The Bridge To Nihon (BOOK ONE)

Chapter 19 - The Transformation

The carriage was pulled steadily through the night. The unevenness of the road created its own soothing rhythm and before long, all three passengers were fast asleep, not waking until the sun rose and the night sky dissolved into shades of orange and pink.

Sofia had been determined not to fall asleep, yet unable to keep her eyes open. She had sunken into a deep slumber, dreaming of a dragon chasing her, and of a closed door that she couldn’t find the key to.

When she woke, Mica and Kaido were still asleep. Kaido was wrapped in a fur cloak that went up all the way over his face, and his body was hunched in an uncomfortable-looking position. Mica, on the other hand, was sitting with a straight back and relaxed face, like a soft-fleshed statue. She looked as she was deep in thought and had merely closed her eyes for a moment. Only her deep breathing and occasional twitching gave away that she was indeed sleeping. Still, Sofia kept her eyes on her for a while, to really make sure.

She got up carefully, by now used to the sways and rocking of the carriage, so that she didn’t tumble. She pulled up her backpack and opened it. Part of her was convinced that they had stolen from her, even though she had to admit that it would be silly, as she would find out right away.

Still, she pushed the ledger all the way to the bottom of the bag. She took out the puppet, straightened its soft leather hide and pressed it quickly to her breast in a sudden bout of affection and loneliness. Then she made sure that the edges of the lantern weren’t kinked and that none of her food had spilled.

“Is it all there?” Kaido said, with an impish smile in his voice. “Whatever it is that you are carrying in that enormous bag?”

Sofia looked up.

He had removed his blanket and straightened himself. He looked just the way he had the day before, except for the horn, which was missing. He saw her look, and as if on cue, it appeared as if it had always been there. He winked at her.

Instead of answering his question, Sofia asked her own,

“How do the horses know where to go?”

Kaido laughed and opened his mouth to answer, but Mica’s voice came out of the corner.

“Because they are very clever horses.”

She shot Kaido a little look, that was affectionate and warning at the same time.

“The cleverest,” he said, but Sofia thought that he had been going to say something else. Maybe even the truth.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“The Court Playhouse. It’s our next station.”

“Court?” Sofia’s heart skipped a beat.

“Well, it used to be, anyway. Only the name remains, as happens so often. But the stage is lovely, a lot to work with. And it fits beautifully for Part Three of the Talareduh.”

Sofia didn’t dare to ask anything else. She felt like an intruder in their life. They might start to feel the same way, and decide to get rid of her.

“It’s not far now,” Mica said. “But we need to do something about your appearance. You caused quite a stir yesterday. Every eye was on you. You’re lucky that the people at the Dragon’s Lodgings are such a self-involved bunch, otherwise, you wouldn’t have been able to escape at all.”

Sofia swallowed as if a brick was lodged in her throat. She threw Kaido a glance, trying to come up with an answer smarter than I don’t know what you mean by that.

Mica laughed. It sounded like a cat’s hiccups. “Don’t worry, child. Kaido and I don’t have secrets from each other.”

Kaido agreed. “Except for the things we don’t tell each other.”

“Of course.”

Mica sounded so earnest that Sofia wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

“But Mica is right,” Kaido added. “Nobody from Nihon would ever look like you. So -,” he hesitated, searching for the right words.

“Plain,” Mica said simply and heartlessly. “We will have to do something about that when we arrive at the Playhouse. Or you will never pass as our assistant.”


At the Court Playhouse, Sofia started to get more excited, but she was disconcerted that Mica and Kaido seemed to grow more apprehensive the closer they got. As the carriage stopped, Sofia pulled the curtain from the window to look outside, but Mica quickly intercepted her.

“Don’t,” she said with a serious voice, and even Kaido showed none of his usual playfulness.

“What’s wrong?” Sofia asked.

Along the way, she had pestered them with questions about the Court Playhouse. For the most part, Mica and Kaido had been happy to entertain her with stories. But now, Sofia realized that they had kept strictly to funny anecdotes, benign teasing and superficial descriptions. Without her even noticing, they had always led the conversation towards the harmless.

Now, something had changed.

“Don’t misunderstand me, Sofia,” Kaido said. “But you are what is wrong. Even at the Dragon’s Lodgings, where people are happy to drink and quarrel, you drew attention. At the Court, even though it has long been used for entertainment only, people are much more attuned to things that don’t fit in. It is still in their nature to make judgments. And it will only take a short moment for them to decree that you don’t belong.”

“And if that happens,” Mica added, “then we can’t help you, and we won’t help you.”

They looked saddened by this, but matter-of-fact.

A cold panic rose inside Sofia.

“But -, but you brought me here,” she protested. “I didn’t ask to come here. I didn’t -.” Tears rose into her eyes. She wanted to tell them that they were responsible for her now, but she knew that this wasn’t so.

“We saved you,” Kaido said gently. “Taking you with us was the only way. Because alone -” He lifted his shoulders. “Alone, you won’t make it in Nihon. You don’t understand this place. And this place won’t understand you. Believe me.”

Mica shot him a look, warning him not to say anything further.

“Look at me, child,” she said to Sofia.

Sofia’s head had sunken down towards her chest. Her eyes were closed, fighting against tears. Mica lifted her chin with her hand, and Sofia did as she was told, looking at her with a blurry, tear-stained vision.

Mica was unadorned. No hair on her head, not even eyelashes encircling her eyes. Her skin was smooth and unblemished like freshly burnt porcelain. She was wearing a dark green suit with no beginning and no end, as if it was an addition to her skin, enveloping her for warmth and modesty. Sofia thought that she was the simplest, most beautiful person she had ever seen. There was nothing that she would change.

But then she did change.

The transformation happened slowly, even languidly, like oil slipping over a smooth, curved surface. Hair appeared, rather than grew. It twisted itself like vines into braids and tresses, gleaming like the darkest night sky. Gold leafs settled between the braids, adding to the illusion like twinkling stars. Mica’s ears grew long and pointy, curling towards her head like intricate stilts. Her lips took on a deep burgundy shade and her eyes shone like rubies as if she was a cat peering into the night beneath feathery lashes. Her forehead elongated as if her face was becoming part of her hair.

“Now you,” Mica said to Kaido.

“I’m not the artist that she is,” he said, almost apologetically. The mother-of-pearl horn grew out of his head, and his hair, that had been shorn short a moment ago, grew out into a ponytail all the way down his back. A high, wide collar in a rigid leather-like material grew from his simple clothes, concealing the lower part of his face, and his eyes, light brown and pleasant, turned black like the bottom of an endless well.

Sofia stared at the two creatures in front of her. They remained Mica and Kaido, she would have recognized them anywhere. But they were changed, transformed. They were artists now, performers, in total control of their appearance and of what they would allow others to see. She felt drab and plain next to them as if she had shrunken.

“You see the difference,” Mica said gently. “You can feel it even, don’t you?”

Sofia nodded.

“What do I do?” she pressed out. She thought that now, they would send her away. They would leave her to fight for herself, and surely, she would lose the fight.

Mica smiled, and Kaido gave a little grin, too. He handed her a cape.

“Put this on and pull it up as high as possible.”

“We’ll smuggle you inside,” Mica said. “And then it’s time for your own transformation.”


While Mica and Kaido talked to their hosts at the Playhouse, Sofia’s heart didn’t manage to get a single beat right. At every moment, she expected the cape to be ripped away from her and being exposed, recognized for what she was, an Outsider. And then what?

But nothing of the sort happened. Nobody made a comment towards her or asked a question. She began to wonder if, in Nihon, people didn’t see some things either, just like the bridge went unmentioned in her own village. Or maybe Kaido had done something to hide her presence from the others.

When the cape was lifted, they were in a simple room with plain wooden furniture, and it was only the three of them.

“That was easy,” Kaido said, rather smug.

“Well, yes,” Mica said, rolling her eyes. “Now for the hard part.”

She looked at Sofia as if she was thinking about how to phrase what she was about to say. Then she sighed and directed Sofia towards the mirror.

“At least they got a normal dressing room here. Some places, there is nothing but a screen.” She shrugged. “Well, usually, we don’t need it. But this time -”

Sofia looked at herself in the mirror. Next to Mica and Kaido, she felt almost invisible, as if she had been watered down. She could barely recognize herself. How could this intensity of feelings and experiences coexist with this drab exterior? She had never minded how she looked, never really cared about it, at least not until she had met Orì. But it was true, in Nihon she stood out. She stood out because she didn’t stand out enough. She didn’t take part in the contest of outdoing each other.

She felt small and sad. She wanted to show Kaido and Mica that she belonged here, that she was worthy. Then she had an idea.

“Is there water?” she asked, almost afraid at the sound of her own voice.

“Sure,” Mica said.

She went to the back and scooped a glass of water from a bucket. She assumed that Sofia was thirsty, but when she placed it in front of her, Sofia didn’t pick it up. She took a deep breath and touched the surface of the water with her fingertip. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her finger as if the rest of her body had gone out of existence. The only thing she felt was a slight buzzing and a burning hope that this was working.

Kaido gasped almost inaudibly, and Sofia felt Mica stiffen behind her. She opened her eyes.

The glass was filled with tiny water blossoms in every color Sofia had ever perceived in her life as if it was a bouquet formed out of memories. It didn’t look like water anymore, but almost solid.

Suddenly, Sofia felt the desire to make them come out of the glass. She lifted her finger, and the blossoms followed her as if there was a draft of air guiding them, overflowing from the glass like bubbles.

“How do you -?” Kaido started.

Sofia looked up at him, proud, and then it happened. Of course.

The flowers turned back into their previous shape, and the water spilled over the table, onto the floor and Sofia’s feet.

Her face became red-hot. Kaido and Mica laughed.

“Very impressive,” Mica said. “Where did you learn to do that?”

Sofia shrugged. Part of her wanted to tell them about Orì, but protecting Orì was the only thing that really mattered. She would never give her up.

“Again, she’s not telling us,” Kaido said, smiling knowingly.

“A girl’s gotta have some secrets,” Mica said. Then she shooed Kaido away. “Now let me work in peace on our little sorceress here. The show starts in a few hours, and we need a presentable assistant.”

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