The First Breath after Drowning’, Tannara Young

Illustrations © 2019 Eric Asaris

 [ Illusion © 2019, Eric Asaris ] Eoway’s illusion began in darkness. Most illusions did. The judges awarded more points for those which started in light because it was harder to draw the audience in when the arena was already visible. Only a few competitive illusionists did this: Pavonus of Ryba, Gauis of Mithea, and of course, gold medal prodigy Serona of Fertha. Eoway began in darkness.

The first sensation was not light. Because the audience was looking toward the middle of the arena, eyes wide to catch the first hint of light, it took a few moments longer for them to realize the illusion had started.

Cool air brushed across their faces in the dark. A gentle touch: a breeze on the warmest day of winter, with the ice almost chased away by the weak sun, but still smelling of snow. The sensation swirled by, the air flowing like a river through the crowd. The sound came next: the sound of a breath exhaled into a dark night after it was held for a long, painful moment.

When Eoway was seven her grandfather took her to see the Crovi District competition. The illusion she remembered most from that performance was a hatching firebird. As music swelled through the arena, a burst of fire coalesced into a shimmering, golden egg, swirling with flickering flame. The audience held its breath as the illusionist lifted the egg over his head and a crack appeared, then another, and another, and as the music reached a crescendo, the firebird burst forth in a sweep of radiant feathers, swooped over the cheering crowd and then came to rest on the upraised arm of the illusionist. As it settled there, flaming wings folding down, the scent of burnt sugar burst into the arena.

“I want to do that, grandfather.” She clutched his hand.

“I brought you because I think you have the gift for it,” he answered. “My mother did, you know. Your great grandmother. If you work hard, perhaps someday you can compete in the arena.”

She didn’t remember now if the man who had made the firebird had won a medal. She just remembered the glowing wings and the sweet scent.

But Eoway never created something as beautiful and detailed as that firebird. When her first teachers had taught her all they could and she had a shelf of trophies and medals from small, local competitions, she went with her mother to the city. Now a shy, gangly girl of fourteen summers, with long black braids and downcast eyes, she was so nervous she threw up on her way to the auditions for a more advanced teacher. Then, as the master illusionists turned her away one by one, it took all her courage to keep going.

The kindest of them, Ilion Dimitris watched her entire illusion of a frog leaping onto a lily pad and shaking off droplets of cool, pungent pond water; a courtesy that some of the others had not even granted. “Your artistry is sufficient,” he said. “You have a good eye for composition and from your prospectus, I can see your grasp of theory is superb. I am very impressed with the strength of your supporting skills—particularly your control of temperature and scent. But your visuals lack the complexity of multiple elements, and I doubt you will improve much in that arena. It’s not a matter of practice, but innate talent.”

Eoway cried in the privacy of the guest house room and then lay on her back, building the illusion of a tree, beginning with an acorn and growing it bit by bit until she lay hidden in the roots and the green leaves rustled overhead with a sharp, summery scent.

The next day, she asked her mother’s permission to go back to the tryouts. During the second day, advanced students who were looking for a more challenging master held contests to impress the most skilled teachers.

Eoway hung about the backstage and snuck into the exhibition hall, listening to the gossip and watching the illusions. It was there that she first saw Serona Allei creating a rippling field of red poppies and blue star flowers. The young woman’s skin glowed golden under the shimmering sunlight she had conjured, and her extravagant dark curls were suddenly adorned with a swirl of colorful butterflies that spiraled up from the flowers. As a herd of deer began to pick their way across the field and a flock of birds swooped down from above, Eoway slipped out of the door and stood with her back against it. She tried to imagine holding an illusion of flowers and butterflies and deer and birds, and took a shaky breath.

“It’s not necessary to have that many visual elements,” she told herself. “I may not be able to win gold against an illusion like hers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t rank.”

She straightened her shoulders and went to find Ilion Dimitris. He was surprised to see her again, but even more surprised when she squared her narrow shoulders, and met his eyes. “I can improve my visuals,” she said. “It’s not always about the number of elements but the precision.” She held out her hand and concentrated. The beetle on her hand had each segmented leg carefully defined. The iridescence on his carapace shimmered in the light, and when he spread his wings and took off there was a faint buzz of sound that precisely matched his movement. He landed on the master’s hand, and she saw his start of surprise when he felt the prick of the tiny legs for a moment before the illusion vanished.

“Take me as an apprentice,” she said. “If I don’t rank at my debut competition, I will go home and you can be done with me.”

Master Ilion cocked his head to one side and stroked his tidy black beard. Behind her, at the open door, two apprentices hurried past. “Nine elements,” one said.

“Master Ranjeet and Mistress Tokaya both offered for her,” said the other.

Then Master Ilion smiled. “I like to see determination,” he said. “Why ask me to be your master?”

Eoway had not expected that question, but she rallied. “You have a reputation for demanding precision and discipline,” she answered. “You are right that my talent is limited in the scope of the elements I can create, so the only way I will be able to win is in the details of what I can do.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And?”

Tears wanted to well up in her eyes, but she clenched her nails into her palm to hold them back. “And you were kind to me and watched my whole illusion. I do not think any of the other masters would consider me again.”

“And you disagree with the best illusion masters in Fertha that you can become a professional illusionist.”

Eoway swallowed. “I believe that I can rank,” she said. “And consider: if you can teach me what I need to rank, you will no longer be among the best teachers, but will have surpassed them. A teacher can be judged by the skill of those he teaches, and if you can take someone with as many obstacles as me, and teach me enough to rank, then you are clearly more skilled than the master who scarcely has to lift his hand because his student is talented.”

“A clever answer,” said Master Ilion. “Determination and flattery. If you can keep that up, my training will see that you not only rank, but are decorated.”

As the sound of the exhalation died, it was followed by another sound: toh... toh...toh... The sound of raindrops falling. And there was the sensation of droplets falling on lifted cheeks and parted lips. Small gasps and cries of surprise from the audience created another layer of sound over the rain now falling harder: poh, poh, poh. The air smelled of newly wet stone, and at last the darkness began to lift.

Serona took gold at her first competition and Eoway ranked in eleventh place. Just enough to pass up from the regional to the district competition.

“To rank in your first district competition is exceptional,” said Master Ilion. “I am very pleased with you.”

“I didn’t want you to drop me,” she said. “I promised I would rank.”

“I wouldn’t have dropped you,” he said, gently. “You are a credit to my house.”

“I made you a promise,” she said again.

He frowned, tapping his finger on his desk. A small part of Eoway’s mind filed away that sound to try to recreate.

“A touch of humility and anxiety are useful in performance—they can keep you from becoming complacent. But if you are not careful they will begin to cripple you.”

“I am not anxious,” Eoway protested.

“Do you think I am so harsh a teacher I would drop a hard-working, skillful student because they did not keep a promise to rank at their first district competition?”

Eoway swallowed. “I just...”

“You will not make excuses,” he said, severely. “If I say you must work on your anxiety, you say...?”

“Yes, master. I will, master.”

“Good. Now, I want you to focus this next month on a series of fractal exercises. Adding an element of chaos to your work will help compensate for your limited number of visual elements.”

Serona shot straight to the Imperial Arena, while Eoway continued to slowly climb the ranking in the provincial. When she was eighteen she won silver and when she was twenty she won gold.

When the score was announced, she burst into tears on Master Ilion’s shoulder. Despite his usual aversion to strong displays of emotion, he patted her back and fished a silk handkerchief out of his pocket.

When she had composed herself he said, “We are going to commission a personalized composition for your Imperial debut. If you control the timing of the music, you can leverage your precision even more than you did today.”

When Eoway’s illusion of frost creeping over an autumnal forest won her the bronze in her first Imperial Competition, she could have retired right then perfectly happy.

At the reception afterwards, she felt drunk on a combination of disbelief, success and the pale, effervescent Souvin wine filling the crystal goblets.

Eoway wondered if that long-ago illusionist who had created the firebird had ever felt this combination of heat and light and weightlessness and if that was why he had created a bird of flame and air in the first place.

Then as the night unfolded, Serona, who had won another gold with a recreation of a scene from the Tales of the Ruby Prince, approached Eoway, whirled her into a dance and then kissed her.

Dressed in glittering, scandalously transparent red silk, Serona was the epitome of an Ocillian sophisticate. Eoway’s lips burned with the kiss, and she felt as though a lightning bolt had shot straight down her spine, catching everything on fire.

“The scent of your forest was intoxicating,” whispered Serona, painted lips near Eoway’s ear. Her breath was hot on Eoway’s neck and her nose grazed Eoway’s temple. “Come and dance with me again.”

 [ Firebird © 2019, Eric Asaris ] Master Ilion was not pleased. “She’s a player,” he said. “She dances from flower to flower and pays no attention to the havoc she leaves behind.”

“I know,” said Eoway, sighing. How could she explain that she knew that the firebird burned out eventually, but it’s beauty was unparalleled until then? “But maybe this is different? We complement each other—she says I ground her.”

“And what does she do for you?”

“She shows me the beauty of the world in everything she does. She is a star in the dark night, a dragon flying above the clouds.”

Master Ilion shook his head. “Do not let the illusion fool you,” he said. “You of all people know that.”

What if this is not an illusion? She wanted to say. But instead, she said, “Yes, master.”

The raindrops themselves were the light. Drops of silver falling from the darkness above, each one distinct. The light grew as a faint mist swirled through the drops of water, and in the center of the arena the water fell faster and faster, a shimmering, dancing curtain. At last the audience could see the illusionist. She wore a soft white gown, a typical color for a contestant because it was an easy base from which to weave oneself into the illusion.

With Eoway’s patient instruction, Serona’s illusions became even more spectacular. Her grasp of the supporting elements became more complete, and as a special honor she was requested to perform for the Empress’ birthday.

Eoway laced her into the diaphanous white silk and helped arrange her riot of curls into an artfully disheveled tangle. Brushing a kiss over her lover’s golden shoulder, she stepped back to admire her handiwork.

Serona picked up the powder pot and brushed a hint more color on her cheeks. She met Eoway’s eyes in the mirror. “I really wish you could come,” she said.

Eoway smiled. “I don’t mind. I’d be scared out of my mind bowing to the Empress and trying to make small talk among the courtiers. I will be excited to hear about it tomorrow.”

Serona kissed her and left in a swirl of silk.

Eoway’s black hair spilled in a long fall over her white gown. She knelt motionless on the curl—the slowly rotating circle that brought all sides of the illusion to each part of the audience. Her hands were cupped in her lap. The only part of the illusion that seemed to be centered on her was the rain caught in those cupped hands: a shimmer of water, its surface dancing with the impact of the drops.

It was embarrassing how long it took Eoway to realize she had been cast aside. She rarely read the broadsheets and didn’t socialize much outside of her small group of friends. But some of her friends were other illusionists, and eventually she realized that the gossip about Serona and an Imperial general was quite true.

The worst part was that she had always known that her time with Serona was finite, but she had thought that they would part as friends.

“Why didn’t you come to Denae’s dinner party last night?” Eoway asked, knowing the answer and dreading what Serona would say.

“Oh, I got caught up working with Reguli on the new composition.”

“Really? Because Alba and Corin saw you at the Opera House with General Talegneti.”

“Oh!” Serona looked genuinely surprised, like she had forgotten that she had been glittering on the arm of the famous general, or it had been of so little notice to her that it had not occurred to her that she should mention it. “Well Reguli has a piece in the showcase, so of course I had to go.”

She wasn’t going to admit to anything if Eoway did not say it first. “Are you sleeping with him?”

“With Reguli? Gods, no!” the horror in Serona’s voice was not faked.

“With the general!” Eoway said between her teeth.

For the first time discomfort crossed Serona’s face. “Don’t get all jealous,” she said. “I can’t abide that.”

“Why would you go behind my back like that?”

Serona turned on her. “Don’t sound all self-righteous, Eoway! Just because you’re happy to rank in a few competitions, doesn’t mean that’s what I want! I am going to be someone.”

“What you are is a liar,” said Eoway, tears running down her cheeks.

“Don’t call me liar!” Serona flushed with anger. “It’s you who can’t take the competition. You know nothing about winning.”

“You selfish...!”

“Selfish! You just want me to be mediocre like you!”

“I won bronze!”

“Ooh, bronze! I won gold seven times in a row and I will win it next time too. I don’t know why you would compare yourself to me.”

“Without my coaching, you would have lost that last gold to Alba! I should have let you lose. The gods know you don’t deserve another gold!”

“You...!” Serona lifted her fist, and Eoway jerked away. For a moment they stared at each other, faces red, breath heaving.

“Get out!” said Serona. “You toad.”

Eoway stumbled out of the room. She felt like she couldn’t breathe. She sat on the stairs, panting and crying and shaking.

The rain fell harder and the cold wind whipped about the arena. The audience squinted through the lashing drops and wrapped their arms around themselves. Even the ones who prided themselves on seeing through the illusion, who would pick it apart after, finding all the flaws and flat angles, shivered at the sense of being in the midst of a storm.

The wind moaned with a low, despairing note. The wetness on the people’s lips tasted of salt—like sea-spray or tears.

Eoway always knew it wouldn’t last, but she assumed it would end with more, well, kindness. A drifting apart, or maybe sad, quiet talks where they decided to each go their own way.

But this sudden, unexpected cruelty? A day that began with kisses and ended with biting words? And then the gossip that followed, fueled by Serona herself: “... a jealous rage... I was afraid... had to end it... even though I loved her.” There had been no talk of love until it was Serona’s broken heart.

Eoway fled to her friend Denae’s house and almost kept going: out of the capital, away, away, back to her family’s little village in Donan or further to the edges of the Empire where the necessity of fighting barbarian hordes and magical creatures made the illusionists’ art a useless bauble of the capitol.

Denae stopped her. She had won gold once, before Serona began her streak. “You won bronze,” she reminded Eoway. “That qualifies you for the Imperial competition without having to rank in provincials again.”

“I can’t compete this year! Not against her!”

“So you’re going to let her run you off without a fight? You were the one who worked to be here. She danced to the top on talent alone—she’s never fought for anything in her life.”

“It’s so unfair,” moaned Eoway.

“Do you want to be like her: selfish and entitled? Someone who uses people and casts them aside like rubbish? What do you think is going to happen to her? That general already has a highborn wife, and he goes through his lovers faster than Serona does. She won’t win gold forever—she’ll lose her stamina and finesse as we all do, and then what will she have?”

“I don’t want to talk about her,” said Eoway. “She’ll win gold for years yet. She’s like the sun—that’s what the Empress called her: ‘daughter of the sun.’ She burns with the glory...”

Denae made a gagging sound. “You sound like you want her back!”

“I don’t!” But it still felt like she couldn’t breathe.

Eoway stayed, but she refused to go out. She barely practiced. She lay in her room with the shades drawn and stared into the darkness. There had been no talk of love until it was Serona’s broken heart. But it wasn’t Serona’s heart that had broken—it was her own, stupid, senseless heart. Serona had been her gold. She was confidence and beauty. She was the firebird, bursting dazzling into the night, sweet and hot and dangerous.

The air swirled through the arena, swirling the droplets into a twister that drew in on the illusionist still seated on the curl. Somehow the wind made it hard to breathe: as if it stole all the air that had been exhaled and kept back just a little more than the lungs needed. Water poured down on the illusionist: SSSHHHH—a torrent of silver. The wind whipped around and around, blinding the audience in drops of silver.

What changed? Eoway would like to say it was one moment—that one when she stepped outside into a summer storm and the rain pouring down flooded away the tears pouring down her face. Or a moment when she created the perfect illusion and knew for certain that what Serona had said wasn’t true. But it was lots of little moments: Denae’s kindness. A breath of fresh air that smelled like her father’s pear orchard. A letter from Master Ilion with news of her faraway friends. Many little things that reminded Eoway that even if she had loved Serona, she had never crafted illusions for her. She wrought her illusions from the memories of her parents’ pride, from the determined, patient tutelage of her teachers, from her own joy in the crafting. None of these things could be taken by Serona’s harsh words. She practiced more and more—losing herself for hours in the casting. So, it wasn’t one moment that changed everything, but it was the memory of sobbing into the storm that gave her the idea for her competition piece.

Denae was relieved she was going to compete, but cautious. “You have only a month to prepare, Eoway. That’s not much time. And how on earth are you going to get an original composition recorded in a month? You’ll have to use pre-made music and that will start you out with lower points already.”

Eoway considered and then took a breath. “I won’t use music.”


“I will create enough sound within the illusion. I won’t need music.”

Denae stared at her. “If you manage that your supplemental score will be really high, but Eoway—are you sure?”

“Serona was right when she said my visuals aren’t complex. But my supplementals are. Look!” She held out a sheet of parchment covered with scribbles. “If I get full points in each of the supplemental categories, I don’t need to score high on the visuals.”

“Full points in all the supplemental categories?”

“I can’t be second rate if I can do what no one else has ever done!”

“I don’t know if you are a genius or mad.”

The second before the audience began to panic, everything stilled. The twister of rain exploded upwards, all drops of water reversed into a fountain of light. They hung above the arena in a sheet of shimmering light.

Then light-rain fell toward the uplifted faces, turning from icy to warm, from salt to sweet, silver to the palest of gold. Then no longer falling but drifting. Wafting from above with a faint sweet scent. Flower petals falling from unseen trees, dancing in the re-gentled breeze. They brushed like dry, silky kisses across cheek and brow—filling the laps and hands and whispering into the spaces between the seats.

Then, beginning at the highest seats in the arena the petals faded. Darkness ran down, contracting toward the curl. Eoway sat there, still in soft white, a fall of golden petals about her. The breeze danced through the arena, stirring the petals, returning the air it had stolen—bringing a scent like lemon flowers and warmth like a breath across sensitive skin. Slowly the breeze died, its whispering stilled. Slowly the light from the petals faded, the few cupped in the illusionist’s hands the last to fade. The darkness was silent for the space of an exhalation and then another.

The silence held as the lights came up, illuminating Eoway. She stood slowly, her pale skirts falling into order about her. She turned toward the stunned judges and gave a little bow. The audience drew a collective breath and began to cheer. They lept to their feet, even climbed onto their chairs, clapping and shouting and wiping away tears.

‘It was the lowest visual score to ever win gold,’ the broadsheets reported. ‘But the scores almost do not matter. This performance has redefined what is possible. Will anyone who sat through that storm—who heard it, felt it, tasted it, be satisfied again by pretty pictures and sparkling lights?’

‘Eoway of Furtha is without a doubt among greatest illusionists of our time.’

© 2019 Tannara Young

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