Goda’s Slave – Chapter 26: I Am You

A single drop fell down from the sky. It hit the back of Kanna’s head coldly, and it broke trails through her hair on its way down the back of her neck. The water sucked the warmth out of her skin, made her muscles stiffen.

It was then that she noticed the curtain of mist that had been falling between her and Goda. The rain had been faint at first, but the longer that Kanna allowed the silence to widen, the thicker the curtain grew, until it both obscured and reflected some of the moonlight that struck the giant’s face.

Even so, she could still see the white of Goda’s clenched teeth. She could see the look of pain.

“Goda…,” Kanna whispered. Many instincts warred together inside of her. She was too shocked to move at first, but the impulse to stretch across the gap won out, and she reached through the curtain of rain towards the woman who was hiding behind it. “Look, Goda, I don’t understand. I—”

The giant stepped back.

“Just now, you said—” Kanna found herself blinking against the water, looking closely at Goda’s face, trying to determine how she might have misheard. She watched the tiny rivers trickling down from Goda’s forehead and onto her jaw. She looked closely at Goda’s mouth and tried to envision it repeating the words.

Then, there was something else that came together.

Taga Murau.

Those two words echoed in Kanna’s head above the rest, and she found that she was the one repeating them to herself aloud. She felt the familiar shape of the surname on her lips—and then she seized up with realization.

Murau?

“Priestess Rem Murau’s…sister?” Kanna blurted out. “Her twin sister?”

Goda remained motionless in the dusting of rain, in that thick mist that billowed and blew across the side of her face. She let out a sharp breath, a single convulsion that seemed to explode from her chest before it was quickly repressed, but the air blew out from between her teeth and the burst of steam made it look like she was some beast about to charge.

Still, it sounded like a sob, Kanna thought. It sounded like a sob that had been cut short—but it couldn’t have been, because it had come from the mouth of Goda Brahm.

Kanna brought her hand to her chest and clenched at her own robes with nervous tension. “Goda,” she whispered again, “I didn’t hear you right.”

The grimace on Goda’s face grew tighter. Because she was leaning back, because her chin had tilted up, she looked like some creature baring her fangs. “You heard me.”

Goda jerked her head to the side and spat onto the earth. Her robes whipped as she turned around. She disappeared into the mist again, into the dim trail that was flanked by trees and shadowed by the crag.

Kanna took off after her, but it was too dark to see where the woman had gone. She ran along the foot of the cliff, her feet digging into the moist ground, her heels kicking up the leaf litter beneath her. She listened closely past the sound of her own struggles. She listened for Goda’s strides, and before long she had spotted the giant again near the moss bed where they had lain together.

“Goda!” Kanna shouted through the loud bursts of wind that had swooped down between them. “Goda, wait!”

The woman had turned her back, but Kanna reached out to her, grabbing two fistfuls of her robes and pulling back on the cloth with all her strength. She had managed to make Goda slow down, and so she started craning her head to catch those eyes that, for once, had some overwhelming emotion in them that was too powerful to suppress.

“What you said can’t be right! It doesn’t make any sense! You accidentally killed Rem’s sister? How? Was it with Flower? Did you make Flower brew and she drank it and she died, and then they blamed it on you?”

“No.” Goda kept walking. Kanna stumbled and had to readjust her footing to not start dragging behind.

Her snakes were churning. The stories were twisting in Kanna’s mind, growing more elaborate by the second. She had to make sense of it. None of it made sense on its own.

“Then she provoked you?” Kanna asked. “She attacked you and you defended yourself, but because you’re so big you didn’t know your own strength, and you hit her too hard and you—”

“No.”

“Then you were defending someone else? She threatened someone, and so you tried to stop her, but you—” Kanna’s voice was desperate. She did not know why, but it felt like it was she who was being accused of some heinous crime. She was grasping and grasping.

And Goda wasn’t helping her to reach.

No,” Goda said a final time. She spun around to face Kanna again, her robes twisting in Kanna’s hands. The giant’s features were covered in a slick smear of rain or sweat or something else. Her jaw had grown so tight that her neck was pulsing with tension. “Stop looking for a justification. There is none. I slit her throat. I went into her room while she was asleep and I slaughtered her in her own bed.”

The bones in Kanna’s fingers lost their warmth. She dropped the tail of Goda’s robes. Staring up at the giant in disbelief, she couldn’t stop herself from shuffling backwards on reflex, because the fear that she had fought so hard to dissolve was rising up again.

“No,” Kanna said, more firmly this time. “That can’t be true. Only a monster would—” She found very suddenly that she was uncomfortable in the giant’s stare. Her voice erupted from her much more loudly than she had intended when she cried, “You’re not like that, Goda, you’re not like that! I know you!”

Goda huffed. “You don’t know me, Kanna.”

After a long, spreading moment where the rain seemed to grow harsher, where the tiny wisps that licked Kanna’s face had started to feel like the points of a hundred needles, Kanna dared to look at her directly. The mirthless smile on the giant’s face made her chest seize with horror.

“You only know this,” Goda continued. “This is all that’s left of me: I’m a cold-blooded killer.” Her eyes were narrowed as she peered at Kanna through the haze, but her face had once again become expressionless. “Days ago, I warned you that the moment you found out, your feelings would waver. Has that not come true? Do you still want my hands on you, knowing what I’ve done? Now that you see what I am, are you still so eager to lie down with me, when I could easily kill you the moment you close your eyes?”

Goda finally approached Kanna, looming over her in the dark. The frame of the monster’s shadow blocked out part of the moon. Indeed, Kanna could not fight the urge to recoil. She stumbled, nearly slipping into the mud.

Goda laughed and leaned into another heavy step.

“Ah, yes, that’s what I thought,” she said, stalking forward to make up for the space that Kanna was putting between them. Her shoulders had stretched out into a broad silhouette. “You’re thinking back to what you did only a day ago, to the life that you spared by risking your own. Would you have done that knowing how easily I had taken a life myself? And not just one life. Many have perished because of me, one way or another. Now you question yourself, don’t you?”

Kanna opened her mouth to protest even as she stepped back—but then she noticed the thoughts that had been roiling up inside her, the snakes that had been agitated by Goda’s words.

It was true. She was questioning who Goda even was. She was questioning everything.

“There, you see? You see it now?” Goda told her. “That is what your love is worth. It was strong and burning and powerful yesterday, wasn’t it? You were willing to jump out of a train for it. And now, what is it like? What did it take for your love to turn into fear? A different story. A different image for you to project onto me, as if I’m some statue in a temple that you can paint with the colors of your thousand anxieties—something you can wrestle with instead of yourself. But this time, the story is true: They made a huge mistake when they punished me—but not because I deserve better. I should not be loose out in the world. Even this ounce of freedom is far too dangerous. I’m a killer—and I will kill more.” Because Kanna had averted her eyes to the ground, Goda grabbed her by the chin and forced their gazes to meet. “Look at me. Look. Open your eyes and stare the devil right in the face!”

But Kanna smacked Goda’s hand away, sending droplets spraying in every direction, making Goda laugh even more.

“This is your unconditional acceptance, is it?” Her tone was mocking. “Now, I’m not blaming you. Everyone has their limits. I don’t expect you to accept a murderer, especially one who kills for the self-serving reasons that I did. That would be ludicrous.”

Still not recovered from the shock, Kanna inched back further, faster. She needed space to think. She needed to understand what Goda had said, to make sense of it all. It simply couldn’t have all been true, it simply…

Some tense energy shot through Kanna’s body and stiffened her neck and altered her gaze. She saw the dark, widened eyes of the beast staring down at her—and in those bottomless voids, she caught sight of a small image. She could barely make it out at first, but then it began swirling, writhing, pulsing, rearing up with an open mouth.

It was the most hideous snake Kanna had ever seen.

She turned and ran.

She ran through the sopping earth, even though she could hear that Goda was not behind her. She ran until she was standing somewhere near the side of the road, until she had exhausted her limits, until the first twitch of hot current buzzed through her arm. It was painful, but she shook it off quickly and took a step back to ease it.

Kanna looked down at her wrist.

The rain was pelting softly. It had not been as strong as the other times, and though the clouds overhead were dark, they had left enough space for the moonlight, and so she could watch the way the tiny drops bounced off the metal of her cuff. Things were a little clearer than before.

Priestess Rem was right, she thought. The truth was that Kanna hadn’t known anything all along. She had trusted her own eyes and ears and gut over someone who had known Goda for far longer. She had even judged Rem right after she realized that the woman intended to kill Goda. But now, knowing the full reason why Rem had offered her the key, it struck Kanna that the priestess had actually shown much restraint, considering what Goda had done to her sister.

She will hurt you the way she has hurt countless others if I don’t put a stop to it now,” Rem had told her the night Kanna had crawled out of that first cave. “She does not care about you. Her intentions are darker than you can imagine, and you are too innocent to realize what evil looks like. Don’t be fooled by that neutral face. Underneath that calm demeanor is a devil, and it is time that the world is rid of it.”

Kanna saw it now. She could see the devil that Rem had tried to show her in Goda, and indeed it seemed just as real as every other image that Kanna had constructed of the giant—and just as false as every graven image she had seen of the Goddess, too. She stared down at the cuff, and if she looked closely, she could see a dim reflection of herself. It was just a shadow projected on the metal, like the puppets behind the curtain at the bath house, like the silhouette of the monster who had not chased her.

She put her hand on the latch.

The Goddess wouldn’t blame me for this, Kanna thought. It’s not killing. It’s not killing because it’s not my fault that it’s the only way to be free. And besides, does a killer deserve to live? Who could blame me? Even Goda herself doesn’t blame me.

Kanna peered a ways down the road at the truck, and she noticed that a tarp was now draped over the back, like a makeshift tent in the storm. I could uncuff myself now, she thought, and I could take the truck and leave with the Bou twins on some other adventure. I doubt the Middlelanders would ever catch me. I doubt they would care enough to look for me. I could follow the Bou twins back up to their hometown. I could pretend I was some undocumented Outerlander and marry some cute, desperate woman and live the rest of my life out in some boring little house in some small town in the North.

Kanna’s fingers trembled against her wrist.

But if I did that, a voice inside of her whispered, I would never really know.

I would catch glimpses of it, but never hold it steady in my gaze.

I would hear others talk about it, but I would never see it.

Not with my own eyes.

“See what?” Kanna said aloud. She shouted the question into the wind, into the rain. The answer didn’t come from outside.

It was a realization that made her drop her hand from the cuff. She looked towards the shadows that surrounded the crag and the curtain of rain that shut her out of it. It was the cage that held back the devil, but she knew in that moment that it held something else, too.

Knowing for a fact that she had gone insane, she dashed back into the path of the forest. Her spirit hovered loosely in her body again; her sense of self had begun to fuse with the dirt beneath her. Her heart was pounding—but it was big, and she felt it in a chest that was not her own. She felt it pulsing together with the core of the earth.

She thought, I want to see the Goddess for myself.

And so Kanna ran back towards her demon. Surely, the voice told her, the spirit of the Goddess lay behind those bared teeth.


Onto Chapter 27 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 25: Memories of the Future

The voice had been faint, but her mind had reacted as if she had heard her own name instead of Goda’s, and so she had opened her eyes to the void.

Kanna’s face was still pressed to the giant’s chest. It rose and fell with the waves of a deep slumber, and the outbreath filled Kanna’s nostrils, so that even the smell of the leaves and dirt around her seemed tinged with Goda’s essence.

Sleepily, she lifted her head up to gaze down at the face beneath her, at what little she could see of it in the moonlight. She regretted it a second after; she felt her chest seize up; she judged herself for her own reaction.

Kanna pressed her hand to the side of Goda’s face.

“You’re soft…,” Kanna whispered, though Goda did not stir, because she had said it so quietly that she almost couldn’t even hear herself. “All this time, I’ve barely seen more than the hard side of you. I’ve turned you into a monster.”

It was true that seeing the violence in Goda still excited the violence in Kanna, though Kanna couldn’t help but feel like there was other energy dancing between them, too. She wanted to explore this much more than the landscape of the continent.

But would they even have the time?

Kanna dipped her head down and pressed a kiss to the woman’s collar bone. She opened her mouth against Goda’s neck. She nudged her teeth lightly into the flesh and tasted the skin of that vulnerable throat that encased hard muscle and thick veins—but somehow, the giant did not even stir.

Even now, I try to provoke you, don’t I? Kanna thought. I want you to fight me as much as I want you to softly press your mouth to me. I want both. I want all of it.

A naked savage and a gardener planting flowers. A devil and a messenger of God. A woman—and maybe a bit of a man, too.

But Kanna did not know if she would ever have the chance to uncover what lay beneath all this duality, let alone the chance to let Goda uncover Kanna’s own secrets, too. They were both running out of time.

The voice called again. It had grown more urgent.

Goda…! Goda, what did you…?”

They were Priestess Rem’s words, but it no longer sounded like her voice.

Kanna pulled away from the giant, and though the dry leaves on the ground rustled with her movements, Goda still had not arisen from her own deep slumber. The woman lay there so limply that for a short, irrational moment, Kanna imagined that her giant had died.

Kanna shook her head. Even in the low light, she could see the warm breath flowing out into the air from those huge lungs.

Goda, what did you do? What did you do? Goda! Goda!”

The voice was screaming its accusation, but it was coming from so far away, that Kanna still had to strain to hear it. She turned her head up, past the boulders around them, past the shaking leaves, over to where the voice seemed to be coming from. She looked at the opening of the shrine high up on the crag. The moonlight didn’t reach past the threshold; the darkness inside of it looked endless.

But when Kanna stood up and gazed back down at Goda, she murmured, “Maybe you’re content to stay asleep. Maybe you can lay back and let fate destroy what little happiness I’ve discovered buried in the dirt, but you know by now that I’m never content with anything. If you won’t bring me to the answer, Giant, then I’ll find it myself and save us both.”

* * *

The path up the cliff-side was hard to navigate without Goda to lead her. Because it was dark and the trail was littered from disuse, she tripped a few times on weeds and small rocks, and she very nearly slid over the edge. As she made her way up higher, though, she grew more careful. She crouched a little and was mindful not to hurry because she could hear the pebbles dropping, echoing as they poured the long way down.

It took all her power not to fall back when the first wave of death hit her. It was like the shrine had huffed against her with a cold breath, and the sensation of her spirit-body jerked back with it, before it snapped back into her bones. She shuddered and hesitated because the feeling had turned her stomach—but she was determined. She put her head down and shuffled forward along the winding path that circled the cliff.

The waves came faster. Her spirit phased in and out of her. One step, she was inside her body as usual; the next step, she would sling forward in an agonizing separation. Soon, she began to see visions arise before her, overlaid on top of the darkness, and then overtaking it entirely.

Images flashed like memories:

She was in the giant’s body, stooping over a patch of dirt, her hands spilling worms onto the earth.

She was the giant trudging through mud.

She was picking fruit off a tree branch.

She was walking by a stream, glancing towards the water and seeing a naked young woman who looked like Priestess Rem Murau; she was turning her head away quickly with embarrassment, running off to hide in the trees.

More and more, she saw the priestess through the eyes of the giant. Sometimes the woman was sprinting along a trail just ahead, turning to look over her shoulder to smile and glance at Goda coyly. Other times she was picking flowers beside the giant in a tiny garden by the cottage. Other times—increasingly frequently—she was prone on the ground, screaming soundlessly into the dirt. The giant’s hand would reach out towards her, but the priestess would pull away.

Don’t touch me! You know you can’t touch me!”

The voice sounded muffled to Kanna’s ears.

Switching back and forth between these fantasies and her own current reality felt unnatural. Her body resisted it. Her skin hurt for even just existing separately from the air around it. Still, she kept walking, because she felt herself inching closer to the truth with every step.

Over time, the giant had grown taller. The muscles of those forearms had grown larger.

Kanna stopped when finally one of the memories that flowed into her was happening in the clarity of the dark, with a light as faint as the space around her at first. She could barely see what was happening. The giant’s hand was reaching out into the emptiness in front of her, but that hand was shaking like the branches of a tree in the wind. It was shaking so hard that it had nearly dropped what it was grasping. Kanna couldn’t tell what the giant was holding, only that it shined a bit with what little light fell into the dark.

When Kanna stepped through that memory, none came after. She looked up and realized that the only thing that stood between her and the mouth of the shrine was a single, tall ledge.

Goda, what did you do? No! No!”

It was not Priestess Rem. The words were the same, but it was definitely not Priestess Rem this time. Nonetheless, the voice sounded a bit familiar.

Kanna gritted her teeth and lay against the ledge, then pulled herself up with her arms. She slipped. She almost fell backwards off the cliff, but she caught herself with her feet against the wall and she kicked herself up.

She rolled over onto the ground right in front of the threshold. When she looked up at the carvings, she saw that the serpents had already grown agitated with her presence, had begun dancing and swirling against each other, had begun reproducing and pulsing with many colors.

Even though she was afraid of them, she tried not to pull her eyes away.

“You have the answers, don’t you?” she muttered, pushing herself onto her feet. “I don’t know what you are. No matter who explains it, I don’t know what you are, but you’re everywhere. You cover every inch of this world, so you should know: How do I change this reality I’ve found myself in? Tell me.

The snakes grew excited. They writhed faster and glowed in the darkness, but Kanna could sense it was with anxiety more than pleasure. Just as she did not want to see them, it seemed that they were wary of her, wary of being seen; they badly craved for her to notice them, but at the same time, they were afraid of her, too. She could sense their fear and their excitement and their agitation as if it were her own.

They began rising from the flat facade of the shrine and hissing to each other, which startled Kanna enough that she stumbled back. She felt the precipice behind her with the back of her bare heel. Her breath cut short.

Goda! No! What did you do? What did you do?”

The snakes shot down from the surface of the rock and into the cavern, lighting it up in brilliant bursts of multicolored light. It appeared to be an invitation. Kanna gazed up at the swan whose wings folded over the top of the threshold. Its eyes were almost entirely a deep black, but they too swirled with tiny snakes.

She swallowed again. She walked through the gateway with her head held up and she met the darkness with suppressed fear. As she did so, she stepped into yet another memory.

But in this story, she was herself—plainly and mundanely herself.

Goda! What did you just do? Goda! Stop! What are you doing?”

The voice had been her own.

Kanna could see herself falling forward onto the ground. She didn’t know where she was or when. She was reaching in front of her with panic, but in the chaos she could not see what she was reaching for. There were feet pounding all around her. Even as she tried to claw her way through a mass of people, several pairs of hands were grabbing her by the arms and trying to pull her back.

Goda! No! Why did you do this? Goda!” She was screaming through the crowd, fighting the grasp of a dozen hands, a dozen snakes. She screamed so loudly, she could feel her throat growing raw. “Goda!”

When she snapped back into the present again, she stumbled until her face hit the dirt of the cavern. She choked. Tears burst from her eyes. She did not know what she had seen, but she had felt the waves of her own agony, and she could not unfeel it. Something deep inside—something more intelligent than her denial—told her that she had witnessed a vision that had not yet come to pass.

It had been a memory of the future.

The agony fused quickly with her fear. She saw the flashing rainbows of light on either side of her growing more complex and she felt the serpents growing aroused from her emotions. They had begun to slither from the walls down to the floor, and they had begun to surround her.

The first of them ventured up from the ground and onto her ankle. Because her robes had slid up, she felt every inch of every scale dragging against her skin as it came to circle around her leg. It was painful. Every scrape with every spiral dug into something deeper than just her flesh. It burned at her and made her want to look away.

More of them followed. Dozens. Hundreds. They all flowed against her body as if she herself were one of them, immersed in some perverse mating ball, lost in a twist of scales and fangs. She closed her eyes tightly because she noticed that their own eyes glowed and that most of them were hideous; but when she did that, they seemed to feel free to slither across her face.

They constricted her, tighter and tighter. She felt their muscles hotly pulsing on every part of her. She wanted to scream, but the only thing that came out was a whimper that echoed in the darkness, and every time she breathed out, they only seemed to tighten more. She fought to roll over, but then they felt heavy on her chest. She tried to kick her arms and legs, but she was swimming in them.

The burden was too much. Her resistance started to wane. She knew she would die; there was no way she could survive it.

But underneath the screams that she was letting out in her mind, she heard a deep humming. It was faint at first, but it grew louder and it vibrated against the walls of the cave. Kanna could tell it was a human voice—like the tones of a song rising up from low in the throat—but it seemed to calm the snakes, because they suddenly stopped writhing so violently, and instead most of them quivered in place. Kanna could feel that deep voice rumbling through the floor, through her chest. It had calmed her somehow, too.

Listen to your breath…listen to your breath…, the voice instructed her during breaks in the hum.

It was hard to concentrate, even with the snakes having slowed their crawls, but she tried to push her attention to the one spot in the middle of her stomach that they hadn’t touched. She focused on the rising and falling of her core.

The snakes’ throbbing slowed. Their skin didn’t sear her so hotly. She opened her eyes momentarily, but the sight of all the snakes frightened her so much that she closed them again, and she held her breath hard, and the snakes grew more agitated than before.

Try again, the voice whispered. She recognized then who it was. Listen to your breath. Don’t make yourself breathe or not breathe. Don’t try to control it. Listen to the breath that happens on its own.

By then, the feeling of her heart dancing in her throat had taken up all of Kanna’s attention, but she tightened her eyes and obeyed. She felt the snakes grow still—all except for one that shuddered wildly against her chest. She could feel that its head was positioned right near her chin. She could feel its tongue flickering out and tasting the sides of her face with curiosity.

Kanna screwed her face up and hardened her body and tried to turn away from it.

You feel it, don’t you? That one that is moving the most? the voice said. That one is called Guilt. It wants to be seen first. Open your eyes now. Look at it.

Kanna jerked away further. She did not want to look.

Look at it.

With all of her willpower, Kanna turned her head slightly, until she felt the flicking tongue once again. She winced. A shiver ran through her. She forced her eyes open finally and looked at the snake.

It hissed at her, as startled as she was herself. It was so ugly—its eyes red and pulsing, its mouth open and dribbling with some venomous drool—that Kanna wanted to snap her eyes closed again instantly, but she swallowed and watched it carefully. She was certain it would lash out and strike her right in the face.

Instead, her vision wavered again. She was no longer in the cavern. She could hear a new voice.

Goda, Goda, Goda what did you…? Goda…Gonna…Kanna, Kanna!”

* * *

“Kanna, what did you do? What did you do? Why are you acting so guilty, girl? Why are you hiding from me?”

The sun rays rained down on her from overhead, but they didn’t brighten her mood. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She was stooped in the grass, her back pressed against a boulder, her eyes peeking up so that she could watch the looming shadow that was approaching her.

Overhead, she could hear her mother snapping a switch from a young tree that had sprouted up near the rocks, and she knew exactly where those splinters would soon end up.

“I didn’t do anything!” Kanna shouted, crawling out from behind the rock. “I didn’t do anything, I promise!”

Her mother’s footsteps only grew more frantic as she stalked closer. “Then why did you run away from me as soon as you noticed me in the garden, like you didn’t expect me to be out? Where were you coming from? What’s that in your hand?”

Kanna tried to speak, but she didn’t know how to even begin answering the barrage of questions. She took the bottle she had been concealing against her chest, and she rolled it as covertly as she could into the shadow of the boulder so that her mother wouldn’t see. It made an audible glassy tink against the pebbles, and not only did this draw her mother’s attention even more, but it made Kanna give a startled jerk. She struck the bottom of the bottle with her elbow when she moved.

It rolled out into the sun. The contents were clear, but the glass played with the light like a prism, and it broke the sun into pieces, and it bathed their surroundings with a rainbow of color.

Her mother’s eyes widened. She shook her head with a disappointment that Kanna could feel in her core.

“Where did you get that? Where did you get that?” she screamed. “Answer me, Kanna Leda Rava! Answer your mother!”

The truth was that Kanna had tiptoed around her mother’s guard dogs and sneaked all the way over to her father’s house, where she had dodged the vigilant eye of his favorite wife and stolen liquor from the cabinet—but she couldn’t confess this out loud. She was ashamed to even admit to herself what she had done.

So she lied instead.

“Fay gave it to me!” she shouted, implicating her half-sister who was half her age and her father’s preferred child. Surely the girl would be spared any beating, especially since they didn’t share the same mother.

But Kanna’s own mother was too quick, and she knew with just one look at Kanna’s guilty face. “You’re lying!”

She grabbed hold of the bottle and smashed it against the rocks. Kanna barely had time to shield her face with her hands, to dodge the spray of pure spirits and shards of glass. When she looked back up again, her mother was holding the switch high over her head, and it was aimed at Kanna’s face.

“I’m sorry!” Kanna shouted. The tears came against her will. She wanted to act strong, but she couldn’t. “I just wanted to see! I just wanted to understand why Father spends all his time in the fields making this stuff! I wasn’t going to drink it! I just wanted to—”

Her mother dropped the switch on the ground. She fell down to her knees in front of Kanna, and her face became serious, and her eyes filled with a rage that Kanna realized wasn’t directed at her at all. She took Kanna by the shoulders with a pair of stiff hands.

“You are not going to end up like that man. You are not going to live here for the rest of your life in the shadow of that power-hungry bastard, living every day with a house of cards that’s teetering on the edge of collapse. If I have to turn you into a respectable woman and marry you off to some Outerlander to get you out of here, then I will.” She looked Kanna dead in the face. “As long as I’m alive, I will see to it that you don’t live the same life I was subjected to. I never want to see a drop of Rava Spirits pass your lips. I never want to see any trace of that man in you. Do you understand me?” Her hands tightened around Kanna’s shoulders. She yelled in her face, “Do you understand me?

Kanna took a shaky breath; it was a sob that she was trying to repress. “But…I want to know him. He’s my father. He—”

“That man is barely a father. He doesn’t love you. He could never love you as much as I do. No one ever will. Don’t you know that, Kanna? And knowing that, why do you do this to me? Why are you so ungrateful? Why can’t you obey the boundaries I’ve set for you? They’re for your own good. Trust me that you can’t rely on that man. He has no affection for me or our house. He loves your brothers and sisters more than you, don’t you see?”

Kanna wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, but the tears kept flowing. “Even Leda?” she asked. It was a stupid question, but she thought that she could seek some solace in the idea that her dead twin—who had never even survived the trauma of birth—might have fallen into last place instead of her.

The fingers around her shoulders loosened and fell away. The shadow that her mother cast against the ground moved, and she saw the shape of a woman standing over her and blocking the sun.

“Even her,” Kanna’s mother said. “He loves her more because she’s gone, and she was the first one born. The man only grasps at delusions. He doesn’t care about what’s right in front of him.”

Kanna pressed her face to her hands. She wished her twin had been born alive instead of her, that she had been the one to die before she had reached the outside world—then at least her father would have loved someone from her house. She shuddered against the ground, and she felt her mother trudging away, abandoning her at the side of the rock.

It was true, Kanna had stolen a life. She had been the wrong one born. She pushed her face into the earth and cried, but because the meadow had grown empty, nobody heard her.

Only some of the darkness lifted. The guilty cries from that day in the bright sun had followed her to the next vision and the next, quietly receding into the background of her mind year after year, but never fading entirely.

She grew numb to it. Soon, she felt nothing. Even after she had found the woman—the one who had made her cry—motionless in bed one day, eyes still wide open, she felt nothing.

Kanna stood by that bedside for only a flicker, for only a second worth of memory, but it was enough for her guilty cry to return because she had dared to feel an edge of relief that day. The woman had not been able to save her after all. And even if she had, Kanna would never have been grateful for all the treasures in the world that had been given to her—that she had been burdened with—by her mother, by her father.

That precious life she had taken from her twin, she had squandered it all.

Because she did not want it.

The next time Kanna heard that faint cry in her mind, she was standing in a room that was nearly dead quiet. Only the electric buzz of the yellow lamp kept her company, the lamp that hung from the strongest rafter in the ceiling of her mother’s living room, the lamp that swung like a pendulum over her head.

Kanna looked down at the rope in her hand. Her late mother’s dogs—unused to unleashed freedom and terrified of anything beyond the fence—whimpered out in the garden where she had left them, where she had stolen their slave-bonds for herself.

Kanna stared deeply into the loop that lay on the floor by her feet, made of that same rope.

She swallowed.

She reached down for it.

But then there was a knock.

Without a pause, Kanna’s oldest half-sister burst in, slamming the door so hard that Kanna thought she heard the plaster crack. Kanna jumped with a start.

“There are soldiers here!” the girl shouted. “Middlelander soldiers! Hundreds of them!”

Though she had spoken to no one in many days, somehow Kanna found her voice. “Soldiers?” she rasped, as if she had never heard the word before in her life.

“Yes! They just showed up out of nowhere and marched right onto the property. We don’t know if they’re trying to kill us or what, but they’re brandishing weapons and rolling right over the fields like they own them. Father has called an emergency meeting to figure out what to do. Get your things because we might have to leave right away!”

Kanna blinked and glanced out the window. She felt less urgency than she thought she should. “What about the dogs?”

Her father’s daughter opened her mouth to answer, but then paused when she finally noticed the scene she had walked into. Her eyes flickered around nervously, as if she were faced with a sudden burden she had not expected at all.

“Uh…ah…what on Earth were you going to do with that, Kanna?”

Kanna gave her a dark smile, a faint one. “I was going to tie myself up so I can’t run away from myself anymore,” she almost told her. Of course, even someone desperate for a good excuse would have never believed such a nonsensical lie, so instead Kanna said, “It’s not important. Could you do me a favor and take the dogs, though? I was in the middle of something.”

But when Kanna looked down at her hand again, it was too late. The moment had already passed.

She was no longer holding the rope.

* * *

Kanna gasped, her eyes snapping open. Her body immediately thrashed in unbearable convulsions, her teeth gnashing and grinding. She cried out into the emptiness of the cave, her voice echoing back to her and fueling another wave of grief. The tears were falling thickly from her eyes and she had no control over them. The pain of her guilt ran in waves up and down her body.

She had forgotten.

She had forgotten all about that distant memory in the field—and had suppressed the more recent one along with it—but when she looked back down towards the snake, her body jerking with sobs, she saw that it had grown much smaller somehow. She also saw that two other snakes had come to flank the first on either side, and she fought not to recoil from their gaze.

Those are his brothers, Shame and Judgment, the humming voice answered her unspoken question. When you look at one, you look at the others. When one of them shrinks, the others will shrink a little, too. Look closely: You’ll see that they’re all connected.

Kanna tried to focus her eyes to see this, and indeed it was hard to tell where one snake ended and another began, but she didn’t know if this was because she could hardly hold her vision steady anymore.

They had also started to retreat. They slithered painfully off her body and began disappearing into the walls. When the last of them left, Kanna took in a loud, raw breath. She tipped her head backwards, her throat fully open. She blinked her eyes and watched the shadow at the entrance of the cavern, the body that belonged to the voice that had been murmuring to her.

It was a tall silhouette, but she couldn’t see any features—except for a huge, lone snake that pulsed and slithered in endless circles up the trunk of that giant. The giant turned her head in flowing, well-practiced movements to charm the serpent, to avoid its eyes.

In time, even this snake disappeared from view. The shrine had finished telling its story. The cavern had grown pitch black.

Kanna coughed. “What…was that?” she asked as Goda finally entered the shrine and came to kneel beside her. “What are they?”

Kanna still did not know.

Goda brushed Kanna’s face lightly with the tips of her fingers, but she seemed careful not to comfort her too much. “They’re you,” she said. “Or rather, they’re what you’ve convinced yourself that you are. What you think you are doesn’t actually exist. You’re a story, Kanna Rava. These are the stories. They’re every part of your identity: every conditioned structure, every lie you’ve ever told, every thought you’ve ever held onto, every inch of your personality.”

“Why…?” Kanna could not quell the tears, the tightening of her jaw. “Why do they look like that? Why are they so terrible?”

“They’re not. They only seem that way because you’ve hidden them away, and so they’ve wreaked havoc on your life. But when you look at them, you can control them, and they become docile. If you look at them enough, they start to dissolve in the light of your awareness, and then you start to see who you really are underneath all the snakes.”

Kanna flipped herself over to get up, but she found that her strength had not yet returned. She felt weak, nauseous, just as she had at the mouth of the cavern at the monastery. She had to fight not to purge again right in front of Goda. Even just the impulse to empty herself made the Shame snake twitch inside her, and this time she could sense it more acutely than she had before. She was painfully aware of it even though she could not see it.

She breathed hard against the floor. “What am I, then?” Kanna asked, her voice breaking. “If all those snakes make up my personality and my identity and my thoughts and my mind, then aren’t they me? Why am I so hideous?”

“You’re not. The snakes are thoughts, and you are not your thoughts, so the snakes can’t be you. They merely pretend to be you. Sometimes, when you think it is your own self who is acting and speaking, it is actually they who have siphoned your conscious energy like parasites. They speak for you, they act for you. This delusion is so convincing, that you actually think they are you. Some people are so full of snakes, that it is only the snakes that ever speak. But, no, the snakes are not you. You’re actually something else entirely.”

What?” She reached up and grabbed Goda by the legs. She dug her fingers through the fabric until she could feel the warmth of the skin beneath. “What am I, then, if I’m not this? Tell me!”

“You are nothing. You are no one. Just as I am, you are. You simply are. There is no who or what. There is no self. This is the biggest lie you have ever been told. You are only an experience, right now, in this moment. To say ‘I am’ is enough. The rest—your past, your future, your identity—is only a story.”

“No! No, that can’t be true!” Kanna didn’t know why she was shouting. Again, as she had felt when she had exited the desert shrine for the first time, there was empty space where a part of her had been, and it made her uncomfortable.

Indeed, it was nothing. A part of her had become nothing along with the shrinking of the snake.

“If I look at all of them,” Kanna began to say. She let go of Goda’s legs, but winced when her hand touched freezing stone. “If all the snakes dissolve…then what? I just disappear? I just don’t exist?”

“Oh, no. You are nothing, and the nothing does exist. But the snakes are just stories that you tell yourself. If all the snakes unravel, your false self will die and you will become a funnel for the Goddess. Even deep in the midst of a story, you will remember that the character is not really you—that you are in fact the Goddess who has been dreaming up this tale all along—and so you will surrender to your true purpose without resistance, because you will see that it is only a story and there is nothing to fear. So you see, you are just pretending to be Kanna Rava. You wear many masks, Goddess! You’re playing hide-and-seek with yourself.”

“That doesn’t make any sense! You’re speaking in riddles! You’re not full of emptiness, you’re full of bullshit!” She found the strength to push herself up onto her knees in front of Goda and she slammed her hands against the woman, but the woman’s frame did not waver. Kanna heaved and closed her eyes. She pressed her face to Goda’s chest. “Is that why you did this to yourself? To make all the snakes dissolve? To die this second kind of death?”

“Yes,” Goda said. “I could not live with myself after what I had done. It was the self that tormented me, and so I sought to unravel it and destroy it, even if I have not yet been able to collect all its fractured pieces. There are many to find. They will reveal themselves in their own time. But there’s a part that overshadows all the others, a serpent that I’ve tried hard to let go of, and yet it lives on in me. I can’t let it go.” She took in a deep sigh that seemed to fill her lungs with the nothing that surrounded them. “But for all purposes, Goda Brahm is gone. I have been No One—or nearly so—for a long time. The only time The Someone in me comes back is whenever the name of that serpent is called and it starts to reawaken.”

Kanna paused to hear the giant’s heart. She hesitated, but asked anyway, “Like when you saw Priestess Rem in the desert?”

“Yes.”

“So she is a witch after all.”

“Yes. A priestess will disguise herself with titles, but underneath all the layers of her robes, this is what she is. And in reawakening my serpent, Rem Murau has done the same to her own. We have done it to each other, because this serpent of mine has mated with hers many times, and they have birthed countless children together—children that we have both ignored and abandoned.”

Goda stood up then, leaving Kanna to slide to the ground once again. She walked with purpose towards the opening of the cave, where the moonlight was striking, where the serpents could not erupt again. Kanna tried to follow her. She writhed against the floor as she clawed her way forward. She was too proud to ask for help, even though she had never felt so broken in her life.

Goda offered nothing as Kanna struggled. It was only once Kanna had painfully dragged herself out into the dim light that Goda stooped down and picked her up—but instead of slinging her over a shoulder as she had in the desert, she carried Kanna gently in her arms.

“Why did you abandon me?” Kanna whispered, her eyes drooping. She was barely conscious of what she was saying.

Goda murmured back, but the answer made no sense: “If you try to help a chick break out of its egg, it will die before ever being born.”

And so in this way, Goda brought Kanna back down the hillside. Kanna pressed her face and hands against Goda’s chest, and she felt the duality of hard and soft, and she breathed in the giant’s scent. With every one of Goda’s steps, she felt a bit of her energy returning, until she was able to lift her head up and face the truth that loomed in the shadow above her.

The tears were still flowing; they hadn’t stopped.

“I feel better,” she admitted. She could hardly believe what she was saying. “It was like a splinter was in my skin, but so deep that I couldn’t reach it, and so numb that I hardly noticed it, even if it was doing damage every time I moved. But it was painful to take out. When I relived that memory, and became conscious of it again for the first time in so long, it became…just a story. It was like you said. It was a story and it lost its power over me, and I could cry about it without having to be the character in that memory anymore.”

When they reached the bottom of the cliff and Goda laid her down in a soft bed of leaves, she had the strength to sit up on her own. She pressed her back to one of the trees that had sparsely littered the landscape. She watched Goda standing next to her, and she turned her gaze up to meet the giant’s eyes in the weak light.

“I know now why you’ve done this,” Kanna said, “but the price that one pays is so much. What did I just give up? What part of me did I sacrifice to your Goddess? Even if this part of me was broken and wanted to disappear, it’s still precious to me. I still gave birth to it. How can I be Kanna Rava if something so important is gone?”

Goda looked down at her with full attention, with an empty expression made of infinite space, as if she were expecting something to happen. She waited.

Very suddenly, Kanna felt her stomach turn. Her throat and mouth burst open—but it was words that came rushing out, instead of the vomit that Kanna had expected:

“I lied when I talked to the temple assistant about my sister,” she confessed. “Priestess Rem told me about her own twin, and still I lied about mine. My second name did not come from my mother. It came from my sister. My twin was the first born and she died within minutes, but in our culture it’s bad luck not to name a child who makes it out of the womb, even if they die during the journey out. And so they named her Leda like my mother, but because they had lost her, they decided to name me that, too; that way, I could live for the both of us.” Kanna lowered her eyes, but not out of guilt—out of genuine sadness with no one to blame. She said, “I knew it was me who had killed her. If she had been alone, she would have lived. My presence had made her sickly; I had taken what she was owed in the womb, so she was too small to live. The first time I heard the story of her birth and death, this is what they told me: That I was lucky. That I had been the lucky one, so I should be grateful—but I never was. I didn’t even want to live, so I wasted most of the life that my sister had given up for me. I finally stopped wasting it only on the day the soldiers came for us. I don’t know what changed, but the exact moment I felt most threatened in my life, suddenly I wanted to live.”

A few last shudders ran through her. She pressed her hands to the ground to hold herself stable, and she was pleased—and half-surprised—to find that the earth was solid.

“Goda,” she whispered, on the edge of complete exhaustion, “I can only imagine. I can only imagine. If this was just one snake, then what is it like to dissolve hundreds of them? Thousands? Is this what you’ve done? What kind of suffering have you lived with that doing this to yourself was the preferable alternative?” She looked up at Goda with a question on her face, and she knew that Goda could see it even in the relative darkness.

Still, the giant did not answer. Perhaps she didn’t want to relive her own stories—or perhaps she wanted Kanna to shape the question plainly, to have the courage.

With some difficulty, Kanna finally stood up. She faced Goda squarely. She let her eyes trace over the angular features of that face, and she let her own loaded stare meet that empty gaze in return.

“Goda,” Kanna finally asked, “what did you do?”

The wind picked up. It blew through the trees around them and made the branches sway. It sent the dirt beneath Kanna’s bare feet swirling, sharp bits of rock pelting the bottoms of her legs.

In a steady voice that held no trace of desire to hide anything from anyone, Goda finally answered:

“I murdered a priestess named Taga Murau.”


Onto Chapter 26 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 24: Stories

As it turned out, the boy’s name was actually Preema—and he had a voracious appetite for both food and gossip. He sat next to Kanna on an old log, his arm slung over her shoulder, his eyes still wide and darkened from what Kanna could only imagine were the effects of Flower. With pupils that looked like the mouth of a bottomless well, Kanna couldn’t fathom how he was staring at her so intently, without squinting, with the sunlight beaming down directly on them.

“So, how did the two of you really get to know each other?” he whispered to her so that his higher mother—the one named Kahm—wouldn’t hear. The woman seemed distracted anyway. She was crouching not too far from them, on the other side of the yard, holding a wooden panel up to the hole in the fence while Goda swung against it with a hammer. “Obviously, she picked you up at the confinement center in the Outerland, but I’ve never seen her act like this with a slave. What happened? Did you break through that wall of hers with your feminine wiles? Tell me, tell me!”

He was shoveling handfuls of yaw into his mouth while he babbled at her, and though Kanna couldn’t blame him for being hungry after his long ordeal, it was making it even harder to understand what he was saying. He barely even took a pause between feedings. As soon as he would finish a plate, his lesser mother would magically appear from inside the house with some more.

“Preema, what on Earth are you whispering about? I hope you’re not asking our honored guest inappropriate questions. We didn’t teach you to be like that!” she chided him, though there was a huge grin on her face, and she didn’t seem too invested in her admonishment. She turned around without waiting for an answer and practically skipped across the yard back into the house to fetch another plate. Kanna had never seen anyone so happy to cook for someone else.

More bewildered than before, she tried her best to think of a response that wouldn’t reveal too many details that were none of the boy’s business. Kanna was only just starting to consider the fact that the situation between her and Goda was highly unusual, that Goda must have treated her differently from other slaves and that people were bound to notice eventually.

When did she start doing that? Kanna asked herself. Or did she treat me differently the whole time? The boy had brought up a good point. Kanna didn’t know how the porter typically worked with prisoners, and now that Kanna was no longer Goda’s slave and was only playing out the role—or rather, for the moment, playing the role of a slave playing the role of a wife—she wasn’t sure how to untangle all of the falsehoods.

Her tales had become as messy and intertwined as a writhing ball of snakes.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Kanna finally told him. She decided to change the subject. “How do you know Goda?”

“Oh, my lesser mother is good friends with this old Outerlander named Haim who owns a tavern in town. Ever since I can remember, he’s stopped by the house every week and given my mother some wine and me a bag of fruit. One day, when I was around eighteen or nineteen or something, I followed him back and he seemed happy, and so he asked me if I wanted to work for him sometimes,” Preema rambled, then stuffed a huge block of cheese into his mouth.

Kanna scratched her head. She didn’t want to be rude, but the boy seemed to be speaking in incoherent stories and Kanna couldn’t make the connections that he seemed to expect of her. She wondered if that was also an effect of the Flower.

After swallowing, he waved his hand and helped her out: “Goda knows the tavern owner, you see. She buys some of the special products in his basement. That’s how we got to know each other.”

Ah, the bootlegger, Kanna thought. Goda had mentioned him the night before, when she had told Kanna that she had traded a favor for some fuel and supplies. “So you met Goda in that tavern in the alleyway, then.” She thought it was an odd coincidence—but these sorts of connections seemed to keep surfacing, and she wondered if it wasn’t a coincidence at all that they had stopped by there recently.

But an impish smirk came over Preema’s face in reply. “Well, we didn’t exactly meet there.” He cleared his throat, then brought another handful of yaw to his face. “I introduced her to Haim and then the three of us made friends, but I first met Goda…somewhere else close by.”

Kanna tilted her head, confused once again because it seemed that he expected her to understand, and she didn’t. As he pulled his arm from around her shoulders and turned his full attention back to his plate, Kanna decided that she didn’t need to dwell on such unimportant matters anyway. Instead, she turned her gaze back up towards the gash in the fence, which was already halfway covered.

As the yard grew more insulated and the sun had wandered overhead, Goda had dropped her outer robes. Kanna busied herself watching the bronzed shoulders of the giant as they sprung back and slammed forward in turn. She watched every strike of the hammer against the nails of the fence, watched that same body that had lashed out to destroy her the night before being used to rebuild what they had broken together.

But as soon as the chore had been done, Goda picked up the last of their baggage from the ground and motioned for Kanna to follow her into the house.

“Are you sure we can’t host you and your wife for another night, Priestess?” the lesser mother asked as they brushed against her in the doorway.

“We have pressing business in Suda,” Goda said, slinging her satchel over her shoulder and only pausing slightly to reply. “Besides, it’s bad luck to linger when our purpose here has already been fulfilled.”

When they passed through the house, Kanna noticed that the Goddess had changed places yet again. This time, she was sitting atop a pedestal near the threshold at the foyer. The Goddess watched Kanna and Goda step through the front door for the first and last time; her smile remained the same as always.

Outside, they reunited with the truck, but because Goda and Kahm had pushed it out of the yard by hand earlier in the morning before they had patched the hole, Goda had not yet tried to start the engine, and Kanna couldn’t help but wonder if it would even work. Still, she climbed into the front seat without a word of speculation, and she watched the giant rummaging around in the back.

After filling the tank to capacity, until the fuel very nearly ran over the edge of the mouth, Goda slid into the driver’s side next to Kanna. She flicked through her keys—that holy pendant dangling limply among them—and then she unlocked the ignition to crank the engine.

The truck growled with life. Kanna could feel the pistons dancing beneath her more smoothly than they had been before. Perhaps the long rest had done the beast well.

Goda pulled them onto a side street, seemingly to avoid the crowds, and soon they were bouncing along the cracks in the road at a steady pace. Because the silence had continued between them—and because Kanna was not yet used to the lack of their previous flavor of tension, and because her first instinct was to fill that empty space with new conflict—Kanna found that she had the sudden urge to start an argument over what they would do once they reached Suda.

She was conscious of it this time, though, so she pushed the thought aside. She inched a bit closer to Goda. She reached over and put her hand into Goda’s lap. She was a bit surprised at her own audacity, so she turned her head with some hesitation to take in Goda’s reaction.

There was a faint smile on the giant’s face.

“So,” Kanna began, suddenly a bit tense, a bit uncomfortable. Because she wasn’t being rejected, she didn’t know how to act; she didn’t know what came next. She decided to sit with the feeling for awhile. “It seems that the boy knew you through the bootlegger. All of these small coincidences. Sometimes I forget that you had a life before you met me, that you’ve been to all these places, that you’ve gotten to know people.” Goda hadn’t made any gesture of overt response, but her body was relaxed, so Kanna leaned a little bit further against her until her head came to rest on the side of Goda’s shoulder. “What was the favor that you did for that bootlegger, anyway?”

“This,” she said.

Kanna raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“All of this.” She waved her hand briefly, as if to motion behind her towards the direction from which they had come. “I cured Preema as a favor to the bootlegger.”

What? Wait, but you said the bootlegger owed you a favor already—and you already saw that the boy was sick before we even went to the tavern. Were you just not going to heal him if the tavern owner didn’t pay you? Did you really heal your friend just to get some fuel? I don’t understand.”

“Yes and no. There is no strict cause and effect here. It just is what it is. I cured Preema in order to get the supplies. I received the supplies in order to cure Preema. We came to that boy’s house so that I could do a favor for the bootlegger. A bootlegger owed me a favor that I had done in the future, and so we came to that house. You can tell the story any way you want.”

“Why does that sound like nonsense to me, and yet that’s exactly how it seems to have happened? All of those things sound like they could be true.” Kanna rubbed her face. “Why do you speak in riddles even now? You’re toying with me, Goda. Why would a bootlegger even care that much if some boy is ill or not?”

They rumbled onto a gravel road just outside the town and Kanna’s ears were filled with the sound of crunching pebbles for a long time. Kanna sighed and leaned more of her weight onto Goda, but she turned her head and gazed out at the landscape. The open meadows filled with grass and the thickets of trees seemed to meld and connected with each other; as they picked up speed, it all seemed to flow into one thing.

Then Kanna’s eyebrows shot up. She jerked her head towards Goda again. “That Outerland bootlegger is the boy’s father, isn’t he?”

Just by the tiny smile that had formed on Goda’s face, Kanna already knew the answer. “There are no fathers in the Middleland,” Goda said.

Kanna shook her head, thinking how odd it must have been for the boy to have a stranger love him, and dote on him, and try to protect him without having any concept available to explain why. She could only imagine how confusing it was to be a halfbreed in the Middleland.

And yet, while the boy may have been stupidly oblivious to the presence of his father, his father had been watching over him all the same. Kanna couldn’t help but feel envious. She had grown up with the exact opposite situation—with a father in name, but rarely in practice. It made Kanna reflect on what she had seen in the bath house, and all the children that were being conceived with random men who could never know for sure if…

Kanna’s meandering thoughts came to a stop. Another connection had triggered in her mind. She felt awkward all of a sudden, but she forced herself not to pull away from Goda, and she forced herself to voice the question in spite of her reservations.

“You met Preema at the Paradise bath house, is that right?” she asked. Again, she already knew the answer. It made sense, especially after what the boy had said to her with that annoying little smirk. “I’m not judging you for it or anything. If that’s your local custom, then so be it. It’s just that I have a hard time imagining you as the type of person who—”

“Ah,” Goda interrupted, pointing to some spot far ahead of them with the tip of her chin. “It seems your little friends are headed West, too. What a coincidence.”

Kanna followed Goda’s gaze and noticed two hitchhikers a little ways down the road. They were not yet too far from town, but the landscape had grown deserted enough that these were the only human figures in the distance. As their features became clearer, a small wave of embarrassment trickled up to Kanna’s face.

“They’re not my friends,” Kanna protested under her breath. Indeed, she wasn’t exactly sure what the Bou twins were to her. They had come to her rescue the night before, but they weren’t the first people with unclear motives to have helped her try to escape, and after her realization about Priestess Rem, she didn’t know if she could trust anyone else to have noble intentions. They had tried to hurt Goda, after all—and had succeeded to an extent.

And so Kanna was surprised when she found that the truck came to a stop at the side of the road. Noa and Leina grinned with relief at first, picking up their effects, until their gazes fell into the front seat and they finally seemed to notice who had swooped in beside them.

Leina stiffened with alarm and she took a step back. It was then that Kanna caught sight of the details, of the cuts and bruises that peppered the twins’ faces and matched the ones that Goda had herself. Noa in particular looked more roughed up, her lip swollen, the side of her head sporting a purple, fist-shaped mark.

“Hey, c’mon now!” Noa called out over her sister’s shoulder, once the surprise had worn off. Her eyes fearlessly locked on Goda’s stone face. She had the tone that she was arguing, even though Goda hadn’t said anything. “We did what we thought was best. The girl obviously doesn’t want to be around you. Can you blame us for wanting to liberate a slave? Me and Leina aren’t old fashioned like you porters always are. We have a sense of ethics, of chivalry. If we see an opportunity to throw a wrench in your twisted little system, then we’ll do it!”

Leina’s eyes widened and she turned around wordlessly to grab her sister by the shoulders. She pushed her back with growing urgency, but Noa slapped her hands away and kicked up some gravel as she slid closer to the truck.

“So what do you want from us, huh?” Noa shouted as Goda looked on without an ounce of reaction. “Why are you staring at us all cross-eyed like some stupid cow chomping on cud in the middle of a field? Do you want to do this or what?” She made a pair of fists and held them up over her bruised face. “We were drunk last night; that’s the only reason you got the best of us. Get out of that truck and come over here and we’ll have a real fight this time!”

All the while, Leina was standing behind Noa, waving her hands wildly and shaking her head. She was just about to reach over and make another attempt to subdue her twin, when Goda finally spoke.

“Get in.”

The words seemed to spread out through the clearing and brush away every sound and movement. Noa’s mouth snapped shut and she lowered her fists. Leina stopped dead in her tracks.

The three of them stared at each other for a long time. Kanna felt like she was disappearing in the midst of that silence. She glanced back and forth between all of them in astonishment, but when the pause had seemed to go on forever, and Noa had coughed a few times, it was clear that it was not only Kanna who felt awkward.

Goda’s face was blank. She was waiting.

“Well, all right then,” Noa said. She reached down into the grass to grab her baggage and she tossed it into the back of the truck. It took Leina a little longer, but after some hesitation, she followed suit. After all, as far as Kanna had gathered, they weren’t exactly swimming in options in the middle of that deserted road.

* * *

“Ahhh, so you’re Goda Brahm, huh?” Noa asked after she had heard Kanna say the giant’s name. Though Noa was sitting in the back with Leina, she was leaning hard over the top of the front seat, her head dangling between Goda and Kanna, the smoke from her cigar wafting in Kanna’s face before joining the whipping wind. “Well, I’ll be! Had I known who you were, I wouldn’t have beaten you within an inch of your life last night. Me and Leina are always on the side of the rebels, you see.”

“Liberate the people!” Leina shouted from further in the back.

Goda didn’t seem to mind them, but she also didn’t answer.

“Oh, c’mon,” Noa insisted, “we heard what you did back in the ancient times. You raged against the system before anyone else ever thought to! You rampaged around like a lumbering beast, squashing all of those bureaucrats under your feet. Our older sister went to work at the Samma Valley monastery last year and she told us all about the rumors she’s heard. Don’t tell us they’re not true!”

“What, you mean rumors can be exaggerated?” Leina asked, her voice filled with indignation.

“Never, never! They’re always completely accurate, or else no one would spread them around.” Noa looked at Goda with expectation and her voice became suddenly subdued, a bit more serious. She leaned in further. “So, Brahm, tell us…what really happened that day in the valley? Only you know for sure, right?”

When Goda still didn’t answer and stared straight ahead as if she hadn’t heard a thing, Noa finally shifted back to give her some room. She sighed and chewed on the end of her cigar, even though it had now nearly reduced to a nub. “Fine, fine. If it means anything, we don’t agree with your punishment. You didn’t deserve it. It’s not like you had any control over what you were doing in that state of mind. We sure as hell don’t take responsibility for what we do when we’re drunk. It’s the same thing, right?”

Kanna raised an eyebrow, looking back and forth between Noa and the giant, but again Goda said nothing in reply. She looked distracted by something else; her eyes were glued to the road and her gaze didn’t flicker even slightly towards any of the passengers.

As the silence waned, Noa seemed to take it as a deliberate brushoff and she backed up some more, until she had shifted all the way onto the flatbed beside Leina. Looking a bit defeated, she pursed her lips and flicked the butt of her cigar out onto the gravel. Kanna watched the ember bouncing in the wake of the truck and she shook her head as she noticed it joining a pile of litter on the side of the road.

“I’m not going to lie,” Kanna muttered to Goda, “I’m shocked you picked these two up.” Even at that point—even when they were asking questions that Kanna’s own ears were burning to hear answered—she had mixed feelings about their presence.

Goda shrugged. “It has nothing to do with me. You owe them, don’t you? So you’re repaying them.”

Kanna merely stared at Goda because she couldn’t find a reason to disagree, even though what Goda had said didn’t sound right, either. It was true that the twins had taken a huge risk to help Kanna the night before, but in doing so they had forced Goda into a fight. Goda never did seem to take anything personally, but in this case, it seemed a little extreme not to, even for her.

And while Kanna liked the Bou twins, she wasn’t sure if she could handle them for many hours at a stretch—especially now that there were private things between her and Goda that needed to be addressed.

Kanna turned to Noa and asked, “Where should we drop the two of you off?” She noticed that it sounded blunt the moment the words had left her mouth, but she didn’t care anymore.

Noa grinned at her. “Oh, we’ve got some special business South-West of here, along the bank of the Samma River. We’re going to a city called Suda. It’s the capital of the Middleland!”

Kanna sighed and pressed her hand to her face.

Even though no one had asked, Leina chimed in from the back of the truck, “If you must know, we’re drug smugglers and we’re taking a couple of sacks of product to the capital. That’s what we do for a living. That’s why we live such an adventurous life. We’re only telling you because the both of you are hardened criminals like us.”

“That’s right,” Noa said, “and criminals keep each other’s secrets. All of your business is safe for our ears. We keep our mouths shut no matter what happens.” She paused heavily. Again, she leaned a little closer to the front seat, though there was a small edge of hesitation this time. “So, c’mon, Goda Brahm! You can tell us: What was going on between you and that priestess at the valley, anyway? I heard that the two of you broke the Oath of No Contact—and broke it pretty damn well, if you know what I mean. Is that true? I heard you were contacting each other quite a bit by the time that she—”

The truck swerved over to the side of the road. It all happened so abruptly that Kanna had to cling to the door to keep from banging around. Before Kanna had even realized, Goda had kicked the driver’s side door open and hopped out of the truck. The giant reached into the back towards the Bou twins, and though the two of them recoiled, Goda grabbed hold of their luggage instead.

She tossed the bags into the dirt.

She walked back to the driver’s seat and slammed the door behind her.

“Hey!” Noa shouted, once she had recovered from the shock. “You know how much product that is? It’s months worth of income!”

Goda’s hand fell over the speed lever. “Then get it.”

“Oh, right, so that you can drive off without us and leave us stranded?”

But after only a few moments, Noa seemed unable to watch the goods just sitting discarded on the ground, and her greed got the better of her. She nervously jumped out of the truck to rescue their contraband, but surprisingly the truck did not move at all as she reloaded the luggage into the cargo area.

Noa huffed, apparently just as confused as she was offended. She balanced her foot on the back bumper of the truck and started to swing herself over the tailgate—and that was when Goda yanked the lever.

The truck jerked forward.

Kanna heard a heavy thud smack against the pavement behind them.

Indeed, Goda drove off without waiting for Noa. She sped down the road so quickly that Leina—who had remained on the flatbed, completely bewildered—had to grab at the sides of the truck to keep from spilling out of the back.

In this way, Kanna discovered at least one thing that the giant took personally.

* * *

Since it was already evening, and the edge of the sky was growing pink again, they didn’t get very far before Goda had pulled over beside a crag that looked to be made of porous rock. When Kanna looked up at it, she could see the sides of a doorway carved into one of the higher ledges, and she wasn’t at all surprised by it.

“A shrine?” Kanna asked.

Goda nodded slowly. “It kept talking, louder and louder. It was making it hard for me to drive earlier. We might have to stay here for the night until it’s done unloading what it wants to unload.”

“Is the message for you or for me?”

“So far there has been no difference.”

Kanna turned her gaze back towards the roadway that they had left behind. She wondered how many times Goda had received a message alongside her, but had said nothing about it. What kind of nightmares had haunted her? Were they the same as the ones Kanna had seen, or were they tailored to Goda’s own specific demons?

She pressed her palm to the back of Goda’s hand and she took a hard breath to steel herself for the nonsense that she was about to offer. “I want to go into the shrine,” Kanna said. She mirrored Goda’s serious look. “Running away and avoiding it obviously doesn’t work; you have more experience than I do, and even you admit that it’s futile to evade it. Let me face it head-on. Maybe this will satisfy the Goddess.”

A complicated expression had come over Goda’s face. “You are right—but there’s more to it than that. Going into a shrine to deliberately fuse with it is not easy. Remember that even when you resisted, you found a small hell. Surrendering entirely and letting the snakes unravel on purpose is much more intense.” Goda looked past Kanna and up at the high threshold whose entrance was bathed in some of the dying light. The animals carved into the stone seemed to dance with the rays of the sun. “Ever since I accidentally discovered what they do, I’ve dragged myself in and out of more shrines than I can count—gnashing my teeth, screaming from the sensation of being ripped apart inside, crawling through the dirt to reach the light at the entrance again—just like you did on that night at the monastery. I did this hundreds of times, until there was hardly anything left of me. The only way I could bear to kill myself was a little at a time, and even this was painful. Make no mistake, it is a death, even if it’s a small one. You may still be walking and breathing, but the person who you were before does not emerge from that cavern ever again.”

Hearing that, Kanna felt a small shudder running up her spine—but she wondered if it was merely the twitching of a snake. She looked away from the shrine for the moment; something told her she would have to face it eventually, but she couldn’t be certain when.

Before she could tell Goda this, though, a loud sigh emerged from the back of the truck and puffed through the space between them. Kanna turned to see that Leina had cowered in a corner of the flatbed, her knees pressed against her chest like some unborn child, her arms wrapped around her legs.

“What in the ever living hell are you weirdos talking about?” she demanded.

The voice sounded a bit jarring because Kanna had momentarily forgotten that they had an audience in the first place, and that their words might have been nonsensical to anyone who had never experienced what they had. She tilted her head at Leina, suddenly pensive.

Everyone had different experiences in life, though, Kanna thought—so perhaps every word she had ever uttered in her life had been misunderstood in this same way.

* * *

By the time Noa had caught up to them, there was barely any sun left. When Kanna and Leina first noticed her in the distance, she was heaving and coughing and stopping by every other tree to lean and catch her breath. Kanna wondered with some amusement if the woman had sprinted most of the way there and then run out of steam at the end.

When she finally approached the group—which was now spread around a fire—she made a beeline to stand next to Goda. She gritted her teeth. She kicked some dirt in Goda’s direction.

“Who do you think you are, Porter? You could have killed me! I could have hit my head on the pavement and died in a bloody mess! The buzzards could have been picking me to pieces right now!” Noa rambled on and on with her story, but Goda merely sat and stared into the fire; and because the giant had offered her nothing, and Noa was already exhausted, the rest of her energy dissipated quickly.

She sat down by the fire with a thud. “Consider yourself lucky that I survived and none of that happened! If it had, then I really would have run over here and beaten you without an ounce of mercy, let me tell you!” She only paused for a moment, as she seemed to realize how little sense her statement had made, but before long she had shrugged and scooted over towards Leina. “So what’s for dinner?” she asked everyone.

Leina shook her head. “To hell with you, you imbecile. You don’t deserve to eat. You almost lost all of our product!”

Me? It was that oaf who did it!”

“Well, it’s your own damn fault! Why do you always provoke people?”

But somewhere in the midst of their argument, Leina reached into the side pocket of one of their bags and produced a handful of roasted yaw. She shoved some of it into Noa’s mouth while the woman was hurling abuse at her—which shut her up quickly—and then she tossed another piece into Kanna’s lap.

Kanna touched it gingerly. She had started to grow used to the taste, but the mood to eat hadn’t struck her in awhile.

“Hey Giant,” Leina said, nodding in Goda’s direction. “Do you want some?”

This made Kanna look up, a bit surprised. She had privately been calling Goda a giant in her mind ever since that initial dream by the priestess’s cottage, but it was the first time she had heard anyone else refer to Goda that way.

Goda waved away the offer. “I’ve been fasting since sundown yesterday,” she replied.

“Oh,” Leina said, “you need to keep your stomach empty for something? Or are you really that religious?”

It was the first time Kanna had heard any of this, too, but Leina’s words made her turn and look back up at the shrine entrance at the top of the rocks. There was hardly any light, but some of it still struck the religious carvings outside, and from the angle of where she was sitting, she could barely make out the neck of what looked like a swan as well as the flowing lines of twisting serpents.

These figures always seemed to follow her. Lately, her visions were swimming with them.

“Our lesser mother used to always tell me that fasting through the morning keeps the snakes away,” Noa said, chomping on the yaw. Kanna snapped her gaze across the fire as soon as she heard. “But really I think it makes them show up more. I turn into a straight up monster when I’m hungry.”

Snakes,” Kanna whispered. She had kept hallucinating them everywhere and Goda had mentioned them in a few of those nonsense speeches, but now Noa was talking as if they had been real. “The snakes,” Kanna said a little louder, so that the entire group could hear her. “You know them, too? What are they?”

Leina and Noa exchanged a glance, then burst out laughing seconds later.

“Oh, it’s just a superstition!” Noa said, waving her hand dismissively before reaching into the bag to fish for another pinch of yaw. “Maybe most Middlelanders like to indulge in mystical garbage, but we don’t believe in all that crap.”

Leina nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right, we’re enlightened people! We don’t take that story literally.”

“What story?” Kanna insisted. She leaned closer to the fire, aimed her stare at the twins with expectation. From the corner of her eye, she could feel Goda’s gaze upon her all of a sudden.

The story, of course.” Noa was smirking at her. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard the story! That’s the first load of crap that they make you swallow at the temple!”

“She’s not a Middlelander, idiot. When would she have heard it?”

Noa turned to Leina at first with an offended look, but after a moment she scratched her chin to consider it. “Damn, yeah, I guess that’s true.”

So with this, Noa cleared her throat dramatically and slid herself forward until she was hovering closer to the small fire. She paid no mind to the strange face that Kanna was giving her. The flames danced in Noa’s wild eyes. The woman lifted her arms high in the air so that her fingers dangled creepily in the dark above her.

“A long time ago, back in the ancient times before the Goddess had crafted the surface of the Earth,” she began, while Leina started improvising some dramatic singing in the background to go along with the narration, “the world was just a spinning white egg in the void, empty of life, empty of spirit, empty of song!”

Kanna briefly turned to throw Goda a incredulous glance, but she found that the woman was merely stretched out on the ground, watching the twins in silence, her chin propped up on her hand. The amusement on her face was evident even in the relatively dim light.

Noa continued, “And so the Goddess used Her beautiful fingers to lovingly craft a vast paradise that covered every inch of the Earth. It was a garden filled with plants, and rocks, and animals of all kinds.”

Once again, because the word for “paradise” and “garden” were the same in Middlelander, Kanna wasn’t sure when Noa meant one or the other, so Kanna found herself mentally inserting it where it seemed to fit best. At any rate, the story may have possibly explained all at once why the words were the same in the first place.

“But not all was well, oh no!” At this point, the mood music that Leina was providing grew darker. “Not every creature in the universe was happy with what the Holy Mother had created. In that void, causing the Earth to spin every day with the breeze from his flapping wings, there was a huge swan that had always accompanied the Goddess. When the Mother grew distracted by the world of forms that She had created on the crust of the Earth, the swan descended from the heavens to be with Her and the Earth stopped spinning.”

At the mention of the swan, Kanna found herself leaning even closer to the fire, until a few temperamental embers flicked up to her face and made her recoil. Even still, she had grown interested. “Then what happened?” she asked.

“Well, the swan loved the Goddess so much that he wanted to become one with her, and he was dismayed to find that the Goddess had disappeared—but, when he looked closely, he was shocked at what he saw!”

When Noa took too long of a dramatic pause, Kanna shook her head and dug her fingers into the pile of cool Earth and ash in front of her. “What?” she said. “What did he see?”

“The Goddess had become the world! There was no longer a separation between Her and the many trees, and rocks, and animals! Because he had only cared for Her when She was as formless as the void, he couldn’t accept all of the many masks that She had come to wear, and so he landed upon Her and made love to Her body one last time before flying back up into the nothingness.”

Kanna winced. The image that the story had conjured was a little strange—but then again, it wasn’t the strangest thing she had envisioned lately.

“Ah, but you see! Her body was the Earth, and so the swan had impregnated the world! And because the crust of the Earth was like the shell of a giant egg, it split open at the seams and his countless children hatched out of the ground, and they came to cover every corner of the world with their evil! These were the snakes, and though the swan claimed that the snakes were not his children—that they had already been writhing inside the Earth the whole time, and that he had merely brought them up to the light—anyone who loves the Goddess knows better. To this day, all the people and animals have to be careful not to get tangled in those twisting knots of scales and fangs!”

“That’s why Middlelanders always take a bath every morning, and why devout Maharans are so obsessed with water,” Leina added in a flat voice, after ending the dramatic music abruptly. “It’s to wash off ‘the snakes’ that got on you the day before, since people believe they come out of the dirt, and that they can possess you if you don’t splash them off. Silly, isn’t it?”

“Water…?” Kanna murmured, some new connections snapping together in her mind. It was true. Even the first day she had been at the temple, they had soaked her the first chance they had. “The priestesses cleansed me, too.”

“That’s right,” Noa told her, nodding a bit too eagerly. “I mean, it has a dual purpose: they’re trying to bust you for using drugs, but the cleanse is also supposed to agitate ‘the snakes’ and bring them to the surface or some crap like that.” Her eyebrows flicked up. “Oh, and if you’ve ever seen the inside of a temple complex, you might have noticed the running water and the garden. We plant a lot of gardens. It’s a religious thing, too. It’s suppose to please the Goddess because we’re following her example, but even the tax offices do it, and I doubt they please her much.”

Kanna stared at Noa. The myth had confused her with its strange logic, but she couldn’t deny that it did explain a few things in a way that appeared to bypass her rational mind altogether.

“The gardens are altars in and of themselves, then,” Kanna muttered. She wondered if this meant that she had completely misunderstood the importance of Goda’s previous job. Had Goda’s occupation actually been more religious in nature? What did it really mean that she had been stripped of her position as a gardener in a monastery?

She didn’t bother asking these questions of Noa, though, because the woman had already broken into a laugh. “All of that is made up, though, of course. The Maharans borrowed the story from the pre-Maharan religions, and they borrowed it from who knows where. Those are just old customs and so there has to be a story to bring it all together, to explain why we do it. People can’t really deal with the idea of a senseless and chaotic world where things happen for no reason.”

Her heart still beating a little faster, Kanna turned her gaze back up towards the shrine. The sun had died down, though, and the ornate gateway had disappeared into the shadows.

* * *

“We’re going to sleep somewhere private, right?” Kanna asked, when she noticed that the Bou twins had claimed the back of the truck.

“‘We’?” Goda appeared to be amused, but Kanna didn’t return the look.

“You know why I’m asking. Don’t make me explain it.”

And so they found a place by the silhouette of the crag, among a few sparse trees for cover, away from the direct view of the road.

Goda lay down and stretched herself out on what looked like a patch of moss in the dim moonlight. Hardly noticing the dirt on the ground, Kanna dropped herself onto the moist earth as well, and crawled over to bury her face against the giant’s chest. She felt Goda’s half-embrace encompassing her as it had a few times before. She still wasn’t used to it yet; a blush had smoothly settled on her, though the giant couldn’t see.

“I don’t know what to say to you now,” Kanna whispered. “The words won’t make sense, even though they’ve been burning in me all night.”

“Say nothing.”

Kanna tightened her jaw, squeezed her eyes shut. “We can’t go to Suda. We just can’t. There has to be another way. Won’t the shrine tell us what to do?”

“Say nothing.”

When Kanna finally looked up, she found that Goda was gazing down at her with a faint smile. The giant tipped her head down. Her mouth brushed very briefly against Kanna’s lips, and then she let her head drop back into the leaves and she closed her eyes.

Kanna couldn’t look away, even as Goda seemed to fade into unconsciousness. The giant didn’t touch her again, so eventually Kanna laid her face back onto Goda’s breast and tried to fall asleep to the rhythm of her master’s heart.

She wasn’t sure how long she had been dreaming—or if she had been dreaming at all—when a sound from the void above awoke her.

Goda, Goda….” The whisper seemed to flow from between the trees. “Goda….”


Onto Chapter 25 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 23: Duality

In one rushing movement, in one blur of shoulders and arms and fingers, Kanna found herself being pulled up. The hand that had grasped her wrist held on like a vice, but the nails did not scratch her skin this time, and when she and Goda stumbled onto their feet, the motion flowed somehow better than it ever had, more gracefully in spite of the staggering—because not an ounce of Kanna had resisted.

Kanna felt herself being carried along through the door. She was too distracted to be embarrassed when she brushed her naked body against the boy who had called out to them. She didn’t know how he had transformed so quickly or how he had known to warn them or why she and Goda needed to run from the soldiers in the first place, but she followed the giant.

She matched Goda’s stride as they sprinted through the main room. The tips of her feet grazed the back of Goda’s heels once or twice. They collided with the altar on the way out the door and the Goddess teetered and smiled and seemed to instantly forgive them.

Goda led her out of the gateway of the fence and up the hill that they had rolled down the morning before. The trip up towards the sky was harder than the trip down had been; the gravel was loose. Kanna stumbled a few times in her haste and struggled to catch herself on more stable rocks, but she wasn’t afraid because when she looked up, she could see that Goda was throwing backwards glances her way every few steps.

They ended up near a thicket of small trees on the hillside. It wasn’t completely hidden from the valley below, but was discreet enough that they could sit behind some bushes, and the faint pinks and blues of the early sun did not stop them yet from blending in.

“What do you think they want?” Kanna asked, collapsing into the mess of wild grass and leaves. She was still huffing with excitement, and it made the litter beneath her scrape and itch as it passed across her skin—but she liked the discomfort of it.

Goda was peering through the branches in front of them, shaking her head, looking down at what they could see of the house. “I don’t know,” she said. “It could be anything. Maybe someone’s bothered that I stole their fuel. Maybe someone called about a foreigner dashing through the streets, and they somehow manage to trace it back to this house. Regardless, it would be smart to hide here until they’ve left.”

Then Goda lay down next to Kanna and let out a long breath, looking up at the rustling leaves of the canopy above them, at the sky that was turning gold with the first bits of dawn. Kanna closed her eyes and felt the presence of the giant beside her; she could feel her without touching her. This had been true since the beginning, but it was only after pulling away that last barrier between them that she had finally become fully conscious of it. The barrier had never existed.

Kanna remembered what had happened in the room. Now that the heat of the moment had lulled a bit—though not entirely—her mind had started to piece the experience together. It was telling her “stories,” as Goda had put it, which made her a bit wary of herself, but the story wasn’t a bad one this time. She was only curious.

Kanna opened her eyes and looked at Goda’s body stretched out along the grass. The woman’s arms were folded behind her head; her eyes were shut; she had become as much a part of the hillside as the trees and the rocks were.

And so, without thinking, Kanna reached over and grabbed the inside of Goda’s thigh. She tugged it open. Goda didn’t resist and didn’t act offended and didn’t even open her eyes. There was only one second of hesitation, and then in the growing light of the early morning, Kanna looked.

Just as it had always been, it was only a little different from what she was used to, but she wasn’t sure what she was looking at yet, or what to call it. She reached her hand down. When she touched it, and Goda reacted slightly, the difference grew a bit more obvious again.

Kanna pulled her hand back and blushed. “Why…?” She paused, not knowing how to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t sound wildly offensive. Then again, it seemed that a lot of things that would have sounded offensive in the Upperland tongue where not at all offensive in the Middleland tongue. She gave it a try: “Why is it like that?” Kanna asked.

Goda shrugged without opening her eyes, but she suddenly had an amused smirk on her face. “That’s just how it is.”

“I mean,” Kanna continued hesitantly, her thoughts inching not quite as slowly as her words, “it looks like mine, mostly. It’s just that it has…that, too. I did kind of notice it before—since you’re not exactly strict about covering yourself up—but I just assumed it was like what I have on the outside there, only bigger than normal. Everything about you is bigger, after all. But now, I have to wonder if instead, it’s what…a man has, only smaller.” Kanna paused, a bit uncomfortable; but again, she was learning to lean into the discomfort. “So, which is it?”

Goda’s smirk had spread into a grin. She opened her eyes and looked at Kanna with amusement.

“I’m serious,” Kanna said. “It doesn’t bother me or anything. It’s just that it’s only natural that I would want to know what you are, don’t you think?”

“What I am?”

Since Goda had started meeting her gaze, she couldn’t help but turn away with increasing embarrassment. She rubbed her arm and fidgeted a little against the bed of wet grass. Looking up at the sky through the treetops, she finally asked, “Are you a man or a woman?”

“Yes,” Goda replied.

Lightly irritated, Kanna found it in her to shoot Goda a wry glance. “Why do you always give me those kinds of non-answers? It’s really a simple question, you know. Clearly, you have the body of a woman…mostly, and you have the social role of a woman, as far as I can tell, and everyone else around here seems to know that you’re a woman; but now I can’t help but feel like there’s something else going on. It’s not like I ever gave the issue much attention, but maybe I should have. In Middlelander, pronouns and titles and stuff like that don’t have a gender like they do in Upperlander, so actually you could have been a man and I may have never known, if it wasn’t for the fact that Middlelander men look totally different from you.”

Goda had started chuckling, but she hadn’t moved from her spot, and she took a deep sigh of apparent enjoyment. Her breath puffed out visibly, tinted slightly by the purple light falling down upon them.

“So…,” Kanna began again. It was less uncomfortable than before, but she still felt her courage stretching slightly, and she had the feeling that she was lifting up the cover of some mysterious box to peer inside. “Are you a man or a woman?” she insisted.

“No,” Goda replied. Her expression was as impish as before.

Kanna let out a long sigh that mirrored Goda’s own and she let the back of her head fall back down into the grass. She couldn’t help but smile, even if her curiosity was only burning more than before. “I wish you would just tell me. I ask you who you are over and over, and you evade me—and fine, maybe there are things about your past that you’d rather not talk about, things you’d rather let go of—but this is different, isn’t it? Everyone has a gender. You can’t let go of that. It’s just who you are.”

“It is?”

“Oh, for God’s sake. Now you’re going to tell me that you can just not have a gender? That you can just be nothing?”

Goda stretched her arms over her head, then propped herself up on her elbows. “Everyone is nothing. Not just about this, but about everything. Don’t take it too seriously. Woman, man—these are just words, just sounds that come out of your mouth. In fact, the words and sounds are totally different in Upperlander, I’m sure. You may not even have a word for what I am at all.”

“That’s exactly it,” Kanna said, rolling over to face Goda completely. “What are you, then?”

“I told you: nothing.”

“Fine, fine! But what is that nothing called? It’s a new thing that I don’t know about, so I need to learn the name for it.”

“It doesn’t need a name. If it had a name, it wouldn’t be nothing, would it? It just is what it is.”

Kanna shot across the small space between them. She was feeling abusive, like Goda deserved some smack on the face, but instead she dropped herself on top of Goda and pressed her face hard against the giant’s neck.

She had nearly given up, but after a moment, she sat up and straddled Goda’s hips and looked down at her with a steady glance. “You’re a mystery, Goda,” she murmured. She watched the sun that filtered down from the trees making spots that danced on Goda’s face. “You’ve blurred every line I can think of. No, you don’t blur lines, you brush them away with a sweep of your hand and make it look like they never existed in the first place. You make me extremely uncomfortable.”

“Good.” Goda had met her gaze again. The golds and purples and blues of the sky danced in the void of those dark eyes.

Goda was beautiful, Kanna thought. It was the first time that notion had shown up as simply and nakedly as that. It was the first time Kanna hadn’t resisted it. Even days before, when Goda had been ugly, she had been beautiful.

The giant was full of contradictions.

Kanna reached down and took one of the giant’s hands. She lost herself in running her fingertips along the chaos of scars and cuts that were now much more apparent in the light. She took a breath, because the first thoughts of the outside world had begun to trickle in.

“What do we do now?” Kanna asked. “I don’t mean about the soldiers in the house. I mean about you. If we don’t go to Suda, you’ll die—but if we go, I’ll have to spend ten years in some hard-labor job that might work me to death, and you’ll have to keep dragging criminals into the Middleland and surviving every day within an inch of your life. We’ll be separated. To be completely honest, I don’t know if I can be separated from you anymore.” Though she had already known, speaking the words aloud so frankly sent another wave of warmth up to her face. She didn’t mind it. “My cuff is unlocked, so in theory I have a choice now, even if I don’t take it. What about you? Is there a way for you to be free, too?”

Goda was quiet for a moment. Her face returned back to its usually stoic look, and she turned her gaze out towards the valley. “Yes,” she said, “but there is only one way. I will be free soon, but the freedom will come at a cost. I will die a slave.”

“How can you say that?” Kanna dropped Goda’s hand and pressed her palms to the woman’s shoulders. She gritted her teeth. “You’re not dying. Stop being so morbid about everything. How can you pretend that you know what will happen even a day from now? The world is senseless and chaotic.”

“You’re not the only one who hears whispers from the shrines,” Goda murmured, her eyes unreadable again. “For a long time now, they’ve been telling me what I have to do, and where I have to go for it to happen, but I’ve evaded them and refused to listen. Pain always follows, of course. You cannot fight destiny. It’s no coincidence that I ended up as your porter. You’ll lead me to my death.”

Kanna’s eyes widened at first at the words, but then she huffed them away. “I don’t believe in prophecies or any of that mystical nonsense. And, anyway, I can’t imagine that some voice from the shrine is telling you to commit suicide.”

“I can’t commit suicide.”

“Why, because it’s against your religion, as Parama told me? You seem to break every other rule, but I guess this one isn’t as stupid as the rest of them.”

Goda shook her head. “It’s not that. I’m afraid of death. I’m afraid of the hell I will see on the other side for what I’ve done. It’s not just petty rules that I’ve broken. You were right when you told me that I’m not a good person. I know that I have to die—everyone does—but I’ve resisted it for years because I know what I have coming to me. I’ve fought for my life, but it won’t last forever.”

No one wants to die, Goda.”

“Exactly. I am no one, so I should want to die.”

Goda closed her eyes and let her head fall into the grass again. Kanna stared down at her, more bewildered than ever before. In truth, she had never stopped to fully consider that Goda was on her own journey, with her own destiny and her own signposts pointing her along, and that Kanna was merely a secondary character in Goda’s story, the same way Goda had been in her own.

Perhaps she had been so wrapped up in herself and her own perspective, that she had missed something important that was bubbling beneath the surface of their joined path.

It was true that Goda had not yet told Kanna what she had done to become enslaved—but in the Middleland, a “capital crime” could mean practically anything as far as Kanna knew. Considering all that had happened, she strongly suspected that it had to do with using Flower, some victimless offense that the government obsessed about. Goda had known exactly how to brew the potion, and she had immediately recognized the boy’s symptoms. Perhaps she had awakened a vessel years before and had been caught doing it.

It may have been illegal, but it was hardly something that Kanna could judge Goda for. There were worse things in the world, and if the woman had healed people, what did it really matter in the grand scheme of things how she had done it? She certainly didn’t deserve such a draconian punishment for it.

Soon enough, though, as the light grew brighter and the world grew clearer, Kanna became distracted by the present moment. She looked down at Goda’s beautiful face, at the imperfections that lined the skin, at the signs of a bruise that was forming on her jaw, at some fresh cuts that etched the side of her forehead and peeked out from Goda’s rumpled hair. Kanna reached down to touch the wounds lightly, to watch how the giant flinched a little, but didn’t make the effort to complain.

Kanna had no idea what they would do—either a day from then, or even a minute into the future. But Goda was always now.

* * *

When they both noticed that the soldiers had reappeared on the main road and were heading West towards the city, Goda signaled that it was safe to return. They ducked through the trees and took their time shuffling down the steep side of the hill just in case there were some of military women lingering behind.

The boy was waiting for them just outside the fence. To Kanna’s astonishment, he ran to them as soon as he caught sight of them, and he threw his arms around the giant’s waist.

“Goda!” he cried. He pulled away after a quick squeeze, though, seemingly coming to his polite senses. His eyes looked bright in the light of day, joyous, much different than they had looked before. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I’m glad you showed up! I was definitely in a bind there.”

Goda shushed him, though she matched his smile. “Keep your voice down.” She tilted her head a little to glance through the hole in the fence. “Your parents think I’m an ex-priestess and that this is my wife. It’s probably best if they keep that impression, even if they might not fully believe it.”

“Ah, that’s the story, huh?” He looked over at Kanna with curiosity. “That’s a good one. Who came up with that?”

Goda didn’t answer him. Instead, she looked down the main street at the faint shapes of the military trucks in the distance. “What did they want?” she asked.

“Oh, the soldiers? Well, turns out that somebody died after swallowing Flower last night. They keeled over right in the middle of the street! What are the chances, right?” The boy nodded at Kanna, as if expecting her to agree, but when she only stared at him with confusion, he turned back to Goda. “So the soldiers started running around, knocking on doors, trying to figure out where the Flower came from. Some busybody a few houses down told them that they had smelled Death brewing earlier in the night, and that it seemed to waft from this here yard, so those bastards came storming in. Luckily, I was out here so I saw them coming from far away. Man, you should have seen it! My mothers had to hide me in the broom closet because my eyes were still the size of saucers. It was really obvious I was on something. Never would have been able to fake that I was normal.”

He spoke so quickly that Kanna had to concentrate to understand the more colloquial phrases in Middlelander. Afterwards, a long moment of quiet passed. He seemed to be waiting for some response, but none came. Kanna was at a loss for words, completely thrown off by the story, still trying to parse the words, still trying to figure how the boy could possibly know who Goda was. Goda merely stood there in silence and watched the two of them watching each other.

Finally, a more obvious fact seemed to dawn on the boy, and this broke through the lull. “Damn, both of you are totally naked, though, aren’t you?” he cried. “I guess you didn’t have time to put any clothes on, huh? You probably should get dressed before you see my mothers again, though, or they’re going to think you’re a bunch of weirdos running around outside like Lowerland savages. They’ll notice the cuffs, too. I’ll go see if I can find something inside that you can throw on real quick.” He turned and began passing through the fence, but he paused to shoot them another glance over his shoulder. “Hey, so were the two of you about to do it in the guest room earlier? Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt. Just put like a sock or something on the doorknob next time and I’ll know to knock first.”

He disappeared, but Kanna still felt all her blood rushing to her face. She wanted to hide under something—a boulder perhaps—but instead, she settled for fixing her gaze on the ground and pretending that the boy hadn’t said anything outrageous at all.

She recovered in time for the boy to return with Goda’s robes and a new set of clothes that Kanna hadn’t seen before. They looked similar to Parama’s hand-me-down that Jaya had given her, but the fabric was a little darker in color, nearly matching the tint of Goda’s clothes.

“I found your stuff drying above the bath,” he said, handing Goda her belongings. He smiled warmly at Kanna, the way that a friend smiled at someone they hadn’t seen in a long time, which made Kanna fidget a little with discomfort. The boy hadn’t even bothered to introduce himself. “Your garments are all muddy and gross,” he said, “so you can just have one of mine. Seems that you like wearing men’s clothes, anyway.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow. It had never occurred to her that there was a difference between men’s and women’s clothes in the Middleland. It was true that there were a few odd features on her robes, such as the fact that they did not open in the front, but she hadn’t really been one to dwell on the details.

And so she had been unknowingly crossdressing the whole time, it seemed.

In light of the conversation she had just had with Goda on the hillside, she found it ironic enough that she nearly broke out in a laugh. Instead, not wanting to offend the stranger who was acting so familiar with her, she suppressed the reaction and merely smiled while accepting his gift.

“Thank you, but you really didn’t have to do this,” she said politely. Nonetheless, she wasted no time in throwing it over her head and slipping it on.

“No, seriously, I did,” he said. He was looking her up and down with a twisted smirk all of a sudden. “Nothing good comes from a naked foreigner. Believe me.” He started walking back towards the house and gestured for them to follow.

Kanna jerked her head towards Goda and looked up at her with irritation. “Who the hell is this kid?” she muttered.

“No one,” Goda answered.


Onto Chapter 24 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 22: The Dance of Master and Slave

Kanna’s eyes were open. She could see the outline of the clouds rushing overhead. She felt like she was suspended in some brilliantly gray void, because the watery mud that had broken her fall had also made her weightless against the ground.

The train rushed away, its wheels scraping along not far from her feet. All of the shocks had faded. She turned her head to look at the arm that half-floated in the mud beside her, and she felt relieved to find that the cuff was still around her wrist.

Kanna sensed the giant before she even saw her. She lifted her head to peer down towards the end of the tracks, and she saw a landscape of flickering light that made the curtain of rain around her glow with life. Emerging from that veil was Goda Brahm. Her image strobed with the landscape itself—pitch dark, then blindingly bright, then pitch dark again. Kanna wondered if it was really the lightning or if her own eyes had started to falter and revive in turn.

When Goda crouched down beside her, the look on the woman’s face held no question. It seemed she had already accepted any reason, any explanation. It seemed that Goda did not care. It seemed that Kanna didn’t have to say anything at all.

Still, she did: “Who are you?” Kanna croaked out. The effort of shouting against the blowing wind made her have to turn over and cough. Her muscles hurt when she moved, but it wasn’t from the impact of the fall. She was exhausted from running, from evading—though with another forced burst of energy, she managed to get up onto her knees, to look up at the stooped form of the giant and to hold her master’s gaze with dignity.

“Who the hell are you?” Kanna shouted again, her tone accusatory. “And how can I be so happy when I’m so miserable? Tell me!” She rammed both her hands hard against Goda’s chest, and Goda’s brows flicked up in confusion. “You know why, don’t you? You know why, but you’ve never told me; you kept it from me like some kind of secret. Look at you! Look at that empty face! Now I know what I was seeing when I looked in your eyes, and why it terrified me: You’re happy. You don’t want anything. You sleep on top of rocks, you eat food that tastes like dirt, you have to scrounge your supplies from the garbage, the world wants to send you to Hell—but you’re happy! You’re so happy to be alive that you barely even mind if you die! What kind of a lunatic are you? How do you live like this?”

Goda merely stared at her, another crazy smile coming over her eyes. The lightning flashed again and it sent colors dancing across her face. It seemed, Kanna thought, that the giant had assumed the question was rhetorical.

It wasn’t.

Kanna slammed her palms against Goda’s chest yet again. She gritted her teeth. Her gaze didn’t waver. “How do you do this? Why are you like this? Show me! I want to know. I have to know. I can’t live the rest of my life not knowing what black magic you’ve tapped into that’s turned you into this; it would eat away at me every day!” She heaved a loud, shaky breath. She hung her head towards the ground and pressed her hands to her face. “People like you don’t deserve to be happy—not when the rest of us try and try, and grasp and grasp; not when the rest of us exhaust our spirits searching for the best life, the best food, the best pleasure, more security, more freedom, more love; not when the rest of us resist and fight against all of the evil things around us, hoping that once—just once—we’ll be able to taste an ounce of contentment. You don’t even try, Goda. You won’t even give us that. You won’t even pretend to try. That’s what I hate the most about you!” She fell forward, but she caught herself with her hands, and she pressed them against the ground as she cried. “Show me why you’re like this, you bastard!”

Then, through the grit of the mud, she felt a set of long fingers snaking down to clasp against her own. Kanna jerked her head up.

Goda’s face was framed by the light of the sky, the water dripping down from the giant’s hair and falling into Kanna’s eyes. “I can’t show you,” Goda whispered. Goda took her by the hand and helped lift her up out of the mud, until they had both stood up to meet the freezing rain. She smiled down at Kanna with a look that Kanna hadn’t seen before, a look she couldn’t interpret. “But you can see for yourself.”

* * *

Instead of following the well-trodden path of the tracks, Goda took Kanna into a grove of trees that scattered through a line of empty lots, and they found a trail inside that hid them from the street. Kanna could see the shapes of buildings through the holes in the thicket as they walked, but they flashed by quickly, and the space was dark enough that she doubted anyone could see them.

At first, she hadn’t been entirely certain why Goda chose the route, but then she noticed the collection of military trucks concentrated on the main road, near the trading building that Kanna had used as a landmark. She stopped to peer through a few of the trees.

The soldiers were milling around near some twisted heap in the gravel, and in spite of her recent experience, she still couldn’t help but recoil when she saw what it was. It was a woman, very clearly dead, blood and drool trickling from her mouth as she lay motionless with her eyes still open. The air about the soldiers didn’t match the gruesome sight at all: they were standing casually, some of them flashing lights at the body, some using their knees to prop up clipboards stacked with paperwork.

Wide-eyed, Kanna turned to glance at Goda, who had also slowed down to catch a glimpse of the mess. “Is that…?” Part of her didn’t want to know, but the fact that so many soldiers had come to poke and prod at the body with such keen interest made her wonder.

“Yes, probably,” Goda said. “That’s what it looks like when they discover someone who has died from swallowing Flower. Most people can’t keep it down, but those who don’t purge often end up like this when they’re not vessels. You bleed from the inside out. Your breathing slows and eventually stops. The dead body becomes a vessel itself, though, so the soldiers wrap it up and hide it so that no one will eat of it.”

“People eat the body?” Kanna shouted.

“Quiet.” Goda yanked Kanna by the hand and pulled her along, so that the scene was no longer apparent through the trees. “It is said that Flower can cure any disease. Whether that’s true or not is up to interpretation, but the important thing is that people believe it, so yes they siphon processed Flower from anywhere they can get it because it is safer to eat.”

After stumbling across a few gnarled roots in her effort to keep up with Goda’s strides, Kanna finally ripped her hand away from the giant’s grasp. “Stop jerking me around!” she grumbled. The rain had thinned out, but the sound of droplets splashing against the leaves above still competed with her voice, so she found herself raising it louder than intended. “I’m not your slave anymore.”

At this, Goda tilted her head. A smirk came over her face. “Is that right?”

Kanna crossed her arms, refusing to take another step, though Goda hadn’t yet tried to pull her along again. “That’s right. I could have easily escaped and I chose not to—not because of you, but because of my own reasons.” Kanna found that her mouth was suddenly coming up with justifications for what she had done. When she had been speeding down the track, away from Goda, her reasons had seemed perfectly valid, but with some distance between her and that moment, it suddenly felt too humiliating to admit that she had leapt from a moving train car simply to be with Goda. “I spared your life this time,” she continued, “but I could easily take the cuff off at any moment. Your life is in my hands. If anything, doesn’t that make you the slave now?”

Goda stared at her in silence for a long moment, her eyes intense, her expression overcome with surprise.

Then she laughed out loud. Her shoulders shook with the fits and she had to press her hand against a tree trunk to keep herself steady. She laughed so hard that she started wiping the corners of her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Do you want me to prove it to you?” Kanna cried, her tone becoming so hysterical that even she herself nearly broke out into a laugh once she heard it echoing back. She didn’t know why she was saying what she was saying; she couldn’t stop herself, but for once it was like she was watching herself think and say these things, instead of being the one who said them.

Kanna stopped.

She looked down at her body, at her cuff-covered wrist, at everything she could see around her that excluded her own face. Something had quite abruptly connected in her mind. “Is that a snake?” Kanna blurted out. She looked up at Goda. “Is that a snake that was talking just now?”

Goda’s eyes widened again, but this time it wasn’t with surprise—it was with the closest thing to excitement Kanna had ever seen on the woman’s face. “Yes!” Goda said. “You see?”

Kanna began to nod slowly, entirely bewildered. The truth was that she didn’t see—not really—but she had started to feel an inkling. If that had been just one snake inside her that was talking through her…then how many were there?

But it still sounded like half-nonsense to her—even if it was disturbing nonsense—so she tried to put it out of her mind, and she followed Goda when the woman began trudging through the thicket once again.

“Fine,” Kanna relented as they walked, though Goda had not argued with her. “Maybe I can’t be your master, then, since I don’t even hold your key. But…now that I think about it, who is your master? Who does hold the key?” She realized then that she had yet to consider the other end of Goda’s leash.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I remember the innkeeper telling me that your cuff was locked, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. She told me about some engineer who had created these stupid things, and that everybody hated her—that you hated her.” Kanna tugged at her own cuff, even if the gesture meant nothing anymore. “Is that your master, then? The person who made these cuffs?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Goda repeated.

Kanna rolled her eyes, but did not push it. Instead, she fixed her focus on Goda’s image, on what she could see of the woman’s body in the bath of moonlight that had started to break through the clouds as the rain died off. She watched the muscles of that back stretching to and fro with every stride; she lowered her gaze a bit more and watched the motion of some of the more pleasing forms and flesh.

She didn’t feel ashamed of it anymore.

“I lied,” Kanna confessed after awhile.

Goda didn’t answer and kept stalking along through the trees, and Kanna couldn’t help but wryly think to herself that the monster was distracted because she was in her natural habitat.

Kanna let out a low sigh and sped up her stride and reached out to touch Goda’s back. “I lied about a lot of things,” she said, feeling the body flex beneath her fingers. “I lied about why I jumped off the train. I jumped because of you. I don’t know what that means yet, but that’s the reason why. I also lied about how I feel. I don’t hate you. I feel something strong towards you, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s not hatred.” She drew closer, until she could smell the mud that was smattered in patches on Goda’s skin. “You were right. It’s not just your body that I want. It’s something more dangerous than that.”

Goda stopped. She turned to glance over her shoulder at Kanna, who was now nearly pressed up against her. “We can slip out through here,” Goda said, pointing towards an exit to the trail. “We’re close enough to the house now that we probably won’t draw any notice.”

They pushed out through the trees and onto the gravel, which felt jarring against Kanna’s bare feet because she had grown used to the soft dirt of the grove. Once the house was in their sights, Kanna noticed Goda’s old satchel strewn on the ground, along with the leather scroll that they had discarded in their haste. Kanna picked them both up.

“You lied, too,” she murmured. “That first night, you told me that this was a steel baton, that you were going to beat me with it.” She turned the scroll over in her hand, but kept walking because Goda had not stopped. “What is it, anyway?”

When they reached the opening in the fence, Goda still had not answered, but she looked down at the mess of footprints that littered the floor of the entrance. Kanna couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that not all of those tracks belonged to her or Goda.

But Goda pressed on. She glanced over to make sure that Kanna was nearby, and it was then that Kanna finally noticed the giant’s exhaustion. Together, they slipped quietly back into the house, where Kanna found the space to be empty of anyone’s presence; it was only the Goddess that stared at them from her new spot at an altar near the door. The faint smile on Her face seemed a touch mysterious; it reminded her a bit of Goda’s earlier smirk.

Goda was still smiling faintly when they passed through the threshold of their shared bedroom. Distracted with dropping the satchel and scroll on the floor near the wall, Kanna didn’t notice the strange energy at first. It was only when she stretched up again and glanced at the room that spread out in front of them that she realized it had changed.

Just as before, the room was smudged with shadow, the only light coming in from the moon and stars through the window—but something was different. When she had awoken in the room earlier, every corner in the chamber had stood out to her as some frame that confined her from her escape. Now, she hardly noticed the walls, except as vague silhouettes at the edges of her vision, as curtains that shut out the rest of the world.

She heard Goda push the door closed behind them. She heard the latch click shut. She heard Goda’s soft breathing, because the room was in total silence, because the clock had stopped ticking, because the weights that drove the clock had already touched the floor and no one had changed them over.

Kanna slowly turned to look at the naked woman who was leaning against the door next to her. Goda’s face was empty again, unconcerned, the face of someone swimming in an eternal moment that never ended.

But there was something else, too. There was a small edge of tension in those muscles; not the tension of a creature in the midst of hesitation, but rather the posture of one easing to strike. Kanna drew in a sharp, shallow breath. Primal fear washed through her, but by now she knew how to face it, and what it really meant.

The giant took hold of her neck and squeezed.

When Goda lashed out at her, Kanna did not waste her time acting shocked. She met Goda’s kiss with an open mouth, even as the woman dug her fingers into the back of Kanna’s head and roughly took a handful of her hair. Goda groaned into that mouth. Kanna felt the sound shooting into her bones through her teeth. She let the giant press her hard against the wall.

Still, Kanna made a production of fighting her off—because it was her job to not make things too easy. She pushed against Goda’s chest, so that she could feel the giant leaning harder, overpowering her, drawing her in against her struggles. When Goda stooped down to kiss her again, in the midst of their increasingly messy tangle of arms that were each grasping to touch and invade and caress, Kanna bit hard into the woman’s bottom lip.

Goda pulled back and pressed her hand to her own mouth. In her eyes, there was no pain, not even the ghost of a wince. She only looked serious, her eyes locked on Kanna’s face. She was mirroring Kanna’s focused stare, a stare of desire that was free from need or expectation—only a knowing.

It made Kanna feel naked, even though her robes remained slickly against her skin. Kanna gritted her teeth and gave Goda a look of disapproval. “The bed,” Kanna told her. “The bed!”

Goda jolted forward and grabbed Kanna by the neck of her robes and dragged her across the room. She threw her onto the mattress. She took hold of the bottom of Kanna’s robes and jerked the fabric up to uncover Kanna’s legs, and the sudden rush of air made Kanna shudder. She felt the confines of her clothes peeling wetly off her skin, until she was left with nothing, until there was no longer a barrier between her and Goda’s body.

Goda replaced the barrier with her mouth. She pressed it to Kanna’s neck, to her chest. She straddled Kanna’s hips to keep her still, though Kanna didn’t struggle anymore. Instead, she reached up and took Goda’s head in her hands and forced the woman’s face back up to hers. They kissed, and Goda’s breath flowed lightly into her. Kanna felt the edges of her eyes watering, but she didn’t know why.

The energy of her body was floating up again underneath her skin, but this time she didn’t resist it. She let that feeling melt into the spaces between her and Goda. She let her hand slip down along the front of the woman’s body, and she took a handful of what she found between Goda’s legs.

Goda huffed against Kanna’s lips in surprise, and this made Kanna smile.

She squeezed—not hard, just hard enough that she guessed it would make the giant writhe with discomfort, but Goda only pressed further against her. Instead, Kanna found that it was she who was taking in a nervous breath all of a sudden. She had never touched anyone like that before, and the sensation was as jarring as it was arousing.

It was warm. It was already slick with something, and that pleased her. Like the rest of Goda, it was hard and soft at the same time, which made it…different from what Kanna had there herself.

That was not completely surprising. She remembered when she had stolen a few glances during Goda’s shameless baths, that it had looked a little different, but she hadn’t thought much of it because everything about the Middlelanders was different. But touching it now, it felt different, too, much more than it had merely looked, especially now that Goda was….

Kanna shook her head. It was no time to bother with thoughts. Regardless of the shape of the skin there between them, its growing warmth aroused her just the same, and it sent the pulse of her heart throbbing down to the place that mirrored it on her own body. She reached up with her other hand and pulled at Goda’s hair, urged her into another kiss, felt their ragged breaths mingling together in the otherwise silent room.

Goda seized her roughly. It knocked the air out of Kanna’s lungs; it sent that energy beneath her skin up and out of her body, where she felt it fuse with Goda. Her nerves were racked with shock, with the beginnings of a sensation that seemed like it would either transmute into a tantalizing fire or else force her into stiff resistance again.

But she didn’t have the time to find out. With a loud crack, the door to the room flung open and rammed against the wall. Kanna felt herself collapse back into the shell of her skin. She turned her head on reflex, and she sensed the woman on top of her convulse similarly with surprise.

In the middle of the threshold, eyes opened wide with panic, hands digging hard into the frame of the door, stood the boy who had been on his deathbed. He was no longer shuddering; his face had regained its color. Kanna had barely recognized him.

He didn’t seem disturbed by what he saw in front of him. Something else was fueling his urgency. Kanna thought she could hear the sound of pounding boots in the distance along with some voices, but the thumping that boomed from the front of the house quickly overwhelmed it all. It sounded like a huge fist slamming against a door.

The boy glanced over his shoulder once, then turned again to scream at them, “Soldiers!”


Onto Chapter 23 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 21: Freedom

The thunder that followed nearly drowned out the last edges of Goda’s words. It shook the ground and vibrated against the sides of the well, sending shock waves through Kanna’s bones, rattling her joints and making it hard for her to keep propping herself up. Even with the rain dropping into her eyes, she could not tear her gaze away from the woman who stood over her.

Lightning cracked again through the sky and the metal around Goda’s wrist gleamed more brilliantly than before. In response, Kanna pulled her own cuff tight against her chest. She could feel its oppressive edges digging through her soaked robes and into her ribs. She shook her head over and over. She couldn’t accept any of it. She shouted up through the rain at Goda, “How? How is that even possible?”

Goda looked at her for a long time. The rain had transformed into freezing pellets, water so sharp and cold that Kanna wondered if they were being showered with tiny hailstones—but Goda did not even shiver against it.

“This cuff,” Goda said, running her fingers against the metal on her arm. “It has a battery like yours. If its twin cuff is opened early—if my prisoner escapes or I let her go—then it unloads its charge all at once and I die.”

Kanna shuddered in the rain. She could barely move her jaw to speak anymore and the muscles of her face convulsed with the rest of her. “I don’t understand.” She swallowed some water that had fallen into her mouth. She furrowed her brow and shook her head again. “You’re lying! What you’re saying just isn’t possible. Why would you be a slave? Why would they send a slave to transport another slave? It’s ludicrous! It’s nonsense!”

“This was the job they gave me—transporting runaway criminals who had fled into the Outerland. It’s a job no one wants. It’s dangerous. It’s very easy to die, and if I try to escape or I tamper with my bonds or I fail to deliver on time, this cuff will end my servitude very quickly.”

“What kind of godforsaken country is this? What kind of perverse reality do you people live in?” Kanna shouted. This time she jerked her head towards the sky, as if to catch a glimpse of some deity who could answer her. Instead, another flash of lightning nearly blinded her, another crack of thunder shook the inside of her ears. “If what you say is true, that’s not a punishment, that’s a walking death sentence!”

“Yes.” Goda’s voice sounded so calm, so empty of emotion that it chilled Kanna to her core. It was like she was hearing the voice of someone who had already been stiffened by that final shock. “I was convicted of a capital crime when I was sixteen. I was too young to be legally executed, so they gave me a life sentence instead. But they’d prefer if I die. My job is designed to kill me.”

The rain made it too hard for Kanna to keep her head up anymore, so she let it hang down, and she pressed her chin against her chest. She felt the water roll in torrents from her hair, to her face, to her neck, to her shoulders, down into every crevice beneath her clothes.

Among the cacophony of thoughts that were bursting through her mind, one memory stood out among the rest. Even then, days later, bruised and numb, she could remember the words as vividly as if she were experiencing them for the first time again.

You’re lucky, anyway,” Goda had told her the first night they met. “Your slavery is temporary. What is it, a ten-year sentence? Not everyone is quite so fortunate.”

My father has life.”

Better than death.”

Better than death.

Better than death.

Kanna pressed her hands to her face, and felt her tears flowing anew. They were burning hot against the contrast of the freezing rain. They began washing the numbness from her face, but she didn’t want it—she wanted to stay numb. There was a pain in her chest that she had never felt before; it was like a splinter in her heart, but it had erupted from the inside.

You don’t have the right to judge that sort of thing from where you sit, with your hands on the other end of that rope,” Kanna had snapped at Goda that night. “People like you aren’t sympathetic to people like me.”

You don’t have the right to judge.

People like you. People like me.

From her perspective now, from the lens of that person who was coiled up in the mouth of a well in the relentless rain, she could suddenly see the irony of everything she had said to Goda before. She had insulted the woman, had judged her, had resisted her, had played the role of her master’s victim perfectly—and yet Goda Brahm was not only a slave, but she was worse off than even Kanna was.

The world wanted Goda to die. Kanna had even felt that seething hatred against Goda in the vision she had experienced as she lay in bed less than an hour before. It had terrified her. Even the priestess had….

Even the priestess.

Kanna turned her wrist over and looked at the key that Priestess Rem had given her. The woman had told her how to unlock the cuff and escape Goda. The woman had to have known what would happen next. Kanna couldn’t imagine that it was some secret that Goda would die. Even Jaya seemed to have known, and had tried to keep Goda from falling into a trap.

Priestess Rem Murau had meant to kill Goda.

No, Kanna thought quickly. That just couldn’t be true. Priestess Rem had been trying to help Kanna. Priestess Rem had been one of the few kind souls Kanna had met at the monastery, the one person who did not judge her for who she was, the one person who had been willing to lead her to sacred ground and show her the Goddess.

But she could remember Rem’s words on that last morning, just as clearly as she had remembered Goda’s words from the first night: “I am using you, Kanna. To avoid sinning against the Goddess, I am putting the choice in your hands instead of mine.”

Kanna couldn’t accept it. Everything suddenly made a lot more sense, but she still couldn’t find it in herself to accept this whole conspiracy. It was too perverse. How could Goda’s country—and her own God—have forsaken her to that degree? What crime could possibly have been so terrible that it deserved such a cruel punishment, that it warranted a mass of bureaucrats conspiring to kill her by the letter of the law?

Still, Kanna shook her head. She looked up at Goda. “I don’t believe you,” she said finally. “I can’t believe you.” But she erupted in a bone-shaking sob because she did believe it, and it made her no longer want to live in the world she had found herself in, a world where she had to kill to save herself.

She wondered if it would have been easier to kill Goda if she had just made use of that steel baton the first night—but then she remembered that the weapon didn’t exist, that Goda had made it up, that Goda’s threats had been as empty as the bottomless darkness in those black eyes.

Those eyes looked down upon Kanna now. They hovered closer than before. Goda had come to kneel against the edge of the well, her arms spread on either side of the hole like a pair of wings. Her body blocked some of the rain so that the barrage of sensation against Kanna’s skin had reduced to a trickle. The wind blew across them, but Kanna could barely hear it.

Goda had soaked up all of her awareness. Her thoughts ended. Her body felt light and numb, but her consciousness was sharp. Even the shadows on Goda seemed to throb with new colors and details that Kanna had not noticed before. There were spots and stripes that glowed on the woman’s skin, like the tribal markings of a ferocious warrior, like the etchings on the fur of a wildcat.

Light flashed again, and the colors swirled into ribbons. They danced and slithered like snakes. Kanna’s eyes widened with fear. She jerked back.

And the ledge that she had been relying on to carry her weight gave in. She shuffled to catch herself, but she wasn’t fast enough. Her arms were like dead weights in her waterlogged sleeves.

She fell.

The darkness of the pit came up to meet her. She could see it widening. It was surfaceless, like the source of the spring, like Goda’s eyes. She knew she would fall forever.

She was dying.

Then the sensation of a sharp set of claws digging into her wrist snapped her back to life. She looked up, but could only make out a show of vague shadow and flickering light. She winced as she felt her arm nearly hurled out of the socket of her shoulder.

She didn’t realize what the force meant until she had been yanked over the edge of the well.

Kanna fell into the dirt. Her mouth sucked in mud as she heaved, as she felt all her senses returning in one grand rush, as she felt the numbness dissolving. Her hands dug into the ground and the rocks below her pressed painfully into her fingers. The rain fell hard onto her back. The wind blew intolerably cold air all around her, making her teeth chatter.

She had never been so uncomfortable—but she had never been so grateful for the pain. She was alive.

Goda was lying next to her on the ground. The momentum had knocked her over as well. She was looking up at the sky, her face serene, as if she had been stretched out on a warm rock in the light of the morning sun. Goda was laughing.

Kanna stared at her with astonishment. Clearly, the woman had lost her mind.

“Are you crazy?” Kanna shouted at her. She spat out a clump of dirt. At first, Kanna thought that the feeling coursing through her had been confused anger, but as soon as the words had left her mouth, she found that she was also laughing.

They were both crazy.

She and Goda lay next to each other in the mud, in the middle of a thunder storm, and they laughed for a reason that Kanna’s mind could not directly comprehend. She felt the laugh coming from somewhere outside of her, almost as if it rose up out of the ground and into her body.

The feeling faded just as quickly as it came, though, when Goda turned to look at her and Kanna’s fearful thoughts returned. She began to pull away, but Goda took her wrist again. Kanna struggled to shake her hand away, but Goda was stronger, and she kept Kanna steady, and with two fingers she gingerly held the key and lifted it up just slightly.

Kanna thought she heard a pop.

Goda turned the lock. “You were pressing it in too hard. You can take it off now. Undo the latch and that’ll pull it open.” Goda had stopped laughing, but her smile had not faded.

Confused, Kanna did not reply, and Goda nodded her head at what Kanna refused to ask.

“Kill me,” Goda said.

Kanna ripped her wrist away from the giant’s grasp and pressed her hand to her chest once again. She stared at Goda with bewilderment. “Are you crazy?” she repeated.

“Isn’t that what you want, though? You want to be free—and for that to happen, I have to die. So kill me, Kanna Rava. You’ve won.”

Kanna froze. Even if Goda’s words were as genuine—and insane—as they seemed to be, after all of the struggle, she couldn’t believe that the woman would let her go that easily. “What?” Kanna huffed, her breath coming out visibly into the air in front of her. “I can’t kill you, I….” She tried to sit up, but found that her clothes were sticking to the ground. “Why did you chase me down if you just wanted to die? Are you completely out of your mind?”

Goda’s smile had not lost its serenity. The incongruity made Kanna more nervous than before. “What you saw when I chased you was fear. You saw the last pieces of a character named Goda Brahm,” Goda said, “and even Goda Brahm wants to live. That’s the oldest, and longest, and most constricting of all the snakes—the one that clings to survival—and even I haven’t been able to rid myself of it. The story of Goda Brahm is still one that I cannot completely let go of, and it makes me afraid of death, and so I chased you like any other animal triggered by its impending demise. But I know by now how to stifle and suppress that animal if I try hard enough—even if I’ve never been able to permanently dissolve it.” Goda, who was free from the confines of her robes, had an easier time getting up. “Kill me while that animal is sleeping. It is the will of the Goddess. I knew I would die soon, just not like this. It took me by surprise, but I must accept it nonetheless. Fate assigned me as your porter because you would be the one to kill me. It’s clear to me now.”

Kanna slid back in the mud, as if Goda were attacking her, even though the woman had made no move towards her. “What are you talking about?” Kanna screamed. “I’m not going to kill you! Even on the very first night we met, I already told you that I’m not a killer!”

“Do it fast!” Goda said, already stretching up to her feet. A rumbling had began to vibrate through the ground, but this time it was not thunder. “The train is getting ready to leave.”

Kanna’s gaze shot across the empty lot and towards the rails, and she saw that it was true. The train was already shuddering and shaking with life. A loud horn sounded through the air, and the waves bounced off the tall buildings of glass that sprouted up all around them.

Kanna bit her lip. She managed to unstick herself from the ground, to roll up onto her knees.

“I can’t…kill you,” she said.

But then, as the train began to inch forward with a brief jerk, Kanna bolted onto her feet and dashed past Goda towards the train. Her eyes locked on the freight car she had seen before. She ran for her life, even though she knew that Goda was not following her. Within moments, she had hopped onto the ledge of the moving car and had unbolted the door and had used all her strength to force it open.

It only slid open a tiny amount—but it was enough. She slipped through.

She collapsed onto the floor of the train as it rolled very slowly down the tracks. She looked up in the dark, and she could see crates stacked to the ceiling, commodities headed to the Upperland. She supposed that she had become one of those, too. In days, she would be another cog in that familiar machine once again, and this gave her a comfort that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

But still, her heart pounded in her chest. Every beat was painful. She tried to suppress what the pain meant, but she knew. She forced herself to stay. When she lifted her head to look through the crack in the door, she could see Goda strolling along next to the slowly-moving train, as if taking a pleasant summer walk.

The woman was looking at her. Kanna knew that there was no way Goda could see her in the dark train car, but somehow she felt that those eyes were piercing straight through her. Kanna felt the tears coming again, so she turned around and pressed her face to the crate behind her and clung to the wood as solidly as she could. Her small fingers slipped into the space between the panels. Her fingertips grazed against something dry and fluffy inside, but she didn’t pay attention to it much at first.

It wasn’t until the train began to speed up, until the crates began to jostle with the motion, that she opened her eyes, because she knew that Goda would be unable to keep up with the car. She turned around to finally undo the cuff. Some of the sticky leaves that had filled the crate had smudged onto her fingers, but she didn’t mind it, and under the light of another flash in the sky, she took hold of her bonds.

Then she saw the withered white flowers that coated the back of her hand. They were barely stuck with mild electric tension, and so the wind coming in from the crack in the door quickly blew most of them away.

But she could not unsee what she had seen.

They’re sending Death to the Upperland?

Kanna twisted her head around, and looked at all the crates stacked end-to-end, top-to-bottom, filling almost every corner of the car. How many crates held Flower? How many train cars filled with those crates? There was no way to tell from where she was sitting.

She didn’t even know that much Samma Flower existed on the face of the Earth. Everyone had told her it was nearly extinct.

Before she could dive deeper into her bewilderment, though, something reminded her sharply to stay awake. She was pulled from her thoughts by the nerve-burning electricity of the cuff. It pulsed through her as it always did, but this time—instead of reacting with shock and resistance—she looked down at her wrist. She sat there.

The pain had become…a feeling. Just a sensation. Not good or bad.

Could it have been that the reason those initial, mild shocks had always hurt so much was because she had resisted them? Because her muscles had always tensed up and she had always tried to run from the pain—from her own body?

No, she thought. It just couldn’t be. Pain was pain.

And indeed, as the distance from Goda grew, so did the suffering, and eventually her body did tense up to resist it, and eventually it did become intolerable. She fought with herself. She gripped the cuff latch with her hand. She knew she could not delay for much longer, or else the shocks would paralyze her and she would be unable to free herself once and for all.

To free herself. To leave Goda Brahm and to go back to the freedom of the Upperland.

Her breath hitched. A shock worse than the pain of the cuff flowed through her just then.

Because she had never been free.

She had never been free…until she had met Goda Brahm.

The train rumbled along. Kanna pressed her hand hard against the cuff, curled her fingers under the latch. She sucked in a sharp breath, a stifled sob.

In the Upperland, she had never had reason to cry. She had lived without a single need unmet. She had slept in a comfortable bed, had never gone hungry a day in her life, and had enjoyed the freedom to roam the meadows and live in the midst of a leisure that none of her countrymen could afford. Every Upperlander craved to live the way she did. She would have been crazy to want to give that up.

But she had never been happy. She had never felt happiness in her life until the instant she had lain in the mud next to Goda Brahm and stared up at the broken sky.

How is that possible? Kanna’s mind screamed as the train hurtled faster and faster.

Her muscles already seizing up, Kanna wondered if she had realized too late. She gritted her teeth. With a painful jerk, she pushed herself to the door—and with the last of her strength, she jumped shoulders-first out of the train.


Onto Chapter 22 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 20: The Dance of Monster and Prey

“Stop! Stay back!” Kanna screamed. Her voice echoed through the room, but the word cracked in her throat, and it sounded weak when it bounced back into her ears. She had stopped fumbling with the key; her fingers had stiffened with fear and she was afraid her ticket to freedom would slip from her grasp. She leaned into the door again, but her legs had seized along with her hands.

The giant sat up. The sheets slid down her chest as she crouched forward and peered through the room at Kanna. In the bright beams of moonlight that shot through the glass, Kanna could clearly see the look on Goda’s face—the gaze that had landed straight onto that silver key in Kanna’s hands, the eyes that had widened and added a bright, shining white to the bottomless darkness. The giant’s mouth was slightly parted. Her expression had lost its emptiness. It was full of something for once.

Kanna realized that it was the first time she had ever seen Goda genuinely shocked. But after only a beat to honor the confusion, Goda’s hand shot to the night table beside the bed, and she snatched the keyring that she had set there earlier in the evening. Her fingers pressed around the Maharan pendant that Kanna had seen many times before, but this time Goda’s thumb flicked against one of its sides, and the piece—which had seemed so solid before—snapped open.

There was a compartment inside. It was empty.

Goda looked up again, her eyes still pulsing with astonishment, her hand gripping the pendant in a fist so tightly that her arm was twitching. “How did you get that?” she said.

She didn’t wait for an answer. She ripped the sheets from the bed and began to stand up. Jerked into a primitive urge to flee as soon as she saw the naked woman stalking towards her, Kanna found her strength again and began pushing through the door.

“Drop it!” Goda shouted. In two long strides, she had rushed towards Kanna, a look of urgency replacing the surprise. The muscles of her neck flexed so harshly that Kanna could see the veins throbbing. “Drop it now! Now!” She reached towards Kanna’s hands.

But Kanna was shaking her head, stumbling over her own legs, looking around desperately for something to fend the giant off. She saw Goda’s satchel by the door. She grabbed it by its long strap and reached back to pop the handle of the door. She dragged the bag with her when she nearly fell backwards through the threshold.

“Don’t come any closer!” Kanna yelled. She tried to slam the door in Goda’s face, but Goda kicked it all the way open and it knocked Kanna backwards onto the ground. Kanna slid across the floor, struggling to not drop the key as she tried to undo the knot of the bag. “Stay back! I’m warning you! Stay back, stay back!”

Goda did not listen. She stooped down to emerge from the dark room like some beast stepping heavily out of a cave, but still the top of her head grazed the wood of the threshold with an unpleasant scrape. It made Kanna shudder. The bare rage that Kanna saw on the woman’s face sent her scrambling to her feet, but as soon as she did, a grating sound rang out through the hallway that made the both of them turn their heads.

Kanna found that yet another dark pair of eyes—the pupils stretched open beyond reason—had swallowed her up in an unwavering gaze. The boy was outside of his room. He was shuddering so wildly that he couldn’t walk without teetering from side to side against the walls, and his mouth was slack with the look of a man who had been stabbed in the gut. His body was ghostly pale, the bath of light from the electric hall lamps painting his skin in glowing patterns that had inexplicably begun to spin, to twirl, to writhe the more Kanna looked upon them.

Snakes. On this face, his hands, his chest. They were flowing and dancing like the ones on the wall of the cave. He was shrieking as they twisted on the surface of his skin.

Kanna screamed back at him, terrified out of her mind, and she shot through the hallway at full speed to get away. She dashed through the main room and then out the open back door without even looking over her shoulder to see what Goda had done.

It was only once she was halfway to the hole in the fence that she heard the heavy footfalls pounding in the dirt right behind her. It wasn’t Goda’s usual patient trudge this time; the woman was running.

“Stop!” Goda screamed at her. “Drop the key! You don’t know what you’re doing! Drop it!”

It was hard to sprint at full speed and unlock the cuff at the same time, so Kanna slung the satchel over her shoulder and slowed down at little to maneuver the tiny key. She knew she wouldn’t be able to run very far without ridding herself of Goda once and for all. Looking over her shoulder at the looming silhouette that grew ever closer, she jammed the key hard into the lock.

It fit.

But when she tried to turn it, it wouldn’t budge.

“Shit, shit! Goddamn this piece of shit!” Kanna cried. She jiggled the lock as she ran through the break in the fence and began pounding as fast as she could down the gravel road, because she could feel the presence of Goda gaining on her.

This time, Goda had not slowed intentionally to make Kanna feel the shocks. She was hurrying just as quickly as Kanna was, just as desperately, as if they were both running for their lives together. Seeing no choice in the matter anymore, Kanna ripped the chord that held the satchel open, and she finally reached inside for the steel baton. One good blow to the head, she thought. If I can throw it from here, even better. Goda was merely steps away.

But when her hand grazed that cylinder, it was not the cold metal she had expected. Bewildered, she pulled it out just as Goda had reached her. She looked down. It was a long scroll made of animal hide.

She lied, Kanna thought with astonishment.

Having no time to think anything else, she turned and flicked it through the air at Goda’s face. The woman caught it before it made impact. She seemed to glance down at the scroll with some concern, as if she were scanning for damage, but when Kanna resumed jostling the lock, Goda dropped it onto the ground and hastened her stride.

“Don’t open that! Let it go!” Goda’s voice was already raw. “You don’t know what you’re about to do, you imbecile!”

Kanna turned her focus back towards the path. She broke out into a full sprint again. She ran faster than she ever had in her life. She closed her mind off to anything else besides the road in front of her and paid no attention to the scenery that whipped by faster and faster. She ignored the pain in her lungs. She ignored the pain in her bare feet as her skin cut against the rocks below her and reopened her wounds from days before.

She dashed across the landscape, feeling the distance finally start to grow between her and the giant. She put every ounce of energy into her muscles, though she knew in the back of her mind that she would have to be careful to keep things balanced; she could lead Goda on a chase, but she could only stray so far before the shocks would come and leave her helpless on the ground. The best she could do for the moment, she decided, was to try to exhaust the giant and then slip out of sight.

When they reached the edge of town, Kanna’s eyes snapped towards the ground and she made note of the tracks. She ducked behind a building near the railway line and weaved through an empty alleyway that seemed like it could lead to where the Bou twins had told her the station was.

She heard Goda’s feet still beating on the ground behind her, but the falls had grown slower. She’s a giant, Kanna thought, so she’ll tire faster than me. This small sliver of hope kept her going. She emerged from behind the building and look a sharp turn behind another—one made of glass and stone—hoping to lose the monster that was pursuing her.

She sprinted through this alley, too—but this time, it wasn’t entirely devoid of life. She had to push past a few confused civilians, and she nearly knocked down an old man as he emerged from a storefront nearby. She barely noticed. She didn’t have time to check to see who she had hurt as she cut through the crowd.

It was only when she saw the familiar sign up ahead that she realized where she had unwittingly led Goda in her haste. Paradise, it read. Even in the middle of the night, there were figures that she could see hovering behind the curtain. In fact, there were more than there had been during the day.

The whining buzz that she had now come to recognize as the shrine’s call rang in her ears. No! she screamed inside her mind. No, no, no! Not now! As the feeling of her inner body began to separate again from the anchor of her bones, she knew that she was faced with a choice: She could keep running, down through a dark alley that led into some unknown place she had never been; or, she could try to slip through the bath house before the shrine overtook her, and emerge from the other side as she had earlier in the day. In her mind, she could still picture the back doorway of the main pool, the opening that let out near the tracks.

She burst through the curtain of shadow puppets. What seemed like a hundred eyes turned towards her with shock, and a garden brimming with naked women filled the whole of her vision. She dashed towards them, broke through the crowd while brushing her skin against skin. She knocked her side against one of the trees and a few fruits fell down.

Goda was yelling something behind her, but she couldn’t hear it clearly anymore. The whine in her ears came louder and louder. She jumped into the threshold that led to the pool, and the cry of the shrine grew into a powerful rumble, like the sound of a rushing waterfall pounding against her eardrums—or the sound of a runaway train.

She sprinted through the spring’s chamber, barely having time to notice that the snakes on the wall were coiling and slithering against each other. She ran through the small corridor at the back, her eyes trained on the smudge of dim moonlight that she could see at the end. Footfalls vibrated not far behind her, and they seemed to even grow in number, as if they had divided into three or four sets of legs instead of just one. Still, she didn’t look back; she pushed forward.

She took one hard step onto the ground outside—and that was when the point of her awareness suddenly ripped back. She was no longer in her body. She was up, over herself, gazing at the back of her own head.

And then she was further back still. She was in another body, pain coursing through all her muscles—the pain of exhaustion and something else still—and to her complete bewilderment, she was watching Kanna Rava running just a dozen paces ahead.

On instinct, she tensed up. For just a fraction of a second, this twitch actually seemed to ripple through the body she was in, and the legs came to a halt. “Gah!” a deep voice burst from the chest.

In that exact moment, Kanna snapped back into her own body. She was running parallel to the tracks, her bones and joints and muscles moving almost automatically. Completely flabbergasted, she turned to look behind her and saw that Goda was staring at her, pausing in the middle of the road, with a similarly astonished gaze.

But Kanna kept running, and so the creature gave chase again. They ran through the main street, past boarded up food stalls and market tents that had been tied closed—all of which slowed Kanna down, but allowed her to weave through obstacles to evade the much larger Goda. This only seemed to make the beast grow more infuriated. There were no words anymore; its grunts and growls were those of an animal. It rampaged through the path and ripped through canvas walls and even broke its way through wooden panels to claw at her.

When Kanna found herself trapped between several carts that were too heavy for her to move, she tried to duck underneath one of them, but Goda was right behind her as she stooped down.

The giant caught one of Kanna’s ankles and jerked it back until Kanna fell face-first into the dirt.

Then Goda was on top of her, straddling Kanna’s back, her breaths heaving and ragged and husky, her angry grunts moving like waves down her body and shaking through Kanna’s own ribs. It felt more like the rev of an engine than the voice of a woman.

Goda snatched Kanna by the wrist. Kanna’s struggles were useless against those inhuman hands, though her writhing did slow Goda down, and the woman tried to steady the cuff so that she could pull the key out. She took it between two fingers gingerly, as if her movements had to be precise.

Kanna craned her neck up, with the full intention to bite as hard as she could into those fingers—but then a loud crack echoed through the little street. It was followed by a metallic ringing and a cry from the monster above her.

All of a sudden, Goda was on the ground next to her. The woman was holding onto her own head with her hands. A smear of blood had appeared between those fingers.

Kanna looked up. Two silhouettes—long like a pair of shadowy towers in the skyline—hovered over her. It took her a moment to realize in the growing cloudiness that they were human, and that they stared down at her with twin smiles. One of them dropped a heavy brass pot onto the ground. “Run!” the other urged her.

Goda was already getting up. She was reaching for Kanna again, but this time two pairs of arms had snaked around the giant’s torso, and two familiar young women were grappling Goda into the dirt.

“Go!” Noa called out to her again, pushing Goda’s head down with both hands as the giant snarled and swung her arms every which way. “She’s huge! We can’t keep her back for long! Stop staring and run, kid!”

Before Kanna had even finished crawling under the cart, Goda had already begun to stand, the twins sliding off her body like a drapery of old clothes. Noa stretched up to swing her arm around Goda’s neck and Goda sent her to the ground with a punch to the face—but Leina took hold of Goda’s leg, and this gave Kanna just enough time to escape to the other side and start running again.

She could see the trading building up ahead. As the path opened up more, she followed the tracks with her eyes, searching for that sanctuary she had hoped for. The moon by then had been covered up by a veil of clouds, which had drowned the street in darkness. When she finally saw the train station, it was like a beacon of light breaking through the haze. The train was parked beside a wide loading area, but because it was so close to midnight, there was no one else wandering about. It looked ghostly and she couldn’t tell if there was anyone on the other side of those tinted windows.

She bolted towards her goal with the last of her strength. When she climbed those old stairs up to the empty platform, she felt like she had reached the top of a mountain—but she was barely a step or two on solid ground before the first wave of lightning buzzed through her arm.

“No!” she screamed, collapsing onto her knees right on the spot. She gritted her teeth. She scooted back onto the steps, even though the pain had already faded—which she knew meant that Goda had grown closer—and she wrestled with the key to try to force the lock to turn. She pressed hard against it. She pressed so hard that for a moment she was sure she would break the key in half, but instead her hand slipped and rammed against the edge of the cuff. The new gash on her thumb started bleeding immediately.

“No, no!” She slammed her wrist again and again on the steps. “Work, goddamn you! Get off me! Get off me, you goddamn piece of Middlelander bullshit! Let me go!”

But the cuff had been suspiciously silent for too long, so she knew she had to move because Goda was close. She had to find somewhere to hide where she could work the cuff off her wrist before Goda could find her. She hopped off the platform, jogging around the station building and towards the back of the train, vexed by the question of where she could even stow away without being seen. She glanced around frantically and noticed that there were some freight cars at the tail end; she wondered if she could hide among the cargo.

Of course, that would be the first place Goda would look. Worse, if she wasn’t able to get the cuff off before the train started, the distance between her and Goda would grow quite rapidly and the shocks would start pulsing in no time. She didn’t know how much electricity was stored in the cuff and how long the shocks could go on, or even if the thing would kill her before it let up. She didn’t want to find out.

She glanced up at a huge clock that ticked away above a timetable display on the platform. It was exactly 17 minutes until midnight. She had to hide somewhere else and work fast to free herself, she decided—then, in the last seconds, she could make a final dash for one of the freight cars and hop into it just as the train was leaving. Goda was fast, but there was no way that the giant could outrun a train.

Shuddering with nervous energy, Kanna snuck as quietly as she could around the tracks, looking for a suitable hiding place. She heard trudging in the distance, not too far off, and when she glanced over her shoulder, she could see a naked woman with broad shoulders standing in the light of the platform. The woman was looking to and fro, blood tricking down from the side of her face, angry scratch marks all over her chest, but she did not seem to notice Kanna cowering in the darkness.

Holding her breath, Kanna slipped behind the other side of the train. The area around her was flat, and free of bushes, devoid of anything she could easily hide behind. But then she noticed what looked like a circle of bricks arranged on a little rise not too far from the back of the train. As she neared it, she saw that the hole it enclosed was dark, but it was way too small of a place for a giant to fit.

For once, Kanna thanked the gods for making the Upperlanders small, and she crawled legs-first into the old water well. Her movements echoed enough that she realized it was deep, which made her nervous, but shortly after lowering herself in, her feet pressed into a ledge on the side of the wall. She didn’t know if it had been built that way or if the bricks had settled and popped out over time, but she was grateful again that fate was on her side. Either way, the walls were narrow enough that she could press her shoulder on one side and keep herself steady by propping her foot on the other side.

She felt for the key in the dark. She forced herself to be patient this time, to be calculating. She tried turning the key with a little bit of tension, then a bit more. She thought she could feel some of the tumblers springing loose, though she couldn’t be certain.

A light flashed overhead. A low rumble followed. She ignored what she realized seconds later was thunder, and she ignored the gush of sudden rain as well, even as it pelted uncomfortably on the back of her head like an barrage of tiny bullets.

What she couldn’t ignore, though, was the presence. She had not heard anything. There was no voice, not even the sound of breathing. She hadn’t seen any shadows because there was no light to help cast them.

But she felt the presence.

Kanna slowly looked up. She could barely make out an outline, but she wondered if maybe it was a tall, faraway tree that only seemed close because of the angle. Lightning cracked overhead once again, flickering in the sky like a pulse of broken lamplight.

It was bright enough for her to see for one flash—for one half-second—the face that stared down upon her. Even after the light disappeared, those two inhuman eyes were burned into her mind.

She thought that maybe she should let go and fall into the well. She thought that maybe this would be a more painless end, because clearly the monster standing above her was meaning to kill her. She had seen it in the eyes, in the bared teeth, in the tense muscles of that strong chest.

Goda crouched over the well and reached down towards her. Kanna could see the shape of those fingers inching closer towards her face. She recoiled to avoid them. She covered the cuff’s lock with her hand.

“Don’t touch me, Porter,” Kanna growled, her voice low, no longer frantic. It held all of her resolve. “If you reach any closer, I’ll jump down the well. I’ll kill myself. You’ll have nothing to deliver to Suda, not even a body.”

Goda’s arm stretched closer.

Do you think I’m joking?” Kanna screamed. “Pull back or I’ll jump! I swear to God I’ll do it!”

To her half-surprise, after a long moment’s pause, Goda did pull away. She stood back up from her crouch, she stared down at Kanna. Rain fell down upon them, and in the split-second light that would flicker here and there from the sky, Kanna could see that the water had come to coat every inch of Goda’s skin, had come to soak the woman’s hair. Goda was holding onto her own cuff with her right hand.

Kanna gritted her teeth and rammed her wrist hard against the wall a few more times, her frustrated cries echoing down the barrel of the well. Her foot nearly slipped as she moved, but she shuffled and caught herself. Her stomach dropped. She felt suddenly as hollow as the pit beneath her.

She didn’t want to jump. She didn’t want to die.

She felt the tears coming against her will. They forced their way through even as she fought them, even as she tried not to show Goda her weakness yet again.

Why?” she sobbed, her voice sounding like a hiss against the walls. “For God’s sake, why do you even care, Goda? After all of this trouble, does your job really mean that much? It’s not like you’re in my pathetic situation. You’re always free to just quit. They hardly even pay you, but still you choose to chase me around like your life depends on it.”

“It does.”

The sky cracked in half and Kanna caught sight of Goda’s now blank face in the spot of light. Thunder boomed in reply. Kanna stared up at the woman, her mind very suddenly empty of self-pity. Goda’s stoic voice had stopped the thoughts. She wasn’t sure if she had heard right at first, but then she decided that she had—and that it had made no sense.

“Stop speaking in riddles,” Kanna told her, clenching her jaw. “What is that even supposed to mean?”

“It means what I said. If I don’t take you to Suda, then I haven’t complied with the terms of my sentence. The punishment for that is immediate execution.”

Kanna coughed and turned her head and spat into the hole beneath her because the water had come into her nose. She felt the rain flowing down in fat rivers from the top of her head and into her eyes as well, so she had to blink a few times when she looked back up and tried to make sense of Goda’s face. “I…don’t understand,” she said. “Your sentence? That makes it sound like you’re…like you’re….”

When another storm of light flickered through the sky, Kanna saw that Goda had lifted up her own cuff-clad wrist. The woman nodded once, as if to confirm the thought that Kanna had refused to voice.

“I’m a slave,” Goda said.


Onto Chapter 21 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 19: Forty-Nine Minutes

A warm glow emerged from the back doorway of the house, and it filled the disheveled yard with a flickering bath of light. It made the twisted branches of the trees look alive, like they were moving over Kanna’s head. It also made the skin of Goda’s face swim, her expression looking soft and hard in turn.

There was a shadow in the door, backlit by the candles inside. Kanna was hiding beside Goda, tucked into the corner of her master’s robes, both her hands tightened along the neck of the sack she was carrying.

They had just walked in through the hole in the fence, and Goda had stopped suddenly, and so Kanna had stopped with her. At first, Kanna hadn’t been afraid of the form in the doorway ahead of them, but then she had noticed Goda’s reaction—one that reminded her of an animal stiffly sniffing the air—and she had grown wary.

It was a new person, a person who was stepping into the yard to join the two of them, but Kanna could not see their features until they passed through a patch of moonlight.

A woman with large brown eyes and a hardened face stared at them through the dark. “Are you the priestess?” she asked. She was looking at Goda; she did not even seem to notice that Kanna was there.

It took a moment for Goda to answer, but rather than confirm the woman’s assumption, she replied just as she had earlier in the day: “What do you want?”

“I’m Kahm Marahn, Mia Marahn’s wife.” She flicked her head back, as if gesturing towards the door behind her. Kanna realize then that she hadn’t heard their host’s name the whole time they had been there. Perhaps Goda had asked while Kanna had been avoiding the house. “Is it true that you’ve come to help our son?”

“We’ve come,” Goda said. The tone made the sentence sound finished, but Kanna still emerged slightly from her place under Goda’s wing to give the woman a questioning glance.

Nonetheless, their host seemed satisfied with the answer. She turned and seemed to expect them to follow, but her movements were slow, exhausted. “There’s dinner inside,” she said. “We can eat, then discuss the…details.” Kanna could sense a resistance in her along with the resignation.

When they sat at the wooden table near the kitchen—which was decorated with a centerpiece of candles surrounding an image of the Goddess—Kahm Marahn slid over to be next to her wife. She propped her elbows onto the table; she rubbed her face with her hands.

“He’s worse now,” she said. “Much worse. I really don’t know how much longer we can keep this going. We can’t even force-feed him anymore.”

There was food already served in front of them, but no one was touching it, and though at first Kanna’s hand had hovered over her plate in desperation, she forced herself to pull back. She thought that her hunger was too ravenous and that she’d be unable to politely pick at the sausage and cheese and yaw in a way that honored the gravity of the conversation.

She dropped her hands into her own lap. Her fingers brushed Goda’s thigh accidentally on the way down, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.

“Has his breathing grown ever more shallow?” Goda asked. “Eyes dark? Veins on his forehead pulsing?”

“Yes,” their original host—the woman who was apparently named Mia—answered. Her hands were folded and resting on the tabletop, and she too had yet to touch her food. “But you knew this. You suspected that he would get worse, didn’t you, Priestess?”

“At his stage, it only gets worse. He may not survive the night.”

Kanna was taken aback by Goda’s bluntness, but she held her tongue, and she glanced at the two women to see if they had been offended. She had to force herself not to turn away once she saw their faces; their paired streams of misery washed over Kanna, and she stiffened against it because she felt that this was no time to feel a rush of empathy. It was uncomfortable; she had never felt it quite so raw before.

Kahm was gritting her teeth, wringing her hands. Her stare had fallen on the Goddess at the center of the table, but her eyes were glazed over and unfocused. When she finally replied, it was little more than a whisper, “Then…we’ll leave it to you, Priestess.” She briefly exchanged a glance with her wife, and by their mutual expression, they seemed to be coming to a silent agreement. “We’ll have nothing to do with it. We won’t watch. If anyone ever asks, we know nothing. But if this is the only thing that will save him, then we’re really out of choices. We can’t lose our son.”

The woman named Mia looked up, her jaw set, a small edge of her sorrow transforming into something harder, more determined. “What do you need from us?”

“Only silence,” Goda said. “The bigger issue here is that you must understand what this means. This could be the beginning of greater troubles for you. If he lives, it’s probably because he can carry Flower—and if anyone finds out about it, that could be the demise of your entire household.”

Kahm turned away from the image of the Goddess. “Yes,” she said. “We know.”

Goda let the woman’s words hang in the air for a long moment, but eventually she nodded with acceptance, with finality. “Then go to bed tonight like any other evening. The girl and I will make the preparations outside, and then I will cast out the demons myself. If you hear anything, ignore it. The snakes do not unravel without a fight.”

Kanna—who had become ever more distracted by the plate in front of her—jerked her gaze up towards Goda with a curious glance. The snakes, she thought. She wondered if this was yet another one of Goda’s metaphors, or if the boy had been afflicted with the same hallucinations that Kanna had seen for herself.

The sound of scraping on wood brought Kanna’s attention back to the present moment quickly, though. She looked over to see Mia Marahn’s hand clasped over the head of the Goddess. She had dragged the idol off the table. She was pressing the Goddess’s face against her chest, as if to shield Her from some blasphemous sight.

* * *

Without any explanation, Goda had allowed Kanna to eat all of the food. Once their hosts had arisen from the table and gone to bed early without touching even a single morsel, Goda had loaded everything onto Kanna’s plate and told her to come outside.

As they wandered back into the yard, Kanna lost all sense of decorum in the dark, and she shoveled handfuls of her dinner into her mouth with no discrimination. She did not savor the meat or wince at the yaw. They had become the same. She ate every edible gram she could feel against her fingers, and her plate was empty by the time Goda pushed her down to sit in the dirt.

Just as she had done in the innkeeper’s dry garden, Goda was pulling twigs off the ground and stacking them in formation. Because the air smelled wet, though, Kanna thought to look up at the sky, and she saw that the moon was obscured by clouds.

“It looks like it might rain,” Kanna said. “Maybe you should find a stove inside if we need a fire.”

“The smell is too strong to make this potion in a house. It will linger in the walls, and this may be enough to attract unwanted attention if any soldiers wander in. Out here, it will dissipate.”

Kanna set her empty plate down and noticed that she was sitting near the spot where she had dropped the pouch of Flower earlier that day. Goda had only just picked it up and stuffed it back into her robes.

“What are we making, then?” Kanna asked. She had her suspicions; she had just never imagined she’d find herself in such a situation, sitting at the back of a stranger’s house, in a strange country, next to a giant who was aiming to brew some drug she had been warned against all her life.

Goda didn’t answer at first. She was distracted, already crouching over the pit she had built and lighting some tinder beneath the wood. “The Flower on its own is hard to consume without passing through a vessel,” Goda finally said after the fire had grown enough to sustain itself. “Almost everyone vomits the raw plant before it has any effect. But there’s a way to consume it by extracting its essence into a brew with distilled spirits. It’s not ideal, but the substances that carry the purging effect will mostly evaporate away, and it leaves just the medicine…and the poison. In some ways, this makes it more dangerous, but at least he’ll be more likely to keep it down.” She reached for one of the sacks that they had been carrying around town, that they had dropped in the yard before dinner. She untied it, but Kanna could not see inside, and Goda’s hand disappeared into its mouth, until she had pulled a metal pot out from its dark gullet.

In the light of the fire, the steel of the pot looked cheap, thin.

“Where’d you get that?” Kanna asked.

“Same place I got our first round of fuel. Underneath the tavern where I left you, there’s a bootlegger who lives deep in the cellar. He lent me this as well as some other things. He owes me a few favors.”

“Underneath…?” Kanna remembered their adventure in the alleyway. She scratched her head. “But isn’t the source of the spring under that tavern? You said there was a shrine there.”

Goda smirked, rubbing the bottom of the pot against the fabric of her robes, then turning it over to flick off pieces of rust. “Why do you think I made you wait for me? The cellar is too close to the shrine. You were already acting like you could feel it when we were above ground. We didn’t have time for another one of your breakdowns.”

Kanna made a face and sat back. She was annoyed enough to cross her arms, but when she thought about it, she hadn’t been in the mood for another weird experience, either. “It’s all the same,” she muttered. “I ended up going to the shrine near the pool in the bathhouse and being tormented there.”

“That was no shrine. What you saw were just modern religious carvings over some tourist-trap pool. It’s the ancient pre-Maharan shrines that the government hides from people that have the power to torment you; you were feeling the one that’s underground.” Goda ripped a piece of fabric from one of the sacks and began wrapping it around the bare handle of the pot.

“But why is this even happening?”

“You’ve grown sensitive. That underground shrine is sealed off and it’s very far away from where you were, but still it reached you somehow. The range seems to be widening. I wonder if it will try to contact you even after we leave town.” Goda dug her hands into the mysterious bag yet again, and she pulled out a small jar of fuel. She looked over at Kanna finally. “For your sake,” she said, “I hope that’s not the case. An aggressive message from a shrine is not a pleasant thing to receive. It’s always bad news, and sometimes it’s better not to know one’s fate.”

“But it wasn’t telling me about my fate,” Kanna murmured. She hesitated for a second, not sure if she should confess what she had seen, or even if she could articulate it. “It was telling me about you.”

Kanna stared at Goda quietly, but there was no reaction. When the woman turned back towards the fire, Kanna slid closer to her, reached out to rest her hand on Goda’s back.

“I’m not sure why, but I saw another piece of your life—or I think that’s what I saw. Why would it show me that?”

Goda’s eyes were trained on the root of the flames. “Because you asked for it, whether you intended to or not. As I told you, the shrines are picky. They will only offer visions to certain people, and even then only in times of conflict—then they will offer to lead you to a solution, though the meaning of the images may not be obvious at first.”

“Conflict?”

“Yes.” Goda looked at her again. Her eyes were blank, an endless void of darkness framed by the presence of a flickering light. “You are conflicted about something. You are full of indecision. The shrine is giving you advice—but the kinds of solutions it provides are always painful. Even the few people who are accosted by messages will usually not listen to them. People rarely have the courage to follow the instructions because the path always requires surrendering a piece of the self. You already know this is painful; it’s why you won’t surrender.” Goda pulled the sack even closer, but this time she arranged it behind them, and she came to lie down propped on top of it, as if it were some kind of pillow. “We’ll wait for the fire to grow a bit cooler, then we’ll brew,” she said.

Kanna turned to stare at Goda. For awhile, she examined the features of the woman’s face; she saw things that she liked and things that she found ugly—but both of these extremes attracted her just the same.

“It was you who pulled me out of the water, wasn’t it?” Kanna asked. She was sitting close enough, so she brought her hand over and laid it lightly atop Goda’s fingers. “You stopped me from drowning.”

Goda looked down towards the dirt at their joined hands, but she didn’t comment on it. Instead, she shrugged. “The pool was shallow. It was easy. You could have brought yourself to the surface just as easily once I was back in range and the shocks had stopped.”

“But I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.”

Yes, Kanna thought then. I’m conflicted. As she lay down to join her master, and she rested her head on Goda’s shoulder, she knew what the problem was.

It was the only problem she had with Goda.

Goda was always here and now—and she wanted that here and now to last forever.

I want to stay with her, Kanna admitted to herself. She winced and pushed her face harder into Goda’s robes, until her mouth was pressed against the edges where the woman’s chest met the bones of her neck.

But I can’t.

I can’t.

I can’t.

To her shock, she felt Goda’s arm sliding out beneath her, coming up to encompass her, coming up to hold her. Kanna took in a sharp breath, but she muffled it against Goda’s skin and hoped that the woman hadn’t heard that small sound of weakness.

“Why do I feel this way about you?” Kanna murmured aloud, her voice vibrating against those solid bones beneath her. It wasn’t the first time she had asked this.

“Because you don’t know anything about me,” Goda said. “You only know the way I look and the way I smell, which is pleasing to you. But you want more. You want the story of Goda Brahm. She is not who I am—she’s only a story—but the shrine will nonetheless tell you. It appears that it wants you to know, and once you catch even a glimpse of this, a new clarity will come and you’ll almost certainly feel differently than you do now.”

Kanna reached across and grasped Goda’s hand again. She pressed it against the left side of her own chest, where the tops of her ribs peaked out from the collar of Parama’s robes. Goda’s hand felt warm. “I don’t care what your story is,” Kanna murmured. “I only want to hear it so that I can know you. I won’t judge you for it, whatever it is. I’m not Priestess Rem.”

“You’ve judged everything else you’ve seen so far. Your head is swimming with judgments for every new thing you hear about. Most of your energy is spent on resistance. You won’t make an exception for me, I promise.”

“Then you don’t know me very well, either,” Kanna said, growing annoyed. Her hand still wrapped against two of Goda’s fingers, she moved the woman’s touch lower, and she felt it brush past her ribs and onto thicker flesh. She looked straight up at Goda’s face fearlessly.

Goda did not pull away. Her gaze met Kanna’s in the dark. Her breath flowed in a warm rhythm against Kanna’s mouth.

“Maybe I don’t,” she said.

When Goda finally did get up to stoop over the fire, Kanna had closed her eyes. She lay back against the rough fabric of the bag and she watched the silhouette of Goda Brahm conjuring Death in an old steel pot.

* * *

Kanna didn’t complain when Goda made her stand by the closed door of the boy’s room. She was terrified, much too afraid to even approach. She tried her best to tap into some feeling of compassion for the boy who was lying on his deathbed and heaving barely audible gasps, but the scene was so horrific that she could barely watch. His suffering made the room seem eerie and haunted, like it was indeed infested with demons.

It reminded her of her own death, she realized—and that was when a new feeling suddenly passed through her.

I’m selfish, she thought. For just a second, she felt it flowing coldly through her bones, like a starving, needy snake that twisted and turned and gnawed around every muscle beneath her skin. It slithered through her quickly and was gone, and it left her bewildered in its wake.

She pressed a hand to her face. She remembered what Goda had told her that morning about Middleland boys and how they often didn’t survive even their own birth. She forced her gaze up to look closely at the young man. Instead of a wince, this time a warm rush came up to the bottom of her eyes.

Of course his mothers are desperate. Kanna swallowed. She wondered why it hadn’t occurred to her before. Just that morning, she had been so distracted and annoyed at the idea that Middlelanders lived so differently from how they were supposed to live—from what she was used to—that her mind had completely glossed over the fact that they only lived like this because people often died before being born. People die, she thought, and I’m simply bothered that they don’t live like Upperlanders. Who knows how many sons these women have lost before him? Am I really this self-centered? Perhaps Goda is right; I spend almost every ounce of my power on judgments and opinions.

What she felt wasn’t exactly shame. It was only empty space where her judgment used to be. She still wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was unpleasant, so she tried to shake it off and turn her attention back to the drama unfolding before her.

She watched Goda standing over the boy, watched how the woman touched his face with her bare hand. Now that the parents had turned in, it seemed that the theatrics of playing a priestess were no longer necessary.

Goda stared down at him with full attention, with a raw look of concern. She had pressed her fingers against both sides of his jaw, had pinched his mouth open. With her other hand, she was holding a vial of the Flower concoction over the boy’s lifeless face. She tipped it slowly. It dribbled into that loosely opened mouth for a few seconds with no reaction.

Then quite suddenly, the boy was not so lifeless anymore.

He screeched so loudly that Kanna jumped up in surprise, hitting the back of her head against the wall. The crack was loud, too; it echoed along with the rumble from the writhing on the bed, and even through the pain Kanna worried that they were about to wake someone up.

But she remembered then what Goda had told the boy’s parents about the noise. She rubbed her head and turned her gaze back towards the bed, and she saw that Goda had ignored everything else in the midst of her utter focus. In fact, she had climbed onto the bed, and her knee was digging against the boys chest, and she had come to press her hand hard against his nose and mouth.

Swallow it,” Goda commanded.

The boy fought her. His chest jerked, as if he were about to heave.

“Hold it in!”

One of the boy’s arms seemed to abruptly gain some strength, and it shot up to smack Goda’s side. Goda snatched his wrist. She forced her weight on him some more. She pushed him down with both her legs and did not let up on his mouth.

Kanna watched, entranced, that familiar sensation of curiosity and fear oozing into her body. She was repulsed by her own reaction. She was repulsed when she realized that something in the boy’s gaze when he looked up at Goda had reminded her of herself.

In time, the boy’s body gave in. He swallowed Goda’s gift when it seemed he could not stand to live another second without a breath. He sunk limply into the bed and appeared to fuse into the mattress while Goda still hovered on top of him.

Kanna forced herself to look down at the messy lines of the floorboards beneath her. She did not look back up until she felt Goda’s approach, until she saw a large pair of feet padding in her direction.

Goda was wiping her hands against the front of her own robes. “It’s done,” she said, “but we won’t know what will happen for another few hours yet.”

Kanna watched as her master opened the door. “What do you mean?” She glanced back at the young man in the bed with the soaked sheets, the young man who was now gasping, taking in shallow breaths in rapid succession. Kanna realized for the first time that she was worried about what would become of him. She didn’t like it; she tried to brush the feeling off automatically, since on the surface it seemed like a new burden on top of all her other ones.

“I mean that he will either be dead,” Goda replied, stepping out of the chamber, “or we will have awakened another vessel.”

Kanna blinked and stared. She followed Goda down the hallway, struggling to keep up with the woman’s quick strides, her concern transforming quickly into outrage. “We’ll have awakened a what?” She gazed furtively over her shoulder, at the door she had left open just a crack in her haste. “Wait, wait! You knew this the whole time? You knew he was a potential…vessel, or whatever it’s called?” Kanna grabbed the back of Goda’s arm. “Tell me! What’s going on? Did you know?”

“I suspected.”

How?

When they had reached an unfamiliar door where Goda had stopped, Goda turned to look at her. “He has all the signs of a vessel on the verge of wakefulness. It’s not a beautiful sight—it’s similar to physical death, and indeed many of them do not survive the transformation—but he’s on the edge of cracking open. It’s obvious.”

Again, Kanna did not understand what it all meant. “But isn’t that a bad thing?” Kanna cried. “Why on Earth would you want to turn someone into a vessel? Couldn’t they get into huge trouble? Couldn’t we get in trouble for doing it? If these vessels get executed like you said, I can only imagine what happens to people who ‘awaken’ them.”

Goda shook her head. “Once they are infested with snakes, vessels don’t have a choice but to awaken. If they don’t have Flower, they’ll die.”

“And his parents know this? They asked you to do this knowing that he might be a vessel and that he’ll be persecuted for the rest of his life?”

“Even if they hadn’t asked, I would have given it to him anyway. This was why we came here, after all.”

Kanna’s face twisted; she gave Goda a look of complete incomprehension. “What are you even talking about? We came here because I accidentally crashed into their garden.”

“No,” Goda said, her gaze matching Kanna’s, her tone sounding as if everything she had said was something Kanna should have already known. “You crashed into the garden because in the future, we had come here to awaken a vessel.”

Before Kanna could fashion any kind of stuttering retort to this newest piece of nonsense, Goda had pushed against the door. A small room lined with stone on every side opened up before them. Because of the light that leaked in from the hallway, Kanna could make out a few details: a drain on the floor that seemed to lead outside, a water spigot coming out from the wall, a bucket tucked into the corner.

So this was where Goda had cleaned herself in the morning, Kanna thought.

“I touched him, so I have to wash the serpents from my robes,” Goda said, already starting to unfasten the front of her outer garments. “Go to our room and wait for me there.”

Kanna looked at her, as if to catch sight of these mythical snakes, but instead she saw flashes of skin above the collar of Goda’s shirt. She felt some heat rush up to her face, even though she had already seen Goda’s body many times, and much barer than what she was seeing then.

When she didn’t move, Goda smirked at her. “Unless you’d like for me to cleanse you, too, snake. The water is plenty cold enough.”

* * *

Kanna sat on the marital bed with her back against the headboard, her legs bent and open, her arms resting on her knees. She had tucked a pillow behind her shoulders. She appreciated the luxury of it because it felt like she had not lain on a real mattress in ages, even though she had just fled the comfort of her own bed only weeks before. From a military cot, to hard stone, to the floor of a storage shed, to the back of a truck, and then finally to a normal bed that she would share with Goda—she wasn’t sure which prospect had caused her the most discomfort. Her heart was beating faster. It competed with the ticking that droned on like a metronome through the room.

She had noticed the clock on the wall not long after she had entered the room by herself. It was mechanical, driven by a weight that inched down towards the floor with every swing of the pendulum. Middlelanders kept time with a different system of hours, but Kanna had learned about it from her tutors years before, and though it took her longer than it would have with an Upperland clock, she managed to decipher what the ticks and tocks of the dial meant.

The time was around two hours before midnight—or, rather, what the Middlelanders called “midnight,” which was a lot closer to dawn than she was comfortable with.

She knew that she’d be able to run into town fairly quickly, but to err on the safe side, she’d have to leave at least an hour early. On the other hand, she also didn’t want to leave too soon and have to loiter near the train station and risk getting caught.

She had an hour to decide how she would escape. An hour was enough.

The clock on the wall ticked and tocked. She turned away and instead stared at the door that was framed by her open legs on either side of her. She was waiting for Goda to appear in the doorway between those legs. When Goda appeared, she thought, she would look at the woman’s face one last time and then start plotting her escape.

The door creaked open just as she was thinking this, before she had time to prepare herself, before enough seconds on the clock had ticked by and lulled her into the trance she had been hoping for. Instead, she gazed up at Goda with the raw vulnerability of full awareness and surprise.

Goda was naked.

Kanna’s face burned, though she knew she should have expected this, too. What else would Goda wear if her clothes were still wet? It was just that Kanna had never seen the woman naked inside of an actual house, and for some reason this seemed unspeakably lewd. She grew only more uncomfortable when Goda closed the door behind herself, when she walked past the clock and began casting shadows against the walls in the flickering candlelight.

It was the abrupt sensation of intimacy that scared her, Kanna realized. She was alone in a room with a naked woman who was supposed to be her new wife. Even though Kanna knew that the only reason they were there was because of the stories she had spun, a small part of her still played along with the lies, and that part of her saw Goda as some eager groom wandering in shamelessly on their wedding night.

The only thing was that Goda’s face was blank as always, disinterested, not eager at all. As she approached the bed, she dropped her keys—and the pendant along with them—on top of the night table. She picked up the sheets and started peeling them off the bed with a yawn.

Kanna couldn’t take it anymore at that point. She slammed her hand on top of the quilt just as Goda was opening it. She looked up at Goda with a sneer on her face and Goda met her glance with only a light shade of curiosity.

“Why are you naked?” Kanna demanded. “Always naked. Even in a stranger’s house, you saunter around the hallways in the buff as if bathrobes don’t exist. Who are you trying to show off to? I can promise you that no one here wants to see your body.”

“Then don’t look,” Goda said. The smirk was not on her mouth, but it was in her eyes.

Kanna crossed her arms and allowed Goda to slide in next to her. In spite of every crazy thing the woman had said to her, every veiled threat that sent alarm bells ringing in her mind, Kanna’s body had seemed to not get the message at all. Even just the warm feeling of the woman beside her sent her blood rushing to unhelpful places, made her brain start losing touch with the past and the future and any plans she had laid out for herself.

Goda was now.

And Kanna had an hour to be with her. She looked at Goda’s face and saw that the woman was watching her, too. Some tense potential energy—like the violent flow of a river being pushed back—vibrated between them and through the bed, and Kanna was suddenly aware of it more than anything else in the room. She could feel it now more than she could before. She looked at the smirk that still remained on Goda’s face and realized that it held the smallest edge of effort, of resistance.

Goda had not been ignoring her, she realized. Goda had been holding back.

Kanna reached for her across the bed. She leaned hard into Goda’s body; her hand fell onto Goda’s thigh and her fingers dug into the skin; she stretched herself up until her face matched Goda’s, until her mouth brushed lightly against the side of Goda’s bottom lip.

Their gazes hadn’t broken, even with the awkward closeness. Goda looked down at her, but made no move to either encourage her or discourage her. She said nothing. Her face was blank.

“It’s not just me. I know it isn’t,” Kanna whispered against Goda’s cheek.

“It’s not.”

“Then do it. I’m right here.”

Goda stared at her for a long time, but the empty expression in her eyes did not dissolve. Eventually, she reached up and pressed her hand to Kanna’s chest—but rather than caress her, she pushed her back. It bothered Kanna how little effort it seemed to take the giant to brush her off, to send her gently back to the other side of the bed.

Then Goda turned to huff the candle out, and it was only by the moonlight coming in between the curtains of the window behind them that Kanna could see the room. Kanna gritted her teeth and clawed at the sheets with frustration. It was over. It was done. The candle had been blown out, and she would never have the chance to see it re-lit.

She looked around the room, trying to distract herself from the burning in her face and other places still. Her gaze fell towards the floor near the exit, where their few belongings were stacked together. Among them, she noticed Goda’s satchel, as she had many times before. The last ounce of her frustration fueled her enough that she lingered for awhile on the outline of the cylinder inside.

A steel baton.

She wondered again if she would find herself using it against Goda after all. She swallowed. She decided that she would leave so quietly, that she would never have to even consider a fight. In an hour’s time, she would slip out of the room with a face as stoic and emotionless as Goda Brahm’s.

So she turned her attention to the clock and waited. It ticked along as before, its pendulous tail swinging back and forth against the wall near the door. Kanna wondered if she was only hearing things, but the seconds seemed to come slower sometimes and faster other times. After awhile, it had relaxed her enough that her eyes began to droop and the tension began to diffuse from her bones as long as she didn’t look at Goda.

Before she had even realized, the room flickered and fused into the pitch darkness behind her eyelids. She had fallen asleep.

* * *

A forest formed itself overhead. Kanna was staring up through the trees and at the white light that showered down on her, and this time she wasn’t surprised at all to find herself on the wooded trail. The surprise came when she realized that she seemed to be in her own body, that she could feel the texture of the leaf litter as she dug her small feet into the ground.

She walked down the path. It was early autumn, she thought. The air seemed as if it was just starting to cool and she could smell the beginnings of fall. The forest was a little dim, a bit unsettling with the way the trees seemed to rock and loom over her, but her curiosity tugged her further into the trail.

Goda…Goda….

There was a voice that seemed to emanate from the pores of the leaves on all the branches around her. She wasn’t sure how this was happening, but she decided that it didn’t matter because it was all an illusion in her head. Though she wasn’t Goda this time, she followed the call anyway. She pushed on, deeper into the woods, straining to hear what the trees were saying to her.

Goda…Goda, what…? Goda, what did you…?

The voice had grown a bit stronger, and it sounded familiar all of a sudden. She could tell that it belonged to a woman and that the words were in the Middlelander tongue, but the murmurs dissipated eventually into the brush.

The call had led her to a river. It was at the shore that Kanna finally found what she had no idea she had been looking for.

A tall, lanky form stooped over the edge of the waters. She knew who it was without even having to stare for every long. She knew that shape, even if it looked a little younger, a bit less built, a bit more innocent and less menacing. The young woman was naked from what Kanna could tell, and she was shivering—sobbing—which immediately put Kanna on edge.

She had never seen Goda cry before. She couldn’t even fathom it.

As quietly as she tried to approach, the leaves crunched lightly beneath her, and she was sure after every step that the woman would turn around. She only wanted to have a quick look at the woman’s face, to know that it was Goda, and to see that moment of vulnerability as fully as she could.

She wanted to see the true face of Goda Brahm—the face Priestess Rem had warned her about, the face even Goda herself had told her that she didn’t want to see. It wasn’t only curiosity that fueled her; it was that force that seemed to connect her to Goda, something she felt growing stronger all the time.

When she reached the giant, she found that the water of the slow-moving creek in front of them was filled with a pinkish tint and that the sun shone too brightly on it for her to be able to catch sight of Goda’s reflection discreetly. A set of clothes were strewn along the bank.

Kanna sighed. She sucked in a breath for courage. She whispered to the back of the woman’s head, “Goda?”

But the woman carried on as if she hadn’t heard a thing. She kept erupting in sobs that she seemed to be trying to hold back. It made her body appear completely strung with tension. Her muscles seemed like they wanted to burst from her skin. The woman seemed to be looking down at her own hands.

Kanna reached out and touched her shoulder. “Goda?”

Then the woman finally turned—and Kanna recoiled. She snapped her arm back. She gasped.

It wasn’t a woman at all.

The eyes that stared back at her were jet black, even in the brilliant sun. It was like they had absorbed every ounce of light, like they belonged to some nocturnal beast who had wandered out of its cave in the middle of the day. The teeth were exposed, sharp, gritted with pain. The short hair dangled over that hostile face like a veil, and it was the only thing that softened the shock enough for Kanna to not immediately take off running.

And then she noticed the smears of dark red—almost black—that coated that creature from the bottom of its neck in a dripping trail down its chest. It was the same red that coated the beast’s hands.

It was only when the metallic smell of it reached Kanna’s nose that she fully realized what it was. She froze. The monster stretched up onto its impossibly long legs. It growled behind closed teeth and crouched over her until both the canopy and the light were blocked from her vision.

It screamed in her face. It screamed so loudly—with such rage and anguish, with a fully-opened mouth—that its breath felt like a wave of acid on her skin.

Kanna’s muscles unfroze and she took a shaky step back, the first step that jolted her towards the trail once again and sent her off in a full sprint. She ran for her life, forgetting that she was in a dream, losing that bit of wakefulness that might have quelled some fear in her.

Her chest heaved. Her heart throbbed more loudly in her ears than it ever had in her entire life. Still, it did not drown out the creature’s cries. She felt its pounding footfalls coming up behind her. Its screams bellowed in waves that accumulated in the air and seemed to burst out in a thousand tones at the same time. When she glanced over her shoulder on reflex to see how close the beast had come, she regretted it instantly.

The monster had grown taller, ever taller. It knocked trees down with the force of its thumping feet. It was crying and screaming and clawing at the skin of its own neck and chest, until it had torn its own throat out, its own breast, its own heart. Streams of blood had joined together to gush in torrents on the ground.

It followed Kanna and throatlessly screamed. It wanted her to hear. It ripped away at its own flesh until Kanna had run out of strength and she stumbled onto the ground in front of it. She looked up at the looming giant, more fear welling up inside of her than she had ever felt in her life, blood raining down in warm and cold spurts on top of her.

The monster gripped a handful of Kanna’s clothes and tore them apart with one jerk of its hand. It next reached for her body, dug its nails deep in her flesh, and the pain radiated so hotly that Kanna wished instead that she had been struck dead all at once.

Goda! The voice that had whispered before grew louder in the clearing. Goda! The screams overcame the growls of the monster as it began ripping holes into Kanna’s skin. Goda, what have you done? Goda! Goda!

She realized now whose voice it was. As her vision grew hazier, as her head fell back into the dirt and the pain from the beast’s hands morphed into a mere sensation—not good, not bad—she noticed then that they had fallen together on the trail just down from a tiny cottage.

A woman stood in the doorway, her eyes wide, her body nearly collapsing where she stood. It was the unmistakable face and voice of Priestess Rem. “Goda!” she cried. “Almighty Goddess, what has she done? Goda!”

The beast brought its hand to Kanna’s face. The forest above faded into nothing, and all Kanna could feel were the writhing snakes twisting back and forth underneath her skin. They seemed to have come up from the forest floor. They were buzzing with a hatred that burned holes through every part of her, a hatred and judgment that she somehow knew was meant for the monster—but it had come from Rem, and from the rest of the world, and even from the monster towards itself.

She could hear Rem shouting still. Other voices joined. There were thousands upon thousands of them, screaming in some hellish void, until they had all smeared together into one intolerable rumble that seemed to crack open the crust of the Earth itself—that seemed to crack open every layer of Kanna’s skin.

She felt her insides spill out through the faults.

* * *

Kanna choked. Her first conscious thought was that she couldn’t breathe. The moment she had awakened, it felt like a heavy body was pressing hard against her chest, and the weight didn’t lift until the strength slowly returned to her hands and arms and legs. When she finally took her first breath—much too sharp, much too loud—her senses raced back to her, and she turned to her side to see that Goda was still there.

She recoiled at the sight. She couldn’t help it. The woman was asleep and normal and human, but the fear had still not left Kanna’s bones and her heart was still pounding. Kanna stumbled out of the bed and hit the nearby side table, which sent it scraping hard against the wooden floor.

Goda stirred. Kanna stifled a gasp and staggered back some more. The incessant ticking in the room—the sound that seemed to grow louder, to scream for her attention—was the only thing that managed to make her tear her eyes away from the sleeping giant.

She looked at the time. A ray of moonlight hit the face of the clock exactly where her eyes had zoomed into the dial. It was forty-nine minutes until midnight.

And so Kanna bolted towards the door. She leaned against it, allowing her weight to trip the handle, to let it start swinging open. She threw Goda another furtive glance, watching in horror as the creature began to slowly roll over.

Her hand reached reflexively in her pocket for the cuff key. She couldn’t stay tied to that monster for a moment longer. She would rip off her bonds that second; she would throw the cuff on the floor and run for her life.

She grazed the key against the hole, but her hands were shaking and it was hard to keep herself steady. She jerked and jabbed against the metal in the dark, but then she froze when she heard a low grunt echoing through the chamber.

She looked up.

A pair of empty eyes stared back at her. They glowed with the eye-shine of an animal.


Onto Chapter 20 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 18: The Surfaceless Eye

Past the curtain, there was a burst of light. The space felt wet, like there was vapor leaking in from the corridors that flanked them on each side. The chamber they found themselves in had no candles or electric lamps, but straight ahead of them there was a wide open gash in the wall and a courtyard that spread out in the full force of the late afternoon light. It was a small garden with a tree planted at each corner and a thatch of flowery bushes in the middle, and it was surrounded by rock walls with many doorways that seemed to lead to darker places.

Noa pulled Kanna towards the courtyard, and it was only then that Kanna noticed the people passing back and forth through the chamber they were standing in, and she twisted her neck to look at them. The sunlight had made the bodies seem like mere shadows on the curtain from the outside, but now Kanna could make out some details. They came by in groups of two or three—a man and one woman, a man and two women—but most of them did not seem to notice her, and they appeared over-focused and rushed as they disappeared into the hallways around them.

Abruptly, a young man bumped into her and gasped when he appeared to notice her features. Kanna quickly matched his astonished expression, but his companion pulled him away in a hurry, and Leina stepped between Kanna and the boy so that she could no longer see his face.

“Careful,” Noa said, guiding her into the bright square. “The women around here can get ornery if you touch their special friends.”

In the light of the garden, it was harder to see the people inside the chamber behind them, but Kanna still kept her gaze trained on the movement because something about the whole thing disturbed her. She stopped in the middle of the space, even though the twins seemed to be beckoning her to cross, to enter one of the dark thresholds carved out of stone on the other side.

“What’s going on?” she whispered. She stood next to one of the trees and refused to move further, so Noa let go of her hand. “Are all these people here to bathe? Where are the pools, in those dank caverns? If that’s the case, then I’d rather stay out here.” Actually, she was starting to rethink the place entirely. She already felt a strange, invisible force tugging her away, back towards Goda’s direction.

Leina laughed and tipped her head towards a doorway. “Yes, the pools are in there, in many different rooms. Some people do come to bathe here, but not everyone does, of course,” she said. She leaned against the tree, which Kanna then noticed had low branches brimming with fruit. “It’s a discreet spot because there’s a maze of caverns and hallways, so it’s really popular for other purposes, too.”

“What purposes?” But Kanna’s mind had already begun to wander into unseemly territory, and her inklings were confirmed when Noa answered:

“What do you think?” She smirked. “It’s tradition to bathe immediately after meeting with a lady-friend, so the young men from poorer families who don’t have running water at home just come here. It’s considered low-class, though, so the wealthier families avoid it. They’re also pickier about who they allow their sons to meet up with, so you won’t find the fancy boys mingling with the kind of women who hang out here; the poorer families are a bit more open to anyone as long as they have money.”

Kanna’s eyes widened. She turned again towards the open chamber behind them. “You mean those women are paying?

Noa shrugged. “Some of them probably, yeah—but not directly. It’s illegal to pay any money and it makes the family look bad, but people do it anyway by offering expensive gifts to the man’s mother and stuff like that. That’s why if you’re a poor family, it’s like hitting the jackpot if you have a son. You get a lot of social leverage, and if your son strikes the fancy of someone with means, then you can be set for a few years. If you haven’t noticed, men aren’t exactly abundant around here, so the demand totally outstrips the supply, and some of the women are desperate to have children. That’s the way it’s always been, though.”

“Yes, but isn’t that…?” Kanna stopped. She felt her chest tightening, that outrage from before returning. She was about to accuse Noa and Leina and every other Middlelander of exploiting the weak, but then she heard the voice of Goda Brahm echoing in her mind, the voice that had accused her of hypocrisy days before, when she had tried to sympathize with Parama Shakka: “You’ll pretend to yourself that what you’re feeling is compassion for the boy,” Goda had said, “when really you’re just upset about your own situation.”

She wondered if she should suspend her judgment for the moment. It was true that even with this explanation, she really had no idea what was going on.

Further, that small revelation from Noa had made her want to leave. She took a small step back, but as she did, a fruit fell down from one of the branches of the tree and landed near her feet. She glanced at it, mildly startled at first, but then when her eyes focused upon it, she noticed something strange. It oscillated from one color to another as the sunlight shined upon it; she had never seen that kind of fruit before.

Curiously, she picked it up. “Odd,” she said. “It changes colors. Why does it look like that?”

“Like what?” Noa took it from her and looked it over, but seemed unimpressed. She handed it then to Leina. “This is a fairly common fruit. It’s still a little green, but it looks normal to me.” Even as Noa said this, Kanna watched the fruit change from green to purple to a mix of both in Leina’s hand.

“You mean you don’t see it? How do you not see it?” she said.

Both Noa and Leina wore matching smiles filled with confusion, but Leina reached above them and picked another fruit from a nearby branch. She took a step towards Kanna and dropped the pair of fruits in Kanna’s robes—one in each pocket—and Kanna twitched a little because she could have sworn she felt the woman’s hand grazing her cuff key inside.

“If you like them so much, you should have some,” she said. “One for each side of you. You got married recently, right? It’ll be up to you to have the children, probably. This fruit is supposed to be good luck if you’re seeking fertility.”

“The two of us are also good luck for that kind of thing,” Noa added. “Though of course we can’t offer the same gift a man might offer. It’s a different sort of gift. It’ll relax you; your wife seems kind of stiff.” She looked upon Kanna with an enigmatic expression, a new smile that Kanna didn’t understand at first. The twins both stood in front of her under the tree—one twin on each side of her—and they watched to see her reaction. “So pick one of us to take you inside. We don’t like to share, you see.”

Kanna blinked. Oh, she thought.

Blushing, she lifted both hands up, not quite knowing how to politely decline the offer that they seemed to be making. They were both quite beautiful, but something in Kanna’s mind had fused them together with the garden, and their beauty fell into the same category as the elegant branches of the tree or the budding flowers at the center of the courtyard: they were nice to look at, but they were nothing she was eager to touch.

They were nothing like Goda.

But why? she asked herself. There was something violent that she felt towards Goda that she couldn’t feel towards the flowers or the trees or the women in front of her. That realization bothered her immediately. Physically, her new companions were not much different from her master, besides being pleasantly smaller and less intimidating. They even looked a little closer to her own age, were much kinder to her, and gave her their full attention. Four eager eyes were regarding her with something she now realized was desire. It was flattering; it was refreshing; it was something she had never experienced to that extent before. She felt that it added something to her, whereas Goda only seemed to ever want to rip things away until there was nothing left of her.

“I…have to get back to my wife,” Kanna said. She glanced over her shoulder at the open chamber behind her. Truth be told, she was a little squeamish about weaving her way through the other patrons again, especially after learning what they were up to—but the urge to go back to Goda had swelled in her strongly. It competed with her curiosity and the natural drives of her body in the face of Noa’s offer. She would be lying if she told herself that she wasn’t tempted in both directions.

Noa took her hand again. “It’s fine,” she told Kanna softly. “You can say no. We’re not pushy about that kind of stuff. If you want, we can just show you the spring and then we can leave. It’s a beautiful spot, and it’d be a shame if you never got to see it while you were here!”

Just as gently, Leina took her other hand. “It’ll only be a second. The main, unheated pool isn’t that deep inside and it’s not very popular, so there won’t be crowds. There’s even a passageway in the room that leads towards a back exit to the outside. In fact, it faces the path towards the railroad tracks, so it’ll be real easy to point out the station if we go out through there.”

Hearing that, Kanna began to lean a bit further in their direction. “Is it really that close?” They had told her before that the spring was less than a minute’s walk away from her seat in the tavern, but because she wasn’t sure where Goda had gone, she had a hard time calculating how far she could go while staying in the cuff’s range.

But two hands had begun pulling her again. This time, she did not resist by default. Her eyes fell on the grass below her momentarily, and she was astonished to see that it too was phasing through a range of colors. Soon they passed it, though, and the floor turned to stone, and then—as they slipped into the mouth of one of the corridors—natural rock shuffled beneath Kanna’s sandals.

Because the space had grown suddenly dark, her resistance returned and she wondered if she had been stupid to follow them. Her heart began to pound, but almost as quickly as her fear had come, some relief phased over her next, her emotions as fickle as the colors on the grass had been. They rounded a corner almost immediately. What they had told her was true: the spring was hardly a stroll away.

Like many of the structures Kanna had found herself in recently, the chamber reminded her of a cave, though it was lit with a vast array of candles. Small dripping sounds fell somewhere in the distance, but the only water she had noticed was at the center of the room, in a large, flooded pit that was overlooked by ornate carvings along the boundaries of the space. Once her eyes had adjusted and the twins urged her to the edge of the pool, she could see more clearly what was chiseled into the rock.

The image of a swan with spreading wings hovered on the wall over the waters. Below it, twisting snakes erupted in every direction. As soon as her eyes fell upon them, they flashed with color, before returning to the mundane shade of gray stone.

Kanna stopped dead in her tracks. “Wait, this is a shrine? But isn’t the shrine supposed to be underground?” she asked them, immediately pulling back, immediately ready to bolt out of the room. She shook her head with urgency. “Look, I have to leave now.”

The twins did not let go of her hands and merely stared at her in confusion.

“I have to leave!” she repeated. This time, she tore her hand away from Leina, but Noa seemed less eager to let go. She wasn’t holding onto Kanna violently, but it seemed to take the woman little effort to try to keep her still, which only served to enrage Kanna more.

“Is it some religious thing?” Noa asked, looking at Leina. “What do Upperlanders believe in again? They have like a bunch of gods, right?” She turned back to Kanna. “Are you afraid you’ll offend your god or something?”

“I have no god,” Kanna said, pulling against Noa’s grip, which only served to bring the woman closer. Kanna narrowed her eyes and met Noa’s bewildered expression with a scowl, jostling her own hand back and forth to work her wrist loose. Her sleeve began to slide over to expose the cuff, but she barely noticed. “I don’t believe in any religious nonsense. Maybe my mother did and my other countrymen still do, but I know better than that. I’m not about to worship and follow the orders of some deity who thinks he knows better than me about my own life. I’m not some ignorant peasant crawling through the dirt on some mountain in—” With a sharp jerk, she managed to free herself from Noa’s grip—or perhaps it was just that Noa had decided to let go—but the force of the movement sent her stumbling to the side. Her feet shifted precariously on the edge of the pool. She panicked and stumbled some more.

She fell.

“Whoa!” Leina called out to her. Both the twins grasped for her, but were a split second too late.

The smack of the water stung hard against Kanna’s spine, but once she broke through, it was the cold that stung even more. She kicked her arms and legs furiously, but it seemed to bring her no closer to the surface. When she opened her eyes and looked up, she saw two pairs of arms urgently reaching into the water for her, groping at her robes, but missing her as she floated down.

Then the hands disappeared very suddenly, as if the water had turned scalding hot. “Ah!” a pair of twin voices echoed through the space, loud enough that Kanna could hear them even under the water.

She noticed all of this at the same exact moment that a rush of pain shot through her nerves. And then she realized what was happening.

She fought the urge to scream into the water, because she didn’t want a mouthful that would drown her. She tried to fight her way to the top, but the shocks were already exhausting her, and though they were small, they now seemed to surround her from every direction in the water, instead of radiating from her arm as they usually did. She closed her eyes and then opened them again. She felt the current of the spring pushing against her side, bringing with it the current of the cuff, searing against her skin as if a huge electric hand were stroking her.

Her body spun towards the touch even as she fought it, but then the pain fell away. The shocks ended abruptly, or else she couldn’t feel them anymore. She hung suspended in the water. Through the dim medium around her, her gaze fell into the deep well of the spring, and she could see the black hole that appeared to be its source. She grew limp as it stared back at her with what seemed like a single, dark, surfaceless eye.

She fell deep into that eye—and then deeper still. The walls of the pool disappeared. The light of the cavern disappeared. Her own body beneath her disintegrated.

And when the light of the sun hit her face again, and she saw a body—dot by dot, cell by cell—forming around her, she was no longer at any spring in any shrine or in any place she had ever been. She was standing at the end of a forest trail, by a tiny cottage with a gate that came up to her waist.

* * *

Kanna looked down at a pair of huge hands that were not her own. Her legs seemed to go on forever beneath her, and they ended in a pair of bare, dirty feet that pressed into the grass. Her gaze rose up against her will, and the body she was living in pushed through the gate on its own and walked the path on the other side of the fence.

Once again, she realized, she was looking at the world from behind the giant’s eyes.

The giant pushed against the door of the cottage and let herself in. Clean rays shone in through the windows and warmly bathed the tabletop of the small kitchen that appeared before her. The giant reached into a pocket and pulled out some familiar-looking fruit that Kanna could not name. She held it over a bowl on the table, as if she were to drop it in, but a pleasant voice rang through the space and made her freeze.

“Oh, another gift from my monster?” In a chair, warming herself next to a tiny stove, the beautiful priestess from Kanna’s dream looked up at the giant with affection. “The flowers you brought me are still alive. I put them near the window to give them some sun, but I suppose that makes no difference since they’ve already been cut from their roots.” She smiled and with a metal rod poked at the twigs at the opening of the rocket stove. “Their days are numbered. Maybe I should press them into a book to keep them forever.”

“No matter what my priestess does, they won’t last forever,” the giant said.

The priestess’s expression didn’t change. “Very true. Nothing lasts forever, does it? At least we have the present moment.” She looked at the fruit in the giant’s grasp. “Now bring that over here so that I can eat something of yours again.”

The giant stared at the priestess, but did not approach at first, and seemed to wrestle with some thought that Kanna had no access to. When she finally did move, the steps were slow, and the body that Kanna found herself in felt suddenly stiff.

The priestess opened her bare palm in expectation and the giant dropped her gift softly into that hand.

“Ah, ah!” the priestess murmured in a teasing voice, as if she were chastising a child. “Be careful not to touch! Even just a slight brush of our hands will undo us both.”

There was another stretch of silence. Clearly uncomfortable, the giant shifted her weight back and forth, and it made the boards of the floor creak. “I finished what I was making for you,” she said after looking at the priestess for a long time. “Please take it now.”

“Hm, is that why you disappeared for a few days? I was starting to think you had grown cross after our argument last week and had abandoned me for good.”

The giant’s jaw tightened with an emotion Kanna couldn’t understand. “There is no argument. I can’t do what you asked of me and I won’t change my mind. Just take the medicine I made.”

“And I could say the same thing. I can’t do what you ask. You know very well that I can’t take that potion you’ve concocted. It’s against my precepts. There is only one solution to this situation and as long as you refuse me, it will never get any better.”

The giant’s hands fell to her sides. They clenched into fists. A wave of pain rushed through that body and Kanna found that she could feel it then, that the anguish had filled her, too, even though she had no idea of its source. “The answer is no.”

“Then there you have it,” said the priestess, bringing her attention back to the burning wood. “You’ve told me no and I can’t force you. Not even my orders as a clergy member extend that far, of course, so I suppose I’ll never find any relief from this. But I’m used to it. Perhaps it’s what the Goddess wants. Perhaps the suffering will be like a fire that makes me pure enough to live for eternity in Her garden.” The priestess grew quiet after that, thoughtful. Again, they merely hovered in each other’s presence and the giant refused to say anything in reply.

The giant finally turned and began trudging loudly towards the door, but a voice emerged from behind:

“Tell me, Goda, do you love me?”

A cacophony of emotions erupted, as if some sealed box filled with every kind of confusing passion had been broken. There were so many that Kanna couldn’t parse them, but she could feel a wave of heat rising up the giant’s throat. With some difficulty, the giant looked over her shoulder at the beautiful priestess, at the woman who was looking up at her with a faint smile.

Goda didn’t answer, but the priestess seemed to have heard something unspoken nonetheless.

“Then do what I ask,” the woman with Rem’s face told her. “Sin in my place, like a good layperson. This is all I want. Don’t you see? This is all you’re good for, Goda. The only things you have to offer to the world are that beautiful face…and those inhuman hands of yours.”

* * *

Kanna gasped. Her body convulsed as she expected to take a swell of water into her lungs, but instead it was only cold air that she sucked in. Her chest jerked with another freezing breath, then another. The only warmth she felt were the tears rolling from the corners of her eyes and into her ears, and the huge hand that had grasped her roughly by the face.

Goda Brahm was kneeling above her. She gazed down with a stern look that filled Kanna with renewed fear. She was forcing Kanna to look back up at her. “Wake up,” Goda muttered. “Wake the hell up and quit with the dramatics.”

As soon as Goda let her go, Kanna coughed and tried to sit up, but her inner body still felt awkward inside its shell. She realized that she was lying down on the hard stone beside the bathing pool and that her soaking wet robes clung so heavily to her that it was hard to even stretch her limbs.

Idiot.” Goda’s words echoed through the chamber as she stood up all the way and tapped Kanna’s ribs with the tip of her boot. “If you’re already trying to kill yourself, at least wait until I’ve handed you off in Suda. It’s not my job to transport dead bodies.”

Kanna looked up at Goda with confusion, but the woman’s face was empty as always. She felt another presence nearby, though, and when she jerked her head, she saw the Bou twins sitting cross-legged on the ground, looking up at Goda like a pair of guilty schoolchildren.

“I’m sorry! We’re sorry!” Leina Bou cried. “We didn’t know she was a slave in transport. She told us she was your wife!”

“Never mind that.” Goda took Kanna by the arm and began forcing her onto her feet. “Get up. Get up.

The threat behind her tone was so thick that Kanna obeyed on reflex. She got up as best she could, her frozen knees cracking as she finally made it to her feet.

A panicked thought flashed through her mind. She reached quickly into both her pockets to grope for the key, hoping that she hadn’t lost it in the waters. Luckily, even though her hands were numb, she was able to feel the metal against the tips of her fingers when she shoved them deep into her robes. The fruits had also not fallen out, by some miracle. She realized then that she must have only been in the water for a short moment before Goda had pulled her out.

Goda was no longer looking at her. The woman had turned and begun heading towards a hallway at the back of the chamber, and Kanna knew better than to refuse to follow. When she passed the twins, they looked up at her with apologetic expressions, and though Kanna wondered why, she did not stop until Noa reached up and grabbed her sleeve.

“The station is just across the way from the trans-continental trading office,” she whispered discreetly once Goda had neared the exit and seemed reasonably out of earshot. “That office is the tallest building in the skyline, so you can’t miss it. You can also follow the tracks, but they’re very winding and the fastest path is to just cut straight through the main road to the station.”

Leina nodded. “Best of luck. Your chances of escaping are low unless you can find a way to break off the cuff, but be careful—I hear they can zap you dead if you fiddle with them too much.”

“And remember: we didn’t tell you anything,” Noa added. “We’re just a pair of stupid tourists from the North.”

Kanna stared at them with surprise, but she pulled away quickly after Noa let go of her, and she jogged across the chamber to catch up with Goda. She was eager to break out of the grip of the shrine, and as soon as they stepped out of the tunnel that led to the back exit and emerged into the outside light, she felt like she could take in a solid breath again.

The cool air made her wet clothes all the more uncomfortable, but the feeling of freedom that came with the wide open space made up for it. They were at the back of the building, on a side that had no cramped alley to speak of. She could even see another door that seemed to lead to some room near the tavern.

Goda was over by the outside wall, picking up a pair of burlap sacks that were on the ground. She hoisted one onto her back, then handed the other to Kanna.

“Here, carry some supplies,” Goda told her. “You’ve been a complacent slave for long enough.” The woman trudged on ahead.

Kanna sighed and picked up the bag as best she could. It thumped against her legs as she dragged her feet on the ground and shifted her shoulders from side to side to carry the awkward weight. She heard some liquid sloshing in containers that jostled inside. She heard some metallic clanging. The annoyance of the chore distracted her for a few strides before she remembered that she needed to look up.

She glanced at the skyline. She had doubted at first whether she would know where to look, but the twins had been right, and the hugest tower of glass and steel was obvious among the rest of the buildings in the scenery. She saw the tracks ahead of her, too, and how they snaked through the labyrinth of buildings and eventually disappeared from her view, obscured by the city itself.

She huffed and pushed forward. The encounter with the shrine had drained her, but none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was that she finally knew where to go.

* * *

Hours later, after they had ventured through twisting pathways and met with some other dubious tavern-keepers who sold black market spirits—after Goda had siphoned more fuel from a few poorly-attended vehicles and rummaged through some trash bins near restaurants to find only slightly imperfect bags of old yaw—the porter allowed Kanna to at last collapse with exhaustion on the back of a truck.

They hitched a ride with a foreigner who had taken pity on them and was heading in the same direction towards the edge of town. Kanna could barely hold herself up, and she used all her energy to resist the jostling of her body as they hit bumps in the road at uncomfortable speeds.

Goda was watching her. The light had waned to the point that there was barely any pink left in the sky, but Kanna could still see the woman’s face and she could still sense the faint amusement in it.

“You’ve just about killed me,” Kanna complained.

“You’re a slave. It only gets more tedious after you’re done with me. Get used to it.”

Kanna tried to stretch herself along the flatbed, but her arms and legs bumped against the cargo, and she thought better of it quickly because she knew that lying down would only make things harder once it was time to go. She sat up. Her stomach growled from having spent the day unattended. She reached for fruit in her pocket to see if she could silence the hunger.

Her hand brushed against the key while she was in there, but she ignored it and brought the fruit up to her mouth. Before she took a bite, though, she looked closely at the skin of the fleshy pome. She raised an eyebrow. The skin was green—just green and nothing else.

“It’s so strange,” she murmured. She turned it around in her hand. “It looked completely different before. Just like the grass in the courtyard, there were all kinds of colors, and they were changing over and over, but now it looks normal. And then later, there was that swan, and the snakes inside that pulsed with color like the ones in the caverns at the monastery, and then when I fell into the water I saw….” The memories had grown hazy since she had woken up by the edge of the pool, but now they were coming back as if she were piecing together a dream. “I saw weird things in the water. For a moment, my body completely disappeared.”

Goda reached out and picked the fruit from Kanna’s hand. She took a huge bite, her smile unfaded, and she looked at Kanna through the softening glow of the evening sun. “You don’t say,” she said. It wasn’t that she sounded like she disbelieved Kanna’s story; it was that she sounded completely unsurprised.

They hit a particularly large bump and Kanna had to fight to hold on. After it passed, she came to stare at Goda again. “You know why all of that happened, don’t you?” Kanna said. She had phrased it like a question, but she was nonetheless sure of the answer already. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. I can see that you do. You seem to know all about all this weird stuff that keeps happening, and yet you’ve told me so little, and I have this sinking feeling that there’s something huge you’ve failed to share this whole time.”

The wheels crunched underneath them and the car rumbled about, but Goda seemed to have no trouble keeping perfectly still. She looked over the body of the fruit and up at Kanna, a strange look of amusement in her dark, surfaceless eyes.

“You don’t say,” she said.


Onto Chapter 19 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 17: A Paradise of Strangers

Kanna sat in the driver’s seat of the motionless truck, staring out the dusty windshield and towards the back door of the house. She did not know how much time had passed. She had not gone inside again. Instead, she had contented herself with sitting stuck amongst the vines, feeling oddly comforted by the confines of the fence around her, because she found the idea of being housed with the giant too threatening to who she had become. She tried to imagine herself in an actual room with an actual bed alone with Goda. The image disturbed her as much as it pleased some more primitive side of her.

So when the shadow of the giant appeared in the doorway, she wondered if she had called it out with her own perverse thoughts. Kanna recoiled momentarily. She was able to control this display of weakness soon enough, though, and she stared straight into her master’s face with as much dignity as she could muster.

The woman’s hair was wet. Her clothes were dry.

“You bathed,” Kanna said after a moment. She had grown so used to seeing Goda sauntering around naked outside, that it hadn’t occurred to her that Goda could wash herself indoors. It seemed too mundane and civilized and out of sync with the usual ritual—but then perhaps it was only that Kanna wanted to see her body again.

Goda ignored the comment and appeared to scan the yard as she moved. Some of the sky was blocked out by the taller trees, but some of it wasn’t, and the spaces between the branches allowed spots of sun to highlight luggage that Kanna had left on the ground.

“I’m waiting here,” Kanna explained, even though Goda had not asked, “for my punishment.” She said it without thinking, but she found that she didn’t disagree with herself, either.

Goda laughed dismissively, turning away as if the comment had simply been a frivolous joke.

Kanna clasped her hands hard around the steering lever. The wheels beneath her creaked a little in response. “Well, it’s only fair, is it?” she said, following Goda’s movements with her eyes, watching to see if any of her words had changed the woman’s posture. “I stole your truck and ran it down a hill and crashed it into a fence. I deserve a punishment—and that Middlelander woman who is hosting us made it sound like it was uncouth for you to deliver it inside. Either way, I don’t want to sit in that house with you in some boring little room with a quaint little side table between our rocking chairs, pretending that we’re happily married. So I stayed out here and waited for the monster to come back out.” Kanna looked Goda dead in the face. “Punish me.”

Goda tipped her gaze up finally. “You want me to hit you.”

“Yes. That’s what I want. If you do nothing else for me, do that: treat a slave like a slave.”

Goda crossed the yard, past the luggage that Kanna had refused to bring into the house, over the jagged skid marks in the gravel, up to the open doorway of the truck. Her face was so empty and serious that Kanna had to fight not to jerk away, to take back what she had asked for. Goda raised both her hands and Kanna flinched because she saw that they were aiming for her face.

Her eyes closed on their own in an immediate reflex, so she did not realize Goda’s intention until she felt a pair of large hands pressing softly to either side of her cheeks. Her eyes snapped open in astonishment. She looked up at Goda, who was wearing a faint smile, an expression that held no judgement and no interest. Kanna could barely tolerate it.

“You have a mouth that will cause you trouble one day. It endlessly complains, and weaves elaborate lies, and asks for things that you don’t really want.”

Kanna stared into Goda’s face defiantly, even through the surprise. “You say that, but you like that mouth of mine, don’t you?”

“Do I?”

“Don’t play dumb now. Are you going to tell me that was a ghost, a hallucination? I had already awoken from my dream by then. It was you, in the flesh. You taste the same way that you smell.”

Goda huffed. That exact scent that Kanna remembered from the night before became ever more intense. Then Goda lifted one of her hands and she brought it down again with a light, painless tap on Kanna’s cheek.

“There,” she murmured, her eyes still locked on Kanna’s frustrated face, her expression becoming a mocking one. “There’s your punishment.” She let Kanna go and turned around and headed off towards the hole in the fence.

“Where are you going?” Kanna called out after her; but instead of waiting for an answer, she slid down off the driver’s seat and onto the ground, avoiding the vines below as best she could, pounding her way through the chaos of the yard. She reached the other side just as the woman was disappearing around the corner.

Kanna ran up to her. She took Goda’s hand in her own and Goda glanced down at her with mild surprise. Within a few strides, though, Goda had looked away again and the gesture suddenly felt natural and their steps fell into sync.

Kanna found herself examining the skin on the back of the woman’s hand. She could see a bit of Goda’s forearm just under the sleeve as well; it bore the shallow scratches that Kanna had given her during their earlier fight. Now, with the heat of the moment dissipated, she felt a bit ashamed, as she had with the bruise she had given Goda days before—but the darker part of Kanna’s mind still felt a tinge of pride, of power.

“You were angry with me,” Kanna said. “I hadn’t seen such fire in your eyes until this morning. I won’t lie, I liked it. I like knowing that what I do can have an effect on you after all. I like seeing you squirm, even if it’s with fury. Even fury is weakness, isn’t it?”

“It’s over now. You’re talking about it still for some reason.” There wasn’t surprise in Goda’s tone, merely something akin to mild annoyance, as if Kanna was being tedious.

“You’re too simple-minded and dismissive. When will you see that I’m no passive victim and that I don’t need your forgiveness?” Kanna pressed herself against Goda’s side.

“There is nothing to forgive.”

Hearing this, something in Kanna wanted to taunt Goda more, to wave that small bit of power that she had in her pocket in the woman’s face—but she knew better than to compromise her good fortune, so she shut her mouth before she blurted anything else out.

Instead, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to be led by Goda. She pressed her cheek to the woman’s arm and felt her own skin sliding against the rough fabric of the robe sleeve, felt the heat radiating from Goda’s flesh underneath.

“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” she murmured after awhile, when she sensed the texture of the ground changing beneath their feet. Something in her didn’t care, though; something in her felt inclined to surrender to Goda’s intentions as if she were being carried away by the current of a powerful stream, even as some part of her identity still shouted at her to resist every step.

She knew that there was no point in resisting for the moment. The resistance could come later. She would save her strength and push against Goda all at once.

“We’re going into the city to resupply. The journey to Suda is a long one.” Goda’s voice had begun to compete with the sounds of crunching wheels in the distance, as well as a soft din that was growing ever more distinct. “We’ve also discovered something unexpected here, and that will need to be handled.”

That was when Kanna opened her eyes and glanced up at Goda with curiosity. Before she could ask, though, she grew distracted because her eyes caught a sun glare beaming up from the ground in front of them. Twin streams of metal—rusted in some places, shining in others—flowed down from the Northern hills and cut across the path. It made Kanna squint temporarily, but as she stepped over the metal bars, she realized what they were: railroad tracks.

Kanna’s breath hitched. She could feel the weight of the key in her pocket once again. Even as she leaned harder into the woman beside her, her focus slowly leaked into the future and away from the present moment. She was to escape the grasp of Goda Brahm.

* * *

When they reached the shadow of the tall buildings, Kanna couldn’t help but tip her head up to gaze at the wide glass panels wedged in the stone. She had never seen anything like them. The structures must have been two dozen stories high, and they lined the streets and dwarfed the more traditional houses that littered the ground between them. If she peered for long enough, she could even see movement through the shining windows, and the shapes of people dressed in bureaucratic robes milling about inside. It captured her fascination enough that she bumped into a few bodies before she realized that they had wandered into a crowded street.

Strange eyes landed on her with lingering gazes, with bewildered expressions. She suddenly felt claustrophobic, and her first impulse was to move away from every person who passed by, to lower her head and make herself less obvious.

“Why are they staring at me?” she whispered.

“They’re curious,” Goda said.

“What, have they never seen a foreigner before?”

“Most of them have never seen an Upperlander, so they don’t know what they’re looking at. You’ll just have to get used to it.”

“Is this how it’s going to be everywhere we go?” Kanna tried to fight the impulse to hide her face in the folds of Goda’s robes.

“Generally, they won’t approach you or talk to you, so just ignore them.”

This was easy for Goda to say, Kanna thought. The giant stuck out to some extent among the crowd herself, but not in a manner that seemed to draw as much attention as Kanna did.

More alarmingly, this made Kanna worry about her ability to blend in when the time for escape finally came—if she could even figure out where she was supposed to go. She glanced across the span of the street and tried to pick up the thread of the train tracks again, but she could not find them anymore as the bodies had come to obscure the ground.

The space had also grown full of other distractions. Trucks began bounding down the road, honking at pedestrians that meandered too slowly, and the sides of the street were suddenly lined with booths, little storefronts manned by women who waved beckoning hands at every person who wandered by.

The smell of food wafted towards them in overwhelming bursts from outdoor ovens and stoves, and it was then that Kanna realized how inadequate Jaya’s hospitality had really been. Her eyes wandered towards a few of the food stalls and she gave the people waiting in line an envious glance.

“What are they selling over there?” she asked.

“Fried yaw,” Goda answered.

Kanna’s face twisted with disgust. She turned her gaze elsewhere. “How about in that one? What is that?”

“Roasted yaw.”

“Oh. Well, how about in—?”

“Buttered yaw on a stick.”

Kanna shook her head in disbelief, gripping a handful of Goda’s robes in frustrated reflex. “For the love of God,” she muttered, “is that all you people eat?”

“No. We have fruit sometimes. Dead animals on occasion as well.”

“Well, there’s so much of that wretched yaw everywhere I go that I’m shocked your government hasn’t figured out how to turn it into fuel yet.”

Goda smiled at this. “We tried.”

“What?”

“We already tried making fuel out of yaw, but the same chemical that makes it taste bitter to foreigners also kills the yeast that would allow it to ferment into wine that could be distilled—and so we have to steal sugary mok from your kind instead.”

Something about hearing that made Kanna feel vindicated; at least she wasn’t the only one who thought that yaw tasted worse than dirt. “That can’t be good for you, eating something that won’t rot. Doesn’t that mean that even the vermin don’t want it?”

Goda shrugged. “It does spoil eventually, just very slowly. Whether the vermin like it or not, being able to stockpile our food for so long has saved us from extinction more than once. It’s an advantage that has served us over thousands of years.”

“So that you could steal from me and my father?” Kanna snapped. The sights and sounds and smells in the air had nearly knocked Kanna out of her head completely—but there were still some triggers in her that were aching to be touched and Goda had stepped all over them again.

Goda didn’t seem to notice, though, or else she wasn’t bothered by Kanna’s anger. She merely replied, “You don’t know the worst of it, but maybe that’s good. You seem prone to tormenting yourself by taking such matters personally.”

“It is personal,” Kanna muttered, but as the murmur from the crowd grew, she doubted that Goda had heard her. So instead of arguing further, she busied herself with watching the people who flowed by, her own curiosity growing now that she had stopped being quite so offended by the stares.

She had also realized something strange that she couldn’t ignore anymore.

“Where are the men?” She twisted her head to and fro. There were a few men sprinkled about, but they were greatly outnumbered, and it took her longer to single them out in the crowd because they were so small. Even the older men with graying hair seemed to not be much bigger than Kanna herself. “I had figured that the reason I had seen so few Middlelander men was because everything with you people is sex-segregated, but now I have to wonder if they just don’t come out into the light of day at all. I’m in your native country, and still I see hardly any of them. Is there another place where they all gather?”

“It is true that most men—especially young men—work at home and don’t go out unescorted by their family members, but that’s not the only reason.”

“Oh? Then what?”

Goda shrugged again. “Most Middlelanders are women.”

“Ah, I see. Most Middlelanders are—”

Kanna fell silent as the full thought formed in her mind. It was only after she had walked a few more beats in this state of pause that she realized none of it made sense.

Still pressing herself against Goda’s side, she managed to crane her neck a bit more to examine the mob. Her eyes flicked from person to person. She began to finally notice the individual variations. Most of them had wide hips and strong thighs, while a small few were built more top-heavy like Goda. Some had lightly tanned skin like bronze, and some were darker. Some were taller and some were shorter, but they almost all towered over Kanna, and the vast majority of them indeed seemed to be women. There was no mistake; she had judged the ratio correctly the first time.

But of course Goda’s explanation couldn’t possibly be true. For every woman born, there would also have to be a man. These were the laws of nature, whether in the Middleland or anywhere else. To be able to make children, every woman would need a man to match her, after all; otherwise, everything would be thrown off balance.

“That’s preposterous,” Kanna told her finally. “What, do you sacrifice most of the men to your Goddess or something?” It was just a wild, exaggerated guess, but at that point, she didn’t know what to expect from these people, who had turned out to be little more civilized than the Lowerland savages she had heard about.

“No. It’s just that a lot of boys die before they’re born and most twins and triplets that survive are girls, so about two-thirds of adult Middlelanders are women.”

“How does that even work?” Kanna demanded. For a reason that she couldn’t understand in the heat of the moment, the whole notion had made her angry. “Why can’t anything—just one thing—be normal with you people?”

“Normal according to whom? You?” Goda glanced down at her with mild amusement, a fact that annoyed Kanna even more. “Are you the one who gets to decide who makes it out of a Middleland woman’s womb? Let me know and I’ll take you to a midwife so that you can instruct her on who opens and closes that gate from now on.”

And that was enough to silence Kanna for the time being, though she took to staring blankly out at the crowd with a sour look. It wasn’t until they neared one of the buildings of glass and stone that her mood changed. Lifting a hand to shield her gaze from the glare, she couldn’t help but stare up again in awe.

“Government offices,” Goda told her. “This town is a major import-export hub because it’s so close to the border—and that means plenty of tax people work here. Military, too.”

“You mean all these fancy buildings are just for pushing around a bunch of paper?” Kanna asked, incredulous. They had looked so beautiful on the outside, but she couldn’t imagine what kind of sterilized hell existed between those walls.

The structure immediately looked less appealing to her, but Goda was bringing her closer to it anyway. They passed a small garden just outside its massive front doors, a garden that looked overly ornate and polished with topiaries trimmed to geometric perfection. None of the plants bore any fruit, and their straight lines contrasted the sinewy trees that she had seen all over the place so far—in the forests on the sides of the road, in the garden of their newfound hosts—but she had little time to look. As soon as they had reached the front of the facade, Goda whisked her to the side, and they fell into a dark alley between two buildings.

To the right, the glass panels of the offices remained, now dim and more transparent without direct contact with the sun; but to Kanna’s left, she noticed the porous stone of an old building. It was made of rock piled on top of rock, and as Goda pulled her deeper into the corridor that the two unmatching buildings had seemed to make for them, Kanna noticed doorways appearing on her left, carved into the walls. She guessed that they were storefronts, but she was walking too fast to have time to decipher all the names on all the tags that hung over the awnings.

Besides that, a strange pulsing had begun to sound in her ears. She dismissed it at first, thinking that she may have been out of breath from keeping up with Goda’s long strides, but then the pulse turned into a high-pitched whir and she felt her heart pound with recognition. The alleyway seemed to open ahead of her like a blurry tunnel. The colorful weeds that climbed through the cracks in the rock looked suddenly much more vivid against the gray. She squeezed Goda’s hand.

“Is there…?” Kanna swallowed. She blinked. Her vision had already begun strobing slightly. “Is there a shrine nearby here?”

Goda’s head jerked back to look at her. Kanna wasn’t sure if the movement had really been so urgent or if she had only perceived it that way. At any rate, Goda looked suddenly curious. She seemed to examine Kanna’s face.

“Can you tell where it is?”

“No, I….” Kanna tried to concentrate. She looked around her, trying to pinpoint were the sensation seemed to be coming from, but as they kept moving, it began to quickly diminish. She didn’t dwell on it; she was glad to be rid of it, even if the feeling had not been nearly as strong as it had been in the caverns. “It’s gone now. It only lasted a few seconds this time.”

“We passed over it,” Goda told her. “It’s deep underground, near the source of a cold spring. The government blocked it off years ago and no one has been in there in probably decades. Strange that you can feel it from up here. You must have become more sensitive.”

“Oh perfect,” Kanna said sarcastically.

When she finally felt her body returning to normal, she noticed that they had stopped near two doors that were covered merely with curtains over their thresholds. This time, Kanna could read the signs: “Paradise,” the one on the left read in Middlelander—or at least, that’s what it seemed to say.

Kanna made a face of mild annoyance. The word in Middlelander for “paradise” was also the same as the word for “garden,” but the storefront gave no indication of being either of these things, and there was no way that she could ask Goda about the difference because there was no way to quickly make the distinction without switching to another language.

She turned to the right, half-convinced that she would see the word “hell,” but instead she found something rather mundane over the second door: “Wine and Spirits,” it said. Those words were simple enough to understand. Indeed, once she began moving again, it was because her simple companion had picked the door on the right and tugged her into the humid chamber inside.

The smell of sweet wine immediately filled her nose even as she had trouble seeing in the dim light, though her eyes began to adjust with each step away from the door. It also helped that some natural light beams flowed in from around the flapping curtain behind her, and that bright candles in the space served as beacons to show her where the tables were. In time, she noticed the bodies, the huddled groups of women that crouched in the dark—reading newspapers, playing dice, or simply arguing in loud voices.

A woman behind the front counter—as well as some patrons who were sitting alone and were less distracted—turned to stare at her as she walked by, but otherwise the energy in the room appeared too busy for anyone to take much notice of her.

Goda pulled her by the arm to an empty table and made her plop down into a chair.

“Wait here,” Goda said.

Kanna raised an eyebrow. Before she could even think to protest, she felt a rush of air from Goda’s robes as the woman began to leave, and Kanna spun around to look towards her master with confusion.

“Where are you going?” she asked for the second time that day, gripping the back of the chair with the full force of her irritation. “Hey!” She began to get up.

Sit,” Goda said.

“I already told you, I’m not a dog!” But still Kanna paused mid-motion. She became suddenly self-conscious, because she came to notice then that she was actually bothered by the idea of Goda’s absence. Perhaps it was only that she did not want to be left alone in a room full of strangers, she reasoned.

She considered getting up to argue further, but she quickly thought better than to draw attention to herself, as she could already feel some new eyes settling on her. Either way, she knew who would probably win the scuffle.

She sat. She watched Goda walk towards yet another doorway in the back of the room and disappear around a corner that led to some place beyond Kanna’s perspective. When there was nothing left to be done about it, Kanna turned back around and pursed her lips. She crossed her arms over her chest.

She stared at the table for a long time, avoiding the glances of the other patrons, and she felt some relief once the crowd slowly eased into a louder ruckus. She felt more people showing up through the door, though she did not look at them and could only notice their presence from the rush of air that would come into the space after each customer passed through. It made Goda’s distinct presence seem all the more conspicuously absent. Even in the company of the shadows around her, she felt strangely alone.

But her relative solitude did not last long. She felt bodies hovering close to her, which she ignored at first. Some warmth came over the table, warmth that did not match the energy of the candle on top of it. It was only when the wood beneath her jostled a bit that she finally looked up to find that the seats across from her had been abruptly claimed.

Four identical eyes stared at her. They were filled with what Kanna could only interpret as mischief and they belonged to two women with matching smirks. She tried to turn away at first, but the strangers leaned further across the table, until the candle had bathed both their faces with light—and in that moment, Kanna found that she couldn’t help but offer a stare in return.

Nearly every feature of their handsome faces mirrored each other. Kanna glanced back and forth between them a few times before she realized that she was sitting across from a pair of twins.

“Can I help you?” Kanna finally asked, a bit annoyed when neither of them uttered the barest greeting.

“Ah, she talks pretty good!” the one on the left said. She gave Kanna a friendly smile. “We were wondering how fluent you were in Middlelander, you see.”

“You can just ask if you want to know. You don’t have to sit there and stare at me like I’m an animal in some zoo.”

“Right you are, right you are!” It was the other one who spoke that time. Her eyes had softened of their impish look, and her face had grown more open, more polite. “Please forgive my associate here. She has no manners. We apologize.”

Kanna still had not uncrossed her arms, but she felt herself relaxing a bit in reply. She remembered what Goda had told her—that the people were only curious—and so she tried to view them through a less defensive lens. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s just that I’m…new to the Middleland. No one has tried to talk to me yet and I’m not sure how to react.”

“Oh? Well, allow me to apologize for our countrymen as well. They’re being rude, staring at you and not properly introducing themselves.” The same woman who had spoken previously tipped her head in a short bow. “My name is Noa Bou, and this is my younger sister Leina Bou. I’m older by fourteen minutes.” The way she had said the last part made it sound like the distinction was important, even though they both appeared to be grown women around Kanna’s age, and Kanna saw little difference between them. She wondered if this had to do with that ever-present status game that permeated Middleland culture.

Regardless, Kanna cleared her throat when she realized that they were both looking at her with expectation. She hesitated, wondering how much she should reveal. “They call me Kanna,” she offered eventually. She held back on the rest; she wasn’t sure if the average person on that side of the border knew what the name “Rava” meant, but she preferred not to stir things up.

“Kanna…?” said the one on the right—the one named Leina.

The twins seemed to wait some more, which made Kanna wonder if she might have not been able to get away with such a glaring omission after all. Kanna shifted in her seat. She looked around, anxious for Goda’s return; but still not seeing any sign of her, she couldn’t come up with any reasonable plan of escape.

When the patient stares grew too awkward, Kanna sighed. She would have to lie again, clearly.

“Kanna…Brahm.” Just in case, she decided to stick to her same story, though she had to stop herself from making a twisted face of displeasure as soon as the name left her mouth. As long as she did not lose sight of her real identity, she thought, she could be a Brahm for the night, whatever that meant. “I’m here with my wife.”

“Oh, you’re married?” the one named Noa said, tilting her head. “But wait, did you say Brahm?” The twins exchanged a look between them.

Kanna felt some panic rising in her chest. She wondered if she had somehow given a wrong answer. Were they acquainted with Goda? Was that brute really more infamous than Kanna had imagined? A lot of people did seem to randomly know who Goda was—but surely there would have to be other citizens with the family name Brahm. How uncommon could it be if it was only one syllable long?

“That’s a Middlelander name,” Leina said. “You married a Middlelander? How did that happen?” Both the women leaned towards her with even more curiosity.

At first, Kanna felt a reflex to lean away in response, but again she pushed herself to stand her ground and not show any weakness. She looked closely at both their faces. In spite of the way that they encroached across the invisible line at the middle of the table, they did not seem to mean any harm by it, and she decided that they merely had poor manners. Because their eyes had also lost their initial wild look, Kanna wondered if perhaps her own fear had colored her perception earlier.

“We met at a monastery in the Outerland,” Kanna explained. That sounded about right. Lots of people went to monasteries; it would be a reasonable place to meet.

Noa made a face. “Ah, is she one of those stiff religious types that likes to go see the priestesses all the time?”

“I guess.” Technically, it was true. Goda was indeed religious, though Kanna was starting to question which religion Goda ascribed to after all, especially since her stance on most things seemed to involve disbelieving rather than believing anything in particular.

“That’s really too bad. There are a lot of fun things to do in Karo—drinking, gambling, going to the baths—but you’ll miss them all if you have some prude showing you around.”

“Baths?” This piqued Kanna’s interest, if for no other reason than the fact that she hadn’t had a chance to wash the dust off her body after the crash. She had never heard of Middlelanders having public baths, but this seemed to make sense considering their customs.

“Oh yeah, there’s one right next door. There’s a spring underground nearby here, and the water rises naturally to the surface. It’s cold, so they let it come up into some isolated pools and they heat those up for the customers. Real nice. The water’s supposed to have healing properties. It used to be a shrine or something, but now they turned it into a bathhouse.” Noa gestured to the walls around them. “Even this tavern used to be part of the same religious site, I think.”

Kanna followed the woman’s gaze and squinted through the dark at the ancient, exposed rock that enclosed the small place. “And now people drink here?” she asked. She wasn’t superstitious herself, but it did seem a bit sacrilegious.

“Yep. Crazy, huh? That’s progress for you. The further you get into the Middleland, the less use people have for all this spiritual stuff. Just about the only bathing pools people take really seriously are the ones in Samma Valley, all the way to the West. That’s where the natural hot springs are, but they’re in some temples out in the middle of nowhere near some volcano, and only the priestesses are allowed to bathe in them.”

Leina chuckled, giving Noa’s shoulder a light whack. “What’s the use of telling her all that? The baths next door are plenty fun—and more importantly, you don’t have to meditate for ten years and take a vow of celibacy to have a good time.”

“True enough, true enough,” Noa said, picking up a drink beside her that Kanna hadn’t noticed until then. It looked like some watered-down fruit wine, but she couldn’t be sure. From what she had seen, no one was drinking distilled spirits, but that wasn’t exactly surprising considering the shortage.

“So,” Leina began. She exchanged another quick glance with Noa, then turned back to study Kanna’s face across the flame that sat between them. “If you’re here with your wife, then where did she go?”

The question had taken Kanna completely off guard, but of course it was a normal thing to ask. Her first instinct was to reach for something vague. “Um, she’s close by.” Kanna wasn’t sure exactly where Goda had gone, but she couldn’t have wandered too far from Kanna’s cuff, so she was definitely close.

“Close? Like, how close?” Noa asked. “Is she in this room right now? Is she watching us?”

“Yeah, is she sitting right at one of these tables, hovering over you like a hawk, making sure you don’t get into trouble?” Leina added, her eyes widening. “Or is she somewhere beyond the wall, gazing at you through a peephole?”

“Where is she? Did she run off and leave you here alone?” Noa looked around, perhaps a bit too dramatically. “Oh my goodness, I don’t see your wife anywhere! Where could she be? Oh, wait, is that her?” She pointed to some random person who Kanna didn’t recognize. “Or maybe her? Is that your wife over there?” She pointed to someone else. “How about her?”

Kanna rolled her eyes at the antics, but nonetheless she found herself uncrossing her arms and glancing over the table with amusement. “No. My wife’s a lot better-looking than any of those people. Don’t you think I have good taste?”

“How about us?” Noa brazenly asked. “Are we good-looking?”

Leina smacked her companion once again, but she nonetheless seemed interested in Kanna’s answer and looked at her with expectation from across the table. Kanna raised an eyebrow, even more bewildered than before. She had no idea what kind of reply was safe to give or whether such a question was typical or not.

When she took a long time to answer, Noa laughed. “It’s okay,” she said, “you can admit that Leina’s ugly. It won’t hurt her feelings.” This time, Noa earned a punch, but they were both smiling and it was then that Kanna realized that they had deliberately come over to entertain her for whatever reason.

“You look bored,” Leina murmured, as if she had been reading Kanna’s mind. She propped her chin up on her hand. It mashed her skin against her cheekbone and jaw, and gave her otherwise chiseled features a more defenseless look. It also made that attentive stare seem less intense, cute even.

Kanna found herself blushing. “I’m…fine,” she said. “To be honest, I’m not sure where my wife went. She just told me to wait here until she comes back.”

“Oh,” Noa said, sliding back, her face taking on a knowing look. “So she’s controlling, too, huh?”

“What?”

Then Leina chimed in, nodding with agreement, “Yeah, most of the people who marry foreigners are like that—or at least the ones I know. They think that if they marry an immigrant, they can just tell their wife what to do all the time. Real sad.”

Exactly. As if she did you some huge favor by letting you marry her.” Noa chugged some more of her wine, then tipped the cup towards Kanna with a pointed gesture. “Remember: No matter what, you’re still your own person. Just because you married someone doesn’t mean you’re their slave.”

Kanna rubbed her face slowly, trying to hide her reaction to the irony of what the woman had just said. Lying was getting easier every time she did it, but it was hard not to smile mirthlessly when someone skirted so close to the tragic truth.

“You can do whatever you want, Kanna Brahm,” Noa continued, seemingly oblivious to Kanna’s sardonic expression. “The world is yours! You don’t have to wait here all day for your presumptuous wife if you don’t want to.”

“That’s right, you’re free to explore every corner of Karo. You have as much right to it as the rest of us!”

Kanna couldn’t help but smile at them even as she waved her hands dismissively. “All right, all right,” she said, “but the two of you are being kind of excessive. She’s not controlling, she’s just…watchful.”

Noa’s smirk grew twisted. “‘Watchful’? What, are you a child or something?”

“No, but—”

“What would she do if you got up and left, then?” Leina interrupted. She tipped her head towards the curtain that covered the doorway. “For example, what if you went out there to stand in the alley and smoke with us? Would she be upset, even though that’s literally just five or ten paces away?”

“Well, I mean, she would….” Kanna scratched the back of her head. In truth, she wasn’t entirely sure what Goda would do if she got up from her seat, but it wasn’t hard to surmise that the woman would be bothered by it. That in and of itself was besides the point, though. Even if Kanna had wanted to explore the tavern full of strangers, she wasn’t sure how far within the cuff’s range Goda had wandered, and she wasn’t in the mood to find out through a shock.

She had to admit that the twins were right on some level, though, in spite of the fact that they had no idea what was really going on: Goda was indeed overbearing. Kanna’s confinement to a single chair was unjust—and what did it really matter if she moved to another place as long as she didn’t go too far?

Kanna hadn’t really answered her tablemates, but she found that Leina was nodding at her again. “So she would have a fit, huh?” Leina said. “I don’t know, that sounds pretty controlling to me.”

“It does, it does,” Noa agreed. “Maybe you should go out to the alley with us. That way, you can show her that you’re not some dog on a leash.”

Kanna gave them both a wry look. So they had been playing dumb after all, she thought. Clearly, they had overheard her comment to Goda earlier and had noticed Goda leaving her alone before they decided to swoop in. It made her wonder how many other people had watched the argument, and whether she and Goda had inadvertently made a scene in front of the patrons.

“C’mon!” Noa’s eyebrows flicked up. There was a touch of flirtation in her look. “We’re going to go outside just the same, but it would be nice to have you with us so that we don’t have to cut the conversation short.”

Leina’s smirk was equally cajoling, even though it was still friendly and offered no pressure. “Yeah, keep us company! We’re due a smoke break and the people in this city are really uptight about puffing on cigars inside, so we’re going to stand right outside the door. We just don’t want to get kicked out for smoking like we did at the train station a few weeks ago.”

Kanna began to purse her lips again at their story, but then she stopped. She felt herself suddenly growing serious before she fully realized why. “The train station…?” As it had before, the thought of her impending escape cut through all the distractions of the moment and jerked her focus into the near future. “You two know where that is?”

“Of course!” Noa said. “We’re visitors here, too, just like you, even if we’ve been to Karo a hundred times. We travel around, but we’re from Gam, the Northernmost town in the Middleland. Real small place. Just below the bordering mountain range. You’ve probably never heard of it.”

The truth was that Kanna hadn’t really heard of any towns in the Middleland until she had been arrested, but she didn’t realize that there was one so close to the treacherous mountains that separated the Upperland from the Middleland. More importantly, the twins had grown suddenly useful. “Is there a train leaving tonight?”

Leina tilted her head. “Yeah, I think so—but they only go North and then circle back. A new train comes every other night.”

It was just as Priestess Rem had told her: the midnight train would leave once every two days, and so she only had a small window of time to escape because Goda hadn’t planned on staying in Karo for long. Even through her suddenly pounding heart, Kanna felt some relief that she wouldn’t have to stall for time—that she could leave while Goda was asleep and get it all over with that very night.

“Where is the train station?” Kanna finally blurted out, no longer guarding her tone to keep herself from sounding overly eager. She just needed to know. “Could you please tell me where it is?”

Again, the twins looked at each other briefly before one of them answered: “Sure,” Noa said, her smile growing wide. “Come outside with us and we’ll tell you all about it.”

* * *

The cigar smoke was thick enough that it obscured Kanna’s vision and made it hard for her to peer out at the details of the alley. Each cloud billowed out from each tip—and from the noses and mouths of her companions—and the haze danced in front of Kanna’s face like a coy woman covered in a veil. It didn’t burn nearly as cleanly as fuel did, and it smelled a bit different from whatever Innkeeper Jaya had been smoking, but she didn’t ask what it was because a part of her was a little afraid to find out.

“Here, put your mouth on this!” Noa had offered her the cigar, but Kanna had waved it away. It was uncomfortable enough to be standing between the two of them; she didn’t think her lungs could take a direct hit.

She tried to act casual as she leaned against the wall. She wasn’t so naive that she didn’t realize that if she seemed too interested in the whereabouts of the station, then they would stretch out their answer as long as they could to keep her around. At the very least, they didn’t seem to have a problem with prying into her life, so she’d likely be peppered with questions about where she was planning on going.

Kanna cleared her throat—to try to get the taste of smoke out more than anything else—and she decided to approach the question indirectly this time. “So, you two came from the North, then?”

“Yep,” Leina said. “Where are you from?” She turned and gave Kanna a playful smile, one that made the warmth start returning to Kanna’s cheeks. Now in the relatively brighter light of the alley, she had to admit to herself that the twins were unusually attractive. They weren’t as tall as Goda—no one she had met yet had been—but they were pleasantly lanky, with long arms and legs. Their features were more conventionally handsome than Goda’s, and they lacked the rough edges of Goda’s face, and their energy came off as much lighter and carefree.

She liked them in a strange way, in a way that numbed her worries. Even through the smokescreen, she found them pleasing to look at, and a small part of her wished she could have spent a normal night out with them under different circumstances. She had never been able to experience what it was like to just wander around a city and make friends. She wondered if this was what it was like to have the luxury of being frivolous.

But those thoughts dissipated into the smoke once she noticed that they were both waiting for her answer.

Where am I from?

Kanna glanced around furtively, trying to think of a single city that she could remember in the Outerland. She couldn’t; even the name of the monastery she had stayed in escaped her. She wondered if she had ever even learned it in the first place.

“I’m from the Northern Outerland,” she began. It seemed safe enough, and she was surprised at how casual she managed to make her voice sound. “That’s why I need to know where the station is, if you could let me know. My wife and I are taking a route back to my hometown that passes through the Middleland.” She kept her face as straight and as confident as she could. She silently prayed to the gods—or to the Goddess, or to whoever was watching her—that her lie had made enough sense, even though she had no idea where exactly most of the borders on the continent were.

The reaction was something she had not expected. Both the twins laughed.

“You’re no Outerlander!” Noa said.

Kanna crossed her arms. “I am. What are you trying to say, that I don’t know where my own homeland is? I know exactly who I am, thank you very much.”

“You probably do. You’re just lying about it, is all.” Noa put her hands up placatingly when Kanna glared at her, but still her smile hadn’t faded. “It’s all right. It’s totally understandable, considering that most people around here barely know that anything exists besides the Middleland and Outerland.”

“Absolutely,” Leina said, giving Kanna a friendly tap. “But we’ve traveled around, so we know better. You’re an Upperlander, right?”

“No!” Kanna shouted on reflex.

This only made the two women laugh some more. “You look just like an Upperlander, though. Those small eyes, that fair skin, the tinge of red in your hair. I’ve only seen maybe a couple of Outerlanders that have some of your features, and they still looked real different from you. You’re a pure-blooded Upperlander if I’ve ever seen one.”

Because Kanna had looked away and become speechless, Noa reached over to lightly grasp her chin and pull her gaze back. Kanna lifted her arm up to smack the woman’s hand away, but then she stopped when the overly-earnest look on Noa’s face distracted her.

“Don’t worry. I promise we won’t tell anyone,” Noa said. “We’re not trying to inconvenience you or anything. We think you deserve to have a good time like the rest of us, even if you are a foreigner.” Before Kanna could react, Noa released her and leaned back against the wall.

“That’s right.” Leina turned to give Kanna a similar smile. She was extinguishing her cigar against the stone, leaving a black mark of soot against its ancient surface. “We’re very modern and open-minded. We don’t care where you’re from, you should be able to enjoy the pleasures that Karo has to offer!”

“That’s why you should go in there with us.” Noa gestured towards the other curtained doorway a few steps away from them, the one that had the word “Paradise”—or “Garden”—hanging over it. “It’s the perfect time of day for a dip in the baths. We were already planning on it, but it’d be more fun with some company.”

Kanna looked at the white fabric that fell over the door, and though she tried to make something out between the cracks, she could only see some warm light escaping from around the edges of the curtain. Silhouettes moved to and fro on the face of the cloth, as if it were the screen of a shadow puppet show. It did make her wonder what was behind all of that, but she knew that she didn’t have time for an adventure.

“I can’t,” Kanna said. “I have to wait for my wife.” More importantly, she had to figure out where the train station was, and it didn’t help that no one seemed keen on giving her a straight answer about it. Middlelanders could be so indirect at the most inconvenient times.

Noa shrugged at her reply. “Then wait for her. If you have to wait for your wife anyway, you might as well do it somewhere fun, right? What difference does it make if you wait for her in the crummy old tavern or in the bathhouse? They’re in the same building and barely in different chambers.”

“Yeah, that very chair you were sitting in is hardly twenty paces away from the bathing pool. If there wasn’t a wall in the way, you could walk straight to it in less than a minute. It’s so close. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“I’m not afraid.” Kanna’s protest had been automatic, but as soon as it left her mouth, she did find herself questioning it. “It’s just that if I leave suddenly without telling her, how will she know where I went?”

“Well, how can you tell her where you are if she just ran off without letting you know where she’s gone? Why do you have to ask permission, but she can just go where she pleases? That’s a little unbalanced, don’t you think? You’ve given her way too much power in this relationship.” Noa was shaking her head slowly, mock sadness on her face. “Makes me sick when people do that to themselves.”

“You’re letting her take advantage of you,” Leina agreed, draping an arm around her shoulders. “Even slaves get treated better than this.”

Kanna looked at the curtained door with the mysterious shadows, then back at the women who wore twin expressions that seemed to coax her closer to the entrance. She took in a shallow breath. She felt the thread of curiosity tugging her towards the door, and for the first time in a long while, her curiosity had nothing to do with Goda. She had to admit that it was a welcome distraction from her circular thoughts about both her master and her situation.

And if she went with them, they could tell her about the station, and maybe even explain to her some of the hazards of traveling North through the Middleland. They seemed experienced enough.

“Well,” Kanna began to say, her eyes falling again on the doorway, “maybe for just a short while. As long as we come back quickly, she might not notice and—”

“She definitely won’t notice!” Noa bellowed, already taking Kanna by the hand.

“It’ll be the furthest thing from her mind!” Leina called out, pressing her hands lightly on Kanna’s back and scooting her towards the thin veil that separated them from paradise.


Onto Chapter 18 >>