THE HOUSE OF ILLUSIONISTS
Boys always stay up later than they’re told, of course. I walk past their rooms and hear their whispered voices. If I open a door and walk in, I’ll see their shadowed bodies huddled together, and catch the spark and glow of illusions in the dark. If I focus, I might see a pirate ship sailing toward the moon, a silver tree with shining leaves that chime like bells in the wind, or a flight of dragons across a stormy sea. My mouth might water at the scent of a rich stew or meat pie, crisp and bubbling from a non-existent oven. I’ve told the students so many times that food illusions only leave you hungrier, but some never learn. It’s been weeks since any of us have tasted meat.
I don’t step into any of their rooms. I walk past toward my own room at the end of the hall. Above me, Nala might be making her own round of the girls’ hall. Or she’s asleep with her daughter, or burning precious lamp oil as she pores over a book. So often these days, Nala and I slip past one another like ghosts.
If I climb to the roof of this house, I might see lights high in the hills surrounding the city. The flare of artillery fire. If I could climb higher—if I were to take the steps to the top floor of the Great Library or the Academy’s bell tower—I would be able to see over the city’s western walls to the plain directly below. I might see the army camped outside our walls, the glow of enemy campfires. Here and there, spots of light burning in the night.
Should we leave? This is what we murmured in teahouses during the months that Gan’s army advanced. We asked it of each other over private dinners, over strolls in the park, and in private rooms. To ask the question too loudly, too openly, might be seen as an expression of faithlessness in the Emperor’s might. For Academy scholars and staff, there were consequences to leaving. There were consequences for anyone. And how many of us had the means, and a place, to flee toward?
All roads held danger. And then the available paths narrowed until there were none left at all. The city gates are closed. No one enters or leaves without Imperial permission. Corpses hanging from the trees on Traitors’ Lane discourage those who would try.
Nala and I never spoke of leaving. I don’t know if she even thought of it. And what would we have done with our students, the youngest of the Academy illusionists? These boys and girls from all over the Empire, from distant towns and provinces? The students staying in this house have no family in the city and no way to get home. Some may no longer have a home. Leth and Kiset weep over accounts of pillage in the North, the terrifying rumors of massacre and worse. Neither have heard from their families.
We have little news from outside the city. The papers print only what the Palace wants. We are trapped behind our walls.
A dull roar of artillery like distant thunder. The sound of Gan’s rockets exploding against and over the walls.
“Focus,” I tell my students.
We are recreating The Hunt in the Grove. The famous scene where Prince Kithwa pursues the Fire Bird through a forest of silver birch trees. Wounded in one wing, the bird skims over the trees, landing frequently among the silver branches. The Prince whistles. He hopes to ensnare the bird with the Four Note Song which the old Hermit of Thorn Mountain has taught him.
Elis, my most senior student, directs the scene. Under her lead, the students weave together strands of light and sound, touch and smell. Wind in the trees. A breeze across the face. The Prince’s whistled notes, piercing, and the flash of red and gold as the bird slips above. . .
A thunderclap splits the scene. The ground shakes—the real ground beneath our feet—and the illusion is ripped, shredded. We’re all thrown out of the vision. Window panes in the classroom are rattling. We stare at one another and our true surroundings; I see Elis’ eyes wide, her mouth open. Our hearts thudding hard.
A rocket fallen somewhere in the outer districts. Something closer and louder than ever before.
But nothing in immediate sight is burning. The city has not fallen; no enemy hordes fill the streets. Outside the windows, a clear blue day.
A few moments of shaky conversation, reassurances. One of the boys cracks a bad joke; there’s laughter.
“Master Taz?” Elis asks, and I nod. She retraces the illusion’s outlines, and I help. The grove returns. We begin again.
What is Gan’s army, that it can afford to shoot so many rockets over our walls, merely to terrorize the citizens within? What are the Haaks, these people north of the plains, with their weapons that can reach so far? They wield metal tubes that shoot white flame, and hand-held cannons that fire projectiles more accurately than anything we have.
I tell my students what we’ve all been told: that Gan’s rockets can’t reach us here in the Academy district, that we’re too far back from the western walls. That our stone walls have stood 500 years, and that even the greatest of the Haaks’ siege-cannons will not bring them down. But I don’t know this. I know nothing of what they are capable of.
Aki would have known. He studied these matters; he left us to develop weapons of our own for the Empire. He loved the illusion arts, but his true gift was in the physical and engineering sciences.
But Aki’s not here. Nala still wears a widow’s gray robes of mourning. But she doesn’t speak much of him anymore. When she’s not teaching or caring for her daughter, she’s withdrawn into her books and papers, studying furiously and crafting illusions alone.
A moment today: the house quiet, the students gone across campus for their lessons in other fields—history at this hour, I think, or perhaps rhetoric. Sunlight in the parlor. Through the windows, a view of the green hills. I stand at the windows, and Nala steps up beside me. I see her thin, strained face; her dark curling hair spilling out from her gray hood. She looks past me to the world outside, but she slips her hand into mine. I squeeze her hand back gently. We don’t say anything. We just stand there, looking out at the hills.
It’s spring. The scent of lilacs in the air when I walk out the door. Everything blooming or dressed in new green.
And in any other year, people would be flocking to the hills. Countless little streams have been loosed from winter: they’re rushing downward, foaming over rocks, making a constant light music. The purple crocuses are blooming, along with primroses, violets, the rare golden orchid, and flowers whose names I never learned. People should be hiring out carriages for the spring blossom-viewing parties. Servants should be packing baskets of food: hard-boiled eggs, meat or cheese pies, breads stuffed with roast pork or sweet jam, and steamed cakes light as clouds.
Last year Nala and I took a class of students into the hills to celebrate spring. Everyone had new clothes for the occasion; the girls wore red ribbons in their hair. Aki was there. He held his daughter’s hand. Little Migu wanted to stop at every flower, each new bird or plant or beetle: “Look, look!” she kept saying. Our students went ahead, and I lingered behind with Nala and Aki and their daughter, we adults speaking easily of art and history as we walked. We talked of politics and music and weather, of nothing and everything, while light shone through the tender green leaves. The trees thinned; we came to a meadow of bright crocuses, and the sky overhead was a river of light.
“I want to see Lahar and Kithwa,” Migu says.
We’re gathered in the parlor at the end of day, trying to distract ourselves from worry and hunger. The porridge and bread at dinner were bland, but we all would have welcomed more. Rations for the Academy kitchens are tightening.
Smiles appear at Migu’s request. She always wants to see the Cycle of Lahar and Kithwa. At six, she’s only starting to learn it. Spring is the season for these tales; all around the city, selections from the cycle are performed. The crowning piece is performed each year before the Emperor himself during the Festival of Reunion, by the finest of the Academy’s illusionists.
We all know these pieces; the students have been practicing portions of them daily for weeks. But no one can begrudge Migu for wanting to see one again.
Nala leads the illusion. It’s only in the past few months that she’s started performing for us again. She can’t resist her daughter’s pleas.
A clear, cool night opens around us. A crescent moon hangs in the sky. There’s laughter and the sound of lute music. A brightly lit pavilion. A lake, and lanterns in the trees, and a garden of peonies. . .
A sudden fall of moonlight, like snow, to the earth. From the moonbeams step four beautiful women. It’s Lahar Star-Maiden and her sisters. They laugh mischievously, for they’ve come from Heaven in disguise to enjoy this evening party thrown by a mortal king. As they make their way to the lit pavilion, moonlight glints off their white gowns and the white jewels in their hair. Unknown to them, Prince Kithwa and his friend have also stolen secretly into this party. Even now, Kithwa strums a golden lute in the pavilion. Lahar and Kithwa will meet there, and fall in love over a game of poems. . .
The students, tired after a day of lessons, drift in and out of support roles in the illusion; there’s a loose, improvisatory feel to the piece. Nothing like the structured, high level of an official performance. But even with this spare support, Nala creates magic. The purity of the visuals, the gleam of light on the lake. . . And I’m there to reinforce her, to strengthen the visuals and interweave sound, the two of us stepping together in a dance we know well.
It’s just Nala and me, and fifteen junior students, the youngest of the Academy illusionists. One six-year old child who adds her own hesitant strength. But together, we can create something beautiful.
I feel Migu withdrawing and just watching the illusion now, experiencing it. I peek out and see her eyes shining, face rapt.
I melt back into the moonlit garden. Together, for this hour, we escape.
“Your illusions are stupid,” my father always told me. I remember the sneer in his voice, on his face. “When will you care about what’s real?”
It’s impossible to deny reality for long. Yet we all try; we’re all pretending. Teahouses in the city stay open, even though there are no cakes or pastries to serve with the watered-down tea. Shop merchants open their stalls at market, even when their shelves are nearly bare. The scholars of the Academy are still teaching, researching, writing dissertations and articles in their respective fields. Junior students study as though end-of-term exams will still take place. We all act as though the war is but a temporary thing.
One gate to the city remains open to the world. Gan’s army has taken the riverbank and western hills, but our forces still control the northern hills and roads and access to the North Gate. Through that single gate comes all the food and supplies we have.
The Emperor proclaims that the Festival of Reunion will take place this spring as always. He predicts that it will be the greatest celebration of his reign. The best artists of the Academy practice their dances, musical pieces, and illusions.
The students of this Academy House are too young to perform for the Emperor. But we study these pieces, so that they may properly appreciate the performances. I run the students through standard practice pieces; I try to instill some sense of discipline and care. When Leth breaks down, crying, during a demanding lesson, I quietly let her leave. When other students lose a thread—when they drift off, distracted—I gently try to guide them back.
We’re almost used to the sound of cannon-fire and distant blasts.
Our youngest boy, Chiho, joins with Migu in making food illusions after dinner. Kiset snaps at them for it; Migu cries, and Chiho turns red with anger. Nala is in the room, and she scoops Migu into her lap. Quickly, Nala sets an illusion of golden frogs hopping across the floor, tall blue hats on their heads and diamond scepters held in their mouths. Migu’s tears turn to laughter. Elis jumps in; the frogs grow wings and fly about the room, croaking. . .
We laugh until we’re sick. We laugh and laugh, until we cry.
Afterward, I lecture Chiho again about the proper use of illusions. Not even the most skilled artist can make an illusion real. Even the most sumptuous and detailed of illusory feasts will never fill your belly. I remind him to set a good example for Migu. The people of this house and city are hungry. Using illusions to try to sate real needs is dangerous.
I don’t tell him of the consequences I’ve seen.
A lull in the fighting. We tell each other that the Haaks are running out of ammunition. We say that they, too, are getting hungry and tired. We say that help will come soon from the eastern provinces, that the Haaks’ supply lines are under attack, that our allies will soon ride to our aid.
Warming days and lingering twilights. I see the first butterflies in the kitchen garden. Nala’s found something in the notebooks she’s studying. I see it in her eyes—some connection, some discovery that she’s made. She’s turning something over in her head. She begins to meet me more regularly for tea in the parlor between classes. We talk at night, after the students and Migu are in bed.
We talk about the war and the future. We talk about immediate things—the price of grain at the market, a merchant who is rumored to be hoarding a stash of fine orchid tea. The Emperor’s latest mad proclamation. How to keep two of our quarreling students from tearing each other apart.
But more often she wants to talk about philosophical questions. The history and theory of our craft. The spark of old arguments is revived; as we debate, her face and voice grow animated and warm. We find ourselves slipping back to an earlier time, before war and any hint of political strife, when staying up late and discussing the performance notes of an obscure but beautiful illusion-piece seemed the most important thing in the world.
“Do you remember the way we used to argue in Master Kha’s class?” she interrupts me one night, smiling.
I laugh, for how could I forget?
“Did you ever believe it?” And her eyes are intense now, no longer laughing. “The Marilaird Heresy?”
I look away. There’s pain in that phrase. But for a moment, I also feel the lightness of those student days. That rush of excitement—Master Kha, renowned scholar back from a sabbatical in the East, talking of his new findings to us, waving his arms in his enthusiasm, illusions sparking casually from his mind. My own mind spinning with new ideas. I was a naïve boy from the southern coast, still new to the capital. It was my first real introduction to the theory of my craft, and how stunning that Master Kha should open his lectures to everyone, even junior students like me. Arguing with Nala and Aki in teahouses afterward. The three of us giddy at the sound of our own words. Aki spinning his complex geometries of logic, only to have Nala bring them down with a single, devastatingly honed point. We tossed ideas back and forth like a child’s ball. And underneath the playfulness a seductive question: what if the Marilaird Heresy were real? What if illusions really could become truth?
It was but a small part of Kha’s lectures. A revival of a historical argument long suppressed and nearly lost. But it was the part of his course that captured every student’s imagination.
Of course, I wanted to believe. We all did, even as we took turns debating both sides.
“No,” I tell Nala now, meeting her eyes. I’ve never been good at lying. I never believed in it, despite my excitement. It’s as I told Chiho. Illusions are only that: illusions.
White butterflies in my mother’s garden. Brown lizards scampering up the sun-warmed walls. And me playing with my younger brother and sister, crafting illusions to entertain them. My father’s footsteps, his curt words as he walked briskly through our illusion-play. His growing impatience. I tried to hide my illusion-crafting, then, to focus on practical matters. To be a good son.
The blow to my face. The warm blood filling my mouth. My father stood there and winced, rubbing his hand from the pain that his own blow had given him.
Artillery fire again, a constant thunder. Refugees from more of the outer districts crowd our streets. A growing hysteria in the air.
Reinforcements have come, but they are reinforcements for Gan’s army. A new division of Haaks from the west. There’s fighting for the northern hill forts and access to the North Gate. It’s rumored that any day now, our defenses there will fail.
The Academy closes. There is no Imperial announcement; the Emperor has said no word—but His Majesty’s Royal Academy of Science, Knowledge, and Art is suspended. End-of-term exams canceled. No one has been paid in weeks, and paper, ink and other supplies are so dear. Go home, the Academy officials tell us. Take care of your families. Take care of yourselves.
Nala and I are both far from home. Anyone who lives in an Academy House is.
We confer with our cook before she leaves our service; grimly, we inventory the storeroom shelves. There will be no more food supplies from the Academy. We’re on our own.
We still practice illusions each day with our students. We’re still working through the Cycle of Lahar and Kithwa. There’s little else to do.
“Focus,” Nala says.
Prince Kithwa and Lahar Star-Maiden have fallen in love. They played a game of poems in the Moon Pavilion, and at the first touch of dawn Lahar vanished, even as Kithwa was reaching for a final rhyme.
But then Kithwa captured the Fire Bird of the Silver Grove, with the help of the Hermit of Thorn Mountain. Now he commands the Fire Bird to take him to his beloved. The bird calls upon her kin, and a flock of flame-plumaged birds carries the Prince to Heaven. . .
The wind of their passage. A canopy of fire. The Prince lies in a silken hammock suspended on strings from the Fire Birds’ beaks. He stares upward at their beating wings.
We fly him through a brightening dawn. In the distance, a mountain swathed in purple clouds. A city on the mountain peak, and Lahar’s castle shining within it: a brilliant star.
“Marilaird,” Nala says, and I don’t have the heart to argue.
Marilaird is a legend, a myth. A story brought back by a deluded old man. The basis of a heresy buttressed by even more obscure tales. A footnote in the Chronicles of the Twin Empires. A few lines in the Annals of the Grand Illusions. The subject of an unfinished monograph by one Master Kha.
Marilaird is the story of an illusion that became real.
Illusions aren’t real. Even children know that, for even a small child can see right through one. We illusionists can spin visions of shimmering light; we build palaces from air and pluck stars from the sky. We conjure dragons and the songs of dead poets.
If I wanted, I could lay out a feast for this starving city that would best anything at the Emperor’s table. Platters of roast meats and fowl, grilled fish from the Sapphire Sea. Dozens of kinds of breads and dumplings; saffron-scented rice from the Valley of Ahn and tea from the fields of Lash. Delicacies from every corner of the Empire. Lush fruit from the far South where snow never falls. Figs and oranges from my own home on the southern coast. The crisp flatbreads we bake there, the sweet cakes drenched in lemon syrup.
But as I’ve told my students, that feast would satiate no one. In the end, it would only sharpen hunger.
Only the gods can make their visions real.
We humans believe, while we’re weaving our illusions. For a time, we can make others believe. But the audience has to want to believe.
This is why Father called me a fool, and worse. Why I never returned home after enrolling in the illusion division of the Academy. Anyone can see through illusions if they wish; anyone can refuse to believe, can recognize an illusion for what it is. Lies, my father spat, and the spray of his spittle touched my face. Children’s tricks, stupid, useless--! If he could, he would have physically dragged me from my Academy House. But at sixteen I was as tall as he, and no longer so weak. He shouted in rage until he was incoherent, but he did not hit me. And though my voice shook, I did not change my mind. I did not switch my studies to more practical matters. I took a sword to his heart, my mother later wrote me. I betrayed my parents’ trust. They sent me to the capital for the prestige of having an Academy-trained son. They’d meant me to study law so that I might help advise my father’s business; perhaps I might even become a judge or enter the Imperial administration. I was not meant to indulge in pretty illusions. I, the eldest son of an ambitious merchant.
Lies. Tricks. Useless.
The Haaks have taken the northern hills and roads. They shoot rockets at us from our own hill forts. The city is surrounded, the North Gate blocked. The siege is now complete.
“I want to see Lahar and Kithwa,” Migu says, and we answer her together. We continue the story.
Kithwa has landed in Heaven. He wears a cloak of fiery feathers, given him by the chief Fire Bird herself. At the First Gate, he dances in his new finery and the gatekeeper applauds and lets him through. At the Second Gate, he sings and strums his golden lute, and the second gatekeeper is so enchanted that she tries to keep him for her own. He escapes, and answers three riddles at the Third Gate. . .
On and on, until he reaches Lahar’s palace and finally her throne room. She has heard of his coming. She and her three sisters greet him in disguise; they all wear the faces of old women, and it’s all the same face. But he goes to Lahar without hesitation and speaks to her the poem he was unable to complete before. He tells her the final rhyme.
The great wedding in Heaven. The rain of rose petals, the perfume of the gardens. The song of the Fire Birds flying overhead.
When I peek out of the illusion, I see the light of Heaven reflected in Migu’s eyes.
It’s dangerous to fall too deeply into your own illusions. Cautionary tales abound. Once I thought them all apocryphal. Then I walked into Master Kha’s bedroom. He lay in his bed, eyes open and staring at a world only he could see. His pale lips were parted. He spoke no word. He would never speak again. They tried to feed him with a spoon, but he would not swallow. He died last spring, a month after Aki went off to war.
The heavy scent of funeral incense. Once. Twice. Again and again in this city. So many dressed in the gray of mourning.
We are hoarding water and food. We are trying to figure out how to survive.
If the Haaks take this city, they will loot every house and building they see. They will kill citizens they find on the streets. The stories of their cruelties—and particularly those under General Gan’s command—have swept before them. Weeks of pillage in the ivory city of Lan. The razing of fair Tirelis in the North. Men and male children used for target practice, tortured and killed for sport. As for what was done to the women and girls. . . Not even little Migu is safe from that. The troops took both elderly grandmothers and tiny girl-children. They killed those who resisted, and often killed them afterward anyway.
Is there any hope in hiding until the worst is past? Hunkering down in cellars and locked rooms? Rumors fly about the city like panicked birds. Some say that even after the customary pillage and chaos, there will be no hope. They say that Gan has vowed to coldly kill every male he finds and enslave every woman and girl.
Rockets over the northern walls. Houses aflame in our own district. Rumors that the Haaks are digging and mining tunnels under the walls. Our own troops hiding in their fortifications within, unable to confront them on the field.
We have a hidden room in the cellar, behind the storeroom. We drag blankets there, food, lamp oil, water. Our house once belonged to a rich trading merchant, and it’s been long supposed that he was also a smuggler, storing illicit goods in this hidden room.
Water. Walking again and again to the public pump on our street to fill whatever containers we can find. Our house has its own courtyard fountain and tap, but the pipes were disrupted days ago.
Kiset rages at the city’s plight and flees us to join the Imperial garrison. Months ago, after his home in the North was destroyed, the military turned him away, seeing him as a scrawny, untrained child, a soft Academy artist who would only be another mouth to feed. But this time they’ve accepted him, along with anyone else they can find.
I think that I should join him; I should be there on the walls with him. I could at least die feeling a little useful, my corpse perhaps plugging a hole in the wall, slowing a Haak down for just a moment.
I think of Aki, who joined the corps of military engineers. He walked away from his gift in illusions to devote himself to something real. He rode away from us to join his colleagues at the secret Jassen Foundry, to supervise the casting of new cannons for the Emperor, based on Haak designs. He was killed there in a surprise attack, mere weeks after arriving.
Useless. My father’s word for me. Ringing in my head.
I’m in the kitchen, staring at the row of knives. They’re all we have for weapons. We have no hand-cannons. No fire lances. We don’t even have a sword. . .
“Taz.” Nala calls me by name. Her hand warm on mine. Her eyes, large and dark. “Help me.”
I give in. I join in her illusion.
Marilaird is the story of an illusion that became real. A fabled castle in the East. The site where a miracle happened.
A Queen summoned the most talented illusionists of the world. It was spring, and she wanted to pay tribute to the immortal lovers, Lahar and Kithwa. She gathered her court, guests, and performers to celebrate the Festival of Reunion at her mountain retreat, the beautiful Marilaird. In a heroic feat of stamina, the illusionists performed the entire cycle, start to finish, over the course of three days.
And it’s said that the illusion became truth.
It’s said that the gods blessed the gathering at Marilaird, and the illusionists received the power to make their visions real. Lahar and Kithwa walked the earth again. Fire Birds sang. Heavenly flowers bloomed. Ancient battles raged, and the Gate to Paradise opened.
There were servants passing in and out of the audience hall, catching glimpses. But when they back came to clear the room, they found no one there. The Queen and all her court and guests had vanished, along with the performers. It was said that they had all passed through the door Lahar opened. They were never seen again.
“We can do it,” Nala insists. “Master Kha was alone. We’re not. We have each other.”
We never knew exactly what Master Kha had done. Only that he had disappeared, somehow, into his own mind. Nala was the one who found him. She was his only student that term. She was working with him for her post-graduate research.
She shows me again his notebooks, the text copied from archives in the East. Performance directions discovered in an old library. Biographical notes on Marilaird’s lead illusionists. There are other legends collected in Master Kha’s handwriting: the story of a woman who used illusion to create a great jewel. A warrior who used illusion to summon a mythical sword. But the legend of Marilaird has the most historical support. There is even an account of Kha’s travel to the ancient ruins; his description of the faded mosaics and tiled fountains, the cracked arches and columns open to the sky.
“If we work together,” Nala says. “If we believe.”
And it’s absurd to think of: two of the most junior faculty in all the Academy, working with the youngest of students to recreate a performance of legend. But what is there to lose in the attempt? We’ve been practicing all along.
I almost laugh, for no one else in the Academy would even try. The Marilaird Heresy—true to its name—was always controversial, and after Master Kha’s death it came under new clouds. Numerous faculty advised Nala that it would be best for her to choose a different line of research. It’s likely the reason why she’s still teaching junior students, why she hasn’t been promoted—why, despite her talent, she was put in charge of this youngest Academy House with me.
She was always stubborn.
I grasp her hand.
Grace. The unearned gift of the gods. She’s identified it as a thread binding Marilaird with similar tales. Can you ask the gods for grace? Can you anticipate it? Or, as some of our theologians say, can you only open yourself up to its possibility?
If she could truly bring any illusion into being, what would she choose? What did Master Kha try to do by himself? Was there some private illusion he desperately wanted to make real? Did he die believing that he’d achieved it?
Someone is screaming in the streets outside.
“Yes,” I tell her.
As the city falls, we huddle in our cellar and spin illusions.
Lahar and Kithwa meet on a lilac-scented night. Kithwa follows her to Heaven, passes the tests laid out for him, and wins her heart. After their wedding, they depart for his earthly kingdom.
But their bliss does not last.
For envy is stirred in the heart of Kithwa’s eldest cousin. An old rivalry between family branches is renewed. The King of Demons sees a chance to make mischief, and walks in disguise through human courts, whispering rumors into willing ears. Kithwa bests his cousin at a public game of archery and the resentment grows.
The death of Kithwa’s father, the King. Then open rebellion. A kingdom torn. Neighboring kingdoms are drawn into the conflict. The world is ablaze.
Lahar heals Kithwa’s soldiers on the battlefield with a Heaven-grown herb. She advises him on military strategy. Their forces are winning. But then she is lured to Heaven under false pretenses, and her family attempts to hold her there.
The Demon King raises a mighty mountain range. Jagged peaks which scrape the sky. Sheer cliffs of rock. Lahar escapes Heaven, but the mountains block her return to Kithwa’s kingdom. Her husband and children are now on the other side of a wall of stone.
This is the part of the story which always makes Migu cry. Her eyes well up, and she begs us to hurry through this section, or to skip it altogether.
But we can’t.
We have to stay with Kithwa as his forces crumble. As his people die. As he and his children—a boy and a girl, twins no older than Migu—flee into the wilderness. They run into the foothills birthed beside the great mountain range.
The Fire Birds have vanished. In their stead, Lahar sends ravens as messengers to her family. But none can find them.
She vows not to give up.
We finish the scene and darkness returns. No light in the cellar.
Above our heads, sharp blasts from hand-cannons. Shouts and running feet. The sound of breaking glass. Our soldiers and the enemy, fighting in the streets.
“Take care of them for me.” It was the last thing Aki said to me. The clink of cups and cutlery, the buzz of voices in the teahouse. His crooked smile. He tried to keep his voice light. We were always trying to keep our tone light. Even when he was leaving for war and asking me to care for his wife and child.
He touched my shoulder. I covered his hand there with my own. He squeezed lightly, and I saw him swallow. And then he smiled again.
“Take care of them for me,” he repeated, and walked quickly away. I dropped my eyes, unable to watch him go.
“Again,” Nala tells us. “Again.”
We shape the final scene together, the most critical one. Again and again.
Each time we withdraw from our shared illusion, each time we return to the cellar—the world feels a little less real.
There is a place our teachers warn us of. A place where illusion and reality blur. A moment when the illusionist loses control, and the illusion takes over.
I don’t know how long we’ve been in the cellar. No one asks. Our water is running low and our food is long gone. But those concerns are distant. I scarcely feel the thirst or hunger now. No one complains.
The illusion continues. Students drift in and out as they need a break, but someone is always there to maintain it. Nala is always there. She’s brilliant, and I’m with her, and we work together as one, as though we know the other’s mind and heart, and I know this is the best work of my life.
Is this what it means to be blessed by the gods? Heavenly wind scatters the purple clouds hiding Lahar’s star-castle, and it’s more real than anything I’ve ever known.
I fall asleep, I think, and there is no separation between dreams and waking. The illusion continues, and I’m Prince Kithwa borne aloft by a flock of Fire Birds. I’m Kithwa’s best friend—the one who went with him to the fated garden party, who sat beside him as he rhymed in the Moon Pavilion—falling beside him in battle. I’m Lahar desperate to save her children, and a child running from the Demon King’s army. . .
A pounding noise. Deep voices, laughing. They speak in the language of the Haaks.
With a start, I’m back in the cellar, sitting bolt upright, heart pounding. The Haaks are here. They’re broken through our compound’s gate. They’re ramming down the front door.
In the darkness, I grope for Migu, my students, anyone. I cry a warning. In our carelessness, we’ve left the door to our hidden room open, and some have been resting in the outer storeroom, seeking to escape the close quarters and accompanying stench of the smaller, hidden cellar room.
We grab up all evidence of our existence, blankets and buckets of human waste, and seal them and ourselves in the inner room, just as we hear the Haaks enter the house.
We hear them moving through the parlor and kitchen. Their voices—loud, jovial, excited; they might as well be men making merry at a liquor house. They’re pulling down furniture, jerking open cabinets, stomping up and down stairs.
My hearts goes still as they pound at the cellar door.
Nala and Migu and Elis and Leth, Chiho and Aran and Kel, and the rest. . . My boys and my girls. Kiset, who is probably dead. I hold the ones I have left. We’re all motionless, silent, together in the dark.
What do you miss most? Nala asked us. What do you love most? What would you see in Paradise?
It’s the famous last scene of the Cycle of Lahar and Kithwa. But it’s also incomplete, for no illusionist depicts the opening of the Gate to Paradise. Paradise is beyond description, even for a Heavenly being like Lahar and her kin. True Paradise is a place beyond visible Heaven, unreachable by Fire Birds, and far beyond the mortal realm.
“It is a field,” the poet Kalis says, “beyond gods and demons, beyond our ideas of suffering and joy.”
Lahar opens the Gate to Paradise, and this is told in words, not illusion. To try to depict it with illusion—to project a vision for others of what cannot be seen with living eyes—is sacrilegious. No one can envision Paradise. There is a reason that an idea inspired by a legendary performance is called the Marilaird Heresy.
Many would say that Nala is asking us all to commit blasphemy. But is it blasphemy if we summon the Gate in truth?
What would you see? Nala asked us one by one, and over days of practice we’ve shown her. She’s paid close attention and shown our visions back to us. Back and forth, adjusting, subtly changing, incorporating new details each time.
But she hasn’t yet fit those visions into the final act. The sacrilege hasn’t been formally committed.
Now, as we press tight together in the hidden cellar room, she brings up the first image of the last act, exactly as it’s laid out in official performance notes. As one, we jump in to reinforce the illusion. Constant practice enables us—even Migu—to snap instantly into a scene.
Kithwa and his followers are stumbling through the wilderness. His numbers have been so reduced by hunger and wolves and demons that only he and his children are left.
On the other side of the mountain range, Lahar is still calling and searching. She has not given up. She has sacrificed her immortality and youth. She has sought the aid of the Hermit of Thorn Mountain. She has spent years in silent meditation and endured painful rites of purification to do what she needs to do.
She will create a path through the mountain range where none existed before. She will find and rescue her family.
Somewhere far from this mountainside, a cellar door splinters and gives. I hear it break. Faintly, at the edge of my consciousness, I hear the Haak soldiers stomp down the stairs. Their rough voices—grumbling, disappointed—at the lack of food on the storeroom shelves.
But the sounds are distant, from another world. They catch my attention only for a second. I sink deeper into the illusion.
I feel something in myself give way. Some submerged barrier that was always holding me back. Some fear that is now gone.
The illusion arts are important. I know this now. They’ve always been important, and what we are creating together is real.
Lahar sings a song of piercing grief and strength and longing. The mountain shakes. The mountain cracks. A rift opens through a core of solid rock, and a new valley is created.
Up this valley, slowly, climb Kithwa and their two children, now grown.
Lahar waits for them at the top. She is not allowed to go to them. She is no longer quite of their world; nor is she of Heaven. She’s caught between.
If they are to be with her, they will have to leave their world as well.
They near, and she prepares to open the Gate to Paradise. The only place where they can now be together. The only way to escape their enemies of Heaven and Earth and Hell.
And this is where the Cycle of Lahar and Kithwa should end. Here the director of the performance should stop and describe the last events in words alone. The actual Gate to Paradise is never seen.
But we see it now, and it’s opening for us. A fair country glimpsed through an archway. A field of golden grain. A cold and rocky seashore in the North. The seaside hills of my own home province: the dry grass turned to gold in the summer sun and the ocean shimmering below, a deep, vivid blue-green that I’ve seen nowhere else in my life. There is the smell of lemons, of citrus, of jasmine from my mother’s garden. And then I see the green hills of my adopted city. It’s spring. The hills are blooming with purple crocuses, with primroses and violets and orchids. Master Kha is waving to us from the meadow. Kiset stands next to him, grinning. My younger brother and sister, who I’ve missed for so long, are there, too, happily eating lemon cakes and jam. It is the day of the Festival of Reunion. And it doesn’t matter if we leave our bodies behind, if none of this is physically real, if the Haak soldiers have found our hidden cellar room and are even now dragging us out—or if they’ve opened the door to find no one at all. My young students are screaming in joy, running through the gate. Nala is crying. Aki is smiling at us all, and Migu throws herself into her father’s arms, shrieking, as Nala and I run to keep up.
©2018 by Vanessa Fogg
VANESSA FOGG dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. She is fueled by green tea. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, Bracken, and more. For a complete bibliography and more, visit her website at www.vanessafogg.com.