For centuries, the craft and mercantile guilds of Arnesse plied their trade and provided the kingdom with everything from wondrous works of art to the very items necessary to sustain life. The Great War changed all that. In the fallout from that terrible conflict, the land was ravaged by war, revolt, and chaos. The existing guilds came under siege and many were disbanded or destroyed entirely. For years, artisans were either forced to go underground or hide to continue their practices. Most of the art, finery, and artifacts of the old world were utterly annihilated and the secrets of their craftsmanship were taken to the grave by those who held them. It was into this world that the guild known as the Cirque was born and from a most unlikely place.
The Cirque has its origins in a performance troupe of the same name that was popular in the first century of the Age of Kings. Legends told that the performers of the Cirque le Soir were among the finest in all the land. That as they travelled around from town to town and village to village, they attracted massive crowds to see their performances. This made the owners of the troupe very wealthy. The local merchants and artisans also quickly learned that those who followed or attended the Cirque’s shows would never want for crowds to purchase their wares. The Cirque started to take a small cut of those merchant’s profits. As this was a time of conflict and incredible danger, the owners of the Cirque often hired and paid for thugs and mercenaries to help defend them. As the organization grew wealthier, they could extend that protection to those merchants and artisans who paid them tribute or dues. In those dangerous times, when the average person could not rely on a lord or knight to protect them, many were quick to pay the Cirque.
As the first century of the Age of Kings wore on, more and more of the old guilds fell and their members sought refuge and membership in the Cirque. The Cirque grew in power and as it did, it ceased to become a performance troupe and transformed into the singularly most powerful mercantile and craft guild in Arnesse. This was a fact recognized by King Richard Bannon I in 527 AS when he recognized the Cirque as an official guild in the Kingdom and gave them a total monopoly over trade, crafting, and commerce. Rumors abound to this day of the bargain that was struck between House Bannon and the Cirque to secure this arrangement, but it certainly made both groups massively wealthy. The arrangement remains in place to this day and the Cirque are the only guild in the Kingdom allowed to manage affairs of mercantile and crafting. This has created a good deal of friction and resentment among the general populace over the years, but the Cirque has proven extremely adept at managing those who would see their monopoly undone. The wise carefully choose how they deal with the Cirque; threats and rivals are dealt with harshly.
To the casual observer, the Cirque appears to be a typical guild that is comprised of artisans, merchants, and tradesmen. Their symbol is a serpent wrapped in a circle and devouring its own tail. This symbol has led to many calling members of the Cirque by the nickname ‘Snakes’ and snake motifs and jewelry are common among their membership. They have guild houses in most major cities and towns of Arnesse, especially along the major trade routes. Each guild house is led by a Guildmaster, who oversees the local operations. The Cirque’s greatest power is that they set the prices for everything on a list that is maintained in every guild house. All who ply a trade in that area are expected to abide by this price list. Not all artisans, merchants, and traders in an area are members of the Cirque. They choose their membership carefully from among the finest talents in a region and allow them to join their ranks. One thing that is well known is that the Cirque almost never recruits members from the gentry or nobles. While there isn’t a specific bias that is spoken aloud, it is well known that the Cirque is very careful about what alliances it makes among the upper classes of Arnesse. This guild prides itself on representing the ‘common man’ and it is not uncommon to see the Cirque be a source of good works, charity, and support for the local community. It is well known among most Commonfolk that the Cirque guild houses are a fine place to go if one has a skill they wish to employ to earn some silver dragons.
In places where the Cirque is present, all artisans, merchants, and tradesmen are all asked to regularly pay dues to the guild. In exchange, the Cirque provides protection and recognizes that individual as being in good standing with the community. The benefits of this relationship include preferential treatment at markets and unrestricted dealings with other local businesses. The darker side of this is that those who do not pay their dues often suffer increasingly serious repercussions, from difficulty doing business in an area, to random property damage, a beating during a mugging, or an ‘accidental’ death. Even nobles pay dues to the Cirque on behalf of their artisan retainers if they maintain such in their household. The Cirque is powerful, but its power is not absolute. In more remote regions of Arnesse, where there are no guild houses or Guildmasters, there are few restrictions, rules, or regulations on trade. Even there, however, the Cirque’s price list is often used as a baseline for commerce.
Though on the surface the Cirque appears to be an upstanding organization, it is not uncommon to hear rumors about them being involved in much darker dealings. They maintain a personal security force known as the Nagas, who act as bodyguards, thugs, and enforcers. Those on the streets know that the Nagas can be someone’s best friend or worst enemy. The fact that the Cirque is well known as an organization that can acquire anything for a price has led some to associate them with the Black Market, though none who are alive today could ever prove it. If the stories are to be believed, the Cirque maintains a massive underworld business that is as thriving and wealthy as its legitimate operations. If such an operation were to exist, the most terrifying fact about it would be that an operation of that size could remain a secret for so long.
The Apotheca is one of the oldest and most venerated institutions in all the kingdom, if not one of the more secretive. They specialize in and devote their lives to the study of the healing arts, the crafting of all manner of substances and potions, and the acquisition and retention of the world’s knowledge. Among their decoctions and elixirs are everything from cures to common diseases and ailments, to strange and powerful concoctions said to grant those that can afford them superhuman abilities, if at least for a time. Magisters, as they are commonly known, can be found throughout the kingdom, stationed and advising at the courts of the great houses or serving as the healers and wise people in larger cities and towns. As healers they are unparalleled. While many smaller towns and out of the way hamlets may possess some sort of midwife or primitive peller, Magisters are sought after for their ability to perform restorative surgical procedures. It is common to find a large number of them back behind the battle lines tending to the grievous wounds and injuries sustained over the course of the conflict. Many a soldier and knight have been able to return home thanks to the studies to which a Magister has devoted their life.
Their towers, haughtily referred to as Apothecariums contain whole floors stacked floor to ceiling, and wall to wall with books, scrolls, and aging, faded pieces of parchment. Colossal wooden tables span huge rooms, and are covered in bubbling glass beakers, herbs, powders, and minerals of every variety, while the rare occurrence of any extra space is likely occupied by some large tome or other. The largest of these is the Apotheon, located in the kingdom’s capitol city of High Court. In fact, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city, predating even High Keep, with rumors claiming it as a relic from long before the Eldritch Age. The Apothecarium in Tarkath, the Ashen Tower, boasts the largest library in the continent, if not the world. Magisters are said to brave the arduous journey to the southern kingdom as part of their Novitiate training. Rare and moth-eaten texts scribed in forgotten languages line creaky wooden shelves. Stories and histories from every age can be found here, were one simply given enough time to read through them all. The more superstitious would claim that there are even books hidden behind lock and key that catalogue the dark arts, and forbidden knowledge penned by the forgotten mad and moon-haunted sorcerers and incanters of ages past. It is informally said however, that you are not a Magister until you have studied at the Ashen Tower.
People of every origin and background come and go; parade back and forth along ancient hallways of stone, or up and down staircases, narrow and winding. They have made the transition from, and abandoned any life they knew, from the highest of nobility, to the lowliest of commonfolk. They have vowed to take no partner in life, and remain neutral in matters of state. They are regarded by many as misers who jealously and spitefully guard their secrets.