It was the illusionist that everyone truly looked forward to.
The contortionists, the jugglers, the fire breathers, they were all sights to behold, surely. Delightful distractions from the plague and hunger that hung around the audience like sodden halos. Once the ringmaster began the visual delicacy, however, the heavy air became lighter, the smells of the churned and rotten ground were no longer noticeable, and the hearts of the audience were able to drop off their burdens for the setting of the sun and through until morning. They would go home to their mud houses, their feeble fires, their meals of bugs and dried leaves, but for once, the darkness around them would be combated by the optimism of the night. They would wake up the next morning and toil in their fields, tending to food they would never savor the taste of, but the air of magnificence would last them for a while. While their spouses lie coughing up whatever moisture their mouths were able to preserve, they could detach their minds from their present circumstances and remember the wonder and light of the performers.
That’s the true service that the circus provided. An escape, a path to a coping mechanism, a way to ease the pain, even if just slightly. People would recall the spectacles around fires, retelling the stories to small children who had been born too late to experience or remember it. They would speak of tamed yet ferocious animals, girls who could fit themselves into the smallest barrels, men able to balance on top of one another like a tower, using only their strength and hands. Feats people would not be able to believe if they had not seen it for themselves, or heard similar stories from every adult in the village. Stories always have a way of being expanded and exaggerated over time, but with this circus, no such phenomenon was necessary. It was already so fantastic and unbelievable that no embellishment was required to enthrall those who would sit long enough for an oral reliving of it.
All this was true, but even the most masterful storyteller could not capture the wonder and magic invoked by the performance made by the illusionist. Any attempts at such a feat ended in exasperated sighs and a shake of the head, accompanied with the words, “Such things are best experienced in person.”
The illusionist had planted himself in the middle of the squirming audience, the outer walls like snakes rising to the tips of their toes to try to see the performer more closely. How they had been able to identify him as a performer was a mystery, he had made no grand entrance. In fact, those who found themselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him had not seen him there before, as if he had been behind a veil that he had just swept away. He had a wicked grin and a sharp flash of teeth to go with it, and the moonlight caught his eyelashes and reflected from the dark mirror of his eyes to create an air of mischief that simultaneously tantalized the audience’s instinct to run away but also lured in its lust for the mysterious. The result was a circle of people who were rooted to the spot and shivering with apprehension.
The outermost reaches of his tempest of curly hair were like children’s hands grasping out to the night sky, forever begging for the ability to join the magnificent, to no longer be tethered to the sunken dirt. It created the effect of a halo that could be seen in the chapel’s windows, but it was such an antithesis to the symbols of good and benevolence that gave way to sunlight that the comparison serves no relevant service. The illusionist was his own sort of entity, ethereal yet completely different from any depiction come from an artist’s brush.
All this amazement, and the illusionist still had yet to move. The other performers had used a stage, yet when the contortionists left, it seemed that the audience had become one creature and together turned its attention to the lone figure standing in the exact middle of the masses.
He began with an elegant flow of the arm, starting with the roll of his shoulder, then the turn of the elbow, a bend of the wrist, and an extension of his fingers. It was like watching a painting take itself down from the wall-- indeed, as soon as a part of him moved, color came to grace his features where it hadn’t been before, paint, pluming in water.
The gesture flowed then into an acknowledgement of the audience. It wasn’t like a king, arrogant over his subjects, assured of his power, a god who claims to be benevolent but always holds the heavy weight of a threat above his people, just so they remember what he could do. A king views himself as a gift to behold, not realizing he is the one beholding the gift. A king who sits on a throne of sand is no king.
No, the illusionist was nothing like a king. It was obvious he viewed himself as a servant, and the audience was his master. This was his thank-you to them, for giving him a place to perform. He treated them like he would a lion, carefully, watching their every reaction with steel eyes--sharp as a blade, calculating as an arrow, and warm as a kettle--to determine his next move.
He gave a simple touch to the top of his forehead, then an extension to them, his eyes kind and glowing like a hearth, his smile grateful. Silence extended from him like wings, suspending his audience in a place with no sight, no sound, no emotion except that which he allowed. A master manipulator, no doubt. A breeze passed through, causing the audience to shiver. The breath of air rustled the long, dark garments about him, but he himself still remained utterly still. When the wind fled on to the hills in the distance, no sound could be heard, no movement detected, the audience locked in paralysis as they waited.
Then, the illusionist came alive.
Piercing through the raw nerves and prone hearts of those around him, the illusionist’s laugh raced and jumped through the previously still air. Suddenly, all was light, the cool colors of his pallor before now became warm and delicious with jovial merriment. Swiftly, he ducked down into a bow, his sure fingers brushing the soil beneath his boots before he swept upwards, the large wings of a black creature manifesting out from the folds of his cloak, shrieking its profanities at the moon before circling the audience. Gasps elicited from the abrupt fall from precarious wonder into beautiful madness rippled and licked up into the sky like fire as the black creature arced its head and flew into the sky. The illusionist watched its movements with that wicked smile and a new fever in his eyes, manic and devilishly enticing. He laughed again, and the sound morphed into a cry, proud and high and savage. The creature froze in its flight, its wings outspread, as if to accept an embrace from the moon’s rays. Its silhouette spanned perfectly to each side of the moon, the fearful image imprinting itself into the eyes of its beholders.
The creature began to fall. It fell, and fell, then in a violent twist of its body, it folded into itself, and then it was gone.
Sounds of wonder were offered up once again, and the spectators turned their attentions back to where the illusionist was-- except he wasn’t. The sounds of wonder then morphed into sounds of confusion, until someone--a small child, with a long braid down her back and a straw doll in the crook of her arm--exclaimed, “There!” in the chopped and brutish tongue native to the village, and as her fellow watchers looked up to where her small hand was pointed, they gasped again.
The illusionist was standing on top of their tallest building: the church, oddly rich and impeccably clean in comparison to the mud and straw houses that surrounded it. His arms were outspread, the cross atop steeple behind him shadowing his pose. He kept his balance on the point of the spire on the point of his feet, still and controlled, his dangerous position leading many of the women to cover their mouths to keep from swooning. And then he, too, just like his creature before him, fell.
The small child who had located him before now recoiled into herself, her chin ducking low and her eyes slamming shut as men and women alike around her yelled in bewilderment and concern. Then, everything was terribly quiet, but it was not like the enchanted silence that the illusionist had cast upon them before. This was stunned, fearful quiet, the kind the girl had only heard after Krior raids. She knew what such blackness of sound meant.
A cry to the gods made the girl open her eyes once again, and she sensed a powerful shadow next to her. Unsteadily, she gazed upwards, her doll held tightly to her chest, and her small mouth opened in awe. The illusionist. He was there.
Being so close to him, the girl got to see all the minute details which truly defined him. The power and pride he emitted did not come from his stature, nor any appearance of strength, but rather from the air he had carefully crafted around himself. In all reality, he was quite slight, reminding her more of a shadow than that which it had gotten its shape from. Small slices and worn places marred the surface of his cloak, painting in sparse brushstrokes of grey into the black. He hardly filled the cloak out. There were many angles that were much too sharp or mysterious to have come from him, such as the thick cuffs of the sleeves, the sharp upturn of the collar. His hands were long, delicate, and magical, when she saw them she found herself able to believe in true miracles, such as men meant to die from high falls appearing far away from their dooms, unscathed. The unruly curl of his hair cast long shadows across his angled features, but his eyes seemed to emit their own glow, grey and fierce, yet full of benign, welcoming mystery and a gentleness she could never explain. He held himself confidently, his gaze focused ever onward to new and delightfully impossible things.
Slowly and with grace, the illusionist took his bow.