The word prisoner went through Sofia’s mind. She tried to dismiss it, but the hard, inescapable grasp of the statue’s vise around her arm told another story. Sofia tried to pull away but this only resulted in her being held even tighter.
She was more pulled than walking on her own, and the statue’s pace quickly made her feel out of breath. It was striding along evenly, rapidly, with a clear destination ahead, not like its almost leisurely pace from when Sofia had accompanied it to the library.
Thoughts were whirling in her mind, adding to her feeling of confusion and breathlessness. She had been deceived, the headmistress had said. She was being taken to the Lady of Shazar. She didn’t know who that was, but the name sounded vaguely familiar. And her daughter. But it couldn’t be. It couldn’t.
You have been deceived.
But why? It didn’t make any sense. And it couldn’t be.
She was led downstairs, one spiraling staircase after the other until she was dizzy with the realization of how deep underground they were.
Once more, Sofia tried to extricate herself from the statue’s grip. Once more, she failed.
“Let me go,” she whispered, all the air going out of her lungs as she beheld the caged doors in front of her.
If she still hoped that the word prisoner might be inaccurate, this was a prison, undoubtedly.
Two rows of barred cells. And behind the bars, in spaces adorned with the barest of necessities, there were children.
They looked at Sofia with more or less interest. A few came to stand at the bars, even gripping them with their hands or reaching out to her. Others remained sitting or lying in their cell, barely taking notice. The atmosphere was subdued, but there was no fear, only patience and surrender.
Suddenly, there was a quick motion in one of the cells, a rush that even caused the statue to stop and look.
A boy’s voice. A familiar voice.
“Sofia, is that you?”
Another boy’s voice, sounding identical.
Pip and Tin were in one of the cells.
The boys pressed against the bars as if trying to slip through them, but their bodies were plump as ever. They looked slightly comical in their endeavour. Their eyes were wide with surprise.
“What are you doing here, Sofia?” Tin asked.
“Did she get you too?” Pip added.
“Who?” Sofia asked dumbly. “How long have you been here? How did you get here?”
“We were only playing,” Pip said. “She changed the rules. And then we -.”
The statue yanked Sofia forward again with doubled force.
Sofia screamed out in pain and anger as she was pulled away from the boys. She craned her neck. They kept standing there, their faces pale and pink, just like they had used to look, but with a new wariness in their eyes, as if they were not children anymore. They were not innocent and foolish anymore, but something else.
“Sofia!” they called after her.
Sofia stumbled after the statue.
“What are they doing here?” she shouted. She didn’t expect an answer from the statue, but she couldn’t be silent anymore. “Where are you taking me? Who are you? What are you? Let me go! Let me go!”
The statue stopped, and Sofia stared at with a rage she could no longer conceal.
Before she could say anything else, a soft voice sounded out.
“You may let her go.”
The statue’s grip let off, and Sofia’s arm fell. It was tingling numbly. The hard fingers that had been holding it had left deep red marks. Sofia rubbed the spots, and tears rose to her eyes, as she noticed the pulsating pain for the first time.
She quickly put some distance between herself and the statue, as if that would help her in case it grabbed her again. The statue stood immobile, looking dully ahead as if this was the spot it had been carved out for.
Out of the dark, a woman emerged. Her eyes were just as soft as her voice had been, but Sofia was not fooled by such illusions any longer. Yet, she felt an innate desire to go towards this inviting, friendly softness.
The woman smiled and spread out her arms. She was tall and plump, with no hard edges or angles, only curves. Her face was round, with a little nose and mouth and large eyes, like a doll’s. Soft brown hair was pinned up in loose curls. She looked like she was floating underwater, weightless.
Sofia hardened herself once more, biting the insides of her mouth. There was something so lovely, so maternal about the woman that she wanted to run to her and bury herself in her warmth.
“Finally, you are here, Sofia,” she sang out. “I have been waiting for you.”
“Who are you?” Sofia asked.
“I am the Lady of Shazar,” the woman said. “But you may call me Mother.”
Sofia stood still. She opened and closed her mouth noiselessly, like a fish clamping for air. At that moment, a smaller figure appeared behind the woman.
A tall, lanky girl with blue skin, silver hair and fluid outlines.
“They are not all your children, Mother,” she said, sounding irritated.
The woman’s lips pulled almost imperceptibly at being contradicted, but she didn’t lose her smile as she looked down at Orì.
“They are if I choose them to be.”
She put a hand on Orì’s shoulder that might have been a gesture of affection or warning.
“You know I don’t like it when you make yourself look like that,” she said. “Why, nobody would know that you are my daughter with your silly skin blue and your face like that.”
Orì looked at her defiantly, but the longer she held her gaze, the more her determination waned. Finally, she sighed, and with a blurring of her contours, Orì’s shape changed in front of Sofia’s disbelieving stare.
“Now, that’s better, my darling,” Mother said.
Orì’s eyes were cast on the ground before her. Her shoulders trembled.
“Orì?” Sofia said, forgetting for a moment the enormous anger she was feeling towards the girl she had considered her best friend. “Is that you?”
“Doesn’t she look pretty?” Mother said, looking fondly at the miniature version of herself, soft and pale, with curly brown hair and a rosy face.
Only Orì’s flinch was the same.
“Hello Sofia,” she said, not meeting her eye.
“There is not much time for you two to get reacquainted,” the Lady of Shazar said, leaning her head to the side as if she felt affected by this. “We have been waiting for you, Sofia. I had almost given up hope, but Orì was convinced that you would make it.”
Sofia barely heard what she was saying. Her voice was like a far-away bubble. Anger rose inside of her with a red-hot heat.
“You lied to me!” she spat at Orì. “You’re a liar. You said you were my friend, but you betrayed me!”
The girl who looked like a stranger shook her head.
“I didn’t. Not really. You wanted to come here. Everybody does.”
“Like Pip and Tin? Did you lure them here as well?”
Now a giggle escaped from the girl’s mouth that reminded Sofia of the way Orì had used to laugh when she was pleased with herself.
“They were so easy. A few shiny baubles. A few promises.”
“They said you betrayed them.”
Orì lifted her shoulders indifferently. She didn’t appear interested in talking about the boys.
“Don’t fight, girls,” Mother said with an indulgent smile.
Sofia turned her attention back to her.
“And who are you, anyway?”
“I am Orì’s mother, the Lady of Shazar. And your mother, if you will have me.”
There was a strange lure hidden inside the sentence. Sofia stiffened.
“No, thank you,” she said.
Mother gave another smile.
“That is alright. Rejection is part of the game.”
“A game?” Sofia replied. “I should have known. Everything is a game here. You don’t even look like yourself, Orì.”
Orì pulled an unhappy face. Her frame elongated itself, her skin taking on a bluish tint.
“Orì!” her mother snapped. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Orì shrank back down into the lovely, pretty brown-haired girl.
“Take her to her cell,” Mother said to the immobile statue who instantly shifted into action. “The caravan leaves tonight. We have a long way ahead of us.”
Sofia ducked away from the statue’s hand.
“I can walk on my own,” she said. “Don’t touch me with your cold, dead hands.”
There was a hesitation in the statue, then its hand sank.
Mother looked pleased.
“You were right Orì. She is very special. Your brother will be proud of you when we bring her to him, I am certain. Such a fine addition to the family.”
“Family?” Sofia asked.
An almost holy glow appeared on the Lady’s face.
“Isn’t that what all children want? And we ask so little in return.”
With those words, Sofia was ushered into an empty cell by the statue. As the door clanked shut behind her, she sat down dumbfounded.
Her eyes went to Orì, but her back was turned. All she saw were the cold marble eyes of the Lady of Shazar quickly turning back to their previous pillowy softness.
“We’ll see each other soon, Sofia,” she said in her melodious voice and put her hand on Orì’s shoulder.
“Can I please stay for a moment, Mother?” Orì asked. Her voice was dripping with studied politeness that Sofia had never heard from her.
Mother looked at Orì and back at Sofia. Then she ordered the statue to stay with them, and Orì to follow her soon. And with those words, she walked away, almost floating, her feet barely touching the ground.
Orì remained standing far away from Sofia’s cell. She didn’t speak or look her way.
“So, are you freeing me now?” Sofia asked with unconcealed sarcasm.
“Why are you so mad at me?”
Sofia flew towards the bars of the cell, rattling against them in anger.
“You know, if I wasn’t so angry at you, I could probably focus enough to get myself out of here.”
“You’d be surprised at what I have learnt. I’ve had better teachers than you in the meantime.”
Orì shot her a curious glance. Sofia met it.
“How long have you been in Nihon? When did you cross?”
Sofia folded her arms in front of her chest.
“I’m not going to tell you anything”
“You came here immediately after I was taken?” Orì asked, guessing, but still astounded.
“I thought you were my friend.” Sofia scoffed at her own stupidity. “I wanted to save you. But you tricked me.”
“I didn’t want to. I – I had to and when I -,” Orì stopped herself.
She sat on the ground. Seemingly without any action on her side, her face and body morphed into the tall skinny blue girl that Sofia had known.
“You wouldn’t believe me anyway,” she said.
“I’ll never believe you again. Never!”
“I know.” Orì’s voice drifted away.
“I’m not your friend any longer,” Sofia added, feeling the need to hurt Orì. She was starting to feel bad for her former friend, and the only way around that was to keep up her anger.
“I know!” Orì repeated. “But you wanted to leave your home. You wanted to come to Nihon.”
“And a lot of good has it done me.” Sofia gestured around herself. “I’m in a cell, in prison. Because of you.”
“You won’t be for much longer. Tonight, we leave for Shazar. Then you will really get to know Nihon, not just the borders around here.”
“From behind bars,” Sofia scoffed. “How lovely.”
“Not if you do what I say. You could be free, you know. You could be my sister.”
“That’s the last thing I want. Your mother is wrong. I don’t want a family. Not one like this. She doesn’t even like you unless you look like her.”
“That’s not true,” Orì protested. “It’s different for me. She has to be like that. She doesn’t mean it.”
“If you want to believe that.”
Sofia looked down at the ground. She was silent for a moment, feeling the fight go out of her. She hadn’t slept for more than a day, and her body felt like it was filled with lead, her mind cushioned in cotton wool.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“You have found me. I knew that you would,” she said, with a smile that was crooked and a little sad. “But your adventure is just getting started.”
Sofia wanted to contradict her, to keep fighting.
But before she could help herself, she had already fallen asleep, and she wouldn’t wake until the next day, when she felt the caravan rumbling over rough and smooth, going deeply into Nihon.
And she would not return for a long time.