Kaido leaned away from Sofia, and the room came back into focus. The talk and laughter and noises swashed back to the surface, spilling over. People’s silhouettes sharpened, their movements became quick and sudden. The heat and smells in the room flared back up. There was the sulfur from the dragon’s breath, penetrating into the building through every crevice, and the strangeness of the food and drink. All of it melted into a single, overpowering odor.
Sofia was so overwhelmed by this assault on her senses that she closed her eyes. She had to resist the urge to put her hands over her ears and crouch down on the floor. Kaido put his hand on her shoulder. She was too distracted to push him away.
“Just breathe,” he said. “I had to do that. You never know who might be listening.”
Sofia took a few deep breaths. At first, the unfamiliar air stung in her throat, then she grew accustomed to it again.
She opened her eyes.
“Good,” Kaido said. “And proving my point. You don’t belong here. And yet, you don’t cause the stir that you should. I wonder why that is?”
The last part was said mostly to himself. Sofia didn’t know what to reply. He had dropped his previous mischief and was serious and kind now as if he was almost feeling sorry for the trouble he had caused her. He reminded her of Orì at that moment, of how she never knew where she was at with her, not even if she was right to call her her friend.
Suddenly, Sofia felt tired. She was so far from home. It was a world apart. And why had she come here? To find a girl she had only known for a short while. She had no idea where to look for her, and if she had even been honest with her. What if all of this had only been one of Orì’s games, and tomorrow, she would go looking for Sofia at the river, to mock her, to say, ‘I knew you wouldn’t dare to cross the bridge, you boring little goody-two-shoes’?
Well, in that case, she would at least get a big surprise upon discovering that Sofia wasn’t there anymore.
“It is dangerous, what you are doing here,” Kaido said. “But I guess you already know that. Why did you come here?”
Sofia shook her head. “I’m not telling you.”
It was as much as she would say to admit that he was right, but there was no expression of triumph on his face. Only worry.
“You are not safe,” he continued. “Least of all here. People quite often appear friendly and helpful, but that doesn’t mean that they are. Nothing is the way it seems in Nihon. Haven’t you noticed that?”
“I have. I guess.” Sofia wasn’t sure.
“That’s the only thing you can put your trust in. And into yourself. Remember that, it is the single most important lesson if you plan to get out of here alive.”
Sofia squinted at him. It made her angry that she couldn’t figure him out. “So, I should assume that you are lying to me right now?”
Kaido gave a little laugh. “You’re a quick study, that’s good. Yes, you should assume that I’m lying, even though I am not.”
Sofia pondered his answer. It didn’t help her in any way, but it put her at ease somehow. Which was probably exactly what it was supposed to do.
“I gave back your obsidian,” Kaido said. “You don’t understand the temptation, how much I wanted to keep it. Even a splinter would have sufficed to pay your room and board here for a week.”
“I knew he was cheating me!” Sofia exclaimed, annoyed that she had still fallen for the innkeeper’s charade.
“And that is not where he will stop. He’s a nice man, good enough for these surroundings and for his profession. But he won’t be able to help himself, and that wife of his neither. Just one glimpse of volcano glass makes people crazy around here. It has become so rare, some people spend their whole lives without as much as touching it. Where did you get it?”
Sofia closed her hand tightly around the smooth stone in her pocket. She vowed to never loosen her grip around it again.
“That’s none of your business.”
Kaido sighed. “I was afraid you would say that. I should have asked you before warning you not to trust anybody. But you won’t be able to keep it for long, not if you stay here. The innkeeper sees everything. He has eyes in the back of his head. Literally.”
A cold shiver ran down Sofia’s spine. Her throat closed up. She felt all alone, all of a sudden. “Then where should I go?” she asked, trying hard to keep the tears out of her voice.
At this question, Kaido grinned as if he had been waiting for it.
“Doesn’t every child dream of running away with the theater?”
Back in her room, Sofia wrapped herself in a thick blanket, but the cold she was feeling was coming from inside herself, and no amount of external warmth could oust it. She had to make up her mind in what felt like a decision of the utmost importance. Yet, all the information she could hope to rely on was flawed, and her instincts seemed to have deserted her. She was in strange territory. All the rules were different, even the laws of nature seemed non-existent. She was at a loss of how to navigate, yet navigate she must.
She could either stay at the Dragon’s Lodgings and risk being robbed during the night, or maybe worse, or join Kaido and his partner Mica, the woman with the high-piled hair and impervious expression, and risk being robbed by them and put out somewhere on the street.
At least Kaido had mixed his offer with a warning. The innkeeper and his wife had already cheated her and shown her sugary smiles while doing so.
Yet, wasn’t honesty sometimes the most effective disguise for dishonesty?
Sofia stood and looked out of the window. Kaido had told her that he and Mica would halt their carriage behind the inn, not far from her window. It would be her own choice if she would climb out of the window and join them, or stay behind.
“It is up to you,” he had said. “We won’t wait for long, otherwise we’ll arouse suspicion. And if you don’t come, we won’t come back for you.” Then his voice had changed again, as it had before, blurring and slowing down the room for a few seconds so that Sofia could slip out undetected. She had collapsed on the stairs up to her room, when all the sensations had come rushing back, hitting her worse than the time before. Or maybe it was because she had been alone and, not needing to conceal herself, all her fear and exhaustion had momentarily burst through.
But none of this helped with the decision. Unable to make up her mind, she neatly packed up her few belongings again, telling herself that she would need to leave early in the morning anyway. Then she sat down, staring blankly into space.
At home, she would be in bed by now, sleeping deeply. And in the morning, she would get up early, meet Orì, and then study to become the Guardian of the Bridge.
For the first time, she wondered how Aunt Sybil and Uncle Tomas had reacted to her departure. She should have left them a note, explaining, or at least assuring them that she was safe. That she had left on her own free will, and not been abducted. But she figured that they would notice that she had packed. And she didn’t know if she was safe.
What she knew, and had known all along, was that nobody would follow her into Nihon. And now that she was here, she wasn’t sure that she could blame them.
There was a knock on the door., so slight that it might have been a mere cracking of the wood easing.
“Sofia?” the innkeeper’s wife asked in a low, honey-sweet voice.
Sofia sat up straight, panicked. She opened her mouth to answer, but then she thought that it would be quite believable that she was deep asleep. She quickly scrambled beneath the blankets and closed her eyes.
She heard the doorknob turn and crack, then the door opened, and soft, cat-like footsteps entered the room. Sofia held her breath, then remembered that she was pretending to sleep, and she exhaled deeply and – she hoped – peacefully.
“She’s asleep,” the innkeeper whispered.
“The poor girl,” his wife said in an equally low voice that was kind but missing its previous sweetness.
“Not poor, exactly.”
“It’s not right, still.”
“Not wrong, either. Who can tell where she got the stone? Maybe she stole it.”
“What if she wakes up?”
“Be quick then!”
Sofia heard a ruffle. They were busying themselves with her backpack. She was holding the obsidian in her closed fist, but she was afraid that they might become suspicious when they saw what she was carrying. The puppet, the lantern. She didn’t know if these were foreign objects to them.
Then she remembered the ledger. That would arouse suspicion, no matter what.
Quickly thinking about what she should do, she turned abruptly around, almost falling out of the bed. She made a deep wheezing noise and shuddered as if she was dreaming. She felt the innkeeper and his wife becoming stock-still, holding their breath. She murmured, “no, not yet. I’m tired,” then snorted loudly.
“Is she -?” the innkeeper whispered after a moment.
“She’s sleeping,” his wife said. “But -, let’s come back later.”
Slowly, noiselessly, they left the room and closed the door. They remained standing outside, so Sofia waited, lying stiffly in bed. She kept her eyes closed, but she was so afraid that she would fall asleep for real, that she started to repeat her lectures in her head, reciting the sequence in which the Border Villages had been erected, until she was certain that her ungracious hosts had left for good.
Then she sprang up, discarding the blankets and putting on her warm clothes. Her decision was made. Even if she wasn’t sure if it was wise to go with Kaido and Mica, she knew now that it was very unwise to stay at the inn.
A few minutes later, she heard a clicking at her window. She looked outside and saw Kaido. He was throwing pebbles at the glass pane.
Sofia opened the window.
“So?” he asked in a loud whisper.
“How do I climb down?” she asked back.
He smiled, satisfied with her decision. This worried her because, surely, he was putting himself in danger with his actions. It must be greed, she figured. But then why did he return her stone? He could have easily kept it, and she would never have suspected him to be the thief. So, his reasons might be more sinister than mere greed.
But she had no choice.
She heaved the backpack on her shoulders and fastened the flaps of her jacket so that they didn’t get in the way. Then she silently thanked her many years’ experience of climbing every tree in sight, and carefully made her way down.
As she reached the ground, proud at her adeptness, Kaido snickered.
“You give yourself away all the time, and you don’t even know it. Only an Outsider would have gone through the very great trouble of climbing down, instead of jumping or flying.”
Sofia reddened, grateful for the darkness that concealed it.
“Then you will never learn how to climb,” she said defiantly.
Light laughter came from the carriage.
“She got you there, Kaido-lin.”
The woman named Mica stuck her head out of the chariot. Her hair was gone completely. The top of her head shone bald in the moonlight. Her face looked pure and clean, and serenely beautiful.
Sofia found herself staring at her.
“Don’t just stand there,” she said. “You can look all you want when you are inside, but we have to leave before we wake everybody up. And I don’t fancy being burned by dragon-fire.”
Sofia quickly climbed in, only to be confronted with the next shock.
There was daylight inside the chariot.
The air was blue and light and just as intangible as the real sky. A mild breeze weaved around them, and birds were audibly chirping in a distance, unseen trees murmured. It was peaceful, idyllic. But it was inside, and completely closed-off.
Mica was sitting with her eyes half-closed, a soft smile on her lips. She was slightly swaying from one side to the other.
“I need to rest in the sunshine a little bit longer,” she said before Sofia could ask. “Then I’ll turn off the day, and we can get some well-deserved sleep.”
Kaido took a blanket from an overhead compartment and handed it to Sofia.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said, as the carriage departed, rumbling slowly over the uneven road.
There was no driver. The horses were going by themselves.