Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 5
Traditionally, the highest class on Freia was the nobility, both landed and honorary, followed by freemen. Artisans, merchants, and even small farm owners usually belonged to that class. They owned private property and lived in towns and cities, paying taxes to the king or other nobles in exchange for their benevolence and protection. Over the generations, however, the freemen became an exploited and maltreated class.
The third class was the peasantry. These were people who didn't own land and worked mainly as labour for others, especially those in the countryside that worked on farms. Two subclasses existed among the peasants, those that lived outside of settlements or in villages and worked mainly on farms and in mines and other such industries formed one subclass, the lower of the two, and were not easily allowed into larger towns and cities if they lived nearby. Peasant that lived in settlements, mainly towns and larger settlements like cities and worked as labour for the various businesses owned by freemen formed the second, upper subclass. Habis was part of the first, a farmer that worked on other's land in exchange for food, shelter, and some necessities.
A fourth class existed alongside the peasants, serfs. They occupied the same spaces as the lower subclass of peasants, living outside of settlements or in small villages and working the land for resources, but they could not move freely. They were property tied to the land where they lived, much like furniture sold with the house or cattle sold with the farm. They belonged to the deed for their land, and thus to the noble that held it.
Even further below them were slaves. Unlike serfs, who were not technically anyone's property, but instead belonged to the land a noble owned, slaves were property owned by people. The serf at least could not be killed if they hadn't committed a crime, though what constituted a crime was often up to the noble's interpretation, but slaves were their master's furniture with which he could do whatever he wished, even if it be torture or killing. Ironically, while it was not illegal to own a slave, it was illegal to trade in slaves, so the slave trade was a black market. Its primary source of products was from wars, specifically soldiers caught during wars, and peasants and serfs sold into slavery due to debts they could not repay.
Stellin IX, however, abolished even the owning of slaves, and thus that class vanished entirely, at least, in theory. The king instituted reforms in trade, tax, education, general governance, warfare, and much else before eventually turning to the social classes.
Concerning land, the king declared that only the king could own land, and thus all landed nobility was abolished. The nobles revolted, but it was quickly put down and nearly half of the kingdoms old nobility was wiped out.
Shortly after the king published the Rights of the Four Castes. It caused a massive uproar across the continent.
The first caste in the hierarchy was the nobility, composed primarily of nobles that had inherited their title from their ancestors, and avoided being killed in the war and the subsequent purge, and those individuals awarded Titles of Peerage by the king for meritorious service. Nobles no longer received fiefs, though they could receive Deeds, which gave them the right to govern a territory on behalf of the king.
The second caste were dignitarians, people of dignity, the latter earned by making a contribution to the country in art, academics, business, or service, either in the military of the government, worthy of recognition, though not worthy enough to be given a Title and considered someone of nobility.
The third caste were peasants, people who lacked both nobility and dignity, were mostly uneducated, but obeyed the law. It was the most numerous of the four classes. Its members had to pay taxes and could be conscripted into the military in times of war. The new class was made up of the old peasantry, serf, and slavery classes and the people were given more freedoms. The people were, for example, at the grace of the king, allowed to 'own' -- basically a life-rental -- land, could marry as they pleased, take on any job as long as they were qualified, could travel as they pleased, and so on.
The fourth caste were the villains, those who lacked moral values, broke the law, or were considered a blight on society, mainly refugees, criminals, vagabonds, beggars, lechers, and harlots. They were stripped of all their rights and freedoms, aside from the right to not be killed and being fed enough food and water to stay alive, and had to be reformed through labour. They would have to do whatever jobs the king decided was necessary for a time in accordance with their sentences in order to earn their freedom and return to the peasantry.
The Duchy of Berkeley's entire army, for example, was made into villains after its annexation and sentenced to five years of labour.
Fifty decades on this caste had become the cornerstone of the economy, providing the manpower for expansion and development projects launched by the king's government and doing the filthy and disgusting jobs no one wanted to do like cleaning the sewers.
The bill stabilised the political and social state of the kingdom as well and ensured that the people would not interfere with one another's business.
As for the nobility, though they no longer had any fiefs, they were granted a fixed income in accordance with their Title, ensuring they could continue to live comfortably and preventing them from competing with one another. It was also made an unspoken rule that all the top officials under the king had to be nobles, and that, in order to occupy positions within the upper half of the hierarchy, one also had to have a fitting title within the peerage.
As part of his reform of the government, the king created two councils that, officially, advised the king on policies and handled sorting out the details and putting the laws and policies into practice. In practice, however, the two councils governed the kingdom completely independently from the king. They proposed, passed, and implemented laws, regulations, and policies almost entirely without any input from the king, though he had the power to veto any law passed by either of the councils. The upper council was the Council of Lords, comprised entirely out of nobles, including the king or any representative he designated to attend the council in his stead, and handled governing the nobility. Only the Council of Lords had the power to pass laws that bound the nobility and could judge them. They were also responsible for providing final approval of motions proposed and passed in the lower council.
The lower council was known as the Council of Dignitaries and only dignitarians were eligible to fill its seats. Most of the seats corresponded to specific regions, who would nominate individuals of high standing as representatives to sit on the council. The rest of the seats were reserved for recommendations by the Council of Lords and the king himself. Each member from a seat linked to a constituency in the kingdom was responsible for monitoring its governance and reporting the council on it. Collectively the council oversaw the government's budget and handled arbitration of the law in the members' constituencies. Members could put motions to the council who would vote on it and, if passed, send it to the Council of Lords for final approval. Members also received a modest salary for their services.
The most popular part of the Right of the Four Castes regarded education. It stated that all tax-paying members of the peasantry could attend national schools or send their children there to be educated, could volunteer for the military, and could take on positions in local governments, all ways that allowed them to earn dignity and become dignitarians. Most of the higher government positions were filled by nobles, and most of the middle government positions were filled by dignitarians, but low-level positions were open to peasants. The military was the easiest way for peasants to earn dignity, and they made up the majority of the kingdom's active and reserve forces.
When not at war, a peasant had to serve in the military for 15 uninterrupted years to earn enough dignity to become a dignitarian, but in times of war, a few years on the front lines or an extraordinary act of bravery could earn them enough dignity as well.
A government official had to serve for 20 years regardless in order to earn enough dignity to become a dignitarian. Morssen was not one for the discipline and potential danger of military service, so he chose to work in the civilian government.
He was quick to notice the opportunities the law would open up, so he grabbed it with both hands. It helped that he was only 22 at the time, so working 20 years to become a dignitarian didn't sound so bad.
He quickly won his colleagues' trust and admiration with his quick wit and work ethic. To the townsfolk, he was a sincere and patient worker, not to mention reasonable and impartial. To his colleagues, he was a trustworthy friend with a warm and generous personality and a penchant of helping. To his superiors, he was a subordinate that could handle all assignments with great precision. He was the perfect candidate to be trained as a successor.
Whitestag's chief constable, Sunny, decided that Morssen had good potential in him when the latter was 28, and handed his 24-year-old daughter, Pattisia Sunny to him. A few of his friends even asked him why he would wed his daughter to a peasant. The old man simply said he trusted his ability to judge characters.
So it was. Morssen maintained his track record for the next nine years and was made a dignitarian. He was the first official in a small town in the entire country to earn enough dignity to be made a dignitarian, and five years early thanks to his extraordinary service. With his ascension to the dignitry, he was also promoted to chief secretary of the town.
He was just 37 at the time and everyone had high hopes in him. His life with his family, a wife and two sons, couldn't be better either.
Having achieved his childhood dream at such a young age, which left him with a lot of energy yet, he lifted his gaze to higher mountains. He didn't want his rise to stop there halfway through his career. He wanted to become the next mayor, then run to be a council member, and maybe retire from that position to prefect after a few terms in office.
When he razed his gaze, however, he finally realised how difficult it would be to climb those taller mountains. Reality was not a dream. Whitestag was the greatest town in the three southwestern prefectures, but it was still just a town. It was a subsidiary territory of Baromiss, which itself stood under the prefecture of Balivia. He had a great reputation in the town, but that was barely a corner in a corner in a corner of the kingdom. He needed connections, connections he didn't have, in Baromiss. He could not climb any further without a backer already higher up the mountain.
If only his father had asked to be made a noble rather than just the house.
Technically the only requirement for becoming a governing official was being a dignitarian, but in reality he also needed a strong backer and supporters, neither of which he had. And it certainly wasn't something he could gain from just doing his job well. If he'd been a noble, he would have climbed onto the mountain halfway toward the top. A noble could so easily become an official in the local government that few even looked at the position.
Ten years passed with Morssen in his rut. His path stretched up the mountain above him, but he couldn't climb it. His ambitions never went away, however. The town continued to develop well and the newcomers quickly learned of him and became his supporters and admirers. It gave him a sliver of hope that maybe he could achieve his ambitions, eventually.
If he could grow the town into a city, he would be a top figure in its administration. If he couldn't climb the new mountain, then he'd just grow a new one out of the hill on top of which he already stood. And if he kept turning all the newcomers into his supporters along the way, he would have enough clout then to be elected a representative.
Not to mention that growing a town into a city would be an achievement worthy of peerage. His name might just appear before Stellin X and he might grant him a Title. If that happened, he could jump over the mountain entirely. The thought immediately dove its roots deep into his heart and he became almost crazy with fervour.