Goda’s Slave – Chapter 13: Full of Kanna Rava

Kanna waited for a long time, but Goda did not come. She stared out the hazy window and up at the sky that grew ever brighter over the landscape. Her eyes closed and opened on their own as sleep took her for a few seconds at a time. For awhile, the only thing that seemed real was the inflow and outflow of her breath.

Even through the folds of her robes, she could feel the texture of the cuff key pressing against her from its place deep inside her pocket. It nagged at her with its presence, and reminded her that her passivity had come to an end.

There was no choice. She had to do it.

Three days before, her past self had resolved to escape slavery the moment she had a chance. What good would that promise have been if her present self did not honor it?

Still, without any shred of logic to justify the feeling, she wanted to see the woman who had captured her. Goda’s presence was not comforting, but there was something about the empty space that hovered around her that made Kanna feel a strange wakefulness, as if she were being splashed in the face with cold water. Standing by the light of Goda’s lantern, she had seen things that she could not explain—and now she could not unsee them. Now she wanted answers.

But Goda did not come.

When Kanna could feel the metal walls of the storage shed radiating the heat of the sun, she decided that she had waited too long, and that she would do something she had never done before: She would seek Goda out.

Getting up onto an unstable pair of legs—her inner body still floating faintly inside the shell of her skin, her head still pulsing and disconnected—she shuffled to the doorway and pushed that last barrier open.

The sand outside blew against her more aggressively than before. It made it hard to see without getting dirt in her eyes, and so she pressed her hand to her face and kept her stare at the ground. One foot after another, she watched her toes dig into the sand, the grit falling between the soles of her feet and her sandals, grinding away at her uncalloused skin.

She moved in the direction of the garden. When she ventured to look up, her arm still hovering over her eyes, she saw that small mountain of limbs and hair and dark cloth strewn on the ground right outside the fence. For just a second, her heart jerked with a reaction that she couldn’t understand; for just a second, she had thought that Goda was dead.

But the heap that made up that woman’s body was still moving. It was rising and falling with the wind-blown sand, with a deep breath that flowed from huge lungs. Kanna was so entranced by that flow, that at first she didn’t notice the figure that had stalked over in the haze.

It was a soldier. She was standing tall, bent back, as if her spine were a slingshot that was poised to strike. In her hands was a wooden post that had clearly been ripped from the fence. It was aimed at Goda’s head.

The wind grew quiet. Kanna could still feel it blowing against her face, but the noise stopped. Instead, her ears were flooded with a dull whir. Without even thinking, she reached down into the ground in front of her and felt for the biggest rock that could fit in her hand.

The air whistled when she launched it. Her shoulder nearly snapped out of its socket as she sent the rock sailing as hard as she could. Because she had not taken more than a second to aim, she almost missed entirely. The rock barely grazed the soldier’s ribs before slamming into the ground and leaving a crater near Goda’s face.

But it was enough.

Startled, the soldier stumbled to the ground in confusion, her makeshift bat landing limply beside her. She covered her head, as if expecting an onslaught of missiles—but when she traced the presumed path of the rock and she met Kanna’s gaze for the first time, her eyes narrowed.

One of those eyes had an ugly bruise that looked half-healed.

She was screaming something to Kanna, but Kanna could not hear. All that Kanna could sense was the growing empty sound of that whirring, and the rise and fall of her own breath in her ears as she pressed her hands into the sand.

The sleeping giant began to stir. From this, the soldier grew spooked again, and so she scuffled to her feet and ran off into the plain, until that curtain of haze hid her form and the wind swept away even her footprints.

Goda gazed across the sands at Kanna. Her black eyes were fully open, fully awake, without even a trace of the murkiness of sleep. Kanna felt that she was looking at a woman who had never been drunk in her life, a woman who had never fallen asleep, a woman who had simply closed her eyes and laid her face in the grit of the sand for no good reason at all.

As repulsed as she was by this, Kanna ran to her anyway—because she had found her finally—and as she slid across the dirt to where her master lay, Goda took her by the hand to pull her close.

“We have to leave,” Goda said. “Right now.

Kanna could hear the woman’s voice clearly, even through the buzzing in her own head. In the dim background, there was shouting, too, a growing shuffle of activity coming from the beastly engines nearby.

She could hear a dozen boots against the gravel.

Oh no, Kanna thought. It seemed she had awakened much more than a giant.

They both trudged back to the storage shed and grabbed what they could carry, and then they rushed across the plain towards Goda’s truck, avoiding the shadows of the military along the way. Goda’s truck lay alone, surrounded by the empty space of the desert, and for a reason that Kanna could not understand, she felt like it had been waiting for them, like it had been impatient for their return.

Goda quickly fed the tank, then she handed the half-spent canister of fuel to Kanna and told her to hold it in the front seat of the truck. Kanna took the fuel without resistance this time—perhaps because she was in a hurry, perhaps for some other reason—but as she climbed into the rig and threw the canister on the floor, her eyes still scanned the Upperlander script instinctively.

Rava Spirits, it read.

And so she knew that she had not merely dreamt it the night before.

* * *

“I want the truth,” Kanna said.

She had not spoken for a long time because the rushing air filled her ears and she had assumed that they would not be able to hear each other in the midst of it. But as they had grown further and further from the monastery, Goda had slowed their pace and the wind didn’t seem quite as loud, even if Kanna’s hair was still blowing around violently like streamers on a flag post.

Goda kept her eyes sternly ahead, but Kanna could feel the side of the woman’s gaze upon her. “What truth?” Goda asked, as if it were not plainly obvious.

Kanna gave her an annoyed glance. “The truth about everything. Seeing my name on these containers of fuel is…not enough. I don’t believe what you said to me in the caverns. I can’t believe it. There has to be some other explanation. If what you told me is true, then my own family is responsible for….” Kanna stopped. “If what you told me is true, then hearing even more of it will make me sick—but I can’t bear the ignorance any longer. Tell me what you know about why this happened to me and why I’m here.”

Goda was quiet for a long time, long enough that Kanna’s mind began to drift, and she started to notice that the landscape was changing around them. More foliage had appeared. Greens and browns had joined the dull color of the sand, and the earth had grown more compact and visibly fertile.

Finally, Goda answered: “Last night, you saw what you needed to see, and you are right to suspect that there is more to the story than what I told you. Still, it’s only a story. Knowing the past can give you clues on how to move forward sometimes, but it’s not something to dwell on. There are deeper truths in the present that you have to face now.”

Goda.” Kanna took hold of the side of the woman’s arm. She dug her nails through the fabric until she felt edges of flesh, until Goda slowly turned to look at her. “I need to know. I can’t just let go of something that defines my entire life before this moment.”

There was a long quiet again. Strands of unruly hair from both of them whipped around the space between them, touching lightly here and there, but never entangling fully.

When Goda shifted her gaze back towards the road, she said, “Over the past hundred years—ever since the first engine roared in the Middleland, ever since your great-great grandfather sold us the first drop of fuel—we’ve grown ever more dependent on Rava Spirits. Years ago, we used to make everything by hand, but now the spirits are used to run all of our factories. Naturally, this gave your family a lot of wealth and power, to put it mildly.”

“Fine. I knew that, to an extent. I knew we had a little more money than most people; that was never a mystery to me.”

“Ah, yes. Just a little more money than most people, right?” Goda laughed. “It’s not surprising that you can’t fathom it. No one can. You had enough grain to break any weighing scale, so it’s hard to measure your wealth. Your family used their massive profits to buy more and more land, to make more and more money, to buy more and more land—and so on, ever closer to infinity—until they had nearly monopolized the entire supply of mok grain on the continent and even your countrymen could hardly eat. It was all being turned into alcohol. Your father was particularly greedy. The price soared because he knew he could charge anything and we would pay.” Goda shrugged. “Eventually, we grew tired of paying it. It’s as simple as that.”

“What, so you just invade a country because the people in it don’t want to give you things for cheap?” Kanna said, her voice rising, outrage already growing in her bones. “Is peaceful negotiation not part of your culture?”

“Do you want to hear the truth, or do you want to play the victim still?”

Kanna forced her own mouth shut with a snap, but her glare in Goda’s direction did not lighten in the slightest.

Goda ignored it all the same.

“Yes, it’s undeniable that we’re invaders,” she continued, “there’s no nuance: We absorbed your country with the specific aim of controlling the Rava grain fields. But we didn’t act alone in this. Your father made enemies out of everyone, thinking that he was dominating, winning some unwinnable game, as if all that money could save him. He price-fixed and scammed Middlelanders, of course, but he also ripped land away from his fellow Upperlanders so that he could feed the hungry mouths of countless engines instead of people. Needless to say, this caused a lot of unrest. It made the Upperland monarchy nervous, so they wanted to set limits, but when your father tried buying off government officials to have his way no matter what, it became clear that he had grown too dangerous. He had already poisoned your government from the inside by the time they realized, so they needed outside help to get rid of him. We were happy to strike the deal. When your father caught wind of what was happening, he actually tried to pay us off, too—but at that point, his money meant nothing. You can’t eat gold, after all. Try waving money at a hungry tiger whose teeth are clenched around your throat and see if he’ll make the trade. This is what your father tried to do, and so he faced a rude awakening.”

Kanna stared down at the canister by her feet, the canister that said Rava Spirits and that bounced lightly with every bump in the road. It spat out drops of fuel on occasion as it jostled, and she could smell it if she concentrated enough.

“He was rebellious until the end, though. Before he fled, your father set fire to his own grain fields and his own distilleries—with his own fuel—so that we would be unable to use it. This is why we have a shortage even now, when we captured your property weeks ago.”

“That’s ridiculous! Why would he do that? What kind of sense does that make?” Then Kanna paused. When she really thought about it with full lucidity, she wasn’t entirely sure that it was impossible. She didn’t know her father well enough to be able to tell if it was out of character or not. “Well, even if he did,” she said, a bit more quietly, “can you really blame him? He’s just trying to protect the family name and the honor of his own country. You people don’t deserve the fruit of Upperlander labor. You can’t just rush in and take it. You act like the Middleland is blameless in all this.”

“I don’t deny that the Middleland shares in responsibility. I don’t deny that we were driven by greed, either. The motors were invented by us, after all, and we were by far the first nation to build massive factories that needed to be fed with all this fuel. But that’s exactly why it’s only natural that we’d leverage these advantages. Considering how fast we’ve been growing, why wouldn’t our government use those same motors to invade our weaker neighbors and gain even more resources? This is how life works.”

Kanna narrowed her eyes. “Well, if it’s so ‘natural’ for you people, then why wasn’t it ‘natural’ for my family to do the same in our own way, without a military, with only profits to drive us instead of some goddamn machines?”

“Did I say it wasn’t? It’s only that your family met their consequences faster.”

“You mean to say that you think what my family was doing and what your government is doing is equally wrong?”

“Yes. And equally expected.”

Kanna hunched back in her seat, her mind swimming with confusion and outrage yet again. “Then why don’t you do anything to try to stop it?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. You’re a Middlelander, aren’t you? That means you have some level of power in all this. At the very least, you could let me go. If money really is as meaningless as you just told me, then certainly a hungry tiger like you could afford that small act of justice without missing the pay, right?”

Goda smiled. “You really don’t give up.” Kanna wasn’t sure if the tone was one of mocking or else some twisted type of appreciation.

“And you give up too easily, Porter.”

The amused smirk still unfaded, Goda put her hand on a lever and urged the rig to move faster. “If you were to stand in front of a speeding truck like this,” she said, “what do you think would happen? What’s the chance that you could put one hand out and stop it dead in its tracks? When you talk about resisting, this is what you’re up against: Something with massive inertia.”

“I’m not brainless. I know that one person doesn’t make much of a difference, if that’s what you’re saying. Still, don’t you think that out of principle, you should at least try to—?”

“If you want to make yourself feel important, then go ahead and fight this hurtling chunk of metal. Get yourself run over and brag about how you slowed it down for half a second,” Goda continued, “but if you actually want to make a difference, you can’t resist the inertia of a beast like this. Don’t waste your time complaining about what it does or lamenting where it came from. You can’t push against it. You can only ride along. Then, once you learn how it works, you can nudge the levers so that it slowly leans in the direction that you want it to go. That’s all.”

Kanna crossed her arms over her chest, already sick of Goda’s endless metaphors. “Then where do I find those levers, so that I can nudge it in the direction of freedom?” she asked, though of course it was not a real question, and her tone was sarcastic.

Goda answered anyway: “If it’s freedom you want, then you hold those levers in your hands already.”

“Oh? If that’s so, then why am I not free?”

“Because what you want isn’t freedom. How would you even know what that is? You’ve been enslaved all your life, long before you ever knew it, long before that cuff ever touched your wrist.”

It seemed to happen more and more that Kanna would find herself unable to respond to Goda’s insanity. Instead of replying, she huffed and leaned back and closed her eyes. She could still feel the weight of the cuff key in her pocket, shifting around with the movements of her body as it all flowed with the momentum of the truck.

Maybe Goda was half-right, then: Maybe freedom was already in her grasp—or rather, in her pocket—and she needed only to make the choice.

* * *

When they stopped on the side of a deserted road, Kanna found that they had pulled over beside a patch of evergreen trees that reached up high into the air. After having spent the past few days on the plains, where there were hardly any trees and the few that speckled the landscape weren’t much taller than she was, it comforted her to see a bird or two perched in some branches above her.

Goda leapt out of the truck and, without waiting for Kanna, pushed into the brush and disappeared into a trail. Finding herself suddenly alone, Kanna ran after her, dove into the thatch of trees without thinking, stumbled through the prickly vines and fallen logs.

She caught sight of Goda again almost instantly. Under the light that was filtering from the canopy and bouncing off the golden green of the leaves, she saw a flash of the woman’s skin that quickly made her heart jolt.

Goda had stopped in front of a small, muddy lake that shone in the light like a murky mirror. She was already taking her clothes off. More layers of fabric fell before Kanna’s eyes, and as Kanna approached, the details of the smooth valleys and hard lines of Goda’s back became clearer.

Because the woman was turned around and could not see her, Kanna allowed her eyes to wander as the robes slid down Goda’s waist and opened the last half of her body to the light.

Kanna held her breath. Nearly everything about Goda confused her—the woman’s attitude towards life, the woman’s past, and especially the woman’s nonsensical words—but there was one thing that had managed to float up beyond Kanna’s mind, something that Kanna’s body seemed to understand perfectly well. She could accept it now, and so she watched Goda’s nakedness openly.

In time, Goda seemed to feel her stare, so she half-turned and smirked in Kanna’s direction. She didn’t seemed bothered; there was no judgment. She may not have even realized with what kind of gaze Kanna regarded her.

“I didn’t have time to wash as I usually do first thing in the morning,” Goda said. “If you need to do the same, then now is the time. We won’t be stopping again until after sundown.”

Kanna watched the woman wade into the pool. Goda had no hesitation, as if she had given no thoughts to any hazards beneath the surface. Because this made Kanna gain some confidence, she neared the water, feeling herself drawn in, like the very path that lay between the trees was pulling her closer to Goda.

Once she had reached the edge, Kanna crouched and touched the surface of the water with her fingers. She watched ripples etch across, but still there was no sign of clarity, and she could see nothing except for the reflection of the canopy above waving beneath her. “How did you know about this place?” Kanna murmured to Goda, who was now waist-deep in the waters.

“I’ve traveled these roads a lot since I became a porter. I know them well.”

“How long have you been doing this work?”

“About eight years. Three years of apprenticeship under a guide, and then these last five years on my own.”

“You’re young, Goda,” Kanna said, her fingers still lightly grazing the top of the water. “Older than me, but still young. Why did they give a job like this to you? You were only seventeen when you started, then, weren’t you? That’s crazy. I can’t even fathom that.”

“The age doesn’t matter. They choose a specific type of person.”

“Did you want to do this job?”

“No.” There was no pause before the answer and there was no shame in the tone.

“Then why didn’t you object? Can’t Middlelanders choose their jobs?”

“Most people do choose their jobs—but I don’t. I go wherever the Mother tells me. That’s all.”

The Mother. Kanna still wasn’t sure what the woman meant by that—if it was the Goddess that she spoke of, or the government that represented the Goddess, or both. Either way, she couldn’t understand how someone could be so open-eyed and conscious about being so blindly led.

But she did not contemplate for long. Her mind kept growing distracted. She kept seeing the shape of Goda’s body and she kept warring with herself, caught between her natural tendency to extract some strange pleasure out of what she was seeing and the touch of shame she had for looking so intently.

Goda did not say anything, but she stared back. She was standing in the water, small leaves and twigs floating close, collecting along her narrow hips as the tiny waves of the pool lapped lightly against her. Kanna’s eyes followed the distinct lines of the bottom of Goda’s torso, down to where they disappeared into the water.

Kanna wanted to get closer, but the water was between them, so she began to pull her robes over her head. She did it slowly because a feeling of hesitation was still burdening her, dragging all of her movements out. It was the usual repulsion she felt towards Goda, and residual embarrassment at making herself naked in front of the woman—but the warm feeling that surged below her belly had grown more urgent, and she wanted to explore it, to understand it.

Putting her clothes aside on a nearby rock, she felt like she was also putting the cuff key aside for the moment. Even if Goda did not know she had it, its presence had seemed to hover between them nonetheless, and Kanna felt like a barrier had fallen when she set it down.

Just for awhile, Kanna thought. Just for awhile, until we come out of the woods, maybe we can look at each other outside these roles of porter and slave.

The woods didn’t care who they were, after all. Whatever might happen in the cover of the trees didn’t mean anything.

Kanna slipped into the lake and waded towards Goda. She found that it was easy to hold herself up, the rush of the water pleasantly passing across her legs, each step a small leap that allowed her to float with less gravity before drifting down to the muddy floor again. She stopped a few paces short of the woman, when she felt a thick log beneath her. Testing its stability with her foot, she stepped up onto it, and though she was about to get down and continue her journey on the other side, she noticed that the higher ground had afforded her a pleasant view.

She was still not as tall as Goda, but she could look more directly into her eyes, and the woman did not need to tilt her head down so much to meet Kanna’s glance. So Kanna stayed—unsure of what she was doing, unsure of what that gaze and their mutual silence even meant.

“I saved your life this morning,” Kanna said finally.

Goda laughed. “Maybe you did.”

“I know I did. That was the soldier you got into a fight with yesterday, wasn’t it? She would have broken your skull open. You might have deserved it, too.” The added height had given Kanna some confidence, so she said it in a steady voice without looking away.

“Then why did you do it?”

“I don’t know, to be honest. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had already thrown the rock. There’s no good reason for it; I don’t even like you that much, so it wasn’t worth it.” Kanna studied Goda’s face in the light that filtered down from above, and she noticed the small lines that had formed at the edges of the woman’s eyes, the faint smile in them that seemed to mock her. “Maybe I was just afraid that she would ruin you, that she would make you even uglier than you already are, and that I would have to look at that face all the way to the Middleland.”

Goda’s ghostly smile grew more obvious, and she took a step forward until she was close enough that Kanna could feel a pocket of heat rushing towards her through the cool air. Just that alone made Kanna afraid and sent her heart racing again, but she stood her ground and tried not to make her anxiety obvious.

Though it wasn’t only anxiety.

“You must be a masochist after all, then,” Goda said with amusement. “I’m so painfully ugly to look at, and yet you still look at me with such intensity. You must love to be repulsed.”

“I do love it. It fascinates me. Everything about you is terrible—even your personality. And you don’t look nearly good enough to redeem it.”

“And yet still you look at me.”

“Yes, I still look at you.”

Kanna let out an unsteady breath and reached out before she could stop herself. She pressed her hands to Goda’s chest, where she could feel some moisture that had splashed up to coat the skin. The droplets were cool, but she could still sense the warmth underneath. She ran her fingers down to Goda’s torso, where the texture grew harder, more muscular, less tempered by the softness that lay at the edges of Goda’s chest. But Kanna liked this, too. Seeing that the woman did not object, she lightly traced a downward path until her hands grazed the waterline near Goda’s hips.

She hesitated to go further, to slide her touch down to the unseen skin below the water, but her curiosity broke through her fear because she suddenly noticed—or thought she had noticed—that Goda leaned a bit into the touch.

Before she could follow through, a pair of hands appeared around her wrists. The grip was gentle; the fingers had wrapped around her forearms very slowly, and the light pressure that stopped her movements only came once Kanna’s hand had brushed against some skin beneath the water—some skin that was etched with what felt like a sparse patch of hair.

Kanna didn’t fight Goda’s grasp, which pulled her hands out of the water. Kanna stared down into her own reflection, her breaths coming hard, her chest heaving. Both her and Goda’s image rippled with the movement of the water, but she tried not to look at Goda’s expression.

“I…had hoped to God that you hadn’t noticed, because it’s embarrassing to me,” Kanna confessed, her voice ragged. “But you did notice, didn’t you? Even before just now.”

“Yes, I had noticed.”

“Since when?”

“Since the second or third day, perhaps.”

“I’m sorry,” Kanna blurted out, though it didn’t feel like the phrase she had been looking for. There were no words in Middlelander for what she was feeling. “I don’t know why I feel this way. I’ve looked at other people before with this sort of gaze, and sometimes I’ve even found their bodies to be mildly pleasing to me, but….” She shook her head at her own reflection. “It’s different with you. It does more than just please me: It captures all of my attention. I keep wanting to look. I keep wanting to touch.”

Kanna ventured to meet Goda’s eyes once again, though it was very difficult. To her surprise, the eyes that regarded her held no pity, no annoyance. Even the emptiness of her usual stare was swirling with something else this time, though Kanna could not tell what it was.

“There’s no reason to apologize.” Goda very gently let go of her wrists, and so Kanna’s hands came to fall limply at her sides, unsettling the water once again. “I can’t give you what you want, but this doesn’t mean you should be ashamed about it.”

“But I don’t even like you. I can’t stand you, to be honest. I don’t even think you’re a very good person. Isn’t it wrong for me to then ignore all of that simply because you’re…?”

Kanna stopped. In truth, she wasn’t actually sure what she thought of the way Goda looked. It hadn’t really been a thought at all; it had been more of a reaction. Goda wasn’t conventionally beautiful, like other women that Kanna had found attractive before—but something about the shape of Goda’s frame, the angles of her face, and even the woman’s particular smell always drew her in, no matter how she resisted it.

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

Goda looked amused again. “These sorts of things aren’t meant to make sense. They simply are what they are.”

“Doesn’t it bother you, though?” Kanna whispered, because even voicing it was embarrassing. “Doesn’t it bother you to know that I look at you that way, when you don’t feel the same?”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

Kanna made a face. “So then you find it flattering.” This notion was equally distasteful.

“I don’t. The things that make us take pleasure in one body over another are so random that it’s hardly flattery. It’s just some chemical reaction—one that neither of us can help—so what would be the point of using it to feed some self-image of mine? How silly.”

Kanna raised an eyebrow. Once again, she did not know how to answer this strange woman. Goda had waved away Kanna’s shame, but at the very same time, she had laughed away the idea that Kanna’s opinion about her could be worth anything at all.

“Are you really too arrogant to be proud of yourself? Is that even a thing that’s possible?” Kanna said, more insulted than before. “I’ve just paid you a huge compliment that you don’t deserve, and you won’t even accept it at least. If you’re going to reject me, then make fun of me like a normal person instead of telling me all of that nonsense.”

To Kanna’s surprise, Goda pushed her chin up until they had met eyes again. She was smiling, her eyes a bit impish. “But I’m not rejecting you. Your feelings are yours. They are not something I can accept or reject. I’m merely telling you that I have no intention of having sex with my own prisoner. It’s not a good idea.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” Kanna said immediately. “How presumptuous. Now you really are flattering yourself.”

“Oh? What sort of end did you have in mind, then? What did you want to do with those feelings that make no sense?”

Kanna’s first instinct was to contradict her, but before she could speak, she stopped herself because she knew that Goda was right. When she thought about it, even for just a few seconds, she found that she couldn’t dismiss her desire—in spite of her personal dislike for the woman, in spite of everything.

“There’s nothing wrong with what you want,” Goda repeated, tilting her head and looking up at the tree line serenely, “but sex is no small thing. It has a tendency to stir the world up. It brings all kinds of angels and demons to the surface. So even ignoring the fact that it’s definitely not part of my job, it would be a risky thing to indulge. Worse, it could make you start to like me. That’s what sex can do.”

“Again, you’re presumptuous.”

“I’m speaking from experience. It’s better if you hate me more than you like me. And I’d rather if you didn’t keep trying to serve yourself to me on a silver platter like you have been this whole time; I’ll be tempted to eat.”

Kanna stared at her in silence for a long moment, not quite sure how she should interpret what the woman had just said. She hadn’t really considered Goda’s feelings, she realized. The idea that the woman might look at her the same way made her suddenly uncomfortable. It all seemed too human for Goda. Kanna shifted awkwardly in place, feeling the slippery surface of the log beneath her moving a bit; it was less stable than she had originally assumed.

“What do you mean?” Kanna finally asked.

Goda laughed again. “If you’re asking that, then you’ve already guessed. You’re not imagining things: I also find you nice to look at. I’m just less obvious when I look.” She pushed the tips of her fingers against Kanna’s shoulder, enough to knock her off balance, enough that Kanna fell splashing into the water.

Kanna waved her arms around in a panic automatically, as if her body had fallen into some watery abyss that she needed to fight her way out of, which made the splashing worse. Luckily, the distance to the lake floor was negligible, and so she caught her footing quickly and she only got a bit of water in her nose. Kanna coughed and looked up at Goda with distaste.

“Always a dramatic performance,” Goda said with a wild grin. She did not clap, but she nodded her head once, as if she were offering a bow.

After they had finished bathing, they crawled lazily onto the big rocks near the edge of the lake, so that they could dry in the light of the sun that was shining down through the canopy. Goda was half-sitting, half-lying on the flat top of a boulder, her body propped up on her elbows, and Kanna had settled onto a ledge beside her. In spite of everything that Goda had said, Kanna had laid her head on the woman’s thigh and had watched Goda’s expression carefully to see if she would object. She had not.

They had talked for a bit about unimportant things—the weather in the Middleland, the landscape around them—but Goda did not seem very good at keeping those sorts of conversations going, and so they had quickly fallen into silence. Without the distraction of small talk, Kanna found that she couldn’t stop the thoughts that echoed in her mind.

Goda is attracted to me. She felt her face blushing furiously against the woman’s skin. She didn’t know why she was fixating so strongly on the thought. It had pushed everything else out of her mind. For the moment, she had forgotten all about her situation, all about the cuff key, all about the world outside the small patch of forest that they found themselves in.

Perhaps Goda’s intention had been to point to the obvious, so that the tension could finally dissolve and Kanna could find some relief. In a sense, Goda had indeed broken through some of the unspoken discomfort between them—but she had also given rise to new tension, and so Kanna did not know if she would ever find relief at all.

She looked down at Goda’s hand where it rested against the rock. She studied the thick knuckles, the cuts and scratches and translucent scars that etched the skin of her fingers. She thought about what that hand would look like touching her.

It’s stupid, Kanna reminded herself. It’s stupid. I can’t let myself get distracted. I need to remember that there’s a world outside of this and that I’m going to be running away from her—maybe even fighting her—in a day or two at the most.

But something about Goda always made her forget about what was coming next and what had come before. Something about Goda pushed her into this long, spreading, present moment that never ended. Everything about Goda was always here and now.

“What if we do what we want right now, here in the forest,” Kanna murmured, her hand coming up to lightly touch the space where Goda’s hip met her thigh, “and then never speak of it again. We can act like it never happened. It doesn’t really matter anyway, does it?”

The truth was that their connection would be cut short soon enough, even if Goda did not realize exactly how soon that would be. It’s a waste, isn’t it? Kanna thought to herself. There’s no good reason to hold ourselves back now. Kanna had never been so physically attracted to anyone in her life, and she realized that she had nothing to lose in indulging it at that point. It really didn’t mean anything. It made sense to put Goda’s body to use while she still had the chance to use it.

“Indeed, it doesn’t matter,” Goda replied, her voice soft, “but no, we can’t act like it never happened, so we won’t do it.”

“Wasn’t it you who said that the past is just made up of stories? You implied that my life in the Upperland was just a delusion and that I couldn’t hold onto that if I wanted to carry on, but now you’re giving whatever we do in here actual importance, even though this will also become the past the moment we leave. Why do you have these double standards?”

Goda smiled down at her. “So you were listening to me earlier after all.”

“And are you listening to me now? Or are you evading my question?” Kanna said crossly, already so frustrated that she could hardly keep herself from thinking about punching Goda right in the face.

The woman turned away after a moment and looked off into the distance, into the thicket of the forest. “What you want,” she said, “is a container for reality, which is very different from letting go of the past. You want to compartmentalize what has arisen between us, and you want to pretend that you can manage it and control it—that you can keep it in this forest—so that you can say that you haven’t completely surrendered to it. But you can’t do that. It’s not possible; it would only be pretending.”

“I haven’t surrendered to anything.”

“Exactly. So don’t delude yourself that sex with me would be anything short of surrender. You either surrender to it, or you don’t. You are either hot or you are cold, but don’t make yourself lukewarm; you’ll put me off my appetite.” That was when Goda finally pushed Kanna away, then jumped down from the rock.

Kanna lifted her head up and looked Goda squarely in the face, her jaw clenched. “Then 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.” Her face was burning and her fingernails were digging hard into the surface of the rock, but since she had already forced herself to be much more honest than before, she decided that she would lose nothing in baring herself completely.

But Goda rejected even this. “Fool,” Goda said. “You don’t know what you’re asking for. It’s not enough to surrender your body. I won’t accept just that. The surrender would have to be so total that you would become an empty shell that only serves to have me inside of you. But you are already full of Kanna Rava, so there is not enough room for me to be inside of you as well. You cannot have both, so stop pretending. You’re too enamored with resistance and I can’t make you surrender—only you can let yourself go, and you won’t. There’s nothing to discuss.”

Kanna stared after her with a confused expression, but the face of the woman who glanced back was characteristically blank, except for an edge of aggression. “If you’re trying to turn me off by blabbering nonsense,” Kanna said, “then I’ll have you know that your plan is working.” As she said this, though, she could not tear her eyes away from Goda’s body even still, from the tension that had come over the woman’s frame, from the posture that looked like it indeed was about to launch that animal towards Kanna so that it could finally break her. Everything that Goda said had made her want the woman even more for some inexplicable reason that she couldn’t understand.

Goda did not entertain her anymore, though. She turned and headed back to her pile of discarded clothes and began to dress herself without looking at Kanna again.

The moment they stepped out of the forest a short while later, Kanna felt some of the tension drop away immediately. The air was different—less humid, more open—and though she knew that her frustration was still there beneath the surface, she could suddenly ignore it better. She stared down the long road that lay ahead of them and tried not to look at Goda directly.

* * *

“What happened to me?”

Kanna had been holding the calligraphy textbook up to her face—to stave off her boredom and to ease some of her still-lingering embarrassment at Goda’s bizarre rejection—but now it had grown too dark to read. The sun was waning, turning blood-red over some mountains in the distance. Kanna was surprised that the fuel had lasted this long, though granted she had no idea what kind of energy was contained in those canisters, or how it translated into the turning of an engine.

“Hm?” Goda murmured, and that was when Kanna realized that she had blurted out the question in the first place.

Kanna sighed. It was the first thing she had said since they had left the forest hours earlier. She felt a little awkward even still, but all the thinking and ruminating had left her in a renewed confusion.

“What happened to me in the caverns yesterday?” she asked. It had struck her a few hours earlier that there was something different in the air, but she had quickly realized that the difference was in herself. “I’m still not the same. Something changed in me, and when I sit here now in silence, I can feel it more than when I distract myself. It’s almost like…there’s a pocket of nothing where some of me used to be. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’m trying to remember which part of myself was there, but I can’t; I can just feel that it’s missing, like some habit that I’ve forgotten how to do.”

“I told you already. You began to die—not physically; a different sort of death, a letting go of your old self. Maybe that small part of you will never come back to life ever again, and that’s what you’re sensing now.” Goda stared squarely ahead at the road that was quickly growing dimmer. She flipped on the headlamps of the truck and the gravel right in front of them was suddenly flooded with light. “It’s not an accident that the shrine was built where it was. Many ancient shrines are like this—carved into caverns that have strange, magical properties. Maybe it’s some vibrating energy that comes from the rocks, or maybe it’s some fumes coming up from deep in the earth, but early Maharan shrines and even some pre-Maharan sites have this effect on certain people. They do something very similar to what the Samma Flower does. No one knows why.”

“It bothers me. The worst part is that I don’t even know what changed.” Kanna took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. It was then that she noticed that something about them looked different too, but she couldn’t tell exactly what. “I guess it’s not all bad. Just strange. Maybe it’s only my imagination, but it feels like part of a load I was carrying disappeared. I don’t know what it was, so I’m still grasping to find it.”

“The load is you,” Goda said. “Just being yourself is a burden because it traps you in old cycles and keeps you from growing beyond where you are. You cannot be the self you are now and also become the self that you were meant to be. You must change again and again, but most people resist the process at some point and get trapped, especially when change happens fast enough for them to notice, because change is the same as death, and death is not pleasant. This is why those shrines were built, and why the ancient people probably used to eat the Samma Flower in the very cave that we visited. They wanted to face death, to see life through the eyes of the Goddess instead of through the eyes of their limited selves. That is the true face of our Holy Mahara, a thing that no priestess will ever admit to you: the Goddess is actually nothing at all. She is the lack of self. She is what happens when you’ve surrendered everything and have become no one. She is not an untouchable idol in a temple; anyone who is no one can become the Goddess.”

Kanna looked at Goda in silence. As usual, what the woman said made no logical sense, but at the same time the words themselves reminded her of their conversation in the forest, and something in those words snapped together very suddenly. “But I’m still here,” Kanna whispered. “I still haven’t surrendered, and I’m still full of Kanna Rava.”

Goda turned to gaze at her, and her eyes gleamed with the diffused light that was still left in the sky. “Yes. The more you resist destroying Kanna Rava, the harder it will be for you to experience your true nature, the part of you that never changes, has no name, and cannot die. As long as you cling to this identity, you will also be unable to move on with your life. You will forever be the Goddess pretending to be Kanna Rava.”

“You ask too much of me,” Kanna said, but the truth was that she knew that Goda had asked for nothing, that the woman wanted nothing from her—and that the woman may have even been free of desire in general.

She knew now why the priestess had warned her: Goda was a dangerous person. The woman truly was empty and had nothing to lose. Every moment with her, this became increasingly clear. Kanna had to run away or else she would not survive even being transported.

She looked away, out towards the darkness that now faced them. A few lights peppered the horizon. Kanna narrowed her eyes and she thought she could see the shapes of machines. A low rumble began to travel through the air around her. “What is that out there?”

“The crossing,” Goda said. “We’re about to go over to the other side.”

Onto Chapter 14 >>