Kanna looked up at the clear blue sky. She could see it through a tiny crack in the wood that had fallen on her face. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed or how she had come to roll over and turn her head up towards the heavens. Maybe it had been a reflex in her stupor—to try to glance at the Goddess, to see if death had come yet.
But there was dust caught in her throat and there was the faint smell of smoke wafting into her nostrils. There was the pain of residual shock radiating. She was still in a human body.
With less effort than she had expected, Kanna lifted half of that body up out of the rubble and felt the shattered fence pieces shedding off her like an outer skin. She winced. More than anything else, the side of her ribs hurt because it was where she had slammed against the console—and fallen hard on top of the brake lever—but at least this meant that she had accidentally tamed the runaway beast that had dragged her down the hill.
She was sitting motionless in the truck, in the middle of a weedy garden. A few trees hovered overhead, and they looked old with thick trunks. Through some miracle, Kanna had not driven straight into any of them. Instead, she had drifted into a path of tangled vines that seemed eager to consume her.
Just as she had a few times in the days before, she didn’t feel completely at one with her body. It felt awkward to move her limbs and brush off the debris and reach for the door. She did notice, though—as she jostled the handle and her sleeve fell back to remind her of the cuff—that the shocks were absent. Goda was then certainly nearby.
Her instinct was immediate upon that realization. She let go of the finicky handle and tried to lift herself up high enough to see over the driver’s side door. Her eyes fell immediately on the gash that she had blown into the fence. It let in light and dust from the outside like a wide open gateway.
Standing in the gateway was the shape of Goda Brahm. Her bare arms were covered in sweat and dirt. Her stance was stiff, like she was in the middle of a burst of motion, but had stopped momentarily. The fire of the sun was in her eyes. Kanna thought she saw smoke coming out of Goda’s nose and mouth, but she wondered if it was just the dust that had billowed up from the wreck.
As soon as Goda spotted her and their gazes had fused, the woman cut her way down the messy trail that Kanna had mowed through the yard with the truck. The footprints she pressed into the sandy dirt looked too hard and deliberate and straight compared to the zigzagging of the path slashed through the weeds.
Scared out of her mind, Kanna dashed to retreat across the seats, until her back had crashed against the passenger door. It pressed hard against a sore spot in the back of her ribs, but she didn’t care. Her hand twisted around behind her to try to open the door, but she realized suddenly that it was pressed on another section of fence and wouldn’t budge.
Goda came up to the side of the truck. She ripped open the driver’s door. Before Kanna could react, Goda reached inside and grabbed Kanna by the front of her robes and threw her out so roughly that she fell onto the ground face-first with a thud. Her clothes collected some threads of the vines on the way down and they slowed her fall slightly, but they also pricked her on the legs.
Once the wind had come back into her lungs, Kanna jerked around and looked up at the giant who was now fiddling around underneath the console. “Hey!” she croaked out, sitting straight up, the anger overriding her fear once again. “You can’t treat me like this! I don’t care who you think you are! I don’t care if you’re bigger than me, you can’t—!”
Goda turned around momentarily and lifted her boot. Kanna recoiled, but Goda was faster, and her foot landed at the dead center of Kanna’s sternum. She didn’t kick. She merely pressed the sole of her boot hard against Kanna’s chest and pushed her back into the ground. It wasn’t painful, but the gesture did nothing to stifle Kanna’s rage.
Goda turned back around and reached under the console to yank out her keys. She quickly looped the keychain onto her belt, then reached into the back of the truck to collect her outer robes. She threw these on haphazardly, not even bothering to draw them closed. After that, she walked up beside Kanna, grabbed her by the collar again without so much as breaking her stride, and began dragging the girl through the trail that led to the opening in the fence.
“What are you doing?” Kanna cried, when she found her voice again. She tried to ignore the painful scraping along her back and she reached up to ram her hands against Goda’s wrist. Goda did not even waver, did not even speak. She merely stared straight ahead and advanced to the threshold that Kanna had cracked open. “Where are you taking me? What are you doing to me? Why are we leaving the truck? Hey, hey!”
“Shut up,” Goda said. That was all she said.
Kanna looked up at the woman’s face. The face was largely blank, but it twitched with some tension. It was a tension that seemed to flow in every muscle, all the way down to the hand that was dragging Kanna roughly through the dirt. It was the tension of someone on the verge of violence.
Kanna’s stomach knotted. She felt that looming terror again, that nervous anticipation that filled her gut with both pain and arousal that she couldn’t tolerate. She reached under the sleeves of Goda’s robes and grabbed Goda’s forearm with both her hands. She dug her nails deep into the flesh until she felt Goda twitch with displeasure. “If you’re going to beat me, then beat me right here!” she shouted, intent on provoking her. “Do it! Do it, Goda! Hit me! Look at what I’ve done! Strike me already!”
She knew it was crazy. She didn’t care. She wanted Goda to hit her, to tear her to pieces. She wanted the woman to slam her into the ground and dig sharp teeth into the flesh of her neck.
But over all the shuffling and commotion, the sound of a door flinging open rang through the clearing to interrupt them. Kanna’s gaze automatically flickered in the direction of the source, and she could see from the corner of her eye that Goda had done the same.
In the midst of the struggle, Kanna hadn’t had a chance to look around, and it was only then that she noticed the back wall of the house whose garden they had invaded. There was a tall woman standing at the door, her mouth agape, her face awash with utter confusion.
“What…? What is this?” she called out to them, once her gaze had raked over the scene a few times. “Who are you people?”
Goda seemed to pause for a moment, to assess. She stared at the woman for three seconds, then at the hole in the fence. She tightened her fist against Kanna’s clothes and began trudging again towards the exit.
“Wait! Stop!” The woman dashed into the yard. “Stop! Is that an immigrant you’re carrying? I need to see your papers now, or I’m calling the authorities!”
Goda half-turned, seemingly to deal with the woman who was chasing them, but that was when the stranger stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes seemed to fall at Goda’s hips, at the space where the two sides of Goda’s robe ruffled open.
“A…priestess?” the stranger said with astonishment. She immediately began stooping slightly, lowering her head while her gaze was still turned partway up; but she stopped midway into the bow as if she were unsure.
Kanna followed the woman’s glance and noticed that she was staring at the keys on Goda’s belt. The stolen pendant—the religious symbol that Kanna had seen while trying every one of Goda’s keys, the charm that Priestess Rem had said only clergy members were allowed to wear—gleamed in the morning light as it dangled on its chain close to Goda’s crotch.
Goda’s grip on Kanna finally loosened enough that Kanna could pull away from her. The stranger was staring at the both of them with confusion—with expectation, even a touch of fear. She was waiting. Kanna looked up at Goda, trying to gather some kind of cue, but the giant’s face seemed completely unoccupied with any kind of scrambling for any explanation. She was relaxed. Her eyes were empty. She looked intensely at the stranger, but offered nothing.
This made Kanna nervous. Perhaps Goda was resolved to accept whatever would happen to them, but Kanna was in no mood to be rearrested and to miss her train home, and to have years added to her sentence for something so inane on top of that. After a few moments of deadlock, Kanna bit her lip and grabbed onto the first panicked lie that floated to the surface. She cleared some dust out of her throat. She blurted out, “I’m sorry, my…wife and I are just lost!”
Goda finally reacted. She turned to look at Kanna right away, her face incredulous. Kanna merely gave a discreet shrug in response. She had learned from Innkeeper Jaya that both foreigners and slaves carried a stigma—but that Middlelanders married foreigners sometimes. She knew there wasn’t much she could do about hiding her ethnicity, but hiding her status as a slave seemed wise considering the situation.
“Oh, the two of you are married?” The woman tilted her head, even more perplexed. She gestured with a respectfully open hand towards the general direction of Goda’s pendant. “But isn’t this person a clergy member?”
Yes, that was right, Kanna remembered suddenly. Clergy members couldn’t marry, of course.
“Uh, she was a priestess!” Kanna said quickly. “Not anymore!” She cursed herself right after, realizing that she had only dug herself deeper, and she took care to hide her cuff under her sleeve. Kanna racked her brain some more for an explanation. “She married me to absolve me of wrongdoing.”
In the temple, Rem had told her that priestesses could only marry slaves, and that the slaves were officially cleared of their criminality once the union took place, even though the priestess in question would have to leave the clergy. It sounded plausible enough, Kanna thought.
The woman looked very taken aback, though. Kanna wondered if her explanation had been ill-advised after all. Perhaps there was yet some other cultural element that Kanna was missing, or perhaps the woman was concerned then about what Kanna might have done to become a criminal in the first place.
“I was accused of stealing a sack of yaw to feed my starving younger sisters!” The sob story had started to flow and it wasn’t as hard anymore to lie. “But of course I didn’t do it. I would never dishonor the Holy Mother like that. It is better to starve my body than to offend the Goddess and end up starving my soul of her blessed spiritual milk.” When Kanna glanced up at Goda again, the edges of incredulity had turned into outright disbelief.
Still, Kanna continued, because she saw that she had captured the stranger’s complete attention at the very least. “I converted to the Cult of Mahara when I was ten years old,” she explained, “even against my family’s wishes. It has always been my dream to become like a Middlelander and join the most advanced culture on the continent! But my angry mother, who still worships the….” Kanna missed a beat because she couldn’t decide what race she should have been or what religion she was supposed to have had, but she recovered quickly: “My mother still believes in the Outerlander gods, and so she grew vindictive when I tried to convert others to the Goddess. She accused me of a crime that I didn’t commit. I had to flee for my life to a civilized country, and this priestess of the Goddess made the ultimate sacrifice to help me!”
Goda blinked. She had already been silent for awhile, but Kanna thought that maybe in some sense, she had rendered Goda speechless. Perhaps Kanna had laid it all on too thickly, but she figured that it was better to offer too much than too little of such a shameless lie.
The stranger leaned back, still confused, but seemingly processing the information at least. She scratched the side of her head. “Well, I knew that it was possible for a priestess to absolve a suspected perpetrator of sin in this way, but to be honest, I’ve never met anyone who has done that before. Tell me, do I still have to follow the rules of approach, as with any other priestess? Or does that no longer apply to a former priestess?” She took a hesitant step forward, but then she seemed distracted by the scene around her, and she appeared to notice the truck for the first time with a twinge of shock.
“Yes, it applies,” Kanna said, before it could sound like she was second-guessing herself. “Only her wife is allowed to touch her.” She decided that this was the safest bet.
The Middlelander woman still looked bewildered, even if the anger and skepticism had faded. Kanna wondered if she needed to manufacture something else to tie it all up, or if she had messed up by suspiciously answering for Goda too many times. It was then that she looked down at her dirty robes and at the jagged wheel tracks and messy footprints that represented the struggle around them.
With some effort, Kanna stood up. She dusted herself off and tried her best to smile confidently at the woman. “I can’t imagine how strange this must look to you. I’m terribly sorry. We just got into a spat, that’s all. We’re a bit…passionate when we fight.”
“She disobeyed me,” Goda said suddenly.
This appeared to be some kind of key phrase that Kanna hadn’t known to use, because a twitch of recognition immediately lit up behind the stranger’s eyes. She shook her head towards Kanna and gave her a disapproving look.
Kanna glanced back and forth between Goda and the other Middlelander in front of them. “Oh, yes!” she agreed, almost too enthusiastically. “Yes, it was awful of me. It was all my fault. My wife generously trusted me for just a few minutes to drive the truck, and I disobeyed her and I took a wrong turn and lost control. You know how silly and confused us foreigners can be. You’ll have to forgive me.” Kanna was surprised at how easily the self-deprecating words just came spilling out now that she had taken up her new persona as an apparent Outerlander—and now that her heart was pounding in her throat at the mere threat of being dragged off by authorities before she could go through with her escape plan.
The Middlelander looked over towards the hole in the fence. “If I may ask, where were you running off to in such a rush, then, Former Priestess?” The stranger seemed to be trying to piece the whole scene together, but for now she appeared to be on their side and Kanna guessed that she had abandoned the idea of calling any soldiers in.
Goda shrugged at the woman. “I was going to take her out and beat her.”
Kanna swiveled her head to face Goda. It was her turn now to look incredulous. What’s more, Goda had said it so plainly that Kanna wasn’t entirely sure if it was simply part of the story or if it was actually true.
Luckily, the stranger in their midst didn’t seem to notice Kanna’s surprise, and she accepted the explanation rather casually. “Oh yes, I see.” She turned to Goda and finally inclined her head. “I thank the Former Priestess for respecting the sanctity of our space enough to take the girl outside, but I beg you to please show her mercy. She is just an uneducated foreigner, and a beating between newlyweds brings bad luck to the whole community.”
Goda threw the woman a curt nod. “Fine. I’ll beat her after we’ve left town, then.”
The woman offered Goda a bow of thanks—not as deep as Kanna had seen between the laypeople and the priestesses at the monastery, but more awkwardly respectful than she had noticed between just about anyone else so far. “How long will the Former Priestess be visiting with us here in Karo?” Her voice sounded strangely anxious.
“A night or two at most,” Goda said. “We have an appointment to keep in Suda and we can’t afford to linger.” Goda tipped her head towards the broken section of the fence. “I will rebuild that myself while we’re in the city, and the girl will help me.”
“No, don’t worry about that right now!” the Middlelander blurted out. A wave of embarrassment came over her expression when she seemed to realize that she had been impolite, but soon enough she sighed and looked up at Goda with a pleading face. “If you wish to repay me for the damage—which my priestess is not obligated to do in any way—I have a more urgent request. Any low-class worker can fix our fence, but there is something that only a priestess can offer us.”
Goda furrowed her brow with curiosity. “What do you want?” she asked, which sounded rude to Kanna’s ears—but, then again, maybe this was a perfectly normal question for a Middlelander.
The stranger took a shaky breath and she pressed her hands to her face. “We had been praying every day. We needed a blessing badly from a priestess, but we are so far from a monastery and didn’t want to risk the trip—and here you come, barreling through the fence like a delivered gift. I don’t care whether you currently serve the clergy anymore or not. Clearly, you have arrived as an answer from the Goddess!”
For the second time in the span of a few minutes, Goda looked entirely nonplussed. The stranger took another step forward and extended a hand, but she was careful not to touch her. “Please come!” she said, looking at Kanna instead, perhaps so that it would seem that she wasn’t being insistent to the “priestess” herself. She took Kanna by the hand and turned and began leading them towards the door to the house. “Come inside! However many days you choose to stay in Karo, please know that you have lodging with me. Please don’t deny me the opportunity to make merit. You owe me nothing for this.” She glanced quickly over her shoulder, this time at Goda specifically. “But if the priestess wishes to reward my merit, if she could please follow me to my son’s bedroom, I would be most grateful.”
Goda had to duck her head to get through the door, and it was only then that Kanna realized she had never actually seen that animal inside of a house before, or any proper building for that matter. It immediately struck her that Goda did not seem to fit—and not due entirely to her stature. Rather, it seemed that there was something energetic in Goda that could not be contained by the walls.
But as soon as they stepped inside, Kanna was distracted by the smell of moist stone. Her mind applied the image of moss between the cracks of the blocks, even though she couldn’t see very well yet. The space looked dim, like a cave, but she was impressed to see some electric lights lining the sides of the walls like tiny torches. There were also some candles arranged in a circle on a low table in the center of the room, but Kanna wasn’t sure if this was for additional light, or if it was some kind of altar that she was not yet familiar with.
As her eyes adjusted, she noticed the rest of the chamber that spread before them. It was a wide sitting room with chairs and a few longer cushioned benches that could seat a few people. They were sprawled around the low table, as if the furniture pieces were enjoying a bonfire for themselves.
The woman side-stepped towards the table and took a candle, then led them down a narrow hallway that reminded Kanna again of the caverns.
“He’s been very ill for weeks,” the woman told them, “and he’s my only son. We’ve tried to send for a priestess to come here several times, but you already know how restricted their travel is and how long the waiting list is to be visited. We’ve tried every kind of medicine. We’ve brought him to doctors and to quacks. A foreigner who works at the same factory as my wife even suggested that we seek out a shaman at the Southern border who might perform…a blasphemous ceremony—but of course, that’s where I draw the line. We are devout Maharans in this house.”
She brought them to a door near the end of the hallway and took a deep breath as her hand curled over the knob. She paused. She looked down towards the floor. “I don’t know if you can do anything for him, Priestess, but if anyone can, it would be you. I know that you are holy. I can see it in you—and it is a sign that you came to me today.”
Kanna suppressed her reaction and tried to keep a neutral expression. Goda was far from holy, she thought. In fact, a real priestess had gone so far as to tell Kanna that the woman was dangerous, a beast who lacked basic empathy—and even with what little Kanna understood of her, she couldn’t say that she necessarily disagreed. If only this stranger knew about Goda. Of course, Kanna was not about to tell her.
The door to the room burst open, almost on its own, the moment the woman nudged the handle. Kanna knew that it was probably just a sudden change of pressure from the wind coming in from the outside, but it felt for a second like their very presence had huffed it open.
There was a boy lying in a bed in the middle of the room. The usual tan complexion of a Middlelander was conspicuously absent, and in its place an ashy pale color coated his skin. His eyes flicked open once he slowly appeared to take note of the noise. He glanced down the room at the three visitors in silence, but there was no sign of recognition or even curiosity on his face.
“He doesn’t have the strength to speak anymore, Priestess. You’ll have to excuse him for being disrespectful towards you.”
Kanna’s body recoiled on its own as she watched the boy, some reflex meant to protect her from contamination. She was surprised to see that Goda immediately stepped past her with no such hesitation, and she made her way through the room with the certainty of someone who had been there before. She came to hover over the boy in the bed, and the boy looked up at her with a lifeless gaze.
Goda began reaching out, but then stopped once she seemed to remember the role that she was playing, and she dipped her hand into one of the pockets of her robes to pull out a pair of gloves. Unlike those of Priestess Rem, they were not leather, but rather some fibrous material that Kanna didn’t recognize. Nonetheless, they appeared to be acceptable enough, because Goda soon pressed her gloved hand to the boy’s neck.
She squeezed his throat gently, at a spot right under his chin, and for the first time the boy seemed to twitch in reaction. He let out a low grunt that made Kanna jump back a little, but Goda stood in place and watched over him. She let him go. She was quiet for a long time.
“I’ve seen this before,” she murmured, glancing over at the boy’s mother. “It’s a spiritual disease, which is why none of your medicine has worked. He’s racked with demons. They’re agitated inside of him, wanting to burst out, but the passageways of the body are blocked and won’t let them through.”
Kanna’s eyes widened. She couldn’t help but stare in disbelief because of how casually and authoritatively Goda had delivered such nonsense.
The Middlelander woman seemed to have swallowed the tale just fine, however. She pressed a hand to her mouth. “Can you help him, Priestess?”
Goda crouched a little lower, apparently to more closely study the boy’s face. “There’s one kind of medicine that can cure this—but it will often make things worse before they get better, and so not everyone survives it. And besides that, the plant that the medicine is made from is nearly extinct. Very hard to find.” Finally, seemingly satisfied with whatever she had been looking for in his eyes, she stretched back up and pulled the gloves off her hands. “However, I will bless him, as you asked. Maybe then the Goddess will have mercy upon him and exorcise these demons Herself.”
Suppressing a breath of sorrow, the woman nodded, then followed it through into a bow. Both she and Kanna stood in the doorway and watched as Goda silently extended her hands and blessed the boy in some ancient tongue.
Once it was over, the woman stepped aside to let Goda out of the room, and she closed the door after them.
“Watch him for the next day, and if still nothing has changed—and it probably won’t—then I can speak with you of more drastic measures,” Goda murmured as the boy’s mother began to lead them back through the hallway. The old, musty air once again filled the space around them.
“If the priestess is implying what I think she’s implying,” the woman whispered, “then I beg your pardon, but I can’t cross that line.” She paused, shaking her head. “Of course, I must be mistaken, though. A priestess would never touch any plant or medicine that was unclean, let alone offer it to a layperson.”
“Why would I call anything the Goddess has created unclean? Who am I to judge this?”
The woman turned around to look at Goda, confused. “But isn’t that straddling the line of blasphemy? There are good medicines and bad medicines; wholesome things and wrong things. Every priestess I have ever met has told me that.”
Goda smiled at her. In the dim light, Kanna squinted to look more closely at her face, because for a brief moment she thought she saw a flash of compassion, and she could hardly believe what she was seeing.
“Who am I to say what are good things and what are bad things?” Goda said. “Has the Goddess not created all things? To bow down to one part of Her creation and to call it good, and then to dismiss another part of Her creation and to call it bad—is this not idolatry? Let go of your idols and worship only the Goddess, who is in all things.” She turned to glance again towards the door at the end of the hall. “If you won’t let those idols go for the sake of your own salvation, then let them go for the sake of your son, who can’t afford the rules you’ve been living by.”
The woman kept her gaze on Goda’s face. She had a look of increasing shock, a look of conflict. Finally, with that wavering uncertainty still in her eyes, she asked, “Who are you?”
And in that moment, Kanna was sure that the woman was about to throw them out—but instead, she took Kanna by the sleeve and led them to the threshold of another room that was closer to the common space.
“This is the guest room,” she said without looking at them. “Feel free to take your bags out of your truck and put them in here.” She began turning to leave, but then she paused in the middle of the hall. “Thank you for the blessing, Priestess. We’ll keep a close eye on him. And if the moment comes that we might need…a different sort of blessing, then I trust you will find a way to bring it to us. I trust that the Goddess has sent you here for a reason. I trust that my son will get well.”
And then she walked down the hallway without saying anything more.
* * *
Outside, as they braved the thorny weeds to unpack the truck, Kanna couldn’t stop looking at Goda. It was still early in the day, and the sun was still bright, and the rays danced wildly against the small flashes of skin that Kanna could see in the openings of Goda’s robes. The tall woman’s eyes were trained on the task at hand, however, and she seemed not to notice her companion’s constant stare.
It was only when Goda shoved the empty fuel canister into Kanna’s hands that Kanna finally caught her gaze. “The things you told that woman,” she asked, her expression still a bit astonished, “you made that all up, right? You were just playing along so that we could stay here, weren’t you?” Now that it had had some time to sink in, Kanna was second-guessing her earlier skepticism.
“No. I don’t have quite as active an imagination as you do, Kanna Rava.” Goda smiled with light amusement, but still seemed distracted with rummaging through the truck.
Kanna narrowed her eyes. “That sounds like an accusation rather than a compliment.”
“That’s because it is.” The woman turned to look at Kanna finally, one hand gripping the handle of a large bag, her other hand draped over the side of the truck. “You’re a liar. A good one, too. I was surprised at exactly how good.”
“Well, how do you expect someone else in my position to act? I’m not as apathetic about everything as you are,” Kanna said, growing immediately agitated. It may have been true that she had lied, but it was insulting nonetheless for someone with such dubious morals to point it out. “That lady could have easily called some soldiers or something like that and accused us of damaging her property, and then what would you have done? Even if we had just run away before she caught us, like you so uncreatively tried to do, how would we have gotten out of town if we abandoned the truck here?”
“Oh, there are a few ways. We might have found another truck, for example.” Goda reached over and slammed the tailgate closed.
“We might have found a truck?” Kanna asked as she began to follow Goda back to the house. “You mean we would have stolen one, right? Don’t you think in that tiny, minuscule little mind of yours that something like that would be a lot riskier than just trying to reason with one person?”
“Reason escapes most people—including you. Often, it isn’t worth the bother at all.”
Kanna grabbed Goda’s robes and dragged her heels on the dirt to slow the woman down. She pursed her lips. “Why can’t you just accept that I might have saved our skins just now?”
Goda stopped and glanced at her. “I can accept it,” she said. “But you don’t want acceptance. You want my praise and approval, is that it? Or else my condemnation? The touch of my hand; or else the sensation of my fist striking your face?” She smirked that annoying smirk. “All things that I won’t give you.”
Kanna felt her face growing warm at this, perhaps because Goda was right. She shifted her weight a little, suddenly uncomfortable under Goda’s stare. “You make it sound like I only live for reward and punishment.”
“You do. Most people do. You like both these things. They make you feel alive, give you a sense of purpose, give you something to seek or avoid. They numb you to the truth—the truth that all of the world is hollow, as is any pursuit in it. When you see this for yourself, then maybe you’ll see pleasure and pain for what they are, and you’ll be able to enjoy them as they are without using them as a distraction from the reality around you.”
“Is that why…?” Kanna couldn’t bring herself to ask.
“Yes,” Goda said. “You must face reality first. You must face me directly—as an equal who stands with the truth, not as someone seeking to escape it—and then you’ll get what you want from me.”
She turned and began to head towards the threshold of the house again, but Kanna stayed behind and stared after her. “What I want….” Even after several days, she still could not get used to Goda’s riddles. She looked down at her feet, which were pressed hard into the indentation that her heels had dug for her. “Goda?”
“What is it?” The woman didn’t pause her stride.
“You offered Death Flower to that boy’s mother, didn’t you?”
“How would you even know where to get any?”
She half turned for a moment, then reached down the neck of her shirt into some hidden pocket. She pulled out what looked like a small leather pouch and tossed it in Kanna’s direction. Startled, Kanna had to let go of the fuel container in order to catch it. The canister fell by her feet with a hollow thud.
“What’s this?” Kanna squeezed the pouch with curiosity—but she already suspected.
Goda merely smiled at her and waited. And so Kanna untied the neck of the pouch and peered inside. She immediately tightened it closed with her hand and looked away, as if a noxious smell had emerged from it—though it hadn’t; the vision alone was noxious enough. She opened it again and looked one more time just to make sure, and then she dropped it onto the ground as if a burning coal had been in her hands. The little bag hit the fuel canister on its way down; the metal gave a muffled ring like a bell being smacked hard with a piece of felt.
“Where did you get this?” Kanna asked. “Has it been with you this whole time? Are you really this much of a hypocrite?”
“It was a gift. The young man who accosted me last night at the border dropped it discreetly into my robes when he grabbed me by the collar, so that the soldiers wouldn’t see him give it to me—but I imagine it’s not for me. Something tells me that I’m merely going to deliver it to someone else, but I don’t know who yet. This is what I was meditating about in the shrine late last night. There are seeds at the bottom as well. Those are especially hard to find, and they won’t grow around here at all.”
Kanna shook her head, overcome with even more disbelief. “I can’t believe you kept this. And I can’t believe you crossed the border with it, knowing what it might have been,” Kanna said. She looked down to see that the pouch had fallen in such a way that it grazed her foot, and so she stepped away from it. “Couldn’t we get in huge trouble if someone caught us with this?”
Goda shrugged. “I’ve done worse things.”
This made Kanna pause again, because Goda had sounded like she had meant it, even if the tone had been casual. “You just told me last night that the boy we saw will be executed for this.”
“That’s different. He’s a vessel. He ingested Flower and brought himself across the border. That’s a capital crime, and the government’s aim is to exterminate all people physically capable of doing that, because it is they who really spread the Flower around. It’s a genocide of sorts. Most people can’t tolerate the drug unprocessed, so vessels are extremely important.” Goda gestured towards the pouch on the ground. “That is maybe fifteen or twenty dry blossoms of Samma Flower—more than enough to kill most people several times over, and more than enough to face a sentence for simple possession, but not enough for capital punishment. Neither of us are vessels, after all, and without someone to process it, the Flower on its own is less useful.”
“Then why offer it to that sick boy in the house? Won’t you risk killing him?”
“Yes, without a vessel for the flower to pass through first, if he eats it, he will probably die,” Goda said, slinging her bag over her shoulder and resuming her shuffle towards the door, “but he could also live, and in the state he’s in, maybe these aren’t bad odds at all. Some things are worse than death.”
Then Goda disappeared beyond the threshold, leaving Kanna to her own thoughts. She looked down again. She stared at the canister of spirits that lay tipped over by her right foot, and the pouch of Flower that had fallen near her left, and then at the brown earth from which both of them had sprung. And then she thought, just as Goda had said, that the Goddess made all of these things.
Except that the Goddess didn’t exist.