Once, the Vermilion Lands were known for nothing save the cinnabar that gave their name. Located in the remote west, divided between a patchwork of petty princes, and in thrall to the horse nomads of the interior, only a fool could imagine them as anything but a backwater.
Until, in one Vermilion city along the marches, a particularly great fool inherited the throne. Determined to overthrow the nomad yoke, the new prince embraced pike and gunpowder, drilled and redrilled his troops in the new weapons, levied taxes to pay for his army and hired administrators to oversee it all. He died before seeing his moment, and the tools he built passed intact to his son, the Phoenix Prince.
What his father did for one state, the Phoenix Prince did for all. Heaven had blessed him with wit, will and charisma, and when a succession crisis distracted the nomads, the Prince seized his chance. Over the next year, many of his fellow rulers joined him through persuasion; others, through fear; and the rest, through force — but only after peace had been struck on generous terms. When the nomads next demanded tribute, the Prince replied with steel and shot instead. When the dust settled, twenty years later, the nomads had been broken once and for all. The Vermilion Empire was born — without the Phoenix Prince at its head. Disease did what no nomad could: the Prince died in the hour of his triumph, without ever being crowned emperor.
The Phoenix Prince’s successors shared his talent, not his vision. The Prince was a liberator; his successors were conquerors. The very newness of the Vermilion Empire became its strength: while others had invented gunpowder and professional administration, the Vermilions, free from established convention, perfected their use. Fiercely independent petty kings and city-states, too evenly balanced to amalgamate, found themselves swept aside by the Vermilion tide. Over the coming decades, the Vermilion armies marched a thousand miles east, into richer, more ancient lands. Cities that resisted were sacked. Wealth and art flowed west, filling Vermilion coffers, decorating their parades, adorning their new capital – the grandly named City of Victory.