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"Montaigne is like a grand old dame. If she decides, on a whim, to wear an antique hat to a party, she sets fashion back one hundred years."

-- Val Mokk

History and Culture

One man's decadence is another's routine. Montaigne shines like a brilliant sapphire from her perch on the western coast of Théah. She is the center of culture and fashion and home to the most renowned artists and fantastic architecture known to mankind.

Until recently, Montaigne and Castille were locked in a bitter border war. The battles took a serious toll on Montaigne's peasant class, but the spoils of war added to the coffers of the rich.

The land itself is rich, flat farmland. Acres of green as far as the eye can see. Small farms are common; no land in Montaigne goes to waste. If it isn't a pleasure garden or a building site, it's being used for agriculture. Her many rivers provide natural irrigation.

Montaigne consists of vast cities, large towns and small farms. A man could walk for days and see nothing besides farmers' hovels. But when he does come upon a city, he finds a sprawling affair full of grand manors and dizzying wealth. These cities are metropolitan oases, almost entirely separate from the lands surrounding them.

When the peasantry of Montaigne struggle daily to please their landlords and feed themselves, the upper classes in the cities have no word for "moderation."

All government and social politics revolve around Léon Alexandre, l'Empereur of Montaigne. The Sin King, as some Montaigne poets have called him, is the center of activity. Ranks of nobles orbit around him, most notable the dukes who control the various provinces of Montaigne. He parceled the country into smaller sections of land, each maintained by a single duke; this duke may have any number of marquis who attend to the actual day-to-day affairs of the lands. Each duke makes regular reports to Léon on the state of his lands. Invariable, these reports assure him that everything is perfectly fine. Should any wrinkles in the great plan occur, they are expected to be worked out long before they ever reach l'Empereur.

The peasants of Montaigne are simple people. They have a minimal education, produce large families, and live quietly respectable lives. Until very recently, young men of at least fifteen years were conscripted into the Montaigne military and sent to fight on the border against Castille. Many came back broken or not at all. With an entire generation lost to war, most farmlands must rely on daughters and wives, most of them widows.

Once, the customer in Montaigne was to hold all weddings in the springtime, but the war with Castille gave rise to a new tradition. In the winter, when the fighting was at its slowest, many young men were granted leave, married quickly to their old sweethearts, and encouraged to procreate as rapidly as possible. After all, Montaigne always needs more soldiers and farmers.

By contrast, the practice among most nobles is to have no more than two or three children. Their reasons are as practical as those of their lower-born neighbors. In Montaigne, the eldest offspring inherits the land, property and wealth.

Although it is prudent to have more that one heir--it is, after all, impossible to predict the turns of fate--to have more than three is simply bad manners. This does not apply to l'Empereur and his nine daughters, of course.

Where Montaigne peasantry is hospitable and direct, her nobles have made an art out of inference. In the courts of Montaigne, no one ever says exactly what he means. Instead, they fall back on a wealth of metaphors and precedents, often using clever quotes rather than their own words. This kind of conversation can be dizzying to an outsider, and many diplomats from other nations serve their posts under protest, despite the fine food and accommodations of the Montaigne court. The pressure to be circuitously inoffensive is overwhelming.

The Montaigne prefer to make a verbal game out of the uncomfortable. The height of rudeness is to force someone into a direct response, especially when dealing with controversial subjects. Their banter frequently becomes playfully painful as they make light of a serious subject so that no one need address it directly. Individuals witty enough to excel at these delicate games are held in high esteem.

Another favorite game among the Montaigne is intrigue, along with its close cousin scandal. If nothing interesting has happened all season, someone will surely invent it. Guests from other nations have observed a playful viciousness in the mannerisms of the Montaigne.

The quick conversation and practiced indirectness make them ideal spies. Even if someone suspects them of doublespeak, it's written off as Montaigne custom. What's more, since the Sun King's country sets the standard for clothing, custom and art, Montaigne courtiers are welcomed almost anywhere, allowing them easy access to other courts and sensitive information. Since the Montaigne army pushed the Vaticine church out of their country, the Montaigne nobility has reveled in its newfound freedom. By contrast, the peasants live in apprehension regarding their new status living in a godless country.

The Montaigne nobility are decadent to the extreme. They've got so much money they don't know what to do with it; so, they build extravagant manor houses and pay starving artists to pain seventeen-foot-tall portraits, and sponsor archæologists to dig up Syrneth artifacts they can wear to next week's party.

The nobility have nothing better to do with their time than watch each other make mischief. The entire country has been excommunicated from the Church, and while that may not sound like a big deal to the nobility, it has shattered the starving Montaigne peasants. They may be willing to kill over it.

The Land

To outsiders, the nation of Montaigne is beautiful; some might say "perfect."

The Montaigne call her "the most glorious nation in Théah." Her terrain is bountiful, verdant and lush. Her soil is fertile, her mountains rich in ore and her farmlands extend for miles. Her cities mirror Paradise itself, stretching so far in all directions that they cannot be navigated by foot in a single day. Her ports bustle with activity and trade, and the opulence of her courts and palaces dwarf anything else Théah has to offer.

From the northern Avalon Strait to the city of Rogne in the south, from the Frothing Bay in the wast to the populous trade city of Arisent in the west, Montaigne is a cultivated and civilized nation, a land of plenty. Every acre that can be farmed is harvested to the inch, every deposit of ore that can be mined--no matter how rich--is dredged up and smelted into iron and steel, and any lumber deemed strong enough to build with is cut down, leaving room for more farms.

Unlike Castille, which benefits from the careful guidance of the Church, the people of Montaigne have not maintained their land while they draw from it. Visiting Church scholars have warned more than once about the probable consequences if the Montaigne do not slow down production and begin rotating the use of their land. As yet, there is no evidence that the scholars are right, and the pressure to build caused by the war efforts conspired again such action.

Montaigne's geography is diverse: massive forests, mountain ranges and seeping plains. Most of the land is level grasslands well suited for farming. The climate is moderate year-round, unbroken by temperature extremes, drought or violent weather. Winter temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and many regions of Montaigne vary little more than twenty degrees over the course of an entire year. Forests both great and small dot the landscape and large collection of lowland rivers meander through her countryside. The combined effect is enchanting, further lending to the atmosphere that draws so many to her.

Montaigne's capital, Charouse, is the center of an immense basin, one of the lowest altitudes in all of Montaigne. To the southwest, a gradual incline creates a series of rolling hills cut into the graceful pasture, while a man can march a day or more to the east before seeing the horizon shift. This region contains some of the most highly prized farmland in the entire Nation, rich in the minerals and nutrients necessary for her most valued crops. It is also the most easily defended part of the country, making it the ideal location for her capital.

West of Charouse is Montaigne's most exceptional mountain range, Les Sommets Lancs ("The White Mountains"), whose snow-capped peaks reach ten thousand feet. The Sinueuse River runs through the capital, through the Sinueuse Lake and out into the Widow's Sea, providing a quick trading route to other Nations.

In the north, Muguet is the largest port city of Montaigne, and the province is possibly the most well known in Théah. It is not uncommon for the Duke of Muguet, Edouard Allais, to countermand the advice or even commands of all but the royal line, and this attitude has attracted many of the most free-willed Montaignes, and some from abroad.

The province of Doré has acquired a similar reputation by the action of Pierre Flaubert de Doré, who recently spent a fortune converting the land immediately around Pourisse from marshlands into farmlands, becoming the largest cattle breeder in the Nation virtually overnight. The beef provides his province with a level of income unmatched in the Nation, and directly challenges Charouse for supremacy in livestock. Though courtiers and nobility across the Nation have expressed open hostility at this decision, the royal family has yet to respond, perhaps too occupied with fashion to comment on the state of beef.

To the east of Charouse, beyond the Montaigne flatlands, is the Eisen territory gained through the Treaty of Weissburg: Lock-Horn Forest, who name originates from a time when Avalon occupied northern Montaigne. Wood lumbered from this forest has proven an invaluable resource, though it has come at a high price: nearly two dozen people--including two Porté sorcerers--who entered its shadowed canopy have vanished, never to return. All that remained in their stead were a series of bizarre blood trails leading up tree trunks and into the highest branches before disappearing.

The People

Called Montaignes, or "Sunflowers" behind their backs, the people of Montaigne are very fit and--by comparison--very clean, as well. The average male noblesse is well groomed, while noble women keep their hair and cosmetics in the proper style for the current season. Brown hair and eyes are standard, though a few with hazel eyes or blond hair appear, as well. Montaigne men often hide their soft features behind a short beard or trim moustache, while females accentuate their gentle cheekbones with long hair that border their faces.

Peasants cut their hair once a year at the beginning of spring, so they have a full head of hair and a thick beard to keep them warm in winter. There is not a great deal of variation in the way they dress, though whether this enhances or stifles their diversity is a topic for debate.

Some argue that the nobles, not their lesser countrymen, share a common face, as each strives continually to maintain whatever look is in fashion at any time.

Social Strata

Montaigne is the most broadly divided nation in Théah, economically and philosophically. Under a rigid caste system, the people of Montaigne easily separate into a series of identifiable classes. A broad description of each follows, descending from the royal line to the nearly invisible peasantry.

The uppermost crust of Montaigne's nobility (La Familia Royale) is few in number, but wield absolute power in her lands. Only l'Empereur (a title recently changed from "King") Léon Alexandre de Montaigne, his wife, the Impératrice, their immediate family and parents of the former monarchy can accurately claim to be of this class. At present, l'Empereur has nine daughters but no sons, a sore point with the royal line. Morella Alouse Giacinni, a Vodacce Fate Witch and l'Empereur's third wife, has been unable to provide him a suitable heir. She gave birth to their daughter, Dominique, who shows no talent for sorcery at all. L'Empereur's previous wife, a Castillian and mother of three, died of "feminine ills" some time ago.

Below the royals are the noblesse (or nobility proper), the Dukes and Marquis of Montaigne. Highest among them are the Dukes, the landed nobles, who share the names of those who have ruled since Montaigne's foundation. But the Marquis, their siblings, command the bulk of the wealth and manage the majority of the resources of the nation. They may live within a remote part of the provinces they administer in return for their services, tending to the details of each.

Next are the petite noblesse, or, as they are more commonly known, the "gentry" of Montaigne. These people are nobles by virtue of alluence alone, being without land or the associate responsibilities it brings. They are a by-product of the staggering amount of wealth within the Nation. Some have inherited it, others have swindled it--in their class, all that matters is that they have it. They maintain an extravagant life and attend all of the functions of the nobility, while avoiding the politicking and infighting so common among the elite.

Also below the proper nobility--and ranking just beside the gentry--are the noblesse errante. These are nobility that have somehow become disenfranchised and have chosen to become courtiers, emissaries or dignitaries to the throne. Paix and Buché are flooded with hundreds of bureaucrats, and each new generation adds more. The duty of many errante depends upon the level of noble to which they have linked themselves; one's patron also determines the level of respect one receives. The desire to acquire one with magic or ambition is high.

Courtiers--talented commoners--tend to have an easier time of things. They exist mainly to entertain the nobility, to impress them with their skill. Poets, jesters, jennys, actors, writers, artists and charlatans all belong to what has become a broad social stratum. Merchants or clergy with enough coin can earn the respect of courtiers as if they were nobility. However, without a proper understanding of the "rules," it is very easy for someone to insult the integrity of the court, and this insult the power of the reigning noble.

The first of the classes outside the nobility are scholars, who have gained newfound popularity with the recent increase in exploration. Although scholars, especially philosophers, have traditionally been highly regarded in Montaigne, acceptance into the developing study of archæology is quickly becoming a badge of distinction. Many noblesse keep several scholars on retainer, including an archæologist, and most--realizing that their lack of outward interest has cost them dearly--struggle to build private libraries to entice scholars to them, as well.

Merchants and craftsmen have also received special consideration in Montaigne of late. By and large, these workers belong to the Vendel League, ensuring them a level of income above most "freelance" agents in their field. Those Montaigne with money can sway them to ply their trade within their country exclusively, creating the air of superiority they crave and drawing increased revenue to support them along the way. To the nobility, these people are an asset too valuable to neglect.

The last rung on the Montaigne social ladder is that of the peasantry. Though the immense walled cities and elaborate chateaux present the beauty and peace of the Nation, all have been built upon the backs of her peasants. The life of the commoner in Montaigne is hard, particularly when measured alongside the tales of luxury afforded the peasantry of other nations, such as the farmers of Vodacce, for one. A 60-hour workweek consumes their lives, as old men, daughters and widows tend to the millions of acres of land owned by the Montaigne nobility.

Etiquette

"Faites-vous tout petit."

("Make yourself inconspicuous.")

--Anonymous

The Montaigne nobility avoid confrontation. Rather than engage anyone directly, they speak through assistants, envoys, messengers and courtesans, and in court settings they use metaphor and witticisms to circumvent conversation. They often avoid your gaze if cornered. Subtlety has replace the need to actually say anything, and is considered a far more noble skill than honesty.

The fine art of blending with consensus is pervasive in Montaigne; few nobles have the fortitude to start trends. So many fashions are popular in the Nation because so many are told how to act and what to wear. The organization of parties--though common--is a trying experience for them, and most Montaigne would rather fund someone else's function than host their own. For this reason, an entire year can pass with parties held nowhere but in Paix, Charouse and Crieux, where those bold enough to become pacesetters have migrated.

Citing precedent is also very common among the nobles. When dealing with foreigners, the Montaigne often say things that seem out of context, confusing or annoying their visitors. This has led to numerous disastrous situations for them; were it not for the Paix Embassy's lush surroundings and convenient location, many ambassadors--once offended in such a way--would not return.

The peasants of Montaigne do not wilt so easily. They are kind and inviting, despite their rough lifestyle. Through years of humility they have learned not to complain about their plight, and so even though they live in squalor, they remain clean and confident. People who have visited Montaigne often complain that the people were rude or vulgar, but those who avoid the cities have nothing but good things to say about their visit.

Clothing

While peasants are lucky to afford a second suit of clothes before they die, the nobility wear whatever is in style, and quickly double their wardrobe within a single season if others speak highly of a new designer. Excessive gowns, expensive jewelry and an entourage to carry their train are all integral parts of Montaigne fashion. Experienced Porté sorcerers can usually be identified by gloves and cosmetics, used to cover up the unsightly blemishes that eventually form upon their hands and arms.

Montaigne apparel comes from a variety of materials, including brocades, velvets, silks, laces, sheer linen and satin. Although royal blue and gold are the colors of the nobility, all things vibrant can be seen among the elite. Rococo floral patterns shine on coats and gowns, giving the Empire of the Sun the gleam and sparkle associate with its regal luster. Dark colors are considered hideous, and many patriotic Montaigne consider it an insult for visitors to wear such colors in their court.

Montaigne dictates style to most other nations of the world, and the focus of this thrust is the Mode du Lac (the Fashion Society), a high-society art house who set major fashion trends. In recent years they have grown close to the Vendel League, which has helped to spread their message in return for a choice of annual styles. Men generally follow the dictates of the Mode de Lac, but women's wardrobes diverge shortly into the season if the queens across Théah have followed another path.

Food

Nobles of Montaigne enjoy imported meats, fish, cheese, milk, butter, wine, grains, vegetables, spices and a host of exotic foods from all over Théah. Vodacce cuisine is particularly popular at the moment. Montaigne cooking is the most inventive method of food preparation in the world right now, and its cooking schools are renowned for their creativity and exotic measures. The nobility have recently discovered a love for grapefruit and cantaloupe, and have begun importing exotic fruits from Vodacce traders. Truffles are considered a delicacy in Montaigne, and the chefs have begun hiring people to train pigs to seek out the tidbits.

Merchants are not accustomed to the pampered diet of their noble superiors, but they enjoy their meals nonetheless. Fresh vegetables, wines, meats, cheeses and breads form their daily rations. Castillian crops are also becoming more affordable, as the economy of Montaigne's eastern neighbor rebounds in the aftermath of the war. The Emperor had hoped to acquire some of Castille's rich farmland for himself, but Montaigne's wealth still brings the fruits of Castille's labor to his doorstep.

The diet of the Montaigne peasantry is simple--old beans, moldy bread, rotted lettuce, turnips, cabbage, over-aged wine and dirty water. Every day, farmers harvest decent food that winds up filling the bellies of the nobility or being exported to the rest of the world, while the men, women and children who labored for it starve. As expected, peasants often keep some extra from what they reap each month, but they must be careful--too much and the tax collectors will notice.

Customs

The Montaigne revel in ridiculing others, as long as the games remain fun. Nearly all Montaigne embrace the importance of humor, even at their own expense, but there is a fine line that must not be crossed. When derision goes too far (and intuitive Montaigne know when this has happened), the blagueur ("offender") is quickly ousted from polite society. It is not uncommon to find someone gifted in ridicule to be very popular until an indiscretion; many courtiers specializing in social critiques find themselves without a patron mere moments after inflaming a delicate situation. Ironically enough, however, if a situation is so delicate as to be considered explosive, most everyone is expected to engage in "the game" in order to lessen the load on their neighbor, a nuance many outsiders never understand.

Touching is another ambiguous custom in Montaigne. Montaigne do not touch their spouses while in public (except, perhaps, when dancing), but it is not uncommon for them to embrace a courtier or friend in the company of others, whether married or not. Fanning one's face while laughing and touching a friend's hand or chest is also acceptable.

Art and Music

Just as they stand in the forefront of modern philosophy, the Montaigne also remain the most influential in the fields of art and music. Some believe that greatness is attracted to the Nation by its patron-worthy nobility. Regardless of the reason, Montaigne has become a breeding ground for all things creative, and churns out artists almost as quickly as society's collective eye can wander.

Montaigne music is played on strings and harps, with little percussion. It is very slow and stale, reminiscent of funeral music, though one person is trying to change that. His name is Wolffrond von Hazel (HOTS-el); he is seven years old and he is perhaps the greatest musical talent of the last one hundred years. Born in Eisen ("were all the best composers hail from"), von Hazel has come to Montaigne with his parents on an extended tour showcasing his talent, hoping to adopt a suitable (read: wealthy) patron for him. He has spent the last several months in Paix and garnered critical support among the Montaigne lords.

Names

Like the rest of Montaigne society, naming revolves around one's social status. For instance, the proper names of nobility are preceded by a title, then the first name and surname, followed by the word "de" and the province they govern. (Members of the royal line are the only ones permitted to use the province of "Montaigne" for this purpose.)

Gentry may keep whatever name they choose for themselves. Nor are the clergy bound to the naming process of the nobility; most, in fact, lose their birth name when they take their station, with Bishops and Cardinals taking on five or more names in some cases. For example, the Bishop Jules Corentin d'Auguereau Crepin d'Agneau served under High Cardinal Michel Jean-Claude Desaix de Mirielle Sarnin.

Members of the merchant class have a first and last name, while peasants have very simple names. Peasant children, for instance, receive only a first name, as they rarely leave their villages. In cases like these, the name of the village, town or province they are from usually becomes a surname if necessary.

Common Males Names: Ambroise, Blaise, Cédric, Daniel, Denis, Eugéne, Félix, Gérard, Guy, Henri, Jacques, Jules, Luc, Marc, Martin, Pierre, Rémy, Sébastien, Victor, Zacharie

Common Female Names: Allette, Andrée, Arielle, Blanche, Camille, Cosette, Dominique, Estelle, Francine, Georgette, Henriete, Iréne, Julie, Lydie, Nicole, Philippine, Roseline, Sylvie, Vivianne

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