules an empire, which is composed of kingdoms. Currently, Matthias Summerfield is the only emperor, and holds the title Emperor of Kantvarld|
|King||Queen||A king rules over a kingdom, which is composed of duchies. There are currently three kings and one queen; Matthias Summerfield (King of Terrainia), Bruce Edmund II (King of the Highlands), Ola Guarin (Queen of Riverbog), and Aaron Dragus (King of the Wetlands)|
|Duke||Duchess||A duke rules over a duchy, which is composed of counties. The duke is the lowest lord to command his own military forces; a count's men will always fight under the ultimate command of a duke. Three dukes rule over larger areas than their counterparts, and are sometimes styled as "archdukes"; Aidan Langelund(Duke of Willowpeak), Toste Garlock (Duke of Apple Valley and de jure Duke of the Golden Coast), and Arnold Benneton (Duke of Benneton)|
|Count||Countess||A count is the lowest rank of titled noble, and directly responsible for the lands under his control. A count rules over a county (also known as a county). In the northern half of Kantvarld, counts are sometimes styled as earls, though the two titles are equivalent.|
|Prince||Princess||A noble without a title who stands to inherit is often called a prince, though questions of inheritance law make this somewhat murky, and prince (or princess) is not a formal title. A prince or princess will often take on a "courtesy title", the second title held by a parent who holds two. (ex. Bruce Edmund II is King of the Highlands and Duke of Lauenburg. Bruce II is referred to by his highest title, while his son would be Prince Bruce Edmund II, Duke of Lauenburg.)|
Head of House
The head of each House is by tradition the holder of the highest title within the House. In the Major Houses of Kantvarld, these are the kings. In the Lesser Houses, this is usually a duke, though sometimes a count if the House is small enough. A count is subordinate to a duke, a duke is subordinate to a king, and a king is subordinate to the emperor. The head is responsible for setting many of the rules within the House, though in most of the Houses a veto system of sorts exists to ensure that changes do not come at the expense of other members of the House (the major exception being House Edmund). The head of a Royal House also has the authority to create a new Royal House by gifting a title, which in practice rarely happens. It is also possible for a title to be split from the lands that the title belongs to, usually by offering up a "lease" which exists in perpetuity. In this way, a count may be able sell off holdings that are too expensive for him to keep, allowing a merchant to hold pretensions towards nobility without actually being a noble. This is widely frowned upon, for obvious reasons.
When a title holder dies, the title devolves to someone else. The systems by which this happens are complex and differ wildly between houses. The four principle systems in place are gavelkind (where multiple titles are split between heirs), primogeniture (where the eldest heir gets all the titles), seniority (where the oldest member of the House gets the titles), and House elective (where the members of the House vote amongst themselves on who should receive the titles). There are also variations of each of these systems based on gender - in House Edmund, only males can inherit, while in House Belltock, females preferentially inherit. A person can also belong to two Royal Houses at once, though this is rather rare due to the social and political incentives to gracefully bow out of one of the Houses.
The Visser System
Following the Three Hundred Year War, House Edmund crafted the Obex Treaty to institute the visser system, designed to keep watch over and control the Royal Houses rather than outright replacing them. The role of the visser was one of both spy and administrative expert. Every deal made by a Royal House was watched and noted by a visser, and the vissers worked to make sure that such deals did not go against the interests of House Edmund. All of the vissers were pulled from within the ranks of House Edmund, which had the benefit of relieving that House of its surplus of heirs (due in part to the succession laws of that House).
Being a visser required an enormous amount of cleverness, along with a great deal of paranoia, for it was a fairly dangerous job. Over time, the vissers began to occupy a role useful to the Royal Houses that they lived in, and became acknowledged as useful, if still hated by the Houses. As part of the Merchant's Peace, most of the vissers from House Edmund were kicked out, though almost all of the Royal Houses kept the position of visser, sometimes drawn from within their own House and sometimes from another House as a gesture of goodwill and friendship, or as part of a trade agreement to keep both sides honest.
An estate is the place that a Royal House holds for their personal residence. The estates are more or less social places, used for all the meetings, balls, and luncheons that the nobles engage in. "Estate" refers both to the large house that the nobles and their servants live in, and to the large manicured grounds that usually surround that house. The houses range from very large to immense, and include as many rooms as the Royal House can feasibly pay the upkeep on. A proper estate includes a ballroom, a large dining room, a sitting room, and at least five guest rooms. Many of these mansions include conservatories, libraries, and game rooms as well.
The estates themselves were built about a generation after the Obex Treaty, which roughly marks the transitional period from "kings of the battlefield" to "kings of the court", when the Royal Houses really became so entrenched that it was clear that the age of kings would go on forever. Part of the reason the estates look similar is that they're all the work of a single master architect, Lister Smalley, who was widely renowned in his day (though obviously he had an army of architects, smiths, laborers, and construction workers standing behind him). Though many of the most prominent estates were built after Smalley's death, such as the Imperial Estate that was constructed in Terrainia following the Merchant's Peace, all of them share a common style attributable to that man.
While castles are for fighting in, estates are for living in, because most of the castles weren't built for comfort or convenience. This was actually part of the impetus for making the estates - the Highlands didn't want people living in easily defensible locations. Nobles are all about subtlety and appearances, which is why they're so sensitive about who they're seen with. This isn't entirely an act, since they're a very righteous people. There's also the constant concern that someone is trying to pull one over on you, or that you're going to get assassinated. The nobles also tend to be well-trained at fighting (swordplay and archery) since that's one of their pastimes, and lots of the "spare brethren" (non-heir family members) take up guard jobs as a position of honor and to give them something to do.
The estates are located away from the cities to give a better opportunity to sprawl, to stay away from the riff-raff, and to give a decided home court advantage during negotiations. Large country estates also allow for horseback riding, hunting parties, and games played on sprawling lawns.