Sunday, February 14, 2010

The King Who Hated Seals (2008)

Once upon a time there was a king who hated seals. You can’t get more straightforward than that.
All others, including the queen, the prince, and the two baby princesses, thought seals were cute, fuzzy, and beautiful, and couldn’t wait for the time when seals flocked to the beaches in great numbers. The people of Teigiet had always been like that. In fact, this love for all things cute intensified so rapidly that finally a long-ago king passed a law forbidding the killing of any animal deemed by the people to be cute. This came to include horses, chickens, cows, dogs, cats, and sheep, until the list included every living creature besides rats and fish. The result of this policy was that, since then, the people of Teigiet lived on berries, corn, bread, pollen, honey, potatoes, lettuce, and everything else but meat. Livestock was reduced to wool, milk, and egg producing animals, pigs all but died out, and Teigiet flourished in the arts. People came from kingdoms far and wide to see the great architecture, paintings, sculptures, and jewelry that had become the pride and joy of Teigiet, but they never stayed long because nobody had yet figured out a satisfying way to cook a rat. You might have thought the people would turn to fishing, but there was a major complication to this strategy: The seals got wind of the new law of Teigiet and spread the word until seals all over the world wanted to go to Teigiet beaches. It got so bad that the Seal Elders had to drive seals away so there would be enough food for the seals of Teigiet. These seals loved fish more than anything else, and ate a lot of it. They ate so much fish until there were no more fish in these oceans for the people of Teigiet.
The king had been elected to his position because the voters were kingdom elders of the highest regard and could not resist his luminous, teary-blue eyes and shy smile. The king had grown up as the son of a tree-groomer. It was assumed his father was the head of the castle tapestry weavers, but with Valissa as his mother, and considering he took after her in appearance, no one could really tell. He had five older brothers and one older sister when he was born, and Valissa was still having children; he’d lost count of how many half-siblings he had. However many children there were when he was growing up, it was crowded in their average-sized stone house. Valissa, who was very small and believed in nourishment from the sun, didn’t bother to bring home enough food, or divide it properly. Tommie had always gone hungry. Now he was king, and was called ‘Your Majesty’ by everyone, except his children called him ‘Daddy-seal’ and his queen didn’t call him anything at all.
When Tommie married Venil he thought she loved him. He wasn’t wrong, but Venil never loved anything for long unless it was tall, slender, black-haired, and named Venil. Tommie could see that now she didn’t love him, but he still felt guilty when he looked at the head cook.
Varuk was young for a head cook, at 25 she was a year older than the king, and she had ruffled blonde hair, ruffled blue eyes, a ruffled round face, and a perfect, undisturbed nose. The king sighed when he thought of her, he sighed when he saw the seals, he sighed when he saw his wife, and he sighed especially long when he saw his dinner. If only dinner had some substance to it. It didn’t matter that as king he could eat as much food as he wanted, he always ended hungry. He’d heard tales that involved rabbits turning on a spit, and slices of veal hung up to dry. He even dreamt of fish with lemon sauce, a sprig of parsley on top.... And that is why the king hated seals.

Varuk, head cook, hated seals.
She often dreamt of the beautiful meals she could prepare if she had fish to work with. The window in her room overlooked the beach, and she spent a lot of time glaring at the seals. One season wasn’t enough, oh no. Seals changed their migrating patterns just so they could come to the Teigiet beaches. There were seals all year long. She thought there should be fish during the slow seasons, but it was a feeble, unfounded hope. Even if there were, Teigietans had forgotten how to fish. What could be harder than sticking a bug on the end of a string and pulling out a fish when it bit? She wondered, but there was no reason to dwell on it. She had tried and tried to cook with rats, but not only did nothing work, all her assistant cooks were easily terrified. Even rats, the vile creatures, weren’t common. Cats had been allowed to run free for the last few generations after all, it was a rare day any Teigietan didn’t step out of the way of a furry fluff. Varuk had heard rumors of a successful merchant in the East who sold fur coats, and Toon-of-no-job went to the East every spring with a wagon.... Varuk shook her head and looked wistfully at the pot. She looked wistfully at the carrots, she looked wistfully at the spit above the fire that was used to cook potatoes, she looked wistfully at the sharp knives used to de-head cabbages, and she looked wistfully at the seals. She wished people didn’t think seals were cute. She wished they would be allowed to import meat. She wished the king wasn’t married, she wished she didn’t love his children so much. She wished she could have leather shoes. And she wished, more than anything else in the world, that she wasn’t a cook. Varuk loved to cook when she was little, but by the time she was fifteen she had made every dish known to modern Teigietans, including oysters, which were extremely difficult to work with and gave everyone food-poisoning. Now she wanted to travel the world, to see places other than the west coast of the Continent. She wanted to go to Sherry, and Raint, and Tiffle, and Rona, and Saskka. She wanted to go beyond the continent too, to the islands of Sona, and Tol, and Sonsaso, and Bri. More than anywhere she wanted to go to Bri. Bri was said to be a place apart from all others, a place of difference, individuality, change, excitement... in short, everything Teigiet wasn’t. She wished their king would participate in an annual mud-racing contest. She wished Teigiet had an annual mud-racing contest. She wished Teigiet had any contests. “Bother,” she sighed as the metal spoon scraped the metal bowl and caused a shrieking sound. She looked around. No one was watching. She took the metal spoon out, licked it, put it in the sink, and stirred the pudding with her finger. Wooden tools would be much more useful, but tree-groomers were so loved by the people — cough cough the previous king loved Valissa cough cough — that the previous king passed a law against the harming of trees. Teigiet had wept many tears as the people traded away their precious art for metal tools, and had only just recovered from the loss. Now carpenters all over were being replaced by stone masons, and more people left small Teigiet to live in neighboring Rona. Varuk finished stirring the pudding, and sucked her finger as she looked out the window overlooking the beach. Seals. Who liked seals anymore? More than should be possible after all the damage the seals had caused. On the bright side, cute animals were becoming less cute. Varuk had liked seals too when she was little, and cats and birds and horses and little lambs. When seals capsized the Tension and her brothers drowned, she realized cute did not equal sweet and gentle. Varuk had loved her brothers very much. Without them to protect her, her father beat her black and blue every day. And that was why Varuk, head cook, hated seals.

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