Condemned of Athas
It would be a terrible mistake to assume that all power on Athas rests in the hands of the sorcerer-kings. Power can be held in many ways, and many hands besides those of the cities rulers may possess it.
The major merchant houses of Athas hold much of the balance of power, often to the dismay of the sorcerer-kings. The merchant houses supply the lifeblood of Athas: foodstuffs that feed isolated city-states, construction materials to build the palaces of sorcerer-kings and decadent nobles, slaves to toil in fields or fight and die in gladiator pits, and many other vital items.
Organized along family lines with a matriarch or patriarch at its head, a major house controls dozens of caravans, maintains estates in several different cities, sponsors trading villages, and employs (or owns) thousands. The largest houses Stel, Wavir, Tsalaxa, and their ilk are influential enough to make even the most powerful sorcerer-kings take heed.
All mercantile houses follow a strict code of behavior, known as the Merchants Code. Anyone wishing to join a merchant house must accept all aspects of this code and abide by them or face immediate expulsion. The code varies from house to house, but in most cases it conforms to the following principles:
- Recognition that by joining a merchant house, an agent forsakes citizenship in any city or membership in any tribe.
- An oath of allegiance to the merchant house.
- A promise to perform in the best interests of the merchant house in return for a salary.
- A promise to deal honestly with stranger, friend, and foe alike.
- A promise not to flaunt any wealth gained through employment with the house.
- A promise to uphold the laws of the city in which the agent is stationed, and to do nothing to bring down the wrath of the sorcerer-king or his agents upon the house.
- A promise to cooperate with other merchants to make life very expensive for any person who unjustly imprisons, blackmails, or otherwise harasses any merchant.
Inika operates out of its headquarters in the city of Gulg. It is small compared to some of the other major houses, but this is by choice. Dealing in small, valuable cargoes, such as kola nuts, exotic feathers, spices, and gemstones, Inika sees the benefit in remaining small and efficient. As a result, the house rakes in profits far out of proportion to its size, gaining a reputation for being one of the shrewdest houses in the region.
As chief house of the troubled city of Raam, Mke maintains a precarious balance between the reviled Great Vizier and the restive populace. The house’s reputation has fallen somehwat in recent years due to the near-anarchy in Raam, but M’ke has fallen back on its vast cash reserves to see it through. Houses Vordon and Tsalaxa have been applying pressure on M’ke of late, urging it to join the rebels seeking to overthrow the Great Vizier, but so far nothing has come of this.
House Shom, the leading trade faction in the city of Nibenay, is an old and (in the eyes of many) corrupt house. Perhaps the decadent atmosphere of Nibenay has affected the houses rulers, making them strange and merciless. Perhaps centuries of sybaritic luxuries have dulled their minds and convinced them that any means of making a profit is acceptable. Regardless of their motivation, the ancient rulers of House Shom have drifted far from their houses humble beginnings. They now dream on in oblivion as their house grows old and inhuman and slowly crumbles around them.
Closely associated with the warrior culture of Urik, Stel is without question the most aggressive and militaristic of the merchant houses. Stel specializes in the spoils of war – slaves, stolen cargo, weapons and, on occasion, hostages for ransom. While Stel also maintains regular trade routes (albeit heavily guarded ones) and engages in ordinary trade, the house is best known for its violent side.
The leading merchant house of the city of Draj is infamous throughout the Tyr region. Tsalaxa engages in endless games of espionage and intrigue in order to secure the most valuable trading contracts. This house is well known for its ruthless business practices.
Once one of the most feared and respected of Athas’ great houses, House Vordon has become something of a laughingstock. This transformation is mainly due to the demented excesses of Tyr’s sorcerer-king Kalak. Kalak diverted valuable resources to the construction of a massive ziggurat and all but bankrupted his city. This caused massive resentment among Tyrs nobles and merchants. With Kalaks excesses at an end and the city in the hands of revolutionaries and former slaves, House Vordon is poised to return to prominence once more.
Under the leadership of its current patriarch, Tabaros, House Wavir has risen far above its humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful merchant houses in the Tyr region. From its base in Balic, Wavir now controls vast trade routes, dominating the shipment and sale of grain, ceramics, and precious metals.
Wavirs business practices border on the ruthless, but they are always conducted in accordance with the Merchants Code. All profits are reinvested in house operations. House Wavirs enormous wealth and influence have led many to speculate that Tabaros has a secret source of income, but so far no proof of this has been found.