Sofia had been afraid that something was wrong with Mica, but when she arrived at the carriage, Mica was sitting there, her face white as a sheet, which was normal after a performance, but her eyes were wide open, which was not.
She turned to Sofia.
“You have to leave.”
“She can’t!” Kaido said before Sofia could react, or even take in the announcement.
There was desperation as he said this. This was the continuation of the argument and not the beginning. And he had already lost.
“You were overheard, Sofia.” Mica’s voice was dripping with tiredness. She only said the bare minimum, coming to the point straight away to save her strength. “There are ears everywhere. Before long, the baker and his wife will be questioned, or maybe worse. She was very careless.”
Sofia started shaking as if the temperature around her had suddenly fallen.
“What will happen to me?”
“Nothing,” Kaido said, sounding untruthful. His face was full of sorrow.
“You have to get out of here,” Mica said, contradicting her companion. “I am too weak to go with you, but Kaido will take you to the river. You might be able to get on one of the boats. I’d recommend you take one that is coming from the School, and not one that’s going there, but knowing you, I doubt you will take my advice.”
Sofia’s eyes filled with tears.
“Why can’t I stay with you? I’ll wear a disguise. I’ll hide. Nobody will know that I’m here.”
“It is too dangerous,” Mica said.
“For you or for me?”
Sofia felt more betrayed than she ever had, even more than when she had found out that Mica and Kaido had been deceiving her about their age.
“You’re only looking out for yourself! You’re the same as everybody else here! Lying and cheating. You’re selfish! Why did you even take me with you, if you won’t be there for me?”
A shadow of pain crossed Mica’s face, but it did not sway her.
“I am there for Kaido. And, yes, I take care of myself. You should learn how to do that, but, Sofia, I think you already do. You are willing to put us into jeopardy to save yourself. You have been untruthful to us from the beginning, you haven’t told us why came here, and that you want to go to the School. I don’t mind. It’s a smart way to behave. But don’t accuse me of being the same.”
“She’s only a child,” Kaido interjected.
Mica looked at him sadly.
“You know as well as I do – that doesn’t mean a thing in Nihon.”
Sofia had stopped sobbing and was looking into the distance. She didn’t know what lay beyond, what was waiting for her. The only thing she knew, was that this was a dangerous place. She should never have come.
“I want to go home,” she said, her voice sounding dull even to her ears.
She knew Mica’s reply before she said it.
Sofia left with Kaido as soon as the night broke and the crowds around the Big Tree had dissipated. Before they went, Mica came out of the carriage. She was leaning heavily on the frame. Her face was ashen, drained of energy.
“Remember what I taught you these last days,” she said to Sofia. “You still have a lot to learn, I wish we’d had more time.”
Sofia stared at her with hard eyes and just nodded. Mica made a hesitant step forward, but Sofia turned around and started walking.
Kaido had no choice but to follow her.
“Be back soon,” Sofia heard Mica say to him, and he murmured something in reply. She listened for Mica calling her back. She didn’t.
Sofia swallowed the sour taste in her mouth and marched on so quickly that Kaido had to ask her to slow down.
“You should have said goodbye to Mica,” he said. “That wasn’t very nice of you to leave her like that.”
“She sent me away. She didn’t want to take me in, in the first place.”
“She’s looking out for me.”
“And for herself!”
“Can you blame her?”
Sofia stopped and looked accusingly at Kaido.
“You would have let me stay, wouldn’t you?”
He looked sad as his eyes met hers.
“Sometimes it’s easier not to be the one who makes the decision.”
Sofia scoffed but didn’t say anything. They walked along in silence. It was pitch-dark. Kaido cast a faint glow on the ground so they wouldn’t trip or make too much noise.
“How far is the river?” Sofia asked after a while. She hadn’t been aware that there was a river nearby. Listening to the Talareduh that evening, she had felt a deep yearning to climb the Big Tree just as Reduh had and to see all of the lands with her own eyes. She had even given in to dreaming about reaching its very top and seeing the School where she hoped to find Orì. The thought entered her head that she didn’t know what she would do when she discovered where Orì was. She pushed it away. Orì would certainly tell her.
“Not that far,” Kaido said. “But we have to be careful not to be seen.”
“There’s nobody here.”
“You can never be sure. Remember what Mica taught you.”
Sofia pressed her lips together. She didn’t want to admit that Mica had taken a lot of time to show her how to get on in Nihon. She felt despair that her lessons had ended before they had begun.
“And there’s a boat to the School?” she asked instead.
“There are plenty of small merchant ships going up and down the river. Even in Nihon, we need real wares, although they are often lacking in craftsmanship. And most boats stop by the School. It’s one of the best customers in the area. Funds seem to come out of nowhere. The real thing, apparently, real volcano glass. Nobody knows where they get it from, but it is best not to ask too many questions about the School.”
“People don’t seem to like it.”
“It’s the secrecy. It’s hard to like something you know nothing about.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“Me? Never. I wouldn’t dare to set a foot inside. I’ve seen it once, from far away. I got the feeling that I would not get out of it if I were to enter.”
Sofia didn’t say anything in return. She didn’t want anything to make her question her destination. Even if she would decide not to go to the School, where else should she go? Just wander the lands? Like Kaido had. She pictured him, lost in the woods, disoriented, not knowing where to turn.
“How did you manage to survive?” she asked.
Kaido knew immediately what she meant.
“I wonder too, sometimes,” he said. “I was very lonely. I made false friendships left and right. I was so desperate to trust people that I ignored my instincts for a very long time. I didn’t know what to think and how to act. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and strangely, that was the worst part.”
“How did you -,” Sofia was uncertain how to phrase it. “How did you get yourself back?”
“I don’t know if I did. Maybe I became somebody else. When Mica called me Kaido, that’s who I became. But he feels like me, that’s all I know.”
Sofia was quiet for a little while. Then she said,
“I like Kaido.”
Kaido smiled in the darkness.
“Me too. And I like you, too.”
When they arrived at the river, Sofia saw what Kaido had meant. It was as busy as if it was daytime and, fittingly, it was daytime on the river. A soft blue sky was glowing over the water, and the river was a shining silver band that streamed peacefully downhill. Only when there was a long gap between two vessels did the night fall over the river and swallow it.
“What now?” Sofia asked. Her legs felt like rubber from nervousness.
“When a suitable boat passes, you swim to it, heave yourself onto the rear and hide. When you feel the boat slow down before disembarking at the School, you get into the water again and swim to the land. Then -,” Kaido stopped and shrugged his shoulders. “Then, I don’t know.”
He pressed Sofia’s hand.
“You can always go in the other direction.”
“And do what? Roam around? Hope not to be discovered? Make false friends?”
“It’s what I did.”
Sofia reflected for a moment.
“I have a friend here,” she said then, carefully not mentioning Orì’s name. “A real friend. I came here to find her.”
“Alright,” he said. “Then get into the water. I’ll tell you when to go, but it might be a while.”
Sofia looked doubtfully at the water. She dipped her hand in, it was very cold.
“I’ll freeze,” she said.
“I think you know how to keep yourself warm by now.” Kaido smiled encouragingly. “Only one way to find out.”
Sofia swallowed hard and slipped into the water without a noise.
“And?” Kaido asked.
“Like a warm bath,” she said, grinning proudly.
Then they waited. Kaido examined every boat closely but always shook his head.
From time to time, Sofia felt waves of cold that cut straight into her bones, but for the most part, she was able to keep herself warm, barely aware of the water around her. She wondered if she would be able to breathe underwater. Orì had grown gills to do so. She would be unable to do that, but she felt that there had to be another way.
The imagination had to be more flexible than that. They called it magic, but to Sofia, it didn’t feel that way. She couldn’t say why, or what it was instead. But there was more to it than tricks, she was sure of that.
“Now I won’t know how the Talareduh continues,” she said.
“You like it, don’t you?”
“It is the only thing that’s real over here.”
“There’s more to stories than make-believe. They come from somewhere, and that somewhere is a real place.”
“Will you tell me what happens next?. After Antibe gave her gifts to Tala instead of Reduh?”
Kaido smiled and nodded.
“Antibe was very weak after that,” he said. “She went back into the Big Tree, and she stayed there, sleeping for weeks. When she finally woke and left, the Big Tree had soaked up so much of her power that it was able to sustain itself. It had become real.”
“What about Reduh and Tala?”
“They were gone. They had parted ways, and not on good terms. Receiving Antibe’s magic had changed Tala, as well as the relationship between the young couple. He had become boastful about his new gifts that had seemingly come out of nowhere. Reduh tried to do as he did, but she couldn’t. At every turn, he outdid her, and, to make matters worse, he acted as if it was the easiest thing in the world, while Reduh was sweating to accomplish anything at all. She was consumed with jealousy. One day, she told him that he was undeserving of his magical gift, that she had always been the cleverer one, only putting up with him out of pity. And that he had been too much of a coward to climb the tree. This broke Tala’s heart, just the way Reduh had intended it in her rage. His sorrow turned to anger, as is the way with young people. He grabbed Reduh and flew to the top of the Big Tree. But he was in such a state that he tumbled, and Reduh fell. As he saw her lying twisted on the ground, Tala was overcome with regret. He rushed to her side, and –
– Now!” Kaido interrupted his own story.
Sofia’s head tore around. There was a rather small vessel coming their way, faster than the others. It was stacked with large wooden boxes in a precarious tower that looked heavy enough to sink the ship, but it still floated above the water, barely touching it.
“Yes. Quickly, go! You need to go, now!”
Before Sofia could say anything else, he had loosened her fingers from where she had been gripping a tree root, and she slid underwater. She came up to breathe, and as Kaido gestured, she started in the direction of the ship that went so fast that it would have passed them in a few more seconds.
The cold pierced her skin, almost tearing it off. Her backpack dragged her down. Sofia inhaled water and sputtered, coughing. She grasped through the water. The boat was close but seemed endlessly far away in the icy water.
Her hand touched a rope hanging from the ship’s rail, and she tore herself up with more strength than she thought she possessed. Wide-eyed and shivering, she crashed onto the deck, staring at the water where she had just been as if she expected seeing her own body still floating there. Then she drew herself on the floor towards the boxes and looked back.
Kaido was standing on the shore, next to a tree, almost vanishing, but Sofia could see him. He lifted a hand, and she did too.
She thought that she would never see him again and that he was probably thinking the same thing. Then she pressed her back against the boxes of cargo. She took a deep breath and made herself blend in so that any curious observer’s glance would slip off her, leaving her unseen, unnoticed.
Just like Mica had taught her.