Why is Aquila von Starland a duke while his more prosperous father-in-law, Theobald Peilov, is a count? And why does Jan Peilov claim a higher rank than Elizabeth von Starland? After all, as Elizabeth is fond of reminding everyone around her, she is the niece, cousin, and granddaughter of the ruling Dukes of Sarmas. And what about the royal archdukes who make life so interesting for Elizabeth and Lady Ann Starland? Where are the barons, marquis, knights, and other ranks? Welcome to the fluid world of noble rank in the Eastern Empire.
The question of titles and rank bears a great deal of weight in Frankonia and the Eastern Empire, not as much in the Sea Republics, and has its own confusions in the Freistaadter of the Thumb Peninsula and city-states along the northern coast. It has been so since before the Great Fires. The Landers, although officially free of inherited rank and status, were acutely conscious of what type of colonist each group, family, and even individual came as. As with any group of people, certain individuals and organizations made use of this hierarchy, even as they decried it. In the aftermath of the Great Fires, especially after the largest cities collapsed, a rough meritocracy replaced the old Corporate orders for a while. But as time passed, social orders returned.
Noble rank in the Eastern Empire derives from two sources. First come inherited titles, passed through the family by patrilineal inheritance, or (more rarely) through adoption or marriage. The Easterners tend to follow male primogeniture, and the core of the family holdings cannot be divided among the lord’s survivors. For example, Peilovna, the heart of the Peilov family holdings, has been in that family since the Great Fires. Other bits came and went through inheritance, dowry, sale, or surrender to the crown for back taxes (the family prefers not to talk about that particular Count Peilov). The title of Count Peilov goes with the property. Similar estates include Jones, Montoya, Eulenberg, and Starland and Kossuthna Major. Each of these is a county, administered by a count, and passed through the family.
Wait, you say, what about Duke Aquila von Starland? Why is he a duke and not a count? The reason is because of his military leadership and rank. Duke Grantholm and Duke Starland (and later Duke Kossuth and Duke Matthew von Starland) command the combined military forces of a large section of the Empire. Their higher rank is a military title, and collectively they are known as the “war dukes.” Over the years the Babenburgs have given a few others ducal status for administrative work. The title is not guaranteed to pass through the family. For example, there have been Duke Peilovs in the past, but not for the most recent three generations. Should Matthew von Starland’s son not share the family military aptitude, he would be Count Starland, with the prestige of owning one of the oldest estates in the Empire, but no ducal rank.
Commoners can be elevated to the noble ranks through meritorious service to the Empire. Or notable prosperity in business. Or by cozening up to the Babenburgs and making generous donations to various charities and other things of interest, although (thus far) that remains uncommon. Certain Imperial offices are held by ennobled commoners in Elisabeth’s day, and they have the same rights and duties as those who inherited their titles. As you would expect, it is still considered better to have an old family title as compared to a newer rank, although financial success smooths many burs.
There are non-noble ranks as well. “Master” is granted to men (and a few women) who are experts in certain trades and crafts. To sit on the city council of Vindobona, for example, a man must own his own business, be in good standing with the church, have trained at least four journeymen, and not have been disciplined for bad business practices (for example: selling shoddy goods, cheating on weights, failure to pay taxes, adulterating food or wine). “Colonel” indicates a man who has raised a unit of at least 250 soldiers, armed, and supplied them, while leading them in battle. A few of the colonels who have not been raised to the nobility (yet) sit on Imperial councils. In war, a senior colonel ranks equal with a count, and both answer directly to the army commander.
Elizabeth von Sarmas occupies an odd place within the rank structure, at least at first. She has courtesy title of “Lady,” and manages an estate for the crown, placing her effectively at the same rank as a minor count. When she is formally commissioned colonel, her effective rank rises. Now she has the same duties vis a vis raising, equipping, and commanding soldiers as do the other counts and colonels. But the direct commission from Emperor Rudolph adds an extra little fillip. So, for example, she is subordinate to Col. Marcy because of time-in-rank and experience, but she can appeal directly to Duke Grantholm if she needs to, rather than going through Marcy. Her appeal had better be due to an emergency, though. In a similar way, she outranks Jan Peilov despite his being the heir to an older title and (in theory) commanding a larger force than Elizabeth does.
The title of archduke or archduchess for the emperor’s siblings is a relatively new development. The emperor is the head of the Babenburg family as well as leading the Empire. The heir to the throne is always prince (or more rarely princess), and the emperor’s children hold the title of prince and princess until the emperor dies. At that point, the crown prince becomes emperor, and his siblings titles shift to archduke or archduchess. It clarifies the distinction between royal offspring and siblings, and stems from a period when neither the emperor nor his designated heir had offspring, but a third sibling did, and presumably one of those children would inherit the throne. Given the repetition of names, having a “Prince Thomas” who was 35 and one who was two, both unmarried, opened the door for great confusion, so the title of archduke came into use.
The quasi-feudal nature of the Eastern Empire permits a certain amount of flexibility in rank that is not found in Frankonia. But that’s a story for a different day . . .