Year 0. A great Empire, powerful due to its control over magic, collapses. A rival empire takes over their territory and scatters its people. They seek to destroy its capital and salt the ruins, but its armies hold them back long enough for an evacuation of the people and magical artifacts in the city to take place. Some of the greatest minds and most skilled mages of the world have now become refugees.

They are protected by a kingdom, A. A gives them land and refuge on the conditions that they train its people and soldiers in magic and lend it their mages in their wars.

Year ~200. The mages' city is one of the jewels of Kingdom A. It is located in the highlands, and is well protected both by the geography, its soldiers and its skilled mages. People from all over A come to be trained in magic, but they are then required to serve their duty to the city. Most of this duty is used up in helping Kingdom A in its wars. But slowly, they are being less and less compliant to the wishes of A...

Year ~400. In a period of massive civil war in A, city A breaks from their bondage. They no longer help the new regime (except as paid mercenaries), technically still being its vassal but only in name. They are well-known and powerful, and it would be too annoying and costly to attack them, which will also cut A off from their services. By now,A has mostly subdued their local enemies and the only threats are other civilizations, which the mages do protect them from. But they do not bow to their whims or send them any help to deal with local rebellions or anything of the sort.

My question is, what kept these mages from shirking their side of the deal immediately? Or at least, as soon as they had their city?

Context: In this setting, anybody can learn magic, but everyone has a different capacity. In general though, skill beats talent, and almost all magic happens through devices (that require a magic-trained practitioner). Most of the know-how to build and use these devices is held by the mages, though some of the most common ones can be built by skilled craftsmen all over A (through overuse, the knowledge has percolated throughout society).

The city of mages works as a kind of "university", and they have opened universities elsewhere in A too. But they also have their own population, city guard and so on. Certain knowledge and most magic tools are only given to their own citizens, either through birth or oath.

One possible way, I think, is through siege. It is hard to take over this city, but possible to cut off its supplies. It is hard to build magic weapons without magic metal, and everyone needs food. But I don't think that's a strong enough reason, and using this as a reason precludes them from EVER being free.

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    $\begingroup$ VTC:Too Story-Based. I'm not a fan of quesitons like this. To be legitimate on this site, answers can only be systemic to the world and in no way connected with any aspect of the story. Please remember, the help center states we won't help you write your story. That means you need to explain the nature of your world and all reasonable aspects of your story to eliminate them from consideration. Frankly, I've yet to see a question like this that met the conditions of the help center. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 21, 2023 at 5:42
  • $\begingroup$ Cities don't get built in the highlands. (What's there besides rock, heather and sheep?) Castles get built in the highlands, to defend passes and control the populace. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 22, 2023 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ There are LOTS of cities that are in the highlands. Granted, many of them were perhaps castles or villages that grew too big. But in this case, the whole point of building it there was defensibility $\endgroup$ May 22, 2023 at 6:03

11 Answers 11


They needed the kingdom

They wanted to do magic. They did not want to raise crops, cows, sheep, and chickens; chop wood; shear sheep, card wool, spin thread, weave cloth and sew cloth; quarry stone and build their city; and otherwise do drudgery. Working in harmony with the kingdom enabled them to trade well

Only when, owing to civil war, the balance of exchange changed, so they no longer got the goods at a reasonable rate while the kingdom demanded more and more magic, did they decide it was prudent to hive off.

Not to mention that having grown strong in this period -- and having made the kingdom dependent on it for magic -- it is in a much stronger position to fight.


immediately or at least, as soon as they had their city

A city can't be built immediately, it takes decades. Why would kingdom build them a city without any guarantees?

using this as a reason precludes them from EVER being free

And that's a problem why? From your description it seems that mages need the kingdom just as much as the kingdom needs them. They got a good deal, why would they need to be free? What does it even mean? They don't need anything from the kingdom anymore?

If a mage city in hostile environment was an option they could just stay in the capital of the original empire.

A few specific reasons:

  1. Magic is very effective against large armies in organized conflict but can't stop an assassin. Attack with dispersed formation is effective against mages but not against people. Mages need normal humans for defense and support. They are force multiplier and without people they multiply zero.

  2. Food - a town needs a lot of it. There is no need for siege even, just build it somewhere in the mountains so that there are no food sources around and the only way to get it is by magically or normally transporting it from a nearest port far away. The kingdom controls a checkpoint.

  3. Magic requires a specific ingredient, B, which can only be obtained by mining (burning special crops / hunting specific monsters - classic magic stones, etc). B can't be easily obtained by mages and requires concerted efforts of large groups of people. Kingdom strictly controls production and distribution.

  4. Kingdom A keeps at bay the empire that wants to exterminate mages for religious or any other reasons. Collapse of the kingdom would mean they are dead. Mages remember how the empire kicked their asses and don't want a second round.

  5. The kingdom forbids crafters to settle in the town. If a mage needs a wand, candle or a book, he either have to make it himself from scratch or buy from merchants who imports this stuff into the city.

  6. Magic is fun but it doesn't create gold from thin air. Real money are in the military service, agriculture and education. Without cooperation with humans mages are just a bunch of very good but poor entertainers showing magic tricks to each other.

  7. Mages are generally antisocial, easily create enemies and hate taxes, politics and any non-magic work considering it boring and unbecoming for a mage. Without kingdom officials and guards maintaining order the city can't function. Also, military conflicts allow them to go nuts with the magic in the way they normally can't.

  8. Prestige. Mages are respected in the kingdom and treated like nobility specifically for their role in the military. If they stop, it all goes away.

  9. The kingdom built the city for refugee mages. The land belongs to the king, mages pay rent in form of service. There is no acceptable moral or legal justification to get out of this obligation. Individual mages are free to move anywhere else if it doesn't work for them.

  • $\begingroup$ Some of this makes a lot of sense. By 'free', I basically mean that earlier, if Kingdom A wanted to burn down a rebelling city or go conquer some foreign land, the mages would HAVE to help them do it. Once they're 'free', they only send their forces at their own discretion. There's still a lot of integration and trade, which is why in most external (defensive) conflicts it's as though nothing changed. But, for instance, when the Emperor of (now Empire) A decided to go conquer a neighboring empire, the only mages that went with him were his own mages or mercenaries, not the city's mages $\endgroup$ May 20, 2023 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ @The Infinite One It seems to be fairly easy to set up. Let's say there is a written agreement between mages and the kingdom and it says that mages obligated to help defend the kingdom. When a new king demands them to help to conquer a neighbor they remind him that they don't have to. $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    May 21, 2023 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ While kingdom has strong leverages, mages could work on theirs. E.g. they secretly put tons of gold and centuries of research and enchantments into magic walls that make their otherwise defenseless city impregnable. Another technology is a portal that opens into peaceful Kingdom C's capital where they can buy food and other stuff and find employment. While these technologies seem story breaking powerful, they may have downsides, e.g. demand centuries of preparations, require dragon's teeth to work or have hidden vulnerabilities. $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    May 21, 2023 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, portal makes walls somewhat redundant. If pressured, mages can just emigrate through the portal. So, while food makes a strong leverage for the city, it is not absolute. Magic supposed to enable things that otherwise impossible. $\endgroup$
    – D'Monlord
    May 21, 2023 at 2:46

There's an answer that hasn't been raised yet and it's more fun than the practical and well-reasoned answers given (which are great answers BTW):

They are bound by a Magical Oath

Back when they were refugees, they were desperate for help, Kingdom A recoginized this desperation but also feared that they might become extremely powerful and eventually a threat to the kingdom - and so a Bargain was struck that the Mages would swear an Oath that bound not just themselves, but all who ascended to the rank of Adept in the Mage Guild.

Being a Magical Oath, it has its own in-built protections against Oath Breaking - which beset the Oath breaker with various unpleasant issues.

Like all magical Oaths, it can be undone, either if the Kingdom releases them from their Oath (which they have no intention of doing so) or through some very complex rituals, that involve forbidden magic.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer because it arises directly from their back story and character as mages. Have attempted to replicate that in my answer. Upvoted. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 20, 2023 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ Easily dealt with by playing around with ranks. Instead of Adept, you are labeled an Adept Aspirant, and thus escape. That is the weakness of magical oaths. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    May 21, 2023 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Mary - The issue with that is that the existing mages (who are Adepts and higher) are bound by the Oath, and so trying to break the Oath by changing the name wouldn't wash - as once they start revealing secret information as would normally be given to an adept - then the negative consequences would kick in. $\endgroup$ May 22, 2023 at 8:01
  • $\begingroup$ Then the lower ranks would have to do it. Refuse the rank and overthrow them $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    May 22, 2023 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ @mary the older, more powerful and experienced ranks would be oath bound to put down such a rebellion. $\endgroup$ May 22, 2023 at 18:40

As you say, it's a city in a mountainous region, well-protected by the geography. Sure, someone could lay siege to it but there are probably tons of underground wells and streams, secret tunnels and so on. Food is an issue unless you have massive granaries or could magic some up, but if the mages are capable of guerrilla warfare (and why shouldn't they be), food and supplies in general will be just as much of an issue for the besiegers.

So the mages look at all this and think "hey, we can win this conflict".

But then one mage speaks up: "...and then what?"

What indeed.

The same geography that protects them makes it an unviable city state. It isn't a port, it isn't on a major trade route, and is surrounded by a country that isn't strong enough to conquer them but nor are the mages strong enough to conquer the country.

Could it still work for a few years, maybe a generation or two? Sure. But we're talking about mages there, with lifespans presumably well beyond normal mortals. And with that comes a certain level of historical perspective.

The sensible option is for them to avoid open conflict, stay where they can advise, influence and even quietly manipulate the rulers of A, and expand their soft power over the whole of the country.

(Note: there is a nice parallel here with Asimov's Foundation, with lots of ideas throughout the first book this small, isolated, militarily vulnerable but technologically advanced planet can manoeuvre in a sector full of what on paper are much stronger powers.)

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    $\begingroup$ Food is definitely an issue. Rome needed a lot of imported food. The Hittite kingdom fell during a time when they were importing grain from Egypt. All a conquering army needs to do is to cut off the food supply. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    May 20, 2023 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidR ...while maintaining their own food supply, and fending off harassing attacks on their supply lines from invisible mages emerging from secret tunnels. Yes, overall the situation generally favours the besiegers but geography, local knowledge and choke points on resupply routes can even those odds. Not to mention magic. But my point is that even if you can survive a siege and "win" the battle, that doesn't necessarily lead to a situation that is sustainable in the long term. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    May 20, 2023 at 14:22

The city is large enough to need food imports from a significant distance, & isn't along the ocean.

If the city needs more food than it can get from it's immediate surroundings, it will need to import food. If it's importing food from significant distance & it's not on the ocean, there will be choke points where food shipments can be cut off easily. Depending on the technology the choke points might be on a river, if it's more advanced it might be railways or highways. But if it's importing food from large distances, there will be choke points where that food is coming in from. If it were along the ocean there's no real good chokepoint, however inland there will be.

If the city tries to break off it would be easy for kingdom A to simply block wherever the food is coming from. Especially if your in the mountains, where soil conditions are often poor, there wouldn't actually need to even be that many people for it to be in a situation where food imports are needed.


They don't have good utility magic.

They developed extensive military magic, and have enough magic to hold off enemies quite well, but they are used to having lots of peasants to serve them and fulfill their needs. They haven't adapted to handle travel, cleaning, growing food, mining, or any of a variety of other mundane chores peasants can handle.

As such, they're not really ready to handle war. They can certainly hit very hard when well supported, but they know if they actually did a full scale war they'd quickly face massive supply issues.

The peasants aren't loyal to them.

The commoners and nobles they brought with them aren't really loyal. They don't regard magic users as their natural rulers and as such don't have a great willingness to defend them. In the event of a siege they expect massive numbers of betrayals and assassinations and poisonings that would degrade their strength.

They spent several centuries adapting solutions.

They developed new utility magic, they developed ways to make loyal servants (grown magical animals, mind control, golems, wealth to bribe people etc) they developed reliable mines and farms supported by magic, and felt confident rebelling.


Trade and commerce

Even if you're strong enough to just take what you want, the cost might be too high. Right now mages are supplied food, materials and labour for example. They could take over a large part of the countryside and the mines, enslave a lot of people and continue. But now you have more administration to do, rule more than a city, with people who can be disgruntled. Not to mention that many resources might normally be sourced from much further away. They might be embargoed or the traders less inclined to go to your city.

Oftentimes it is much easier to have a good relationship with others. Trade is good and much easier. In this case the country gets huge benefits from the mages, while the mages get the benefits of the kingdoms resources like roads for trade, knowledge exchange in books and raw materials. It benefits them both. Of course the country can be disgruntled about the mages becoming a city state in their kingdom, but the benefits outweigh the slap in the face.


The mages cannot immediately renege on the deal because kingdom A knows that they might want to renege on the deal. If they saw it as too likely, they would have offered a different deal, or no deal at all.


They saw the future, and it showed that they didn't become independent right away

At some point, they saw into the future and realised that the deal they were getting was going to work out well for at least the next 400 years.

So why bother? Why choose any uncertain future over a pretty good certain one? "Stick to the plan, and we're guaranteed freedom soon anyway".

It raises questions about whether the prophecy was self fulfilling, about free will and determinism, etc, but that's fine, a wizard's ivory tower is the closest fantasy equivalent of a university philosophy department anyway.

In addition, the last mage empire just about resulted in their deaths. Why repeat a losing formula when you have a guaranteed winning one.


They need to be in *a* kingdom

A kingdom is not only its ruler that can order those mages to do their job per the treaty, it's also larger resource base, large(r) labor base, larger markets, more stable currency, non-magic (if any, as there's magic everywhere, maybe this isn't needed in your world) technology/production, even a flag of protectorate, even as weak as a kingdom that has just suffered a civil war, could do as a means of implicit protection from say kingdom B or C that border A and are close enough to consider that city as a military objective. Existing logistics also matter, since if an enterprise in the city has some stable set of consumers for their production within A, breaking up with A would cause them to lose their connection, potentially also disrupting their business in case their supply is used in a production chain and not as something like redistribution.

They have a Mega-Project underway

After all, a high-tech facility which your city looks like might have been assigned, or is self-developing, some serious endeavor that isn't yet existing in the world. This project consumes enough of their resources to not bother with getting "independence" but leaves enough to do duties per the treaty with A. Together with the above, the project in question is not to be interrupted for too long, thus the city leaders decide it'll be better to let A think they are still in control of them, at least for the time being, and who knows if the project would ever finish in success. And even if it will, maybe it won't provide enough might to consider opposing A at all.

They are ivory tower people who don't care about mundane affairs

An average fantasy mage is a bookworm, occasionally endeavoring in an expedition to find some fuel for their studies, and he does not care about those "below", until they come at his house with pitchforks. So, after the civil war in A ended, the mages just have returned to their studies, probably ensuring the local populace won't revolt in the near future, and just let status quo remain in place. They even did not consider their treaty with A as something cumbersome, more as a means for their scholars to get experience in using their magic (devices) in "close-to-combat-time" situation.

The treaty is still beneficial for the city

Perhaps the treaty, together with listed conditions, had some other prescribed preferences for the city and/or its inhabitants, thus breaking it would cause direct damage to their society. Or they have raised the question to the public, or at least among those that are in some power, and the community voted against breaking up with A.


You said it yourself; the city trains the kingdom's soldiers and people are coming from all over to study magic there. Therefore, if they just up and declare independence, they are going to have a load of enemy soldiers and magi inside their walls.

Sure, they could expel the outsiders, but where do you draw the line? Be too strict about admissions and suddenly the bigger force of mages is on the other side, too lenient and you risk having moles.

Even before lines are drawn, a lot of the citizenry has some ties to the outside world. Some of them came in to study and ended up moving in for keeps, and sometimes citizens move out to take a permanent job out of town. The people aren't about to disown their out of town nephews because the town fathers caught the feudalism bug.

In fact, it could be that the city fathers make sure that the bad old days after the empire's collapse aren't forgotten. Therefore, the idea of splintering the kingdom won't appeal to many of the citizens.


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