Goda’s Slave – Chapter 36: Delusions

Kanna could no longer fully recognize her own name. The shape of it had morphed, though she couldn’t tell how because all the glyphs were the same as before. She had read them over and over on that crumpled sheet in her hand, but on every pass, they seemed to lose more of their meaning until all she could see were crisscrossing lines of ink that carried no shred of information.

One of her tears had fallen on the edge of the page, and it had made some of the ink of her name run out of the box that had contained it, but otherwise everything looked as crisp as before in the light of the hallway. It wasn’t the paper that had lost some quality; it was she who had lost something in herself.

More resistance had broken within her. Through that crack, she felt the hollowness returning, filling her up, making her gut twist and turn with fear—but she faced that, too. Her hands trembling, she lifted her head up to look at the giant.

Goda was watching her. The giant’s mouth held a faint smile, but her eyes were empty, seeking nothing. The corridor was dead silent, so all Kanna could hear was that roaring emptiness echoing in her own ears.

Kanna ran to her. The bones in her bare feet slammed painfully into the floor, but she didn’t care. Her lungs were heaving faster and faster; her throat felt raw; the tears had started to come again. She whipped past the woman who stood between them, and when she was close enough to the giant, she reached high over her head and took Goda’s collar in her hands and yanked it down with all her strength.

The giant’s shoulders flexed in surprise, but she stooped down to accommodate the momentum of Kanna’s desperate pulling, to answer Kanna’s furious cries, to lean into all the blasphemous names that Kanna was calling her.

Once Goda had leaned far enough, Kanna stretched up and kissed Goda on the mouth with the force of every shred of anger that flowed through her. To Kanna’s surprise, the giant kissed her back, with the same shameless passion that she had offered in the woods, with the same fullness of lips and tongue and teeth that she had drowned Kanna in every time they clasped to each other.

It overwhelmed Kanna and robbed her of air, so she pulled back from the giant. She pressed her hand to her mouth because she had started bleeding after colliding with Goda’s teeth. She stared up at the giant, but everything was smeared with the warmth in her own eyes, so she knew that there was no way she was seeing things as they truly were.

“I never asked for this,” Kanna said. She still held Goda’s collar in her hands because she could not let the giant escape her again. “I never asked to be saved, you arrogant bastard. You have no right. Have you ever considered that I don’t want to live? If you think you’ve done well, and you’re standing there proud of yourself, then you’re wrong. I didn’t tell you to do any of this, so don’t expect my gratitude.”

“You do this to yourself. I am you.”

“Shut up.” Kanna pressed her face against Goda’s chest. Even more of her resistance had started to dissolve in her bones, and this scared her, but she leaned further into the body of the giant to keep herself standing. She felt Goda straightening up, becoming that thick boulder that Kanna had first noticed in the desert, but it didn’t stop her from feeling like she was melting into it, like her body was pulsing with the beat of the giant’s heart. “What good does it do me if I’m not with you?”

It was then that Kanna felt a presence hovering behind her, one that was smaller and less overwhelming than Goda’s, but nonetheless one that held some power that Kanna could not ignore. When she felt a hand reaching out from that presence to land on her shoulder, it made her lose the sensation that she was dissolving into Goda, and it jerked her back into reality at once, and it made her stiffen with discomfort.

But she made herself turn around, and she saw that it was Lila who had touched her. The woman was smiling at her, eyes attentive and radiating with emptiness, an expression not dissimilar to that of Goda Brahm. Kanna did not turn way, even though she knew that the woman was staring at her with love, even though she found this more uncomfortable and bewildering than the touch itself.

“Why is it that suddenly, I’m free from my punishment? Just like that?” Kanna found herself whispering to the woman, her voice pleading. Something in her was asking for the bureaucrat to give the resistance back, so that she could fill up the emptiness again; something in her felt that this woman had ripped the sweet torture from her grasp.

“Oh,” Lila said, her eyes wide with sadistic delight, “but this is your punishment.”

Kanna’s breath hitched. “I’m being sent to die after all?”

“No, that would be too kind. To them, you are still a slave and they are forcing you to work. Worse, you’re being sent to a place where no one wants to go and being made to do a job that no one knows how to do.” Lila’s hand came to press against the side of Kanna’s face; it was warm, soft. It was the uncalloused hand of someone who had never worked in a field and had rarely lifted anything heavier than a pen, but somehow it did not feel at all weak. “They’ve been trying to fill this position for three years. Tell me, what kind of person would be educated enough to know Upperlander, as well as both modern and ancient Middlelander, but still be willing to brave the wilderness of Samma? Don’t worry. They won’t know your secret. They don’t realize that it’s not a wilderness to you, but rather a garden. They can’t fathom that you could ever be happy with anything they offer you, that you could be free in your slavery.”

“But I don’t understand ancient Middlelander. All I know is what I copied from a book.” Kanna was shaking her head. “And the scroll, surely that was filled with blasphemous words that could have gotten me….”

“Those bureaucrats can’t read Old Middlelander any better than you can—the difference is that you’re willing to admit it, while they’re only too happy to save face by never asking what it says.” Lila’s smile grew ever more playful. “I even added things myself just for fun. ‘Oh, isn’t it interesting how the Upperlander girl was translating this devotional scroll to the Goddess? I wonder when she converted to the Cult of Mahara.’ They nodded and looked at the scroll with the severity of priestesses. They’ve grown so adept at aping religious reverence that the only things giving them away are their furtive glances to see if I buy it. Vanity may seem to have no purpose or to even be evil, but today vanity saved your life. So you see, all of the Goddess’s creations are good, even human weakness.”

Kanna stared at her, astonished. “Who are you?”

She knew that the woman was a bureaucrat who had the features of an Outerlander, and at first that had been enough, but clearly something else was happening beneath the surface, something Kanna had missed.

Lila’s expression turned coy, mysterious. “Me? Oh, I’m nobody. Nobody at all. I’ve just learned how to play the Middlelander game very well, so today I’ve been useful to you.” She tipped her head up then, seemed to gesture towards the giant behind Kanna. “And as a more experienced player, I’ll advise you to be a bit less…dramatic in how you show your affection. It appears that you like Goda Brahm, which is fine, but no one else should know about it from now on.”

Kanna felt a blush creeping up her neck—but even with that small bit of shame to distract her, she was unsatisfied with the woman’s response. Before she could ask anything more, though, she felt the giant’s arm wrapping around her, diving into one of her pockets.

Goda pulled out the bag of sweets that Kanna had hidden away, and she offered it to Lila.

“But those are for…,” Kanna began to say—then she stopped almost as soon as the thought had entered her head.

Jaya Hadd’s wife.

She looked at the Outerlander’s face, took in all the details of her features, but she found that the woman was peering into the pouch of sweets, too distracted to meet her gaze. “Hard on the outside, soft on the inside. How do you know exactly what I like?”

“They’re from Jaya,” Goda said. “A token of her deepest apologies. She says that you were right about everything and that she was wrong. Please return to the desert to see her. Every night I was there, she cried in my arms and told me how sorry she was.”

Kanna couldn’t fathom how the woman was supposed to swallow such a blatant lie, even told in Goda’s flat voice—which only seemed to make it sound more like a joke, really.

Sure enough, a grin broke out on Lila’s face. “Yes, yes, of course she did. Next you’re going to tell me that she actually let you inside the house. Tell me better stories, Goda Brahm. Make them believable and I might pretend that they’re true.”

“You already know I’m not good at stories.” Goda’s smile came to mirror that of Jaya’s wife, then the giant’s hand fell softly at the top of Kanna’s head. “This one lies better than I do, anyway. She’s working on her imagination and she’s eager to practice.”

“Good.” Lila Hadd fished one of the sweets from the bag and popped it into her mouth. She mashed away at it, the shell cracking loudly against her teeth, before she hid the pouch in her robes and started walking down the hall. “Kanna Rava will be exercising that talent a lot today, especially if they try to test her on any of her claims. I admit I went a little overboard when I was presenting her case. I told them she speaks Outerlander, too.”

What?” Kanna shouted. But even as she recoiled in panic, Goda pushed her forward, and all three of them began to walk the path together.

“Calm yourself, child. There’s really no reason to fret. Hardly anyone here speaks any Outerlander, so if they’re suspicious, they’ll just try to get you to speak with me. If that happens, babble at me in an Outerlander accent and I’ll nod and pretend that it means something flattering to my superiors.”

Kanna’s eyes widened, the pounding in her heart reaching the inside of her ears. “How am I supposed to do that? I can’t just make up words out of nowhere!”

Then we’ll speak in Upperlander,” Lila Hadd said in Kanna’s native tongue. She had switched over so suddenly, that it took a second for Kanna’s brain to adjust from the surprise, and because Kanna had been listening in Middlelander, at first all she heard were a smattering of incoherent syllables. “It’s not like they’ll know the difference if you just fake an Outerlander accent. As I already said, most of these bureaucrats love to brag about how educated they are, but the truth is that their schools hardly teach them anything about the other cultures, even when they’re on track to work with foreigners. Most of them are only here because they have status and it’s an easy job that lots of people want. Even I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, to be perfectly honest. I’ve learned a few things over the years, but I would have never been able to reach the top of this tower without family connections. What I don’t know how to do, I just fake, the same way you will be fake if anyone probes too deeply into who you actually are. Everything you see here are lies, delusions, and role plays. The bureaucracy is simply a labyrinth built to hide these lies behind complicated rules. Play along and never let them suspect that you realize this, that you don’t worship the same Goddess they do, which is not Holy Mahara at all, but rather an idol made entirely of their own self-delusion. That is their true religion. Delude yourself like they do, and the doors of paradise will open for you, child.”

Even with the woman’s poor pronunciation—which made Kanna have to strain to make sense of each phrase—the bluntness of the entire rant, the crude language that had flowed out of the woman’s mouth so casually, made Kanna stiffen with shock. Still, the sound of the Upperlander tongue was sweet to Kanna’s ears, like an old friend she hadn’t heard speak in a long time. She followed Lila Hadd down the path and she sighed before answering back in the same tongue, “But what does any of this matter anyway? Why should I even make the effort to lie to them if I’m going to be separated from Goda? I don’t care where I go if it’s not with her.”

Lila huffed, but Kanna wasn’t sure if it was out of amusement or some kind of pity. “Samma Valley is no utopia, that’s true. It’s where most of the Lowerland savages turn up, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so it’s far from any civilized resources like health centers—but it’s much better than what you would have been subjected to otherwise, trust me. You saw that factory supervisor yourself. That woman would have worked you to death and no one would have defended you because you’re not a Middlelander and your so-called rights mean nothing. Lean into Samma. Your master set you up with this for a reason. He used to work there himself, so he knows you’ll be better off in the wilderness than in a society full of prejudice.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow. The sudden presence of gendered pronouns that only existed in the Upperlander tongue gave her pause, but she decided not to mention it. Perhaps the woman had merely misspoken because she wasn’t entirely fluent. “If I go to Samma Valley, will I be closer to Goda at least?”

No. We usually send Goda East towards the Outerland desert. The Samma Valley monastery is on the far Western side of the continent, so if anything you’ll be further away. It’s isolated, accessible only by train. Even the gravel roads don’t go that far.”

Kanna shook her head, gritted her teeth. “Then I’m not going unless she can come with me. What can we do to free her or to transfer her? Don’t you have that power?”

I don’t. Goda has a complicated situation mired in politics that neither of us could begin to unravel. I’m sorry that you’ve grown so attached to your master—and I can sympathize—but don’t let your emotions cloud your perspective. You have an opportunity here to escape hard labor. I strongly advise that you surrender to it. You can spend ten years in a forest on a mountainside and then seek citizenship and move on with your life.”

Kanna looked up at the giant, who was glancing back and forth from wall to wall, as if she were searching for the source of a noise that had distracted her. “It’s more than attachment,” Kanna admitted, in part because Goda could not understand. “It’s much more than that. I can’t just forget her. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen in her.”

Yes, I know. You’ve made that quite obvious. I found your mating display back there to be shocking, in all honesty—but more surprising still was that Goda responded to you. You have both my congratulations and my condolences.” Lila smirked at her. “Loving a Middlelander is hard. Between you and me, they’re actually all quite insane, so it’s best to keep your distance. They are cold creatures by nature, too. You’ll be better off finding a nice foreign wife after your sentence is up rather than agonizing over someone barely capable of returning your affections.”

You’re trying to discourage me. Why? What does this all mean to you one way or another?” Even after all of the morning’s events, she couldn’t make sense of the woman’s motivations, and so she couldn’t decide what to trust.

Lila seemed pensive just then as she stopped in front of an unmarked metal door. “Hm, perhaps it’s because I see a bit of my past self in your stubbornness, Kanna Rava,” she said, turning the knob. “You’re resisting the master plan of the Goddess, even if She’s actually giving you what you need. Is it really that important to assert your own choice, when submitting to Her would give you everything you could have asked for?”

All I want is to be free. All I want is to be with Goda.”

Again, I say the same thing: Why resist Her when She’s giving you what you asked? Is it because it came in an unexpected way? Is it because you can’t take any credit for the gifts that destiny bestows upon you, and this hurts your pride?”

Kanna tilted her head, unsure of what it all meant, but she didn’t have time to think about it before she found that Lila had opened the door completely, that the woman was nudging Kanna onto the platform of a stairwell on the other side. The stairs were different from the spiral Kanna had experienced before; the chamber was not ornate at all, simply a metal staircase with flight after angular flight bending beneath her feet. Kanna had no idea where it led, but she felt herself resigning to it as yet another feature of the senseless labyrinth.

Goda was slow to follow.

“What’s the matter, Porter Brahm?” Lila asked in the Middlelander tongue before passing through the door.

The giant’s hands had come to grip the frame of the doorway, but her head was still tilted back, as if she were trying to make out a faint voice in the distance, as if she were sensing a subtle vibration. “Rem Murau,” Goda finally said. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know.” Lila’s face was so neutral that Kanna didn’t understand the skeptical expression that Goda replied with.

“You’re lying. She’s in this tower and I’m sure you know exactly where. If you tell me now, then I can go straight to her, and I don’t have to wander around and risk getting caught, and you don’t have to risk losing face because of something I did on your watch.”

Lila narrowed her eyes. For the first time, Kanna saw a twinge of discernible anger. “If I let you do something as utterly stupid as what I think you’re trying to do, Goda, then what was the point of helping this girl today, if she might get tangled up in yet another mess? And what was the point of playing this game as carefully as I have if I’m just going to throw it away on your whim? And what was the point of everything else I’ve done to keep you on this side of death?”

Goda stared down at Lila Hadd for a long moment, her hands squeezing the edges of the threshold, her jaw tightening with what seemed to be annoyance. But Lila did not budge and she offered nothing more, so Goda ducked through the doorway and joined them without another word of protest.

Three footfalls sent metallic echoes through the chamber. The ones directly behind Kanna fell slowly, and before long Kanna could sense the space that was growing between her and the giant. She turned back to glance at Goda, whose eyes were scanning the doors on every landing, but soon Lila Hadd distracted Kanna with a hand on the shoulder.

“This is one of the inner utility stairwells,” Lila said. “We can take it down to the 21st floor, where they store the cuffs. You’ll be freed from Goda there, and then we can find a place to hold you until you leave for the monastery.”

“My…master will come find me here?” Kanna asked reluctantly. She had fallen behind a little, hovering between Goda above her and Lila slightly below on the steps. She was torn between accepting the gift that Goda had given her, or else insistently—ungratefully—reaching for the one thing she really wanted from the giant.

I want to be with Goda, Kanna thought. That’s all I want. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, all my life, before I even knew that They existed. As long as I’m with Goda, I’m free.

Why did something so simple have to be so complicated? Why did her path to freedom have to twist and turn like the hallways and stairwells of the labyrinth?

Lila was watching her carefully, even as she did nothing to bridge the widening gap. “Your master cannot come for you, so you must go to her instead. She is a novice priestess with a heavy workload, the newly-appointed head of the language department at Samma Valley Monastery, which is also a school. She only just replaced Priestess Rem Murau some months ago, and she cannot abandon her post or her students in this period of transition, so you will be shipped with the rest of the cargo when the train comes in a few days, and you will find her at the top of the mountain.”

Kanna’s eyes had drifted again towards Goda. “At the top of the volcano, you mean,” she murmured, but Goda gave no reaction to the conversation, as if Kanna and Lila had still been speaking in Upperlander. The giant remained entranced by the many doors, which appeared more distracting to Goda than anything else Kanna had seen so far.

“Don’t worry about that. It hasn’t erupted in thousands of years and I doubt you will be so lucky as to see it in all its glory during your lifetime.” Then Lila grabbed Kanna by her wrist cuff, and this wrenched Kanna’s attention back down to the steps below her. Lila relocked the latch, yanked the key from the hole. She shook her head. “I have no idea how you ended up with that key, but we’ll just pretend that you didn’t. It’s a good thing that I caught it before anyone noticed. Be careful, Kanna Rava. Remember that this is a game of appearances, and you should always keep the appearance of a helpless slave.”

Surprised, Kanna opened her mouth to reply, her hand still stretched to meet Lila’s grasp, but then she heard a crazed pounding on the metal above her. It broke through her words, through her thoughts, through her own footfalls. She turned in time to see Goda ripping one of the doors open and sprinting into an empty hallway.

Kanna broke away from Lila. She dashed after her master entirely on instinct—because they were still bound by the cuffs and by something less visible, too—and she was fueled by the thought that she had to keep the giant in her sights no matter what.

In the hall, she followed the shape of Goda Brahm. She felt her legs whipping beneath her effortlessly, on their own, like they had when she had run from Goda that first night, like they had when she had sprinted through the fields in the Upperland. She didn’t scream after her master or ask where Goda was going; she felt herself spreading open again, fusing with the giant again, becoming one body that was bounding down what seemed like an endless corridor.

She could barely hear the footsteps that fell behind her or in front of her. She could barely make out the small figure that stood at the very end of the chamber. It was only once Goda had skidded to a stop where the boy was cowering—near the final door of the twisting hallway—that Kanna recognized those dainty features, those wide, frightened eyes that had startled her in the darkness of the desert once before.

She had finally startled him in return.

She was staring into the face of Parama Shakka.

Again, without fully knowing what force had rushed through her muscles and compelled her to act, Kanna threw her arms around his neck and embraced him, crushed his head against her chest, buried her face in his hair. Something in his eyes had filled her with gratitude, with comfort, with familiarity. He clung to her as well, the edges of his own cuff pressing into Kanna’s back, his tears leaking into her clothes.

When Kanna finally pulled away, she noticed that the giant was looking down at both of them. Goda reached down and pressed her hands to the boy’s face. “Where is she?”

Parama swallowed. “I don’t know where she’s gone, Porter Goda,” he said, wiping his face, “but her body is in there.” He gestured towards the door behind him and the look on Goda’s face made Kanna’s stomach drop.

Kanna could feel Lila running up behind them, but it made no difference, and neither did the woman’s pleas for them to wait. The giant pushed past Kanna and the boy. She leaned into the final door of the hallway, and a bright light rushed into the open space around them, and it made Kanna shield her eyes as she stared into the threshold.

Perched on an altar in the middle of the room, surrounded by a group of astonished women in white robes, lay the ghost of Rem Murau.

Onto Chapter 37 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 35: The Divine Game

A forked tongue made of stone brushed the side of her face and her gaze spilled into the spiral below her, which turned like a drill digging endlessly into the ground. The whining in her ears evolved into grinding, and she felt the vibration of that drill shaking through the very core of her bones.

But then three hands came upon her at the same time. One shot in from the side and collided with her breast bone and shoved her away from the void below her. The other two came from behind, a pair of arms that wrapped around her middle and yanked her back.

It all happened so fast that Kanna could barely keep her footing, and she found that she had to surrender to the movement and slide backwards with whatever force was pulling her just so that she could keep from falling. In front of her, the wrathful face of Goda Brahm filled up her view, and the giant was now pressing both palms to Kanna’s shoulders and rushing forward against her. The giant’s robes waved around in all directions with the speed of her motions, like an undulating ocean.

Kanna saw the snake shrinking away behind Goda’s shoulder. She felt herself pass through a doorway, the pair of arms still tugging her from behind with a gentleness that did not match the giant’s shoves in the least.

When Kanna realized she was being pulled into a dim hallway, being swallowed by a space where none of the sunlight fell, she let out a screech. “No!” Her force of will had finally returned and overwhelmed her surprise, but the flow did not stop. Instead, she felt one of the hands that was pulling her rise up to cover her mouth instead.

Shhh!” A breath came from behind her and fell warmly on her neck and made Kanna break into a fit of shudders. The fingers against her lips were small, much more delicate than the giant’s monstrous hands, so it made Kanna think twice about biting them.

The door slammed closed on its own, and with it, the red light of the sun disappeared. That rattling thud of finality seemed to break up the motion of Kanna’s captors, and they slid across the floor and came to a stop in the middle of a corridor. The walls were lined up and down with dozens of doors. Electric lamps flickered from above.

Those thin arms were still wrapped around her, even though the hand had fallen from her mouth, so Kanna twisted her head to offer their owner an angry look. Instead of screaming obscenities, however, Kanna found herself frozen yet again. A pair of wide awake eyes gazed down upon her, and they carried the light of that same smile Kanna had seen in the doorway. They were contrasted by the severity of the woman’s hair, which was pulled back in a tight bun, with only a few stray strands swirling rebelliously along her wide forehead.

She was so beautiful that Kanna was momentarily dumbfounded. The annoyance dissipated. Kanna stared at the woman and the woman stared back.

“We could hear you all the way down the hall, silly,” the stranger told her. “You’ve made your point already.”

The woman spoke in the Middlelander tongue, but her accent was not native at all. Her features seemed foreign, too, and though the yellow light of the overhead lamps framed her face as she looked down at Kanna, she was not very high up, only half a head taller.

“Who…?” Kanna mumbled when her mouth finally worked again.

“Indeed, who?” the woman asked with a grin. “What’s all this I see here?”

“All of this is Kanna Rava.” Goda’s voice came from a pace or two away. It sounded suddenly jarring to Kanna, overwhelming in how it filled the space compared to the soft tone and the feminine pitch of the woman who was holding her. On top of that, the phrase itself seemed accusatory, but Kanna was too confused to be offended.

The stranger looked up towards the giant. “I wondered when you two would turn up. I thought it would be soon, but you know how the Mother never tells you exactly when. What’s the story this time? Do you have one ready or do I need to make it up?”

“I’m not good at stories.” Goda untied the lip of the satchel and offered a rumpled piece of paper to the woman, who accepted it with the same hand that had shuttered Kanna’s mouth. Because she held the page up over Kanna’s head, Kanna could not clearly see what was on it, but the light that flowed through the paper showed some vague scribbles from below.

“How’s this supposed to help? It’s nonsense.”

Kanna turned to find that Goda was smirking. “Isn’t it your job to turn my nonsense into sense, Lila?” the giant said.

“Hm. You bring me a lot of trouble—but it’s interesting trouble.” She handed the sheet back to Goda. “I’ll figure it out along the way, and then after you see what I’ve done with it, you can tell me if I should try something else.”

Kanna glanced between the both of them, so perplexed that even her snakes appeared to be speechless.

“This one doesn’t like to play much,” Goda said, leading them down the corridor until it broke into two other hallways. Both sides looked identical to Kanna, with all the doors painted white, all the walls painted white, all the ceiling and floor tiles blank of any features. “Remember that she takes everything seriously, so avoid offending her if you can, because she will quickly turn loud and self-righteous, and it will make our job much harder.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow. She had no idea to whom Goda was talking to or to whom Goda was referring; but then the strange woman—who was ushering Kanna forward now—replied with an amused tone of voice:

“I’ve seen worse.”

“True. At least this one is not always controlled by her snakes. There are moments of lucidity where she wakes up from the dream; there were many cracks already in her that let in the light. If that had not been the case, this would have been near impossible.”

The three of them slid towards the hallway on the right, as if they were a single unit, and Kanna could not tell anymore which of her captors had moved in that direction first.

“Your hollering put my direct superior on alert,” the woman named Lila murmured in a hushed voice. “She sent me to find out what all the ruckus was, so I suppose I’ll have to come up with some excuse for it. She already has a prejudice against foreigners and slaves, as so many in her position typically do, and it won’t help if the girl just reinforces them. We’ll have to smooth it over with something.”

“You’re the one with the stories. Just play your game and I’ll give you the fuel for it.”

Every door looked the same. There were no labels in Middlelander, no difference in the size of their frames or in the color of the brass that made up the doorknobs. The only tiny variation that Kanna could tell were some markings in the upper right corner near each one. It looked like some sort of tally system, but Kanna could not read it and she wondered if they were purposefully encoded to be obscure to her. They seemed to have significance to the woman named Lila, though, who had let go of Kanna to move closer to the doors and scan the marks as they walked.

The monotony had not served to calm her and Kanna felt that strange feeling from before returning, the feeling she had sensed in the caverns and in the spiral at the core of the staircase. The emptiness was spreading, and along with it, her snakes were growing agitated. The whining sound filled her ears again and rattled her bones, but she tried her best to ignore it. Kanna’s rope trailed along the floor behind her since none of the four hands nearby seemed keen on holding it anymore.

When they finally stopped by one of the cloned doors, Kanna noticed for the first time the sharp angles of the strange woman’s clothes. The fabric spread all the way down to the woman’s feet, a bit too long to match her short stature, so that the edges dragged on the floor.

They were the robes of a bureaucrat—tailored to suit the frame of a foreigner. Kanna raised her eyebrows, astonished at the contradiction, and a bit wary because every bureaucrat she had ever met had always dripped with slime, had always written stories about her and forced her to sign them.

The woman named Lila glanced towards her just before she turned the doorknob. “Everything I’m about to say in this room will be a lie, an illusion,” she whispered to Kanna, “but that’s no different from everything you’ve ever said about yourself. It’s just that my lies are more fun. I suggest you stick with mine over yours.”

When Lila opened the door, and when Kanna’s eyes adjusted to the brighter lamps inside, she could see a dozen human faces turning towards her all at once, and this sent another rush of fear through her. Her snakes all vibrated with sickly energy. The lamps pulsed above her.

Just as something in the pit of Kanna’s stomach cracked open, the light split up into hundreds of separate colors and rained all over the windowless room, all over the faces in front of her. And then these faces transformed into all manner of strange animal: lions, bears, birds, amphibian beasts—all the creatures she had seen lining the walls of the spiral. They frightened her enough that she resisted stumbling through the door, even though she felt Goda pushing from behind, even though most of them gave her a curious gaze with no overt malice.

At the very back of the room, however, beside a spreading desk, stood the most frightening of them all. It was a woman with her arms crossed and her weight shifting impatiently from leg to leg as if the ground on either side of her were hot with magma. She was wearing a worker’s uniform, overalls that covered her from neck to ankle—but her face was naked with a seething anger and her head had the shape of a dragon.

In the woman’s eyes, Kanna could see thousands of dancing snakes, each breathing fire, each with even more serpents writhing in each of their own eyes, and with more snakes in each of those, endlessly. The image seemed to swirl on and on, pushing deeper and deeper the more Kanna stared with horror, and Kanna could feel the mess of twisting scales as if they were rasping against her own skin.

Kanna fell to the floor in tears because something in her mind had flickered with understanding, something inside of her had immediately known.

She had recognized her new master.

* * *

The colors and shapes of the monsters dissolved moments later, so that every face became human again, and the room turned white and sterile, but the cruel gaze of the Middlelander who stood in the front had not wavered. She had not noticed Kanna at first. She seemed preoccupied with the rest of the prisoners instead, her discontented gaze floating from slave to slave.

Kanna’s tears kept falling; her heart was racing; every shred of life in her—the snakes and everything else—was shuddering with horror. She felt her body heaving, and she could barely suppress the purging sensation that powered through her.

I’m leaving with that woman!

I’m leaving with that woman!

She’s the one! I know it!

Her muscles locked and she squeezed her eyes shut. She felt like she had been led to the edge of a gallows, that she was staring finally into the loop of a noose.

Goda had picked Kanna up. She had carried her into one of the few empty chairs in the corner of the room, and she had sat Kanna upright in her lap, wrapped her in a tight embrace, pressed her mouth against a spot behind one of Kanna’s ears.

At first, Kanna could not tell where the humming was coming from. It sounded far away, like it had in the cavern that night that she had faced the snakes outside of Karo. As she felt Goda’s hand pressing gently against her spine, straightening her posture so that her tailbone pushed back between Goda’s legs, she realized that the giant was chanting something against the bones of her skull.

Kanna could not make sense of the words.

Sammaaaaa aahn maharaaaa…

Sammmaaaa aahann maharaaaa…

Her brain tried to hear it in Middlelander, but the hum was very quiet and the din in the room almost drowned it out even though Goda’s breath was falling directly on the back of her ear. The giant loosened her grip a little, though she still held Kanna against her chest, and she began to rock forward and back, chanting, her voice deep and slow and sending sparks down the skin of Kanna’s neck.


Kanna opened her eyes. She had jammed them shut at some point, but as Goda rocked together with her, she felt them slide open on their own, and a watery image of the room came rushing to her.

The foreign bureaucrat—the one named Lila—was standing nearby with a face of concern. Beyond her, the room was crowded with several rows of chairs, most of them filled with bodies uncomfortably twisting against each other, lined up in series of four or five or six, bound together with chains or cuffs. Apart from the three porters, who were busy filling out paperwork and had typically Middlelander looks, all of the people in the room had foreign faces. They appeared to be Outerlanders like the Lila woman was, and the wave of despair that collectively oozed from them was like a living entity on its own. It made the tears in Kanna’s eyes swell even more, made everyone’s faces even more distorted.

“What is that? What’s going on back there in the corner?” A voice rose up over the din. It came from a Middlelander woman in bureaucratic robes who sat behind the front desk. Her pen had paused over a stack of papers—one of the many hundreds of pages smeared all over the desk—and she was tilting her head to catch sight of Kanna over the crowd. “Junior Administrator Hadd, who did you just bring in here?”

This seemed to catch the interest of the dragon woman as well. “Is that the Upperlander they told me they were giving me? What the hell’s wrong with her?”

“She’s prone to fainting spells,” Goda said, loudly enough that it rumbled over the din. Her husky voice had transitioned from the hums to a normal cadence in Middlelander, and Kanna could now parse what she was saying.

“Indeed, it seems that she started fainting while climbing the steps and she nearly fell down the stairs,” Lila added. “It was a struggle to get her back onto her feet.”

Kanna’s new master huffed, and her jaw tightened with impatience. “Great, that’s exactly what I need right now, a worker who keels over from the effort of putting one foot over another! Why are they sending me all these weaklings lately? How am I supposed to get anything done when so many of them just roll over and die with hardly any provocation?”

“Quiet!” This time, it was the woman behind the desk who piped up again. Her face was not very friendly, either, but at least her ire seemed directed towards the other Middlelander at the front of the room. “We’re doing the best we can here with what we’ve got. We’re already swamped as it is trying to figure out where to put all these new slaves. She’s an Upperlander. It’s not like she can go anywhere else besides your factory. It’s not like she knows how to do anything more useful.”

“Well, then she can go back to wherever the hell she came from with those tiny little hands and that pale little face. I’m sick of all these foreigners. They’re more trouble than they’re worth. It’s not free labor if they’re constantly holding up production.” The woman glanced up at the clock on the wall. “How much longer until we can take them to get de-cuffed? I don’t have all day here. Every moment I’m at this place is a moment I’m leaving my factory in the hands of the junior supervisors, and that’s already making me nervous.”

The Middlelander bureaucrat narrowed her eyes. “You’re complaining that I’m wasting your time, and yet here you are wasting mine. Just take the girl. I’ll sign her off right now. Put her in your lightest position with the easiest work. If she can’t handle it, she’ll collapse eventually and you can send her to Suda’s confinement center to recover and she’ll be out of your hair.”

“Or I can have her hauling heavy canisters of fuel in the sun, and she can burn out on the first day, then I won’t have to deal with her hardly at all. Let me look her over, see how long she might last.” Kanna’s new master took a few steps deeper into the room, and her posture was threatening enough that the bit of tranquility that Goda’s hums had offered were quickly overridden by another wave of fear.

Kanna cried out. She pressed her joined hands to her face and turned away, even as she heard the woman’s stomping footfalls coming closer.

“Not so fast.” Goda’s voice boomed from behind Kanna’s head.

“Who are you to talk to me like that, Porter? She’s not your problem anymore, so mind your own business.” There was a pause, but Kanna could not see the woman’s expression because she had turned around to tuck her face into Goda’s chest. “Why the hell is she clinging to you like that, anyway?”

It was Lila who answered, “It appears that she’s sickly. She’s been unsteady on her feet.”

“I’ll be the judge of that myself, thanks.” Kanna felt a large hand gripping her by the back collar of her robes and she screamed into Goda’s chest, her tears bursting anew. The fingers were cold when they hooked into the fabric and brushed against her neck. Then the hand jerked her back, and although the face of Goda Brahm swam into her vision again, Kanna was filled with terror because that last source of comfort started to pull away quickly.

But the giant held a faint smile on her face. Kanna couldn’t understand it.

“Turn around and look at your master,” Goda murmured to her, as if to point out something that Kanna had been missing. The hum had returned to her voice. It made Kanna’s bones feel like they were vibrating with an external energy that came from somewhere other than herself, other than Goda, even.

And so Kanna turned. She met eyes with the monster who had been accosting her. She recoiled with fear, with the urge to retreat or claw at the woman’s face, but she managed to stay facing her, to take in her features clearly, to notice the lines of her jaw and the pores of her skin the same way she had stared so many times at the giant.

It was unpleasant. It made her stomach drop. It sent a searing shock through her muscles, as if the cuff were giving her a fiery jolt.

But she was able to do it. She widened her eyes at the woman, and to Kanna’s surprise, her new master jerked back with her own swell of discomfort, of astonishment. She dropped her hand from Kanna’s collar; she recovered quickly, but the ferocity on her face was greatly dampened.

The fangs of the snake had grown dull.

“What’s wrong with her face?” the woman spat. “Why do her eyes look like that? Are all the Ravas this ugly?”

Lila chuckled and pressed a hand to the woman’s shoulder, as if to gently push her back some more. “Now you’re the one holding us up with nonsense.”

“I would certainly agree, Junior Hadd,” the other bureaucrat called from the front of the room. She was watching the scene carefully, even while she was squaring a stack of papers with her hands.

Kanna’s new master made a twisted face and reached for Kanna once again.

“Not so fast,” Goda repeated.

“Listen, Porter, I don’t know who you think you are, but—”

“Don’t forget to take her luggage with you.” Goda let go of Kanna and reached towards the floor to grab her satchel by the strap. She offered it over Kanna’s shoulder, towards the monster who stared down at them with another burst of confusion.

Still, the dragon woman took it, because now that her fist was empty, she seemed to need something else to clench with it. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Kanna also glanced at Goda with uncertainty, wavering between the immediate urge to disown Goda’s bag—considering its possible contents—and the curiosity surrounding what such a lie might mean.

“Luggage?” The senior bureaucrat who had been watching them broke through their shared silence. She shook her head with a sigh, rustling through some random pages on the desk. “But this is Kanna Rava, isn’t it? None of the paperwork says she carried any possessions with her. We’re going to have to list each of the items before we send her off, then. Bring the baggage to me so that I can catalog it on these forms.”

“Oh, for crying out loud!” Kanna’s master said. “Are we really going to be here all day playing a game of show and tell? Can’t we skip the endless bureaucracy just this once?”

Lila snatched the bag from the woman’s hands, though, and she pushed past the woman to walk up to the front desk. Kanna tried to watch what was spilling onto the tabletop from Goda’s satchel, but her new master blocked the view when she leaned in and started scrutinizing Kanna’s face with renewed effort.

This time, Kanna didn’t hesitate. She glanced directly into the woman’s eyes, and though she felt the waves of fear rising and falling inside her as she did it, she also watched the huge woman shrink some more and become less monstrous in the angles of her face. Even the master’s teeth seemed to be less sharp this time when she grimaced.

“Almighty Mahara, I don’t think I can stare at this girl’s face all day. She gives me the creeps. I’ll have to make her work outside after all. Maybe I’ll throw her in one of the solitary confinement chambers so she’s not milling around so much on her off time, either.”

Kanna let out a small gasp, more resistance coming into her bones, more tears rising at the images that flowed into her mind from hearing those words, but then she felt Goda’s lips falling behind her ear again. Goda hummed. She hummed until a much louder voice rang across the room and broke through the rumble of the giant’s lungs.

“Kanna Rava!” The call shot across the crowd and even cut between her and her new master, so that the dragon woman stood to the side. Because the tone seemed accusatory, Kanna summoned all of her courage to lift her head up and face its source.

The Middlelander at the front of the room—Lila’s senior—was holding up a crumpled sheet of paper with a look of urgency on her face. “Child, did you write this?” she said. She waved the paper around, and Kanna’s eyes widened when she realized it had been the Old Middlelander script that she had copied from Parama’s textbook. She had no idea what she had written on all those pages—they had just been drills to practice the shapes of the characters—but now that the woman was staring at her with what seemed like anger, she couldn’t help but wonder if it had been something inadvertently offensive. “And this? Is this yours?” The bureaucrat held up Goda’s unfurled scroll with a similarly intense gaze.

Kanna froze.

The scroll. The scroll with the Flower recipe on it.

Surely, Kanna was about to die. With everything else they had already accused her of, she could only imagine what would happen to her if they also charged her with possessing such contraband. She could only imagine what else was in the bag to go along with it, too—pouches filled with Flower, tools for making brew, suspicious herbs that may have been illegal as well. Even just a handful of those things would probably be enough to extend her sentence indefinitely, if not give them an excuse to execute her altogether.

And it wasn’t like her new master would object. If anything, Kanna’s life seemed inconvenient to her anyway.

In a panic, Kanna opened her mouth to disown the satchel, to distance herself from the scratch paper and the scroll and whatever unknowns lay in that mysterious bag—but then she thought about Goda.

If it wasn’t Kanna Rava’s bag, then surely the bag belonged to Goda Brahm, and if she denied that it was hers, then it meant all the contents—all the Flower—were possessions of the giant.

They would definitely kill Goda for that. There was no question about it. With wide eyes, Kanna turned to look at Goda Brahm in the face, expecting to see some shred of uncertainty or surprise or some clue about what to do, but instead she found that same quiet smile, those same empty eyes.

I’m going to kill you, aren’t I? Kanna remembered herself saying the night before.

But why did it have to be like this? Why had Goda done this to her? Did the giant mean to torture Kanna to the very last moment with such a choice?

Of course, there really was no choice. This time, it was very plain. There was no shred of ambiguity: either she died or Goda did.

“Kanna Rava, Kanna Rava!” The voices behind her wanted an answer, but Kanna kept her stare locked on Goda, kept her teeth gritted. She felt the swells of fear undulating inside of her—but there was something else in there, too, something that dripped into the fear and colored it with conflicting shades until it had started to transform into…nothing.

The fear became nothing. It was the same nothing that always vibrated in Goda’s eyes, the nothing that somehow still had character, the white light that held no color and no features and yet constantly gave birth to every color in every moment.

She could not let that light die out.

She turned around to face the woman who was calling Kanna Rava’s name. The rest of the people in the room disappeared from her vision. She even forgot all about the demon that had been hovering nearby.

Kanna straightened her spine, tipped her chin up so that her head felt like it was floating weightlessly on her neck.

“It’s mine,” Kanna said. “Everything in that bag is mine.”

She would change the course of the future, Kanna thought, whether the giant wanted it or not.

She didn’t realize that the body of the giant had been slightly tense until she felt it relaxing around her. Goda’s lips pressed again to the back of her skull.

Die, Kanna Rava, die…,” the giant whispered. Even though her voice was a low hum, Kanna could hear that it was gleeful, joyous.

Kanna’s astonishment was matched by the widened eyes of the woman at the front of the room. The bureaucrat was shaking her head, gesturing towards the door.

“Take all of this and get her out of here!” She pushed Goda’s satchel and all its littered contents across the table towards Lila, then began furiously scribbling on a form that she produced from inside a drawer. She dropped the page on top just as Lila started loading up the bag, then threw her palms up. “Show the Senior Administrator in Charge of Foreign Criminals everything we’ve seen and she’ll decide what to do. She can stamp my suggestion on the form, but I obviously can’t make the final decision. This child’s fate is beyond my responsibility and I don’t have time to deal with something like this! Get out, get out!”

* * *

This time, it was Lila who took Kanna by the arm and began leading her through the labyrinth of hallways. Kanna didn’t fight it anymore; she had made her decision and surrendered to her fate; she stared down at the ground, not caring where they were going, the doors rushing past the corners of her eyes on either side of her. The bordering cracks of some of them were lit from behind, and others were dim, so the constant flashing made her blink with discomfort.

She had not looked at Goda since they left the office. She may have loved the giant, but it tore her to pieces inside to know that the love was not returned, and that Goda had orchestrated some bizarre plan to do her in. She couldn’t understand why—except that maybe the giant was obsessed with death the way Priestess Rem had warned her, and that the giant had sought to push Kanna closer to her own demise as some kind of perverse favor—but everything else had been so meaningless, that the reason why seemed to hardly matter anymore.

Kanna’s tears still came, fat drops that smashed onto the floor with every step. The giant had won after all. Her sadism had surpassed Kanna’s masochism by far; she had induced Kanna to surrender, to accept her own death, even when Kanna had resisted and sworn to the heavens that she would never give in.

Kanna did not look up until they came upon the end of a corridor and stood in front of a wide door. For once, it was different from all the rest, and it was bordered with thin wood carvings, with the tiny shapes of animals that Kanna could just barely make out in the dim shine of a nearby lamp.

The glow that came out from between the cracks was brighter, too. When they opened the door and Lila ushered her in, she found that the room had three spreading windows—walls made of glass that allowed her to see the outside—and that the floor was lined with polished wood that felt soft against her feet.

“The two of you can stay here, in the outer waiting room. I’ll go into the administrator’s office and see if she can decide your fate straight away. I think we’ve caught her at a good time, so it shouldn’t take long.”

She left Goda and Kanna at the threshold and headed straight forward for yet another door, and before Kanna could think of anything to ask, the Outerlander had slipped behind it and disappeared.

At first, when Goda led Kanna deeper inside and towards a chair propped up against one of the glass walls, Kanna jerked away because it offered too clear a picture of the landscape, and she felt like she would fall through it and crash dozens of stories below. Goda pushed her, though, forced her into the seat, then dropped down next to her with a thud.

Once Kanna was stable enough, she felt braver, so she turned around and gazed at the hills in the distance to avoid the giant’s face. It offered her an unexpected swell of peace. The more she grew used to it, the more it felt like she was floating in the sky.

When she finally built up the courage to look at Goda directly, the giant had a serene expression on her face, had pressed her cheek against the glass, her angular features contrasting with the fluffy white clouds that peppered the heavens.

Kanna felt a gush of raw emotion filling her chest. There were many things there, and some of them conflicted with each other, but none of them were hatred.

“I love you for no reason,” Kanna said finally. “You don’t deserve it.”

Goda’s gaze flickered away from the lands that spread out in the West, and instead she met Kanna’s eyes with that same unreadable look, that same faint smile of always. “You’re right. I don’t. I’ve done an awful thing to you.”

“You gave me no choice but to implicate myself.”

“Yes. I exploited your emotions to get you to take ownership of my baggage and everything inside of it. I’m a terrible person—but I told you this not long after you met me, and so this should come as no surprise.”

“Everything you do is surprising to me.” Kanna wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She had stopped sobbing, but the heat hadn’t left her face. “The question, though, is always why. What do you even get out of this, Goda? What’s the point?”

Goda shrugged. “There is none. I exist to torture you, to bite the back of your neck and push your face into the dirt. That’s what you wanted from me, right? The morning after we met, you were thirsty, so I gave you torrents of water. Later, you were hungry, so I shoved handfuls of fruit into your mouth. Today, you wanted punishment, and so I made everything even harder for you than it already was. And yet you still complain. What do you want, Kanna Rava? What do you want from me after all?”

Kanna took in a shaky breath. She turned away from those empty eyes, stared out the glass once again. From where they were, she could see some of the forest towards the South, though she could not see the Samma River through the trees.

“I wish I could have lived a different life,” Kanna said, “but I guess wishing for that is stupid considering what I just did. Even when I knew what would happen, I still chose the wrong thing, and I stepped over that precipice with full intention, so I shouldn’t act surprised. I’ve had many chances to kill you, and I’ve made the wrong choice again and again, entirely on purpose. Maybe now I understand why you did what you did nine years ago, why you threw away your whole life and that cushy job as a gardener on a picturesque mountainside so that you could end the suffering that followed you everywhere you went. You couldn’t watch her in pain, just as I could never watch you suffer, either.”

Kanna noticed Goda’s stare in the faint reflection of the glass, and it made the giant’s features appear as if they were projected onto the sky.

“Looks can be deceiving. That picturesque mountainside is not at all what it seemed, even in your visions. It had something else bubbling beneath the surface; you just never realized it.”

And so Kanna tilted her gaze towards the giant squarely once again. She pressed her head to the glass. “What does that mean?”

“You were on a volcano.” Goda’s smirk grew more obvious when Kanna reacted with surprise. “The monastery at Samma Valley is built on the side of it, not far from its ancient crater. The temple, the mountain passes, the quaint little cabins you must have seen—they are all perched above an earth swelling with magma. That energy is what warms the hot springs that the priestesses bathe in.”

Kanna raised her eyebrows, confused again with Goda’s intentions. It did color her memories of the visions with a slightly more frightening edge, but it hardly mattered anymore, especially since they had only been dreams and she had never really set foot there. “Why are you bothering to tell me this now?”

“Because, you should know the truth. People talk about her even though they’ve never met her. They underestimate her because she looks small compared to other mountains, but of course this doesn’t matter because she has access to the core of the earth all the same. They say she’s dormant, but she’s not completely. She burps up steam every once in awhile and she rumbles sometimes, too. She’s alive—and she’s pregnant with thousands of children. Those rivers of molten rock twist and writhe within her like white-hot snakes. But snakes are not all bad. They’re nothing to be ashamed of. They’re only bad when she can’t see them and they burst out of her uncontrollably. When they flow smoothly through her veins, though, they warm the baths for the priestesses, and their energy soothes the life in the forest, helps create more of it.”

Kanna stared at Goda’s lips as the giant told her all this. And when the silence fell over them again, she heard the words echoing in her mind. She took a breath, and let the rest of her body lean hard against the glass, as if she had given into the urge to fall through it.

“You’re not talking about a mountain at all, are you, Goda?”

The grin that came over the giant’s face served as confirmation. “Maybe not.”

It was then that a creaking sound broke through the empty space they were holding together, and they both turned their gazes towards the back of the room. In the threshold that led to the inner office stood Lila, still holding Goda’s satchel in her hand. Beside her was a Middlelander whose gaze seemed to push everything aside and land exactly where Kanna was hiding. The woman was tall, towering over Lila and seemingly taking up most of the space in the doorway—and she was big, not only because her shoulders were thick and her hips were wide, but because she was also extremely pregnant. Kanna had never seen such a massive belly in her life.

The surprise wore off within seconds, though, and Kanna felt her heart pounding in her throat, because she knew that her life was about to come crashing down around her. She stared back as bravely as she could. Not matter what her punishment would be, she knew that she could no longer resist it, that she would accept it with dignity.

Goda had seduced her and she had surrendered.

She had surrendered to the flow of life, even if it would lead to her death.

“So that’s Kanna Rava,” the Middlelander woman said. Her face held a mild edge of curiosity, but little else. “Odd face she has there. I imagined her differently.” Then she handed Lila a single sheet, seemingly the form that they had carried in with them from the other office. “Well, I trust you know what happens now, Junior Hadd. Bring her downstairs and they’ll take it from there. May the Goddess have mercy on her in the trying times she will face.”

Kanna swallowed past the tears when Lila walked across the room and gripped her arm to guide her up from her seat. The door shut behind them as they stepped out of the room, leaving all three of them once again in the dim, artificial light of the hallway that seemed to stretch on forever.

Even just looking at the path in front of her made her feel sick, so Kanna turned her face down to stare at the floor as she had earlier, but when she bowed her head, she was bewildered to find that Lila was slipping a sheet of paper into her joined hands.

“That’s yours to hold, Rava,” Lila told her. “You’ll have to hand it in after you get de-cuffed downstairs.”

Kanna glanced up at her with confusion, but when the woman began walking ahead with Goda, and Kanna found that they had left her with a limp rope, she finally thought to turn the page over and read what was on it.

It was a form with many boxes inked onto it, with many spaces to fill with many stories, but the lines at the bottom immediately caught her eye. Beside a fresh stamp that did not seem quite dry yet, she read:

Kanna Rava – Scribe

Samma Valley Monastery

Onto Chapter 36 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 34: The Spiral Staircase

The truck retreated through the trees. They had already broken through the night before, so the trail was smoother on the way back, and Kanna found that she was less surprised whenever a flickering branch scraped the side of her arm. She could see the trees ahead of time in the growing light, and they seemed more familiar now, like they were offering a friendly tap to see her off.

When the truck reached the main road, the sky was yellow-red like the core of the Samma Flower, and it was too bright out in the open, so Kanna bent down and rested her face in Goda’s lap to avoid the glare. She closed her eyes; she felt the wind coming down around them like a gushing stream, and it felt sharp against her skin, and it felt painful, but the way it flowed seemed to insulate them both from the rest of the world.

Kanna tried to forget where they were going. She took a deep breath of the giant’s scent, which she still found both comforting and disturbing. It always stoked a little bit of fear in her. She could swear she had known its flavor all her life.

“How many months have we been traveling together?” Kanna asked over the rumble of the engine.

“About a week.”

“No. No, that’s….” Kanna racked her brain to try to remember how long it had actually been, because the days had smudged together in her mind—some parts colorful, and some parts gray, but all smeared from the same stroke of a brush, so it was hard to tell when one day ended and another began.

But she knew that it had to have been much longer than a week, even though some of the days felt like she had lived them more than once.

She decided that Goda was lying.

“When people are able to swallow large amounts of Flower and survive it,” Goda said, as if she were responding to something that Kanna hadn’t said aloud, “they’ll often experience time differently. They won’t be able to tell how many hours or minutes have gone by. Some of them will wander around in the streets like time doesn’t exist to them at all—so in a sense, they temporarily live closer to the truth.”

“The truth?”

“Yes, you’re lying to yourself. There is no earlier or later. It’s always now. You yourself told me this in the wilderness.”

Kanna huffed. “I have memories that span much further back than right this second. I made them in the past. I’m remembering them now.”

“You made those memories now. You made them by thinking them. Nothing happened before this. You’re making it up. There’s no way to remember something or even look at something outside of yourself without also making it up. It’s an act of creation. It’s an act of sex that you’re always having with reality, but then you convince yourself that you’re pure and celibate like a priestess, or that you’re just a powerless bystander who is only watching.”

The wind rushed past Kanna’s ears and muffled the words, but she still heard them. Finally, she opened her eyes. She stared hard at Goda’s hand on the speed lever. She found that she didn’t know what to say because there was nothing she could really point to that either proved or disproved any of Goda’s nonsense. It was like the whole thing was designed to bypass her logic. She turned her head up to look at the giant. “What, so you’re trying to tell me this is all just my imagination?”

“Yes. You have a poor imagination, though,” Goda replied, looking down at Kanna with a teasing smirk, her face framed by the golden sky. “You’ll want to work on that after I leave you. God thinks you’re bad at sex.”

Kanna pressed her hand to Goda’s thigh and dug her fingers into the warmth of the fabric and the skin underneath. She didn’t know how to even begin to respond to such a bizarre insult. Instead, she turned her gaze towards the windshield, which showed her the colossal human structures that they were quickly approaching.

“So it’s been a week, then,” Kanna said.

“Yes, a week.”

* * *

Kanna had rolled onto her back to look up at the scenery, but her head remained pillowed on Goda’s leg. She told herself not to cower, to receive whatever she saw with no reaction, to submit to the world the Middlelanders had built. All of her resistance so far had made such little difference, she thought, so she lay back to let the jarring image of the towers rain on top of her, and she tried to force the muscles of her mouth into a serene expression.

But instead of seeing the piles of brick and stone and glass and steel, her eyes fell on Goda’s face. She looked at the subtle tendons of the woman’s neck, at the shadow of her jaw. In the bright morning light, Kanna could even see the tiny, translucent hairs that peppered the end of the giant’s chin and looked like speckles of crystalline earth.

From the corner of her vision, Kanna noticed the sky becoming more and more crowded with steel. Light flashed between the buildings as they sped by, but those bursts grew fleeting, because the structures had multiplied and had started to veil the young sun that was still near the horizon.

Eventually, a single colossus sprouted up over them and blocked half the sky, and it loomed over Kanna, crouched over her the way the giant had so many times. She could see some movement behind the dim lower windows of the building, but her mind could not yet make sense of it all. It was the tallest man-made thing she had ever seen in her life.

The truck stopped not far from it, in a clearing that had been leveled with gravel and sand that didn’t match the rest of the earth around it. A few other trucks were stationed nearby, but no one was in them, and it was still early enough that Kanna could not sense much activity besides the coming and going of birds overhead.

“There’s a mechanical lift that goes all the way up to the top,” Goda said, tipping her head to seemingly gaze at the highest floor. A glare had hit those upper windows and washed them out like the surface of a lake, so Kanna could not see through them. “It’s pulled by slaves sometimes and a generator other times. Lately, because of the fuel shortage, it’s been slaves.” She turned back to Kanna with a smile. “Maybe instead of factory work, they’ll have you do that instead.”

“The punishments you wish on me are creative, but wasn’t it I who was supposed to be working on my imagination?”

Goda laughed. “Fair enough.” She turned and reached into the back and stuffed her satchel with a handful of papers and dried herbs and small pouches that Kanna didn’t recognize—but Kanna did notice that Goda had thrown the old scroll inside before tying it all shut.

“Is the journey on the lift really going to be that long that we need to stock up?”

“We’re not taking the lift. That’s for priestesses and bureaucrats, of course.” Goda glanced at her like it was supposed to be obvious, and she slung the bag over her shoulder before opening the door and climbing out of the truck.

When Kanna felt the door slam closed again, she jerked, as if she hadn’t expected it, even though it had been right in front of her. She watched Goda round the truck. She followed the image of the giant shuffling through the gravel until it was shadowed by the colossus before them.

“Wait!” Kanna called after her. “How the hell are we going to get all the way up there, then?” She looked to and fro to gather up her stuff, but then she abruptly realized that everything she owned was in her pockets, so she jumped over the passenger side door and she kicked up dirt to catch up to the giant.

As she jogged across the clearing, though, she was distracted by some human movement towards the East—the first sign of humanity she had seen all day—on the other side of the main road. It was a group of six or seven tall Middlelander women in brown uniforms, hobbling around with shoes that were so riddled with holes that Kanna guessed they might have been more comfortable barefooted. Their legs and arms were clasped to each other through a row of joined steel shackles, so that they were forced to press against each other in a single file, like a series of electric batteries.

Each one had a cuff like Kanna did. Up front, five paces ahead of the first of them, was a beefy woman with spreading shoulders and a metal baton in one hand. Her other hand held a rope, and it was tied to the neck of the first prisoner, and she was tugging on it to rush the group forward.

Kanna openly stared. She found the sight so consuming that she only turned away because she ran right into Goda. She looked up, rubbing the side of her arm with some annoyance, and she saw that Goda was smiling down at her. The giant’s face was half-painted with the shadow of the tower, half-painted with the light of the sun.

“Mind your own business while we’re here. It’ll make things less painful,” Goda said, but her tone was mild.

Kanna disobeyed immediately. She threw another glance in the direction of the prisoners. “Are those criminals? Slaves? Was that their porter leading them?” She watched with a twinge of sympathetic pain when one of the slaves tripped over a rock and nearly sent the rest of the line stumbling. “Why are there so many together?”

“That’s how it usually is. Most porters carry a series of around four to eight slaves, all connected in such a way that if one of them tries to escape, the others get shocked. In this way, they’re encouraged to keep each other in line, so the porter has less work to do.”

“That’s awful.” Kanna stared across the street with widened eyes, but after a moment she turned back to give Goda a curious glance. She suddenly felt extremely fortunate, and the swell of gratitude surprised her. “Why was it just you and me this whole time, then?”

“Slaves in transport are segregated by ethnicity as well as gender before they are registered with their permanent master. Your father’s wife had already been sent away, so you were the only female Upperlander at the confinement center. I had to take you alone. I get the jobs that no one else wants.”

Some small part of Kanna—the snake that was irked by social rejection perhaps—sent a warm wave of anger up to her face. “But why?”

“Officially, it’s to quarantine you in case you carry an exotic disease.”

“What? That’s ridiculous! That’s—”

“Yes, of course. It makes no sense. If that were the real reason, they would make me wear gloves and a mask when touching you, wouldn’t they? The real reason is simply because most Middlelanders are racist. Even other slaves will not want to touch you. Middlelanders think that both Upperlanders and Outerlanders are dirty, and Outerlanders think that Upperlanders are greedy, and Upperlanders think Outerlanders worship demons, so to avoid fights among the slaves, they separate the foreigners.”

Because Goda had started walking again, Kanna followed her without replying, her hands coming up to grasp the giant’s robes, the crunching of their footsteps filling up the quiet morning air. After a few beats, though, Kanna made a face. “But Outerlanders do worship demons,” she said. “That’s not a prejudice. That’s just the truth.”

Goda let out another laugh, though Kanna didn’t think it was very funny. Kanna may have not believed in any gods, but her mother had told her all her life that the Outerlanders were demon-worshipers, and Kanna had seen drawings of some of their idols with her own eyes, and the idols had looked like demons to her. In fact, the images had haunted her nightmares for awhile when she was young.

“Not everything with a scary face is a demon,” Goda said. Her head was tilted back again; she seemed to be staring up at the tower, whose looming figure was growing ever closer, and in the glass windows of the bottom floors, Kanna could see the giant’s faint reflection.

“You say this,” Kanna mumbled, pressing her cheek to Goda’s back so that she could no longer see the tower or its spreading mirrors, “but here you are, a perfect example of exactly that.”

“Very true, very true. Shall I turn around and bare my teeth and stick out my tongue and breathe fire at you?”

Kanna shut her eyes. “You’ve done that enough times already, I think.” She knew it was silly, but some primitive side of her shuddered at the mental image of Goda’s head twisting around and transforming into the mask of a maneater.

The feeling was mostly unpleasant, but not entirely. She still felt the tension from the night before, and it was heightened enough that it seemed to respond to Goda’s wrath in any form. Her fear and curiosity still danced together. That feeling that she wanted Goda to devour her still buzzed like electric energy in the background of her senses.

Kanna felt the shadow of the tower overtaking them, even though she could not see it. She felt the warmth of the sun being swallowed by the shade, by the cool air that had not yet noticed the dawn. They turned what felt like a corner and some light leaked into her left eye, but not her right. She opened both of them only when she felt Goda stop and she heard a creaking sound ringing through the space around her.

Kanna looked up to find herself at the base of the colossus. They had come around to the other side of it, the side where some of the sun speckled against the windows and made the building seem like it was looking at her with dozens of eyes.

There was a door in front of them. From Kanna’s vantage point, she could only see some dim shapes inside because the outside sun had grown so bright. She couldn’t parse anything she was seeing beyond the threshold.

Goda ducked her head to go inside and Kanna started following her.

But then Kanna pulled back a second later. A strange rush of resistance jolted through her bones as the smell of the place hit her nose.

It smelled empty, like the inside of a cavern. It smelled like moist stone.

Kanna took a few shuffling steps back, and this was when Goda turned to smile at her again.

“Ah, there it is,” she said, her tone filled with an odd pleasure. She approached Kanna in that moment, and she tightly grabbed the rope just below Kanna’s bound wrists. The rope had been trailing behind Kanna like a tail, but Goda began lifting it up off the ground, sliding it between her fingers like she was wrangling a live viper, until she grasp the very end of it.

What?” Kanna said, some irritation bubbling up in her immediately, because she did not like Goda’s expression. Kanna stood there with her hands pressed against her own chest, her muscles hardened like she had become an unmovable statue.

“You’re ready to fight. You’re already fighting and you don’t even know what you’re in for yet.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow, confusion melding with her annoyance. “You’re making it sound like you expected this. Last night you even told me to preserve my energy so that I could struggle. At first I thought you were just teasing me, telling me not to satisfy myself with your body because you were some kind of sadist, but now you’re looking at me with expectation. Wasn’t it you who told me over and over again to surrender? Isn’t that what you want from me, anyway?”

Goda’s expression turned cryptic. “I want exactly nothing from you. There’s nothing you could ever give me that I could possibly want. It is true that it would make your life flow with a bit less violence if you gave into me—which is why I told you to surrender—but you’re not going to do that, are you?” The giant seemed to float backwards, to make some space and give Kanna the chance to follow. Kanna stayed put. “There are many ways to commune with naked reality,” the giant said, “but you like it violent, don’t you?”

She jerked the rope and Kanna stumbled forward with a cry of surprise.

“So that’s how I’ll give it to you, Slave. Come get it.”

Goda’s face had changed again, because in the broken light coming off the prism of the windows, for a split second Kanna thought she really did see a demon staring back at her.

It’s just a trick of the light, Kanna thought, just a trick of the light.

Nonetheless, Kanna stared at the giant with astonishment, not knowing what to do. She had fallen against the edge of the doorway and her hands had caught her just before she went inside. She felt her chest tighten, felt her muscles grow even stiffer, felt all the heat rushing to her throat and legs.

Then Goda wrenched the cord. She did it with such force that Kanna felt the bonds squeeze the blood out of her wrists, and she found the doorway whipping past either side of her and she found herself swallowed into the stone chamber beyond it. Her heels dragged against the floor, but it didn’t help, and it scraped up a sound that made Kanna want to gnash her teeth.

“No!” Kanna screamed, even though she didn’t even know where they were going. She just knew that she did not want it. She did not want to be dragged to the place of her bondage; she did not want to be enslaved for ten years; she did not want to be separated from Goda and forced to live every day under the hand of a stranger who would crack a steel rod against her back the same way her father had done to others. “It’s not fair!”

Her voice echoed in what felt like a chamber that stretched up forever, never reaching a ceiling, never ending in a plateau. She didn’t want to look up to see how tall it was. She did not want to stare into the emptiness, so she shut her eyes to see the black instead. She fell to the floor as soon as the musty smell of cold stone filled the space around her.

Goda dragged her. She pulled Kanna by the hands the same way she had done on the side of the crag the first night they had met—except this time, there were no jagged rocks. Instead, Goda was hauling her up a set of ledges whose corners dug uncomfortably into Kanna’s side as she writhed and kicked.

“Look! Open your eyes! There’s lots to see here, and you’ll miss all of it!” The giant’s voice echoed up the chamber and seemed to coil all around Kanna’s body, like it was bouncing off the sides of a twisting helix.

When the pain grew too much, Kanna finally opened her eyes to look, to see what she could do, what she could grab to fight the giant off.

But then she saw the endless spiral above her. The pain stopped because the giant had paused as soon as Kanna had seen.

“What is this place?” Kanna rasped. She looked down to find a few steps below her, then looked up past Goda and found dozens more. On the walls that formed the stone cylinder that encircled them, there were windows of painted glass filled with all kinds of images: flowers, insects, trees filled with birds, huge lions with opened maws, water fowl floating atop scenic lakes—and of course, serpents carved into the gray stone that framed them.

One of the images—the one set high on the wall in front of her, in a way that looked so obvious to her now that she wondered how she hadn’t noticed it from the outside—stood a massive icon of the Goddess Mahara, one hand holding her breast, the other holding an unripe fruit. Light from the sun filtered in and colored half the stained window, while the other half remained a bit dimmer, since it was angled away from the East.

As she looked around, the rest of the chamber was bathed in a similar duality. Half was in shade, half was not. The support structures that made up the interior seemed to give it this division, but Kanna couldn’t tell which beam cast which shadow.

She looked up the stairs and finally noticed the central column that held up the entire spiral. Coiled around this spine was a carving of a huge serpent that started at the floor and seemed to reach up all the way to the ceiling high above her. She could not see its head from where she was—only the tail end, which rested on the stone at the bottom center of the space.

Still lying stretched across the stairs, Kanna tipped her head back to look up at Goda, who was standing on a vantage point just a few paces above her.

“Ah, so you like it,” Goda said.

After all of the tugging and screaming, the giant’s words seemed so ridiculous and besides the point that Kanna didn’t know what to say. She only gave Goda an irritated glance. She rolled over onto her stomach, so that she could make herself stable against the steps on her hands and knees.

“You haven’t answered me!” Kanna yelled. Her voice made the glass of the windows vibrate with energy. “What is all of this?”

“It’s a spiral staircase.”

“Yes, I can see that, but where are we going?”


“Yes, yes, I can see that, but—!” Kanna jerked her head around as she began trying to lift herself, but she could find no banister to grasp onto, so she had to use the step above her for leverage.

One side of the staircase was pressed to the wall and the other side was largely open, with wide gaps between the support beams that jutted out from the central column and fused into the stairs. This made Kanna a bit wary as she hobbled to her feet, even though they were barely a few paces up and a fall would have hurt little more than her pride.

But that was enough. She furrowed her brow and glared at the giant, who held the other end of her leash with a loose grip and now looked even taller standing above her. Some of Kanna’s initial resistance was starting to waver—to oscillate like a pendulum as it usually did—and she found herself in a calmer pocket of emotion because the kicking had tired her a little.

“Stop tugging me like that.” Her tone was a bit more neutral, though her chest was rising and falling heavily still. “You don’t have to be so rough with me.”

“I don’t?” Goda’s eyes were alight with mischief.

Kanna gave the giant a twisted face of displeasure, but this didn’t seem to make the smirk fade at all. “Look,” Kanna said, “we’re about to separated, all this bad stuff is about to happen, and I’m in this weird place that’s putting me on edge. Even the paintings on the windows are creeping me out—and let’s not even mention that ridiculous snake. Can’t you take this a bit more seriously?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, to begin with, you can wipe that stupid smile off your face.” Kanna looked around at the iconography with a few more wary glances; it felt almost like the animals were poised to rise out of the images and strike at any second. “Is this some kind of temple?”

“No. It’s the staircase that the priestesses once used to get up this building before there was a mechanical lift. Nowadays, it’s for the laypeople to climb up into the tower.”

Kanna looked above, at the seemingly endless spirals that coiled up into a distant peak that she could barely see from where she was standing. “People use this to get to the offices? Doesn’t it take forever?”

“Yes. It’s why no one except bureaucrats and clergy frequent this tower, since regular citizens can’t use the lift. Technically, the laypeople are allowed to come in and meet with administrators and report problems and complain about government services and ask for help and so on—but all the important offices are on the upper floors. Who the hell has the time and energy to make this journey, besides slaves who have nothing better to do and nowhere else to go?”

Goda turned and began stepping onto the next ledge, and the slight nudge of the rope signaled Kanna to follow.

“Originally, this special staircase was built so that the priestesses could perform a walking meditation on their way up, so that they could be in a state of oneness with the Goddess when they had to do government business and face important decisions. It’s a tedious walk, though, so most of them started taking the lift once that was built. The lift had been intended for everyone to use, but because priestesses kept having to wait to avoid being in the same gondola as the citizens—to avoid accidentally touching them—eventually the administrators banned the presence of laypeople in the lifts altogether. So now it’s the opposite of how it used to be.”

“Strange how that happened,” Kanna mumbled. She tried to avert her gaze from all the eyes on all the images, but even when she looked down at the ground beneath her, she could feel the staring as if it were coming from living beings.

“Not really. This is the usual pattern of religion. It’s probably similar in your culture.”

“What do you mean?”

Goda glanced over her shoulder, her smirk still evident, her eyebrow raised. “You start out with a really vague set of beliefs and superstitions, then someone figures out how to contact the spirits and they spread it to others. As with any job, some people are better at it than most, and those become advisors to the group because they have a wider perspective and might even see the future. Over the centuries, they make a religion out of it and those spiritually gifted people form a priestly class, and they go to live on mountaintops and they dedicate themselves to a life of humility and God. Then, people come to the mountain to seek their council—but because it’s so high up and hard to get to them, the priestesses descend and live a bit lower. They aren’t as close to God, but they’re close enough, and at least more people can see them and they can give those people advice.” Goda faced forward again as the spiral began to turn ever sharper. “But people don’t want advice.”

They stepped through one of the shadowy patches, and Kanna thought she saw a snake slithering out of the corner of her eye, but she realized quickly enough that it was simply the rope that had grown some slack and was sliding along the floor.

“The only advice worth listening to in this life is the kind that helps you become the Goddess, and people don’t like that because it means that they have to give in to Her, give into death. So instead of becoming the Goddess or being like the priestesses, they decide to worship them instead. A priestess sees this and—because she’s only human—it strokes her self-image. But the Self gets between her and God, so she starts making up reasons why she’s better than everyone else. She comes down further from the mountain so that more people can gaze upon her greatness. Instead of teetering on the edge of an abyss in the sky, she sits on a altar just off the ground, just high enough to be above others, but not so high that the Goddess can whack the side of her head with a thumb. It stops being about connecting with the Goddess in humility—in oneness—and it becomes about splintering herself off and making herself part of a class of people who stands above us mere mortals. And eventually, she stops walking the staircase up to her ivory tower. She takes the lift instead.”

The shadows retreated again as the both of them stepped into a band of light. Kanna was looking down at her feet, comforting herself with every slow footfall, every tap of left and right. “Maybe something like that happened in the Upperland. I don’t really know. My mother was religious, but I could never make any sense of it. It all seemed like a bunch of stories. All the priests looked strange in their funny clothes, waving around their magic amulets, burning herbs that smelled so foul I had no doubt it scared away evil spirits because it would scare me off, too. It just seemed like some kind of theatrical performance to me.”

“It is.”

Kanna glanced up to face the Goddess, because they had spiraled around in Her direction again. Because they were a little higher, they were a little closer to the image, even though at first it had seemed like they were only moving in circles. “Why do they even bother, then?”

“Maybe it starts out with good intentions, but the world grows more complex and the people grow more numerous. As the crops of yaw and mok and whatever else turn rich enough that no one starves, people need rules to organize themselves. They need bureaucracy. They need that stack of paperwork that you hate. But of course the Goddess knows nothing of human rules, or standards, or morals, or ideas, or words. The Goddess just is. There is nothing else to Her. People get lost in the words and forget the Goddess.”

“You’ve spoken a lot about Her this whole time we’ve been together, and while I feel like I have some inkling, some vague feeling in the back of my brain, I still don’t have a good idea of what you mean by all of that.”

Goda shrugged. The rustling of her robes echoed through the chamber. “It’s not an idea. It’s an experience. There’s no way to truly relay an experience with words.”

“I guess it’s like…my experience at the shrine.” Kanna lowered her gaze when they passed by the Goddess. “I can try to describe it, but either someone like you hears it and says, ‘Ah, yes, that’s right,’ or someone like the Bou twins hears it and says, ‘You’ve lost your mind.’ But there’s nothing I can say that could ever convey what happened to me there. All my words fall short. My ideas fall short. My mind falls short. I have fallen short.” Kanna felt a sudden burst of warmth come over her eyes. She jerked her head around to glance at the Mother again. She swallowed. “I’ve fallen short of the Goddess.”

“You are the Goddess.”

“You keep saying that, but….”

“What you think you are falls short of Her glory, that is true. It is only but a small piece of Her, and to say that this small piece is the whole of Her is idolatry. She is the highest of high. She is the one who provides, the one who heals, the everlasting, the almighty. And She is you.”

“That still makes no sense to me. Even now it makes no sense.” As they came around the spiral again, the patterns of shadow were shifting while she and the giant moved through them, because the sun had started rising further in the sky. Kanna lifted her head again to stare into the eyes of the Goddess. “I suppose I would have to experience being Her. I would only know then. Words are not enough.”


Kanna took a breath. It felt like the right question to ask, but something in her was afraid of the answer. “How…do I do that?” she said. “How can I feel what it’s like to be the Goddess? How many shrines do I have to visit?”

Goda was quiet for a dozen paces, for enough distance that they had turned again to face away from the main window. “That’s not enough, either,” Goda said. “A shrine will show you what you’re not—which is an important step—but it won’t show you what you are. For that…you take Flower.”

“So everyone who takes Flower can see the Goddess?”

“No. You have to take a lot. An enormous amount. So much, that very few people can see the Goddess without being poisoned to death. Many people use tiny amounts of Flower to cure disease, but they never see the Source from where this cure flows because it will drown them. When they do see it and somehow survive, they turn away from religion and they disobey the law, so many of them end up executed, especially if they are vessels, which they usually are.”

The two of them phased into yet another round of darkness, a shadow that whipped across Kanna’s face and felt almost as uncomfortable as the glare had. When Kanna turned towards the core of the chamber, she noticed that the snake’s coils had grown tighter along that spine, and that its body had grown fatter—even if there was no sign of the head yet.

Looking at the carved loops of its endless scales made Kanna shudder. She had felt her own snakes starting to rise up in her as soon as she and Goda had dipped into that dark corner, and the vipers only seemed to grow more active at the sight of their larger brother. Perhaps that huge snake was an idol itself—the equivalent of the images of the Goddess, except for the serpents within her instead of the Goddess within her.

She felt the snakes moving with every one of her steps, like a ball of squirming parasites in her stomach. She began to slow her walk and the rope grew less slack, until it was finally taut, and this meant that Goda was pulling her again as a matter of course. Kanna gritted her teeth and jerked her hands, but the giant did not react.

Kanna was sick of it. She squeezed her eyes shut; she felt some tears leaking from the sides, but her hands were drawn too far in front of her to be able to wipe the water away. When Kanna unwound the muscles of her jaw and slackened her mouth, the words came out on their own:

“Give me the Flower,” she said.

She could not tell that time if it was a snake who had said it, and she could not tell why. Her entire body tensed up against the rope. Goda’s stride had paused slightly, as if she had been taken by surprise, but she said nothing, and she didn’t even turn around, and she started walking again only a split second later.

Kanna lifted her wrists as high up as she could, and then she yanked them down with all of her strength until a sharp pain shot through both her joints. The force had been just enough to throw Goda off. The giant teetered back slightly, not quite stumbling over her own stride, recovering quickly enough to stand motionless in the center of a single step. She said nothing.

“I know you have some,” Kanna called up to her. “I don’t know why you did it, but you packed some Flower in the satchel before we left the truck, didn’t you? I saw you rummaging back there. I know you have it. Don’t lie to me. Give me the Flower. Open my mouth and put it into my throat. I want to swallow Flower and see the Goddess.”

Goda turned slowly, her face empty now, serious. After a moment, she shook her head. “You don’t want to see the Goddess. What you want is to be free of your problems. You want to escape from the opposite of the Goddess—from the devil—which is different from wanting to be in the divine presence. It’s also impossible because you can’t escape from yourself. You are the devil.”

Kanna ripped the cord back with all her strength, but because Goda had expected it this time, the rope hardly gave way at all. “Give it to me!” Kanna screamed. In a matter of seconds, her snakes had grown from stirring slightly in the pit of her gut to shooting through every limb all at once. “I’m sick of this, can’t you see? I’m sick of all these oscillations! I’m sick of being angry and then sorrowful and then happy and then lustful and then fearful and then angry again! I’m sick of thinking about the past and fearing some unknown future! I’m sick of thinking at all! Give me the Flower! Let me live without these burdens, for the love of God! I’m done with it!” Her voice was shooting back to her own ears, each word bouncing strangely around the spirals and loops that surrounded her, each volley sending the snakes into more of a frenzy.

No,” Goda said. Her voice boomed through the entire chamber, smoothing over Kanna’s shrieks, though an edge of fury had entered the giant’s tone. She looked down at Kanna with narrowed eyes. “Do not blaspheme the Goddess in this chamber, and do not blaspheme the Flower. Our Mother did not put Flower on this earth so that you could use it to escape some petty emotion and trade it for a different one. You’re missing the point. You’re so close to the truth that you’ve grown arrogant and strayed infinitely far from it. You’re not ready yet. You haven’t climbed up the spiral far enough yet, so shut your mouth and keep climbing.”

Goda pulled on the rope and started ascending again, but Kanna dragged her feet. She made herself rigid against the ledge in front of her, she cried out, “I want to be free! Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me the whole time, that the levers of freedom are in my hands already? My hands are bound right now, but even if they weren’t, and even if I were still in the Upperland in my comfortable house in my comfortable bed living a comfortable life, I would still have been a slave to my father. And if I had been born a Middleland citizen, I would have been a slave to your government and clergy. And if I had been born in the Outerland, I would have been a slave to their norms and their demon-worshiping priests!” She clenched her fists. The joints of her elbows locked against her sides. “Even if I had been born in the wilderness and known nothing of culture,” she shouted, “I would have been God’s slave instead! I would still have been bound to this meaningless cycle of waking in the morning and stuffing dead things into my mouth until sunset, just so that I could live to do it again the next day! For what? For what? Why am I even alive? Why am I even awake and aware? Why do I even have thoughts? What is this all for, Goda?” She had grown too angry for tears, but her body was racked in dry sobs nonetheless.

Goda stared down at her without a shred of pity, so Kanna leaned forward to press her face to her hands, and she collapsed onto her knees on the ledge above her.

“I can’t live with myself anymore!” Kanna’s breaths had grown so quick she could barely force out the words. “Just give me the Flower! I want it all to be gone! I want to be gone! If I can swallow some plant and lose who I am and be suddenly fine with what I will see at the top of this tower, and not care one way or another if I’m forced to break my back in a factory or forced to watch you leave me, then that’s what I want!”

Kanna dragged the ends of her fingers against her own face, and it stung a little, but because her nails had been worn down from resisting Goda that first night on the stone of the crag, she did not break any skin. When she looked up at Goda again, the giant was perfectly still. Light had come down through one of the windows to bathe parts of the woman’s face, and there were many colors because it was filtering through one of the more elaborate images.

“You want it?”

Kanna sucked in a breath. It made her chest convulse. It made the snakes swirl and ooze inside of her.

“So come get it!” Goda said. She pulled the satchel from her shoulder with her free hand and dangled it near the ledge right above where Kanna was kneeling. “See for yourself how well grasping works.”

Kanna reached up, but of course Goda quickly jerked the bag away and Kanna found herself grasping at thin air. She felt a wave of fury building inside her, even as the light was changing on its own without her moving and some of the shadows had started to fall away. The warmth of the sun disk only fueled her.

She launched her body up towards the image of the giant. “Give it to me!” she shouted, so loudly that her ears pulsed with pain. She rammed herself into Goda’s side, but Goda was fast and her stride was long, and before Kanna could take hold of the giant’s robes, the giant had dashed up three steps and left Kanna clawing at emptiness once again.

Bewildered even in her rage, Kanna found that the giant had a faint smile on her face again.

“Come,” Goda said. “Maybe if you’re faster, you’ll get what you want.”

Kanna let out a growl and jumped forward, quicker this time, her feet sliding harshly against the stone and turning pieces of it into gravel—but as before, Goda moved just beyond Kanna’s reach. With the strength of all of her coiled snakes erupting at once, Kanna broke into a sprint, bounding up the steps, trying to gain on the giant who was running ahead of her, twisting along the spiral with such speed that her robes waved as if they had been caught in the wind of a storm.

But no matter how many turns around the corkscrew they took, not matter how many corners Kanna slid into, Goda was just ahead of her, just beyond her grasp. Even though Goda still held onto the other end of the rope, that lifeline didn’t seem to help Kanna get closer at all. And it did not dull Kanna’s fury and frustration when the giant called back to her:

“Come! Maybe if you take two steps at a time, you’ll get what you want! Come, come! Maybe if you cut this corner, you’ll catch up to me! Come on, hurry! Maybe if you latch onto the tail of my robes you’ll be able to slow me down!” The giant was laughing, and it made Kanna want to give up in a fit of rage, but she knew that if she stopped running, she would get dragged along painfully, because Goda was rushing up the stairs like a fast-flowing river.

So Kanna had to run after her—even if it was like chasing her own shadow.

When they approached the top, Kanna was heaving and gasping and nearly out of breath. They had passed by many doors on their way up, but they had all blended into the scenery like a blur because Goda had dashed past them and paid them no attention.

But then as they came closer to the final door, and Kanna realized that the staircase was running out, and that her playful dance with Goda was about to come to a close, she felt the angry tears finally bursting from her eyes. She felt the full resistance of the moment. She pulled back and let the rope nearly yank her hands from their sockets.

“No!” Kanna cried.

She stumbled forward onto the final landing out of pure momentum. She shuffled precariously close to the open edge. When she stretched towards Goda, her bound hands swiping at the air to strike the giant—or to grasp at the satchel, or to reach up desperately for help—she was spooked by the sound of rattling metal, and a powerful gust of breath that sent her hair flying in every chaotic direction. She jerked her gaze to the threshold of the door, even as both her closed fists made contact with the giant’s chest.

The light bursting from the windows of the chamber bathed the doorway just as a figure emerged from it. Within that light, a pair of clear eyes formed themselves from the nothingness, gold like the disk of the sun. They were looking upon Kanna, only upon Kanna, a raw awareness beaming from them, flowing like an energy.

Kanna’s jaw immediately slackened. Her muscles gave way and her fists dropped down from the giant. She lost her will to fight. Everything was drained from her except a sense of peace. She only stared.

The face she was gazing into was beautiful, smiling the divine smile of a goddess—but when it seemed to rush forward as if to touch her, she grew startled by it. She jumped back and her feet slipped over the ledge. Losing her balance, feeling that there was too much slack on the rope and that it was sliding along with her, she turned to look over her shoulder to grab at anything else.

She reached, but her hands grasped thin air. She stumbled into the core of the chamber. She fell towards the open mouth of a huge stone serpent, its fangs bared and ready to consume her.

Onto Chapter 35 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 33: A Small Death

Goda’s mouth still tasted faintly of smoke. Most of the scent had been washed away when Goda drank from the flow of the river, but as Kanna leaned in and tasted deeply, she could sense an edge of charred earth on Goda’s tongue that hadn’t faded away.

Had she been in her normal state of mind, Kanna might have found it unpleasant, offensive, even. Instead, she swallowed it into her like every other subtle taste. She took in the warmth of Goda’s mouth, the texture. She felt the hard parts and the soft parts; she let the smell of Goda’s skin fill her up.

When Kanna pulled back because it had all begun to overwhelm her, her moist lips felt suddenly cold in the night air. She let out a long breath between them; the air puffed out of her visibly like it was made of smoke itself.

Kanna looked down at the giant. She was straddling Goda’s hips by the bank of the river. Both restless, they had moved from place to place during the night—the flatbed of the truck, the driver’s side of the front seat, the base of one of the huge trees—and each time, Kanna had grown more forward, more insistent, because she knew that time was running out. They were rushing helplessly towards a future that she could not resist.

And still, she knew that every moment could only be now. It was a paradox she always found in the woods. It was Goda’s paradox.

The giant was lying just at arm’s length of the water. She was reaching towards it, her fingers brushing the edge where the pebbles disappeared into the darkness. After Kanna had broken the kiss, Goda had turned her head to gaze towards the stream, which flowed so seamlessly that it looked like a blue mirror in the light of the moon.

Goda’s expression was serene, unbothered as usual. Had Kanna judged only from her face, she would have thought that she was looking at a beast who had no shred of desire for anything in the world, a creature free from want—but because Kanna was pressing herself hard against the spot below Goda’s hips, she knew that some tension was awake in the giant. She could feel the warmth beneath her, their shared pulse. She could feel it even through the layers of clothes.

She had started rocking against Goda. Kanna’s fingers were pressed to the space just beneath Goda’s ribs, so that it felt like she was holding the woman down, which only sharpened the irony that her hands were still bound and the other end of the rope lay loosely in Goda’s grasp.

She watched Goda’s reaction carefully. The giant had not rejected her embrace yet, had kissed Kanna back with no hesitation, but the giant had yet to act on her own—and even then Kanna still wanted Goda to push her, to make her do it, to tear all of her clothes away and open her up to the cold night air and shove her face in the dirt.

But Kanna knew that it was impossible to force Goda to force her. So she had waited. She had gone through the motions of some mating dance that had not been entirely conscious, and she had waited for Goda to act.

Goda hadn’t—and for the moment, the giant seemed distracted by the stream, her eyes falling onto the opposite bank, towards the dark forest that mirrored their own on the other side.

Kanna sighed with some resignation, some frustration. She followed the giant’s gaze and found that the trees looked like a smudge of gray in the moonlight, so instead she looked into the water, which appeared almost motionless even as it was flowing, because there were no rocks to resist the current and show signs of conflicted movement.

“Is this the Samma River?” Kanna asked. The thought had occurred to her only then, but the place looked so deserted that she could hardly believe this might have been the Southern border of the Middleland. There was no man-made barrier, no crossing, no soldiers, nothing that would have stopped her from wading across to the other side. Only the shrine seemed to be any kind of deterrent.

“Yes,” Goda answered, though Kanna had been asking her own self aloud, so hearing the giant suddenly speak had startled her a little.

“So that over there must be the Lowerland.” Kanna peered out into the opposing forest with renewed interest. It looked as hazy as it had before, but if she concentrated, she could make out the gravel at the bank and the messy brush that divided the trees from the water. “It looks almost the same as this side does. I guess I expected it to be different somehow, and seeing it in the flesh is underwhelming.”

“Borders are arbitrary. They’re invisible lines drawn by people, using rivers and mountains as excuses. The Lowerland could very well look the same as the Middleland all over and we would never know.”

“So what’s the difference, then?”

Goda smiled, and turned up to glance at Kanna with some amusement. “You know the difference,” she said. “It’s why you’ve hardly touched the water. It’s why you avoided looking at the other side until now. It’s why you feel an unconscious resistance to crossing, and would probably hold back even if someone was chasing you. Everyone feels it, so the government doesn’t need to guard this border.”

Kanna was quiet for awhile. When she paid attention, she did notice the resistance. Something about being close to the river had made her want to pull back at first, and she couldn’t clearly picture herself passing through the halfway point of the stream, even if it might have been shallow enough.

“The savages,” Kanna whispered.

“Yes. You’re afraid of them. Middlelanders are afraid of them, too. Even though the Samma River is sacred to the Maharans, most people still avoid the edges of the border as if the place were smeared with a plague.”

“I can’t blame them.” Kanna winced and averted her eyes from the other side. “I heard that the Lowerlanders are cannibals, that they cross the border at night sometimes and steal people and eat them.”

Goda laughed at this. Kanna wasn’t sure what it meant. Perhaps the giant found the words ironic in light of what Kanna had encountered in the shrine earlier; perhaps the giant had seen the same thing. “A lot of people in the Middleland believe that, too,” she said. “I can’t say for sure whether it’s true because I’ve never seen them eating. I’ve only seen them crouched in the brush, picking at wild plants.”

Kanna froze. “You’ve seen the savages?” She glanced quickly over the border again, suddenly alarmed. “Here? Did you see them around here?”

“No. The border here has a huge buffer between us and any settlement. Beyond the river, there’s a thick forest, then a mountain range, then a canyon that cracks through the earth and divides the continent almost in half. It acts as a no-man’s land, but it seems the canyon might be narrower near Samma Valley where I used to work, and I heard rumors that there’s an ancient bridge there. It would explain why I saw Lowerlanders a handful of times while I was gazing down from the mountainside where the monastery is.”

Even with that explanation, Kanna felt a bit exposed to be sitting so close to the savages’ homeland. “What did they look like?” Though she knew it was her imagination, her brain had started to conjure up faces in the lines of the tree branches on the other side. She blinked her eyes a few times and shook her head.

“I never got a close look, so I can’t say much. Some were small and some were bigger. Some were light-skinned and some were more tan. They were always naked, though—not a shred of clothes on them.”

Kanna smirked at this. “Sounds like you would fit right in with them.” Though Kanna had meant to tease the giant, her own words brought up a mental image, and it made some warmth rush to her face, and it made her conscious again of the feeling of Goda’s hips between her legs.

She had paused her rocking, but she began anew, with full awareness this time, with a slow, deliberate stroke. She felt a growing firmness pressing hard against her skin from beneath Goda’s clothes; she felt a growing heat.

Goda’s smile hadn’t faded.

“Why did you go there?” Kanna asked, taking in a long breath, steadying her voice and allowing it to flow out of her casually. “To the monastery, I mean. It must have been strange to live isolated on a mountainside like that. Was it something you would have chosen for yourself?”

“I did choose it. When I was younger, I got it in my head that I should work at Samma Valley.”


Goda shrugged, her face still relaxed and free of any desire, which Kanna did not like at all. “One day, I just knew I had to go there. I don’t know what compelled me, but I felt like I had to, like it was some drive of nature that was tugging me West, towards a valley in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, it was an easy job to get because most people are afraid to live there. My fiancée didn’t want to move with me, either, so I had to break off the engagement.”

“You were engaged?” Kanna tipped her head back in surprise, but she didn’t pause her movements; she pressed a little harder. She felt the rush of Goda’s blood more acutely, felt the shape of Goda’s reaction thickening against her. “But you were so young then.”

“It was an arranged marriage. She was waiting for me to come of age. We had been engaged since I was born and she was twelve years older than me, so she had waited a long time.”

“What happened to her?”

“She went out to live in the desert and I didn’t see her again until after I had become a porter. Because she’s a bit on the abrasive side, she had trouble finding a wife, but eventually she married an Outerlander.”

Kanna did pause then. She stared at Goda’s face without asking the next obvious question, because she realized just before voicing it that she wasn’t entirely certain that she wanted to know.

But then she knew without asking.

“Maybe it worked out better this way. That woman doesn’t suit you.” Kanna resumed her motions, and it was still languid enough that it felt effortless, but it had grown less subtle in its insistence; she had opened her legs a little further; she could feel Goda adjusting beneath her. She hoped that the giant was moving with discomfort. “I can’t really imagine you in a passionate embrace with Jaya Hadd.”

“That’s not really how Middlelander marriages work. For us, it’s better if we don’t like each other too much.”

“You people are weird.”

“That’s just how it is.” Goda’s smile grew wider. She had let go of the rope and instead her hands had come to rest on the ground near Kanna’s knees. She was touching Kanna’s legs very lightly. “Most couples don’t sleep together or anything like that. Jaya and I are distantly related, too, so we’re naturally less interested in each other, which is the ideal. Marriage is strictly business. It’s for strengthening alliances and raising children. It’s just that I didn’t want any of that, so I had no use for it.”

Kanna’s fingers curled to grasp at Goda’s shirt. She began sliding the fabric up, until she could see some skin appearing above Goda’s waist. She watched the giant’s stomach rise and fall. “Then what do you have use for? And who has use for you? You can’t even have any children, can you?” She didn’t know why she was saying it; she couldn’t tell what snake was speaking for her now or why it was so angry, but she let it speak. “You’re useless, Giant.”

Goda jerked her hips. The giant’s muscles tensed and she lifted herself off the ground and she pushed firmly into that place between Kanna’s legs. Kanna stifled a sharp breath of surprise; she felt the heat directly against her, felt the details of what lay beneath that barrier of fabric between them.

Kanna’s pulse traveled to that place. As her blood swelled in, she felt a fullness and an emptiness at the same time in the same spot. She stared down at Goda with astonishment, but Goda said nothing. The giant’s claws had dug into Kanna’s skin. The giant was grasping Kanna’s thighs to pull herself up, and then she threw an arm around Kanna in a rough half-embrace, and their chests collided so violently that Kanna lost her breath.

That violence flowed into a kiss. Goda’s teeth scraped the outside of Kanna’s mouth. Kanna cried out, but it was muffled, and she moved against Goda entirely on instinct, and Goda met her movements. The rhythm was as brutal as the kiss, but it had a flow to it as well, like a stream filled with gushing, pulsing rapids.

It was too intense. She could feel the texture of Goda’s hot skin as if it were directly against her. A tight feeling had started to accumulate, like a tense wire about to snap. Kanna felt more and more full; it grew more and more uncomfortable every time Goda pressed into her, but she could not stop herself from leaning into the touch nonetheless.

She dragged her hands desperately to the buckle of Goda’s belt. She knew that only the feeling of skin against naked skin would offer any relief, because the sensation had become almost painful, and it was building with Goda’s deliberately hard, deliberately violent thrusts, and it was growing impossible to resist anything.

Something in Kanna felt on the verge of spilling over—a familiar sensation, but not one she had ever experienced with anyone besides herself—and it made her face grow hot with frustration and embarrassment. Still, it had reached a plateau, and it moved no further. She was teetering over an abyss, but death wouldn’t quite take her, because she needed to feel Goda directly, even though the energy shooting through her limbs was making it hard for her to concentrate enough to undo Goda’s belt.

A single throb exploded in her, harder than she had felt before. Kanna tensed up. She gasped.

Then the giant stopped. She dropped her hips back onto the ground, her ragged breaths falling into Kanna’s mouth, her expression filled with the color of tension. She looked at Kanna intently.

“Don’t come,” Goda said.

Kanna’s eyes widened. Her face burned harder; it felt like a jarring contrast against the cold air of the night. She found at first that she couldn’t speak.

“It will drain you of your aggression. You’ll turn calm and complacent, and you won’t have the force of will to fight me all the way up the tower in the morning.”

“I—I wasn’t going to do that!” Kanna sputtered, even though it was a total lie and she knew well enough to sense that she hadn’t been far from that place. Even still, she furrowed her brow in anger. “And so what if I was, anyway? What is the point of doing all this if it’s not—if it’s not to….” Kanna stopped because she could not bring herself to speak as plainly as Goda had about it, because it was easier to act in the moment and then pretend that there were no words for what they were doing together.

But when she really thought about it, it was true that she didn’t know the exact words—in Middlelander or Upperlander—that might have described what had just happened in any level of detail. Perhaps there was no name for what had arisen between them. Perhaps there was no name for what they were doing, because there was no name for what had been pressing so insistently between Kanna’s legs and no name for the sensation inside of Kanna that had responded to it. She wasn’t even sure exactly what Goda might have done if the clothes had been ripped away.

Kanna had been acting without thinking, like some ignorant savage who had no language, and she had been going along with the wordless sensations in the air, making herself drunk with desire. It made her feel shame, but when she looked upon Goda’s blank face, the shame quickly fell away, and instead she was furious.

“We can’t all be such high-level masochists, Goda!” she yelled. She reached down between their joined hips and squeezed Goda tightly, harshly. It made Goda wince with what looked like pain, and this satisfied Kanna a little, because she herself was in pain as well; she herself had swollen up beyond the confines of her shell and could not crack it open.

Kanna lifted her bound hands and pressed them hard against her own face. She started to cry. Her tears burst out as a violent spurt. She let out a loud groan of anger that echoed through the forest.

“Why is it always like this between us?” Kanna cried. “Why do I always feel like I’m on the verge of something, on the edge, like I’m about to be born into something new, but I can’t break my way out? I pound and claw against the walls of that womb, but I can never be born, because somehow I’m inside my own belly, trying to give birth to myself, and I can’t break my own self open and be free of all of this! That’s the paradox, isn’t it? Why can’t you just be inside of me instead, Goda? Why can’t you just break me open with your thrusting, then? Why do you tantalize me with these tastes of death, but you won’t just kill me?”

She was screaming. She had jammed the heel of her palms into her eyes and her fingernails were scraping her hairline, pulling on the little wisps that were growing there.

Goda took her by the wrists and wrenched her hands away. Kanna’s breath hitched. She stared at Goda with tightened lips, with tears the flowed fatly down her face.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t touch you so much,” Goda said. “And Rem was right, too: I fan the flames. I’ve played with fire all my life, lived just on the verge of death. That’s exciting at first, but over time you burn through the fear and everything in the world becomes mundane. It’s different with you, though. I don’t know why that is. You don’t remind me of anyone I’ve ever known; there’s nothing I can see that I’ve projected onto you—yet everything about you is tempting to me. It’s not desire I feel; it’s just a primitive drive, like I’m some animal who has stumbled upon a receptive companion displaying herself in the wilderness. It’s clean and wholesome and there’s not much baggage to it. It’s hard to control myself because of that. There’s no impurity to latch onto, so I’m washed away in the natural flow of it.”

Kanna swallowed a shaky, irritated breath. “You make what we have together sound so simple.”

“It is. It could be. Why are you adding so much to it?”

“Because it means more than that.” Kanna took a handful of Goda’s shirt and tugged on it in frustration, but then she gave up and slumped forward, and pressed her face to Goda’s chest. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about everything, about the way I dismissed your whole story. Even seeing what you did with my own eyes, I wanted to bury it away—but you were in love with the priestess, weren’t you? Even if I couldn’t hear your thoughts in those visions, I could feel your body, your desire for her, your arousal. She looked so beautiful, and I could tell I was seeing her through some skewed lens that came from that. I can’t imagine the pain, Goda, I can’t imagine it. It would be like if I had to jam a knife into you and watch you bleed to death. I could never do it. It would kill me.”

Goda was quiet for a long moment. Over time, though, she leaned back. She brought her hand to Kanna’s face and forced Kanna to meet her gaze again. Kanna fought it at first, because the stare was as intense as it was warm, because it undressed her as it so often did and she had lost the impulse to be naked.

“Just because it is simple,” Goda said, “and just because I don’t feel a lot of attachment to you—or to anyone—doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be with you. It doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you could stay with me and we could travel together through the desert and catch snakes at night and fall asleep side by side. It’s just that my life will come to an end soon and so we can’t live in that kind of world. You know it.”

Kanna opened her mouth to begin objecting, as she usually did, to tell Goda that there was no use in fortunetelling, to complain about the chaos of the reality around them—but she didn’t. Something about Goda’s tone nudged a part of Kanna’s mind, or perhaps something beyond it. Kanna felt the blood in her hands running cold even though they were pressed to Goda’s warm chest. Kanna swallowed.

“I’m going to kill you, aren’t I?” She was surprised at what her own mouth had said, but she knew it was true anyway, because she immediately wanted to take it back.

The giant nodded.

“That’s why….” Kanna had turned away. Her eyes had widened and she couldn’t stand to look right into Goda’s face anymore. She felt an uncomfortable moment of lucidity wash over her, as if she had awoken from a dream. “That’s why the shrine showed me those things. That’s why I had all those visions.”

“Yes. It showed you my past so that you could come to terms with your future—so that you could forgive me for what you would eventually do yourself, so that you could learn not to judge it. Judgment gets in the way of life’s natural unfolding—and you were naturally meant to kill me.”

“No…no, that can’t be right!” Kanna felt panic swelling up in her, a denial more intense than any other she had felt. “How? How would I even kill you? My hands are bound. What am I going to do, strangle you with the rope? It’s preposterous!”

“You’ve already killed me. But in that sense, you’re no different from everyone else. Every particle in this universe has conspired to end my life, and it’s nothing personal. It’s only that you were the last piece, the cog that made the rest of the machine run its course. Don’t worry about it. You’ve already fulfilled your role without realizing. It’s done; it just has to play out, and you will already be free of me by the time it happens, so you won’t have to watch.”

Kanna was shaking her head. “No!” Her breaths were coming in hard, but she leaned against Goda again and her tears soaked into the giant’s shirt. “I don’t believe you! You’re always lying! You’re a liar and a thief and a killer! Why would I ever believe you?”

Goda held Kanna in a firm embrace, but it still felt loose enough that Kanna could have broken out of it if she wanted, and Kanna did not like that at all. She shuddered against Goda for a long time, until the giant teetered back, and they both fell into the grass together once again.

Kanna pressed the side of her head to Goda’s chest. She listened to the giant’s beating heart. She felt Goda’s breath swelling, the subtle flexing of the woman’s legs, the heat of the arousal that still pulsed against Kanna shamelessly.

The edges of the sun were starting to color the sky and leak onto the surface of the water, but because it was still dark, Kanna could feel some snakes writhing in her with total clarity. One of them—the most prominent one—was a constrictor, and it wanted to wrap itself around Goda in a desperate, suffocating embrace. It wanted to hold onto her. It was afraid of losing her. It was the one that had wanted Kanna to make love with the giant before it was too late, as if the act could serve as a window into some eternity between them.

But then Kanna noticed that some infinite presence was already there, swimming around and inside both herself and Goda Brahm.

They had already been making love. In fact, it happened all the time. It happened from the moment they first met—or even before that. She felt almost like she could remember knowing Goda when she was younger, even though that was impossible.

It confused her. She could not point to when it had started or what it even was. It had no time. It had no beginning and no end. There were no words for it. It preceded any of the physical contact between them, and the touch had merely made what was already there more obvious.

She and Goda could not be separated, Kanna realized, though it made no sense to her mind. It was just that there was no such thing as separation. They had always been together. Always. Goda’s presence had always hovered around her and within her.

The only thing that had given her the illusion of some division were the snakes—especially the one that desperately grasped to keep Goda from running away, ironically enough—and so that meant…

“I am you,” Kanna whispered. The words had taken on a deeper meaning from the last time she had said them. Every wave of lucidity brought with it another shred of truth, but she knew that in mere moments the lucidity would wear off, and she would forget what she had seen just then, and she would start resisting the circumstances again.

Goda smiled up at her. The golden glow that had started to paint the leaves reflected in her eyes. “I am you,” she responded in kind.

* * *

Once the sun had floated high enough that Kanna could see its disk shining between the trees, they both emerged from their shared stupor. They had not moved from the side of the river; they had stayed breathing against each other in silence and Kanna had nearly fallen asleep.

Goda turned and allowed Kanna to gently fall from her, to roll into the bed of grass and leaves beside them, away from the stream. Kanna gazed at the giant helplessly, no longer sure of herself, her body feeling amorphous beneath her.

But Goda stood with purpose, as if some universal clock had sounded the alarm. She looked awake. She picked up the other end of Kanna’s rope and coaxed Kanna onto her feet.

“Let’s go,” the giant said, her smile just a ghostly presence, not fully-formed. The wind was blowing lightly through the trees, making the leaves sway with a pleasant rustle. It also sent Goda’s hair dancing across her face. “Today, the world ends.”

Onto Chapter 34 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 32: Autophagy

The truck coughed, spat some smoke. All at once, the mass of people pushed forward, jostled against the sides of their rig and against each other, because they were all swarming towards the priestess who had appeared outside the train. A roar of voices exploded all around them. There were so many that Kanna could not make out any of the individual words, but the collective tone was one of shock and confusion, like the crowd was a single creature that had let out a unified gasp.

Aside from that, there was a strange stillness that permeated underneath. Kanna realized after a second that it was because she could no longer feel the giant’s breathing. Kanna ventured to look towards the driver’s side, and felt herself seize up when she noticed Goda’s expression.

The giant’s gaze was fixed on the train platform ahead. Her mouth was slightly parted, her eyes widened. Her right hand—the one marred with teeth marks—was still clasped to the speed lever, but the knuckles had started to lose their color. Her left hand was gripping the side of the driver’s door, and her arm had progressively begun to shake, to rattle the metal as if she were unconsciously on the verge of ripping it open.

Instead, Goda leapt over the door. Before Kanna could even think to ask what was happening, the giant was sprinting through the crowd, pushing women out of the way, grabbing men by the back of their robes and tugging them aside.

“What’s wrong with her?” Kanna could hear the giant calling out over the multitude of heads, a panicked cry that burst out of huge lungs and competed with the din of the crowd. “What happened to the priestess?”

Goda clawed her way towards the train, but before she had reached the platform, a pair of soldiers noticed her, and they pushed her back before she reached the military trucks that blocked the way.

“Don’t come any closer!” one of them yelled. “We have an emergency situation here. There’s a priestess being transported to the health administration building.”

Goda didn’t fight them, but she ignored what they said and she tried to use her shoulders to push past them. Another pair of brutes appeared from either side, bigger than the first two, and they tightened the boundary, and Goda was not strong enough to cross any further.

Still, Kanna could see that the giant had stooped down into a soldier’s face. She was shouting, “What’s wrong with her? How long has she been like this? Have they tried to treat her yet? What medicine are they using on her?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know that?” The soldier pressed her hand on Goda’s chest and pushed the giant against the crowd. “Get back! It’s none of your concern! I said get back!”

Even from where she was sitting, Kanna could see that the giant’s spine was racked with tension, like a rope on the verge of snapping.

“I need to see her!” Goda shouted. “Let me through!”

One of the other soldiers, who seemed to make a double-take when she noticed Goda’s face, yelled over the growing racket, “Oh, I’m sure you do! You’re that priestess-killer Goda Brahm, aren’t you? Are you looking to add another one to your list?”

Goda punched her in the face. Even though the soldier fell to the ground, several more swooped in quickly, and they all descended on Goda, some of them swinging their fists and some of them grasping to subdue her.

Goda retreated then, but as she did so, she rammed against the crowd, which sent a wave of uncomfortable movement through the multitude. People bumped into each other violently and took each other by surprise, and as the angry soldiers squeezed their way through to continue their pursuit, the mob grew only more agitated.

One of the taller soldiers managed to reach Goda’s side, and she launched a fist up, aimed for the giant’s jaw; but as Goda was absorbed into the movement of the mass, the solider missed and instead struck a young man who had been trying to shuffle away.

The boy collapsed onto the street. A woman who had been standing next to him—his mother, Kanna wondered—let out a piercing scream.

Chaos broke within seconds.

The mob turned on the soldier and every woman standing nearby showered her with blows and kicks. This wave of anger seemed to flow progressively through the entire crowd, and Kanna saw other fights break out, first in isolated pockets, and then in wider pits as people tried to flee and crashed into each other and offended each other.

In mere moments, the crowd seemed to divide itself between those who were fighting and pushing and resisting, and those who had turned to swim through the crowd and leave the scene.

Kanna looked on helplessly, tugging futilely on her binds, trying to follow the rope to find the place where it was anchored so that she could untie herself. Strangers climbed over each other and rammed against the sides of the truck and made the whole rig shake back and forth. A few women even climbed into the truck and stepped all over Kanna in their haste to get to the other side.

More soldiers appeared around the platform, but now that the sentiment had turned so violently against them, they were starting to be overwhelmed. People from the mob were throwing rocks, bottles, pieces of food. They were screaming epithets and slurs that Kanna only vaguely recognized.

The temple assistants were hurrying away into one of the military trucks, but as they were loading the body of Rem Murau, a handful of citizens crawled up onto the platform to avoid the chaos, and they caused one of the four assistants to trip. The stretcher teetered, and Rem Murau slid towards the edge of the canvas.

There was something like a collective pause among those nearby. This seemed to calm the crowd a bit. The citizens on the platform all froze with panicked tension as the assistant regained her footing and lifted her side of the stretcher just before the priestess could spill into the crowd.

Without so much as grazing any skin against skin, they loaded Rem into the truck.

And as if some bell had been struck as soon as the priestess disappeared, this seemed to be the signal to get back to business, and the aggressors in the horde turned to their fights once again.

Kanna was screaming Goda’s name, but it was lost in the roar of the masses. She was looking and looking through the throng, but she could not find the giant. She felt a wave of fear filling her chest, her thoughts flashing with images of the giant being trampled, but then she felt the truck jostling again.

She turned and half-expected another group of rude strangers, but instead she was met with the empty face of Goda Brahm. The giant ripped the door open and got in. She put her hand immediately on the speed lever and revved the engine and pushed the truck through a parting sea of people. She moved slowly enough to allow pedestrians to dive out of the way, but the sides of the truck nearly knocked a few people over.

Goda’s truck wasn’t the only one. Traffic had started to move again, even with all the chaos, and because the train had already passed, Goda managed to edge her way over to the other side of the tracks. Once the crowd had petered out, they barreled onto the main road. It was deserted enough that they had the freedom to speed.

Kanna did not take her eyes off Goda’s face. The shock had still not worn off. Kanna’s chest was shuddering rapidly even as she noticed that the giant’s own breathing had grown controlled again.

“What…was that?” Kanna heaved.

But Goda did not answer. They hurtled through the streets, the mob growing further away, the road so smooth that it felt a bit like they were flying. They flew closer to the massive towers that Kanna had seen from a distance. Her heart sank; her gut churned with resistance. She tilted her head to follow the lines of those glass and steel bodies, but luckily they remained a few blocks away with other smaller buildings as a buffer, and the truck passed them without even slowing down.

They headed South until they were blocked by a row of woods, the beginnings of a forest.

Goda kept going. She dove into the embrace of the trees, allowed the truck to be swallowed by the thicket until branches were smacking them on either side at full speed. The truck parted a trail for them—or else the plants were bowing out of the way—and in that space, where the headlamps of the truck barely reached, Kanna saw the bank of a river bathed in blue moonlight.

They could go no further. They had reached the border.

* * *

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Kanna said.

Goda had stepped out of the truck, and she had put her face in her hands, and she had let out a loud breath into her palms. She was pacing back and forth among the trees, her body filled again with tension, with the same agitation that had seemed to flow through the crowd earlier.

“That soldier deserved it, and it’s not like you had control over what everyone decided to do next. You’re not God. You can’t act like the entire burden of responsibility for everything that ever happens is—”

“Shut up!” Goda shouted all of a sudden, and it made Kanna recoil. “Shut up.” The giant looked up from her hands, and in the beams that came down between the treetops Kanna could just barely make out the look of rage. “Do you know that woman who I struck in the face? Or the woman who attacked me and accidentally hit that boy and then was rushed by the mob? Do you know them?

“Well, no, I—”

“Neither do I!” Goda’s teeth were gritted. “They could have wives and children for all we know, and now they’re both seriously injured—or worse. What I did was stupid. There is no excuse for it. Maybe it seems like something small to you—and that I should ignore the rest of what happened because it wasn’t by my hand directly—but everything we do has a ripple effect in this world. I might have caused the deaths of two people just now. I might have caused the bereavement of both their wives. I might have caused the starvation of their children. And Rem, you saw her, didn’t you? What kind of disease did my presence at the monastery trigger in her? She looks infested with snakes.”

“Goda, you’re insane! You can’t put all of that on yourself! We can’t be—you can’t be blamed for any of that!” Kanna ranted. She felt a wave of guilt filling her own chest, and something in the back of her mind knew that she was resisting Goda’s words because of what it meant about her own self and all the things that she had done in her own life. “Why do you have this fixation on flagellating yourself for everything? It’s irrational. It’s arrogant and megalomaniacal, even. It’s the reason why you’re still tied up in your guilt for something that happened nine years ago, even though that priestess that you stabbed to death deserved what she got!”

Kanna only realized that her mouth had grown too slippery after the last few words tumbled out. She shut her mouth quickly then, but it was too late.

Goda was staring at her. The look was one that made Kanna wonder if she was about to become a third casualty for the night.

Like an animal pouncing out of the brush around them, Goda jumped into the truck. She came upon Kanna, she pressed Kanna to the seat. Her teeth were bared and her breaths were rushing out of her in thick clouds of steam that looked like smoke in the cool air.

The hot sting of fear rushed through every one of Kanna’s limbs. In just a matter of moments, her brain wiped clean every memory she had of everything that had happened between them. Kanna felt like her body was reacting to the giant the way it had the first night they met; she was filled with raw discomfort, fear for her life, dread that drenched every particle of every bone.

But Goda did not hit her. “You’re a fool,” she huffed instead. “One day you will see for yourself the pain you’ve inflicted on the world, and it will tear you up inside. But until then, you will foolishly keep destroying yourself and those around you, crying to the heavens when you run yourself full speed into a boulder, begging the Goddess to save you from what you’ve done. You did it. It was you. And it’s only you who can stop doing it.” Kanna stared up at Goda, not knowing what to say, only a small edge of her mind growing awake to the implication behind the words. Then Goda finally said, “Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered or died so that you could live in a house in a grassy meadow in blissful ignorance. What are you going to do about it now, Kanna Rava?”

Kanna would have preferred a blow to the face.

When the giant pulled away, she grasped the other end of the rope and began untying it. She yanked Kanna out of the truck and led her through the brush, but Kanna followed without daring to ask where they were going.

Not far away, in a clearing by the river bank, Kanna could see a shallow den carved into the side of a mound. Even in the relative darkness, as she peered inside she could see that it was little more than half a dozen paces deep. The ceiling looked low enough that the giant would certainly have had to crouch to go in, so Kanna gave Goda a bewildered glance as they approached it.

Then Kanna came close enough to see the etchings on the outside of the threshold. They were more plain than the ones she had seen before—as if they were a primitive version of the ornate carvings she had noticed in the desert and in Karo—but there was no mistaking the image of a swan surrounded by snakes.

As soon as she saw it, Kanna turned to run. The slack of the rope was short, though. She came to an abrupt stop when she reached the end of her leash and she fell onto the ground with the force of her resistance. The leaves rustled as she dug her hands into the dirt. Her fingers uprooted a dozen weeds as Goda dragged her.

“No!” Kanna screamed, tears bursting from her eyes. “No! I don’t want to see it! No! No!”

“You’ve seen my guilt and my shame,” Goda said, her stride slow but consistent. “You’ve seen your own, too. But you’re hardened to guilt. Your mother tried to control you with it, so now it means nothing to you. It’s something you can dismiss, or shift to someone else as if it’s their fault. You can even swim in guilt to make a show of how sorry you are. You can suffer yourself as if you’re paying a penance for the suffering you caused—but of course that does nothing. You cannot buy forgiveness with guilt. Guilt is a mask. What you’re trying to avoid with it is responsibility, which is something else altogether.”

Goda took Kanna by the back of her robes and pulled her the rest of the way. She dropped her just outside the entrance of the shrine.

“Don’t go in,” Goda said. “It will be too much for you. This shrine is very powerful, in spite of its looks. Don’t go in, but if the Goddess sends out one of your snakes, then obey Her intention and look the snake in the eyes.”

Kanna pressed her face into the dirt because she didn’t want to look up at the gateway in front of her. Still, she could feel the ground vibrating beneath her as it always did, and the familiar whir that rushed through her ears.

She resisted and resisted, but the valve was opening and she could hear all the snakes rushing out. In time, she felt a single tongue flickering against her arm, then against her face, tasting her resolve. Because it had been dormant for so long, Kanna could feel the snake’s naiveté. It was curious about her; it was wondering who she was. It only grew afraid of her once she found the strength to finally lift her head and look.

And by then it was too late for it to escape her gaze.

* * *

Kanna was running through the grassland on a bright summer day. The sun was like a burning spotlight overhead, and so she tried to dodge it by slipping into a grove. She had left the boundaries that her mother had assigned to her, but she had told herself the reasoning was justified. Her father was somewhere out in the field, she had heard—a rare occurrence since he always hid himself in the offices of the distilleries—and she wanted to catch a glimpse of him while she could.

But the fields were hot, and they stretched wide across the property. She was small enough to duck behind the shadows of boulders and trees and bushes, but the long, thin stalks of mok hardly cast a silhouette at all.

Most of the fields had been empty, but when she heard some voices shouting in the distance, she pushed herself with some of the last bits of energy that the sun hadn’t sapped, and she ran out of the thicket. Just over the hillside, she saw a row of workers harvesting the pods of mok, their bare hands closing around the tips of the stems and ripping off the tiny bits of grain in one sweep.

Kanna sat and admired a few cycles of the motions. She wondered how they could reap the fruits of the plant without blistering their fingers on the spines. She thought they must have been chosen because they were talented enough to know how to avoid them.

The voice of a man standing off to the side shattered through her daydreaming, though. She hadn’t noticed him at first, but he was taller than the rest of the workers and he wasn’t busying himself with the grain that thickly surrounded him. He was ignoring it actually; he was staring fixedly at the row of people instead.

“Don’t bother wiping your hands! You can do that after; we don’t have the time!” he shouted at someone. He was holding a clock in his hand and he was busy winding it with the same effort that the workers were stripping the grain.

Kanna looked around for her father, but she didn’t recognize anyone within a reasonable distance. For a second, she wondered if she had just forgotten what her father looked like, but she shook her head at the thought. She had seen him only the month before at his house and his face couldn’t have changed that much—in her mind, or in reality.

As she was scanning the landscape, her eyes landed on a nearby worker who looked smaller than the rest. He was young, gangly. His arms and legs looked too long for his trunk; he must have still been in the midst of growing, not quite as ripe as the mok yet.

Kanna smiled a little because she thought he was cute and he reminded her of one of her half-brothers. Because he looked a bit underfed, she wondered if he tended to forget to eat the way her brother did, so she reached into her pocket where she had kept some fruit. She couldn’t remember the name of it, but her tutor had brought some over from the Middleland, and Kanna had found it too sour, so she had planned to offer the exotic gift to her father.

Now that her father hadn’t shown—he could have easily been in any of the vast fields and Kanna wasn’t about to keep searching in the hot sun—she shrugged her shoulders and rolled the fruit in the boy’s direction, until it collided with the back of his heel.

Confused, he looked down. He raised an eyebrow and paused his work to look up at the source, and even though Kanna smiled at him, his face immediately took on a nervous expression.

“Hey, hey you!” the man with the clock shouted. “What are you doing? You’re holding up the whole line! Strip the grain and pass it down!”

The boy quickly turned back to his work, but his fingers were fumbling now and the grain in his hand spilled in every direction.

Kanna watched the older man drop the clock on the ground and exchange it for something else that had been lying close by. The thicket of mok had obscured it, but as he held it up, Kanna could see that it was a long piece of wood tipped with leather.

“Are you looking to get fired, boy? What the hell are you doing?” He trudged down the line of people, and each one of them twitched and stiffened as he passed, but they kept working. They worked faster. It was only the boy who recoiled openly when the clock-winder reached him. “Are you trying to slack off and make everyone work harder to make up for it? Do your job! Do it! Who do you think you are?”

The boy tried to turn back to his work, but the presence of the supervisor who was mouth-breathing beside him only seemed to make him clumsier. In his frantic attempts to rush, he kicked over a bucket of grain that was lying on the ground nearby.

This seemed to be the last straw. The supervisor lifted the flat stick high over his head and Kanna watched in shock as he brought it down against the boy’s neck. The boy screamed in pain and fell to his knees. “How many chances do I have to give you, son? Every morning, it’s the same thing! Are you looking to starve to death or what?”

Kanna wanted to turn away, but she couldn’t. Even as the boy cowered and shrank into the mass of grain around him, the clock-winder struck him hard on the outside of his thighs, on the back of his arms, on the little bit of meat that lined his bony shoulders. Welts appeared on the skin that Kanna could see, and small trickles of blood seeped out into the thin cloth of the boy’s shirt.

Kanna wanted to yell for the man to stop. She wanted to dash into the field, but she knew that she wasn’t even supposed to be there—that maybe her own beating wouldn’t be nearly as harsh, and it wouldn’t leave any marks on her skin, but that she’d have a beating nonetheless.

After the boy had fallen onto his side, twitching with pain, the clock-winder finally seemed to notice the ball of fruit that had rolled onto the ground. He picked it up and glanced up the hill, and he met eyes with Kanna.

His expression turned severe. He was shaking his head. “Get out of here, girl. You’re bringing shame to your parents staining your clothes with that dirt.”

Kanna turned and ran away.

She ran without even thinking about where she would go. She passed through empty meadows and fields, and she rushed through thickets that hadn’t yet been cleared by her father’s fires. When she found a safe spot near a tree, she sat down beneath its shade and cried. She lingered there, away from everything she had seen, until the sun had finally started to wane, and it wasn’t too hot to wander the open grassland again.

She headed home. She knew that her mother must have been wondering where she was, and she knew that she would have to find some elaborate explanation, or else hide under the kitchen table to dodge the blows of her mother’s wooden spoon. Luckily, she was far enough away that she would have time to make up a story.

On the way back, as the pink sky began to morph into twilight, she passed through a field, and that was when she finally heard her father’s voice. It seemed to come from overhead, but then she realized that he was perched on a nearby hilltop. It was far too late and she didn’t want to be caught, so Kanna crouched as best she could among the sea of mok, while still turning her gaze up to watch what her father was doing.

There was a truck nearby and a heap of something in it. Kanna froze in place when she noticed that her father was speaking to the clock-winder, who was leaning against the side of the truck at the bottom of the hill.

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” the clock-winder was calling up to him. “He just collapsed in the sun in the middle of the day! I told him to have some water, but he refused me! What am I supposed to do with that?”

“Ah well,” Kanna’s father said with a light chuckle. “He was one of the weak ones, I suppose. Couldn’t take the heat! Sure, it’s sad, but what are you going to do when someone won’t take responsibility for their own life? You couldn’t force him, so don’t blame yourself.”

Kanna crept a bit closer until she could see what was lying in the bed of the truck. She covered her mouth to stifle the gasp.

It was the boy from earlier, the one to whom she had gifted the fruit. But now the fruit was in the clock-winder’s hand and he was talking with his mouth full.

“That’s all fine, but what do we do with him now? The parents aren’t going to want the body. It’s too expensive to deal with and they sent him to us because they wanted to get rid of him anyway. They’re just going to try to give him back to me if I show them what happened.”

Kanna’s father shrugged. “Grind it up with the rest of them, then. Throw it in the compost pile. He may not have been good at working the mok with his hands, but the rest of his body can help it grow. It’s the circle of life. He’ll do his job one way or another, right?”

The clock-winder laughed weakly, as if he wasn’t sure if the last few words were meant as a joke. Kanna could sense pain in the man’s expression—guilt perhaps—even as he hardened his face and mounted the truck. He took another bite of the fruit and barreled through a path near the hillside, the boy’s body bouncing along in the back.

The smoke of the engine struck Kanna in the face and filled her lungs with poison. She looked up at the shadow of her father at the top of the hill, but he didn’t see her.

* * *

Kanna coughed against the ground, as if the smoke had been real, as if she had inhaled it all over again. She felt drained, but the snakes had disappeared, and she couldn’t even feel them writhing in the earth when she turned to look up at the sky between the canopy of the trees above her. She noticed then that even Goda had gone.

She was alone. The wilderness spread out around her. The wind blew between the trees and made everything seem hollow.

Tears rolled down either side of her face. It was a steady stream, and the consistent flow almost calmed her. For a second, she thought that she could accept it all without resistance.

Yes, this is it, she thought to herself. It all seemed so mundane at that point. I have eaten grain nourished with the blood and sweat of slaves. I have tasted bread made from the bodies of men. I’m the devil, hungry for the flesh of others. I am insatiable. It’s why I tried to eat Goda Brahm.

She thought she was fine with it. Now that she knew, it wasn’t so bad. She thought she was fine, until she rolled over and wretched every piece of fruit that she had still remaining in her stomach.

A long time passed and she didn’t move, but the moon did shift a little overhead.

And the smell of smoke had not disappeared. It wasn’t the exhaust of an engine, though, so once she had gathered her strength and picked herself up, she followed the wisps that she could see and staggered through the brush. Not far from the clearing, she rediscovered Goda’s truck, still tucked between some trees. It wasn’t rumbling anymore, though; it wasn’t burning any Rava Spirits.

Instead, Goda was sitting at the end of the tailgate, one of her long legs pressed to the ground, the other bent and resting on the edge. She was leaning against the inside of the truck, her muscles free of tension, her face oddly relaxed.

To Kanna’s complete surprise, she found that the giant was puffing on the end of a cigar. When Kanna emerged from the trees and stepped into the moonlight, Goda looked at her. There was a long pause between them, a stare that meant nothing, and yet carried some hidden significance that Kanna could not yet process.

“One time,” Goda said, breaking the gaze and looking up at the low branches that hung above her, “I bought some fertilizer that had been imported from the Upperland. The plants grew twice as fast.” She pressed the end of the cigar against the floor of the truck and its light died with a moist hiss. “But at what cost? I turned the priestesses that I had been serving into cannibals.”

* * *

“I don’t have tears anymore, Goda. They’re all dried up.”


“I don’t blame myself—because I just didn’t know any better, and neither did my father, because it’s all he was ever taught, and all his father was ever taught—but after seeing what we’ve done, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, either. I can’t pretend that it’s fine. I can’t pretend that it doesn’t have to change.”


They were stooped by the bank of the river, and Goda was dipping her hands into flow, and she was bringing handfuls of water up to her mouth. Kanna was sitting cross-legged beside her, her bound wrists resting in her lap.

“But what can I do? I’m just a slave. I’m helpless in this world.”

Goda turned to her, pausing with her fingers hanging just beneath the surface of the stream. “You are a slave, that’s true—but you’re not helpless. At any moment, there’s always at least one thing you can do.”

“What? What can I do now?”

“You can surrender.” Goda’s eyes looked like the dark threshold of the shrine, and it made Kanna lean a little closer with fear. “From that place of surrender, then you will know what to do. It will be so obvious you will think your past self was insane—but it won’t show itself until you surrender to fate.”

Kanna sighed and stared into the waters. It was too dark to see much past the surface, and though she saw a few bubbles emerging downstream, she could not make out any fish or any sign of life at all. The darkness had obscured everything more than a few paces away.

“That’s easier said than done,” Kanna said. “It’s hard to trust what I can’t see. And by what you say, it sounds like I won’t see it until I trust it. It’s a futile cycle, a paradox.” Kanna stretched forward and tested the water with her fingertips, and found that it was cold. “I’m stuck. I’m a snake eating myself.”

When Goda stood a moment later, Kanna thought she heard the giant huffing with amusement. She was looking down at Kanna, blocking out some of the moonlight.

“You’ll face that paradox soon enough. Tomorrow morning when we head to the place where I will give you away, you will resist me again, even if you know in the back of your mind that you have only one choice. It’s also the best choice. You couldn’t have chosen anything better for yourself than to become a slave.”

Kanna felt her jaw tightening, but she closed her eyes and listened to her breath, and this smoothed out some of the tension. “I want to believe that you’re wrong. If all of that is true—if I’m just a vessel for fate, for the Goddess to do what She wants—then what’s the point in having been born? Why does Kanna Rava even exist?”

“She doesn’t.”

Goda turned and disappeared into the shadows, which had come to swallow almost everything.

Onto Chapter 33 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 31: One Bite, One Taste

An explosion of energy and emotion rushed through Kanna’s awareness. At first, Kanna didn’t realize that it was her body, that it was her limbs that were whipping all around her, and that the sound that throbbed deep in her ears was her beating heart.

It all happened so quickly. It was beyond Kanna’s control, as if all of her snakes had hissed a breath of life into her all at once. She launched herself towards the slack of her leash, and she thrust herself over the divide, and she reached for the steering lever that was firmly within Goda’s grasp.

Everything was a blur of arms and legs and loud shouting after that. She didn’t know what she was doing. Her eyes squeezed shut at some point. Her jaw radiated with pain. The truck swerved back and forth and knocked her to the side, and she felt four tentacles wrapping around her soon after, dragging her back to the flatbed as the rig narrowly missed hitting a boulder on the side of the road.

When Kanna’s head hit the metal floor with a thud, she heaved a loud gasp. She awoke from the dream. She looked up to see that Noa and Leina were holding her down, staring at her with shocked expressions, their own chests heaving from effort.

Kanna tilted her head back and saw that Goda had not moved. The giant was sitting stiffly in the driver’s seat as before, letting the wind whip against her without any posture of resistance. She had corrected the direction of the truck without a word; it was pointing true again.

What happened? Kanna thought. She blinked. She smacked her lips and found that they tasted like iron.

Then a barrage of sensations and images from just the instant before caught up with her.

She had bitten Goda’s hand.

She had sunk her teeth into Goda’s knuckles like a dog.

Leina was holding down Kanna’s legs—and Kanna only realized then that she was still kicking, the energy of her resistance running like an electric river through her very marrow without her consent. The tears had started to come, too. She was screaming; she was calling out towards the fading sky:

“Goda! Goda, please! I’m begging you! Turn around! Turn around! Please!”

But there was no answer from the giant. The truck rolled on—faster, even. Noa pressed down hard on Kanna’s shoulders to keep her from flailing.

Because there was nowhere else for the energy to go—because the only channel for the river was the well-trodden path of resistance—Kanna kept struggling. She knew it was futile; she knew it did nothing; the twins were stronger. Still, she banged her joined fists against the truck floor as hard as she could manage, and she gnashed her teeth, and she growled in frustration.

“Now I know why the porter tied you up,” Noa grunted, her look one of astonishment. “You’re absolutely insane.”

Leina was shaking her head slowly, all the while trying to subdue Kanna as best she could. “Were you trying to run us off the road and kill us all?”

Kanna didn’t reply. She turned her head. She felt a wave of sobs rushing through her. She felt the emptiness of death ringing inside of her, and it made all of the snakes dance furiously up and down her spine.

She writhed with them as the light from the yellow sun began to disappear—and instead, it was replaced with the blinding radiance of Suda.

* * *

For awhile, the familiar trees and boulders whipped by the the side of the road. Kanna watched some branches shivering in the wind above her, and she allowed this to delude her that the forests were endless and they would never reach Suda. But these were quickly replaced by signs of human life, by the stone and steel and glass that sprouted from the ground and rose much higher than the trees.

At first, the buildings were sparse. They flashed by so quickly that Kanna could flick her gaze away and pretend that she hadn’t seen. Over time, though, the landscape grew thicker and thicker with the bones of a human city. The lights grew brighter. Small towers started to appear on either side, then they sprouted taller. They seemed like they were teetering over her, like they would fall on top of her at any moment, like she would be crushed under the weight of every unfamiliar thing that she had noticed appearing at the edges of the sky.

Kanna had never felt more helpless. Eventually, the force had dissipated from her muscles and she lay back and looked up at the haze in the sky—the smoke of industry, a smoke she could feel ever thicker in her nostrils—and she told herself that she had fallen into yet another dream, that she would wake up somewhere in a forest with her face pressed against Goda Brahm’s chest.

When they slowed down, the whistling of the wind was replaced with a dull roar. It was the din of a thousand voices murmuring. She could not see any people from her perspective, but she could feel them. There were countless souls milling around, countless trucks rumbling. The smell of the trees was gone and instead she inhaled a mix of sweat, and motor exhaust, and street food.

Her newfound handlers seemed to notice that she had grown weak by then, so they finally loosened their grip on her, and they helped her sit up. Noa allowed Kanna to lean against her; Kanna felt those long arms coming around to embrace her, but she didn’t feel comforted by them. She could barely hold her head up in her exhaustion when she glanced over the side of the truck.

All at once, all around her, the world unfolded without her effort or permission. It became solid. There were a sea of people in every direction, between every truck that had come to a standstill in traffic along with their own. She could see large streets and tiny alleys, and narrow trails criss-crossing in dozens of directions. She could feel the stares of a few people nearby—again, almost all of them women—though most of them had not noticed her and instead stared down the wide main street, all transfixed with something up the road.

It seemed that they were stuck in the outskirts of the city. There was still a melding of both steel and natural brush on either corner of Kanna’s vision, and it was only further ahead that the blocks seemed to grow dense with purely human presence. She lifted her gaze as best she could, and she noticed towers that grew ever larger in the distance, that were so big she could not tell for certain how far they were situated. They looked like mountains made of glass to her eyes. They were more massive than any she had seen in Karo and their angles looked so sharp it was uncomfortable to even look at them.

Much closer though, at what seemed to be the entrance of the city, there were soldiers lining up across the way, keeping the people back.

Kanna’s heart leapt into her throat, and for a second she worried that her morbid fantasy from before would come true, that the authorities would mount the truck and offer all four of them some draconian punishment.

But the roadblock didn’t seem like it was moving. The soldiers had merely stopped all the trucks without so much as glancing into them, had waved away all the pedestrians, were looking down a nearby path with expectation. After darting her eyes between the row of boots, Kanna finally saw the steel tracks underneath.

“Damn,” Noa said, “it looks like the express train will be crossing the main street. Who knows how long that’ll take? We’ll have to go another route, then.”

“Yeah, we can’t linger with all these soldiers around,” Leina mumbled. She had pulled the two bags of Samma Flower between her legs and had wrapped her arms around them, as if she could shield them from any prying eyes that way.

Indeed, there were many eyes, Kanna thought.

Noa seemed to notice the same thing. “It’s weird that there are so many people here. They could just find some other way around, but it’s like they’re all waiting for something. What do you think they want with the express train, Giant? Do you know if someone important is showing up tonight?”

Goda did not reply. In fact, she had not said a word since the earlier incident, and instead she jerked the truck straight into the crowd and towards a side-street. To Kanna’s surprise, the multitude parted without any shouts or complaints, as if this were the usual protocol. She noticed some other trucks were following suit in their own respective directions.

Once they had rolled into a steady pace, the giant turned her head slightly. “Where do I leave you?”

Both the twins seemed taken off guard at the same time.

“Uh, well, about that,” Leina began. She was rubbing the back of her head, even as her eyes darted around the now relatively deserted street with paranoia. “We’re going to have to rethink our plan. We lost all our money gambling in Karo, which is why we were stealing from the North-bound train in the first place, so we had planned to hitchhike to Suda, sell the product quickly, and find some lodging with what we earned.”

“But we didn’t expect all the boots,” Noa piped up. “If the express train full of bureaucrats is showing up tonight, Suda is going to be crawling with soldiers escorting all those fancy-pants everywhere. We’re going to have to wait a couple of days at least or it’ll be too risky to scope out a buyer. Even just hanging out in the truck with all this product is a risk.” Still holding Kanna in her embrace, Noa looked over towards Leina. “Aunt Misha lives right outside of town still, right? Do you think she’d mind if we stayed with her?”

Leina made a face. “Oh, she’d be thrilled—but that’s the whole problem, remember? She hasn’t seen us in forever, and she’s bound to ask about every little thing, try to look inside our bags, tell us to model our uniforms for her. There’s only so many lies we can get away with before this whole web collapses.”

Even though Kanna didn’t ask, Noa turned to her and explained anyway, “Our entire family thinks we joined the military two years ago, you see. Only our sister knows what we’re actually up to, and if our nosy aunt finds out, it’ll trickle back to our mothers for sure. Besides, if our aunt saw that we have Flower, she’d try to turn us in for the reward money.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow, but she was too dazed and confused by all the sudden stimulation to offer any thoughts in reply. She slumped against Noa’s thin frame and pressed her face to the woman’s chest. There was a faint smell beyond the sweat. Though Kanna found it mildly pleasing, it didn’t offer her any energy, any fury.

She told herself that she wanted to fight, but the snakes had gone to sleep. The waning silence as the truck sped through the narrow road had lulled them. The further the truck pulled away from the huge towers in the distance, the more relieved Kanna felt, and the less rage there was to fuel her.

“Can we leave the Flower with you?” Leina blurted out after exchanging another glance with Noa. Her gaze fell over the divide, towards the back of the giant’s head. “If we just walk around with two bags nearly bursting with Flower, it’ll be too risky, but you can hide it in some crevice in the truck until we find someone who wants to buy. It’ll be a risk for you, too, but at least your life is already ruined, right? Your parents probably disowned you after…that whole thing, so it’s not like you have much to lose; but if our mothers ever found out what we were doing, we could never look either of them in the eyes again—if we even survived the beating.”

Kanna found the strength to tilt her head. She stared at them like they were both crazy.

“We’ll make it worth your while!” Noa said. “Flower sells for a lot in Suda and we’ll give you ten percent of the profits!”

Kanna wasn’t sure if Noa was offering it just to Goda or to the both of them, but either way Kanna couldn’t fathom what she would do with any money. Now that she thought about it, she had spent weeks surviving just fine without it, and in all the chaos, she had nearly forgotten that it even existed. Everything that Kanna wanted in the world at that point didn’t cost money, anyway; her freedom was far too expensive to be bought with coins, even if her slavery had been bought with Flower.

But Goda answered the twins nonetheless, to Kanna’s astonishment: “Thirty percent,” she said. The voice was expressionless; Kanna couldn’t see the giant’s face from her angle, either.

What?” Noa shouted. “Now you’re just trying to take advantage of us! Twenty percent. Twenty percent at the most or you’re robbing us blind.” She glanced again at Leina to silently confirm, and her sister—who seemed to have become similarly annoyed—offered a curt nod. “We won’t go any higher, so don’t ask. Do we have a deal or what?”

The wind blew down through the alley that was flanked with short buildings on either side. It rushed towards them like a wind tunnel and numbed Kanna’s ears. She could hear the shouting of voices, the crackle of fires in the distance.

The giant turned her head again. The side of her eye fell on Noa’s face. “Deal.”

* * *

As the twins unmounted, the truck bounced a few times and it agitated a feeling deep inside Kanna’s gut, and it made Kanna suddenly wonder if she was going to be sick. Without taking any cargo besides their outer robes, they abandoned Kanna where she was, and they walked by the outside of driver’s door.

“Just to be on the safe side, we’ll meet you by the river near the old shrine the night after tomorrow,” Leina whispered to Goda. “Two days. That should give us plenty of time to find a legitimate buyer.”

Noa had lingered a little, though, half-turned in the direction of the truck bed, staring at Kanna with an unreadable look. After a moment, she leaned into the back of the truck again, and she whispered, “I hate to leave you alone with her because, in the morning, as soon as the administrator’s office is open, she’ll probably take you up the tower to meet your new slave-driver. But that’s just how the world works, I guess. I’m just one person. I can’t make any of it stop.” She touched Kanna’s face lightly with her hand. “So in case we don’t see you again, good luck. I hope you get what you’re looking for.” With that, she pressed a quick kiss to Kanna’s cheek, and it faintly brushed against the side of Kanna’s lips.

Kanna’s face burned with surprise as Noa pulled away, but Noa didn’t seem to wait for any reaction. The woman turned and started walking with Leina towards a little shack that was hidden just beyond an unkempt and overgrown garden. Kanna could barely make out the outline of the door between the bushes, but it was glowing from behind with orange light.

The truck rumbled forward again not long after; they were scraping along the edges of the city limits, and Kanna couldn’t be certain of where they were going anymore. Her perspective alternated between light and dark, between the roaring fire of warm street lamps and the cool dimness of alleyways and abandoned groves.

Kanna stretched herself again and she laid her chin on the back of Goda’s seat. “You can untie me,” she muttered, after a moment of hesitation. “It’s over now. We’re basically in Suda, and the snakes seem to have given up. I’m too weak to fight you.”

The lights flashed by faster and faster. Kanna pushed herself up to stare out the windshield, but as soon as she could make sense of the mix of buildings and trees and empty clearings around her, the image would slide from her grasp to be replaced with another. It was like she was watching the outskirts of the city quickly evolving before her eyes and she couldn’t keep up.

“Don’t think it’s that easy,” Goda said. Her head was slightly turned and some of her hair whipped against Kanna’s face. Through that veil, Kanna could see a faint smile of amusement. “The snakes are dormant for now. Remember that they’re parasites and they feed off your consciousness. They go through phases. You gave them some energy earlier, so they’re resting after having a huge meal. Besides, we’re not in the city proper yet—we were unexpectedly delayed by that roadblock—and so for now the snakes are satisfied that things have gone your way and we can’t go into inner Suda. They will come back when we approach the assignment office. You will resist me then.”

Kanna pressed the side of her joined hands to her eyes as the glare of the lights seemed to grow brighter. “Why do these emotions swing back and forth so much, like some wild double pendulum?” she complained. Now that she could see them more clearly, as if they were separate from her and she was merely watching, she noticed how fickle every thought, every feeling was. “Why is everything so unstable? Why am I like this? I want to resist you all the time, but the passion to fight comes and goes, and so do the snakes.”

“They’re like the rest of reality. They’re groundless. Always changing. That’s why unraveling snakes is tricky. It’s like trying to navigate a labyrinth that shifts before your eyes every second.”

Kanna took in a deep sigh. She looked up at the rush of lights for a moment, but quickly closed her eyes against it. Through her eyelids, some of it still played in her vision, and she could see swirling visuals and sparks. “Why do they even exist in the first place?”

“Same reason anything else exists: no reason at all. They are part of nature. Snakes naturally happen when you become aware enough. You come into this world, you grow, and eventually you notice that you exist, and in that exact moment the first snake is born—the one called Self—and from that one comes all the others.”

“I don’t like the way they seem to control me. I didn’t realize what they were doing before, but now that the shrine pointed them out, I can feel them more and more. They do pretend to be me. When I believe that they’re me, I can’t stop them at all. I forget that they’re even there, like I’m lost inside a dream.” She let herself slump against the side of the truck. “If they came into this world because of my awareness, then how do I get rid of them?”

“With more awareness.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You said they use my awareness and my conscious attention as food, didn’t you? That they’re parasites?”

“Yes—and too much food is poison. Whenever you notice that you have become a snake, let yourself be the snake, then look at yourself. Apply your awareness to yourself as the snake. The snake will then have no choice but to use itself as food. It will eat itself. If it eats enough of itself, it will die. It’s easier to do this in the shrines where you can see them clearly, but you can also do it outside with practice.”

Kanna groaned into her hands. “Even if any of this made sense, it all sounds so morbid, like it’s some kind of death ritual.”

“It is. You are a snake right now, afraid of death—but this too has an end. Your true self doesn’t have awareness, it is awareness, and this is eternal, but the snakes thrive only within a certain phase. They live in the space where you’re aware enough to make up stories about yourself, but not aware enough to realize that the stories are not who you are. All the living things on Earth will eventually have to pass through this phase if they reach it, but it is temporary.”

Kanna dropped her hands. She opened her eyes again and saw the flashes of green between the small buildings around them. “You mean even the trees and plants have awareness, too?” When Kanna glanced in Goda’s direction with bewilderment, she thought she could see the image of the giant’s smile in the reflection of the windshield.

Yes.” After a brief pause, Goda turned to look over her shoulder, and though the smile was still as cryptic as it always was, it held an edge of joy—which Kanna immediately thought was ridiculous in the face of the smoky, filthy world that surrounded them from one corner of the continent to the other. “That’s why I’m a gardener.”

* * *

It was true what Goda had said: Because they had circled around Suda and avoided going further towards the imposing buildings that had scared Kanna earlier, the snakes were docile and Kanna felt less agitated. Still, there was a trickle of dread growing in her gut second by second.

As their ride fell into silence, the snakes began to ruminate again, enough that she found it startling when the truck came to a jerking stop and a tree branch sharply tapped her face. Kanna looked up, blinking her eyes, coming back to the present moment.

She had been dreaming again.

They had stopped in an empty lot next to the mouth of an alley, where Goda had driven into some brush that seemed to hide the back of the truck from the view of the street. The giant unraveled the other side of Kanna’s rope and jumped out of the truck before tugging Kanna towards the tailgate.

“Where are we going?” Kanna asked nervously, looking around. Because she hadn’t been paying attention, she had no idea where they were, even relative to where they had been. Her instinct was to resist this, but she didn’t have the energy, so she let Goda pull her half-limply out of the flatbed.

Kanna managed a shaky landing into the solid dirt that was nothing like the sand of the desert or the gravel of Karo. When she looked up into Goda’s face, she fought the reflex to cower. She had forgotten how tall the woman was somehow.

“We have a short errand to run before it gets too late,” Goda told her. In her typically stingy fashion, she offered nothing else, and she pulled Kanna along by the rope into the nearby alley.

There were a few dimly lit shops there, but one of them immediately caught Kanna’s eye. It had a little window with flashing electric lights behind the glass. There were some words etched there as well, but because they were written in a funny calligraphy that Kanna had not seen before, she did not have time to decipher them before Goda whisked her through the door.

A little bell rang overhead as they passed the threshold, which made a man behind the counter turn up his head. He was wearing robes similar to Kanna’s—closed on the front with a compact hood flipped on the back—and his frame seemed too small to match the lines of age on his face.

He instantly threw Goda a glance of suspicion. “Go away, Brahm,” he said automatically, as if he had said it many times.

Kanna couldn’t help but let out another sigh, because it seemed that no matter where the giant went, there were always people telling her to leave. When Kanna breathed back in, though, her nose was filled with a pleasing scent; it was overwhelmingly sweet, and it seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place exactly where she had smelled it before.

She heard the click of the deadbolt all of a sudden, and she realized that Goda had locked the door behind her as they stepped further inside.

Kanna was distracted quickly, though. She looked around and saw an array of tables with dozens of wooden bowls that reminded her of the incense dish—or the ashtray—that she had seen near Jaya Hadd’s altar. Instead of ashes, they were filled with round balls of many different bright colors.

Goda seemed to be looking around, too. She had ignored the man’s words. “Do you have any sweets made from bohm fruit?” she asked.

“Keep your hands out in the open, Porter. I don’t want to see you stuffing anything into your pockets.” He had a sour look on his face that didn’t match the smell of the shop. He tilted his head up to give Goda a more thorough glance. “What, are you looking to steal a gift for some boy again?”

As usual, Goda didn’t seem bothered by the accusation. “No, I’ll pay this time.”

“With what money?”

Kanna had a similar question, but she didn’t say anything. She stared into a nearby bowl and marveled at how the sweets shined in the light like marbles. Goda reached over to pick up a bag of sweets from the same table, which caused the man to lean further over the counter with irritation.

“I hear there’s a shortage of Flower in Suda,” Goda said.

The man’s face lost a little of its color just then. “If you’re asking for special candy, then we don’t have those anymore, all right? And if this town keeps getting infested with more and more soldiers, that’s not going to change anytime soon. Either way, it’s not like we sell under-the-counter stuff during normal hours, and I don’t appreciate you being so indiscreet when anyone could come by the window and see—.”

“Just a bag of regulars will be fine.” Goda had made her way over to the counter and tossed the sweets between them.

But the man made no move to open any cash drawer that Kanna could see. He crossed his arms. “Well, you know these are expensive, and I’m not giving you any discounts, since you’ve already robbed me plenty. On top of that, you barge in here dressed like that, with the audacity to bring some foreign slave as your tag-along. What do you take me for, a fool?” Still, he looked nervously past Goda and towards the entrance. “Why did you lock the door?”

Goda reached deep into her pocket and pulled out a fistful of something. The man recoiled in spite of his curious look, but as soon as Goda opened her hand, some light petals fluttered onto the counter-top, like a sprinkling of confetti.

The stranger’s eyes widened. He glanced at the window, as if to make sure no one from the outside had been peering into the shop, then he reached for the Flower and quickly brushed it into his lap. “Fine, fine!” he said. “But don’t think this is enough to cover all the inconvenience you’ve caused me over the years.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Goda said with a weird smirk. “I’ve been looking to settle debts lately.” She opened the bag of sweets while she walked back towards the door, and she reached inside to grab a tiny morsel. As she passed by, she pressed the piece of candy to Kanna’s lips. Without thinking—still confused by the whole exchange—Kanna opened her mouth and let Goda slip it inside.

It tasted faintly like the green fruit Kanna had eaten, but it was overwhelmed with the kick of mok sugar. It made the back of her mouth burn a little from the sweetness. When Goda put her arm back down, Kanna caught sight of the outline of the bite mark on the back of the giant’s hand for the first time. It was still marked with dried blood and it was obvious in the bright lights of the candy shop. Kanna felt some shame, even as Goda smiled at her with that insufferable serenity.

A memory flashed through Kanna’s mind like a quick spurt of lighting just then—a memory from the first night she and Goda had slept side by side in Jaya’s storage shed.

You can taste,” Goda had told her in a tone that Kanna had taken to be more flirtatious than literal at the time, “just don’t bite.”

But Kanna did bite.

For some reason, Kanna knew that she would bite again, too—but that it would be for a different reason altogether.

* * *

Goda allowed Kanna to sit in the front seat, though this didn’t offer any better sense of freedom. The giant had tied her up with even less slack, so that Kanna could barely scoot half a pace in any direction. Recognizing the futility, instead of fighting the restraints, she sat back in the seat and let the wind blow against her face. She pretended that she was riding off towards some distant land where human problems didn’t exist.

Instead, they were riding back towards the tracks near the main street of Suda. Kanna tried to suppress the anxiety by closing her eyes. Goda had given her the bag of sweets to hold, so she clutched those and comforted herself with the childish memories that they triggered in her.

“Why did you buy these?” she asked. “Certainly it wasn’t just to annoy the shopkeeper.”

“You don’t remember? I have a favor to repay. Jaya asked me to bring a gift to her wife and to say that it was from her.”

Kanna opened her eyes to give Goda an incredulous glance. “We’re going out of our way just to butter up the innkeeper’s wife?”

“No, we won’t have to go out of our way. She’ll appear soon enough on her own.”

At this, Kanna raised an eyebrow again, but it was far from the weirdest thing that Goda had said to her, so she didn’t press it too much. She looked up through the windshield and at the line of soldiers and crowds of agitated onlookers.

“They’re still waiting for the train to come,” Kanna murmured. She tried to stay neutral in thought, but the fact that they were rushing closer to the city was making her stomach churn again, especially as she caught sight of the huge towers that looked like stretched-out versions of the government offices she had seen in Karo.

“Yes, they are waiting. The express train has priority over everything. It’s not always clear exactly when it’s coming, especially when there’s some kind of emergency, but if they get word that one is on the way, they have to make a path for it. Every other train pulls over. They also have to keep people from crowding the station because the express train often carries priestesses, and with such a multitude, it would be hard to avoid an accidental touch.”

“You people and your superstitions that hold up traffic.” Kanna’s mouth was complaining almost automatically, but they were just words. The truth was that she was glad, for once, that the Middlelanders were irrationally religious. Knowing that there was a delay getting into the center of Suda was her only source of relief.

However, as they approached the edge of the crowd of pedestrians and growling trucks, a much louder cry sounded over the cacophony.

It was the scream of a train horn in the distance.

When the rush of all the dozens of clacking wheels reached them, it came as a vibration that shuddered through the rails, and then the earth, and then the ground right beneath Goda’s truck. It seemed like some massive giant was barreling uncontrollably down from the hills that sat in the East. When the train finally came into view, the blinding light at its front made Kanna throw her arm over her face.

Still, she squinted through the beams and she watched the train as best she could while the air around her grew thick with a blast of noise. It was then that she noticed the small station platform near a tower not far from where they were sitting. It was surrounded by huge military trucks that seemed to be trying to block off the crowd, but a few people were working to squeeze between them.

The roar of the sprinting train grew more deafening, but Kanna could still hear some of the soldiers shouting over it, “Get back! Get back!”

Screeching metal made Kanna duck her ears against her shoulders soon after. Thankfully, the sound only lasted as long as it took for the train to brake down the hillside, skid through the path that was broken between the crowds, and then come to a stop in the station nearby.

This only appeared to make the sea of people more excited, though. They pressed harder against the soldiers, against the trucks that seemed meant to whisk away whatever important bureaucrat was about to appear from behind the train doors.

But when those doors slid open, it was not a uniformed official who emerged. Instead, a small group of women dressed in pure white robes stepped out into the artificial light. They were walking backwards. They were holding up a canvas stretcher as they maneuvered carefully onto the platform, and at first Kanna wondered if they were temple assistants carrying a litter with an idol of the Goddess Mahara on top.

As Kanna looked closely, though, she noticed that the statue was reclined, lying on her back, faint convulsions pulsing through her frame second by second. When Kanna’s eyes ran more closely along the idol’s features, she sucked in a sharp breath.

Even from where she was sitting, she could recognize the face of Taga Murau—of Priestess Rem.

Onward to Chapter 32 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 30: The Dance of Sleep and Wakefulness

Kanna’s body disappeared. She was living instead in the body of the giant.

And the giant’s hands were clawing at the ground. Those fingernails in front of Kanna’s eyes were wasted almost to the nub because they had been filed down on the stone floor. Her bones felt heavy. She was dragging herself. She was scraping her naked belly against the jagged pebbles beneath her, and her screams rang through the cavern, and every sound that burst against the walls made the inside of Kanna’s head—of Goda’s head—feel hollow.

Goda was reaching towards the light. Inch by agonizing inch, she was forcing her way closer to the threshold, to the mouth that was bordered with swirling snakes along its shadows. The giant’s muscles nearly locked. The veins on her forearms were bulging and throbbing. She heaved herself with one final effort through the gateway and into the rays of the hot sun.

Blinded, she cried out again. Her lungs were raw. Her voice echoed through the wide desert, but there was no one there to hear her.

* * *

All that Kanna could see anymore was a glare of light, because the sun was striking her right in the face. She blinked and squinted. She felt some movement against her right hand, and so she made a motion to turn her head, but her neck felt so sore that she quickly thought better of it.

With narrowed eyelids, she managed to turn her gaze as far as she could without moving anything else, and she saw that a pair of large hands were clasped against her cuff. One of those hands was holding her wrist down against the dirt, the other was turning the key—and then lifting the latch to start opening the cuff.

Kanna gasped. All her senses returned at once. Her heart pounding wildly in her chest, she lifted her left hand and smacked it against her bonds and covered the latch with her palm.

“No!” she croaked out. “What are you doing? What are you doing?

But even in the stupor of just having awakened into mundane reality, she could see what Goda was doing: the giant was about to commit suicide.

Goda ripped Kanna’s hand away from the cuff. “Imbecile!” the giant was shouting, digging her fingers under the latch again even as Kanna struggled. “Are you trying to shock yourself to death?”

“Are you?” Kanna screamed. She suddenly found the inner strength to push herself up onto her side. She was still in pain, but she consciously allowed it and accepted it and welcomed it, and because of that it didn’t seem to hurt as much as it had before.

And because of that, she was also able to grasp Goda’s fingers without hesitation and dig her nails deep into the skin.

Goda winced and stopped moving, though she didn’t pull away. She looked Kanna right in the eyes. “If you’re hellbent on resisting the shocks until you die, then I’m taking the cuff off! Stop fighting me, idiot!”

“I want the cuff! Can’t you see I want it? Leave it on me!” Kanna yelled, her mind racing, her blood rushing up to her ears. She kicked her legs and waved her arms and writhed around so that Goda lost her grip. “It’s a part of my body now! Leave it! Leave it! I’ll bite your hand and tear into your flesh like a dog if I have to!”

It was only a second later that Kanna realized that she had grown so hysterical, that she had started shouting at Goda in Upperlander. Still, she didn’t care; the words were spilling out on their own, and she didn’t think they were for Goda’s sake anymore.

“Hold still!”

Fuck you!” Kanna launched herself up, and in one fluid motion she punched Goda on the side of the neck, which made the giant recoil with a growl. “Let me go, you bastard! I want to be a slave! I want it! Can’t you see?

“What’s going on? What is she saying?” a voice called out from a short distance away, somewhere closer to the road. She heard two pairs of feet beating against the ground, but when she looked towards the direction of the noise, the twins came to a scraping halt as soon as they had glanced at Kanna’s face.

Kanna did not know what their panicked expressions meant, but she was glad they weren’t interfering. She gnashed her teeth and turned back to Goda and shot her fist towards the giant’s face once again.

This time, though, Goda caught it with her hand and squeezed Kanna’s knuckles until Kanna cried out in pain. But she did not back down. She stretched up onto her knees, trying to wrench her hand free, trying to fight the giant off.

Then Kanna stopped.

Because the giant was crouched, she was able to lurch her face forward until her nose was just a hair from Goda’s own, her eyes widened with rage and passion. The both of them pushed against each other in a static tension, the muscles of one body adding force to the other, but neither overtaking. Their joined hands trembled with the effort of balance. She knew that Goda was holding back her strength. She knew that Goda could break her fingers at any moment if she wanted to.

The dirt they had kicked up was billowing up all around them in the midst of their intense stillness. It was like a curtain that was opening up, waving around and between them.

But Kanna did not grow distracted. She kept her eyes locked on Goda’s furious stare.

“Hurt me,” Kanna sneered through gritted teeth, consciously switching back to Middlelander. “Hurt me if you want—but I’m not letting you steal my cuff. It’s all I have. You’re all I have. You’re not taking that away from me.”

Goda let her go. Because the balance of tension shifted so quickly, Kanna fell forward into the dirt with the force of her own exertion. She pressed her hands on the ground and looked up at Goda with hatred; the woman had already stood up and started turning towards the truck.

“If you don’t want me to rip that cuff off your wrist,” the giant said, “then you’ll wear the rope again along with it.”

What?” Kanna jumped to her feet, even with the pain still radiating from the core of her bones. “I’m not wearing anything. You can take that rope and shove it up your—”

Goda jerked her head around to face Kanna again. Her eyes were alive with rage and the previous emptiness had been swallowed by fire. “You will wear what I tell you to wear. You will do what I tell you to do. You are my slave!

The sound of the giant’s booming voice made a shudder rush through the whole of Kanna’s body, and it was almost as hot and searing as the shocks had been. All at once, she was racked with fear.

But she felt the fear. She felt the fear that happened on its own, and in those seconds that seemed to drag on as she watched the giant leaving her, the fear oozed from her gut into her legs and arms. It morphed into something else—something that made her heart jolt again, that made her lungs feel numb with a widening void.

It shocked her so much, that she didn’t move until Goda had come back with the rope in her hands. The giant was clasping the cord tight and taut, like a garrote, but this didn’t alarm Kanna anymore. Kanna felt her breath returning; she felt it swelling and rushing out of her smoothly.

When Goda reached over to tie the rope, Kanna held her hands up to meet her. The giant looked at her with a bit of bewilderment, but did not pause, and she busied herself looping the bonds around Kanna’s joined wrists.

Kanna smiled when she caught the giant’s eye again. The smile turned into a grin, and this time Goda did stop. She looked at Kanna with a question on her face.

Kanna laughed. It was crazed—she sounded like a lunatic, she knew, like she had swallowed every drug in the Bou twins’ supply—and it rattled against the trees and scared some more of the birds, but she couldn’t stop.

She laughed and laughed, even though she wasn’t at all amused, and she already felt tears beginning to leak out from the corners of her eyes.

“You love me,” Kanna rasped, between the heaves that stuttered out of her chest beyond her control. She looked up at Goda, whose hands were still wrapped around Kanna’s wrists, and she put as much ridicule as she could in her voice. She wanted to rub it in Goda’s face. “You love me! You love me so much, you’ll fight with me over who gets to die first!” Kanna’s whole body shook. The water finally started to gush from her eyes in earnest, but she kept them locked on Goda still and she did not turn away with any shame.

Goda stood before her, anchored in place like a statue. She stared back at Kanna, unblinking, unreadable. After awhile, she opened her mouth slowly.

“Shut up.”

* * *

The journey in the back of the truck was rougher than before, because Kanna’s hands were bound. She couldn’t brace herself anymore every time they hit a bump—and there were many. Goda had forced her to lie down, and she had stretched Kanna’s arms over her head, and she had snaked the rope over to the front seat and anchored it to something there, so that Kanna had no chance to scheme about how to free herself.

Kanna had quit trying to tug at the rope. However, she did tilt her head back, and she stared at that upside down image of the back of the giant’s head, and she hurled insults at the woman as they sped down the road. She screamed against the wind so that the giant would hear her. She called Goda blasphemous names in Middlelander—the few that she knew—and when she ran out of those, she switched to Upperlander and called her things that she had never called anyone before.

The Bou twins sat huddled in the opposite corner of the truck bed, and they stared down at her with startled gazes. They didn’t seem to know what to do. They made no move to help her or untie her, but Kanna did not blame them, because she couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t lash out at them irrationally if they did.

She felt like a caged beast. The moment Goda would let her go, she thought, she would strike one last time. She would reach for that giant’s ugly face and she would dig her fingers into those surfaceless eyes until she felt blood rolling down her hands.

The truck sped faster and the air bashed against Kanna’s face harder, and it felt like this was Goda’s own hand buffeting her against the cheek. She gritted her teeth and yelled louder and louder, to compensate for the noise, to compensate for the fact that she could barely move anymore. As the light in the sky grew fainter, her throat became raw, and her cries grew weaker, and she let herself grow limp on the bed of the truck. When it was completely dark, she shut her mouth and allowed herself to rest, so that she would have the strength to insult Goda some more later.

They rushed through the darkness without stopping for a long time. Once the light had waned enough that Kanna had to concentrate to make out the twin faces nearby, she gave up on seeing, and she closed her eyes.

She didn’t know how much time had passed when she found herself opening them again. They had pulled over to the roadside. It was the dead of night, but because her eyes were fully adjusted, she could see Goda’s face in the moonlight as the giant turned to face the back of the truck. Goda’s stare was aimed directly at the Bou twins.

“Leave,” Goda said.

The twins scrambled to grab some of the spare blankets and mats, though they left the rest of their belongings in their haste, and they stepped over Kanna and jumped out of the truck. Kanna could hear them murmuring to each other as their footfalls hit the grass. She heard them step away, but it wasn’t far, and she figured that the group had stopped to sleep.

But Kanna decided that she wouldn’t sleep anymore. Instead, she would spend her energy trying to think of a way to bust Goda’s cuff from her wrist. If I can squirm my way out of these binds, she thought, then I can tie Goda up in her sleep, and I can find a knife and saw her hand off and take the cuff off safely that way. She won’t like it, but it will free her.

Just as she was in the midst of these morbid thoughts, however, the giant stepped over the divide between them. The truck bounced around with Goda’s heavy movements and Kanna watched her intently without saying anything. The giant crouched over her, straddled Kanna’s hips, lowered some of her weight onto Kanna’s body, but not so much that Kanna felt crushed.

Kanna took in a sharp breath. Conflicting sensations broiled together in her body. Kanna felt the urge at first to resist them, but then she gave into instinct, and she felt herself relaxing just slightly into the touch. She allowed herself to feel the warmth of Goda’s thighs on either side of her.

She met Goda’s dreamy gaze. The direct moonlight coming down from the cloudless sky made the giant’s eyes look silver, and it added a bluish tint to her faint, meaningless smile. Kanna felt that she had the giant’s full attention. It made Kanna uncomfortable, even though it was still the only thing she wanted.

Goda slipped a hand into her own robes. Kanna tried to crane her neck to see, but pulled back instantly when she saw that the giant had pulled out a knife.

Ah,” Kanna managed to croak out in a soft voice, because her throat was still on fire. She let her head fall back onto the truck bed with a smack. She bit her lip with a mix of curiosity and fear. The truth was that Goda was still so unpredictable—that reality itself had become so unpredictable—that Kanna couldn’t rule out the possibility that she was about to take her last breath.

Just in case, Kanna tilted her head back some more to expose her neck. If something was going to finally kill her, she thought, then she wanted it to be Goda’s knife in her throat.

But Goda shifted a little to reach into one of Kanna’s pockets with her free hand and Kanna felt herself twitch again with surprise. With only the thin fabric separating them, she felt the giant’s fingers lightly brushing the space between her leg and her hip as that hand rummaged around. It excited some of the nerves there—which had already awoken to Goda’s presence, Kanna realized—and she felt the edges of shame swirling up inside of her. This time, though, because she had noticed the shame, she let herself feel it. She almost liked it.

The touch didn’t last long; the giant pulled out one of the fruits that Kanna had stored in her clothes hundreds of thousands of paces earlier, when they had stood by the tree. Goda stabbed the pome with her knife, which sent sweet-smelling juice sprinkling down on Kanna’s face. She cut a piece off the flesh.

“What are you doing?” Kanna finally whispered. “What are you—”

The giant forced a piece of fruit into her mouth. Kanna immediately spit it out.

“What…the hell!” Kanna said between coughs. The resistance in the muscles of her throat had made some of the juice trickle in the wrong way. “What are you doing to me?”

“Feeding you.”

“In the middle of the night?” Kanna exclaimed, with as much strength as she could muster. When she thought about it for a second, though, she had to admit that it was as good a time as any. She actually wasn’t entirely sure when Middlelanders tended to have their meals, since she hardly ever saw Goda eat.

But she wasn’t hungry.

“This journey has been long and taxing on you. You’ll need your strength when we get to Suda, and I don’t have time to feed you while I drive. Eat it.” Goda cut up a smaller piece, as if the size had been Kanna’s objection, and she pressed it again to Kanna’s lips.

Kanna turned her head to refuse it. “If you’re going to be fasting, Giant, then I want to be empty as well. The only thing I want inside of me is you.” After the last few words slipped from her mouth without full intention, she glanced up quickly to study Goda’s face.

The giant had paused. She was staring down at Kanna with a rush of intensity. “No,” she said.

“You’re a coward.” The anger from before was returning. “Here I am, tied and helpless, and still you won’t take advantage of me, even though you want to. I know you do. Now that I know that it’s there, I can feel it faintly pressing against me through your clothes, and I know you don’t lack the desire. If we really are going to face some apocalyptic end in Suda, then at least give me what I want now before it’s too late for us.”

“That won’t solve any of your problems.”

“You’re my only problem, Goda.”

The giant was completely still again, quiet again for a long moment. “I could say the same, though I know it isn’t true. You’re a delusion. You’re a demon sent from the Goddess to tempt me on the final stretch. It hasn’t been easy. You are a very convincing hallucination.” Goda’s face was mostly blank, but something curious vibrated underneath the surface that Kanna couldn’t yet read. “A very beautiful one.”

Kanna let out a breath. Her heart pounded noticeably faster. Her mind replayed the words a few times. “Then let’s run away from this,” she whispered to the giant. “Stop torturing yourself and stop torturing me. We can find a way to get rid of the cuff. Even cutting your hand off is preferable to this life, don’t you think? The Bou twins will help us. We can take it off quickly tonight and throw it in some hole and the cuff can shock your lifeless wrist while we flee deep into the desert or into some obscure part of the Upperland. The government won’t know you escaped. They’ll think you just failed and died, like they wanted you to do.”

Goda shook her head. “Then what?”

It seemed like Goda hadn’t expected an answer, but Kanna delivered anyway: “We can live. I know it’s hard to hide who you are—since a lot of people know what you did, and certainly the soldiers and priestesses will recognize your face—but if we leave the Middleland, it will be easier. We can get married. We can live out the rest of our days as normal people.” Kanna stopped there, because her own proposal had been unexpected and it had just rushed out of her mouth with the rest of the words—but she did not disagree with it in retrospect. She hoped that it had sounded casual enough. She could pretend that marriage meant as little to her as it seemed to the Middlelanders.

Goda’s smile spread open a little. “Sometimes I do wish I was that sort of person,” she murmured. “Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if life had unfolded in a different way. But it unfolded this way. It is still unfolding—and I’m not going to fight the will of the Goddess. You call me a coward, and it’s true that I’m afraid, but I’m going to face what I have to face nonetheless. And the monster I will face is in Suda. If I don’t do this, then I will spend the rest of my natural life running from shadows and demons. Like you said yourself, it would be preferable to cut off a part of me than to live a life of torture.” She looked down at her cuff-clad wrist, at the metal that shined in the moonlight. “But it’s not my hand that has caused me to sin, so it’s not my hand that I’ll be cutting off.”

The giant leaned away, and dismounted Kanna’s hips. She tucked the fruit back into Kanna’s pocket and stepped back over to the driver’s seat without another word.

* * *

In spite of her efforts to stay awake, Kanna had been sleeping again, and a rustling sound had roused her all of a sudden. There was a scraping next, then the puff of a flash fire eating through something. A bright light erupted somewhere close by, but then it dimmed in a split second. Kanna could still see the glow after, so with a lot of effort, she pushed herself up, and she tried to wrestle with the rope so that she could half-sit with her gaze pointing over the side of the truck.

Because she was so tired, her brain struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. A flame danced near the ground, seemingly suspended over the earth, trapped in a cage of glass.

She rubbed her eyes against her arm and looked again. The smell of fuel that hit her nose helped her wake up some more.

Goda had lit an ethanol lantern, and she was sitting, leaning against the outside of the truck, her satchel resting in her lap, her hands around a steel baton.

Kanna blinked.

No, it was a scroll.

The giant untied the leather band and let the scroll fall open in front of her. Even in the dim light, Kanna could see the etchings in Old Middlelander; she could see that it was the same document that Taga had thrown on the floor of the cabin after claiming that she couldn’t read it.

“This is why you had me study Parama’s textbook, isn’t it?” Kanna murmured.

Goda tilted her head back slightly, as if she were pointing an ear closer to Kanna’s direction, as if she were a wildcat that had noticed some far-off sound. She didn’t reply, though.

“I know both Middlelander and Upperlander,” Kanna said a little louder, “so you thought I could decipher it.”

The giant let out a deep sigh, but her gaze remained forward, on the surface of the scroll. “It was one of the few possessions they allowed me to keep after my arrest—and the most dangerous. The only reason it slipped past the notice of the authorities is because soldiers are the ones who search you for contraband, and soldiers are usually too uneducated to know Old Middlelander script. I lied and said it was a religious heirloom from my higher mother. They didn’t know the difference.” She took the scroll between her hands and rolled it back up in one fluid movement; the leather seemed to naturally want to flow closed, as if it were used to being hidden. “I’m not gifted with languages. After spending all that time in the desert, I can barely even speak a word or two of Outerlander, and I’m not very smart, so even if I somehow got lucky and found an Upperlander tutor—which is extremely rare—I doubt I would learn enough in my lifetime to read this. Instead, I spent years trying to find someone who could tell me what the rest of the scroll said. Even Parama could not make sense of it. I’ve stared and stared at it many times, but it could all be gibberish and I wouldn’t know.”

To Kanna’s surprise, the giant lifted her arm up over her head, and she passed the scroll towards Kanna. Not knowing what else to do, Kanna struggled to reach over the edge of the truck, and she clasped her bound hands around the thick parchment.

“You should have it now,” Goda said. “There’s nothing I can really do with it. I think the only reason I held onto it for so long was because Taga had touched it not long before she died. It’s the same as the pendant that I took from her body. It’s just a superstitious token, a charm. The stories I told myself about it were more important than any actual use. I deluded myself.”

Kanna didn’t know what to say at first. She squeezed her fingers around the scroll and felt the layers that swirled in circles underneath. “I know what you mean.” Kanna’s tone came out with more sadness than she had intended. “I used to have tokens like that, too, until they took everything from me and I had nothing except for the clothes on my back—and then they took that, too. I thought to myself, what’s left of me? Who am I without all these things? But that didn’t last because that was just the very outer layer and the deeper layers were more terrifying still. I got used to not having any material things really quickly, so then I had no choice but to ask myself, ‘Am I the skin that I’m wearing? Well, if that’s true, then who is the I that is wearing it? Fine, then I’m the muscles. But then who is wearing the muscles? And the bone? And the marrow in the bones? Am I in the marrow, then? Or am I the brain that is thinking about the marrow? If so, which part? Could I point to it?’ I asked myself all these things for those weeks that they held me in the confinement center before you arrived to take me away. I sat alone in my cell and stared at the wall.”

Goda had pressed the back of her head to the steel of the truck. She was tilting her neck back and looking up at Kanna intently.

“I asked myself and asked myself, and I couldn’t figure out the answer, even with all that time to think,” Kanna said. “So I realized I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was; and I realized it had nothing to do with being smart or dumb at all. You just either saw the answer or you didn’t; somehow I knew I would have to go beyond my mind to find it. I also knew I couldn’t ask anyone else, because they didn’t know the answer either. Besides, they would think I was crazy just for asking.” Kanna met Goda’s gaze, and though the giant’s form had morphed again into that of a wild animal with wide, shining eyes in the dark, Kanna wasn’t afraid. “You were the one who finally answered my question. I didn’t even ask you directly at first, but you knew what I was asking anyway. Your words didn’t make sense back then, but they make more sense now.”

“Then why do you still resist me?” Goda asked. Her tone held no trace of accusation or frustration. She sounded merely curious.

“Because life has forced me to play this game with you, and so I decided that I would be your antagonist. Just because you were right about one thing doesn’t mean you’re right about everything, Giant. If there’s a chance that we can still escape, then I will take it. We still have time. We’re not in Suda yet, so I can still drag my feet and resist you.” Kanna couldn’t suppress a smile. “It’s the only thing I know how to do well.”

The giant pointed up at the scroll. “You can read.”

“I can do that, too, but I’m still an amateur. I’d rather spend my time fighting you and trying to sabotage your efforts. The risk is higher, but so are the rewards because I’m good at it.”

Goda reached over and flicked a switch on the lamp. The light died in an instant. When Goda stood up, Kanna could feel the giant dropping the lantern in the truck bed beside her, some fuel spilling out in the process and filling the air with spirits once again.

It was making Kanna feel a little drunk.

Goda leaned over the steel divide between them and she pressed a kiss to Kanna’s mouth in the dark. Kanna accepted it eagerly, leaned into it, inhaled the breath that rushed out of Goda’s nostrils.

“I’ll fight you,” Kanna said as Goda broke away.

“I know.” The giant hopped over the driver’s side door without opening it, and she climbed into the front seat to lie down.

“You might never set foot in Suda for the rest of your life. I might force you to change your mind.”

“You might.”

“I could die trying.”

“You could.”

“I’ll make myself so hard to ignore, so irresistible, such a massive temptation, that you’ll kick the Bou twins out the side of the truck while it’s in mid-motion, and you’ll tear away at my clothes with your claws, and you’ll spill all of what you have inside of me.”

Goda laughed. “Shut up.”

* * *

Because it was barely dawn when they set out again, Kanna felt exhausted before she had even opened her eyes. She looked up at the twins with irritation, as their chattering—and the plumes of cigar smoke that mixed with truck exhaust—made it hard for her to go back to sleep. The early sun painted the sky and the twins and the metal of the truck bed with many pleasant colors, but it did little to help Kanna’s bad mood.

She had dreamt about Goda the night before. They had both been naked in the dream. It had been a frustrating experience because it had ended just as things were becoming interesting, and to top it all off, now that she was awake and no longer invested in playing the role of a dream character, she realized that, in the dream, she had been Parama Shakka.

She couldn’t be certain if it had come from her imagination or if it was another taunting vision of the past. She would have to ask Goda about it later, she thought.

Kanna tried to roll over into a more comfortable position, one where the sun was not hitting her eyes, because perhaps she could curl up and fall back into the same dream.

The Bou twins noticed her moving, though. They offered her their usual naive grins.

“Oh great, you’re awake!” Noa said. “We were worried you had passed out or something. We weren’t sure what the giant did to you during the night.”

“Nothing,” Kanna said. “Always nothing. She is nothing.”

Noa scratched her head. “Ah…well, that’s good, then.”

As Kanna gave up on sleeping and tried to sit up, she found the light was too bright already, and she shielded herself from it with her bound hands. “God,” she complained, “do you people ever actually sleep? We went to bed so late last night, and yet all of you are bouncing around at the crack of dawn as if nothing happened.”

Leina stared at her. “What do you mean? We always wake up at dawn as long as we get two full sleeps.”

Kanna squinted at them with renewed annoyance. “Two sleeps? What are you talking about? I barely had even one.”

Noa made the familiar gesture of putting her hand to her mouth when she leaned towards Leina, but again, instead of whispering, she said in a loud voice, “Foreigners are different, stupid. She doesn’t sleep normal!”

“Oh, right, right!”

Kanna let out a groan so loud that she noticed Goda turning to glance at her briefly from the corner of her eye. “Don’t tell me there’s yet something else!” Kanna shouted. “Isn’t what you’ve told me enough? Why does everything have to be weird and different? Why can’t one, singular thing be predictable? Why can’t your women be women, and your food be edible, and your government collect taxes like normal instead of selling people’s chopped-up bodies for cash? Lord almighty, what is wrong with you people this time?”

A long silence spread after Kanna’s outburst.

“Uh…it’s really no big deal,” Leina said after putting out her cigar on the bed of the truck. She reached into one of the bags and pulled out some yaw. Because she began gnawing on her breakfast immediately, Kanna had to make an extra effort to parse the words: “It’s just that when we sleep at night, we wake up for about an hour in the middle, then go back to sleep. We call that time midnight, because it’s between two sleeps. That’s all.”

“Oh.” It was Kanna’s turn to be awkwardly quiet. She shifted her eyes around, her annoyance draining out of her and turning into slight embarrassment.

This at least explained why Middlelander clocks might have been different. It explained all at once why she had woken up so many times to find Goda wandering around in the middle of the night. It explained why Goda had so easily been roused when Kanna tried to escape in Karo. It also explained why the bath house had been so full and teeming with life when she had raced through it to get to the midnight train.

But then she thought about it more at length. “Your midnight is around two hours before sunrise, though,” she said. “How can that be in the middle? How does that work?”

Noa shrugged. “It works just like it sounds like it works. We don’t go to bed until it’s far past sundown, then we sleep for two hours, wake up for one, then we sleep another two.”

“Four hours of sleep?” Kanna shouted. “How do you manage that?” It was no wonder she was exhausted; she had unknowingly kept the same schedule as the Middlelanders, but hadn’t noticed because she had seen only a few clocks during the entire journey, and she could barely read them anyway.

This time, it was Leina who shrugged. She took a huge bite out of the yaw. “That’s just how it’s always been,” she said with her mouth full of poison.

* * *

As the sun began to wane and the sky began to transition again into a blood red that etched the corners of Kanna’s vision, Kanna noticed that the road had grown smoother over time. Instead of gravel, the wheels scraped against something more uniform, harder, less chaotic. That steady sound lulled her enough that her muscles grew heavy.

She tugged halfheartedly on the rope to turn herself over to her side—but of course it offered little slack in her direction, because it was anchored tightly on some point overhead, in a direction she refused to look, in the direction of the giant. She turned the other way.

She allowed herself to grow limp against the bed of the truck, and pressed her ear against the metal beneath her, and let the vibrations of the motor and the wheels silence her mind.

She had plenty of time to scheme later, she thought. She could drift off, fall out of the nightmare and into a dream, let go of the burdens that had churned in her mind all day and left her exhausted.

But just as she began to fall into that inner world, Noa’s voice exploded from the nightmare outside. The words were sharp enough that they made Kanna’s eyes snap open instantly.

“Hey, I think I see the lights of Suda coming out from behind that hill!”

Onto Chapter 31 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 29: Two Million Paces of Resistance

Kanna decided that she hated Goda after all. She had been sitting in the passenger seat in total silence, ignoring the giant, and the giant had the nerve to ignore her ignoring, so eventually she whipped around and crawled into the bed of the truck to be with the Bou twins.

Passing over the divide and into that alternate dimension wasn’t much better, though. They seemed happy that she had joined them, but they had been chain smoking so much that the floor of the truck was littered with cigar butts and ash, and it took Kanna a few seconds to find a clean spot to sit down.

“…and it’s so strange how the human mind works. Every time these crazy customers tell me a story, they get weirder and weirder,” Noa was saying; Kanna had been too distracted to overhear the source of the conversation from the front seat, but she tried to pick up the thread where it was. “Like the last time I had to do a delivery by myself, remember how I took so long? It’s because this lady had to tell me all about the tiny bit of Flower she had swallowed. She said she had seen a million snakes all over her house, and she was trying to tell me about each one.”

“Oh yeah,” Leina said. “I’ve heard that one, too. The Maharans always see snakes, because that’s what we’re taught at the temple, so it’s no wonder that was locked in her subconscious. Makes me not want to touch the stuff, to be honest. I’d rather live in the real world than deal with creepy delusions and hallucinations.”

Smoke wafted in Kanna’s direction, so she ducked her head to avoid the haze. “How about lung cancer?” Kanna said crossly. “Is that a hallucination?”

Dirty air shot out of Leina’s nostrils as she laughed and coughed. “What do you mean?” she asked.

Kanna didn’t answer, though. She took a deep breath of what little clean air she could manage and she tried to adjust her mood, because she figured the twins didn’t deserve her ire. She glanced at the two leather rucksacks that sat tucked in the corner of the truck bed, and she asked, “What kind of…product do you two deliver to people, anyway?”

“We told you: drugs!” Noa said, grinning with pride. “We deal illegal drugs. Our plan if we ever get caught is to each say that the other one did it, and then they won’t be able to tell who is guilty, so they’ll have to let us both go. Even if a witness saw me, I could just say it was my sister, and she could accuse me of the same.”

“Oh.” Kanna scratched the back of her head, unsure if this was a common occupation or if Noa was simply too shameless to be anything but casual about it. “Well, that’s unfortunate that you have to go to such lengths just to do your job, I guess.” She settled on this neutral response.

“Not really! You can make a lot more money selling stuff that’s illegal. That’s why we do it. With legal stuff, you have too much competition, so I hope they don’t relax the law.”

Kanna huffed in disbelief, but her eyes traced the sealed edges of the bags with curiosity. “What kind of drugs are they, anyway?” She couldn’t imagine that it was Flower. Even the Bou twins didn’t seem stupid enough to openly carry two large bags filled with such dangerous contraband.

Noa smirked. She reached over and undid the latch on one of the sacks, and she opened it up a crack. It was just enough that Kanna could peer inside, but not enough that the wind could slide in and blow any of the dry petals out into the open.

Kanna shook her head and shut her eyes on reflex. “Close it,” she said. “For the love of God, just close it and never show it to me again.” She rubbed her face with her hands. “We’re going to get caught. Some soldiers are going to stop us at some crossing, and they’re going to jump in the back, and they’re going to look at your stuff, and they’re going to arrest all four of us and execute Goda and add twenty years to my sentence.”

“Well, you’re certainly the optimist, aren’t you?” Leina said, laughing some more. “I mean, we don’t usually sell Flower, because it’s a little risky, but we got such a great deal on it this time, we couldn’t pass it up!”

“Yeah, guess how much we paid!” Noa added with excitement. “Guess! Guess!”

The truck rumbled along quietly for a moment as Kanna stared at the two of them with incredulity. “Um, I don’t know.” Now that she thought about it, she still wasn’t entirely sure how money worked in the Middleland. She had had such a narrow experience of the culture so far, and her tutors had been so vague about everything besides the language itself, that she couldn’t even remember the name of their currency.

But Noa leaned closer, her grin stretching wider. She put her hand to the side of her mouth, as if she were about to whisper, but instead she shouted, “Nothing! We got it for free! Can you believe that?”

Leina nodded her head in time with the bobbing of the truck over a few potholes. “That’s right! We got really lucky. In the middle of the night, we were trying to steal some supplies from the train, so we busted one of the locks open and we happened upon a whole car filled with Flower! It was crates and crates of the stuff. We had never seen so much. Of course, there was no way to haul that all back to our room, so we loaded what we could in our bags and decided that we’d get the hell out of Karo in the morning. You can get a much higher price for it in the capital.”

Kanna jerked with surprise. “The midnight train? The one that goes to the Upperland?”

“Yeah, that’s right! You went around there, too, didn’t you? We were hidden in an alley, about to try our hand at making some brew with our find, when we saw you running past and we thought we’d whack that giant with our brass pot. Looking back, it was probably a stupid idea. We were drunk.”

“But why were they sending Flower to the Upperland? Do you know?”

Noa’s smile turned mysterious. “You mean you don’t know? You’re an Upperlander, after all.”

“No,” Kanna said, pursing her lips and letting out a frustrated huff. “I don’t know anything. The more I know, the less I know. So if you’re not going to tell me, then don’t tell me, but I’m sick of all of this cryptic nonsense.”

“Fine, sheesh.” Noa was looking at her warily again. “Well, it’s like this: You’ve heard of the Rava family, right? I’m sure you have. They basically monopolized your entire economy and almost ran it into the ground.”

“They did not!” Kanna snapped immediately. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t have the right to say things like that if you’ve never even lived—” She stopped when she noticed that they were both staring at her, completely confused, partly recoiled, as if a sharp gust of wind had unexpectedly hit them in the face.

It had been the breath of a snake, of course. Kanna sighed and felt the serpent grow a little weaker once she had acknowledged it—but it scurried away because it was afraid of being seen directly. The tail had slipped between her fingers. She knew she would see it again some other time.

“What…does Flower have to do with the Rava family?” she mumbled, regaining some of her composure. It was difficult to ask. It felt like she was asking about herself. A part of her didn’t want to hear the Bou twins unknowingly gossiping about who she was—or who she used to be. She didn’t really know anymore.

Leina shrugged with a bit of caution, after exchanging a glance with Noa. “We don’t know for sure,” she said, “but the story is that our Middleland government made a deal with your royalty to be able to invade and take over the mok fields from the Rava clan. We heard rumors that they paid your king off with Flower. It’s illegal here, of course, but that’s exactly why the Middleland government has the market cornered. What do you think the government does with all the confiscated Flower? What do you think they do with the dead bodies, whose fluids carry the Flower in a safer form? It’s a huge source of income for them, along with the criminal slaves it creates. They secretly sell Flower and ground up bodies on the black market, then they arrest people for buying it on the other end.”

Kanna winced with some disgust. Goda had explained before that people ate from the bodies of those who had overdosed and died on Flower, but imagining it as some kind of commercial enterprise made it ten times worse. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why would the Upperland monarchy want Flower from your government, anyway?”

“It’s valuable—certainly the most expensive plant on the continent. It’s the most potent medicine as well as the most powerful poison by far, and it’s rare because it was eradicated from Samma Valley, so now it only grows in the savage-infested Lowerland. Use your imagination. I’m sure you can figure it out.” Noa seemed to relax a little, and she let out a smooth puff of the noxious smoke. “Besides, your monarchy was aching to get rid of the Ravas, anyway. That family had almost entirely taken over the government, and by then your king was a hair away from being overthrown. He was scared for his neck.” She made a rude gesture, slid her finger across her throat. “Without outside help, what was he going to do? Better to be able to sit on the throne as a puppet for the Middlelanders than to have no ass to sit with at all, don’t you think? The payment of Flower was probably more of an afterthought—a gift of goodwill.”

“Yep,” Leina added, with a similarly casual look on her face that Kanna could hardly stand. “So the Ravas got charged with some made-up claim that the Middlelanders had owned their land all along and that they owed exorbitant back-taxes on it for the past one hundred years. They’re all paying for it now with their slavery—the ones who weren’t smart enough to escape, anyway. I hear the older ones are clever, but the younger ones that grew up in privilege are dumb as rocks.”

Kanna had clenched her hands into fists while she listened. Her nails were digging into her palms. She bit her own tongue.

Noa seemed to notice the tension and tilted her head. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

Before she could stop herself, Kanna’s body shook with fury and she cried out, “I am Kanna Rava!”

An extended pause fell over the back of the truck, and the twins both stared at her. Their expressions were unreadable, but Kanna figured that they must have been shocked at the revelation. She could sense a smile coming from Goda’s direction, though, and she turned to find that the giant indeed looked amused at the outburst.

When she turned back, she was met with a pair of full grins.

“Sure you are!” Leina said, smacking Kanna on the shoulder. “So am I! Call me Leina Rava!”

“Oh, wait, can I join the clan, too?” Noa asked. “Do I have to learn how to brew spirits, or can I just be one of the kept daughters in Rava’s mansion?” She batted her eyes and fluffed her own hair.

Both of them laughed as if Kanna had led them on a long-form joke and had finally delivered the punchline. Kanna let out a sigh of disgust, but they didn’t seem to notice, and they didn’t bother her again when she lay down on the bed of the truck from sheer exhaustion.

Maybe it’s true that they’re just as much Kanna Rava as I am at this point.

It was her last thought before Kanna Rava fell asleep.

* * *

Kanna woke up with a startled lurch. She felt like she had been falling, so her limbs flailed around to catch her, but they only smacked against the sides of the truck.

As it turned out, it was merely the feeling of the vehicle coming to an abrupt stop that had disturbed her, but as she sat up and rubbed her eyes, the edges of a nightmare still swam in her vision. She thought she had seen Priestess Rem’s face, and it had looked pale and lifeless—so perhaps it had been Taga Murau instead. She couldn’t tell anymore.

She blinked and gazed across the bed of the truck at the messy mop of Goda’s hair that still waved a bit in the wind. She wondered how much of Kanna’s own nightmares and memories Goda had seen, in the same way that Kanna had seen hers. She felt a twinge of shame then, because now that her fury had worn off some—the snakes always seemed less active when she would first wake up—she could see that her reaction to Goda’s story had been entirely selfish.

Kanna could not fathom what it must have been like to watch someone she loved die before her own eyes, much less by her own hand. She had been in Goda’s body and she had watched it happen as if she had been there, but she imagined that she had access to only a very small piece of the anguish—because she was not Goda Brahm, after all. Kanna had not lived at Taga’s side; she had not known all of the woman’s attributes, both good and evil; she had not fallen in love with a priestess who she could never marry or even touch.

And as soon as the vision of Taga had been over—as vivid as it had seemed at the time—it had begun to fade just like any other dream. Goda probably didn’t have that same luxury.

The Bou twins were already hopping out of the truck, and their shaky movements broke Kanna out of her thoughts. Because they had stopped near a pond, the twins started immediately ripping their clothes off and sprinting towards the water.

“Finally! It’s afternoon already, and I was itching to wash these snakes off before it got too late!” Leina said, even though she didn’t believe in snakes and thought that they were crazed hallucinations.

Noa eagerly agreed while stepping out of her trousers, even though she had told Kanna that snakes were religious nonsense.

Goda shed her robes before dismounting the truck, and she started making her way towards the edge of the pond too, even though the giant knew full well that water did nothing to deter snakes.

After a few moments of watching three naked women trudging through the grass, all three determined to wash off invisible demons, something in Kanna’s brain decided that she also must have had those same demons. She crawled over the side of the truck bed and plopped onto the ground, and she sprinted to catch up with them so that she could also get rid of snakes that didn’t exist.

Once they were all knee-deep in the water, Kanna tried to keep her eyes from drifting towards the Bou twins’ bodies with curiosity—but she didn’t try very hard. Whenever she could sense that they weren’t looking directly at her, her gaze fell heavily below their waistlines against her will, because she could not help but wonder if they were like Goda.

She had a hard time being able to tell the difference between Goda’s weird personal quirks and what was simply part of the Middlelander culture. Do all Middlelander women have…that? Kanna thought. She wasn’t sure what to call it. There were two different names for two different organs that she had thought to use for what Goda had, but if she was honest with herself, it had looked like it could have been either. It had made her consider for a moment that perhaps those two separate things in her mind may have actually been the same thing all along—but she had chastised herself quickly for such a strange thought.

Of course women and men are totally different, she told herself. That’s why they have different names. It would be ridiculous if, this whole time, they were just two versions of the same thing. Then what would that make me?

The Bou twins looked more like her than like Goda, though. Kanna had glanced enough times that she decided they were both normal, and for some reason this gave her some comfort.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t been discreet enough, and though Leina was distracted with a piece of yaw that she had brought with her to rinse in the water, Kanna eventually drew Noa’s attention. The woman grinned at Kanna, and her eyes sparkled with interest.

“What’re you looking at, what’re you looking at?” she asked.

“Nothing!” Kanna couldn’t help one final glance in Goda’s direction, then she turned back to her own body and went through the motions of scrubbing invisible parasites.

Her stupid grin unfaded, Noa turned towards Goda briefly, and seemed to realize Kanna’s thoughts. “Ahhh,” Noa said, in a tone that made Kanna’s neck break into a blush that she couldn’t hide with her clothes. “So this giant is the only one of those that you’ve seen, huh? You’re an Upperlander, so I don’t blame you for being confused. I mean, I’m sure they exist in the Upperland, too, but I heard there’s a lot less of them and they hide themselves.”

“‘One of those’?” Kanna echoed Noa’s words, but she could still find no meaning in them.

“The government calls them ‘robust women.’ They’re bigger than normal—though not usually as huge as your monster over here—and they often get assigned to be in the military and stuff like that, because most of them are stronger than average, and most of them can’t carry any children. You might have noticed that the soldiers are more built than, say, the priestesses, right?”

Kanna paused. She thought back to all the Middlelander women she had seen. In truth, they had all looked so tall and imposing, that she hadn’t yet noticed much of the detailed variations. “So there are others like Goda?”

“Oh yeah. Like I said, she’s unusually big, but robust women make up…maybe one out of ten of us in some places, maybe two out of ten in other places?” She turned towards her sister for some apparent confirmation and Leina nodded, looking up from the dirty yaw that she was scrubbing.

“They’re more common towards the South for some reason,” Leina said. “You can’t always tell, though. It’s kind of a continuum and some are more obvious than others. We still can’t tell if our sister is one, even though she’s tall and her shoulders are kind of wide. She doesn’t have a cycle, but that doesn’t really mean anything, since some of us start really early, but some of us don’t start that until we’re deep into our twenties.”

Kanna’s face twisted against her will, as much as she was trying to be polite about a culture she did not understand at all. “What?” she said. She had never heard something so outlandish about the human body. “Are you all right? Is there a disease or something that plagued your people? Is there a germ that infected the water? Is your food contaminated with some substance?” The words slipped out before she could consider how rude they were.

But Leina laughed. “Not that we know of. It’s just always been normal. Who knows why?” She bit into the yaw and chomped away at it happily, then said with a full mouth, “Don’t worry. We don’t hold it against you. We like the fact that foreigners are so weird.”

* * *

When Kanna had finally mustered up the gall to approach Goda again, she found her standing by the side of the pond with her clothes back on. The giant was reaching up into a tree to pick some green pomes from the branches, and she was dropping them into her robes until her pockets were bulging with fruit. The sun was high overhead and fell through the thicket of leaves in spots, and there was a bird at the edge of one of the high twigs who was calling out either a mating song or an aggressive warning against the two intruders who had appeared in his midst.

Kanna scratched the back of her neck with uncertainty. “I thought you said that you were fasting,” she mumbled.

“I am. These are for you.”


Goda paused her movements. “You don’t want them.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then take them.” Goda reached into her pockets with her huge hands and she pressed the fruit up against Kanna’s chest, so that Kanna had no choice but to carry them to avoid them spilling onto her feet. “I know you don’t like the yaw.”

Kanna sighed. She busied herself stuffing the fruit into her own pockets. “I’m getting used to it, all right? I imagine that it will take some time, that’s all.”

“Don’t eat it,” Goda said.


“I said, don’t eat the yaw. It’s fine if you have a little bit now and then, or if you have no other choice, but once you’re settled into the Middleland, don’t make it a habit. Yaw isn’t meant for you. Middlelanders have been dependent on it for tens of thousands of years—just as the plant is dependent on us and it actually can’t grow anymore unless we manually pollinate it—but the bitterness that you sense in it is more than just a bad taste. It is poison to foreigners. It used to be poison to us, too, but our people adapted and evolved over time to tolerate it. It won’t kill you, but it can make you sick and it can disrupt the natural cycles of your body and it can make it so that you’ll never have any children. Don’t eat yaw.”

Kanna stared at her, completely stunned into silence. When she had recovered her ability to speak, it took her a moment to push the words out, “You’re…you’re telling me this now? I’ve eaten it already!”

“You’ll be fine with what you ate. It’s polite to eat what strangers give to you. But I’m telling you now because we will be separated soon, and most Middlelanders don’t understand that foreigners are different. They will try to make you eat yaw every day, so you will have to find other food to eat instead of what your master provides for you.”

“What? What? How do I even do that?” Kanna took a step towards Goda in panic, and some of the fruit that was still in her hands slipped from her grasp and fell onto the ground. After a tense pause, though, she shook her head, set her jaw. “No,” she said. “We’re not going to be separated, so this won’t even be an issue. We don’t have to plan for a future that won’t come.”

Goda looked at her with those empty eyes, with that typically blank stare, and this only made Kanna’s teeth clench further. “There’s nothing wrong with a creative interpretation of reality,” Goda told her, “but denial is something different. You’re in denial right now. Let it go. We will be going to Suda and we will be separated from each other.”

“I won’t let that happen,” Kanna insisted, “even if I have to fight you. I know I’ve resisted you in the past when maybe I shouldn’t have, but I don’t know what else to do now, either.”

“Surrender to me.”

“No!” Kanna kicked some of the fallen fruit in Goda’s direction and she crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re insane, Goda. Even now, I don’t know why you have this suicidal ideation, and why you’re so obsessed with just giving in to fate, but I won’t follow you off the edge of that cliff. In fact, I will do what I can to stop you from jumping over. I’ll grab you by the legs and pull as hard as I can.”

“You tried that already.”

“Fine, fine! I don’t care what happened before, but I’m not getting back into that truck no matter what you do to me! And even if you try to drag me, I’ll resist every one of those two million paces to Suda—or however long we have left to reach that hellish place!”

Goda’s expression didn’t change much, but Kanna had grown used to the small variations now, and she sensed an edge of curiosity. “You’re more than stubborn,” Goda said, studying Kanna’s face. “It’s something else. I wish I had time to find out.”

With a billowing of her robes, the giant turned around and headed back towards the road.

* * *

Goda did not answer the Bou twins when they loudly asked why Kanna was still standing by the tree with her heels dug into the ground. Kanna watched them get into the truck, and she watched Goda start it up, and she watched them peel out onto the street, leaving her behind.

Kanna braced herself for the shocks that were sure to come. She would let them happen, she decided. She couldn’t stand it anymore that she was being led around by her own urge to avoid pain. She would feel the pain, she would lean into it, she would let it fry all of her nerves—but she would not give in to Goda.

Sure enough, after what seemed like only a few seconds, the truck had dashed more than forty paces away, and the first wave of pain rushed through Kanna’s arm. It flowed into the rest of her body, popping against every piece of skin and muscle, and vibrating through all of her bones.

Kanna clenched up on reflex. The pain grew worse the more she resisted it. It buzzed through every particle inside her—it rose and fell like a wave of heat—but every time, the peak would grow higher and higher. She had balled her hands into fists and she looked between them onto the road with a tense mouth.

The truck rolled further away; the pain exploded to another level. It was worse than it had ever been. Kanna groaned loudly and felt her voice echo through the clearing and felt the bird above her get spooked and fly away.

The truck grew smaller and smaller in the horizon. She felt the muscles of her knees growing stiff from the shock. Somehow, she could keep standing through it all, even though her body began to clench further. She felt the electricity burning in the roots of her teeth like they had been set on fire. The pain had become so strong and the shock so paralyzing, that she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep going.

She let out a scream with what little control she still had over her lungs. The pain was filling up her awareness, as much as she tried to distract herself from it with her hatred of Goda. All she knew was the sight of the tiny truck in the distance and her hatred of the woman who drove it and the feeling of her body on the verge of giving in.

But just as she felt that she was about to finally collapse because her blood had gone molten inside her, she heard a voice between her ears—a whisper that was somehow louder than her screams.

Listen to your breath, it said.

Just as this happened, her breath hitched and her lungs seized and she couldn’t even cough.

Try again. Listen to your breath. Don’t make yourself breathe. Don’t try to control it. Listen to the breath that happens on its own.

The words sounded familiar.

Listen to your breath…


Listen to your pain…listen to the pain that happens on its own.

Kanna stiffened even more at first when she heard what the voice had said. It made the pain worse. It brought her attention to the pain, and that felt worse at first. She could not remember ever having suffered so much of it before.

But then, strangely, the pain smoothed out into an amorphous buzzing. The more she brought her awareness to it, the more the sensation seemed to change. It was still painful, but her body slowly stopped resisting—and, to her astonishment, she found that she was able to keep standing, if barely so. She was no longer suffering the shock; she was feeling herself feeling the pain, which was different.

She didn’t know how, but it was entirely different, even though the pain was the same.

Good…, the voice said. Good…

Her inner body was dancing loosely in her skin. She felt less attached to her body, so it took a lot of effort to bring her head up. She saw that the truck was still far away, but that it was slowing down. When she clenched her fists tighter in anger, in elation that she might have bested the giant, the suffering suddenly flared again, and so she reminded herself to focus on her breathing, on the pain, on the things that were happening without her control.

She felt the pain flowing through her like an energy. It was like a river of warmth that was reminding her that she was alive. She hated it. She loved it. She hated it. She didn’t resist it.

She surrendered to it.

She surrendered so much that she fell onto the ground and closed her eyes and did not fight the sensation when she realized that she was dying.

Good, the voice said, because she had surrendered.

It was the voice of God.

Onto Chapter 30 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 28: Witchcraft

“How did you do that? Goda’s voice grew louder. Her eyes spread open even more, and they were filled with fire. Her expression became suddenly pained.

No, not pained—offended, Kanna realized. Goda was offended. It was Kanna’s turn to be surprised, because she had never seen that look on the giant’s face before, and she didn’t even know what she had done to deserve it.

“Witch!” Goda shouted at her. “What black magic have you cursed me with?”

The words had the shape of a sneer—a hiss—and they had an accusing tone that Kanna had never heard coming out of Goda’s mouth. As soon as Kanna had loosened her grip on Goda’s body in confusion, the giant sat up and slid away, until her back was pressed against the bark of a tree.

“Get away from me!” The giant had recoiled like some defensive animal, like Kanna’s touch had been laced with acid.

Kanna looked on in shock, but she did not fight it and she let the giant’s legs slither out of her grasp. She saw Goda’s expression twist and change with effort, with resistance. The giant braced against the tree, and she turned her head to the side, and the whole of her body heaved, as if she were about to purge. Nothing came out, but her body shook violently and went through the motions of an expulsion nonetheless.

But the moment did not last long. Goda’s eyes blinked as if she had just jerked herself out of a paralyzed sleep. After a few deep gasps, her face lost its conflict and it returned to its stoic default. A hard sigh flowed through her. She grew limp against the tree. Light from the heavens began sprinkling over them in earnest, giving a rainbow sheen to the sparse droplets that were still dribbling from the sky.

With one of her long arms, Goda took hold of the collar of Kanna’s robes. The instinct to fight was the first reaction to jerk through Kanna’s bones, but something about the touch made her surrender; something more intelligent than her mind loosened her muscles for her, and the giant dragged Kanna across the ground, then pulled her up until they were face to face.

Their mouths connected imperfectly. Because Kanna had not known what was happening, she did not turn her head until the last second, and her nose smashed hard against the edge of Goda’s cheekbone. It was only once she had relaxed into it, once she felt the fervent movement of Goda’s lips against hers that she realized the giant was intending to kiss her.

It felt like it was the first time. Every time felt like it was the first time. And just like every time before, Kanna opened her mouth on reflex because she wanted some of Goda inside of her. She suppressed her confusion; her mind turned itself off.

When they broke the kiss, Kanna let her head fall onto Goda’s shoulder, and she let her mouth brush lightly on the woman’s neck instead. They sat there in silence for awhile as the sun grew brighter on the horizon and the rain all but disappeared. Their breathing began to flow in sync; Kanna felt like she was floating in a vast ocean with steady waves that rose and fell and made her body dance softly above the depths.

“That was the snake speaking to me, wasn’t it?” Kanna asked after awhile. “You called me a witch. It called me a witch.”

“Yes. It doesn’t like you.”

Kanna huffed, only partly amused. “Oh? I didn’t notice. It was too shy about its displeasure.” She could feel the muscles of the giant’s neck stretching with a smile. “You’re lucky I’m not offended.”

“You don’t get offended; only your snakes do,” Goda murmured, though Kanna was already opening her mouth to object to such a preposterous theory. “Mine was curious about you before. All creatures are fascinated by death, even these parasites. But then it saw that you were willing to touch it, to acknowledge it, to accept it. It wasn’t just gazing over the edge anymore; it was falling because you tried to pull it into the void with you. Now it really hates you. It’s afraid of disappearing.” Goda looked down at her. “You’ve surprised me. I may have been wrong this whole time about why you showed up. Who are you?”

Kanna still felt the residual stirrings of energy vibrating through her. She blushed and she didn’t know why. She reached up and touched Goda’s face boldly, and the giant did not flinch.

“I’m no one,” Kanna said, and the giant laughed at this. Kanna lowered her hand, but not her gaze. “I’m serious. I can be no one for you the same way you were no one for me. I can be that void and scare your snake, the same way you scared all of mine. I can carry you the same way you carried me. It doesn’t make you weak.”

“Be no one for yourself. It doesn’t work any other way.”

“You say that, but look at what just happened between us. Even though I ultimately had to untangle my own snakes with my own power in that cavern, you whispered in my ear to help me on my way. And out here, I touched something in you. Even just touching helped. The snake isn’t gone, but it’s different; I can feel it. We both gave each other something that we couldn’t give our own selves from our own vantage points.”

Goda inclined her head and her lips brushed the side of Kanna’s cheek, which somehow felt more intimate to Kanna than their earlier frenzied touching. It made some more blood trickle up to her face.

But as she stared into the scenery that grew ever brighter, at the image of the trees and the rocks and the cliff that had emerged from the earlier shadows, she couldn’t help but remember the whole of what she had seen in the visions. The dreams had slowly come together, had finally started to make sense.

“From my vantage point, I can see how much you’ve tortured yourself,” Kanna whispered, “worse than I’ve ever tortured my own self. You don’t deserve this punishment.” An uncomfortable, sour feeling had settled in Kanna’s stomach. “Rem Murau gave me the cuff key, did you know that? She did it because she wanted you to die, but she didn’t want to be the one to kill you. Her sister manipulated you the same way. She set you up to sin in her place. She sacrificed you so that she wouldn’t have to face Hell, but she left you with a hell on Earth to face instead. She was selfish.”

Goda was already shaking her head. “She had no ill intentions. She was merely ignorant and desperate. She didn’t realize what it would turn into—and, besides, the final decision was mine. She did not make me do it. I did it to end my own suffering, because back then I felt her suffering as if it were my own. I had never felt anything like that before. I went to the temple and begged the Goddess to take away every shred of empathy that had suddenly awakened in me, but She didn’t, and so I killed Taga.”

“From the moment she met you, that priestess told you to kill the pests in her yard, told you that it was your role as a layperson to sin for her. She groomed you from the beginning to slaughter her like those rabbits. Why can’t you see that?”

The giant grew silent for a long time. “Because,” she finally said, “my eyes are different from yours. I will never see it the way you do. I felt things for her that will always blind me to anything but an image of her as the Goddess.” The giant’s frame seemed to grow stiffer with some other rush of memory. “But that’s not the worst of it. I’m responsible for more than Taga’s death. I’ve created much imbalance in this world with my actions, something I have to live with every day.”

“I accept this, too,” Kanna said without hesitation. “Tell me.”

Goda sighed. For the first time, she seemed to struggle with the words. “Before, death had just been an idea…but then she was there, lying on the mattress, lifeless, all the blood draining from her. I had never seen a dead person before, and it struck me all at once that it was I who had done it. I felt this empty feeling inside of me; a part of me had died, too.” She brought her hands up to rub her face. When she dropped them back down, her eyes grew unfocused and she stared up at the cliff, towards the shrine. “I ran to the stream to wash the blood off before anyone could see. Maybe then it would be like it didn’t happen, I thought. Maybe I would wake up from the dream with a splash of cold water.” Goda’s jaw grew tight again, as if she were holding something back. Her breaths became shallow.

Kanna thought back to the vision she had of the giant crouched over the creek, and the surface of the water that was too washed with light for her to see any reflection. She remembered the accusing voice that she had heard shouting through the forest, the voice that had cried, “Goda, what did you do?”

“Priestess Rem saw you,” Kanna whispered.

“Yes. She saw me and somehow she knew what I had done. She ran to Taga’s cabin, and so I fled without so much as putting my clothes back on. Even then, I knew that if the soldiers caught hold of me before the administrators arrived, that they were likely to torture me in secret because I had killed a priestess. It made me grow cowardly. I went to my room and found the vial of Flower brew that I had made for Taga—the medicine that she had refused—and I swallowed as much as I could. I thought that it would just kill me, which it nearly did; but in the end, I didn’t hold down enough of it. It sent me on a journey instead.” Goda’s hands clenched and her body shifted in place, and it seemed to all happen below the level of her awareness. “Most people—those who survive to tell about it—see paradise on the other side of the Flower. I went to some other place. I saw things that I wouldn’t wish on the lowest of people. The Flower shows you your true self, a glimpse of what awaits you when you die—and I’m a killer, so that’s what I saw. I’ve spent the rest of my life fearing and avoiding that place, because that’s where I’m going in the end. To die means to look into the eyes of that final snake; it’s the only thing that stands between me and the Goddess, but it is Hell. I can’t do it.”

Kanna was stunned into quiet. After a few moments of pause, she nudged against Goda’s neck, and Goda jerked a little at the touch, as if her mind had drifted to some far off place. The giant seemed to take a moment to recover. Her gaze grew a bit sharper, but there was still a milky quality to her eyes, as if she were fighting to rise up out of a dream.

“When I came back to this reality,” she said, “the administrators had found me collapsed in my room. Because it was obvious that I had Flower in me, they misunderstood the situation. They told the story as if I had swallowed Flower and then lost my mind and killed a priestess in a crazed rampage. Samma Flower doesn’t work that way—it doesn’t make you go insane—but they were too shocked to believe that I had done it coldly and soberly, so they needed an exaggerated story to explain it. They made the plant out to be more dangerous than it really is. Flower was already illegal at the time, but thanks to this scandal, the more religious legislators grew hysterical, and the law quickly changed to require a death sentence for vessels and distributors.”

“You mean…?” Kanna grasped the edges of Goda’s opened robes and twisted them in her fingers. She felt the giant’s tension flowing into her. She looked away. “It was you, then.”

“Yes. It was I who made them afraid.” Goda swallowed; the tension deepened. “Who knows how many people have been executed for handling Flower since then? In this sense, I killed many more people when I killed Taga. I’m responsible for the deaths of thousands because of this singular decision.”

Kanna closed her eyes tightly. She pushed her face harder against Goda’s skin, and she felt that throat seizing with every one of the giant’s shaky breaths. Kanna listened to the pulse, a faint rushing sound that was quickly filling up the natural silence of the clearing.

“You can’t put all that on yourself,” Kanna said softly. “You were only sixteen. You were trying to help.” But then Kanna paused, another connection surfacing abruptly. “And Taga was a vessel, wasn’t she? She would have been the first person you awakened, if she hadn’t resisted you.”

Goda nodded. “Though we can’t be certain now, she probably was. I didn’t fully realize it at the time because I had no experience, but looking back she had many of the symptoms. They had been accumulating most of her life, until she was in agony, and no one knew how to help her. I was drawn intuitively to the idea of giving her Flower brew. I don’t know how I knew, but I was certain that it would not kill her, that it would offer some relief that wasn’t physical death.”

“But she refused it. She chose her religion over her life.”

“Yes. The Goddess would not save her, and I couldn’t save her in the end, either—so I delivered the death blow myself.” Goda caught Kanna’s gaze. Her eyes shined in the red of the morning light, like the surface of glass lightly tinted with blood. “And I’ve paid very much for trying my hand at playing God all those years ago. I’m paying for it to this day, and so is everyone else.”

Hearing that, Kanna gritted her teeth. She shook her head and pulled away and, after a bit of stumbling, she managed to rise up to her feet. She looked down at Goda. “Stop it,” Kanna said. “You’re wrong. You’re just wrong about everything. I haven’t lived your life, so I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be you, but I do know that you’re wrong in the way that you see it.” She stooped down to grab Goda’s arm, which was heavy and limp. She pulled hard on it, trying to coax the giant to stand up with her. “Let’s get away from here. This place must be cursed. It makes you act strangely and I can’t take it anymore.”

But the giant didn’t move. Instead, she looked up at Kanna with faint amusement while Kanna tugged and tugged and grunted with effort. With one final jerk, Goda’s arm slipped from between Kanna’s fingers and Kanna fell backwards onto the ground with a thud.

Kanna slammed the earth with her hands in frustration. “God, why did you have to be this unmovable oaf?” she complained. “Why did you have to be the size and temperament of an ox? Back when I was younger and I imagined my first passionate embrace, my first kiss—all those childish fantasies—I had always pictured some soft, elegant woman with a beautiful face and a graceful demeanor who would sweep me off my feet. Instead, I got you.”

Goda’s amused smirk only seemed to widen. “Reality has ripped you off, it’s true. Maybe you can pretend that the next person is your first.”

“The next person?” Kanna looked at Goda with disbelief. “There is no ‘next’ person. Are you too blind to see that, too? Who on Earth could I be with after all of this?”

“There’s nothing wrong with living a spiritual life, but don’t you think celibacy is a bit extreme?” Goda’s head had fallen back to rest against the tree trunk and her face had grown relaxed, which Kanna did not like.

“Stop teasing me like that, pretending that you don’t hear me. You know exactly what I’m saying. I’m not leaving your side, whether you want me there or not. Make no mistake, Porter: We will escape together. I don’t know how, but we will, even if I have to rip that cuff off your wrist with my bare hands.”

Goda let out a soft laugh. “I told you before that it wasn’t a good idea to get attached. Now you see why. I’m not going to be around for much longer.”

“Bullshit,” Kanna snapped. “You don’t know the future.”

“Maybe I don’t know, but I can see some of it. There is a path carved out for us, even if it seems on the surface that we stumble through it on accident. And you—you saw it, too, didn’t you?”

Kanna was quiet for a long time, her mind dropping all the words in the midst of her bewilderment. That memory from the future that she had experienced in the shrine—the vision of Goda surrounded by pounding boots while Kanna screamed at her—was still fresh enough that it made Kanna’s chest seize up.

“How…do you know what I saw?” she said. Goda merely stared at her with that same smile, so Kanna figured that the giant wasn’t going to answer, and she asked instead, “You know what that vision meant? Was it something that happens in Suda?”


“Then tell me!” Kanna demanded, pushing herself up from the ground. “What was that? What were you doing? Why was I begging you not to do it?” She staggered onto her feet again and offered Goda a gaze of expectation.

“I can’t tell you.” The serenity on Goda’s face had not faded, and her tone was cryptic, closer to her usual self; this unnerved Kanna more than the words.

“What is it with you and all the mysteries, even now? Why the hell can’t you tell me?”

“Because,” the giant said, “then you’ll try to stop me.”

* * *

The sky was wide and entirely clear when they trudged back onto the gravel of the main road, even though the wind was blowing some of the dust around and making a light haze on the path. Kanna walked in front of Goda because she didn’t want to look at her, but she could still feel the giant’s presence like a rush of energy raining down over her shoulder, stronger than before.

The feeling of connection to the giant had not worn off. It had become like a pulsing chord of heat that flowed back and forth between them, and Kanna could not shake it. She could not rip herself away. She could not numb herself to it. It was raw and uncomfortable and she found herself wishing that she didn’t have to live with it.

Kanna approached the truck with resistance still in her. The twins were smiling and sitting on the tailgate with their legs dangling over the ground and a plume of smoke encasing them. They gave her matching grins. They sucked on their cigars and waved their hands in welcome as soon as they had seen her.

“Hey, hey! You two disappeared for a long time, there. What were you up to all alone on the other side of the cliff?” Noa asked once Kanna was close enough. Her tone was suggestive; even through the language barrier, Kanna could hear the implication clearly. “Fine, don’t explain it. I already saw anyway. Last night, I got up to do my business in the bushes, and I noticed you two wrapped around each other like a pair of kittens. It all makes sense now. To think we tried to rescue you from this brute in Karo, convinced that she was abusing you, and all along it was some twisted role play. Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Shut up,” Kanna said. She climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door.

“Sheesh! Kind of grumpy this morning, aren’t you?” It was Leina who was yammering next. “Did you have a nightmare or something?”

Kanna clenched her teeth. It took all her inner strength to stop herself from spinning around to yell in the woman’s face. She could handle all the misunderstandings so far—all the creative stories about Upperland culture, all of the bureaucrats shortening her name, all the lies she had told on purpose—but for some reason, she couldn’t bear to hear stories about what had happened between her and Goda. The experience had been so far beyond any words, that she doubted even telling it herself would be any closer to the truth.

The truck wriggled when Goda climbed inside of it. She busied herself with the controls as if nothing had happened. Kanna gripped her own knees to keep from reaching out and striking Goda’s handsome, hideous face—the face that was already etched with scratches that had barely had time to begin healing, the face that Kanna wanted to take between her hands and break into pieces in an embrace of affection and malice.

“So, Giant,” Noa asked, aptly changing the subject after she seemed to read the foul mood in the air, “how long do you think we have until we get to Suda?”

But Kanna was having none of it.

“We’re not going to Suda,” Kanna answered for Goda.

Noa twisted her face, raised her eyebrows in confusion. “Hah? But I thought you said that you were—”

“We’re not going to Suda!” Kanna cried, jerking her head around and staring Noa directly in the eyes. “Ride with us if you want; we’re not going to the capital if I have anything to do with it. I don’t care if I have to grab a rock and knock the giant unconscious and drive this piece of junk off a goddamn embankment, but we’re not going anywhere near that godforsaken place! It’s cursed! It’s cursed! There’s nothing but death waiting for us there!”

Noa recoiled, looking at her with speechless astonishment. The tip of her cigar burned in her pause, and the ash fell into the bed of the truck.

Adding nothing to the conversation, Goda turned the truck on and pulled back onto the road. Almost as soon as they had steadied their course, Goda veered to the left and headed down what looked like another major path.

There was absolute silence for awhile, except for the rushing of the wind. Goda’s unkempt hair flew up and danced around with the hood of her robes. They flashed past a wooden sign on the roadside, and it was so quick that Kanna barely had time to decipher it.

Going South, it had read.

2,000,000 paces to Suda.

The wheels crunched onward against Kanna’s will.

Onto Chapter 29 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 27: Goda’s Snake

The giant fell back into the earth. She sunk into the slick grass and the weeds. Her head fell onto a patch of moss and her hair tangled with the green. She pressed both her hands to her face and the crazed laugh evolved quickly into a series of shudders, deep groans that burst out of those huge lungs and vibrated against the ground and faintly touched the tips of Kanna’s feet.

Kanna had no idea what she was seeing. She had no idea how to react, but her body reacted for her and she collapsed beside the giant. On instinct, she crawled through the dirt and pulled herself onto the giant’s stretched legs and pressed her face hard to the inside of Goda’s thigh. Kanna felt the quaking of those bones against her as if they were her own. The tears had not dried and she didn’t suppress them. She wrapped her hands around Goda’s calf; she felt the muscles flexing and unflexing with discomfort.

The ground had started moving. Kanna could feel it at first as a tiny disturbance, but as the seconds passed, she realized that the solid earth beneath her had begun to rise and fall like tiny waves, like the ripples of a pond. Convinced that she had knocked her head and not realized, she jerked her face up from the giant and she looked at the ground around them in the dim light of early dawn that had started to come down from the trees.

But the space beneath them was brighter than the weak sun leaking out from the horizon. The ground was teeming with life, flashing brightly with a multitude of colors and spirals that glowed in the twilight. Kanna held her breath. She saw the snakes dancing, coming up out of the earth. They would contract and relax against each other, and slither up and through the cracks between the fallen leaves.

Her eyes had scrolled through countless lenses in order to see them, but somehow she knew that they had always been there even when she could not perceive them. They flashed brighter and moved wildly the moment she realized it.

She held onto Goda and she tried not to be afraid. She stared into the light of the snakes, but she didn’t recognize any of them, and none of them seemed to notice or approach her. Even still, she could not force herself to look for long, so she turned to hide her face against Goda’s clothes once again—and it was then that the writhing scales of a dragon caught her eye.

Kanna froze. It was right next to her face. The huge serpent had coiled up along the giant’s other thigh, and its head rose up from between Goda’s legs, and it was tasting the air near Kanna, hissing with aggression and curiosity. Kanna turned her gaze down, too terrified to look it in the eyes, because she realized that it had been the snake she had seen spiraling along Goda’s body in the shrine.

Kanna felt Goda stirring. Cautiously, she looked up and past the snake, over at the giant who peered at her through the weak light. Goda had lifted her head up; she had let her hands fall to her sides.

“You can see it?” Goda murmured. She looked surprised, but her eyes had narrowed as well. “Don’t look at it. It’s not your burden.”

From the corner of her eye, Kanna could sense the monster rising some more, sprouting up from the place where the giant’s legs came together. Kanna dug her fingers into Goda’s thigh. She steeled herself. She shook her head.

With some effort, she deliberately turned her head to look at the side of the creature’s body, at the scales that pulsed with dancing light. The colors shifted to match the forest, and then to contrast it, and then a conspicuous array of rainbows shot down its body. Kanna stared into its skin, mesmerized. She found that her thoughts slowed, that her mouth seemed to move on its own. “No,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful.”

The snake seemed to hear her and it flashed its display faster in response, though Kanna still would not look at its face. She lost herself in the color, in every little dot, in every fiber that writhed between Goda’s legs. Without thinking, Kanna lifted her hand and reached out.

Then she pulled back slightly. She felt her heart beating faster. She knew what she needed to do next, even though she could not believe it.

“Can I…touch it?” she asked. She had grown breathless.

Goda did not answer, but when Kanna glanced back up at the giant’s face, there was no overt gesture of disapproval. There was merely a woman staring down with astonishment, with concern.

And so Kanna did not ask again. She reached between Goda’s legs and pressed the tips of her fingers gingerly against the serpent’s skin. The contact made her shudder. It awakened something in her, an energy that seemed to shoot through her own legs—an energy that was not unpleasant.

The snake slithered against her open hand and she felt the scales moving past, scraping her own skin with a faint sensation of both pleasure and pain. This made Kanna grow bolder, so with a light grip, she wrapped her hand around the thick body of the snake, and she felt its throbbing, rolling muscles; she felt the heat and power that radiated from its flesh; she felt Goda’s gasp when she squeezed.

The serpent slithered between her fingers and crawled towards other places, but as it did, Kanna felt her awareness of every sensation heightening. She felt the whining in her ears. She felt her body becoming loose in her skin as it had near the mouth of the shrine, and then suddenly she burst through into a different world.

* * *

The giant was sprinting through a forest that was bathed in rays of light. She dashed between shadows and sun so quickly, that it pulsed against her eyes like a strobing lamp, and it blinded her sometimes, and it made her head hurt other times. The satchel around her shoulder slammed hard against her chest with every stride.

Kanna could feel that dull pain the moment she had found herself in this new body. The pain grew as her ears rumbled with a startling noise that was blasting through the trees at unpredictable increments, accompanying the strobing of the light.

It was a loud scream of agony, and it was growing ever louder. Kanna did not know if this was because the giant was growing closer to the source or because the source was gushing stronger. At any rate, the giant’s heart pounded as loudly as her feet; she clawed through branches in desperation; Kanna could feel the giant’s own pain matching those disembodied cries, as if they were the giant’s own suffering, as if the giant were carrying a splinter in her chest that dug deeper with every scream that reached her ears.

Finally, when the noise had grown so loud that Kanna prayed the giant would cover her ears, she burst through the brush and into a clearing, and there lay a young woman pressing her face against the dirt. Goda fell to her knees; she reached for the woman, the sleeve of her long robes rustling with her panic.

But the woman pulled away. Her hands were pressed to her temples; her face was twisted with pain; her brow was lacquered with sweat. Even still, she managed to shout at the giant:

“Don’t touch me!” she said. “You know you can’t touch me!”

She groaned into her hands and collapsed the rest of the way onto the ground. Goda watched helplessly as the woman writhed and dug her fingers into the earth and breathed in the dust that flew up from her struggles. Goda watched until the young woman had grown limp and the screaming stopped. Her cries turned into whimpers, then the whimpers into heavy breaths. Very suddenly, Kanna noticed that birds had been singing in the trees above, but she hadn’t been able to hear them before.

A long moment passed, enough for one of the birds to change his song. Because the now silent woman wouldn’t move, the giant leaned down and gently slipped two arms beneath her body and picked her up. There was barely a struggle, but the woman did open her eyes as she began to sway with the giant’s stride.

“It’s not your place to carry a priestess,” she murmured with little resolve. Nonetheless, she curled her head into Goda’s chest, the way Kanna had on the trip down from the cliffside.

“I haven’t touched you,” the giant said—and it was true. The woman was covered from head to toe in Maharan robes and wore a pair of thick gloves, and so no part of Goda’s skin had so much as grazed her.

“You know why a layperson can’t touch a priestess, don’t you, Goda?” Her voice sounded a bit muffled with her mouth lightly pressed against the giant, but Kanna could still see the very faintest of smiles emerging with her shuddering breaths. “It’s because you’ll smear me with your snakes.”

“Snakes don’t exist.”

“That’s the kind of denial I would expect from a long-necked swan like you.” The woman’s tone had turned a bit delirious.

As they hovered slowly through the trail, the giant’s gaze fell more intently on the priestess, and Kanna had a chance to finally notice that the woman had Priestess Rem’s face.

But this woman was not Rem. She had her features, though not her essence, and with a new context now—a new lens—it all became obvious to Kanna. She wondered how she had not realized it before: In all the dreams, in all the images from the shrine, Kanna had not been seeing the past life of Priestess Rem at all, but rather of Rem’s twin.

She had been seeing the life of Taga Murau—and her relationship with Goda Brahm.

Once they had reached the cottage at the mouth of the trail, the giant had to swing her satchel back and stoop low to unlatch the gate of the fence; her bare hand nearly brushed the priestess’s head in the maneuverer, but Goda caught herself just in time, and she was able to step through the garden and push through the front door without further incident.

She dropped the priestess onto a bed with pure white sheets. When the priestess looked up at the giant—her hair messy and smattered against the pillows, a few drops of sweat still on her brow, a faint blush now having settled on her cheeks—the giant jerked her gaze away quickly. She busied herself searching for a chair, and when she found one, she dragged it over to the bedside and sat.

She dropped her bag onto the floor. She looked once again at the priestess, but this time with wariness. Kanna could feel the giant’s heart pounding still; she could feel the bashful warmth rising up to the giant’s face.

“We’re playing with fire, Goda,” the priestess whispered. The pain had worn off from her expression, but her breaths still came in hard, and her eyes were trained on the giant intently. “Rem told me to keep away from you, and now I’m apt to agree with her. You know better than to try to rescue me. You feel too entitled now.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You do.” Another faint smirk came to life on the woman’s face as she seemed to recover. “Even as you sit there and look at me, it’s obvious. And it’s my fault. I’ve burdened you. I shouldn’t have encouraged this friendship between us, knowing where it might have led.” When Goda refused to reply, she broke the gaze and let it wistfully fall out the window, towards the garden. “What to do, Apprentice, what to do? You’re enamored of me. This has become increasingly clear.”

The giant’s body stiffened, but there was no reaction in her voice when she said, “That’s none of your business.”

The priestess turned back to her and laughed. “So typical of you to give me such strange answers. You’re so young and yet you brush aside my flirtations like an old man. How coy of you. You must be trying to seduce me.” She huffed with amusement when Goda’s glance fell towards the floor in response. “It’s working, you know. I like you, too.”

Kanna could feel Goda’s surprise, the conflict in her emotions when she looked back up helplessly. The giant felt naked; Kanna felt naked for her. The glance of the priestess undressed her in many ways.

“I see you have all the layers of your robes on today,” Taga said, as if she were reading both Kanna’s and Goda’s thoughts. “That’s unusual. You typically have on less. You tend to run a bit hot, don’t you? I’ve seen you bathing in the cold waters of the stream many times. Or is it the snakes you’re trying to be rid of, even if you don’t believe in them? I noticed once that you have a snake of your own, but that one doesn’t wash off, does it?”

Goda’s blush deepened until her throat pounded with the rushing blood. “That’s also none of your business.”

“There’s no shame in it. I already knew anyway, since your body shape is on the obvious side. It’s just so strange that a second kind of woman would be a gardener instead of a soldier or a porter or something more common for your type. Everything about you is strange. It’s why I’ve grown to like you. It’s why I find you so tempting. Indulging curiosity is my secret vice, but I didn’t spend years fighting to join the priesthood only for a handsome face to be my downfall, hm?” The priestess was grinning at her as if she were only playing, but she remained motionless on the bed and seemed to watch Goda’s reaction carefully.

The giant shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I was headed down the mountainside to the valley before I heard you in the woods,” Goda said, changing the subject not very subtly. “That’s why I’m wearing my full robes. The wind is strong today.”

Some irritation finally flashed onto Taga Murau’s face. Having seemed to regain control of her limbs, she pushed herself up on the bed until she was sitting. She offered Goda a very serious expression. “Don’t tell me you were out there hunting for Flower again. I told you to abandon that idea. I’ll have none of it.”

“Your fits are getting worse.” Kanna could feel that anguish from before rising up in the giant’s chest. It was a dull ache of panic that oozed through every muscle. “Be logical about this. Have some sense of self-preservation. I’ve watched this disease progress in you even in the months since we first met.” The giant’s words started spilling out faster, even though Kanna could feel a tight restraint trying to hold back the desperation. “Rem admitted to me that in all your years no one has ever come close to a solution. It’s time for more radical measures. I can’t watch this happen to you. I can’t watch you in pain every day. I can’t watch you inch closer to….” Goda stopped. Some heat had risen to the backs of her eyes. The word on her lips was death, but she had not voiced it. “I’ve heard rumors that Flower can cure many things. It’s worth it to at least—”

“And who, I wonder, put that notion in your head in the first place?” the priestess interrupted, raising her voice. “Or is that also none of my business?”

Instead of answering, Goda reached down and undid the tie of her bag. She pulled out a leather scroll that looked immediately familiar to Kanna and dropped it rudely onto the priestess’s lap.

Taga looked bewildered at first, but as soon as she recovered, she unrolled the cylinder with curiosity and her eyes seemed to scan its contents. “It’s written in the Old Middlelander script. What is it?” Her voice had nearly returned to the softness of before in the midst of her confusion.

“I have no talent for languages like the rest of you do,” the giant said, “so I could only decipher the first part with some difficulty. It’s a recipe. There are three other sections, and going by the illustrations, it looks like they’re detailed instructions on how to use the product of the first section—but I can’t tell what they say. It’s gibberish.”

The priestess squinted at the text and her eyes seemed to dart between the rows of carefully-placed glyphs that were etched on the scroll. “That’s because only the first part is in Middlelander. The second part looks like it might be a phonetic transliteration of the Upperlander tongue in Old Middlelander script. It was a common practice before they had a script of their own. The other parts, I can’t tell what language they’re in.” But then she closed the thick scroll and threw it onto the floor with a thud, as if she had just noticed that it was on fire. “It hardly matters, anyway. This document is blasphemous. May the Holy Mother forgive me for even looking at it, the way she’s forgiven me for looking at you. Where on Earth did you find it, Goda?”

“It showed up on my bed after I came back from some business at the temple a few weeks ago.”

The priestess raised an eyebrow. “‘Business’? Even asking you to show up to morning meditation is like asking you to pull out your own teeth. What might have lured you willingly to the presence of the Goddess, I wonder?”

“I was…praying.” Goda’s jaw tightened. “I had racked my mind for solutions and my mind had come up short, so I thought I’d try something else.”

Taga seemed even more taken aback, but then her gaze fell towards the scroll on the floor and she appeared to make a connection that Kanna had missed. “I see,” she murmured. “And so you think this is how the Goddess answered your prayers, do you? Well, even you know better than that, Goda. The Goddess would never encourage you to brew some ancient Flower recipe, no matter the reason. It’s against the law. You know that, don’t you? I shouldn’t even be listening to you talk about it.”

Goda stared at her for a moment in silence. “The seeds I planted in the woods have already blossomed,” she mumbled after the pause, ignoring everything the priestess had said, “but I didn’t know if it would be enough, so I was going back to the valley to find some more. In the meantime, consider it at length. The Flower is more potent in its brewed form. Going by the recipe, it should not take me long to prepare it for you and it should be easy to hold down. Maybe it will even be painless.”

Taga’s hands had fallen onto the bed, and she was gripping the sheets tightly with her fingers. She sighed, conflict evident on her face. “Look, Goda, just get out,” she said, her tone suddenly empty of emotion. “I will not blaspheme the Goddess. It is one thing to be tempted by carnal emotions and another thing entirely to entertain swallowing the Samma Flower. You’ve grown much too familiar with me. It ends now. Leave and don’t come back.”

Goda shot up to her feet so quickly that the chair almost toppled back, but she did not step away from the spot. She stared down at Taga with gritted teeth. “You and your religious delusions. You’re going to die because of this nonsense you believe in!”

“Oh, and you’re my heroic savior, Apprentice Brahm? How noble of you to offer to shove a Samma blossom down my throat and send me to hell in order to save my life! For what? So that you can keep me around for your own selfish happiness?” She sat up straighter. Her eyes narrowed with fury. “Have you ever considered that maybe I don’t want to live? I’ve tolerated this pain almost all my life, long before you ever showed up with your arrogance. It won’t kill me. The hammers will pound and pound inside my skull, but I won’t grow any closer to death because of it. If only I should be so lucky! If only this sickness could actually kill me, then maybe there is some mercy in this world! Instead, I have to watch you slaughter all the rabbits in my garden while I stand by licking my lips, begging the Goddess that I should be next!” Her voice buzzed against the walls of the cabin as she cried out with renewed pain. “You want me to live like a normal person, and you want to walk alongside me, and you want to reach out to touch me—all childish fantasies. Don’t deny it. I can see it in your face every day; your intentions are transparent. Even someone as stoic as you is not immune to youthful passion. I’m sorry. It really is my fault and it’s not fair to you—but if you ever do touch me, I only pray that it’s those inhuman hands clasped around my neck, stealing my last breath!”

Goda had stumbled backwards, nearly tripped over the chair. Her eyes had grown wide. Her head was throbbing with the waves of her pulse. Kanna could hear the gushing deep inside her ears. It nearly drowned out Taga’s voice.

“Why are you saying that?” Goda shouted. “I would never hurt you. Never. I love—” But the giant stopped because she was about to reveal too much.

Taga grew quiet. She stared for a long time into the giant’s face. Twin streams of tears suddenly fell from her eyes, but that was all. She seemed to blink the rest back. She stared at Goda with a gaze of confusion, of shock—though Kanna couldn’t tell what had struck her with such force.

The silence in the cabin grew for a long moment and almost became its own entity. Kanna could feel it flowing and shifting uncomfortably against the two of them. The wind blew outside. The birds chirped faintly.

“If you really feel that way about me,” Taga finally said, “then you’ll offer me what I ask. It’s the only thing I want from you. It’s the only medicine that will surely end my suffering, and I can’t deliver it myself without sinning against the Goddess. What do you care? You don’t even believe in Mother Mahara, so what kind of hell would you have to fear?”

Goda stood frozen in place, in the midst of a step back, her hand clasped to her chest. Her fingers were digging into her own skin with nervous tension, and Kanna could already feel that she didn’t know her own strength, that she was drawing blood without fully realizing. The giant was shaking her head. Kanna could feel the denial, the effort to interpret Taga’s words in some other way.

“No,” Goda said. “No. I won’t do that. You’re insane if you think I’ll do that.”

Insane,” Taga huffed. “People have called me insane all my life because it’s only me who can feel the inside of my head breaking in half, even when it looks whole from the outside to them. But I know what I feel. It’s as real as anything else, and by now I know that it will never go away.” She turned to face the window, to look out at the expanse of trees. Her breath had grown shaky. After awhile, she murmured once again, “Get out, Goda.” There was no energy in it, which made it sound worse to Kanna, and it seemed to startle Goda, too.

The giant turned and ran towards the door. The chair toppled over with a smack as she staggered past it and she forgot the scroll in her rush to escape.

Kanna found that body sprinting through the woods again, those huge lungs huffing with exhaustion and pain, those long limbs crashing against tree trunks, the switches of low-lying branches whipping against her face. A wave of heat had settled in the giant’s eyes, and the giant took a deep breath to suck it up, and the tears still would not fall.

She ended up at the bottom of a steep staircase made of stone. She gazed up at the wide open doorway of the building that sat at the summit, and Kanna could just barely see down the hallway at the image of the Goddess. From where Goda was standing, the Goddess looked smaller than She had looked as a tiny idol in their hosts’ house in Karo, but Kanna could tell that the statue in the temple was actually just far away and massive. It was lit from all sides by candles, and below the altar, some steam rose up from what seemed like a pool, but Kanna could not see how deep or shallow it was from the angle.

Goda spat onto the staircase and dashed back into the trail.

Just as before, the light flickering from the canopy above flashed in the giant’s eyes—in Kanna’s eyes—but this time, the image of the forest had started to morph and change. The trees rustled. Some of the branches looked fuller. Some of the leaves began to give way to flowers. Time seemed to rush past her just as the trees did.

She heard more gasps, more screaming in the distance. At first, it was peppered throughout the experience, timed with the rising of the sun or the chirping of the birds. Eventually, though, it grew more frequent. The voice of Taga grew louder and louder. It grew until it was all she could hear echoing deep in her ears.

She thought she saw herself inside the cabin a few more times, or out in the priestess’s garden, or crouching in a clearing with a pot held over a fire, but those moments flashed by so quickly that she could not hold onto them. Only the screaming held on—and the suffering that Goda felt as if it were her own, the suffering that was becoming unbearable.

Kanna couldn’t tell how many days had passed, but the images before her eyes flickered faster. Eventually, it grew pitch dark and then her vision was flooded with blinding light.

Time seemed to stop. Kanna felt her stomach knotting.

She was in the cabin again. It was midday, and the rays streamed in warmly through the windows. The curtains swayed back and forth with the light gusts of wind. She looked down at her hand.

It was not her own, but she didn’t feel as separate from it has she had before. She was clasping a piece of polished metal.

A knife.

On its surface, she could see just the edge of her reflection—of the giant’s reflection—the same way she had seen her own face on the side of her cuff.

The point of the knife was pressed against a patch of skin, some skin that danced with a gushing pulse beneath it, some skin near a collar that was decorated with a four-sided pendant that Kanna recognized. The breathing of the throat was quick, too, like the ecstatic breaths of a tiny rabbit.

Kanna tried not to, but she had no control. Even though her hand trembled, it pushed forward. Even though she could feel a sharp breath, a shudder of resistance and pain coming from her own chest, she buried the tip of the knife into the pulse point of that neck until it had thrust all the way to the hilt.

She was careful not to brush the skin directly with the edges of her fingers because it was blasphemy.

The eyes of the woman below her had been closed, but then they opened. They stared. Kanna cried out in an agony that welled up all at once inside of her. She dropped the knife, and from the void that it left behind, a rush of blood spurted out at her and painted her hands and arms and clothes.

Then there was more—a few spurts, and the pressure died and the blood began to ooze out, dripping from its source down the side of the bed. The white sheets were coated in bright red. The air was smeared with the smell of iron.

All the while, the woman stared. She stared without saying anything, and when she eventually closed her eyes again, Kanna collapsed onto the floor and covered her face with her soaked hands.

Those eyes, those eyes.

They were so burned into Kanna’s mind that when she snapped back into her own body, she let out a loud gasp that echoed through the emptiness.

* * *

Kanna screamed. She cried out and clawed at the ground and screamed in horror at the images that still played in her mind. She was grateful for the feeling of the dirt underneath her, for the feeling of her own legs kicking against the forest floor, but the burden of what she had just done still racked her with guilt. She buried her face in her arms and sobbed. She could not control it; it was merely a wave that passed through her, as if the guilt were its own entity using her body to live and move.

I’m a killer! I’m a killer!” Her mind was churning with a hundred thoughts, a hundred snakes.

But the sun had begun to blossom in earnest, and the early rays leaked in through the crook of Kanna’s arm. She lifted her head. She sniffled and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand without the barest sense of decorum. She looked at Goda just in time to see the giant serpent diving into the ground and disappearing below the crust of the Earth, as if to escape from the light. The other snakes had also gone, but Kanna knew by now that they still vibrated beneath the surface, that she had merely fallen back into a state where she could not see them anymore.

Instead, she could see Goda’s wide, black eyes. The giant stared at her with shock, with breaths that came quickly and seemed to jerk her whole body, to make her muscles tighten and writhe like the forms of the snakes.

Goda’s mouth was already partly opened in astonishment, but it opened some more. Her chest heaved with effort when a rasp finally emerged from her throat:

How did you do that?”

Onto Chapter 28 >>