“Po?” I asked the twisted thing in front of me. “Po, is that you whom I see?”
“Hello, Lirrerren,” the mojh said, its lipless mouth bending around the words like mushrooms bend in heavy rain.
Po had been a tall man, with broad shoulders, and a relaxed, easy smile. I remembered warm summer nights, him walking down the dusty lanes of Second Steadfast Plantation with me and my parents and the brother of my mother and the children of the brother of my mother. My father had liked him, despite the difference in their ages and in their lifestyles. I could tell he liked Po, for he spoke well of Po even when Po was not around to hear the compliment. My father had liked his dignity.
When I was a half-grown awkward girl-child, I had loved Po, and his thick hair, and his open eyes. He’d been too old for me, of course, and a human, of course, and anyway at the time I had looked impossibly ungainly. But then I had become apprenticed, and I left the country lanes and came to the town, and when six months later I returned to the ranch of my parents they told me that Po had emigrated. My mother told me, for my father did not wish to speak of Po, and I could tell that there had been words between them, and I wondered.
All this was four decades before, when I was a young apprentice cooper. At the time of my meeting with Po (for Po it was) I had owned my own workshop for twenty years, which is enough time to see a human child become a human adult and a human adult become a human elder and a human elder return to the bosom of the Dark that spawned us.
Po had been a human adult twice that many years prior; by all natural accounting he should have been planted. But then, it was evident to me that something not natural had happened to him in the time intervening.
How I recognized it, I do not know. Whether some rhythm of its gait or some gleam in its eye, whether some familiar faded scent or some cadence of its speech, I knew it. It had been he, once. Po, my Po, had come back to me renewed and changed.
I invited it into my workshop, and seated it, and offered it the best wine and cheese I could provide. In my childhood he had especially enjoyed cheese, and now this second Po before me accepted what I had more with courtesy than enthusiasm.
It had risen far since I was a half-grown girl who looked on the dashing human. For Po went north, across the Sea of Blood to the Ka-Rone Institute for the Dissolution of Knowledge, and there he had studied well the science and the art of runes, until at last he had reached the limit of what a man could learn, and his tutors certified him. The coincidence surprised and on some level thrilled me, for when he named the date of his certification it matched exactly my release from apprenticeship into bondage as a journeywoman cooper.
Then for ten years which were the same ten years I toiled in Master Elissaranassas’s workshops, preparing and constructing my masterpiece he toiled in labor of his own. He paid his student’s debts in the Diamond Isle’s military. He had been a runecaster for the Unified Front Navy, stationed first in Habadad, then Oor and Yadd Island where the water falls in spirals over the rocks, and then the New Provinces. Here I understood why the Po whom I had loved and my father had fallen out; my father would never countenance a plan to sell oneself to they who dwell in the Tower of Tongues. In years past he had ridden under the banner of Yellow Teeth Remain Sharp, and pledged himself and all his progeny in loyalty to her forevermore.
The greatest regret of my father, I think, was that the Spice Wars had ended before he was born; he never had the opportunity to sacrifice himself for his country. My mother, thankfully, provided sharp balance to my father’s patriotism and taught me that love of country need not be love of government. I was not given to the army as an infant, but three of my siblings were, and I wonder sometimes what happened to them, and I pity them. In my memory they are infants still, or children, though of course I know they have grown up to be strong soldiers for the Prefect. It sickens me; I cannot rationally consider the prospect of military service. My parents raised me too well or too poorly in their image, for it is an idea which bisects me and cuts deep.
Po described its service simply, glossing over details I would no doubt have found sordid and distasteful. Even with the tale so elided, I nevertheless became nauseous. I hid my displeasure as best I could. But was this truly more grueling a compensation for the training he had received than mine, for mine?
Again the syncopation in our lives seemed eerie, for on the same day my masterpiece was accepted by the guilders and my journeywoman training ended, Po mustered out and stepped from a Unified Front vessel onto the docks of Ka-Rone a free man. Here our paths parted again, however. While I left my journey years a mistress, respected and with my own workshop and clientele, Po found himself a penniless veteran adrift on the treacherous seas of the Diamond sphere of influence. Worse, while I was then in my prime, able and ready to choose a mate, Po felt death walking behind him. He was not then old, yet, but he heard old age and decay following him on creaking legs.
In this light the decision of Po to commit himself to the Warpless Circle seems entirely understandable. As an agent of the Count of the Pale Mask, eleventh of the nineteen members of the Warped Circle, Po would be guaranteed a quality sinecure for the remainder of his life. Perhaps beyond, for if he proved himself a worthy and able servant he might himself pass through the Warpless Circle. After drinking of the Dark wells of power he would need no longer fear death or decay; they would serve him, not hunt him.
That the price of this promise was the loss of identity, body, and gender, Po weighed, considered, and accepted.
(From “the Statement of Lirrerren Who Through Skill Crafts Barrels in the Manner First Performed By She Whom We Honor by the Name Barreller Though She Was in Life Called the Dreamer of Intermittently Useful Dreams,” dated 11/11/1465. The “Statement” is a Type One volume held in the Under Library of the Tower of Tongues, available to all scholars in good standing. Unauthorized access of a Type One volume is a capital offense.)
SEE ALSO: the Unified Front Navy, Yadd Island, Yellow Teeth Remain Sharp