For how long I yelled, I don’t know, but I was furious beyond my ability to articulate. Eventually, being as thirsty as I was, yelling more painful than it was cathartic and I stopped, reduced to only lying on my side and waiting for this misery to end. I didn’t want to sleep, not anymore, because if I slept it seemed more likely I would awake with the illusionist, which only meant more false hope followed by more misery. I would rather die awake, if one can do such a thing. I was determined to make a good try at it.
I was watching ants cross the dirt in front of me. A few of them carried crumbs, but most had nothing, and I wondered what they thought they were doing, not contributing like they were when I heard the soft crunch of footsteps on the ground behind me. Hands touched, and then manipulated the rope that bound my wrists, and it hurt while being a relief to have my prison removed. As the ropes were pulled away from my wrists, they ached, being rubbed raw and, as I would soon see as I pulled my hands into view of my eyes, smeared with my blood. My arms groaned and seared against being moved forward after being forced back for so long, and as I bent my arm to grasp the ground in front of me, I closed my eyes and, to my detriment, whimpered for the pain.
The hands were on my ankles, now, one resting lightly on my calf and the other working at the knot just below it. I balled my fists, then released them, testing for strength, for pain, and waiting for the immense cramp to leave that was currently in my shoulder. Only after the sharp pain had begun to subside did I think to look at who was releasing me.
It was the illusionist. At that moment I honestly wished it were anyone but him. I groaned and hid my face between my aching arm and the ground, hoping I would somehow die within the next minute or so.
“What,” I mumbled from under my arm.
“This is real,” he said, continuing to work on the rope, which had an especially stubborn knot as I knew, having become extremely familiar with it over the past night and day and night. I turned, allowing my shoulder blades to roll, one after another, onto the ground, and looked up at him, seeing him for the first time that night. It was true that something was different about him. He was essentially the same, except something about him was more real. His hair, still deep blue, was pulled back, but not with absolute perfection as it would have been before. A strand fell forward, brushing the lapel of his coat and I saw it fringe at the end of the lock into individual strands. His face was still beauty and sinew, but the pinch in his expression caused a furrow between his brows, his concentration on the rope twisted his thin mouth with a touch of the asymmetrical, and a light sheen of sweat showed on his temple. All of this made him less perfect, yet humanized him somehow, as if through imperfection he gained something else, something intangible, but more real. It was like looking at a very good painting of a frog, and then looking at a real one close, seeing every varied color upon its skin and every concave and convex of its form in high detail. The two just can’t compare, and I knew for a surety that this was indeed real. So, as he finally undid the rope around my ankles, I began to wonder why he had come out for me.
I merely laid there as he looked over the whole of me and I’m not sure what crossed over his face, but it seemed to involve disgust, pity, guilt, and calculation. He sat back on his heels at last and regarded me.
“Can you stand?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can try.”
He stood and held out a hand, which I took and used to hoist myself to my feet. My legs resisted after having been forced together and rendered mostly unusable for so long, but by and by, with the help of Teitnl, I was able to walk, and after a time, unassisted.
“You need water,” he said.
“Quite,” I replied.
He peered at me then, measuring something in his mind, then exhaled.
“But I was just-“
I sat down with a thump. He sat down before me, crossing his legs beneath him, as he was quite agile. For a long moment his eyes were cast down and his brow pinched, but then he looked up at me, resolved to continue with whatever he was considering.
“There is something I want to tell you, but if I tell you, you will have to stay.”
I thought about that.
“Stay here,” he clarified. “And serve me.”
“As a courier?”
“What else? And for how long?”
“I’m not certain, but I think you might be gifted.”
I blinked at him.
“And regarding how long, I’m not certain about that, either.”
He leaned forward.
“You’ve never felt as if you belonged with the peasants,” he told me.
I stared at him, both excited for being understood and violated for being known. There was even some guilt for betraying my old chums. Who tried to burn me at the stake. I had to make sure not to forget that part.
“No… I haven’t.”
He straightened, no longer leaning towards me, and tilted his head to a small degree.
“So, serve me.”
“But I don’t really like you.”
“No one does,” he replied, and didn’t seem to care. “That’s not an intelligent thing to tell your future master, however.”
“Is it decided then?”
“If you’ll promise to stay until I say you can leave.”
“Do you have a library?”
“Do any of the books explode?”
“Can I read them?”
“Some of them.”
“Will you make me deliver to Lord Orthridge?”
“Why would you even correspond with such a horrible person? He tried to kill you!”
“You hardly know me, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” I admitted, knowing full well I hardly knew anything about this illusionist that I was going to come into the service of within moments, as the world seemed to have conspired together to make this my only course.
“Don’t ask questions about things you hardly understand.”
“How will I ever learn if I don’t ask questions?” I demanded, outraged, really, at the idea of never asking questions. What did he want me to ask questions about, things I did understand? His demands, as I would soon learn, were sometimes senseless and changed with his whims. He shifted as he sat.
“Fine, ask questions, but don’t be annoying about it.”
“I’ll… try,” I replied, feeling confused.
“And regarding Lord Orthridge,” he said. “He has a very unusual sense of humor.”
“Who is he?”
“In time I’ll tell you. For now, we have more pressing matters.” He fixed me with his eyes and asked me again: “Will you serve me?”
“And will you stay until I tell you to leave?”
“I’ve no where else to go, so yes.”
“I need loyalty. Can you be a loyal fellow?”
“That isn’t very convincing!”
“You left me to die in the marsh!”
“You’re not dead, are you?”
“Almost, then! Almost!”
“Fine! Moving on!” he huffed, and then glanced around him. “What I’m about to show you can never be revealed.”
He looked at me for confirmation that I knew the gravity of whatever subject he was about to pursue with me. I tried to look grave. He lifted his chin, leaned back, and then raised his left hand. His hand was beautiful, and I was distracted by it, unable to look anywhere else. His fingers were long and lithe, and though I knew he was looking at me, I couldn’t pull my eyes from his hand. His hand drifted to my face, and his fingertips brushed once across my forehead and temples until they met each other at the center of my brow. He pulled his hand back, fingertips and thumb touching as if pulling a fine net from my face, and as he pulled, everything around us began to change. It was night, but even in the night I could see it was green, covered in trees, and there was the sound of water and nightingales echoing around. The sky was clear and full of starlight, and the moon shone silvery upon us. The tower was gone, and in its place was the estate I saw near the river, and I knew that’s where we were, but I didn’t know how it could be.
I opened my mouth to speak, but he held up a hand.
“Go drink, there’s a stream over there.”
He pointed to where the horrible toad was once croaking, but now the most wonderful sound of a babbling brook had replaced it. I fled to the stream and doused myself in it, taking great gulps of marvelously sweet water and rinsing the dust from my face, hands, and anywhere else I could. With work the caked blood came off of my hands and wrists, and even though my wrists were raw and sore, the cool water of the stream lessened any pain I might have felt.
In time I went back to Teitnl, who was still sitting in the same place, but it had become a small meadow of green grass next to a few blooming rosebushes. I was shivering, as I was mostly wet, but felt wonderful. I sat beside him, and he leaned back.
“Please don’t drip on me,” he sneered.
I moved back a bit, but it hardly dimmed my enthusiasm.
“How is this possible? Where are we?”
“We are where we were,” he said. “This is the same place.”
“And over there,” he said, pointing to a group of rolling green hills to the west. “Is where you grew up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In a nutshell,” he said. “If a person finds an especially pleasant spot of land, he doesn’t want everyone moving in and crowding it up, does he?”
“No… I guess not…”
“And so if he can make it seem undesirable to everyone else, he won’t have that problem, right?”
“Oh,” I said, logic dawning on me. “Oh!”
I pointed at him. “You did this! You made it look horrible!”
“It’s kind of humorous how your village doesn’t realize yams would never grow so well in that sort of landscape.”
“Never crossed my mind.”
“And if it never crossed your mind, I can be sure it will never cross anyone else’s,” he said.
I was riveted and thinking about the tremendous potential of my master.
“You’re probably hungry,” he said, rising, and suddenly appearing bored. I stood, too. “Follow me.”
He turned and began walking around the edge of the estate, past more fragrant rose bushes. I followed him, feeling clumsy, as I was still out of sorts from my bondage and meanwhile trying to take in every leaf and blade of grass around me. We passed the edge of the estate and came to a copse of full, mature trees in which there was a small cottage made of stone and wood. He took a lantern off a hook on the outside, lit it, and then opened the creaking door of the cottage. He stood to the side, handing me the lantern.
“Here is where you will reside.”
“Oh,” I said. “This is for me?”
“Well, no, it’s not yours,” he replied, his voice irritable. “This is where you will reside.”
He rolled his eyes and left me there, muttering about having to repeat himself. It was dark, and due to the lantern I could only see that which was in a small circle around me. With the illusionist gone, I found my hunger and exhaustion return with fervor, demanding satiation of one and then the other, and so I did what any sixteen year old boy would do in this situation: I went inside and raided the larder.