“You’ve laid a trap for us, Priestess,” Goda said. Her tone was matter of fact as usual, without judgment or surprise.
“And you blame me because you walked into it?” The leather-gloved hand of Priestess Rem was still pressed to Kanna’s mouth. Now that Goda’s light had emerged from inside of the cavern, Kanna could see the face that was hovering near hers, one that belonged to the woman who was standing on the ledge just beneath her.
“There is no blame, Priestess.”
The shocks had stopped. Kanna could feel Goda’s presence even before she jerked her eyes over to look. Goda was carrying a canister of fuel in each hand, the lantern clipped to her belt loop, and she was gazing down at the both of them with a neutral expression.
Priestess Rem was reaching up to Kanna, her eyes filled with a strange mixture of emotions—but among them, there was compassion, and so Kanna took hold of that and let it warm the freezing emptiness that she felt inside.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured into Kanna’s ear, once again in the Upperlander language. “She can’t hurt you when I’m here. Just be still and say nothing. I will take care of this. You won’t be in any trouble.” She frowned and studied Kanna’s face, then brushed some of the hair out from in front of Kanna’s eyes. She looked up at Goda. “What did you do to her?”
“She does this to herself.”
“Always the same answer. ‘Oh, they do it to themselves.’” The priestess pulled away, and Kanna watched her climb up onto the ledge so that she was standing evenly at Goda’s side. “When will you accept that you are more than just a bystander, Goda? You are an active participant and you hurt people with the things you create in this world.”
“Maybe,” Goda said, “but this one likes to be hurt. She realizes that the pain shows her a window to the truth. I’m giving her what she wants.” Putting one canister on the ground, Goda crouched and grabbed Kanna by the neck of her robes and tugged at her so that she would get up. “Sometime soon she might stop resisting the pain and look upon these demons without fear.”
Kanna refused. She made herself limp and kept still as the priestess had asked. Her heart pounded hard in her chest. She looked away from Goda as the light of the lantern hit her uncomfortably in the face, and so Goda dropped her with a dead thud.
“You’re too careless with her,” Priestess Rem said. She looked at Kanna for a long time. “Why is she like this?”
“The air in the cavern has shaken her up quite a bit this time. She won’t be normal for awhile,” Goda told her. “But there’s something else: She didn’t know about her family, about how they made themselves rich off our military, about how most of the grain was used to make fuel while people in her country starved to death. She only just found out. The shrine noticed the crack that formed in her right then. It sought to break her all the way open.”
“She resisted.” Goda let the other canister go. With two free hands, she knelt down again and picked Kanna up by the waist with a more deliberate grip. This time, Kanna couldn’t hold back. She summoned her last ounce of will, and she screamed and kicked her feet and slapped against Goda’s chest, but Goda easily overpowered her as she always did.
The tall woman slung her over a shoulder, which made Kanna’s stomach lurch. When Goda began to stand up, the ground seemed to rush far from Kanna’s reach all at once. She felt like she was being launched backwards into the air. Before she could even try to fight the reflex, she purged the contents of her stomach over Goda’s shoulder and onto the ground. Some of it fell on Goda’s robes, but she didn’t have the strength to be ashamed. The contraction had moved through her in a wave that she could not control, and once she was done, she became just as limp as before. She pressed her face against the back of Goda’s shoulder.
Tears began pouring out of her anew. She didn’t even know why she was crying anymore. It was merely a reflex, a reaction to the emptiness inside of her that she could no longer fill. There was nothing to grasp around her that could fill the void.
For a long moment, no one moved.
“You’re a monster,” Kanna heard the priestess finally saying. “Even after all this time, you’re the same monster you were nine years ago. Knowing the kind of burden that this girl carries within her, you agitated those demons deliberately to watch her writhe in pain. How do you know so well that she’d be able to survive this? Knowing what kind of place this was, you still brought her here again.”
“It seems that you knew I would. You were standing outside the cavern waiting, even though it’s long past your time to sleep. Did you lead me here without my realizing? Did you plan this all along since I arrived here? Have you fallen into a spiral of manipulation again, Priestess Rem?”
“There’s no manipulation necessary. You’re very predictable in your own way, Goda—or maybe it is just that I know you so well and that I always know where you are.” She walked behind Goda and peered down at Kanna’s face with an expression that was all at once full of some hidden meaning, and yet unreadable—or else Kanna did not have the energy to read it. Kanna weakly lifted her head up to better meet the woman’s eyes. “It’s almost over,” the priestess whispered to her. “Be still, be still. The monster will be in his cage soon enough.”
Then the woman walked down to the path that led to the plain. “I’m sure you know how this goes, then,” she said, turning around to glance at Goda. “You’ve stolen from Innkeeper Jaya—and you’ve taken a restricted product, no less; there is no question that you have broken the law. Here you are with the spoils of your theft. You aren’t one to fight your punishment, are you?”
“Not at all, Priestess.”
“Then pick up the fuel and let us allow the injured party to decide what she will do with you. I imagine she will hold you until the local administrator can see you.” She continued to head down the gravel trail, but then suddenly she stopped. Without turning around, she asked, “Do you feel any dread, Goda? This time, do you feel something at least?”
“I have no feelings, Priestess.”
Goda began walking, and the rocking of her stride made Kanna feel sick all over again.
The priestess allowed Goda to move ahead of her eventually, and as they trudged through the sands in the dark, Kanna could hear a faint voice blowing messages towards her with every gust of the wind.
“You feel sorry for her, don’t you? It’s best that you don’t. I know that you like her in some capacity, as so many of us will come to like our captors, but you must guard against this sentiment,” the voice said in Upperlander, clearly so that Goda could not understand. Still, it was loud enough that Kanna couldn’t imagine that Goda had missed it, even if she might have been unable to parse the words. “Resist, Kanna Rava, resist. The porter deserves what she gets. This crime may seem small to you, but it’s nothing compared to all the other crimes she has committed that have gone inadequately punished. She will hurt you the way she has hurt countless others if I don’t put a stop to it now. She does not care about you. Her intentions are morbid and obscene, and you are too innocent to realize what evil looks like. Don’t be fooled by that neutral face. Underneath that calm demeanor is a devil, and it is time that the world is rid of it. Perhaps this is why the Goddess put me here.”
“What incantations are you whispering back there, Priestess?” Goda called over her shoulder. She had called the woman a priestess, but for some reason, Kanna had first heard the word as “witch”—though granted, the two words sounded very similar in Middlelander, so it was an easy thing to mishear. *
When they had reached the yard that had already grown so familiar to Kanna, Goda stooped down and lowered her gently onto the ground. Even by the dim light of the lantern, she could see that Goda’s face held no trace of annoyance. She seemed resigned to everything. She stared down into Kanna’s eyes so directly that it made Kanna want to look away, but then the woman touched her face lightly, and the gesture all but forced her to match the gaze.
“You are more than this,” Goda whispered to her—or so it seemed that this had been what she said. Kanna couldn’t tell for sure because the words had been very soft and the wind had carried them away immediately. Either way, hearing this only served to build another knot in Kanna’s gut, another layer of confusion. Trust and distrust fought together inside of her, and neither seemed to gain an edge over the other.
She didn’t have long to dwell on it, though. She heard the priestess knocking on Jaya’s door, and soon enough the door burst open, and the space just outside was bathed in the light of the oil lamps from the innkeeper’s dining room table.
Unlike Goda, Jaya looked immediately cross. Her lips were tight, her hand gripped the door knob so hard that her knuckles had grown pale. “Who is it, who is it? What do you—?” Then she seemed to notice that it was the priestess who was staring back at her, and her eyes widened in embarrassed confusion. “Oh, good evening!” she said quickly. “My sincere apologies! It’s such a dark night, isn’t it? I can barely see two paces in front of me! To what do I owe the honor of such a spontaneous visit, my priestess?”
“I don’t mean to disturb you this time of night,” Priestess Rem replied, “but there is a matter that requires your immediate attention, considering the circumstances. You have been giving Porter Goda refuge all this time, and yet she thinks nothing of betraying her benefactor.” The priestess shifted so that the light from the inside began to flow against Goda as well, and she gestured towards Goda with a sweep of her arm. Under any other circumstances, it would have seemed like a personal introduction. “Look. This is the porter’s true self. She has stolen the fuel that our assistants hid for you. My deepest apologies; I had assumed that your property would be safe from thieves inside the caverns, but I was wrong. We’ll have to call the regional administrator in the morning and see that this woman is arrested.”
Jaya stared out into the night, her eyes spread open harder than usual, her gaze falling squarely in Goda and Kanna’s direction. She seemed to finally notice the two canisters of fuel. She was quiet for a long moment, but then her eyes snapped over towards Priestess Rem’s face.
“I beg your forgiveness for having worried you, my priestess, but this is all a misunderstanding,” Jaya said, very flatly, with suddenly no shred of emotion in her voice. “Goda Brahm is not stealing from me. I gave her the fuel.”
The priestess looked flabbergasted. Kanna shot a quick glance at Goda as well, only to find that the woman hovering above her was similarly in the midst of a pause. Both her eyebrows were raised and she was looking at Jaya very carefully.
“She…but she…,” Priestess Rem began. It was the first time Kanna had ever heard the woman stumble over her words. The priestess cleared her throat. “I found her outside the caverns, clearly trying to make off with it stealthily in the dead of night. Was it not you who asked us to find a safe spot for the fuel during this time of crisis and thievery? Was it not you who told us to hold it for you and to keep it safe at all cost?”
The woman was saying this, but Kanna wasn’t sure how much of it was literally true, and how much of it was that face that Middlelanders always wore. At this point Kanna had surmised that the priestesses could not keep intoxicants at the temple, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Jaya was merely the middleman in whose name they could hoard fuel legally; this was what Goda had implied days before, and now it all made sense. After all, Kanna had not seen so much as a generator anywhere near Jaya’s house, and yet the garden in the temple was entirely lit with electricity.
Jaya did not disagree with the priestess. Her eyes darted back and forth across the scene in front of her, and finally she seemed to conjure up some kind of reply: “Yes, yes, of course!” she said. She met eyes with Goda. “But Goda, my dear, why did you wait until it was so late? You made yourself look like some kind of bandit in the night.” She turned to the priestess again. “I told Goda to go get some earlier today. She’s leaving tomorrow and I didn’t want her to end up stranded. This is all my fault, of course. It was wrong of me to have sent her to the caverns or even told her about where I was keeping the goods; I should have called an assistant to discreetly fetch the fuel. If anyone should be punished, it should be I. Because of this incident, I will double my tribute of fuel to the temple.” She bowed so deeply that Kanna wondered if the woman would fall over.
Priestess Rem watched the innkeeper’s gesture for a moment, and then she glanced in Goda’s direction once again. “I suppose you offered them that expensive lantern as well,” she said, “and the robes that Kanna Rava is now wearing instead of her uniform.”
“My priestess is entirely correct.”
“Well, then,” Rem said, her tone one of forced politeness that left Kanna with no doubt that the woman knew that Jaya was lying, “everything is as it should be. I would like to bless you on behalf of the Goddess for being so generous to those who don’t deserve it.”
“Thank you, priestess! It is during trying times like these that I can most use such a blessing.”
After that, Jaya seemed to be waiting, but the priestess did not make a move to leave. Because clearly it was unthinkable to close the door in her face, Jaya finally stepped outside to join the group. She shut the door after herself and suddenly the space was filled again with darkness, touched only by the waning light of Goda’s lantern.
Jaya met eyes with Goda again and they seemed to exchange a meaningful glance that Kanna could not interpret. “Well,” Jaya said, “let’s not waste the rest of the evening away. Now that we’re all up and energized, let’s go along with our plans from before!”
Goda tilted her head. It was a subtle enough reaction that the priestess might not have caught it, but Kanna was close enough to notice, and she suddenly felt a bit relieved that she wasn’t the only one who was confused.
“Goda, my dear!” Jaya called out to her as she grew closer. She pointed towards the containers of alcohol. “Don’t you remember my suggestion earlier today? I haven’t seen you in so long and we haven’t had a chance for a nice chat the whole time you’ve been here! Let us make a fire and drink together and catch up! Bring the spirits to the garden! Bring the girl, too. The more the merrier!” She looked over at the priestess; a strange, forced smile had grown on her face. “You’re more than welcome to honor us with your presence tonight as well, Priestess Rem.”
“Innkeeper, you know very well that it’s against my precepts to attend any drunken gathering.” Because she had backed away, and she was standing outside of the radius of Goda’s light, Kanna could only see the shadow of the woman’s face anymore. “And I would encourage you to abstain yourself, if not for reasons of the spirit, than to avoid squandering such a precious resource.”
“My priestess is quite right,” Jaya said, the smile still unfaded, “but you will have to please allow me this terrible indulgence. The fires in the Upperland have died, so the shortage will be over soon and this small bit of drink will make no difference to all the motors of the world. Let us celebrate the blessings that the Goddess has showered upon us in these days.”
With that, Jaya headed in the direction of the garden and Goda scooped Kanna up again before taking hold of the two canisters of fuel. Kanna looked up over Goda’s shoulder, and she could still see the shape of Priestess Rem standing in the darkness near the door. Half her face was smeared with the dim moonlight, but the other half was so obscured in shadow that Kanna could not even see the white of her eye.
Once Jaya was out of earshot, but before Goda had started moving, the priestess called out in a flat voice that was devoid of any curiosity, “How is it that you’ve survived this long, Goda?” It sounded more like a lament than a question.
Goda was not facing the woman and made no move to turn. She merely stood there, stopped, leaning forward slightly as she had been about to take her first step towards the garden. She was waiting, perhaps because it seemed by the priestess’s tone that there was more to say.
“You should be dead,” the priestess told her. Again, her voice held no overt edge of anger. At most, there was a mild sense of bewilderment and wonder in it. Kanna looked up at the woman with surprise, but the woman did not respond to her stare. Instead, her gaze seemed trained on the back of Goda’s head. “Nine years, and still you have not died. How is that? I know death is what you want, and yet it escapes you. Why not give into it? Why won’t you let me help you die, Goda? It’s what’s best for everyone. The world is better off if you’re not in it.”
Kanna’s eyebrows knotted in shock. She gripped the back of Goda’s robes with her fingers, the squirming feeling of discomfort returning to her bones. By then, she knew that the priestess was trying to get Goda arrested, but she couldn’t imagine that such a small offense would warrant capital punishment, even by the unbalanced, draconian laws of the Middleland. The woman must have meant something else; perhaps it was yet another obtuse metaphor that she didn’t understand.
“Maybe it is true that the world would suffer less if I was gone from it,” Goda replied, still without turning around, “but whether I am to stay or to disappear from the world, it’ll be by the will of the Goddess, not by the will of Rem.”
* * *
“You owe me, you bastard—and not just for the fuel, but for everything else. You’ve brought me a lot of trouble this week. I don’t even know how I’m going to make up for basically insulting a priestess in front of my own home.” Jaya took a swig from her cup and rubbed her face. She was sitting so close to the fire that a bead of sweat had visibly accumulated on the back of her neck, and for some reason Kanna watched it with fascination. “Good thing liquor is a universal cure for everything. It’s even a repellent for clergy members.”
Kanna had managed to crawl onto a rock and sit up. She still felt lightheaded, and her ears roared with blood so that everything—the conversation in front of her, the rumble of the trucks behind her, the whistle of the wind—sounded like she was hearing it underwater. She was regaining her senses slowly. Thoughts from before—thoughts about what she had learned in the cave—had also begun worming themselves into her brain like wiry snakes, but she tried her hardest to suppress them.
I need to rest, Kanna told herself. Even just the prospect of thinking with any kind of depth exhausted her.
“You will return everything that I have given to you—and threefold. I don’t know how you will do it, but you will,” Jaya continued. “Not only that, but you will visit my wife in the Middleland when you get there, and you will shower her with all kinds of frivolous presents, and you will tell her that they all came from me.”
Goda stared into the crackling fire without saying anything, and so Jaya reached out and took Goda’s face in her hands.
“Both your mothers would have a fit if I let you get in trouble again. I know you think they’ve disavowed you—and they have—but they are still your mothers and they are still human. Knowing that you’re alive at least gives them some comfort.” Jaya’s gaze was so intense that it made even Kanna wince. After a moment, the woman’s glance wandered slightly, off towards the far side of the fence, and this relieved some of the tension—until Kanna followed her glance and realized what she was looking at.
Just outside the garden, shrouded mostly in darkness, stood the silhouette of Priestess Rem. Kanna had lost sight of her earlier and had assumed that the woman had left.
“That priestess has it out for you. I don’t know why, but she’s trying to get you into trouble. She’s been asking about you the whole time you’ve been here, did you know that? On the first day, she came to me and told me to let her know if you did anything wrong. I don’t think she had realized yet that I’ve known you since you were a child.”
“She can ask whatever she wants,” Goda said. She too seemed to glance briefly at the figure of the priestess beyond the fence. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters, you idiot. She’s the head priestess. She could pray and send you to hell. She could lie and get you locked up if she wanted. I think all she’s looking for is a good enough legal justification for her own conscience. I don’t want you coming back here again anytime soon. It’s far too risky now. Promise me that after you leave tomorrow morning, you won’t show up here again unless you absolutely have to.” Jaya’s hands seemed to grow tighter against Goda’s face. “Promise me, you imbecile.”
Goda’s jaw clenched. “Fine,” she muttered after a moment.
“Good.” After kissing the side of Goda’s mouth in full view of the priestess, Jaya released her. Kanna raised both eyebrows in shock at the gesture, but she knew better than to say anything. The innkeeper reached down beside her and picked up a cup of fuel, which she offered to Goda. “Drink,” she whispered, her side-glance aimed towards the priestess. “We’ve already made her uncomfortable. If all of us are drunk, she’ll have no choice but to leave.” Jaya turned to look at Kanna. “This one, too. She should start drinking so that the priestess isn’t tempted to talk to her.”
Goda shook her head. “This is ninety-five percent alcohol. She’ll go blind—or worse, vomit all over me again.” She threw a smirk in Kanna’s direction and Kanna responded with a wry glance.
“Fine, fine—but you will drink.” She shoved the cup into Goda’s hand. “You will drink, if for no other reason than the fact that you’re not very much fun when you’re sober.”
Kanna watched Goda take a sip, then another. Goda winced the first few times, but otherwise there seemed to be no resistance in her. She drank the fuel as if she were drinking a glass of water.
When Kanna looked up towards the entrance of the garden awhile later, it was as Jaya had said: the priestess had disappeared.
After the fire had time to wane and the stars had moved around in the sky, Goda told Kanna to retire to the storage shed. Her speech was not slurred, but it had slowed down to a pace where Kanna did not need to make the slightest bit of effort to understand every word of the Middlelander that flowed from the woman’s mouth. As Kanna stumbled past her, she could smell the fuel coming out of every one of Goda’s pores as if the woman were a rumbling truck giving off a cloud of exhaust.
Jaya’s arm was slung over Goda’s shoulder. She looked up at Kanna with an impish smile. “Don’t worry, she’ll come join you soon enough. She’s more suggestible in this state, by the way. If you’re looking to convince her of anything, seize the opportunity.”
Goda didn’t seem to hear Jaya’s indecent statements. She was staring off into the darkness of the plain, her body loose and relaxed, her eyes unfocused with a touch of sadness. With some hesitation, Kanna nodded, and headed out of the garden and to the shed by herself.
Once she had staggered inside, as if she were drunk herself, Kanna shut the door and immediately fell face-first into her mattress. She pressed her face deep into the fabric and sobbed until she lost consciousness.
* * *
The door creaked. At first, when Kanna looked up, she thought that the dim twilight that fell into the room was coming from the moon, but then she realized that there were faint edges of sun coloring part of the sky. Dawn had only just emerged.
Framed by that sky, a ghost hovered in the doorway. Because it was still very dark, she could not see any details.
“Goda?” Kanna whispered, though something inside of her immediately told her that the figure who had appeared was not her master.
“Goda is passed out drunk in the sand,” a soft voice blew in with the wind, “so I’m your master now, and I’ve come to torment you with the gift of free will.”
Kanna’s eyes widened and her pulse pounded in her throat. She wondered what kind of nightmare she had fallen into. She wondered what she needed to do to wake herself up.
The figure in black robes came into the room. Even as Kanna tried to recoil, the ghost moved faster, until it was kneeling at the foot of her bed, looming over her with an eerie presence. Kanna fought through her first paralyzed reaction, and she forced herself to sit up and face the shadow. She swallowed.
The face that stared back at her belonged to Priestess Rem. The woman was holding out her arm in offering, her leather-covered hand clasped into a tight fist as if she were carrying a precious jewel.
“Take it,” the woman said, her breaths coming rapidly. She seemed exhausted from some effort that Kanna could not fathom. “Take it. It is rare to find Goda so soundly asleep, and it cost me a lot of trouble not to brush my skin against hers on accident, so show some respect and take the gift.”
Kanna looked at her with confusion, but not knowing what else to do with the woman’s insistent posture, she slowly reached out and opened a receptive hand. The priestess took her by the wrist and pressed the gift against her palm. She remained there for a moment, crouched, looking Kanna in the face with the intensity of someone who was waiting for a disaster to happen.
“I wish this was for other reasons,” she said. The priestess let out a sharp breath, as if she were suppressing tears of anguish herself. “I wish this was because I don’t believe in slavery, and I don’t believe that you deserve your fate—and while all of that is true, it’s not the real reason. However, even though this act indulges very low parts of me, I do believe it’s also what’s best for humankind in the end.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I am using you, Kanna. To avoid sinning against the Goddess by the letter of the law, I am putting the choice in your hands instead of mine. Your ignorance will protect you from conscious sin. It is inexcusable, and I hope you can forgive what I’m doing to you, but this burden will be useful to you nonetheless.”
She dropped something into Kanna’s hand, but Kanna was too bewildered to look at it at first. The priestess stood and gazed down at her with a tightened jaw, her breath growing shallow, shaky.
“You are aching to escape, I know—but you must be patient. Goda’s next stop after this will almost surely be the city of Karo, which is on the other side of the border, but not too deep into the Middleland yet. There is a midnight train that goes to the Upperland from there, every other day. If you don’t see it at the station the first evening, then that means it will arrive the next night. You should go then and only then,” she said. “You’re small; you can stow away easily. You won’t have much to return to, but you’ll be back in your home country and it will be easier to find people who are loyal enough to hide you.”
She turned and began walking towards the threshold, towards the door that remained partly opened even still. As she stepped through and some of the fledgling rays of the sun hit her face, she turned back one last time. “Goda will notice very quickly, so be swift when the time comes. Do not hesitate. Fight her if you have to. Do anything you need to do to escape. You won’t have another chance like this; make it count.”
Then she disappeared and the door rattled behind her until it clicked shut.
Her mouth agape, Kanna uncurled her hand and looked down. Among the creases of her dirty palm sat a cleanly-polished silver key.
She didn’t have to try it. She knew which void it was meant to fill.
* In the Middlelander language:
“Priestess” is pronounced “maaga,” with a neutral tone and emphasis on the first syllable.
“Witch” is pronounced “maajya,” with a rising tone and emphasis on the second syllable.
Goda calls Rem “maaga” (“Priestess”) with a rising tone while stressing the second syllable conspicuously, so Kanna mishears her at first.
The words indeed have the same root and were once the same word in Proto-Low-Middlelander.