The next morning when I awoke it was raining outside. The rain pattered on the wood shingles of the roof in a random, soothing pattern and I could not recall waking with more pleasure and comfort. Well, except for the time within the illusion, but this was real. Reality made it so much better. A bird slammed into the windowpane, and I jumped out of bed.
My cottage had three rooms, and this one was for sleeping. The bed was large for one person, full of down feathers and pleasant, being covered with a quilt. There was also a small table for a lamp and washbasin, a wardrobe, a small fireplace, a nook with a window, and a mirror. I strode out the door and into the second of the three rooms, which was a curious room of the like I’d never imagined before. Within it there was a very large basin, and a pump above it for filling it with water. From my illusions I gathered Teitnl was a man who valued bathing, and so that’s what I did, although it was cold.
Within my wardrobe were several sets of clothing, and I chose one like the first in my illusions, with a light gray coat that fastened at the side of my neck. I made sure to take less time being enamored with myself in the mirror, and besides, the effect was starting to wear off anyway. It didn’t take long before I began to notice flaws.
Outside in the third, larger room, there was a small living area consisting of two comfortable chairs and a small table, a table with a few wooden stools for eating, and a small stove and larder with another pump for water into a basin. I took a heel of bread from the larder, stuffed the end of it in my mouth, and opened the door to the rain.
Above me the rain splattered against leaves, gathered across branches, dripped, combined, and fell in large drops within the copse. I closed the door and stepped into it, feeling the occasional large drip strike my scalp, wet and strange, until I emerged into the rain proper where it soaked me in a normal way. I ran to the estate and beat the door with a rapid knock. I was just finishing the heel of bread when Teitnl opened the door.
“Good morning, sir,” I chirped with a smile.
Teitnl rolled his eyes and bid me come inside.
It was warm and how I remembered it from my previous illusion. The main entryway was accessed by the front door, a large, winding staircase with a mahogany banister, or a wide arch into the hallway. There was a carpet on the floor, patterned blue and gold, and a plethora of mirrors on the walls. It smelled like bread and I wondered if Teitnl had been baking.
“I suppose I should introduce you to the rest of the staff.”
“There’s a staff?”
“Of course there is!” he snapped, as if that was the stupidest thing in the world to ask. He began walking through the archway and I followed until we came to an open door leading into the kitchen. Inside there was a broad older woman with her hair pulled severely back chopping carrots with gusto.
“This is Olga,” he said, his hand indicating the old woman. She looked up briefly, but continued to chop, only regarding me in passing.
“Oh, ye got a boy fer somethin’, Master Teitnl?”
He ignored her question.
“Gather the rest of the staff and come to the study.”
He turned on his heel and I saw Olga roll her eyes behind his back. I followed him into the hallway, until we reached the study. It was a room full of books, like a library, as well as stacks of parchments, a large desk, quills, a blackboard with chalk, and numerous strange instruments fashioned for unknown purposes.
“This is where I do my research,” he said. “And write. I write a lot. I require that I am not disturbed while writing. Don’t touch anything. Especially not that. You can read some of the books, but not until I tell you which ones are appropriate for you. Stop looking at that.”
“Here they are.”
The staff filed in, although there were only four of them. There was Olga, a plain girl about my age with a service uniform and a feather duster, a young man a few years my senior wearing a dull look, and a withered old man sharing the same dull look as the young man beside him. Teitnl gestured to each in turn and gave a brief introduction.
“Henry, Olga does the cooking and oversees the household, including yours. You are welcome to take your meals here, or make them yourself in your cottage.”
Olga glanced at me and shrugged.
“Harriet is Olga’s niece and does whatever she tells her to do. Mostly cleaning.”
She was a shy girl with dark hair pulled back not quite as severely as her aunt, or as I suspected, great aunt. Her skin had a tinge of olive to it, and I barely caught that her eyes were hazel as she would only bring her eyes up to glance at me once.
She nodded, eyes on the floor and a blush in her cheeks.
“Enough flirting!” snapped Teitnl, although I hadn’t been aware there was anything remotely resembling flirting going on between this plain girl and I. He moved on to the next person in line, the young man, whose sandy hair was straight and somewhat messy. He was taller than I, with a thin frame and an angle to his shoulders that gave the appearance of never standing straight. “This is Junior. Odd jobs and gardening.”
“Junior,” I greeted, with a nod. Junior stared at me.
“And Ned, Junior’s grandfather. Maintenance and overseer of the gardens.”
Teitnl gestured to the old man who looked to be a tired, cranky fellow. His skin looked like tree bark, and his nearly white beard reached the center of his chest. He and Junior both wore serviceable clothes for gardening, and had mud on their boots. I wondered if Harriet would have to spend the morning cleaning up after them coming into the house.
“Hello, Ned,” I said.
Ned grunted. They were all casting furtive and suspicious looks in my direction, as if I were an impostor present with no explanation.
“Henry is to be my apprentice,” announced Teitnl.
Everyone stared at him, including myself. I didn’t recall being asked if I wanted to be his apprentice, although of course I did, but it still would have been nice to be asked beforehand.
“Master Teitnl! You’ve never taken an apprentice,” said Olga, her eyes wide, mirroring the eyes of her niece beside her.
“Yes, I have,” he replied, not without defense. “It’s just been a long time. Long before you were born.”
“But sir,” continued Olga. “Pardon my saying so, but is that wise, considering your … ah…”
“Considering my what!” he demanded of Olga.
“Temperament,” said Ned, staring at nothing.
“Do I pay you to question me?” asked Teitnl, irritability making the furrow in his brow become a crevasse. “Go, back to work all of you! Stop drooling, Junior. Harriet, clean up this mud.”
“Yes, m’lord,” said Harriet’s soft voice, almost inaudible.
They all shuffled out, leaving Teitnl and I alone. I was almost afraid to ask, but I asked anyway.
“Since when did I become your apprentice?”
“Since just now.”
I looked around.
“What do I do?”
He glanced over me as if he wasn’t quite sure himself, and then turned and strode to several of shelves packed with books. His voice was clear as he searched through the contents of the shelves.
“You are my apprentice on a trial basis,” he began. “As it is, I only suspect you are gifted. Once I know for sure, that will dictate whether or not your apprenticeship becomes a reality.”
“As your apprentice…” I ventured. “Does that mean I would become as powerful as you someday?”
He had several books in his arms as he glanced over at me, and then crossed the room until he was standing near me.
“I don’t know…” he said, and he got a troubled look on his face as he said: “You’re human.”
“Illusion is a realm of magic in which humans have never possessed talent.”
“Does that mean we can’t?”
“No,” he replied. “But your short life span is a severe hindrance on how long you can build your knowledge and mastery.”
“Then why bother teaching me at all?” I asked, then added not without sarcasm: “Since I’m only going to croak in a few years anyway.”
“Because the possibility that you are a rare talent in the rough is too tempting to pass up.”
“Perhaps you can illusion up a way for me to live longer.”
“’Illusion up’?” His expression was dry, but then the pinch at his brow released for a moment and he looked away, his mind captured by something. “I have been doing research on that very subject, Henry.”
“Making me live longer?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, Henry! Life and death, and the illusion between. That’s for another day, now take these books and don’t talk to me again until you’ve read them.”
He handed me the books, grabbed a sheaf of papers and left, creating a lemon-scented breeze. I was considering sitting in a chair nearby when Harriet entered with a bucket of water. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, mumbled some sort of apology, and began to leave.
“Wait, you don’t have to leave,” I called out, and she stopped.
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Why are you calling me ‘sir’?” I asked her, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little at the idea.
“Because you are Master Teitnl’s apprentice.”
“Well, then, since I have so much power, I demand you call me ‘Henry’.”
She hazarded a small smile, but hardly looked at me.
“Very well, Henry.”
She moved to where the muddy footprints of Junior and Ned were on the rug and knelt beside it, and while seeming very aware of my attention on her, began to scrub it clean. Instead of assailing her with further discomfort, I sat down in the nearby chair and looked through the pile of books the illusionist had given me. Crepe Cooking For Knaves. How To Spot a Unicorn. The Frozen North: Why It’s Impassable. I stared at the books in disbelief.
“’Lirapipes: Avant-Garde or Old Hat’? What is this?” I asked out loud. “None of this has anything to do with illusion!”
“The master will have things his way, Henry,” was Harriet’s listless, scrubbing reply.
“But why would he give me these books?”
“Why does Master Teitnl do anything?”
I regarded Harriet. She was plain but not unattractive, and would soon be of marrying age, and so I wondered why she would be here with her great aunt, cleaning up after Teitnl when she could be somewhere else making a proper life of it. She certainly didn’t look pleased to be where she was, doing what she was doing.
“How did you come into the service of Teitnl?”
“Members of my family have been in the service of Master Teitnl for generations.”
I considered that, knowing all of her family wasn’t in the service of Teitnl, only a few. Well, two, presently: her great aunt, who was old and up for this sort of seclusion, and Harriet, who I was beginning to think shouldn’t be here at all.
“Yes, but why you?”
She had meanwhile finished cleaning the floor and rose with the bucket, taking her time in replying to my question, as if she didn’t know how she wished to answer. I leaned back in my chair as if that would make me less imposing and pulled the books to my chest, but it didn’t help; she was still shy.
“Henry,” she said at last, her voice so vulnerable I wanted at once to cradle it in my cupped hands. “I am plain and shy. My parents knew of all of their daughters, I was the least likely to marry, and so they offered it to me. Here I am. I don’t mind it. I like being with Aunt Olga, and there are interesting things to see. The grounds are beautiful, too. The work isn’t hard. At least I have something to do. I’m going in the other room. Goodbye, Henry.”
She left with scant pomp and I pondered my books, wondering which I should read first and also wondering how to pull Harriet from her shell.