Thursday, April 24, 2014

Addenda to Tuesday's Post About Piracy

Two additional thoughts I either forgot about or didn't think of until after posting:
  • Although of course there is a fairly obvious legal difference, I do not see any moral difference between using AdBlock while watching a free, ad-supported streaming service like Crunchyroll, and just pirating the shows. In both cases, you are circumventing the distributor in order to eliminate the cost (monetary in the case of piracy, time in the case of AdBlock) of accessing the show, and in both cases, while the immediate and obvious victim is the parasitic and predatory for-profit industry that distributes the work, in the long run they are quite good at passing those losses along to the actual creators.
  • No one ever needs access to a creative work. It is debatable, as I noted in the previous post, whether people have a right to access others' work, but it is never a need; no one has ever actually died from being unable to watch the next episode of Mad Men. "I needed it" is a legitimate justification for theft--it is justified for a starving person to steal food, for example. But merely very much wanting something is not actually justification for taking it; regardless of whether a given act of media piracy is right or wrong, its rightness or wrongness is unaffected by how much the downloader wants to watch it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Equestranauts" Showcases Biggest Problem of Brony Community

Apologies for extreme lateness, I am once again ill. 

The recent Bob's Burgers episode "Equestranauts" offered a very funny take on the brony subculture, as the titular burge joint owner had to pretend to be an adult fan of Equestranauts, an action- and friendship-packed show designed to market horse toys to little girls, in order to get back a toy a collector swindled out of his daughter.

Quite a bit of the episode is a simple, fairly gentle lampooning of convention culture in general and bronies in particular. The usual exaggerations for fictional depictions of conventions are in play, of course, most notably that cosplay is depicted as de rigeur rather than an expensive and time-devouring hobby pursued by a few. Notably, however, there does seem to be some awareness of the quirks of bronies. Admittedly, both Tina and Bob (especially Bob) are subjected to gatekeeping by defensive fans, more commonly a phenomenon of the science fiction, comics, and gaming fandoms, said gatekeeping is actually possible to pass, after which they are basically accepted into the community.

That community itself is depicted as, in large part, harmless silliness; unusual, perhaps imperfectly socialized, men hanging about and being faintly ridiculous. Most are welcoming and friendly and just looking to have some innocent fun feeling out over their favorite cartoon; only Bronconius is portrayed negatively. 

Where the episode is most interesting, however, is in it's climax, where the Equesticles are called out for allowing Bronconius free reign as he swindled little girls, pushed people around, and generally acted like a selfish, domineering jerk. And there, perhaps accidentally, the episode accurately depicts the bronies' biggest problem, the paradox of tolerance. 

This old philosophical problem is simply summarized: some people are, for whatever reason, frequently aggressive, controlling, and intolerant. Perhaps more importantly, most people are occasionally aggressive, controlling, and intolerant, and the more they get away with the behavior, the likelier they are to believe it is acceptable. There are few constraints on individual behavior more powerful than this aggressive intolerance; thus, a community which tolerates all behavior by its members is necessarily one which is experienced as intolerant by most members--put another way, in the absence of an asshole control mechanism, assholes run rampant. 

Bronies, as a group, are extremely reluctant to police other bronies. A combination of factors, including the show's themes of friendship and harmony, and statistical tendencies for bronies to be likelier than the general populace to be poorly socialized, victims of bullying, and neurotic, combine to create a subculture where most people are unwilling to rock the boat, even to deal with someone walking the boat. An embattled mentality, mostly originating with extremely negative mainstream media coverage early in the fandom and attempts by 4chan to expunge Friendship Is Magic-related discussion, has created a culture of defensiveness, where criticism of bad behavior by individual members is treated as an attack on the community (which, to be fair, it sometimes is, because there is a natural tendency for said individuals become the most visible face of the community to outsiders).

For example, there is a frequent implication in mainstream media coverage that the majority of bronies have a deviant sexual interest in children (sometimes more than an implication, as in Amanda Marcotte's characteristically knee-jerk Slate piece on Equestria Girls), which is hardly the case. (My own surveys and interviews suggest that very few bronies actually consume clop, for instance.) However, there are sufficient numbers of bronies that it is statistically certain that there at least a few members of the community who are sexual predators, and it falls on the community to identify and out them. Unfortunately, reports of such behavior at brony conventions are frequently rejected outright as "trolling" or outsiders trying to make trouble; a wagon-circling effect occurs which denies that such individuals exist within the brony community at all.

Derpygate is another good example of this phenomenon; fans expressing legitimate concerns regarding the use of an ableist slur in the show and conflation of physical and mental disabilities were met with accusations of trying to "censor" the show or "erase" the disabled, fan campaigns treated it as a personal attack on the character in question, and in some cases the concerned fans were subject to vicious harassment, to the point that some of the people involved in the show had to issue calls for it to stop. And yet, two years later, it is by and large the individuals who had those concerns who are remembered as the villains, for daring to question whether the show and its fandom are the perfect paragons of politeness, harmony, and equality bronies like to paint themselves as.

The instinct to circle around and protect a member of the community is not in itself problematic, but it must be tempered by a willingness to recognize that some members don't deserve protection, and that sometimes the community itself is to blame. If we do not call out the Bronconiuses in our ranks, others will--and they will assume they represent who bronies are.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Assorted Contradictory Thoughts on Media Piracy

Otaku Journalist has been running a series on anime piracy lately, and it's gotten me thinking.

I am fairly confident the following are all true:
  • People have a fundamental right to participate in their culture, which necessarily means they need access to cultural products.
  • Radio chased folk culture into an alley and murdered it a century ago, replacing it almost entirely with commercial mass media. The Internet has revived a zombie version of folk culture in the form of fandoms, but even fandoms have a commercial product at the core.
  • The relationship between industry (any industry) and consumers is a predator-prey relationship. The industry wants your money, and uses products as bait to get it. They will take as much as they can get away with, and care nothing about you or the products except as a source of money.
  • The previous point applies to an industry (or a corporation within that industry) as a gestalt entity. The motivations of the people working in the industry vary; many actually do care about their customers or creating quality products.
  • Generally speaking, people should be rewarded for their labor.
  • We as a culture undervalue creative work severely. We have come to expect that content will be free, and thus it is increasingly common that writers and artists are expected to work for the privilege of having their work published, as opposed to actually getting paid. (A growing number of news sites, for example, from fan-news sites like The Mary Sue to major general-audience national sites like Huffington Post and USA Today (web edition only), do not pay their writers.) This is unsustainable.
  • Physical media (books, tapes, DVDs, etc.) are rivalrous and excludable, i.e. private goods. Digital distribution is non-rivalrous and most non-excludable, i.e. a public good. Generally, governments are significantly better at managing public goods than private enterprises are.
  • The idea of handing management of the arts over to the government is fundamentally horrifying.
  • Most people who say they use piracy solely as a way to sample media, and buy the shows they enjoy once they become commercially available, are lying most of the time.
Conclusion: Piracy is a convoluted mess where everyone on all sides is both right and wrong, and there doesn't really seem to be a solution.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sunday, April 20, 2014

SPIKE WANT! (Just for Sidekicks)

For all that I don't particularly like this episode, this is quite
possibly the cutest, funniest image in the series. I can add
nothing to it; it is absolute perfection. I bow to its glory.
It's January 26, 2013. The top song is still Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven," thankfully on its last week, and the top movie is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which I haven't seen on the grounds that movies with titles that interesting rarely live up to them. In the news, the annual World Economic Forum begins, where the world's major political and business leaders meet to solve all the worlds problems, if by "solve" you mean "accomplish very little" and by "all the world's problems" you mean "as defined by the  most successful international corporations"; European scientists successfully use DNA as a data storage medium, which as far as gimmicks go is a pretty nifty one; and, continuing the national policy of punishing the people who report horrific government crimes as opposed to the people who perpetrate them, CIA agent John Kiriakou is sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing details of the U.S. use of waterboarding to torture prisoners.

Meanwhile, in ponies we have "Just for Sidekicks," written by Corey Powell and directed by James Wootton. Which is the second Spike-centric episode in three episodes, contains little to no presence of the Mane Six, and is the third consecutive episode to be, well, kind of not-good. There's almost an interesting structural trick being played across this and the next episode, in that this is a sort of "B side" to "Games Ponies Play": the two episodes take place simultaneously, following different characters, and the climax of this episode puts its characters in the same physical space as teh "Games Ponies Play" characters. Unfortunately, neither episode does much of interest with that structure, they have little to nothing in the way of thematic links, and are both fairly terrible episodes, so the structural experiment cannot be regarded as a success.

No, this is yet another sitcom flail, in this case the hoary old "character takes on a new job they think will be easy, fails miserably" story. Indeed, like "A Dog and Pony Show" before it, this is an episode-length reference to a classic folktale, "The Man Who Does His Wife's Work," tale type 1408 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index. In that tale, a man insists that his wife's work is easier than his, so they trade for a day. He then proceeds to make an utter mess of a number of household tasks, notably including cooking and taking care of animals, just as Spike does in this episode (though, obviously, the impetus for him doing so is very different).

That this story is sexist should be fairly obvious, but note that it is as much or more harmful to women as men, despite that it depicts a man as a bumbling fool when confronted with "women's work." The problem is that it defines as "women's work"--the is, tasks which women must do because only women can be good at them--vitally important support tasks which are done at home for no pay, while men must "reluctantly" therefore take on the burden of all the tasks which require going out into the world and earning money. While our society does allow women to work outside the home and earn money, our entertainment (particularly sitcoms and romantic comedies) still quite frequently depicts men as incompetent at household chores, and it shows. Women still do the bulk of housework, even though they are now working outside the home as well, and while married men (on average) live longer and earn more than unmarried men, women see no such benefit.

So, once again we have a sexist traditional folktale, which retains a toxic power in the present day, being used as the basis for a Spike episode. However, we also have a significant callback to a second-season Spike episode, "The Secret of My Excess." More accurately, we have a significant lack of callback which, in its own way, is a callback. In that episode, Spike's greed, a traditional defining trait of the European dragon, causes him to begin transforming into a gigantic monster. In this episode, even though his greed makes him unable to stop eating gems long enough to finish his cake, and drives him to graspingly attempt to scam his friends into paying him to do a job he has no intention of doing, his size remains unchanged.

There are a few possibilities as to why. The most boring is that "The Secret of My Excess" is simply being ignored. Another possibility is that Spike's greed for gems is a gluttonous desire to consume, while his greed for presents was an avaricious desire to possess, but that seems rather to be splitting hairs--certainly, the dragons of story and song seem to spend as much time devouring livestock and maidens fair as they do accumulating and sleeping on piles of gold. A more interesting possibility, however, is that the reason he does not change is that the metaphor of "The Secret of My Excess" is reified here. In other words, where in "The Secret of My Excess" Spike was acting like a profit-driven entity in a capitalist system, in this episode he is actually running a profit-driven enterprise, and so the metaphor of him swelling ever larger and more bestial is replaced by him taking on more work and hiring employees. (Unpaid interns, actually, but more on that in a bit.)

Spike wishes to acquire gems, and he sees running a business as a way to do it. However, he doesn't want to expend any effort; he wants to gain without losing anything--he wants to take out more than he puts in, which is of course the definition of profit. A naive construction of capitalism can be stated as such: In Idealized Econ 101 Land (next door to the universe where hockey rinks are frictionless and cows are spheres of uniform density), A is good at procuring fresh water and less good at raising food; B is good at raising food and less good at procuring water. (It does not actually matter which is better than the other at each task--even if B is better than A at both, it is still more efficient for each to specialize in their personal top skill.) A gets the water and B grows the food, and they trade with each other. Both get more food and more water than if they'd tried to do everything independently; everyone profits.

In reality, what happens is that the one who is more ruthless or has an initial resource advantage establishes themselves as the employer, and the other as the employee, which is to say a hierarchy forms in which one has power and the other is subservient. For example, A realizes that zie can go longer without water than B can go without food, and zie takes advantage of that to force B to work for hir. A claims ownership of both the food and the water, and B is an employee (or, given that this example suggests a pre-industrial world, a slave or serf).

Thus, while in theory it is possible for profit to be mutual, in practice it is usually a mechanism by which entities with power acquire more. And Spike here is interested purely in profit, at the expense of his customers (who are, ostensibly, his friends) and the animals with whose care he is being entrusted. In this respect, he is once again a perfect match for a real-world corporation. Thanks to Dodge v. Ford Motor Company (a 1916 Michigan Supreme Court case which stands alongside such gems as Plessy v. Ferguson and Citizens United as being among the worst and most destructive decisions by American courts), corporations face a legal requirement to maximize shareholder returns (that is, profitability for the investors) rather than productivity or the good of customers, workers, or the community--or at least, such is the usual public understanding of the case. The reality is slightly more complicated, since while it establishes that corporations have a duty to maximize their shareholders' profits, it also establishes a fairly stringent burden of proof on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the directors of the corporation have violated the business judgment rule, which has little to do with maximizing profits.

Regardless of the extent to which that particular court case is to blame, modern corporations do by and large exist to make money, with employing workers and serving customers treated as an unfortunate obstacle to that goal, to be overcome as quickly and with as little expenditure as possible. (Again, this is not to say that any given employee behaves this way--many individual employees care about their customers, and some managers and even the occasional executive care about their employees. Rather, this is a description of the behavior of the organization as a gestalt entity.) This is precisely how Spike operates throughout the episode, bemoaning the loss of every gem even as he dismissively ignores the advice and requests of the Mane Six and repeatedly tries to find the minimal-effort, minimal-cost way to make sure that the pets are still more or less intact when their owners return.

Perhaps the most telling scene is when he recruits the Cutie Mark Crusaders to help him. In persuading them to work essentially for free (the gem he provides them is to pay for the supplies they need to take care of the pets, not any sort of wage for the CMC themselves), he suggests that they might earn a cutie mark. In other words, he persuades them to do unpaid labor for them by promising that it will be educational for them and implying a future career that he has no intent of actually helping them attain. This is an increasingly common scam in the real world, particularly against young people in the creative professions. Designers and illustrators are promised "exposure" for their work or encouraged to enter contests where only the winner gets paid, but all the entries become property of the contest owner; meanwhile, news and review websites such as Huffington Post, USA Today, and The Mary Sue, among many, many others recruit eager young writers desperate to get their foot in the door, publishing their work and earning ad revenue from it, but never paying the writers a dime. In both cases, the effect is to devalue the work; writers and illustrators seeking to get paid for their work find themselves competing against the victims of these scams, and it is nigh-impossible to compete against someone willing to work for free. Essentially, these corporations are tricking their workers into screwing themselves out of ever getting paid, precisely by promising that if they do well enough they might someday get paid.

Fortunately, this is Equestria, which is to say a brighter, happier world than our own, and so Spike does not end up (as he would in real life) a successful entrepreneur with sufficient wealth to distort both the political and economic systems in his favor. Instead, he is punished for his attempt to take out more than he put in by, ultimately, being forced to put in far more effort than he intended, and end up with nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, as usual he appears to have learned nothing in the end, as he once again eats his gem before he can put it in the cake. Then again, doing awful things and learning nothing in the process is the norm for Spike episodes by this point.

Next week: The even worse "A" side.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: "Trade Ya"

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. And I'm actually going to be here for this one! (Assuming everything works from the Library of Congress, which initial testing suggests will work.) Afterwards, I will update this post with the chatlog.

Chatlog below the cut!


Friday, April 18, 2014

Felda 2.0

I have decided to rather massively alter the setting of the story from which the first two Fiction Friday installments derived. This is what Felda's first scene has become as a consequence of that change.

It took three sentences for Felda to decide she didn't like the woman from the Guild. The first was when Felda, responding to her mother's call, came downstairs to the kitchen to see her parents, tired, worried, older than she'd ever seen them, sitting at the table with a tall, elegantly dressed woman with unsettlingly clean nails.

"Hello, Felda," she said brightly. That was the first sentence. Felda didn't like this complete stranger knowing her name. It made her wonder what was written in the sheaf of papers on the table in front of the woman. 

The second sentence was the one the woman didn't say: "Pleased to meet you," perhaps, or something that started "My name is."

"Ms. Ansfel is from the Guild," Felda's mother said. 

"I already talked to the Guild recruiter," Felda answered. "I said no."

Ms. Ansfel laughed. That didn't count as a sentence, but nonetheless it contributed. People who laughed at things that weren't jokes were, in Felda's opinion, nearly as bad as people who didn't laugh at all. 

"Oh, I'm not a recruiter," said Ms. Ansfel. That was the third sentence, and it was the way she said "recruiter" that did it. Felda could easily imagine her saying "farmer" in the same way. "I'm a field contract specialist in our agricultural services and land management division. I'm here to talk to your parents about joining us."

If Felda hadn't already decided she disliked the woman, that last sentence alone would have done it. "We won't sell," she said firmly. "This land's been ours since--"

"Since it was granted to your great-grandfather by the Feudal Reparations Act, yes," the woman interrupted. "Your father told me. Though I suppose that would make it your great-great-grandfather. And before that your family worked these very fields as vassals of the  Carl of Whatever for umpteen centuries, I'm sure. We're not interested in taking you from your land, believe me. The Crafters' Guild has always been strongly in favor of local businesses staying under local management."

"Then what are you here for?" asked Felda. She glanced at her parents. They were being unusually quiet. Felda was 16, an adult for a full three weeks now, so she appreciated them including her in whatever decision this was, but why weren't they saying anything?

"I'm here to offer you an opportunity," Ms. Ansfel explained. "You recently performed your coming-of-age examinations, I believe. According to the Academy's records, you scored a 3.4 for Earth affinity on the Antonella scale. That's borderline mage-level, did you know that? Do sit down, girl, you're putting a crick in my neck."

"Yes, the recruiter told me." Felda sat, though privately she minded not in the least if the Guildswoman got a crick. "I don't want to be a mage."

"No, I can see that from the recruiter's report." Ms. Anfeld winked in what, Felda assumed, she probably thought was a conspiratorial manner. Felda's dislike advanced rapidly in the direction of hate. "And I can't blame you. Between you and me, the folk in the magic division are a stodgy bunch of old men. Plus it's years of training before you start casting the simplest spells."

"Are you ever going to answer the question?" asked Felda's mother. 

Ms. Ansfel simpered. "Of course, my dear." She inserted one gloves hand into a satchel slung over the back of her chair and smoothly removed something, which she set lightly on the table. "Don't touch, please," she warned. 

Felda stared. The object was shaped like an egg, but far bigger than any chicken or goose egg she'd ever seen. It was about eight inches long, five wide at the widest, and the pale orange-brown of fired, unglazed pottery. 

"Is that what I think it is?" she asked. 

"Indeed," said the Guildswoman. "A dragon egg. We are prepared to offer it to you, Felda."

Felda put a hand to her mouth. "--to me?"  A dragon's egg. A dragon's egg! She could be a bondswoman, a performer of miracles--

"Benefits are greatest with threes and fours, of course. On average, someone like Felda should expect an effective combined Antonella score of five and a half, though of course that would cover direct manipulation only..."

As the woman chattered on, Felda glanced at her parents and was relieved to see that, at least to judge by their glazed eyes, they understood as muh as she did. 

"What do you want from us in return?" her father finally asked. 

"Well, first, let me ask you a question, Herr Landsman. Do you know who the largest agricultural producer and distributer in the world is?"

Felda's father's eyes narrowed. "You're about to tell me it's the Crafters' Guild, I suppose."

The woman shook her head. "No! It's the Healers, of all people! Even though we make most of the tools, they grow more than us by a huge margin. Honestly, Healers growing food, can you imagine?"
She smiled broadly at Felda's family. Seeing no response, she continued, "Obviously, the Guild would like to be more competitive in this sector, and while we've had some success leveraging our vertical advantage, we've also been developing techniques for Earth-affiliated farming. That is what we want--for you, your family, your farm to join us as a test bed for the efficacy of our new techniques."

Felda's mother frowned. "It sounds like you want to... experiment here."

Ms. Ansfel laughed yet again. "Oh, don't worry. We're not talking about... legless cows or vampire squash or whatever you're imagining. We're talking about the things Felda here could do, post-augmentation--and the augmentation itself is of course time-honored and tested, lifebonding is as old as time, as I'm sure you know."

"What... I would be able to do?" asked Felda. Despite herself, and despite Ms.Ansfel, she couldn't help but imagine the new abilities she might gain. Floating great boulders with a gesture? Shattering mighty city walls with a glance? Bending rods like they were made of licorice?

"Imagine, if you will," Ms. Anselm intoned, turning slowly back and forth between Felda's pareants, "an entire field plowed in a day. Imagine never needing to rotate crops, because your daughter can turn the tired old soil young and new in a matter of days. Plus a lifetime guarantee that you--whichever of you you decide--will always be manager of every aspect of this farm, that the other, Felda, and all your other children will have guaranteed employment at competitive rates of pay, though of course the children's hours will be limited until they turn 16..." she looked down at her papers. "Ah yes, and a quite sizeable discount on all equipment, seed, and feed purchased from us." 

"And in return you get our farm," Felda's father said coldly. 

"Well, perhaps in an abstract, paperwork sense. We're more interested in seeing how well it works, and of course in making money. But you will all receive good salaries, and continue to live and work where your ancestors did, without needing to fear a bad harvest wiping you out or a greedy banker foreclosing." Ms Ansfel consulted the papers again. 

"No deal," Felda's father said firmly. 

"But papa--" Felda began. 

"He's right," said Felda's mother. "It's our farm. Doesn't matter what they offer, it ain't worth giving 'em our farm." She gazed sternly at Ms. Ansfel and lowered her voice to a murmur so only Felda could hear. "Don't be fooled by her pretty talk. This woman's a snake."

Felda started to answer that of course she could tell what Ms. Ansfel was, but dragon's egg, but the woman spoke before she could. 

"Ah, here we are!" she said brightly, pulling out a sheet from the middle of the stack. She shook her head at it and tsked gently. "Twelve hundred gil in debt, I see." 

"How do you know that?" demanded Felda's father, looking slightly purple. 

"And you've missed your payments for the last four months." Ms. Ansfel shook her head sadly. 

"Old Greta would never--"

"Apologies, Frau Landsman. I suppose it is quite rude of me to interrupt, but I am afraid Ms. Hofstedter does not actually have a say. It's quite hard out there for an indepent local bank these days, I'm afraid, and the Bank of Frogshackle found itself in dire need of funds. So when we approached them seeking to purchase certain securities, well..."

"I don't understand," said Felda's father. "Our loan is with them, how--"

Ms. Ansfel smiled genuinely for the first time, and Felda, who had been torn between rising hatred for the woman and fantasies of being able to walk through stone found she suddenly had a new factor to consider: fear.

"As of last week, I'm afraid the Bank of Frogshackle merely administers your loan. We own it. So I'm afraid the choice isn't actually a matter of whether you want to keep your farm or share it with us. It's a matter of losing your farm or sharing it with us." At the horrified stare of all the Landsmans, her smile widened slightly. "Snakelike of me, perhaps, but business is business, and we do very much want to expand our farming operations. Come now!" She slid a clipped-together set of papers out of the pile in front of her and across the table toward them. "It's not a bad deal at all. You'll be more productive and make more money than you ever did as a tichy little mama-and-papa farm. You'll be on the cutting edge!"

There was much more debate, and reading of the contract, and demands to know what certain passages meant, but Felda knew her family had no choice, and soon her parents came to admit it, too. Even the horror of being trapped by this snake of a woman, however, could not entirely dampen her excitement. She knew that by the end of the evening she would be a bondswoman, a somebody, a force to be reckoned with. The snake kept talking about revolutionizing farming, but Felda could see so much more than that. She saw adventures in high mountains and deep deserts, great battles with wicked sorcerers, most of whom looked quite a bit like Ms. Ansfel, the bustle of the great cities and the cries of dragons. She'd never dared seriously imagine being anything other than a farmer, and other than farming, the only other thing she'd ever been good at was reading--and who wanted to be a scholar, shut indoors all day? Being a weak mage would be no better--she knew what kind of work that would mean, sitting at the end of some factory line and casting the same spell of sharpening or strengthening a hundred and fifty times a day.

She wanted that egg like she'd never wanted anything, more than the temporary farmhand she'd spent half of last year lusting after, more than the one volume of Tales of the Nine Realms she didn't have. So Ms. Ansfel was a hateful, malicious woman--all Felda needed was that egg, and she could squash her! She'd like to see anyone try to take her home once she had power like that.

"Very well," said Ms. Ansfel at last, putting away the finally signed papers and standing. "This is yours, child."

Felda held out both hands, vibrating slightly, and the woman put the clay egg in her hands. It was cool, and prickled slightly.

No, more than slightly. It prickled a lot. Stung, actually, and it was growing hotter by the moment. With a shout, Felda dropped the burning egg, or tried to, but it was stuck fast to her hands. Felda fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the glowing egg as agony spread up her arms. Cracks began to spread across the surface of the egg, which shone so brightly it hurt, but not nearly as much as the twin columns of fire marching up her arms. The pain reached her shoulders, spread in and downward, swirled together in her heart, before it exploded outwards to encompass everything, her entire being. Dimly she knew she was lying on her side, but it was hard to tell, because the room kept jerking wildly about.

"Stop," she whispered, to the room, to the pain, to the wild pounding of her heart, but it went on and on. The egg was breaking apart, crumbling, seeping into her hands. She couldn't see through the red-fire haze that filled the universe, but she could feel it, chunks of dull throbbing agony passing up her arms to punctuate the fire. Was someone screaming?

The lumps were nearly to her heart. She knew she was dying, and welcomed it. What was death but the end of pain? But of course that was absurd, there had always been pain, would always be pain, and death would bring no relief--and then they were in her heart, and she felt it skip one beat, then two, an entirely new kind of agony, a squeezing...

Felda woke.

She was lying on the kitchen floor, and every part of her hurt. From where she lay she could see her parents, their eyes filled with concern and fear, but for some reason they were keeping back. "Mama?" she asked, her voice dry and cracked and weak. "Papa?"

"Baby," her mother whispered, tears in her eyes. "You're awake! It's been nearly an hour..." But she came no closer.

Felda took a deep, shuddering breath.

Something large above and behind her did as well.

Felda let her breath out. So did it, warm and wet across her shoulders. It had been there the whole time, she realized. She just hadn't noticed its breathing before because--she gasped. It whuffed.

Because it was breathing in perfect synchronicity with her.

Slowly, painfully, she rolled over. A great black nose came into view first, then a proud head, great curving horns and enormous eyes, the same brown as Felda's own. A massive body, short fur the color of rich black soil, powerful legs, strong gray hooves as sharp and hard as flints.

The great bull--her bondling!--lowered its head and nuzzled her. Its nose was warm and cold all at once, like a dog's but bigger. Gratefully, Felda wrapped her arms around its neck and pulled herself to her feet. "Mama, papa, there's no need to be afraid," she said, smiling. "I want you to meet Varick."

It was good, she thought. They had been caught by the Guild and that woman, yes, but this was worth it. They would still work the farm, sell their crops, buy seed and tools. Her brothers and sisters would go to school and do their chores. The only changes would be no more worrying about money, and Varick. Her Varick. She dug her fingers into his hide and inhaled his smell of sweat and clean, rich earth and growing things. It was more than worth it, she decided, and eventually the rest of the family would understand that as well.

And she was right; within a year even her mother had to admit that they were better off as Guild farmers.

It would be another four years after that before they all came to understand exactly how they had been swindled.