At first, Kanna had not noticed the dawn. It came as a smudge of pink and gold reflected against the clouds on either side of her, but because she was staring at the dim image of the roadside ditch whipping past, it took her awhile to wake up to the light. In time, she felt the warmth of the sun emerging on the back of her head, and when she peered into the windshield at her reflection, it looked like a halo that had arisen behind her.
She was leaning away from Goda. When she had mounted the truck hours before, she had kept her distance out of social habit, because she thought that there should have been an awkward air between them. She was thrown off to find that there wasn’t. Goda’s posture was relaxed and the silence didn’t seem to carry any heaviness to it—it was only empty space, oozing between them and fusing with the landscape that spread around them.
Still, it was only proper to be embarrassed, Kanna thought, so she stayed put and tried to summon that familiar shame. Every once in awhile, as the light grew, she glanced quickly in Goda’s direction. She was trying to parse the tiny expressions on the woman’s face, to see any sign of judgment that she could use to fuel the shame, but instead Kanna’s eyes always seemed to land on that stoic mouth: the mouth that had pressed against hers; the mouth whose teeth had scraped once or twice on her lips, but had not taken a bite; the mouth that had nonetheless consumed some part of her—albeit a part that was less physically apparent.
Kanna could not shake the taste of that mouth.
“How long until I’m rid of you?” It had been a private thought at first, but Kanna spoke aloud anyway and she didn’t care anymore if Goda heard.
“Maybe a week. Maybe more. It depends on the conditions of the roads as we move onward. If it gets colder and starts snowing, that’ll slow us down, but I have about two weeks maximum to deliver you, so we’re still making good time. Once we get to Suda—the capital city—I’ll pass you off to some administrators that specialize in foreigners. You won’t see me again after that. They’ll file away all of your paperwork and put you in the registry, and then they will hand you off to your new master.”
“More bureaucracy,” Kanna complained.
Goda smirked at her. “That’s how the Mother keeps track of her children.” As usual, Goda ignored the strange look that Kanna gave her in response. She pulled on a lever to make the rickety truck move faster, and before long Kanna realized that they were rising up a steady incline, and that the trees on the side of the road had started to lean into the hill along with them.
“Where are we going now?” she asked. As she turned her gaze upwards, she could see that the hill was about to grow steeper, and that it sprouted up high enough that there was no way she could see the horizon. This unnerved her, even though she had noticed the hill from a distance some time before; it had seemed smaller back then.
“We’re going to resupply at a city called Karo. It’s close to here.”
As the truck rattled Kanna’s bones and fought its way loudly up the hill with heaving breaths, Kanna became very quiet, very still. Karo, she thought. It was the city that the priestess had told her about—the city with a train to the Upperland. Each moment, the key was growing heavier still in her pocket. Her mind wandered into that near future, and she was filled with resistance in the face of choice.
But a sudden jerk of her whole body at once snapped her attention back to the present. Because she had been holding herself tense, it was a painful jolt, and she turned to give Goda an irritated look.
The truck had shot forward with a sudden start. It reared back like a horse that had been spooked in the middle of the road, and Goda yanked some lever quickly to keep it from rolling back.
“Shit, shit!” Goda said—or it seemed that this was what she had said; Kanna could still not recognize all of the expletives in Middlelander because they were always uttered so quickly and messily.
It was the meaning behind the words that disturbed her more. She had never seen anything close to urgency come over the woman’s face until just then.
“What? What is it?” Kanna grabbed the side of the door next to her as the engine groaned and the truck shifted to and fro.
The beast struggled. It coughed. Kanna could feel its effort as it crawled up the hill, almost as if the energy were being drawn from her own body. The truck chugged forward awkwardly before sliding back, then forward again, then back, in a weightless ballet that made Kanna feel like they had lost contact with the ground. The engine revved.
Panicked, Kanna leaned forward automatically, though she knew this would make little difference. She felt that drop in her stomach that always came before falling. She knew that they were just on the verge of rolling all the way back down the hillside and she could feel all that potential gravity urging her towards the void behind them.
But before that happened, there was a final jerk. Very suddenly, with a last heave of strength, the truck pushed itself over a bump and Goda was able to ease it onto a plateau in front of them. She yanked the brakes as soon as they had reached safety. It was then that the engine let out a long sigh, and the truck fainted from exhaustion right where it was.
There was silence. It was a noisy silence, one that pointed to the death rattle that Kanna had just felt beneath her. Once her ears had adjusted, she could abruptly hear the chirping of birds in the distance.
“Well,” Goda said, the urgency having left her voice, her face having returned to its usual unaffected blankness, “we’re out of fuel. We’ll have to push it from here on in, then.” She jiggled the handle on her door and, finding that it resisted her, she finally kicked it open and jumped out.
“Push it?” Kanna asked incredulously. They had managed to stop at a flat section, but when she looked up, she could still see that they had a good portion of the hill left to conquer. Even though the steepest parts were behind them, the looming mount blocked out parts of the sky and she couldn’t see over it to the other side yet. “We can’t push the truck all the way up there. It’s impossible.”
“It’s not that bad. The truck is small and we have little cargo. I’ve pushed it before.” Goda slammed the door shut and walked to the back. She reached into the bed of the truck and began rearranging the contents, lining them up in what Kanna guessed was a more balanced configuration.
While she watched, Kanna shook her head. “Fine, even if you’ve pushed it before, that was probably on flat ground, though, wasn’t it? Even though the rest of this hill isn’t very steep, if we trip over anything or make one single misstep, the thing will come rolling back to run us over. We can’t do that; it’s too dangerous.” She furrowed her brow as she found that Goda ignored her. She crossed her arms. “We’re not doing that. I refuse.”
“Move over.” Goda had hopped into the back of the truck and she was motioning towards the driver’s seat.
“Sit where I was sitting before.”
But Kanna was feeling argumentative. “Why?” It was only once Goda thumped towards her and began leaning over to the front seat that Kanna gave in and slid across to the other side. She wasn’t exactly averse to another fight between them, but they were already in a precarious position on a ledge of the hillside, and she didn’t want to rock the truck too much with a struggle.
Goda came up behind her. The woman’s presence trickled onto her like a physical sensation that she could feel on the back of her neck. When Goda crouched down and brought her arm over, Kanna had to fight the immediate urge to pull away, even as much as she had to fight the impulse to lean back into her. Instead, she stiffened in place, felt the rush of Goda’s body heat wearing away the cold, watched the woman’s hand fiddling with some of the handles that jutted out from the console of the truck.
It took Kanna a second to realize that Goda was trying to show her something.
“You steer with this one. Pull right to go right, pull left to go left. This over here controls the brakes. Only use it if you absolutely have to—like if we’ve started to roll back—since we’ll need all the inertia we can get to move forward. This one over here controls the speed, but the engine is dead, so don’t worry about it.”
Kanna ventured to glance quickly over her shoulder, and immediately found herself staring right into Goda’s eyes. Their faces had nearly collided. Kanna leaned back only slightly. “You’re asking me to drive?” she said in disbelief.
“No. I’m not asking.” When Goda began to stand, the cold air came in again to replace her.
“But I can’t drive! I’ve never driven anything before in my life, and now you’re telling me drive up a dangerous hill with you at the rear?”
Kanna spun all the way around and watched as Goda began to climb down off the truck again. “What if I mess up? What if I do something wrong and I end up running you over or something like that?”
Goda undid her outer robes and tossed them into the back. She looked at Kanna with a smirk. “Well, if that happens, then I guess you’d be free. Luckily, you don’t like me very much, so it would be no loss to you, would it? Maybe you should run me over on purpose.” Goda wiped the sweat off her hands and onto her clothes, then reached out to grip the tailgate. She jiggled it a few times, seemed to decide that it was stable enough, and then braced herself against it.
Kanna narrowed her eyes. “I’m not a killer.”
“So you’ve already told me,” Goda said, gazing up at her with that strange, wicked expression that Kanna still could not fully understand, “but I know you have it in you. Every person can kill if they’re desperate enough. An opportunity like this is perfect, too, because you could easily convince yourself that you did it on accident so that you don’t have to think of yourself as a killer—as a criminal, as one of those people—which is really what would bother you more than my death itself. I’m just trusting that you’re a coward.” She leaned hard into the truck. She looked at Kanna with expectation. “All right. Release the brake.”
With a shaky hand, Kanna reached for the lever that Goda had pointed to earlier and she wrapped her fingers lightly around it. She looked down and did nothing at first because a strange feeling had come over her. She felt like the body of the truck had flowed into the woman who stood pressed against it, and that now she was holding some vulnerable piece of Goda in her hand. It all felt inexplicably intimate.
But Kanna pushed on the lever. The creak of rusted metal reached her ears; nothing happened.
“Harder!” Goda called out to her.
She pushed harder and tried to jostle it loose, but the handle only budged slightly. The truck jerked in response, and this startled Kanna enough that she let go.
“Almost!” Goda said. “Push it harder! Just put all your strength into it and release it all at once!”
And so Kanna gritted her teeth and gripped the lever with both hands, and leaned forward hard with all of her weight. Just when she thought that the brakes were stuck and would never let up, they flipped down. After all that effort, the motion felt suddenly smooth, like a tension had been released and the wheels could naturally flow. The truck had grown slippery beneath her.
For one panicked moment, she thought she felt the rig starting to slide back—but then some force swooped in and the truck rolled forward. There wasn’t a pause in between. It simply switched from backward to forward inertia, and though it rolled slowly at first, Kanna could already feel the thing picking up speed.
She turned to look at Goda with surprise. There was a rare amount of effort on the woman’s face. Her jaw was visibly tight, the muscles of her neck taut. She had pressed the whole of her body—her chest, her torso, her hips—to the back of the truck, and she was pushing into it with the smooth pace of her stride.
Kanna blushed. She didn’t know why, but for a long moment, she couldn’t turn away. She gripped the back edge of her seat and watched with fascination.
Goda glanced up at her finally, after she had applied enough forward motion that the truck seemed to be able to roll against the gravity of the incline with a bit of its own inertia. “Keep your eyes on the road,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to do much to steer since we were already facing the right direction, but every course needs at least small adjustments to stay true.”
Kanna turned to look at the console in front of her, though she couldn’t help but wonder again if Goda was talking about the truck or something else entirely. Hesitantly, she put her hand on the stick that Goda had told her to use for steering, and—because they seemed to be rolling slightly to the left—she gave the lever a yank to the right.
The truck let out a loud creak and began leaning hard in the opposite direction.
“Small adjustments!” Goda called out to her over the noise. There was a laugh in her voice. “Small!”
Kanna winced and pulled to the left again, but the steering over-corrected as before. It took her a few more times—and an awkward dance with the truck—to get the wheels facing straight forward again. She held the steering lever gingerly from then on. She kept her eyes tightly on the road in front of her.
Every once in awhile, Goda’s voice boomed through the air, correcting Kanna lightly if she hadn’t noticed a mistake. “A little more to the right!” she would say when Kanna had begun drifting; or she would shout, “Not so much!” when Kanna had become overly eager again.
The hill had grown less steep and so the truck was rolling faster. It was still not much more than the pace of a brisk walk, but Kanna was able to sit back and smile to herself and pretend that she was driving a truck on her own power.
This thought grew dark quickly, though. She glanced over at the empty fuel canister that was still on the floor of the passenger side.
It’s true. The truck usually moves on my power, doesn’t it? she thought. Her name was on all of the fuel. Her family’s product had touched the inside of every engine in the Middleland, and the truck was nearly useless without Rava Spirits. That booze made a much better fuel than Goda’s brute muscle. After all, it was the fuel that had carried the truck back and forth across the continent; Goda’s will alone wouldn’t do it.
Kanna looked down at her hand where it gripped the lever. She thought that maybe, for all she had gone through, she deserved to steer the thing in the direction she wanted it to go. She knew that there was no way she could steer herself to freedom—that her slavery was built into the fabric of the Middleland itself—but that small feeling of power that she felt in the driver’s seat had started to grow, to nag at her.
It wanted something. She wanted something. And it wasn’t freedom.
Kanna looked over her shoulder again at the woman who was pushing her. She watched the flexed shoulders that held the arms up, watched the long fingers that pressed to the metal. It was as if the woman had become a servant, as if the tables had turned. Seeing the effort made Kanna smile. The smile didn’t feel good, though. It made her feel like a criminal.
Her free hand came to hover over the brake lever.
Yes, the hill had grown a bit less steep, she thought, but she knew that she could quickly end the forward motion. She knew that she could apply the brakes and take Goda by surprise with a sudden stop. And if she released them again quickly enough and sent the truck rolling backwards, she wasn’t sure if Goda would have time to react or jump out of the way.
Some morbid part of her was curious. She wanted to see if the woman was strong enough to catch the weight, if she could act fast enough to save herself. If she did survive by some miracle of God, Kanna decided, then surely the woman deserved to live. If she didn’t, then—
Kanna shook her head. No. What kind of monster was she to be thinking these thoughts, to even consider playing games with someone’s life? She was no goddess hovering in the heavens to be able to toy with fate like that.
But then, wasn’t it Goda herself who had told her that Kanna was the Goddess, whatever that had meant? She was the Goddess, pretending to be Kanna Rava.
Again, that small sense of power swelled in her gut. It cried out for her attention and gnashed its teeth enough that she couldn’t ignore it anymore. Perhaps Goda had been right: She didn’t want freedom after all. Freedom didn’t matter if she had power. If she had power, then not only could she do what she wanted, but she could also force Goda.
“Too far to the left!” Goda called to her. When Kanna did not move, the woman shouted again, “Hey! You’re too far! Swing it to the right!” After a few more seconds of no response, Goda finally looked up and met her gaze. The woman’s eyes grew immediately blank. Even the effort seemed to fall away in her seriousness. “What are you doing?” she asked.
Kanna stared at her, a bit disappointed that there wasn’t any panic in the woman’s voice. Maybe the great Goda Brahm is above panic, she thought. Or maybe—just maybe—the flames of hell haven’t licked her closely enough yet.
Glancing briefly at the road again, Kanna reached for the steering lever and smoothly directed it to the right, so that they were facing truly forward again. She turned to see if there was any relief on the woman’s face, but there was none. The expression was still serious, though, unamused. There were edges of irritation perhaps, though Kanna wondered if she was only projecting those things onto a blank face.
Even if she wasn’t projecting anything, such a small crack of emotion didn’t satisfy her at all. Kanna’s hand seemed to move on its own, as if it belonged to some beast inside of her. Without taking her eyes off the woman’s body, she yanked the steering lever all the way to the right with all her strength.
The truck jerked sharply and Goda’s stride broke to follow it. She barely missed a step, though. It was as if she had noticed the impending twitch of Kanna’s hand before it happened, as if she had anticipated it. She looked at Kanna this time with naked annoyance, but she said nothing and kept pushing.
“Finally!” Kanna said. The voice felt like it wasn’t even her own, but nonetheless the sounds rushed out of her own lungs. “At last, you give me something! You’ve been holding out for too long, Goda. It’s fine to show me emotion, you know.” Kanna rewarded the woman by tilting the truck back into a forward march.
Goda gritted her teeth and pushed onward.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Kanna smiled—again, a smile that had no joy or mirth underneath it—but a smile nonetheless, something that had been hard to come by of late. She leaned into the strange feeling that was growing in her. It was an ugly feeling, but it was better than no feeling at all. “What is it, Goda? Do you really have nothing to say? Your head can’t be empty all the time, can it? That’s impossible.”
But Goda didn’t answer.
A few more beats of Kanna’s heart danced excitedly in her chest, but she barely noticed it. The wheels of the truck crushed loudly against the gravel. The ground had grown a bit looser, and Goda seemed to have to put more strength into the push to keep the traction going.
Kanna’s hand hovered over the brakes again. “If I pull up the brakes all of a sudden,” she called out loudly enough for Goda to hear above all the effort, “do you think the truck will slide down in all this loose dirt? Do you think it’ll fall on top of you? Do you think it’ll kill you?” After all, if the wheels couldn’t roll forward anymore, then Goda wouldn’t be able to push it, and the only direction it could go in that terrain would be downhill.
The truck was quite small, but at the right angle—if Goda fell and one of the wheels struck her head—then surely Goda would die. Human beings were fragile like that, Kanna thought. Even a lumbering oaf like the woman below her had human vulnerabilities.
Surely Goda Brahm didn’t want to die, as blasé as she acted about death. In the face of her actual demise, she would be brought to her knees like anybody else—and so, like anybody else, she could easily fall prey to someone flexing power over her, if they held her life in their hands.
Kanna wrapped her fingers against the brake lever, but she didn’t hold it tight—not yet. She caressed it softly and watched as Goda watched her. The woman was paying close attention. Still, besides that tiny shade of irritation—as if Kanna had only mildly inconvenienced her—her expression remained blank.
“I aim to kill you, Goda,” Kanna blurted out. “What do you think of that?”
Goda’s shoulders shuffled from side to side with every forward motion. It came off like a shrug. “I don’t think,” Goda finally replied.
Kanna tightened her hand against the lever in a rush of fury. She felt the impulse to pull it up even more strongly than before, so much so that she could already feel the motion getting ready to ripple through her muscles.
Instead, she made the choice to let go. It took all of her conscious will, but she didn’t allow herself to pull the brakes. She forced her hand into her lap. She felt a wave of shame coming over her, and a feeling so thick with the taste of death, that it made her eyes immediately well up with tears.
She blinked and a few warm trails fell down her face. “You were right,” she murmured. She didn’t know if Goda had heard her. She wasn’t even sure exactly what Goda had been right about.
When they made it to the top of the hill where there was another plateau, Goda nearly overshot it in her inertia. On the other side was an even steeper incline—one that lead downhill from where they stood—and Kanna pulled the breaks on reflex to avoid rolling into it.
For the moment, they were stable, on flat ground. The solidness afforded Kanna the courage to look up.
She finally caught sight of the horizon, but her eyes didn’t linger there for long. In the expanse below them, the light of the sun reflected brightly off the metal and glass of some formations that grew up out of the earth. At first, she didn’t realize what they were, and it was only when her eyes grazed over the brick roads that criss-crossed like veins between them, and the stone fences that lined the sides of lush gardens, that she realized she was looking down at a valley filled with strange buildings.
She leaned forward in fascination, mesmerized by the geometric angles, by the bright steel that seemed to hold up floor after floor. When she looked closely, she could even see movement through the wide glass windows of some of the structures. Beside them, there were quaint, more familiar-looking stone buildings peppering the landscape, but it was those tall oddities that stuck out to her the most.
Trucks rumbled through the streets amidst puffs of smoke that looked tiny in the distance, as if they were coming out from the ends of cigars. She tried to follow one of the trucks with her eyes, but she immediately lost it in a crowd of dozens more. On the sides of the roads, as if cowering away from the trucks that sped down the middle paths, she could see lines of people shuffling about—lots of people.
She tilted her head and leaned further and looked closer. She realized that the streets themselves were rippling with hundreds of heads. In some places, there were seas of them. She had never seen so many people in her entire life.
In her stupor, she had shifted her weight forward too much. She felt the creak of the truck below her, and she pulled back, a bit panicked, to avoid sliding downhill into the valley. When she remembered the brakes, this eased the anxiety a bit—until she heard some crunching footsteps coming up behind her.
During her power trip, she hadn’t thought this far ahead. It hadn’t really occurred to her what Goda might do once they had reached the top. It hadn’t seemed to matter. Her time with Goda was always here and now, and her emotions always seemed to get the better of her no matter what.
Goda had never gotten emotional with her before, though. Her anger had only ever been superficial. Perhaps she had already let everything go.
But something about those footsteps didn’t seem quite right. Kanna swallowed and turned around.
Goda’s feet pounded heavily into the ground and she was trudging straight towards her—not towards the front of the truck, but towards her. It was very clear. The woman’s eyes were trained directly on Kanna’s face. They were smoldering with a fury that Kanna had never witnessed before.
“I…I—I’m sorry, I…!” Kanna stuttered, jerking back, away from Goda. She didn’t have much room to run, though; she was still in the front seat of a tiny truck. Instead, she threw her hands up, as if to guard herself from some blow that hadn’t yet come. “I’m sorry! I don’t know what came over me! Listen, be reasonable! I was just in the moment, I didn’t mean—!” But before Goda had reached her, the corner of her eye grazed that brake lever, and she found her fingers snaking around it once again.
She pushed it down. Before she could second-guess herself, she had used all her strength to release the truck’s potential, and just that small nudge was enough to send it rolling down the hill.
At first, she felt relief wash over her, because within seconds Goda turned into a mere blur of movement behind her. But once she turned her gaze away from the place she had fled and instead looked down in the direction that she was careening, her stomach tightened with fear.
The hill was much steeper than she had thought. She had to lean back to keep from falling forward onto the console as the truck shot down the path. It picked up more and more speed. It wobbled uncontrollably back and forth without a driver to steer.
Terrified, Kanna clawed with desperate hands at the console, but she found that she couldn’t steady her grip at first; and the moment she thought she had finally gained some semblance of control, the first wave of lightning pulsed through her left hand.
“Ah!” Kanna let go of the levers and automatically grabbed her own wrist. She tugged at the cuff, but it only sent the shocks faster through both her arms. “Goda!” she screamed. Of course, this time at least, she had no one to blame except herself.
No matter which direction she wanted to go in now, the inertia carried her away against her will, and the further she separated from Goda, the more painful the shocks became. She fell down into the seat and pressed her face against the old leather, the taste of dead animal skin filling her mouth. She could do nothing but lie there limply, riding the wave of her own stupidity, waiting for her fate to change.
When she felt gravity’s potential pulling on her less urgently, she managed to painfully lift her head up to look out through the windshield. She was relieved to find that she was on level ground again, that she had reached the valley below.
However, she was still bounding down a dirty road, out of control, bouncing in and out of potholes, heading straight for a tall wooden fence that encircled a building. She barely had time to duck her head down and brace before she slammed right through it at full speed.