Teitnl was absorbed in something, although I had no idea what it was. He had been in his study, sitting at his desk, staring into space. I wouldn’t have bothered him if he hadn’t been doing only that for the past three hours, but as it was, I needed to speak with him and couldn’t wait all day for his reverie to end. He fixed me with a sharp blue-eyed glance.
“Have you finished your books?”
“Yes, sir. That’s what I came to tell you.”
“I read quickly.”
“Fine. Write a summary of each one, five pages at least, and I prefer laborious detail.”
He sounded exasperated, but I asked anyway.
“I don’t see what any of these books have to do with illusion, sir.”
He stared at me.
“I mean… unicorn recognition? Crepes? Lirapipes?”
“They have everything to do with illusion, boy!” He slammed his open palm on the desk and spat with barely contained fury, “Especially the unicorns!”
His voice then fell back to a menacing whisper and he seethed: “Most especially the unicorns…”
Teitnl seemed to fall into some kind of angry, trembling memory and clenched his fists while his eyes shifted into a hundred-yard stare. I glanced around then tried again.
“Yes, sir, but unicorns… why exactly most especially the unicorns?”
He looked at me with pity, and then folded his hands with false serenity.
“Henry, you are aware of the nature of unicorns?”
“I know they have one horn, and I’ve never seen one, and most people have never seen one.”
“That’s because they’re almost extinct.”
“A shame, sir.”
“No, it’s not a shame! If you see one, Henry, kill it.”
“But I thought unicorns were-“
“Horrible, disgusting creatures?”
“Not exactly, sir…”
“Well, they are, and don’t allow them to fool you into thinking otherwise.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
He sighed, his shoulders slumping forward over his desk, his elbows propped upon its mahogany surface, and he took one lithe finger and brushed a stray lock of blue hair back into place. It was a graceful movement that somehow juxtaposed cathartically with his sharp demeanor.
“I suppose it is too much to hope for that you would obey my orders without question. However, since it is clear you plan on annoying me with your inquisitiveness until either you or I die, I will explain for both of our sakes.”
He stood in one swift, quiet movement and began to approach me.
“The art of illusion is one of observance. In order to wield it convincingly, you have to know everything about everything. You cannot create an illusion of a crepe to any degree of confidence if you don’t know what it looks like, tastes like, or smells like. Close your eyes.”
I obeyed him without question, hoping he noticed it this time. I heard him shift nearby, the sound of fabric moving.
“Now. Can you imagine this room we are standing in? Are you aware of the library? How many books line the shelves? How many pages are within each book, and how are they are bound? Think of the print within them, how the letters are formed, how the illustrations are styled. Imagine the hue of the ink or the color of the parchment it lies on. The weave of the covering, threads interwoven: how does it discolor at the edges from handling or wear? How do books smell? How does it feel to touch them? Open your eyes, Henry.”
I did, and looked up at him.
“You have to know all of that and more about every single thing you want to create as an illusion, and to be a good illusionist that means you have to know everything. You have to be aware of not only sight, but touch, smell, sound, and taste. You have to be a creature of experience. For most illusionists, who are elves, it is only a matter of time, but for you I can feel every second tick away not as grains of sand as it would for my past students, but like boulders, crashing upon the delicate structure of your human life.”
I tried to comprehend that particular metaphor, but failed. It didn’t matter, since there didn’t seem to be a test forthcoming on the subject. He went on.
“You have very little time, Henry, and I feel it more anxiously than you. You have to read everything in this library and more, once I can find it, as quickly as you can. Observe in laborious detail. Laborious detail, Henry.”
“I am too old for this, Henry.”
“I shouldn’t think you very old, sir.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Hazard a guess.”
“Um… I don’t know much about elves, but I would guess perhaps two hundred?”
Teitnl laughed, which was odd because he never laughed, although I supposed laughing at the expense of someone else’s ignorance fit nicely on his list of things in which to take pleasure. I felt a flush rise in my face. He sat back down at his desk as his mirth subsided.
“Oh, no, Henry. I am nearly a thousand years old.” He looked up at me with a glint in his eye, perhaps watching for my reaction, which was probably the reaction he expected. I couldn’t imagine living for a thousand years. I wondered why it had made him so crotchety. “It’s been at least two hundred years since I’ve taken an apprentice.”
“Why so long?”
“Because apprentices are nothing but a bother and cause inordinate amounts of trouble!” he snapped.
“Besides…” he said, casting his eyes on the papers on his desk. “They always disappoint me.”
I shifted my weight as I stood, feeling particularly useless, since I was not only ignorant, but also substandard due to being human. Once again I did not know why he would take me as an apprentice, but it made something in me spark and rise, as if I wanted badly to show him that someone could succeed, regardless of the illusionist’s pessimism, and since I only had power over myself, it would have to be me.
“Sir,” I said, and he glanced at me. “I’ll be writing those papers, now.”
“Fine,” he replied, and shooed me off with a hand.
Over the next months I read as quickly as I could, absorbing every detail about everything around me. Teitnl didn’t seem exactly pleased about my progress, because nothing ever pleases Teitnl. However, he didn’t complain, and that spoke volumes. He began to teach me basic illusion theory as a reward, and my few modest tricks gave me a tremendous amount of joy.
Meanwhile, I had become friends with Harriet, and not without much effort on my part. There were weeks before she would scarcely look at me when we spoke, but I overcame her by behaving as silly as possible. To make her laugh out loud became my goal, one that I worked towards tirelessly. The day I achieved it was more rewarding than I had ever imagined, and the ringing sound of her laughter was like a song that recorded itself into my mind. I would never forget it.
Once I had made her laugh, it was all downhill from there, for once you’ve laughed helplessly in front of someone, there isn’t much more to be shy about. We became good friends, and in our idle hours (there weren’t many), we often played and roamed around the estate, being halfway between children and adults, ourselves.
“How old were you when you came here?” I asked her one day, as we were sitting on the kitchen table. Olga was doing something food-related nearby, but all I could tell was it was causing copious amounts of flour to be scattered around the kitchen. Harriet was in her service uniform, as she always was, swinging her legs back and forth, and hunched a little as she sat on the hard wood. I was hunched beside her, eating a carrot, and wearing the silver-gray coat that was my favorite.
“Fourteen,” she said. “Old enough for my parents to know I was hopeless.”
“They didn’t think that!” yelled Olga from the other side of the kitchen, in the midst of a cloud of flour. Harriet tossed in my direction the smile she reserved for me, the one that said we were both of an age and no one could understand us like we could.
“What do you miss the most about your old life?” I asked.
“Hmn…” she thought. “I had more free time. And my cat.”
“You should have brought your cat.”
“Master Teitnl would never allow it.”
“But… your cat!” I protested. She laughed quietly at me. “Well, I just think he should allow you that.”
“What do you miss most, Henry?”
I thought about that.
“Very little. I was a serf, you know. Very dirty work.”
“I imagine so.”
“I miss Cherry a lot.”
“Who is that?”
“Oh…” I said. “I suppose she and I are engaged.”
“To be married?”
“You’re engaged to be married?” asked Olga from far away, reminding us it wasn’t merely our conversation.
“Yes, but, I don’t think we’ll ever be married, now.”
“Oh, that’s so tragic!” cried Harriet. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you have so much tragedy in your life?”
“Well, it’s not that tragic.”
“Of course it is. Teitnl won’t let you marry her?”
“It’s… complicated. Besides, I’m too young to be married yet, aren’t I?”
“When were you going to marry her?”
“Maybe next year,” I said, wondering if that was true, because it seemed so soon.
“How long have you been engaged?”
“Most of our lives, really.”
Harriet blinked at me. “An arranged marriage?”
“Not really. Well, maybe. Sort of.”
Harriet looked confused, and Olga had stopped her flurry of flour motion in order to better eavesdrop.
“We just always knew we would be married someday.”
I realized that was a terrible explanation of whatever it was that was between Cherry and I, or perhaps was once between us and no longer existed. It made me want to know, though, if it did still exist, not because I wanted to marry her, although perhaps I did, but because I wanted to know if she still cared for me at all, or if she thought I was demon-spawn. Part of me sunk with the idea that perhaps I would return to her to find she’d married Resh.
“You were happy with that?”
“Not deliriously so, but I wasn’t unhappy with it, either. She’s a cheerful girl.”
“Oh,” said Harriet, who withdrew, growing thoughtful in aspect.
“You need closure!” yelled Olga from the other side. She began beating bread dough in a rapid, violent pattern.
“Closure?” I asked.
“Yes, Henry,” said Harriet’s quiet voice. “That’s when you finish something that has been left open-ended.”
It sounded girly to me.
“I suppose,” I said, for lack of anything better to say.
“Maybe you should go talk to her,” said Harriet.
“Harriet! Don’t cause trouble!” came Olga’s voice from elsewhere.
I glanced over my shoulder towards Olga’s voice, then leaned close to Harriet and whispered, “How can she hear every word we say from all the way over there?”
Harriet glanced at me with a shy smile and whispered back, “Let’s go hide.”
We ran from the kitchen, ignoring the protests of Olga, and outside, past Ned and his trimming shears, down the lawn to the river. Beside the river was a great tree, and this we climbed, breathless, until we were as high as we dared to go in tandem. It was delightful for us just because it felt like we were doing something wrong and clandestine even though we weren’t, and as I perched on my branch, she arranged her skirts modestly around hers. It didn’t matter anyway, because from what I could tell, she wore so many articles of clothing beneath her skirts she could forgo the skirts altogether and still be modest as a nun. Women, though, were always mysterious.
“What if you went to see her?” asked Harriet, her breath short from our sprint to freedom.
“I would be killed,” I replied, knowing the villagers would kill me on sight, possibly not even waiting for the stake.
“They think I’m the illusionist.”
Harriet laughed. “You? But how could they think that?”
“Serfs are very superstitious.”
“Does Cherry think that too?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since the accusation.”
We fell into separate reveries.
“You know,” said Harriet at last. “You are learning illusion… maybe Teitnl could teach you to be invisible. Then you could see her.”
“Harriet, you’re crazy.”
She laughed at me and I saw that her smile was brilliant and she was not at all plain.
“Hey!” came a voice from down below. The tree began to tremor with the pressure of someone new climbing it, and then at last Junior’s flaxen head came into view. “What are you two doing up here?”
“Er…” said I.
“Talking,” said Harriet with dignity.
“Well, Gramp made me come all the way down here to find out,” Junior grumbled. “I don’t want to fish you two out of this tree, either, so just come down and let me get on with my work.”
“Fine, but you have to turn around while I descend,” said Harriet, like a lady.
At the base of the tree, after Harriet’s descent, I waved to Junior and left to return to my studies, but not before overhearing Junior fall in with Harriet and ask what she saw in me.