“Why did you do that?” Kanna demanded. “What if I hadn’t been able to get out from where I was? You would have been pointlessly torturing me!”
But Goda had already started walking in the direction of the temple complex. Kanna ran up behind her and reached up to grasp her shoulder. Her palm accidentally pressed against the spot where she remembered Goda’s bruise had been, but she had no compassion left, and so she didn’t feel compelled to move her hand. At any rate, the woman didn’t flinch.
“Hey! Hey, listen to me!” Kanna’s shouts grew louder. “Are you crazy or something? Why did you do that to me?”
“I looked around and couldn’t find you. I suspected you were hiding, but I knew you would appear quickly enough once I left the garden,” Goda said without turning around or even pausing her stride. “Otherwise, you did it on your own. All I did was stand there and allow you to do it.”
“Bullshit!” Kanna grabbed two handfuls of Goda’s outer robes with a pair of clenched fists, and she dragged her feet against the gravel to slow the woman down. “It was you! You pulled out of the cuff’s range, not me! Why would I do something like that to myself?”
“Because you love the shocks. You enjoy punishment.” Goda glanced over her shoulder at Kanna. Her face was neutral except for that tiny, annoying smile, which made her words all the more hard to tolerate.
Kanna wanted to punch that face, the same way that she had punched Goda’s body—but she wondered if the woman’s jaw was similarly made of iron, and if it might break her hand entirely. Her knuckles still hurt from the night before. Even just noticing the pain again coaxed a few angry tears to the surface.
“I hate everything about you, Goda.”
“Good?” Kanna pushed her hands forward and dug her nails into Goda’s back through the fabric of her robes. She felt a crazed laugh emerging from inside of her instead of a sob, and she didn’t know why. She held it back.
“Yes. You told me earlier today that you didn’t want to be afraid of me,” Goda said, turning back to face the plain again. “Now you’re not afraid; you’re angry instead. Isn’t that what you want? Something to hate because the fear is too hard to face?”
Kanna didn’t know how to respond. As her eyes and the inside of her nose became damp, she found that the grainy air of the desert irritated her. She pressed her face to Goda’s back and took a deep breathful of the warm air that was hovering between the folds of the woman’s clothes. The water from her eyes and nose and mouth seeped into the fabric.
She was exhausted of everything. She followed Goda mindlessly. She closed her eyes.
“I’ve only known you for three days. Why do I feel this way about you?” Because she was in a daze, at first Kanna hadn’t realized that she had spoken aloud, that she had whispered the confession against Goda’s back.
She hoped that Goda hadn’t heard—but of course she had.
“You have been through the most intense moments of your life in the past three days. Everything you’ve known has been torn away from you, and so it feels as if you’ve lived many lifetimes in a matter of hours, like you’ve gone through the labor pains of your own birth all over again. And you’re projecting those intense emotions onto me, because I happen to have been the pair of cold hands that ripped you out of that womb you were living in,” Goda said. “It’s all right. I’m used to the blame. That’s the job of a porter.” Her husky voice vibrated in her body distinctly enough that Kanna could feel the words buzzing against her own face before she had fully heard them in the air.
She thought about what Goda said, but she knew that it didn’t answer her question. She had been asking about something else, but maybe the answer lay between the words. Maybe Goda had just dismissed her feelings as generously as she could have.
When Kanna’s breaths became shallow and she felt the urge to taste the outside air again, she pulled back. A cloud of motor exhaust hit her in the face right away. She opened her eyes and saw that they were surrounded by a labyrinth of military trucks, and there seemed to be even more of them than there were the night before. As she squinted into the dim evening landscape, she could see that some of the rigs were hauling huge storage containers, and others carried what appeared to be farming equipment.
“Why did they come here?” Kanna asked.
“They’re stopping to rest and get a blessing at the monastery before they head North. Now that the fires in the Upperland are under control, it seems that the government is sending soldiers up to finally collect the grain.”
“Fires?” Kanna had vague memories of smoke when she had stepped onto the train that was destined for the Outerland, but it had just been a thin taste in the air, so she hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. The sky had been clear when they had stopped in the desert days later.
“There were grass fires burning through the mok grain fields. They spread just before you arrived at the Outerland.”
“What? But how? What started them? Were they anywhere near my family’s property?”
“The fire is over now, so don’t worry about it.”
Kanna sighed. She knew any further demands would be useless, so instead she looked around at the uniformed women who rushed to and fro. Some of them were tying down equipment, some were flipping through paperwork, and still others were just standing around smoking. “But why are they sending soldiers to do farm work?”
“Easy labor, I suppose,” Goda said. “For the past few decades, a lot of the resources have been funneled into the military machine. It’s how the Middleland expanded as quickly as it did. So many people are employed by the military—and they work on a contract, so they can’t just quit—that the government shuffles them around to do all sorts of menial tasks. They’re also the ones who consume most of the truck fuel.”
Kanna’s grip on Goda’s back tightened. “The fields they’re harvesting the mok from—they’re my father’s fields, aren’t they?”
“They’re not his fields anymore.”
They reached the threshold of the temple complex not long after they had both fallen silent. As the two towers loomed closer, Kanna peeked from behind Goda and noticed that there were soldiers near the gate. Most of them were kneeling on the ground—just as Goda had done the first day they had arrived—and they were placing bowls of fruit and yaw root near the gateway.
On the other side stood two priestesses, smiling down at the visitors, saying nothing. Their expressions reminded Kanna of the Goddess that she had seen in the sanctuary. Priestess Rem was not among them—and neither was anyone who might have looked like her. Now that Kanna knew about the woman’s twin, she had been a bit more careful to observe the faces of the other clergy members, though she still wasn’t sure if Rem’s sister even worked there.
Goda handed Kanna a thin stack of papers. “Here, take this to the head priestess. She’ll stamp them.”
“But I don’t see her.”
“She’s here.” Goda’s gaze fell beyond the gateway, though her eyes didn’t appear to be searching for anything in particular. “Go in and you’ll find her soon enough.” And then Goda knelt down beside the soldiers to stand in the crossfire of the priestesses’ blessings.
Kanna gave Goda a questioning glance, but the woman had already turned away. It was then that Kanna remembered what Priestess Rem had told her the day before: “I can usually tell where she is most of the time. Call it a sixth sense.” Maybe that perception went both ways.
Kanna moved on, and she found a space in the threshold where she could respectfully squeeze past the priestesses after giving a deep bow to each of them. She wasn’t sure if the gesture was adequate, but they both offered her a smile in return. As a foreigner and a heathen, it seemed no one expected much from her.
She flowed down the path that she had walked with Priestess Rem the night before, even though everything besides the stone beneath her feet looked unfamiliar still. She had no idea how she might find her way around—but before she had come upon the space between the two towers, she noticed a low table set up near a corner of the fence. The crooked form of Assistant Finn hunched over it, stacks of paperwork spread like a makeshift tablecloth.
Kanna couldn’t help but smile. That poor woman has been faced with a torture worse than mine perhaps, she thought. She couldn’t imagine spending years staring at tiny little smears of ink for hours per day.
In spite of her distaste for both the woman and her bureaucracy, she approached, wondering if maybe the assistant could tell her where to go, or even just stamp the papers for her and be done with it. A small silhouette that crouched near the woman—a figure subjecting himself to the smattering of words as well—grew clearer when Kanna walked closer.
She felt ashamed to see him again because of what had happened the night before, but she lifted a hand in greeting because he had already caught her gaze and it was too late to escape him.
“Hello there, Slave Rava! How are you feeling tonight? It’s your last day here, isn’t it? Tomorrow morning you’ll be able to—” Parama stopped, a puzzled look on his face. “Are those my robes you’re wearing?”
Kanna looked down at her clothes, her cheeks growing automatically warm. She had somehow forgotten what she had changed into hours before, and indeed it did seem a bit awkward to walk up to someone while wearing their stolen robes.
Or borrowed robes. Kanna decided to rethink the last thought in her native tongue, since the term for “steal” and “borrow” were the same. It made her feel better about it.
“I’m sorry,” Kanna said when she had the courage to look up at him. “Innkeeper Jaya gave these to me today during…an emergency. I’ll bring them back to you as soon as I can change out of them.”
“No, no! Don’t worry about it!” Parama replied quickly, waving his hands around as if the notion of Kanna’s returning the clothes were preposterous. “Those are old anyway. She bought me some new ones recently, so I don’t need them. Besides, they suit you well.” He gave her a smile that she felt she didn’t deserve.
“Are you sure? After all, I’m not the only one who has stolen from you recently. If you want, you can come back with me and I’ll return both the clothes and that book that Goda took from you. I think I saw it on a shelf in the storage room this morning.”
“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it, either, Slave Rava. It was just a beginner’s guide on Old Middlelander script and it’s of no use to me anymore. I had already forgotten about it, actually.”
Kanna stared at him. She found it unfathomable that he had forgotten, considering that it had been the source of an entire altercation. “Then what on Earth possessed you to fight a giant over it?”
The corners of his eyes creased, the edges of his lips rose just slightly. “Was I fighting her?”
“Yes, of course. I saw what you did. I was there, remember? I was part of that fight.”
“But you weren’t fighting her, either, were you?”
Kanna felt her face grow warmer, so she turned away. She cleared her throat. “Anyway,” she said, “I’m sorry about last night, but I didn’t come here to talk about any of that. I’m supposed to get my papers stamped.” She glanced towards Assistant Finn, but the woman had been ignoring their whole conversation and offered no answer to Kanna’s implied question.
“I think I saw Priestess Rem go into the silo,” Parama said. He gestured towards one of the towers, the one that stood on the opposite side of the wide path.
Kanna gazed up at those twin stacks of stone. Silos? she thought. It hadn’t occurred to her that this was what they might have been. Perhaps it was just that the granaries on her father’s property had looked very different.
She bid farewell and followed the walkway, spotting an open threshold carved into the rock of the tower. The instant she stepped past the doorway, she was faced with a choice: a spiraling staircase to her right that seemed to lead up towards the top of the structure, and another spiral that appeared to sink below ground level. There was a warm light—like a flickering fire—that came up from the left, so she descended after only a moment’s hesitation.
As she circled down around the core of the building, the air grew slightly more damp, enough that it contrasted noticeably with the desert air that she brought with her. She came upon a pit soon enough, a small room that spread out before her. The space carried an uncomfortable silence to it. Kanna’s soft footsteps echoed even though the room was compact and the walls were smeared with dried earth.
In the middle of the chamber, facing away from her, was a figure in black robes kneeling on the ground. Three candles dripped against the floor, wax oozing untended in an ever-expanding pool near the far wall, as if the light had been long forgotten. If it was some kind of altar, Kanna thought, it included no image of the Goddess.
She was disturbed by the scene for a reason she couldn’t quite name, but because she was impatient to stamp her papers and leave, she took the last few furtive steps down the staircase and into the room.
She was sure that the woman in the chamber was Priestess Rem. Her suspicions only grew confirmed when she sneaked close enough to look over the figure’s shoulder, and she noticed a bowl of water that lay before the woman’s knees; many familiar features emerged in its rippling reflection.
But as soon as the image came fully together, Kanna jerked away in shock.
She slipped in her panic. She fell to the ground beside the woman and the thump sent the bowl vibrating. From her new vantage point, her gaze darted up to the woman’s face, to make sure it hadn’t been a trick of the light on the water. Indeed, Priestess Rem’s eyes were glazed over, her pupils wide, her mouth agape like all consciousness had been stripped out of her. Fat streams of tears flowed out of her eyes and landed like lead weights into the water below. Drool had accumulated in the corners of her mouth, falling just the same.
Kanna shuffled to get up off the gritty floor, but already the commotion seemed to break the priestess’s concentration. The woman’s whole body jerked. Her eyes blinked in rapid succession.
“Ah…?” She looked around, confused, as if Kanna had just shaken her into wakefulness. “Who…?” She peered through the dim light of the chamber, but before long lucidity seemed to take hold and her face looked much as it normally did. “Oh! Kanna Rava? Is it time already for your papers to be stamped? I must have lost track! Sit down, sit down.” She pointed to a spot next to her on the floor and Kanna hesitantly crouched down beside her.
“Are you all right, Priestess?”
Priestess Rem either did not seem to notice or did not want to acknowledge Kanna’s disturbed expression. The most she offered was a funny glance. “Yes, of course. Why would I not be?”
“You seemed…different.” Then again, Kanna had only met the woman a few times. Perhaps crying and drooling into a bowl of water was the norm for her. For all she knew, every Middlelander did this once a week; she had only immersed herself in the culture for a few days yet.
“Ah, yes, well, I was in the midst of a ritual—one that must be done in private.”
“I’m sorry,” Kanna said, looking towards the stairwell, already feeling her legs bursting with the itch to run away again. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”
“Oh no! It’s my own fault. I should have emerged long ago to the surface. I was just caught up in the moment.” She motioned for Kanna to sit all the way down. “I was fortunetelling, you see. It’s an ancient practice, but it’s not very common among the priestesses anymore. I’m out of practice myself. It took me hours to get into this state.”
Kanna awkwardly settled onto her knees beside the priestess. “Did you…see what you needed to see?” she asked politely. Fortunetelling was technically against the Upperlander religion, but people had a tendency to do it anyway, so Kanna wasn’t completely unfamiliar with it—even if she had always regarded it as nonsense.
“Hmm,” the priestess murmured. She pressed her hand to her mouth and stared again into the bowl of water, this time with eyes that held an active mind. “No. I tried, but something blocked me from seeing through the eyes of the Goddess. Sometimes, even when partly blocked I have been able to grasp at something useful, but this time the energy wouldn’t flow.”
“Is it because of Goda?” Kanna asked cautiously.
“To be honest, yes. I think so. When she leaves tomorrow, maybe I will be able to reconnect. Even then, however, I will just be resting on the laurels of avoidance. The truth is that as long as I hold this rage inside of me, I will never be able to fuse fully with the Goddess, and the anger will only come up again and again. It is clear to me now how much I have been denying and repressing. In fact, when I entered the fortunetelling state, this was all the Goddess would show me: my own hatred and how it colors my fate.” She paused for a long moment, her eyes growing dark. “No, there was something else. One other thing.”
The priestess looked directly at her. “It was about you. I saw your future instead of my own.”
“My future?” Unnerved by the expression in the woman’s eyes, Kanna added, “Could I ask you what you saw?” In truth, though, she wasn’t completely sure if she wanted to know.
“I saw…a bird. A swan.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. It was certainly not what she had expected considering the severity of the woman’s tone.
“In my vision,” the priestess continued, “there was an egg inside of you filled with a writhing ball of snakes. The Goddess sent a white swan down from the heavens, and then the swan entered into you and forced the egg to crack open. The egg soon hatched and the snakes slithered out, so the swan crouched between your legs and ate them one by one.”
Kanna’s face twisted in confusion and embarrassment. “I don’t know what that means. How on earth could that be my future?”
“It’s a symbol, of course. For what, I don’t know. Only you can really know that.”
“I…know nothing. I’ve never known less in my life.” The words had come tumbling out seemingly without intention, but they were nonetheless true.
When the room had fallen again into an awkward silence, the priestess extended her arm, but was careful not to touch Kanna directly, since her hands were not gloved this time. “Put the papers on the floor,” she said. With her other hand, she rummaged inside her robes. “I will stamp them. After that, you are free to go. You look to me like you are not influenced at all by Death.”
And you? Kanna thought. The woman’s pupils were still large and Kanna could see beads of sweat on the sides of her neck.
“Perhaps,” the priestess said suddenly, just as she had finished stamping her name, “that swan that will attack you and shatter everything inside of you…is Goda Brahm.”
* * *
Back on the other side of the gateway, Kanna tried not to appear too shaken when she met eyes with Goda. For her part, Goda didn’t seem to notice anything different, and as soon as Kanna stepped through, they began walking back into the plain.
“Priestess Rem told me all kinds of terrible things about you, you know,” Kanna said to her once they had wandered far enough away from the two priestesses at the threshold. She wasn’t sure why she was saying this, but something in her felt that it would be dishonest if she held back.
“Did she now?” Goda replied. She didn’t seem bothered or even interested. She walked into the wind, the sand pelting hard against her, but she wiped her face with the back of her hand and moved onward.
“For some reason, I didn’t believe her.” Kanna walked up beside Goda. She squinted from the dirt that was getting in her eyes, but she could still see the details of the woman’s neutral face. “Should I?”
Goda smiled. “Depends on what she said, I suppose. Just to be on the safe side, go ahead and believe it. It’s probably true.”
“But I don’t. I can’t. The only thing I seem to be able to believe is what I see in you directly for myself. Nothing anyone says serves to change my mind. Maybe I’m stubborn. Maybe I’m foolish.”
“Maybe you are.”
When they had walked back to the inn and stepped into the storage room and Goda had closed the door behind them, Kanna didn’t find the privacy quite so unnerving anymore. She felt anxious, but the fear wasn’t overwhelming; something else had replaced it. She glanced at Goda discreetly as the woman began to take off her own robes.
“Here,” Goda said. Now half-dressed in the middle of the room, she handed Kanna a small book. Kanna recognized it as the volume that Goda had stolen the night before from Parama’s room.
Ancient Middlelander Script for Beginners, it said. It took some effort for Kanna to parse the text, since it was in a stylized form that she hadn’t encountered before. “What’s this for?” she asked.
“You said you had dabbled in calligraphy, did you not?”
Kanna tilted her head. She found it odd that Goda had been paying that much attention to her conversation with the assistant the day before. “Yes, sort of. I used to paint decorative scrolls for my father, but that was in Old Upperlander. This is Old Middlelander. I don’t know it.”
“Exactly. You’ll learn it, then.” Goda extended the book further until Kanna felt she had no choice but to take it.
“Why do you want me to study this, though?”
“We can say that there’s something special that you’re meant to write for me.”
Kanna furrowed her brow. “And we can also say that I don’t want to do it.” She began to put the book down.
Goda’s face was blank as always, but her stare remained fixed, intense. “You will do it.” Her voice held no threat in it, almost as if to imply that the threat was unnecessary. “Because you are my slave.”
Kanna sighed. Her hands still held the book, even as they loosely hung down over the floor, where she had intended to drop the weight. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll try, then.”
“No. You won’t try. You will do it.”
* * *
In the late evening, after Kanna had studied the book and scrawled messily on a sheet of scratch paper for an hour, Goda had told her to go to bed. Her master blew out the candle, and they lay side by side in silence for many long minutes, yet Kanna still could not close her eyes. She watched the outline of Goda’s form, the rising and falling of the woman’s chest in the moonlight.
Goda was awake. She was staring up at the ceiling. Though Kanna tried to be inconspicuous, she sensed that Goda had noticed her staring, and that Goda was watching her too, out of the corner of her eye.
Kanna gripped the edge of the sheets awkwardly. She steeled herself, because she couldn’t ignore the burning urge to make that indecent request anymore. “Could I…?” she began to ask. She swallowed against the growing nervous lump in her throat. “Could we…?”
Goda turned slowly towards her. At first, Kanna was convinced that the woman hadn’t understood her at all. How could she? The words hadn’t come out right.
But then Goda unfolded one of her arms, as if she were spreading open a single wing. Her hand fell lightly on the edge of Kanna’s pillow. It was an invitation. It was only a question of whether Kanna had the courage to accept such a thing or not.
After hesitating one final time, she did. She slid across the space between them and pressed her body to Goda’s side. She laid her head on the woman’s chest, which felt hard and soft at the same time, the way it had earlier that morning. Once she was settled, Goda’s arm came to wrap around Kanna’s shoulders in a loose cocoon. It was something that was not quite a half-embrace.
Kanna pressed her face against the rough fabric of Goda’s shirt and closed her eyes. She could feel the flows of heat exchanging naturally between them, from the pores of Goda’s skin underneath and from Kanna’s own rhythmic breath.
It was through this small ounce of comfort that Kanna was able to fall asleep.
And when she awoke again, it was still dark. It seemed like only a second had gone by, but the moon had moved to fall out of the frame of the window, and so it must have been hours that had passed. Kanna was still lying in Goda’s bed, but it was empty and cold. Perhaps it was the discomfort of separation that had awakened her, though she hadn’t noticed any stirring before she opened her eyes. It took a second for her to look around to even see where Goda had gone.
Her master was near the door, dressed fully in her robes and fiddling with something made of metal and glass. Kanna couldn’t see what it was until a bright spark came to life in Goda’s hands and the edges of the electric lantern became apparent as the only source of light in the room.
It bathed the bottom of Goda’s face in an eerie glow. She seemed to sense Kanna’s movement, and so she turned to her with a faint smile.
“Let’s go,” she said, “back into the belly of the beast.”