Past the curtain, there was a burst of light. The space felt wet, like there was vapor leaking in from the corridors that flanked them on each side. The chamber they found themselves in had no candles or electric lamps, but straight ahead of them there was a wide open gash in the wall and a courtyard that spread out in the full force of the late afternoon light. It was a small garden with a tree planted at each corner and a thatch of flowery bushes in the middle, and it was surrounded by rock walls with many doorways that seemed to lead to darker places.
Noa pulled Kanna towards the courtyard, and it was only then that Kanna noticed the people passing back and forth through the chamber they were standing in, and she twisted her neck to look at them. The sunlight had made the bodies seem like mere shadows on the curtain from the outside, but now Kanna could make out some details. They came by in groups of two or three—a man and one woman, a man and two women—but most of them did not seem to notice her, and they appeared over-focused and rushed as they disappeared into the hallways around them.
Abruptly, a young man bumped into her and gasped when he appeared to notice her features. Kanna quickly matched his astonished expression, but his companion pulled him away in a hurry, and Leina stepped between Kanna and the boy so that she could no longer see his face.
“Careful,” Noa said, guiding her into the bright square. “The women around here can get ornery if you touch their special friends.”
In the light of the garden, it was harder to see the people inside the chamber behind them, but Kanna still kept her gaze trained on the movement because something about the whole thing disturbed her. She stopped in the middle of the space, even though the twins seemed to be beckoning her to cross, to enter one of the dark thresholds carved out of stone on the other side.
“What’s going on?” she whispered. She stood next to one of the trees and refused to move further, so Noa let go of her hand. “Are all these people here to bathe? Where are the pools, in those dank caverns? If that’s the case, then I’d rather stay out here.” Actually, she was starting to rethink the place entirely. She already felt a strange, invisible force tugging her away, back towards Goda’s direction.
Leina laughed and tipped her head towards a doorway. “Yes, the pools are in there, in many different rooms. Some people do come to bathe here, but not everyone does, of course,” she said. She leaned against the tree, which Kanna then noticed had low branches brimming with fruit. “It’s a discreet spot because there’s a maze of caverns and hallways, so it’s really popular for other purposes, too.”
“What purposes?” But Kanna’s mind had already begun to wander into unseemly territory, and her inklings were confirmed when Noa answered:
“What do you think?” She smirked. “It’s tradition to bathe immediately after meeting with a lady-friend, so the young men from poorer families who don’t have running water at home just come here. It’s considered low-class, though, so the wealthier families avoid it. They’re also pickier about who they allow their sons to meet up with, so you won’t find the fancy boys mingling with the kind of women who hang out here; the poorer families are a bit more open to anyone as long as they have money.”
Kanna’s eyes widened. She turned again towards the open chamber behind them. “You mean those women are paying?”
Noa shrugged. “Some of them probably, yeah—but not directly. It’s illegal to pay any money and it makes the family look bad, but people do it anyway by offering expensive gifts to the man’s mother and stuff like that. That’s why if you’re a poor family, it’s like hitting the jackpot if you have a son. You get a lot of social leverage, and if your son strikes the fancy of someone with means, then you can be set for a few years. If you haven’t noticed, men aren’t exactly abundant around here, so the demand totally outstrips the supply, and some of the women are desperate to have children. That’s the way it’s always been, though.”
“Yes, but isn’t that…?” Kanna stopped. She felt her chest tightening, that outrage from before returning. She was about to accuse Noa and Leina and every other Middlelander of exploiting the weak, but then she heard the voice of Goda Brahm echoing in her mind, the voice that had accused her of hypocrisy days before, when she had tried to sympathize with Parama Shakka: “You’ll pretend to yourself that what you’re feeling is compassion for the boy,” Goda had said, “when really you’re just upset about your own situation.”
She wondered if she should suspend her judgment for the moment. It was true that even with this explanation, she really had no idea what was going on.
Further, that small revelation from Noa had made her want to leave. She took a small step back, but as she did, a fruit fell down from one of the branches of the tree and landed near her feet. She glanced at it, mildly startled at first, but then when her eyes focused upon it, she noticed something strange. It oscillated from one color to another as the sunlight shined upon it; she had never seen that kind of fruit before.
Curiously, she picked it up. “Odd,” she said. “It changes colors. Why does it look like that?”
“Like what?” Noa took it from her and looked it over, but seemed unimpressed. She handed it then to Leina. “This is a fairly common fruit. It’s still a little green, but it looks normal to me.” Even as Noa said this, Kanna watched the fruit change from green to purple to a mix of both in Leina’s hand.
“You mean you don’t see it? How do you not see it?” she said.
Both Noa and Leina wore matching smiles filled with confusion, but Leina reached above them and picked another fruit from a nearby branch. She took a step towards Kanna and dropped the pair of fruits in Kanna’s robes—one in each pocket—and Kanna twitched a little because she could have sworn she felt the woman’s hand grazing her cuff key inside.
“If you like them so much, you should have some,” she said. “One for each side of you. You got married recently, right? It’ll be up to you to have the children, probably. This fruit is supposed to be good luck if you’re seeking fertility.”
“The two of us are also good luck for that kind of thing,” Noa added. “Though of course we can’t offer the same gift a man might offer. It’s a different sort of gift. It’ll relax you; your wife seems kind of stiff.” She looked upon Kanna with an enigmatic expression, a new smile that Kanna didn’t understand at first. The twins both stood in front of her under the tree—one twin on each side of her—and they watched to see her reaction. “So pick one of us to take you inside. We don’t like to share, you see.”
Kanna blinked. Oh, she thought.
Blushing, she lifted both hands up, not quite knowing how to politely decline the offer that they seemed to be making. They were both quite beautiful, but something in Kanna’s mind had fused them together with the garden, and their beauty fell into the same category as the elegant branches of the tree or the budding flowers at the center of the courtyard: they were nice to look at, but they were nothing she was eager to touch.
They were nothing like Goda.
But why? she asked herself. There was something violent that she felt towards Goda that she couldn’t feel towards the flowers or the trees or the women in front of her. That realization bothered her immediately. Physically, her new companions were not much different from her master, besides being pleasantly smaller and less intimidating. They even looked a little closer to her own age, were much kinder to her, and gave her their full attention. Four eager eyes were regarding her with something she now realized was desire. It was flattering; it was refreshing; it was something she had never experienced to that extent before. She felt that it added something to her, whereas Goda only seemed to ever want to rip things away until there was nothing left of her.
“I…have to get back to my wife,” Kanna said. She glanced over her shoulder at the open chamber behind her. Truth be told, she was a little squeamish about weaving her way through the other patrons again, especially after learning what they were up to—but the urge to go back to Goda had swelled in her strongly. It competed with her curiosity and the natural drives of her body in the face of Noa’s offer. She would be lying if she told herself that she wasn’t tempted in both directions.
Noa took her hand again. “It’s fine,” she told Kanna softly. “You can say no. We’re not pushy about that kind of stuff. If you want, we can just show you the spring and then we can leave. It’s a beautiful spot, and it’d be a shame if you never got to see it while you were here!”
Just as gently, Leina took her other hand. “It’ll only be a second. The main, unheated pool isn’t that deep inside and it’s not very popular, so there won’t be crowds. There’s even a passageway in the room that leads towards a back exit to the outside. In fact, it faces the path towards the railroad tracks, so it’ll be real easy to point out the station if we go out through there.”
Hearing that, Kanna began to lean a bit further in their direction. “Is it really that close?” They had told her before that the spring was less than a minute’s walk away from her seat in the tavern, but because she wasn’t sure where Goda had gone, she had a hard time calculating how far she could go while staying in the cuff’s range.
But two hands had begun pulling her again. This time, she did not resist by default. Her eyes fell on the grass below her momentarily, and she was astonished to see that it too was phasing through a range of colors. Soon they passed it, though, and the floor turned to stone, and then—as they slipped into the mouth of one of the corridors—natural rock shuffled beneath Kanna’s sandals.
Because the space had grown suddenly dark, her resistance returned and she wondered if she had been stupid to follow them. Her heart began to pound, but almost as quickly as her fear had come, some relief phased over her next, her emotions as fickle as the colors on the grass had been. They rounded a corner almost immediately. What they had told her was true: the spring was hardly a stroll away.
Like many of the structures Kanna had found herself in recently, the chamber reminded her of a cave, though it was lit with a vast array of candles. Small dripping sounds fell somewhere in the distance, but the only water she had noticed was at the center of the room, in a large, flooded pit that was overlooked by ornate carvings along the boundaries of the space. Once her eyes had adjusted and the twins urged her to the edge of the pool, she could see more clearly what was chiseled into the rock.
The image of a swan with spreading wings hovered on the wall over the waters. Below it, twisting snakes erupted in every direction. As soon as her eyes fell upon them, they flashed with color, before returning to the mundane shade of gray stone.
Kanna stopped dead in her tracks. “Wait, this is a shrine? But isn’t the shrine supposed to be underground?” she asked them, immediately pulling back, immediately ready to bolt out of the room. She shook her head with urgency. “Look, I have to leave now.”
The twins did not let go of her hands and merely stared at her in confusion.
“I have to leave!” she repeated. This time, she tore her hand away from Leina, but Noa seemed less eager to let go. She wasn’t holding onto Kanna violently, but it seemed to take the woman little effort to try to keep her still, which only served to enrage Kanna more.
“Is it some religious thing?” Noa asked, looking at Leina. “What do Upperlanders believe in again? They have like a bunch of gods, right?” She turned back to Kanna. “Are you afraid you’ll offend your god or something?”
“I have no god,” Kanna said, pulling against Noa’s grip, which only served to bring the woman closer. Kanna narrowed her eyes and met Noa’s bewildered expression with a scowl, jostling her own hand back and forth to work her wrist loose. Her sleeve began to slide over to expose the cuff, but she barely noticed. “I don’t believe in any religious nonsense. Maybe my mother did and my other countrymen still do, but I know better than that. I’m not about to worship and follow the orders of some deity who thinks he knows better than me about my own life. I’m not some ignorant peasant crawling through the dirt on some mountain in—” With a sharp jerk, she managed to free herself from Noa’s grip—or perhaps it was just that Noa had decided to let go—but the force of the movement sent her stumbling to the side. Her feet shifted precariously on the edge of the pool. She panicked and stumbled some more.
“Whoa!” Leina called out to her. Both the twins grasped for her, but were a split second too late.
The smack of the water stung hard against Kanna’s spine, but once she broke through, it was the cold that stung even more. She kicked her arms and legs furiously, but it seemed to bring her no closer to the surface. When she opened her eyes and looked up, she saw two pairs of arms urgently reaching into the water for her, groping at her robes, but missing her as she floated down.
Then the hands disappeared very suddenly, as if the water had turned scalding hot. “Ah!” a pair of twin voices echoed through the space, loud enough that Kanna could hear them even under the water.
She noticed all of this at the same exact moment that a rush of pain shot through her nerves. And then she realized what was happening.
She fought the urge to scream into the water, because she didn’t want a mouthful that would drown her. She tried to fight her way to the top, but the shocks were already exhausting her, and though they were small, they now seemed to surround her from every direction in the water, instead of radiating from her arm as they usually did. She closed her eyes and then opened them again. She felt the current of the spring pushing against her side, bringing with it the current of the cuff, searing against her skin as if a huge electric hand were stroking her.
Her body spun towards the touch even as she fought it, but then the pain fell away. The shocks ended abruptly, or else she couldn’t feel them anymore. She hung suspended in the water. Through the dim medium around her, her gaze fell into the deep well of the spring, and she could see the black hole that appeared to be its source. She grew limp as it stared back at her with what seemed like a single, dark, surfaceless eye.
She fell deep into that eye—and then deeper still. The walls of the pool disappeared. The light of the cavern disappeared. Her own body beneath her disintegrated.
And when the light of the sun hit her face again, and she saw a body—dot by dot, cell by cell—forming around her, she was no longer at any spring in any shrine or in any place she had ever been. She was standing at the end of a forest trail, by a tiny cottage with a gate that came up to her waist.
* * *
Kanna looked down at a pair of huge hands that were not her own. Her legs seemed to go on forever beneath her, and they ended in a pair of bare, dirty feet that pressed into the grass. Her gaze rose up against her will, and the body she was living in pushed through the gate on its own and walked the path on the other side of the fence.
Once again, she realized, she was looking at the world from behind the giant’s eyes.
The giant pushed against the door of the cottage and let herself in. Clean rays shone in through the windows and warmly bathed the tabletop of the small kitchen that appeared before her. The giant reached into a pocket and pulled out some familiar-looking fruit that Kanna could not name. She held it over a bowl on the table, as if she were to drop it in, but a pleasant voice rang through the space and made her freeze.
“Oh, another gift from my monster?” In a chair, warming herself next to a tiny stove, the beautiful priestess from Kanna’s dream looked up at the giant with affection. “The flowers you brought me are still alive. I put them near the window to give them some sun, but I suppose that makes no difference since they’ve already been cut from their roots.” She smiled and with a metal rod poked at the twigs at the opening of the rocket stove. “Their days are numbered. Maybe I should press them into a book to keep them forever.”
“No matter what my priestess does, they won’t last forever,” the giant said.
The priestess’s expression didn’t change. “Very true. Nothing lasts forever, does it? At least we have the present moment.” She looked at the fruit in the giant’s grasp. “Now bring that over here so that I can eat something of yours again.”
The giant stared at the priestess, but did not approach at first, and seemed to wrestle with some thought that Kanna had no access to. When she finally did move, the steps were slow, and the body that Kanna found herself in felt suddenly stiff.
The priestess opened her bare palm in expectation and the giant dropped her gift softly into that hand.
“Ah, ah!” the priestess murmured in a teasing voice, as if she were chastising a child. “Be careful not to touch! Even just a slight brush of our hands will undo us both.”
There was another stretch of silence. Clearly uncomfortable, the giant shifted her weight back and forth, and it made the boards of the floor creak. “I finished what I was making for you,” she said after looking at the priestess for a long time. “Please take it now.”
“Hm, is that why you disappeared for a few days? I was starting to think you had grown cross after our argument last week and had abandoned me for good.”
The giant’s jaw tightened with an emotion Kanna couldn’t understand. “There is no argument. I can’t do what you asked of me and I won’t change my mind. Just take the medicine I made.”
“And I could say the same thing. I can’t do what you ask. You know very well that I can’t take that potion you’ve concocted. It’s against my precepts. There is only one solution to this situation and as long as you refuse me, it will never get any better.”
The giant’s hands fell to her sides. They clenched into fists. A wave of pain rushed through that body and Kanna found that she could feel it then, that the anguish had filled her, too, even though she had no idea of its source. “The answer is no.”
“Then there you have it,” said the priestess, bringing her attention back to the burning wood. “You’ve told me no and I can’t force you. Not even my orders as a clergy member extend that far, of course, so I suppose I’ll never find any relief from this. But I’m used to it. Perhaps it’s what the Goddess wants. Perhaps the suffering will be like a fire that makes me pure enough to live for eternity in Her garden.” The priestess grew quiet after that, thoughtful. Again, they merely hovered in each other’s presence and the giant refused to say anything in reply.
The giant finally turned and began trudging loudly towards the door, but a voice emerged from behind:
“Tell me, Goda, do you love me?”
A cacophony of emotions erupted, as if some sealed box filled with every kind of confusing passion had been broken. There were so many that Kanna couldn’t parse them, but she could feel a wave of heat rising up the giant’s throat. With some difficulty, the giant looked over her shoulder at the beautiful priestess, at the woman who was looking up at her with a faint smile.
Goda didn’t answer, but the priestess seemed to have heard something unspoken nonetheless.
“Then do what I ask,” the woman with Rem’s face told her. “Sin in my place, like a good layperson. This is all I want. Don’t you see? This is all you’re good for, Goda. The only things you have to offer to the world are that beautiful face…and those inhuman hands of yours.”
* * *
Kanna gasped. Her body convulsed as she expected to take a swell of water into her lungs, but instead it was only cold air that she sucked in. Her chest jerked with another freezing breath, then another. The only warmth she felt were the tears rolling from the corners of her eyes and into her ears, and the huge hand that had grasped her roughly by the face.
Goda Brahm was kneeling above her. She gazed down with a stern look that filled Kanna with renewed fear. She was forcing Kanna to look back up at her. “Wake up,” Goda muttered. “Wake the hell up and quit with the dramatics.”
As soon as Goda let her go, Kanna coughed and tried to sit up, but her inner body still felt awkward inside its shell. She realized that she was lying down on the hard stone beside the bathing pool and that her soaking wet robes clung so heavily to her that it was hard to even stretch her limbs.
“Idiot.” Goda’s words echoed through the chamber as she stood up all the way and tapped Kanna’s ribs with the tip of her boot. “If you’re already trying to kill yourself, at least wait until I’ve handed you off in Suda. It’s not my job to transport dead bodies.”
Kanna looked up at Goda with confusion, but the woman’s face was empty as always. She felt another presence nearby, though, and when she jerked her head, she saw the Bou twins sitting cross-legged on the ground, looking up at Goda like a pair of guilty schoolchildren.
“I’m sorry! We’re sorry!” Leina Bou cried. “We didn’t know she was a slave in transport. She told us she was your wife!”
“Never mind that.” Goda took Kanna by the arm and began forcing her onto her feet. “Get up. Get up.”
The threat behind her tone was so thick that Kanna obeyed on reflex. She got up as best she could, her frozen knees cracking as she finally made it to her feet.
A panicked thought flashed through her mind. She reached quickly into both her pockets to grope for the key, hoping that she hadn’t lost it in the waters. Luckily, even though her hands were numb, she was able to feel the metal against the tips of her fingers when she shoved them deep into her robes. The fruits had also not fallen out, by some miracle. She realized then that she must have only been in the water for a short moment before Goda had pulled her out.
Goda was no longer looking at her. The woman had turned and begun heading towards a hallway at the back of the chamber, and Kanna knew better than to refuse to follow. When she passed the twins, they looked up at her with apologetic expressions, and though Kanna wondered why, she did not stop until Noa reached up and grabbed her sleeve.
“The station is just across the way from the trans-continental trading office,” she whispered discreetly once Goda had neared the exit and seemed reasonably out of earshot. “That office is the tallest building in the skyline, so you can’t miss it. You can also follow the tracks, but they’re very winding and the fastest path is to just cut straight through the main road to the station.”
Leina nodded. “Best of luck. Your chances of escaping are low unless you can find a way to break off the cuff, but be careful—I hear they can zap you dead if you fiddle with them too much.”
“And remember: we didn’t tell you anything,” Noa added. “We’re just a pair of stupid tourists from the North.”
Kanna stared at them with surprise, but she pulled away quickly after Noa let go of her, and she jogged across the chamber to catch up with Goda. She was eager to break out of the grip of the shrine, and as soon as they stepped out of the tunnel that led to the back exit and emerged into the outside light, she felt like she could take in a solid breath again.
The cool air made her wet clothes all the more uncomfortable, but the feeling of freedom that came with the wide open space made up for it. They were at the back of the building, on a side that had no cramped alley to speak of. She could even see another door that seemed to lead to some room near the tavern.
Goda was over by the outside wall, picking up a pair of burlap sacks that were on the ground. She hoisted one onto her back, then handed the other to Kanna.
“Here, carry some supplies,” Goda told her. “You’ve been a complacent slave for long enough.” The woman trudged on ahead.
Kanna sighed and picked up the bag as best she could. It thumped against her legs as she dragged her feet on the ground and shifted her shoulders from side to side to carry the awkward weight. She heard some liquid sloshing in containers that jostled inside. She heard some metallic clanging. The annoyance of the chore distracted her for a few strides before she remembered that she needed to look up.
She glanced at the skyline. She had doubted at first whether she would know where to look, but the twins had been right, and the hugest tower of glass and steel was obvious among the rest of the buildings in the scenery. She saw the tracks ahead of her, too, and how they snaked through the labyrinth of buildings and eventually disappeared from her view, obscured by the city itself.
She huffed and pushed forward. The encounter with the shrine had drained her, but none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was that she finally knew where to go.
* * *
Hours later, after they had ventured through twisting pathways and met with some other dubious tavern-keepers who sold black market spirits—after Goda had siphoned more fuel from a few poorly-attended vehicles and rummaged through some trash bins near restaurants to find only slightly imperfect bags of old yaw—the porter allowed Kanna to at last collapse with exhaustion on the back of a truck.
They hitched a ride with a foreigner who had taken pity on them and was heading in the same direction towards the edge of town. Kanna could barely hold herself up, and she used all her energy to resist the jostling of her body as they hit bumps in the road at uncomfortable speeds.
Goda was watching her. The light had waned to the point that there was barely any pink left in the sky, but Kanna could still see the woman’s face and she could still sense the faint amusement in it.
“You’ve just about killed me,” Kanna complained.
“You’re a slave. It only gets more tedious after you’re done with me. Get used to it.”
Kanna tried to stretch herself along the flatbed, but her arms and legs bumped against the cargo, and she thought better of it quickly because she knew that lying down would only make things harder once it was time to go. She sat up. Her stomach growled from having spent the day unattended. She reached for fruit in her pocket to see if she could silence the hunger.
Her hand brushed against the key while she was in there, but she ignored it and brought the fruit up to her mouth. Before she took a bite, though, she looked closely at the skin of the fleshy pome. She raised an eyebrow. The skin was green—just green and nothing else.
“It’s so strange,” she murmured. She turned it around in her hand. “It looked completely different before. Just like the grass in the courtyard, there were all kinds of colors, and they were changing over and over, but now it looks normal. And then later, there was that swan, and the snakes inside that pulsed with color like the ones in the caverns at the monastery, and then when I fell into the water I saw….” The memories had grown hazy since she had woken up by the edge of the pool, but now they were coming back as if she were piecing together a dream. “I saw weird things in the water. For a moment, my body completely disappeared.”
Goda reached out and picked the fruit from Kanna’s hand. She took a huge bite, her smile unfaded, and she looked at Kanna through the softening glow of the evening sun. “You don’t say,” she said. It wasn’t that she sounded like she disbelieved Kanna’s story; it was that she sounded completely unsurprised.
They hit a particularly large bump and Kanna had to fight to hold on. After it passed, she came to stare at Goda again. “You know why all of that happened, don’t you?” Kanna said. She had phrased it like a question, but she was nonetheless sure of the answer already. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. I can see that you do. You seem to know all about all this weird stuff that keeps happening, and yet you’ve told me so little, and I have this sinking feeling that there’s something huge you’ve failed to share this whole time.”
The wheels crunched underneath them and the car rumbled about, but Goda seemed to have no trouble keeping perfectly still. She looked over the body of the fruit and up at Kanna, a strange look of amusement in her dark, surfaceless eyes.
“You don’t say,” she said.