The Neutral Free States, or simply, the Free States, is the collective term for the worlds located within the Neutral Expanse, the area of unclaimed territory between the borders of the Imperium and the Confederacy. It is the smallest faction in the present-day Sea of Spirits with roughly two hundred inhabited worlds. Its individual entities vary in terms of size and power, some claiming only a single planet while others encompass multiple star systems. The Free states is allied with the Confederacy but is considered an enemy by the Imperium, a source of much fear for its citizens.
Commonly seen as a more organized and stable version of the FPR, the Free States was formed in much the same way as its older, wilder cousin. After the Confederacy was established in response to the rise of the Imperium, there were those who decided that they didn’t want to live under the rule of either society. These people laid claim to worlds along the fringes of Imperial and Confederate space and declared them Neutral Free States. When the Imperium finally came to negotiate with the Confederacy, the Free States were factored into the agreement that was reached. The space between the two sides was designated a demilitarized zone, claimed by neither and free of their influence. However, it was also agreed that the Confederacy would act as a protector to the Free States, safeguarding them against incursions from any outside forces, namely the Imperium.
Like the FPR, the Neutral Free States has no centralized government or overarching system of law and order and the space that lies within the Expanse but remains unclaimed is effectively lawless. However, due to agreements with the Imperium and Confederacy, the Free States exist as a much stabler entity. While there are some states that operate under fringe or extremist ideologies, the majority are reasonable and open to peaceful relations with their neighbours though this may mostly be out of the realization that both sides could easily crush them. The free states are also a much more close-knit community than the FPR, its individual factions more closely allied, a necessity as they cannot afford to seem weak in the face of the two much larger powers they have found themselves sandwiched between. When one Free State reaches out to either the Imperium or the Confederacy, they are typically speaking for all of them.
The Free States’ position is not an enviable one. They are trapped between two much larger factions, both of which could easily destroy them if they wanted. The larger of the two, the Imperium, regards them as just as much an enemy as the Confederacy and is a constant threat. Also, while they are allied with the Free States, there are many within the Confederacy who are not happy with this arrangement. Many dislike the Free States for their perceived rejection of the Confederacy and its values, especially since some states operate under political systems that are wholly antithetical to its beliefs. Also, since many have found it difficult standing on their own two feet, the Free States receive a large amount of economic aid from the Confederacy. Since many of them are not in a position to offer anything meaningful in return for this aid, many in the Confederacy have come to regard them as parasites, surviving off their aid but not giving anything back. It’s no secret that many within the Confederate Government have little love for the Free States and see only one benefit to their existence: they separate the border between the Imperium and the Confederacy. The situation between the Confederacy and the Imperium is very much relevant to the Free States as, if the former ever declares war, their forces will have to go through the Expanse to get to the latter, and will most likely take over the Free States in the process.
The Neutral Free States is a more recent creation; they weren’t there when I came up with my initial factions for the Sea of Spirits but rather came about as I planned the story and their role grew from there. As I was thinking of ways for the Imperium and the Confederacy to face off against each other without actually going to war, I became fascinated by the idea of a smaller neutral faction trapped between two much larger neighbours and forced to bear the brunt of their own conflict without actually wanting any part in it, a situation mirrored many times in real life. As with the FPR, we don’t actually get to see the Free States other than their interactions with the Confederacy but their influence is nevertheless felt and we will see more of them later in the series.