The day of the Assessors’ visit was off to a bad start. Sofia overslept, and when she went outside, Orì was nowhere to be seen.
For the past few days, they had met up every morning in secret. Orì taught Sofia how to make colors appear, and she was slowly getting better at it, though still frustrated that Orì was so much better than her. Yet when Sofia hinted at teaching her other tricks, Orì became evasive. Sofia had an endless amount of questions, but she restrained herself. She didn’t want Orì to get annoyed with her.
From what she pieced together from Orì’s words and deeds, people in Nihon were only held back by the limits of their imagination. And when Sofia wondered aloud what these limits were, Orì laughed and called her silly, and said there were none.
As if there was nothing more obvious in the world.
But Sofia wasn’t sure that she understood what that meant, and she wasn’t entirely sure that Orì understood it either.
The night before the Assessors’ visit, Sofia hadn’t been able to close an eye. She had overheard Aunt Sybil and Uncle Tomas arguing after dinner, their angry whispers as clearly audible as if they had been shouting.
“For once in your miserable life, can you be there for your family?” she had heard Aunt Sybil hiss.
“I am always there. You barely let me talk to Sofia.”
“When have I ever been able to make you do something you didn’t want to do? It is because you are a bad influence on her.”
“I am a better influence than you! All she learns from you is how to be a cold-hearted recluse.”
“I wasn’t always like that if you remember!”
“Honestly, I cannot.”
“That,” Aunt Sybil had retorted with unveiled triumph in her voice, “is because you can’t remember anything anymore!”
The next sound had been the door opening, and Aunt Sybil whispering, “Don’t you dare! On this night of all!” Then the door had fallen in its hinges. Silence had descended and Aunt Sybil had kept sitting at the kitchen table for almost two hours. It was a long time before Uncle Tomas had come back.
In the morning, when Sofia returned to the house after having waited in vain for Orì, Aunt Sybil was sitting in the kitchen, instead of being at her post.
“Your uncle is still sleeping,” she said. “I tried waking him, but -”
“That’s ok,” Sofia said. “We don’t need him, do we?”
Aunt Sybil smiled bitterly.
“No, we don’t. Anyway, we don’t have a choice.”
Sofia sat down next to her.
“Aunt Sybil, are you scared of the Assessors?”
“There is no reason to be scared. They only want what is best for us.” Aunt Sybil thought about it for a moment. “I guess, I don’t want to fail them. I feel rather small when I am in front of them.”
Sofia looked at her aunt hesitantly. She didn’t know what she meant.
“I’m going to be good,” she said, trying to comfort Aunt Sybil.
“Of course you are, Sofia. Don’t you worry,” Aunt Sybil said, shaking off her gloom and getting up. “Now get yourself washed and dressed, and make sure that your clothes are nice and clean.”
“Are they coming here?”
“Why, no. We will meet them at the guildhall. We are not the only people they will be talking to.”
The guildhall was the largest communal space of the village. Any important discussions, travelling theaters or the rare summer feast were held there. Sofia liked going there because it meant that something was happening. Aunt Sybil disliked it intensely, partly for the same reason. She felt ashamed for Uncle Tomas’ drunkenness, even though many people got drunk at the village gatherings, and he wasn’t even the worst one.
This time, the atmosphere was distinctly different, and Sofia’s heart was beating with an intensity as if to remind her that it was still there.
People were gathered in small groups. Their voices were humming in unison, and yet everybody was behaving in a way not to attract any attention. All made an effort to be as unassuming and ordinary as possible.
Aunt Sybil didn’t stay with anyone outside. She nodded towards a few people as she ushered Sofia past. Sofia saw Aunt Sybil’s brothers, but before she could greet them, Aunt Sybil had already put them off until later.
“I didn’t know that Uncle Sermon was back,” Sofia said, craning her neck to get a better look at him.
Aunt Sybil scoffed derisively.
“He doesn’t bother to check in with his sister.”
Sofia thought that she didn’t blame him, because Aunt Sybil tended to treat her brothers with even more coldness than she did Uncle Tomas. But she was careful not to say this.
Sermon had been travelling, as he tended to do as often as he could get away. He said that he had itchy feet, but that his heart belonged to the village, and that this was the reason why he always left, but always came back.
Sofia wondered if he had brought her something. From his last trip, he had brought her a puppet on a string. It was a bearded man made of wood, wearing a green cap and frock, his feet enclosed in tiny leather boots that had real soles with nails in them. His legs and arms and head could be moved in every direction, and Sofia had quickly learned how to make him walk over the windowsill and fall over his own feet in an overly dramatic way. Uncle Sermon had told her about a puppeteer named Cyrus Twist, who had a cart with a red ceiling that was filled with a myriad of puppets, all hanging from a bar, sometimes getting entangled when the road was rough and bumpy. The cart could be opened to one side, doubling as his stage. People came from far and wide to see his performances, but Sofia wasn’t sure if she could trust this information. Uncle Sermon always seemed to run into very famous people, and Aunt Sybil said that being truthful had never been a concern of his.
Also, Uncle Sermon had leaned it as he always did when he was divulging a secret. “People vanish around Cyrus Twist,” he had told her. “He turns them into puppets for his plays. Apparently, he has a list of characters that he needs. And when you resemble one of them, watch out!”
At that point, Sofia had known not to believe him. But she cherished the puppet and marvelled at its fine features and melancholic gaze.
Now, Sofia followed her aunt into the guildhall. The outside noise was swallowed as if they had stepped into a bell jar.
“Here,” Aunt Sybil said, pointing at one of the closed doors.
A young man who wasn’t from the village was sitting next to the entrance. He was wearing the dark blue Assessor’s uniform with the red collar. It looked two sizes too large on him. His expression was very serious, even though his pale and hairless face revealed him to be only a few years older than Sofia.
“You need to wait,” he said with a voice that was an imitation of somebody else’s. He didn’t make eye contact.
“Yes, sir,” Aunt Sybil said and lowered her head.
Sofia stared at her in astonishment. This gesture of deference did not suit her aunt. It made her angry, she didn’t know why. Then she wondered how she should behave, and why Aunt Sybil hadn’t instructed her.
“Aunt Sybil,” she whispered.
“Shh,” Aunt Sybil made. “You can’t talk here.”
Sofia looked at the boy for confirmation of this new rule, but he continued not to look at them. His cheeks had turned red.
The door opened, and Mr Borrelias came out. He was pale. His mustache was lopsided, its ends trembling.
“Sofia,” he said, obviously unaware of Aunt Sybil’s not-talking rule. “What are you doing here?”
He patted her head but seemed too preoccupied to care about an answer. Sofia opened her mouth, but Aunt Sybil shook her head, and she closed it again.
A voice boomed from inside the room.
“Next,” the boy in the Assessor’s uniform repeated and motioned Sofia and Aunt Sybil to enter.
A large wooden table with ornate legs stood in the middle of the room. Four men who looked almost identical were sitting to one side of it. Their heads did not turn as they came in.
“The girl first,” the one who was sitting on the outer left said. “Alone.”
Sofia felt Aunt Sybil hesitating next to her.
“She’s just a child.”
“The girl first,” the next one repeated. “Alone.”
Aunt Sybil put her hand on Sofia’s shoulder. It was unclear if she meant to push her forward or hold her back. Sofia wished for her to stay with her, more than she had ever wished for anything before. Her hands had gone cold at the sight of the Assessors, and at the harsh sound of their voices, she had started to tremble.
But then Aunt Sybil took her hand away. She went back outside.
Sofia remained standing in the same spot.
“Sit,” the first Assessor said.
A single chair stood on the opposite side of the table. The room had been cleared, although Sofia remembered that it was usually crowded with furniture, as it was also used for storage. She wondered where everything had gone and who had done this. Then she wondered how she was still able to think about mundane matters like that.
The Assessors were four middle-aged men that appeared to have been put together for the similarity of their features. At first glance, they could be mistaken for the same person, and at a second glance for brothers close in age. But after a while, it became clear that they only resembled each other in their raw features. The shape of their faces, the size of their noses, the distance between their eyes. Even the heights of their foreheads were identical. Yet they were not related, and they were probably much older than they looked, but their heads were shaven, and they had lean features with tautly stretched, weather-beaten skin that concealed their true age.
Their similarity was increased by their uniforms, dark blue with red, rigid collars and red lapels, the same as the boy’s outside. The only distinction they were allowed – or allowed themselves – were five discrete stripes on their right sleeve, but Sofia had no idea what this meant.
The first Assessor’s voice was as devoid of personality as if it had been sucked out of him.
Sofia cleared her throat. She felt like she was shrinking and would soon become invisible.
“Sofia Mandrin,” she said with a thin voice.
“You have adopted your aunt and uncle’s last name.”
Sofia had never thought about this. She wanted to shrug or make a kind of ambiguous noise, but that felt inappropriate considering the official nature of the situation.
“Yes,” she said.
They wrote down her answer, each one for himself as if they were producing four identical copies of the same report.
Sofia thought that their handwriting was probably identical as well.
“Are you aware what your relation to them is?” the third Assessor asked. They seemed to take turns to speak.
“No. They took me in when I was small,” Sofia said. “I never knew my real family, nor who they are.”
The Assessors stared at her unmoved.
“Your family are the people who provide for you,” the fourth Assessor said unsmilingly. “They deserve your gratitude.”
“Yes,” Sofia said and swallowed any further words. Single-worded answers seemed most appropriate.
“Your aunt,” the first Assessor said, stressing the word as if Sofia had contradicted him, “Sybil Mandrin, is the Guardian of the Bridge in Border Village Number Seventeen.”
Sofia flinched at the official designation. Border Village Number Seventeen. She had always wished for a more poetic name for the place where she lived. Sometimes it felt to her as if everything would be different if only there could be different names.
The second Assessor continued,
“She has informed us that two weeks ago from today, you had an encounter with an individual from Nihon. Is that correct?”
They wrote it down. Their pens scratched over the paper like a chorus.
“Describe the incident.”
“It was early morning. I had gone out to the river to play, and I saw something in the water that looked like a body. I thought somebody might have had an accident and be drowning, so I went into the water. To help.”
Sofia looked nervously at the Assessors who didn’t make any motion, neither to interrupt nor to encourage her. They might as well not have been listening.
“When I pulled on her arm, the person started to move. It was a girl, maybe around my age, but she looked so different from me that I’m not sure. She swam to a rock in the river, and I went back to the shore.”
Sofia didn’t know what her aunt had told the Assessors. She cursed herself for not asking her, but she had been afraid that Aunt Sybil might become suspicious. By now, she could not imagine giving up Orì. Even talking about her to these men whose faces looked like molded masks felt like a betrayal.
She decided to risk it.
“She had light blue skin,” she said, making an exaggerated face as if this was the strangest thing in the world. “She looked really weird. I was very afraid, but thankfully Aunt Sybil appeared behind me and sent her away. She said that she was from Nihon and that I was not allowed to talk to her.”
“Had you talked to her?”
“No,” Sofia exclaimed, opening her eyes wide. She had started to act as if she was Orì. She found that putting herself in her place made it much easier to lie, but she had to be careful not to overdo it, not to go from timid to lofty too quickly.
“I might have asked her who she was, or something like that. I was scared because she looked so different.”
“Have you seen her again?”
“Have you seen any other individual from Nihon?”
They wrote it down. Then they looked up, at the same time, as if choreographed.
The third Assessor said,
“Your aunt has requested that you follow her in her function as Guardian of the Bridge.”
The fourth Assessor said,
“Your training will start in the spring.”
They looked at Sofia with cold grey eyes in which the words they had written down were reflected.
“That is all,” the first Assessor said.