Kaido had urged her not to fall asleep. The journey would take until midday, and Sofia had not yet slept that night, so he was worried. But sleep was the farthest from her mind, and the constant daylight surrounding the boat added to the sensation of immediacy that was buzzing through her whole body as if she were standing on a cliff, battling against adverse winds.
It reminded Sofia of the night she had crossed the bridge into Nihon. Only that time, the elements had actually opposed her. Now, her conflicting emotions pulled and dragged her in different directions.
Part of her wanted to return to Mica and Kaido, only more so because she knew that it was impossible. It was not only because Mica had sent her away. If Sofia was being honest with herself, she knew that she would have left anyway. During the whole time she had been in Nihon, not a single day, sometimes not even an hour, had gone by that her thoughts had not turned to Orì. She refused to picture the pains her friend might be feeling, her desperation and her fear. The fierce shadows who had taken Orì did not make Sofia confident that she was doing well. Therefore, even in the happy times she’d had with Mica and Kaido, even through the fascination of the theater and the joys of being on the road, discovering a new and foreign world, she had felt more guilt than she was able to keep carrying.
Secretly, she pictured that she would save Orì, in some miraculous way or other. Together with her blue-skinned friend, she would find Mica and Kaido, and they would once again travel the lands and play the Talareduh.
Those were the dreams that Sofia let herself indulge in. Inevitably, she would start feeling silly, and a renewed, intensified despair came crushing over her, reminding her that she had no idea what she was doing, that she was only making things up as she went along.
“And yet, I am still here,” Sofia muttered to herself.
She reached into a puddle that had formed from water spraying on the deck of the ship. She touched it with her fingertip, and the water changed color, circles blooming green and yellow like clouds in the evening sky.
Sofia swirled her finger, and without any conscious intent, the water took on the shade of Orì’s iridescent blue skin. It changed its hue where the rays of the sun touched it.
Sofia stared at it, expecting Orì’s face to appear. She thought that this was not her own doing, but her friend’s, and that she might be close enough for her to send a message. But there was nothing except the color of the water, and when Sofia lifted her head and beheld the spires of the School towering in the distance, the colors vanished altogether as her focus broke.
The boat was slowing down. A stone pier was stretching into the river like a hungry tongue. It was partly shielded by heavy green bushes as if it had been built into a forbidding wilderness.
As the boat approached, the vegetation recoiled, folding into itself like a dangerous animal becoming docile. Yet, there was a shiver running through it, as if it was letting the visitors know that they were only tolerated until their business was completed, and not a moment longer.
As soon as the pier had come into view, Sofia had lowered herself back into the water, clinging to the rear of the boat. She concentrated not to let the icy water needle her skin, and to banish all thoughts about the cold from her mind. For a brief moment, she wondered if her mind’s trick would really be enough to fool her body and if she wouldn’t catch a cold regardless. As if on cue, a stinging cool sensation crept into her bones, and she quickly pushed the thought away.
With the tips of her fingers, Sofia held on to the wood. She tried to make herself unseen, but together with the illusion of warmth, it was too much, and she couldn’t do it. All that was left was to hope that nobody at the pier would see her hanging from the boat.
But there was nobody at the pier.
A sleek wooden trolley was standing there. It had not been there before.
A small chest was placed next to it. Its lid was closed with a metal band that wrapped around the box. It had not been there either, Sofia was sure of it.
The boat stopped at the pier, and Sofia dove beneath the water. Her thoughts turned to breathing underwater, but she was afraid that she would cough and sputter if she tried it, and then she would certainly be discovered. So, she held her breath until she had reached the shore.
With a silent gasp, she broke the surface of the water. Without allowing herself to look around or behind her, she pulled herself onto the land and crept behind a dense row of hedges. The branches scratched her arms, but Sofia only edged closer to them until she felt protected by the very same harsh element that was trying to push her away.
The boat had docked at the pier. None of the activity suggested that anyone was aware of Sofia’s presence. Two people were standing close together. The cargo was being unloaded without any of their apparent doing, but those things didn’t surprise Sofia anymore. Quite the opposite, she would have become suspicious if she’d seen anyone lift heavy loads in Nihon.
“Let’s be quick,” she heard one of the men say.
“Don’t worry,” the other replied, sounding just as worried as the first man.
“This place -,” he said and was shushed by the other.
“It pays. Stop talking.”
The boat was almost empty, only one crate remained. It moved as if on invisible wheels towards the pier, then slid onto land and the trolley. It was stacked precariously high, but the boxes didn’t sway or budge.
The second the last crate was placed on top, the metal band on the small box snapped open with a cutting sound.
A sigh of relief came from the men. Yet, they remained standing still.
Finally, one of them said,
“It’s your turn. I went last time.”
The other man took a hesitant step forward.
“I hate this,” he grumbled. “It makes me feel like I’m losing myself.”
The other man said nothing, neither to contradict nor console him. Even though he didn’t have to go ashore, he looked just as uneasy. His eyes were fixed on his companion who stepped onto the pier as if he was expecting it to open up into a fiery abyss.
Gingerly, he approached the box, took hold of it with two hands, and lifted it with a considerable effort. He hurried back onto the ship and handed the box to the other man. It didn’t appear to weigh anything anymore and he carried it with ease.
“Go. Let’s go, quickly,” he said. Before they had gone below deck, the ship had sped away.
Not once had they cast their eyes towards Sofia. They had not looked around at all.
Sofia returned her attention to the pier. The trolley was gone. The vegetation had closed off the land again. The sunlight had vanished, but there was no nightfall, only a deep shadow hanging heavily. It could not have been more uninviting.
For a while, Sofia stayed where she was. She was trying to summon the courage that was not forthcoming. There was no alternative for where she was about to go, and that was why all her strength seemed to have deserted her. If there had been an open road in any other direction than the School, the mere temptation of taking it would have strengthened her resolve to stick with her plan. But like this, it felt like it was not up to her, and Sofia was filled with the strangest feeling that no part of her journey had been up to her, but that she had been pulled by invisible strings, so gently that she had assumed she was walking on her own accord.
She took a few deep breaths that did nothing to change the way she was feeling, then tried to shrug off her anxiety as a ridiculous, groundless fear. It didn’t work either. So, despite everything, and feeling just as worried as before, she got up and shouldered her backpack.
Her clothes were as dry as if she had crossed a desert, and she fixed her hair up into a simple turban-like crown, as Mica had shown her. Invisibly, it stayed in its place. Sofia didn’t question it any longer.
She wriggled through the plants and bushes, finding that they looked much more forbidding than they were. She could manoeuvre through them quite easily, and more so with every step she took. The closer she came to the School, the more the vegetation seemed to give way, until at last a paved road appeared beneath the grass, leading straight towards an enormously tall and mystifyingly narrow gate. It was at least ten times higher than Sofia, but not more than twice her width. A large person would have trouble getting through, and Sofia couldn’t fathom the trolley having gone in.
The street was paved with white marble rectangles, interspersed with a tiny pink mosaic, like a snake’s coiling. It stretched out like an elastic band. Sofia went on, though she didn’t feel like she was getting any closer to the School.
Yet, when she looked back over her shoulder, the river was nowhere in sight. There was only the white and pink alley going back for what looked like miles on end. It was lined with stone statues that stood grand and noble like two rows of silent guardians.
The statues looked similar, but their features varied like those of close relatives. Their chins and noses were pointed and their jawbones sharp as if shaped by the elements and not from within. They were wearing identical slim tunics and had large naked feet with elaborately detailed bones and veins running through them. Their hands were folded in front of them as if they were waiting for something or someone.
All of them were looking at Sofia.
The one closest to her bent down and brought its face closely towards her. There was a mole on its left cheek that quivered as it opened its mouth.
“Go on. You’re almost there.”
Its voice sounded like marbles being crushed.