Kanna sat in the driver’s seat of the motionless truck, staring out the dusty windshield and towards the back door of the house. She did not know how much time had passed. She had not gone inside again. Instead, she had contented herself with sitting stuck amongst the vines, feeling oddly comforted by the confines of the fence around her, because she found the idea of being housed with the giant too threatening to who she had become. She tried to imagine herself in an actual room with an actual bed alone with Goda. The image disturbed her as much as it pleased some more primitive side of her.
So when the shadow of the giant appeared in the doorway, she wondered if she had called it out with her own perverse thoughts. Kanna recoiled momentarily. She was able to control this display of weakness soon enough, though, and she stared straight into her master’s face with as much dignity as she could muster.
The woman’s hair was wet. Her clothes were dry.
“You bathed,” Kanna said after a moment. She had grown so used to seeing Goda sauntering around naked outside, that it hadn’t occurred to her that Goda could wash herself indoors. It seemed too mundane and civilized and out of sync with the usual ritual—but then perhaps it was only that Kanna wanted to see her body again.
Goda ignored the comment and appeared to scan the yard as she moved. Some of the sky was blocked out by the taller trees, but some of it wasn’t, and the spaces between the branches allowed spots of sun to highlight luggage that Kanna had left on the ground.
“I’m waiting here,” Kanna explained, even though Goda had not asked, “for my punishment.” She said it without thinking, but she found that she didn’t disagree with herself, either.
Goda laughed dismissively, turning away as if the comment had simply been a frivolous joke.
Kanna clasped her hands hard around the steering lever. The wheels beneath her creaked a little in response. “Well, it’s only fair, is it?” she said, following Goda’s movements with her eyes, watching to see if any of her words had changed the woman’s posture. “I stole your truck and ran it down a hill and crashed it into a fence. I deserve a punishment—and that Middlelander woman who is hosting us made it sound like it was uncouth for you to deliver it inside. Either way, I don’t want to sit in that house with you in some boring little room with a quaint little side table between our rocking chairs, pretending that we’re happily married. So I stayed out here and waited for the monster to come back out.” Kanna looked Goda dead in the face. “Punish me.”
Goda tipped her gaze up finally. “You want me to hit you.”
“Yes. That’s what I want. If you do nothing else for me, do that: treat a slave like a slave.”
Goda crossed the yard, past the luggage that Kanna had refused to bring into the house, over the jagged skid marks in the gravel, up to the open doorway of the truck. Her face was so empty and serious that Kanna had to fight not to jerk away, to take back what she had asked for. Goda raised both her hands and Kanna flinched because she saw that they were aiming for her face.
Her eyes closed on their own in an immediate reflex, so she did not realize Goda’s intention until she felt a pair of large hands pressing softly to either side of her cheeks. Her eyes snapped open in astonishment. She looked up at Goda, who was wearing a faint smile, an expression that held no judgement and no interest. Kanna could barely tolerate it.
“You have a mouth that will cause you trouble one day. It endlessly complains, and weaves elaborate lies, and asks for things that you don’t really want.”
Kanna stared into Goda’s face defiantly, even through the surprise. “You say that, but you like that mouth of mine, don’t you? You found your way inside of it last night.”
“Don’t play dumb now. Are you going to tell me that was a ghost, a hallucination? I had already awoken from my dream by then. It was you, in the flesh. You taste the same way that you smell.”
Goda huffed. That exact scent that Kanna remembered from the night before became ever more intense. Then Goda lifted one of her hands and she brought it down again with a light, painless tap on Kanna’s cheek.
“There,” she murmured, her eyes still locked on Kanna’s frustrated face, her expression becoming a mocking one. “There’s your punishment.” She let Kanna go and turned around and headed off towards the hole in the fence.
“Where are you going?” Kanna called out after her; but instead of waiting for an answer, she slid down off the driver’s seat and onto the ground, avoiding the vines below as best she could, pounding her way through the chaos of the yard. She reached the other side just as the woman was disappearing around the corner.
Kanna ran up to her. She took Goda’s hand in her own and Goda glanced down at her with mild surprise. Within a few strides, though, Goda had looked away again and the gesture suddenly felt natural and their steps fell into sync.
Kanna found herself examining the skin on the back of the woman’s hand. She could see a bit of Goda’s forearm just under the sleeve as well; it bore the shallow scratches that Kanna had given her during their earlier fight. Now, with the heat of the moment dissipated, she felt a bit ashamed, as she had with the bruise she had given Goda days before—but the darker part of Kanna’s mind still felt a tinge of pride, of power.
“You were angry with me,” Kanna said. “I hadn’t seen such fire in your eyes until this morning. I won’t lie, I liked it. I like knowing that what I do can have an effect on you after all. I like seeing you squirm, even if it’s with fury. Even fury is weakness, isn’t it?”
“It’s over now. You’re talking about it still for some reason.” There wasn’t surprise in Goda’s tone, merely something akin to mild annoyance, as if Kanna was being tedious.
“You’re too simple-minded and dismissive. When will you see that I’m no passive victim and that I don’t need your forgiveness?” Kanna pressed herself against Goda’s side.
“There is nothing to forgive.”
Hearing this, something in Kanna wanted to taunt Goda more, to wave that small bit of power that she had in her pocket in the woman’s face—but she knew better than to compromise her good fortune, so she shut her mouth before she blurted anything else out.
Instead, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to be led by Goda. She pressed her cheek to the woman’s arm and felt her own skin sliding against the rough fabric of the robe sleeve, felt the heat radiating from Goda’s flesh underneath.
“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” she murmured after awhile, when she sensed the texture of the ground changing beneath their feet. Something in her didn’t care, though; something in her felt inclined to surrender to Goda’s intentions as if she were being carried away by the current of a powerful stream, even as some part of her identity still shouted at her to resist every step.
She knew that there was no point in resisting for the moment. The resistance could come later. She would save her strength and push against Goda all at once.
“We’re going into the city to resupply. The journey to Suda is a long one.” Goda’s voice had begun to compete with the sounds of crunching wheels in the distance, as well as a soft din that was growing ever more distinct. “We’ve also discovered something unexpected here, and that will need to be handled.”
That was when Kanna opened her eyes and glanced up at Goda with curiosity. Before she could ask, though, she grew distracted because her eyes caught a sun glare beaming up from the ground in front of them. Twin streams of metal—rusted in some places, shining in others—flowed down from the Northern hills and cut across the path. It made Kanna squint temporarily, but as she stepped over the metal bars, she realized what they were: railroad tracks.
Kanna’s breath hitched. She could feel the weight of the key in her pocket once again. Even as she leaned harder into the woman beside her, her focus slowly leaked into the future and away from the present moment. She was to escape the grasp of Goda Brahm.
* * *
When they reached the shadow of the tall buildings, Kanna couldn’t help but tip her head up to gaze at the wide glass panels wedged in the stone. She had never seen anything like them. The structures must have been two dozen stories high, and they lined the streets and dwarfed the more traditional houses that littered the ground between them. If she peered for long enough, she could even see movement through the shining windows, and the shapes of people dressed in bureaucratic robes milling about inside. It captured her fascination enough that she bumped into a few bodies before she realized that they had wandered into a crowded street.
Strange eyes landed on her with lingering gazes, with bewildered expressions. She suddenly felt claustrophobic, and her first impulse was to move away from every person who passed by, to lower her head and make herself less obvious.
“Why are they staring at me?” she whispered.
“They’re curious,” Goda said.
“What, have they never seen a foreigner before?”
“Most of them have never seen an Upperlander, so they don’t know what they’re looking at. You’ll just have to get used to it.”
“Is this how it’s going to be everywhere we go?” Kanna tried to fight the impulse to hide her face in the folds of Goda’s robes.
“Generally, they won’t approach you or talk to you, so just ignore them.”
This was easy for Goda to say, Kanna thought. The giant stuck out to some extent among the crowd herself, but not in a manner that seemed to draw as much attention as Kanna did.
More alarmingly, this made Kanna worry about her ability to blend in when the time for escape finally came—if she could even figure out where she was supposed to go. She glanced across the span of the street and tried to pick up the thread of the train tracks again, but she could not find them anymore as the bodies had come to obscure the ground.
The space had also grown full of other distractions. Trucks began bounding down the road, honking at pedestrians that meandered too slowly, and the sides of the street were suddenly lined with booths, little storefronts manned by women who waved beckoning hands at every person who wandered by.
The smell of food wafted towards them in overwhelming bursts from outdoor ovens and stoves, and it was then that Kanna realized how inadequate Jaya’s hospitality had really been. Her eyes wandered towards a few of the food stalls and she gave the people waiting in line an envious glance.
“What are they selling over there?” she asked.
“Fried yaw,” Goda answered.
Kanna’s face twisted with disgust. She turned her gaze elsewhere. “How about in that one? What is that?”
“Oh. Well, how about in—?”
“Buttered yaw on a stick.”
Kanna shook her head in disbelief, gripping a handful of Goda’s robes in frustrated reflex. “For the love of God,” she muttered, “is that all you people eat?”
“No. We have fruit sometimes. Dead animals on occasion as well.”
“Well, there’s so much of that wretched yaw everywhere I go that I’m shocked your government hasn’t figured out how to turn it into fuel yet.”
Goda smiled at this. “We tried.”
“We already tried making fuel out of yaw, but the same chemical that makes it taste bitter to foreigners also kills the yeast that would allow it to ferment into wine that could be distilled—and so we have to steal sugary mok from your kind instead.”
Something about hearing that made Kanna feel vindicated; at least she wasn’t the only one who thought that yaw tasted worse than dirt. “That can’t be good for you, eating something that won’t rot. Doesn’t that mean that even the vermin don’t want it?”
Goda shrugged. “It does spoil eventually, just very slowly. Whether the vermin like it or not, being able to stockpile our food for so long has saved us from extinction more than once. It’s an advantage that has served us over thousands of years.”
“So that you could steal from me and my father?” Kanna snapped. The sights and sounds and smells in the air had nearly knocked Kanna out of her head completely—but there were still some triggers in her that were aching to be touched and Goda had stepped all over them again.
Goda didn’t seem to notice, though, or else she wasn’t bothered by Kanna’s anger. She merely replied, “You don’t know the worst of it, but maybe that’s good. You seem prone to tormenting yourself by taking such matters personally.”
“It is personal,” Kanna muttered, but as the murmur from the crowd grew, she doubted that Goda had heard her. So instead of arguing further, she busied herself with watching the people who flowed by, her own curiosity growing now that she had stopped being quite so offended by the stares.
She had also realized something strange that she couldn’t ignore anymore.
“Where are the men?” She twisted her head to and fro. There were a few men sprinkled about, but they were greatly outnumbered, and it took her longer to single them out in the crowd because they were so small. Even the older men with graying hair seemed to not be much bigger than Kanna herself. “I had figured that the reason I had seen so few Middlelander men was because everything with you people is sex-segregated, but now I have to wonder if they just don’t come out into the light of day at all. I’m in your native country, and still I see hardly any of them. Is there another place where they all gather?”
“It is true that most men—especially young men—work at home and don’t go out unescorted by their family members, but that’s not the only reason.”
“Oh? Then what?”
Goda shrugged again. “Most Middlelanders are women.”
“Ah, I see. Most Middlelanders are—”
Kanna fell silent as the full thought formed in her mind. It was only after she had walked a few more beats in this state of pause that she realized none of it made sense.
Still pressing herself against Goda’s side, she managed to crane her neck a bit more to examine the mob. Her eyes flicked from person to person. She began to finally notice the individual variations. Most of them had wide hips and strong thighs, while a small few were built more top-heavy like Goda. Some had lightly tanned skin like bronze, and some were darker. Some were taller and some were shorter, but they almost all towered over Kanna, and the vast majority of them indeed seemed to be women. There was no mistake; she had judged the ratio correctly the first time.
But of course Goda’s explanation couldn’t possibly be true. For every woman born, there would also have to be a man. These were the laws of nature, whether in the Middleland or anywhere else. To be able to make children, every woman would need a man to match her, after all; otherwise, everything would be thrown off balance.
“That’s preposterous,” Kanna told her finally. “What, do you sacrifice most of the men to your Goddess or something?” It was just a wild, exaggerated guess, but at that point, she didn’t know what to expect from these people, who had turned out to be little more civilized than the Lowerland savages she had heard about.
“No. It’s just that a lot of boys die before they’re born and most twins and triplets that survive are girls, so about two-thirds of adult Middlelanders are women.”
“How does that even work?” Kanna demanded. For a reason that she couldn’t understand in the heat of the moment, the whole notion had made her angry. “Why can’t anything—just one thing—be normal with you people?”
“Normal according to whom? You?” Goda glanced down at her with mild amusement, a fact that annoyed Kanna even more. “Are you the one who gets to decide who makes it out of a Middleland woman’s womb? Let me know and I’ll take you to a midwife so that you can instruct her on who opens and closes that gate from now on.”
And that was enough to silence Kanna for the time being, though she took to staring blankly out at the crowd with a sour look. It wasn’t until they neared one of the buildings of glass and stone that her mood changed. Lifting a hand to shield her gaze from the glare, she couldn’t help but stare up again in awe.
“Government offices,” Goda told her. “This town is a major import-export hub because it’s so close to the border—and that means plenty of tax people work here. Military, too.”
“You mean all these fancy buildings are just for pushing around a bunch of paper?” Kanna asked, incredulous. They had looked so beautiful on the outside, but she couldn’t imagine what kind of sterilized hell existed between those walls.
The structure immediately looked less appealing to her, but Goda was bringing her closer to it anyway. They passed a small garden just outside its massive front doors, a garden that looked overly ornate and polished with topiaries trimmed to geometric perfection. None of the plants bore any fruit, and their straight lines contrasted the sinewy trees that she had seen all over the place so far—in the forests on the sides of the road, in the garden of their newfound hosts—but she had little time to look. As soon as they had reached the front of the facade, Goda whisked her to the side, and they fell into a dark alley between two buildings.
To the right, the glass panels of the offices remained, now dim and more transparent without direct contact with the sun; but to Kanna’s left, she noticed the porous stone of an old building. It was made of rock piled on top of rock, and as Goda pulled her deeper into the corridor that the two unmatching buildings had seemed to make for them, Kanna noticed doorways appearing on her left, carved into the walls. She guessed that they were storefronts, but she was walking too fast to have time to decipher all the names on all the tags that hung over the awnings.
Besides that, a strange pulsing had begun to sound in her ears. She dismissed it at first, thinking that she may have been out of breath from keeping up with Goda’s long strides, but then the pulse turned into a high-pitched whir and she felt her heart pound with recognition. The alleyway seemed to open ahead of her like a blurry tunnel. The colorful weeds that climbed through the cracks in the rock looked suddenly much more vivid against he gray. She squeezed Goda’s hand.
“Is there…?” Kanna swallowed. She blinked. Her vision had already begun strobing slightly. “Is there a shrine nearby here?”
Goda’s head jerked back to look at her. Kanna wasn’t sure if the movement had really been so urgent or if she had only perceived it that way. At any rate, Goda looked suddenly curious. She seemed to examine Kanna’s face.
“Can you tell where it is?”
“No, I….” Kanna tried to concentrate. She looked around her, trying to pinpoint were the sensation seemed to be coming from, but as they kept moving, it began to quickly diminish. She didn’t dwell on it; she was glad to be rid of it, even if the feeling had not been nearly as strong as it had been in the caverns. “It’s gone now. It only lasted a few seconds this time.”
“We passed over it,” Goda told her. “It’s deep underground, near the source of a cold spring. The government blocked it off years ago and no one has been in there in probably decades. Strange that you can feel it from up here. You must have become more sensitive.”
“Oh perfect,” Kanna said sarcastically.
When she finally felt her body returning to normal, she noticed that they had stopped near two doors that were covered merely with curtains over their thresholds. This time, Kanna could read the signs: “Paradise,” the one on the left read in Middlelander—or at least, that’s what it seemed to say.
Kanna made a face of mild annoyance. The word in Middlelander for “paradise” was also the same as the word for “garden,” but the storefront gave no indication of being either of these things, and there was no way that she could ask Goda about the difference because there was no way to quickly make the distinction without switching to another language.
She turned to the right, half-convinced that she would see the word “hell,” but instead she found something rather mundane over the second door: “Wine and Spirits,” it said. Those words were simple enough to understand. Indeed, once she began moving again, it was because her simple companion had picked the door on the right and tugged her into the humid chamber inside.
The smell of sweet wine immediately filled her nose even as she had trouble seeing in the dim light, though her eyes began to adjust with each step away from the door. It also helped that some natural light beams flowed in from around the flapping curtain behind her, and that bright candles in the space served as beacons to show her where the tables were. In time, she noticed the bodies, the huddled groups of women that crouched in the dark—reading newspapers, playing dice, or simply arguing in loud voices.
A woman behind the front counter—as well as some patrons who were sitting alone and were less distracted—turned to stare at her as she walked by, but otherwise the energy in the room appeared too busy for anyone to take much notice of her.
Goda pulled her by the arm to an empty table and made her plop down into a chair.
“Wait here,” Goda said.
Kanna raised an eyebrow. Before she could even think to protest, she felt a rush of air from Goda’s robes as the woman began to leave, and Kanna spun around to look towards her master with confusion.
“Where are you going?” she asked for the second time that day, gripping the back of the chair with the full force of her irritation. “Hey!” She began to get up.
“Sit,” Goda said.
“I already told you, I’m not a dog!” But still Kanna paused mid-motion. She became suddenly self-conscious, because she came to notice then that she was actually bothered by the idea of Goda’s absence. Perhaps it was only that she did not want to be left alone in a room full of strangers, she reasoned.
She considered getting up to argue further, but she quickly thought better than to draw attention to herself, as she could already feel some new eyes settling on her. Either way, she knew who would probably win the scuffle.
She sat. She watched Goda walk towards yet another doorway in the back of the room and disappear around a corner that led to some place beyond Kanna’s perspective. When there was nothing left to be done about it, Kanna turned back around and pursed her lips. She crossed her arms over her chest.
She stared at the table for a long time, avoiding the glances of the other patrons, and she felt some relief once the crowd slowly eased into a louder ruckus. She felt more people showing up through the door, though she did not look at them and could only notice their presence from the rush of air that would come into the space after each customer passed through. It made Goda’s distinct presence seem all the more conspicuously absent. Even in the company of the shadows around her, she felt strangely alone.
But her relative solitude did not last long. She felt bodies hovering close to her, which she ignored at first. Some warmth came over the table, warmth that did not match the energy of the candle on top of it. It was only when the wood beneath her jostled a bit that she finally looked up to find that the seats across from her had been abruptly claimed.
Four identical eyes stared at her. They were filled with what Kanna could only interpret as mischief and they belonged to two women with matching smirks. She tried to turn away at first, but the strangers leaned further across the table, until the candle had bathed both their faces with light—and in that moment, Kanna found that she couldn’t help but offer a stare in return.
Nearly every feature of their handsome faces mirrored each other. Kanna glanced back and forth between them a few times before she realized that she was sitting across from a pair of twins.
“Can I help you?” Kanna finally asked, a bit annoyed when neither of them uttered the barest greeting.
“Ah, she talks pretty good!” the one on the left said. She gave Kanna a friendly smile. “We were wondering how fluent you were in Middlelander, you see.”
“You can just ask if you want to know. You don’t have to sit there and stare at me like I’m an animal in some zoo.”
“Right you are, right you are!” It was the other one who spoke that time. Her eyes had softened of their impish look, and her face had grown more open, more polite. “Please forgive my associate here. She has no manners. We apologize.”
Kanna still had not uncrossed her arms, but she felt herself relaxing a bit in reply. She remembered what Goda had told her—that the people were only curious—and so she tried to view them through a less defensive lens. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s just that I’m…new to the Middleland. No one has tried to talk to me yet and I’m not sure how to react.”
“Oh? Well, allow me to apologize for our countrymen as well. They’re being rude, staring at you and not properly introducing themselves.” The same woman who had spoken previously tipped her head in a short bow. “My name is Noa Bou, and this is my younger sister Leina Bou. I’m older by fourteen minutes.” The way she had said the last part made it sound like the distinction was important, even though they both appeared to be grown women around Kanna’s age, and Kanna saw little difference between them. She wondered if this had to do with that ever-present status game that permeated Middleland culture.
Regardless, Kanna cleared her throat when she realized that they were both looking at her with expectation. She hesitated, wondering how much she should reveal. “They call me Kanna,” she offered eventually. She held back on the rest; she wasn’t sure if the average person on that side of the border knew what the name “Rava” meant, but she preferred not to stir things up.
“Kanna…?” said the one on the right—the one named Leina.
The twins seemed to wait some more, which made Kanna wonder if she might have not been able to get away with such a glaring omission after all. Kanna shifted in her seat. She looked around, anxious for Goda’s return; but still not seeing any sign of her, she couldn’t come up with any reasonable plan of escape.
When the patient stares grew too awkward, Kanna sighed. She would have to lie again, clearly.
“Kanna…Brahm.” Just in case, she decided to stick to her same story, though she had to stop herself from making a twisted face of displeasure as soon as the name left her mouth. As long as she did not lose sight of her real identity, she thought, she could be a Brahm for the night, whatever that meant. “I’m here with my wife.”
“Oh, you’re married?” the one named Noa said, tilting her head. “But wait, did you say Brahm?” The twins exchanged a look between them.
Kanna felt some panic rising in her chest. She wondered if she had somehow given a wrong answer. Were they acquainted with Goda? Was that brute really more infamous than Kanna had imagined? A lot of people did seem to randomly know who Goda was—but surely there would have to be other citizens with the family name Brahm. How uncommon could it be if it was only one syllable long?
“That’s a Middlelander name,” Leina said. “You married a Middlelander? How did that happen?” Both the women leaned towards her with even more curiosity.
At first, Kanna felt a reflex to lean away in response, but again she pushed herself to stand her ground and not show any weakness. She looked closely at both their faces. In spite of the way that they encroached across the invisible line at the middle of the table, they did not seem to mean any harm by it, and she decided that they merely had poor manners. Because their eyes had also lost their initial wild look, Kanna wondered if perhaps her own fear had colored her perception earlier.
“We met at a monastery in the Outerland,” Kanna explained. That sounded about right. Lots of people went to monasteries; it would be a reasonable place to meet.
Noa made a face. “Ah, is she one of those stiff religious types that likes to go see the priestesses all the time?”
“I guess.” Technically, it was true. Goda was indeed religious, though Kanna was starting to question which religion Goda ascribed to after all, especially since her stance on most things seemed to involve disbelieving rather than believing anything in particular.
“That’s really too bad. There are a lot of fun things to do in Karo—drinking, gambling, going to the baths—but you’ll miss them all if you have some prude showing you around.”
“Baths?” This piqued Kanna’s interest, if for no other reason than the fact that she hadn’t had a chance to wash the dust off her body after the crash. She had never heard of Middlelanders having public baths, but this seemed to make sense considering their customs.
“Oh yeah, there’s one right next door. There’s a spring underground nearby here, and the water rises naturally to the surface. It’s cold, so they let it come up into some isolated pools and they heat those up for the customers. Real nice. The water’s supposed to have healing properties. It used to be a shrine or something, but now they turned it into a bathhouse.” Noa gestured to the walls around them. “Even this tavern used to be part of the same religious site, I think.”
Kanna followed the woman’s gaze and squinted through the dark at the ancient, exposed rock that enclosed the small place. “And now people drink here?” she asked. She wasn’t superstitious herself, but it did seem a bit sacrilegious.
“Yep. Crazy, huh? That’s progress for you. The further you get into the Middleland, the less use people have for all this spiritual stuff. Just about the only bathing pools people take really seriously are the ones in Samma Valley, all the way to the West. That’s where the natural hot springs are, but they’re in some temples out in the middle of nowhere near some volcano, and only the priestesses are allowed to bathe in them.”
Leina chuckled, giving Noa’s shoulder a light whack. “What’s the use of telling her all that? The baths next door are plenty fun—and more importantly, you don’t have to sell your life to the clergy and mediate for ten years and take a vow of celibacy to have a good time.”
“True enough, true enough,” Noa said, picking up a drink beside her that Kanna hadn’t noticed until then. It looked like some watered-down fruit wine, but she couldn’t be sure. From what she had seen, no one was drinking distilled spirits, but that wasn’t exactly surprising considering the shortage.
“So,” Leina began. She exchanged another quick glance with Noa, then turned back to study Kanna’s face across the flame that sat between them. “If you’re here with your wife, then where did she go?”
The question had taken Kanna completely off guard, but of course it was a normal thing to ask. Her first instinct was to reach for something vague. “Um, she’s close by.” Kanna wasn’t sure exactly where Goda had gone, but she couldn’t have wandered too far from Kanna’s cuff, so she was definitely close.
“Close? Like, how close?” Noa asked. “Is she in this room right now? Is she watching us?”
“Yeah, is she sitting right at one of these tables, hovering over you like a hawk, making sure you don’t get into trouble?” Leina added, her eyes widening. “Or is she somewhere beyond the wall, gazing at you through a peephole?”
“Where is she? Did she run off and leave you here alone?” Noa looked around, perhaps a bit too dramatically. “Oh my goodness, I don’t see your wife anywhere! Where could she be? Oh, wait, is that her?” She pointed to some random person who Kanna didn’t recognize. “Or maybe her? Is that your wife over there?” She pointed to someone else. “How about her?”
Kanna rolled her eyes at the antics, but nonetheless she found herself uncrossing her arms and glancing over the table with amusement. “No. My wife’s a lot better-looking than any of those people. Don’t you think I have good taste?”
“How about us?” Noa brazenly asked. “Are we good-looking?”
Leina smacked her companion once again, but she nonetheless seemed interested in Kanna’s answer and looked at her with expectation from across the table. Kanna raised an eyebrow, even more bewildered than before. She had no idea what kind of reply was safe to give or whether such a question was typical or not.
When she took a long time to answer, Noa laughed. “It’s okay,” she said, “you can admit that Leina’s ugly. It won’t hurt her feelings.” This time, Noa earned a punch, but they were both smiling and it was then that Kanna realized that they had deliberately come over to entertain her for whatever reason.
“You look bored,” Leina murmured, as if she had been reading Kanna’s mind. She propped her chin up on her hand. It mashed her skin against her cheekbone and jaw, and gave her otherwise chiseled features a more defenseless look. It also made that attentive stare seem less intense, cute even.
Kanna found herself blushing. “I’m…fine,” she said. “To be honest, I’m not sure where my wife went. She just told me to wait here until she comes back.”
“Oh,” Noa said, sliding back, her face taking on a knowing look. “So she’s controlling, too, huh?”
Then Leina chimed in, nodding with agreement, “Yeah, most of the people who marry foreigners are like that—or at least the ones I know. They think that if they marry an immigrant, they can just tell their wife what to do all the time. Real sad.”
“Exactly. As if she did you some huge favor by letting you marry her.” Noa chugged some more of her wine, then tipped the cup towards Kanna with a pointed gesture. “Remember: No matter what, you’re still your own person. Just because you married someone doesn’t mean you’re their slave.”
Kanna rubbed her face slowly, trying to hide her reaction to the irony of what the woman had just said. Lying was getting easier every time she did it, but it was hard not to smile mirthlessly when someone skirted so close to the tragic truth.
“You can do whatever you want, Kanna Brahm,” Noa continued, seemingly oblivious to Kanna’s sardonic expression. “The world is yours! You don’t have to wait here all day for your presumptuous wife if you don’t want to.”
“That’s right, you’re free to explore every corner of Karo. You have as much right to it as the rest of us!”
Kanna couldn’t help but smile at them even as she waved her hands dismissively. “All right, all right,” she said, “but the two of you are being kind of excessive. She’s not controlling, she’s just…watchful.”
Noa’s smirk grew twisted. “‘Watchful’? What, are you a child or something?”
“What would she do if you got up and left, then?” Leina interrupted. She tipped her head towards the curtain that covered the doorway. “For example, what if you went out there to stand in the alley and smoke with us? Would she be upset, even though that’s literally just five or ten paces away?”
“Well, I mean, she would….” Kanna scratched the back of her head. In truth, she wasn’t entirely sure what Goda would do if she got up from her seat, but it wasn’t hard to surmise that the woman would be bothered by it. That in and of itself was besides the point, though. Even if Kanna had wanted to explore the tavern full of strangers, she wasn’t sure how far within the cuff’s range Goda had wandered, and she wasn’t in the mood to find out through a shock.
She had to admit that the twins were right on some level, though, in spite of the fact that they had no idea what was really going on: Goda was indeed overbearing. Kanna’s confinement to a single chair was unjust—and what did it really matter if she moved to another place as long as she didn’t go too far?
Kanna hadn’t really answered her tablemates, but she found that Leina was nodding at her again. “So she would have a fit, huh?” Leina said. “I don’t know, that sounds pretty controlling to me.”
“It does, it does,” Noa agreed. “Maybe you should go out to the alley with us. That way, you can show her that you’re not some dog on a leash.”
Kanna gave them both a wry look. So they had been playing dumb after all, she thought. Clearly, they had overheard her comment to Goda earlier and had noticed Goda leaving her alone before they decided to swoop in. It made her wonder how many other people had watched the argument, and whether she and Goda had inadvertently made a scene in front of the patrons.
“C’mon!” Noa’s eyebrows flicked up. There was a touch of flirtation in her look. “We’re going to go outside just the same, but it would be nice to have you with us so that we don’t have to cut the conversation short.”
Leina’s smirk was equally cajoling, even though it was still friendly and offered no pressure. “Yeah, keep us company! We’re due a smoke break and the people in this city are really uptight about puffing on cigars inside, so we’re going to stand right outside the door. We just don’t want to get kicked out for smoking like we did at the train station a few weeks ago.”
Kanna began to purse her lips again at their story, but then she stopped. She felt herself suddenly growing serious before she fully realized why. “The train station…?” As it had before, the thought of her impending escape cut through all the distractions of the moment and jerked her focus into the near future. “You two know where that is?”
“Of course!” Noa said. “We’re visitors here, too, just like you, even if we’ve been to Karo a hundred times. We travel around, but we’re from Gam, the Northernmost town in the Middleland. Real small place. Just below the bordering mountain range. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
The truth was that Kanna hadn’t really heard of any towns in the Middleland until she had been arrested, but she didn’t realize that there was one so close to the treacherous mountains that separated the Upperland from the Middleland. More importantly, the twins had grown suddenly useful. “Is there a train leaving tonight?”
Leina tilted her head. “Yeah, I think so—but they only go North and then circle back. A new train comes every other night.”
It was just as Priestess Rem had told her: the midnight train would leave once every two days, and so she only had a small window of time to escape because Goda hadn’t planned on staying in Karo for long. Even through her suddenly pounding heart, Kanna felt some relief that she wouldn’t have to stall for time—that she could leave while Goda was asleep and get it all over with that very night.
“Where is the train station?” Kanna finally blurted out, no longer guarding her tone to keep herself from sounding overly eager. She just needed to know. “Could you please tell me where it is?”
Again, the twins looked at each other briefly before one of them answered: “Sure,” Noa said, her smile growing wide. “Come outside with us and we’ll tell you all about it.”
* * *
The cigar smoke was thick enough that it obscured Kanna’s vision and made it hard for her to peer out at the details of the alley. Each cloud billowed out from each tip—and from the noses and mouths of her companions—and the haze danced in front of Kanna’s face like a coy woman covered in a veil. It didn’t burn nearly as cleanly as fuel did, and it smelled a bit different from whatever Innkeeper Jaya had been smoking, but she didn’t ask what it was because a part of her was a little afraid to find out.
“Here, put your mouth on this!” Noa had offered her the cigar, but Kanna had waved it away. It was uncomfortable enough to be standing between the two of them; she didn’t think her lungs could take a direct hit.
She tried to act casual as she leaned against the wall. She wasn’t so naive that she didn’t realize that if she seemed too interested in the whereabouts of the station, then they would stretch out their answer as long as they could to keep her around. At the very least, they didn’t seem to have a problem with prying into her life, so she’d likely be peppered with questions about where she was planning on going.
Kanna cleared her throat—to try to get the taste of smoke out more than anything else—and she decided to approach the question indirectly this time. “So, you two came from the North, then?”
“Yep,” Leina said. “Where are you from?” She turned and gave Kanna a playful smile, one that made the warmth start returning to Kanna’s cheeks. Now in the relatively brighter light of the alley, she had to admit to herself that the twins were unusually attractive. They weren’t as tall as Goda—no one she had met yet had been—but they were pleasantly lanky, with long arms and legs. Their features were more conventionally handsome than Goda’s, and they lacked the rough edges of Goda’s face, and their energy came off as much lighter and carefree.
She liked them in a strange way, in a way that numbed her worries. Even through the smokescreen, she found them pleasing to look at, and a small part of her wished she could have spent a normal night out with them under different circumstances. She had never been able to experience what it was like to just wander around a city and make friends. She wondered if this was what it was like to have the luxury of being frivolous.
But those thoughts dissipated into the smoke once she noticed that they were both waiting for her answer.
Where am I from?
Kanna glanced around furtively, trying to think of a single city that she could remember in the Outerland. She couldn’t; even the name of the monastery she had stayed in escaped her. She wondered if she had ever even learned it in the first place.
“I’m from the Northern Outerland,” she began. It seemed safe enough, and she was surprised at how casual she managed to make her voice sound. “That’s why I need to know where the station is, if you could let me know. My wife and I are taking a route back to my hometown that passes through the Middleland.” She kept her face as straight and as confident as she could. She silently prayed to the gods—or to the Goddess, or to whoever was watching her—that her lie had made enough sense, even though she had no idea where exactly most of the borders on the continent were.
The reaction was something she had not expected. Both the twins laughed.
“You’re no Outerlander!” Noa said.
Kanna crossed her arms. “I am. What are you trying to say, that I don’t know where my own homeland is? I know exactly who I am, thank you very much.”
“You probably do. You’re just lying about it, is all.” Noa put her hands up placatingly when Kanna glared at her, but still her smile hadn’t faded. “It’s all right. It’s totally understandable, considering that most people around here barely know that anything exists besides the Middleland and Outerland.”
“Absolutely,” Leina said, giving Kanna a friendly tap. “But we’ve traveled around, so we know better. You’re an Upperlander, right?”
“No!” Kanna shouted on reflex.
This only made the two women laugh some more. “You look just like an Upperlander, though. Those small eyes, that fair skin, the tinge of red in your hair. I’ve only seen maybe a couple of Outerlanders that have some of your features, and they still looked real different from you. You’re a pure-blooded Upperlander if I’ve ever seen one.”
Because Kanna had looked away and become speechless, Noa reached over to lightly grasp her chin and pull her gaze back. Kanna lifted her arm up to smack the woman’s hand away, but then she stopped when the overly-earnest look on Noa’s face distracted her.
“Don’t worry. I promise we won’t tell anyone,” Noa said. “We’re not trying to inconvenience you or anything. We think you deserve to have a good time like the rest of us, even if you are a foreigner.” Before Kanna could react, Noa released her and leaned back against the wall.
“That’s right.” Leina turned to give Kanna a similar smile. She was extinguishing her cigar against the stone, leaving a black mark of soot against its ancient surface. “We’re very modern and open-minded. We don’t care where you’re from, you should be able to enjoy the pleasures that Karo has to offer!”
“That’s why you should go in there with us.” Noa gestured towards the other curtained doorway a few steps away from them, the one that had the word “Paradise”—or “Garden”—hanging over it. “It’s the perfect time of day for a dip in the baths. We were already planning on it, but it’d be more fun with some company.”
Kanna looked at the white fabric that fell over the door, and though she tried to make something out between the cracks, she could only see some warm light escaping from around the edges of the curtain. Silhouettes moved to and fro on the face of the cloth, as if it were the screen of a shadow puppet show. It did make her wonder what was behind all of that, but she knew that she didn’t have time for an adventure.
“I can’t,” Kanna said. “I have to wait for my wife.” More importantly, she had to figure out where the train station was, and it didn’t help that no one seemed keen on giving her a straight answer about it. Middlelanders could be so indirect at the most inconvenient times.
Noa shrugged at her reply. “Then wait for her. If you have to wait for your wife anyway, you might as well do it somewhere fun, right? What difference does it make if you wait for her in the crummy old tavern or in the bathhouse? They’re in the same building and barely in different chambers.”
“Yeah, that very chair you were sitting in is hardly twenty paces away from the bathing pool. If there wasn’t a wall in the way, you could walk straight to it in less than a minute. It’s so close. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid.” Kanna’s protest had been automatic, but as soon as it left her mouth, she did find herself questioning it. “It’s just that if I leave suddenly without telling her, how will she know where I went?”
“Well, how can you tell her where you are if she just ran off without letting you know where she’s gone? Why do you have to ask permission, but she can just go where she pleases? That’s a little unbalanced, don’t you think? You’ve given her way too much power in this relationship.” Noa was shaking her head slowly, mock sadness on her face. “Makes me sick when people do that to themselves.”
“You’re letting her take advantage of you,” Leina agreed, draping an arm around her shoulders. “Even slaves get treated better than this.”
Kanna looked at the curtained door with the mysterious shadows, then back at the women who wore twin expressions that seemed to coax her closer to the entrance. She took in a shallow breath. She felt the thread of curiosity tugging her towards the door, and for the first time in a long while, her curiosity had nothing to do with Goda. She had to admit that it was a welcome distraction from her circular thoughts about both her master and her situation.
And if she went with them, they could tell her about the station, and maybe even explain to her some of the hazards of traveling North through the Middleland. They seemed experienced enough.
“Well,” Kanna began to say, her eyes falling again on the doorway, “maybe for just a short while. As long as we come back quickly, she might not notice and—”
“She definitely won’t notice!” Noa bellowed, already taking Kanna by the hand.
“It’ll be the furthest thing from her mind!” Leina called out, pressing her hands lightly on Kanna’s back and scooting her towards the thin veil that separated them from paradise.