Arden Star Empire
The Arden Star Empire is a cluster of 300 solar systems with 233 settled planets. It was initially part of the M'KHaren empire, but broke off during the Mage Wars and no longer shares a border. Arden is also an early member of the Alliance and considered a very prosperous state. While a sovereign nation, it is often regarded as part of Joint Space.
The imperial Capitol is Arden Song, a prosperous world with many ancient buildings. The National Museum houses a collection of artifacts known as "The Arsenal of Freedom", which is quite valuable.
Officially, Arden is a Constitutional Monarchy, with a direct, popular vote. There is no highest office; the government is a parliament of which various members take turns heading, rotating every three days whilst government is in session. The Emperor holds no direct power, but is responsible for opening and closing parliament, and wields certain powers "for the people". For example, the Emperor is allowed to suspend parliament, and may also force its members to work without pay if the citizens feel they are doing a poor job.
While Arden's royal family typically trace its lineage to the M'KHaren Empire, no single line held the throne longer than three centuries before the dawn of the Second Age, when the head of the then-ruling house brought in the Crimson Blade. Since then, the line has been broken several times when a sitting emperor died without an heir, and various forces vied for their own empire. By the mid Fifth Age, the royal court had established a system which tracked the next heir out to over a thousand places, thus ensuring a proper emperor was always available.
True power in Arden belongs primarily to the Great Houses, which collectively own ninety percent of the economy and seventy percent of available land, including all major corporations. Every citizen on Arden is a member of at least one House, with purity of the bloodline a major factor in one's political and economic station. On Arden the term "Roughian" refers to an individual who belongs to many different houses and has a very diluted bloodline. Loyalty to one's house is considered paramount, so roughians who have not proven their loyalty to a house make up the lowest members of society.
Each house has a Patriarch (or Matriarch) who controls the house and its resources, and through those resources, its members. Members of a specific house are expected to vote in accordance with the Patriarch's wishes. All members of parliament either directly control a house, or controlled by one.
Arden is an unusual economy, insofar as no one makes a living wage. It is impossible to emigrate to the empire, because available jobs do not pay enough to support one's self. Arden's own people instead earn most of their money through a "House Benefit" paid according to their station and standing within the House. The great houses also own most of the land and buildings, so part of the house benefit is usually a place to live.
In spite of this arrangement, the economy in the Arden Star Empire is quite strong, with a high standard of living for most of the populous. The chief industries are tourism and banking, with primary exports being knowledge and skills-based. Manufacturing, while healthy, is primarily focused around the local needs of the Empire, & the import and export of goods at the inter-stellar level has a very low profit margin.
Arden Song is home to a major GATE-point interface, while an actual GATE hub exists in a neighboring star system, part of a Foundation total control zone. Similar interfaces exist throughout the empire, with local terrestrial travel and space tourism common from the interfaces. In the Sixth Age, Arden's primary attraction is its many buildings and artifacts of great antiquity. Nearly every city boasts structures dating back to the Mage Wars, with many far older; and every town and village has preserved at least one building from its earliest inception. For many Alliance tourists, such things are a real rarity.
Trading on this notion, Arden is full of "micro museums" and displays, many of which contain perfectly ordinary objects of great age. While most of these are not particularly profitable, they enhance the over-all ambiance of the the empire, which has also purchased artifacts from all over the known worlds. Very few places offer the same level of variety.
Arden became especially popular in the post-war period of the Sixth Age, when countless displaced refugees traveled to its museums to see items preserved from their lost home worlds. While Arden is certainly known to have profited from this trade, they made a considerable effort toward respect for the now-lost civilizations they represented. Many Ardenians view themselves as protectors of history, and view the artifacts in their museums and collections as important items which should be kept safe.
In contrast to Ardenian's otherwise self-serving society, "historical artifacts" are viewed as property of the state, and do not belong to individual great houses. Many houses are in physical possession of large collections, but are seen as stewards and curators, not owners.
Since the early Second Age, the Arden Star Empire has leased its inter-stellar military defense to the Crimson Blade, the mercenary branch of the Gudersnipe Foundation. The Foundation maintains one hundred and fifty battle groups, about eight thousand ships, in the region, whereof seventy percent must be "combat ready" at all times. The Ardens have often quibbled with the Foundation over the exact definition of combat status, with the divisions assigned to the region holding some of the worst operational readiness grades in the entire corps. As the region is politically stable, the need for a high degree of combat capability is low.
As part of their agreement, Arden ceded three complete solar systems and a further nineteen planets to the Foundation as "total control zones". A portion of Arden's payment for the Blade's services comes in the form of raw materials mines from these sites; the rest is paid by the government. Arguments over the value of Ardenian standardized currency, against the Foundation's, are common.
Despite their long relationship, Crimson Bladers are discouraged from mixing with the Ardenians. Very few bases are on or near habitable worlds, and ships on patrol avoid giving their crews liberty leaves at Ardenian ports wherever possible, even though one of Arden's primary industries is tourism.
In addition to the Crimson Blade fleet providing defense on an inter-stellar level, Arden also maintains a strong civil defense force, staffed by Ardenian citizens, and armed with weapons purchased from the Gudersnipe Foundation. Arden is, in fact, among the very few nations who operate the Harpy-class of fighter-bomber under export from the Foundation; most operators gain the craft under lend-lease, but Arden is able to purchase and legally own operational units, as well as produce some replacement parts locally.
The division of military assets is considered favorable by both sides; despite its wealth and strong economy, Arden does not possess the resources necessary to build warships on a scale that the Foundation does, while keeping the smaller assets directly in the hands of the people helps the Blade avoid mixing with the locals, whose lifestyle the Foundation considers "unwholesome".
In general, everyone mostly agrees that the Arden Star Empire are the good guys. They were on the Alliance side of the Mage Wars, they helped Eieber directly, and they made great strides in fighting the Marcons. In the modern era their people mostly enjoy a high standard of living, poverty is virtually non-existent, and while the state is autocratic most Ardenians report leading satisfactory lives. Arden's main industry is tourism, with many citizens living and working outside the empire as part of this capacity.
However, while the Foundation and the Arden Star Empire have always maintained a close political and economic relationship, the Foundation is not complimentary of the Ardenians. One high-ranking official openly referred to Arden's economy as "farcical" and "the extreme-end of the welfare state". Roughly ninety-nine percent of Arden's wealth is controlled by five hundred and eleven house patriarchs. Six great houses own entire planets. Ninety-eight percent of Ardenians live in housing they do not own, and from which they can be evicted at any time. Even most of the elite have little to no actual money of their own, and rely instead on lavish gifts and credit lines from the house.
Arden, effectively, has no middle-class: just the patriarchy and its subjects. There is no space for personal wealth, no opportunity for self-making: if you aren't born into the higher ranks of society, you have no hope of rising above your station. The lower classes do not live in anything close to poverty; anyone willing to work can enjoy a very high standard of living (higher, in fact, than under the Foundation). Those unwilling or unable to work can generally be supported, though there is little direct welfare. The key issue comes with the way wealth and resources are controlled: pay is quite low, workers instead have to rely on a system of alternative compensations. Employees receive housing, transit, medical care, and usually food subsidies from their employer; and are "rewarded" with gifts from a company store. This means it is not difficult for a typical urbanite to have access to a nice car, a good apartment, and expensive clothing. However, because most of this is only on loan from their employer, they are realistically quite poor. Especially problematic are Arden's employment laws, as a "right to work" state, an employee can be dismissed at any time for any reason with no recourse; and as that would also mean being rendered homeless with few assets, this can lead to quite abusive situations.
Still, jobs are plentiful, and due to extensive and inexpensive off-world travel, Ardenians who find themselves unhappy with the standard arrangement have little trouble building new lives outside. The Foundation, which operates a GATE hub and many transit centers in the region, offers a particularly easy avenue to escape. Additionally, the Alliance has a protecting power in the region and keeps a close watch for potential rights violations. The report holds that, while isolated incidents can be found, most of Ardenian society is well-ordered and in good conduct.