The Illusionist by Kalyssa Tuz

One of four Young Writer Award winners in the Mensa Canada 2020 Literary Contest

Madame Freda throws the door to my room open. It doesn’t startle me, because I was expecting a confrontation sooner or later. She proceeds past me and stops by the window, resting her glaring eyes on the garden below. I set my paintbrush down on the table beside me.

Today, her hair is piled haphazardly atop her head. This particular updo would make most people seem insane and unable to care for themselves, but she somehow manages to wear it elegantly.

“We need to discuss your outrageous actions from yesterday,” she declares, getting straight to the point. “What were you thinking?”

“I wanted to give the people hope,” I reply calmly.

“Are you sure that’s what you gave them?”

“Yes.”

No.

She turns to face me, her gaze lacking any semblance of compassion. “Right, because what I see is a naïve, little girl who sparked these rebellious, destructive desires in the people of this city. When the news travels — and, trust me, it will travel like a fire over a dry prairie — the whole kingdom will be ignited. This is not what we needed right now. Our people need hope, order, and bravery, not anger and callousness.”

I bite my lip nervously. “I was just doing what you asked me to.”

“In what world?!” Madame Freda shrieks. “I asked you to show them your ability, how you can make people hallucinate. It was supposed to make other “special” citizens reveal themselves, so they could be persuaded onto the warfront. I certainly did not ask you to give a freedom speech. Your words made the King and Queen sound incapable of securing a victory in this war. And, because the King and Queen chose me to govern this city, it made me look inept as well.”

“I— I’m sorry.”

She snorts. “‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t cut it.”

I contemplate my next words carefully.

What I can’t tell her is that I’ve only successfully planted an illusion into three people’s minds at once. Anything more than that and I become overwhelmed. I’ve also never received any training for this, since no one else understands my special skill. She set me up to fail, whether she recognizes that or not.

Besides, she didn’t even notice that I had an ability, until I somehow managed to convince her son that I didn’t exist. He acted rather inappropriate around me, back when I first arrived, and would bully me for not responding to him in a certain way. I eventually learned how to make him think I wasn’t in the room. Then, over time, I guess his exposure to my illusions led him to be unable to interact with me.

I would normally be devastated to discover that I hurt someone, but his character was unbecoming. It was as if someone tried to stuff every bad quality into one person just to see what would happen. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. My point is that he’s a horrible person and his pompous mother isn’t much better.

“Okay, so perhaps my words were a little… enthusiastic. Bold, maybe. But you’re forgetting the other side of illusions: the truth,” I say, trying to reason with her as best I can. “In order to effectively plant hallucinations into their mind, I have to feel their truth first. I’ve explained this to you before. In front of a crowd of that magnitude though, I felt so much pain and anguish. Most of them had lost a relative, a close friend, or even a friendly neighbour in this war. Their daily life has changed with the pressures of this war, because they are scared that the next day might be worse than the previous one, in which they could barely crawl into bed. You have no idea what it was like to stand in front of hundreds of people and feel their suffering.”

“I don’t care about your emotional excuses,” she retorts with exasperation. “You need to get over it. They’re hurting now; that’s great. If you did your job properly, maybe tomorrow wouldn’t be so terrible for them.”

“It’s not that simple!”

Madame Freda strides back to the door, her posture stiff and her fury unwavering. If she lifted her chin up any higher, surely her head would fall off. “Yes. Yes, it is,” she states resolutely. “Now, if you don’t mind, my garden needs tending to. The weeds are getting atrociously out of hand and I’m sure the slaves would appreciate your assistance. If that’s not exciting enough for you, the library needs to be dusted.”

Then, she glides out of the room, her heels clicking obnoxiously on the stone floor. I hear her march down the hall, the sound of her steps fading and echoing at the same time.

When I’m finally alone, I clench my jaw and run my hands through my hair. I give myself a moment to breathe, then I pick up my paintbrush again. The myriad of blues and greens on the canvas suddenly looks less serene.

A seventeen-year-old slave with an aversion to her own bizarre mental ability. Honestly, what’s become of me?

Ever since Madame Freda discovered my talent, she’s wanted to drop me on the warfront and have me confuse the enemies to their deaths. I haven’t killed anyone with my hallucinations yet, nor do I ever want to. I’d much rather show people the Graesland Forest in autumn or the sunset seen from atop the mountains — whichever one they hadn’t witnessed before. I want to show them beautiful things, not send in the hallucination that will incidentally kill them.

My mind drifts towards the idea of running away. I’ve not only considered the option plenty of times before, but planned out a detailed escape plan as well.

I wound up in Madame Freda’s “care” only a year ago. Perhaps now is the time to leave. Perhaps someone else will help me.

What if I’m not her slave?

I’m certainly not her weapon.