What follows is a description of the various noble ranks and what they mean, as well as some notes on minor houses and landless nobles.
- 1 Rank 3 - Knight/Dame or Lord/Lady
- 2 Rank 5 - Baronet/Baron(e)tess or Lord/Lady of <Place>
- 3 Rank 7 - Baron/Baroness
- 4 Rank 9 - Earl/Marquis/Marquessa (also rarely Viscount or Viscountess)
- 5 Rank 11 - Count/Countess
- 6 Rank 13 - Duke/Duchess
- 7 A Note About Landless (and Newly-Landed) Nobles
- 8 An Additional Note About Minor Houses
Rank 3 - Knight/Dame or Lord/Lady
All noble characters of age are at least Rank 3; this is the rank they recieve upon their age of majority, when they swear fealty to the Prince of their House and to their immediate feudal lord. Depending on circumstances, the now officially-minted noble may take either the title of knight or the title of lord - or in many cases, use both.
The rank 3 noble title is tied inextricably to both the oath of fealty and the noble's coming-of-age; at that time, they are considered to be noble in their own right and are able to marry, hold land, and so forth. The oath of fealty taken at this time is of a very personal nature: the noble is swearing his or her body to the cause of their immediate feudal lord and implies a continual service of a sort specified in the oath. Typically, this involves either martial or administrative service or obedience (the last is reserved most often only for heirs, though it is sometimes broadened to all unlanded family of a lord.)
Strictly speaking, the title of knight is reserved for those serving their lord in a pseudo-military capacity, or for a member of one of the various knightly orders of the Known Worlds. As a practical question, any non-landed noble (and some landed nobles - those who are members of adventuring orders) can claim the title; whether they do so is a matter of fashion. Those who profess a martial outlook are most likely to use the title of knight. Knights who serve among lord's men-at-arms might hold any rank, but recieve by virtue of their birth a commission as lieutenant. As a consequence, the title of lieutenant is almost never used - instead, lieutenants are referred to as 'Sir So-and-so' and only if they possess a greater rank (which means they are serving in a unit belonging to a lord of baronial rank or higher, as baronets raise only platoons) are they called 'Captain' or 'Major' and so on.
Using the title of lord or lady merely requires that the bearer be a member of a noble family, and have sworn the appropriate oaths to their House. By courtesy, the title is also extended to children not yet old enough to swear an oath (the age of majority is usually somewhere between 14 and 18).
As a general rule, then, most nobles of rank 3 can claim either title. There is an exception, however: commoners raised to the rank of knight cannot claim the title of 'lord', and neither will their children be able to claim lordship until they can trace their lineage back to someone who can claim that title (usually this is the second or third generation, as knights are of a rank to marry other nobles.)
The obligations of knighthood might in most cases keep a knight close to his or her lord; however, it has been more and more the practice in recent, peaceful times for a knight to declare errantry (with the consent of his lord) and seek destiny or at least amusement among the stars. The major courts of planets are magnets for many such listless nobles, and indeed any court will support a population of lords and ladies with little to do but collect the support their lord gives them until he has need of them once more.
Lords and ladies of the lowest rank among the Decados are called Boyars, though the title of knight is used also in accordance with Known Worlds custom. All Decados nobles begin as Boyars, and are eligible to inherit only with their Prince's favor and after four years of service as a Boyar to the House.
Rank 5 - Baronet/Baron(e)tess or Lord/Lady of <Place>
Baronets are the lowest rank of the land-holding nobility, and occupy a sort of middle ground between knights (who are in many ways merely servants of their lord) and barons (who are more lesser peers of their lord than they are subservient). Indeed, a baronet can be thought of in some ways as a landholding knight, and historically the rank was established to reward knights in just that fashion.
Baronets typically rule a single manor and its surrounding territory. Indeed, by convention owning several manors is the mark of a lord of baronial (or higher) stature. The chaos of the Emperor Wars means that this is sometimes no longer true, however, and clever overlords have always evaded this by giving baronets one manor for their own and then appointing them governors (or sherrifs, seneschals, castellans, constables or any other such title) of other holdings they wish their baronets to watch over. This practice serves to both reward baronets for meritorious service but still keep them dependent upon their lord in ways a baron is not.
Baronets contribute troops - generally a platoon - to their lord's regiment, but while that unit is equipped by and belongs to the baronet it is not wholly independent of the baronet's lord's forces. Baronets do not recieve any particular military courtesy by benefit of their rank; officially, they are the lieutenant of their platoon, a rank traditionally given to knights. As a consequence, baronets often appoint a knight to serve in their place as lieutenant. If they are of a military bent, their feudal lord often commissions them a captain to avoid the ignominy of the lieutenant's title. Even so, it is not entirely uncommon for 'Lord So-and-so's men' to be a platoon led by a baronet, perhaps with a knight as his right hand.
Additionally, baronets have less legal protection from the tyranny of their lord. Traditionally, the lands of a lord or lady can be removed by that noble's feudal superior only with the consent of the Prince, a guarantee given to protect lesser nobles against the tyranny of their betters. This protection is not extended to baronets; their lands can be removed on the whim of their lord, and while by tradition this is done only in extreme circumstances (circumstances that the Prince would likely consent to regardless) the lack of this right has the societal effect of tying baronets closer to their lord.
Rank 7 - Baron/Baroness
Barons and Baronesses are the backbone of the peerage; indeed, they are counted by some the lowest rank where a noble can truly be considered one of the peers (baronets, of course, dispute this claim vehemently.) While most (though by no means all) barons have at least one liege lord between them and their Prince, barons enjoy a remarkable independence as a consequence of their rank. Their fealty contract specifies their obligations to their liege - usually a set number of troops for a set amount of time on a yearly basis and a proscribed amount in taxation each month or quarter - but outside those contractual obligations barons are independent of their masters. Liege lords will still often demand more from their vassals - usually, contracts provide for exceptional levies under circumstances of need - but whether a particular levy is in fact 'exceptional' (and thus legal) is a matter for the Reeves.
Barons are expected to muster a company or so of troops in times of war, but by tradition each baronial unit is called a regiment, with the baron as its colonel. As a matter of fact, only the First Company (the Lord's Own) actually exists, and generally a knight or baronet is given command of that company as its captain. Barons with several baronets sometimes have sufficient forces to muster several companies, in which case a major is appointed to lead the forces as a whole. This major also serves as the adjutant of the paper baronial regiment.
In important ways, barons are the owners of their lands, even if in the strictest sense they are merely governing territory for their overlord. In addition to the protection mentioned above under 'Baronet', barons can (without having to seek higher permission) lease their lands, use them as collateral in debts, render judgment upon the serfs and freeman tenants in their property, deed their holdings to the Church and develop or alter their lands in any way they see fit. Additionally, barons can sell off their property (or portions thereof) without requiring explicit permission, though their liege lord retains a right to veto such transactions. As a general rule, transactions of land between the nobility recieve the most scrutiny while small sales to the Guilds or to freeman tenants are almost never questioned. Ceding lands to the Church (even if that transfer occurs in exchange for some temporal reward) is not considered sale, and thus can be done without any restriction or oversight - though political consequences may result.
Rank 9 - Earl/Marquis/Marquessa (also rarely Viscount or Viscountess)
Earldoms, marches, marks, viscounties and the countless other names for the realms of Earls make up the backbone of the system of feudal military levies. Each earldom is expected to provide a full regiment in times of war, and as a consequence the distribution of fiefs has tended towards a cluster of baronies surrounding a well-defended central earldom. In most cases, earls are not the feudal master of their surrounding barons; like barons, earls and marquises usually have only baronets and knights as their vassals. Some earls hold their lands directly from the Prince (this is the first rank where such direct fealties are at all common) but the majority of earls owe fealty to a duke or count.
Like barons, earls are the colonels of their regiments, and martially-minded lords may lead their troops to war. In most cases, however, a promising vassal is made Major and titled the regimental adjutant, and sees to the day-to-day operations of the regiment.
Earldoms often include large towns or small cities within them; usually, these cities are given by charter to a council of wealthy freemen, who amongst themselves see to the day-to-day running of the township. The earl, however, will appoint a local nobleman to serve as sherrif or constable of the town, to see to it that the town council does not exceed its mandate and to represent noble will within the city walls. In the case of troublesome or rebellious towns, the earl may revoke the council's charter and instead place a governor over the freemen of the town with direct authority. Popular folktales often depict such governors as rapacious and cruel, though such lords are less common than stories might suggest. Still, it is often troubled circumstances that provoke the appointment of a governor, and as a consequence noble governors often must use a firmer hand than a lax town may be used to.
The rank of Marquis is the first where a lord truly begins to collect a court about him, as he now has sufficient lesser lords beholden or allied to him to have a large enough collection of worthies for social intrigue. Still, marquessate courts are often considered provincial, and are regularly portrayed as backward in troubadour's tales. The gruff country earl is a common figure in such stories, and to avoid being identified with that rural character socially-minded marquises often take up residence at a ducal court, becoming permanent fixtures in the planetary capital.
Rank 11 - Count/Countess
Counts and Countesses are among the greater nobles in a House, reigning usually from a major city over a substantial swathe of land - sometimes, up to a small continent in size. They are likely to have many barons as their oath-sworn vassals, and even those nobles within their sphere of influence who do not directly owe them fealty may pay a tribute for trade rights and are likely to heed closely the counsel of the count. In several cases - Pandemonium and Rampart, for instance - counts and countesses have even been appointed governors of entire worlds.
County courts are social centers, and tend to be hotbeds of regional political intrigue. Usually, it is the local count who presides over in-house judicial proceedings, and by tradition it is at a county seat that Regency Court proceedings convene.
Militarily, the cities that are so often at the heart of a county prove to be major targets in times of war; counts maintain several regiments, and their citadels are usually important defensive structures. Additionally, county seats tend to host skyports or even minor starports, and as a consequence counts are the first rank of nobles to maintain any naval force of consequence. Certainly, the odd baron or earl may have a starship or two, but counts begin to regularly field a light warship or two as well as a few starfighters. County navies aren't enough to frighten anyone, but they do mean that county capitals are meaningful military installations on a planetary scale, as the facilities to support even a small group of starships can also serve as a staging ground for invaders and a defense nexus for the holding House.
The political and social requirements of counthood mean that counts are often very tied to their home fiefs - while some counts serve as diplomats or military leaders, the size their fiefs and nature of their responsibilities means that they are often tied to their homes. As a consequence, the 'scheming count behind the scenes' has become a fixture of noble storytelling. Count is also often the rank of many of the Prince's closest advisors; dukes and duchesses are sufficiently independently powerful to be consumed by their own duties, but a count - especially one with a fief near to the House capital - can escape his own duties enough to properly serve their Prince.
Rank 13 - Duke/Duchess
The greatest lords and ladies in the Known Worlds, dukes and duchesses rule vast fiefs that sometimes cover the majority of an entire planet, and at the least are a continent or so in size. They are usually important house leaders, and are often the heads of subfamilies or factions within a noble house. Ducal courts are often planetary capitals, and it is in the halls of such courts that much of the political business of the Known Worlds is conducted.
Dukes and duchesses are personages of such power that they rarely take a direct hand in administering their fiefs, instead appointing some lieutenant (commonly of the Church or League, but also often a lesser noble) to administer their fiefs in their absence. Instead, dukes and duchesses serve as the front-line leaders of the house in all its endeavors; many ambassadors to the Imperial court and elsewhere are dukes, as often are the leaders of house intelligence agencies and the top general officers of a house military.
The rank of duke is used a little differently in all of the houses. The Hawkwood come closest to the 'ideal duke' - their nobles of ducal rank are traditionally the largest and most powerful landowners. Among the Hazat, dukes and duchesses rule the various sub-branches, and while they have land and power as a consequence the prestige of the title stems from being leader of their particular familial line. Decados dukes and duchesses have reached that position only by employing great cunning; they scheme for control of political organizations like the Jakovian Agency and for rulership of planets, all in hopes of securing the Prince's throne for themselves. In the al-Malik, dukes and duchesses are in many ways supplanted by planetary governors appointed by Grand Duke Hakim; the various dukes among the al-Malik are instead leaders within the various planetary branches of the al-Malik, and gain power when their particular branch holds the House throne. The Li Halan, like the Hawkwood, also have a very traditional conception of dukedom, though in their case dukes and duchesses are often of close relation to the Li Halan Prince.
Duchies are expected to possess a very subtantial military strength; generally, a duke is responsible for raising a full legion of men, and he is also likely to have something on the order of small starfleet under his command.
A Note About Landless (and Newly-Landed) Nobles
Since the Emperor Wars, many nobles have lost the lands they once held, and some have gained lands that far outstrip their rank. While some houses have established procedures to rectify such disparities between land and title, on the whole the feudal system has yet to catch up with the broad changes of the Emperor Wars. As a consequence, there exists a sort of underclass of nobles, lords and ladies with lofty title but no lands to match. In many cases, these landless lords are little better than nights, though some still possess portions of their previous political influence - but it is an unfortunate truth that friendships fade once the tangible reasons for the original alliance have faded away.
Other nobles treat their landless cousins with a sort of pity; they give them the honor and respect due their rank, but there is a sort of uncomfortableness around the landless, as they are odd people out in a feudal system based principally on lands and possessions. The ranks of the landless are filled primarily now with two sorts of people. Some have given up on what they once had, and now lead a maudlin life of sybaritic excess. In others, the desire to regain lost glory burns like a flame, and they are often at the forefront of house endeavors, trying desperately to impress their betters and win back what was theirs.
In the opposite position are those nobles with more land than their title suggest; they are given greater respect than a regular noble of their rank, but less than that of the rank their lands would appropriately merit.
An Additional Note About Minor Houses
Titles among the Minor Houses often do not follow the guidelines above; indeed, they are generally rather confused. At one time, the heads of all Minor Houses were considered to be Marquises, but in the years since that standardization many have claimed or been given higher title. Additionally, some of the Minor Houses were once major houses, and so possess titles that suggest they have more land and influence than they in fact possess. In the other direction, some minor houses possess more lands than their titles suggest - the Keddah, for instance, possess a planet but are ruled by a Marquis, and thus have barons filling the positions occupied in larger houses by everything from baron to count.
As a general rule, both extremes are treated much like landless and extra-landed nobles above; those minor house nobles with greater title than their lands recieve less respect than their title suggests (though more than might be inferred from just their lands alone) and those with more land than their title recieve more respect than is traditionally due their rank (though less than one might expect from someone with lands of that size.)