The humans come to attention a full hour before your return. They can’t know why, but they sense your presence through the wood and stone of the fortress you have made your home in this mortal world. Their awareness grates, and your expression as you push open the door is one of carefully masked annoyance. A year ago the sentiment would have been discomfort and unease, the sheepishness of one who feels he doesn’t deserve the honors he receives. You have always been one of the more emotive of our kind. This last year confined to human form, to human thoughts, has wearied you, dulling your emotions and your ability to hide them.
Young though you are among our kind, you know well the role that you must play here. You smooth the irritation from your features and nod to the assortment of servants, serfs, and petty landowners strewn throughout the hall, taking advantage of the fire’s warmth as they perform the manual tasks necessary to their mortal lives. You have made a point of learning the words and tools associated with each of these tasks—for sewing, needle, thread and cloth; for carving, knife and wood; for fletching, feathers and glue to bind them to the arrow’s shaft.
You cross the length of the hall to the great hearth. The humans scatter slowly, shifting away to give you what privacy the large communal room may afford. As they move to the back of the hall, you stop one of the females with a quiet word.
“Diana,” you say. Many human lords have not taken such care, but you have learned the names of all within your household.
“Where is my lady?”
She has anticipated this question; your first words, whenever you return looking as weary as you now do, are always, “Where is my lady?” A useless question, among our kind, but you have been among the humans for too long.
“She is resting, my lord,” Diana says. Like all the humans, she keeps her eyes to the rushes on the floor, but unlike the others, she lowers her eyes out of respect, not fear.
You exhale your disappointment. “I will not disturb her,” you say, sinking into the thronelike wooden chair that sits before the fire.
“My lord—” Diana begins.
You look up, meeting her gaze. She does not look away. “My lord, I will bring her to you,” she says with what might be a smile. There is a sense of indulgence in her offer, the mother granting a request the child is too proud to ask. You understand this well, and grant her a small, sheepish smile before she steps away to her lady’s chambers.
Free of Diana’s eyes, you allow yourself to relax fully, your exhaustion now apparent in your face. The form you chose for your engagement here was healthy, tall, broad-shouldered. So it remains, but time has threaded silver through your hair and etched lines around your eyes. You have allowed the injuries sustained in battle to scar, though you might easily have healed them. You might easily have kept the silver from your hair and the lines from your face as well, but you believe such outward signs will help your people to respect you as a man of experience and wisdom.
You have been staring into the fire, brooding, and you start as she appears beside you and runs her hand over your hair. She smiles and you return it, lacing your fingers with hers where they rest on your shoulder.
You have been human too long, to need these caresses. The others of our kind do not approve.
They saw the necessity of your forms when you chose them. The humans’ strange polarity of gender will not allow them to accept androgyny, nor could they comprehend a female leading their armies.
Her choice was just as necessary, though the others were uneasy. She has always been too fond of humans and their strange perceptions, fancying herself a woman before this assignment. Already she was she, where you were never he until you took your present form. They were reluctant to send her with you, but a lord in this feudal society must have a wife, and you must have a partner to facilitate the emotional unification of this land, as you and your armies ensure its physical and legal unification. So you came to this world, the warrior and the mother, the strongest embodiments of the dichotomy our kind rejected long ago.
Young though you both are, none foresaw how strongly your physical forms would affect you. You yourself were shocked the first time she laid her lips on yours. It was a simple gesture then, one of comfort, asexual, but your body reacted and it was not long before your spirit did as well. You had scant been in your human forms a few months before you bedded one another.
You were uneasy then, ashamed of your decent into the corporeal ways our kind has renounced. But that was many months ago, a long time in the brevity of a human life. You seek her comfort now as any man might seek it from his wife, resting your cheek against the swell of her belly as you twine your arm around her waist.
A moment later you start and look up at her. “He kicked me,” you say, not sure whether to be affronted or to laugh with wonder.
“He kicked me as well,” she says, smiling fondly at you. “He kicks me often.”
The child is the ultimate proof of your newfound humanity. It makes the others nervous, and there are those who wish to take the baby from her. The wiser among us understand the truth. You will never return to us, though you might easily shuck your mortal bodies when your task is done, passing rule of your new empire to a trusted mortal.
It would perhaps be better if you did; it is not for yourselves that you are bringing these peoples together, but for the humans themselves. Too long have they warred with one another in their petty tribes, forsaking the pursuit of knowledge as they scrabble for what food is gleaned from their planet by those who do not fight. Your empire will rectify this, or so our hope has been, and allow the humans to emerge from their Dark Ages. Our intention was to allow them to grow as a species once more, but perhaps your leadership for a few decades more than we had planned will serve them well.
So you will live out your mortal lives together, the lord turned emperor and his lady wife. Together you will rule with wisdom and compassion. She will bear children, sons and daughters to follow this first son, and the rule of your new empire will pass to them. They will be human—exceptional, yes, but no more than human. When your bodies fail, you will leave the mortal world and pass to the realms even the wisest among us cannot ken.
It is a melancholy thought, to think that you will leave us forever in but a few short years. We are fond of you. But as you take her hand and lead her to your chambers that you both might rest, we know that it can be no other way. You are human now, beyond our power to change. We wish you well in it.
Written about three years ago. Still not quite sure where it came from, but isn’t that always the way with your favorite creations? You would be proud you wrote it, except you look at it and know it must have come from somewhere else, through you. Too much Sheri S. Tepper has me thinking about sex and gender, so I thought I’d dig this out again. Feedback would be greatly appreciated!