One for Phoenix

Friday, April 3, 2009 - 3:37 PM

I heartily encourage my players to randomly improvise small cultural details or whatever else doing the course of my DnD game. These things are often swept up and integrated into the whole of the world I've been using, and I occasionally develop them heavily. This is one such case, and I dedicate both this and the next entry to Phoenix, who came up with the golden turban of the Wazir of Woe one particularly rollicking session.

The continent of Antambil is notable for its large number of nomadic cultures, and as a result of this prevalence, certain tales and characters have found their way into every corner of Antambil. One such notorious character is titled the Wazir of Woe.

Sometimes provided with a given name (Ugoru among the Betrani people, Izvira a'Yela to the Tanul), the Wazir is identified in various stories primarily by his title. Unlike many other characters in folklore, the Wazir's characteristics are remarkably consistent from culture to culture. Despite his changing name (or lack of name altogether) the Wazir is always depicted as a small man of considerable presence, wearing exorbitantly expensive and well-tailored clothing. He is usually described as being festooned in large gemstones, and he wears a turban of gold cloth with a jewel upon it. The Wazir is intelligent, eloquent and cruel, and in those stories where he is directly quoted, the tales note his rather poetic and expansive choice of vocabulary. In Betrani and Mugiira cultures, for example, the Wazir always speaks in rhyming couplets, whereas among the Jashapur people all of his sentences are built on metaphors.

A cursory examination shows that the Wazir appears to fill the 'villain behind the throne' archetype. He makes himself an advisor to some beleaguered or naïve ruler, swiftly establishes a stranglehold on politics, and promptly begins to drive the kingdom into the ground with his overindulgent spending, bribes and warmongering. Though he is often depicted as semi-comical in his ambitious malice, the Wazir is cunning and clearly a terrible foe. Sometimes the stories of the Wazir are cautionary tales, ending with the Wazir scorning the ruler he once served, and departing the now-ruined kingdom in an arrogant huff. Other times, the seemingly self-destructive whims of the Wazir are put to an end by one hero or other, who often must confront those they are loyal to in order to drive the Wazir off. In either case, the Wazir never concretely dies; in the Betrani version, a palace collapses on him, but the hero warns everyone that the 'Wazir is never finished'.

There are deeper levels to the Wazir. Though many historians regard the Wazir as merely an allegory for the incompetent advisor or the self-indulgence of nobility, there are a few consistent characteristics in all Wazir tales which set him apart. The Wazir is always described as being isolated or the last of his line in some oblique fashion ('the Wazir, last of his ancient kin'; 'Him who came from the desert alone, alone for his people were gone'; 'Woeful, for he was the orphan of the empty land'). He always claims some ancient lineage, but never gives name to it. Nor does the Wazir ever mention his homeland or where he came from. In fact, the Wazir never arrives with anything or anyone except his incredible amount of personal wealth. Some scholars think that the Wazir is a folkloric echo of some kingdom which no longer exists, perhaps something that collapsed under its own weight.

Further, the Wazir always ends up with servants. In nearly every tale, a point is made that these servants came from somewhere else, and they are silent and 'grim faced'. It is never defined where the Wazir gets these servants, but they are absolutely loyal to him. In most tales, particularly those involving a hero figure going against the Wazir, these servants are an implied threat, but they never get directly involved in the action. In fact, no tale describes the hero having to fight, trick or otherwise confront these mysterious servants. The servants add to their puzzle by vanishing from the story as soon as the Wazir departs, and no explanation is offered for this.

Most people assume that the Wazir is supposed to be some kind of magician, but again, there is no overt aspect of the stories that would confirm this. The Wazir does seem to have a way of making things happen, but this seems to be attributed to a mastery of human nature and a particularly far-reaching cunning rather than sorcerous powers. However, some scholars have noticed a few commonly described aspects of the Wazir which point to some very old magical traditions, again supporting the notion that the Wazir represents a now-vanished kingdom.

First, when the Wazir perceives a secret or otherwise discovers information important to him, it is often stated that 'the Wazir's eye came upon it' (or similar phrasing). When the Wazir scrutinizes something, the word eye is never used in plural, though it often might be for other characters. This ties in with the never described but always named jewel called the Banika's Eye, which hangs from the Wazir's gold turban. Among the now-defunct shamanic traditions of the Mugiira, who once ranged over much of southern Antambil, the jungle cat called the mbanikk was thought to be a sorceror in animal shape, and charms resembling cat's eyes were often placed at doors to scare away spirits or reveal transformed magicians.

Second, a frequent mode by which heroes thwart the Wazir is to access his shoes. The Wazir's shoes are often described as having folded papers hidden in the soles, usually maps of some kind. The hero usually deduces that these maps led the Wazir to the location, and somehow destroying them makes the Wazir depart. In the Purayu version, the heroine lights the maps on fire, and causes the Wazir to flee the kingdom on burning feet, eventually running into the sky on a road of smoke. The exact purpose of these papers is never fully described, but again there are indications of an older tradition here. The custom of scribing maps and placing them within footwear existed in several of Antambil's deep desert cultures. It was a ritual component for tribal magicians who sought greater power or insight, and after creating their magical footwear, they would wander until realization hit. The maps were frequently abstracts or designs leading to places that never existed.

Third, the Wazir is always, without exception, mentioned to be in possession of bracelets that shine like the sun. He wears them on both arms, and though they never play any part in any of the stories, they are mentioned very specifically in every Wazir tale. In the Jashapuran and Rukh-Sadra versions of the Wazir, it is also mentioned that the bracelets cannot be removed, which brings to mind a comparison with shackles. Indeed, the Rukh-Sadra version describes them as shackles specifically. The number of bracelets are never described outside of 'many'.

Only a very few scholars recognize the potential significance of these bracelets. In the ancient days of Antambil, the city of Ombos was ruled over by warlock-priests who called on tremendous primordial powers. Their proficiency with their sorcery was measured in magical bracers which circled their arm, and could not be removed. Thus, again the Wazir represents a vanished magical tradition, but this time one parallel can be specifically discerned.

But the warlock-priests of Ombos were not conquerors, and neither did they intrude upon others as advisors. In fact, the city of Ombos was purposefully constructed in the deepest, most inhospitable part of the Antambil desert. The warlock-priests could not even be said to have had neighbors, and no records or tales exist of them ever having reached out to other cultures in their age. So, who was the Wazir of Woe?

Over the centuries, many have claimed the title, adopting an ostentatious wardrobe and attempting to gather power with a legendary reputation. Unlike the Wazir of the tales, however, these Wazirs frequently end up dead from assassins, heroes or their own disgruntled allies. A few, in egotistical fury, ended their own lives rather than watch their plans be foiled. Though a great deal of superstitious unease still revolves around the Wazir, few educated people believe that the Wazir actually exists, and in modern culture, he is a sinister trickster who elicits laughter as much as despise in the dramas, songs and poems of the day.

The truth of the Wazir is a very obscure one, and only a small handful of Antambil scholars know it.

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