The Isthmus Variation

Issue #46

The message reached us in Tromili, where we had been making the rounds of the noble houses, playing at the summer parties. We were to go to the Impia’s summer estate to perform the Slow Game at his night banquet.

I was new to the Slow Game, only recently having regained enough physical and mental stamina to play through an entire night. I had been destroyed three years earlier, long enough for the pain to begin to fade, long enough to cleave myself to the discipline of the tableau art with all of the passion I had left in me.

For this one performance, we had been promised a sum that might have purchased several small towns entire—and besides, there was no company of players that would dare refuse a summons such as this. The Impia created and controlled all of the war magics that kept our borders safe, repelled the invaders that all knew resided beyond them. All did as he bid. Even though we were destroyed men and women, we were not fools.

We were called to perform the Isthmus Variation, the variation that is a secret shared only among players who have sacrificed their lives to the Slow Game. The magister who attains the office of the Impia learns of this variation from whispers that players allow him to overhear, when the time is correct.

Until two days before the company arrived at the Impia’s garden, all I knew was that the Isthmus Variation is a Slow Game with a blade in its sleeve, a performance without pity for the audience.

We are destroyed, we are players. We have no pity, either.

“Kothin, hold still.” Ila tapped the back of my head hard enough to sting. “Such an impatient young man. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I would swear you had no temperament at all for performance.” She was sweeping my hair up with wires for support and fixing it in place with wax. She paused, and I heard the light sound of a paint pot scraping open.

She stepped around to face me where I perched on the folding stool. I closed my eyes as I caught the scent of the paint we use on our hair, grease and chalk. Ila’s hands were trembling as she applied it, the cool of it seeping through to my scalp. I knew what she feared, what the tension in her shoulders foretold. I had overheard the darkest secret at the heart of the Isthmus Variation, as she and Unil had spoken of it in their wagon. Custom and respect kept my mouth closed, made me force it from my mind. I would not make this performance any more difficult for her by speaking of it.

Instead, I set my face in the smooth mask of the Tempter and opened my eyes as Ila tugged on my hair. “I can’t hold still when I’m thinking,” I said, “and I never stop thinking until the performance starts.”

“And here I would swear you had no thoughts in your head at all.” She pulled my hair again and I heard the soft snap of a clip. “There, you’re done.”

She patted my shoulder and moved on to minister to Unil. Her paint-stained hands were so delicate and so strong, and her unfashionably long dress showed off the curve of her lower back. That curve, and the one time I had glimpsed it uncovered, had haunted me for the last year.

Out of respect for her and Unil I had said nothing, showed nothing, tried to feel nothing. I had fallen into celibacy during my training. None of the other players had shown interest, and the only one I thought worth pursuing was married to the one man I most respected in the world.

I watched them out of the corner of my eye, as players do habitually. Unil played the Sufferer tonight and almost every night. His hair was cropped short, since he was of an age where he was starting to go thin both in hair and in body. Ila painted his face with a pad of cloth, covering the lines and weathering with blankness. Her hand faltered, and Unil caught her wrist. He said something too low for me to catch, and I turned my face away from them as my belly tightened. I heard them speaking in murmurs, and the rustle as Ila put Unil’s wig on for him. I could guess what words passed between them, and my mouth was dry with fear.

It was time for costumes. I went to get the robes that had been sewn specifically for this performance and the shapeless leather shoes I would be wearing. The mountain breeze pushed at my wax-set hair, its cool touch a great fortune for us and our comfort as the night went on.

The sky began to fade to lavender and all twenty of us presented ourselves at the gates of the garden. Beyond the garden stood the grand hulk of the Impia’s summer-house, windows glowing. There were nineteen characters in tonight’s performance, in addition to Ila, who was always the Shadow. She wore dark silks and would flow between tableaus, bringing news of the watchers and suggesting adjustments. There was always a tacit agreement between players and audience that the Shadow was backdrop or a sort of stagehand, invisible in her silks as she moved from darkness to darkness.

The tableau art, the lore of the players said, had origins in the art of statuary. As the Tempter, I would be making my way slowly through a series of poses, each of them a scene of tonight’s variation played for only a few of the audience. The magic would be in the gossip that spread amongst the audience, how the central mystery of the performance would blossom as they spoke of what they had seen.

The Slow Game had already begun. All of our faces were painted, even Ila’s, who was painted after the fashion of dark granite rather than our white marble. We held our mouths impassively, making masks of our faces. Relax the small muscles. Hold the eyes still.

Show nothing. Betray nothing.

Final preparations for the outdoor party were under way. Young women hauled buckets of fresh coldlights past us to fill sconces and to float in the fountains and pools. A man herded a flock of white peacocks into the maze that surrounded the central garden, and the birds’ mournful cries were muffled by the twists and turns of the maze.

As dark fell, lights in the hedge began to glow. Food was artfully arranged on long tables in the center of the garden, more food than I had ever seen in one place before. Vine-fruit spilled out of great bowls; what seemed like hundreds of squab were spitted on golden swords. Men and women in taster’s uniforms circulated about the tables. Their feet were bare, acknowledging their near-nobility.

My mouth filled with saliva and I turned away. Players in the Slow Game neither eat nor drink until the performance is over. We cannot afford to be distracted by the needs of our bodies, however mundane.

We took our positions in the maze as most of the servants departed the gardens. This was a place where the rich would come to be themselves among others of their kind, unfettered by the curious gazes and waggling tongues of their lessers.

Part of the magic of playing the Slow Game was to know when there were eyes on you, and to move swiftly only when there were none. As men and women began to arrive for the banquet, I took my mark atop a bench in the maze, my head down in the position of false penitence that was the Tempter’s trademark pose.

A young woman came around the corner and made a breathy sound of pleased surprise. The creature she had with her, a thing all slender legs and great liquid eyes and brindled fur, bounced forward and squeaked, stopped only by the leash attached to its heavy golden collar. I deepened my breathing and watched her without turning my head. Her short dress caught and tugged at the eye, studded with jewels that flashed in the light from the orbs hung in the hedge. Her feet were bare but for twined white ribbons. Utterly fashionable; we had seen very few women among the nobles of Tromili who were so richly attired. She is nothing, I told myself. Part of an audience.

“The Tempter,” she said. Her voice squeaked a little. She was younger than me.

I took a breath in; now for the reward. As I breathed out, I slowly raised my head, moving just quickly enough to catch her eye. I spread my hands a little, lifting them towards her, and gave her a smile full of wicked promises. She squeaked again and tugged on the leash of the creature that was staring at me, nostrils flared. They retreated.

My smile faltered as I was left briefly alone. I wondered if I should say something, call to the woman and her creature. Warn them of what was coming.

No. My tongue was bound. Let the Slow Game play.

“What about Emmiu?”

The two men had been talking to each other in low voices since they had happened upon our tableau. “She is in place,” the man with the lighter voice replied. “Her parcel went unnoticed. When the Impia comes out, we will be ready.”

I and the Judge were in repose. The Judge sat on one end of the stone bench, and I lay with my head in his lap looking up at him. It was a scene that required some art to play. In this variation, the Judge and the Tempter have a complicated relationship. The Tempter is powerful, but the Judge is more so.

At its heart, the Slow Game is a very simple story: the Sufferer has been wronged somehow by the Accused, or so the Sufferer believes. They each call witnesses to their side, the Judge decides the fate of both of them, and the Scribe records the judgment.

I breathed in. A cloying scent of flowers was competing with the chalky musk of our painted skin. The Judge’s chin trembled—Luca was so good as the Judge that he barely knew any of the other roles, but tonight he was not playing his best. I hoped he gained more control as the night advanced.

The true story the Slow Game tells is depicted in the scenes that are enacted as we players meet and move towards the central tableau where the Sufferer and the Accused wait. This scene was a pivotal one for the Tempter and the Judge. As the audience members met with each other, shared what they had seen and tried to decipher the overall meaning, this scene would be one of the keys. It happened so early in the Slow Game that only these two audience members would have that key.

It is physically impossible to see more than a fraction of the scenes in any performance, and each audience member cannot tarry long at any one scene. The Slow Game moves ceaselessly, a great beast that never seems to shift and yet is never in the same place twice.

Luca’s head bent down towards me. I turned my head as his hand rested on my throat, the blank mask of the Tempter slipping, opening my mouth and widening my eyes. I looked at the two men who watched us with terror on my face, my gloved hand opening towards them. A gesture of pleading. Please. Help me. Then we were still once more, frozen.

I could see now that one of the men was younger than the other. They wore loose trousers and tightly fitted shirts, and had cups in their hands. The older man took a half-step forward, his eyes widening. He stopped himself in mid-stride. I kept the fearful mask on, pleased. He would remember the look on my face, the secret terror in the heart of the Tempter.

The younger man put an awkward hand on the older one’s shoulder and they turned away. Ila approached, darting from one shadow to the next. The men fell in behind her. True devotees of the Slow Game consider it at least bad taste and at most cheating to follow the movements of the Shadow, but we make it very tempting to follow the black-clad player.

The eye is drawn to motion, after all.

I met the Heretic in the maze, and we froze in tableau as footsteps approached from the intersection ahead. I was crouched at his white-booted feet; he was looking down at my upturned face with his hand upraised. A peacock stalked past us, nearly glowing in the dim light. Perfect.

“The Heretic!” one of the people who approached us said. “And who’s that at his feet?”

I could hear their feet moving on the grass; both were unshod. It was a mark of pride among nobles that they did not have to wear shoes. Their feet were unblemished, pampered daily by young serving-women who lavished attention on those appendages as if they were worth more than sapphires. Innocent as the feet of babes were noble feet. Looking up at the Heretic, I imagined their toes, the pale moons of their nails against their flawless skin.

“The Tempter—can’t you see the hair?” The woman sounded as if she were rolling her eyes. “Let’s see. The Tempter has angered the Heretic, and he lifts his arm to strike. I’ve never seen the Heretic and the Tempter meet. I can’t wait to tell Emmiu.”

“What did I say about Emmiu?” the man asked. Anger lowered his voice. “Stay away from her. She’s out of favor, and I don’t want you tangled up in whatever plot she’s up to.”

The woman’s breath hitched, and when she spoke again, her tone was conciliatory. “She was invited, just as we were. I’m so tired of politics, Juma. I really am.”

I shifted my weight onto my back foot smoothly and let my upper body follow. My body changed in that moment from an attitude of cowardice to one of invitation, and I let my face change from near-fright to a dreamy, half-lidded sensuality. Above me, the Heretic also shifted, lowering his arm, softening his shoulders. I saw him turn his head to look at our small audience. The scene had just gone from one of violence to one ripe with the promise of sensuality.

Both of them gasped. I imagined the woman pulling herself close to the man, molding her body in its jeweled shift to his, the curve of her back accentuated. They departed without another word.

They would carry the news back to the rest that the Heretic and the Tempter had met in the maze. The shape of the Isthmus Variation would begin to form in the minds of the entire audience, as would the possibility that this performance bent the outline of the Slow Game, that the helix of Sufferer and Accused had been joined by a third thread that wrapped and tangled the other two.

The Heretic— one of our company named Kutum—turned his face back to me, and I saw just the ghost of a frown on his lips. I raised my eyebrows briefly and rose from my crouched position, cocking my head. “I loathe these people,” he said, keeping his voice low. He had been destroyed for over a decade, long enough for hatred to take root and blossom in his soul, choking out anything else that might grow there except the Slow Game.

“Tonight, I feel sorry for them.” I sweated under my robes, and my sides were unpleasantly damp. A movement attracted my attention. White flowers and whiter lights outlined a darkness next to the hedge.

Ila detached herself from the shadows and came to us. She had temporarily lost her audience escort. The central tableau must be in the process of shifting, drawing all eyes to it.

“Tempter, Imago, and Forger next, Kothin,” she said. “Left and then right at the next two intersections.” She knelt to adjust the damp hem of my robes with her black-gloved hands. I looked down at her silk-obscured form, and something inside of me wrenched. I must not flinch. Must not make a movement. Must not reveal the truth I had overheard only two days ago and to which I was by no means reconciled in my heart. To lose Ila—

She raised her gaze and straightened, and I stifled the thought. The whites of her eyes nearly glowed in contrast with her dark irises and granite skin. “You’re doing well. People are starting to talk about the Tempter. Kutum, start working your way towards the center.” Her voice was low and pitched for our ears alone. It held an edge I had never heard in it before, even when she was at her most merciless in rehearsal.

I slipped off into the maze, freezing in ominous positions as guests came upon me, sidling toward the next scene. The key to understanding this Variation was to follow the Shadow as much as the players. The audience, in the next few hours, must transgress their tacit agreement to consider the Shadow merely backdrop or stagehand.

With one hand, we forbade; the Shadow turned her face away and scuttled between tableaus. With the other, we beckoned the audience.

Watch but do not watch, we said with every pose, every tableau. Watch us, but also watch our Shadow.

Our hidden hand is moving. Beware.

“I can’t find Emmiu.” The woman who was complaining was behind the current group of guests who were viewing the three-person tableau. “She was just behind me, and then she was gone.”

“Probably got bored,” a man’s voice said. “Probably went to get something to drink.”

“She had a drink. And she just vanished without saying anything.”

The Tempter spent a lot of time crouched at people’s feet. I was getting a good look at the creatures that a number of the guests had brought with them. The liquid-eyed quadrupeds with all the fur and silky long tails were popular, but my favorites were the small things that darted around us, luminous stripes on their sides rippling as they scampered and scuttled and watched us with bright-eyed interest.

They were short-legged and long-bodied and had an engaging way of tilting their heads during the rare moments when they were still. The one currently observing me had something shiny in its fanged mouth, likely a dropped piece of jewelry. It was almost too bad that none but the nobility were allowed to own the creatures the Impia created. I thought I might like one of the striped rodent-things.

My neck was beginning to ache, and my shoulders were trembling slightly. I breathed through it, willing my body to relax into the position as much as I could, willing skeleton and sinew to support me with as little energy expenditure as possible.

The hedge I was staring at shifted, and a luminous, many-petaled flower opened.

I focused my eyes, snapped back into my body. The mind plays tricks during tableaus. The flower, a frilly white thing with toothed petals, had to have been open before we got here. I had just forgotten.

The small hairs on the back of my neck tried to rise, but instead prickled unpleasantly under my paint. Above me, the Imago breathed out. I tilted my face up and to the side, feeling the other player’s hand come close to my hair.

I put the flowers out of my mind, and tried not to lick my lips where the paint had dried and cracked.

The crime in the Isthmus Variation is murder.

Twenty players. Nineteen characters. Eighteen alive when the Slow Game began that evening. Our costumes were sun-bleached white, except for the robes that the Orphan wore. Those had been splashed liberally with fresh animal blood just after we laid Liio down in a dead end in the maze, a knife left by her side.

Over the evening the blood would dry and the night insects would gather, moths drawn to the salt. When I closed my eyes, I could see her robes covered with fluttering white, red-brown showing in the spaces between their wings.

Our current tableau was one of several scenes of questioning that we would portray that night, and my Tempter was in fine form, reaching for the Wastrel’s robe with one hand, casting the Imago away from me with the other. This was a scene of misdirection. The Imago and the Tempter fought in order to throw doubt on the Wastrel’s testimony later.

We rested in the pose as the audience moved around us. We were close to the center now, having worked our way through the maze. After this scene, the Imago and I would part. Ila would flit between us and the crowd, drawing their eyes away, and when they turned back to see us we would be gone, thirty feet away from each other, once again frozen.

Ila was long in coming. When she finally arrived to release us, my arm was trembling fire as it reached for the Wastrel. It was all I could think about, my breathing and my arm.

The Shadow swept past us. As the crowd turned to follow her, my eyes were drawn to the hem of her robe. It straggled strangely on the ground, and the grass darkened a little in her wake. None of the guests seemed to notice, fortunately. Dew was beginning to form on the grass, and a little extra dampness would go unremarked. By the time any of them might notice, they would all be too intoxicated to care, and it would be far too late for the outcome of this performance to change.

I smoothly shifted out of position and began to walk back into the maze as the Imago and the Wastrel moved towards where vines parted and the twinned fountains could be seen. I tried not to think about the darkness I left when I moved, the circle of scentless oil that my hem would transfer to the grass when I performed in tableau.

The back of my neck tingled, and I froze. The weight of a gaze landed full on my shoulders. I had one hand stretched out, the other trailing behind me, head tilted slightly as I studied one of the flowers of the hedge. This was one of the standard poses of the Tempter, who was of all the characters the most engaged with the beauty of the world.

I could not see the person whose gaze was on me. He was male, from the timbre of the breathing and the faint scent of cologne that came to me, muskier than these sweet flowers I stared at. He shifted in his place, but did not step away. I was a player. I was patient, more patient than any audience might ever be. I would outwait him.

Something within the hedge stirred. Animal, I thought. One of the rodent-things. A day-flying bird woken from its slumber by the lights and the noise. Do not stir from your nest, little bird. Sleep you must, this night when the lights dance.

Such are the thoughts that trouble players, when we are frozen in tableau.

The flowers moved. Slowly they closed, and slowly they opened, all in unison. The flowers in the hedge were abruptly thirty white eyes without pupil, all of them looking at me. Their petals were ragged against the foliage, hung all around with coldlight orbs that made the shadows harsh-edged.

The man had left—how long ago? How long had I stared at the hedge in horrified fascination? How long had it been staring back at me? Rumors came to mind, whispers of the Impia’s magics, that he could alter plants as he did animals....

I moved on. I took care not to brush the hedge with my sleeve or my hand.

The Orphan had been discovered at last; the murder had been revealed. The summer night gathered chill to its bosom, and we had been playing the Slow Game for six hours. I was in solitary tableau at the edge of the central area. Ahead of me, I knew that the Sufferer and the Accused were frozen in the same poses that they had been in since the beginning. I was not looking at them; the time had not yet come for that pose.

My Tempter this night was perfect. My spine told me that I was taxing the muscles on either side of it; my shoulders reported suffering from the great effort it took to remain perfectly still with my arm outstretched or above my head. The pain sang in me and I used it, fed on it. The Tempter is beautiful and terrible, the face that one must not look at and yet cannot turn away from.

Even with my focus soft so that my gaze would not be felt, I could see small oddities in the crowd that moved around me, swaying like water-weeds in a current. Here was a scarf untied and rumpled; there, kohl was smeared, giving the eye it surrounded a deep-set and dazed look. Hands trembled and eyelashes shivered.

I could hear slurred voices swirling around me. I had almost fallen a few minutes ago when the same young woman who had happened upon me earlier in the evening had stumbled into me. I’d seen her several times. She mumbled apologies as she staggered away, and had gotten only a little distance from me before she collapsed.

Nobody bothered to check on her, and I could not break the pose to do it myself. She looked so vulnerable, lying there, with her curly hair escaped from its ribbon and tumbling over her face. Her little animal was nowhere to be seen. I ached, knowing her fate. She had arrived early, and now she would be the first of many departures.

I entertained thoughts of calling for help. I was a player, therefore by definition I had been destroyed. These people would no more pay attention to my words than they would wear shoes. Being destroyed is a death where your heart keeps beating: name, occupation, status, property, all are stripped away. The rungs of nobility are greased with temptation, and it is so easy to fall when reaching for a higher station.

My face was turned towards the girl, and I had a clear view. She was far enough away that I could not hear any rustling, but I saw a tendril of vine snake over to her. Someone capable of motion would have recoiled from the vines, broken the pale green threads.

The tendril touched her hair, slipped underneath to caress her face. It grew and thickened and was joined by several of its fellows, draping themselves over her body. As the vines touched her, they began to bloom, those toothed white flowers opening. One tendril slid up under her dress, and I could see the shadow of it moving beneath the cloth.

Soon her body was hidden beneath a carpet of white flowers, unfurling like wings. Guests went by and did not even seem to notice the new mound of vines. My gut was twisting, though I knew that she was already dead. These people are nothing, I reminded myself. We are never called to play the Isthmus Variation without reason. The words were hollow in my mind. Unlike Kutum, I was still close enough to being one of these people to feel horror at their fates.

By the time it was my moment to give the reward and move into another tableau, the vines had retreated back to the hedge and the girl was gone. Only the silk ribbon that had bound her hair and now lay twisted in the grass bore testimony that she had ever been there at all.

The fountains of bubbling drink were still flowing, but the long tables of food had been decimated. The tasters had joined the audience, their bare feet taking them drifting to watch us play. I crouched at the feet of the Sufferer, looking up into his face. White paint cracked and flaked at the corners of Unil’s mouth and along his jaw. In another variation, some of us would have been circulating unobtrusively, ready to refresh makeup and adjust the folds of robes. In this variation, we were on our own.

Not that the audience was paying attention to us, or to anything. This was the final tableau. Usually I would be hearing excited muttering, exclamations of surprise or delight, people talking to each other about what they saw or thought they saw. Tonight, the audience was silent. They gathered around us, shuffling their feet. A little striped animal climbed partway up the Sufferer’s robe, made a dreadful chittering sound, and tumbled back to the ground. Unil flinched slightly. Even he could not avoid occasionally breaking pose.

A sour smell stained the night air, worse when one of the guests was close to me. They exhaled it on their breath, a smell of sweet rot. It overwhelmed the usual human smells I often noticed when the audience was close. I missed those smells.

I shifted, muscles relaxing. The final scene must be played through. The Slow Game’s climax, the final tableau, was a scene that moved slowly through several different configurations. I would end this scene with my hands on the Sufferer’s shoulders, looking into his eyes.

I would rise, over the next quarter of an hour, as all around me the tableau shifted and changed. It would unfurl, blossom into meaning, the final pieces fitting themselves into place. In a normal night, those who had already figured it out would feel a pleasant sensation of accomplishment. Those who had not yet divined the meaning would feel a shock of recognition as the parts they had seen now fit themselves into the whole. It made all the pain worthwhile, to have the audience give that back; pure joy feeding itself into us.

Tonight, that joy was entirely missing. The perfume of night-blooming plants mixed with the sick scent that was emanating from the guests. I heard one near me rustle, moan under his breath, and then thump to the ground. More followed. The poison we had spread across the grass with the hems of our robes first caused intoxication, then lethargy. Now, as the nobles stared at our final tableau in dull incomprehension, it was bringing them a painless death.

Though the breeze from the mountain had died, the hedges around the central area were rustling, restless. If I had allowed myself a moment of fear, I would have broken pose and run.

Ila’s silk fluttered and her sweet quick feet were nearly soundless on the turf. I felt sickness churning in my gut as I listened, held pose, remembered coming upon her washing herself in front of the fire late one night. Remembered Ila’s fingers intertwining with Unil’s as they sat together at a meal, perfectly comfortable in their skins together. I loved that comfort between them far more than I desired to touch the perfect curve of Ila’s back.

Something, maybe one of the silky quadrupeds, staggered against my leg. Its body was firm under the fur and warm where it settled down against my ankle and calf. Then it shivered, and ceased to breathe.

I stared up into Unil’s face. He was looking out over the audience, and there were tears starting to trickle from his eyes, dissolving the white paint on his face, streaking his skin golden.

The Sufferer wept, holding perfectly still.

We unfastened our robes and let them fall, stepping gingerly away from them. I grabbed the long stick that Kutum held out to me. “Good work tonight,” he said, and grinned. His paint cracked, spreading grotesquerie over his features.

The Impia was in Ila and Unil’s wagon, having come in person to grant us our reward. All of us were burning our robes. I saw the white shape of Liio, who had tonight played the Orphan, dance briefly with her bloodstained robe and then throw it on the flames.

“If you can call the Isthmus Variation good,” I said to Kutum. I picked up my robe with the stick and cast it onto the bonfire we’d built in the center of the clearing. I took my low boots off and chucked them after my robes and then stepped into a pair of sandals. I reached for the fresh pair of thin gloves that I’d set next to my sandals. “Ugh, that poison. And those vines. Nobody told me about the vines. My skin is going to be crawling forever.”

Kutum’s breath faltered. He turned away a bit, and the flickering light played over his features. I saw his mouth work silently, the paint on his face crazing. When he spoke again, his voice was low. “Try not to think about them too much. It’s not healthy to wonder about the vines, or what the Impia sees through his flowers.”

Around us, our fellow players moved through the firelight and darkness, speaking to each other and doing the work that must be done before we could leave tonight. I retreated to the wagon I shared with Kutum and Liio, trying not to think of Ila and Unil facing the Impia in their wagon, forced to speak to him with bare and empty hands. Even destroyed men and women have their pride, and they had theirs in bucketfuls. The final tableau of the Slow Game was done, but the Isthmus Variation had one last scene in store before it ended.

The Impia eventually emerged from the wagon where he had been conferring with our leaders. He was a tall man, clean-shaven, his mouth nearly womanish in its softness in contrast to the rest of him. Magister tattoos wound around his fingers and tangled on the backs of his hands, disappearing under his sleeves. Alone of all of the nobles we had seen tonight, he was wearing shoes. Had I not known who he was, I might have mistaken him for a river driver or cooper, some profession that required great physical strength and quick wits.

I did know, so I sank with the rest of the troupe to my knees. “A great service has been rendered tonight,” the Impia said. In those words, it was impossible to mistake him for anyone but the Impia. The words were nearly visible, so laden were they with shivering inflections. “You have the gratitude of my office.” He extended a hand to Ila, who placed her bare hand in the tyrant’s, visibly trembling. He closed his fingers around it and lifted it to his lips. He kissed her hand gently, and then released her.

He turned and left. None of us dared get to our feet until he was long gone.

“Finish burning the costumes,” Ila said when we had begun to recover. “We have a long way to go tonight.” Her face was closed, her lips held in a tight line. Unil put an arm around her shoulders. She was still shaking, and her eyes wandered from side to side in her head, as if she were drunk. She cradled to her chest the hand that the Impia had kissed.

We buried Ila in an unmarked grave the day after we performed the Isthmus Variation.

She is still a bleeding hole at the heart of us, our Ila, our Shadow, our leader. Unil coughs constantly now. He will not survive to see us play again. When he dies, I will abandon the role of the Tempter and take on the Accused. One day, if I live long enough, I will become the Shadow.

The Impia is dead as well, killed by the poison Ila bore on her bare hand, the trust he had forced upon her betrayed. He died on the road back to his summer estate, before he had a chance to call his soldiers or his magics to ensure our silence.

Assassination, the broadsides called it. The enemies of the Impia reaching into the heart of his realm to eliminate him and all of the nobles who had attended his night banquet. None of the broadsides mentioned that there was a Slow Game performed in the garden that night.

We were a hundred miles away when we heard that news, heading into the mountains where we would spend the next year. The new Impia would take at least that long to establish control over the border magics and the people, to make a show of going to war against enemies too terrible to be named or described. The wagons groaned with supplies, our poor horses nearly foundering on the steep mountain roads. We will hide until it is safe once more to come down to the towns, to play the Slow Game once more.

Ila purchased our freedom with her life. Such is the role of the Shadow.

It will be a long time before the Isthmus Variation is performed again. I hope that I am dead and in the earth before another Impia overhears certain whispers between players, before he decides that the Isthmus Variation would be a beautiful weapon to rid himself of a large group of his nobles whom he has grown tired of or who plot against him.

We are a weapon—not against the enemies of the Empire but against those leaders who choose to wield us. We exist to be the blade that turns in the Impia’s hand should he be terrible enough to use us.

Our hidden hand is moving.

Beware.


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Kris Millering is a linguist by training, a tech tinkerer by trade, and a writer and photographer by avocation. She is a graduate of the 2009 Clarion West workshop. She lives just south of Seattle with her partners and a collection of small carnivores.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Silk and Shadow” by Tony Pi
“The Mathematics of Faith” by Jonathan Wood

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Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “The Isthmus Variation”

4 Responses to “The Isthmus Variation”

  1. aiRo25 says:

    07-02-2010, 03:56 PM
    aiRo25

    I can’t decide whether I’m awed or horrified. I think I’m both in equal measure. Fascinating, frightful.

  2. Lucas says:

    07-03-2010, 03:48 AM
    Lucas

    So entertaining, I read it twice!

    Possibly even better the second time! Please give us more from Kris Millering!

  3. Rochita says:

    07-03-2010, 04:29 AM
    Rochita

    Beautiful, Kris. I enjoyed reading this very much.

  4. mbrennan says:

    07-17-2010, 05:46 PM
    mbrennan

    The Slow Game has to be one of the most compelling ideas I’ve seen in a long time: resonant, believable, fascinating to imagine. Like a murder-mystery game, but played out with all the visual power of tableaux — commedia dell’arte turned to grim tragedy instead. I would love to see it performed for real. (Er, without the poison, please.)

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