The thunder that followed nearly drowned out the last edges of Goda’s words. It shook the ground and vibrated against the sides of the well, sending shock waves through Kanna’s bones, rattling her joints and making it hard for her to keep propping herself up. Even with the rain dropping into her eyes, she could not tear her gaze away from the woman who stood over her.
Lightning cracked again through the sky and the metal around Goda’s wrist gleamed more brilliantly than before. In response, Kanna pulled her own cuff tight against her chest. She could feel its oppressive edges digging through her soaked robes and into her ribs. She shook her head over and over. She couldn’t accept any of it. She shouted up through the rain at Goda, “How? How is that even possible?”
Goda looked at her for a long time. The rain had transformed into freezing pellets, water so sharp and cold that Kanna wondered if they were being showered with tiny hailstones—but Goda did not even shiver against it.
“This cuff,” Goda said, running her fingers against the metal on her arm. “It has a battery like yours. If its twin cuff is opened early—if my prisoner escapes or I let her go—then it unloads its charge all at once and I die.”
Kanna shuddered in the rain. She could barely move her jaw to speak anymore and the muscles of her face convulsed with the rest of her. “I don’t understand.” She swallowed some water that had fallen into her mouth. She furrowed her brow and shook her head again. “You’re lying! What you’re saying just isn’t possible. Why would you be a slave? Why would they send a slave to transport another slave? It’s ludicrous! It’s nonsense!”
“This was the job they gave me—transporting runaway criminals who had fled into the Outerland. It’s a job no one wants. It’s dangerous. It’s very easy to die, and if I try to escape or I tamper with my bonds or I fail to deliver on time, this cuff will end my servitude very quickly.”
“What kind of godforsaken country is this? What kind of perverse reality do you people live in?” Kanna shouted. This time she jerked her head towards the sky, as if to catch a glimpse of some deity who could answer her. Instead, another flash of lightning nearly blinded her, another crack of thunder shook the inside of her ears. “If what you say is true, that’s not a punishment, that’s a walking death sentence!”
“Yes.” Goda’s voice sounded so calm, so empty of emotion that it chilled Kanna to her core. It was like she was hearing the voice of someone who had already been stiffened by that final shock. “I was convicted of a capital crime when I was sixteen. I was too young to be legally executed, so they gave me a life sentence instead. But they’d prefer if I die. My job is designed to kill me.”
The rain made it too hard for Kanna to keep her head up anymore, so she let it hang down, and she pressed her chin against her chest. She felt the water roll in torrents from her hair, to her face, to her neck, to her shoulders, down into every crevice beneath her clothes.
Among the cacophony of thoughts that were bursting through her mind, one memory stood out among the rest. Even then, days later, bruised and numb, she could remember the words as vividly as if she were experiencing them for the first time again.
“You’re lucky, anyway,” Goda had told her the first night they met. “Your slavery is temporary. What is it, a ten-year sentence? Not everyone is quite so fortunate.”
“My father has life.”
“Better than death.”
Better than death.
Better than death.
Kanna pressed her hands to her face, and felt her tears flowing anew. They were burning hot against the contrast of the freezing rain. They began washing the numbness from her face, but she didn’t want it—she wanted to stay numb. There was a pain in her chest that she had never felt before; it was like a splinter in her heart, but it had erupted from the inside.
“You don’t have the right to judge that sort of thing from where you sit, with your hands on the other end of that rope,” Kanna had snapped at Goda that night. “People like you aren’t sympathetic to people like me.”
You don’t have the right to judge.
People like you. People like me.
From her perspective now, from the lens of that person who was coiled up in the mouth of a well in the relentless rain, she could suddenly see the irony of everything she had said to Goda before. She had insulted the woman, had judged her, had resisted her, had played the role of her master’s victim perfectly—and yet Goda Brahm was not only a slave, but she was worse off than even Kanna was.
The world wanted Goda to die. Kanna had even felt that seething hatred against Goda in the vision she had experienced as she lay in bed less than an hour before. It had terrified her. Even the priestess had….
Even the priestess.
Kanna turned her wrist over and looked at the key that Priestess Rem had given her. The woman had told her how to unlock the cuff and escape Goda. The woman had to have known what would happen next. Kanna couldn’t imagine that it was some secret that Goda would die. Even Jaya seemed to have known, and had tried to keep Goda from falling into a trap.
Priestess Rem Murau had meant to kill Goda.
No, Kanna thought quickly. That just couldn’t be true. Priestess Rem had been trying to help Kanna. Priestess Rem had been one of the few kind souls Kanna had met at the monastery, the one person who did not judge her for who she was, the one person who had been willing to lead her to sacred ground and show her the Goddess.
But she could remember Rem’s words on that last morning, just as clearly as she had remembered Goda’s words from the first night: “I am using you, Kanna. To avoid sinning against the Goddess by the letter of the law, I am putting the choice in your hands instead of mine.”
Kanna couldn’t accept it. Everything suddenly made a lot more sense, but she still couldn’t find it in herself to accept this whole conspiracy. It was too perverse. How could Goda’s country—and her own God—have forsaken her to that degree? What crime could possibly have been so terrible that it deserved such a cruel punishment, that it warranted a mass of bureaucrats conspiring to kill her by the letter of the law?
Still, Kanna shook her head. She looked up at Goda. “I don’t believe you,” she said finally. “I can’t believe you.” But she erupted in a bone-shaking sob because she did believe it, and it made her no longer want to live in the world she had found herself in, a world where she had to kill to save herself.
She wondered if it would have been easier to kill Goda if she had just made use of that steel baton the first night—but then she remembered that the weapon didn’t exist, that Goda had made it up, that Goda’s threats had been as empty as the bottomless darkness in those black eyes.
Those eyes looked down upon Kanna now. They hovered closer than before. Goda had come to kneel against the edge of the well, her arms spread on either side of the hole like a pair of wings. Her body blocked some of the rain so that the barrage of sensation against Kanna’s skin had reduced to a trickle. The wind blew across them, but Kanna could barely hear it.
Her focus had arisen up out of the well and pulsed against that face above her. Goda had soaked up all of her awareness. Her thoughts ended. Her body felt light and numb, but her consciousness was sharp. Even the shadows on Goda seemed to throb with new colors and details that Kanna had not noticed before. There were spots and stripes that glowed on the woman’s skin, like the tribal markings on some savage warrior, like the etchings on the fur of a wildcat.
Light flashed again, and the colors swirled into ribbons. They danced and slithered like snakes. Kanna’s eyes widened with fear. She jerked back.
And the ledge that she had been relying on to carry her weight gave in. She shuffled to catch herself, but she wasn’t fast enough. Her arms were like dead weights in her waterlogged sleeves.
The darkness of the pit came up to meet her. She could see it widening. It was surfaceless, like the source of the spring, like Goda’s eyes. She knew she would fall forever.
She was dying.
Then the sensation of a sharp set of claws digging into her wrist snapped her back to life. She looked up, but could only make out a show of vague shadow and flickering light. She winced as she felt her arm nearly hurled out of the socket of her shoulder.
She didn’t realize what the force meant until she had been yanked over the edge of the well.
Kanna fell into the dirt. Her mouth sucked in mud as she heaved, as she felt all her senses returning in one grand rush, as she felt the numbness dissolving. Her hands dug into the ground and the rocks below her pressed painfully into her fingers. The rain fell hard onto her back. The wind blew intolerably cold air all around her, making her teeth chatter.
She had never been so uncomfortable—but she had never been so grateful for the pain. She was alive.
Goda was lying next to her on the ground. The inertia had knocked her over as well. She was looking up at the sky, her face serene, as if she had been stretched out on a warm rock in the light of the morning sun. Goda was laughing.
Kanna stared at her with astonishment. Clearly, the woman had lost her mind.
“Are you crazy?” Kanna shouted at her. She spat out a clump of dirt. At first, Kanna thought that the feeling coursing through her had been confused anger, but as soon as the words had left her mouth, she found that she was also laughing.
They were both crazy.
She and Goda lay next to each other in the mud, in the middle of a thunder storm, and they laughed for a reason that Kanna’s mind could not directly comprehend. She felt the laugh coming from somewhere outside of her, almost as if it rose up out of the ground and into her body.
The feeling faded just as quickly as it came, though, when Goda turned to look at her and Kanna’s fearful thoughts returned. She began to pull away, but Goda took her wrist again. Kanna struggled to shake her hand away, but Goda was stronger, and she kept Kanna steady, and with two fingers she gingerly held the key and lifted it up just slightly.
Kanna thought she heard a pop.
Goda turned the lock. “You were pressing it in too hard. You can take it off now. Undo the latch and that’ll pull it open.” Goda had stopped laughing, but her smile had not faded.
Confused, Kanna did not reply, and Goda nodded her head at what Kanna refused to ask.
“Kill me,” Goda said.
Kanna ripped her wrist away from the giant’s grasp and pressed her hand to her chest once again. She stared at Goda with bewilderment. “Are you crazy?” she repeated.
“Isn’t that what you want, though? You want to be free—and for that to happen, I have to die. So kill me, Kanna Rava. You’ve won.”
Kanna froze. Even if Goda’s words were as genuine—and insane—as they seemed to be, after all of the struggle, she couldn’t believe that the woman would let her go that easily. “What?” Kanna huffed, her breath coming out visibly into the air in front of her. “I can’t kill you, I….” She tried to sit up, but found that her clothes were sticking to the ground. “Why did you chase me down if you just wanted to die? Are you completely out of your mind?”
Goda’s smile had not lost its serenity. The incongruity made Kanna more nervous than before. “What you saw when I chased you was fear. You saw the last pieces of a character named Goda Brahm,” Goda said, “and even Goda Brahm wants to live. That’s the oldest, and longest, and most constricting of all the snakes—the one that clings to survival—and even I haven’t been able to rid myself of it. The story of Goda Brahm is still one that I cannot completely let go of, and it makes me afraid of death, and so I chased you like any other animal triggered by its impending demise. But I know by now how to stifle and suppress that animal if I try hard enough—even if I’ve never been able to permanently dissolve it.” Goda, who was free from the confines of her robes, had an easier time getting up. “Kill me while that animal is sleeping. It is the will of the Goddess. I knew I would die soon, just not like this. It took me by surprise, but I must accept it nonetheless. Fate assigned me as your porter because you would be the one to kill me. It’s clear to me now.”
Kanna slid back in the mud, as if Goda were attacking her, even though the woman had made no move towards her. “What are you talking about?” Kanna screamed. “I’m not going to kill you! Even on the very first night we met, I already told you that I’m not a killer!”
“Do it fast!” Goda said, already stretching up to her feet. A rumbling had began to vibrate through the ground, but this time it was not thunder. “The train is getting ready to leave.”
Kanna’s gaze shot across the empty lot and towards the rails, and she saw that it was true. The train was already shuddering and shaking with life. A loud horn sounded through the air, and the waves bounced off the tall buildings of glass that sprouted up all around them.
Kanna bit her lip. She managed to unstick herself from the ground, to roll up onto her knees.
“I can’t…kill you,” she said.
But then, as the train began to inch forward with a brief jerk, Kanna bolted onto her feet and dashed past Goda towards the train. Her eyes locked on the freight car she had seen before. She ran for her life, even though she knew that Goda was not following her. Within moments, she had hopped onto the ledge of the moving car and had unbolted the door and had used all her strength to force it open.
It only slid open a tiny amount—but it was enough. She slipped through.
She collapsed onto the floor of the train as it rolled very slowly down the tracks. She looked up in the dark, and she could see crates stacked to the ceiling, commodities headed to the Upperland. She supposed that she had become one of those, too. In days, she would be another cog in that familiar machine once again, and this gave her a comfort that she hadn’t felt in a long time.
But still, her heart pounded in her chest. Every beat was painful. She tried to suppress what the pain meant, but she knew. She forced herself to stay. When she lifted her head to look through the crack in the door, she could see Goda strolling along next to the slowly-moving train, as if taking a pleasant summer walk.
The woman was looking at her. Kanna knew that there was no way Goda could see her in the dark train car, but somehow she felt that those eyes were piercing straight through her. Kanna felt the tears coming again, so she turned around and pressed her face to the crate behind her and clung to the wood as solidly as she could. Her small fingers slipped into the space between the panels. Her fingertips grazed against something dry and fluffy inside, but she didn’t pay attention to it much at first.
It wasn’t until the train began to speed up, until the crates began to jostle with the motion, that she opened her eyes, because she knew that Goda would be unable to keep up with the car. She turned around to finally undo the cuff. Some of the sticky leaves that had filled the crate had smudged onto her fingers, but she didn’t mind it, and under the light of another flash in the sky, she took hold of her bonds.
Then she saw the withered white flowers that coated the back of her hand. They were barely stuck with mild electric tension, and so the wind coming in from the crack in the door quickly blew most of them away.
But she could not unsee what she had seen.
They’re sending Death to the Upperland?
Kanna twisted her head around, and looked at all the crates stacked end-to-end, top-to-bottom, filling almost every corner of the car. How many crates held Flower? How many train cars filled with those crates? There was no way to tell from where she was sitting.
She didn’t even know that much Samma Flower existed on the face of the Earth. Everyone had told her it was nearly extinct.
Before she could dive deeper into her bewilderment, though, something reminded her sharply to stay awake. She was pulled from her thoughts by the nerve-burning electricity of the cuff. It pulsed through her as it always did, but this time—instead of reacting with shock and resistance—she looked down at her wrist. She sat there.
The pain had become…a feeling. Just a sensation. Not good or bad.
Could it have been that the reason those initial, mild shocks had always hurt so much was because she had resisted them? Because her muscles had always tensed up and she had always tried to run from the pain—from her own body?
No, she thought. It just couldn’t be. Pain was pain.
And indeed, as the distance from Goda grew, so did the suffering, and eventually her body did tense up to resist it, and eventually it did become intolerable. She fought with herself. She gripped the cuff latch with her hand. She knew she could not delay for much longer, or else the shocks would paralyze her and she would be unable to free herself once and for all.
To free herself. To leave Goda Brahm and to go back to the freedom of the Upperland.
Her breath hitched. A shock worse than the pain of the cuff flowed through her just then.
Because she had never been free.
She had never been free…until she had met Goda Brahm.
The train rumbled along. Kanna pressed her hand hard against the cuff, curled her fingers under the latch. She sucked in a sharp breath, a stifled sob.
In the Upperland, she had never had reason to cry. She had lived without a single need unmet. She had slept in a comfortable bed, had never gone hungry a day in her life, and had enjoyed the freedom to roam the meadows and live in the midst of a leisure that none of her countrymen could afford. Every Upperlander craved to live the way she did. She would have been crazy to want to give that up.
But she had never been happy. She had never felt happiness in her life until the instant she had lain in the mud next to Goda Brahm and stared up at the broken sky.
How is that possible? Kanna’s mind screamed as the train hurtled faster and faster.
Her muscles already seizing up, Kanna wondered if she had realized too late. She gritted her teeth. With a painful jerk, she pushed herself to the door—and with the last of her strength, she jumped shoulders-first out of the train.