Sofia followed Kaido and Mica onto the stage. As she looked at the excited audience that was greeting them with heckles and applause, she felt like she was wrapped inside a different person as if she had been swallowed whole. She was still herself, but she was disguised to the outside world, and that made her feel different. It made her feel new.
As the last part of her transformation – all of it real, none of it imaginary as with Kaido and Mica – Mica had padded the inner soles of her shoes with wool, to alter her gait.
“Believe me,” Mica had told her, Sofia’s expression betraying her scepticism. “Such little things sometimes have a bigger effect than the flashiest paint or clothes. It’s all in the movement, and the mind follows the body.”
This turned out to be true. Sofia felt as if she was treading on an uneven, unsteady surface, and in trying to keep her balance, she gradually forgot about her new appearance and held herself much straighter than usually.
In transforming Sofia, Mica had performed a kind of miracle. She had sat her down, not listening to her many objections. Which was good, because Sofia had no idea what she wanted. She had never spent much thought on her appearance, but suddenly, it had become a defining factor. It was all happening too quickly, and, though daunted and distrusting, she preferred to let Mica work.
And work, Mica had done. For someone who didn’t need any tools or aids for herself, she carried a surprising amount of appliances. “For practice,” she had said when Sofia asked. “It’s all in the imagination, but the imagination needs constant feeding.” She had cackled. “It is the hungriest of beasts.”
Sofia had laughed cautiously. She wasn’t sure what Mica meant by this. It sounded joyous and threatening at the same time. But the woman had smiled at her in the mirror, and the way she had been brushing her hair, carefully untangling the knots, had felt nice and soothing, and very unused to.
Mica had first tried to attach additional hair in other colors but then decided that it would take too much time. She had gathered all of Sofia’s hair and clamped it together on top of her head in one straight line down the middle. She had attached the colored strands of hair and tresses until they flowed down Sofia’s sides like a cloak. It was quite heavy, but Mica said she would get used to it, which Sofia wasn’t so sure about.
Then Mica had chosen a simple matte dark blue cloth and employed Kaido to turn it into a floor-length dress, which he did with surprising adeptness and a nostalgic smile on his face. He had remained mostly silent during the whole procedure, unable to take his eyes off Sofia and then looking away with an almost pained expression.
Mica had covered Sofia’s face in white paint until she had a ghostly look, and the same with her neck and hands, advising her several times to be very careful not to smudge the dress. Then she had drawn a thick line down the middle of Sofia’s face, over her forehead, nose and chin like an extension of the parting of her spectacular hairdo.
When she had finished, Mica had been smart enough not to ask Sofia what she thought about her new appearance, and Kaido hadn’t commented on it either. Instead, Mica had pressed both hands lightly on Sofia’s shoulders. A nice, soothing warmth spread from her fingers.
“You look lovely,” she had said. Before Sofia could say anything in reply, Mica had turned away, and Kaido had said, quite matter-of-factly,
“It’s time to get outside, or the crowds will tear this place down.” They both laughed like the seasoned performers they were, unfazed by everything since they had seen and lived it all. “Are you coming, Sofia?” Kaido had called over his shoulder. As if it was no big deal to step onto a stage.
Sofia had swallowed hard. She had looked at the strange girl in the mirror. She looks completely crazy, she thought. Then she had gone to Kaido and Mica, her stomach heavy and sour. During the transformation she had forgotten about the evening’s performance, and that she was supposed to go out with them. At this moment, all came rushing back at her.
I can’t do this, Sofia had thought, panicking, and her hand and back broke into an ice-cold sweat. Her legs felt like they were made out of water. The stage was only a few steps away. She had turned back around, thinking that she would run away, but then she had caught another glimpse of her new self in the mirror. This alien creature, with her hair sprouting like colored weeds from her head and a body and face, made up of lines.
And she thought, so what if I can’t. The crazy girl in the mirror can.
And so she had followed Mica and Kaido, and from the first time in her life, Sofia saw the view from the special vantage point that was the stage.
The audience was made up of many different people, but they all merged into one single person, whose eyes were focused directly onto her. There was an energy in the room that was warm and damp and had a particular smell, salty and fruity, like something left out in the sun too long. It was still pleasant, but it held all the possibilities in the world, good and bad alike. Sofia had never experienced anything like it. She held her head and heavy hairdo high, and carefully stepped outside in her padded shoes.
“What do I do?” she whispered at Mica after they had bowed.
Kaido had started his orator’s speech, welcoming the audience and recapping the two previous parts.
“Nothing, tonight,” Mica whispered back.
“Then why did I need to come out here with you?”
Mica grinned. “Because it’s fun to be on this side.”
“But I won’t see the play!”
“Sure you will. It’s not from sitting in front of the screen that you experience the story. Or do you remember it that way from last night?”
Sofia tried to remember. She couldn’t. The experience of the play had been so intense, so instilled inside her that she only recalled the emotion but not the images. And she would not have been able to describe it to anybody else.
“You’ll see,” Mica said with a wink. She spanned the paper screen, looked gravely at the audience, and sat down hidden behind the paper. She took on a concentrated appearance, so deep that it looked as if her consciousness had left and gone to another place.
Kaido stepped back and knelt on the left side of the stage as if he was about to handle the screen. He motioned Sofia to do the same, and after a short hesitation, she knelt on the right side of the stage. And just as Sofia started to wonder where the puppets could appear from, the contours of the screens darkened from the outside, like liquid spreading through calm waters.
Part Three of the Talareduh began. Everything else vanished.
Towers grew high, one stone stacked on the other, telling of the might of the castles and the riches of the families that lived in them. Yet the colours were heavy as if all joy had been gone from the world. The rooms were empty save for a couple of people who looked as if they had been hollowed out from the insides.
When both babies were taken, and no trace of Kirò could be discovered, not by magic, not by wisdom, not even by torture, grief descended upon the royal families of Kiyon and Abbasin like an avalanche, burying everything that had once been alive.
For a time, the Nine Kingdoms stood still in terror and despair. Secret or open preparations for war commenced. The sounds of whirring trees began to resemble sabre-rattling, and every road was examined for its aptitude to carry an army. Men and women strengthened their bodies and numbed their minds for what they figured lay ahead.
But nothing of the sort happened, and the lands entered into a state of lethargy that would last for two decades as if time had been suspended and everybody’s soul had been enveloped in a heavy, clammy fog. For there could be no righteous anger, no cleaning hatred, when both families were guilty of the same crime.
Such high hopes they had nurtured, such deep love they had felt for their only child, whose tiny body and soul had been obliged to hold so much more than just familial bliss. It was the eternity of their families, their houses, of their places in history. Their glory and their gold, all turned to dust.
And so it happened that the queen of Kiyon, the now childless mother of Prince Tala, locked herself in the tower of their castle. In her room which nobody except for a blind maid was allowed to enter, she conjured up a baby of the exact likeness of her son, and she held him and sang him to sleep, and she fed him. Ignoring her husband’s pleas at the door, she turned herself oblivious to her loss, yet she was never able to make the image of her son age further than the six months he had counted when he had been taken. He never learned how to crawl, and she could never teach him to call her Mother. She lived in an endless circle, ageing more quickly than she would have otherwise, forever doting on the illusion of an unreal child that never grew up.
Her husband, Tala’s father, carried the doubled grief of not only losing his son but his wife to madness, too. For many years, he hoped and waited. He stood outside her door, and sometimes sat there for days, pleading with her to come outside, but she never answered.
One day, he got up, and never went back up the stairs to the tower. Upon descending, he set his eyes on one of the maids and promptly fell in love with her. A mere few months passed until a pregnancy began to show, and even though the maid held secret hopes of becoming queen, the king decided that he could no longer remain in this house of death, be it a mighty castle or not. They departed without leaving word with anyone, and the king left his life behind, abandoning his title and his riches, much to the sorrow of his new bride.
To his relief, he had fathered a daughter, a bright-eyed girl who was named Sarrà and resembled her mother more than him or her half-brother Tala. And so, the erstwhile king forgot all about his previous life, as if it had never been, and indulged in the happy life of a farmer who possessed enough wealth to live in comfort.
His wife, who was a clever, if melancholic woman, understood that nothing must remind him of what had happened to conserve this fragile state of illusory sanity, and when she became pregnant for a second time, she hid it from her husband, giving birth to their son in secret. This boy, called by the rather simple name of Bô, grew up as their stable boy, and never knew why the lady of the house doted on him, why his master avoided looking at him directly, and why the daughter of the house had the same color of hair and eyes as him, and even the same peculiar pointy chin.
Yet their mother could not help herself and instilled in both children a restless sense of grandeur that would later cause much trouble. But their father remained oblivious to this until his peaceful death, proving that the mind can obliterate all of which it does not want to see.
As for the king and queen of Abbasin, the sorrowful parents of Princess Reduh, they went down another path, yet nonetheless tragic. As the first paralysis of grief departed from their bodies and minds, they became restless with desperation. They were a warring family, used to solving conflicts with violence and ruthless displays of power. They were not equipped to mourn in peace.
Unable to place the real blame outside the chamber where they had hatched the plan of the abduction of Prince Tala together, they soon began to wage war against each other, more vicious with every blow they dealt, more forlorn with every blow they received.
The king chased after every skirt in the castle and its surroundings, willing or not, and soon the results of his philandering showed in growing bellies and screaming babies. Unable to stand the existence of his children if she could not have her own, the queen went on to poison the babies, even though the price of her guilt was her sanity. As her husband confronted her with her deeds, she swallowed the last of the poison herself, having previously poured the other half into his drink. Yet, the poison had been conceived for infants though, so all it did was paralyze them both.
So, they spent the remnants of their last years bound to two chairs in the throne room, spewing bile and gall at each other that was so evil to listen to that their servants tossed a coin to determine who had to serve them. Until, one day, they entered to find them both deceased, their heads leaning towards each other, their faces with an expression of bottomless sorrow and regret. In the throes of death, their paralysis must have given way, because their hands had finally been interlaced again in remembrance of the love they had once felt.
After their death, the Kingdom of Abbasin was split among three rival families, who then quickly turned onto Kiyon, in order not to lose out on the rest of the spoils of the double tragedy.
What they found was a castle that bore more resemblance to a centuries-old ruin than the mighty structure it had once been. Only the queen’s tower reached high into the sky, upheld, as it was, by the power of her imagination, though it was crooked and missing pieces.
The servants had overtaken the castle, and lived lives of debauchery and neglect, only doing what was necessary to keep themselves and their queen alive. As they perceived the approaching fighters, they fled without turning back their heads.
After they had climbed up the many steps to the queen’s lodgings, the envoys who had been charged with her incarceration, beheld a sight of horror.
An old woman with grey clotted hair and milky eyes was sitting at a crib, singing a lullaby to a child that no longer bore any resemblance to her son Tala, as, over the years, she had forgotten what he had looked like. When they entered, the old woman turned towards them and put her finger to her lips, so that they would not disturb the baby’s sleep. But the presence of others disturbed her mind to such an extent that her sick and tired imagination could not uphold the illusion of the child any longer, and when she turned back to the crib, it had become empty.
Reality crashed over her, taking what little was left of her with it. She opened her mouth for a wordless cry, and her heart finally stopped.
This is what happened to the families of Tala and Reduh, while, unbeknownst to everybody, the children grew up far away, living as happily as any children could have. Their grandparents spoiled them with love as only grandparents can, turning a blind eye to their faults. For faults they had, but at that time, they didn’t matter yet.
Because for now, they were running through the fields, inventing games and stories, and loving each other with the ferocity, tenderness and naturalness that only siblings close in age feel, as if the other was not a fully separate person, but an extension of themselves.
Light and air returned to the room.
Sofia felt like she was emerging from deep water. For a moment she was not quite sure where she was and how she had gotten there as if she had stumbled into somebody else’s dream. Thankfully, the audience seemed to be in a similar state. More than one person was wiping away tears from their dazed eyes.
Before Sofia could get up, and reveal herself as an outsider through speech or gestures, Kaido turned up next to her. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t do anything just yet,” he whispered. “Take a moment for yourself.”
Sofia took a deep breath and nodded. She looked at Mica, who was very pale and was now slowly opening her eyes. Sweat glistened on her forehead, but otherwise, she looked the same.
“What about my hair?” Sofia whispered anxiously to Kaido.
“It looks great,” he laughed. “You’ll raise a ton of money for us at the collection. Just be careful not to give yourself away, or we’ll have to leave like thieves in the night again.”
“Of course. Do you think we do this for free?” Kaido raised an eyebrow. He winked at Sofia. “Time to meet the natives.”