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Master's Piece

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The year 1508 Farlow by the Old Calendar.
 

"And bear in mind that if this person whom you are casting
is very important, as in the case of lords, kings, popes, emperors, you
mix this plaster with tepid rose water; and for other people any tepid
spring or well or river water is good enough."

—Cennino D' Andrea Cennini, translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr.: The Craftsman's Handbook (1392).


He was his master's piece: the model for his master's sculptures. But his master was different.

It was the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the world was changing. Ships sailed the ocean, exploring the Old World that had been left behind long ago, in ancient times. A new faith swept the nations of the New World with fervor, promising the possibility of rebirth, not only in a future lifetime, but now. And in a small, sunny room of his castle that grew stifling hot in the summertime, High Master Fernao experimented with new ways in which to create sculptures.

Pip, his piece, stood for hours on end in the sculpting room, occasionally turning his eyes to glance through the window. Outside, fishing boats skimmed the waters of the Bay as they came to port at Solomons Island, offshore from where the High Master's castle stood. He could smell the scent of crabs as they scrabbled in their cages, desperately trying to escape their fate as they were unloaded onto the docks. He could watch as the fishermen secured their captives.

But he preferred to watch his master at work. While Pip stood in the heat, sweating and itching, High Master Fernao would carefully sculpt the cooling wax, revealing what lay within the wax. Slowly, ever so slowly, a face would emerge: a strong face, set with eyes that sought something beyond the horizon.

The face never smiled. Pip had watched the High Master try to sculpt smiles – had followed the High Master's orders to smile – but the smile was never quite right. Eventually, his master gave up. The face looked sad, almost grim.

Encased in the plaster, unable to move until the plaster was removed from him, Pip knew that the body of the sculpture would be different.

Some critics claimed High Master Fernao's sculptures were not true sculptures. Pip knew they were. He would stand for long minutes, with his upraised arm aching, barely able to breathe as the plaster hardened, although he had learned – after the first, terrifying time, when he nearly suffocated – to fill his lungs with air at the start, so that there was room to move within the encasement.

Eventually, High Master Fernao's journeymen – free men, all of them, for only free boys and men could be apprentices and journeymen – would carefully break off the plaster in pieces, preserving the curves of Pip's body.

That was the end of Pip's part in the creation, but he had sought and received permission to witness what came next: the plaster would be joined together again with pins, as though a young man still stood there, and then wax would be poured in. Once the wax had set, the plaster would be removed for a final time, its work done.

Then – and only then – would High Master Fernao come forward for his part in the artistry.

He would smooth out the imperfections. Not merely the imperfections of the molding process, but also the imperfections of Pip's body, changing muscles to be more symmetrical, repairing a crack in Pip's toenail, shifting the balance of his testicles. The end result was Pip, and yet it was not Pip: it was Pip as he might be if he were perfect.

Finally, after many days, the wax body would be crowned with the sculpted head. And there it would stand: a young man lifting his arm, reaching toward something, with a look that seemed to suggest he would never grasp what he strove toward.

High Master Fernao had many pieces from which he made many wax sculptures. Pip knew that the sculptures made from himself were the most popular. It gave him a feeling of pride, yet also a feeling of emptiness. He tried not to think about the emptiness, though it made him cry sometimes at night.

He confessed once to Drew, the slave who scrubbed the pieces free of all plaster after their work, that he feared the time was coming when he would no longer be suitable as a piece. The scrubbing, while necessary, dulled his skin, and during the long periods while he was molded, his skin dried and cracked. Surely the time would come when the effort to create perfection out of imperfection would become too great for High Master Fernao. And when that happened, Pip would return to the life that his master had rescued him from, laboring on the docks that were owned by High Master Fernao.

"Trust your master," Drew suggested, but his voice was uncertain. They both knew how even a good master, such as their own, could be distracted by the many important matters that preoccupied him. His free men, under such circumstances, could seek another housestead in which to serve; slaves had no such choice.

And so Pip continued to cry at night, and sometimes, despite his best efforts, tears would trickle down his face as he was serving as his master's piece.

o—o—o

He was the best piece that High Master Fernao had ever owned. Fernao had collected pieces ever since his years as a schoolboy at Narrow School, when it became clear to him that he had a mission in life just as important as – perhaps more important than – running the second of the Dozen Landsteads.

What frustrated Fernao to the point of fury was that he could never create a version of Pip that smiled. He could feel the potential for that smile in the sculptures. It was in the lift of the arm, the yearning toward something unseen. The yearning should have been a matter of joy – that was what his clients desired, and it was what Fernao wished to create. But he could not find the smile in Pip's face, and all of the slave's valiant efforts to provide his master with that smile had failed.

Fernao used to discuss the matter with Kendrick, his old classmate from Narrows School. He had known Kendrick since the time that the young man had made an attempt to regain the High Mastership of the First Landstead that a twelfth-century ancestor, also named Kendrick, had been forced to cede to his sister. The younger Kendrick had managed to kill by challenge the current male claimant to the First Landstead's rule . . . and then had watched, aghast, as his sister was raised by the First Landsteaders to the title of High Master.

Fleeing to the Second Landstead, Kendrick had sought refuge and vengeance against the sister who had stolen his title. Fernao's father had judiciously provided the former, but not the latter. As the years had travelled on, and Kendrick had begotten girls of his own, he had come to concede that sending an army to kill his older sister was perhaps not the best way to settle the constitutional dispute over whether women were eligible to inherit High Masterships.

And so Fernao and Kendrick shared many a meal of crab and shad, politely debating the merits of Kendrick's sister's case.

"The lesser masters have declared they wish to be ruled by your sister," Fernao pointed out. "It is the choice of the ruled that matters."

"Nonsense," said Kendrick, "or you might argue that no master could be a master unless the slave chose to be ruled by him. A master is no master unless he asserts his right to rule, regardless as to whether his lessers recognize that they need to be ruled."

They argued the matter over many years of many meals, honing their arguments and consulting Remigeus's Sayings, which were the final word in all constitutional debates in the Dozen Landsteads.

The topic of Pip came later into the argument. By that time, Kendrick was an adherent of the new faith which declared that rebirth could take place within a single lifetime – that a man could undergo a transformation that changed his rank within the time of birth and death. Fernao was not a follower of the new faith, yet he and his companion were coming closer together in their understanding of what constituted true mastership. And in doing so, they were becoming aware that their own views were not shared by most of the High Masters.

"If rebirth can occur within a single lifetime," Kendrick said unexpectedly one day, "how can we deny it to a slave? How can we tell him, 'You may not rise to be a master'?"

"And if rebirth does not occur within a single lifetime," said Fernao, "how can we be sure that we have judged rightly who are the masters? Is birth alone enough to tell us? Is it not better to leave men free to make their own mark in life, so that, if a slave is not a slave, he can show this to the world?"

"But if he is free, then he is no longer a slave," pointed out Kendrick.

Fernao was silent a moment, then said abruptly, "Pip was crying again today."

"In his sleep?" Kendrick leaned over to remove the shells from their joint dish of mussels.

"No. While he was serving as my piece. I am finding it harder and harder to show the slightest sign of hope in his face."

"Perhaps," said Kendrick, "you should release him from his work."

"Or perhaps I should simply release him."

They were both silent then. They knew what this conversation suggested. They had been creeping toward this point for months.

Fernao said finally, "The Council of High Masters will never make the decision together. One landstead must move on its own."

"Two," said Kendrick. As Fernao raised his eyebrow, Kendrick added, "I have been in correspondence with my sister. I told her that, for my son's sake, I cannot forsake my claim to our landstead's High Mastership. But I suggested to her that this might be a way in which we showed to the world that we wish to remain at peace with each other."

"A united emancipation?" Fernao's heartbeat sped up.

Kendrick nodded. "Two landsteads, working in union with each other. It will create ties between the First and Second Landsteads that may be valuable in the future. Valuable to the Second Landstead, for it shares borders with the First Landstead. And valuable to the First Landstead, for we should never have broken away from the Alliance of the Dozen Landsteads. Ties with the Second Landstead may help to heal that breach, if not in my lifetime, then in future years."

Fernao gave a small smile. "You still speak of the First Landstead as though it were yours."

Kendrick stared down at the empty shells. "And so it always will be, even if I never see it again." He looked up, his eyes sharp. "What will you do about Pip?"

Fernao let out his breath heavily. From where they sat, in the upper room of the castle tower, he could hear the calls of the workers on the dock. He still could remember the day he first saw Pip there: barely more than a young boy, but already shining with the beauty of youth's perfection. "He is the best piece I have ever owned. I cannot bear to let him go. And if I give him this, he may go."

"He will go anyway," Kendrick argued. "Youth does not last forever. Someday his body will no longer be fit to be your piece, and what will happen to him then? What skills will he possess, what promise will he have left? Let him go, Fernao, before the last of that hope fades from his eyes. Let them all go."

Fernao stared down at the shells, stripped clean of their meat. "Yes," he said softly. "We must."

o—o—o

He did not understand at first what it all meant, though rumors had been growing for weeks, and with it, the excitement and pride within the housestead.

There were grumblers, of course – folks who said that their High Master was betraying the legacy of Remigeus, who had created the rules for mastery and slavery which bound the Alliance of the Dozen Landsteads together. But other folks – particularly the slaves – said that Fernao was simply taking Remigeus's Sayings to their logical conclusion. If a slave could be free to love his master, he must also be free to leave his master and seek a better master to love.

So Pip understood that the time was swiftly approaching when all the slaves of the Second and First Landsteads would be free.

What he did not understand was what it would mean to him, his master's piece.

High Master Fernao did him the honor of handing him his emancipation document personally. "I hope," the High Master said, "that you will choose to remain my piece. You are the best piece I have ever had. But if you choose other work – or if you choose another master – then you do so with my thanks and my blessing."

Pip stared down at the wooden tablet, sculpted by High Master Fernao. Pip could not read the words, but he recognized the figures of Remigeus and his Master. Remigeus was kneeling to his Master, love shining upon his face as his Master removed his chains – a scene that had never occurred, but was now happening in housestead upon housestead, throughout two of the Dozen Landsteads.

"You have the choice," his master reminded him, but Pip could hear the longing in his voice. The longing for his piece.

Pip looked up then. He knew what he wished to say; it was simply difficult to say it.

o—o—o

"I don't wish to be your piece."

The words from Pip's lips fell upon his heart like a blow. Fernao had told himself beforehand that he would not protest if he heard those words, but he found himself saying, "You always seemed to enjoy the work. You were the only piece of mine who requested to watch the creation of the sculptures made from your casting."

"But not because I was the piece," Pip explained, his voice steady and straightforward. "That was terrible work, torturous. You should never have required any human being to do it."

Fernao flinched. "Then why did you stay?" he cried.

"Only so that I could learn how to be a master," Pip explained in that same patient voice. "I wanted to be a master sculptor, as you are. So I watched you, to learn how."

Fernao swallowed the painful hardness in his throat. He pointed to his own stool, beside the table where he kept the clay. "Show me what you learned."

He saw something flash in the young man's eyes then – something that had been diminishing for many months now. It was gone before he could be fully sure it was there; then Pip sat down and began to mold the clay.

He would never be a master, Fernao quickly recognized. Not like Fernao was – not one of the great masters of sculpting.

But if he was not a High Master of sculpting, still the long hours of watching and remembering had paid off: what Pip lacked in talent, he made up in sheer determination. He had watched and remembered and thought: he knew enough about molding the clay that, in time, he could learn to be a lesser master of sculpting.

A lesser master. It was such a small thing, compared to the shining perfection of Pip's role as a master's piece.

But it was not Fernao's choice, the High Master reminded himself. He had given Pip the choice, and the young man had made his choice. The only question that remained was whether Fernao would help him or hinder him. Perhaps, if Fernao told him he had no talent, Pip could be persuaded to remain a piece. . . .

"You do not grasp the fundamentals of mastery," Fernao told him. He did not wait to see the death of hope in Pip's face, but added swiftly, "You can be taught, however. I cannot promise that you will ever be able to create as I do, but, at the very least, you could serve as a greater sculptor's assistant. Would that be enough for you?"

He knew it was enough, from the moment he spoke, for young Pip lifted his arm. Not in love to his master – Fernao had sculpted that scene all wrong, it would seem. Instead, Pip reached out to grasp the lopsided creation he had just molded. "This," he said. "This might be mine? I could create others?"

"You could," Fernao reassured him. As he spoke he felt the pain in his throat again, but from a different cause.

He remembered this. He remembered it from his own childhood: the love of an artist for the act of creation. The love that allowed a creation to be what it must be, not what the artist thought it should be.

The willingness to let go of the creation, when the time came.

He opened the door of the room, as he had opened it so many times before, allowing his sculptures to be removed to their new homes. "When you have packed and are ready to leave the castle, I will recite to you a list of the men who can teach you what you need to know," he told Pip. "While I could teach you myself, I think it would be best if you learned from another man, so that you might see other styles than my own. I will recommend your work to whichever master sculptor you choose. Once your journeymanship is accomplished, you may return here and work as an assistant . . . or not. The choice is yours."

Still staring at his creation with wonder and love, Pip managed to spare a glance at his former master. "Thank you, sir. That is kind of you."

No words of undying gratitude. No promise to return. Simply the acknowledgment, made from one master to another, that the other master had done more than he might have done, if he were less good a man.

Fernao thought to himself – as he watched Pip run down the stairs, shouting the news to Drew – that Pip's remark to him was a fitting summation of what he had done. Not a mighty deed, but the right deed. He had done what needed to be done, and that was his reward.

But as he watched Pip begin to speak to Drew of his future, Fernao realized that he had received an unexpected gift beyond that. A paradox. For he had let Pip free, released the youth to go away, lost his master's piece.

And in doing so, he had given to his former slave a smile. A smile of joy and love and the certainty of receiving what he longed for.

Fernao had lost his piece. But in doing so, Fernao had given Pip his peace and had created a masterpiece.