The Bridge To Nihon (BOOK ONE)

Chapter 9 - A Tale of Nihon

Back at home, Sofia showed the lantern to Aunt Sybil and Uncle Tomas.

“He never brings back anything useful,” Aunt Sybil said.

“Sofia likes it. That’s what counts,” Uncle Tomas said.

“Yes, I guess that’s right.” Aunt Sybil looked absent-minded. There was a grayness on her face that made her look as if she had spontaneously aged during the meeting with the Assessors.

“Are you alright, Aunt Sybil?” Sofia asked.

“Yes, yes, child. Don’t worry. I’ll go to bed, and tomorrow, I’ll be as good as new.”

But she didn’t sound as if she believed it. Even Uncle Tomas shot her a concerned look.

“You do that, Sybil,” he said. “I’ll clean the kitchen and keep Sofia company.”

Aunt Sybil nodded. She didn’t even comment on Uncle Tomas’ usual inability to finish any task he embarked on. Sofia decided to do it for him so that they wouldn’t fight in the morning.

When they were alone, Sofia was quiet. When she had been smaller, she had used to play with Uncle Tomas. His gaiety had always inspired fun games, but over the years, he had turned more and more inwards, and Sofia had developed a tendency to keep him at bay.

He cleared his throat, visibly forcing himself to remain seated. He kept looking at the door, outside of which lay the little amount of freedom he required.

“What a beautiful piece,” he repeated for the third time.

“There are six figures,” Sofia said. “They can be moved. See?”

She carefully pulled one rod after the other, and the figures shifted.

“He’s a hunter, and he has a dog. The dog is crouching, but if you pull, he rounds his back and lifts his tail. Maybe he can move forward too, but I haven’t dared to pull any harder.” Sofia looked conflicted. “Not yet, anyway.”

She pointed at the shapes of a man and a woman.

“They are a couple. See how they are turned towards each other?”

She pulled the two rods, and they moved closer to each other, then back again, as if they were dancing.

The other two silhouettes were a woman on a throne, and a young man, almost a boy. The woman could be moved around, but she remained attached to the throne. The boy was completely mobile, he could go anywhere. He was quickly becoming Sofia’s favorite, but she wanted to hear Orì’s opinion before deciding.

“Very nice,” Uncle Tomas said. “You know, Sofia, I’ll just head out for a little moment. Really, I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Sure,” Sofia replied. She didn’t see the point in telling him that she didn’t believe him. If she was honest, she was relieved to see him go. It meant that she could stop waiting for his impending departure.


The next morning, Sofia walked quietly through the dark house, carrying the lantern with her breath held in. She was horribly afraid to damage it before she could show it to Orì.

She went to a spot that wasn’t visible from the house and sat down. She placed the lantern behind her back so that Orì wouldn’t notice it right away. To pass the time, she built little stone towers, piling them up to precarious heights. Orì let her wait this morning, but sometimes she was already there without showing herself. Sofia didn’t want to appear impatient or nervous. In her mind, she was playing through all the faults Orì might find with her lantern, and how she could reject them.

Finally, Orì’s voice sounded out.

“Where were you yesterday?”

Orì was sitting on her rock that was higher than usual so that she was looking down at Sofia. She was sporting a deliberately bored expression, but beneath it lay anger.

“I’m sorry. I overslept,” Sofia said.

“Overslept?” Orì’s laugh sounded like a little shriek. “You must not have good control over yourself. I guess none of you does.”

She looked at her fingertips as if there was something interesting to see there.

“I’m sorry,” Sofia repeated.

“Oh, I don’t mind. It’s not like I come here for you. You’re just always out here because you’re so desperate for attention.”

“You’re one to talk,” Sofia muttered. But she felt bad that she had hurt Orì’s feelings.

“Pah!” Orì said. She made a flip out of her body, circling through the air to show Sofia that nothing couldn’t touch her.

“I’m really sorry,” Sofia said again. “I was in a bad mood all day because I missed you. My day was ruined.”

That got Orì’s attention.

“Really?” She smiled a little. “Well, I had a great day. So much fun!”

“Sure,” Sofia said with a grin. Whenever Orì talked about school, all she did was complain about how much she hated everything and everyone.

She felt for the lantern behind her back. “Although -,” she said, trying to lure Orì in, “not all of my day was ruined. I saw my Uncle Sermon. He’d been away for a really long time.”


Orì liked adventures. She had once told Sofia that she always kept a bag under her bed, all ready to set out and leave the school. Sometimes, she took out the bag and rearranged its contents, imagining what she would need, and how she would use it. Sofia doubted that this was anything more than a daydream.

“Sermon spent time with the Silent People in the mountains. Do you know of them?”

Of course.” Orì sucked in her lips. “But – maybe remind me.”

Sofia hid her smile.

“They are people who’ve taken a vow of silence. They live in the mountains, where they make everything that they need themselves. People are allowed to stay with them if they also don’t talk and work with them.”

“And your uncle stayed with them? Isn’t that boring?”

“It’s not,” Sofia protested, even though she had thought the same thing.

She took out the lantern and held it up so that Orì could see it.

Orì bent forward so quickly that she stumbled on her rock. Sofia barely kept herself from laughing. It would have been hilarious if Orì had fallen into the water, but she didn’t want to get any splashes on the lantern.

“It’s a lantern for story-telling,” she said proudly and went on to tell Orì everything Sermon had told her, and showing her how the figures moved.

“I don’t know how to do it well, yet, but I want to learn. And then I can tell stories with it, too.”

“But you only have one lantern,” Orì said, though this time she wasn’t mocking her. She looked thoughtful, and even a little envious of Sofia’s gift.

“I’ll have to talk then, to tell the story,” Sofia said. “Or learn how to make more lanterns. But it is so intricate. It’s like a whole world inside.”

She held it so that Orì might see, but she was too far away.

“Keep it like that,” Orì said, and then, before Sofia could reply, her shape shot out of her body. But instead of doing jumps or loops, as usual, it flew towards Sofia, dissolving as it came closer as if it was made of sand. The shape, which was like Orì, but very unlike her at the same time, rushed past Sofia like a breeze, disintegrating as it did so.

It had all been too fast and strange to follow. Sofia didn’t know what she had seen. She stared at Orì who was slowly opening her eyes. She had turned pale, looking a little sick.

“Woah, that was far,” Orì said. She sounded disoriented. She shook her head as if reclaiming her place in the atmosphere. “But worth it. Your lantern is really beautiful. I wish I had one.”

“And I wish I could do what you just did.”

“We can’t trade, unfortunately. But I could tell you a story. For the woman on the throne. And then you can practice telling it.”

“Is it a true story?”

Orì shrugged.

“Every story is true and false. Do you want to hear it or not?”

“Of course!”

Orì started,

“There once was a princess whose parents ruled over Shazar, one of the Nine Kingdoms of Nihon. It was the smallest kingdom of them all, therefore the other realms cared little about its doings as long as it didn’t rebel against them. To prevent being invaded by one of the mightier rulers, the Kingdom of Shazar had assumed a position of neutrality in war, politeness in politics, and liberality in trade. Its people were peaceable and, like people everywhere, very fond of their traditions.

One of these traditions was renowned all over Nihon. It was the annual Shape-Shifting Festival, and it drew crowds from near and far. The festival lasted for two whole weeks and had many parades, shows, performances and contests, the most famous of which was held on the last day. It was the Magical Creatures Contest, and the most talented shape-shifters of Shazar would come together and amaze the spectators with their presentations.

At the time, shape-shifting was considered an art form – beautiful, fun and entertaining, but ultimately harmless. Like fireworks. But then again, fireworks are made of explosives, and explosives can start and win wars. The same holds true for shape-shifting. It can turn from a pretty trick into a deadly weapon.”

“How?” Sofia couldn’t keep from interrupting.

“All it takes is the imagination and the power of the mind to transform yourself into anything you want. You need to be able to conjure up every detail. Not just the look, but the weight, the texture, even the smell, and it becomes as real as the real thing. As soon as you lose focus, it goes away again, but in the right mind, imagination has no boundaries.

Now, this princess I mentioned was the only daughter of the king and queen of Shazar, and they would have loved for her to be an ordinary girl who loved flowers and horses when she was little, and dancing, dresses and boys when she became older. But all the princess cared about was magic. All she did was magic from the moment she woke up to the moment she went to sleep. Rumor had it that she even did magic in her sleep, as her mind and body processed what she had experienced during the day.

When she was old enough to simply have to learn how to dance, she would only learn the dances with her shape. She kept sitting apart, observing the twirls and elegant gestures her sparkly form was performing without her. Her teachers complained to her parents, and she proceeded to lend her own appearance to her shape so that it looked just like her. On her eighteenth birthday, she danced two complete dances with the heir of one of the other kingdoms, before he realized that it was merely her shape in his arms and that the real princess was hiding behind a curtain. The prince and his family stormed out in mortal anger.

Trouble didn’t stop there. The princess was unreceptive to pleas, threats or promises. All she wanted was to do magic, and all she needed for that was the power of her own mind.

Most of all, she loved shape-shifting, the most amazing and daunting of all skills. The princess was quite mischievous and loved getting attention. One time, she transformed herself into a bed of flowers and overheard an intimate conversation between her mother and her lover, which she repeated in detail at the dinner table. So, you can see that she had little regard for other people’s feelings.

She started entering shape-shifting contests, winning them all, and became famous for her extraordinary skills and imaginative creations. But nobody knew that during all this time, she was secretly preparing for one spectacular performance for the last day of the Shape-Shifting Festival.

Everybody who was anybody – or who hoped to be anybody – attended the Magical Creatures Contest. The gallery was packed with spectators outdoing each other with splendor. The most exquisite gallery was usually reserved for the royal hosts, but since Shazar liked to demonstrate its humility, the royal gallery was occupied by the families of the other eight kingdoms, and the king and the queen of Shazar were hosting the festival from a simpler, though also richly decorated gallery. This was a point of anger among the population.

The presentations started, and the performers proved themselves to be true artists. Mermaids, centaurs, three-headed elephants, even a dollhouse with talking dolls.

Then it was the princess’ turn.

She came onto the stage and bowed in the direction of her parents, and only then towards the royal gallery instead of the other way around. This was unusual, but it went down well with the local spectators. They had all been waiting for the princess’ performance, and spirits were high.

She started, making her body taller and taller until she almost reached the sky. There were awed noises. Some people started clapping, but she was not done. Slowly, she started to lose her human form. Her hands turned into claws with sharp yellow talons. Her arms and body became covered in scales, shining green and red. She expanded and expanded. A tail grew out of her that could have swept away a whole army.

The sounds from the galleries changed from excitement to fear.

The princess’ beautiful face elongated until it wasn’t a face anymore but a dragon’s visage. She opened her mouth in a huge grin, and just as a wave of relief went through the spectators who thought that this signified the end of the transformation, flames shot out of her deep, dark throat.

The flames didn’t behave like normal fire. They moved about softly, almost dancing. They licked at the guests in the royal galleries like drops of rain, and to the horror of the crowd, the fire burnt off each and everyone’s hair and clothes, but didn’t leave a single scorch mark on their now naked bodies.

But they were screaming. They were screaming as if they were in fact being burnt alive, and the smell of scorched hair filled the arena.

During this chaos, the princess casually returned to her own shape and stood quietly on the stage, smiling.

As the fire ceased, and the members of the eight royal families were crouching behind their chairs, naked and hairless, she performed an elegant bow. The crowd erupted in cheers.

No awards were distributed that year. Instead, there were threats of war and annihilation, and the only way the king and queen of Shazar could keep the other kingdoms at bay was to abolish the festival and to vow that they would keep their daughter from doing magic ever again.

They confined her to a windowless tower where she was kept for the rest of her life. Without light, without sun and without anything to spark her imagination, her mind withered, and the magic leaked out of her. Meanwhile, shape-shifting was forbidden in the Kingdom of Shazar, and people gradually unlearned how to do it. They even stopped thinking about the princess in the tower, although she stayed there until her earth many decades later. Some say that she didn’t actually die, but shape-shifted into nothingness. But mostly, people don’t remember her.”

Orì looked at Sofia with an expression that was both sad and triumphant.

“How do you like the story?”

“I love it,” Sofia said. “And I hate it.”

“You can practice it with your lantern. And one day you can tell your own version of it. Because every story belongs to the person who tells it, and you are allowed to tell it as you wish.”

“But I couldn’t tell this story to anybody,” Sofia said. “People would ask where I have heard of it.”

Orì smiled. “You can tell it to me, I never tire of hearing it. It is the story of my great-great-grandmother. Her name was Orì, too.”

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