World Building: On the Steppes

Far to the east in Haranshar there are the steppes, arguably the most inhospitable and dangerous of the four xhusts. While the deserts of the west are known for their arid climate and unruly natives, the steppes are known for their sweeping grasslands, the vast herds of bison, horse, and deer, and the fiercely independent clans.

Fortunately for the rest of Haranshar, the steppes are separated from the rest of the continent by a mountain chain that has rendered it difficult (and often impossible) for even the most ambitious of chiefs to launch an all-out invasion or conquest. Known simply as the Spine, these are some of the most inhospitable mountains on the entire continent of Aridikh, with peaks thrusting up to a mile into the sky.

The Shah’s writ runs only thinly here, and indeed there is only one of the Great Clans that has taken it upon itself to attempt to force any sort of adherence to the governance of Haranshar, and even that was a relatively recent development, having been undertaken at the same time that Tysfan was built and the rule of Haranshar consolidated. Up until that point, the steppes had been a part of the vast eastern empire largely as a matter of form, since their obedience was mostly in the form of tribute. This would typically take the form of horses, and to this day many of the finest herds to be found in Haranshar can trace their roots to the steppes.

As with the similarly tribal Korrayin, the tribes of the steppes are in an almost constant state of war and conflict. In the time before they were brought under the official jurisdiction of Haranshar, there were times when a Great Chief would emerge from his fellows to command the loyalty of everyone else, but those times are now nothing more than a distant memory, a shadow that is related around the campfires. Still, there exists in the heart of every member of the tribes–whether eagle, hawk, lion, or stallion–the belief that one day they will be able to reclaim their lost heritage and restore the power that has been lost.

While chattel slavery is forbidden by both sacred and common law throughout Haranshar, that does not pertain to those living on the steppes, where it is common practice to seize slaves from opposing tribes. However, under the conditions by which the tribes were incorporated into the rule of greater Haranshar, they are forbidden from taking slaves from anyone other than the tribes themselves. Needless to say, this has been the source of significant consternation for those living in these later days, and there are many who wish to see a return to the era when the weak westerners cowered behind their city walls as the titanic wave of mounted tribesman plundered their lands.

There are at least seven great tribes that have organized themselves, each adopting the name of one of the sacred animals: Eagle, Fox, Wolf, Hawk, Stallion, and Bison. The tribes are constantly feuding with one another, forming and fragmenting alliances depending on the circumstances in any given moment. It is generally accepted that no alliance between any given tribes is only as secure as the men who comprise it and, given the ambition and warrior spirit that seems endemic to their culture, they usually do not last very long.

If there is one thing that unites the tribes, it is their awe of and reverence for the shamans who dwell in the lands by the sea. These men (and a few women), are understood to have a closer relationship to the blood-soaked gods than the common run of mortal. They do not write any of their lore down, and so any information that those in the western regions of Haranshar (or the Imperium, for that matter) are able to solidly identify has come from those few souls brave enough to hazard a journey into the these lands. One such was an explorer from the Peninsula, known to history as Josepe Azules, though since so much of his account comes from his last days–when he was stricken by a fever–it is hard to say how much of it can be considered reliable.

According to Azules, those destined to become shamans are plucked from their parents while still babies, taken over the mountains, and raised among the shamans in the caves above the beaches (which are of black sand). They are then inducted into the Sacred Mysteries, the intricacies of which remain unclear to even the most well-traveled scholar. What we do know is that their rites typically involve blood sacrifice, and every year they choose a man from among the Tribes to fulfill the role of the Sacred King. This man is then sacrificed, along with his ceremonial steed, to show the gods that the tribes have maintained their faith. The shamans are also the guardians of the old prophecies of the tribes, which proclaim that a Sacred King will one day emerge to take ownership of a nameless object, whose presence is known but whose exact nature remains a subject of some dispute among the learned scholars of the west.

It is unclear to those living in the west whether the shamans were originally ethnically distinct from the rest of the tribes or whether they sprang organically out of the tribes in their need for religious leaders. Whichever it is, however, there is no question that they now appear to be almost as different from their fellows as the men of the tribes are from the rest of the Haransharin. Though they have yet to play a significant role in the workings of the wider world, there are rumblings that that may be about to change.

As the events of the novels will make clear, there will come a day when the tribes will become a force to be reckoned with, for both the Shah in his mighty city of Tysfan and for those even further west.

Dark days lie ahead.

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Isn’t it Romantic?” (S2, Ep. 5)

Now we come to what I think is one of the finest episodes of the entire series (yes, I know I’ve said that before, and I’ll probably say it again). Both bittersweet and joyful, “Isn’t it Romantic?” exemplifies the best thatĀ The Golden GirlsĀ has to offer.

In this episode, Dorothy’s friend Jean (played with inimitable charm by Lois Nettleton) comes for a visit. While warm and delightful and quick to make friends with Rose and Blanche, Jean also harbors something of a secret. Her recently-deceased partner Pat was not, as everyone seems to assume, a man, but a woman. And, on top of that, she gradually finds herself falling for Rose, whose farm-girl cuteness appeals to Jean’s own loneliness and vulnerability. While Rose must ultimately let Jean down easily, the two agree that they can remain friends.

Part of what makes this episode work is the sheer charm exuded by veteran TV actress Lois Nettleton. She’s one of those people that you know you’ve seen on some TV show from the ’60s or ’70s, though you may not be able to say what it was or who she played. Regardless of the role, however, Nettleton always manages to convey the inner warmth and goodness of her characters.

Some, I’m sure, will see in Rose’s repudiation of Jean’s feelings a warning about the the futility of queer desire, but to my mind it’s a very human and natural storyline portrayed in a very sympathetic light. Jean is not rendered into a stereotype or a pathetic figure, but is instead simply a woman who found herself falling for another woman whose kindness and goodness of spirit are some of her most attractive qualities.

As always, Sophia leads the way when it comes to the perspective the viewer is meant to take on Jean’s sexuality. While everyone (including Dorothy) makes a big deal out of it, Sophia accepts it without question, commenting that some people prefer cats over dogs, and some women prefer women over men. It is the blunt simplicity of Sophia’s statement that always stands out to me, as she reveals the folly of overanalyzing human desire and emphasizing the things that we share as fellow human beings.

Yet even Rose, who seems quite befuddled about the whole affair, ultimately concludes that, were she gay, she would proud that Jean felt that way about her. This might seem a little trite to some, but it always resonates with me. Let’s be real; we queer folk have a tendency to fall in love with the straights, and for many of us that is one of the most painful experiences we have as we come into our own as queer people. Far too often, our feelings for our straight friend is met with contempt, if not violence. Isn’t an expression of pride and compassion better than disgust and revulsion? Let’s remember that this is the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was still doing everything in its considerable power to make sure that queer folk stayed invisible. Jean’s visibility, and the girls’ acceptance of her, is a well-deserved slap in the face to that repressive ideology.

But of course no discussion of this episode would be complete without mentioning the uproariously funny jokes that emerge, foremost of which is Blanche’s confusion of “lesbian” with “Lebanese,” with a bit of Danny Thomas thrown in for good measure. The best part is that Blanche is mortally offended that Jean would prefer Rose over her, though she also admits that it’s fine, even if she doesn’t understand it. There is an irony here, given Blanche’s later outrage at her brother’s homosexuality, but that’s a post for another day.