The Bridge To Nihon (BOOK ONE)

Chapter 15 - At the Dragon's Lodgings

Before Sofia came within sight of the Dragon’s Lodgings, she could already smell the sulfur in the air. She wondered, disconcerted, where it was coming from. Far in the distance, she could see a small cluster of houses, but she didn’t associate them with the smell until she got closer.

It wasn’t an assembly of houses after all, but one large, three-storied building and a few carriages and tents huddled around it.

Sofia remained standing at a safe distance, her body stiff with fear. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

Over the entrance of the inn an enormous dragon’s head stood out proudly, and from its nostrils, yellow-green smoke that smelled of rotten eggs and foul whiteflowers, emerged.

There were many people around, either coming out or going into the inn, or walking past it. None of them paid particular attention to the dragon’s head that moved slowly, its eyes glinting like gold nuggets, its nostrils wide, snorting softly, churning out smoke.

All of a sudden, the dragon’s head turned towards Sofia, staring at her, the heavy eyelids squinting like it was trying to get a better look.

Sofia swallowed and forced herself to move forward as if she was as little impressed by the dragon as everybody else appeared to be.

The dragon’s head tilted, pensively, and after a moment, it turned to its initial position above the door. Its wide, heavy neck protruded from the wooden structure, but there was no body attached to it, neither inside nor outside.

Sofia walked toward it with her body and mind screaming at her to turn away. She tried imitating the other people and didn’t look at the dragon. Until, that was, when she stepped over the door sill and felt herself being enveloped by a cloud of sulfuric smoke.

She heard something like a chuckle above her.

The dragon had churned out a reeking bulk of mist that settled dry and sandy on her skin and clothes.

Sofia jumped, startled, and coughed. The dragon kept snickering, then pulled away, looking back into the distance, as if it was feigning innocence for the prank.

There were about two dozen people inside what appeared to be both a tavern and theater hall. Most of the people were busy erecting a wooden stage, but a few were lounging at tables, heavy plates of food and gleaming glasses of drink in front of them. All of them erupted in hearty laughter at Sofia.

A man with a wide forehead and heavy belly covered in a white, spotless apron came towards Sofia. He was laughing, but looked scoldingly at the dragon.

“Bad boy,” he called. “You’re scaring my guests away, you evil beast.”

He handed Sofia a towel, and said,

“Don’t mind him. He’s still young and doesn’t know how to behave.”

“And whose fault is that?” A tall blonde woman was joining the man and taking the towel away from Sofia.

“Here, let me,” she said and proceeded to rub off the yellow dust without waiting for permission. “You’ll never get it off like that.” As Sofia squirmed under her harsh treatment, she added, “Now, sweetheart, don’t worry. You won’t break.”

Then she ushered her inside but not before she had flapped the towel against the dragon’s cheek and gotten a wail out of him.

“Don’t do that,” the man said, his voice small as if he felt the hurt as well.

“He needs to learn, and so do you,” she said.

The man grumbled but didn’t disagree. “Come,” he said to Sofia. “We’ll get you a glass of water for your throat.”

Sofia was still coughing. But she was glad for the cough because it was a good cover for her surprise as the innkeeper turned his back to her.

He had eyes in the back of his head. With one of the eyes, he winked at Sofia.

“Nothing escapes me,” he said.

“Pah!” his wife said.

They gestured Sofia towards the counter and pulled out a chair for her that was much too large. She put her bag on the ground, glad to get rid of its load, and climbed up on the chair, which earned her a frown from both hosts and a few people around her.

She tried not to stare at the people. One man, not far from her, had a little horn protruding from his forehead, and the woman next to him was wearing her black hair piled up high until it almost reached the ceiling, and yet it appeared to be weightless. She was playing with a smooth single strand without affecting the rest of it.

The innkeeper put a glass of water in front of Sofia, and she gulped it down thirstily. As a result, her stomach rumbled loudly. She held it with both hands, embarrassed.

“Oh, are you hungry, dear?” the innkeeper’s wife said with a sympathetic look.

Sofia had only eaten one slice of bread and a few nuts all day. She was afraid that her provisions wouldn’t last.

“It’s been a long trip,” she said, timidly.

“Well, now you’ve got a roof over your head,” she said, but her look was turning sly. “Where are you coming from?”

“I visited family,” Sofia said, staring into her glass as if it held all the answers.

“All alone? Such a small girl.”

“I do it all the time,” Sofia said, trying to sound easy-going and boastful like Orì.

It seemed to have worked because the woman smiled indulgently. Before she could ask anything else, Sofia added,

“Do you have a room for the night? A small one is more than enough.”

The woman looked at her husband. He was drying off plates, turned away from them, but the eyes in the back of his head were constantly moving around, scanning the room.

“One of the maids’ chambers is available,” he said. “We are fully booked for the Shadow Theater. We even had to set up tents.”

“Yes, I wanted to see the theater,” Sofia said, almost adding that this was the reason for her visit, but stopping herself. Better not to give too many different stories, and only answer when questioned.

“Of course you do,” the woman said, with another look towards her husband. “But all alone like this -.”

Sofia held her breath. She didn’t know where she was going to with this, but it couldn’t be good.

The innkeeper sighed and turned fully towards her. Sofia didn’t dare to look at him. There was silence.

“How do you plan on paying?”

The payment! That was what they had been worried about! They hadn’t been suspicious about her at all. Sofia was so relieved that she let out the breath she had been holding in.

Only then did she realize that she had no idea how she should pay for things. She had brought no money. Aunt Sybil always kept her purse in a locked drawer, and Sofia had never concerned herself with money. The only items she had ever bought had been at the village store, where Aunt Sybil settled her account with Mr Borrealis once a month.

To make matters worse, Sofia had no idea what kind of money was used in Nihon.

“Of course,” she said, trying to chase away the rising feeling of dread. “No problem.”

She was buying time, thinking fervently about what she could use for payment, making a mental inventory of everything she had brought. Food, clothes, her lantern and her puppet, which she wouldn’t give away to save her life, or maybe only then.

She patted down her coat as if fumbling for her purse. There was a square object in her pocket. The black, glittering stone she had gotten from Orì.

Sofia pulled it out of her pocket, more in search of something to do than anything else. As she held it in her hand, all noises died down and conversations stopped. Sofia could physically feel everybody in the room turning towards her.

The man with the horn whistled appreciatively, which earned him an angry look from the innkeeper.

“Volcano glass,” his wife exclaimed. “Where did you -?” she started, then stopped herself as she too received a warning look from her husband.

“Why don’t you take care that our guests don’t go thirsty and hungry?” he said to her. “While I settle this young lady’s account.”

“Of course,” she replied, then added to Sofia. “But first, I’ll get you a nice plate of stew and a few rice cakes. What do you say?”

“That sounds lovely,” Sofia said, almost tearful at the prospect of food. She didn’t understand what had caused the reaction to the stone, but she got that it must be quite valuable. She wondered if Orì had known that, or if she had only thought that it was something pretty.

The innkeeper was eyeing the stone greedily. It made her feel afraid. Certainly, the stone was much too valuable to give away for a room and dinner! But she didn’t have anything else in her possession, and if everybody considered her to be wealthy, she couldn’t very well offer to work for her stay.

Before she could say anything, the innkeeper took the stone from her. Sofia’s eyes went wide with panic. She wanted to grab for it, but he was already running his nail over the edge. A narrow slice fell off as if by magic.

Sofia took back the stone and put it safely into her pocket.

“What a beautiful obsidian,” he said, marveling. Then he hesitated, and from the way he didn’t meet her eye, Sofia couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t cheating her after all.

“Half of it,” she said.

He looked up, guiltily.

“Of course,” he muttered. “I had been going to.”

With another small gesture, he halved the stone, and Sofia quickly pocketed the other half. She still had no idea if she had overpaid or not. But it didn’t matter. She had held own, almost as if she belonged. She leaned back, relaxing a little bit. But as she looked around, she saw that many eyes were still on her. People seemed to have little qualms to stare impolitely.

“I am very tired,” she said to the innkeeper’s wife as she put a large plate in front of her. “Can I go up to my room immediately after I have eaten?”

“Certainly,” the woman said with the deference that only money can buy. “The show starts after sundown. Don’t miss it, especially the beginning.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Sofia replied with a smile.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.