The Dragon Empire
Long ago, it is said that the mighty dragon united the Twelve Kingdoms, ordered the building of the walls, and forged what is now referred to as the Dragon Empire. Who the dragon was, or where he came from is lost to antiquity, but he was said to be a man of vast strength and personal power, as well as possessing the true wisdom and insight of the Enlightened.
As an immortal, he ruled the empire for countless years, until, weary of this world and seeking further challenges, he named a successor to the Dragon Throne and vanished.
The dragon emperors, each naming his own successor, ruled in peace for a thousand years, turning back all who challenged the Wall, and mediating disputes between the twelve kingdoms. This peace reigned until approximately six hundred and fifty years ago, when Lo Tan, last of the dragons, died suddenly of an illness he caught from his only son Lo Si. From all accounts, father and son died on the same day, with no successor to the throne named.
For the next two generations, the Empire slowly crumbled, with warring kingdoms each putting forth their own candidates for the Dragon Throne. When all seemed lost, Foon Cha'ni, later styled the Bear Emperor, killed the warlords of all three of the mighty hosts laying siege to the Hidden City, and proclaimed himself overlord of the twelve kingdoms. Thus was the Empire saved, and the Foon dynasty lasted for over a century, and saw twelve Emperors take the throne.
Various houses replaced Foon, but none lasted more than a generation or two before falling from power. Last of these was the Emperor Lisan Tan, who died in his sleep at the age of 42, over a century ago. For the last seven generations, the Empire has been ruled by a Regency Council, as decreed by Lisan Tan on his deathbed, until the next emperor is revealed.
Even without an emperor, the vast bureaucracy of the Dragon Empire holds the twelve kingdoms together. Over the last hundred years or so, each of the kingdoms has asserted more autonomy and focused more resources on things that used to be sole purview of the emperor, such as local defenses.
The army and bureaucracy of the empire is funded by taxes levied on the rulers of each of the eleven kingdoms beyond the walls of the Hidden City. Much of local taxes are taken in an attempt by individual kings to defray these costs.
As a result, the Dragon Army, drafted from the levies of the twelve kingdoms, is still tasked with overall defense of the empire and patrol the Walls, but recently has become unwelcome in the towns and cities of the twelve kingdoms as local prefects raise their own troops to enforce their laws. The Regency Council does not take this kindly, but conflicts among the councilors prevents them from reacting with clarity.
One exception to this decay are the Imperial Highways, still held by ancient tradition to be land of the empire, outside the jurisdiction of any local power. Technically, a pursued man need only step foot upon a highway to be free of any local laws or crimes. Of course, in reality, this only tends to work if a force of the Dragon Army is patrolling the road at that precise moment. And once on the road, a traveler is subject to the whims of the nearest imperial commander, who occasionally takes the word of the locals if it will save him the time of a trial, or decides to teach some respect to a traveler who does not bow quickly enough.