The Bridge To Nihon (BOOK ONE)

Chapter 30 - The Headmistress

Sofia followed the headmistress to a large table. There were papers and open books lying on it. Spots of ink on the wood and several writing pens were scattered. Somebody seemed to be working there.

The headmistress made a gesture, and it became empty and ordered, the wood shining as if it had been polished. Sofia looked around to see if somebody would object, but nobody did. Nobody paid them any attention, everybody kept going about their business

Sofia wondered if they could see them at all.

“You have arrived quite late,” the headmistress said. “But the School has never sent a pupil away. There will be a place for you to put your abilities into the School’s service.”

“My – my abilities?”

Sofia’s back stiffened. The previous warmth had vanished from the headmistress’ face. She studied Sofia with an interest that could only be described as scientific. It made Sofia feel like a malleable object, and the headmistress was the potter, trying to determine the best shape to mould this clay into.

“Don’t worry. Everybody has things they are good at. The School is the best place to determine what they are. You are twelve years old, is that so?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“That is quite old. And you have little experience. And yet –.” The headmistress looked at Sofia inquisitively.

At last, she said, as if she was merely finishing her sentence,

“– you have made it to the School without being caught. You have come here, you were not brought. That is impressive. You learn quickly. And you accept new conditions.”

“How do you –,” Sofia started.

“Know that? The School has an intuition based on millennials of information and experience. That does not mean it is never wrong. But it greatly reduces the probability.” She gave a little smile, but it wasn’t explicitly friendly. “The School has seen enough children to know that they all think they are unique. But it also knows this is rarely the case. There is no reason to assume that you are.”

A coldness spread through Sofia, originating inside her bones. She was surrounded by rows and rows of shelves with no end in sight, trapped inside a history that was not hers. And if she was a part of it, then she was so small that the mere dust would smother her.

There were mostly students of different ages and a few adults with the severity and pinched faces of teachers. None of them paid the least bit of attention to Sofia, as if her presence was as familiar and unsurprising as that of an old book on top of a shelf that hadn’t been opened in centuries.

“But I’m not from here,” Sofia said to the headmistress, lowering her voice into an urgent whisper, even though she was only admitting what the headmistress had just alluded to.

“Nobody is from here.”

“Yes, but I am not –” Sofia lowered her voice even more, “– from Nihon.”

Again, the headmistress’ expression didn’t change. It resembled the stillness of the statues.

“Not everybody is,” she said calmly.

Sofia heard her heart beating. She cast a look around as if those that were from her home would suddenly reveal themselves.

At the same time, she felt despair at having become unexceptional. How could she expect to get help if she was just one of many? And how many people was the headmistress even talking about? She seemed completely unimpressed by Sofia.

“But I -,” she said, searching for words. “I probably shouldn’t even be here. Should I?”

“You came of your own free will. Was it not to be educated by the School?”

“No. I was back home, just a few weeks ago.” Sofia’s eyes filled with tears as all of what she had gone through suddenly came crashing down on her. “My aunt is Guardian of the Bridge, and I was supposed to follow her, but instead -, instead -.”

Sofia’s voice broke.

“Instead you came here,” the headmistress finished for her. There was no compassion in her tone as she went on. “Many, if not most, come to the School in times of need. When they are lost for direction. You would have made a bad Guardian. To excel at anything, you either have to enjoy it or be completely indifferent to it. Neither applies to you.”

Sofia shook her head, not knowing what to say.

“You’re not going to send me away? Or punish me?”

“Everybody can be useful to the School,” the headmistress said. She lifted a long and bony finger. Its skin tone was distinctly grey. “That is how the School has survived over the ages. By not sending anybody away.”

“Not even if they’re from the Other Side?”

“Those distinctions are only temporary. The School does not get involved. It has its opinions, certainly. But the School keeps these opinions to itself.”

The headmistress’ voice sounded ever more devoid of personality, droning on with content, not character. She was a representative more than a person, Sofia realized. She looked ageless, endless, her eyes were smooth like stones. She had probably long forgotten who she was or who she had been. She had become the School.

Sofia remembered the bits of information she had heard about the School. Orì’s hatred of it, and even fear. Kaido’s fascination and trepidation. The baker and his wife. They had talked about their twin daughters as if the School had taken them away, stolen them and changed them.

None of this fit in with the headmistress’ words.

“What about the abductions?” Sofia ventured.

The headmistress didn’t flinch.

“The School never sends anybody away.”

“Even if they are brought here against their will?”

The unlined grey face hardened for a quick moment, but it might have been a shadow.

“Even then.”


“The School does not get involved. That is how the School survives.” The headmistress made an all-encompassing gesture around the room. “How all of this survives. It is more important than any single person’s fortune or misfortune.”

Sofia was speechless. No wonder Orì had hated this place. She felt suffocated by the high walls, by the dust that scratched the back of her throat, by the headmistress’ featureless face and her harsh words that left no room for debate.

“I am looking for my friend,” she blurted out.

“Who is your friend?”

Sofia breathed in deeply. She had not said Orì’s name out loud since crossing into Nihon. Even before that, she hadn’t said it to anybody but Orì herself. It felt like giving up her utmost secret, but if she didn’t do it, she would become encased in the School, entombed, never let out, until she turned into stone.

“Her name is Orì,” she said. “She was taken. I saw it. She’s in danger.”

The headmistress sat still. At first, it didn’t seem unusual. Sofia wondered if she had heard her, then she realized that there something going on behind her rigid facade, and that, for the first time, she was debating on what to say, and how to say it.

As she opened her mouth, her voice sounded sad, not at all like stone anymore.

“My dear child, I am sorry. The School cannot help you.”

She turned her head to the side.

On cue, one of the statues approached her.

“Take her to the Lady of Shazar,” she said. “Tell her that her daughter has procured another one.”

“Yes, headmistress,” the statue said.

“Now I understand why they wouldn’t leave us alone,” the headmistress said, as much to herself as to Sofia.

“Who?” Sofia asked. “What is going on? Where – where is Orì?”

The statue took her arm into a steely grip and pulled her up. Sofia tried to free herself and cried out in pain when the statue’s grip hardened even more.

“No. Help me,” she breathed.

The headmistress didn’t meet her eyes.

“The School does not help anybody. That is how the School survives. You have been deceived. It is not the School’s fault.”

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