The Lady With the Forked Tongue – Part 3: Mouth to Mouth

The lizard lady’s room smelled like spring—damp grass and bursting blossoms—but because the evening light coming in from the hallway window was faint, Sadi could only see the bare outline of a nest arranged on the floor. She leaned through the open doorway, rubbing her sore fingers. She and the lizard lady had put the little clones to bed in the nursery, and though they had been mostly cooperative, one of them had given Sadi a bite as she was tucking them in. That tiny monster’s fangs were small, but razor-sharp. A few drops of blood had stained the dry-leaf bedding and the critter had grinned up at her.

It was a grin not unlike that of their mother. In fact, it was that same devilish smile that the reptilian had worn earlier in the day, when she had invited Sadi to spend the night.

After that, Sadi couldn’t stop staring at the lizard lady’s mouth. Riding on the wave of her initial confidence, she had followed her to the master bedroom’s threshold, but apprehension began to creep in her gut before she could cross through.

“How big are your teeth?” Sadi blurted out, though she finally followed the lizard lady into the dim room because the woman had been beckoning her. “Can they do a lot of damage?”

“That depends.” The door shut after them and suddenly they were swallowed into pitch darkness. “How hard do you want me to bite?” Because the lizard lady’s body was so well-balanced with the warmth around them, the touch of her scaly skin took Sadi by surprise. She didn’t feel it coming until they had crashed into each other, until the leather of that flesh was pressed hard against Sadi’s own.

Sadi was breathless. Her heart jerked in her chest. Now that she had walked into the unknown, she had started to doubt herself, but she didn’t flinch as she felt a forked tongue flickering near her face.

“You’re scared.”

“Of course I am. I’m only human.”

“I told you this would be different than you thought. We don’t do it the way humans do.”

“Do what?

The lizard lady’s arm scraped her side. Sadi thought at first that it was the beginnings of an embrace, but then the woman reached towards the wall behind her. The flick of a switch echoed in the silence—and then the room was flooded with light.

“Everything.”

The lizard woman broke away. She sauntered through the warmly-lit room and Sadi was surprised to see that it was actually filled with human furniture, contrary to what the lizard had just said. There was a chest of drawers, a wardrobe, a desk with a chair—only the bed made of grass tufts and leaves and weed flowers pointed to the lizard lady’s beastly nature. On the walls were what looked like rows of tiny, brightly-colored paintings, but as Sadi drew closer to them, she saw that they were framed butterflies. The wings were so immaculate that she imagined someone had to have preserved them with great care.

Out of all the strange things in the den, she found this detail most out of place, and when the lizard woman flopped onto her nest of yard shavings, Sadi turned to give her a surprised look. “You collect butterflies?”

“Not exactly. I’m an insectivore mostly, as you already know. I’ll eat just about anything with six limbs.” The woman yawned and tucked her arms behind her head, stretching her long legs in the slush of grass. “But when I murdered those butterflies, I felt bad. I found them too pretty to eat.”

“So you turned them into art?”

“It’s not art. It’s just something nice to look at.” Even through that sleepy expression, though, Sadi could feel the lizard lady’s stare trained in her direction. Those slitted eyes were watching, evaluating, following Sadi as she wandered from frame to frame.

“So you like looking at pretty things,” Sadi murmured with a teasing smile, lightly pressing her fingers to the glass that encased a brilliant monarch chrysalis. It looked like jade that had been trimmed in gold. “Are you going to press me inside a frame now, too? It does seem that you’ve caught me.”

“Well, if I do turn you into a decoration, then you deserve it for being so foolish. Those butterflies were all the same, too: They landed on me without a care in the world. I didn’t even have to give chase. They were fearless.”

Sadi shrugged, and though there was some hesitation left in her still, she inched towards the nest. “If I can be fearless, then I accept whatever comes. If you eat me, you eat me.”

“Be careful what you wish for. I may just do that.”

The lizard lady grasped her by the arms so suddenly that it threw her off balance. With a yelp, Sadi tumbled into the bed. Luckily, the dried grass was soft and broke some of her fall, but her squirming puffed flowers and fuzzy weeds into the air, and it sent her into a coughing fit, too.

“My, my, you humans are fragile,” the woman said, though there was an edge of concern over the amusement. “Maybe this is a bad idea after all. I might break you.”

What’s a bad idea?”

As Sadi recovered, she gave the woman a wry look, but crawled her way over anyway. She pressed her face to the lizard lady’s chest, wanting to listen to that slow-beating heart. It seemed to tick a little faster than she remembered, but she found it comforting nonetheless. She raised her eyes up to find that the woman was gazing at her, that those slitted pupils had grown a little wider.

“We’re dancing around the subject.” Sadi slid her way up until they were face-to-face, but the lizard woman did not resist her. Instead, Sadi felt a pair of scaly arms snaking around her hips, pressing her a little closer, soaking up her heat. “You didn’t invite me in here just to make jokes about turning me into a butterfly, Lizard Lady. Obviously, we like each other. Maybe it’s as confusing to you as it is to me, because I don’t know what to do next, but we can’t just sit around and do nothing about it. That would be a waste!”

“I’m a lizard. I’m an expert at sitting around and doing nothing. It’s called basking and it’s not a waste.” She pointed to the heat lamp that dangled above them. “I finally installed that last week after that whole incident between us.”

“That’s not what I mean!” Sadi leaned a little closer towards the lizard woman’s smirk. “We haven’t even kissed. I don’t even know if that’s something you people do in the first place. And actually, beyond that, I definitely have no idea what lizard people do when they like each other. I’m sure you have to have some kind of coupling ritual, or else you wouldn’t have three little hatchlings running around your—”

It was then that it finally dawned on her. Sadi jerked back suddenly, a flood of guilt hitting her all at once.

“What?” The lizard lady made a face. It was the first edge of disappointment Sadi had seen in her, though the woman did not give chase. She basked in place and watched as Sadi sat up onto her knees.

“Your kids,” Sadi said, her voice heavy with shame. “You have three of them. Three of them!”

“Three? Well, yes, I suppose there’s three of them, although I started by naming the first one Zero, so I only really need to count up to two.”

“That’s not my point. Those kids didn’t just magically appear. They had to come from somewhere, right?”

“Sure. They came from me.”

“You and someone else!” Sadi scratched the back of her neck sheepishly. “Is there a…Mister Lizard? I didn’t mean to be a homewrecker. It’s only now that it occurs to me that you must have someone else already if you made all those kids.”

The lizard woman raised a single, hairless brow. “Someone else? Why would I need someone else to make kids? Are they supposed to cheer me on or something? I always hide in the bushes outside to lay my eggs; I don’t like it when people watch me. That’s just gross.”

“No! I’m not talking about laying eggs. I’m talking about…you know.” Sadi’s face was burning. “The eggs didn’t get fertilized on their own. Someone had to do it, right?” She looked around the room, then underneath her knees at the bedding on the dirt floor. “Was it here that it happened?”

At this, the lizard woman tilted her head with even more confusion. “I don’t know what you humans are up to in your private lives, but I sure don’t play with any fertilizer. If that’s what you’re into, fine, but maybe it’s better if you go do that with someone else.”

“No! Now you’re the one being gross!” Sadi heaved a deep sigh and squeezed her eyes shut, but when she reopened them and her vision was refilled with that beautiful reptilian face, her posture softened. “Okay, look, clearly we have a misunderstanding here. I’m asking about the act that produced your children. How else would you be a mother?”

Right away, the lizard lady had begun to look embarrassed, and Sadi wondered if her meaning was finally coming through. “Uh….” Those reptilian eyes flickered around the room. “To be honest, I don’t know much about that. I’ve only just started to realize something weird is going on, something no one ever told me about.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the fact that Zero, One, and Two are even in my house is just a coincidence. I got kind of attached to them after they appeared, but lizard mothers don’t normally raise their kids. I don’t remember my mother at all, and I certainly don’t remember how I was born into this world. My earliest memories are just me wandering around the forest by myself.”

“That’s so sad!”

“I guess. It doesn’t really bother me. It’s more confusing than anything else because, well….” The lizard lady winced. “You see, usually, whenever I feel like I have to lay some eggs, I just go outside to do my business. It’s the same as when I drop anything else out of my body: I dig a hole, then I cover it with leaves. Afterwards, I just go about my life. For years, I thought the eggs were just waste, like everything else that comes out of…that place.”

Sadi’s eyes widened.

“I did notice that sometimes the eggs would be gone and the shells would be open weeks later, but I figured that was because some other animal had eaten them. You humans fry eggs in the morning, right? I thought it was kind of like that. I thought someone had collected my eggs and was eating them.”

“You’re kidding me! You mean you just abandoned all your children?” The anger was welling up in Sadi’s chest, and though she still held a small grudge for the earlier bite, she couldn’t imagine leaving those tiny, defenseless little monsters out in the cold for such an idiotic reason.

“Not all of them! I have those three, don’t I?” The lizard lady sighed and waved her claws vaguely in the direction of the nursery. “A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to lay eggs. The need was more urgent than usual and I didn’t make it outside. I just kind of stumbled into my spare room half-asleep and did it there. The room was a total mess and I couldn’t find them the next morning, so I thought maybe I had dreamt the whole thing—but weeks later, I heard all kinds of weird chirping, and I realized that there were three kids scurrying around in my house. At first, I assumed they had broken in, so I chased them around with a broom.”

“You what?

“I didn’t hit them! I was just trying to shoo them out—but then I realized they looked just like me. In my species of lizard person, we’re all clones, you see. That’s the way you can tell which lizard might have been your mother: She looks exactly like you, only older. It was then that it finally dawned on me that those eggs had my children inside of them this whole time.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you didn’t know your eggs turned into kids?” Sadi shouted, absolutely outraged.

“How was I supposed to know that? Nobody ever told me! I didn’t have a mother to explain these things, and it’s not like it’s obvious, either. Doesn’t it seem a little weird that the same thing that people eat for breakfast can turn into an infant if you just wait long enough? Would you have figured that out by yourself?”

Sadi opened her mouth to object, but then she paused and thought about it. “Well…I guess if you put it that way, I can see why you might have been confused.” She took the lizard lady’s hands in her own. “You poor thing! Raised without a mother, never even knowing the facts of life! You must have been so scared the first time it happened.”

“I most certainly was. The first time an egg came out, I asked myself, ‘Good God, what did I eat?’ But no matter what diet changes I made, they kept coming, so eventually I accepted them. At first, I didn’t want to ask other lizards about it because I thought I was the only one.”

“But didn’t someone explain it all to you eventually? I still find it hard to believe that you could go your whole life without one of your sisters saying something.”

The lizard lady shrugged. “Eventually I pieced together that it happened to other people, but the bigger picture never hit me until these three little demons hatched in my house. Lizard people don’t talk much. We aren’t that social, so we kind of learn everything from experience instead. We tend to only meet up for…certain activities, and then we go our separate ways.”

Sadi raised an eyebrow. “Certain activities?”

The lizard lady’s face scales turned a slightly warmer color. “Well, yes. You know.

“Yes, I do know. That’s what I was trying to ask you about earlier! Didn’t you hear me?”

“Oh, was that it? Why didn’t you just say that, then?” She paused. Her eyes darted around again—separately—in many different confused directions. “What the hell does all that have to do with my eggs, though?”

Sadi palmed her own face with exasperation. “You make the eggs because you’ve mated with a male lizard, obviously! That’s what I wanted to know: Is there a lizard man that you’re seeing currently? Am I stepping on someone’s toes here?”

What?” The lizard lady had grown so flustered that her tongue had stopped flickering. “That doesn’t even make sense. I don’t mate with lizard men!”

“Oh, you prefer lizard ladies? You know, I thought so at first, but then I saw you had kids and—”

“No, it’s not a preference. I like lizard women, but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much of an option. In my species of lizard person—the population that lives around here—we’re all clones of our mothers, right?”

“Well, yes, you mentioned that already. So?”

“So…all of us are female, just like our mothers. There are no lizard men.”

Sadi opened her mouth again, but found once more that her thoughts had come to a halt. She went stiff. She fell down with a thunk into the leaf litter, crashed into the lizard lady’s side. “My father was right,” she murmured.

“About what?”

“About the fact that it’s hard to love a lizard woman. I don’t even know the first thing about you people, do I?” Some tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t even know what I don’t know, since I just keep automatically filling in the blanks, assuming that you’re like me when you’re not. Why would there need to be lizard men? Did I only assume that there must have been lizard men because there are human men? It’s so overwhelming. Maybe society is right. I don’t know if I can handle all these unknowns between us.”

A long silence waned in the room. The lizard woman resettled herself in the bedding, and Sadi wondered if she had been blocking the rays of the heat lamp from reaching the lizard lady’s scales. To Sadi’s surprise, though, the woman pulled her closer, curled herself around Sadi in the small dent they had imprinted. With her free arm, she clawed some loose grass over them, as if she were tucking them both into a pile of covers.

“Why did you come in here, then?” she told Sadi with a smile. “Isn’t it the confusion that draws you to me, the curiosity? Earlier, you acted like you were happy to be scared. You don’t seem like the type that would be satisfied with something easy.”

Sadi let out a sigh, but she surrendered her tension and let her head drop on the lizard lady’s shoulder. “You’re right in a way, but whether hard or easy, I’m unsatisfied. You never really answered what I asked.”

“You asked me something?”

The bashfulness was returning, but Sadi set her jaw against it and decided to be more direct. “What do lizard people do when they like each other? Maybe if it’s something that both human people and lizard people have in common, we can find the middle ground.”

Perhaps because lizard people didn’t like to explain much, the woman still didn’t answer and instead tipped Sadi’s chin with the edge of her claw. It was a little uncomfortable, a little scary. Sadi half-wondered if the woman was about to bite her face.

She didn’t.

She pressed her mouth to Sadi’s lips. Every sensation and texture was different than Sadi expected, different from anything she had tried before, but it still sent her heart fluttering. The kiss lasted a long time, and when Sadi pulled back for air, her head was swimming with a million feelings, but nothing she could form into words. She could see that the lizard lady looked similarly stunned. She realized that the kiss must have been as alien to the reptilian as it had been to herself—and for completely different reasons that Sadi might never have been able to fathom.

But it had been good. Better than she had imagined. Better than anything she had experienced with any human woman, in fact.

Sadi’s blush deepened. “Uh, I…that was….” She stopped for a second to compose herself. “I guess that answers my question. I’m a little relieved to find that lizard people do that, too.”

“Only when we’re sharing food—but this time, I made an exception, even though your mouth was mostly empty.”

Sadi matched the lizard lady’s sardonic look. “How romantic,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. Still, she found herself tucking her head under the woman’s chin. “It was weird for me, too, I’ll have you know.”

“Oh?” The reptilian’s heart danced a bit faster, a bit warmer. “How is that?”

“Well, to be honest…I had never kissed somebody with a forked tongue.”


A/N:

Howdy, howdy!

If you think the whole clone thing is weird…it’s actually real! This story is partly inspired by the New Mexico whiptail lizard, a species of lizard that is female-only and all the eggs are unfertilized clones. They reproduce asexually through parthenogenesis.

Nonetheless, the members of this species will still mate with each other in order to induce ovulation (even if they don’t pass genetic material to each other, since they are all female). That’s right: There is an actual, legit species of literal lesbian lizards in real life.

You can read more about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Mexico_whiptail

As always, thanks for reading my weird stories and thanks to the lizards who inspired me!

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 42: Mahara’s Death and Rebirth

Kanna Rava fell over the foot of the bed. The sheets were wrapped around her ankles and they held her back like tangled vines when she rushed towards the exit, so instead she slid head-first onto the floor. She knocked over the cup of yaw tea that she had left behind. Though it spilled and flooded her nostrils with its bitter essence, now that her face was pressed to the ground, she could finally smell the faint remnants of unburnt Rava Spirits coming from the stove.

The mixture was hard for her to swallow back. She freed herself with frantic kicks and groped for her clothes in the dark. She could not remember where Goda had thrown them, so she crawled around like an animal until she felt her hand graze the rough fabric, then she scrambled to her feet and pushed through the door.

“Goda!” she called. “Goda, goddamn you, don’t do this to me!”

But the giant was nowhere within the confines of the barriers. Everywhere she looked while she staggered through the yard and fought to dress herself in the dark, there were only empty shadows cast by the moon. Not one of them held Goda’s presence. Even when she closed her eyes and searched for the giant within, to see if she could set herself behind Goda’s perspective again, there was nothing; there was only a tangle of snakes dancing in a void. It was as if the immaterial cord between her and Goda Brahm had been snapped in half.

Kanna ran towards Lila Hadd’s house, ignoring a pang of sharp pain that throbbed where Goda had been. Every window in the house was dark, and she could see nothing but her own reflection when she peered into them, so she ran to the huge doors that had shut her out. She banged on them wildly with her fists; she shouted into them as if someone were standing directly behind them, actively holding the locks closed.

“Lila!” Kanna screamed. “Lila, you slave-driver, you glorified jailer! Let me out! Let me out!” She grabbed for the knobs and tried to rattle the doors, but they were so heavy that they barely budged. It felt like they had been barred with a plank from the inside, deadbolted, chained, sealed with every possible padlock.

Kanna jerked her head up when she thought she saw some curtains rustling. On a second floor window, where the moonbeams reached, there was a tiny crack between the twin sheets of fabric. She could just barely see two small eyes gazing out at her with almost no reaction—with only mild curiosity—and this served to infuriate her further.

“Lila!” She stepped back to try to better see the woman’s face. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew she was in there and you led me right to her. For what? For what? So that she could abandon me again, and I could be tortured by her absence? So that the one thing in my life that means anything to me could be torn away, taking another piece of me with it, until there is nothing left of me? Is this the practice you speak so highly of, Lila? Is this what it means to surrender to the naked idol of Mahara or to that god of yours—that Samma—who lives in the bowels of the Earth with the rest of the dung heaps that give rise to that cursed flower?” Her voice was raw. “Answer me! Stop staring and answer me, you witch! At least offer me that dignity, if you’re not going to free me from this torture!”

But Lila’s eyes glared in the light as her gaze shifted toward the far wall where Goda’s small paradise lay. Kanna followed the gesture with confusion, but she found that the garden had fallen into darkness, shaded by the canopy of its single tree, and so nothing stood out to her at all. When she turned back, Lila’s eyes had disappeared and the curtains swung lightly in her place.

“You can’t just ignore me, Hadd! I’ll scream at the top of my lungs! I’ll wake up the whole city! I’ll throw a rock into one of your windows and climb to freedom myself if you don’t open these goddamn doors!” Kanna slammed her hands in fury against the delicate lines of the wood. “You’re no better than a serpent-sucking Middlelander, you hear me! If you let Goda kill herself, you’re no different from that monstrous engineer who wanted to shock her to death in the cuffing room!” When still no answer came, she kicked the frame of the door and turned back to the prison that encased her like a shell.

In the dark, she crouched and felt around the ground with her hands to see if she could find a stone big enough to hurl into any of those mirrors that lined Lila’s house. Warm tears had already started to fall into the grass and mix with the cold dew, and she hated that she cried so easily, because it always blurred her vision. But as she crawled and more warmth began leaking from her nose and mouth, the sensation of her throbbing heart overshadowed all of her experience. The pulse spurted through the hollows of her chest, into her throat, into her ears, into every inch of her head.

“Shut up! Shut up!” she screamed. “How can I save her when I can’t even think? How can I think when you’re being so loud?”

She pressed her hands hard against the sides of her head, because the throbbing had turned into radiating pain. Her elbows dug into the pebbles on the ground between the sharp blades of grass, and she groaned and writhed and resisted the surge of agony that washed through her. The pain rose and fell like waves in an ocean, with every gush of blood from her heart. It grew more intense at every peak. It felt like the ground beneath her knees was undulating, too—pulsing up and down, breathing in and out—along with every stroke of pain.

She had squeezed her eyes shut to fight the dizziness of this delusion. But then she felt the crack of a drumbeat so hard against the bones of her knees that it rattled the earth around her, and she thought she could hear the windows of the cottage shaking nearby.

Kanna snapped her eyes open. Finally, she looked up from the dirt and out at the path in front of her. She awakened to the rise and fall of the Earth, though she could not understand at all what she was seeing.

The ground was breathing. She had felt it before, during other times when her skin had seemed like it would crack open from all the pain—but the breath had always been so faint and so fleeting, that she had assumed it was her imagination.

This time, though, she could see it. Even in the dark, with only the glow of the moonlight shining in the dew drops on the grass, she could see how the Earth was breathing in and out, as plainly as her own chest swelled with air.

“What is this?” Kanna whispered. She pressed her hands to the dirt to try to rise up, but the rhythmic quaking of the Earth made it too hard to stand, so she remained prostrated with her head held low. “What…is this?”

Still, she knew somehow that it wasn’t a what. She could feel the presence, like a single, infinite, invisible eye that looked upon her, that looked from every place above and below at the same time. It looked at her from outside her skin and inside her skin. It even looked out at the world from behind her eyes.

“Who are you?” Kanna said, louder this time. The pain had started to fade, but her heart still pulsed wildly, and her angry tears had turned into ones born from an emotion she could not name. That river came in torrents because…

The eye was looking upon her with love. It was more love than she had ever felt in her life and it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at all.

And it terrified her. She could not make sense of it. She could not find reason in it.

“Who are you?” she shouted. The infinite stare was like a presence that began to rush up both out of the ground and down from the heavens to fill her, a powerful breath that swelled into her lungs and made it hard for her to find the boundaries of her body against the Earth. The barriers between her and the world outside began to dissolve on their own. Even the barriers that made up her prison began to shake and flicker, as if they had merely been a mirage.

It felt like her body would burst into pieces to let everything outside come inside, to let everything inside rush outside, to make it all the same thing.

“Stop! Stop! Please, I can’t!”

But the burst was so powerful, she could not resist it. All of the strength in her body, all of the strength of her will would have never been enough, because every particle of her was loved—even the pieces of her that she hated, even the pieces that had made her feel helpless and trapped within the walls that surrounded her, even the pieces of her that judged and screamed and could not believe that Kanna Rava was worthy of something so unconditional. All of it was swelling, pulsing with a searing love that had engulfed her like a flame and was nearly killing her.

When she thought at last that it would kill her, when she let out her final breath into the cold night and surrendered to her death, the steam from her mouth quickly dissolved into the air—and with it, the presence disappeared.

Death had left her. It had blown through her as if it had been just a gust of wind charging through a hollow.

And very suddenly, she was all alone.

Kanna collapsed fully onto the ground and made mud of the dirt below her face. For the first time in her life, she felt worship for the ground that held her up. She could not kneel low enough. She breathed in the earth and remembered what she had told Goda Brahm centuries before:

Make me surrender. That’s all I want from you: for you to force yourself on me. My entire life has fallen apart, and all the desires I might have had in this world have been stripped from me, except for this one perverse craving that I can’t shake: I want you to be the animal that pounces on me in the forest, and bites the back of my neck, and pushes my face into the dirt.”

Goda had refused her. She had not sunk her teeth into Kanna’s skin, she had not pressed her claws into the back of Kanna’s skull, but still Kanna’s nostrils were filled with earth all the same. She laughed into it. She coughed.

Is this what it means to be alive? she thought to herself. Does it mean to resist the world around me so that I can be separate from it, so that I can cough out the dirt with prejudice instead of letting it become part of me? When I die, does that mean that I will go back to being the dirt, the trees, the stars, and everything else I’ve resisted all my life? When I die, will I become Goda, too? And Goda, when she dies, will she…?

Kanna lifted her head up towards the sky, no longer timid, no longer afraid to see that the world was still lightly breathing against her.

“I must go to her,” Kanna said.

Whether she lives or dies, I must be there to witness her. Master and liberator, saint and murderer, Goddess and Devil, I must fearlessly witness her. All of her.

Because all her thoughts had been exhausted, Kanna stood up without thinking that she couldn’t. She ran through the grass, her feet naturally falling along the trail that she had cut through the yard with Goda hours before. She followed the path to the giant’s paradise. She straddled the tiny fence and jumped over without using the gate. Once she was inside, she raced past all the fruits that called out to her hunger, and she pressed herself hard against the trunk of Goda’s tree. It too was breathing; she could feel it rising and falling against her hands like a beating heart. She could see little sparks in the ridges of the bark, pulsing streams of light that flowed like veins.

“How could I have made an idol out of you, Goda Brahm?” Kanna whispered against it. “There’s too much of you to fit inside a carved block of wood, or stone, or bronze. There’s almost too much of you to fit inside me.”

She felt a presence again—a pair of eyes. This time, they were all too human, all too simple and material: the stare of a wooden Goddess coming out from behind the tangled brush. It was the statue that had watched as she and Goda had coaxed each other towards the edge of death at the base of the tree.

“Even now, you’re a shameless voyeur, Goddess,” Kanna said. “Well, I’ve given you a show. You’ve seen the world through my eyes and experienced human pain and bliss and sensuality. Now pay me in kind: show me how to leave this place, or I’ll knock you off your pedestal like I did with the giant.”

When the Goddess didn’t respond and offered nothing like the presence she had felt before, Kanna huffed. Though her snakes were still oddly silent and the undulating ocean had calmed, she had access to some of her frustration, so she stalked over to the statue and kicked it right in the base with gritted teeth.

“Useless idols,” Kanna began to say—but between her own words, she heard an echo rising up inside the wood.

It was because the Goddess was hollow.

Kanna’s eyebrows furrowed at first, but then the realization hit her all at once. With a sharp breath, she bore her feet down on the earth, and she pressed her hands up against the Goddess’s face. It took most of her strength, but she was able to shake the statue’s foundation, and with one final push, she tipped the idol off its pedestal.

It fell onto its side and rolled along the ground until it hit the fence.

All that was left before Kanna’s feet was a bottomless pit where the Goddess had been. And though the passage was too dark for her to see much more than the first few rungs of a ladder dipping into the ground, she saw that the hole was just wide enough to accommodate the shoulders of a giant.

So it was true what she told me, Kanna thought. The Goddess was the pathway out all along.

Her snakes writhed with fear at the unknown below, but Kanna neither obeyed them nor suppressed them. As she dropped her bare foot on the first ledge, she offered the serpents the same love that the All-Seeing Eye had given her. Some of them accepted this and dissolved, and some of them cowered from the light of Kanna’s presence to tangle themselves deeper into the caverns of her mind, but either way they could not paralyze her anymore.

Rung by rung, Kanna descended into the Earth. As she did so, she felt the cord of energy that flowed through her spine rooting itself deep into the unknown below her. She also felt it rise up above like a fountain-jet shooting into the sky, even though the moon and stars had already begun shrinking into a smaller and smaller point of light overhead. It was as if she had become a giant and nothing that surrounded her could contain her anymore.

When Kanna reached the bottom rung, she could not see or feel anything below her. There was no ground, no wall.

She let go.

The metal ladder cried out with an empty ring as it lost her. The moment her feet landed on wet stone, she knew exactly in which direction to go, as if she had been possessed by a spirit that moved with no effort or thought. On faith, she slid into the embrace of pitch black–and soon enough, without even a beat of hesitation, the void had embraced her in return.

There were thousands of them, coiled around her. Hundreds of thousands of serpents, emerging from the nothing, and yet painting every surface, weaving themselves in glowing streaks to form the solid walls of a tunnel. With bewilderment, she watched how they constructed every mortared brick and every mossy stone to lay a path before her; she looked down at her hands and watched how the serpents emerged from inside her and built every shred of her skin in twisting spirals of endless depth–brick by brick, cell by cell, particle by particle, deeper and deeper, forever.

There was no surface to fall on. The vision was bottomless. Kanna could no longer take a single step forward, because it would have taken her an eternity to traverse even one cobblestone made of infinite snakes.

Fighting the instinct to panic, fighting the infinity that nauseated her, Kanna squeezed her eyes shut and listened for the hum of her serpents. They were speaking to her–they were always speaking–but now she knew what their voices sounded like, even if their language was still incomprehensible.

Show me the path forward, Kanna said to them. Show me what you have been hiding from me all along, everything that I refused to see, everything that you know to be true.

Don’t be afraid. I won’t punish us anymore.

I have laid down my cuff.

I am not your master.

I am not your slave.

“I am you.”

Her voice echoed. The path stretched endlessly and her demons stirred from her shameless incantation.

She listened for the sound of her own breath, and soon enough the hum of the serpents rose and fell with her. When she tore her eyes open, she stared deeply into the ground, and the world became whole and finite again as she focused her eyes.

They had answered.

There was nothing else to see besides herself. The floor was swimming in a faint, wet reflection, a dancing portrait of her own face mirrored back to her. She thought it was a standing puddle at first, but then she noticed how the waters rippled against her ankles, flowing down in tiny streams from the sides of the tunnel’s throat, from somewhere behind her. It did not match the cold air that blew into the hollow from above; the water was tepid, almost warm–and along with it, a raft of tiny white petals had come to crash at the shores of her feet.

Kanna stiffened again, but this time with the tension of surprise–and of knowing.

Death.

It was Death who was waiting for her at the other end.

And she could not let her wait any longer.

Kanna grasped at the slippery walls to half-amble, half-climb her way deeper into the stream, away from the source that had birthed it. Her serpents were still breathing, their hums like drumbeats against her hands and her spine. She hummed back to them and, hearing their master’s voice, they undulated to help push her further downstream. They crowded her more closely, coiled around her more tightly, until it was her own demons who carried her onward, more than even her own motive force.

She walked, then crouched, then crawled, then slid along her belly in the dark as the ceiling dropped lower. The walls grew wetter, too, then hotter. Her snakes contracted, pushing her into the ever-narrowing passageway, but she felt no fear as she surrendered to them, because far at the end of the cavern, she could see a small point of light.

The river gushed around her, growing warmer and warmer the closer she squeezed towards this shining star. Rising hot water had come to fill the small hollow in front of her until it was sweltering, the growing rays of light painting its vapors as fleeting blue ghosts. When the water rose up to her neck, it smelled of more than steam; there were Rava Spirits mixed in, a faint scent that was quickly overwhelmed when a gust of freezing outside air hit her in the face.

Looking out, she could see the waters pouring in from a dozen drain holes on the ceiling, and a wide opening beyond them that framed a blue-black sky. She could see little else–only a single, tall shadow looming, robes rippling in the wind as it crouched, seemingly to deliver her.

A giant?

Kanna stretched an arm out desperately, but she was still too entrenched in the darkness to reach the end. She clawed her way closer to the opening, wading against the growing rapids of the stream and the serpents, even though pushing against the mix of currents had started to exhaust her.

She slipped back.

Before she could cry out the giant’s name, chaotic human voices broke the harmony of rushing waters and humming serpents. Motors revved in the near distance, enough that Kanna could feel the vibrations in her chest. Pipes rattled louder and louder, drowning out her voice in their swelling, as if they were filled to the point of bursting.

And Kanna, too, was bursting.

Her serpents had multiplied a thousand times. They oozed from the walls and birthed themselves out from her pelvis in torrents. They pushed against her painfully with every rapid contraction, each snake giving birth to more snakes, and each of those to more still until she could not hum against them anymore because their embrace had strangled her.

She gnashed her teeth when searing water filled her mouth, and she clawed at the sides of the cavern to try to drag herself out into the air–towards the giant shadow that had begun to eclipse the light–and out of the mass of snakes that had engulfed her. Her fingers slipped along the metal rim of the cavern’s opening, but as she felt the cold beginnings of freedom against her fingertips, more and more serpents slithered out from deep within her and joined their sisters in drowning her.

Just as she felt them crushing her bones in their roiling grind, they gave one final, painful, heaving push that swallowed the last of her breath.

And then Kanna Rava, with all her blood and guts and serpents, burst into the outside world.


To be continued…

The Lady With the Forked Tongue Part 2: Skin on Skin

Because the rain had cleared again by morning, bright rays blasted onto Sadi’s face and woke her up early. She let out a sigh, but the moment she opened her eyes, she felt a swell of joy when she found that the lizard lady’s arm was still draped over her in a spooning embrace.

“I can’t believe you stayed,” she said, stretching her stiff bones. The scales of the woman’s chest felt a little itchy against her back, but she didn’t mind it. “Huh. You know, I remember you being a lot heavier last night. Maybe those were just the emotions I was feeling—they were really burdening my soul, even after you showed up.” She reached down to grasp the lizard lady’s hand, to lock those rough fingers into her own, but as soon as she squeezed them, she cried out in surprise.

They crunched into pieces. It was as if they had been filled with air instead of flesh.

Sadi jumped out of the bed and pulled the sheets with her. Wide-eyed, she stared at the dried-out corpse of the lizard woman, which still lay in the same pose as when they had fallen asleep together. A shudder blew through Sadi along with a rising anguish, but she was unable to process what she was seeing before her bedroom door flew open.

“Sadi?” Her mother had stepped all the way into the room. “Sadi, are you all right? I was making breakfast and I heard screaming and—OH MY GOD! What is that? What is that?”

“Mother, go away! For the love of all that is holy, don’t you realize that I’m not decent?” Sadi screeched, wrapping herself in the thin sheets. “Knock first or else you’ll see things you cannot unsee!”

“I don’t even know what it is that I’m unseeing here!”

Just then, her father’s head poked out from around the door frame of her bedroom. “What on Earth is going on, you two? Sadi, my dear, are you all—OH MY LORD IN HEAVEN! What the hell is that thing? Is that a dead body? Why are you naked with it? Is it because of how we raised you? Is it because of that one time we sent you to your room without supper when you were five?”

“We’ve failed you as parents!” Her mother had already started crying. “No one can know about this! If anyone finds out that our daughter sleeps with dead lizards, then how will she ever get married?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Sadi’s father said. He pressed a comforting hand to his wife’s shoulder, then brushed past her towards the bed. “I will get rid of the body. Don’t worry, Sadi, we’re on your side! We didn’t see anything. The less you tell us, the better.”

But as he neared the corpse, he tilted his head with confusion, and when he reached to touch the edges of those translucent scales, the confusion turned to realization.

“Oh! Oh, thank God!” he said. He laid his hand over his heart and turned to Sadi’s mother. “Dearest, it’s not a dead body. It’s just the lizard’s skin!”

Sadi raised an eyebrow and pressed the covers harder against herself. “Her skin?”

“Yes, of course. Lizards shed their skin every once in awhile, everyone knows that. In fact, it’s the season right about now, so there should be creepy sheddings like these all over the forest. When I was a boy, we used to gather them and fry them up like pork rinds. My my, seeing this really takes me back! I don’t remember the lizard people leaving them around town, though.” He scratched his head. “Sadi, where did you get this? I didn’t know you had been wandering in the woods. What were you even doing with—?”

“It’s none of your business!” she cried, hiding half her blushing face behind the bed sheet.

“Ah yes, of course, of course! You’re a grown woman now,” he said, though he was glancing at Sadi’s mother when he said it, as if to make a point. “And grown women all have their secrets.” He took his wife by the arm and started leading her to the exit. “Come now, dear, let her have a moment alone with the skin. Clearly it means something to her that we might never understand.”

What?

But he had dragged her mother away and shut the door before she could say anything else.

Sadi looked away from the skin because she couldn’t bear the pain of what it meant. Instead, she gazed through her still half-open window as the cool breeze made the curtains dance, and she wiped some unbidden tears of longing from her face.

* * *

The oil bubbled on the stove, sending hot droplets flying in every direction like firecrackers. When Sadi’s father dropped in the first shaving of skin, it only agitated the pot even more, and Sadi’s mother came running with a wet rag and a sour look on her face.

“You’re making a mess.”

“Nonsense, this is how we always used to fry lizard skin in my day. I’m not letting such a good find go to waste, especially if Sadi has no use for it! It’s recycling.”

When he dropped Sadi’s portion on a plate in front of her with a pair of fried eggs, Sadi had already lost her appetite. She stared at the pattern of the scales, and though her father had taken care to cut the skin up into pieces with scissors, if she looked closely, she could somehow tell that her portion had come from the lizard lady’s brow. It was like an invisible third eye was gazing right back at her.

Sadi pushed the plate away. “I’m not really hungry,” she said, fighting back tears. “I think I’m just going to take a walk.”

But when she went out onto the stoop, her gut wrenched at the thought of going back into the forest, so she sat down right where she was. She watched the tree branches as they swayed in the wind, and a few times she thought she saw the form of a reptilian hopping through the canopy, but it always turned out to be the shadow of a bow and nothing more.

In time, she was startled out of her thoughts because she felt someone sitting beside her. The smell of fried lizard skins had followed her father outside.

“Sadi, my dear, what is going on with you lately? You haven’t been yourself for weeks.” He patted her lightly on the back, but it gave her little comfort in the face of her inner turmoil. “You don’t have to tell me if you really don’t want to, but it’s not good to hold things in.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh c’mon now, I may be an old man, but I remember what it was like to be young.” When she did not reply for a long time, he followed her gaze up towards the treetops and sighed. “Look, don’t tell anyone this, but…before I met your mother, I was in love with a lizard woman. I know how it can be.”

Sadi turned to him in surprise. “You almost married a lizard?”

“No, no. I wouldn’t go that far. I just became enamored with a stunning lizard beauty one summer during my youth, but she paid little attention to me—and besides that, the cultural differences between us were quite vast, as you might imagine, so it was hard to figure out how to win her favor. I’ll never know what it’s like to shed my skin, after all.”

“Maybe there’s nothing to win, Father. Maybe there’s nothing I can do to ever make her love me.” Sadi pressed her hands to her face.

“This is true. And there’s nothing you should do, either. As tempting as it might be to try to act more like a lizard in order to make her comfortable—or to wish that she was more like a human so that you had less work to do—if you ever do come together, it will only be genuine if you can bring your whole, authentic self and immerse in the full complexity of a lizard-human relationship without compromising who you are.”

Sadi slowly looked up from her hands. “What?”

“You have my blessing, dear.”

Her father pulled a piece of lizard skin from his pocket and took a loud, crunching bite.

* * *

Sadi ran through the woods. She could still remember the scaly tenderness of the lizard lady’s touch, even if it had only been for a short time, even if a good portion of that time, she had actually been embraced by some crunchy skin instead. The skin had still come from the lizard woman, Sadi thought, and the lizard woman had left it behind, so for all Sadi knew, it could have been a parting token of love.

When she reached the lizard’s den, Sadi dove right into the entrance and knocked on the circular wooden door that blocked her way. Before long, the door creaked open, and a pair of slitted eyes appeared in the crack.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m home. Quit making such a—oh, it’s you. What are you doing here?” But she shuffled around nervously. “I told you that I’m not letting you in my house, human.”

“So what we shared last night meant nothing to you?” Sadi cried.

The woman rubbed her green face. “It doesn’t mean nothing—it just doesn’t mean I want you to visit me at home. Wait around at your place and I’ll come by if the mood strikes me.”

If the mood strikes you? I can’t just wait around for someone who might never come, for someone who only leaves their discarded shavings behind for me to embrace!”

“Oh, yeah, sorry about that. You’re right, I should have cleaned it up, but there’s not a whole lot I can do when it starts to come off.” Even as she talked, the woman kept looking over her shoulder and back into the den, and it was making Sadi suspicious.

“That’s not the point,” Sadi said, and though she craned her neck to see past the woman, it was too dark inside the house. “You should have said something before you took off, or at least left a note. And the skin startled the hell out of me, I’ll have you know. I thought you had died! I thought I had suffocated you with my love! I didn’t even know you could just crawl out of your skin like that in the first place. I thought you lizard folks had to rub yourselves against rocks and trees and stuff like that to get it to slough off.”

“We do. I rubbed myself all over your furniture all night while you were sleeping.”

“What? Then why was the skin in bed with me when I woke up?”

The lizard lady paused, as if she were trying to come up with an excuse, but as Sadi did not unlock her sharp gaze, the woman finally sighed and admitted, “All right, it was a decoy. You started stirring as soon as I opened the window, so I gathered all my skin and laid it around you, and that seemed to make you content enough to fall back asleep. What difference does it make, anyway? I’m a reptile, so it’s not like the real me would have given you any more body heat than just my empty shell.”

“Haven’t you realized by now that body temperature regulation means nothing to me the way it does to a lizard? I don’t want any body heat and I don’t want an empty shell. I want you!”

“That is me. That is what I am. What else am I besides a bunch of layers of skin upon skin, waiting to be shed? So that’s what I left you with—only the outer layer—because we hardly know each other yet. You do the same thing to me: Your skin dies and comes off on my hands when I touch you. It’s just that it happens a little bit at a time and it’s too small to see, so it’s less dramatic and you don’t notice. But you’re still dying a little every day like I do. If you don’t like me the way I am, and you don’t like that my body parts fall off because it makes those daily deaths too obvious for your taste, then just avoid me!”

“It’s not about my tastes,” Sadi began to say—but then she smacked her lips. “Well, maybe it’s better not to talk about it that way, since my parents fried and ate your skin this morning.”

“Gross.”

“I know!”

“Yeah, obviously you should bake it in the oven. That’s how I usually have it. Less greasy that way.” The lizard woman was shaking her head as Sadi gave her a face of disgust, but she smiled a tiny smile that eased some of the tension. “Look, Sadi—”

“You remembered my name!”

“Yes. Look, I like you, but there are things you don’t understand about me, and maybe it’s best if—”

But Sadi wasn’t listening. She had grown immediately distracted by the three pairs of eyes that had appeared in the crack of the door all of a sudden, right beside the lizard woman’s leg.

Those eyes were yellow-green and slitted, just like those of the lizard woman—just like those of their…

“You’re a mother?” Sadi said, shocked. “You have kids?

The woman followed Sadi’s gaze and she raised her brow in realization, but as the tiny, knee-high clones emerged into the light of the entrance, she did not try to hold them back anymore. All three looked up at Sadi with curious faces.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Lizard Lady?” She crouched down and held out a hand, and the bravest among them reached out to touch her fingertips.

“You eat meat, don’t you?” the woman said.

Sadi shrugged her shoulders. “Yes. So what?”

“So…I have to protect them from predators.”

* * *

Sadi sat in the kitchen, moving the roasted mealworms around in her plate so that it would look like she had eaten some. The three little clones sat across from her, staring at her with astonishment, paying no mind to the bowls of water filled with mosquito larva that danced in front of them.

The lizard lady had not said much. She was shoveling food into her mouth with a wooden spoon, and she hadn’t paused to answer any of Sadi’s dozens of questions. Just as Sadi had begun to stand, just as she realized that she was too overwhelmed and that maybe society had been right about lizard-human relations, the woman dropped her spoon on the table.

She grasped Sadi lightly by the arm.

“Do you want to spend the night?”

Sadi looked at her with astonishment.

“If you can spend an entire night here without running away and screaming like most people do, then maybe there’s a little more Lizard in you than I thought at first glance.”

She tasted the air with her forked tongue.


Onto Part 3 >>

The Lady With the Forked Tongue Part 1: Heads or Tails

Sadi wanted to roll in the leaves. They had landed on the tree roots around her like confetti, and they made her want to skip and frolic, but she forced herself to stay still with all of her willpower.

The sun had parted the clouds that hung over the forest. Though the rain had cleared, round droplets still clung to leaves and flower blossoms. She had ached to taste those little marbles that looked to be made of glass.

But instead of tasting them, she stooped low and stared into their reflections, and she watched the tiny image of her prey rustling in the canopy above. She was hunting.

Any second now, Sadi thought.

The creature was drawing nearer, so she placed her basket softly on the ground. She crouched over the mouth of the den with open hands, grounding her stance on the roots.

There were scuttling claws on the other side of the big tree, scales scraping against scales; she could feel it as a faint vibration in the bark. She closed her eyes because she knew her sight would deceive her before her ears would.

There was a tiny hiss—then, the sound of a suspicious forked tongue tasting the air, coming around the corner of the tree.

Not yet…

The slithering had slowed, grown hesitant. Even still, the claws clacked lightly against the wood. Sadi could almost feel the wheels turning in that creature’s head; in her mind, she could almost see those eyes narrowing with reservation.

Not yet…

Then she felt a startled breath hitting her right in the face.

Sadi pounced.

She opened her eyes just in time to know where she needed to grasp. She aimed for the forelimbs, since she knew those would stay well-tethered, and as she clasped the creature’s scaly wrists, the lizard shouted in surprise and sent a flock of birds above scattering.

She had caught her just at the entrance of her den, and as the lizard woman fought to escape into the hole, Sadi held on with all her strength. She let her feet slide across the ground.

“Yes, yes!” Sadi shouted, her grin wide. “Take me inside with you!”

But this seemed to change the creature’s mind altogether, and with a furrowed brow, she fell limply onto the roots of the tree with Sadi beside her.

“C’mon, c’mon! Let me go.”

“Let you go? After I waited here so long to catch you? That sounds like a waste of time.” With the side of her cheek pressed in the dirt, Sadi smiled at that half-human face, but the lizard woman did not smile back.

“Yeah, well, you’re the one wasting my time,” she said, trying to shake her hands loose, “I already told you, kid, I’m not letting you into my house. I don’t like visitors—especially people who attack me for no reason.”

“I didn’t attack you! This is all a big misunderstanding. Stay with me in the woods for awhile, just like you did on the day we met, and I’ll explain everything. I came all the way here to give you something, and if you don’t receive it, then I’ll just follow you into the hole and rush the door as soon as you unlock it. You may be quick, but I’m quicker.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. Why do you even keep coming over here all the time? Look, what happened that day was just a one-time thing. I’m usually not that social and I’ve already told you a million times to leave me alone.”

“I’ll leave you alone—after you take my gifts.” Sadi tightened her grip. “Besides, what have I really interrupted here? It’s a Sunday afternoon. Is that a working day for lizards or something? Do the lizard headquarters never give you a day off?”

The scaly woman sighed with resignation and rolled over to sit up. “Fine, fine, if it’ll satisfy you enough that you’ll take a hike. Just make it quick.”

Sadi finally let go, if for no other reason than to clap her hands. “Great! Come here, come here. I want to show you some things!” She pulled the basket over, and as soon as she dropped it between them, the lizard woman made a face.

“Is that…?”

“Yes, it’s your tail!” Sadi picked it up out of the basket. “I wanted to return it to you, of course. I didn’t mean to take it. You just left it behind all of a sudden last Sunday when I tried to follow you.” Though originally she had been afraid to touch it because it would twitch and wiggle in her hand, it had grown stiffer over the past week and she had started to enjoy the feel of the smooth scales. They reminded her of leather.

“Uh, well, I didn’t exactly leave it behind on purpose. It just kind of falls off if someone grabs it too hard while I’m running away.” She gave Sadi a wry glance. “Which you did, by the way.”

“Oh my! Did I hurt you?”

“No.” The woman scooted over slightly and Sadi could see the stump of her tail bone. “It’s already growing back. It’s more of an inconvenience than anything because then I forget that I can’t use it to steer when I go swimming.”

“That’s terrible! I’m so sorry!” Laying it across two hands, Sadi offered her the disembodied tail. “Here, here! Put it back on. I didn’t realize you needed it for stuff, or else I would have returned it as soon as I was done using it.”

The lizard woman took it from her, but with some reluctance. She tapped it against the tree trunk and it gave a dead thud, and she winced at the sound. “Well, I can’t just put it back on. Besides, it’s all mummified now and—wait, what?” She raised an eyebrow suddenly. “Using it? What the hell did you use this for?”

Something.

“Nothing,” Sadi said quickly, reaching into the basket. She had lined it with dead crickets and dragonfly nymphs. “It was kind of too big anyway, and at the time it was creeping me out that it would move by itself.”

The lizard woman huffed, dropping the tail onto the ground. “You shouldn’t be the one complaining that you’re creeped out when you’re the one who—wait, what? What?” She shook her head. “‘Too big?’ Too big for what? What the hell were you doing with my—?”

Sadi let out a breath of exasperation and sprinkled some of the crickets into the lizard woman’s lap. “I told you—nothing. Besides, what do you care? It’s not like it was attached to you anymore, so you couldn’t feel it. If someone else wants to make use of something that you just threw away like that, what difference does it make? It’s recycling.”

“You keep saying ‘nothing,’ but it’s sounding an awful lot like you did something to it.” Even with her wary look, though, the lizard woman seemed helpless in the face of food, and she picked up a cricket to pop into her mouth.

“I hunted those myself yesterday. Fried them up for you, too. Do you like them?”

“They’re fine.”

She and the woman fell silent, but some of the braver birds had returned overhead and started chirping, and so Sadi felt less pressured to make some noise. Still, after a few awkward seconds passed, she began, “Lizard Lady, about that first day we met—”

“Like I said, it was a one-time thing, not something you should expect to happen ever again. You caught me on a bad day, that’s all.”

“Was it bad, though?” Sadi slid a little closer and the woman leaned away some more. “I know that you lizard people aren’t very touchy-feely, so it really took me by surprise when you approached me. To be honest, I was feeling very alone at the time, before you showed up. I was wandering in the forest because my best friend had rejected me, and I didn’t realize what I needed most in the world was just that feeling of touch. And when you jumped from that branch above me and then took me in your arms all of a sudden….” Sadi felt the tears coming back, the same tears from that day. “I don’t know, I had just never really felt held before then. Even if your skin doesn’t feel like human skin, even if it’s kind of rough and thin and I can sense your blood pumping really close to the surface, it didn’t scare me because I knew that blood came from your heart—and your heart doesn’t have any scales; it’s the same as mine.”

The lizard woman shifted with some discomfort, shoved another handful of crickets into her mouth as she looked away. “Yeah, about that—”

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, something in me must have really touched her. We don’t even know each other, but she could sense my pain.’ I’ve never met anyone like that. It’s like you knew exactly what to do. Your fingers were cold, but somehow everywhere you touched sent waves of warmth through my body.”

“Uh…well, I….”

Sadi had scooted so far over the tree roots that her thigh pressed into the scaly woman’s leg. “I decided that I really liked you and I wanted to tell you, but you kept running away every time I showed up here. Today, I was determined!” She tilted her head to try to catch the lizard woman’s eye—though she couldn’t decide which one to gaze into because they were both looking in different directions. “I’m at the marrying age, you see, and I’ve been searching for a special someone. Now I know that this someone is you, that destiny brought us together. My parents will kick up a ruckus if I marry a lizard—they’re very traditional—but I don’t really care. I know that we had something special that day.”

The lizard woman opened her hand and let the last of the crickets flutter to the ground. She pressed two fingers to her brow, rubbed her forehead as if she had been overcome with a jolt of vertigo. “Look, I think you’ve misread some things here. As I understand it, you warm-blooded people like to get all cuddly and it makes you crazy, gives you all kinds of weird feelings.”

“Yes, that’s right, that’s right.” Sadi perked up at that. Even just sitting next to her beloved lizard lady, the “weird feelings” swirled around inside her.

“Well, it’s not the same for us.” The woman finally looked her in the eyes. “You people have all this poetry about love and tenderness and sharing each other’s saliva, and we write songs about body temperature regulation. We just have different priorities in life.”

Sadi frowned, a bit hurt. “What do you mean?”

The lizard woman scratched the back of her scaly head with a hesitant look on her face, but after a moment she said it outright: “I mean that I hugged you that day because I was cold.”

“You were…cold?”

“Yeah, kid, it was the first day of fall and it was cloudy! What do you want? The sun wasn’t out to heat the rocks that I usually sit on to get warm. I’m not like you; I can’t just make my own body heat. I had to find something to warm me up so I could digest my lunch, and there you were, crying your head off, like a moving furnace through the woods.”

“You mean, you didn’t do it because you like me?”

“Sure, I like you—but I only like you because you’re warm. Sorry.”

Sadi jumped to her feet. She kicked the basket and sent dead bugs flying in all directions, which made the lizard woman start. “I’m not going to just sit here and be objectified!”

“Oh? And what about you? You don’t even know me and already you were making up all kinds of stories about some connection that didn’t exist, assuming all kinds of things about how I felt, using me to live out some fantasy in your head and heal your emotional wounds. Isn’t it better to use someone because you’re simply cold instead of for some weird complicated reason like yours?” She paused, then added with a grimace, “Not to mention the whole tail thing. Jesus.”

“Fine, then!” Sadi shouted, making the leaves dance with her bare feet. “Live like this if you want! Live the callous life of a cold-blooded reptile, see if I care! Don’t come crawling back to me on the next cloudy day!”

With that, Sadi stomped off towards the trail that led to the village. She looked over her shoulder only once, and it was to find that the lizard woman had picked up her old tail to hesitantly give it a whiff. With a burning face, Sadi turned away and quickened her pace, convinced that she would never see those slitted eyes ever again.

* * *

Sadi could not sleep for the next three nights. Her mind was filled with visions of the lizard lady who had caressed her so lovingly all those weeks before, but who had been so cold with her ever since. A part of her wished she had not given back the tail so that she would at least have something to comfort herself with while she cried into her pillow.

But in the wee hours of the morning of the third day, through the sound of the pouring rain, she heard a scuttle-scuttle just outside her bedroom wall. Her heart leapt. However, because she had been so broken-hearted by the lizard lady, she whipped around to face away from the window as she saw it sliding open. She closed her eyes even as she could hear her beloved slithering into the room.

“Go away,” she said, her voice raw from her tears.

Silence permeated the space again. A presence hovered at the foot of the bed.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to give you everything you want,” the lizard finally said. “I’m really different from you, and you’re different from me, and I don’t think either one of us should change.”

Sadi rolled herself deeper into the sheets, like she was wrapping herself in a cocoon. Even though she was getting too warm, she pressed her face harder against the mattress. “Of course you would say that. You’re just a lizard. It’s easy when you don’t have feelings.”

“Of course I have feelings. They’re just different from yours, so you don’t know them that well—and that’s fine. Maybe we don’t have to give each other everything to find something in each other.”

Sadi lifted her head up, wrested a hand from the blankets to wipe her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I mean….” A gust of air flowed in against Sadi’s legs as the blankets billowed up. A mass of smooth scales touched her skin, made her shiver. “You’re too warm,” the lizard woman said, though her voice was now muffled by the sheets, “and I’m too cold. Maybe I have something to give to you and you have something to give to me, and they don’t have to be the same thing.”

Without resisting it anymore, Sadi accepted the embrace, and instead of hiding her face in the sheets, she buried it against the lizard woman’s chest. She listened to the heartbeat, and though the rhythm was slower than her own, she knew that the lizard lady felt something. It calmed her enough that she started to drift off before long.

“What’s your name?” Sadi finally asked, summoning her last bits of wakefulness.

“It’s better if you don’t know.” The rain pattered. The lizard’s claws lightly scuttled against Sadi’s bare back. “You can’t pronounce it without a forked tongue.”


Onto Part 2 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 41: The Dance of Kanna and Goda

Her tears dried in seconds. The moment Kanna pulled her face from where she had pressed it to the door jamb, a wave of hot air met her eyes and made her blood boil. She clutched the strap of the satchel around her shoulder as if she were wringing the neck of a snake.

She stared at the figure who reclined on the bed, at the book that now lay on the giant’s chest, at the long arms tucked leisurely behind a thick, stupid head.

Kanna darted from the doorway. Her feet pounded against the creaky wooden floor as she kept her eyes locked on Goda Brahm, her robes dragging behind her in the rush of her movements.

She unslung the satchel so fluidly that it felt weightless.

She swung it hard against Goda’s startled face.

“You bastard! You poison-eating, idol-worshiping, horse-faced, worthless Middlelander!” Kanna struck the giant again and again, but after the first blow, she was only meeting Goda’s outstretched palms. “Fuck you! Fuck you! How could you do this to me? How could you lead me through endless bullshit, telling me nothing—nothing—and then making me think I’d never see you again? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Kanna,” Goda said. Her voice was so measured and calm as she dodged the frantic swings of the bag that it only enraged Kanna more.

But she was already exhausted. And it still felt strange to hear her own name, especially coming from the giant’s lips, with the giant’s accent. It threw her off. Even though she gritted her teeth and kept swinging away, the blows lost their momentum until they became taps against Goda’s outstretched arms, and before long the bag slipped from Kanna’s fingers altogether and landed on the floor.

It fell between Goda’s feet. The giant had come to sit up on the edge of the bedside and she had snatched one of Kanna’s wrists. She turned it over, pulled the sleeve back. She exposed the strip of raw, pale skin that served as the last evidence of the cuff that had once bound them together. Goda pressed her mouth to the spot—but the moment did not last long because Kanna dug her fingers into the side of the giant’s face and pushed her away. She restrained herself; she had wanted to slap her.

That small effort of willpower drained her of her last ounce of energy. She collapsed forward into the giant’s chest.

The next breath she took was shaky, but it was filled with the scent of Goda Brahm. Kanna clutched the giant’s robes in her hands, allowing herself to feel the first wave of gratitude that she had been resisting, and she did not pull away when she felt Goda’s arms wrapping around her.

“You idiot,” Kanna whispered into the giant’s ribs. “I hate you. I hate you so much. How did you get in here in the first place? We’re surrounded by a gateless barrier too tall for even someone like you to climb, and you sure as hell didn’t use the front door with all those neighbors watching.” When Goda didn’t answer, Kanna pulled back to look up into her eyes. “All this time, was there a path to this place that I didn’t see?”

“There is no path. There is nothing to see.”

“Then how…?” In spite of Goda’s words, Kanna turned to look around the dimly-lit room because she suddenly realized that she was uncomfortable, that a bead of sweat had already settled on her neck. “It’s warm in here.”

It had not just been the seething of her ire. She felt a wave of heat radiating behind her, so she turned towards the only other light source in the room. It was a stove that lay in the corner, just beside the open front door. She could not tell what it was burning, but it made little more than a quiet hiss and the flames in the hearth had almost no color to them. There was a metal pipe leading up into the ceiling, just as she had seen in Jaya’s house, but it was less riddled with rust.

“Before, I was staring out into the yard and I didn’t see you,” she said. “How did I not notice something as obvious as a fire? How did I not smell any smoke?”

“These are your spirits. That is you burning in the stove, and naturally you are noseblind to your own scent.”

Kanna looked deeply into the blue flames, but there was nothing familiar about them. The moment she thought she saw a shape dancing in the chamber, it would flicker and disappear. “Stop lying to me. I’ve seen motor exhaust before. I’ve smelled it, too. This is nothing like it.”

“You’ve smelled what the soldiers use, which is a blend of plant oils along with your father’s ethanol. They mix and dirty the fuel to make up for the shortage—but oil is not very efficient and it smells bad. Pure ethanol has almost no smell, hardly any smoke. Maybe a sweet taste in the air, but that’s all. It’s why the priestesses won’t use anything else.”

Kanna watched her own reflection in the glass that covered the hearth, watched as the flames consumed her, but it was just as Goda said: There was no smell, nothing to really see. Rava Spirits burned pure. It was almost as if the stove had been empty.

She noticed then a kettle and bronze cup that sat on top, edged into a corner, away from the full blast of heat. “You’ve cooked something.”

Yaw tea.” The platform of the bed creaked as Goda stood up. She pushed Kanna away gently, stepping over the fallen bag on the floor without touching it, shuffling with bare feet towards the quietly raging fire. She closed the front door on her way and a last gust of cool air burst in before it was overcome by the fire as well. “I can go for a long time without food,” she said, pouring from the kettle into the cup, “but I can only go about a week without having at least the essence of yaw. I’d be too tired to go hunting tonight without it.”

“Give me some, too.” Kanna followed the giant, squeezed herself next to Goda to bathe in the heat of the fire. “I don’t care if it’s poison. I’ll drink what you drink.”

“It’s concentrated essence of yaw. If you hate the taste of the plant on its own, then you’ll certainly hate the taste of this a hundred times over.”

“I hate you, and yet I’ve tasted you more than once and I’ll taste you a hundred times more. Give me the tea.”

And so Goda reached into the shadows towards a shelf on the wall that Kanna had not yet noticed—it was as if it had only manifested the moment Kanna had looked—and she produced another vessel of bronze. The giant poured into both cups, but she did not watch what she was doing closely, so a few drops spilled here and there because her gaze had fallen onto Kanna’s face.

Kanna felt the stare and met it with confidence, without fear anymore. But because Goda did nothing after she placed the kettle back down, Kanna grew quickly impatient.

“Kiss me,” she demanded.

The giant leaned down out of the light of the flames and into the shadow, and she honored Kanna’s request and pressed her lips to Kanna’s mouth. Kanna razed those lips with the edges of her teeth, but she opened her mouth, too. Goda’s fingers came to grasp the back of Kanna’s neck as the kiss grew deeper, as that spark of violence between them came to life again effortlessly.

Before Kanna could lose her mind in it, though, the giant pulled away. She offered Kanna a cupful of poison. She tipped her head towards the foot of the mattress at the center of the room. “Let’s sit down.”

Kanna leaned against Goda’s side once they had settled. She pressed her hands around the warm cup. At first, she stared into the dark pool of the vessel, but she could not see the bottom, and because it made her uncomfortable, she turned away to gather her surroundings in earnest for the first time.

The room was pleasant in its faint light, in the way the reflections of the flames danced against the wooden panels of the walls. There was barely any furniture: only the stove, a short bookshelf that sat nearby and seemed to house some kitchen supplies as well, a night table with a candle, and then the bed which was large enough for the giant to have lain on without her feet dangling over the edge.

On the other side of the room, there were two or three long robes hanging from pegs driven into the wall. There was another small door as well, but there was no light seeping through, and based on how the cabin had seemed from the outside, Kanna could not imagine that it was big enough to accommodate a second bedchamber.

The moment she stopped observing and fell back into her thoughts, something about being inside the cottage made her feel a little on edge. It was not unpleasant in its entirety; it was a feeling of nervous surprise, as if she had stumbled upon something she hadn’t been meant to see, hadn’t imagined existed in the first place.

“How often do you come here?” Kanna asked—but she had already figured it out just by the way the place smelled alone, so she didn’t wait for an answer before she said, “This is your home, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Kanna glanced back down at her cup, heaving a hard enough breath that it sent ripples through the surface of the tea. “I guess it never even occurred to me before. I assumed you were homeless without even thinking about it—but of course you would need someplace to go back to every once in awhile. Everybody does.”

“Strictly speaking, it’s part of Lila’s house, and so I don’t officially live here, but no one stays in this cabin besides me. I travel a lot, though, and I don’t find myself inside these walls very often.”

“What an exhausting life you live.”

“The life of a slave. You know it as well as I do now.”

The light of the candle flame behind her danced chaotically for a few seconds. Kanna thought she heard a drip of hot wax hitting the bronze holder underneath, but she did not turn around to look and instead she leaned more of her weight onto Goda’s shoulder.

“I have so many questions,” Kanna said, “so many things I want to know about you, so many tiny details, but now that we’re alone, I can’t muster up the strength to ask. I just want to be here with you now. I just want to enjoy our time in privacy and not think about the past or the future.” Finally, Kanna lifted the tea to her lips, and though it had a strong smell, she ignored her instinct to recoil from it because she saw that Goda had already been drinking away. She took a small sip.

Her stomach lurched and she had to consciously snap her teeth shut to keep from spitting it out immediately. She managed to force herself to swallow, but it felt not only bitter on her tongue, but somehow painfully sour all the way down. When she was done, she coughed and groaned and gave Goda a sharp glance because the giant had already started laughing at her.

“What on Earth does it taste like to you, then?” Kanna asked, wiping her mouth with the back of her sleeve.

“Like everything else tastes to me. Like Kanna Rava tastes to me. Bittersweet.” Goda heaved a great sigh that made even the bed settle. She was smiling into her cup. “I’m just used to it, that’s all.”

“How much of that stuff do you have to drink before you’re normal?”

“This is my third cup already. I should be fine with this. I absorb it quickly when I’m fasting.”

“Good God, you people really are addicted to this garbage.”

“So are you.” Goda shrugged at Kanna’s curious glance. “You have the essence of yaw inside you all the time, driving your cycles, stoking your desire to connect to others. It’s just that your body makes these nutrients for you, and so you’ve never known what it’s like for them to be missing, and so you’ve never realized your dependence on them. In fact, you’ve gone your whole life without knowing that they even exist. It’s only because of people like me that you came to realize this part of yourself.”

Kanna contemplated this, but the longer she looked into her own mysterious cup, the more she could see the outline of Goda’s handsome face in the dark reflection of the water, and the more she lost interest in her own train of thought. She leaned over to set the cup on the floor, far away from her feet, determined to forever leave it unfinished. When she sat back up again, she let her free hand rest in Goda’s lap, because she had already noticed something else that was pulsing unspoken between them.

“Maybe that’s why it’s important for us to be different,” Kanna murmured. She slid her hand along the the inside of the woman’s thigh. She did not pause until her fingers encountered a firm, warm resistance—but the giant said nothing, only drained the rest of her cup. “If we’re all the same, then there are things we can never know about our own selves. It was because you were so much my polar opposite that I could see everything about myself in you. It’s like a mirror that only shows the empty space around me, the shadows.” Kanna’s touch grew a bit bolder; she explored lightly with her fingers until she could no longer doubt the source of the heat, until Goda’s arousal was plainly in her hand, separated only by the fabric of her clothes. “You’ve learned from me, too, even if you act like you know everything. You’ve changed since you’ve met me—I’ve changed you—even if you act like you’re an unmovable giant. You’re in love with me, even if you hide it.”

“I don’t hide it.”

Kanna swallowed. The words made blood rush to her face, but then blood was also rushing everywhere else and her heart was pounding.

She heard the giant’s empty cup fall to the floor with a hollow ring, like the chiming of the priestess’s bell. Startled, Kanna looked up to find the shadow of the giant looming over her, blocking the light of the stove, only the edges of her face visible in the darkness. It was the same way she had looked on the side of the crag in the desert, the night they had first met.

But they were not in the midst of freezing rain this time. They were inside a gateless house, in the warmth, in a place where no one else had ever been.

Goda kissed her. The violence of that single movement sent Kanna teetering–and then the entire weight of the giant fell upon her, pinning her onto the bed with a thud that knocked out her breath. The scents and sensations were overwhelming her, were too much of what she had wanted all at once. Still, she reached for more of it; she closed her eyes and grasped at Goda’s chest, grasped blindly to feel any sign of bare skin, grasped to find any place where she could fuse into her.

Goda’s hands had already slid under Kanna’s robes, had already hiked the fabric up past Kanna’s waist. She explored every piece of Kanna shamelessly; she treated every shred of skin equally; she leaned down to put her mouth on Kanna’s chest as she pushed the robes further up, but when the fabric caught itself on a swell and would not go further, Goda let out a huff of impatience and pulled back.

“Get rid of it,” the giant said. Kanna stared up at her, surprised with the bluntness of her tone. “Take it off. Do it now.” Goda herself was busy peeling away the layers of her clothes and throwing them aside, kneeling over Kanna on the bed, giving her just enough space to follow suit.

Kanna did not question her master’s command this time. She freed herself—and when she was free, she took hold of the buckle of Goda’s belt and helped her unfasten it until they could shed the rest of what remained between them.

Goda’s hands could wander then without restriction and Kanna writhed against them. She wanted to feel those hands closer, somewhere deeper than her skin, but in some paradox of pleasure and discomfort, she also found herself on the verge of recoiling. Even though it all excited her, it felt completely unfamiliar, felt nothing like all the times that she had touched herself.

An edge of fear was rising in her—and then the full depth of Goda Brahm came down upon her again. The giant’s teeth pressed to her neck. The giant’s hand tugged Kanna’s thighs fully open and reached for the skin between them, the skin that had started to grow cold even in the warm air because it was slick and exposed.

Goda’s thumb pressed to a spot that made Kanna seize up, that overwhelmed her with sensation even though it was hardly a grazing touch; the tips of two of Goda’s fingers found their way somewhere lower still, and they slid easily past a threshold that no one—no one except for Kanna—had crossed before.

Kanna gasped.

She pulled back. She retreated so quickly from the giant’s touch that her back thudded against the wall behind her. She stared through the dark at that half-shadowed face, at the way the light played in those impossibly empty eyes.

Goda said nothing and did not chase her.

Kanna already felt the tears of embarrassment welling up in her eyes, but she couldn’t help the reaction. With a horror and self-loathing that surpassed anything she had seen in the shrines, she realized it then.

“I’m afraid.” She choked out a breath that she had been holding. Now that her clothes were gone, she felt suddenly cold.

Goda watched her in the glow of the candlelight. “Then be afraid, Kanna.”

Kanna shook her head. “No, no! You were right,” she whispered. “I didn’t know what I was asking for. It’s nothing like what I thought it would be like. It’s different from how it feels when I’m in there on my own. It feels like you’re invading me everywhere you touch. Even when it feels good, it feels bad. Even when I like it, I hate it. I can’t help but clench up, and if I clench up that just makes me smaller and you bigger, and that makes it worse. I don’t know what I’m doing. You were right, you were right!” Kanna’s mouth kept ranting, and even though she became conscious that the words were probably not from her, but from a panicked snake, she did not try to resist it.

A light smirk came over Goda’s face and Kanna resented it right away.

“I’m serious. I’ve changed my mind. If that’s how even your fingers feel, then I don’t want…that inside me. It’ll be too much. You’ll split me open. You’ll break me apart.”

“It’s not that big.” The amusement in Goda’s voice only grew more evident.

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a giant! Everything is ‘not that big’ to you. Everything is no big deal and feels like nothing. You don’t even know what it’s like to have someone inside you, do you? You don’t even know how to suffer, so how would you know?”

Goda was quiet for a long moment—and then she said, “It seems that we’re no longer talking about the same thing.” The desire on her face was gone, even if Kanna could still see in the dim light that it hadn’t faded from her body. With an expression of blank acceptance, she sat up and the bed rocked with her movements. It was then that Kanna noticed how low the ceiling really was, how Goda’s head was very near to brushing against it while she shifted to lean on her knees. “But you’ve made a huge mistake. You should know better by now. Of course I suffer, the same way I feel desire. Even I’m not free of these serpents. Even I can’t escape these oscillations. Don’t turn me into an idol, Kanna. Don’t turn me into an untouchable goddess that you can worship or a demon that you can hang your fears on. I’m a human being. Like this world itself, I am imperfect and constantly shifting. Accept this or else don’t bother with me. Anything else means that you don’t really want to know me, that you don’t really want what I am.”

Kanna’s hands came to grip the sheets of the bed, to twist them. “But I do want you,” she whispered. “I’ve never wanted anything so badly in my life. I’m terrified of losing you now that I have you. I’m angry with myself that even now I can’t let go and have what I want from you when you’re offering it so nakedly.”

“Then be patient with yourself. Don’t give up at the slightest sign of self-resistance. Relax. If you really want me inside you, then open yourself up to me and let me flow into you. I’m not meant to fill you; I’m only meant to help you notice the empty space that already fills you. I can’t force myself inside, that’s why I refused you before. It may seem easier on the surface to use brute force, but forcing it means you’ve missed the point.”

“What point? What point?” Kanna cried. “What are you even talking about?” The words made no sense to one part of her and total sense to another. She squirmed uncomfortably on the bed, uncertain whether she was hot or cold anymore.

Goda reached forward and grasped Kanna’s wrists and ripped her hands away from where they fidgeted against the outer layer of the bed. “You’re afraid because it will make you vulnerable. You will be helpless for those moments and so you naturally resist it, and then you want me to fight your resistance, as if sex is something for us to conquer or attain. But that is not the point. There is nothing to attain. There is nothing to do. The point is to be afraid and to feel it fully. The point is that you will be helpless, that I will overwhelm all of your resistance and that I will do it because you gave in, because you gave yourself up to me—not because I had to force you.”

The giant’s grip was loose enough that Kanna could turn her hand over and gaze again at the spot where her cuff used to be.

“Let go, Kanna.” Goda dropped both of Kanna’s hands. She slid to the side of the bed and jumped onto the floor, stretching up onto her feet, raising her arms up so that they pressed to the exposed beams of the ceiling. “You’re not a slave anymore, so you have to let go by your own free will. No one can make you. But because you’ve never done it before, of course you don’t know how. Of course the thought of letting go is much different from actually doing it. You’ll have to practice to learn.” The giant grinned, began walking towards the door as Kanna followed her movements with bewilderment. “And you can practice with me if you want—but only if you want.”

She opened the door and stepped out, fully naked, into the starlit night.

Kanna stared at the suddenly clear image of the giant’s back. She looked at the blue-tinted curves and the muscles and the valleys that she wanted to touch. She felt her stream of thoughts growing silent again, growing weak in the face of bare reality.

I want.

Kanna rose from the bed. Without any regard for her state of undress, she passed through the door and reached the giant, and she only remembered that she was naked when the air hit her skin and made her shiver. But by then it was too late to turn back because Goda had taken her hand.

She brought Kanna away from the stone path, around to the garden on the other side of the cabin. The weedy bed of grass pinched and tickled Kanna’s bare feet, but she walked along anyway, noticing the touch of every cool dew drop as it soothed her skin.

The more silent the snakes, she realized, the more she could see in her surroundings. There was infinite detail that she had missed before.

They reached a space near one of the outer barriers that had itself been partitioned by a tiny iron fence, which Kanna found amusing because she couldn’t fathom who it might have been keeping out. Goda opened the little gate, though Kanna could have easily stepped over it, and the giant took her past a row of bushes that were already smattered with fruit.

A tree sat in the middle of it. It was the same kind Kanna had seen inside the bathhouse, but the fruits looked darker, more mature, ready to fall on their own perhaps.

“You can eat whatever you find in this garden—any of it, all of it,” Goda said. “None of it will be poison to you. Make yourself familiar with the things you see here and eat them instead of yaw.”

“You planted this, didn’t you?” Kanna looked around at all the vines threaded into different trellises, all the food that grew openly, untouched. “You made this garden, the same way you made the one in the desert. Now that I know what to look for, I see you all over it.”

Goda smiled. “It’s an impulse, even if it’s not my job anymore. Wherever they assign me, I still collect all the seeds I find. I still plant them here or anywhere I know I can visit them again.”

“It’s like they’re your children.”

“Friends, perhaps.” Goda looked up at the higher branches of the tree and Kanna saw the barest flash of pride in her eyes in spite of her words. “Most of them are all grown up now. As you can see, they have children of their own.”

Kanna leaned back against the tree, looked up at the wide sky. The barrier around them receded to the edges of her perspective, and as she noticed herself relaxing, she still felt a jolt of worry that someone would see her nakedness.

But only Goda saw her.

Kanna could not make out any houses from where she stood. She could not even see the windows of Lila’s home because the cabin had blocked the view. They were in a lush garden, in Goda’s wilderness, in a forest made up of a single tree.

They were alone…except for the human-sized figure that she could see half-hidden among a mess of vines, between the tree and the barrier. At first it startled her, but then she realized it was an image of the Goddess, a wooden sculpture carved by hand, the imperfect stroke marks of the chisel evident even in the shadows.

“She’s watching us.”

“She can watch,” Goda husked. She pushed Kanna hard against the tree and Kanna felt the bark marring her skin.

It felt good; it felt bad; she accepted it. She accepted Goda’s mouth against her own. She surrendered to the feeling of Goda lifting her up roughly, then placing her with gentle care on the nest of hard roots below. She enjoyed the rise and fall of Goda’s chest and how it had come to bear down on her own, how it reminded her to listen to the ebb and flow of her own breath.

And when Goda rose up, knelt between her legs as if she were kneeling before the image of the Goddess, Kanna accepted this, too. She felt Goda’s hands sliding gently up her thighs. She leaned into Goda’s increasingly intimate touch, and then she resisted it in turn, but every time, she allowed herself to gasp with pleasure and discomfort freely; every time, she allowed Goda to wait and to continue; every time, she was closer to full nakedness before the giant.

She was nearly there.

Kanna watched Goda’s movements. She saw the bare evidence of the giant’s neglected arousal in the full light of the moon, more clearly than she had before. It made her feel ready to stretch beyond the ways that Goda had already explored her.

Without thinking, she reached. She took it in her hand. Goda’s reaction was slight, but it was there in a brief hitch of her breath.

“Do it,” Kanna said. She tugged the giant towards her by the very same thing that had scared her before. “Don’t hold back. I know it’s burning in you, so do whatever you want to me. Let everything out.”

“Then meet me where I am.” Goda leaned further, propped her weight up solidly onto the roots of the tree—and in this way she allowed Kanna to seek her out.

Kanna relaxed into the feeling, even though it was nothing like anything she had experienced before. It was unpredictable as it was arousing. Kanna could not guess how far or how deep the giant would press into her, and this scared her even more. She had never felt so open, so exposed, and even then some small part of her brain panicked at the mixed sensations of elation and pain.

But as always, everything about Goda was really a swirling of two polarities, and those two things were always really just one thing in disguise.

They were merely masks for the same Goddess. They were all one thing.

And more than ever before, as Goda began her slow thrusts, Kanna was deeply aware at the level of her flesh and bones that she and Goda were also one thing.

Kanna met the motion with her hips. She did it on some primal instinct that had overtaken her mind, but she let the rhythm flow with Goda’s lead, let the dance between them give birth to itself. They shifted towards the Goddess, and then back again towards the roots. The pace grew faster, then slower, then frantic enough that Kanna had to dig her hands into the ground to keep herself stable.

All the time, she did not shy away from the full shine of the surfaceless eyes that watched from above. She didn’t recoil anymore from the frightening depths within, from the face of the woman who had shown her heaven and hell and nothing at all.

The fear had begun to excite her. She knew that Goda Brahm was dangerous; she knew that she had allowed a savage to slide deeply into her skin and infect her with demons, but she did not care, because she also knew that it was an act of creation. She felt the fear welling up in her belly and fusing with the jolts of pain and pleasure that came from every one of Goda’s increasingly chaotic strokes. The giant was already losing control, her legs shaking, her hips striking harder, her teeth gritting with the last of her restraint.

Kanna looked up at her in fascination. She realized then that she was not the only one who had laid herself bare and vulnerable in a garden under the open sky. She reached up and grasped Goda’s face in her hand, locked their shared gaze tightly, watched herself in the dark mirrors that stared back. She thrust her hips against Goda with all the violence inside of her. She did it because she knew that the giant was on the verge of breaking and she wanted to watch it happen, moment by painful moment. She wanted to see Goda’s unfiltered face.

But the flow of Kanna’s movements sent waves of sensation in her own direction as well, and she found that it was she who was suddenly shaken, she who felt herself ready to crack open, she who could not hold back anymore. Her muscles tightened against her will, a last contraction before expansion. She gave Goda a helpless glance because she knew what was coming, and Goda smirked as she slipped a hand between them to coax her the rest of the way.

The dance lost every semblance of rhythm—or at least anything that Kanna’s mind could turn into one. Her nerves pulsed with raw sensation, everywhere, from the place where she had joined with Goda to the very ends of her fingers, to the very depths of her gut. She grasped wildly at the ground, at the weeds, at the tree roots, at Goda’s chest. When she felt she could not stop herself from crying out, Goda’s mouth silenced her. The weight of the giant kept Kanna stable even as the feeling of Goda’s skin overwhelmed her.

Waves passed through her like rushing water; bliss and pain mixed together once more. Kanna had no choice but to surrender because her body had done it for her already. Goda remained pressed into her. Goda remained quietly watching from above.

When it was over, Kanna felt like she had melted into the base of the tree, like there was some presence flowing up from the ground below her. She was gasping; she was looking up at the night sky between the branches, trying to piece herself together, trying to fathom what had just happened as the feeling dissipated.

Cold air washed over her because Goda had pulled away. It made her realize how heavy the giant really was, how Goda’s body had burdened her and sheltered her. Though she could not yet make herself get up, a small part of her twitched with the desire to reach for Goda, to keep the giant from running away—but Goda was not running.

The giant picked her up. Instead of slinging her over a shoulder this time, she slipped an arm under Kanna’s back and another beneath Kanna’s knees. Without saying anything, she walked down the length of the small garden, stepped over the iron fence, strolled along the trail of crunching grass while Kanna pressed her face to Goda’s soft-hard breast.

Goda brought her back to the cabin. Because the door was still wide open and both the fires had died, the air was cool when they came in, but Goda shut the door behind them with a kick, and once the wind was gone, the giant’s skin was enough to warm her.

Then Kanna was falling, spilling out of Goda’s arms. The sensation startled her, but she realized as she groped for Goda’s shoulders that the giant was falling with her. They landed in the bedsheets. It was a mess—a maze in the dark—and so Kanna had to crawl around to find Goda again, to cling to her, but the woman did not fight her intention and embraced her back. Kanna shuddered from the warmth when Goda kissed her.

“I…don’t know what’s happening,” Kanna whispered. “I felt something. I felt what you did to me, but I also felt something else. I don’t know what it was or what it means. I only saw a piece of it.” She couldn’t even tell if what they had done was good or bad. She had lost her ability to judge anything. “But don’t leave. Stay here with me. Please.

“I’m here.”

“Right now, yes, but soon—”

“I’m here right now.”

Kanna took a long breath against Goda’s skin. “You’re not really going out to kill someone, are you? Please don’t. You’re not a killer. I know you’re not.”

Goda was quiet for a long moment, but because it was dark, Kanna could not see her expression. “Things have grown complicated, as you might already realize. I need to track down where they will hold Rem before the funeral, and at the same time, I need to deliver the vessel, something that must be planned carefully. Samma Flower takes about an hour to start kicking in, so the vessel will not be potent until then. It’s not a quick death at all—there will be much suffering and struggle—but because it could affect the fluids, I can’t do anything to hasten the process. I have to time everything just right when I make the delivery. It will be difficult to do all this without being noticed.”

“It won’t be difficult if you don’t do it at all.”

“There is no choice. Tonight, my job is to kill. It’s what I’ve been tasked with by the Goddess.”

Kanna lifted her head from Goda’s chest. “You and your Goddess. Well, there’s no way in or out of this yard as you said yourself, so I guess you’ll just have to stay forever.”

“It’s true there’s no way to pass through this barrier because it has no gate—but the Goddess lets me pass from time to time nonetheless in a different way.” Goda’s hand fell on Kanna’s face, caressed her lightly. “Until then, I’m here. Until then, right now will be forever.”

Kanna drew in closer. Because Goda was always now, she could not accept the impermanence of the giant.

And as the time ticked on without a clock to measure it, Kanna fought to keep her eyes open in the dark because she thought that as long as she stayed alert, she could keep Goda Brahm from escaping her.

* * *

The fireflies were her only source of light for a long time. She had to trust that she would find her way out of the grove and into the open meadows where the moon would light her way again, so she trudged through the little patch of forest on faith. When she finally did burst from the trees, Kanna was in her mother’s garden, and instead of the moon, the yellow glow of the lamps leaking through the curtained windows bathed the thorny bushes that lined the path up to the door.

She winced. Her mother was still awake. If Kanna walked right through the front entrance, then surely the woman would know that Kanna wasn’t already tucked into bed like she was supposed to be. It had taken her longer than she had thought to return from her wanderings in the field. Even though she had taken off running soon after glimpsing the shadow of her father’s face, the night had caught her and she had become lost on the way back.

Still, she knew her mother would never care for such an explanation—or any explanation at all. She sneaked instead through the garden, around the side of the house, intent on finding a way to jerk the frame of her bedroom window open. There was a tree that grew near there, a tree that would hide her struggles if anyone were to pass by or if her mother were to suddenly venture out of the confines of the house.

But when she rounded the corner and crouched to dash towards the tree, her body froze in place. Her blood ran cold. She tried to convince herself at first that it was simply the silhouette of one of the larger branches cast against the ground, but the empty feeling in her stomach told her otherwise.

She wanted to back away, but she couldn’t. Even if she hadn’t been paralyzed, there was nowhere she could run to be safe. The fields were not safe, her own home was not safe.

The shadow of the monster seemed to fuse with the tree and the creature’s smile shined in the moonlight.

“Who are you?” Kanna choked out, terrified.

“No one,” it said.

Its voice sounded familiar somehow. Kanna studied the lines of that face as her eyes grew more used to the shadows. Slowly, her muscles relaxed, her stance grew less stiff.

The moment she was sure of it, she ran to the giant. They embraced each other beside the window, with the tree looming over them. The giant’s naked skin pressed warmly to her face.

“What are you doing here?” Kanna asked.

“I don’t know. I think I came to open a window for you.”

Kanna looked up at her again, and indeed there was no mistaking who it was. “Have you been here this whole time? I mean, were you there when this first happened, when I first experienced it? Or is it only now that you’re here as I remember it? There was a shadow back then, too, there really was. I remember being afraid in this garden, but I don’t remember what I did about it. Was it you? Was it you that I saw?” She had forgotten what she had come there to do, what she had been running away from in the first place. “But…it can’t be. I didn’t even know you until we met in the desert. Of course you couldn’t have been here back then.”

“I’m here now.”

“Yes.” She took Goda’s hands, squeezed the scarred fingers, and it felt just as vivid as it did any other time. “Thank you for coming, but I think it’s better if we go back to your house. I don’t really like it here. I’d rather forget about it.”

Goda shook her head. “This is where you started and where you ended up, so this is the place you can always come back to see me if you want.”

“What do you mean? I can just wake up and light a candle and see your face in the bed next to me.” She wanted to look around, to check if the scene had shifted at all, but she was worried about letting the giant out of her sight. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep, but….”

There was an expression on the giant’s face that she had never seen before. She tried to tell herself that it meant something else.

“I’m sorry, Kanna.”

* * *

Kanna jerked awake, as if she had fallen onto the bed from a great height. Once she had command of her limbs again, she groped around in the dark for her master, grasped for that huge body, for that steady stream of warmth.

Her hands came up empty and cold. Her fingers clutched at the sheets and shook from the force of her fruitless effort.

Her eyes widened in the dark, but still no light reached them. Her eyes widened because suddenly, she knew.

Goda was the corpse vessel.


Onto Chapter 42 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 40: Gateless

“Goda!” Kanna stumbled through the sand and took off towards the flock of soldiers that had arranged themselves around the truck. Her muscles fired on their own as if they had been shocked with some electric current. Her breath shot out into the cold air like a self-made haze, but the sun nonetheless beat down hotly over her head. This contrast was unpleasant, but she didn’t care.

She had to see what had become of the giant. Even as her lungs heaved and her heart pounded and she felt a pair of loud footfalls chasing her from behind, she could still sense the giant’s presence underneath it all. The presence had never left her; she felt it stronger than ever; she ran towards it with all the energy she had left.

But Lila seized her. They struggled together in the gravel. They nearly fell to the ground with the force of Kanna’s resistance, but the woman kept her steady, grabbed Kanna’s face in both her hands, looked her dead in the eyes.

Stop! Stop! Don’t implicate yourself, you fool!” Lila cried through gritted teeth.

But they’ll kill her over this! They’ll kill her!” Kanna tried to pull away; she could already feel the soldiers stirring close by, noticing her presence, flickering their eyes in her direction.

And what are you going to do about that? Calm yourself! Think straight! Goda isn’t even on property anymore, but if you make a scene like this, they might realize who the driver of the truck was!”

Kanna stiffened; it took her a moment to understand what Lila had said because a distracting shadow suddenly came to loom over her and block out the sun.

“What’s going on over here, Junior Hadd?”

In spite of the jolt of fear, Kanna glanced over her shoulder, saw that it was the tall soldier who had been standing at the perimeter of the lot, the one who had been scribbling on the stack of papers.

“Nothing that concerns you. I’m leading my prisoner into confinement and she’s prone to random fits and flailing. The bright sun has induced an episode in her. I’ll take care of it.”

“I thought I saw her running.” The solider glanced down at Kanna’s wrist with a raised eyebrow. “She’s not even cuffed. Why not? Are you having trouble containing her? Do you need one of us to bring her back up to the cuffing room?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Does she look like a flight risk to you? She’s a low security prisoner. Too weak to run, too weak to even wear the cuff. She’s practically falling over as it is; the shocks could induce more fits and kill her. I’m not going to be responsible for that.”

A brief pause passed between the three of them and Kanna felt the soldier’s glance more directly, felt it hitting every edge of her body from above like a spotlight. The eyes were judging, but they did not look perturbed. “Fair enough. I see what you mean. She does look rather sickly—and we have more urgent matters to tend to right now than the health of some slave, anyway.” Her glance returned to the truck in the near distance. Now that Kanna’s vision was less narrowed, as she followed the woman’s gaze she could see that there were half a dozen other vehicles in the same lot, and that there were more soldiers tearing through them all. “That reminds me: I don’t think we had a chance to question anyone on your floor yet.”

“Question us about what?”

The soldier looked at her like it should have been obvious, but even so she lifted her stack of papers and pressed the blade of her pen to the one at the very surface. “Did you see anything this morning out here? Anything at all? Do you know who might have ridden in on that beat-up truck over there?”

Lila made a show of looking, squinting her eyes against the sun, against the kicked-up sand in the lot. “No. To tell you the truth, that truck could have been sitting there for days and I wouldn’t have noticed a thing. I don’t drive, so I never pay any attention to these death machines that people zoom around in.”

“Huh.” The soldier huffed and jotted something down on the form. “There was a porter coming back from the confinement center earlier, pulling six slaves. She said the same thing, ‘I was here this morning and I didn’t see anyone around. That truck could have been here for days.’ But we’re not so sure about that. The motor was still a little warm when we found it.”

Kanna looked across the street towards the offices that sat across from the tower. She remembered the woman who had passed by with the series of ragged prisoners cuffed together. She wondered if it might have been this same woman who had lied to the soldier beside her.

Maybe the porters have a code of fellowship among them, Kanna thought.

Without giving the soldier a chance to pry any further, though, Lila was already dragging Kanna towards the road, away from the scene. Kanna allowed it, if only because now she knew that Goda had not been accosted by the authorities…yet.

Once they were out of earshot, Kanna muttered to Lila, “I know Goda is nearby. I can feel that she’s here. At first I thought it was my imagination—another trick from the shrine—but now that we’re outside of the tower, I can’t ignore it. I feel her heart pounding together with mine. She’s running.”

Kanna closed her eyes as Lila said nothing and only pulled her faster. For a brief flash, Kanna saw the image of a stone wall blurring at the sides of her vision, of hands grasping in the dim light towards smooth, wet rock.

But the image disappeared just as quickly as it came, even if the feeling of having floated up out of her skin took longer to fade and made her nearly trip over her own feet. Lila helped catch her again.

“Let’s go!” the woman said. “Let’s go before you do anything else that might give her away. She may have a chance to escape this still if she’s careful.”

“She’s underground somewhere,” Kanna said. “I saw it. Where is she? What is she doing?” She darted her head all around, looked for anything that might have given her a clue, even as she surrendered to Lila’s flow. She allowed the woman to lead her into the space between two government buildings that lined the street opposite the tower, but as they drew away from that colossal shadow, the feeling of Goda’s presence persisted, manifested as an urge to seek her out. “Won’t they go looking for her once they realize that she owns the truck?”

Lila let out a mirthless laugh. “Ownership. What a strange concept to apply to a slave, who doesn’t even own herself.”

“Fine, fine, but isn’t that the truck they gave her? Can’t they easily trace it back? I’m sure its description is written down in minute detail on some stupid form filed away somewhere. These people document every little thing, don’t they?”

“Years ago, they gave Goda a piece of junk to drive and it broke down not long after, so she sold it for parts and had to quickly source another before her time ran out. She’s been through many trucks ever since. She’ll find an old military vehicle that has been left to rot in a motor graveyard and she’ll scrape the markings off the sides and she’ll fix it up as best she can, then she’ll run it into the ground and move onto the next. They might find a way to trace this one back to her, but it won’t be very easy unless some witness comes forward and tells them they saw her driving it.”

“You mean she stole that truck?” Kanna looked over her shoulder towards the lot behind them once more, but Lila jerked her around a corner so that the scene was quickly obscured by a wall. “You mean the truck they gave her originally was even worse than that?”

“They don’t care how she does her job; they only have to tick the boxes on the form that says they officially gave her what she needed. You already see that they’ve set her up to fail.”

“I mean, I’m not shocked that she stole the truck. She steals practically everything else.”

“Of course she’s habituated to stealing. What else would she do? Even most of the allowance they give her goes to paying the tribute for the cleanses at the monastery whenever she has a foreign slave.” Lila shrugged. She had finally stopped to let Kanna catch her breath. “Most of what she steals—like that truck—doesn’t come from private citizens, anyway. Is it really stealing if it’s taken from a government that probably used slaves to forge the metal that made it?”

“That sounds like a rationalization.”

Lila laughed. “Are you honestly moralizing now? After everything you’ve seen and done?”

“Why can’t you give her money?” Kanna narrowed her eyes as the thought came to her. “She’s your friend, isn’t she? Or at the very least, she’s your wife’s first cousin, so that makes her family, doesn’t it? If you’ve known her for years, why have you let her pick through garbage for her food and ride around in one of your so-called death machines that could break down at any moment? You have no compassion, Lila.”

“As I told you, you have yet to realize the first thing about Goda if you’re saying that.” The woman looked at her with an edge of irritation, but it was superficial. The emptiness, the love still bled out from her stare underneath the surface emotion, and it was making Kanna uncomfortable again. “Goda is happier eating from the garbage than she is tasting the finest of meats. There is nothing I could add to her that would make her happier. She would never accept it even if I offered.”

Kanna sighed. “Yes. I noticed she was happy. It was a disturbing realization one night when we were struggling together in Karo. Even knee-deep in mud, even on the edge of death, she was content to follow the thread of fate as if she had woven this tapestry herself. The worse part was that I was happy with her. I had never been happy in my life until then.”

“Then you know after all. And now the thread is twisting in a different direction. Be like Goda and learn to follow it—to surrender to it—and you will learn to be wealthy in the midst of the worst squalor.” With that, Lila took Kanna by the hand and began weaving through yet another labyrinth. This time, it was one arising from the natural corners of the buildings and alleyways around them, and it felt different from the corridors of the tower because Kanna could still look up and see the openness of the sky. “I, too, live every day knee-deep in the mud, you might say.”

Kanna took the words for their surface meaning at first, and when they passed some broken-down shacks, she half-expected the bureaucrat to take her inside.

They kept moving. They crossed dirty streets and stepped over litter in front of houses with rusted roofs. Kanna tried her best to avoid stepping on broken glass with her bare feet or letting the prickly weeds near the roadside entangle themselves around her ankles.

But as they carried on, the streets grew cleaner. They walked over bridges that spanned across the fountains of small public gardens. The shrubs all around were thornless and well-trimmed, covered in tiny buds that were ready to burst in anticipation of the coming spring. For a long time, Lila seemed to guide her where there were few people, and so they were able to avoid the stares at first, but eventually—as the elaborate gardens grew more numerous and seemed to flow into privately fenced yards—the number of people who paused to watch her also seemed to grow.

By the time they had reached the archway to another private garden—one that served as a trellis for a plant that carried both spines and flower buds—she could feel many neighboring eyes on her. She did not have time to stare right back before the women politely glanced away—and before Lila pulled her through the gate.

Kanna found herself looking up at a modestly-sized house made of polished stone, the front door seeming more like a framed window of frosted glass.

“This…is your home?” Kanna asked, stupefied. It wasn’t as big as the others she could see surrounding it, and it lacked some of the ornamentation, but the blocks of stone that made it up had been carved into perfectly smooth planes that shined in the afternoon light. The front garden—decorated with many different plants—ended at a thick stone barrier that flanked both sides of the house. This fence was so tall that she could barely see the tips of evergreen trees peaking out from the enclosed backyard. It appeared to have no gate at all, to be shut out from the rest of the world.

Kanna knew it all had to be expensive, even taking into account how her foreign eyes could bias her. She blurted out, “Why on Earth does your wife refuse to live here?”

“Oh, she’s just stubborn.”

“She’s insane,” Kanna muttered as Lila brought her to the entrance.

“If you really must know, it’s because she’s enamored with Parama Shakka. She would make any excuse to keep living in the desert as long as he’s at the monastery, but as I already said, Middlelanders suppress these sorts of feelings and won’t talk about them openly, so I didn’t realize her affliction until we were already married. Maybe now that his circumstances are different, she’ll change her tune.”

“Wait, but…wasn’t it you who helped place Parama at the desert monastery in the first place?”

Lila gave her a pained grin. She turned the handle of the door. “Indeed, it’s ironic, isn’t it? Jaya met him because I placed him there, and I met Jaya because I had stopped by to check up on him.”

“That’s terrible. She’ll sleep with—” Kanna stopped. “She’ll…seek out that oblivious boy over her own wife?”

Though Kanna had stumbled over her words, it seemed to lighten the woman’s spirit. She laughed as she ushered Kanna into the house.

“I didn’t say that she doesn’t seek me out. She does. Once she saw that I was open to it, she started waking me up at midnight every time I would visit. We like each other very much, actually. It’s just that she pretends otherwise, just as she pretends that she has nothing to do with Parama because he’s a slave.”

“But why would she need to hide what she does with her own wife?”

“My dear, she hides it precisely because I am her wife. Middlelanders like to keep a certain…platonic veneer about their marriages, you see. Of course, plenty of people do sleep with their wives—and everyone silently understands that it can happen—but you are meant to keep those inner workings private. You’re supposed to pretend that the relationship is passionless, and you’re encouraged to seek partners outside the house instead.”

Kanna shook her head. “For God’s sake, these are twisted people,” she began to complain—but then the door shut behind her and suddenly the taste of the inside air filled her nose and mouth.

She turned her head and saw a foyer spreading out in front of her. The walls were made from the same stone that had lined the outside, and it was just as polished and clean. The ceiling was high, adorned with electric lights that burned with a warmth that reached her. The floor was covered in stained wood; it felt soft against her feet as Lila led her beyond that small entryway and into a wide room arranged with wooden furniture that looked brand new and ancient at the same time.

“They have their way, you have yours, and I have mine,” Lila said. “There are many different paths in this life. If we were all the same—or if our only differences were in how we looked and spoke—it would be rather boring, wouldn’t it?” Leaving Kanna near the door, she skipped on ahead, kicking her sandals off into a corner, pulling a folded stack of papers from her pocket and throwing it onto a long dining table. “Though I’ll admit, I was as confused as you were when I first came here. I studied the Middlelander culture all my life, but no amount of schooling could prepare me for what I found when I arrived on this side of the continent.” She plopped down into a chair at the table, pointed to the one across from her with an insistent hand. “There are many unspoken things, things you could never find in a book because the Middlelanders themselves would think they’re too obvious to transcribe. In a sense, these are also the most important things.”

Taking in her surroundings—scanning the shelves and cabinets that lined the walls, admiring the stonework of the mantelpiece and what looked like carved bone artifacts that sat on top of it—Kanna slowly complied, slowly lowered herself into the seat across from Lila.

“So you’re saying you wish they had taught you what it was actually like before you came all the way here?”

“No, not at all!” Lila smirked. “I’m saying that they can’t teach you what it’s actually like. You can’t teach an experience—you can only experience it. Even if you could, that would rob you from experiencing it for yourself, which is where all the fun is anyway, isn’t it?”

Kanna made a face. “I don’t know if I would have called all of this…fun, exactly.”

“Would you have chosen your old life over it?”

“No,” Kanna admitted. She brought a hand up to rub the back of her neck. “I even told my father that. I didn’t choose this life, but I don’t know what else I would have taken in its place. And if I hadn’t gone down this path, I would have never met….” Kanna closed her eyes again briefly, trying to hone in on Goda’s presence inside her. She could still feel it, and this gave her comfort, but she could not make herself see what the giant was seeing and she could not shake the dread of some impending apocalypse.

When she opened her eyes she found that Lila was smiling at her quietly, an edge of expectation on her face.

“Yes?” Lila said.

“You have a lovely house.”

“Why thank you.”

Kanna stared at her in silence. She placed her hands on the table, looking around the room again, not sure how she could word the next flood of thoughts. She didn’t know how to even begin. “You know something,” she said at last. “You know a lot of things that I don’t.”

“This is true.”

“You’re waiting for me to ask. You won’t just tell me. You’re not that easy.”

“Also true.”

Kanna hesitated one last time—and then she decided that it was as good a question as any. “Who is Goda Brahm?”

The answer was just as plain, and it came out of Lila’s mouth as if she were offering a bit of casual small talk: “Goda is a member of the Flower Cult.”

Taking in a sharp breath, Kanna stared at Lila wide-eyed. She couldn’t help but lean across the table with alarm. “The death cult? The one that came out of the Outerland? Are you sure? How do you know?”

At this, Lila’s smile grew wider. “I’m the one who converted her, child.”

Converted her?”

“Yes. Goda converted in the desert shortly after she set out on her own as a porter. She had discovered a pre-Maharan shrine on accident and had been spooked by its power. The experience of seeing the Nothing underneath the snakes changed her so profoundly that she wandered in the wilderness for days, unable to eat or sleep. She stumbled into a nearby town, where I happened to live at the time. Since I was the only one there who could speak her language and the villagers were afraid of her, they sent me to try to reason with her. She was sick because she hadn’t had yaw in many days—Middlelanders have to eat it, you see; it’s a medicine to them as much as it is a poison to us—and luckily I had some to offer her. When she recovered, I told her the truth of what she had seen.”

“And she trusted you? Just like that?”

“Oh no, of course not. Have you met her? She has a stubborn personality, so she didn’t believe me at first. In fact, after she was back in her right mind, she left in a huff, thinking that I had been playing with her, that I had been making light of the terrible experience she had. It took several more incidents where she was drawn into a shrine before she finally came back to my village and sought me out. I waited for her. I knew she would come.”

“How?”

“I’m a witch,” Lila said, her voice still casual, much too mundane for Kanna’s taste. Kanna wasn’t sure whether to take such a comment literally or if it was yet another one of Lila’s metaphors. “Besides, I knew she was meant to learn the truth. I recognize a member of the cult when I see them, even before they’ve converted, even before they realize it themselves. If you have enough experience, it’s plain as day.” Lila’s eyes grew relaxed, like she was watching a pleasant memory play in her mind. “Goda was particularly hard to crack, though, as you might imagine. She had a very big Self—a very vast tangle of serpents—and so it took years of practice to wear her down enough where she could see her own snakes without the crutch of a shrine. Eventually, she leaned towards the truth, and she took the practice seriously, and she learned the breathing techniques and the mantras that had been passed down by the cult’s lineage over the centuries.”

“Mantras….” Kanna, too, found herself reminiscing—but she reached for a much more recent memory. “That chant she whispered in my ear, in the room with the factory woman who was to become my master—earlier, you called it a mantra. What did it mean? What were the words she was saying to me? I couldn’t understand them at the time.”

“It’s called The Mantra of Mahara’s Birth and Rebirth and it’s in the Ancient Middlelander tongue, so I don’t blame you for not being able to make sense of it. It means: ‘Samma begets Mahara, Samma begets Mahara,’ and so on. It calms the serpents. You chant it when they are writhing, to keep you from slipping out of lucidity and forgetting that this is all a dream.”

Kanna stared at the woman. That familiar dread from before resurfaced; she saw that one of her snakes had stirred, the one afraid of death. “What do you mean by that?” she asked. “Goda said something similar to me. She made it sound like I had dreamt this whole world up, like all of existence had come out of my imagination, and so everything that happened in it was my fault. It drove me crazy. She’s crazy.” Kanna gritted her teeth and shook her head. “I may love Goda, and I may have seen things that I truly cannot explain inside of those shrines, but I don’t understand all this mystical nonsense even now. Where does all of this even come from? What do you mean by ‘Samma’? You certainly can’t mean just some tiny Flower that grows in dung like everything else on this Earth. How is that worthy of worship? How can that give birth to a goddess?” Kanna paused when she noticed Lila’s odd expression. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to insult your religion. It’s nothing personal, it’s just—”

“You haven’t insulted me—and it’s not my religion.” But Kanna doubted Lila’s words because the woman had started to rise from her seat. She turned her back to Kanna, shuffling over towards one of the cabinets that sat against the wall. When she looked over her shoulder and saw that Kanna had not followed, she offered a reassuring smile. “Let me show you something.”

Kanna stood after a few seconds of hesitation, though Lila had not conveyed any impatience. Careful not to mar the floor when she pushed in her chair, she rounded the table and reached Lila’s side, watching as Lila pulled open the door of the cabinet and musty air hit them both in the face.

Inside, rows of small, thin slats lined every shelf from left to right. At first, Kanna had thought they were books, but as she leaned closer she could see the subtle ridges of the wood knots on the spines. Lila pulled one out from the middle and the others clacked as they settled. She held it lightly in her hand for Kanna to see.

It was an image. Though man-made, some quality in the etching appeared so natural that it took Kanna a moment to realize she was looking at a scene carved onto a wood block, and not simply at the intricate veins of the tree that had birthed it.

“What is it?” she asked. She could see a vast valley with grasses and trees and sky—and a river in the distance with mountains behind it. In the very foreground, a blooming flower stuck out from the plain. Many human figures of many sizes surrounded it, as if the plant had captured the focus of each one of them.

“In spite of our common name, the Flower Cult is not a religion. We do not worship Flower. Most of us don’t worship anything, actually—though there’s nothing wrong with doing so, of course.” Lila pressed her hand to the wood, running her fingers along the texture of the carved flower, which Kanna realized only then was so detailed that even the tiny veins on the stem were evident if she leaned closely enough.

“Then…what?”

“We’re simply a group of people carrying on ancient wisdoms and technologies that originate from long before any modern religion, long before the Maharans. We recognize a supreme god-head—the namesake of the Flower, of the Valley, of the River—as the source of all things, and we call this entity Samma, as the ancients once did. In truth, Samma has no name, but it is what gives birth to everything that does have a name in this world. In this way, Samma begets Mahara, and Mahara is one of the many faces of Samma. Our cult encompasses every faith that has ever existed—even yours.”

“I have no faith,” Kanna said. Her eyes fell on the distant hills in the carving and she thought she could see a lone human figure standing atop one of the peaks—but it could not have been etched to scale because that person had to have been a giant to be visible at such a distance.

Lila chuckled. “Samma encompasses your lack of faith as well. Belief, non-belief; god, goddess; devil, angel; life, death. All the polarities and all things between the polarities. It is the Nothing and the Everything. It is what exists beneath the snakes and begets the snakes. It is the true Goddess, the true God, beyond the idols of Mahara, although our Holy Mother is certainly a manifestation of it. Mahara is the pure feminine aspect of Samma, but she is only one half of the story. Before there was a cult for Her, the people of the valley—those who became the Middlelanders—worshiped all aspects of Samma indiscriminately, which is to say that they worshiped all things.”

She pulled out another wood block, and on it Kanna recognized an image of the Goddess floating over a mountain with a cratered peak. She was hovering cross-legged, and between her legs sat a coiled snake with its mouth wide open. Her face looked a bit different from all the other images that Kanna had ever seen; it was more angular, more androgynous. Her breast was full on one side of her chest, but on the other it was nearly flat. The asymmetry of the landscape beneath her was also jarring: hilly in the foreground, a grassy valley closer to the mountain, a river flowing between.

“It’s something no Middlelander will ever tell you. Most of them have forgotten because this was tens of thousands of years ago, but those who have an inkling are ashamed of it: the Middleland people and the Lowerland people were at one point the same culture. They survived by farming in the Western valley, and together they revered a presence that lived deep in the ground and gave birth to the world, which they came to call Samma. This is where the modern Middleland people come from. It is only fairly recently that they’ve spread themselves across the continent and lost all knowledge of who they once were.”

Kanna stared at the river in the carving, at the border between the Middleland and the Lowerland. “You mean to say…the Middlelanders are related to the savages?”

“Yes. And, if you spin the clock back even further, they’re related to the Southern Outerlanders as well—and probably the Northern Outerlanders and the Upperlanders in all likelihood, though we can’t really know for sure. We’re all related. It’s just that we dispersed eons ago and the Middlelanders were isolated for tens of thousands of years, and so by the time they emerged from the valley and bumped into the rest of us again, they were unrecognizable.”

“I don’t believe this. How can this be true? If we’re all just variations of the same race like you’re implying, then how did we become separated like this? How did we come to have rivers and valleys and forests and mountains between us? How did we come to have different facial features and body sizes and mating rituals? Why do we speak so many different tongues?”

“No one knows. It is one of the mysteries of life because no one back then knew how to write anything down to tell us the tale of what happened.” Lila sifted through some more of the wood blocks and pulled another out. “We have some artifacts here and there, but even these carvings I have—some of which are thousands of years old—are still rather recent in the grand scheme of things.” She offered Kanna another scene, though this time Kanna took it delicately into her own hands and studied the images. “You see?” Lila said. “Even on this artifact that dates back many centuries, all three sexes of the Middlelanders are apparent in the image, which is one of the glaring traits that sets them apart from the rest of us.”

Indeed, there was a naked woman standing on the left side of the carving who was shaped not unlike Kanna, except for the fact that she towered over the man who was standing next to her. On the right, leaning against a tree to the young man’s other side was a bigger woman, also naked, clearly displaying some of the features Kanna had noticed on Goda Brahm.

Kanna handed the block back to Lila and blushed. “Yes, yes. I see,” she murmured. Suddenly bashful, she switched her focus to another, smaller stack of carvings, one at the end of the cabinet. She ran her fingers over the edges. “What are these? More of the same?”

“Yes, along similar lines.” Lila said, already pulling one out. “It’s only that these are pornographic.”

What?” Kanna felt more blood rush to her face. She took a step back without thinking.

“Oh relax, they’re not that explicit. They’re just a bit…taboo by modern standards.”

After hearing that, Kanna couldn’t help but lean over to look with morbid curiosity in spite of her hesitation.

This time, it was the image of a smiling young man lying belly-down on some sort of bed and a large woman who was standing just behind him. Kanna tilted her head. “I don’t see what’s so taboo about—” Kanna paused as she looked more closely at the image. “Oh.”

“Yes, indeed.” Lila’s smile matched that of the man in the carving. “This was a common practice in those days—in fact, it still is—but in modern times it’s considered wasteful for a robust woman to do this to a man, so they tend to do it in secret, without the consent of his mothers. In fact, although there are many religious blasphemies in the Middlelander tongue, there is only one profanity associated with sex in the entire language, and it is a word that refers to this act you see right here. The Middlelanders really do have an interesting culture, as much as I may be baffled by it still.”

Kanna turned away from the cabinet completely, rubbing her face with her hands. “Yes, you could call it that. Interesting.” She stepped over towards one of the windows to try to quiet her mind with the view of the back garden, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Why do such women exist in the first place? Women like Goda, I mean. Robust women, as they call them.”

“Why do more typical men and women exist? Why does anything exist? Don’t take the things you’re used to for granted; they are also miracles. Nature does whatever She wants.” Lila shrugged. “But if you’d rather a mundane, human answer, then I’ll tell you: It’s almost certainly because of yaw root.”

Kanna looked at her with alarm. “You mean eating yaw will make someone become like Goda?”

“No, not on an individual level. You have to be born that way. It’s just that the Middlelanders as a whole are highly adapted to the plant. There are substances in yaw that probably used to be meant to deter predators—to disrupt the reproductive cycles of those who consumed it, to reduce the population of animals who had developed a taste for it—but nature has no inherent intentions and can evolve into anything. Over time, the Middlelanders developed an equal partnership with yaw as it was domesticated, and what was once poison to them became a necessary nutrient. But there were many consequences to this. The women cannot become pregnant without eating it—and actually, if they forgo yaw for any extended length of time, they become sickly and their bones turn brittle as well. All Middlelanders are highly tolerant to the effects of the plant, much more than you or I, but robust women are so insensitive to one of its key substances and so sensitive to another, that they cannot have any children at all. You might say that women like Goda represent an over-correction of nature. But again, nature is not wasteful. Eventually, robust women came to fill important social roles in this society—farmers, soldiers, porters. They are a normal feature now. No one remembers any time when they didn’t exist.”

“I remember when they didn’t exist.” Kanna stepped further towards the window, peering out at what seemed to be a tiny cottage in the fenced backyard. The light was waning enough outside that she could see some of her own reflection in the glass and she noticed a wry look on her own face. “Just a week or two ago, they didn’t exist to me at all.”

“Just a week or two ago, most of the world did not exist to you, child. You were ignorant to everything that you helped give birth to on this Earth. It’s good that you know now. You’ve become conscious of your own creation. From here, you can transform it with intention.”

Kanna’s gaze remained on the quaint little building outside. Her eyes followed the lines of the mortar between the bricks as if she were deciphering a maze, and she noticed tiny weeds and moss growing out of cracks in its outer walls. “You live with someone else,” she said. For some reason, she could not turn her attention away from it. She became fixated with trying to peer through a crack in the door frame at the front of the cottage.

“Not usually. It’s a separate unit that came with the house—probably meant to hold a son once he’s aged beyond his typical use—but tonight it is where you will be staying.”

Kanna turned to her. “What? Why?” she blurted out. Then she let out a sigh because she felt that she wasn’t worthy enough yet to be picky, especially considering all of her good fortune already. “Is it warm in there at least?”

“Oh yes, it will shelter you just fine. It has running water, a nice little bed, everything you need. It’s just that officially I can’t have you stay in my house. I have to put you somewhere in isolation where I can completely confine you. This is the only reason the administrator even agreed to let me take you.”

“You’re going to lock me in there?” Kanna asked. “What if there’s a fire?” The conversation was starting to sound very familiar. She had resisted Goda’s restraints in the desert under a similar premise.

“You’ll be all right, child. I’m confining you within the stone walls of the backyard, so in the unlikely event that the cottage becomes a raging inferno, you are still free to step out and get some fresh air. Just don’t try to climb the barrier. Besides the fact that you’ll likely fail, it’s tall and dangerous and there’s a steep drop on either side.”

“What, are you suddenly like your wife now? Why can’t you just let me stay in the house and not mention it to anybody?”

“I’m also locking you out of the house because it’s much too easy to escape through the front door. Don’t think I’m stupid, now; I know that the moment I’d turn my back, you would go looking for Goda.” An impish expression formed on her face. “Unless you want me to chain you to a piece of furniture—but I was aiming to spare you from that sort of indignity again.”

Kanna gave the woman a defiant stare, but Lila did not even blink. After a few moments of nothing—of no shred of resistance from the woman—Kanna finally nodded, defeated. “All right. I won’t fight it. At least I’ll have a view of the heavens, which I know I won’t get at the confinement center.”

“Yes, this is true.” Lila gave her a strange look and Kanna could not interpret it. “Be sure to enjoy what you have in the moment—however small, however fleeting—and remember that you can always find a kernel of beauty inside even the most troubling of circumstances, behind every closed door that faces you.”

With that, she made good on her word. She led Kanna down a small hallway and towards two beautifully carved double-doors that led out into the garden. The light had waned to the point that Kanna could not make out the details of the darker corners of the fence.

“This will be your paradise for now,” Lila murmured, smiling serenely as the wind picked up and blew around her hair. “Good luck tonight. Remember not to wrestle too much if you discover a snake in your midst. It’s best to learn how to slowly charm it, to enjoy the process of its unfolding, to feel its fullness inside of you, because even though snakes can be dangerous, they can also point towards your bliss when you become aware of them. They can help you create new forms in the world. This process is one of making love with God.”

She shut the door. Kanna froze in astonishment because what Lila had said was nearly exactly what Goda had told her that morning. She fixed her gaze on the pair of doors—on the abstract, spiral lines of their design—as she heard the deadbolt locking inside, and the footfalls of the woman who was leaving her to her own devices.

After awhile, Kanna gave in. She turned and looked around the garden. She found that it was indeed encased with an impenetrable stone barrier, entirely gateless and inaccessible from the outside. The last bits of sun—and the first bits of starlight—lit her path as she walked among the thorny shrubs and the bushes speckled with winter fruit. Even though it was still cold, so many small things were blossoming, and the collective fragrance made her yawn, made her draw more and more of it into her lungs.

She found a walkway that led up to the entrance of the cottage, and pressing Goda’s satchel to her chest, she surrendered to the bricks that had been laid out before her; she did not deviate into the messy grass out of rebellion, even though a part of her wanted to dance aimlessly in the night.

She put her hand on the knob. It felt a little warmer than the air and she wondered then if her premonition about the fire might have actually been true.

When she ripped the door open, indeed, there was a flame. It swayed on the wick of a candle with the wind that she brought in; it danced to the sound of her roaring heart and it lit up a pair of black eyes that shined at her through the shadows.

That ugly woman with a beautiful face looked up from the top of a book and nodded towards her in stoic acknowledgement.

“Kanna,” the woman said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Kanna fell hard against the border of the threshold and cried.


Onto Chapter 41 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 39: Falling Into the Roots

“Let her in. She’s his daughter.”

Kanna did not understand the look of confusion on the first soldier’s face when Lila said this, nor did she understand the hesitation of the other women who flanked her father inside the room—but Kanna did not ask, did not speak, added nothing.

She turned her gaze instead to the floor as she pressed herself to the inside of the threshold, her mouth tightening, her teeth chattering. The moment she had seen his face, she had wanted to cover her eyes and cry out. At first, she did not know why his features were so abhorrent to her, but when she finally did realize, she found herself frozen in horror, unable to take another step.

It was because he looked exactly like her.

She had not peered into a mirror for a long time, but glancing across the divide between them, she had found that old self from weeks before staring back. Worse still, the man had grown so skinny that she could see the edges of his skull along his brow and jaw, and it reminded her of how her own flesh was similarly just a living coffin for her bones.

She pressed her hands to her face. Her fingers dug into each bend and crevice, like she was molding it with her nails, like she wanted to tear the skin away.

Kanna.”

She heard her name echoing from in the room. It sounded even less familiar to her than it had before, shaped in that deep voice that she barely remembered. It felt like the first time he had named her.

But then a softer whisper landed in her ear from behind, a faint breath that warmed her neck. “You’re free to turn around if you’d like. As I said, no one will force you.” Kanna felt a hand pressing lightly against her back—a nudge, a caress. “But I urge you not to run away. If you do, you might regret it for the rest of your life.”

I…can’t. I….” Kanna let her fingers drop slowly from her face. As the air cooled the water that had drained from her nose and from her eyes, she looked over at Lila. Her lip curled up into a grimace. “No. I don’t want to see him. I hate him.

Lila stared at her for a long time, but there was no pity on her face. “Then hate him,” she said. “Never resist hatred. Only remember to hate up close, with open eyes, with loving care—so that you know exactly what you’ve come to hate about yourself in him.” She tipped her head up past Kanna, towards the soldiers who stood at the back of the room. “Come out. She wants to see the man alone. Don’t worry, she won’t harm him…physically.”

In spite of their confusion, Lila’s status seemed enough to jostle them. When they shuffled out of the room, they bumped against Kanna in the gateway—hard enough that she wondered if it was deliberate—and one of them muttered, “Have it your way, Hadd, but we’re keeping the door open. I don’t care what strange ideas you foreigners have about family.”

It was then that Kanna remembered: The engineer had mentioned her brother, but all of Kanna’s half-siblings had escaped towards the mountains before her uncles and cousins were captured. As far as she knew, she had been the only one to stay behind, to follow her father onto the train.

Of course, there were no fathers in the Middleland. There wasn’t even a native word for father, so the engineer probably hadn’t known what to call him. Kanna, too, no longer knew.

With a final harsh breath, she forced her neck to twist up. She stared hard across the long floorboards that stretched between her and the man; it felt somehow like she was gazing across a canyon at a lone figure in the distance. He was looking straight at her, bending forward with direct focus, casting shadows onto the white table in front of him.

For once in her entire life, she felt overwhelmed by his attention. It made her want to cower again, but she did not give into the urge. Instead, she remembered what Goda had shown her, and she watched her own breath for a few languid seconds to calm the screams of the snakes—and then she leaned away from Lila’s comforting hand.

The moment she took her first step inside, her father’s chair scraped against the floor. He stood. His sallow face erupted in a mix of a thousand emotions. His small, sharp eyes glimmered in the light of the room, trembled ever so slightly as they followed her movements.

She could already sense his grasping. It was like an invisible hand shooting across the room towards her, an invisible hand clawing desperately at the last remnants of stable ground, the last familiar pebble on a continent that had broken to pieces.

But she was no longer what he thought she was. This alone turned her stomach.

Kanna!” Though at first it seemed that he was poised to move again, that he might have come around the table to meet her, he stopped when he seemed to finally notice the look on her face.

She could not make herself walk any faster or slower. She could not make herself stare at him directly for longer than a few seconds, either, so she took to shifting her gaze to the sides of the bland room. When she finally bumped up against the table, she felt the man’s stare like a force pulling for her attention, and it took all her strength to reach for the chair at her side and make herself sit down in front of him.

He followed suit. Once he sat, he waited for her to look up; she could feel his patient expectation. Instead of meeting him halfway, she gazed down into her lap, grateful there was that wooden shield between them to hide how she wrung her hands.

A long silence spread, wider than the canyon Kanna had seen as she stood in the threshold. Her thoughts were racing, her snakes were writhing, but not a single one of them gave her a clue as to what she could possibly say to him.

He broke the stillness first.

You look different,” he said.

She was frightened to find that the sound of the Upperland tongue spoken with a native accent gave her no comfort. In fact, it had lost its familiarity, and where there was once a piece of her that sprung to life in response to it, there was instead an echoing hollow.

Those snakes had already dissolved. Everything in the world had taken on an unfamiliar taste, as if she had only just been born that day, as if the life she had lived before had been an elaborate dream that she had only just awakened from.

When he offered an apologetic smile to pair with his words, she realized that his tone had been one of lament—but Kanna had lamentations of her own.

Father looks the same,” she said. With some effort, she lifted her hands, placed them atop the white table with her fingers interlocked. Even still, she could not stop from fidgeting her thumbs against the wood.

He huffed with sad amusement, and the expression on his face made it clear that he was oblivious to the insult she had just offered him.

He was oblivious to everything.

He smoothed his hair down in one sweeping motion that looked like self-comfort, and she noticed then that the edges of his hairline had already been graying for a long time. “Oh, Kanna. My dear daughter, you are too kind. I look awful. I’ve fallen apart. Everything has fallen apart.”

Everything,” Kanna agreed.

But you, more than anyone else, are already well familiar with the fate I’ve suffered, the injustice of it.” He looked up at the walls around them with helpless reverence, as if these were the barriers that had imprisoned him—and as if they made up the shell that held him together, too. “They’re keeping me here in the Middleland forever. There’s no hope for me anymore. There’s nowhere to escape because these animals are everywhere, like a virus that has infected the whole continent. Unless the political situation changes—which it probably won’t, in all honesty—I can’t even entertain the fantasy that I’ll see a morsel of mok ever again, let alone the wealth that I worked for all my life. I’m sorry, Kanna, but there’s nothing I can offer you anymore. I wish I could.”

Kanna stared at him, tilted her head. The words sounded strange to her. They made no sense. “But I don’t want anything from you,” she said. She couldn’t imagine what she would even ask for.

He mirrored her expression, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Ah…well, that’s a beautiful sentiment, my dear. As I told you, you are too kind to your old father. Even when I can’t fulfill my duties to you the way I always did before this whole mess, you are more forgiving than your brothers and sisters, who cursed me with all kinds of blasphemies when I told them to abandon the breweries and run to the mountains.”

They escaped.”

Oh, yes, as far as I know they all managed to disappear in time. That’s the one comfort that soothes me in all this chaos. Your uncles and cousins suffered a different fate, but I’m glad at least my children didn’t fall into the slimy hands of these Middlelanders. Maybe in some way, in the distant future, in some corner of this world that the Middlelanders have not yet smeared with their filth, my children can pick up the thread of my legacy and continue it without me.”

If the Goddess allows them.”

His eyes, which had fallen into the trance of some faraway fantasy, suddenly twitched with realization at her voice. Because he seemed to misunderstand the meaning of her tone, his smile turned apologetic again. “Not all of my children,” he said quickly. “Not all of them escaped, of course. You’re here, after all, my dear. You’re the only one who disobeyed me, who followed me onto that train. You’ve always been strong-willed like me, but of course that can get you into trouble, can’t it? Of all the times to rebel!” He had a look of soft amusement that Kanna did not like.

My mother is dead. My brothers and sisters don’t like me, and in the mountains they would have abandoned me in the cold because I walk too slow. I was alone. Where else would I have gone if not to my father?”

Bruno Rava swallowed. He smoothed his hair again, offered her a nervous smile. “Well, yes, yes, of course. True enough. You did what you could to try to save yourself. We all did.”

Kanna glanced away, peered deep into the swirling white brush strokes on the painted table. She could see the ridges of the wood knots underneath. “I didn’t care about that,” she said.

What?”

I didn’t care about saving myself, Father.” She took a breath and pushed herself to meet his gaze again, but this time she did not let her focus waver; this time she silenced the fidgeting of her hands. “I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t want to live. The night before, I had tried to kill myself with the old rope my mother had used to tie her dogs to the tree outside. But I didn’t have the courage. I hesitated, because I lived alone in that house and I knew that the rats would have picked me to the bone before anyone would have found me. Even just that mental image was enough to make me vomit—and then I was too busy vomiting to tie a rope around my neck.”

His mouth dropped open. More than the shock at what she had just confessed, his expression was colored with helplessness, like that of a cornered mouse. He began shaking his head, leaning back. “You…what? What are you saying, child?” His nervous smile evolved into an even more agitated laugh, as if she had just accused him of a crime too perverse to admit. “Don’t be silly. You’re a Rava! What did you have to kill yourself over? It’s not like you had a terrible life in the Upperland. Every single one of your needs were met, were they not? You were part of the greatest family that ever lived. You were spilling over with wealth. Even after your mother died, I didn’t abandon you. You never went hungry. You had shelter. You had the best education—better than I ever had.” He waved his hand. “No, no, don’t be ridiculous, Kanna. You had nothing to complain about. All that time in the confinement center has left you making up stories to fill in the dead space.”

“It’s not a story.” She paused. “Well, it’s a story now, but at the time it wasn’t. I wanted to die the day before we were invaded by the Middlelanders—and the day before that, too. It’s only now that I want to live all of a sudden. I don’t know why, but it’s only on this side of the continent that I’ve been able to sense the barest taste of happiness, to even know what that means.”

His brow furrowed some more. She could witness the thinking, the grasping, the desperate attempt to piece what she said together in a way that made sense to him. “The…the Middlelanders!” he finally stuttered. “Those monsters! I knew it. I knew this would happen.”

Kanna gave him a look of utter confusion.

I’ve always known that they were master manipulators, experts at twisting the truth—I had to deal with their social sorcery in my business all the time, after all—but I didn’t expect that their lies would corrupt your mind so quickly. My own daughter, my poor daughter! What has become of her?” He pressed his hands to his face, but his pity did not seem genuine. It seemed constructed only to deflect Kanna’s increasingly bewildered expression. “I thought you were stronger. I didn’t take you for someone who would so easily fall prey to a cult, but it’s not your fault—it’s mine. Maybe those tutors I hired years ago to teach you their tongue implanted a seed of nonsense in your head and it’s only now that this evil has sprouted in you. I should have known better, but my intentions were pure at the time, I promise. I only wanted you to learn the common language the way your brothers and sisters had.”

Father, I don’t understand.”

He sighed loudly. “Of course, my dear, of course you don’t. You’re still young and naive. You don’t even realize that you’ve developed sympathies for the enemy.”

I—” Kanna pulled back. “I’ve…what?”

Did you not hear yourself just now? You claim that you were suicidal in the Upperland—even though you were nothing of the sort; that’s just ridiculous—and now in the Middleland, you’re suddenly happy and your life is perfect. These are the rantings and ravings of someone indoctrinated by the Maharan cult.”

A pulse of confused anger shot through her. She nearly stood up. “I didn’t say my life was perfect! Did Father even hear what I said?”

I heard you quite clearly, my dear. You prefer this life to the one you lived. Isn’t that what you’re saying? Only someone brainwashed by these savages would ever develop such a twisted view of reality. Use your head, Kanna. What kind of pleasure could a person glean from being stuffed into that confinement center and then dragged across the continent by a hideous woman? How would you not find that unfathomably painful compared to the beautiful life I gave you in the Upperland?”

It has nothing to do with pleasure or pain!” she shouted, rising from the table. She couldn’t understand how the man had been so saturated in ignorance, so oblivious to her suffering for all the years she had lived. “Don’t you see that it goes beyond all that? It’s not about the outer circumstances at all! It’s about this inner world that I’m too broken to live with because you abandoned me before I was even old enough to speak! You ignored me all my life! No matter how many times I searched for you in the fields, no matter how many times I grasped and clawed for a shred of your attention, the most I could catch of you was a silhouette in the evening sun! You never tried to see me—and when I needed you the most, you told me I was better off without you and you disappeared onto a train.” She pressed both fists to her chest. “You say you’ve fallen apart, but you haven’t. It is I who has shattered into pieces, and you’ve barely noticed because you’re exactly the same! I am not Kanna Rava—I never was—and that terrifies me more than any superficial fear about losing my wealth, my family name, my way of life. Who cares about all of that in the face of this emptiness? Who cares when every particle in this world is hollow of meaning? Can’t you see that? Why can’t you see it? Why am I the only one who is burdened with this awful truth?”

Her father blinked, stunned at her response, a blank look of complete non-understanding coming over him. “If you’re not Kanna Rava,” he finally said, throwing his hands up, “then who the hell are you?”

She stared at him. She stared at her own face. She broke out into a laugh and the face that gazed back at her looked even more bewildered. “No one,” she said, shaking her head. “I am no one.” Kanna fell back into her chair and pressed a hand to the side of her cheek. “And I am you, Father. As much as this is all your fault, as much as you destroyed the Upperland and brought suffering to me and everyone around you through your ignorance, you are me, and so I have to take responsibility, too. To have any hope of piecing together what you’ve shattered in this world, I’ll have to find some way to forgive you, to forgive myself. Maybe not today. I don’t know if I have the strength right now after everything that’s happened, but maybe in ten years I’ll have learned how to find it.”

Her father winced. He could not hide the fear on his face.“I…don’t understand.”

No, you don’t. And that’s all right. Thank you, in spite of everything wrong between us that can never be undone. If it wasn’t for you, I would have never been born. I would have never seen the beauty of this imperfect world; I would have never gazed upon Goda Brahm’s hideous, imperfect, perfect face; I would have never experienced the drama of Lila’s games in this labyrinth; I would have never learned the ugly truth of who I really am and what I might become. So you see, it’s bittersweet. All of life is bittersweet. I won’t lie, I’m afraid of what comes next, and I wish I had a father to guide me through it—but I’m only afraid now because I’m free for the first time.”

What are you saying, child?” But then his fear evolved into anger. “Make some sense, Kanna! You’re speaking in riddles!”

She stood—this time with deliberate intention instead of knee-jerk reaction—and she stepped away from her chair because she realized in that moment that there was nothing else she could possibly say to herself. There had never been anything to say.

But her father darted across the table and grasped for her arm before she could turn. His fingers came to wrap around that pale band of skin that encircle her wrist. She did not fight him. She felt a serene, empty smile spreading across her face entirely without conscious will—and for the first time, she knew what it meant. She felt something crack open in her heart.

I love you,” Kanna said.

He let go, retreated immediately. He looked up at her as if she had just struck him in the face. “Girl, what are you…? What are you raving about now?” His tone was one of being saddled with an unexpected imposition.

She didn’t care.

I love you, Father. This is why I followed you onto the train, if you want to know the whole truth. Maybe my brothers and sisters cursed you and ran to the mountains because they were actually grateful for the wealth you had given them—but I’m an ungrateful, petulant child. I didn’t want your money. I was too greedy for that. What I wanted was a father. It’s fine that you’ve never felt the same, that you didn’t want a daughter. It doesn’t matter now because we’re in the Middleland, and since there are no fathers in the Middleland, you are not my father anymore.”

Because he had let her go, Kanna turned back to lean in the direction of the threshold she had come from. She could see the face of Lila Hadd, but the woman and the soldiers seemed preoccupied, sealed in their own bubble of conversation, oblivious to anything that had just happened at the table.

Kanna thought she heard her father muttering as she shuffled towards the exit, which now seemed less far away than it had before. She could not parse what he said, even as he grew a little louder, though she stopped near the doorway to glance over her shoulder, and she found that his eyes were pleading.

He had been calling her name.

Don’t worry,” she said. “When my sentence is over, I will come back. I will visit you if they’ll let me. As long as I live, I won’t abandon you. I will do everything in my power to free you from your prison, the way Goda Brahm freed me from mine.”

She had no interest in judging the reaction on his face, so she turned without looking and headed through the threshold once more. But she could hear his ragged breath, could sense the confusion in the air.

Who…is Goda Brahm?” he rasped.

Though the soldiers had not asked her to do so, Kanna slammed the door behind her the second she made it to the other side. She pressed her back to the old wood. Her heart raced. Her eyes oozed with tears she had been too enraged to spend before.

That question has no answer,” Kanna said, though she knew he could not hear her.

* * *

Lila greeted her like they had known each other for years and had been separated for weeks. The embrace still gave Kanna discomfort because she was not used to anyone noticing either her presence or her absence, but she leaned into it and tried to accept the wave of attention that she hadn’t earned.

One of the soldiers, tilting her head at the scene, shrugged to the others. “Foreigners are weird,” she said, but she reached over and patted Kanna’s head anyway, because it seemed that she was also carried away in the emotion of the moment.

When they broke apart, Kanna’s shoulders slumped. She looked into Lila’s face and shook her head. “I’m done. I can’t do it anymore. I know there are a lot of things like this that I’ll have to go through—either here in Suda or out West in Samma Valley—but too much has happened all at once. It’s like a gauntlet, and I can’t stay conscious of the snakes for much longer like this. I’m tired, Lila.” The woman’s name flowed out of her mouth without effort, too quickly for her to question if it was the correct way to address someone of her standing.

But Lila did not seem to be bothered by it. Instead, she took Kanna’s hand. “Let’s go home, then.”

Home.

Before Kanna could react to such an alien concept, the woman had whisked her through the open threshold and back into the labyrinths they had earlier emerged from—but they walked in a new direction this time.

Lila seemed in a hurry.

“From what those three guards gossiped to me while you were away,” she said, “it appears that someone committed a major crime at a lower level of the tower, and so most of soldiers are preoccupied with cleaning up the mess. It certainly explains why we didn’t run into any guards in the hallway near the priestess’s room. They were missing from the cuffing chamber, too, where there are usually two or three slithering around.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow. Though the memory was vague, she could recall that Assistant Finn had mentioned something about an incident. It had been such an offhand remark that Kanna hadn’t given it much attention at the time.

“We were lucky today. Very lucky. Goda just about got away with murder in here because someone was stupid enough to leave contraband downstairs where the soldiers could easily find it.”

“Contraband?”

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s just get out of here before they start swarming in again and asking everyone questions so they can fill out their little investigation sheets. They love playing detective.”

As the path twisted more and more, Kanna finally started to let go of the idea that she would ever have a sense of where she was again. This gave her some relief. She allowed herself to be tugged along by Lila’s hand, as if she were floating downstream on the river Samma.

But then she noticed some faint rays of natural light spotting the wall, and when Lila pulled her around a corner, she could see a series of tall windows at the end of the passageway. She could see the reflection of the sun on the tree leaves outside, and so she knew they were facing West.

Kanna was grateful that a world beyond the tower did exist after all. She was so distracted by the scenery, that she didn’t notice the flock of black robes coming up behind her until Lila pushed her against the wall. Kanna had nearly bumped into them.

When Lila bowed, she pressed a hand to the back of Kanna’s neck and forced her to dip her head, too. “Good afternoon, Priestesses. Your presence today will bring us many blessings.”

“Oh, an Upperlander! How cute!” One of the women lowered her head to catch a better look at Kanna’s face, though she was carried along with the movement of her sisters and disappeared after a flash.

Kanna gave Lila a wry look. “‘Cute?’”

“It won’t earn you respect around here, that’s true,” she said, “but it could get you a wife, which is more important.” Once the priestesses had passed, the woman led Kanna down the corridor again with renewed urgency.

“The only person I would ever want to marry is Goda Brahm,” Kanna muttered.

Again with that nonsense.” Because they had caught up to the priestesses, Lila switched back over to the Upperlander tongue, though her pronunciation sounded less sharp than before. Perhaps she had grown tired like Kanna. “Forget about Goda. And I’m saying this as someone who cares for her and has known her for years. Don’t waste your life chasing someone like that.”

Because she doesn’t feel the same way I do? Look, I know it’s not the same kind of love as mine. It know it’s an impersonal love, something with no attachment, something that would never satisfy me completely because I could never be someone special to her. But I would accept that if I could be with her for the rest of my life.”

That’s only because you don’t know the first thing about her. You’re swimming in ignorance, up to your neck in delusions about that woman,” Lila said bluntly. She glanced over her shoulder and Kanna responded with narrowed eyes. “As gifted as you are at seeing the perspectives of others, you’ve missed one important complication in the story of Goda Brahm.”

What complication?”

Lila’s smirk didn’t fade. “You, of course.”

Kanna stared at her blankly, but this only seemed to frustrate her further.

Oh, for the love of God!” Lila cried. She turned back around and shuffled faster down the hallway. “Goda Brahm is in love with you! Hopelessly so, pathetically so. I’ve never seen her so taken with someone before in my life. It’s disgusting.”

Kanna slowed her stride in dumbfounded reaction, but Lila kept dragging her along. “In love with me?”

Yes! Yes! What did you think, child? Did you think she just does all these things for everybody? Sure, she helps people squeeze themselves out of terrible fates all the time in this tower, but did you think she holds them close and calms them when they’re panicking? Did you think she hums mantras in their ears to lull their snakes? Did you think she kisses them on the mouth, out in the open, in the middle of the hallway, with the passion and desperation of a lovestruck youth? Oh please, Kanna Rava, don’t tell me you’re that naive!”

I…I…” Kanna was briefly distracted by the sight of the priestesses loading themselves into a tiny room ahead, but before she could collide with them, Lila yanked her to the side. The woman turned a knob on a door just a few paces away. “I didn’t know,” Kanna said. “Honestly, I had given up on the idea. Because of the shrines, she had completely unraveled all of her personal desires, and she never seemed the least bit attached to anything, so eventually I accepted that she just couldn’t feel that way about anyone anymore. That’s what she made it sound like, anyway.”

Of course she did. She’s a Middlelander, isn’t she? Goda may have moved beyond a lot of the cultural baggage that closes the hearts of her countrymen, but she’s not entirely free from it. These social habits are second nature to her still. A Middlelander would rather die than admit that they’re in love with anyone. In fact, that’s the only time you can ever get them to say it, if you’re lucky: on their death bed.”

What? But why?”

You’ve seen for yourself how manipulative this society is. To be in love—to experience any kind of passion towards someone else—is like putting on a slave cuff and handing them the keys. Any strong desire is a vulnerability, and any vulnerability can be exploited and turned into a carrot on a stick that dangles before their eyes. Goda of all people knows this more than anyone because she made that mistake many years ago. She’s still bad at hiding it, don’t get me wrong—because she’s completely enamored of you and you’ve clearly tested her willpower—but she would never tell you up front that her feelings for you are personal. No Middlelander ever will. They consider romantic passions to be childish nonsense.”

As Lila pushed her onto a platform beyond the door—onto a grated floor that looked similar to the one that had lined the utility stairwell—Kanna couldn’t help but scrutinize the woman’s face. She remembered something that Lila’s own wife had told her the week before, in a room inside that cabin in the desert:

Of course I don’t love her. I’ve barely known her for two years. I heard that you Upperlanders had an overly-romanticized view of marriage, but this is just silly. How can I love someone who doesn’t even share my culture?”

Once Lila had closed the door after them and they were safely alone, Kanna’s tongue fell back into Middlelander, and along with it, she found the audacity to ask, “Why did you marry your wife, then, if she won’t even admit that she loves you?”

Lila raised her eyebrows. The question seemed to take her off guard—but then again, Kanna thought, Lila was the first person she had ever met who seemed to never be on guard in the first place.

“I don’t know if she loves me. I can never know that. But I do know she lied about why she married me, just as I lied about why I married her.”

“How do you mean?”

“She pretended that she was eager to start a family, when really she was just lonely and her parents were always making her feel inadequate for being unmarried at her age. In turn, I made her think that I married her to get citizenship so that I could help my family immigrate to the Middleland, but that wasn’t the reason at all. I was already on track to be a citizen because of my work, and my family would never dream of moving to Suda. I just knew that I needed to invent some complicated excuse because it would have hurt her self-image to realize that I wanted nothing from her. She would have never accepted marriage if I had given her my simple reason.”

Kanna made a face. “What reason, then?”

“I’m attracted to her.” Lila laughed at Kanna’s astonishment. “Yes, yes, I know. I’ll admit that she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but she has a soft side to her under all the thorny vines. I have a taste for Middlelander women—the same way you do, perhaps—and I like them callous and rough around the edges. It makes it more satisfying when you dig deep enough and find a tender heart.” She grinned this time. “Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.”

Like the sweets we brought her, Kanna thought, pursing her lips. All this time, they were made in the flavor of Jaya Hadd.

“To tell you the truth, though…I proposed on accident.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow. “What? How on Earth does one do that?”

“I brought her aside to make a request and she misunderstood what I had asked. You see, at the time I didn’t realize that to a Middlelander, if you tell a woman of a certain age that you’d like to get to know her better, it implies that you’re interested in marriage. In the Outerland culture, it means something totally different.”

“So why didn’t you just clear it up when you realized?”

Lila shrugged. “Well, I knew at the time that I would probably have to get married soon, and since the Goddess had thrown the opportunity my way in the guise of a cultural misunderstanding, I decided to just let the flow take me. I also figured I would get what I had actually asked for on our wedding night.”

Kanna glanced away, tried to stifle her blush.

“As it turned out, that isn’t how Middlelander marriages usually work, though. She acted surprised when I showed up in her room that next evening. That’s where a lot of our troubles started, actually.” Lila sighed, though her smile did not fade too much. “Ah, well, that’s a much longer story—and we have more urgent things to focus on now.”

Just as the words came out of her mouth, a rumbling vibration shook the platform and the entire chamber of the stairwell. Kanna’s knees nearly buckled, it was so unexpected. She wondered if the Earth was quaking, if the continent had finally cracked open beneath them.

She glanced at Lila with panic on her face, but seeing no response besides that quiet, annoying smile that signaled a lack of surprise, Kanna finally lifted her head and looked for the ledges of the stairwell above them.

But there were no stairs. There was nothing above them or below them; they were suspended in a void that echoed with sound. Besides the platform, it was a hollow shaft that shot all the way up to a glass dome, and even that skylight was shaking with energy. Sunlight filtered in and bathed half the chamber with white rays. She squinted, followed the light, finally noticed the shining copper all around her.

Brass gears, arranged in infinite complexity, the teeth of each cog mating seamlessly with the next, lined the walls like a giant relief sculpture made of metal. As she leaned further towards an edge of the vibrating platform, the details only grew clearer, and she saw smaller bits and pieces, tiny screws and miniature cogwheels, all fitting together in perfect unity.

“What…is this?”

But then all of the clockwork jolted at once and Kanna jumped back. The cogwheels moved, the metal slid against metal.

The platform fell into the void below them.

“Lila!” Kanna danced all around, desperate to keep her footing as the floor beneath her began to shift again and again. It gave her the sensation that she was floating without anything to ground her. She grasped for Lila, for some stability, and the woman caught her by the arms.

“This is what it’s like to be with Goda Brahm, isn’t it?” the woman shouted over the noise of the turning gears. “Unpredictable! Endlessly falling into a void with no surface! Even if you find your true self inside that void, what good does it do you if you can never put that self-knowledge to use on stable ground? This is why I say you should forget about her. She is obsessed with death. Death is important, but if you lean into her world too much, then all of your life becomes a moment like this. You can’t fall forever, you can’t die forever! There is a time to die and a time to grow on stable ground!”

“What’s happening? What’s happening?” Kanna craned her neck around to make sense of what she was seeing, and this was when she finally noticed that they weren’t alone. On the other edge of the platform sat a wide metal shell—like a giant sarcophagus made of copper—and it fell along with them. There was a small crack between two of the panels of the cocoon. She saw a mix of black robes through that thin vantage point, and she noticed, too, a single eye that had spotted her first. It gazed out from the tiny opening, and it was wrinkled at the ends in a friendly smile.

Kanna looked away instantly. “This is…?”

“The lift, yes.”

“But won’t we get in trouble? I thought only the priestesses were supposed to use it.”

“True enough, but we’re not in the actual gondola,” she said as the rumbling grew ever louder. “This is a utility platform that the workers use for repairs on the outside of the shell, so you can say we’re just hitching a ride on the sly! Don’t worry, as long as you’re with a bureaucrat and you don’t truly set foot inside the lift, no one will say anything.”

When the floor came to a halt, Kanna found the end of the freefall to be just as abrupt as its start. She nearly stumbled, but again Lila was there to hold her up. Her grin looked brighter because now the light was burning both from above and from a huge gateway that had appeared beside them.

They had almost reached the outside. Kanna could see where the track of the lift continued, where it seemed to lead out the massive threshold and up towards another building nearby. Lila jumped off the ledge of the platform—which was placed much too high for a foreigner—but her legs appeared stable when her sandals touched the natural earth. She reached up and helped Kanna climb down as the floor rumbled with the footfalls of the priestesses and the women emptied into a chamber that Kanna could not see.

“Where are the slaves?” Kanna asked, shielding her face a bit with her hand as she turned towards the exit that framed a bright open field. “The ones who power the lift?”

“Oh, they’re in the generator room. That’s always out of sight. The priestesses don’t like to see them.”

When they stepped out into the full light of the day, the sky was so wide and cloudless and blue, that Kanna felt like she was rising up into it. But before she could lose herself in this sense of freedom, the grounding hand of Lila pulled her back closer to the tower, and they tightly followed the turning of its mirrored outside edge, as if they were winding a giant clock.

“Home is this way,” Lila said, “so let’s come around the South side of the tower.”

Kanna’s shoulders slumped. “How many days will I have to stay in the confinement center before I’m sent to Samma Valley?” She looked away to hide her disappointment because she didn’t want to burden the woman even more, but because of the mirrored windows beside them, she couldn’t escape Lila’s friendly glance.

“Well, the train towards Samma is infrequent—it comes once every two weeks—and the next one is in a few days, but we’re not going to the confinement center. I argued with the administrator to release you into different accommodations.”

“Oh?” Kanna hadn’t known of any alternatives, but she figured that anything would be better than solitary confinement. “Where are we going, then?”

Lila’s grin widened. “My house. You’re my prisoner now.”

Kanna nearly let out a laugh at the absurdity of it all—she had been chased out of a rundown shack by Jaya Hadd and now she was being invited into a city home by her wife—but just as she opened her mouth to offer a sentiment of gratitude, she caught a silhouette in the rolling edge of the mirror. Just ahead, she thought she could see the reflection of a tall woman in the glass.

Because she had put the possibility out of her mind before, the sudden pounding in her chest took her off guard. She kicked up sand as she broke into a jog. “Did Goda leave the tower already?” Kanna asked. “Is she outside, do you think?”

“Oh, she’s almost certainly gone from the area altogether by now,” Lila said, picking up the pace as well, but only so that she could scruff the back of Kanna’s robes and pull her back like an unruly cat. “To be honest with you, I saw her briefly passing through the corridor while you were speaking to your father. She was in a terrible rush for some reason. She tends to leave quickly after she’s re-cuffed, but this time she didn’t even nod in my direction when she walked by.”

“That wasn’t so long ago! She could still be here!” Kanna advanced in spite of the dead weight holding her back. The neck of her robes pressed into her throat and she didn’t care. “Sometimes it takes her awhile to get the truck started. She could be in the lot, refueling it. She could be resettling the bags in the back.”

“I admire your vivid imagination, but child, I already told you it’s not a good idea to run into her anyway. You know very well what her plan is when she leaves this tower. You don’t want to get tangled up in that business.”

Kanna groaned and twisted against Lila’s grasp, so much that she thought she might rend her clothes. Before long, though, she finally came far enough around the cylinder that she could hear voices close by, that she could see the figure that had cast the reflection coming into view.

But it was not Goda Brahm. It was the frame of a tall soldier, and she was standing in place, scribbling away on a stack of papers in her hand.

She was not alone. Even though the South lot was billowing with sand gusting around in the afternoon wind, Kanna could see through the haze that a dozen soldiers had swarmed like cockroaches onto a single point in the distance. As she drew closer, she saw the narrow platform, the rusted metal sides, the familiar dent in the outside door.

It was Goda’s truck.

Some of the soldiers stood by with weighing scales and measuring bowls. Others were feverishly tearing through the back of the flatbed with gloved hands. All of them were shouting excitedly. She could see the older ones crouched around a familiar pair of bags, digging deep inside, pulling out handful after handful of dry petals—and as the wind caught a bit of the Flower, some younger soldiers gave chase and grasped for them before they floated too far.

They dumped everything into a container near the scales, though Kanna saw that one of the women discreetly slipped a petal or two into her pocket.

Kanna stared in wide-eyed amazement. She had come to a complete halt, and when Lila stood beside her, it seemed that the woman already understood what was happening from Kanna’s stunned posture alone.

Oh. Oh wow,” Lila said, admiring the scene, then turning to Kanna with yet another enigmatic smile. “She’s in pretty deep this time, huh?”


Onto Chapter 40 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 38: Heartbeat of the Middleland

A low, collective vibration hummed through the room. Kanna did not hear it in her ears, but she felt it beating against the bones of her skull like the wings of a thousand little insects. It made the chamber feel full, and as Kanna followed the lines of those seemingly infinite grids of jagged metal, she realized that the sound was coming from the swarm of cuffs. They were all emitting an energy, and so were the endless tangles of wires that coiled around each stake that they hung onto.

She did not want to go in. The buzzing of the cuffs was the loudest noise she had ever been deaf to, and the smirk of the huge woman standing in the midst of them did not fill her with any shred of comfort, either.

But she saw that Goda had already stopped just inside the room, so she followed. She stood by the giant’s side; she took Goda’s hand between both of hers. She felt the rapid pounding of a heart like a drum, and at first she thought it was her own, but she realized quickly that her thumb had come to press against the pulse point in Goda’s wrist.

Confused at what it meant, she looked up. Goda stared straight ahead, jaw clenched, eyes wide open. Kanna’s astonishment quickly colored itself with the giant’s anxiety, which had begun to flow from that pulse point into Kanna’s own body. Much more clearly than before, along with Goda’s short breaths, she could feel the shuddering of the giant’s snake.

“Engineer Mah?” It was Lila’s voice. She had come in shortly after them, but she hurried far past the threshold, and she approached the tall woman who was already sliding towards a steel table with the open cuff. “What are you doing here? This isn’t a training day.”

The woman’s grin did not diminish. “Oh, so now I need a special occasion to stop by my old chambers, Hadd? You know this place is a cathedral to me, the source of my deepest religion. I just can’t stay away, no matter how high in this tower they put me.” She lowered the cuff onto the table, and though she laid it down as carefully as if it were an infant, it somehow still gave a loud, ringing thunk that made Kanna start. “Besides, I heard that Brahm was coming. How could I resist seeing such a long-time friend?”

Friend.

Kanna couldn’t tell if it was sarcasm or what; she still hadn’t mastered the various tones and euphemisms that the Middlelanders used to color their words with a million meanings. At any rate, even without glancing again at Goda’s face, she could feel the giant’s reaction to the woman, and it was hardly anything friendly.

That tall, smiling engineer, as Lila had called her, was snapping on a pair of leather gloves, but even then her eyes did not fall away from Goda’s face. “How’s the grind, Brahm? Any close calls yet? Have any of the road blocks this week slowed you down, made your empty little heart just the least bit nervous of the time?” She had a look of pleasure, of laughing with no sound, and for a brief moment it triggered an unbidden memory, because Kanna knew what that emotion was.

She had felt it herself days before, rolling up the hillside on the way to Karo when Goda had decided to push the truck. The instant Kanna had jerked the truck in the wrong direction, the instant she had turned around and had seen Goda’s reaction to near death, Kanna had felt a burst of twisted pleasure in her bones. She was ashamed of it now, but she couldn’t deny what it had been.

She couldn’t deny that she had seen it in everyone else who hated Goda Brahm, too.

The engineer pulled a bright red rag from a pocket deep in her robes and she let it billow onto the cuff like a tiny blanket, and next to it she lay a corked bottle filled with some clear liquid. Once she had lovingly arranged her tools, she gestured with an open palm to one of the torture chairs at the center of the room.

“All right, Brahm,” she said. “You know what to do. Have a seat so we can tie you down. Make it easy on yourself this time and give in before we have to force you. If you fight, it pleases me entirely too much and I won’t be able to concentrate on work for the rest of the day. I’ll be replaying the scene again and again in my mind.”

“Engineer!” Lila shouted. Her tone was one of complete outrage, but the Engineer ignored her and no one else in the room seemed awakened to the absurdity of what the woman had said.

Instead, the small pack of workers who surrounded the engineer began stirring. Some of them held similar smiles of twisted excitement, but others had come to stare directly at Kanna with the sort of interest and curiosity she had noticed a few times before from the soldiers.

A foreigner and a giant. They were two outsiders facing a crowd that seemed so interconnected that their breaths flowed as a single organism. Kanna had already noticed the Middlelanders’ talent for fusing together and acting as one, and that in and of itself made her nervous, but the collective vibration of the cuffs and of the people had a predatory air on top of that.

They looked hungry. Their smiles showed off their teeth.

And when Goda didn’t move, they descended upon her.

Kanna cried out, but they had not come for her, so the collective merely pushed her away until she nearly stumbled over her own feet, until the only thing keeping her standing were the arms of Lila Hadd that had come up from behind. Her vision grew distorted with the tangle of limbs that all twisted together, that began wrapping around Goda’s body like constrictors.

They forced the giant into one of the seats. They used ropes and belts and spare cables to tie the monster down, but still Goda writhed and struggled because the chair was too small, and the edge of the wooden arms dug hard into her sides, and her knees bent up at what looked like an uncomfortable angle.

Kanna winced at the sight. She launched forward towards the chaos, but the strong hands of Lila held her back. “Don’t get in the midst of it,” Lila said to her in Upperlander. “This is not your fight.”

What are they doing to her? What are they doing?” Kanna screamed. She reached out into thin air with her joined hands, but as always she could grasp at nothing. She had been separated from Goda before she had even had the chance to react.

They’re strapping her down. Ever since she first started this job as a youth, she always tries to run away the moment the cuff comes off. It’s futile, but she’s seduced by freedom, so it’s a compulsion. And no one wants to chase a huge criminal barreling down a hallway, especially one who ripped open someone’s throat with her bare hands.”

She’s not like that! She’s not like that!” Kanna tried to tear away from Lila when she saw that the engineer was approaching the chair, that the woman was brandishing a thick steel baton in her hand—but Lila held fast. “They don’t have to treat her like this! What did she ever do to them?”

Nothing. These workers are just doing their jobs, following the orders of the Mother. It’s only the engineer who has a more personal vendetta. She was an apprentice when Goda was first sentenced. For years her master forced her to fight and wrestle Goda into the chair, since she was the only one in this tower who was even close to her size. Early on, she was injured during one of their scuffles and she never quite recovered, so she’s held a grudge all this time.”

How is it Goda’s fault that this woman was forced to fight her? How is it her fault that she doesn’t fit in the—”

But a sharp buzz broke Kanna away from her thoughts. The engineer’s steel rod was much more than it had first seemed, and she had pressed two probes at the end of it into the giant’s ribs. The electric buzz sounded again, cracked against the side of Goda’s chest. The giant cried out; her forearms stiffened against the chair and her hands became fists; her teeth gritted with pain.

Kanna’s eyes grew wide at the familiar pulse of energy that sounded through the room. Tears burst from her eyes.

Please!” she shouted—to Lila, to anyone, “Please, make it stop! Make it stop! They can’t do this to her!”

No one heard her. Goda kept writhing, lifting her hips up as if to rise from the chair, and the collective kept pushing her down.

“Stop resisting!” the engineer shouted, brows furrowed, jaw tense, the veins of her neck throbbing with thick blood—but still, there was an edge of glee in her voice as she electrocuted the giant yet again. “Sit down, sit down! Stop resisting!”

Goda groaned so deeply that the sound moved through the wood of the chair and rumbled the floor. She managed to work one of her boots free from the binds. Without seemingly any conscious intention, as if it were simply a reflex, she kicked the engineer in the leg and nearly toppled the woman with the blow.

The engineer echoed Goda’s cry, but she did not fall. She leaned harder into the giant. Her grimace seemed to morph into a grin. She straddled Goda’s thigh to keep the giant’s knee from moving again, and the swarm of workers came down to retie the freed leg, to tighten the bonds even harder, to add more twisting loops.

As she held the side of the electric bat to Goda’s face, the engineer stared into her eyes. A fire was smoldering in their shared gaze; there was a passion between them that Kanna had thought was reserved only for lovers until that very moment.

“You’re an ugly creature, Brahm. So very ugly,” she murmured. The force of her breath puffed against some hair that had fallen over Goda’s face and it made the strands dance. “But that’s what makes you worthy of my beautiful cuff. You’re such a monstrosity, you’re like a work of art. I’ve missed seeing that face of yours ever since my promotion.”

Goda’s mouth tightened, as if she were about to spit in the woman’s face, but the engineer was faster. She pressed the probe end of the baton to Goda’s jaw and fired.

Kanna felt the shock in her own skin. “Stop!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, until her voice overwhelmed even the cries of the hundreds of cuffs around them. “Leave her alone! For the love of God, stop torturing her!”

She had said this all in the Middlelander tongue, so the eyes of the bureaucrats all turned to her. The engineer had also twisted her gaze around and regarded Kanna with a raised eyebrow, as if it were the first time she had even noticed that Kanna existed.

“Was that the Upperlander just now?” she asked, her rage still evident, but a bit corrupted by curiosity nonetheless. “Huh. She talks, does she?”

“I’ve been talking the whole time I’ve been here,” Kanna blurted out before she could consider her tone. “I’ve been talking my whole life, actually.”

The engineer stared at her as the room stretched into an odd silence—then she burst out laughing. “You’re funny, Upperlander. You sound more fluent than your brother, too. How interesting.”

Kanna furrowed her brow. “My…brother?”

“Anyway, anyway!” The engineer, with some tension seemingly diffused from her bones, turned back towards the giant. “We’re a bit preoccupied to be amusing ourselves with these sorts of novelties. If you’d like, you can entertain us with your funny accent after the re-cuffing, once the porter is gone.”

Gone?”

“Well sure, kid.” The woman tipped her chin towards the cuff that sat on the table. “What do you think that’s for? She’s ready for her next job, so we’re fitting her with a fully-charged cuff. She only has ten days for this one, and the timer is already set. I won’t delay her; if she kills herself from her own meandering, that’s one thing, but I’m not going to be responsible for any prisoner’s death. It’s against my religion.”

Kanna fought the reflex to open her mouth in awe. She had already seen the complex mental gymnastics that these people used to wash their hands of guilt, but she could not fathom that the engineer could be so ignorant to her own role in Goda’s torture. Kanna shook her head, looked sideways in Lila’s direction.

I can’t believe it,” she murmured in her native tongue. “I just can’t believe what they’re capable of pretending. How do these people even have any capital punishment, if they all refuse to be the ones to pull the trigger out of some sense of purity?”

Lila was quiet for a long, spreading moment. They both watched the engineer busying herself, fiddling with Goda’s clenched arm.“Honestly, child, you don’t want to know how they do it.”

Kanna turned to her fully, her eyes welling up, her face twisting. She waited.

It’s against the Maharan religion to kill another Maharan for any reason. No individual Middlelander ever wants to perform the execution—or wants to be held responsible for it, at least—so they force people convicted of capital crimes to drown themselves. They put the prisoner in a cage half-suspended in a pool of water and they leave her within reach of a lever that will cut the rope. The prisoner can choose to cut the ties and drown, or choose to slowly starve to death in the cage. It’s a superstition in the Middleland that if a person is righteous, they should cut the rope, because the Goddess won’t allow an innocent to drown in cold water. In this way, no one bears the blame for the person’s death…and the prisoner is never righteous, as you might imagine.”

Kanna could feel her nausea returning. The cry of the cuffs ebbed and flowed in her ears. The walls around her had started to wobble back and forth. She swallowed through it. “That’s horrific,” she said.

Lila nodded, though she was still facing towards the giant, preoccupied with the motions of the engineer. “And this is only what they do to their own. Imagine how they handle foreigners who have offended the Mother deeply enough to deserve capital punishment. The soldiers don’t bother with any semblance of justice for an outsider. Often, they will just beat them to death right then and there.”

If anything, that’s kinder.”

Lila huffed. “You say this because you’re an Upperlander, so you have a preference for upfront violence—but your countrymen are violent, too, just with a different style. And so are we Outerlanders. All human beings are bloodthirsty, child, it’s just that the Middlelanders are expert organizers. They have industrialized death, so it looks more soulless to you, more lacking in passion—but it’s all the same, it’s all the same. You only need to adapt yourself to it.”

The engineer had knelt down in front of the giant’s throne to better examine the cuff. She had a look of utter concentration and Kanna couldn’t help but stare into her face with fascination. “That woman,” Kanna said, “she doesn’t lack any passion from what I see.”

Of course. This is her life’s work. You could say that she came of age with Goda, and she even helped design Goda’s custom-made master-slave cuff while she was still an apprentice. She’s always refining it every year to make it more secure, quicker to charge and discharge, more certain to kill when the time comes. She built your lightweight slave cuff, and Parama’s, too, and hundreds of others. She’s obsessed with her work, loves it more than any woman or man. Trust me, I’m friends with her wife and I hear constant complaints about it.”

Kanna made a face of disbelief. “Someone married that woman?”

A high-ranking engineer is a desirable spouse, even a robust woman like her who can’t share in the childbirth. She’s one of only half a dozen people who knows how the paired cuffing system works on a deep level—and she’s the only person still living who knows how to maintain Goda’s cuff because it relies on a rare and powerful battery that is no longer produced—so to say that she has job security is an understatement.”

Is that why she acts that way, like she can just do whatever she wants?” The energy of Kanna’s rage had already allowed her to jerk out of Lila’s grasp, but as before, the woman was vigilant and snatched her wrists with both hands.

The fact of the matter is that she can. This is how things work here. These are the methods they will use to control you—the shock of an electric prod to deter you, the reward of freedom to seduce you—and this woman is a master of the most coveted techniques. A throb of pain, a throb of pleasure. It is the heartbeat of the Middleland. Accept it and move on.”

Kanna looked down at the floor because she could not stand to see Goda’s wincing face anymore. “I can’t accept it,” she said. Then what the engineer had told her earlier fully resonated in her mind. “That woman…she said that Goda is leaving, that in only moments we’ll be separated. I know it’s foolish to fight it, just as Goda is foolish to resist so many restraints, but I swear to you now that I won’t let the giant leave without me. If I have to tangle myself in her robes and let her drag me as she walks, then I’ll do it. We won’t be separated. I’ll die before we’re separated.”

You won’t die. Goda might kick you away and the engineer might prod you with her baton, but you won’t die. You have much power, though you’re blind to it still and most of the people here can’t see it anyway, so for now you will play the part of a helpless victim in this room.”

What are you talking about?” Kanna tipped her head up to look into Lila’s eyes again, but the mystery on the woman’s face still remained.

Why do you think Goda plotted to send you into the wilderness of Samma? It’s no accident. Goda recognizes your power very well and seeks to unleash it on the world. The beast in Goda sees the beast in you, but a beast doesn’t thrive in a factory or in the labyrinths of a tower. You need to grow up in the forest, and then you can come wreak havoc on the rest of us.”

How do you know this? How can you claim to know so much about Goda’s intentions when we haven’t even talked before today? For that matter, how did you even know I was arriving this morning? I’ve never seen Goda send off so much as a letter with any of the trains.”

Lila was smiling a faint smile, not unlike the one that the giant often wore. “You’re not the only one who hears messages from the shrines, my child.”

What?” Kanna’s eyebrows shot up. She stammered, “How do you…? How on Earth do you know about that?”

We’re all so different, and yet when the Goddess pulls us into a shrine, we all see the same thing. This is the blessing of oneness. I am you, you are me. Of course I knew you were coming when I woke up this morning. How would I not know where I am and when I would arrive to greet myself?”

Kanna tried to jerk away from her, a churning dread returning to her gut, but Lila still would not let go.

You know this already, don’t you? Even if you’re afraid of looking directly, you’ve seen bits and pieces of the truth of who you are. It is the root of your power, it’s what draws Goda to you and what made that factory manager cower upon seeing your face with absolute clarity. The people in this room may come together in a collective, and they may ape this power by acting as a single force that enslaves countless victims—but they don’t know the real power, the real oneness. They fear it. They’re afraid of giants like you, who can channel this magic.”

I’m…no giant.”

So says a woman to a trail of ants on the ground. So says the Goddess with infinite powers of creation when faced with people who only know pain and pleasure and manipulation. So says Kanna Rava, who has forgotten who she is.”

Kanna stared at her with absolute astonishment. The woman had grown quiet as she stared back, watching, waiting. The most bewildering thing was the air of playfulness in her manner, which had not faded at all with the gravity of her words.

But then the voice of the engineer broke up all the space between them, all the emptiness that had formed. Kanna jerked her head towards the giant, worried that something had happened, but she found only that Goda’s captor was suddenly looking in her direction.

“I said that the cuff is stabilized, so quit hiding in the corner like a pair of skittish mice. Bring the Upperlander over here!” She gestured towards the open seat across from Goda. “The girl is small—looks like a pale-faced little man to me, really—so I don’t think we’ll need to bother with strapping her down. Just tell her to hold still.”

Kanna narrowed her eyes, but as she felt Lila’s grip loosening, she inched a little closer to the giant’s chair. Goda had been subdued; her arm was limp in the engineer’s grasp, and she looked up at Kanna with a soft expression, with exhaustion. When Kanna tried to reach out to the bound giant, Lila gently guided her away.

Don’t touch Goda. If the engineer decides to botch a de-cuffing for once in her life, then you don’t want to be in the midst of the shock. It is much more powerful than anything you’ve experienced and it can travel across bodies. Come, sit still.”

Seeing no other choice, Kanna sat, though the chair was too big for her and her feet swung uncomfortably ungrounded beneath her. Lila pressed Kanna’s wrist to the arm of the seat, but she did not apply the straps that hung loosely from the wood. Instead, she took the rope that held Kanna’s hands together and began to slowly unravel it, untangling the labyrinth of constrictors much too easily for Kanna’s taste. As the pieces of her leash rained down onto the floor, Kanna couldn’t help but wonder if she might have taken it off herself if she had only struggled harder.

Then Lila dug into her own pocket before pulling out the familiar silver key that had weighed Kanna down since she had left the desert.

So this is it?” Kanna asked.

This is it. I know you’re afraid of separation because you’ve forgotten the source of your connection, but separation does not exist. There is nothing to fear, since it’s only a convincing illusion. Everything that the Middlelanders have created is smoke and mirrors, and it is exactly the illusion of this cuff that is between you and Goda now. It does not join you together. It never did.” She jammed the key into the cuff and snapped the lock open. The tumbling of the pins rattled against Kanna’s joint, then Lila shouted in Middlelander, loudly enough that it made Kanna start, “Unlocked!”

The engineer held a steel key that Kanna only noticed just then, one that was much thicker than her own, with many more teeth and a wider head. She pushed it deep into Goda’s cuff and the device let loose a popping sound, like bones crackling. “Unlocked!” the engineer echoed.

Lila slipped her hand beneath the final latch of Kanna’s cuff. She responded to Kanna’s nervous look with a gentle smile, but she did not stop. In the same way that she had disentangled Kanna’s rope, she flipped the latch much too easily. “Unlatched!”

“Unlatched!” The engineer came to grip Goda’s bonds tightly. “All right, opening the cuff in three…two…!”

With two hands on either side of the device, Lila cracked Kanna’s cuff, as if she were breaking open two halves of an eggshell, as if she were breaking open Kanna’s very flesh. With bated breath, Kanna watched a strip of pale skin emerge into the light. It was a band smeared with sweat, with small, translucent hairs that glittered like a white forest of fallen trees, with tiny spots where the skin peeled as if it had been lightly burned—but she recognized it all as part of her body, so she felt some relief.

Kanna lifted her arm. She was free. With a smile that had come over her in spite of it all, she glanced up to see how the giant looked after shedding the burden as well, but the smile faded instantly.

The engineer was still working off the cuff. Though at first Kanna’s heart dropped because she feared for Goda’s life, she realized soon enough that the cuff was fully open—it was just that the inner band was still tethered to Goda’s forearm.

It was just that a pair of sharp wires—like the fangs of a snake—were buried deep inside her skin, and the engineer was slowly peeling them out. One probe broke out of Goda’s flesh with a spurt of blood following, then the other. The engineer pulled the rag down from the nearby table and poured the contents of her now uncorked bottle into it. The smell was entirely familiar as soon as it hit the air. The woman smothered Goda’s blood in Rava Spirits.

Kanna stared with her mouth open, all her thoughts silencing at once. The giant watched her with the same smile, the same serene gaze as before, the same surrender. Kanna felt warmth rolling down her face before she fully realized she was crying again.

She looked at Lila. She shook her head in panic. “What was that? What was that inside her?”

I told you: Goda’s cuff is custom-made, very different from yours. Though your cuff could still fatally injure you under extreme circumstances, its main function is only to deliver pain, which it can easily do over the surface of your skin. But in Goda’s case, the cuff is meant to kill. In order to ensure that the shock is lethal and that it can reach the giant’s heart, the engineer designed it with probes that go deep into the muscle. Goda was the first to wear bonds like these—the first in what you might call a long experiment in passive punishment—but there have been others since, and they’ve all demonstrated the effectiveness of this design. It’s why the engineer is so proud that she’ll come down to see her masterpiece from time to time.”

Kanna grasped her own wrist with her hand, felt the blood gushing back to the spots that had been previously confined. Still, she couldn’t take her eyes off the giant. She followed the lines of the ropes and cables that twisted around Goda even while Kanna was now free. “They’re all dead, all of the ones who wore that cuff besides Goda? Is that what you’re saying?”

Yes, all of them are dead. They are waiting for Goda to follow. They have waited a long time.”

Kanna shook her head, huffed hard through her nose until her chest locked up from the emptiness in it. “No!” she cried. “Goda won’t die. She won’t die! I’ll set her free somehow. Even if I have to bite through the cords myself and break my goddamn teeth, I’ll find a way!”

Before Lila could stop her, Kanna leapt from the chair and dashed towards Goda. She threw herself to the ground in front of the giant. Her knees crashed onto the floor; her face came to press hard against Goda’s thigh; she clung to the giant’s binds with her hands, but they had no give no matter how much she pulled.

She sobbed into Goda. She shuddered, half-draped over the legs of the giant, and she did not care even as she felt the shocked stare of the engineer beside her, the gawks of all the women who surrounded Goda’s prison.

“No. Kanna breathed in the mix of leather, of linen, of Goda’s unnameable scent. “No. How can I be suddenly free when you’re not? Wasn’t it you who said you were a piece of me? That you were me? That we couldn’t be separated?”

She felt something grazing the back of her skull. When she lifted her head, she realized that the giant had pulled her right hand hard against the limits of her binds, and that she had reached with the tips of her fingers to touch Kanna’s hair.

Goda looked down at her. Two wet trails on the giant’s face glimmered warmly in the light, and they had come to spill off the sharp edges of her jaw, had come to drip down against Kanna’s naked wrist. These blows felt nearly painful when they hit, like twin needles, but when they slid against her skin, they soothed Kanna’s discomfort. In this way—in all ways—Goda was both hard and soft.

“You’re just going to leave me here, then? What will I do without you, Master? How can I know what to do with myself? I have nothing left.”

“You’ll know.” The giant spoke for the first time in what felt like forever; the vibrations rumbled through her chest, through the chair. “Because you have nothing left, you will know.”

“Tell me what to do!”

“No one can tell you anymore. Listen to what’s inside. I have taken you as far as I can, but from here onward, only you can go.”

A sharp snap rang through the room. Kanna turned to see that the new cuff had closed around Goda’s wrist, that the old one sat discarded on the table beside the engineer, the blood-smeared fangs on the inner band shining even in the weak light.

“I wish your bloody cuff could eat itself like a snake and dissolve from this world.”

Goda smiled. “Worry for your own serpents now, Kanna Rava. Go on. Find your freedom.”

Kanna felt a fist clenching around the back collar of her robes. “She’s right. It’s probably best if we go now, so you won’t be tempted to chase her.” Lila pulled her up, forced her to stand with dignity, even as Kanna fought to stay kneeling before the giant. The woman’s hands were much stronger than they had looked at first and her insistent will was hard to resist. “Besides, there’s one more stop before you leave this tower, and it’s time-sensitive. You don’t have to agree to it if you don’t want to, but I suggest you take advantage because you may not have the chance again for another ten years.”

Kanna wiped her eyes and glared at Lila. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see in a few moments, but you have to trust enough to leave the giant behind.”

The engineer had come to stand, too, and she was staring at the both of them with an uneasy expression, with utter confusion. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but who is this kid leaving with? I’m handing Brahm a paired cuff and sending her on her way, but if I’m not re-cuffing the Upperlander, then who do I sign her off to? She obviously can’t leave this building by herself.”

Lila nodded. “She’s coming with me. I’ll be escorting her to her quarters after she’s done in the tower.”

“Don’t we need to shackle her at least?” The engineer was already shuffling papers, pulling out a pen.

“She has no Flower in her, she’s the size of a man, and her crime is a joke. You would know better than me the price of steel. Let’s not waste it on this child.” She took the signed sheet that the engineer handed her and she began to pull Kanna by the arm towards the door. “Besides, we all know the cuff was not meant for Kanna Rava. It only allowed her to enslave the giant for us.”

* * *

Kanna pressed her hand to her mouth and tried to silence the sobs. They echoed through the empty corridor and rang in her ears with every effortful trudge of her legs, but she was too ashamed to let them out freely. She clenched and shivered against the image that swam in her mind, the image of Goda Brahm’s face as the door to the chamber had closed, the image of those black eyes, infinitely deep and with no surface—and the smile that matched them.

The smile.

It had been filled with the surrender that Kanna had wished she could offer in return. But she couldn’t. She wanted to be with Goda. She closed her eyes and watched the image of the giant pulse in her mind, but it was already beginning to fade, and her eyelids fluttered open when she felt Lila suddenly pulling her into a room, pressing a sheet of paper into her hand.

Kanna looked down. It was her assignment form, the one that she could have sworn she had dropped on the ground outside the pregnant administrator’s office. The smudge from her tears was still evident on the page, but she could read her name and occupation all the same:

Kanna Rava – Scribe

Samma Valley Monastery

She read it again and again. She read it until it had lost its meaning.

“You’ll want to hold onto that while you’re in here in case anyone asks for it. It’s your identity for now.” Lila rummaged around in Goda’s satchel, which was still hanging around the woman’s shoulder, but as soon as she had settled a few things, she unslung it and held it out to Kanna. “Take this, too. It’s yours after all.”

Kanna leaned away from it awkwardly, put her hands up as politely as she could. “To be honest, I’d rather not keep pretending that I’m the owner of a bag full of Death Flower. I’m fine without it.”

“Death Flower?” Lila raised an eyebrow. “I’ve looked all through this bag. I even dumped its contents onto the administrator’s desk. There is no Flower in here.”

Kanna let out a crazed laugh, which seemed to startle Lila just a little. She pressed her hand to her face with gritted teeth. “Of course. Of course there isn’t any Flower in there. Why would there be? Sure, she didn’t lie to me about it exactly, but she let me think that it was in there so that I would follow her up the stairs. That bastard. I hate her. I hate everything about her. I hope she lives forever so that I can seek her out and punch her in the face when my sentence is over.” Kanna shuddered, stifled a sob. “But I hope she finds me first. I hope she looks for me. I’ll kill her if she doesn’t look for me.”

When she broke down again, Lila embraced her, but Kanna could not bear to allow herself any semblance of comfort, so she quickly pulled away.

“What do I have to do to be at her side again?”

“I can’t tell you if that’s possible yet.” Lila held her by the shoulders, looked directly in her eyes. “But all you can do now is move forward. All you can do in this moment is face what’s in that room behind you, on the other side of the threshold. You’ll have to face it alone.”

With curiosity, Kanna turned to find that they had entered a chamber and that an open gateway sat carved into the far wall. A military woman in uniform stood just outside of it, as if she were guarding the space, but she appeared bored, playing with the dirt in her fingernails. Inside the next room, beyond that doorway, there was a long wooden table that had been painted white like the floor, like the walls. Flanking either side of it were two more soldiers who looked just as bored as the first, but who stood up straight with their hands gripping the holsters of their batons nonetheless.

A man sat between them.

He looked up, and when he met Kanna’s eyes, his own widened with recognition. It took Kanna much too long of a moment to reciprocate, to realize who he was. Even though he was too far to hear her rasping, she called out to him:

Father?”


Onto Chapter 39 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 37: A Crack in the Earth

Hovering over the priestess like a looming fog was a death shroud made of leather. It was held at each of its corners by four temple hands wearing white. It was branded with images of the Goddess and her creations—twisting vines and trees, savage beasts and coiling snakes—but what struck Kanna the most was the smell of freshly tanned hide. It permeated the space. It reminded her of the smell of the priestess’s gloved hands on that night in the desert.

The assistants had frozen with surprise. Clearly in the midst of a ritual, the room had a dim air to it; the windows were shuttered, the tables were littered with candles whose flames were now whipping around, disturbed by the rush of air that had come in from the door.

Goda had broken through the room—and through the silence—like a barreling train. She knocked over one of the tables that held a pot of incense, and the ceramic shattered and sent a puff of sweet-smelling dirt into the air. She bumped into some of the women in white who had been standing further away from the deathbed, making them stumble back. She was too big for the room. She made the floor shake with her footfalls—with the pounding of her heart, of her throat. Though Kanna knew it was yet another delusion, it felt like the very walls of the chamber were woven with the giant’s veins and that they pulsed chaotically with every step.

She looked up to find that the giant had reached the makeshift altar and was ripping the death shroud away from the assistants, who stared at her with shock.

They did not react until the hide of that dead animal had been snatched from all of the hands except for one—one that was cuffed with a metal band that matched that of Goda, of Kanna, of Parama, one that belonged to a woman who was gazing wide-eyed at the giant from the other side of the bed.

“What on Earth are you doing?” the woman shouted. She grasped the leather with both hands and tried to pull it away from Goda, and in the struggle the shroud rose and fell and grazed the face of the priestess.

“Stop!” The giant gave the covering a final jerk, and when it slipped from the assistant’s grasp, Goda threw it on the floor. “Can’t you see that you’ll suffocate her?”

“She’s already dead, Porter!” When the woman stiffly rounded the bed, the glow of the candles hit her face more directly, and Kanna could see her furious expression, the pain in her eyes—and the features that made her suddenly familiar.

It was Assistant Finn. It was the woman who had pored over Kanna’s paperwork near the gateway of the temple complex, the woman who had struck a pen through all of Kanna’s names except for two.

“Look,” she said gruffly when she reached Goda’s side, “I understand. Believe me, Goda, I understand—but you can’t be in here. No layperson should witness this, and certainly not you. We’re in the middle of her final rites. She is dead and there’s nothing you can do.”

Goda’s jaw set; the muscles of her shoulders stiffened; her fists trembled with what looked like restraint. “She is not dead. Listen to her. Listen! Have you all gone deaf? She breathes.”

Indeed, in the relative quiet that came in response, Kanna could still hear the faint gasps of the priestess, whose eyes were wide open and pointed towards the ceiling with no shred of awareness. Though she reminded Kanna of the corpse of the woman who had died from Flower that night in Karo, and though her breaths were ragged and shallow, there was no way to deny that she still lived.

The conflict in the assistant’s eyes was clear even from where Kanna was standing, but Finn did not stop to count Rem’s breaths the way Kanna did. “The leader of the Health Administration herself declared our priestess dead earlier today. The paperwork is signed. She is legally dead, so we’re proceeding with the rites. She will be wrapped in the shroud today and publicly incinerated tomorrow. You can offer your final respects then.”

Goda’s hand came up to grasp the edge of the wooden bed frame, though her fingers kept a safe distance from any bare skin as she leaned over to stare at the priestess’s face. Her expression held steady in its tension; her muscles had grown rigid with some energy that she was holding back. “You mean that you’re going to smother her to death today,” she said, “and rid yourself of the last evidence of your deed tomorrow.”

“Goda Brahm of all people should not point fingers at us over this!” The assistant turned to half-face the bed, but did not gesture to its occupant directly, and she averted her eyes when the priestess heaved through another series of convulsions. “Look at her, Brahm. Look at her at length and then tell me that she will recover. She won’t. You can argue over where the exact line of death is, but just because a person’s lungs quake with some automatic reflex, doesn’t mean there’s any soul left in them. After she collapsed inside the shrines a week ago, we’ve watched her scream and contort with pain every day. We could do nothing but stand helplessly by, and now she’s fading from us. She’s faded so far, there’s no way to bring her back. Don’t you think she’s suffered enough already as it is?” The woman swallowed hard, cleared her throat. “By the grace of the Goddess, the health administrator had a shred of mercy in her heart and she signed the death certificate without quibbling over something as meaningless as the rising and falling of her breath.”

The look on Goda’s face had changed, had become more unreadable. Her mouth twitched, but not with anger anymore. To Kanna’s surprise, she saw the glare of the candlelight reflecting with a sudden vividness in Goda’s eyes—a moist glare that spilled over and rolled down the giant’s face.

One hard shudder jerked through the whole of Goda’s body, as if she had been struck with some bone-shaking blow. It seemed to break something inside of her, inside of Kanna as well. The giant grasped at her own robes with both hands, pulled at the fabric that fell over her chest with clenched knuckles. It seemed for a moment that she was about to tear her clothes apart—but she didn’t.

Goda wept. Her sobs overwhelmed the light breaths of the priestess, overwhelmed the murmurs of the assistants who surrounded her. Finn looked on just as helplessly as she had before.

The agony that rumbled through the room made Kanna want to turn away with fear, because watching her giant cry was like watching a mountain crumbling into pieces before her eyes. She did not want to be swept away in it. She felt the impulse to resist it—but by now, she knew the taste of that resistance well enough, so she also knew what to do.

She leaned into it. She looked deep into the fear and watched herself running into the room anyway, crashing into that mountain even as it cracked around her. She buried her face against Goda’s chest; she felt the chaotic sobs ringing a song against those ribs. She let herself experience the pain, just as she had felt the shocks against her wrist, until it became just a sensation in her body, until it was neither good nor bad, neither hell nor paradise—until it was just Goda, only Goda and nothing more.

Kanna’s own tears had begun to wick into the giant’s robes. She did not know how long she stood there because the moment had existed in some space where her mind could no longer keep track, but eventually Goda pulled away.

She stared down at Kanna, her eyes glowing in the light, wide open, full of something meant for Kanna to see. She made no effort to hide her face. For a brief second, Kanna saw something in the giant she had never seen before, a rush of tenderness, of heartbreak. A wall had fallen and Kanna only noticed it just then because of its absence; she recognized that it was her own.

You’re human after all, Kanna thought, and your heart breaks—it breaks all the time, but I refuse to notice. It breaks for Taga. It breaks for Rem. It breaks for the world.

She had seen many things in the giant—both things that she projected and things that may very well have really been there—but now she had to wonder how many pieces of Goda she had blinded herself to altogether.

Who are you? She had asked the giant over and over; she had never listened to the answer. She had seen only what she had allowed herself to see and she still had no idea of the truth even then.

Goda lay an arm over Kanna’s shoulders and pressed her close, but her gaze rose up again to address the chamber around them. The giant’s eyes appeared to scan the faces of all the assistants—the ones who still flanked the bed, the ones who stood bewildered in the middle of the room, the ones who had retreated to the corners, where the light did not reach. The giant’s posture had given up some slack, had grown more open.

“This is my doing,” Goda said.

Instantly, a collective murmur erupted among the small crowd. There were a few sharp breaths of confusion, a few words of what seemed like incredulity exchanged between the assistants, but Kanna could not parse individual words, and the reaction came off more like a vibration flowing through a single organism.

“How do you mean?” Assistant Finn answered for them. There was a worried look on her face, but her tone was generous in its skepticism. “She fell ill the day after you left. You were not even there to witness it, let alone contribute to it.”

“We have an unsavory history with many things unresolved. She might have fallen ill eventually on her own, this is true, but there’s no doubt my presence hastened it. When our energies clashed together for the first time in nine years, the Earth burst open, and everything spilled out.”

“‘Everything’?”

Though the reply was one of confusion, there was an edge of something else in it. Goda paused, and Kanna could feel the collective air of the room shifting with tension, as if the assistants already suspected what she was about to say.

“Serpents.”

Another eruption—louder this time—filled the room with a dozen voices at once. Some of the women turned to each other and appeared to argue in hushed tones, but most of them turned towards Goda and began demanding that she elaborate. Again, Kanna could not make out single phrases with any clarity, but the emotional energy of the voices was sharp.

“Preposterous!” Finn said, though again her eyes were shifting with an uncertainty that contradicted her tone. “Priestesses are lesser goddesses, and they are free from serpents. The Mother cleanses the heart of any person who ordains. Surely you’re not implying that our priestess is infested with impure spirits, that the Goddess has forsaken her. Even you know better than to toy with that level of blasphemy.”

“She’s not any more or less infested than anyone else. It’s just that they’ve all risen to the surface at the same time. You know this. Stop pretending that you don’t recognize the symptoms. Stop worshiping her like a goddess on an altar or she will die from a human disease.”

The assistant looked more uncomfortable then, the conflict on her face growing, her posture shifting back and forth, her body sliding further away from the bedside. “Even if that were true—which it isn’t—there’s nothing to be done. We’ve tried every medicine! It’s too late!”

“She breathes. As long as she breathes, she can awaken again, but there’s only one thing that will bring her back to life.”

Finn did not dare ask—because it seemed that she already knew—but Goda answered anyway:

Death.”

This time, the collective gasp made it seem like the room itself was breathing. The flames of the candles that burned around them danced with the shifting of air, with the shifting of bodies, with the conflict of the assistants who had all begun to ease closer to the center of the room.

“And I have plenty of Death to spare,” Goda said bluntly, ignoring the commotion, and Kanna glanced up at her with wide eyes. All the assistants seemed to be staring, too, a pause of shock taking over the room.

“We can’t give Death Flower to a priestess!” one of them finally shouted. “It’s blasphemous to even talk about this! Have you gone insane? We’ll all go to hell for even considering it!” Still, the woman had a strange look on her face, a nervous tension that seemed to hide something deeper than her words. Beside her was another woman with the same face—her twin, Kanna realized after she studied her features in the dim light.

“It’s out of the question,” the twin agreed, though her eyes flickered quickly towards Finn and the glance seemed to offer some kind meaning Kanna could not tap into. “You can’t just barge in here and make such blasphemous statements about our lesser goddess, Porter! Who do you think you are? Get out! Get out!”

“Indeed!” Finn grasped the side of Goda’s arm, but Kanna noticed that the grip was a little loose. “You’re out of line, Brahm, way out of line! You should be arrested for this! You’re lucky that the soldiers are still too occupied with some commotion outside for us to bother bringing them in here to deal with this nonsense!”

“The grief has clearly driven you mad, but that’s no excuse!” one of the twins cried again. “Leave this place now!”

Kanna held onto Goda by the side of her robes, and so she was dragged out of the room along with her. Finn escorted the giant, who did not fight the flow of a dozen arms that jutted out of the crowd to press against her and wave her closer to the threshold. It was like they were both being expelled, being vomited from a huge stomach, and Kanna stumbled out of the mouth of the open doorway and crashed right into Lila Hadd.

She raised an eyebrow when she saw that the woman had her arms wrapped tightly around Parama Shakka, but she said nothing. Instead, she jerked on reflex because the door had slammed right behind her.

Kanna turned to find that Assistant Finn had stepped out of the room along with them, that she had her back pressed to the door, that she was staring at Goda with a strange face.

“I understand,” she said flatly, her voice hushed. Kanna looked at her with surprise, but the woman continued to ignore her presence. “I understand, but we can’t. What if you’re wrong, Brahm? She could die an agonizing death from eating Flower, more agonizing than anything she’s already suffered—and she’s suffered enough. It’s too much of a risk, and on top of that, if she dies from impure medicine, she may never see the Goddess on the other side. I’m in charge of her body, and I won’t let that happen, no matter how much my sisters want to hold onto the hope that you can save our beloved priestess.”

Kanna made a twisted face. The assistants had thrown Goda out in the midst of angry shouts, but once again Kanna wondered if she had simply witnessed an elaborate performance meant to wash their hands of guilt. Perhaps this was yet another piece of the labyrinth that Lila had told her about, another collective delusion to avoid any responsibility.

“It’s true, there’s a risk—but I can minimize it greatly by passing the Flower through a vessel first. I can bring the excretions to you and you can feed them to her. If it saves her, then it saves her; and if she dies, it won’t make the process any worse.”

The assistant closed her eyes, heaved a deep sigh. “Brahm, even if I was the sort of unwholesome person who would let you carry out such a plan, there are no vessels in Suda anymore. They’ve been stamped out. I’m sure you realize this.”

“I’ll make a vessel.”

“Make one? And how do you propose to do that? As soon as there’s word that someone shows signs of awakening, the soldiers make quick work of them around here. It’s not like you would have time to comb through the populous for possible vessels, anyway. Aren’t you in Suda to get decuffed and to be sent off again? You’ll have to go on your way in a matter of days at the most. I don’t even think our priestess will last—” Finn stopped. Her voice broke, but with a few more sighs she seemed to gain her composure again. She opened her eyes and gave Goda a sorrowful glance. “No, no. I can’t delay the funeral rituals by more than a few hours. It won’t work, Goda. Your heart is in the right place in its own twisted way, but it’s dangerous and blasphemous and it won’t work. There are no awakened people in Suda.”

“They don’t need to be awake.” Goda’s voice sounded clear to Kanna coming out of the giant’s mouth, but the words smudged into a murmur when they echoed off the walls of the hallway. “They can be dead. I won’t have to search much. I’ll make a corpse vessel.”

Finn was quiet for a long time, her eyes widening again with incredulity. “You’ll make a corpse?”

“Yes. I’ll kill someone.” The giant’s eyes were empty, clear. Her blank tone did not match the severity of what she said, so much so that it took a moment for the words to register in Kanna’s mind—but as soon as they did, Kanna’s heart jolted.

What?” Finn spoke the first phrase that had found its way into Kanna’s mind.

“I’ll poison someone with Flower, then the priestess can eat of them after they die. I’ll send you the excretions in a vial and all you have to do is drop it into her mouth. She doesn’t even have to swallow. It’s potent enough that the skin of her gums will absorb the medicine safely.”

But Finn was slowly shaking her head, her face full of awe. “You really have gone insane, Brahm. The guilt has driven you mad all these years. We can’t kill someone! It’s ridiculous. I won’t allow something like that, even as a fantasy in my mind. It offends the Goddess!”

We won’t kill anyone. I will. I’ve killed before, so it’s nothing for me to kill again. I kill all the time. I kill every day. Whether you allow it or not, I will hunt someone tonight and I will kill them anyway. It is merely up to you whether you will make my violence go to waste and refuse my gift and let your priestess die out of some misguided principle, or whether you will transmute an act of evil into good. Don’t worry, I’ll pick some low-level slave that hardly anyone will miss, someone who did something terrible, someone who deserves to die anyway. Is that not a fair trade for the life of a lesser goddess?”

Though the woman had huffed and turned away and reached for the door knob, something in Goda’s last few words had made her face twitch with renewed conflict. Her hands clenched. “You’ve lost all sense and conscience. What our priestess said about you was true after all, and I would cover my ears to save my soul if it weren’t for the fact that it’s already too late, that you’ve already started to poison me with your twisted logic. It is not for me to judge who deserves to live or die, Goda!”

“It’s not, so I will take that burden from you. You won’t be responsible for anything. Just as your sisters in that room pretend that they didn’t ask for this, you can also pretend that this conversation never happened. You can pretend that you don’t know what’s in that vial that I deliver to you. For all you know, it could be the red nectar of a fruit that I’ve burst open in my hands.” Goda glanced briefly towards Parama, whose eyes had also grown big, who was speechless with shock the way Kanna was. “In fact, if you really want to shoulder none of the responsibility at all, you can make the boy feed the priestess. He’s cuffed to you, is he not? He’s your slave for now. He can’t disobey. Give him conflicting orders. Tell him to do it, then tell him to stop after he’s already done it, and claim that you meant something else, and punish him for what he did with a smack on the neck. Do whatever you need to do to live with yourself—just let me make the trade. A life for a life. Trust me, it will be worth it when you see her eyes grow warm with awareness again.”

Finn’s hand wrapped like a vice around the doorknob, her knuckles growing pale, her arm shaking with pent up emotion. “I won’t have any part in this. You’ve clearly been possessed by demons from all your dabbling in mysticism and they’ve clouded your judgment, made you throw aside all our teachings of right and wrong. I don’t even want to look at what you’ve become—not when I remember what you used to be years ago, when you first showed up at the desert monastery, before both this job and the shrines had corrupted you. Your heart has turned black, Goda Brahm.”

Goda’s face was still expressionless. “And so?”

Finn turned the handle. “And so,” she said, her hands still shaking, the candlelight pouring out as a gap in the threshold grew, “if someone decides to send an anonymous gift to the priestess, then I suppose she has no voice to refuse it with.”

She went inside and slammed the door behind her.

* * *

“You can’t be serious!” Kanna’s voice rang through the metal stairwell as she dashed through the door and onto the first landing, as she chased the giant down the first flight of stairs.

She had lost her grip on Goda’s robes. The exact moment the giant had taken off from the end of the hallway, Kanna had been briefly distracted by the sight of Lila Hadd pressing a kiss to Parama’s cheek, so the fabric had slipped from her slackened grasp. She had recovered quickly enough, though, and both she and Lila had left the boy behind in a rush to catch up to the giant.

Once they were in the stairwell, a safe distance away, Kanna let loose the opinions she had held back, even though Goda did not turn to look at her. “Are you really going to do this?” she shouted, catching up to the giant, stretching to touch her. “You’re actually going to kill someone?”

Goda did not answer at first, but when she reached the next landing, she spun around and Kanna nearly collided into her from the inertia. The giant stooped over her, blocking out the dim yellow lamp that glowed far above and gave the stairs their weak light. Her face was cast in shadows; only her eyes looked wide and alight, like an animal crouched in the darkness.

“I told you I was a killer,” Goda said. “You even saw it for yourself. Why is it now that you’re acting like you’ve learned something new?”

Kanna felt that familiar energy shoot up her spine, that fear mixed with curiosity, that revulsion she had felt the first night in the desert and again the night she had learned of Goda’s crime. But instead of running from the giant, she reached up as high as she could, and she grabbed Goda’s face with her hand, squeezed the woman’s chin with half her strength.

“Don’t look at me like that, you monster,” Kanna said. “I don’t believe you. You’re a lot of things, but you’re no killer. There’s a living vessel in Suda, isn’t there? You’re not telling us something.”

“Indeed, she hasn’t told us a lot of things.” Kanna turned to find that Lila—alone this time—had followed them down the stairs and was staring at the both of them with an annoyed expression. “She didn’t have the decency to inform me by mail that she had lost her damn mind before she showed up in this tower, for example.”

Kanna gave her a glance of alarm. “You really think she’ll do it? You really think that?” She had nearly given up on relying on others for any opinions about who Goda was, but it did seem that the Lila woman had known the giant for far longer.

“I don’t know what she’ll do. She’s as unpredictable to me as she probably is to you. But I wash my hands of this,” she said, throwing her arms up. Goda’s satchel—which was still hanging from the woman’s shoulder—rocked back and forth from the motion. “I can channel some of her energy within the confines of this labyrinth, but that’s the most I can do. When she’s outside of these walls, it’s not my responsibility where that energy flows. I have one job, and that’s the job I’ll stick to. As far as I’m concerned, I grew temporarily deaf in that hallway.”

“I can’t believe this!” Kanna shouted. “And what of Parama Shakka?” She tilted her head up and stared at the door they had all spilled from a few flights above, though it was now closed and she could not see any of the corridor that housed the boy. “You’re just going to allow them to turn him into a scapegoat?”

“The boy has bigger problems. Ever since the priestess collapsed, the administrators near the desert monastery decided that something evil lived in there and they ordered the shrines sealed up, so Parama has no work to do there anymore. He’ll probably be sent back to the textile factory.”

At this, Goda finally seemed to jerk into state of full attention. “You’ll place him somewhere else,” the giant said, her voice gruff. It was not a suggestion.

But Lila Hadd was shrugging her shoulders as she took the last few steps to reach them. “He’s out of my jurisdiction. I work exclusively with foreigners now. And, besides, where would I place him, Goda? At Samma Valley? As desperate as they are for scribes, you know they don’t want any men there, especially with the savages snatching people out of their beds at night.”

Kanna’s eyebrows shot up.

“Then dress him up in women’s robes and convince the head priestess at Samma that he’s a tiny woman with a pretty face. I don’t care what you come up with. I don’t care how stupid or elaborate. If you need me to do something, tell me and I’ll do it. We can’t let him be shackled up in a factory again, not after everything we did to spring him free from it in the first place. You’ve been in this tower long enough, and I know you have the pull.” Goda turned around, beginning her descent once again. “And I know you can’t find it in yourself to abandon him now.”

When the giant had bounded down yet another flight of stairs, and Lila had grasped Kanna by the arm to lead her down the path as well, Kanna gave the Outerlander a confused look. “All right,” Kanna said finally in Upperlander. “What the hell is going on? How do you know Goda?”

How?” Lila huffed, her tone filled with amusement, as if Kanna had just told a joke. “Not very well, that’s how. And I don’t care to know much more than that, believe me. There are many things about this giant that are too ugly to fathom. Goda is simply a distant relation to my wife, that’s all.” But because Kanna kept staring at her with irritation, the woman relented a few moments later with a sigh. “We met in the Outerland desert around the time I was working as a re-educator for the Middleland government.”

What are you two even up to in here? Your whispers make it sound like you have some sort of conspiracy between you, like you planned everything out together—not just for me, but for Parama, too.”

We did. Sort of. It’s not so much a plan as a shared intention—but, yes, you’ve guessed right that we’re in league with each other in a way that this tower would not approve of if it had ears to listen. Goda works in the desert, so many of the porter’s prisoners were arrested for crimes related to smuggling Flower. The porter brings these souls to me and I try to squeeze them into lighter punishments if I can. I fudge the numbers to reduce the sentence if they have a long one, or I give them work that is less taxing on the body by pretending that they have special skills, or I argue that it would be more cost effective to make them into a slave if they are to be executed.”

Why?” Kanna blurted out—but because it sounded rather callous, she added, “I mean, what’s in it for you? Or for her?”

Nine years ago,” Lila said, “something terrible happened. Many people suffered, people who were not at fault for any of it. Not just Middlelanders, but Outerlanders and Upperlanders, too. Even you and your tribe were affected indirectly by the incident at Samma Valley. You could say that the giant accidentally opened up a tiny crack in the Earth and that this crack turned into a bottomless pit that began swallowing everything around it. And so the two of us had no choice but to reach into the edge of the pit and grasp at any hand that we could find that was stretched out, begging to be pulled up. Maybe what we do doesn’t make much of a difference—or any difference at all—because the people we rescue are so few compared to how many have perished. But at least for Goda Brahm, reaching into that pit is a path to redemption.”

I…can understand that. It all makes more sense when you say it like that. But what does that have to do with me? Parama was arrested because of these ridiculous drug laws, but I wasn’t. Why does Goda want to save me?”

A strange smirk came over Lila’s face. “You really are very young, aren’t you? Young and naive and oblivious to what is plainly in front of your face. Goda is young, too. Maybe that blissful stupidity between the two of you makes for a good match.”

What?” Kanna felt some ire rising up at the apparent insult, but she stifled it. Even so, Lila seemed to notice and she let out a short laugh.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I won’t tell you. It’s dangerous knowledge. It’s probably better that you remain oblivious, lest you realize how much power you truly have and you feel inclined to abuse it.”

Kanna did not understand, but she did not have time to untangle Lila’s words before she was distracted by the sight of the giant pushing through a wide door. Unlike the others, it had no handle; it flipped open with just the weight of Goda’s shoulders, as if it were built for high levels of traffic to come and go.

Indeed, when she and Lila followed and broke through to the other side of the threshold, they were met with a crowd of bureaucrats. The women were flowing up and down the hallway, each so distracted by the rush of the others, that very few of them had opportunity to glance down and act surprised at Kanna’s foreign face.

Goda led them through a final door, into a chamber lit by the glow of the sun coming through translucent blinds. At first, Kanna was grateful to see the natural light again after wandering the dim maze of artificial hallways for what felt like an eternity—but then her eyes fell on the jagged beams of iron that sprouted out of the walls like giant barbs. They overwhelmed the space. They were arranged in grids and threaded with hundreds upon hundreds of huge metal rings.

Not rings, Kanna thought. They were cuffs, hanging from the stakes on the walls as if from tree branches. In the midst of all this cold iron that shimmered dimly in the weak light of the sun, there were a pair of chairs facing each other at the center of the room. The thick wood that made up their frames was perfectly polished, perfectly sanded with a bright finish. The arm rests were adorned with leather straps; the legs were bolted to the floor with steel spikes.

Kanna’s mouth dropped open. She stopped at the threshold and would not go in. She felt a lump forming in her throat when she finally looked at the path between the chairs and noticed a smiling woman who was staring at her—at Goda—with glee in her eyes.

She was tall. She towered over the bureaucrats in the room, though she was not among them, and she wore a black and red uniform that did not match theirs. She had a thick cuff held between her hands.

“Ah, Goda Brahm!” she said. “Still alive, I see!” She snapped the cuff open as if she were setting a bear trap, and the sound alone sent Kanna jumping back. “Let’s see if we can’t fix that this time!”


Onto Chapter 38 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 36: Delusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You do this to yourself. I am you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaya Hadd’s wife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goda was slow to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had finally startled him in return.

She was staring into the face of Parama Shakka.

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

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

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

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

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


Onto Chapter 37 >>