The Eastern Lands
Across the great steppes lie the Eastern Lands though this is a misleading simple name for a large and populous region. Larger and richer than the Empire in many ways, the Eastern Lands are split along cultural and religious lines.
The geography also plays a part. Where as the Empire enjoys a generally temperate climate with large areas of fertile plains, the Eastern Lands are known for their deserts, jungles and mountains. The weather is also extreme with rainy seasons and droughts.
Culturally, the Eastern Lands are as diverse as their geography. Hundreds, if not thousands, of different gods are worshiped. In the densely populated cities some streets contain nothing but temples, each to different god, each worshiped by a different racial or tribal group.
The Eastern Lands are a lot more racially mixed than the Empire. Along with the humans, elves and dwarfs there are the Goblinoid race (orcs, hobgoblins and of course goblins). All living freely, or at least equally repressed by the various Kings, Princes and Sultans who rule the lands. Other strange races can be found here, notably the Rakshasa who are unknown in the Empire. Missing from the Eastern Lands are Halflings. For whatever reason, the short-people never settled in the east.
The wealth of the rulers is legendary. The region is rich in precious metals and the rulers use slaves, forced labour and occasionally war to acquire them. Much of the wealth is squandered on decoration and show but not all of it. Knowledge and learning is given far greater status in the Eastern Lands than it is in the Empire with rulers often having large numbers of scholars working for them. These teach the next generation of princes and (sometimes) princess but their main task is magical research. Each prince is looking for more powerful magic to unleash on their neighbour.
The Spice Route
The Empire and the Eastern Lands have little to do with each other. Due to geography, large areas of uncharted and wild lands lie between them. This restricts the ability of the two civilisations to exchange knowledge, culture and trade goods but also prevents war.
Occasionally an intrepid merchant will sail the dangerous sea route between the two areas but this is rare. Far more common are caravans that travel across the deserts and steppes.
This long and dangerous journey is only made worthwhile by the Empire's lack of spices. Aromatic spices are plentiful and cheap in the Eastern Lands but worth more than their weight in gold in the Empire. This unbalances allows traders to make large amounts of money with relatively small amounts of spices and inevitably some will risk the many months of travel and the hazards of the spice route.
It is rare for one trader to make the entire journey from source to destination. Within the Eastern Lands, well established trade routes take goods to markets on the edge of the steppes. Here, a handful of nomadic tribes buy the spice and make the most dangerous part of the journey. Reaching Twill, they sell the spice to traders who transport it down the river to the heart of Empire.
Until Twill was captured twenty years ago, the Eastern Lands had no direct contact with the Empire. Since then, traders, spies and adventurers have begun to travel in both directions with growing frequency. Slowly, contacts are being made, knowledge gathered and the rulers in the Empire and the Eastern Lands are beginning to pay more attention to their distant neighbours.