Kanna’s feet were bleeding. She couldn’t see them in the dark—and she hadn’t dared look down—but she knew that the soles of her feet had been cut open on the rocks. She imagined a trail of blood spotting on the ground behind her, leading that looming figure in the distance ever closer.
A low boom rumbled through the plain. Kanna did not realize it was thunder until she looked over her shoulder, just in time for a jagged vein of light to flash across the sky. The burst was strong enough to show the landscape for one glaring second. It allowed her to see the face of the tall woman who had been following her.
She saw only an empty pair of eyes. They glowed white like the moon, like the gleaming stare of an animal.
Kanna whipped her head forward again. She clenched her hand around the steel cuff on her wrist, but could not pull it free with all her strength. Through the pain, through the pounding of her heart in her ears, she ran full speed across the desert. She had no idea where she was going. She only knew that if she cut through the dark long enough and fast enough, that she would lose this shadow eventually.
Her feet grew numb. She ducked her head as she ran, wary of the lightning overhead, but she did not allow herself to slow her frantic kicks. Her self-made cloud of dust turned the air thick until it burned her lungs.
But then something shocked her into a standstill. It was so sudden, she nearly tripped into the sand.
At first, she was sure the shock had come down to strike her from above. It felt like a tiny lightning bolt running down the side of her body, a searing heat that started from the metal cuff around her right wrist and buzzed inside her bones—though it quickly swelled into every other part of her, too.
She winced and ignored it and tried to keep running, but with every staggering step, it grew more intense until she couldn’t swing her arms. Her legs locked up. Her heels skidded against the ground. She cried out, but her voice was drowned by the sound of thunder.
Kanna fell face-forward into the dirt. The electric shock gushed through every branching nerve. Her muscles tightened and spasmed, her fingers digging into the ground without her consent. When she sucked in a breath to let out a scream, her mouth was filled only with earth.
In no time at all, a pair of feet appeared beside her. Though the pain was suddenly gone, it had also taken most of her strength with it, and Kanna struggled to look up at the tall figure that stood above in the dark.
A rope, swinging limply like a noose, dangled down from the woman’s hand and tapped Kanna lightly on the face.
“I told you not to run,” the woman said, but Kanna felt like it was the first time she had ever heard that animal speak. “Now hold still.”
With some last reserve of energy, Kanna lifted her head. Her mouth full of sand and little else, she hawked everything she had at the tall woman’s shoes. That mix of dirt and spit coated the old leather like a gritty soup.
Kanna closed her eyes, bracing for the kick.
But it did not come.
* * *
The woman’s face was framed by the blackness of the sky. Her features were indistinct. Everything except her eyes had been smudged with the dark, and raindrops were flowing down from the back of her head, across her cheeks, down to where they dripped ice-cold into Kanna’s own eyes.
Kanna blinked. The rain was mixing harshly with the warm water at the corners of her eyelids, the water that she had been trying hard to keep from coming out. She set her jaw. She did not move her gaze away, even as the woman—whose name was Goda, Kanna now remembered—hovered over her with an indifferent stare.
They had made their way up a small crag after the torrent had started to fall, but Kanna had given up halfway to the top. She had turned herself limp, and so far the woman seemed uninterested in dragging her.
“Pouring rain in the desert,” Goda said. “Isn’t that something?” Her voice had no inflection. She was perched on the ledge of a boulder just above where Kanna lay against the gravel. She was sitting cross-legged, casual, seemingly unbothered by the sounds of struggle that came from below and the storm that raged above. “There’s no point in fighting your restraints. You already know what happens when you try to escape.”
“Shut up,” Kanna muttered, trying to pull her hands out of the knotted rope that was digging into the skin of her wrists.
“You’re still willing to risk it again, even now that you know what it’s like? Thirty-five, forty paces. That’s all you have. Forty paces of freedom at the most, then the shocks will come again. And they’ll just get worse and worse the further you run from me.”
Kanna gritted her teeth and pressed the rope hard against the edge of a rock. She sawed it back and forth, trying to see if the jagged edges would cut through the fibers. With every thrust, the metal cuff on her right forearm clacked loudly on the stone. With every thrust, she grew even more exhausted.
Goda watched her and made no move to intervene.
“If the shocks are supposed to stop me from running,” Kanna huffed, “then why did you bother to tie me up with rope?”
“For your own good. Sometimes even the shocks aren’t enough. Some people are masochists and will keep running until they pass out from the pain. It’s not a good idea. You could accidentally die.”
Goda jerked the other end of the rope suddenly, and Kanna’s hands slipped against the rough stone beneath her. She winced. A pair of shallow red pools had formed under her palms where she had skinned herself against her restraints.
“Come.” Goda tugged again at the rope, pulling it up towards the ledge, all but forcing Kanna to stand.
Kanna resisted. She rolled onto her knees, but she would not stand up. “I’m not a dog.”
The shadows of the woman’s face stretched into a smile. “If you were a dog,” Goda said, “then this rope would be around your neck. Be grateful for what you have.” She yanked on it again—hard—until Kanna felt the resistance in her arms starting to waver. “Now come up and climb the rest of the way with me. If you turn yourself into dead weight, I can guarantee that you won’t like the way I’ll carry you.”
Kanna let out a breath of resignation. With the last of her strength, she reached up and grasped the stone above her. Goda seized her arm to pull her up the rest of the way, and with a painful effort between the two of them, Kanna found herself lying on her back beside the woman.
The black sky was marred with streaks of white that rained down on them both. The water soaked every part of her, and now that the warmth of her resistance had faded, Kanna’s body was quickly overtaken with shudders.
She wanted to vomit. She leaned over to do that, but when she coughed, nothing came out.
Goda looked down at her with no shred of pity. She gestured to the mouth of a den that was formed by the boulders a few steps away. There was a light coming from inside, a light whose rays danced wildly in Kanna’s watery vision.
“Let’s go,” Goda called down to her through the noise of the growing rain. A crack of thunder echoed in the distance. “I know you don’t want to be out here. Neither do I. I already started a fire inside the hollow.”
Kanna shifted onto her elbows and knees. She forced herself to crawl towards the entrance, but the sharp pebbles that littered the ground made every forward shuffle painful.
Goda, who had already started to walk ahead of her, stopped suddenly and tightened the slack of the rope. “Get up,” she said, her voice low in her throat, just loud enough for Kanna to hear over the storm. “Get onto your feet like you have some dignity, or I really will treat you like a dog.”
When they both ducked into the shallow cave, Goda sat near the threshold and was careful to snake the rope away from the fire. She pulled the front of her robes tightly closed, hid her arms underneath the layers, then turned her gaze squarely towards the coals. Kanna collapsed at the opposite side of the fire, glancing across the flames with nervous expectation, but the woman had already begun to ignore her.
Kanna waited. With nothing to run from and no one to fight anymore, every second felt stretched. The unnerving silence tugged at her like a tensed cord about to snap. It was intolerable.
“I want you to cut me from the rope,” Kanna finally said.
“It’s fine to want things,” Goda answered, but she didn’t look up. Her dark eyes had grown blank, merely mirrors that reflected the glow of the fire.
“I won’t run away.”
“You ran once. You’ll probably try again while I’m asleep.”
Kanna looked down at her own joined hands. She ran her fingers against the single metal cuff that wrapped around her wrist, where it was tucked just under the rope. She tightened her mouth. “I’m not going to run. I just want to move my arms again. Don’t you think that goddamn electric cuff is enough to deter me? Like you already said, I know what it’s like to be shocked by it now. At first, I thought I was being struck by lightning. Why would I try to run after that?”
“If you had any sense, then you wouldn’t. But I’ll assume that you don’t.”
Kanna squeezed her hands into hard fists, so that she felt her forearms swell uncomfortably against the rope. The binds did not give. They seemed to only tighten further. Her body tensed once again with the whole of her frustration.
“Cut me loose!” she cried, and she rammed her bound hands against the floor of the cave. “Cut me loose!” Her voice wavered.
Goda glanced at her with no emotion. “Don’t get so excited. You’ll only hurt yourself.”
Kanna slammed her hands on the stone floor a few more times, but it did nothing except send the force of the blow rattling up her bones. She saw that she had smeared a bit of blood onto the ground. She stooped down and pressed her face against the crook of her arms and tried hard to suppress the tears that were threatening to fall.
“What do you want?” Kanna pleaded. She was so exhausted that the words left her mouth in barely more than a whisper.
The woman didn’t respond.
“Is it money?” Kanna asked, looking across the fire to study Goda’s face. The eyes that stared back at her held no reaction, not even a shadow of interest. “Whatever they’re paying you, we will pay more. My family will double it. Just take off the rope and unlock the cuff and turn me loose.” The beginnings of a sob cracked open in Kanna’s chest, but she held it back. “Please.”
“What they pay me is something you could never afford, even if your family toiled for a hundred years.” Goda picked up a twig that was lying by the edge of the fire and used it to shift some of the coals. “It would be better worth your while to work off your family’s debt to the Middleland than to pretend that you’re capable of bribing me.”
“We’ll get back what they stole from us,” Kanna said, clenching her teeth. “Once they realize the mistake they’ve made, your Middleland will have to free us and pay us back. You’ll regret the way you’ve treated me.”
“Wishful thinking. You’re lucky, anyway, because your slavery is temporary. What is it, a ten-year sentence? Not everyone is quite so fortunate.”
Kanna stared at the charred ground. “My father has life.”
“Better than death.”
“You don’t have the right to judge that sort of thing from where you sit, with your hands on the other end of that rope.”
It was only then that there seemed to be a brief flicker of emotion on Goda’s face—or it may have been the fire that was making confusing shadows dance across the woman’s eyes.
At any rate, Goda’s expression quickly grew neutral again. It was empty of any lines of tension or even any lines of age. In fact, ever since they had come in from the dark, it was clear that the woman was a lot younger than Kanna had originally assumed. There couldn’t have been more than a ten-year difference between them at the most.
For some reason, this unsettled Kanna even more.
“Why do you work for the government?” Kanna blurted out into the silence. “Doesn’t someone your age have something better to do with their life?”
Goda raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have the right to judge that sort of thing with your hands on the other end of that rope,” she said, her tone flat enough that it took a second for Kanna to catch that she was mocking her.
Kanna narrowed her eyes. “Then untie me.”
For the second time, there was a ghost of a smirk on Goda’s face. “You’re too new at this to know where a mouth like that will get you. Lose those habits and gain some humility while you still have a sympathetic audience.”
Kanna rolled over onto her back. She felt the fibers of her shirt—which were waterlogged and made of sackcloth—digging uncomfortably into her skin. Her uniform was ill-suited for the weather, but the soldiers who had arrested her had made her wear it anyway.
“People like you aren’t sympathetic to people like me.”
Goda didn’t respond. There was nothing, not a bare shade of offendedness.
Kanna laid her bound hands onto her chest, and for a moment she watched her knuckles rising and falling with her ragged breath. “Middlelanders think they own the world,” she said, growing a bit bolder. “Every single one of you acts like a slimy tentacle for your Motherland, worming your way into the lives of people who never asked for your help, or your money, or your laws…,” she tensed her jaw, “or your debts.”
At this, Goda’s smirk widened. “If you think you’re going to get me to turn you loose by giving me a speech about politics, then you’re sorely mistaken.”
An uncomfortable glare of light flashed at the corner of Kanna’s eye just then. When she turned to look for its source, she saw that Goda’s left hand had emerged from underneath her robes to reach for another handful of wood. Around her wrist was a polished metal cuff that reflected the fire. It was similar to the one that the guards had clasped onto Kanna’s arm earlier that night, only thicker, with its edges more sharply defined.
Kanna stared. “Is that…how you tracked me down when I ran earlier?”
Goda gave her a blank look at first, but then she followed Kanna’s gaze and glanced down at her own wrist. “Yes,” she said. “This is the counterpart to yours. But it doesn’t tell me where you are; it only tells me how far away.”
“Does it give you an electric shock the way it did to me?”
“No. I have the master’s cuff and you have the slave’s.”
“Not surprising. I wouldn’t expect Middlelanders to play fair.”
“You’re forgetting who the prisoner is.” Goda tossed another bundle of sticks into the fire. A wave of sparks blew in Kanna’s direction. She closed her eyes against the biting heat. “It’s your first night with me, and we’ve only known each other for a few hours, so I’ve been very patient with you,” Goda said. “I’ve allowed you to run off and feel the punishment for yourself. I’ve allowed you to resist me. I’ve allowed you to insult me. But now it’s time for you to shut your mouth and accept your situation so that we can both get some sleep.”
“Or what? Are you going to beat me?”
“Yes, if you’d like.”
“Isn’t that against the law?” When the Middleland soldiers had initially arrested her, they had locked Kanna in a room and forced her to sign paperwork while they explained her rights. One of the things they had been most adamant about was that no one would beat her.
“We’re not Lowerland savages,” one of them had told her when she had cowered in a corner of the room. “We don’t abuse our prisoners.”
But now the amused look on Goda’s face unnerved her.
“You’re being transported in the dead of night, with no one except me to escort you,” Goda said. “Tell me, where exactly is the law? Do you see it anywhere? Point to it if you can find it, and I will take a look at it before I beat you.”
Kanna’s eyes widened. “My father’s brothers will find us,” she rambled, a feeling of panic coming over her. “They will track us down and they will rescue me, and then you will be dragged to the Upperland and—”
“And what?” When Kanna pulled back and did not finish, the woman nodded slowly. “There’s nowhere for you to go. Your family fortune is gone. As I understand it, by Upperland standards, you’ve had a privileged life—but all that ends now. If you want my advice, stop fighting your fate. It’s really not so bad. Even former slaves can become full citizens in the Middleland if they fit the requirements.”
“I’d rather starve to death than become a citizen of your Middleland.”
Goda shrugged. “Then starve to death.”
“Do you act this casually about everything?”
“I see criminals all the time. Do you think you’re the first one to tediously complain about everything?”
“I’m not a criminal!” With the last few ounces of effort that she had stored up, Kanna tugged hard at her restraints, letting out a frustrated groan when no amount of resistance seemed to make a difference. “I didn’t break the law!”
“You happily lived from the fruits of your father’s crime. This all comes at a price.”
“But it isn’t just.” Kanna struggled until she felt the pebbles digging into her elbows. Her fingers grasped at her bonds, though all she did was scratch herself with her own nails and draw fresh blood on accident. Thunder roared from the other side of the cavern’s threshold, but just as before, Goda paid no attention to any of it–not to Kanna’s groaning and writhing, not to the storm that overpowered it.
“We all pay a price to the Mother, Kanna Rava. Her milk may be the richest, but it’s also the costliest.” There was a sardonic smile on her face as she leaned back against the hard stone behind her. In the relative shadow, she seemed to almost fuse with it. “And if there’s one thing the Mother doesn’t tolerate, it’s tax evasion.”
“I didn’t do anything! I—”
“Shut your mouth and go to sleep.” Her tone was flat, as measured as it had been before, but her voice had grown suddenly gruff, and it echoed through the cavern with a metallic ring. Goda tipped her head towards a satchel that was propped against the wall of the cave. “In that bag,” she said, “I have a steel baton.”
She did not elaborate further, but it was enough to make Kanna recoil. “Is that a threat of some kind?”
“Yes. Of some kind.”
The fire crackled. It was the only thing that seemed to ease the otherwise stunned silence in the room.
Kanna studied the woman’s face because she wasn’t sure whether to take her seriously. She didn’t understand Middlelander people well enough to be able to tell when they were bluffing, especially when all she had to go on were a pair of eyes so barren of any clues.
But none of that really mattered, she quickly decided. This giant was at least two heads taller than she was, and those shoulders looked quite broad from what Kanna could see over the robes, so even an empty-handed beating from the woman would probably leave her half-dead.
Goda said nothing else. Instead, she rolled over onto her side and pulled her outer robes tightly around her. The other end of the rope was still wrapped around her hand. As she tugged it closer to her chest, her eyes began to slowly droop closed.
The woman’s breath steadied in time. Her body twitched once or twice, but soon enough her muscles grew slack and her lips parted as her jaw relaxed.
Kanna stared at her. Something about the situation made her even more restless than before. Something about Goda’s sleeping face outraged her. As the minutes passed and the fire waned, Kanna’s anger only grew—because her own body was abuzz with energy, with the makings of a fight that had never happened.
Briefly, she thought of testing the rope to see if Goda’s grip on it had loosened, but she didn’t know the woman well enough to be able to tell how deeply she had fallen asleep.
Kanna huffed. She tapped her fingers impatiently on the ground as she watched the fire grow ever dimmer. She looked around the room, her brain still flying with a thousand thoughts, with a thousand elaborate plans of escape.
Her eyes fell abruptly upon Goda’s satchel. When she looked closer, she could see the outline of something solid through the damp cloth—something, Kanna thought suddenly, that she could use to bring an end to the situation.
One good strike to her head. The idea bubbled to the surface of Kanna’s mind before she could censor it. One good strike to her head with all of my strength and I’ll be free.
Kanna leaned in the direction of the bag.
Won’t that…seriously injure her, though?
She slid across the floor, then stopped when she realized that she was making some noise. She jerked her head towards Goda and looked to see if the woman had stirred at all.
Goda’s eyes were closed. She was taking in long, deep breaths. And so Kanna inched closer and trained her eyes on the bag.
As she moved, she studied the shape of the bat through the cloth of the satchel. It wasn’t very long, but she imagined a solid steel club didn’t need much length to be effective. It looked thick enough.
Of course it won’t injure her, Kanna thought. It will kill her. A brief vision flashed through her mind. It only lasted half a second, but it made her stop where she was: It was an image of a spattering red pattern coating the walls of the cave.
If I strike her head, I will kill her.
Kanna had stopped just arm’s length from the satchel.
The only way to keep her from following me is to kill her.
She reached for the bag.
I will kill this woman.
Kanna hesitated. Her throat felt drier than it ever had in her life. Her fingers began to shake as she touched the fastening of the satchel.
“I…can’t,” she whispered.
But before she could pull back, a hand caught her by the wrist with a loud smack, a hand that was as warm as it was stiff.
Kanna tried to recoil on startled reflex, but the hand clenched like a vice. With shaky eyes, she followed the path carved out of the bones of that hand, down a sleeve-covered arm, down to a face that looked up at her with curiosity.
A bead of sweat ran down Kanna’s forehead.
The woman’s olive skin had turned a bit red, but she didn’t seem angry. It was some other emotion that Kanna couldn’t understand.
“This isn’t—I—,” Kanna started to say. “It’s not what it looks like!”
“What is it, then?” Goda’s voice was low and husky, little over a whisper. Her tone had no trace of accusation.
“I…I just want to defend myself, I….” Kanna swallowed hard, then felt the rage from earlier returning. “You’re the one who threatened to beat me! What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Were you going to kill me?” Goda asked softly. Kanna was horrified to see that the woman was smiling. “And then what? After you killed me, then what were you going to do?”
“I wasn’t going to kill you!”
“So you hadn’t thought that far ahead yet? I suppose you could have killed me and then cut off my arm, so that you could carry around the master cuff with you and avoid being shocked again.” Goda turned her head to and fro, as if she were searching through the weak light. “But there’s nothing around here to cut with. Maybe you could have sawed it off slowly with a rock. That would have taken hours, though.”
Kanna stared at her with alarm.
The woman’s smile didn’t fade. “It’s not that easy to kill someone,” she said. “Not because the steel is too weak, but because your resolve is. If you’re going to kill someone, kill them. Don’t think about it first, or else the better parts of you will have time to change your mind.”
Goda finally let go of her and sat up, stretching her arms over her head. Kanna fell back from the sudden loss of tension. She hit the floor hard and it made her wince.
“I’m not a killer,” Kanna whispered. She felt the heat that she had suppressed before finally rising to the back of her eyes. It teetered on the edge of spilling over.
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m not a savage—and I’m not about to become one, no matter what you people think of me.” Against her will, she felt the tears finally coming out. She pressed her hands to her face and covered her eyes. “I don’t kill to get my way like you Middlelanders do.”
“Relax. No one has killed you yet.”
“And my father? My family? Our livelihood?” Kanna said, her voice wavering, a series of sobs jerking through her chest. “You people may not conquer us with weapons anymore, but your methods now are just as cruel—worse, even. You’ve destroyed my family with a stack of paperwork.”
“Your family has blood on their hands as well. This is the cycle of life.”
Kanna lowered her hands to find that Goda was looking at her with an unreadable expression. “What are you talking about? Don’t insult us. We’ve done nothing to deserve this and you know that.”
Again, Goda shrugged. “Maybe you’ve been too sheltered to appreciate the full picture of what’s going on. It’s easy to give up blame when your ignorance kept you well-fed.”
“You know nothing.”
“Maybe so—but not any less than you seem to know, Kanna Rava.” Goda was sliding down to the floor, closer to the dying flames. “Don’t tell me that you don’t at least realize that your family was producing poison for generations. It’s a poison that everyone wants, one that practically serves as blood for our society now, but it’s poison nonetheless. Don’t you ever wonder about the damage you’ve done?”
Kanna furrowed her brow. “You know nothing,” she repeated. “And if you don’t stop talking about my family like that, then–”
“What?” Goda smiled at her again from her place behind the fire. “Are you going to kill me?”
The challenge hung in the air, unanswered, its echo fading into the night. And when the flames finally died, a long silence had passed between them. Goda had drifted off to sleep and Kanna could no longer even see the outline of that cursed baton in the weak light of the embers, and so her murderous impulse had faded, too.
When she looked at Goda’s slackened body, she could only make out the shape of the woman’s face and hands, which were lying limply near the edge of the fire pit. Goda’s fingers were open, pressed against the dirty floor.
She was no longer holding the rope.