Saturday, December 31, 2005

lobster lust

I like crustaceans. They're a food that I associate with special occasions, but honestly, I can eat them any time, day or night. The Chinese (Cantonese) word for shrimp is "ha," and in their characteristic way of equating things on the flimsiest similarity, shrimp is symbolic of laughter and thus joy. Shrimps, crabs, lobsters – they all make me happy. They're fun to eat.

Today I meant to pick up a crab, but the grocery was out. They did have lobsters, however, and after overcoming a stab of pain from the wallet, I splurged $40 on a 3-pounder. (Weightwise, lobsters have a lot of overhead, so the dinky ones are probably more expensive for what you get out of them.)

I told the mate that about fifteen years ago, while attending a conference in Laguna Hills, CA, I had a wonderful dish of chunks of lobster in a lobster cream sauce over fettucine or linguini. Since then I had never found a similar dish, so I thought to try my hand at making it.

I let the lobster (named Wilson) sleep on the counter while the water came to a boil. I admit to getting a kick out of this. You set it on its nose point, with the big claws folded down away from the nose and angling toward each other. Hold it lightly in position to keep the balance while it settles. In about a minute or three, the tail folds in, the walking legs stop waving around, and the sucker just starts balancing itself, on those 3 points. It's like a lobster lotus, putting it into a zen state. The claim is that when they're calm they taste better, but I have no idea.

I diced a red onion and two cloves of garlic, and sauteed them in butter over low heat for the 25 minutes Wilson needed to become one with the steamer. I also defrosted a cup of chicken broth. I turned both off and started dissecting Wilson. To my surprise, he started splurching liquid all over the place, some of which I was able to save and add to the broth. (I read later that I should have let him rest five minutes, like a roast, to re-absorb the fluid.)

I dug for as much meat as I could eke out. Tail and big claws, of course, but also inside the body where the legs join (not to be mistaken with the gills which are tough and flavorless), and even bits from his walking legs. In doing so I found that the cream-colored scunch between the flesh and shell of a steamed lobster tastes quite good. It's not fat, but it looks like it, and it can be found inside the claws, tail, and under the carapace. I scraped up all this stuff and the more shredded pieces of Wilson and added them to the broth. I chopped the better pieces into chunks and set them aside.

The broth went in the blender and I added bits of the waxy red stuff (roe, I think) until it was a pink color like the sauce in the restaurant. That took most of the roe, and I probably should have thrown the whole thing in.

Returning to the onions, I restarted the flame, mixed in two tablespoons of flour, and let that cook a minute or three. Then the broth went in, thickening immediately. When this was smooth I added the lobster chunks, a splash of white wine, and a half-cup of heavy cream, which ended up being a little too much liquid for it. Let it simmer a few more minutes.

Threw it over linguini and the mate and I ate like royalty. There's enough for 4 servings total. The mate loves it when I cook :-) but does not like me naming lobsters.

If I was to do this again, I would use less chicken broth and add more meat to the blender mix. This would give the sauce more lobster flavor. I'm hoping that overnight the strong flavor in the meat will leach into the sauce. And more cream is always a good thing, isn't it?

Friday, December 30, 2005

nice hawking surprise

I had it all timed to go hawking the one good day before the storm was supposed to hit. The first field I tried had a man repairing fences, so I figured it was better to go someplace else than face the dreaded "no you can't hawk here." He was mellow the last time I spoke with him, but I didn't want to push my luck. We went to a field a few miles down the road.

The parking spot had shrunk considerably, but the field was good! S&P had half a dozen good slips in 45 minutes. Finer yet, we flushed 2 rooster and 3 hen pheasants -- always a nice find, and something I'll come prepared for next time. (This is a 12-foot T-perch, which gives the birds a height advantage needed both for pheasant in general, and to compensate for the lack of high perches in that field.) There were mallards, too, but I don't have a stamp for them and they flushed very quickly anyway.

Then both birds landed on a 3-foot embankment, surprisingly close together. I was going the other way, but they didn't follow. Something was up. I walked back toward them, and when I was 40 feet away, both birds flap-hopped down the embankment and struck a rabbit that had been freezing directly below them. Apparently my approach had been too much for the thing, and it had twitched enough to trigger the birds into grabbing. I just had to laugh -- it was the most unspectacular catch I'd ever seen. But still a catch, and the birds were rewarded accordingly.

motion detection

The post above is an example of how strange predator minds can be at times. They recognize quarry, acknowledge its presence by their continuous attention to it. Yet somehow it does not become chaseable and catchable until it moves. Pheasants are particularly good at freezing, and in doing so become invisible to the hawk. I've almost stepped on as many pheasant as had good proper-distance flushes. (Proper distance for me is about 15 feet. Closer than that, and if the birds don't have enough height, they don't have enough time to react and get to speed.)

Some hawks are able to overcome this and strike frozen quarry very nicely; others don't. S has trouble with it, P is much better. I wonder if it would help to place a life-size picture of a pheasant in front of S, and reward him if he strikes?

Monday, December 26, 2005

music retro

Over the holiday I had a splurch of nostalgia, as sometimes happens when I'm in my hometown. This manifested itself in, of all strange things, an album someone gave me: Alfie Zappacosta's debut album from 1984. At the time I'd never heard of the guy by name or music, so it's not something I would have bought for myself. It turned out pretty good, and I listened to it a lot! My singing range was close to his, too. Being something of a Luddite, or at least unwilling to give up old technologies, I still have a record player, and put it on to spin.

It was kind of fun and funny to see the changes in my musical taste. From my present level of musical sophistication, the quality of playing is pretty good, not the best. Zappacosta's range was good, and had a pleasing richness, but was slightly unstudied, occasionally sliding into a note rather than striking it perfectly the first time. The melodies, however, remain fresh and interesting despite a slight tendency to repeat similar cadences across songs.

The lyrics are, well, quite inane. It's definitely eighties stuff, self-absorbed, I'm-sexy-hot-shit (which worked quite well for the teenage me, thank you.) I cannot think of any lyrics that use the word "I" so much, and it's apparent that forming a rhyme was more important than saying something sensible. Exceptions to this are "Can't Let Go" (straightforward story), "Passion" (straightforward attitude) and, if you view it as dryly humorous rather than earnest, "Start Again."

A little websearch on this guy turns up a career of modest fame and the hiring of so-so web designers who didn't bother proofreading his lyrics. He's had some health problems and his appearance is not aging gracefully. I listened to one of the MP3s and it seems like his voice has lost its old power. Nonetheless, he's remained employed, still singing, and acting on both stage and screen – something that cannot be done without sufficient talent (or, for creations, a lot of backing).

My favorite band, I admit without embarrassment, is Toto. They've always been session musicians: their employment depends on delivering precision sound and understanding music on many different levels. They've had good singers, though I personally think their choice of voice range tends to be too high (meaning both I can't do it, and it's not always what I want to hear.) I prefer hearing Paich or Lukather first; then Bobby Kimball, Joseph Williams, and Fergie Fredricksen in that order. Over the years they have changed, been experimental, played with other musicians' signature sounds. They have their winners and losers, but far more of the former than the latter. Listening to them spoils me. Same thing goes for Jean-luc Ponty.

Friday, December 23, 2005

yes, I like rain

A week of rain feels like a month, even when it's been as warm as this pineapple express. No hawk flying possible in this deluge. I'm sure to come back to find ponds or swamps, depending on the surface.

Planks soaked grey under grey clouds
damp dark concrete and limp brown leaves
a surprising bright flame at my feet
rusted chrome of the barbecue neglected all summer

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

palak paneer

A couple years back I was attending a falconry field meet in Yuba City, which is about an hour or so north of Sacramento, and straight north. The kind of place where you expect biscuit and gravy instead of garlic bread. Imagine my surprise to find a small but thriving Indian community.

After a fine day of hawking I invited two falconers to have dinner at the Indian restaurant. One of them, a Southern Californian and more than a little provincial, asked me hesitantly, "They do serve meat there, I hope?" He ended up really enjoying the lamb curry and tandoori chicken, and I had enough naan and palak paneer left over to make the other falconers at the field meet wonder what the heck I was eating for breakfast.

I'm glad to have gotten this one figured out, because seemingly all my favorite Indian restaurants have stopped serving palak paneer for lunch in favor of saag aloo (spinach with potatoes instead of paneer). The recipe will make enough palak paneer to serve two decent portions and freeze two more for another day.

Paneer (the cheese)
Don't use lemon juice or vinegar. Bring 1 gallon milk to a boil, and slowly add about 3/4 of a quart of buttermilk, stirring slowly. It'll separate into large curds. Pour the lot through a cheesecloth, reserving a bit of the whey. Wring dry and let it cool. Turn curds into a bowl, add a little salt, and knead to break them into finer bits. It should ball up, dough-like. If too dry, add a little reserved fluid.

Put on a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan, flatten to about 1/2" thick and let it settle again. With a smooth knife, slice into cubes or rectangles no more than 3/4" long. For the palak, fry the paneer cubes lightly in ghee.

It's really worth it making your own paneer. The flavor is totally better. Frozen paneer is available, but the texture is too dry to slice without crumbling.

Palak (the spinach)
Clean all the mud and crap off 3 buns spinach, or defrost and wring 3 10-oz packages frozen. Cube 2 small onions and start them sauteeing in 2 oz ghee. Mince a thumb-sized piece of ginger root and throw that in. Coarsely chop the spinach and throw that in, turn the flame down to medium-low and cover. Prod it once in a while so it's cooking evenly. Cook about 1 hr until everything is getting mushy (while it's doing that, you can fry the paneer). Add about 1 T ground cumin and 2-1/2 T garam masala, salt/pepper to taste, cayenne to taste. Add your fried paneer and fold it in (but if it breaks, so what.) Let it cook and absorb the flavor for 15 or so minutes or as long as you like. This usually tastes better the next day.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The War on Christmas is all an act

The vast majority of this country is Christian, yet the right wingnuts on TV are saying Christmas is some kind of endangered species being foully bludgeoned to death by Jews (and any non-Christians they can think of, but mostly Jews.) Everyone is getting hyped up about it. Christians on the lower end of the average IQ suddenly have a cause, and say Merry Christmas with a defiant snarl. The non-Christians on the lower end of the average IQ are jumping in, slapping their foreheads and pointing out what kooks Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson are.

They're all suckers. I think the true purpose of this act to bring up ratings, get people talking about this issue whether pro or con. Some idiot once told me there is no such thing as bad publicity. In this matter, he is right. There's a whole contingency of O'Reilly haters who tune in twice daily so they have fodder for their anti-conservative rants.

A while back, I was channel-surfing the radio and listened to some guy rant about how Michael Jackson was a freak show (repeating the phrase about forty times), and how he didn't deserve all the media attention devoted to the trial. The guy did this for at least an hour – when I got back into the car after lunch he was still going – with no sense of irony.

The alleged war on Christmas is all just the same.

I'm an agnostic, but I was raised to say Merry Christmas, and so I do. It's like saying Good morning or Pleased to meet you, without regard for the actual feelings involved. I, my neighbors, and work colleagues don't give a sweet damn whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Happy Holidays or Stick It Up Your Ass (well, maybe not the last.) My Jewish genes won't freeze in oppression if City Hall puts up a Nativity scene. In fact, I think it should, alongside a Kwanzaa menorah, a Jewish menorah, and any other winter holiday symbols they can think of, with a big Happy Holidays slapped across the whole thing.

So what, in this rather jagged post, am I trying to say? Don't fall into the hype. America was celebrated as the great melting pot, the refuge of oppressed people. We should be honoring everyone's religion or lack thereof.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

cine extremes

I can't help but snicker over Aaron McGruder's strip, Boondocks, for the last few days. Grandpa and his Oreo neighbor are off to see Brokeback Mountain, under the impression that it's a cowboy movie, and the characters will do manly things with horses, sheep, and lassos.

A few months ago I caught its preview, and sunk in my seat with my hand clapped over my mouth to stifle my laughter. It was the matinee, after all, with an audience of not more than ten; The Constant Gardener was at the very end of its run. The rest of the audience, I suspect, was in a similar condition. Two cowpokes (hmmm) flailing arms around each other, looking more like they're wrestling than caressing, yelling endearments at each other, does not leave one with an impression of romance. Yet that's what it's supposed to be. I just don't see this coming off convincingly, so I won't waste my time.

Sex between heterosexual humans is strange-looking enough as it is, and the parties involved were intended to fit together. Sex between homosexuals of either gender has got to be considerably more awkward. Romance between gay men, to me, is stranger yet. Yes, I know gay couples who are completely committed to each other, but at the same time I also know that the greater proportion of the subculture is committed to cruising.

On the other end of the spectrum, I do intend to see The Chronicles of Narnia. To my disappointment, I've heard it's not nearly as well done as the Harry Potter movies, and that it's been called "boring." This seven-book series was a staple of my childhood, and occupies a few inches of my present shelf space. You could read the entire set in less time than for a single volume of Rowling's, and feel just as satisfied.

I was completely unaware of the Jesus metaphor until I was thirteen or fourteen, and by the time I was old enough to articulate social views, I was more disturbed that the bad guys were obvious Muslims. In my opinion, Lewis gave a relatively soft touch to the Christian theme. I suppose the parallel would have been clearer in fifties England with its more widespread Christian beliefs. Aslan's death on the Stone Table is not a sacrifice for all of humanity's sins, but for the betrayal of just one person. Lewis, perversely, calls this magic, and theologian that he was, the term is apt. Unless the producers have gone wildly overboard, I think even atheists could let their kids see this one and still have a pretty good time.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

fictionsuit - a dabbling

I've just signed up with www.fictionsuit.com, a Petri dish for a possible ARG. At this point the PM, Misuba, is developing a story about a missing woman named Corin. Corin owns a display case of objects for which the members will be writing descriptions. Misuba has suggested the display case be akin to a Jorge Luis Borjes-style library, with a bit of Wikipedia thrown in for the descriptive format.

It sounds like a neat project and I've written up two objects for the case: The Unidentifiable Raptor -- completely coincidental that describing a bird should be one of my first three randomly assigned essays -- and a steel sunflower.

I'm not a person who gets deeply into ARGs (they're incredibly time-consuming) but I like them in principle. It will be interesting to be part of one.

Monday, December 05, 2005

got my life back

It had me scribbling over pages of scrap paper, making up paper cubes and drawing lines all over them, and begging for help in the forums, but I finally finished the Dark Complex.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

hard is relative

When I was in my early twenties, I worked with a guy who'd served in Vietnam. We installed networks, and he was always amused by the hysteria that came when something broke. The way he saw it, no one was going to die – literally – so upset was unnecessary. He had a point, I was sure, but in my relative youth I still believed that a hard life meant working lots of overtime under lots of pressure.

These days I regularly buy cigarettes and occasionally dinner at a liquor store/café run by a Vietnamese-Chinese family. They had a liquor store in a busier part of downtown, but recently moved onto the edge of downtown, and set up a kitchen. I'd stopped going to the old place years ago because of the parking, but the new place is easy, so I came back about two months ago.

Running the place are mom, dad, and 2 or 3 girls. I should call the girls women, but personality-wise, girls isn't inappropriate. They're getting in their forties now, but all have permed hair in youthful cuts, have bouncy figures, always wear makeup, and favor shorts and tight clothes. They always greet you with a big happy smile and a high-pitched, musical "Hiiiiii," invariably followed by a giggle. This could have me reaching for a blunt object if I had to hear it for several hours, but judging from the steady stream of regulars, the cheer works. The shorts help a lot too.

The girl who cooks told me a little bit about their past the other day. They were in a refugee camp in Malaysia for about eight months while waiting for an American agency to sponsor them to the US. She called it just "camp," and it took me a moment to see she was referring to the late seventies and not summer camp. She talked about how she cooked tapioca desserts and sticky-rice things in large volume, and how they'd all be gone in a couple hours. The recollection seemed a pleasant one, an experience that had given her confidence to start serving meals here.

A little later, she said that life as a refugee was "very hard." It wasn't much different from the way I would say it. But she had a little extra emphasis, strain flickered across her face, that made me realize that her concept of "very hard" is galaxies removed from that of someone who's lived all their life in peace. In a refugee camp you have no personal space, food shortages, water shortages, inadequate medical care, theft, and occasionally, someone goes nuts and has to kill someone.

This put a little perspective and a little introspection into my day, and possibly my entire life.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

xmas shirts

Got my Meitz shirts today (pretty fast, five days including a weekend). Printing quality is great. Shirt material is a little light for my taste, but far from the cheapest. I'm quite satisfied. Now I need to figure out which lucky falconer friends are going to get them. Could be ... me. :-)

Presently playing The Dark Complex to great mental agony, intense frustration, and yes, dammit, I'm dreaming about swirling cubes accompanied by pentatonic crickets. It's a very engaging game, although I find it less satisfying than his earlier effort, the Dark Room, simply because I liked its triumph music when you solved each puzzle. Dark Complex just buzzes out the puzzle, and you're left thinking, "Oh god on to the next one" instead of "Yeaaah I'm da man."

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

to Americans everywhere. Thank you to the men and women fighting this pointless war in Iraq – ideology doesn't change the fact that you're putting your lives at risk every day. I hope you can all come home soon.

Thank the deities (or someone) gas has gone down to $2.27 per gallon over here. We're doing a heckalotta driving between two sets of parents.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Saturday, November 19, 2005

johnny meitz returns

The incomparable Johnny Meitz ("Johnny Hawk") has resurfaced. In the early nineties he drew falconer cartoons, and has a deliciously twisted sense of humor. Now he's colored in a few and put them up on his wife's website as T-shirts. The site needs some bugs ironed out of it right now, but I'll be the first in line for the bunny declaring "I hear bells! Could it be Santa?" with a pair of belled hawk feet rushing downwards.

I'd love to see Johnny selling the cartoons of:

- the kid sitting on the steps crying while dad is using his teddy bear to lure in his hawk

- the dead Fish&Game officer with two falconers contemplating if the hawk should feed up in the field, since F&G officers are neither legal quarry nor a protected species

- when the falconer calls in sick, his office mates wonder if "eyas gos" is contagious

Friday, November 18, 2005

holiday hate

I hate shopping for gifts for people who have everything already, and anything they might really want is out of my budget. (Unfortunately, people who have to buy me gifts probably say the same thing about me.)

I hate getting together with people with whom I have to make small talk and hear about things that don't interest me.

I hate the hypocrisy of Christians who call this a Christian holiday and have a pagan tree, of tree-huggers who call this a winter holiday celebrating the earth and drive their SUVs for miles in search of gifts, and of atheists who celebrate this holiday even though it's supposed to be in honor of a god. Christmas is a holiday where we buy gifts, fancy wrap to put around them, and a tree to stick them under. It celebrates capitalism and consumerism far more than the birth of some guy named Jesus, some Babylonian god named Marduk, or our side of the planet tipping away from the sun.

I hate seeing family members who cannot well afford lavish gifts spending rashly because they think they're supposed to.

I hate seeing people donating money solely during the holidays out of sentimentality. But I suppose it's better than not donating at all.

holiday love

I love being able to stay up at night and wake up late on a regular basis, and drink coffee in bed with the mate on a cold, slow morning.

I love being able to go hawking on the hawk's schedule, not mine.

I get a kick out of seeing people getting fed at the soup kitchens. I don't know why.

I love the rallying at work to buy food and clothes for the poor families in our city. The sense of goodness is palpable. If there is such a thing as spirit and community, this is the easiest time to get a sighting. If there is such a thing we could call God, it is manifested in our personal behavior, in the way we treat friends and strangers. This is what Catholics call the Holy Spirit, the god that is within you, the mortal. The purpose of most modern Gods (regardless of legal name, God, Y--H, Allah, etc) is to make us try to be better people than we are.

I love that moment when the boss announces "Everyone go home" at 3 p.m.

I love seeing friends for whom it doesn't matter whether you have gifts for each other. Seventy-five percent of the time, someone gives a gift and the other doesn't, but no one feels guilty or cheated. It's the friendships, not the dollars, that count.

I secretly love singing Christmas carols with lots of people who will drown me out.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

fiction: The Distant Echo, Heard

   Osimo was tired of hearing his father tell him how his family had faithfully served House Eighth for an ever-increasing number of years that incremented a bit faster than real time. What great honor was there in being emkai, a member of the servant caste? And House Eighth had been created by emkai to begin with. Even though for two hundred years the ancestral kai of the first seven Houses had acknowledged that Eighth's emkai establishers were kai, to Osimo that only meant his family was servants of servants.

   Kai were educated, glib with words, made sentences that suggested much but delivered little. They claimed emkai were their equals and in certain ways were more important than themselves. Yes, if we didn't exist, Osimo thought, who would reap the wheat, pick the fruit, clean the houses and clothes and stables, feed the rulers? Of course we're important. Just not equal. From the age of eight, Osimo had duties: first sweeping and threshing, when his body was small; as he grew older, tending House Eighth's prized horses, harvesting, carpentry, whatever was needed. He'd been schooled to read and write, as had all his family and friends, but none of them had the things kai took for granted: wealth, art, fine clothes, leisure, the ability to choose their occupation.

   Osimo's discontent had begun as a wordless feeling a few years ago, and now he was capable of articulating it. He didn't admit it to anyone, but the start of it was his best mate Jara. The Houses regularly held mixers for children fourteen and up so they could meet potential husbands and wives. Inviting emkai children was necessary because the kai were all in some way related by blood, and they had learned that inbreeding was hazardous. However, because of duties, few servant parents could come along to coach, encourage, and make recommendations to their children. Osimo and Jara were on their own, not sure how to behave except to stand still by the snacks table, trade jokes with their friends, and smile a lot. The girls looked at them, though, and Osimo and Jara looked back. There was nothing intriguing about emkai girls, who, like them, meant to net a kai mate.

   At their second mixer two months later, a small flock of kai girls began speaking with them, drew them into their circle. The competition wasn't overtly confrontational. The kai boys found ways to quote poetry and scientific knowledge, and the emkai boys showed their skills with horses and their practical understanding of a House's productive output. Within a year and a half, Jara and a kai named Iolara were clearly steering toward one another. Their parents met and approved the match, and the wedding was going to take place six weeks from now. Jara had spent the past year being educated to rule House Third, would be moving there after the wedding and take his place among the kai, wear their blue robes. None of the kai had shown much interest in Osimo at all. An emkai girl, Amali, had flirted with him, and it seemed likely they would choose each other, but by now the pressure was off: most of the kai he'd met had paired up.

   Now seventeen, he could attend socials for two more years, waiting for kai to turn fourteen, but it would be increasingly humiliating if he wasn't chosen. It would probably have to be Amali, who, to her credit, seemed to be quite patient with him. Ahead of him were only the dark-red clothes and a life of service. And his father and his naive pride.

   Thus he began to view his people, the Roeda, with a harsher eye. Their social rules seemed ever more rigid to him and their main intention, clearly, was to keep the status quo. Osimo's immediate family lived in a cottage with three tiny bedrooms. His older sister had married and moved out, but his brother Kasimo had brought his bride in, and now Osimo had to share a bedroom with his younger sister. Various uncles and aunts and grandparents had their own cottages, just as small, nearby. The entire family, alongside twenty or so other extended families, served House Eight. Many laws (economically motivated, Osimo now saw) governed the movement of individuals from one House to another. When servants from two Houses married, it was up to the kai to decide at which House the couple would live, and the loss of a servant had to be compensated. Amali belonged to House Second, which was a good reason to marry her if he wanted to get away from his family. If a servant had a dispute with anyone, kai or emkai, and wanted to move, it couldn't simply be done: a Justice had to hear the case. Osimo had never read the law books or case records, but he had no doubt the Justice (who was by definition kai, he thought ominously) would resolve in a way most beneficial to the ruling caste.

   He wondered if it was possible to get a copy of the law book as he rose and took a new whack at a stubborn weed root. It was his day off by the kai schedule, but it was no vacation: that morning, his father had told him to finish tilling the little plot his extended family owned so they could put in vegetables. He'd tried to push it off, citing two strenuous weeks with ewes who believed three a.m. was the best time to drop lambs. Three emkai and kai Bernek had dozed in the stables the entire time, waiting for a distressed sound, occasionally patrolling with a lamp for the silent births. After a particularly nasty rotted lamb that necessitated the death of the ewe, Bernek had trotted back to the House and returned with four mugs and a jar of hot spek, red wine with a shot of spiced vodka and a little sugar. The drink didn't settle Osimo at all. Since that night, flashes of the bloody straw and mud and stink of death had disturbed his sleep. His father relented and told him to put four hours into it today, and to tell Kasimo to finish. "Why not have Uncle Var find someone else?"

   "I see you don't want to be shouted at, so you volunteer me to ask," his father said drily, poking a finger at Osimo's ribs to show he wasn't annoyed. "You should know better. Your uncle's household provides water. We turn the soil. Each of our households has a duty to this acre. It's unfair to ask another to take up our part."

   "But what if we were all sick?"

   "We aren't, Osimo. Should that day come, we will decide it then," a crinkle under his eyes. He bowed goodbye and went off to work.

   That was his father: hypothetical situations were simply beyond him. He had no wonder about the future. And why should he? He had food and shelter, family and friends. Osimo wanted something more.

   He put away his tools and hitched a ride on a cart heading for the House, taking a seat on boxes of potatoes, leeks and broccoli. The three men and two women were gossiping about when the foreign merchants were due to arrive, and the higher price of potatoes – both good things for Eight, which had a surplus to sell to the other Houses and the neighboring kingdoms. Houses were, by design of the ancients, not self-sufficient; each had its specialties and had to trade with other Houses. Osimo, absorbed in his idea of reading a law book, said little.

   He spent a few minutes helping unload the boxes, the expected payment for a ride, then headed for the Bernek villa, one of the ten villas that comprised House Eight. Originally four villas surrounded a garden, but over time, the rest were built around them, laid out haphazardly. Kai wanted a tree near the entrance, and had placed and oriented each villa accordingly – very peculiar, as they usually loved order and neatness. Compared to his dull green cottage, the villas were huge and shiningly beautiful, each two stories, with handsome columns in the front of the first floor, an open-air court on the second floor, and a little observation deck on the roof. Blue-robed people walked in and out, talking and laughing. Osimo suddenly became self-conscious of the dirt on his hands from tilling and hefting potatoes, and wiped them on the bottom hem of his pants.

   Someone wearing blue walked past, stopped and gave a quick bow of greeting. "Are you looking for someone?"

   He returned the greeting. "Kai Bernek."

   "Please follow," the woman said.

   "I know which one it is. I don't need to be escorted." Each had the family's name on it, anyway.

   "Very well," she said impeccably, bowed and went on her way.

   Inside the entrance hall, he took in the paintings and floral arrangements, the rich furnishings in wood, leather and stone. He heard a step and recognized the maid who came out. Some of Osimo's relatives had married into a neighboring family, of which Talya was a member. Greeting her, he asked to speak with kai Bernek.

   "Which one?"

   "The husband."

   "Osimo Trasat, isn't it? Emkai Trasat, there are at least twenty male kai Berneks living here, about half of whom are married," she said with an amused, annoying smile. "You'll have to be a bit more specific."

   It hadn't occurred to him. The kai gave orders to the older men and women, who in turn managed the younger ones. He had only met the one, was only told his last name. "We were birthing lambs the last two weeks. He stayed in the stable with us."

   "That's kai Ingal Bernek," she clarified. "He's over at House Second today. You may speak with his wife, if your request is short – she has company. Or if you just have a message, I'll take it up."

   He followed her down a hall, passing the kitchen and salons of varying sizes: a few empty, many with one or two people reading at desks. One was full of children learning geometry, another of children learning letters. Their clothes were a mix of blue and red, and he recalled he'd been here before, long ago. Or might it have been another villa? Talya tapped on a door, waited for a reply, then stepped in and requested pardon for the interruption. "emkai Trasat says he has a short request." She makes it sound like I might be a liar, Osimo thought. kai talk. She backed out, nudged him into the room, and left.

   The mistress looked around thirty, as did the couple sitting on the sofa across from her. From their neutrally-frozen faces, Osimo knew he'd interrupted something important. They all rose and bowed, Bernek a little awkwardly because of the one-year-old wiggling in her arms. Osimo managed one step forward, and suddenly his tongue shriveled. "I am kai Bernek. What is your need?" she prompted, setting the baby on a large cushion beside her. In her tone was that weary temper that young children cause in mothers.

   Finding his voice, he stumbled out, "I'm looking for the book about – with our laws in it."

   "Your family should have a copy. Did you ask your elder?"

   He'd simply assumed they didn't have such things. "I'm sorry. No, I didn't."

   "All the emkai clans have a set of the Five Books. Your elder will know where." She started a bow to end the conversation, but the man with her held up a finger.

   "Pardon, triyura," he said to her, and turned to Osimo. "May I learn why you seek the law book?"

   Osimo couldn't tell if the twist to his mouth was pleased or mocking. He has a wicked eye, the eye of a snake, he thought. "I wish to read it," he said cautiously.

   "A specific law, or the whole of it?"

   "All of it."

   The man lifted his chin slightly. "Interesting. So one might assume you wish to understand it as well."

   Osimo colored slightly, now sure he was being mocked. "I'm not a parrot."

   The man was smiling quite broadly now. "I mean no insult, young emkai. For most things, to read is to understand. But when it comes to law, to read means one has read it, no more. After all, kai wrote it, so it must be terribly convoluted," he laughed.

   Osimo was too surprised to laugh, but heard kai Bernek comment dryly, "To hear you say that, triyur Adest, is very frightening."

   "Fear not. My mind is convoluted to match." He dug in a satchel and pulled out a book and a pencil. Scribbling his name and house on the back page, he said, "I'll save you the trouble, emkai Trasat. You may borrow this until your elders give you their copy. Just return it to me within four weeks." He put the book into Osimo's hands and, his eyes suddenly commanding, every inch of his stance a kai, added, "Return it to me personally."

   During this interruption, Adest's wife had crossed over to the cushion to admire the baby. Under Adest's glare, Osimo barely noticed the women turn to give a goodbye when Adest did. He could only feel his body bowing, his mouth repeating thanks, then the next moment he was back in the hallway, the door now closed.

***


   The words blurred and Osimo fell asleep over his grandfather's copy of the book for the second time that week. The kai had been right: it was hard. Most laws were straightforward and worded clearly, but many skirted around the issue, defied a clean interpretation. It seemed they were all confusing in the areas that interested Osimo: the laws governing judgement itself, and those governing the emkai. There were laws about things he didn't know existed, but when he put it together with what he knew about the structure of Roedan society, it made sense. The king and queen must have a scepter of office; they must have a record of what Roeda had accomplished during their reign. Of course the Houses would keep a book of births and deaths. emkai did the same, but he had no idea who of House Eight's emkai did this, where they were kept, or to whom they were given at the end of each year. It all seemed terribly formal in comparison to his own life, which presently involved gabbling with his girlfriend Amali about his newfound interest, pulling leeks and, after two weeks away from the stable, bringing more smelly sheep into the world.

   Amali was pleased: "It's a good ambition, Osimo, to learn the law. It's a power."

   Tomorrow's journey to see kai Iat Adest of the Fourth House would take much of Osimo's day off: two hours to get to Fourth on his borrowed horse, whatever time it took for Adest to talk, then two hours back. Osimo's father, passing by, noticed the lamp on, jostled Osimo awake just enough to get him into bed, and turned the light off.

***


   "Thank you for being available this day."

   Iat Adest took the carefully wrapped book and set it on his desk. "An emkai's schedule is always tighter than that of a kai. Nonetheless, thank you for letting me know what day you would come." He turned around, surprised that Osimo was still standing, and waved the teenager to one of the chairs. Osimo sat gingerly. "So, what is bigger: what you've learned, or what you don't understand?" he asked, pouring each of them a cup of tea.

   What an opening question, he thought. "They seem to be about the same right now. I learn, but the amount I know seems to shrink."

   Adest looked at him appraisingly. "Then you have wisdom. You can see your place within this compendium of centuries. I myself feel quite ignorant on a regular basis. Not something you'd expect a Justice to say, hm?" Osimo's eyes flashed around the desk and there, he saw it: a silver cube embossed with a picture of scales, irreverently being used as a paperweight rather than a symbol of office. He'd read about it, but hadn't realized Adest was a Justice. The older man was chuckling. "emkai, the first thing one should learn is: the law is not enough. One must research beyond the words, to the people who wrote them and the people affected by them. Oh, don't look so frightened, I'm only a floating Justice. I represent not House Fourth, but the emkai. For the most part, at least. I may represent a House if their Justice is indisposed."

   Osimo's bumped pride turned hopeful. "Then you are on our side."

   Adest paused. "That is my work. But are you sure of this?"

   Osimo couldn't tell if there was a right answer to this question, but from Adest's open, interested expression, he guessed honesty wouldn't hurt. "Less than completely. If you had to decide on something very balanced between the castes, or it didn't matter which way you chose, I could not predict your decision would unfailingly match the emkai's preference."

   "Because what kai want is different from what emkai want."

   "Yes." The older man's tone worried him, and he realized he'd just suggested the Justice was biased. That inviting look had been no more than bait. Osimo was in over his head, and fought the urge to leap for the door, which would be unpardonably rude.

   Adest folded his hands under his chin, thinking, then stated, "This is a tricky assertion, emkai Trasat. Tricky and hazardous. I observe you tend to jump your horse without knowing what you're jumping over, or if there's even a need to jump at all. When we met at House Eight, you assumed only we kai possess the law books. Now you assert that there are sides, and that they are at odds such that their goals differ."

   "We work, and the kai benefit from it. Aren't those goals different?"

   "Work is not a goal in itself; this argument is invalid," Adest dismissed.

   Unexpectedly, a sound blasted frighteningly, jolting Osimo's spine straight. The kai had smacked the book with his hand. "Emkai Osimo Trasat, I don't know why you're angry, but here is my anger. Look at yourself: I see a healthy young man with a curious mind. Look round, at your family, your neighbors: is there disease? Is anyone starving, or wearing rags? Do people freeze to death en masse in winter? Look wider, now: the Roeda want a stable society, and it takes constant effort to create and maintain that. We've been at peace with our neighbors for hundreds of years, there is space to expand eastward, we trade with each other and the foreigners, we create wealth. It's not all rosy, of course. I invite you to read the history, or if you don't believe books written by kai, ask your elders. You will learn that in lean times the kai have always tightened their belts alongside the emkai. Do you understand?"

   Osimo, hands protectively clutched around the teacup, mumbled, "Yes, sir."

   "I frighten you. And I don't regret it so long as it keeps you from starting a civil war."

   "I never said anything like that!"

   "No. But the idea that there are sides with different goals leads to the idea that they might benefit by tearing each other down – and snap like that, you have a war. It might be physical or economic or political, but it is still war. No, there are no sides. We are one thing: the Roeda."

   Adest sat down sedately and sipped his tea, waiting for Osimo to say something. The boy's mind was churning, cursing his assumptions, wondering if what Adest had said was true, trying to formulate something to say. He admitted to himself that kai Bernek had dozed in the icy stable, risen and stumbled around in the dark with him. If only he could escape this room! Osimo glanced around, and the surviving part of him realized he was looking at a room, a villa. "Why is it, then, that the kai have these fine houses, these leather chairs, the sculptures, and the emkai do not?" Gathering steam, he added, "Kai work, but as you said, their schedule is flexible compared to ours. Why do they have so much free time?"

   Adest leaned back, looking immensely pleased, raised his teacup in a mock toast. "Bravo. You have asked me two excellent questions. I was about to stop taking you seriously. Wait here," he said. He took both teacups, flung the contents out the window, and left. When he returned he had a bottle of wine under his arm. "This is decent stuff. Pinot noir, eight years old. Eighth House doesn't know a thing about wine – you have any mates from House Second? Did he or she ever educate you on wine?" Osimo shook his head.

   Adest opened the bottle to let it breathe a little, sniffed it, nodded, and sat again. With a dissembling grin, he admitted, "I had to create a delay in order to formulate an answer to your questions. They're hard questions."

   "Really?"

   "Really." He answered the second question first. The kai do work that simply isn't seen by the servants. That is to say, sitting at a desk looking at paper isn't viewed or interpreted as work by the emkai, who consider work to consist of cleaning and cutting and lifting. The kai are mostly accountants, buying and selling, recording costs, and they manage the emkai. But they are also teachers and lawmakers; they are engineers, designing everything from hay carts to windmills to houses; they forecast the weather and earthquakes, heal people and animals, study the foreigners and estimate profit, investigate and judge crimes, mediate disputes between anyone. "I could go on, but I see you get the idea, plus this is almost ready to drink." He poured wine into the teacups, lifted his and said, "To your future understanding."

   Osimo, keeping his manners, returned with, "You are teaching me, so I toast your knowledge." They drank. It was strong, but in it he could sense all sorts of flavors that he hadn't noticed in other wines. A whiff of clover flowers, a little blackberry, almond underneath, and something else he couldn't name.

   Adest was pleased by the compliment, suggested ginger as the something else, and recommended he make some friends in House Second. "For the other question, I make an analogy. We have Queen Iridan and King Iqal, who are of the First House. Originally, our king and queen were members of the First House by ancestral right. Later, economic power became the driving force. For two generations, House Third ruled; for four generations, House Second ruled; and for one generation, House Sixth. These short reigns are due partly to the fact that House First is a very wealthy house, and only a few times has their income flagged so much that another could bid for rule. However, a more significant reason is one of knowledge: the First is accustomed to ruling us. They have knowledge, which they pass down to each other (certainly not to upstart, usurping Houses!), on how to cunningly manipulate and manage these selfish, ridiculously self-assured kai egomaniacs so they actually do work together.

   "It took those tries by three Houses before we realized none of us was ever going to keep the crown for very long before First got it back. No one House could hold it long enough to develop those skills. So, now that you have this analogy, tell me how you interpret it as relating to the castes."

   Osimo took a deep breath. "It sounds like House First is the kai, and the other Houses the emkai. The kai have knowledge and understanding of the, the whole, the Roeda, that the emkai lack. They wouldn't give us that information, but even if we had it, we would take a long time learning how to run things. Right?"

   "Very good. Continue."

   "And in doing so, the emkai might not be able to maintain peace among themselves." Osimo could see it. He knew Uncle Var had a temper of a bull. He thought of his father, taking and carrying out orders day after day, and couldn't imagine him in charge of fifty or a hundred people. He had enough trouble with Osimo already. And yet that pride in his family's lengthy service – was part of it also pride in keeping the unbroken stability?

   "My congratulations. Excellent."

   "But that still doesn't answer why we don't have villas and nice furniture."

   "It does. You could have a villa and nice furniture if you chose to put your wealth in that direction. But first it requires a vision; next, huge cooperation and effort from all your extended family and all your neighbors; and next, strength to keep your people focused on that vision. It takes a very long time: you, emkai, will not live to enjoy your villa. And yet, knowing this, you must still press on with your vision, passing it on to your children that they will do their part to implement it. Do you think your House Eight simply fell from the sky one day?"

   Osimo's jaw dropped.

***


   Three weeks later, attending Jara's wedding, Osimo mysteriously found himself having a lot of fun, not envious at all about seeing his best mate elevated to be a master. Just the opposite: the law book had quite a long section on emkai marrying into a House, and he was actually worried Jara didn't realize what kind of a cage of rules he was locking himself into.

   Of late his emkai duties troubled him less. Amali had told him learning the law was a power, but he hadn't realized power became tangible through this outlet for his mind. Adest had helped him see it. Satisfied that the young man had a drive to learn, and willingness to see the Roeda's larger goal, the kai gave him an open invitation to ask any questions, by message or in person. "I'll try not to be so harsh next time, but I intend to keep you on your toes," Adest had smiled, and hinted at more: "You never know, one day I might need an assistant who can help me better understand the opinions of the emkai."

   At a quiet moment in the party, Osimo lifted a glass and, to himself, toasted the future House Ninth.






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fiction: Three Deaths

   Herme was gone, in an eyeblink. That morning, it had been, "Say hello to your fiancée for me, Hebra. Oh, and find some way of suggesting she learn the details of our family's trade a bit better. Perhaps the sixteenth sonnet in Weyman's second volume." The poem rang vaguely: something about finding a new land in a lover's eye. Appropriate. That was his little sister: sharp, but never mean enough to cut. He'd have to rummage around in the library downstairs to refresh his memory. Sometimes Hebra was sure he'd remember this stuff better if there wasn't so much of it. Right now he was immersed in political study, public relations and public speaking, all of which had pushed poetry off the table of his mind.

   "And you're off to ... ?"

   "Riding lesson every Thursday."

   "I forgot. Well, give my regards to Adest, and make sure the maid brings lots of water – it looks deadly out there." Herme was graceful enough, but she lacked the strength and rudeness to control anything besides an agreeable horse. His friend from Fourth House had been teaching her since spring, with good results. At first, people frowned on it, saying there was no need for a princess to learn serious riding. After his mother reminded them Herme had every right to learn, the other Houses found something else to cluck about. They gossiped distrustfully about Adest's hours with Herme, even though he was completely devoted to his own fiancée. Those lower Houses just had no sense sometimes. That he would have to control them one day, as king, was depressing.

   A few hours later, his last words to her stabbed him, for she was dead.

   Hebra didn't learn about it until his friend Adest had already been declared responsible, had already been subjected to torture by their enraged mother. His mouth gaped at the servant who told him – no one had been tortured in five centuries. She had the right to be furious, but to throw back to complete barbarity, and to Adest too, was insane! All their personal and cultural training revered rationality, clearheadedness, fairness. What had happened? By the time he returned to First House, a dozen versions of the event had spun his head, versions that were unflattering to everyone, particularly the speaker for spewing such nonsense.

   But as he'd ridden in, he spotted a carriage with Fourth House's emblem rushing out with, he would swear, Adest's father Iat at the reins. Only a hundred yards separated them, and for a moment Hebra was torn between family and friend. Friends are dearer, being a matter of choice, but propriety prevailed, and he nudged his mount toward First House.

   A servant led him to the library, where the drapes had been drawn. Elder relatives and cousins milled, fanning themselves nervously and muttering. The room was too crowded, and stifling. As he and they bowed greeting to each other, he kept his head up, looking for someone to say something, but only one aunt motioned him to enter one of the small reading rooms. His other siblings, too young to be shown death, were probably being tended by servants.

   Herme had been laid on the table, four or five healers examining her. His mother stood pressed against a wall, unable to watch and unable to look away. She stared at him as he bowed greeting, trembled at the knees and sat, then jumped up again as if she meant to approach the table. But she couldn't take a step. If only father was still alive, Hebra thought, but it is I who will have to take care of her. He nudged the healers aside and looked down.

   The terrible wound on her right temple seized his attention; it made her face pale. Yet it seemed too small to have taken all the life she'd had. Her dress was still damp, her hair water-darkened to the color of grass in winter. A lock of hair stuck in an awkward place, over one eye. He reached forward to push it aside, but stopped, hearing a sudden intake of breath all around him. In his peripheral vision he could see the healers, all women, all shifting away from him an inch or two. It was verboten for a man touch the princess, of course, but she was dead, and he her brother. I must show my strength, Hebra thought, and, tilting his chin up a little, continued the motion his hand had begun.

   "Do not!" Queen Iridan shouted, lunging forward and slapping his arm aside. The healers scattered to the edges of the room.

   "She is dead. May I not show care for – "

   "Fourth House is the cause of this. Your friend Adest, whom you recommended for her training. Leave us," she snapped at the healers, who filed out the door with straight backs and noses up. "You said he was responsible. You said he was disciplined. You said he was a good horseman." Her eyes, her voice were raw.

   "He is. All those things."

   "Then why is your sister ... there? Dead! He is not. Responsible and disciplined, he is not. You bear responsibility for this, too, for your recommendation."

   Her knees were wobbling again, and he closed his mouth, took her hands, led her to a chair. "Queen mother. Mama. Tell me what happened. I've heard crazy things. Set me straight."

   Adest had been teaching hunt riding: jumping with speed. This, Hebra established, had gone without incident. The tragedy had happened after the lesson, when he'd run the horses into a shallow stream leading off the river. "Everyone knows that the little streams grow algae in this season. Her horse stumbled, and she was thrown. But the rocks, why have we not removed the rocks?" Iridan crumpled up a little, staring, then her head snapped back to face Hebra. "Had your friend not led her there, she would be alive."

   "That's possible."

   "I wanted him to suffer."

   "Did he?"

   She nodded slowly, then shook her head. "Yet, it didn't satisfy me." What did you do to him? Hebra wanted to ask. "His father bought him off. He threatened we would have to pay gold for his and his allies' wheat for five seasons." That was extreme, and Hebra suspected the elder Adest had been bluffing. Had there been enough time to get an agreement from the Houses allied with his own? Doubtful. But Adest was his only child. A father could go to extreme measures to preserve his son – and Hebra suddenly realized his mother had been willing to execute Adest. He shivered at that, and her next words. "I'll make sure that boy pays for this."

   She's mad for revenge, he thought. Cool heads must prevail. "Of course, Mama. But that's for later – we must prepare the funeral first." She listened expressionlessly as he rattled off the steps involved. Rising, he returned to the body on the table. "But why won't you let me touch Herme? Her honor can't be damaged now." He looked at Iridan, but she wasn't listening or even looking. He tugged the strand of hair back from Herme's eye, touched her cold hand, remembered she'd told him to read the poetry. It was unbelievable, unthinkable that her life was extinguished, and he rubbed at his gathering tears. She was to be eighteen in December.

   His mother's words, though, shocked him out of his thoughts. "Why did he do it? Was he jealous that he wasn't engaged to her? Would he do such a thing for that?" Iridan asked softly.

   My God, she's twisting reality, taking the rumors, trying to make it intentional! "What are you implying?! Queen Iridan!" he said sharply. Hearing her title brought her back to earth. He opened the door and said loudly enough, "You should hear your elders' opinion on this idea." With a swift bow, he admitted the healers back in, then rushed to his grandparents gathered in a little clutch by a window.

   When he explained, Iridan's mother shook his head. "This isn't the time to be concerned about fine lines. You're just impatient, young prince. She needs time to mourn. She has a right to anger. We all do."

   "But it must stay within boundaries!" he hissed. "Her anger took her the wrong way trying to dispense justice. She was ready to kill Adest herself."

   His other grandfather said, "We know, and agree it was good she was stopped before one crime became two. We have no doubt Fourth would make good on its threat if that happened. However, your friend Adest," pronouncing the name with a spitting sound, "will bear responsibility. Unless you wish to share it, you should distance yourself from him."

   The funeral came and went. Hebra stayed cloistered with his immediate family in First House. Though his mornings were punctured by Herme's absence, from the reaction of the rest of the House, one would think no one young had ever died before. Yes, he missed her smile and her quick wit, but it seemed like half his relatives were missing legs from the way they limped into the breakfast room, supported by servants. And it wasn't as if they'd lost their future queen; that was for Hebra's fiancée. When they weren't wailing, they huddled glumly with the House's lawyer, working out strategies. At times he was called in to meet with the lawyers, other times pushed off to explain matters to his younger brother and sister. I should set the date for my wedding, he thought, that way they'll take my opinion seriously.

   He sneaked off to Fourth House hoping to visit Adest, but was told his friend was mostly unconscious from an infection that had set in. The healer did say he had all his appendages, at least; it had been dicey at first, but now he was expected to recover. Fourth House, too, was in deep discussion with their lawyer, and everywhere he went, people stopped their conversations, plainly waiting until he passed. Adest's father received him but, apparently distrusting the crown prince's motives, said little and excused himself as soon as was polite.

   The trial came and went. Adest was to be exiled: a harsh sentence, to be cut off from everyone and everything he'd known, but at least he kept his life. Thankfully, no one suggested Herme's death was intended. Hebra's name was, seemingly by mutual agreement, never mentioned; apparently his elders wanted no controversy around their crown prince. He could see their point; there was nothing good about his involvement. And yet there was something dishonest about it that he couldn't put his finger on. Fourth House's arguments about limiting blame for accidents had made sense to him, but the loss of his sister kept him silent. The arguments had whirled in his head like a blind hummingbird, and part of him had wanted to leap up and shout "Stop!"

   After Adest rode away, following a caravan of foreign traders, everyone thought it was over. Hebra felt that way too, but he hadn't slept well for the entire three weeks. His sister was dead, and his friend was in a different way just as dead. It was his duty and training to understand all sides and see the larger picture, but everyone he knew, even his circle of friends of which Adest had been a member, had an opinion. The only person he felt could talk to was his valet who, after being so often abandoned or pushed out the door by Hebra, was now too timid to admit to knowing anything about the case. He felt like he was going to explode.

   Instead, he studied furiously, presented his thesis (three projections of the country's economic future), and received for it an ebony headdress inlaid with gems, a symbol of achievement. He married, and learned that as crown prince he could not spend nearly as much time with his wife as he would have liked. She spent most days learning her future role and powers from his mother and the previous monarchs. He was busy with the elders who oversaw various aspects of the House's operations, getting a handle on the details as well as the overall process. Like most Houses, they grew fruit and had a vineyard, and had an individual specialty: First mined ore and clay, made ceramics, and refined metals. As leaders, they were responsible for not only their own financial health but oversaw the country's as well. As tests of his understanding, Hebra had to make what felt like a thousand decisions every day, and listen to the reasons why the decision was or wasn't tenable.

   After a time, the knowledge that factored into his decision-making became second nature. The language of neutrality and the ability to choose which emotion to express in a given situation began to grow into him. Hebra shouldered them awkwardly at first, but by now people were telling him the role of king would suit him. His wife also absorbed the queenly aura, but she seemed more comfortable with the process, willing to sit for hours listening to petitioners, speaking thoughtfully. What he didn't like is that she kept it up even at home with him. It's an act, it's all an act, he thought. It isn't what we were before.

   But when he tried to recall it, he had a hard time remembering what he was like before the responsibilities came. His old friends were now classified according to their alliance with First House. He no longer had a younger sister and brother, but successors to the throne if he died without an heir. Even on his mother's name-days he couldn't help thinking of the number of years until her retirement. It loomed, desirable as sunrise, terrifying as nightfall, and as unavoidable as both.

   There was no single day or moment that Hebra became king in his mind. But the day his daughter was born, he kissed his wife and allowed the midwives to place the child in his arms. She was beet red and her face was squinched furiously, but he declared her utterly beautiful, and carried her to the reception hall. The entire family and many well-wishers from all the Houses were present, far more people than he'd expected. He raised her, turned her to face the crowd, and announced, "I present to you Galidia Andovar, princess, future queen of our country." The room erupted with applause, and Galidia began to cry. Hebra tucked her close to him and rocked her a bit while the visitors filed past, bowing greeting, bowing a second time when a gift was placed on the table beside him. He cheerfully ignored her noise, even though it made hearing impossible. Everyone was giving congratulations and blessings for a healthy life, and he knew it.

   After some time his mother came in his periphery, standing to his left. "Queen mother," he said with some surprise. "You should have been first in line."

   "I was, prince son."

   "I'm sorry. Of course you were. There's just so many people to see her," he said, bowing distractedly to someone from Eighth House.

   "Prince Hebra, I think the child should go back to her mother now," she murmured. "She's making a racket and clearly upset."

   "She'll be fine." He glanced around. "There's only about thirty people still in line. She's a princess, isn't she? She must get used to all this, anyway. Thank you for you blessing," he added to someone else.

   The line moved swiftly, then after one more round of applause, it was over. Hebra thanked the crowd once more, almost shouting to be heard, then at a fast trot brought Galidia back to the nursery. In the quiet of the hallway she finally stopped squalling and began to bubble instead. He gratefully placed the baby into his wife's arms. "How did the presentation go?" she asked.

   "What?"

   She repeated the question, enunciating carefully.

   "Oh, fine. Just beautifully. She was an angel. She'll be a perfect queen one day."






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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

cool strange: walkingincircles

This wins my award for weirdest and most unforgettable game. It's a bit of a room escape game in that you're trying to get out of the space you're in. It's a bit of an excuse for art display (experimental, slightly bizarre, definitely depressive, a couple of good 3D animations). Lastly, you could call it a meta-game in that the game characters (three women, a man, and an alien of a male persuasion) are talking to you as a game player -- in their parlance, a "walkie," and about as well-liked as a German tourist. Furthermore, they talk about themselves as animation objects. It's the complete opposite games where you're an elf, wizard, or assassin, and the game characters talk to you in pseudo-medieval dialogue.

One of the interesting meta aspects is the online chat (when you get the PDA). You're talking to other game players – though at first, you're not entirely sure if they're real or in-game. Because at the same time, below the screen, the game characters have their own chat going on sporadically. The game is playing with your mind! Which is probably why I like it so much.

This game is also on its own time schedule. Most point'n'click flash games load up, and they wait for your clicks; if you leave a game onscreen and return an hour later, it's right where you left it. Walkingincircles forces you to wait to get to certain things.

Talking to the characters trigger events, changing the dialog. Items not previously clickable become clickable; new direction arrows appear, allowing you to go where you haven't been able to go before. If you have a walkthrough or cheat sheet you can probably finish the game in a half-hour or so, but if not, it's a slow process to a) figure out what the goal is to begin with, and b) how to get there.

Overall: unique and more original than anything you'll find short of an ARG. Not pretty by any means (vector graphics) but I'm pretty sure this is intentional. You need to stay online in order to play. Click.

Spoilers: your main goal is to get out of this space and onto the train so you can join the girls in the hot tub. Your sub-goals are to collect 10 photographs (the alien will help you with most of them, so if you only have three, don't despair) and the four items shown in grey below the screen: the PDA, the gameboy, the magnifying glass, and the photo album in which to store your pictures. In order to get these you need to find all three girls and talk with them multiple times.

Major spoilers: the only really important art/writing to look at is the cartoon at the terminal on top of the mountain. As far as I can tell, none of the other art/writing triggers an event, though some of it makes for quirky-good viewing.

Friday, November 04, 2005

blogging vs writing

When blogging began to grow as a phenomenon, my initial thought was, "So everyone is going to think that by sharing their personal lives with the world, they're a writer." My sarcastic prediction has proved to be both more true and less true than I thought.

Most personal blogs are crap. Possibly my own included, though I try to give a useful education and mild amusement in the process. But such sadness I see: people who wrote three or four entries in one month last year, and haven't touched it since. Others who blather out five thousand words in a single post, but they are so lacking in style and focus that it's no wonder they are a blogger and not a published writer. I recently read (or tried) some stream-of-consciousness gabble with wildly broad, gratuitous name-dropping, and only the most nominal connection to the subject line. I made it about halfway through one post before giving up. (I've never been able to read William Faulkner, but I have no problems with James Joyce; go figure.)

On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen the most incredible concentrations of good information and intelligent thought in blogs. Recently I've been into the stock market and finances, and some blogs have great advice, well-written and researched, and it's all freely available. Furthermore, the bloggers usually link to other blogs who have similar approaches to investment. It's like you're stepping into an entire circle of people who are experienced in the industry and whose advice sounds right to you. Each has his individual perspective and predictions, which only enhances your comprehension of a business that can be as complicated as you let it be.

Blogging is not a substitute for decent writing, but it should be a good excuse for it. There is publishable writing out there, but actually getting published is very hard! I've tried (and should keep trying, because the book is good and objectively better than at least half the published fiction I've read, and I've read about five novels per month for the past fifteen years). And frankly, publishing is a business. It has a bottom line which is closer to the edge than that of most industries. Publishers judge whether a book will sell, not whether it has literary merit. That was the hardest leap for me to overcome. A self-publishing friend recently said, "It would work better if you had a popular book first." He's absolutely right. And I can write a simple, clear story with obvious messages – as long as it's less than five thousand words. I just can't sustain simple, obvious and clear for a hundred thousand.

But I'm digressing to the personal, which is another little peeve of mine in blogs. I am conscious that I'm writing statements public to the world. I don't really care if it gets read by anyone, though it's always interesting to make new acquaintances. I will never write about things like what I ate for dinner (even if it's some high-end place), dreams, personal things about my friends, disputes I may have with friends or family, or tremendously personal things like my health or my sex life. I do not understand those who make public these things about themselves. It's a dirty laundry thing that only Jerry Springer fans could get into.

I generally consider the other dead end to be people trying to exercise personalities they don't have, be the people they want to be. People who want to be badasses, or want to galvanize their adolescent frustrations (this can apply to any physical age) into satan-worship or other shock-the-parents things are boring. But there's a creative aspect to this, too. One of the interesting aspects of ARGs (alternative reality games) are game characters who interact with the players through a blog. There's a few here on Blogspot (cf. I Love Bees and Help Me Find Jon.) While I'm unsure whether these characters' personalities differ from those of their creators, I think ARGs are a serious and innovative developing aspect of blogs.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

truce

S&P seem to be getting along better now. Still a bit standoffish, but we caught a bunny at the place I scoped-out in old fields revisited.

I had to take a day trip south on personal business yesterday. I took S, and on the way back we went after brush bunnies. These are a small variety of cottontail, about half the size of a "standard" two pound CT. Unlike CTs they don't seem to like to hide in their holes, possibly because the dirt is more sandy there. So it makes for great fun because they simply run somewhere else, and let you flush them again.

They're small enough to be silent when they get into cover, and they run like rats. Their tails don't flash in that way that hawks find so enticing. Watching them move, their legs don't pump, but you'd think they ought to, given how fast they get from point A to point B. They duck into a set of shrubs and Houdini into the place socks go. You saw where they went, you're sure they didn't pop out the other side, but they're gone. Kick, kick. Kick! Kick!! Trample!!! And nothing. They've beamed out, back to the Enterprise.

If by chance the bunny version of Scotty is off duty, their psychic powers kick in to determine where you least expect them to go, and they go in that direction.

S has hunted these quite a few times, and he loves them. I estimate he's caught at least sixty in his lifetime. They're small enough that when caught they give no fight, which is very appealing to a hawk – but you have to catch them first! Brush bunnies give Harris hawks the most entertaining flights: they sky up, hover, and vertical-stoop. When S was younger, he did a lot of brush crashing, and could catch three brushies in two hours. Now he's older (8x intermewed = 9 years), he's not into sustaining bumps and bruises. He'll stop if he sees a thick cluster between him and the quarry.

He did some excellent flying: swoops and sky-ups. As evening closed in, he got sharper, more determined, flew harder, but still didn't want to crash. We went home without a catch, but it was worth every minute to see him fly like that.

Friday, October 28, 2005

messy, messy day

Everyone's in a bad mood.

We drove to a place I haven't been to in nearly a year. It started out great, even excellent. Strong wind, but lots of bunny flushes. Good flying. From the way they flew, I saw the birds don't have the muscle tone they had in past seasons, but flying in the wind will improve that. We caught one cottontail pretty quickly, in fifteen or twenty minutes. But for a field that takes an hour and a half to drive to, you never want to go home so quickly, plus bunnies are less challenging for size. So we went to find another.

We found it in the wrong place. On one edge, this field has a small drainage pond with some machinery beside it, all fenced off, with some maintenance access gates. The bunny ran inside. One of the birds crashed onto it, and I heard the bunny squeal. The other bird had launched shortly after the first, and also landed there. Scuffles sounded. I needed to get in there and dole out the food so everyone would be happy. If I didn't referee, they could easily squabble over a cottontail, which is small enough that they would be in each other's faces while eating. The only thing a hawk likes having in its face is the thing it's eating.

The gate was locked. I ran to the other gate. Locked. When the hell did they start locking these goddamned gates? Oh, yeah, last year some gypsies parked their home on the other side, and started using the other fenced-off spot as their private toilet.

I returned to the first gate and saw a six-inch gap under the edge of the fence, partly hidden by brush. Kicking it aside, I cleared a space, and the gap looked bigger. It would be a squeeze, but there was no time to wonder, only to try. I yanked off my bulky hawking vest and slapped my back to the earth. I had to turn my head sideways. I breathed all the way out and the fence still scraped my chest. My T-shirt was no protection from the stickers. I slipped to the inside, jumped up, grabbed my vest (with the hawks' meat) and found both birds.

And no bunny. The birds were locked onto each other.

This has happened before, but never had I let so much time pass. The situation is: Hawk 1 catches the rabbit, Hawk 2 comes in to assist, Hawk 1 decides theft is a more likely intention than assistance, and decides to defend his catch and himself. In the flurry of feet and feathers grabbing at anything moving, the rabbit gets away. Then each bird blames the other for the loss.

I had, at that moment, only one glove, so I could only actually handle one bird at a time. Had I had my spare glove, I could have gotten one bird onto each. I got out both pieces of meat, and somehow cajoled Pepper to let one of his feet go. It was hard on both birds, but finally they released. Pepper was put to one side with a nice piece of meat, Salt on the glove with another, and me yanking out five pounds of stickers from clothes, skin and hair.

I should have packed it all up right then. I was hoping they would bounce back as quickly as they usually do when they have minor spats. But as I said, they'd spent too much time glaring at each other and not eating. Salt flew to the highest pole and wouldn't come down. Pepper hopped on top of the fence and wouldn't come. I had two good flushes completely ignored. Pepper eventually came, as did Salt, but they didn't want to stay on the fist or be near each other.

There was no point at all to continuing. After more cajoling, both birds came to the car. Both got a decent feed. Hours later when we were home, I doled out the remains of the tidbits and, with flares and glares, each bird tried to get at the other one's. I had to point fingers to get them to look at their own.

Trust. So hard to build, so easy to break.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

bated breath

I smell deal-making. If there is a god, please have Fitzgerald indict not just Rove and Libby but Little Rooster Cheney as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

avatar courtesy Christine Y.

My dear friend Christy has made me a new avatar (right). Makes me look better than me, and the original size has incredible detail that unfortunately doesn't show in the avatar size. She's one hell of an artist in all the good ways, and none of the bad. The color depth is just about right, as good as those of a mutual friend of ours, whose ability to translate color into grey shades amaze both of us. Christy needs to draw a hawk so he (who only draws hawks) can be wowed, even though his saturnine nature will probably say, "Oh, not bad."

To balance this out, I'm going to rave. Christy likes me to sit for her because I can stay perfectly still for an hour, and because I don't insist on smiling for cameras. She does everything at least twice: take a photo, sketch, polish the sketch into a drawing, then compare and adjust. Wonderfully obsessive-compulsive. The way she explains it: exactly copying a photograph automatically loses a key element, liveliness. It flattens. In order to be "right," a drawing must keep its elan, capture something in the subject's spirit that characterizes him/her. This one makes me look like a BOFH, which I am by nature, if no longer by vocation.

I love it. Christy, you're the best.

old fields revisited

A new skim of my old fields is both promising and disappointing. The last time I was in this one field, I was standing atop a pile of concrete chunks watching a fox run away. I'd never seen a fox, but they're supposed to be red and skinny. This guy was gold-brown. And fat -- he had a distinct joggle waddle to his trot. Reason being, he was eating all my bunnies.

On Sunday, the concrete was still there, but the bunnies weren't. Maybe because it was 16:00, which is a little before the bunnies start coming out. Still, we managed to catch a jackrabbit. Both birds were in good condition, and Squeaky was on the fist at the time.

The jack rocketed off, heading southeast with the wind. Squeaky launched and bound to its rear, held it briefly, but the jack kicked him off. Meanwhile, Polya had taken off from the pole he was on and bound -- again to its butt, damn it -- thirty feet later.

We then had a thirty-yard rodeo ride with both birds bouncing. I could see Squeaks trying to get a foot on the rabbit's head. (He has better control over his feet than Polya, and once walked up a jack's back to get to the front end. Think of it like trying to climb from a rampaging elephant's rear to the head. One step: CLANG. Another step: CLANG. Another step: CLANG!)

Jack was still going at a good pace when I caught up with them all. Whew.

So I don't have bunnies, but I still have jacks. I drove by another field, which had been fenced off for construction. Looks like that has fallen through (hoorah) and I can get to it again. They flattened and scraped clean a hill and a lot of brush, and it was getting dusky, so it was hard to tell if there were any bunnies left. I did flush a jack, though. There's always jacks.

So that's good in its way, but bunnies are more fun. The birds do more interesting flights with bunnies, because if they're a distance from the hole, they zig more. Jacks run flat out. Being smaller, it's easier for bunnies to freeze up under a tiny bit of cover. The hawks sky up and hover, waiting for it to come out again, then do spectacular vertical stoops, like falcons in miniature.

So it's just waiting for Thursday to go hawking again...

Saturday, October 22, 2005

hoping it's not the end

We had just gotten started hawking the other week, in our usual field, when a shiny pickup drove up and asked us to leave. The driver was an engineer for the company that manages the property, and in the seat beside him was someone I guessed to be the owner.

A couple weeks before this, we were hawking in the northerly end of the field, and on our way out we were stopped by a guy with some missing teeth driving a converted bread truck. He asked if we'd noticed there was more junk than usual in the field. We rarely hawk the north side because of some resident redtails, and it usually had small trash piles lying around. But after some mental comparison, I had to agree. According to him, the cause is some homeless people trying to make some money being junk haulers. Instead of taking it to the city dump and paying the disposal fees, they drop the garbage here. He gave me a phone number to call and mention it.

In the falconers' book, complaint is usually an error. When owners hear about nuisances on their property, they put a fence around it with prominent "No Trespassing" signs at regular intervals. It took several days' consideration before I called and told them about the trash.

Complaint, as I said, is usually an error. I won't make that mistake again.

However, the engineer seemed reasonable. He could see we were flying hawks, not dropping off broken televisions or car shells and shooting them for the hecka. The owner kept his counsel. We asked if it was possible to get permission – we'll sign anything, we said. If we break a leg here, we take responsibility, we won't sue. It's our last nearby field – everything else is at least a half-hour away. He said he'd look into it, gave us his card, and even said we could finish hawking. We caught a jackrabbit, possibly our last one there.

I called twice, but he didn't call back. I'll keep trying, but I fear my days of easy, frequent hawking are over.

Friday, October 21, 2005

extreme vegetarian mind rot

In his article in September's Atlantic Monthly and October responses to letters, B. R. Myers reduces the process of hunting to its end result: the death of an animal. If that was all hunting was, people would be lining up in droves at slaughterhouses to have a whack and be done with it. Fishermen would walk out to the pier or the lake with a fish bat. I expect in Myers's mind, they're all laughing mockingly and toasting the death rattles with quart bottles of beer.

Myers has chosen to ignore all the deeper reasons for hunting, and his vegan blinkers will not let him imagine any. If he wants examples: first, just being outdoors, away from traffic jams, your next mortgage payment, and all your worries about the business side of life. Second and most importantly, self-challenge. That old buck that Myers gasps about knows all the tricks. He's evaded scores, perhaps even a hundred hunters in his lifetime. He is plainly smarter than them. Can a human step quietly enough, stay unseen and unscented long enough, follow for hours or even days and still keep track of where he is, until he has the opportunity for a clean shot that will fell the buck immediately? It takes endurance, experience, and strong nerves to do it. Myers has no idea that the sheer magnificence of the animal can overwhelm a hunter, staying his hand at the last moment. If hunting was only about killing, this would never happen.

And has Myers heard of catch-and-release, practiced by many fishermen and falconers? Catching the game and letting it go, alive, just for the pleasure of the hunting itself, destroys his theory about kill-obsessed hunters.

Myers does not actually need the reasons he asked for, because he will never be convinced of his wrongness. He believes his vegetarianism makes him special, better than those unprincipled, soulless, meat-eating, leather-wearing folk who have no sensitivity to the feelings of those little "people" in fur coats. Fortunately, he is not representative of most vegetarians in the same way that Eric Rudolph is not representative of right-wing Christians. But if vegetarianism is this hazardous to human intelligence, please pass me the steak.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

laugh or cry?

Naturally, Mike Brown first blames the liberal media for his failure to cope with the Katrina disaster. "I should have scheduled regular meetings with the press," he says. This is actually correct. By asking why he hadn't done this or that, the reporters would have explained his job to him, given him some direction.

And he blames the governor and the mayor. He should have taken manly charge of the situation (!) and forced those hysterical officials to help him figure out what to do.

Then he lies about what he knew. Well, perhaps he's not lying. Given his competence level, it's more likely he received this information and spent the next 24 or 48 hours musing over what he was supposed to do about it.

My, oh my.

Thank the deities he got blasted from both right and left. One wonders if he will ever admit his lack of qualifications.

Monday, September 26, 2005

a jack a week, that's all we ask

The flying was stupendous this weekend because the wind went down and stayed down for days. Three calm days and we flew two of them, and yet nothing got caught! It happens. Today we went out, mild 6-8 mph wind, occasional gusts up to 20-25. (I'm really starting to rely on the online weather to figure out when to go. There's usually a 5-8 mph difference between where I live and where I hawk.)

It was calm when we started and steadily picked up as the hour went on. The birds passed up two excellent flushes, giving a good start but giving up quickly. It took about 45 minutes to get those two flushes. We took a little break and started up again. Now both birds took excellent positions on poles overlooking one of the sections, and I began flushing in earnest, asking the deities for a good flush.

The deities answered. Polya, as usual, was on it and all locked up by the time I arrived ten seconds later. Squeaky, as usual, stepped in at the last minute. Polya was extra-possessive and wouldn't let go despite the tempting bloody chunk I offered. By the time he released it, the jack was in shock, and I stuffed it, hoping it would be out of shock by the time I got to the car. (Jackrabbits are surprisingly durable, as wild animals go.) The birds munched happily on dinner while I snapped them to their perches.

The jack, however, was still in shock, which was a bummer. Polya had drilled quite thoroughly into it, which I hadn't seen in the chaos of trying to get him to release. So I had to put that one down as well. :-(

Next one I'll try to do better. It's pretty difficult when Polya gets possessive, his feet turn into solid steel and he has to really concentrate to unlock them. I think next time when Squeaks steps off, I'll move Polya and rabbit a distance away. That way he'll feel less competitive pressue, which may assuage the possessiveness.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

and so it begins

That first catch of the season always reminds me how much I love falconry. It's late (for me), I've been lazy, and the wind has been at a seemingly constant 15mph with gusts to 25. Ten to twelve the birds can handle, but higher makes accuracy harder. Wind teaches hawks control, so it's good, but physics is hard to overcome.

Yesterday, the wind was about 18 or so. Both birds went up to poles but came down for various reasons. There were also two Englishmen walking their dogs in the field, and the mate chatted them up while I wooed Polya away from them. Squeaky flew for pleasure and landed in a space separated from me by a levee.

So Polya was right with me on the fist. The English guys were now heading back the way they came, passing about 40 yards behind me. That was far enough for Polya to ignore them. I quartered through knee-high brush, knowing that in wind like this the jackrabbits tuck themselves into the thicker stuff.

Then one rabbit blasted out only 2 yards away. The foot-flush is always a joy when your bird is ready to react, as Polya was. We were coming from upwind, so the rabbit had to run downwind, and by darting left I cut off the option of turning upwind. Polya had it within 4 yards, locked up nicely.

I like to give a good feed at the start of the season, so I killed the rabbit. Squeaky came trotting up hesitantly. Harris hawks don't blush, but he knew quite well he didn't deserve any credit. When he tried to put a foot on the rabbit I pushed him away, tossed him a quail wing to keep him busy.

Polya glanced at Squeaky eating with automatic interest and jealousy at the ready, then looked down at the bleeding jack at his feet, and ignored Squeaks from then on. His thoughts were completely transparent. I dismembered a leg for each. Polya transferred from the body to the leg with complete grace, for once. We were all completely graceful, for once: everything went with ease. Squeaky eventually got his jack leg and we all went home happy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

brown drowns, chertoff floats, everyone loses

So much of the anger has been focused on Mike Brown that I was surprised to hear that Chertoff is the one who dropped the ball. Apparently, there were decision-making powers that Chertoff could have given Brown, but did not for three crucial days.

This past week has given rise to some odd thoughts:
  • Brown was the fall guy to protect Chertoff.

  • One wonders if Brown is regularly using heroin, or if he really thinks that "I don't know why I'm being recalled to Washington" is a good response to reporters. Then again, he hasn't exactly built his five-minute reputation on good response.

  • Isn't Dick Cheney the very picture of a Borg? Not in the physical sense, as Borgs are invariably portrayed as slim, fit, and sexy, but in the crushing assimilation sense. Halliburton Dreaming...


One also wonders just how insane bipartisanship can get. As stated earlier, it seems like Democratic complaint automatically causes Republican contrariness. The more the Dems hate something, the deeper Shrub digs in his heels.

To be fair, Democrats are equally guilty of bipartisanship, and they hate Republicans more deeply than Reps hate Dems. But they can't agree among themselves enough to come up with a better solution. They forget that the rich have money, and know how to put it to good use (except Miss Hilton).

Yesterday, someone suggested to me that the Shrub blindfolding machine is beginning to fall apart, and that this country may enter a period of increasing violence as it did in the late sixties and early seventies. Impossible prices at the pump, being mortgaged to the hilt and having five-figure debt, recession constantly being artificially held at bay, job loss due to outsourcing -- these tensions are too great and affect too many people. They will come out somewhere, somehow.

But I'm skeptical that violence will match that of the sixties. Back then, the disparity between belief in America and the reality of America was a deep shock. These days, few people believe in America's greatness. We've all grown cynical. Our gas consumption rose in the past year, even as the prices were climbing. We sighed, bore with it, and kept buying Hummers and other four-wheel-drive vehicles that will never see a dirt road. Our pocketbooks will suffer. we'll expend our energies teaching kids that playing cowboys and indians is bad, and you have a 21st-century fall of Rome.