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…

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 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 35: The Divine Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve seen worse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had recognized her new master.

* * *

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

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

I’m leaving with that woman!

I’m leaving with that woman!

She’s the one! I know it!

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

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

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

Kanna could not make sense of the words.

Sammaaaaa aahn maharaaaa…

Sammmaaaa aahann maharaaaa…

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

Sammaaaaa…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fangs of the snake had grown dull.

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

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

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

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

“Not so fast,” Goda repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kanna froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could not let that light die out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goda had seduced her and she had surrendered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kanna Rava – Scribe

Samma Valley Monastery


Onto Chapter 36 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 34: The Spiral Staircase

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

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

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

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

“About a week.”

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

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

She decided that Goda was lying.

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

“The truth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, a week.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? That’s ridiculous! That’s—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, so you like it,” Goda said.

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

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

“It’s a spiral staircase.”

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

“Upstairs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

“It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You are the Goddess.”

“You keep saying that, but….”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give me the Flower,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Kanna cried.

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

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

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

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

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


Onto Chapter 35 >>

Goda’s Slave – Chapter 33: A Small Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s the difference, then?”

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

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

“The savages,” Kanna whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goda’s smile hadn’t faded.

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“What happened to her?”

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

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

But then she knew without asking.

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

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

“You people are weird.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t come,” Goda said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The giant nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


Onto Chapter 34 >>