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The exchange of golden fivestars, either in the dark or across a well-laid table in a richly appointed house, could be the single most typical image that Faerûnians have of the merchant Sembians. Whether such an exchange is made to pay for the assassination of a rival, or to secure a favored trade status and lock out rivals, or to dump a newly overabundant resource at a profit on some unsuspecting person, the people of Sembia pride themselves on accomplishing through negotiation what others accomplish through violence or deceit.
Of course, there is enough violence and deceit in Sembia to supply the great nations of Faerûn should these other nations run out. Saerloon is the capital of these kinds of intrigues, but they crop up regularly in every major city. In Sembia, however, the intrigues and deceits are practiced to aid in business, not in place of business. A Sembian would rather get the better of someone through a negotiation than have to pay to arrange "incentives" for the other party to see things his or her way.
Sembia was once a Chondathan colony, and it won its independence due to the efforts of the elves of Cormanthor in 885 DR. Not a group of people to look a gift horse in the mouth, the Sembians promptly formed their own nation and found themselves in conflicts for years with those same elves that made their nation possible. Finally, a merchant "prince" called Rauthauvyr the Raven got the best of the elves and in the process drove a trade route through the forest to the Moonsea. This was the start of modern Sembia. Rauthauvyr established the government of Sembia and brought it to the status of a nation. For his leadership and accomplishments, Rauthauvyr is honored across Sembia, and one of the ways the people of Sembia honor him is through their coinage and heraldry. The silver coins of the realm are called ravens, and the heraldry of Sembia shows a raven and a pile of silver coins in honor of Rauthauvyr the Raven and the trade that is the lifeblood of the country.
Rauthauvyr saw the merchants as the real power of Sembia, and he established a government in which a merchant council rules the land and elects a national leader called an Overmaster for a seven-year term. The Overmaster directs Sembia's overall foreign policy and keeps the merchants from tearing the nation apart with their deals and intrigues, but he or she serves at the pleasure of the merchant council. It proved a very stable governmental form, though it did reinforce the unspoken class system prevalent in all aspects of Sembian society. The newest Overmaster, Kendrick Selkirk, is a fair and honest man, and he does well for Sembia. It is his family and their intrigues that cause Sembian politics to sway like the deck of a ship.
Trade is the lifeblood of Sembia, and the port cities bustle with the exchange of goods and coin. The most powerful families in the land are merchant families. The leaders of some of these families style themselves dukes, barons, or princes, and few dispute them, but there is no titled nobility such as you would find in other parts of the world. The people who make up the upper crust of Sembian society earned their way to the places of respect and power that they occupy. Wealth is inherited as older generations pass away, but if the succeeding generations cannot keep the family's fortunes high, the family loses place and slips to a lower class of society. Thus, people always compete for primary social or economic position within their own strata of society, and many work their way upward or slide their way downward.
The legal system of Sembia is built primarily around trade, and it gives the powerful merchant families much leeway in conducting their business. Sembians respect laws of contract, debt, and fair business practice. The wealthiest merchants know these laws so well that they make use of loopholes, which lesser merchants had not even seen, to get what they want. It is the letter of the law that protects, and that can be exploited, so the letter of the law is what is respected. Certain laws are inviolate: Consorting with pirates, for example, usually results in the destruction of the family involved. More often, though, in cases of consorting with piracy, it is not the law but rival families who exact the penalties for dishonorable business practices.
Sembian officials also deal with more mundane crimes such as thievery, arson, and murder. However, the degree of investigation that such crimes receive depends greatly on who they affected. The more important the victim, the more persistence the city guards show. Additionally, a powerful merchant can make embarrassing legal entanglements disappear quietly, provided that they were not too well known. For example, should a younger son or daughter of a powerful family turn out to be a thief, and be caught, the family head could most likely smooth things over if he or she agrees to take some action to ensure that the miscreant doesn't cause trouble again. If the same son or daughter is caught consorting with pirates, the whole family suffers since that is one of the unforgivable crimes, so the power of merchant families over the law depends on the severity of the crime.
Sembian life focuses on its cities, where trade flourishes, while most of the country is farmed. Merchants own grand estates and supervise farms, vineyards, and ranches. On these estates, the head of the family declares the laws, and the legal system of Sembia does not interfere with a merchant's own affairs on a merchant's own land unless they discover a threat to the nation. Thus, some slavery takes place in the country, even though slavery is outlawed. If a merchant is discreet, he or she can do many things on the land that he or she cannot do elsewhere.
Loyalty, like everything else, is a commodity in Sembia to be bought and sold. The merchant princes who rule the cities make sure to pay the city guard enough that most are beyond bribery, and merchant families must follow this example with their own employees. The treachery of a reliable employee or servant can be more devastating to business than a fire in the warehouse, and the most prudent merchants try to ensure that their key employees are beyond the reach of most bribery. Paranoid merchants pay wizards to spy on their key servants and employees, and they punish any sign of treachery quickly and decisively as an example to others.
Sembians have a very high opinion of themselves, and they possess a poor opinion of anyone they are not trading with currently. Outwardly appearing as tolerant, they nonetheless look down on outlanders and practically sneer at elves, no doubt due to past relations with the elves of Cormanthor. They treat trade partners with respect and friendship, but in general the Sembians are a haughty people who see themselves as the emergent power in Faerûn. As one Sembian put it, "their [referring to foreigners] customs are delightful when they are here to buy, but crude and foreign and often disgusting if they are not buying." This particular Sembian did not enjoy a long life after making this statement, but he expressed very well the Sembian attitude toward outsiders.
Religion enjoys great freedom in Sembia, as the people are very open-minded when it comes to the gods. Many Sembians are more interested in fivestars (gold coins of the realm) than in spiritual realities, and they use the deities as tools in their negotiations. This freedom of worship is seen most in the western cities closest to Cormyr. Waukeen, goddess of merchants, has a central place in Sembian religious life, but Sembians tolerate temples or shrines to many gods, including evil ones such as Umberlee or Bane, for the most part.
As previously noted, city life dominates Sembian life. Country estates are where agriculture, hunting, and other restful or productive activities take place. The teeming cities are where the real action can be found. The capital, Ordulin, sits in the northeastern part of the land, and it has a bustling population of nearly 37,000. Not the largest city in the land, this new seat of government is the most affected by politics. It is a beautiful place, but intrigues within the Overmaster's family has torn it apart.
The largest city, Selgaunt, is centrally located along the coast at the mouth of the river Arkhen. It holds more than 56,000 people, and it is described as the richest and haughtiest of the cities in this land. Ruled by a hereditary merchant mayor called the Hulorn, it is home to the most powerful of the families. The position of Hulorn may be hereditary, but that does not mean people respect it. Weak Hulorns are in no danger of being ousted; rather, the families vie for control of such rulers. The Old Chauncel, the council of old and powerful merchant families, rules the city through the Hulorn anyway, and the family heads have better things to do than to waste time in government. Selgaunt, home to the Uskevren, Talendar, Foxmantle, and Soargyl merchant families (among others), is also home to Zhent agents, Harpers, thieves guilds, and enough secrets to choke an average Thayan Red Wizard. Visitors are warned to watch their steps -- and their purses.