Reproduced without permission. It all belongs to Steven Brust.
There is an orange-red overcast that hangs over the Dragaeran Empire.
Standing near the eastern border, there are, indeed, times when the overcast will break and you can see a blue sky, or a grey overcast, or white clouds, or a yellow sun, or bright stars. Other times, with a strong wind from the west, the Easterners will see orange-red instead of blue or grey or white.
The overcast may, if you are so inclined, be considered pollution. It is the result of sorcerers casually using magic for war, pleasure, and taking out the garbage for something like two hundred thousand years.
Sorcery is not unusual in the Empire; it is the norm. The question is not, "Are you a sorcerer?" but, "How good are you?" If, like a Dragaeran, you will live two- or three thousand years, you might have time to get very good.
The population, amount of land, wealth, power, and culture are big. The continent on which the Empire rests is roughly the shape of Europe, but twice the size, and the Empire encompasses (at the moment) more than half of it. Easterners (read: human beings) make up the rest. But we are not concerned with human beings, because there are very few within the Empire, and they are small (rarely even six feet tall), short-lived (sixty years is old), and weak.
We can also forget about the Teckla, who make up more than ninety-five percent of the population. They are a peasant class, and it is a very rare one indeed who has enough sorcerous skill to do more than an occasional fertility spell. The study of sorcery takes time, and the Teckla are too busy eking out a living to have the time to study sorcery or anything else useful.
Teckla? Well, they are one of the Seventeen Houses.
Every Dragaeran (with a few sad exceptions who are cross-breeds) is born into one of the Seventeen Houses. Each Houses is named for an animal, and has certain characteristics bred into it. Each House takes a turn, in order, at being the ruling House, and the closer the House is to ruling, the higher your status in society (except, again, the poor Teckla, who are rather sneered at even while in power, which they only acquire through revolution).
The House of the Phoenix is in power now. The Phoenix represents decadence and rebirth. The next House to take the throne will be the Dragon. The Dragaeran dragon is a large reptile that does not breathe fire. As a general rule, it doesn't need to. It is distinguished by tentacles with which it can pick up psychic impressions from other animals. The House of the Dragon represents war.
Next is the lyorn, which looks like a medium-size golden-haired dog, except for the horn sticking out of the middle of its head. The Lyorn represents tradition.
The tiassa is a large panther with batlike wings, and the House represents catalyst and inpiration.
The next House is the Hawk, and to a Dragaeran, a hawk is anything from a goshawk to an eagle. The Hawk's characteristic is curiosity.
The dzur is a large, black tiger, and represents heroism.
The issola is vaguely storklike, with a sharper beak and darker colors, and represents courtliness and surprise.
The tsalmoth is somewhat bearlike, and is known for unpredictability and tenacity.
The vallista is an amphibious creature living around streams and ponds, and the House is that of construction and tearing down.
The Jhereg, which, along with the Vallista, shares the bottom of the Cycle right now, is a small flying, poisionous reptile that lives on carrion. It represents corruption.
Starting back toward the top of the Cycle (though, in its movements, heading down) is the House of the Iorich. The iorich is a large, slow-moving, river dwelling reptile. It is an [sic] herbivore, but is also known to follow (sometimes for weeks), track down, and kill anything which attacks it. This House represents justice and retribution.
The chreotha is a large foxlike creature, whose saliva can be used to build a web strong enough to snare a Dzur [sic] and, sometimes, a Dragon [sic]. The Chreotha represents the trap.
The yendi is a desert-dwelling sand-snake. Its bite is so subtle that few animals (or people) will realize they've been bitten until, a few minutes to an hour later, the victim will collapse. The House of the Yendi represents subtlety and misdirection.
The House of the Orca is mercantilism and the viscious side of business.
The teckla is a salt marsh harvest mouse, and the House of the Teckla represents cowardice and fertility.
The jhegaala lives in swamps, and starts as an egg, becomes a large moth, and then a very large toad, passing through a few other stages in between. The House represents metamorphosis.
The athyra is an owllike bird. It is capable of emitting subtle psychic signals which causes its prey to come to it, or make its enemies fear it. The Athyra is the House of magic.
Except for the Teckla, all Houses are considered "noble", although this has greater or lesser meaning depending on the House.
A few hundred thousand years ago, or so the story goes, an accident happened to the godlike Jenoine who lived on Dragaera and whose genetic experiments led to the tribes which eventually lead to the Seventeen Houses. What remains is a large Sea of Chaos, in the northeastern part of the Empire.
The Empire began when the Imperial Orb was created, which allowed the Empress to draw power from this chaos. Every citizen of the Empire has a link to this Orb, and it is from this that sorcery is done. The amount of power is, for all intents and purposes, unlimited, although doing a great deal of sorcery will cause fatigue that may lead to the power getting out of control, with unfortunate results.
It should be noted that every citizen, through the Orb, can instantly reach the Emperor or Empress (at the moment, Empress Zerika), but this is rarely done since it means instant death to anyone who bothers the Empress needlessly.
There is, incidentally, no armor as such, though few sorcerers can accomplish similar effects. The most common weapon among Dragaerans is the hand-and-a-half sword, which they wield in a fairly primitive manner. The cultural feel of the society should be thought of as Western Europe around the time of the Reformation.
The other thing worth mentioning is that, about four hundred and fifty years ago, there was an attempt to take the throne that failed, resulting in a small Sea of Chaos where the old capital was two hundred years Interregnum when sorcery didn't work. It ended something like two hundred and fifty years ago when Zerika took up the Orb, and society has building itself since then.