Systemic Racism is bad, mmkay?
Streing is a beautiful country, tamed by the presiding Ruler's will. The dominant feature of the region is Mystletainn, the great forest in which most of the civilization resides. The empire's main bulk rests in the western portion of the Mystletainn Cradle, encompassing the forests, plains, and hills between the heart of the cradle and the mountains surrounding it. The country is ruled by Empress Regnant Jarthaber with an iron fist. While its people aren't necessarily oppressed, their lives certainly aren't made easy by the strict and swift arms of the law.
As an empire, Streing asserts dominance on several nearby states, cowing them into a vassal status - the Duchy of Marshin, the Flokian Principality, and Brampound all swear fealty to Jarthaber and send tribute. Past this, the Magnate runs the matters of her empire through a many-layered bureaucracy. Commands from Jarthaber funnel down through her generals, secretaries, governors, and diplomats, giving her a heavy iron grip on the nation's activities as a whole. The upper echelons of the hierarchy are entirely elven, most of whom fought directly alongside Jarthaber during the Ogre Wars and her subsequent efforts subjugating the Mystletainn Cradle. In fact, most positions of power in the Magnate's lands are occupied by her elven associates, outside of figurehead positions in vassal states staffed by a local.
So entrenched is the elven aristocracy that menial processes in Streing move forward at a snail's pace compared to other nations—even the most simple legal proceedings or trivial requests to the crown take years to resolve. A truly complex legal battle often takes the entire lifetime of shorter-lived peoples. However, when a law is broken or a policy violated, the crown's forces respond with inhuman speed and brutality. This leads to very little expansion led by non-elves; after all, what human can hope to open a tavern when it takes half a dozen years to buy a plot, another dozen to obtain a permit to build, and another dozen to get certified for hospitality and bulk purchasing?
For military and policing matters, the sole crown-sanctioned corps is the Homeguard—officially at least. As with most official matters in Streing, entry to the homeguard is a long and drawn-out affair. The process to enter the military voluntarily begins with a petition to the company commander one would serve under, to be approved at their whim. Following an approval, the new trainee must endure a broad and grueling training regiment which lasts 20 years in its complete form, followed by a 10-year probationary period wherein the smallest infraction can lead to dismissal. On its face, the homeguard and crown claim this long process is simply necessary to ensure only the most loyal and capable soldiers for the citizens of Streing—and to that end, the claim does hold some merit. Soldiers in the program become experts in survival and combat in nearly all terrains from swamps to deserts, while also learning the basics of leadership and command to make calls in the field no matter how isolated they become. Each soldier in the homeguard can fill many roles as needed, and as such this army ranks as the most adaptable army in the cradle and quite possibly the mightiest of them all. The long timespans and multiple stages of commander discretion do however cause extreme homogeny within the homeguard. Nearly every soldier is an elf for one reason or another—humans or catfolk are past their prime if they even get to the probationary period; minotaur, halflings, dwarves, and gnomes are usually rejected as commanders claim their differing body shapes would cause strain in finding armaments or may impede teamwork; other peoples are often met with similar excuses from the commander petition, or are judged very harshly during their probation.
Each region in the empire is assigned a commander within her majesty's army, who is responsible for that region's safety and security. Often, an aristocrat within the empire assumes this duty from the assigned commander. While the homeguard has a mandate to handle policing matters within Streing's borders, commanders are hesitant to commit their elites to mundane patrols and peacekeeping. Thus, most communities' day-to-day matters are handled by mercenary police. Commanders hire these mercenaries using the budgets they would otherwise be spending to arm and maintain justice facilities within those communities. Oversight on these mercenaries varies wildly depending upon the hiring commander; some commanders take extensive effort to keep their mercenaries in check with training, reviews, and often keep some soldiers stationed alongside the mercenaries—other commanders turn a blind eye to any misbehavior. Local perceptions and satisfaction with these mercenary police are just as widely variable. As the mercenary companies are usually more diverse than the homeguard itself—a very low bar to clear—more diverse communities feel more fairly treated by these mercenaries than when the homeguard steps in. Other times, the mercenaries act more as especially harsh tax collectors than a police force. In any case, the Empress has not outlawed the practice, though her own dominion of Streingburg is directly policed by the homeguard itself.
The Invading Homeguard
Though the primary military force of Streing is officially called the homeguard, the force is still responsible for invading and subjugating other nations. Jarthaber claims all other lands as her dominion, and asserts resisting armies are rebellions rather than the rightful residents opposing her rule as a justification for the homeguard's title. Residents of those other nations have a more critical opinion, and many refuse to name the homeguard as such. Outside of Streing proper and occasionally in malcontent factions within her borders, the homeguard carries many names—the wolfpack, invaders, Jarthaber's Jackals (sometimes "Jack" for short), and so on.
From her throne in Streingburg, Empress Regnant Jarthaber asserts her will over the large swath of land in the western Mystletainn Cradle, making claim to all the lands between the mountains on that end of the cradle. As such, the lands are beautiful and largely tame - large predators are rarely seen; even when they do appear, predators act strangely passive in the lands of Streing. Aside this facet, the nation spans a large area; lush rolling hills in the south flow into the Mystletainn forest proper. In the northern half of the nation, Mystletainn gives way once more to the rolling fields and grasslands known as the Grothr plains before rising in foothills once more. In the southeastern reaches along the lake, Streing lays claim to some of the wetlands, as well as outlying islands.
Mystletainn itself is the most prominent feature of Streing, a grand and mystical forest at the heart of the dominating much of the western end of the cradle. Many of the trees in this forest are exceptionally old growth of immense size, but the forest's true wonder is in its diversity - some claim to have looked around at one time or another to see trees all around, where not a single one was the same species as any other they could see. Everything from ash and elm, darkwood and ironwood, pine and mangroove; despite the region's temperate climate, trees and other plant life flourish no matter the climate they're supposed to live in, as though nurturing life flows through the forest as a mighty river. Dotted within the forest are three large lakes, between which lie Streingburg, the capital where Jarthaber's throne stands.
While the recorded codes of law in the empire claim to be impartial and bureaucrats across the nation espouse the great equality the Empress strives for, the experience of her subjects spins a different thread. No laws make a direct delineation of groups within the empire, but a broad look reveals three very distinct categories of citizen, equal while simultaneously unequal—aristocratic elves, common elves, and non-elves.
The aristocracy in the empire isn't directly sanctioned in the empire as it is in some other nations—Jarthaber only rarely hands out titles or lands to her subjects. Instead, the aristocracy refers to those elves who simply have enough wealth to assert that they hold some title and enough clout with Jarthaber to assume protectorate and taxation duties over some swath of land in the empire. While on paper these nobles are only assuming particular responsibilities over the land, in practice they're granted enough latitude in how they manage the land and people that they may as well own the land and its people. With few exceptions, these landowners acquired their power and clout with great success in military or mercantile affairs—through pure wealth or military prowess. Even the few exceptions ultimately stem from these two methods, as those exceptions are the descendants of generals or merchants and inherited the lands and titles. Due to the inherent bias in the systems running the nation, the aristocracy is entirely elvish. These nobles live their lives effectively as they please. After all, they usually control the local police and have extensive personal wealth. Many of these nobles become rather eccentric in their pursuits, boasting large collections of trivialities or exceptional mastery of an artform which they never truly use. Rarely, a noble makes effort to truly promote equality within their domain, taking matters into their own hands to try and sidestep some of the more egregious legal processes which make life harder for non-elves.
The second group, which makes up most of Streing's population, is the elven commoners. These are the regular folk in the empire, and make a hefty majority of her citizens. Most of these people live their lives in general contentment; they live in much the same way citizens of other nations do. They work in practically any profession, from bakers and tavern-keeps to smiths, merchants, shipwrights, and so on. These commoners do face hardship as others—when business is tough or harvests slim—but broadly they believe the empire functions well and has reasonable restrictions and processes for their daily lives. Culturally, the elves of Streing are relatively easygoing on the whole. The commonly long lifespans and long processes mean the people generally have time and spend it freely. Citizens often look to their empress with respect if not reverence, and frequently enlist in the homeguard out of national pride.
The third and most marginalized group within the empire is the non-elves, encompassing all types of people from gnomes to humans to minotaur. The people in this group by-and-large harbor feelings that they're oppressed and occupy a lower tier of society than elves do. While most in this group aren't enslaved officially, many are deprived of their freedom by technicalities. A vast majority are bound by debts to stay somewhere and work the land, then charged with rents and interest to maintain the crushing debt. Few can break this cycle—legal processes to sidestep the debt take most of a lifespan for most applicants and have fees for application which those in debt simply cannot gather (and in the rare cases such a fee is paid, courts reject the application on the basis that the individual managed to gather the fee). Further, the debts usually pass on to next-of-kin when an individual dies, perpetuating the cycle. For those who aren't buried in unpayable debts, life in the empire still holds many hardships and most are forced into professions consisting largely of manual labor. The processes for opening a shop or joining a guild as an apprentice have similar fees and timespans associated, making them simply inaccessible to non-elves, especially those coming from a place of squalor already.
The most obvious location within the empire is Streingburg, the capital and jewel of the empire. This capital is nestled in the great forest of Mystletainn, expansive under her canopy both wide and tall. Buildings are scattered across the forest floor, while ladders, bridges, and platforms criss-cross between the many varieties of tree growing in the city. Homes and shops are suspended among the branches or nestled in crooks of large redwoods and others. From most vantage points, the city looks like a messy and complex web of routes, nearly impossible to navigate in its entirety. However, when viewed from the many guard outposts, the net almost miraculously untangles. Whether this is the result of careful planning or complex enchantments, few could say. In any case, the city is a booming hub of the empire, bursting with merchants and soldiers alike. At the center of the city, Empress Regnant Jarthaber reigns from her throne in Baldric Keep. Rather than being built, this keep was mostly grown into its magnificent state from a thicket of oak trees draped with mistletoe. The keep has an imposing and majestic form, dominating the field of larkspur in which it stands separated from the rest of the city around it.
The forest surrounding Streingburg and dominating the western portions of the cradle is a landmark itself, the great Mystletainn forest from which the cradle gets its name. The forest is a locus of life in the region, overflowing with vivid energy and natural diversity. The forest also holds dire secrets. One such secret location that manifests within Mystletainn is known as the Lover's Path. As the tale goes, deep in the woods long ago two people were fleeing some unknown pains, and met in the still silence of a snowfall. The two wandered the forest, each taking solace in the presence of the other. Together they saw beauty and pain in nature. When one was tired, the other carried them. During their journey, the two became close, and wished to stay together for the rest of time. But Mystletainn had other plans. As they rested nestled in the roots of a great tree, the trials the two were fleeing finally caught up to them. The two were torn apart and an eons-old curse lurking in the forest wiped the memory from their minds, but not the feelings. As such, the two became separate and broken, each left with an emptiness in their hearts. Such is the tale of the Lover's Path of Mystletainn, a beautiful and cursed path; for once one finds themselves on the Lover's Path with another, the journey is joyous but inevitably ends in ruin.
[Streing is Beeg, so should probably have another]
In lands abroad the Empire is regarded as mighty but arrogant. A reliable trade partner, but liable to flex her position to take advantage of smaller merchants. Streing goes to great effort to ensure their empire has diplomatic representation in nearly all of the nations around the cradle - in Faldr and the Drekkherran Dominion, that amounts to an established embassy in their respective capitals. They have agents in the courts of many of the kingdoms of the Northern Fjord and of Svanrgata. Streing is especially vocal of its presence in Marland and the Frelsian Council, with large embassy campuses in both nations. Sentiment about Streing generally recognizes their economic and military might but often disparages their perceived warmongering. Rarely, detractors call for the freedom of Streing's vassal states. Within the vassal states, citizens and leaders alike broadly hold the empire with contempt but see their relatively frequent rebellions quickly decimated.
The Streing Empire is currently engaged in open war with the Holy State of Whitry, though the war is young and neither nation has a particular advantage - Whitry has managed to repel invasions thus far, but hasn't gained any ground towards their goal of liberating the Flokian Principality. Jarthaber recently signed a truce with Treton, but none expect the uneasy peace to last for long - wars have raged between Treton and Streing since both were founded. Behind the scenes, Streing is actively backing rebellious factions in Faldr and Marland in attempts to destabilize those nations in preparation for invasion or other acts of aggression. Though there is no definitive proof of involvement, armies of Ulcata and Castfieldia have recently been integrating many of the tactics and strategies employed by Streing's homeguard, suggesting those nations may be receiving aid from the Empire.