Here is the section of worldbuilding that’s basically just “the society is feudal. Fedualism goes to some dumb places sometimes.” If you’re not intimately familiar with how feudalism works and you’d like to know more, you should play Crusader Kings 2. If that’s prohibitively expensive or time-consuming, maybe read this post as a substitute.
Originally, the Empire was a feudal structure. Barons swore oaths of fealty to counts, counts to dukes, dukes to kings, and when the first emperors conquered their neighbors, the kings of those lands were forced to swear fealty to the emperor’s throne. There were five kings underneath the emperor, but four of them rebelled. The emperor and the one loyal king won the subsequent war, and the emperor reorganized the empire into a bureaucracy, revoking vast tracts of lands from the beaten nobility for their part in the rebellion. In the place of the defeated kings, he appointed four viceroys. In place of the rebellious dukes, he appointed governors, in place of counts, he appointed prefects, and in place of barons, he appointed magistrates. At the same time he standardized the Imperial territories, doing away with the vagaries of baronets, landholding knights, viscounts, marquis, archdukes, and so on.
And yet, the emperor could only do so much. Much of the territory he wished to reorganize had refused both their king’s and the emperor’s call-to-arms, remaining neutral in the conflict. The emperor would be legally justified in seizing their land, though ironically only because they refused to honor their oaths to their kings and fight against the emperor in the war, but he lacked the forces to press the claim. Besides, it would send a terrible message to nobles and other powerful people of the empire to declare war with the casus belli that the targets didn’t join the war against the emperor. Plus, the one loyal king had honored his oath and there was no legal reason to revoke his territory, and the emperor had no desire to stab his greatest ally in the back regardless. Thus, large stretches of land remain feudal. A count may answer to a governor, and a prefect may answer to a duke.
Thus, it is generally the case that magistrates administer hinterlands and mayors administrate major towns, both are organized into counties overseen by prefects, counties make up provinces ruled by a governor, and the entire Empire is split into five realms, each ruled by a viceroy. Except, one of those realms is still ruled by a king and there are dozens of exceptions scattered throughout every level of bureaucracy, doubly so now that the Empire has begun to decay and many bureaucratic rulers are governing effectively as though they were feudal aristocrats, handing out fiefdoms and refusing to cede their office on the commands of the Imperial Senate. Some cities have their mayors appointed by prefects, others are appointed by the decree of the previous mayor, others elect their mayors, some draw lots. A hinterland may be run by imperial bureaucracy, feudal aristocracy, or tribal clans.
The only through-line in this convoluted mess of an Imperial bureaucracy is that all power flows from the Emperor’s will, as interpreted by the Imperial Senate now that House Vilectine is no more. If a viceroy chooses to grant a duchy instead of appoint a governor, he does so as an agent of the Emperor. If that duke chooses to divide his duchy up into commanderies overseen by professional soldiers, he does so as an agent of the viceroy, who is an agent of the Emperor. If one of those commanders chooses to recognize the right of a barbarian tribe to self-governance in exchange for military alliance with them, he does so as an agent of the duke, who is an agent of the viceroy, who is an agent of the Emperor – and this makes the chieftain of that tribe an agent of the commander in turn.
Things do tend to be more standardized as you get near the top, however. While prefects are a plurality, but not a majority, of county level administration, and magistrates are barely even a plurality at the township level, provinces are most often ruled by governors, sometimes by dukes, and province-level governments that don’t fit into one or the other are almost unheard of. Every one of the loyal realm-level rulers is a viceroy rather than a king.
The lack of standardization at the bottom is in large part due to the Empire beginning to disintegrate after the destruction of House Vilectine. Another side effect of this disaster is that many allegedly bureaucratic rulers are forced to behave feudally. Their fiefdoms face new crises every few months, which means when one ruler dies they cannot just coast along for a year or two while the Senate receives word of the death, appoints a successor, and sends them to take the post. As such, prefects and governors are more and more appointing their own successors as “temporary” replacements until the Senate appoints an official one. It’s not uncommon for a “temporary” successor to reign for decades, die, and be replaced by another “temporary” ruler before the Senate gets around to appointing a replacement, and often the Senate is wise enough to confirm the current ruler rather than risking an uprising by trying to appoint someone else.
As the Imperial Bureaucracy becomes more and more feudalized, internecine conflict between vassals becomes more and more common. While different organs of government frequently turn on one another in the growing anarchy of the decaying Empire, the Imperial Bureaucracy is more and more held together by a small number of personal vassal-to-lord relationships, which means vassals who feel slighted and as though their lord is not giving them justice feel free to resolve matters themselves, and vassals of another lord are entirely fair game. After all, a baron may have a loyalty to his count, and his count may have a loyalty to the duke, but the baron has no loyalty to the duke, and attacking other vassals of that duke isn’t even objectionable provided that they are not vassals of the count. If the duke is too weak to punish rebellious vassals on his own, the duchy will degenerate into internecine conflict. The same is true of viceroys and their governors’ prefects, or counts and their barons’ knights, and only gets murkier as you include tribes, military commanders, and others who have been haphazardly bolted onto the bureaucracy with non-standard oaths and wildly varying cultural norms for the honoring of those oaths.