When Kanna woke up, she was inside a chamber that she didn’t recognize. The cold stone beneath her scraped sand against her skin as she jerked into consciousness. The air smelled like soot. The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the ceiling above her, which was scarred with strange markings that she could not read.
She lifted her head and the sun struck her hotly in the face. It was shining against her through the mouth of the cave, and it was only then that some of the memories came rushing back. She couldn’t recall falling asleep the night before, but she could remember watching the fire wane until the last few coals had died and left her in pitch darkness.
She sat up with difficulty, and her bones creaked and complained as she forced herself up from the stone floor to glance around at the cavern.
It looked different. In the dim glow of the evening before—and through the distraction of trying to pry herself loose from the rope—she hadn’t noticed the carvings along the walls and the ceiling.
Some of the weathered indentations had traces of color as if they had been painted ages before. They were arranged in neat columns, so she guessed that it was writing, but the glyphs made no sense to her. They were like the meaningless geometric shapes that she saw sometimes when she closed her eyes tightly.
Her eyes were fully open, though. And she could see that she was alone.
While the rope was still tied around her wrists, the woman who had seized her was nowhere in sight. Kanna wondered briefly if she was still dreaming, but she dismissed the thought and hobbled onto her feet.
She edged slowly to the mouth of the cave, her hands coming up to shield her face, her eyes not yet adjusted to the light. She stepped out into the full bath of the sunshine. When she saw movement from the corner of her eye, she looked down the side of the crag and let out a huff of surprise.
A few ledges down—leaning over a puddle that had been left over from the rain—was a naked woman. She was scooping up muddy water that had accumulated in a crevice of the rock, and she was splashing it onto herself while the sun’s rays played brightly against her skin. Her back was wide and lean. Her muscles tensed as she took a deep breath and pressed a handful of water to her face.
Because Kanna had never seen the woman unshrouded by shadows before, it took her a moment to realize that it was Goda. Startled, she slid back on reflex. Her feet shuffled against the gravel and sent a few pebbles tumbling down, and this was when the woman seemed to finally notice her.
Goda looked up.
It was the first time that Kanna had seen the woman’s face clearly in sunlight. Her features were handsome—unfeminine, though not quite mannish. Her jaw was a bit too angular; her mouth was soft.
She offered no words. Kanna felt like she had interrupted some animal during a feeding. She wanted to avert her gaze, but she fought through it and tried not to be afraid. The splashing of the puddle had awakened a more insistent need in her.
“Do we have water to drink?” Kanna asked. As she said it, she realized that there were still grains of sand stuck to the sides of her teeth. Her mouth was bone dry.
“You can’t drink this.” The brown waves of Goda’s neck-length hair fell partly over her face, but her eyes shined brightly through that curtain. They were dark, only a few shades lighter than the pupils themselves, and Kanna found that they made the gaze unnervingly direct.
Kanna took another step back. “What can I drink, then?”
Goda did not move at first, but after what seemed like a moment of frozen contemplation, she turned away from the water. “Come,” she said. She reached for a pile of clothes that were strewn nearby and Kanna tried not to watch her as she dressed.
Even when the woman was finished and looked up at Kanna with expectation, Kanna hesitated in moving any closer.
Goda’s voice was firmer the second time: “I said come.” She slung her satchel over her shoulder. She began to step up towards the ledge that Kanna was perched on, and it was then that Kanna finally conceded.
She stooped over the ledge and began crawling her way down the crag, her elbows scraping uncomfortably against the rocks. It was hard to move with her hands bound. Once she had reached Goda’s side, the woman grabbed her by the arm and led her the rest of the way down to the desert floor.
As they were walking away from their refuge, Kanna glanced up towards the cavern that they had slept in the night before. She stopped.
“What is this place?” Kanna turned to fully face the structure, and she found that it wasn’t at all the pile of boulders that she thought she had climbed in the dark.
They were ruins, carved with all manner of exotic symbols. The outside of the cave at the top was decorated with relief images of animals, and human faces, and body parts, and creatures that she couldn’t identify. The threshold of the cave was more angled than she had remembered, as if it had been sculpted into the stone with tools and intention.
It looked completely different in the light; it had transformed somehow, just as Goda’s face had.
Kanna felt a tug on her arm, but when she began walking again, the hand quickly let go. The end of the rope that was tied around her wrists dragged uselessly along the ground as she followed the tall woman. They left the ruins behind and headed towards a gravel road that they had abandoned the night before.
“It’s an ancient religious site of some kind,” Goda said, answering Kanna’s question all of a sudden.
“You mean it’s not a Maharan shrine?” Kanna didn’t know much about the Middleland religion, but she knew that nearly all Middlelanders exclusively worshiped the same deity—a goddess called Mahara—and that the highest-status people in the country were the priestesses who ran the temples.
But she had never seen a temple before. The few Middlelanders that she had met—bureaucrats and business owners who worked with her father—had always been stingy with details, as if they were keeping some huge secret from her.
Goda was still facing away as she walked on, gravel crunching beneath her feet. She shook her head without turning around. “This site is old. It predates the spread of the Cult of Mahara to the Outerland Desert. Nobody knows what this building was for. Even the script on the walls is too ancient to be intelligible. It might be some precursor to the modern Middleland script, but it’s indecipherable to us now.”
Kanna glanced over her shoulder at the structure one last time as it began growing smaller in the distance. “You seem to know this place well.”
“I stay here sometimes on the way to the Outerland confinement center—the place you were held until last night. It’s convenient, near the road. I can stop here to pray at sundown.”
“So you’re religious.”
“You could say that,” Goda told her, though her tone was dismissive. “To be honest, I don’t believe in the Goddess. Not everyone does. But everyone worships Her all the same.”
Kanna turned towards Goda and gave her a strange look, though the woman couldn’t see it because she was still trudging ahead. Kanna had always thought that Middlelanders were weird, that behind their icy smiles they were far too concerned with keeping up appearances, but she couldn’t fathom how that cold superficiality could extend even to matters of faith.
Lost in these thoughts, Kanna noticed a few seconds later that she was starting to fall behind. She felt a faint buzz in the bones of her right hand, a discomfort that had already become too familiar. Thirty-five, forty paces. The woman’s words from the night before echoed in her mind, so she shuffled quickly to close the growing space between them.
“Guard!” she called out to her in mild panic. It was the first label she could think of. She knew that Middlelanders were picky about how to address people, and in truth she wasn’t completely sure if “Goda” was the woman’s personal name or if it was simply a title in the Middlelander tongue that she had overheard the soldiers using to address her.
At any rate, her call had some effect. Goda stopped and turned around. “I’m not a guard,” she said, some mild annoyance in her voice. “I’m a porter.”
“All right.” Kanna fidgeted with uncertainty. “What do I call you, then?”
Kanna felt a frustrated sigh building in her chest, but she suppressed it. “Porter Goda,” she said, deciding that it sounded formal enough, “my feet are still cut up from last night. I can’t walk as briskly as you can.”
“Then don’t.” Goda’s face was blank.
“Believe me, I’d actually be happy to not follow you at all.”
Kanna tried to stifle her irritation. She looked at the ground as she gritted her teeth. “Obviously, I have to, otherwise I’ll be shocked by this thing again.” She bent her wrist hard against the metal cuff, but it was too solid to give even a little.
“You don’t have to,” Goda said. This time, there was a faint smile. “You could just let the shock happen.”
“Are you playing with me right now?” Kanna asked. “After everything you told me yesterday?” The muscles of her arms grew tense again with the unspent rage of the night before. “I’m really tired of this abuse. You have no reason to treat me this way under the law. I know my rights, and as soon as your Middleland government finds out that you tied me up and refused me water and—”
“When did you lose your shoes?”
“What?” Kanna found that Goda was staring at her feet. She could not hold back the glare that naturally came over her face. “Don’t tell me that it’s only now that you’ve noticed my shoes are gone.”
“I didn’t say that. I just asked when it was that you lost them.”
Kanna stared at her with confusion. “I don’t know! It was sometime last night when I was scrambling to get away from you. I lost them somewhere in the desert.”
Goda looked at her feet in silence for a long enough time that Kanna began shuffling uncomfortably.
“Come,” Goda said. She turned around and began walking.
“Make no mistake, Porter,” Kanna called after her, picking up the pace, kicking up clouds of sand in spite of the growing ache at the soles of her feet, “I will escape. I don’t know how, but I will. Even if I have to work through the fibers of this rope with my own fingernails, I will do it! Even if I have to gnaw through the metal of this torture device with my own teeth, I will be free before you even notice that I’m gone!”
When they came within view of Goda’s small truck—the one that they had ridden out into the wilderness the night before, the one that the soldiers had forced her into—Goda was still ignoring her. She led Kanna up to the side and opened one of the doors.
Kanna opened her mouth to make some kind of objection. She wasn’t sure what to say, but she wasn’t ready to give up the impulse of resistance that was coming over her. “If you’re not going to listen to me or treat me like a human being, then I’m not going to—”
Then she saw that Goda had turned back around with a knife in her hand, and quickly she closed her mouth. Goda took a step forward at the same time that Kanna took a step back.
“Be still,” she said.
Kanna nearly tripped as she flinched away, but Goda was faster. Seemingly without noticing Kanna’s reaction, the woman took hold of the rope and held her steady, and she pointed the teeth of the knife towards Kanna’s hands.
Goda cut the rope.
The binds fell away. They rained down onto Kanna’s feet in a few pieces, and their absence made her arms feel suddenly light. Even still, she kept her tightened fists pressed together for much longer than it took for her to be freed. The binds had come off so easily that it almost made them seem like they had been an illusion the whole time.
Goda turned to the truck again, then produced a pair of sandals and two jars of water from some compartment beneath the seat. She thrust one of the jars into Kanna’s hands. “Here,” she said.
Kanna immediately drank, nearly choking in her desperation. She paused only when she noticed Goda stooping down and placing the sandals on the desert floor. She flinched at first when Goda gripped her by the ankle, but soon enough her fear gave way to astonishment.
The woman was washing Kanna’s feet.
When she had finished, she guided them gingerly into the sandals, stretching back up only once Kanna was standing solidly in place.
“Not quite the right size, but they should be fine,” she mumbled, giving Kanna’s feet one last glance—and then she climbed into the roofless truck.
By the time Kanna’s bewilderment had begun to wear off, Goda had started the engine. It rattled uninvitingly, much too loud for a rig that was barely larger than a pair of horses, but Kanna followed Goda inside without waiting to be called.
She slammed the door shut after herself, and the hinges wobbled so much that she wondered if they were about to fall off.
“Is this what they gave you to work with?” Kanna asked in disbelief as Goda gripped the handles and the truck choked forward onto the road. “The government of a wealthy nation like the Middleland?”
“It’s not always this shaky. It only really gets like this when the fuel is almost out.”
But Kanna wasn’t merely talking about the trembling engine. Until the day she had been captured, she hadn’t even seen a truck since she was a child, but she was still fairly certain that this wasn’t a mint-condition example. Either way, she decided that it was more tactful not to mention how the paint was flaking on the outside or how the leather that lined the seats was falling apart.
“They didn’t give you enough fuel?” Kanna asked instead.
“They barely rationed enough to get me to where they were holding you. I couldn’t squeeze any from the soldiers, either. There’s been a shortage lately.”
“A shortage of fuel?”
“Yes, of course,” Goda said, pushing on a lever that increased the speed. The rattling grew along with the momentum. “The military has even resorted to mixing in vegetable oil to keep their motors running, so now there’s a shortage of that, too. We have your father to thank for a lot these days.”
Kanna furrowed her brow. “Do you people blame everything on my family? Is that how this works? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. We distilled spirits for generations. All we did was make people drunk and happy. That has nothing to do with this piece of junk we’re in right now.”
The last part had escaped her lips unintentionally, but when she cautiously glanced at Goda, she saw that the woman wasn’t offended. Instead, she was smiling with genuine amusement.
“If you don’t like this piece of junk, then you can always walk behind the truck instead. You can even push it for me when we run out of fuel.”
Kanna tightened her grip around the jar of water she was holding. “I can never tell if you’re serious.”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes,” she said, then she looked ahead, at the dirt road that was rushing endlessly towards them. “I’ve known you for less than a day, and everything you say seems designed to make me sound stupid and dramatic. But you’re wrong. I’m justified in how I feel. I know you’re trying to do your job, but how can you so easily forget that you’re transporting someone who has just been abandoned by her family and betrayed by her own government? Wouldn’t you also resist the situation if you had been sentenced to be a slave? Wouldn’t you want to escape?”
Goda’s smile had faded. The gravel crunched under the wheels monotonously for a few seconds while the question seemed to hang in the air. The moment Kanna was sure that the woman was ignoring her again, Goda answered:
That was all she said.
Kanna looked towards the landscape, away from Goda’s face. After some time, she began to finally notice that the desert hadn’t been as featureless as it seemed before. She wasn’t sure if it was because they were heading West—towards a lusher part of the continent—or if those patches of weeds and occasional flowers that littered the ground had been straddling the roadside the whole time.
As her gaze moved up towards the horizon, she could also see structures in the distance. Sometimes they were close enough to the road that she could make out details: the intricate carvings in the stone, the wide steps that led up to platforms at the top of squat little pyramids.
This time—perhaps because she was no longer thirsty and because she wasn’t walking on her sore feet and because the wind was whipping pleasantly against her face—she was able to let go of enough irritation to indulge a seed of curiosity.
“What is all of this?” she asked.
“All of what?” Goda’s hair was dancing around her face, but Kanna could see that her eyes were trained on the road.
“All of these buildings, these shrines. They’re empty, in the middle of the desert. Are these all like the place where we spent the night?”
Goda smirked. “They’re all over here. A long time ago, this used to be a sacred place, near the border of the Outerland and Middleland. Have you never been to the desert before?”
“No. I’ve never left the Upperland. I’ve never even visited the Middleland, though I’ve heard it’s very beautiful.”
“Then why were you here? Out of all the times in your life to consider taking a holiday, you come out to the Outerland on the eve of your father’s arrest? How strange. It’s dangerous out here, you know.”
Kanna forced herself to look away from Goda, to stifle the scowl that was growing on her face. She wondered if the woman was just playing dumb to toy with her on a long, boring drive.
“Obviously,” Kanna said, trying to keep the ire from filtering into her voice, “I was running away. As soon as we got word that the Upperland royalty had signed the final treaty with the Middleland, we knew what that meant: They were going to take everything. There was no way we could have paid the generations’ worth of tributes that the Middleland demanded in back-taxes. My half-brothers and half-sisters scattered like a herd of spooked sheep. My father took his favorite wife and fled to the Outerland. I secretly followed him onto the train, even though he insisted that I stay behind.”
“Why did you do that?”
Kanna gave her a strange look. “Besides the fact that I didn’t know where else to go, I love him, of course. He is my father, for better or for worse, even if he wanted to abandon us. Wouldn’t you do the same if your father tried to disappear on you?”
Goda shrugged. “I don’t know what all of that is like. We don’t have fathers in the Middleland.”
At that, Kanna began to tilt her head in confusion, but then an old memory came floating back. It was something that her Middleland language tutor had mentioned years before: She had explained to Kanna that the word for “father” in Middlelander was borrowed from the Outerland tongue, because Middlelanders normally didn’t have fathers. The woman had not been a full-blooded Middlelander herself, so Kanna had dismissed the notion at first as a cultural misunderstanding and had long forgotten about it.
“How on earth do they have children, then?” Kanna had asked back then. Of course the very idea was preposterous. You couldn’t have children without a father, and the Middlelanders had reproduced like vermin mice, so they clearly had no problem there.
She couldn’t remember most of her tutor’s lengthy reply; she could only remember that it had made no sense to her at all.
“Is it true that women marry other women in the Middleland?” Kanna asked Goda. She had remembered that part, at least.
Goda let out a breath, something like the edge of a chuckle. “Who else would they marry?”
“Men?” Kanna offered, though with the way Goda’s smirk widened, she wondered if there was some third option that she was forgetting, too.
“No, no. All marriages are between women. Men don’t get married. How silly. What would a man do in a marriage, anyway?”
Kanna raised an eyebrow, taken completely aback. She had known that Middlelanders permitted marriage between women, but she hadn’t realized that the practice was so excessive. In the Upperland, it was occasionally permissible, but still rather rare. It was hard to find a priest that would agree to such a union, even after the Middleland had begun to absorb the Upperland kingdom and infect it with strange customs.
This made Kanna start to wonder if she had been living in a bubble after all. The family breweries and distilleries had been perched far beyond the bordering mountains, isolated for hundreds of years, and her mother had never let her venture very far.
It was ironic, she thought, that she was suddenly so free to wander the far reaches of the continent only because she had become a slave.
Well, she wasn’t a slave yet. She would still find some way to escape before it came to that, and in the face of this urgency, she told herself that she didn’t have time to contemplate the Middlelanders’ quirks.
She tried to be quiet for awhile and focus on a plan, but the earlier contradictions kept dancing to the forefront of her mind. It was harder each time to shove them away. Finally, when she had stared enough at the rusted floor of the truck and found that the curiosity hadn’t waned, she let out a sigh of defeat.
“Okay,” she said, convinced that the answer would be something stupidly obvious, “if women and men don’t marry each other in the Middleland, then how do you all have so many children?”
Goda looked at her strangely for a long moment, long enough that Kanna was worried they might veer off the road. The woman’s smirk had grown a bit crooked. “That’s why we have so many,” she replied. “Two mothers can carry more children than just one, wouldn’t you say?” She turned back to face the expanse ahead of them. “How silly.”
But it still made no sense at all to Kanna. She must have been missing something critical. She was not entirely fluent in the Middlelander tongue, so she wondered if it had to do with the language barrier after all.
Rather than trying to decipher something so ridiculous, she turned and folded her arms over the ledge of the shaky door. She rested her chin on her hands and closed her eyes as small bits of dust pelted her lightly in the face. She could have ridden forever in that nothing; she was too afraid of what she was going to find at the end of the road.
When the truck lurched to a stop and coughed a few of its last breaths a half hour later, Kanna was immediately convinced that something was wrong. She flicked her eyes open and whipped around to face Goda.
“Did we run out of fuel?” Kanna asked.
Goda was smiling and shaking her head. Her hair had once again fallen to drape the sides of her face, but it was quite messy from the drive. It made her seem even more like some wild creature who was about to turn to Kanna and try taking a bite.
For some reason that Kanna didn’t fully understand, this brought an uncomfortably warm feeling to her face. She won’t touch me, Kanna told herself. Still, she slid back and away from Goda, out of a lingering sense of fear.
“We’re nearly out of fuel, that’s true,” Goda said, already stepping out of the truck. She stretched her long body with a grunt of effort as soon as her feet hit the ground. “But that’s not why we’ve stopped. We’re here, you see.” She pointed somewhere behind Kanna’s view.
Kanna turned, and at first she had no idea what she was looking at. The tops of a pair of stone towers seemed to puncture the sky, but when she followed the lines down to the base of the structures, she noticed something queer about them both.
Gathered in the shadows of those two monoliths, a group of hooded strangers had formed. There was only one standing in the glint of the sun, where Kanna could see her face. She was staring directly at the both of them—an unwavering, unblinking stare that made Kanna wonder if she had spotted the bust of a statue rather than a human face.
The statue smiled.