Kanna had been unable to escape the fumes. She ducked her head, and she covered her mouth with the collar of her robes, but still the smell of the exhaust from the military trucks seeped into her nostrils. With her face tilted down, even in the dim light, she could see the script painted in red on the side of the canister as it bounced between her ankles, reminding her once again that what she was inhaling was the waste of Rava Spirits.
She glanced up at Goda. The woman’s handsome face had grown a bit twisted with distaste, and when Kanna followed Goda’s gaze, she saw that they were pulling up to a small opening between a row of tanks that blocked the road. There were a few trucks ahead of them in line, small ones that looked similar to Goda’s—albeit less rundown—and which seemed to carry civilians. In the dark, Kanna couldn’t make out any of their faces, but she could see their silhouettes moving like shadow puppets in front of the bright lights of the military vehicles.
There were soldiers as well, dipping down over the doors of the trucks, handing things to the people inside and receiving things in return. A bit further in the distance, as they drew closer to the light, she could see other groups of soldiers peering into the cabins of the trucks, poking and prodding at the cargo before letting people through.
“What are they looking for?” Kanna asked Goda.
“What do you think they’re looking for?”
Kanna shook her head and sighed as the queue moved and she saw that they would be next to face the first checkpoint. “Don’t tell me they’re looking for Death Flower—for Samma Flower. All this paranoia over one tiny little plant is ridiculous. Sure, what it does is horrendous, but I still don’t understand the obsession.”
“You don’t yet realize its power, then,” Goda murmured, her eyes still straight ahead. “Imagine what happened to you in the cave, but multiplied many hundreds of times. That’s what the flower can do if a person can ingest it successfully without poisoning themselves or purging it altogether. It can leave a person empty of beliefs and principles and morals, which makes them very hard to control. Someone who has seen the truth has nothing to lose.”
Kanna stared at the woman. She wondered if Goda was talking about herself. “I thought you said that it allows a person to see the Goddess.”
“Yes, exactly. The truth, the emptiness, the Goddess—same thing.”
“You never make any sense.” Kanna crossed her arms. “‘Truth,’ ‘emptiness,’ ‘Goddess’—I may be no expert in the Middlelander tongue, but these are not synonyms.”
“You’re right,” Goda said. “You are indeed no expert. Either way, it doesn’t serve you to get caught up in the words themselves. You’ll miss what they point to. If I point to that mountain in the distance, are you going to fixate on which finger I used to point to it, or are you going to look at the mountain?”
Kanna narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like Goda’s attitude one bit, but before she could offer an irritated retort, Goda had pulled the truck up beside a soldier who was already leaning in their direction with a weird grin.
“Well, well! Hello there, Goda Brahm. Still not dead yet, I see!”
Kanna thought it was the strangest greeting she had ever heard, but Goda did not appear to be offended. Instead, she rummaged around in her robes and pulled out a folded stack of papers.
“This is my prisoner. She’s an Upperlander, but she’s been cleansed.” Goda shoved the papers into the woman’s hand.
“Oh, come on, don’t be so short with me,” the soldier said as she began flipping through Kanna’s documents. “We have time. I don’t mind holding up the line so that we can catch up. How’s the lovely Priestess Rem Murau doing? I heard she’s at the desert monastery now; I can’t imagine you missed her. You had to go there for the cleanse, didn’t you?” The soldier glanced down at the last sheet of paper as Goda looked on silently. “Ah, yes, here is the priestess’s personal stamp. Must have been nice seeing that familiar face after all this time, huh?”
Something about the look that the solider was giving Goda made Kanna extremely uncomfortable. It was a twisted grin, like the woman was trying to tease out some kind of emotional response. Kanna could not see Goda’s expression, since she was facing away, but she could see the back of Goda’s shoulders stiffen slightly. It gave Kanna the sudden urge to reach out and touch her, but she suppressed it.
“Are you letting us through or not?” Goda said rudely.
“Sheesh, no need to get so testy!” Then the woman’s gaze grew more intense, her smile wider, her voice softer. “What are you going to do, Goda? Stab me in the neck?”
Goda’s entire body jerked forward in that instant. Her arm thrust out towards the soldier, and for a split second Kanna was convinced that she was about to strike her. The soldier seemed to get that same impression, too, and her eyes widened, and she jumped back.
But instead of hitting her, Goda merely opened a receptive hand. “Are you done?” she asked.
The soldier dropped the papers into Goda’s open palm without saying another word. Goda rolled forward into the next checkpoint.
“What in God’s name was that all about?” Kanna huffed as they neared another gaggle of soldiers that seemed to be glancing into the cabin of each truck in line. Kanna also noticed that off to the side, there was a group of three travelers pulled over, and she could sense anxiety in their postures. The soldiers were swooping into the back of their truck like a flock of vultures, clawing through the cargo as if they were searching for something.
“She’s an acquaintance of mine,” Goda replied. “We used to work at the same place when we were younger.”
“At the monastery in Samma Valley?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Why was she talking to you like that?”
“She doesn’t like me.”
“Clearly.” By now, this was no longer shocking to Kanna, but she was still confused as to how a simple gardener could have accumulated so many enemies. Maybe nine years prior, Goda had grown some poisonous herb, and other people like Priestess Rem had accidentally eaten it with unpleasant results. Or maybe…
Yes, Kanna thought, of course.
Why had this never occurred to her before? Goda seemed to know all about Death Flower, and she had even admitted to eating it before. Could this have been why Priestess Rem seemed to hate her so much?
Still, it seemed like an odd thing to hate someone for. Priestess Rem’s grudge had appeared to be much more personal, and if possessing Death were something so personally offensive to the priestess, then wouldn’t she have hated Parama Shakka just as much? Furthermore, Goda was not a slave—and she was clearly not imprisoned—so even if she had grown Death Flower, it seemed unlikely that anyone else would have found out about it, or else she would have surely lost her freedom.
They pulled up to the group of soldiers, the truck beneath them giving out a violent shudder, a complaint that seemed to mean that the motor wasn’t keen on all of the stopping and going—or else they were running out of fuel, Kanna guessed.
One of the soldiers peered into the truck, and she noticed the canister by Kanna’s feet. She glanced up at Kanna curiously, to scrutinize her face.
“A foreigner? An Outerlander, is it?” the soldier asked. “What’s that you have there?”
“It’s a container of fuel,” Goda replied for her, but she didn’t bother to correct the woman on Kanna’s ethnicity.
Without so much as a gesture of apology, the soldier bent into the open cabin and reached down between Kanna’s feet. Kanna jerked her legs up onto the seat and gave the soldier a startled look, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.
The soldier popped open the cap at the end of the spout with her thumb and she sniffed the canister. While Kanna watched with disgust, the woman took a swig and then coughed loudly, droplets spraying on the ledge of the door until she managed to stifle it by pressing her mouth to the crook of her arm.
When she seemed to have recovered, she looked up. She cleared her throat. “Yep, that’s definitely fuel.” She waved a hand after dropping the fuel down into Kanna’s lap. “I’m searching the back. Stay in your seats and don’t test my patience with any nonsense.”
Kanna glared at her, but the eye contact didn’t last long because the woman started climbing into the back of the truck and shifting around random crates and containers.
“What the hell did she think would be in a fuel can other than fuel?” Kanna whispered, snapping to the side to look at Goda with indignation.
“The excretions of a vessel, of someone who has gorged themselves on Samma Flower.”
Kanna made a face. It was bad enough that people ran around drinking other people’s tainted urine, but it seemed that they carried it around in jugs as well. What kind of country have I been dragged into? she asked herself.
While the soldier rummaged around in the back, giving the rig an unpleasant bounce, Kanna tried to distract herself by staring off towards the group of migrants that she had seen earlier, who were now standing not too far from Goda’s side of the truck.
As she squinted over Goda’s seat and through the blazing electric lights that hung near them, she could make out some of the migrants’ faces. They appeared to be Middlelanders—or so she assumed—because two of them were tall, lanky women with dark hair who did not appear to have Outerlander features. The third seemed to be a short young man—though Kanna could still not be sure of his gender—and when her gaze landed on his face, she nearly pulled back with revulsion.
Even through the small distance that separated them, she could see that he was staring straight at her—or at Goda—and his eyes didn’t seem right at all. They were huge, pupils spread wide like the mouth of a void in spite of the bright lights. His eyelids were strung open; the whites of his eyes gleamed at her. His whole body was shuddering, and as Kanna stared at him longer, the shudders only grew stronger.
He dashed towards them. This time, Kanna did recoil. She jerked away so strongly on reflex that her back slammed against the door beside her. Seeing this, Goda gave her a curious look, then followed her gaze and finally seemed to notice the small man who was running frantically in their direction.
Kanna stared in horror as the stranger jumped onto the side of the truck before Goda could even react. He grasped the collar of Goda’s robes and looked at her with that wide open stare, with those black holes that had replaced his eyes.
Kanna was sure that he was about to attack, that Goda was about to be forced into another fight, but instead he screamed, “Master!” His voice was desperate. “Master, is that really you? Have you really arrived? I had begged the Goddess to lead me to you before I had to go, to let me see your face even once!”
Kanna blinked. She didn’t know what to do. She sat there, frozen in place, uncertain as to whether she should run or stay put. The boy was obviously insane.
Goda took a tight hold of her assailant’s hand and wrenched it away. “What are you talking about, boy?” she said, her tone one of genuine bafflement. From her vantage point, Kanna could see Goda’s face in the reflection of the glass windshield, and the woman’s eyebrows were furrowed with confusion.
All the ruckus seemed to rouse the attention of the soldier behind them. “Hey! Hey you, get back over to your truck! What are you doing over here, interrupting a search?” The soldier seemed to look at him more closely, and then her eyes widened a considerable degree as well. “We have one!” she shouted, lifting her head up to call out to the rest of her comrades. “We have a vessel currently in state! Pull him down, pull him down!”
But the young man gripped the side of Goda’s door to keep steady and he stared hard at Goda’s face. “I wasn’t going to last long here anyway, but I’m sure I’ll see you and the rest of the masters on the other side of the gate when the time comes,” he said, very calmly, a strange serenity filling his face, a peace that seemed to point to some default silence beneath the pounding noise of boots on the gravel.
He was smiling when a pack of soldiers descended upon him and ripped him away from Goda’s truck. He was smiling when they began to beat him to the ground. Before long, Kanna couldn’t even see most of his body through all the commotion, but she could see that quiet, contented smile—and it made Kanna so uncomfortable that she had to turn away.
The soldier who had been searching them jumped down from the back of the truck. She waved Goda off impatiently. “Go!” she said. “You’re clear. Stop rubbernecking and leave!”
Kanna stared straight ahead. Somehow, all the content of her thoughts had dissipated, and only the image of the boy’s empty expression remained in her mind’s eye. She pressed her hands to her face and tried to shake it off, and when she looked back up again, they were already moving.
As they pulled away from the checkpoint and the lights whipped by like a flash, it felt like Kanna was being sucked into the dark void of the road in front of them. Just as Goda’s lantern had lit the way through the darkness of the caverns, the headlights of Goda’s truck lit only one small part of the road, and Kanna found it a bit unnerving that the only thing she could see beyond that were the shadows of the mountains far in the distance.
“What was that?” she asked in a hushed tone, even though they had already sped far past any of the others. “What the hell is going on? Really, what is this place? Have I been pulled into some bizarre nightmare, some labyrinth made of my own mind? Every time I think I have the tiniest, most minuscule grasp on what’s happening around me, this world consistently goes out of its way to prove to me how wrong I am.”
“Good. Then you’re starting to see the truth. As I already told you, the universe is constantly changing, so you won’t do yourself any good trying to grasp onto some structure that you create in your head. Everything is infinitely strange. Get used to it.”
Kanna shook her head and crossed her arms, unsatisfied with Goda’s answer—unsatisfied with everything. “That still doesn’t explain the boy who just ran up to you. Who the hell was that and what was he going on about? Were they just the crazed ramblings of a madman drunk on Death? Do you even know him?”
“I’ve never met him before and I have no idea who he is.” The bewilderment still had not completely faded from Goda’s face, and Kanna decided that the woman was telling the truth, if for no other reason than the fact that she had no conceivable reason to lie.
“Why would he call you his master?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Maybe he’s been your prisoner before, and he was having some psychotic flashback.”
“No. I would have remembered. They almost never allow women to transport men alone—unless the prisoner is a foreigner, and that man was definitely a Middlelander. That’s probably how he made it this far without being caught. Most vessels are Outerlanders, so the soldiers don’t expect people like him to have eaten Flower, and they don’t require people like him to cleanse when coming back over the border.”
Kanna opened her mouth to complain once again about discrimination, but she stopped. Instead, she looked hard at Goda’s face, at the small bits of emotion that rippled through the woman’s expression.
“What’s going to happen to him?” Kanna asked, though she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know.
“He’ll be executed.”
The wind whipped through Kanna’s ears and the world fell into a pulsating silence for a long while. When the military lights were so far behind them that Kanna could not see the glare on the horizon even if she turned around, the truck beneath them began to rattle again, and so Goda pulled over to the side of the road.
“She’s tired,” Goda said. “We’ll rest here until morning.” It took Kanna a moment to realize that Goda was talking about the truck, but nonetheless the comment made Kanna yawn.
The truck shook back and forth, and the sound of ringing metal echoed through the darkness as Goda climbed over her seat and jumped into the back. Kanna could not see her very well anymore now that the headlights were off, but she could hear Goda pushing crates and other items aside on the flatbed behind her—perhaps undoing the mess that the soldier had made.
“Come.” Goda motioned towards the back of the truck. “There’s another shrine nearby that I stay in sometimes, but considering what happened to you in the caverns, it’s best if we sleep here.”
She spread out the mats that she had stolen from Jaya, and just as they had done for the three nights before, they lay side by side. This time, though, it was in the cool open air, and as Kanna plopped onto her back, she could see an array of stars above her, peeking through the branches of some nearby trees that crouched over them.
We’re near a forest again, Kanna thought. The foliage on the side of the road had grown even more frequent as they had headed West. She wondered now if they had officially emerged from the desert, though it was hard to draw a hard line in the landscape, even if they had just crossed a man-made border into the Middleland.
There were other ambiguities to consider, too. Kanna ventured to glance beside her; she could only see the barest outline of Goda’s face. The woman’s eyes appeared to be closed already, her breath steady, her arms tucked behind her head. It was a pose that Kanna found to be overly-relaxed, considering that the woman was lying there, completely exposed to the elements—completely exposed to Kanna.
Maybe she trusts me now, Kanna thought. Goda hadn’t tied her up or done anything to deter her escape, though granted by then Kanna knew not to defy the cuff. With mixed feelings, she reached down and pressed her hand to the key through the fabric of her robes, until she felt the metal growing warm. Whether Goda trusted her or not, it was true that some strange connection had materialized between them beyond the cuff, something Kanna could not understand, something Goda had lightly acknowledged earlier that day.
But Kanna knew she wouldn’t have any time to explore it. She pulled her hand away from the key. She stared at Goda’s face.
That natural impulse to touch the woman had come over Kanna again, but it was stifled by the awkwardness that still lingered—and the presence of the key which had grown heavier between them.
* * *
Kanna had a dream. She immediately recognized that she was dreaming, and so this time she was much less afraid when she found herself standing in a strange clearing surrounded by woods, in a body that was not her own.
Her head was tilted down and she was looking at the earth beneath her, and at a pair of boot-clad feet that seemed much further away than hers usually were. In her left hand there was a heavy bucket filled with soil. When she looked up, she realized that she could not control her gaze, or the tilt of her head, or any muscle in the body she inhabited.
The body moved on its own, down a path near a little fence, past a tiny cabin. The body was taking her along with it. Before it walked her into a nearby wooded trail, however, a voice rang out behind her.
Kanna turned her head—again, without any direct control. She saw a beautiful young woman standing in the front yard of the house, just on the other side of the fence. Light rays came down from between the trees and struck the woman’s face, giving her an angelic appearance in spite of her black robes. The woman looked very familiar, but even with the awareness that she was dreaming, Kanna’s mind was still not fully lucid, and she found that she couldn’t put an identity on the person standing before her.
The woman smiled, her hands clasped in front of her, her clothes giving a strangely severe contrast to the bright greenery around them. “I’ve been looking for you,” she said. “You’re the apprentice, aren’t you? I have a problem with my garden that I need you to solve.”
Kanna’s new body trudged towards the woman—who she now realized was a Maharan priestess—and came to stand with just the closed gate between them. Because she had to tilt her gaze down to meet the priestess’s eyes, and the top of the fence barely reached beyond Kanna’s waist, she realized very suddenly that she was inhabiting the body of some kind of giant.
The giant spoke, and Kanna could feel the voice vibrating as if it were through her own throat: “I’m an apprentice to the horticulturist. I’m not a personal gardener. That’s the job of a temple assistant, so ask one of them.” The body began to turn.
“My my, how disrespectful!” the woman said, though in her eyes she looked amused and not offended at all. “Is that the sort of welcome that you offer a new priestess like myself? Even if I am a novice still, you probably realize that it’s not a good idea to get on my bad side.”
“It’s none of my concern which side I’m on.”
“You’re a willful one, aren’t you?” The priestess stepped forward and unlocked the gate. “Come. It’s not gardening work so much as a dirty deed that I can’t do myself because it’s against my precepts. A pair of rabbits have taken up residence and they’re eating everything remotely green in here. I need you to kill them before they start a family.”
“If it’s rabbits you want gone, then release a snake in your garden and that should take care of the problem.”
“Oh, but then I would have to deal with a snake, wouldn’t I? And it’s against my precepts to kill anything, so I would find myself in the same conundrum.”
The giant stared at the priestess. “What, so you need me to sin in your place?”
“Yes, exactly.” The woman’s eyes looked impish, still amused. “It is the role of a lay person to sin in my place, and today that will be you. I’m not asking; I’m ordering you.”
“Look at those hands of yours. You could beat anyone senseless. I doubt you’d have trouble hunting down a pair of rabbits—and going by that cold, unfeeling look that you always carry around on your face, I doubt you’d be squeamish about it, either. I’ve been watching you.” She gave Kanna—or the giant—a tiny smile, an expression that Kanna would have thought a touch coquettish if it hadn’t been coming from a priestess.
The giant seemed to notice the look and leaned back slightly. She awkwardly cleared her throat and Kanna could feel the rumble again in her own lungs. To her surprise, she also felt some warmth rising slowly up her face. “Fine,” the giant muttered. “If you’re ordering me, then I can’t say no.”
So Kanna floated into the garden along with that huge body, and before long she could barely make sense of what was happening because the giant had caught sight of the rabbits and had given chase. The hands that hung below her grasped the tiny creatures one at a time, and with a small knife, the hands slit each of the animals’ throats. Kanna tried not to look, but she could not influence the direction of her gaze, so she had to watch it in great detail.
The giant dropped the rabbits on the priestess’s doorstep.
“What?” the priestess said. “You’re not going to skin and butcher them for me? I can’t butcher an animal. It’s against my precepts.”
The giant sat on the stoop with her knife and Kanna watched for awhile as the rabbits became meat before her very eyes. When the giant went to hand the priestess the small corpses, the priestess finally accepted them, but she offered no word of thanks.
“Come back here in the evening,” she said instead. “I want you to build me a fire in the back.”
“What, is starting a fire also against your precepts?”
“No.” The priestess’s smile grew ever more coy. “I’m inviting you over for dinner, of course. We’re having rabbit.”
* * *
As soon as Kanna opened her eyes, the vivid images of her dream quickly began to fade from her mind, and she was met only with a black sky above her. She coughed, her mouth feeling suddenly dry. She rubbed her face with both hands and tried to move, but she found that the surreal sensation of inhabiting some other body had left her unsure of her own.
When she managed to sit up by pushing herself against the side of the truck, her eyes opened fully and she stared into the darkness ahead of her. Even as the memories dissolved—as they usually did for most of her dreams—the face of the young woman remained, and in her renewed lucidity, Kanna realized:
It had been the face of Priestess Rem.
There was no doubt. The woman’s features were younger, less motherly and more like a girl who had just blossomed into adulthood, but she had looked exactly like Priestess Rem.
I barely stayed near the monastery for three days, and yet this woman is haunting my dreams already, Kanna thought. She let out a long sigh and tried to shake off the residual mix of emotions that she had felt through the giant’s body. Maybe she does have magical powers after all.
But of course, Kanna didn’t believe in that kind of nonsense—in magic, or fortunetelling, or Goddesses, or even in snakes that could unravel a person’s identity.
Eventually, when the space around her felt real again, she thought to look beside her, and she found that the mattress that was twin to her own lay empty. A rumpled indentation was still there, in the vague shape of Goda’s body, but as Kanna looked around and tried to see where she might have gone, there were no further signs of the tall woman.
Of the giant.
Kanna stiffened where she sat. On impulse, she grabbed the edge of the border of the truck bed, and she pulled herself over the side, and she slid down the rusted metal until her feet landed onto the dirt outside. She spun around, looking in every direction.
“Goda?” she murmured. Even when she peered far past the truck, she could see no one. In the darkness, she could see only the smudged gray image of the trees on the side of the road. “Goda!”
As she turned, a quick flash caught her eye between two of the trees, an orange glow that seemed to come from the heart of a fire. She shuffled down the small embankment that separated the road from the trees, and when she looked through the brush, she found that the patch of woods actually wasn’t thick at all. Maybe ten paces ahead of her, obscured only slightly by low-hanging branches, was the flat side of a stone ridge that marked the grove’s end; and carved into the very bottom of the stone, a shallow den emerged.
Kanna could see that the walls were etched with the flicker of dancing flames, and even from where she was standing, she recognized the shape of the woman who sat facing away, cross-legged in front of the embers.
Because it was not far, Kanna lifted her robe up over her ankles, and she trudged through the leaf litter until she reached the other side of the trees. Once she was beyond the grove, her eyes fell into the core of the flame inside the den. It lit up strange writing on the walls, writing that Kanna did not recognize as standard script—but it did trigger a sensation of familiarity; now that she had practiced, she could recognize that it was something close to the Old Middlelander that Goda had forced on her.
Slowly—because she was still spooked by the possibility of more snakes—she eased her way to the mouth of the den and stood behind the giant.
Goda was facing the far wall, in a posture that reminded Kanna very much of Priestess Rem when she had run into her in the cellar of the tower. She hoped that Goda’s face wouldn’t be quite so lifeless as Rem’s had been. She craned her neck to look.
Goda’s eyes were open.
“Take off your sandals,” Goda said.
Kanna jerked back slightly. For some reason, she had been unprepared for that voice. It bounced off the walls of the small den and seemed to enter her ears with no clear source.
But Kanna obeyed and crouched down to pull off her sandals before she softly inched her way towards the warmth of the fire. Because she could not bear to sit directly next to Goda, she sat down on the other side of the flames, next to a bundle of sticks and brush that seemed to be meant for fuel.
She stared across the fire at Goda’s flickering face, but Goda’s eyes remained pointed towards the heart of the fire. They sat in silence. Absentmindedly, as if to disrupt the intensity that seemed thick in the air, Kanna grasped one of the crooked twigs and threw it into the fire. She watched it with curiosity as the flames engulfed it, but at first it did not appear to burn.
She did not look up at Goda again until the fire had begun to consume it, until she was sure that no miracle had befallen her. When she did look up, she found that Goda had lifted her head up and was gazing at Kanna across the fire with the whole of her attention. This made Kanna more uncomfortable than before.
Still, she had come in there searching for that gaze, with a question burning in her mind. She struggled to stare right back. She pressed her hands hard against her knees.
“Be honest with me,” Kanna finally asked. “Who are you?” She leaned across the fire, feeling the heat pushing uncomfortably against her chest, but she stayed because it allowed her to look closer at that stranger’s face.
For awhile, Goda said nothing, and only watched Kanna through the glow. The flames seemed to frame Goda’s face, and they gave her skin the quality of being set alight. When she finally answered, she had a faint smile in those black eyes.
“I am,” Goda said.
Kanna waited for the rest of the answer, but it didn’t come. The way Goda had spoken made it sound like it was a completed sentence. Kanna shifted in place and shook her head, both because she didn’t understand and because she suspected that she was teetering on the edge of a disturbing realization.
“Who are you?” Kanna repeated.
“Stop.” Kanna shook her head again. “Tell me. I’m serious. Who are you?”
After this, Kanna looked away, because she could no longer meet that smoldering gaze that seemed to expect some understanding from her. She sighed and leaned back, and crossed her legs to mirror Goda’s stance. “I had a dream,” Kanna told her. “Priestess Rem was in it—and I think you were, too. I don’t know. In the dream, I think I was you.”
“Was it a nightmare?”
“Yes.” Kanna rubbed her face with her cold hands, and this eased some of the discomfort that the heat of the fire had been burning into her. “Priestess Rem was younger. She was standing in a garden next to a cottage in a forest, and she asked me to kill two rabbits for her.”
When Kanna quickly glanced at Goda again, the woman’s face had grown nearly expressionless, but there was a faint tone of surprise in her gaze, and some of the intensity of her concentration seemed to be suddenly broken. When the surprise faded, she began to stand up.
“That was not Priestess Rem,” she said. She made her way to the entrance of the den. “We should leave here. Even though you didn’t enter the shrine at first, it sensed your presence nearby and was sending you messages in your sleep. We pulled over too close.”
Kanna looked up at Goda with curiosity. “Messages?”
Goda didn’t answer. Because she seemed to have no water to waste, she dug her hands into the soil just outside the den and began throwing that onto the flames to stifle the small fire. As she did this, Kanna thought she saw a flash of color pulsing above her. When she looked up at the ceiling of the den as the light progressively faded, she noticed all manner of graven images—of beasts, both realistic and mythical—but most of all she noticed the carving that floated above Goda’s head, a carving in the shape of a swan with spreading wings.
Kanna stared at it. It stared back at her with a swirling eye that seemed fueled by the last wink of light, and when that died, the swan and its brothers disappeared.
Outside the den, Kanna followed Goda into the pitch darkness, not questioning for even a moment that the woman knew where she was going. She reached out and grasped onto the back of Goda’s robes, as had become her habit, and this time she did not feel any hesitation in doing it.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Kanna whispered.
“I answered you three times. Three times is more than enough.”
Kanna huffed and pressed her face to Goda’s back. “How do you expect me to make any sense of those weird answers?”
“Are you really asking about who I am, then? Or are you asking about my personal life?”
“Aren’t they the same?”
“You know enough by now to realize that they’re not, even if you may not yet realize why.” Goda slowed down slightly to step over a fallen tree and Kanna followed after feeling her movements.
“Fine, fine!” Kanna said, pressing her body closer. “But you’re still evading my question. You can imply all you want that I’m too dense to understand anything and that I’m missing the point—and maybe that’s true—but you’re missing my point, too. I’m not asking about anything important or all-encompassing, like the answers you keep giving me. I’m asking about something stupid and mundane, and so those are the answers I want, because I’m a stupid and mundane person.” Kanna let out a long breath of frustration, her eyes shut, and she could feel her nails making indentations into the fabric of Goda’s clothes. “Who are you, Goda? Who are you? I keep seeing bits and pieces of your story, but none of it fits together. Tell me about your life, and then maybe I can come to understand you.”
Goda ignored her until they had almost come out of the grove, and then she turned around to face Kanna. The faint light of the stars and the moon lit up her eyes enough that Kanna could tell that they were pointed towards her, but much of the rest of the woman’s expression was obscured. The trees rustled around them.
“There’s nothing to understand.”
Kanna took a step towards her. They were on uneven ground, with Goda standing in a lower dip, so she felt a little taller than usual, even if Goda still hovered over her. This made it easier to force herself to look directly up at the woman’s face, to challenge the gaze that shined down on her.
“You’re evading,” Kanna said. “If your personal life really didn’t matter, then you would just tell me, wouldn’t you? Everyone has some kind of identity, some kind of past—even you. If you had really let go of it and risen above it as much as you pretend, then it would mean nothing to you to just tell me. What’s with all the mystery? At worst, it would just be an interesting story to pass the time on a long drive to nowhere.”
“I have no desire to serve as a source of entertainment for you.”
“Oh, so now you have preferences? I thought the great Goda Brahm cared about nothing in particular and had no personal desire or aversion about anything in particular.”
Goda tilted her head down, the shape of a smile coming over her face. “Is that what you thought?”
To Kanna’s irritation, Goda’s voice sounded amused rather than annoyed, filled with that teasing tone that seemed to dismiss Kanna’s entire point of view. Angered, she rushed hard against the front of Goda’s body on impulse, but the crash barely shook the giant in front of her. Kanna clutched onto Goda’s robes and looked up at the woman with gritted teeth.
Goda was stooping over her, and her face was close enough that Kanna could see more detail now—and could confirm the insolence of her smile—and could feel the woman’s warm breath huffing down into her own slightly-parted mouth.
“Why do you act like you’re not human?” Kanna whispered.
“I don’t,” Goda replied softly, her stare unbroken. Goda’s mouth was so close that the sound of her deep voice vibrated against Kanna’s own lips. “You just don’t realize what a human is.”
“You are human. I know you are.” Kanna pressed her hands flat against Goda’s chest, and she could feel the texture of the skin somehow, even through the cloth that separated them. “Your heart is beating. Blood flows through you. I can feel it even now. You’re human. You’re an animal. You’re made of flesh and bone and muscle. Stop acting like you’re some disembodied spirit.”
“You speak as if I can’t be all of those things at once.”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Kanna’s gaze blurred around the edges of her vision and sharpened only on those pair of black eyes that stared down at her. She took a handful of Goda’s chest, both the hard and the soft together. “I don’t want a ghost. I want a living being. I want that flesh of yours. That’s all I want. That’s all you’re good for. Everything else about you is useless to me.”
“Stop pretending,” Goda said. Her eyes were alight again, but with a different sort of fire. Her face was close, but she wouldn’t move any closer. She only stared, and hovered like a ghost, and huffed warm, living breath onto Kanna’s face.
And so, with renewed fury, Kanna thrust her body up in a full stretch towards the source. She crashed her mouth against Goda’s lips.
That warm breath forced its way into Kanna’s mouth. She heard it flow into her throat and ears. She felt it billow into her lungs for a brief second that seemed to stretch into an eternity. The forest had fallen into silence for them. The trees no longer swayed. Kanna felt a jolt of energy run through her, a buzz that rang so profoundly in her bones that for a moment she wondered if the cuff had shocked her.
Goda pushed Kanna hard against a tree, and that breath that had come inside of her quickly gasped its way out. But Goda’s mouth was still pressed against hers, and Goda’s mouth was fully open, and more than air was now being exchanged between them. Kanna stretched up to meet Goda even as she pushed against her, even as she clawed at Goda’s chest and played through the vague motions of a resistance that Goda easily overwhelmed. The warmth of the inside of Goda’s mouth—the tongue and the teeth together—both aroused Kanna and filled her with fear.
Kanna jostled to the side, and she felt Goda’s hands propped against the bark on either side of her. Without pulling away—without even opening her eyes—Kanna took hold of one of those wrists and ripped it away. She shoved the hand between her own legs and nearly gasped again as the fingers squeezed her roughly, reflexively; she felt the heat of that hand pulsing against her, even through the fabric of the robe that still served as a barrier to the touch.
But then Goda’s frame stiffened. She jerked away. The body, the hand, the mouth—they retreated all at once and were replaced with a rush of cold air. Kanna looked at the woman with bewilderment, and Goda pressed the back of her hand to her own mouth.
“You don’t want to know who I am,” Goda said, her eyes now impenetrably blank. “You already suspect, and it scares you, so you’d rather hear stories about how I lived, stories that will distract you and comfort you and give me some kind of personality. But hearing stories will never be the same as knowing; and using my body to distract yourself will never be the same as the surrender you actually want to give me. You will always be unsatisfied because of this. No matter how many times you might use me to touch yourself, you will never find that ecstasy you seek.”
She turned around and trudged through the trees, until Kanna could only see her ghostly shadow drifting towards the shape of the truck. Kanna dropped to the ground, her back still against the wood, and she looked up at the starlit sky that peeked through the leaves above her.
Then she tightened her jaw. She pressed her hand to her thigh and felt the outline of the key within the pocket of her robes.
She would be free of this torture soon enough.