IV. The Invasion of Amzra

The day was long. The excitement of a new emperor gave way for familiarity in the matter of months as the empire went on. Luctus found himself a prisoner on his golden throne, confined by dreary obligations and decisions and courtly order that, once in practice, he could not believe he had spent the entirety of his life so far preparing for: most ordeals only required common sense, and others the first ministers already decided unofficially without him. What was there for him to do?

“Your humble servant greets Your Excellency,” A servant he recognized as one of his mother’s knocked him out of his dissatisfied stupor. “The Queen Mother requests an audience with Your Excellency.”

“Noted,” He excused the man, wondering what could it be other than more urging for finding a suitable Empress.

…And, oh the Heavenly Father, was he right: the very second he entered her vision she greeted him formally and warmly, the shine of her new exaltation smoothed out her greatest enemies, wrinkles, with an eternal smile, only to cushion the harshness of her next statement.

“You disrespectful son, do you wish to have your mother die before she could kiss her grandchildren?” This she whispered to his ears in fear that the servants should be beheaded for laughing. “What are you stalling for, my child, are you not pleased with any of the choices I have selected for you?”

A pang in his heart reminded him of bitterness, “…It may elude you, but I do have things to do other than worrying about trivial things as such.”

“Trivial thing?!” Unable to control her shock, the Queen Mother excused the servants. “Trivial thing, oh you are so wrong, young man…What if you are to die without a heir? What would be of the empire then?”

“I am sure Lucem would make a fine emperor in my stead,” he recited flatly from distant memory.

“Lucem? The son of that whor–”

“–Dancer, mother, Consort Dia was a dancer, not exactly a whore.”

“A whore, my son, that is what she was, a fox sprite that spirited your father away. No matter, we cannot have the son of a demonic spirit be the emperor. You need an heir. Have you met Sapphira before?”

“No.”

“Oh, there is still hope then: she is said to be the most beautiful young maiden in the known world, who just so happens to be the third daughter of King Etzion.”

“Ah, I see.”

Displeased by his apparent disinterest, the Queen Mother added, “She reminded me of a certain one Your Excellency might be familiar with.”

Luctus was alarmed.

“In fact, she bears a bit of a resemblance with our Grand Priestess, though Princess Sapphira is much more elegant, much gentler.”

His throat ran dry.

“Would you like to meet her.”

Without really thinking, he replied, “I suppose there is no harm.”

“Good!” Her duty done, the Queen Mother returned to her form as a bag of plump vanity. “Back to you not-so-trivial things then, child, your old mother is happy.”

It was as though his day was not long enough, as the second he returned from his mother’s palace a messenger threw himself at his feet in a stuttering panic.

“Yo-Your Excellency!”

“Yes?”

“Forgive your servant’s incoherence, but the Kingdom of Amzra has set to invade our empire.”

“Ah,” It wasn’t a surprise for a long-time tribute kingdom to rebel in the face of a new emperor; in fact, historically it had been so now and then, as though they were periodically trying their luck at independence. “Summon General Lucius, Commander Lucem and the First Ministers.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

His brothers and the ministers all seemed well aware of the news as they entered. After Luctus ordered them to rise from their low bows, the elder minister immediately requested for permission to drone on about his decades of experience and qualifications to offer a strategy that, at the conclusion of his monologue, turned out to be nonexistent at the moment. Luctus rolled his eyes while Lucius fought a chuckle; Lucem merely gave a forced smile. Before another minister could waste more time, Lucem, after Luctus granted him the right, began.

“Your lowly brother suggests to meet the kingdoms’ forces directly as to show no signs of weakness and to avoid civilian casualties,” He silenced the flustered ministers. “For, your lowly brother had informants stationed in all of our tributes years before, and it is clear that our enemies should not stand a chance against the empire’s imperial forces.”

Luctus beheld his brother in mild admiration before an almost familiar voice rang within his head, offering an advice that he thought was more genius than any sputtering nonsense he suffered through all day, let the loyal fool plan his own death, “Very well, we will do as you say.”

“Who shall we place in command, Your Excellency?”

“I believe…since my dear brother is wise in his ways of battle, and is the chief author of this tactic, it would be most fitting for the role…don’t you agree, Lucem?”

A change came over Lucem’s cordial smile, “…But, Your Excellency.”

“Yes?”

He hesitated and ventured, “Your lowly brother does not believe he is qualified for this campaign.”

“Oh, is my esteem not enough qualification?”

“No, Your Excellency, it is surplus; it is just that this fool is pledged to be married in a fortnight.”

Yes, of course I am well aware of such, for that is the only reason that we should send you to battle, “Does Commander Lucem think his personal affairs above that of the empire?”

Lucius raised an eyebrow while the ministers opened their mouths to speak, but dared not. Of course, the social implications of a postponement of marriage was an ill omen for the future of the union that often prompted the less committed parties to call off the match altogether.

Lucem paled visibly, before bowing lowly, “Absolutely not, Your Excellency, pray show mercy for this fool that has misspoken.”

“Please rise, I understand your sentiments,” With that, Luctus excused the men to prepare for the invasion.

The voice chuckled, Very well, now we will see if the Kingdom of Amzra would perform a miracle for us.

Luctus scoffed.

 

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The Metaphorical and Actual Warmth of Tainan

Over the weekend before my sister’s birthday, our family decided to go visit my father’s old home in Tainan, which was a four hour drive (or around 300 km/187.5 miles) away from our current dwelling in New Taipei City. While I was thoroughly overjoyed by the idea of staying at a five-star hotel for only 3300 NT (or 110 USD) per room along with a complimentary buffet breakfast, I was more excited about the cuisine. Even though there are already a bunch of great desserts and foods in Taipei, nothing beats the hundred-years-old traditional foods that fill the streets in Tainan. Here are some examples.

More importantly, it really surprised me how…warm Tainan is. Yep, just when I was praising God for giving Taipei rain for nearly every day that I had been here, the rains stopped and the heat returned to boil me alive. Plus, Tainan being the south of Taipei made it a lot warmer than the northern city.

But humidity is not my focus today: I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the people here. When we first dropped by a store for some dried fruits and almond snaps, the store owner immediately struck up conversation as though we were old friends. It wasn’t in the same way that Americans politely smile or say “good morning”s to each other when they walk by, nor was it the same as a good sales person trying to get on your good side. It was as though he was willing to actually make a connection, leaving a positive imprint as our lives collided against each other by chance for the briefest second.

Not only did I gain a bunch of delicious jars of crackers wrapped in calligraphed paper bags from this little store (along with free, iced black/barley/homemade tea as he said that it was a miracle people like us from Taipei didn’t evaporate in the Tainan heat), I was also reminded of my footprints on the path of life since each deliberate step could have made a world of differences for others as it did for me.

Lunch at Hana

It was only a couple days after I came back to Taiwan when my father decided to finally listen to me on my theory of food and jetlag; it goes as follows, “Awesome food is the best cure for jet lag.” So we went to Hana, one of the best teppanyaki places in Taipei. Here is some proof.

One of the best things about this place is the fact that everything happens in such a proximity to you: the food is cooked within an arm’s length to you, while the chef himself, a friend of my father, always engages us in conversation to reveal some things that sound awfully familiar.

“I started doing this more than thirty years ago,” He sprinkled a handful of spices upon the fish with an artistic flourish as a humble acknowledgment to my parents’ compliments. “It’s interesting to see the shift of the industry.”

“Kids these days are lazy, huh?” My father already began assuming.

“No, not just that,” Chef T said (I use this for the sake of anonymity). “It’s more like…our generation conditioned the kids today to be lazy. I don’t get as many apprentices as before, and yes, many of them just come here to ‘intern’ after actually getting a diploma from a culinary school…”

There are too many things that you cannot learn in a culinary school.

His statement made me wander long after I walked out of the restaurant: it’s not really just culinary school, but rather, school in general. Yet, there are also so many things that you cannot learn outside of an academic setting. Taiwan is no stranger to constantly fluctuating education policies, not unlike the US’s new SATs, common core and etc. Traditional Taiwanese schools are now leaning towards even more westernization as a system that originally hinges upon entrance exams as the sole determination for high schools and colleges changes to include extracurriculars and interviews in the application.

Can this really change the trend that Chef T described? Possibly. Perhaps it is the circle that I live in in the US, but it does appear to me that there are less people that plan to live the rest of their lives on their parents’ allowances among my US friends compared to my acquaintances in Taiwan.

The thought that I might have contemplated such a lifestyle plausible simply had I stayed in Taiwan made my full stomach lurch a little. But, for the most part, I was, once again, amazed by Hana in both food and inspiration.

III. The Coronation

For the first time in his life, Luctus was afraid. Yes, there were times such as that one hunt when he nearly got mauled by a beast had his brother, Lucem, not been there, when he felt the icy grasp of fear. Yes, there was the constant fear of moving a single muscle that may conjure an unfavorable gesture to his exalted father. But never was he so uncertain. The solid grounds felt like thin air as he walked down the aisle, his steps muffled by a newly embroidered carpet. Soldiers with their polished armors flanked both sides, ministers in new silks and golden headpieces a measured step behind the soldiers. Then, as he continued his seemingly dooming path, ministers gave way to other nobles, the relatives, then his mother, magnified with her new status as the Queen Mother. Then his brothers, Lucius and Lucem on either side of him. They all knelt in a show of humility, hands clasped together and held before their lowered heads. All except of the Grand Priest and Priestess, who stood stiffly on the sanctified ground before the steps leading to the throne.

Ah, Lerim and his daughter, Morgain.

Luctus could recognize his mentor and fellow apprentice even when the two were drowned in the tide of traditional cloaks threaded with silver and graced with precious stones. He could almost see the full, white beard that hung from the old man’s face, saturated with wisdom and marred by time. More importantly, he could see her, a perfect porcelain face with bright eyes and heavy lashes that haunted his fantasy, full red lips and a graceful frame with dark locks that ran to her waist. Luctus sighed to himself.

In Lerim the Priest’s hand was the symbol that all bowed to, the crown. Luctus tore his gaze from Morgain’s perfect fingers cupping the ornate bottle for anointment to face the Priest, submitting himself to a half kneel as he began.

“The Land created by our Creator was made for His children, and eventually He put it to His children’s hands to care, govern, and tame. And, He saw that it was good. May His elect make it so it continues to be so: let the Lord’s blessings be poured upon the Chosen, who is fit for the weight of the crown.”

Luctus hid his trepidation as he felt the cold trickle of oil upon his head. Then the Priest and Priestess each pressed a hand upon his head.

Morgain said, “The Lord our God triumphs over tremor, terrors, and temptation; grant your Vessel wisdom and peace.”

“Let him be exalted in longevity, courage, and patience to protect Your children.”

Hands lifted from his head, and a new weight was soon placed upon his head, “Let this ointment and this crown be a testament of the Emperor’s covenant to the Lord that he shall fulfill his duty to rule with the merciful hand of God.”

Their duty done, the two retreated to separate sides of the aisle to gaze into a distance.

Luctus rose to his feet, the proximity of the throne and the last three steps distancing them overwhelmed him. Then he ascended, taking his rightful place upon the golden chair.

“Long Live the Emperor!” was the relentless chant that shook the halls, ringing in Luctus’s ears well into nightfall.

By the end of the day, Luctus was exhausted. He excused himself from the feast thrown in his honor as soon as it was appropriate, dispersing the nobles, some more drunk than the others, to their temporary housings within the lesser wings of the palace. Retreating to his chambers in the heart of the palace, he dressed for bed, but a thought crossed his mind. Instead, he eased himself into a coat of dark silk — a favorite garment nearly qualified as overworn — and set out. He opened the window to allow a breeze brush against him. Yes, maybe he would do just that. With his mind made up, he seated himself on the windowsill, his feet dangling three stories above the ground. Then he leaned forward for the drop, which he slowed with a wave of his hand as he touched the ground again, a rustle of soft, wet grass. He strolled off then, out of the exquisite imperial garden for his mind was not set upon the rarity that it housed, but nostalgia.

It didn’t take him much time to reach his destination in the larger garden separating the imperial quarters from the common wings, where he found the old tree of his childhood and climbed it, almost as effortlessly as though he was walking. How unsightly, for the prince to be climbing a tree like a little monkey, he heard his nurse’s shrill warnings, and realized that he was no longer just a prince as he settled in a sturdy branch level with the second floor. It was so much more welcoming than his throne, and he overlooked the stretch of greenery kissed by the moonlight under the dense cover, the stream a shining snake coiling around planned paths.

Then he heard them, beyond the murmuring creek and frogs and owl and leaves, laughter in a musical tone. He first attributed it to some adventurous fairy, but saw otherwise.

A lithe figure clad in thin silks that accentuated her feminine figure caught the splatter of moonlight, entering his field of vision with her hand pulling in a contrasting masculine frame, dull in comparison to her luminance. Luctus shifted in his perch.

“…so scared that I might mess up the oath,” the musical tone chimed, seating herself and her companion upon a boulder merely steps away from Luctus’s position.

“It’s unlike anyone would question you and your father’s prayers, anyway,” His soothing voice brushed by her ear after he nuzzled her bare neck; she chuckled as though she was delighted by his forwardness, though Luctus was puzzled as he could only see debauchery while holding his breath in denial.

“You know, this is the first time I have ever made up a prayer: it’s always been that words are placed in my mouth,” She continued to file her complaint, resting her head upon a firm shoulder. “It was as though…as though God didn’t smile upon it.”

“…Perhaps God was busy paying others attention and blessing them instead?”

“Like who?”

“Me.” She laughed, shifting so that she was comfortably leaning back into her lover’s embrace.

“What makes you think that?”

“Because, I am the happiest man in this world, and I think it is only because of Him.”

She knew what he was getting to, and in fear that the spell would be broken when he uttered it aloud, she turned her head so she could claim his lips in hers.

Luctus wanted to cut himself: the kiss lasted eternities and the Emperor planned a possible escape.

Then the lovers parted, finally: she cupped his face in her porcelain hands and sighed, “Why can’t you be the Emperor, it seems more fitting.”

The blasphemous phrase froze Luctus.

“Don’t speak like that, we cannot always have what we desire and I should respect my father’s decision.”

“But, shouldn’t we have what we deserve?” The words cut so much deeper when fallen from her full lips. “You are the better candidate, the empire knows that.”

“Except my late father, may he rest in peace,” with that he withdrew from her and lifted her off the boulder. “Don’t you think my brother had enough attention today?”

“Ah, you have been jealous. Who knew?”

“Enough of that divisive speech, lest someone hear you,” he adopted a joking tone to hide the accuracy of her sarcastic diagnosis.

“They wouldn’t dare to touch the Grand Priestess.” She turned from him and crossed her arms in feigned haughtiness.

“Perhaps,” for a moment the night was just filled with its own harmony and the cracks of Luctus’s balled fists and the pounding of his heart within his head.

Almost suddenly, “Morgain.”

“Yes?”

“Your ruined the serenity,” He accused her with an embrace from behind, pressing a kiss into the crook of her neck. “I was going to ask…you know that I love you, right?”

“Of course. I don’t think the night is any less serene than before now that you have admitted your inevitable jealousy…”

“Shhh none of that now,” his breath clearly tickled her and she turned to face him instead.

“What then?”

There was a rustle as he lowered himself in a similar manner as his brother a few hours before, though he had the honor to hold her hand as he knelt on one knee,” Another question, that is.”

Luctus didn’t notice thin skin that came off from his palms as his nails dug into them.

“…Will you…marry me?”

She shifted, still uncomfortable with her love’s unchanging willingness to humble himself for her and overwhelmed with happiness, “Why bother asking?!” She pulled him back onto his feet, embracing him tightly and muffled sweet talk with his chest. Luctus realized for the first time that his hands bled.

“What of father? Did he approve?”

“Of course, he even gave his blessings and nearly strangled me.”

Luctus ripped his eyes away as the couple kissed again, their happy chuckles and Morgain’s admiration for Lucem’s simple handiwork now tainting her porcelain hand became distant. A pure silvery shine, Luctus saw before he turned away, a simple silver trinket the perch for a jadeite, a symbol that Luctus would learn to loathe.

Oh, his heart burnt so, and the iron of the blood he tasted upon his lips prevented Luctus from understanding the tears that fell. Deep within, a voice began to chant for more blood.

II. Arrival

A dent in the country road jolted Eleanor awake. Surrounded by a few cushions and seated across from her brother (who somehow managed to find it perfectly comfortable slumbering between two bags), she tasted her lips in search of the remnants of sweet dreams, but couldn’t quite find them. She took out her pocket watch to find that her travel has been a little over five hours. Why, and she already fell asleep. Her brother’s sleepiness must have infected her.
They were to be transferred to the charge of a maternal relative since urgent business called her mother upon a lengthy trip at late notice. While Eleanor attempted to convince her mother that both her brother and she would be perfectly fine on their own in the manor, Lady Crisiota could not bear the idea of her precious children out of the careful eyes of a trusted adult since Elliot was to accompany the Lady. Ellie made the case that she was already sixteen, while her brother ten, but did not fight her mother’s nerves out of compassion and a shared paranoia: her father passed just a decade ago. Accident, Eleanor recalled the uniformed men at the door say. But, as soon as the uniformed men left and Elliot shut the door behind them, as soon as her mother ceased drowning in tears, there was a pure streak of horror that spoke so much more to her six years old self. She once heard her mother say to herself, sitting next to the fireplace late at night as the eternal absence of her beloved robbed her of sweet dreams, “I have killed you…I killed you…the Council….damn them…”

Such late night ravings were quenched by the arrival of Sirius, her sweet little brother. Instead of cursing whatever the Council was, her mother focused her energy upon the child in her womb and, after his birth, his every single need. Eventually, the sweet smiles of her infant brother smoothed over the trauma of the Crisiotas’ greatest loss, and her sweet mother returned to love her children without any reserves.

These same smiles that saved her mother faced Eleanor now as they at last arrived upon their place to stay in three more hours, as Sirius squirmed against the bags around him, his chubby cheeks sweetened by dreams.

Eleanor could not fight the urge as she reached across from her seat and pinched him, rousing the boy to a whiny grumble, “…owie…”

“Wake up, we are here,” Sirius pouted to himself, but obediently searched for order in his ruffled dress; the older sister reminded him in a mimic of their mother, “Be kind to Mr. LaLauren, now.”

“Don’t worry, Eleanor, I will behave!” The boy chimed and stretched as their servant opened the door to usher the two into the cold and darkness.

After fastening Sirius’s cloak with a brooch, Eleanor took the boy’s hand and led them behind the servant’s steps into the parlour. She noted the park: it impressed her that Mr. LaLauren’s grounds should hold competition to her home as a mere gentry. The large expanse of trimmed wilderness somewhat comforted her.

They were brought to the drawing-room, where LaLauren’s head servant gave a low bow before muttering, “The Master will be here shortly.”

As the servant took his leave, Eleanor seated herself in an armchair by the windows while Sirius stood by, “May I stand around for a bit? I am numb from sitting so long…” Eleanor adored how careful the boy was of his manners as she ruffled the boy’s head and granted him freedom to wander within the small premise of carpet before her. “Is that a portrait of Mrs. LaLauren?” He pointed.

His sister followed the boy’s finger, studying the masterful artwork, “She looks quite…wild.” She observed, leaving her seat to better her examination. The woman looked to be young, with full feminine charms confined in traditional dress, bright, blazing eyes with heavy lids freshly revealed from wisps of brown locks that a porcelain hand was in the middle of brushing aside, her cheeks painted with flush happiness and her full lips curved in a small smile as though to keep joy from spilling out of them. “She’s beautiful.”

“My late lady,” A voice answered Sirius’s question, stern though with a certain charm of sincerity. “She passed nearly ten years ago, my greatest loss…”

Eleanor snapped around to face who she presumed to be Mr. LaLauren, a man around his early forties with a build not unlike a soldier and sharp features that shadowed icy eyes, “Lord Sirius, Lady Eleanor, pleased to be of your assistance.” They exchanged bows, and Sirius soon hid half of his small frame behind her.

LaLauren began, “I am sure both of you are exhausted from your travels: please, allow Cephas here to take you to your rooms,” for the first time, Eleanor noted the young man named Cephas beside Mr. LaLauren, a lean youth with brooding eyes and an angular face that seemed to despise.

After they bid each other “good night” and after Cephas bowed deeply, the Crisiotas followed him to another wing of the mansion, furnished more deliberately than the one they were originally in.

“When does Mr. LaLauren typically wake?” Eleanor asked for the sake of passing time in their short journey, which Sirius had slowed with his sleepiness as he leaned heavily into her.

“The Master wakes early, around an hour after sunrise, Lady Eleanor,” Cephas offered to carry the boy, and Eleanor obliged.

“He was probably too excited for the journey the night before and thus didn’t sleep much…”

Eleanor thought she imagined a scoff, “Excited?” Cephas spun around to face her, the candle that was passed into her hand as Cephas carried her brother casting wavering shadows, the young man’s pale face twisted by a cruel frown; Sirius rested happily against his shoulder.

“…What?”

A change came over Cephas’s features, her confusion clearly softened him, “Please forgive me, your servant spoke ill: I just find it odd for anyone to be ‘excited’ to visit this premise,” he chewed the words quietly, his firm steps against the marble floor almost drowning out his low voice before he added, “…after the passing of Mrs. LaLauren, that is.”

So, he was here for more than ten years, Eleanor thought to herself before asking, almost unnecessarily, “Was she kind?”

A pause in Cephas’s step, “Yes, she was. The household suffer a great loss.” The end of his sentence trailed into a low whisper.

That, along with their arrival at the Crisiotas’ rooms terminated conversation. The room weren’t nearly as well-mannered as their own home, of course, but the visible wealth in the furnitures and carved frames were a bit reminiscent of home. With some arrangements they settled, Cephas leaving the siblings with a promise to rouse them by breakfast if the pair should oversleep.

After she changed, Eleanor stared at their pile of invading boxes and bags that the servants had set in the corner of the room from her seat upon the bed. Her brother was already breathing evenly into the blankets despite her urging for him to get to his own room. “But, I am scared…” He muttered before falling asleep, and who would have the heart to wake one from such slumber? Eleanor drew out the pendant that was warm from being pressed against her chest, its simple lustre bring a soothing sense of peace in its green color as she sighed, giving herself off to the claims of sleep once again.

Starbucks: Another Example to Taiwan’s Economically-driven Rapid Changes

In the spirit of innovation (and commercialization), Taiwan is also riddled with Starbucks. The white outline of a mermaid often catches me off guard since the exterior and interior design often nullify my understandings of Starbucks. Yes, they still have the free wifi, the frappucinos, and the tall, grande, and venti, but in Irvine, there’s never a green tea jelly frappuccino, heated croissant sandwiches or french toast sandwiches.

Also there are never this many design mugs.

Also there are never these breakfast combos.

…All in all, the competitiveness of Taiwan’s market drove all the plethora of cafes to innovate, give more varieties, upgrade. In the span of two years, stores and signs already swapped places profusely to make me feel like a tourist.

It’s almost like physics: just when I feel like I understand a concept by finally getting all the examples right, a new chapter comes and pulls out the rug out of my feet in a failed demonstration of inertia. Since, just like physics, a surface understanding is hardly enough for one to appreciate Taiwan.

One must learn the bigger picture, seeing the volatility and changeability and variety that is part of the Taiwanese culture. No, it is not exactly a lack of individuality to me since I have hardly know another place that changes nearly as fast as this little cosmopolitan city, Taipei. This tendency for constant change is a double edged sword labeled innovation and fickle.

Oh, and my cappuccino got cold….

Lessons from a Pepper Pancake

Part of the stereotype people hold towards Taiwan is the street food: this is certainly something that I cannot debunk, and does not plan to. Just five minutes walking from my house, there are at least two to three trucks selling food.

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Here’s one selling kebab.

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Here’s the other one selling pepper pancake.

When my mother and I went up to the stand, we had to wait for almost half an hour since they were fresh out of pancakes and another batch is coming along. Within the blue truck, there is a deep, lidded red bucket where the pancakes are baked: each are stuck to the sides of the bucket and baked until its outer crust is crisp.

As I watched the old shop owner scrapping each pancake off the bucket with surgical grace and dual spatulas, I was distracted from the infinite mosquito bites and the constant humidity. The old man was just staring into the red barrel, a faint smile wrinkled his kind face as he packaged the pancakes in paper bags. Three pancakes for 100NT (around 3 USD). Thank you so much, have a great day!

Was I in the U.S. again? It’s been awhile since a stranger last smiled and acted in the interest of the rest of my day.

No, this smile, in the sea of blank expressions that adorned the majority of the Taiwanese public places, was not just a formality or gesture. It is a feeling, a warmth that radiated in waves that passed from the pancakes wrapped in paper hanging in the pink plastic bags to my hand. Than it slowly went to my heart and brain. A warmth that is not pure humidity in a New Taipei street.

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