Sample text for The grand ellipse / Paula Volsky.

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Counter "And thus the Bhomiri islanders, submitting perforce to western rule, have ostensibly accepted western moral standards. They've abandoned their traditional cannibalistic practices, outlawed polygamy, and banned human sacrifice, or so they'd have us believe. Investigation, however, has revealed the falsity of this apparent transformation. Beneath the thinnest veneer of what we Vonahrish call civilization, the old culture persists. It is a culture that we can hardly afford to dismiss or despise, despite its disturbing aspects, for it is just such sources that teach us of humanity's past, of our origins, and ultimately, of ourselves." Luzelle Devaire concluded her lecture.

There was silence, and she tensed. She should never have described those Bhomiri cannibalistic feasts in such detail. She'd shocked her listeners, and it had been a mistake.

Then the audience erupted into applause, and Luzelle relaxed. Her instincts had been sound; she was good at her work. Sometimes she wondered, but the present response allayed all doubts.

Almost all.

Her eyes swept the ranks of enthusiasts to light upon a couple of faces in the back neither pleased nor approving.

Her father was sitting there, irate, disgruntled, affronted; her mother beside him, dutifully reflecting similar sentiments.

Why had they come today, of all days?

You invited them. You encouraged them to come.

But not today.

Questions popped at her from the audience. She answered almost automatically, while her real attention remained fixed on her parents. They were both visibly impatient. Maybe they'd get tired of waiting and go away.

No such luck.

The questions sputtered to a gradual halt. The spectators trickled from the lecture hall. Even the young would-be gallant in the front row, he of the glinting teeth and hopefully gleaming pince-nez, finally gave up and withdrew. But Master Udonse Devaire and his wife Gilinne remained.

There was no need to ask them what they had thought of her speech. Their identically pursed mouths spoke wordless volumes.

The last of the audience departed and Luzelle found herself alone in the auditorium with her parents. They were still sitting motionless in the otherwise empty back row. No way to pretend she didn't see. Drawing a deep breath, she descended from the stage and made her reluctant way up the carpeted aisle toward them.

"Father. Mother. How good of you to come. I'm so glad," Luzelle lied. She produced a suitably gracious smile.

Neither the words nor the facial contortion produced the desired effect.

"We came," Udonse Devaire informed his daughter, "because we wished to be just. I desired impartiality, and therefore chose to give you the benefit of the doubt."

"The Judge took pains, as always, to weigh all circumstances," declared Gilinne.

The Judge, she always called him. Grim, but understandable enough, for Udonse Devaire, justice of the Sherreenian Higher Court, seemed formed by nature to project grandeur. With his tall brow, aquiline nose, cold eyes, square-cut greying beard, and deliberately majestic mien, Udonse inspired awe in malefactors and family members alike--especially women. No wonder his wife, his sisters, his mother, and his various mistresses all deferred religiously to His Honor. Luzelle herself had done so, in past years.

"I have listened, I have pondered, and I have reached a verdict," announced the Judge.

Guilty. She'd thought he might reconsider, once he heard what she actually had to say, but she should have known better. Of course she couldn't have guessed that he would choose to listen today. Polygamous Bhomiri cannibals. Hardly a topic recommending itself to the Judge.

"It was repugnant, far exceeding my worst expectations," declared Udonse. "I must confess, I was appalled."

"Really, daughter, I don't wish to seem unkind, but it was disgusting," complained Gilinne. "How could you?"

"Your lecture--if so repulsive an outpouring of filth and horror may  be dignified by such a term--revealed a shocking lack of taste, propriety, and above all of the general fineness of sensibility that may be termed womanly," decreed Udonse. "Your description of savage abominations plumbed the depths of lurid sensationalism, revealing a coarseness of mental fiber I should never have thought to encounter in a female bearing the family name of Devaire. Your blood is good, and you have been properly reared. Thus I can scarcely account for your mental and moral deficiencies."

"How can it be morally deficient to recount the literal truth, sir?" Luzelle inquired, and felt her lips curving in the old smile she knew would infuriate him. She had told herself she would resist the temptation, that she had grown beyond adolescent challenges and provocations, but her face automatically resumed the accustomed expressions.

"There is such a thing," Gilinne Devaire reminded her daughter, "as a lapse in taste so extreme as to rouse genuine distress in the listener. That is what the Judge means to explain to you. Do you understand, dear?"

"She should understand," remarked His Honor, "at her age."

She understood all too well. Luzelle felt her blood and breath quicken. Ridiculous. She had promised herself that she would never again allow her father's words to set her internally boiling. But now her heart was pounding and her pulses racing as if she were still sixteen years old and miserably subject to paternal autocracy.

Only she wasn't. She was an adult, and free. Time to start acting like it.

"Father and Mother, I'm sorry you were offended," she offered, carefully cleansing her face of all save courteous concern. "Another time you might be better pleased--"

"There will be no other time," His Honor informed her. "I have listened at repellent length, and now I am prepared to render judgment."

"I'm afraid it will have to wait, sir," Luzelle returned. His brows and chin rose, and once again she found herself compelled to justify, to appease. "I'm sorry, but I can't speak now. I've an appointment that I must keep."

"That is no way to speak to the Judge," Gilinne Devaire reproved. "You mustn't be disrespectful, child."

"No disrespect intended," Luzelle countered, "but the truth is--and I'm sorry--but the truth is that you've come at a very bad time. See, this will explain it all." She did not need to explain, but old habits died hard, and so she dipped into her pocket to bring forth the letter, which she extended to her father. He accepted as if granting a favor, and scanned the message frowningly. The last few words so far strained his credulity that he could not forbear reading them aloud:

". . . and therefore, should you prove willing to undertake the venture, we are prepared to offer full sponsorship, underwriting all legitimate expenses, including personal transportation of every necessary variety and description, both expected and unforeseen; concomitant costs of baggage transfer; room and board, to ordinary and reasonable standards of comfort throughout the course of the race; and all justifiable incidentals and emergency expenses encountered en route.

"We anticipate a meeting with you upon conclusion of your next scheduled lecture at University Dome, one week following the date of this correspondence. At that time we shall expect a reply, and hope for an affirmative beneficial to all parties concerned. . . ."

"What is this new lunacy?" For a moment it seemed that Udonse might shred the offending document, but he chose to hand it back intact.

"It is an offer of government sponsorship."

"Sponsorship. Is that what you choose to call it? Are you disingenuous, or simply gullible?"

"You note the letterhead, sir," Luzelle replied steadily. "Ministry of Foreign Affairs--"

"I note the official stationery, easily purloined or imitated. Surely you are not so simple as to accept this proposal at face value?"

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