The Bridge To Nihon (BOOK ONE)

Chapter 16 - A Theater of Shadows

Sofia’s room was indeed tiny, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in coziness. The bed was a bunk in the wall. It was so small that Sofia had to be careful not to toss and turn, or else she would fall out, but there were a bunch of heavy woollen blankets laid out on it, looking so inviting and soft that Sofia immediately felt the urge to lay down. She resisted the temptation because she knew that she would fall asleep right away, and she didn’t want to miss the theater, not for anything in the world.

She figured that this would be a good opportunity to gather some information and continue her journey in a more informed way, maybe even learning which way the school was. This alleviated the bad conscience she felt because she was looking forward to seeing the show. After all, she hadn’t undertaken this journey for her own pleasure, but to rescue Orì. And Orì certainly wasn’t enjoying herself at this moment.

Sofia stored her bag under the bed and took out some fresh clothes. She washed away the sweat and smell of travelling at the sink and then installed herself in the stone seat at the window.

Her room looked out to the back, and the view stretched over a wide field of blue flowers that seemed to dance and wave and stretch out their heads as if they were little people performing a languid, sun-drenched, tired choreography. The sun was lowering in the distance like a fat, lazy cat whose head was slowly sinking as it fell asleep.

Sofia laid her head against the cool glass of the windowpane and allowed her eyes to close for a few minutes.

She woke to find herself sitting on the floor, and her backside hurting.

She had dreamed that she had been climbing up the tower, trying to warn Aunt Sybil of something. She couldn’t remember what it was, only the feeling of urgency. Then, in the dream, she fell. She fell and fell, much longer than she should have, not accelerating, but almost as if she was about to start flying.

“Ow,” she said, looking around herself, remembering where she was. It took a while.

Then her eyes shot towards the window, and she sighed with relief. It was dusk outside, the sun had not yet gone down all the way, but it was high time to go downstairs. The Shadow Theater would soon be beginning.


Downstairs, the room was filled to the brim with people. Conversation buzzed loudly into an indistinguishable humming. For a moment, Sofia was dismayed, but then she thought that this would allow her a certain anonymity which was more than welcome after she had caused such a stir that afternoon.

She found a spot at the farthest corner of the room, crammed between the wall and a table of three women with large bodies, big laughs and eyes that eagerly looked her up and down.

“Are you here all alone?”

“Why don’t you join us?”

“Such a sweet girl, we could use some youth at our table!”

“Someone to mother a bit, eh?”

“Or at least play aunt!”

Sofia tried to decline politely, but she couldn’t keep them from turning around their chairs so that she became part of their table despite herself. The innkeeper’s wife came and put a glass of elderflower syrup on the table without asking, and Sofia had to put her chair even closer. Now, this was her table, too.

There were dozens of people in the small room, each looking stranger than the next. She recognized the man with the horn. He seemed to be with the theater, setting up a large mulberry paper screen. The woman with the high-piled hair was behind the screen, lighting candles. The extraordinary silhouette of her headdress was visible through the transparent screen as if it to test if the screen worked. It made for an amusing sight as it bobbed up and down while she worked.

When Sofia tore her eyes away from her, she saw that the man with the horn had turned towards her and was staring at her with undisguised intrigue. She reddened and looked away, then back again. He grinned and winked at her.

“Have you met the group?” one of the women at the table asked excitedly.

“They were here when I arrived this afternoon,” Sofia said.

“They are amazing!” the woman expressed. “The best in the kingdom!”

“Hmm.” The woman was unconvinced. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“They play the Talareduh Saga like no others!”

“That’s right. But it is so, so long. I prefer the shorter plays, the funny ones.”

The first woman sighed with derision.

“You are very uncultured, Maringa, you know that?”

Maringa looked prissy.

“I am only being honest,” she said. “And I don’t pretend to have refined tastes, when really, I don’t, Wada.”

The woman called Wada made a face and turned to Sofia.

“So, I am Wada,” she said. “And this is Maringa, and the quiet one is Neyne.”

“I’m not quiet,” Neyne said. “I just don’t like it when you two are fighting.” She smiled at Sofia. All her teeth were gold. Her face and neck were adorned with so much jewelry that it looked painful and was awkward to look at. It was the same for all three of them. They looked like vagabonds, carrying all their belongings on their person for fear of losing any.

“What is your name, little girl?” Neyne asked. “Politeness demands that you introduce yourself as well.”


“Ah,” Neyne said.

Maringa and Wada made little undecided noises. They seemed quite unimpressed with Sofia’s name.

“Not a lot of history to that name,” Wada said. “Where does it come from?”

Now they were all looking at Sofia with unconcealed interest. Her mind raced to find a suitable answer. She shrugged and said, “My father was drunk,” which got a big hearty laugh out of all three of them, and their stones and bobbles shook on their heavy bodies.

Sofia sat back, relieved as if she had passed a test.

“What is the Talareduh?” she dared to ask, hoping that she wouldn’t give herself away with the question.

The women did indeed look surprised, but then Neyne said,

“Maybe it has a different name where you are from. It’s the story of Tala and Reduh. It is about how they were taken from their parents, grew up into their legacy and united the Nine Kingdoms.”

“Ah, yes,” Sofia said, hoping that they wouldn’t ask her any more questions. “It is really long,” she added, trying to steer the conversation back to before.

Forty parts,” Maringa sighed. “Today is part two. When the hunter takes the children away. And in the end, ah well, you know.”

“Did you see the first part?” Sofia asked.

“Yesterday. It was outside, at the Stone Theater, just as the moon was showing. It was beautiful.”

“Magical,” Wada agreed.

“Oh, Wada, you think everything is magical.”

Wada giggled as if this was an inside joke. Her cheeks lit up bright orange, and her eyes turned violet. The other women laughed too, and Sofia joined in timidly, though she didn’t know what they were laughing about.

Then the lights were turned off. Everything became dark, the only source of light was the candles. There was nothing to see but the pure white screen, even though the woman with the high hair was sitting behind it, and her silhouette should have been visible.

The man with the horn stepped onto the stage. He had changed his attire and was now wearing a dark red cloak, and the skin around his eyes was black so that the whites of his eyes were gleaming like stars. The horn on his forehead glittered in the dark.

The room went silent, and with a deep, dark voice, he started talking.

“Dear folks, the Shadow Theater welcomes you. We are grateful that you could find the time in your busy lives -,” here he earned some laughter, “- to join us on the second part of our journey. A journey that will tour the kingdoms of Shazar, Dorian and Teelhâhn, through all the forty parts of the Talareduh, our most beloved tale, filled to the brim with intrigue, love and magic, and lessons that are still valuable today, becoming even more relevant in these days.”

He paused to let the words sink in. There were approving murmurs from about half the audience, and disapproving ones from the other half. He smirked at the divide he had created.

“As you recall or know already, yesterday we bore witness to the very beginning of the Talareduh. We saw the birth of Prince Tala, of the proud family of Kiyon, and Princess Reduh, of the equally proud, rivaling family of Abbasin. Each family set on destroying the other, furthering their own offspring and gaining hegemony over the Nine Kingdoms, yet ultimately annihilating themselves when they each ordered the abduction of the other’s heir when they were only babies in the crib.

Unknowingly, fate had it that both families entrusted the same man with the job of abducting the infants, a famous hunter of the name of Kirò, about whose adventures many songs have been written.”

The orator made a dramatic pause, closing his eyes. His eyelids were painted black as well. His face, and then his whole body, seemed to vanish.

He reappeared behind the screen as a dark silhouette. His voice had a metallic clang as he changed from the recollection into the storytelling.

“Kirò is on his way to the Stone Mountains with the two babies, Tala and Reduh, who are observing the strange landscapes with wide eyes.”

The orator’s silhouette vanished, and the screen reappeared clean and white.

A shadowy landscape appeared. Mountains, broken apart by a wide and torrent river, a vast scenery, a stony desert except for lone, dried up trees, holding up against wind and weather. A rider emerged from the shadows. First so small that he was almost imperceptible, then coming towards the audience.

There were no fastenings, no strings, no nothing, and the scenes changed so quickly and seamlessly into each other like waves in the water. Sofia threw a curious glance around the room to see if the other people were as surprised by this as she was, but they appeared unfazed, although transfixed on the screen.

Sofia couldn’t tell how the man and the woman made the rider appear, how they created the details of the landscape, the morning fog that evaporated into the morning sky, the wheezing of the horse that was riding at full speed as if it was being chased by an invisible army. There were only shadows. Shades of grey, thrown against the light of the candles and the white of the screen. And yet, a world was emerging. Sofia could feel herself becoming absorbed in it as if it was more real than the room she was in, the people she was with. More real even, than herself.

She couldn’t tell if the man with the horns was still talking or if his voice was in her head, or if she was telling the story to herself.

Kirò was riding against the wind. It was tearing at his face as he hunched over his trusted horse and drove it to an even faster speed. He didn’t allow himself to feel the worry in his heart. The worry, that he was doing wrong, that there were some orders that no man should follow, that he was going toward his own doom, that he would be torn to pieces by the same families who had ordered him to give away his soul. Because he had given away his soul, he had not sold it. He had not accepted payment from the rich and powerful since he had ended his days as a mercenary in a blaze of glory. Now, it was only honor he was after, but he had confused honor with blind loyalty and favors with orders.

The infants, not even one year old each, were squealing with delight behind him at the wild ride. Their little hands shot out as if they were trying to show each other the sights.

It became so clear, Kirò had thought right from the beginning, what an artificial construct hatred was. It had to be taught, it was not learned. Babies recognized apparent rivals as what they really were. Friends to play with.

Kirò’s horse neighed in frustration, and he patted its sweat-slick neck.

“Just a little further,” he whispered, lying, for it was still a long way ahead.

He shared his strength with the horse, his faithful companion since he had grown into his last pair of boots. Instantly, he felt the toll he was taking on the animal, and he knew that this would be the last journey together.

There was no time to lose, so he suppressed his fear and worry, and rode on.

He rode on for two more days and two more nights, and when his horse finally broke down beneath him, and there was no more strength left inside himself to give it, he buried the animal in the ground, and continued the last few miles of his journey on foot, feeling every minute of the past days in the marrow of his bones.

Finally, the village appeared.

An assembly of modest stone houses, their only wealth the fields of corn surrounding them, and the beautiful, black-blue cattle that they fed the grains to, keeping nothing for themselves. The Stone Mountain Cattle, renowned and sought-after throughout all the kingdoms, fed them, protected them and allowed them to keep living their lives in peace, apart from the hustle and bustle of the castles and the intrigues of the courts.

It was a simple, yet prosperous life, and there was no family living there, who would not be grateful to receive another pair of helping hands, even if that meant another mouth to feed.

Kirò went on until he reached the last house, a little off the path. He knocked, and when the door was opened, he bowed his head deep.

“Kirò, what a rare and wonderful surprise,” a large-bodied man said. “Come in, come in. What are you doing so far away from the courts? Such a long time that we’ve had the pleasure.”

“Father,” Kirò said, still not lifting his head.

“Your mother will be so happy to see you.”

Kirò’s father smiled at him, but worry crept into his pleasant expression. There was something in his son’s face that he didn’t dare to look at too closely, and when he walked in past him, he saw the two infants peering out of the basket strapped onto his back.

Kirò spent a long and difficult evening with his parents, finally convincing them to take the children in as if they were his, as if they were their grandparents. This would be the story they would tell, but Kirò made it clear to them that it was best not to talk about it too much, or at all, if they could help it.

Tala and Reduh observed the events with alert eyes, but at the end of the evening, they were fast asleep, dreaming the happy dreams of babes, where none of the evils of the worlds has found entry yet.

When they woke in the morning, the first thing they saw were the faces of their new grandparents, weary and fearful, but already filling with love, and, just as they already had forgotten their own parents and nurses, they quickly forgot Kirò as the days went on, and his face was replaced with other, new impressions.

Kirò had left his parents’ house before the sun was up.

He tried to tell himself that he had fulfilled both orders. He had taken the respective child and brought it to an unknown, faraway place where it could never ever be discovered. But he knew that he had done wrong. He had betrayed both families in fulfilling the other’s orders, and he had taken both children away together so that the rival heirs to the throne would grow up as siblings.

Kirò walked to the top of the mountain, to a place that overlooked the plane until the sea appeared, blurring into the clouds of the horizon. As a child, this had been his favorite spot, the place he had always come to when he had felt like his parents’ world was too small for him.

He sat there until the evening, until the sun went down, deep down, unreachable in the distance. How this had always distressed him as a child! The size of the world. Its vastness and its smallness. He felt his organs fill up and burst with the unending misery of it.

Then, Kirò stood at the cliff, and let himself fall into the abyss. He had paid his debt.

A gasp went through the audience. They must have known that this would happen, but nonetheless, there wasn’t a single person left unmoved. Sofia felt a shock ebb through her body, making it hard to breathe.

Then the lights went back on, applause thundered through the room, and she remembered with relief that it was just a story.

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