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."






Copyrighted content. Reproduction without permission is illegal.

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.