Though the islands are generally marked on maps as ‘Ilael’, the people are a seagoing culture and the islands themselves are only sparsely inhabited. The Ilael spend almost their entire lives on ships, going onto land only to trade and resupply. Ships that hug the mainland are generally left alone, but the Ilael consider the open sea to be their territory. Those that cross it must pay tithes for the right, or risk being taken by Ilael ships.
Ilael is a matriarchal society, ruled by the Queen of the Sea. Admirals and shamans are always female, though all other positions including captain are equally open to men and women, though male captains are rare due to various aspects of Ilael’s culture. The few that exist are usually the husbands of admirals. The queen’s husband is a king and does outrank admirals, but it is the queen who rules Ilael. The water gives life, as a woman gives life, and thus the waves can only be ruled by a woman.
Despite their far ranging ways, the Ilael are a surprisingly united and close-knit cultures. Ships take almost any excuse to gather together. It is discouraged, though not entirely unheard of, to marry within your own crew, thus courtships among the Ilael are often whirlwind things undertaken in such meetings. A man is considered to join his wife’s family, and heritage is passed along the maternal line. In theory, anyone who proves their worth can climb the ranks and become a captain. In practice, however, captaincy is often a matter of inheritance. Whoever is lower ranked joins the other’s crew, but when ranks are equal the man is expected to join the woman’s crew. This is custom, however, rather than law, and exceptions are not unheard of. Ultimately, the decision of who joins a crew is up to the captain. The head of the family is the wife, and the marriage ceremony consists of her claiming her husband as hers.
The actual islands are heavily forested, and those that dwell there are shipbuilders. The islands are protected by reefs and straits that function almost as a labyrinth, wrecking ships that do not know how to pass them safely. To get a ship, a prospective captain must prove themselves worthy and make an offering to the builders. Sometimes the builders send prospective captains on specific quests, as is common for members of the royal line.
Each ship is expected to be self-supporting, and a captain that cannot manage this can be stripped of their rank via a vote of either two admirals or a dozen other captains. Others can be demoted by their captain. There is a considerable disgrace to being demoted, and captains that lose their ships by any means often commit suicide due to the shame. Captains are known for not leaving sinking ships, preferring that they and their vessel ‘die together’.
Funeral rites involve being buried at sea, and the Ilael will go to great lengths to recover the corpses of those of their kin that die upon land so that they may be interred properly below the waves. They are born on the water and prefer to die on the water. Those that die on land and cannot be returned to the sea are burned, in the hopes the smoke will become cloud and return their kin to the ocean as rain. Actually burying an Ilael is a good way to turn their kin and crew’s vengeance upon you.
They do not have ‘gods’, but practice a form of shamanism. Each ship has a shaman that serves the captain as advisor and healer. On certain matters, the captain is expected to defer to the shaman, and it is common for captain and shaman to be related.
Most Ilael speak multiple languages so as to facilitate trade, but they have their own language as well.
Officially, they do not keep slaves and look down upon those who do. If the Ilael serve, it is willingly. However, the lowest ranked members of ships are often indistinguishable from slaves in how they are expected to obey as well as how they can be punished. The Ilael point out that they aren’t slaves though, because everyone, even the Queen herself, once started at that rank and they are all expected to rise out of it.
The people of Ilael are dark, almost black-skinned. They have little to no body hair, and tend to wear their hair cropped short. As befits a people that live on the sea, they are all strong swimmers and known to be able to hold their breath and dive down deeper than other people. Some even claim the Ilael have gills and webbed feet. They have little concern about nudity among their own, though when trading or otherwise near land they conform to the local customs so as not to create a ruckus.