District Count of Barrayar
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Role of the Counts
Barrayar is divided into 60 districts. Each Count owns and governs his district. It appears that only Vor can be counts and only males at that. Countship is hereditary, usually, though each Count can name his own heir.
The count is referred to as "Count Vor(name)" while the heir is always "Lord Vor(name)". The count's wife is "Countess Vor(name)" and the heir's wife is "Lady Vor(name)".
The counts meet in the Council of Counts which works much like the upper house of a legislature. Emperor Gregor is also Count Vorbarra, holding a position formally known as "first among equals", by virtue of descent from Dorca Vorbarra, who first unified the warring fiefdoms of Barrayar. Although holding a vote in the Council of Counts, by tradition he withholds it, or uses it to break ties in favor of the status quo.
One of the most important functions of the Council of Counts is to appropriate money and levy taxes. Without money the Imperium cannot pursue its policies. This is one of the major checks on Imperial power. Other laws are made in parliamentary fashion, with Council sending bills to the Emperor for his approval.
Counts and Counts' heirs cannot be tried in standard courts on Barrayar. They can only be tried in the Council of Counts. However, they face tighter rules in their everyday lives. For instance, the charge of mutiny in the military becomes treason when applied to a Count or his heirs.
Origins of the Counts
Counts were originally Accountants or Imperial tax collectors. They collected taxes for the Emperor. Now, they are much more governors, or District Governors than tax collectors. In order to keep small wars from breaking out as they did during the "Bloody Centuries", each Count is allowed only 20 personal guards, known as "Armsmen". Only Vor, their Armsmen, or soldiers in the Imperial Service are allowed weapons. Raising private armies is a violation of "Vorloupulous' Law", and is treason. Count Vorloupulous attempted to circumvent the limit on Armsmen by hiring 2000 "cooks," all of whom were armed with kitchen implements such as butcher knives instead of short swords. This attempt was crushed by the Emperor, who marched the Imperial Army on the Count, and then sentenced him to death by exposure and starvation, the standard punishment for high treason. Barrayarans enjoy the irony of the "Count with 2000 cooks" being sentenced to die by starvation.
Real world basis
The whole setup is not unlike early-Meiji-era Japan, particularly since Barrayar was isolated from the rest of the known galaxy for many centuries, and devolved into a quasi-medieval level of technology.