From somewhere behind me came a shout: “Lieutenant Kijé!”
I turned and looked back through the crowd, waiting with me at the corner for the light to change. A few others followed my example and faced the source of the shout.
Again, louder: “Lieutenant Kijé!”
The one calling my name wore a midnight-blue soldier’s uniform—long-tailed jacket, high collar, a ceremonial saber like mine at his own waist. The woman I once was, my “player,” would have thought of him as my “assigned contagonist.”
The person I was now knew him as Hendrykje. Pug-nosed, sandy-haired, round-faced, and with bull-necked strength of both body and spirit, he was my potential rival in love, and in many other things besides. The tone of his voice alone told me what he was here for: a duel.
“Hendrykje,” I called out, turning to him, “have you no shame? Berardinis is not even gone a week yet, and already you challenge me?”
My player had rehearsed that response for all other possible characters until it could be delivered with any of the dozen different intonations demanded: betrayal for a former comrade gone rogue; contempt for an unworthy suitor; grief for one for whom I felt respect but knew would only be throwing his life away over this. In front of me was the honorable but misguided Hendrykje, and so the proper response was dismay.
There we stood, separated by barely an arm’s length of space. I, Kijé, the orphan turned soldier turned outlaw; he, Hendrykje, the mercenary, the unrequited lover. And all around us was Manhattan, Sixth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, the northwest corner of Bryant Park.
A member of the crowd angled his skinny body to step around me. “Have your stupid play somewhere else, would you?” he muttered. “Some of us are trying to cross here.”
Hendrykje turned and led me up the steps that stood behind us, into the park proper. Both of our players were warned about the dangers of being a public nuisance in this world, and I could see two policemen further up the block, at the park’s western entrance, already eying us. They could see my soldier’s-castoffs outfit, my saber—even if that was only what they called a “prop,” it still alarmed some of them—and would know at a glance we were a part of what they might call that game. They would not hesitate to chase us out of the park, or arrest us on the spot.
On the great lawn of the park, there was more than enough space to work with. Our players took out four brightly colored divots, each player carrying two at all times, and used them to mark off a square on the grass that measured three meters on a side. Within that space we would have our “play,” as the other man called it.
Of those who lounged on the grass or sat the tables near the adjoining food court, a few turned to watch. They might well have seen other players before, ours included; they might well have already known what to expect. The police turned away from the ragged man gabbling away at them from the foot of the west stairs and drew closer to us.
We had many things to set the scene well: warm breezes, dapples and puddles of sunlight, and even a small audience. And at the northernmost end of the lawn my player could see a woman—muscular, skin tight over her cheekbones—also in the costume of a character, but sporting the orange-and-black striped armband of a game referee. It was her turn that day to score the other players.
She walked up and positioned herself only a meter or so from the perimeter of the game space, waited until both our players stepped within its confines, then raised her banded arm and brought it down.
Before her arm finished its descent, I drew my sword and placed its point at Hendrykje’s throat.
“You must know,” I said, “that this will only end with you dead at my feet.”
Hendrykje reached up with one hand, closed two fingers around my blade like scissors cutting a ribbon, and gently pushed it to one side. “At your feet,” he said, “would be the best place to die of all.”
“You fool,” with that half-shout more than a few heads of those nearby turned to face us. Good, my player thought; we’re drawing a decent audience already.
“You’ve learned nothing, haven’t you?” I went on, an only slightly lower voice. “But you have never thought of how to lead a good and worthy life—only how to enjoy an excellent and proper death. And the most excellent, the most proper of deaths—that would be the one I would give you, is that it? And only because you cannot have me, is that it?”
“I don’t seek to ‘possess’ you!” He flung the point of my sword all the way aside, then stepped in close enough to put both his hands on my epaulettes. “I only want to share all I have with you, all that I am with you!—”
“And if you can’t share, then you’d rather die. Is that it?” I reached up and pulled his hands away. One of them closed around the ribbon sitting under my epaulette, and so the ribbon tore loose as I shoved him. I traded the sword to my other hand and reached up to cover the tear—
—just as if I was covering a wound. That was how it was written; that was how it would have to be played. Right down to the grimace on my face, right down to the slight weakening in my knees.
Hendrykje closed his hand around the torn ribbon, and looked down.
“Do you think,” I said, “you can even begin to count the number of men that came to me as you have now? That have thrown themselves at my feet, that have begged me to be theirs? All knowing full well I would say no? And all believing that to be refused, to be spurned, and then to fight me and die was somehow the highest of all the things they could know?”
Our audience now numbered some two dozen, including the two cops. My player noted all this, but acted no more on it.
I stepped back to the edge of the game field, snapped my sword back into its sheath, and let my player put a guttural edge into my voice.
“Go beg someone else for death,” I said, and turned away.
My player rehearsed often enough to know that she could wait a full second between the moment she heard Hendrykje’s sword slithering out of its sheath, and the moment when she was to make a half-step, half-turn to let the edge of the incoming blade slide past her. Even with our players wielding nothing more than the toy weapons allowed on the streets of this city, the blow came quickly enough, violently enough, to draw a gasp from our little audience.
The duel was not meant to take long. Two minutes of real-life time, at the most, but within those two minutes my player knew that every cut and thrust, every parry, every turn of the body, had to be played out exactly as preordained. When Hendrykje slashed at my legs, the better to cut them out from under me, I had to leap over his blade, then bring my sword flush against the side of my knee to block his blow as it returned.
Through all of this, I felt the guidance of my player’s hand and body, shaping my actions to be that much more convincing to the audience. All that her fencing teacher passed on about the languor, the natural grace one needed to bring to one’s movements, found their way into my stance.
What all the spectators saw on the outside, though, only suggested at what each of our players experienced from the inside. For the players, this was no simple play, and no mere re-enactment. The weapons they held were solid, edged, and deadly; they knew no other clothes than the ones they wore; and all around them rose the spires and walls of a very different city—one they knew not as Manhattan, but as Sij-Salais.
The ending to the scene was just as carefully rehearsed as all that come before. My player flicked the hidden switch on the hilt of the sword, allowing the point to collapse slightly as it was driven into Hendrykje’s chest. Stab fast enough, pull it out fast enough, and the illusion is perfect. Doubly so thanks to the thin capsule of stage blood that breaks when the sword point retracts.
Hendrykje stood for a moment, back arched, his fingers slackening until his sword tumbled from them and made a single blunted clatter against the ground. He sank to his knees and reached for me, catching me by the arm, and he dangled there until I eased him all the way to the grass and closed his eyes.
“There was so much more to see in this world than just me,” I said out loud, casting my words down at the dead body. “If only you opened your eyes to it … but you thought you already had, hadn’t you?”
The performance demanded that my voice take on a measure of pity in those last two words. My player knew the referee would be listening for it, and so she did her best to put it there.
But pity isn’t a matter for the voice alone. It has to be shown, not merely spoken of. And so I took the braid that was torn from my shoulder, and folded his hand around it.
“If there are others to come after you,” I said in a firmer voice, “more of the same sort of fools as you—somehow, they must be made to understand. For them to throw themselves away for me—that means they do not see me at all. From now on, they must see the woman I am—not the legend they hear of, not the legend they convince themselves they must follow … ”
I stood up. There was more to the soliloquy, but out of the corner of her eye my player saw the referee had her arms raised in a circle over her head. She was signaling to end the performance prematurely, which was either very good news or very bad. It was my player’s responsibility to acknowledge this and signal my understanding to everyone else present.
“Scene,” my player said out loud. “Scene, scene, scene.”
I turned away. Behind me, my player knew Hendrykje’s player was getting to his feet and exiting the arena. His player, too, was waiting for a signal. To my player, he made out to be quite a good Hendrykje, even if he was entirely too skinny and short for the part physically. But his attitude, his embodiment, were both excellent, and in the end it was the character of the character that always mattered most.
I restored my sword to its sheath for what my player hoped was the last time that day. One scene of this magnitude was more than enough for her, but with any luck it would be the scene that mattered most for now.
The police remained at the rear of the crowd, watching with distant eyes. Having seen no real violence, and nothing from our players that they were warned about regarding “the likes of us,” they now set their attention elsewhere as well.
A pattering of applause resounded from the audience shortly before they, too, turned their backs and went their ways. A little fabric cup—normally a travel water dish for pets—were placed by the judge at one corner of the cordoned-off area, and in it I saw some freshly deposited loose change. The judge stepped forward to collect it, and I ignored her as carefully as Hendrykje’s player ignored mine when he left the scene.
Testing my player’s suitability for the character of Kijé was only part of the scene’s purpose. The greater reason, the reason that would underscore every future scene, both my own and those of others, lay with the audience—that audience, or any other audience we might have.
It was, after all, for their sakes that our players did this at all. Fragmentary as that scene was, it showed them a piece of our world—one, our players hoped, was far more interesting than theirs.
To my player—and to me—this was not a patch of grass in Bryant Park. This was a courtyard somewhere in the great city of Sij-Salais, where Kijé, her allies, and her enemies finally all converged to battle to the last. All that kept it from being Sij-Salais was the indifference of its populace. And that indifference was something our little dramas were intended to destroy. Perhaps not all at once, but over time, in waves, without these onlookers realizing how in time the shores of their world were being washed away and replaced with our own.
Something, I now knew, that was worthy of dedicating a life to.